The (Di)vinegrower

John 15.1-8

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified in this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 

I was a kid, not even in middle school, when my family went on a trip to France. We didn’t roam around Paris or wander around Versailles, we didn’t hit up the Louvre or climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Instead, we spent the week exploring wine country in Provence and Burgundy.

It was beautiful, the food was incredible, and I remember not really understanding anything that anyone said.

On the penultimate evening of our trip, we traveled to a Chateau situated next to rolling fields filled with grape vines. The vineyard was owned and operated by family friends who insisted that we join them for a meal. My sisters and I were on our best behavior as we received a tour of the massive estate and then I was whisked away to the gigantic wine cave in the basement. 

My father was unable to join us on the trip and, as the oldest male guest, it was (apparently) my responsibility to pick out the wine to be consumed with dinner.

Reminder: I was at the tail end of elementary school.

So I wandered the dimly lit halls filled from floor to ceiling with unlabeled bottles of wine, wine that was was grown, fermented, and produced mere feet away from where I was walking. 

The further I walked into the crypt the dustier the bottles became and, somehow, I knew those were the bottles that were the most valuable so I tried to find a few near the middle, and without having any other criteria I selected the wine for the evening.

Minutes later, we were seated around a massive dining table and our host, Bruno, pulled the first bottle I selected, swiftly detached the cork, poured a finger’s width in a glass, and presented it to me to taste.

Not only was I required to select our wine, but I had to taste it to make sure I approved of it before it could be served to the rest of the gathered table.

I lifted the glass and spun around the garnet colored liquid as I had seen my parents do before, I brought it to my nose and sniffed, and finally I opened my mouth and took a sip.

I didn’t like it, but I knew well enough to not make a face or say that I didn’t like it. So I forced myself to smile hoping the exercise would finally come to an end when Bruno insisted I then tell him what I tasted.

“It takes like… the earth,” I said.

I quickly glanced over to my mother for a reaction. 

She was crestfallen. Here we were, guests in a Chateau, drinking the wine from the nearby fields, and I told Bruno it tasted like dirt.

But before I had a chance to say anything else, a giant smile stretched across Bruno’s face and he declared to all within earshot, “Merci beaucoup! Tres magnifique!”

I had, unwittingly, payed the man a compliment.

“Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus says to his disciples on their final evening together before the crucifixion and eventually resurrection. They’ve already feasted on the bread and shared the cup, they’ve already had their feet washed by their Lord, and now it’s time for a brief discourse on what happens next, when all is said and done. 

The language of abiding has been common since the very beginning of the church because it is, in a sense, a direct command from the Lord. And throughout the centuries we’ve come up with all sorts of ways to “abide.” Prayer practices, Bible Studies, small groups, Sunday worship, constant communion – they’re all attempts at abiding with the Lord who abides with us. 

And why do we abide? We abide because Jesus is the vine and we are his branches. If we want to bear fruit in this world and in this life, then it will only be possible as a result of abiding in the One who abides in us.

Except, how can Jesus really ask the disciples (us included) to abide in him? I mean, consider when he told the disciples about being the true vine… It’s right after this little lecture that Judas will betray the Lord to death, Peter, disciple supreme, will quite literally not abide by denying his Lord when things fall apart, and the rest of the disciples will leave Jesus to die alone.

And yet, it’s these disciples who receive the call to abide.

Perhaps, then, Jesus is able to command this of the disciples, and all of us, because of his promise to abide in us, to never let us go, even though we don’t deserve it one bit.

Consider – The way the gospel story plays out runs against the grain of how we think things are supposed to go. Our life with God does not end at the cross on a certain Friday as we might expect. 

In the time called life after Easter it all comes full circle – it ain’t over between us. The Last Supper wasn’t really the last at all – in fact, it was the first! The risen Christ, with holes in his hand and a wound in his side, shows up, again and again, transforming our painful and broken lives by abiding with us. 

In steadfast and faithful love, God refuses to leave us or abandon us.

God abides.

God abides, in us.

And then Jesus says, “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

Fruit-bearing, then, seems to be the main point of this adventure we call church. So we establish programs and we make calls for action and we do whatever we think we can to make the world a better place.

But, that’s not the same thing as bearing fruit.

The purpose of church, though rarely discussed, is to meet and be met by God. It is, to use the words of John today, a revealing of how God already abides in us.

Being disciples, then, is not all about the work we have to do or responding to a list of requirements – being a disciple is about resting in Jesus. If anything comes from that, and it will, that’s Good News. But the only thing we are asked to do, is abide. 

The goal of the Christian life, of following Jesus who is the way and the truth and the life, who is the vine, is not amassing a set of deeds (good or bad) but simply experiencing our life as the Word made flesh so wonderfully bestows upon us. It is sitting back at the table to which we deserve no invitation, tasting the wine that is the blood of the Lamb, and knowing that it sets us free for true liberty.

Jesus did not come to dwell among us in order to display his own virtuosity. 

Sure, he tells us to be perfect as his Father is perfect, but then a few chapters later he goes on and on about how the only One we can ever call good is God alone. 

Sure, he gives us some lists of dos and donts but then when the disciples do the things they shouldn’t or they avoid doings the things they should do, how does Jesus respond? Does he kick them out of the kingdom? Does he banish them to an eternity of torment? 

No. Jesus abides in them.

Jesus comes to dwell among us in order to bring us home to his Father’s house and to sit us down as guests at the Supper of the Lamb. Jesus desires our contentedness, not our suffering. Jesus offers us the good wine, not sour vinegar.

And salvation, the thing Jesus comes to bring to fruition, it is not just a destination – it is our vocation. That is: salvation is not just something confined to what happens after we die; salvation is our calling here and now. 

Life after Easter means today.

And yet, we can’t ignore Jesus’ language with the rest of his vine imagery. It’s all good and fine to talk about Jesus abiding in us, and bearing fruit in response, but Jesus goes on to say, “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

We might imagine the big take away is for us to consider what, or worse: who, needs to be cut off from our lives and then go out with some pruning shears and get to work. Perhaps there’s that one relationship that keeps bringing you down, or you have a bad habit you haven’t been able to kick, or you made a mistake and the guilt just won’t go away. 

And then the church says, “Go and get to work! The time has come to cut away all that stands between you and perfection!”

But, that’s not what Jesus says. 

You see, according to the teller of the tale, God is the one who does the pruning. God is the di-vinegrower (get it?). 

It’s less about us finding what’s wrong within us, or among us, and then going out to get it all fixed and more about relinquishing what we needn’t hold on to, and let God do the work God is here to do.

It’s not about doing all that we can to become the very best versions of ourselves, but instead to consider how God is already working on us because God abides in us.

And maybe, just maybe, one of the things that God is working on, one of the things God is actively pruning, is our foolish belief that we must be able to make it on our own and that we can only trust in our strength alone. 

We live in a society that is deeply drunk on the notion of independence and making something of ourselves no matter the cost. And yet, in another place, Jesus rather pointedly asks, “What does it profit someone to gain the whole world and lose their life?”

Part of the Christian witness, something we avoid mentioning to our detriment, is that we cannot make it through this life on our own; we are desperately in need of help from one another and from the Lord.

That’s why, no matter how good of a job we do mucking it all up, God continues to bear fruit through people like us who can bear no fruit on our own. 

God, to put it pointedly, works in mysterious ways and, in the end, the wine is offered at the table for a world undeserving.

Hear the Good News: God in Christ arrives in a world, in a vineyard, that cannot bear any fruit on it’s own. It has given itself over to disease, and abuse, and pestilence, and all sorts of other failures. But the di-vinegrower tills the ground, enriches the soil, and plants the seeds that are the Word to bear fruit. 

