This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Seungsoo “RJ” Jun about the readings for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Job 23.1-9, 16-17, Psalm 22.1-15, Hebrews 4.12-16, Mark 10.17-31). Seungsoo is the Associate Director of Serving Ministries for the Virginia Conference of the UMC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Survivor, divine anger, prayer droughts, proper terror, the spiderweb of scripture, grammatical turns, sharp swords, wealthy Christians, and the gift of salvation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Divine Yet
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!
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!
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.
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.
One while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets.
Jesus enters the town like the lone ranger. He barely receives a nod from the movers and shakers as he makes his way around. The people are good country folk, they know how to mind their own business, and someone new in town is sure to make a mess of things.
And Jesus, well, that’s exactly what he does.
He starts teaching, if that’s what we want to call it. He tells stories. He makes people laugh, he makes people think, and he makes some people mad.
Talk of the first being last and the last being first always sounds like good news to those on the bottom, but it doesn’t ring with the same kind of joy for those with all the power in the world.
Anyway, it doesn’t take long before this stranger attracts a crowd wherever he goes. At first it was just an opportunity for people to leave their lives for a moment, disappearing into the stories about good neighbors, and wandering sheep, and prodigal children. But then Jesus started the healings and the feedings. The hungry walked away with full bellies and the paralytics, well they just walked away which was miracle enough.
And it all started to get a little out of hand.
So much so that one day, while standing by the lake, the crowd had grown so large that the Lord in the flesh decided to do something about it.
Down the way, along the shore, were a few boats and the men who had been out all night fishing. They were busy cleaning their nets when Jesus walked up, hopped into a boat, and said, “Hey, what are we doing here on the shore? Let’s get out on the water.”
And without thinking twice about it, Peter pushed the boat in, and started oaring the Lord away from the crowds.
“This is perfect right here Pete,” Jesus remarked, “Now I can see everyone and everyone can hear. Keep it steady for a bit, okay?”
And then the teaching started up again. There was talk of loving enemies and praying for the people that make the world a messy place. There were stories of fig trees and lost coins. There were apocalyptic proclamations about all things being made new.
Most of it went right over Peter’s head. Literally and figuratively.
But then Jesus looked down and said, “Pete, let’s go a little deeper and see if we can’t find ourselves some fish.”
“No offense, Lord,” Peter sheepishly replied, “But I’ve been out all night fishing. You see, fishing is what I do. And there ain’t no fish to be caught. But you seem to be on a roll today, so why not?”
Within 15 minutes they had caught more fish than could be safely get aboard the boat and they had to call for the other fishermen to help.
10 minutes later they had so many fish that the boats started sinking.
Peter saw all this happen right in front of him, with his arms giving out from hauling in all the fish, and he fell to the bottom of the boat and shouted, “Get out of here Lord! I’m not worthy of all this!”
And Jesus said, “No one is. But you don’t need to be afraid, from now on you’ll be catching people.”
And Peter, along with his partners, left everything at the shore and followed Jesus.
What a great and confounding story.
Theologically, it points to the bewildering nature of Jesus’ command over creation and how, whether we like it or not, we’re all caught up in something far greater than any of us realize.
But practically, it’s also an awesome story about fishing.
Those who enjoy fishing inevitably know how to tell tales. For, most of the time, the fish we brag about are never quite as large in real life. The amount of effort that goes into fishing, getting the gear and the bait, finding the right water, going at the right time of day, practicing patience… It’s all a lot of work for a slippery little thing that, most of the time, you just toss back into the water anyway.
Notably, there’s a good deal of fishing in the New Testament and no one EVER catches a fish unless Jesus is with them. It’s doesn’t matter whether they’ve been doing it for years, or they have the right bait and gear, or if they’re in their lucky fishing spot – If Jesus isn’t in the boat, then there will be no fish.
And I’ve always loved how this little story ends. Luke puts all the attention and all the details on the fishing, but in the end, they leave all the fish behind to start fishing for Jesus.