Jesus, God in the flesh, enters into the muck and mire of this life, of this worthless vineyard, and becomes sin for us. We nail him to a tree and kill him. But then God gives him back to us.

The empty tomb is the fruit of resurrection offered freely to people like you and me for no other reason than the fact that God wants a full table at the Supper of the Lamb.

When Jesus comes, with holes in his hands and a wound in his side, he doesn’t come to see if we’re sorry. He knows our repentance isn’t worth all the effort we put into it because we continue to go on sinning no matter how many times we repent. Jesus doesn’t come to count all of our good deeds. He knows our sins will always outweigh our virtues. 

And yet Jesus comes back to us, Jesus abides in us, Jesus forgives us, and Jesus offers the fruit of salvation to us. 

For free. 

For nothing. 

We do nothing and we deserve nothing.

And yet the invitation still stands. We get to taste the earthy fruit of the vine and know that it is for us. What wondrous Good News. Amen. 

Unnecessary Goodness

Luke 24.36b-48

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

The women go to the cemetery in the darkness. Lo and behold – Jesus’ tomb is empty! The women have a chance encounter with a man in white and they leave afraid. So afraid, in fact, that they say nothing to anyone.

But then they do, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing right now. They go back to the other disciples with declarations of resurrection, “He is risen! The story isn’t over! This is just the beginning! Everything has been made new!”

And how do the disciples respond? “Ya’ll are crazy – That’s not possible.”

None of the disciples expected the resurrection, despite Jesus telling them it would happen on three separate occasions, despite all the parables that hinge on death being the prerequisite to new life, despite Jesus doing all sorts of things that ran counter to what the world believed possible.

And even when Jesus appears to them, making a way through locked doors, they couldn’t really believe it. All of the post-resurrection appearances, the moments we might call life after Easter, are mixed with fear, doubt, hope, and, of all things, food. And still, they don’t know what to believe.

It’s easy to pick on the disciples – It’s even fun to call out their faithlessness because it often makes us feel better about ourselves. But we can’t really blame the disciples for feeling and experiencing what they felt and experienced.

All of it is rather unbelievable.

Jesus forgives his crucifiers from the cross.

Jesus reaches out to sinners and outcasts for no reason other than the fact that they are sinners and outcasts.

Jesus speaks truth to power knowing full and well what the consequences will be.

Jesus invites gobs of people to join in a revolution of the heart where the needs of others are more important than anything else.

And we killed him for it.

But then he came back. 

And not only did he come back, he came back to those who denied him, who betrayed him, and who abandoned him.

The disciples are talking about the craziness they’ve heard from the women who went to the tomb and all of the sudden Jesus himself stands among them. “Peace my friends!” They are terrified, they think it must be a ghost. Jesus says, “What’s wrong with all of you? Look at me. I am flesh and bone.” The disciples come out from hiding behind tables and chairs to take a closer inspection and then Jesus says, “While you’re at it, have you got anything to eat? I’m starving.” And one of the disciples hands Jesus a piece of broiled fish, and Jesus scarfs it down in one bite.

Years ago, a church received a rather large donation from an anonymous source and the community of faith began debating what to do with the money. There were suggestions of adding a new stained glass window behind the altar. Someone mentioned that the roof was looking worse for the wear and it might be time to go ahead and replace yet. The youth wanted new bean bags chairs.

They argued and argued until the oldest woman in the room, seen as a grandmother by just about everyone else – a pillar of the church, slowly rose to her feet and said, “Give me the money. I know what to do with it.”

The next day she took the money to the local homeless shelter and told them to spend the money on feeding the hungry.

The following Sunday she stood among her church family and announced what she had done with the money. At first there was disgruntled shuffling among the pews, a few murmured slights, when finally a man shouted at her: “How could you do that? We could’ve used that money! And you gave it away to other people! You don’t even know if they believe in Jesus!”

To which the woman calmly replied, “Maybe they don’t believe in Jesus, but I do. I do.”

Robert Farrar Capon said that, “Food is the daily sacrament of unnecessary goodness, ordained for a continual remembrance that the world will always be more delicious than it is useful.”

In the gospel stories Jesus is forever sharing meals with other people and, on a few notable occasions, he makes more wine and more food available for others just to keep the celebration going. 

And it was Jesus’ table fellowship that most confounded his critics. Whether it was a lunch time sandwich over at Zacchaeus’ house or sharing food with crowds undeserving, Jesus’ willingness to eat and share food with others was a foretaste of both what we experience now and will enjoy at the Supper of the Lamb.

Perhaps that’s why we Methodists are so good at hosting meals – we always make more food than anyone can eat and we send people home with food to last for days!

Why do we share food? Why do we give ourselves over to music that moves us? Why do we spend our time painting, or reading, or daydreaming? We do those things because they’re fun. Pure and simple.

But it’s about more than that too. Half of all the most remarkable things we do in this life, the simple delights of rejoicing in the wonder of creation, they are hidden in the world that longs to come to fruition. 

Let me put it this way: For all of the loveliness this world has to offer, it is all temporary and finite. The food is consumed. The bottle sits empty. The record spins at the end without a needle in the groove. On and on.

We, to use the language of scripture, are strangers in a strange land, we live in a time of impermanence. But God has given us good appetites not to consume what the world offers and then toss it away. God has given us appetites to taste goodness and hunger to make it better.

And that’s why we share recipes with friends and family, it’s why we give away books that we love, it’s why we talk forever and ever about movies and TV shows and YouTube videos – we delight in delighting others.

Whenever we love the things we’ve been given, whether it’s broiled fish or a hardback book or a vinyl album or a perfectly knit sweater or tomatoes from the garden, when we love those things for what they are, we catch glimpses and tastes and feelings of what is to come.

The breads and the pastries, the cheeses and the wines, and the singing and the dancing will go into the Supper of the Lamb because we do!

Jesus, just on the other side of resurrection appears to his friends and promptly ingests a fish stick. We could easily brush this aside as a random detail included by Luke, but it is not random – it is a signpost of the delight of resurrection! It is an ever ringing reminder of the goodness God has given to us right now, and will continue to give to us forever and ever.

But even if the reference to seafood on Easter isn’t enough – Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a whole lot of things, and most of those things have to do with food! Mustard seeds, and grain of wheat, fig trees, leavened bread! He hands over bread and wine on his final evening and says they are body and blood! 

Resurrection, believe it or not, is forever inextricably tied up with our food and love of it. It is quite literally by the death of corn, cabbage, and collards that we have lived until today.

Think of bread! It is the great sacrament of life only possible by death.

Unless a seed dies, there is no wheat.

Without wheat being ground and pulverized there is no flour.

Unless carbohydrates are destroyed by yeast there is no rising.

Without the murder of yeast by fire and heat there is no bread.

And without the consumption of bread by the likes of you and me, there is no you and me.

Out of death, life! Resurrection!

The God we worship is the God of transportation and transformation – God is forever delivering people from one place to another, and working in the world to help guide us from who we are to who we can be.

The things of life can do that – there truly are meals, movies, and musicals that change us after consuming them. They can do so because we are in the time called Life After Easter. 

Despite the protests of fearful and cynical individuals who decry that we are who we are, and that things are doomed to stay the same, and that it doesn’t do any good to do any good because nothing ever changes – that’s not the proclamation of the Gospel!

We are indeed a sinful people. We do terrible things and terrible things are done to us. Just this week saw yet another innocent black man die at the hands of the police and people all across the country have tribalized themselves, again, putting up walls of division rather than avenues of connection. 

We are a people sick and tired – whether we’re sick and tired in our boring and monotonous lives, or we’re sick and tired of all the horrendous things that keep happening no matter how hard we declare that other people need to change.

But life after Easter makes all sorts of things possible that would otherwise be impossible.

We have been treed from the terrible tyranny of sin and death, they no longer have control over us and what we do, even though we keep insisting that they are the most important things in the world. It’s why we retreat to the comfort of our own domains while rejoicing in calls out the specks in other peoples’ eyes. It’s why we implore others to pull themselves up by their bootstraps even when they don’t have any boots to begin with. It’s why we keeping viewing people through the lens of sin rather than the lens of grace.

But here’s the Good News, the really good news of life after Easter – If God can raise a crucified Jesus from the grave, then never again can we be so sure of what is and isn’t possible. 

Jesus was dead and forsaken in a tomb, but God refused to leave him there. 

In the time called life after Easter, we don’t believe in dejection – we believe in resurrection.

In the time called life after Easter, we aren’t defined by what we’ve failed to do – we are defined by what Jesus has done.

In the time called life after Easter, we can’t stay shackled to the way things were or are- God has set us free for the way things can be. Amen.

Unexpected

Mark 16.1-8

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. 

There is something a little terrible about preaching to an empty sanctuary on Easter Sunday. It’s just me and the camera. It’s empty as a tomb. 

Over the years I have written plenty of sermons, most of them alone in the corner of a coffee shop. But offering a sermon in an empty room? I never thought it possible, but I’ve been doing it for more than a year.

And yet, isn’t this also the triumph of the resurrection? Jesus is not a prisoner in this sanctuary. We can’t keep him still anywhere. He is out and about and on his way to Galilee with other things to do. Thanks be to God.

He is risen!

He is risen indeed!

It happened on a Sunday.

The Gospel is reluctant to give us too many details about the whole thing: We don’t read of the grief the women undoubtedly felt as they went to anoint Jesus’ body. We don’t learn of the disciples’ next plans now that their Master is dead and forsaken in a tomb. We don’t really receive much of anything save for the fact that the women go to the tomb without knowing how they will roll away the stone.

And yet, when they arrive, the stone is not where it’s supposed to be. They peak their heads inside and discover a young man dressed in white.

He says, “Don’t be afraid. I know you’re looking for Jesus, but he ain’t here. He was dead, but now he is resurrected. Look over there, that’s where they laid his body. But now, go, tell the disciples that Jesus is going on ahead of you to Galilee, you will see him there.”

And this is how the story ends: The women run from the tomb as fast as they can and they say nothing to anyone because they are afraid.

Easter.

It really doesn’t get better than this for the church. Out of death, life!

And fear.

I think we all know something of fear this year, perhaps more than any other year. Many of us are still waiting for the chance to get a vaccine, many of us haven’t seen those we love in more than a year, and still yet many of us know someone, or a family, or a friend who suffered tremendously or even died because of the coronavirus.

However, the God of scripture is the God who brings life out of death.

That’s the heart of the Christian proclamation and, for some reason, it’s not what we often hear from the church, particularly on Easter. Instead we’re more likely to hear about how “Easter teaches us that the world needs more love in it,” or “Easter is the symbol of the necessity of transformation,” or “Easter is about the enduring symbols of ultimate truth.”

Notice: in each of those Easter claims, they’re entirely about us, how we respond, and what we do next.

If that’s all Easter has to offer then we should leave it all behind. 

Thankfully, the New Testament says something very different.

He is not here. He is Risen.

God is the One doing the things that get done. 

The disciples, even the women, they do nothing to contribute to the resurrection. They are merely witnesses. And, when they do respond, they run away in fear. 

And perhaps fear is the proper way to respond to the proclamation of Easter because it was, and always will be, entirely unexpected.

The women go to the tomb in the morning for the same reasons that many of us go to cemeteries – we want to connect, somehow, to those who are no longer among the living; we want to seek closure; we want to pay our respects.

But nobody, now or then, goes to a cemetery expecting someone to raise from the dead.

All of the other Easter stuff, the connections to spring and daffodils and butterflies emerging from cocoons, the eggs and the candy, they’re all good and fine, but they don’t have anything to do with the resurrection of the dead.

Hearing about the need to love one another or finding ultimate truth, doesn’t send a group of people running from a tomb, it doesn’t set the faithless disciples on a course to reshape entire societies, it doesn’t result in a faith that is still turning the world upside down. 

Let me put it plainly – What happened on Easter was so unexpected and so earth-shattering that it ignited a tiny band of mediocre fishermen and other marginalized people, all of whom were discredited by the world, because they followed a man who had been publicly executed by the highest authorities of church and state. 

Maybe it was enough to simply hear Jesus’ teachings, or eat some of the miraculous loaves and fishes to set them on fire. But I doubt it. It’s not good news to work so hard for things to change, and to love your enemies, and to pray for those who persecute you, unless the One who shared those words was, in fact, God in the flesh who died and rose again.

The resurrection is what makes everything in the life of faith intelligible. 

The earliest disciples, those hiding away in the upper room after the crucifixion and those walking to the tomb that first Easter morning had not a hope in the world. Their entire worldview was nailed to a cross. But then on Easter he came back.

No wonder they were afraid. 

Today, Easter, is the high point of the Christian year and yet it is always challenging. It is challenging because it was unexpected and there are no good analogies from human experience that can adequately convey it. 

Easter, to put it another way, cannot be explained.

But that’s the heart of Easter: it is unprecedented, unlooked-for, and unimaginable.

Some of us have no doubt seen or experienced what we might call miracles – we know someone who kicked a bad habit, or perhaps we’re aware of an unexplainable change in a medical diagnosis, or something happened that cannot be mere coincidence. But none of us have ever experienced someone dead in the grave for three days resurrected, let alone God in the flesh.

But someone did.

All of our faith, this whole thing we call church, is predicated on a handful of people from long ago who saw and experienced something so unexpected that it radically re-narrated everything in existence.

And all it took were three words: He is risen!

I know that it cannot be proved, I know it isn’t possible as we understand possibility. But I also know that this is a message that explains everything that happened afterward. He is risen! That is truly a piece of such Good News that it would shakes the foundations of the world from then until now. 

Hear the Good News: The battle is over. Even though the the ugly forces of sin and death insist on rearing their heads, it is only because they haven’t heard about the forfeit. We live in the in-between, the already-but-not-yet. The old is past; behold it has all become new.

The story of Easter, the thing that terrified the women, is the fact that the greatest enemies ever faced, sin and death themselves, are defeated in Jesus Christ. Ultimately, they have no power over us.

No matter what we encounter in this life here and now, there is one thing that will always hold true – the unexpected victory of Jesus. He is risen. 

Easter then, is and isn’t about us. It’s not about trying to get us to live better lives here and now, even though we probably should. It isn’t about making a commitment to making the world a better place, even though it wouldn’t hurt. 

Easter is about what God does for us.

In just about every other part of our lives, there are expectations.

And yet, Jesus is all about the unexpected.

Jesus doesn’t wait on the cross until we right all of our wrongs.

Jesus doesn’t hide behind the stone in the tomb until there’s enough do-goodery in the world.

Instead, the proclamation of Easter is we don’t have to do anything, because the everything we’ve always needed is already done.

If Easter becomes anything less bizarre and unexpected than that, then faith is turned into standing on your tiptoes to see something that isn’t going to happen.

We can’t make Easter happen – we can’t raise Jesus, or ourselves, from the dead.

It happens in spite of us entirely, which is exactly what makes the Good News so good.

The promise of Easter for people like you and me is wild beyond all imagining. It is the gift of life in the midst of death. It is a way out simply by remaining in. It is everything for nothing! Hallelujah. 