It’s hard to know when it happened exactly, but somewhere along the line Jesus caught each of us.
That’s what Jesus does – its not just the telling of tales, and the proclamation of parables, and the making of miracles. Jesus delights in gathering all of us into the great net that, in the church, we call salvation.
And Jesus is very good at what he does.
Life, as we often perceive it, is little more than going through the motions over and over again. But Jesus comes to bring us life and life abundant. That’s what Christmas is all about – the lengths to which God was willing to go to come and shake up the monotony of life, to set us free from the chains of sin and death, and to welcome us to Supper of the Lamb that never ever ends.
Jesus’ divine fishing charter is not merely about gathering in whoever he can whenever he can, but it is also all purposed to bring us to a place we could never arrive on our own.
The tall and the small, the good and the bad… Jesus’ net is wide enough for all of us.
Thanks be to God.
In the latter part of his theological career, Karl Barth would preach for the inmates in the prison of Basel, Switzerland. When the public found out that he was doing so people reacted in a variety of ways – some were amazed that a man of such academic stature would humble himself to do such a thing, while others took it as a sign of his tremendous faith.
And a few would joke that the only way to hear Karl Barth preach would be to break the law and go to jail.
In 1954 Barth delivered the Christmas sermon to the inmates. I’ve made a habit of reading the sermon every Christmas week almost like a devotional and every year I find more and more in it that just astounds me. This great man whose theology disrupted my life (in the best ways), went down to a prison on Christmas and proclaimed the Good News of Christ’s birth into the world to a group of men who felt no hope in the world at all.
Below you can find three of the most powerful paragraphs from the sermon, and as you read them I encourage you to do so while considering the context and the preacher from whom and for whom these words were preached:
“What does the word Savior convey? The Savior is he who brings us salvation, granting us all things needed and salutary. He is the helper, the liberator, the redeemer as no man, but God alone, can be and really is; he stands by us, he rescues us, he delivers us from the deadly plague. Now we live because he, the Savior, is with us.
“The Savior is also he who has wrought salvation free of charge, without our deserving and without our assistance, and without our paying the bill. All we are asked to do is to stretch out our hands, to receive the gift, and to be thankful.
“The Savior is he who brings salvation to all, without reservation or exception, simply because we all need him and because he is the Son of God who is the Father of us all. When he was made man, he became the brother of us all. To you this day is born a Savior, says the angel of the Lord. To you!”
Merry (almost) Christmas.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
We’ve come to the end.
Both the end of our series on the parables of the Kingdom and to Jesus’ proclamation, parabolically, about the end of all things.
The Kingdom is like a net that catches everything so that the angels can sort out the evil from the righteous.
This is a story about judgment.
And we don’t like judgement.
You know, judge not lest ye be judged and all that…
But I think it’s more that we like to talk about not being judgmental while actually being addicted to the judgments we make against ourselves and others.
Consider this: How many conversations have you had recently about people and their willingness or unwillingness to wear masks?
It’s notable that, having talked at length about the Kingdom, yeast and seeds and weeds, Jesus ends the entire sequence of these parables with a story about fishing.
It is an ending about the end.
Jesus has been laying it on thick for the crowds and for the disciples. But then we encounter, “So it will be at the end of the age” – the Eschaton, a final period on the whole kit and caboodle.
This is the moment in which all of the stories about the Kingdom are summed up by the Lord of lords.
Listen – The Kingdom is like a net thrown into the sea that catches everything. And, only when the net is full, is it brought ashore and the good are put into baskets while the bad are left on the sand. So it will be at the end of the age. My angels will come and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Sounds like a party, right?
The Kingdom is like a net. Strangely enough the net, SAGENE in Greek, is what we call a hapax legomenon, a word that only appears once in the entirety of the New Testament.
It’s very very rare.
Nevertheless, the net here is one dragged through the water indiscriminately taking up everything in its path.