He is risen.

He is risen indeed. Amen. 

To The End

Psalm 41.4-10

As for me, I said, “O Lord, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you.” My enemies wonder in malice when I will die, and my name perish. And when they come to see me, they utter empty words, while their hearts gather mischief; when they go out, they tell it abroad. All who hate me whisper together about me; they imagine the worst for me. They think that a deadly thing has fastened on me, that I will not rise again from where I lie. Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me. But you, O Lord, be gracious to me, and raise me up, that I may repay them. 

John 13.1, 12-20

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to was one another’s feet. For I have set you an example that you also should so as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. I am not speak of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”

I have no idea how many people are joining us for worship tonight, or how many will watch or listen to this service later. Chances are, there aren’t that many.

And that’s fine. It’s fine because there weren’t a lot of people at the first Maundy Thursday service either. 

So we can rest in that strange and good knowledge tonight because we are where we should be. We, like those first disciples, have been gathered by God to be here, to hear what God has to say, and to be forever changed.

We call this Maundy Thursday. And the name comes to us from our the Gospel according to John when Jesus last feasted with his disciples before the crucifixion: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you.”

In Latin, a new commandment is mandatum novum. “Maundy” is simply the Middle English version of the word mandatum.

We are therefore mandated to do what we are doing tonight.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly like being mandated to do anything.

Christianity has long-suffered under the oppressive rule of expectations and assumptions, of “you must do this and you must do that.”

All of the “musts” don’t must up to a very lively faith.

When the exhortative mode of Christianity becomes the predominant way we understand our faith, then the Church merely joins the long list of other social endeavors seeking to make people better people – it tells us what we have to do, instead of proclaiming what Jesus already did, for us.

The synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) treat us to the scene of Jesus’ final evening with his friends as they sit around a table sharing bread and wine.

John, however, takes the scene a little bit further. 

While eating at the table, Jesus gets up, takes off his outer rob, and ties a towel around himself. He begins washing all of the disciples’ feet and wipes them off with the towel around his waist. 

Peter, of course, objects to the humble (read: humiliating) act of his Lord, but Jesus hits him hard with, “You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

Only after every disciples’ feet are washed does Jesus arise, and begins to teach:

“Listen, you call me Teacher and Lord which is good and fine because that is who I am. But check this out: If I, your Lord and Teacher, am willing to get down on the floor to wash your feet, you also out to wash one another’s feet. This is what the Kingdom of God is all about – the first being last and the last being first. Things are getting flipped upside down right here and right now. And I do and say all of this knowing that one of you will betray me, it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who are my bread, has lifted his heel against me.’”

Shortly thereafter, Judas leaves and sets in motion the world turned upside down. In mere hours the guards will arrive in the garden, Jesus will be arrested, put on trial, sentenced, beaten, and left to die on the cross.

The foot washing has always been a little strange and a little weird to the people called church. For one, as mentioned, the other Gospels don’t include it, and for another, it reveals the heart of God in a way that feels uncomfortable. 

Not only does Jesus, God in the flesh, get down on his knees to wash the dirty feet of the disciples, one of whom will shortly betray him, another will deny him, and the rest will leave him hanging to die on a cross, but then Jesus has the gall to command us to do the same for one another. 

And yet, in a way, more than being told what we are supposed to do, the whole message of this final moment is, again, about what Jesus does for us

We, however, can’t help ourselves from reasserting the narrative to make it about what we have to do but whatever we do in response is only possible because of what Jesus does first. 

We always want to know what we have to do to get saved when, in fact, this story is a ringing reminder that the Gospel tell us how Jesus saves us.

Or, as Philip Cary puts it, “The gospel doesn’t tell us to believe, it gives us Christ to believe in.”

In the foot washing, Jesus repeats in himself the great lengths to which God was willing to go for a people undeserving – how far God was willing to go to wash us clean from our transgressions.

This moment, one that might make us cringe or, at the very least, furrow our brows, it reveals to the disciples and to us that the Lord, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, is about to suffer and die just to rid us of the stench and dirt of sin and death that latches onto us.

Therefore, before we jump to any commandments, to any thoughts on what we must do, we do well to rest in the bewildering knowledge that the foot washing is a parable of God’s humiliation. Jesus lays down his garments just like he will lay down his life, Jesus offers grace to his betrayer just like he will extend forgiveness even from the cross.

And, notably, this is the final act of Jesus toward his disciples before Easter and, as John so wonderfully notes, Jesus loved his disciples to the end.

Including Judas.

Do you see what this means? Even the worst stinker in the world, even the one who betrayed his Lord to death, is someone for whom Christ died.

While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Jesus, bewilderingly, loves us to the end, loves us so much that he was willing to take our sin upon himself, mount the hard wood of the cross, and leave them there forever.

But we can save the cross for tomorrow. For now, we are tasked with the challenge of coming to grips with the fact that none of us are any better or any worse than the disciples were on that first Maundy Thursday. 

Which is just another way of saying: Each and every one of us in need of cleansing. And, thanks be to God, that’s exactly what Christ offers us, because he loves us to the end. Amen.

The Strange Sunday

Palm Sunday is a strange Sunday. It begins in celebration and ends in catastrophe. It begins with “Hosanna” and ends with “Crucify.” It begins with life and ends with death. 

Contrary to how we’ve (often) watered down the Gospel message in church, Jesus wasn’t killed for telling people to love one another. He was killed because we don’t have imaginations capable of understanding what love actually looks like.

But now we do know what love looks like because we know Jesus and him crucified. For the cross reveals to us the very heart of God. The cross is not just some symbol to explain suffering in the world, rather it is the witness to the lengths God chose to go in order to rectify our wrongs. Jesus’ cross makes a people possible who see, know, and believe that the only true response to suffering in this world is love.

And yet, Holy Week isn’t about us. If it is, it is only about what Jesus went through because of us. In the end, as we sit in the shadow of the cross, we are given a task made possible as well as demanded by the cross to be present to one another when there is quite literally nothing we can do to save ourselves. 

Jesus enters the holy city under occupation and, in the end, occupies our place on the cross.

The crowds demand their salvation and, in the end, Jesus gives it to them by giving himself.

“This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Psalm 118.24)

Here are a few tunes that can put us in a decisively strange mood for Holy Week:

I am convinced that Robert Farrar Capon would’ve been a fan of Tyson Motsenbocker’s “Sunday Morning.” The song opens with a sweet guitar riff and then launches into lyrics that reflect on leading worship: “I chose all the right songs, I played all the right chords / ‘Till the kids who still weren’t singing, praised the Lord / And the pastor yelled about faith and hell / And I soundtracked his words for affect / And everyone cried and cried and cried / everyone cried and cried and cried / And then we played kickball.” The juxtaposition of what the church often sells on Sunday morning (Do this and that to get saved) with the Gospel message that Jesus, in fact, is the one who saves us, is delightfully reflected in this song. 

Caamp’s “Fall, Fall, Fall” is a soft and tender anthem about change and I can’t help but hear the refrain “I want my kids to swim in the creek” as a reflection on the desire to swim in the waters of baptism.

Kevin Morby’s “Parade” is a somber reflection on death, identity, and ambiguity. The sporadic piano keys overtop his strumming guitar rhythms actually feels like walking through a city in a parade. But, above all, I love how Morby portrays the strange realities of what it’s like having compassion for a city hell-bent on chewing him up. Sound familiar?

Flesh and Bone

Psalm 34.19-22

Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all. He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken. Evil brings death to the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be condemned. The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned. 

John 19.31-37

Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.” 

I stood before the gathered church and began, “The Lord be with you.”

“And also with you.”