It is not the tiny net I carry on my fly fishing bag to help collect the one solitary fish I’ve been trying to reel in for fifteen minutes.
It’s more like a trawler that picks up everything.
And everything means everything. Not only fish but also seaweed, trash, and other oceanic items.
This, of course, runs counter to how we often imagine the fishing stories from Jesus and the way we portray them in Children’s Bibles.
Jesus says, “If I be lifted up I will draw all to myself!”
Which is all to say, just as the net fetches out everything it meets in the sea, so too the Kingdom fetches out everything in the world. When Jesus proclaims that a new heaven and a new earth are coming, they are not replacements for the old ones, we don’t get zapped from one to the other – they are transfigurations of them.
Jesus doesn’t abandon planet earth to go stake out a claim somewhere else, he raises creation and glorifies it.
The totality of the net might sound like an overstatement, but the word for fish doesn’t actually appear in the Greek – even though plenty of translators have opted to stick it in.
Its just says the the net was tossed into the sea and caught everything.
This means, parabolically speaking, that everything and everyone gets swept up into it, the good and the bad, the tall and the small, the poor and the powerful.
There is a sorting to come, we cannot ignore that, but not before the net draws everything in. While the net is being dragged behind the boat, doing its work, judgment is nowhere to be found. Which is a reminder for those of us called the church that the kingdom, while still in this world, does nobody any good while remaining in the judgment business.
But judgement, of course, is what we do best!
It’s been one of the favorite pastimes of the church since the very beginning. The practice of tossing out the bad apples while the net is still int he ate drawing everything in has been everybody’s preferred method of “furthering the Kingdom.”
Everybody’s, that is, except Jesus.
Sometimes it takes weeks and weeks of sitting in the parables to realize how much of a miracle it is that the church has made it this far all the while confusing the words of the divine Word incarnate.
We have heaping examples how how judgmental the church has been, all while Jesus has been doing his best to drag the net of the kingdom across the ocean floor of our existence.
Consider how adulterers, murders, and philanderers have been paraded out of both pulpit and sanctuary. But its not even just the really bad sins we hold over the heads of others: we dismiss the liars and the cheats, the questionable and the bizarre.
Throughout the centuries we have picked our particular flavors of allowable and unallowable all under the auspices of keeping the good in and the bad out.
And what do we have to show for it?
Now, if we talk about sin in church at all, we do so in a way that denies our sinfulness while highlighting the sins of others. We’ve taken down the mirror of the Gospel, the law that accuses us dead in our sins, and instead we wag our fingers at those who don’t align with what we think is good and right and true.
And, I must confess, I’m guilty of this just as much as anyone else. I mean: Do you know how much fun it is to belittle and bemoan televangelists for the wildly inappropriate theology they drop on their dozing congregations? Do you know why it’s so fun? Because it makes me feel better about myself!
We love to point out the sins in others all the while ignoring our own.
But Jesus? Jesus didn’t shy away from sinners. So why should we?
Of course, we might think that the church welcomes sinners. But we don’t. At least, not really. We’re only inclined to welcome the sinful so long as their sins aren’t of much consequence and their willing to repent and never fall back into their sinfulness.
Should we let people get away with their sins? Is that what Jesus wants? A church full of worthless sinners failing in their inability to be good?
Yeah, kind of.
It’s not so much about letting people get away with it, but recognizing the real condition of our condition such that we see salvation isn’t possible on our own. We don’t have the capacity, on our own, to turn it all around. It’s only ever possible because of the Spirit working in us and through us.
Consider Paul’s argument in his letter to the Galatians: If there had been a law, a rule, that could have saved us then it should have already happened.
We can change, we can get better. But it’s God who does that work and, like the Kingdom, it’s rather mysterious. There’s no good answer to why one person is better at dropping a bad habit than someone else. There’s no good answer to why someone gets through grief faster than someone else.
God works and we know not how. It is, to make the point even finer, a mystery.