“Lift up your hearts.”

“We lift them up to the Lord.”

“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.”

“It is right to give our thanks and praise.”

Countless times had I uttered the words. Innumerable Sundays marked by the words recalling the mighty acts of God’s salvation.

“On the night in which he gave himself up for us, he took bread, gave thanks to you, broke the bread, gave it to his friends and said: ‘Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ When the supper was over, he took the cup, gave thanks to you, gave it to his friends, and said: ‘Drink from this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”

I prayed for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on all of us, and on the gifts of the bread and the cup, that they might be the body and blood of Christ for us, and they we might be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.

I broke the bread.

I lifted the cup.

I invited the people of God to feast.

One by one they came with hands outstretched recognizing the gift being given. One by one they received the bread, they dipped it in the cup, and they put God in their mouths.

Until the final person in line stepped forward.

He was probably 12 years old, I had never seen him before, and his parents were nowhere to be found.

He said, “Can I ask you a question?” 

“Of course,” I replied.

“Did you really say that we get to eat his body and drink his blood?”

“That’s the idea.”

“Wow,” he said, “Church is way more rad than I thought it would be.”

And with that he feasted on the Lord.

Sometimes it takes a 12 year-old boy’s question to knock us out of our comfort with familiarity. How many times had I presided over the meal without thinking about what it might sound like to someone unfamiliar with church? How many times had I shared the bread and the cup with people who saw it merely as a routine? How many times had I myself feasted on the Lord without thinking about actually feasting on the Lord?

There’s a physicality to all of this. And by this I mean the church.

We stand, we sing, we bring our hands together. We eat, we breathe, we laugh, we cry.

It is good and right for us to experience the physicality of it all because God’s love has a physicality to it. It is not as obscure or as intangible as we might think.

God’s love can be felt, and seen, and tasted, and heard, and (probably even) smelled.

Throughout the strange new world of the Bible, God’s love for God’s people shows up as manna, a voice, through blood, a pillar of smoke, a raging fire.

And in its fullest expression, God’s love shows up as an actual person: Jesus.

Jesus is the Lord made flesh – God emptied God’s self, took the form of a slave being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, as Paul puts it in the letter to the church in Philippi. 

And yet, more often than not, church becomes some sort of ethereal, spiritual, or merely mystical manifestation. We spend time thinking about how, whatever we do in here, it connects with us only in ways that are intangible.

But Jesus is the Lord made flesh and skin and bone. 

Christianity, despite claims to the contrary, is inherently materialistic because God becomes material in Jesus.

God, to put it bluntly, becomes us.

We find Jesus in our scripture today on the other side of crucifixion. Arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, put on trial before Pilate and the religious authorities, stripped, beaten, marched to Golgotha, nailed to the cross, left to die.

And then John tells us that, because it was the day of Preparation, that is the day before Passover, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the sabbath. In Deuteronomy the people of God are specifically commanded to not allow a corpse to remain all night upon a tree (Deuteronomy 21.23) and the conflation with the day of Preparation made the hanging bodies even worse. Therefore they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and their bodies removed.

Crucifixion was an explicitly horrific way to die. Not only were individuals hung for all to see, a reminder about what happens when you challenge the powers that be, but they eventually died because they could no longer support their bodies enough to breathe. Breaking legs was, strangely, an act of kindness that would bring death faster rather than letting it run its natural course.

The soldiers then came to break the legs of the crucified men but when they saw that Jesus was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers took a spear and ran it through Jesus’ rib cage and blood and water came spilling out.

Strange. The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) don’t include these details shortly after Jesus’ death. And yet John lifts them up for those who wish to follow Jesus.

These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”

In some way, John wants us to see that all of it, even the very death of Jesus and the treatment of his dead body, is part of God’s great salvific narrative. There are connections drawn from the cross back to the book of Exodus and to the Prayer Book of God’s people, the Psalms.

Jesus suffered and died on a cross because the cross is the way Rome made an example of those who asked too many questions, pushed too many buttons, and instilled too many fears.

And yet, if we were asked why Jesus suffered an died on a cross, we’re likely to say something like, “He died to make us right with God” or “It was Jesus’ way of forgiving us” or “He died so we could go heaven.”

Which, to be clear, aren’t necessarily wrong. The cross is a moment of reconciliation, Jesus does forgive all of us from the cross, and it is part and parcel with what salvation means.

But one of the things we often gloss over, something John really wants us to see and remember, is that Jesus died on the day of Preparation for Passover. 

And Passover isn’t about being right with God. The Lord didn’t look upon the misdeeds of the Hebrews in Egypt and say, “Okay, time to let bygones be bygones. I will wash away your sin.”

No.

God says, “I’m getting you out of Egypt! Let’s go!”

Passover is about freedom.

Back in Egypt God’s people were given specific instructions to follow in terms of their Exodus, their deliverance from oppression, and the connections with Jesus’ life and death are rampant:

Jesus is without sin and innocent of the charges lobbed again him, just like the Passover lamb is supposed to be perfect and without blemish.

Jesus is beaten to the point of death and pierced in the side, just like the Passover lamb is supposed to be bled before being hung to roast.

Jesus was hung high and though beaten his bones were not broken, just like the Passover lamb’s bones were to remain intact.

Perhaps we’ve always seen the connections, maybe John’s words are already obvious to us, but in case our vision has been on something else, the Bible is begging us to see that the cross is our exodus – it is our delivery out of captivity into something new.

The Psalms and the Exodus story contain these particular details about unbroken bones not as throwaway lines about God’s strange obsession with anatomy and rule-following, but because the transfiguration of the cosmos is something physical and tangible. They help us to see how even the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is part of the great sweeping narrative of how far God was willing to go for God’s people.

How far God was willing to go for you and for me.

“Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all. He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken.”

We are, to use the language of the Psalm, rescued by the Lord on the cross, it is our exodus from death to resurrection. In the end of all things, in the resurrection of the dead, God keeps our bones and, as Ezekiel so vividly conveys it, will reknit us to be who we will be in the New Heaven and in the New Earth.

John the Baptist proclaims toward the beginning of the Gospel that Jesus was the Lamb of God. And John the Evangelist takes that proclamation to its beautiful conclusion: Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

This story, as strange and tangible and difficult as it is, is like God saying to us, “You want to know what I’m like? You want to know what I’m up to? Look no further than the One hanging on the cross! You cannot break my bones! I am the Passover Lamb who comes to bring you the exodus you need more than you know!”

In many ways, even though it’s perplexing, this is an easy text to preach. For, all of us are all well aware of the innocent suffering that takes place in this world. 

A man walked into three massage parlors in Atlanta this week and murdered eight people because, as the law enforcement put it, he was having a bad day.

We just hit the one year no in-person worship because of the Coronavirus, a virus that has now been contracted by more than 121 million people across the globe, and is responsible for more than half a million deaths just here in the United States.

It doesn’t take that long to scroll through the likes of Twitter and Facebook, or to turn on the evening news so see exactly why God had to send his Son into the world.

Jesus is the only hope we have. 

And when he came to teach about the kingdom of God, and to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and lift up the last, least, lost, little, and dead, how did we respond? We hung him in a tree to die.

But that’s not the end of the story.

God did not leave God’s people in chains in Egypt, and God does not leave us stuck under the terrible tyranny of sin and death.

Jesus Christ, with bones unbroken, is our Passover Lamb and reminds us that God is in the business of deliverance.

Because Jesus did what Jesus did, because he mounted the hard wood of the cross, offered a decree of forgiveness, died, and was resurrected, we are no longer bound or defined by our mistakes or our sins or our shames. 