The church, at her best, is merely a sacrament of God’s Kingdom, an outward sign of the mystery in the world. It is like a version of the net, doing its best to sweep through the dark waters of life, collecting anything and everything.
What happens next is entirely up to God.
And thats when the real judgement begins…
The plunder is brought to shore to sort out, in Jesus’ words, the good from the bad. What makes the good good and the bad bad? Jesus doesn’t give us much to work with here, but its entirely in the eyes of the one who tossed out the net in the first place. That is: Jesus is the one who decides what goes in the basket and what get left on the sand.
Notice, again, that the separation only occurs after the net has already done its job, only after the mystery of the Kingdom has come to fruition, only after the power of Jesus’ reconciling work.
Everyone who comes before the divine sorting, if we want to call it that, has already been judged by the Judge who came to be judged in our place.
The whole world, the all the Jesus draws into himself, is accepted in the Beloved.
The forgiveness of wrongs, the rectification of sins, pronounced from the cross and the empty tomb is for all.
What we choose to do with that forgiveness is tricky business.
Think about the older bother from the parable of the prodigal. His Father, rather recklessly, forgives the younger son from his squandering ways, throws him a party and then insists that the older son comes into the cut up the rug. But we never find out whether or not the older brother joins the party.
Does he enter the room, grab a drink, and head for the dance floor?
Or does he stay in the outer darkness while weeping and gnashing his teeth?
In the end, God is throwing a party, the Supper of the Lamb, and we’re all invited, no matter what.
The question isn’t what constitutes a life worthy of the Kingdom, but instead, what are we going to do with out invitation?
Notice: nobody goes to hell because they made too many bad choices in this life anymore than someone goes to heaven because they made enough right choices. Everyone meets Jesus in the mystery of his death and resurrection, they are swept up in the great net whether we think they deserve it or not.
Counter to many of our church ramblings throughout the centuries, and even today, we are not judged by the Lord in the light of our previous proclivities. If we were, none of us would go anywhere but hell.
Instead we are judged by what Jesus does for us on the cross. He announces a forever and all encompassing forgiveness that transfigures us into his kingdom in ways that are hidden and right here among us.
Let me put it this way: Everybody, even the worst of the worst, is someone for whom Christ died. Whenever the church goes around kicking people out for missed and poor choices, we fail to live into the netted-ness of Christ’s salvific work.
Sinners are the church’s business for God’s sake, literally.
We worship a Lord who came not to condemn the world but to save it. Until the end of the age, the only thing we can do is rest is the Good News that Jesus delights in catching us and everybody else.
But back to the judgment reserved for the Lord.
So it will be at the end of the age, Jesus says, my angels will come and separate the evil out of the midst of the righteous.
How did the righteous ones get to be righteous? Well, scripture tells us that Jesus makes us righteous and we can’t do it on our own.
To whom is the gift of Jesus’ righteousness offered? Well, scripture tells us that Jesus came for the whole world, the good and the bad, the right and the wrong.
But then how can some of them be judged as evil?
And that, dear friends, is the question of all questions.
Is it because not one of us is righteous, no not one (to steal an expression from Paul)?
Is it because, even though Jesus told us not to judge, it’s still our favorite thing to do?
Is it because we’re all dead in our sins and in desperate need of a Savior who can save us from ourselves?
The angels of the Lord will separate the evil out of the midst of the righteous. This is God’s good work, for there will be no evil in the end of the age – there will be no death, no mourning, and no crying, for God will make all things new.
Do you see? Even at the end, God in Christ is hellbent on getting every single one of us into his Kingdom, even if it means separating the evil out of us so that we can feast at the Supper of the Lamb forever and ever.
There is to be joy in heaven! Not just over one found by the Lord but over the ninety nine as well.
There is to be joy over a whole New Jerusalem populated entire by forgiven sinners whose citizenship is based on nothing but their forgiveness. Not their good works of perfect report cards. Only by the forgiving and reconciling work of God. So be it. Amen.