Jesus became sin who knew no sin, nailed them all to the cross, and left them there forever. 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that we have already been forgiven, and we’ve been set  free.

What was done to us does not define us.

What we’ve done, and failed to do, is no longer kept in a ledger of God’s design.

Our scars and our wounds and our sins and our shames may be real, but so is our rescue.

Jesus doesn’t say, “This is my body and this is my blood” so that we’ll stay stuck exactly where we are doing to the same things over and over again.

Jesus says, “This is my body and this is my blood” so that all of us will walk in the light of grace knowing that just as God broke the chains in Egypt, our chains to sin and death are broken right here and right now.

Which is all just another way of saying, “Church is way more rad than we often think it is.” Amen. 

Jesus Is Not A New Moses

We think the Law can save and fix our messed up and broken lives.

From infancy we’re spoon-fed a narrative of righteous self-determination, that if you do all the right things, and go to the right school, and marry the right partner, then everything will be as it should be.

Until it isn’t.

And then the Law refuses to let us go.

So we adopt new habits: we buy a Peloton, we go on a new diet, we stay up late into the evening looking at Zillow for the next perfect house, we “Marie Kondo” our lives in order to get things under control.

And, even if some things change, perhaps we get that nice dopamine hit from imagining ourselves in a new place or we can fit into clothes we haven’t worn since college, we can’t actually fix ourselves with the “law.”

At some point the new house becomes the hold house, a few weeks away from the gym brings our waistline back, and on and on.

Enter Jesus.

Jesus came to bring us something better than another law, something better than another set of things we must do in order to get God to do something for us. Sure, we’re called to love God and neighbor, turn the other cheek, pray for our enemies, but those are never prerequisites for the Kingdom.

Remember: The Kingdom is already among us. Our sins were nailed to the cross and left there forever. 

The Law (from scripture and from life) is good, but it kills us. It exists to accuse us and it shows us, over and over again, who we really are. For, to borrow an expression from Paul, no one is righteous, no, not one.

Even our subtle exercises in self-denial during Lent help to remind us of the condition of our condition: Lent isn’t about participating in spiritual olympics in which we compete with one another to see who can be the most holy – instead it’s about confronting the fact that our desires will always get the better of us.

But the Law, and its ability to deaden us, is Good News and exactly what we need. It’s only in death (read: Baptism) that we begin to know the One who came to give us grace.

Contrary to how we often water down the Gospel, we worship a rather odd God. Our God who, among other things, speaks from a burning bush, promises offspring to a wandering octogenarian, and saves the cosmos through death on a cross.

And for Christians, we know who this odd God is because we know Jesus Christ. 

Therefore, Jesus is not a new Moses who displaces the old law with a new one. Instead, Jesus is the New Adam who inaugurates an entirely new cosmos.

Jesus is not a new Moses because, as the Gospel of John reminds us, the Word was God before the foundation of the world. 

Jesus is not a new Moses who offers a set of guidelines to save ourselves and the world. Instead Jesus comes to be our salvation in himself.

Here’s the Good News: On any given Sunday (even in the midst of a global pandemic) the people of God called church gather together to hear the most important word we will ever hear: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us – In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

Notice – Christ died for us while we were sinners, not before and not after. Christ chooses to die for us right in the midst of the worst mistake we’ve ever made or will ever make. 

In the end, that’s what it’s all about. 

We don’t follow the Law in order to get God to save us. 

We are already saved which then frees us to follow the Law – we do the things Christ calls us to do not because it earns us anything, but simply because it makes life a whole lot more fun. 

Jesus isn’t a new Moses – Jesus is God. And that’s the difference that makes all the difference. 

Psalm Sunday

Psalm 118.20-25

This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

Mark 11.9-11

Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. 

Every pastor has a favorite Palm Sunday story.

Like the year when the palm branches were delivered too early and dried out so much that when the gathered congregation shook them over their heads on Sunday morning, palm branch particles went flying in every direction resulting in coughing fits among the people of God.

Or, the time when the pastor thought it would be a great idea to dress up like a donkey and preach the sermon from the perspective of the animal who carried Jesus into Jerusalem, to which the pastor received the best comment of all time: “You’re not the first donkey we’ve had in that pulpit.” Only the person used a different word for donkey…

Or, there was the one Palm Sunday when the children of the church processed in waving their palm branches singing their “hosannas” only to begin smacking each other in the faces until a nearby parent had to jump in to break up the melee and then muttered a little too loudly, “Lord, save me from these children.”

And I think preachers like me enjoy re-telling those stories because the actual story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is rather perplexing. 

To put it another way: It’s easier to tell a cute or funny little story than it is to come to grips with the Lord of lords entering into the city that will ultimately hang him on a cross.

Or still yet, to put it another way: We’d rather hear something about ourselves when Jesus crosses the threshold to the seat of empire instead of admitting that this story has little, if anything, to do with us.

Of course, it’s only natural to present Christianity as a way to help people obtain whatever it is they think that need to have in order to make their lives more livable. 

Feeling afraid? Come to our church and listen to our sermon series on handling anxiety.

Lonely? You’ll discover that we’re just the friendliest church in town.

Hurt by the church? Don’t worry, we practice open hearts, minds, and doors here!

All of that centers around attraction and it’s how we advertise the church. Just scroll through Facebook, or drive around town, and you are liable to see those very slogans adorning what we call God’s holy church.

And, to be clear, they are true.

There is something about the church that is designed to comfort the afflicted, to give us the words and phrases and images to make sense of so many senseless things.

There is something about the church that is designed to rid the world of the insipid disease of loneliness – we are a community of people who share one thing in common, namely Jesus Christ.

There is something about the church that is designed to rectify the wrongs of the past while casting visions of a new and a different future.

Those things are all true, but they’re only true to a point.

Because, when all is said and done, friendliness, peace, hospitality, they are not the chief reasons for the church.

The church is the body of Christ in motion. The Church is Jesus’ presence in the world. And Jesus belongs to himself, not to us.

Let me put it this way: We don’t lead the church – we follow Jesus.

Now, I don’t know what you know about Jesus, or how he’s met you along the road of life and opened your eyes to things you never saw before, or how he found you when you needed him most. But I do hope you know how much Jesus delights in calling losers and failures to be the instruments of his mercy and grace. 

The great gift of the church is that God in Christ makes our lives far more interesting than they deserve to be.

You see, Christianity is neither a religion nor a club nor a civic organization – Christianity is an adventure.

It gives us a story when we had no story, it breaks us free from the monotony of life, and, perhaps most importantly, it proclaims to us the truth:

At the right time, Christ died for the ungodly – while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Which in the end, is what makes church so exciting. Like with Jesus, we never know what’s going to happen next. The Holy Spirit blows where it wants, directing our attention toward that which we usually miss, kicking us into gear when the appointed time arrives. 

We are given a gift, the greatest gift in the history of the cosmos, completely and utterly for free – we have been freed from the chains of sin and death and we didn’t do anything to deserve it. 

The God we worship, the One who brings life to the dead and calls into existence things that do no exist, is very loquacious – God creates and God reveals God’s self through speech.

And, notably in our text for today, Jesus (God in the flesh) says, well, nothing.

Put that on a banner and see how many people log-in for the online worship service!

Listen: 

Two of Jesus’ craftiest disciples procure a donkey for their Lord and he mounts the dirty animal in order to enter the holy city. 

The closer the crew get to Jerusalem, the larger the crowds become with people rushing forward to catch a glimpse of the Messiah, the Promised One, in the flesh.

On either side, both in front and behind, the people are shouting and singing, “Save us! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Save us here and now!”

Then Jesus, riding on the donkey, crosses into Jerusalem proper and goes to the temple. He takes a good gander at everything within his frame of vision, but, noticing the lateness of the hour, he departs for Bethany with his twelve disciples.

That’s it.

What started in Galilee is now coming to fruition in Jerusalem. 

A carpenter turned rabbi fished out some fishermen and conscripted them for kingdom work. He went about from town to town, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, all while telling the more bizarre and perplexing stories about scattered seeds, wayward sons, and never ending wedding feasts.

At first, Jesus didn’t look or sound much like a Messiah. Sure, he could do some incredible things and told some wonderful stories, but the predominant question among the crowds was, “Where did he get this authority?”

You see, there were messianic expectations. The Messiah was supposed to say and do certain things. And Jesus did and said some of them, even entering into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey was part of what had been prophesied.

But there will always be a profound difference between what we expect of Jesus and what Jesus does for us.

By the time he hits the holy city with his parade of palm branch wavers, he’s become quite popular. Tell a bunch of people stuck on the bottom rung of the socio-political ladder that they will be first in the new kingdom and you’re liable to have a pretty sizable crowd show up.

But, perhaps part of Jesus popularity also came from being, shall we say, misunderstood.

After all, the last being first sounds nice, but who willingly signs up to turn the other cheek, and go the extra mile, and pray for their enemies?

Who wants to hate their mother and father for the sake of God’s glory?

Who jumps on the bandwagon of carrying their own crosses, the very method used to murder enemies of the state?

People had, and people still have, their expectations of Jesus.

On that day by the outskirts of Jerusalem so long ago, the people with their palm branches had their own idea about who this Messiah was and what he was going to do. Consider: What are they shouting along the road? Hosanna! Which, if we’re not careful, just becomes another word muttered by Christian-types without proper reflection. 

Hosanna literally means “save us.”

Save us from what?

Jerusalem was occupied, the Roman garrison was entering the holy city on the other side, displaying their power, force, and empiric rule. The people of God were living as strangers in a strange land in the very land that God promised to them long ago. Forced to adopt customs and even use currency that ran counter to their faith. Forced to provide economic security for the very powers and principalities that threatened their lives.

And then comes Jesus, a new David, come to take back the power and give it to the people! No wonder the crowds called their “Hosannas!” when they saw him entering on a donkey! Jesus was going to put them back on top!

The crowds take from Psalm 118 the cry for deliverance, “Save us!” and they put that expectation squarely on Jesus. 

Perhaps, then, we should call Palm Sunday, Psalm Sunday…

But what happens when this Messiah doesn’t arm the common people with weapons to prepare for insurrection? What happens when this Messiah doesn’t even stop to address the people when he enters the city?

Well, by the end of the week, the people who started with “Hosannas” move to “Crucify.”

It’s all too easy for us to cast Jesus into roles of our own choosing. 

It’s like second nature to put words, our words, into Jesus’ mouth.

We still would like to see him parade into the madness of our circumstances to champion our hopes and our dreams and to disrupt and frustrate the designs of our enemies.

But Jesus doesn’t come to bring us more of the same.

He doesn’t enter Jerusalem to establish yet another political machine that results in one group lording it over everyone else.

Jesus comes to do for us and for the world what we could never do on our own.

Jesus, knowing full and well that we put our own expectations on him, still chooses to die and rise for us in spite of us.

Jesus, fully God and fully human, mounts the hard wood of the cross and pronounces a decree of forgiveness for people who deserve no mercy.

That is the central affirmation of the adventure we call Christianity. God, creator of all things, lays aside almightiness to comes to us, to dwell among us in the muck and the mire of life, to be one of us. 

God chooses to take on vulnerability and human frailty just to rectify all of our wrongs.

It’s one of the great ironies that despite the cross resting at the center of this adventure, we have such an aversion to it. Did you know that in some of the fastest growing churches in the country there are no crosses whatsoever?

The cross doesn’t sell. It’s a sign of death. Even though we hang them up in our living rooms and wear them around our necks – we often forget that a cross is something you die on.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, much like his ministry, is a parable. Parables, after all, are stories about who God is, and they are only secondarily about us. The palm waving crowds remind us of the wonderful foolishness by which God does what God does. The people that day play no role other than showing how they haven’t quite seen the whole picture. They shout, as we would, for Jesus to save them. 

And, here’s the Good News, that’s exactly what Jesus will do by the end of the week. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

A Dangerous Time For Christians

“I have always thought that Lent is a dangerous time for Christians. This time in the church year, I fear, tempts us to play at being Christian. We are to discipline our lives during Lent in order to discover and repent of those sins that prevent us from the wholehearted worship of God. That is a perfectly appropriate ambition, but we are not very good at it. We are not very good at it because, in general, we are not very impressive sinners. Just as most of us are mediocre Christians, so we are mediocre sinners. As a result, Lent becomes a time we get to play at being sinners while continuing to entertain the presumption that we are not all that bad… I am not suggesting that Lenten disciplines do not have a place. Giving up something we will miss may help us discover forms of self-centeredness that make us less than Christ has made possible. But, hopefully, we will find ways to avoid playing at being sinful. Lent is not a time to play at anything but rather a time to confess that we would have shouted ‘Crucify him!’” – Stanley Hauerwas

If Hauerwas is right, and Lent is a dangerous time for Christians, we should certainly be careful about what we say and do during this season. I’m treating this Lent as an opportunity to come to grips with the condition of my/our condition. That is, I’m trying to place myself squarely in the category of sinner rather than in the category of self-righteous.

Which is no easy thing.

I remember one Good Friday when I stood before the gathered congregation and encouraged everyone to stand to sing the hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus.” It’s a strange hymn in a minor key and we all struggled through it, but when the service was over there was a woman waiting for me in the narthex who declared, “If we ever sing that song again, I am never coming back to the church.”

I inquired as to what exactly it was about the sound that upset her so much and she said, “I never would’ve crucified Jesus! And I’m offended that I had to sing those words.”

Verse 2: Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? / Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee! / ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; / I crucified thee.

There is a desire within many of us to think that, had we been there, we would’ve been good little disciples and we would’ve stayed with Jesus until the very end. Remember, however, that even the first disciples called by Jesus, the ones who witnessed his healings, ate his miraculous meals, listened to his powerful proclamations, even they abandoned him in the end.

Do you see? The truth is that we can try to convince ourselves of our self-righteousness, but God will not allow us to get away with such arrogance.

That’s why we sing songs like “Ah, Holy Jesus” every year to remember that we, just like everyone else, would’ve shouted crucify.

Lent, to use Hauerwas’ words, isn’t a time to play – it’s a time to be honest about who we are.

But hear the Good News: it’s precisely in knowing who we are that the Lord chooses to forgive us from the cross.

Between Love & Hate

Psalm 35.17-21

How long, O Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their ravages, my life from the lions! Then I will thank you in the great congregation; in the mighty throng I will praise you. Do not let my treacherous enemies rejoice over me, or those who hate me without cause wink the eye. For they do not speak peace, but they conceive deceitful words against those who are quiet in the land. They open wide their mouths against me; they say, “Aha, Aha, our eyes have seen it.”

John 15.18-25

“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not have sin. But now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. It was to fulfill the word that is written in their law, ‘They hated me without a cause.’”

Something happened.

It’s not altogether clear what the something is that happened, but something definitely happened.

We live in a very different world than we once did.

And I don’t just mean because of the pandemic.

There was a time when everyone seemed to assume that you would grow up, go to school, get married, have two kids, pay your taxes, and go to church.

That world no longer exists.

Whatever the something is that happened, it had a major impact on the church. For, it is no longer assumed that new people will keep streaming in through the sanctuary doors (back when we could have in-person services) nor will they willfully sit through an entire service from the comfort of their couches simply because that’s what people are supposed to do.

Church, now, is a choice. And it is a choice among a myriad of other choices regarding what we can do with our time. 

So, how has the church responded to this something that happened?

Well, in large part, we’ve decided that the best path forward is to convince people to love us because we’re a people of love.

Which, all things considered, isn’t such a bad idea. God is love, after all. Jesus does tell us to love God and neighbor. Maybe, just maybe, love is all we need.

So we, as an institution, created banners proclaiming the necessity of love, we crafted sermon series about how God loves everyone just the way they are, we dropped the L word as often as we could when, frighteningly, we’re not entirely sure we know what we mean when we talk about love.

Here’s an example from a sermon I listened to recently: “God loves you just the way you are, but God doesn’t want you to stay just as you are.”

What in the world does that mean?

Therefore, we find ourselves in a place where love is the key to being the church and even if we don’t know what it means, or even what it looks like, we at least know that, in the end, we all want to be loved.

And yet, Jesus tells his disciples, and us, that following him means the world will hate us.

“Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you…If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.”

Which, if we’re being honest, isn’t an easy thing to hear from our Lord. 

Particularly when we’ve convinced ourselves the whole point of church is to love and be loved in return.

Here’s a brief thought-experiment – Let’s imagine, if we can, Jesus showing up today. What would he look like? With whom would he spend his time? What would he preach about?

Usually, when we picture Jesus, he’s this hippy-dippy character who throws up a peace sign every once in a while, he asks us to all get along, and above all he is nice.

But Jesus wasn’t nice. You don’t crucify someone for being nice.

If God just wanted us to be more loving, why did Jesus have to come to tell us that? 

If God is all about love, then why did God go through all the trouble of being this particular person, Jesus, at a particular time and a particular place?

Jesus knew that life wasn’t all that it’s often cracked up to be. He told stories about giving money away, he regularly ridiculed the rich, he belittled the religious authorities, he called into question all of the powers and principalities of his day.

And for that, and more, he was hated.

Take the whole Gospel in: the crowds grow and grow only to leave him abandoned in the end. 

Are we sure that we want to follow this Jesus?

If we can’t imagine being hated for our discipleship, we can, at the very least, recover how odd of a thing it is to be Christian. This whole proclamation we call the Gospel is an extraordinary adventure, and that’s not that same thing as wanting to be liked/loved by everyone.

Consider – Last week we looked at Jesus’ temptations from the Devil out in the wilderness. He doesn’t eat for forty days, he contends against the powers of Satan, and then he returns to call upon the first disciples. And, in our minds, we just kind of assume the earliest conversations went something like this: “Okay, so I’m God in the flesh. I’m the Messiah. And I finally figured out how to solve all the world’s problems… All we need is love. Now, go and tell everyone what I said.”

But, of course, that’s not what happened.

Because, again, if all Jesus came to do what push us in the direction of love, then why did everyone reject him. Why did the crowds, to use the language of our passages today, hate him?

Perhaps Jesus was hated because he refused to give the people what they wanted on their own terms. Remember – the Devil offered Jesus the power to institute feeding programs, the power over all earthly kingdoms, and even the power to instill faith in all people.

But Jesus refused.

Jesus refused because God’s kingdom cannot become manifest through the devil’s means.

But that doesn’t mean that Jesus is a Messiah of apathy, laziness, or indifference.

Jesus is very political – in fact, he is an entirely new politic. But the Kingdom Jesus inaugurates through his life, death, and resurrection is one that comes through the transformation of the world’s understanding of how to get things to happen.

Unlike the world, Jesus refuses to use violence in order to achieve peace.

Unlike the world, Jesus refuses to use coercive measures in order to make the Kingdom come.

Unlike the world, Jesus refuses to use the powers and principalities to do anything

Therefore, the offense, the thing people hate, is not that Jesus wanted his followers to be more loving – the offense is Jesus himself. 

Over and over again he talks about bringing down the mighty and lifting up the lowly because he’s in the business of rectification.

He talks about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked for no reason other than the fact that they’re hungry and naked.

He talks about dying in order to be raised so that the whole of the cosmos can be raised with him for FREE.

Is is then any wonder that the world wasn’t prepared to welcome this Messiah?

It is any wonder that people have hated Jesus and his followers since the beginning?

Jesus was ultimately put to death not because he thought that the world could use a little more love, though we certain could. Jesus was killed because he embodied and proclaimed an entirely different reality that threatens anyone with any power.

Put simply, Jesus was killed for telling the truth.

For us today, the problem with Jesus’ truth-telling is that we, and the world, are drunk with deception, we hoard half-truths, and we live by lies.

Telling the truth is no easy endeavor – it got Jesus killed and it can upturn everything about our lives. But contrary to how we often water-down the gospel, there’s nothing safe about Jesus, no matter what VeggieTales might tell us.

Jesus offers freedom from our anxieties by giving us, of all things, a yoke to wear around our necks.

Jesus shares the possibility of transformation here and now by inviting us into his death (baptism) so that we might rise into new life.

Jesus promises our resurrection from the dead not with a wave of a magic wand, but by making of members of his very body redeemed by his blood so that we can become a community that is an alternative to the world.

And for that, the world might just hate us.

Why? 

Jesus forms us into a people who live by strange ways and by strange means. We are a community who gathers (even virtually) with people we share nothing in common with except that Jesus binds us to one another.

We are a community who believe in the transformative power of praying for our enemies, turning the other cheek, feeding the hungry, befriending the friendless, and hoping against hope.

We are a community committed to the least of these even if (and when) the world tries to convince us to do otherwise.

God in Christ has knit us together to be a people of love in a world that runs by hate, which is a very dangerous way to live.

It might sound difficult or even frightening, but its at least an adventure. The Gospel is not merely one thing after another, it’s the only things that really matters – it’s the difference that makes the difference.

Hear the Good News, the Gospel: Despite our best efforts, and all of our best intentions, we couldn’t climb all the way up to God. We couldn’t save ourselves and we couldn’t save the world even though we certainly tried. We convinced ourselves that if we just loved each other a little bit more that things would finally be set right. But things largely stayed the same.

So what did God do? Was God delighted to give us an A for effort but an F for execution and therefore closed the door of the kingdom right in our faces? 

Actually, in a wild act of humility (read: humiliation) God came down to us, became one with us.

We always thought that the whole purpose of this thing called faith, this thing called church, was so somehow get ourselves closer to God. And then God came down to us, down to the level of the cross, straight into the muck and the mire of this life, all the way down into the very depths of hell.

He who knew no sin took on our sin so that we might be free of it.

Listen- This is not something that happened just for other people in other places – God still stoops down into your life and into mine. God has taken stock of all of our choices, the good and the bad, and still chooses to come and be God for us, with us, in spite of us. 

God loves you so much that God was willing to die.

Jesus died for you.

He lived his whole life as a refugee and amidst poverty, he endured reproaches and derision and abuse just so that you and I could escape death.

Jesus does this knowing full and well that we are the very people who would’ve shouted crucify.

Jesus is peculiarly obstinate.

And it is wonderful. 

Jesus does not need us, but we certainly need him. 

And that’s the scandal of the Gospel – Jesus, God in the flesh, chooses to live, die, and live again for us and we don’t deserve it one bit. 

No one does.

And we are now called to live in the light of that perplexing Good News. That light helps us to see ourselves and one another not according to the ways of the world where we measure everyone and everything by worth, but according to the One who is the way, the truth, and the life. 

The world might hate us for it, but Jesus has overcome the world.

Something has happened. And things are not as they once were. But this is still good news, because the something that happened is called Jesus. Amen.