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
The city was occupied.
The occupiers came through once a year with a big military parade to remind the occupied that they were, in fact, occupied. And they were smart about it, they knew that the religious festivals in the spring were a time when people got all ramped up, so they prepared to make a sign of strength at the same time to, as they put it, keep the peace.
And so it came to pass, early one Sunday morning, the roads were cleared as the citizens of the city hid behind the curtains in their homes, the parade began. The weight of the tanks broke up the smooth city streets, the ICBMs were pulled behind countless trailers, and scores of soldiers marched in step while shouting out their maniacal military mantras.
It was terrifying.
And it was meant to be.
On the other side of the city, another parade was starting, though this was was different in every way imaginable.
The Teacher, that’s what they called him, had sent two of his followers ahead very early in the morning with the simple instructions to find something that would help them get into the city. They searched in vain, knowing that many were afraid of the comings and goings on the other side of the city with the displays of violence, but eventually they came across an abandoned tricycle sitting on its side in the front yard of what appeared to be a vacant house. So they took it and brought it to the Teacher.
Hours later, while word of the military parade spread from house to house, the Teacher rode into the occupied city striding atop his tricycle, with pink and purple streamers coming out of handlebars. It was a richly symbolic act, entering from the opposite direction and in the opposite manner of those on the other side. Instead of riding on that which kept people afraid, the teacher came with the anti-war parade – it was a mockery of the occupiers’ intimidation and it was triumphant.
As he rode and swerved left and right through the streets, Twitter was ablaze with the news that the Teacher was finally in the city, and droves of people left the shelter of their homes to get a glimpse of the one who they believed was coming to deliver them. The numbers grew and grew, and the fervor swept over them as they took off their jackets and waved them high in the air. They even started taking flowers out of the ground and placed them on the road like a royal carpet.
They shouted things like, “The King is here! Finally! Save us!!!”
The further he made it into the city, the louder the crowds became, and the people were in turmoil – between the two parades that Sunday morning they knew not who would win.
Everyone was so preoccupied with the occupation and the signs and the singing that no one noticed the Teacher’s face, because the longer he rode on his tricycle, the more he cried. He wept knowing that he was enter as the prince of peace, and yet within the week those very crowds that shouted for salvation would also be the ones begging for his execution.
On Monday, the Teacher made his way to City Hall with other citizens. Knowing all that had transpired the day before, all eyes were on the crazy man with the expectation that things were finally about the change. He walked slowly, taking in the sights of the marginalized being pushes even further toward the margins, and the bankers lending out money with exorbitant interest rates.
For three years he had been going through the surrounding territories berating the elite for taking advantage of the poor and the outcast, he once told a yuppie to sell everything and give it away, and that Monday morning, before anyone realized it, the Teacher grabbed a nearby lamppost, pulled it right out of the ground, and started swinging. He destroyed the tables and the stands and the signs of what was happening in the heart of the city, and the crowds stood in shock.
The elite and powerful, those who benefited from the occupation, now had their attention on the Teacher. It was one thing to have a crowd cheering for a man on a tricycle, but to disrupt the economic scheme that was putting money in their pockets was something else entirely.
Something had to be done.
On Tuesday, the Teacher went back to City Hall and he began to teach in the open air. If the people were excited to see his entry into the city, they were now even more eager to hear what he had to say having thrown out those who represented all of the economic disparity. Of course, it wasn’t just the poor and downtrodden that gathered to listen, some of the religious authorities and the elite were there too and they kept demanding to know who he thought he was to speak with such authority.
The Teacher spoke in riddles, telling stories about one thing that were pointing at something else. Over and over again he used examples to show how the powerful were actually the weak and, worst of all, he called them hypocrites.
He accused them again and again of neglecting to honor the very things they talked about all the time, how they were the ones truly responsible for the occupiers entering year after year, and that no matter what they did or said or believed, there was nothing they could do to stop him.
The Teacher had quite a following at this point, he had taken away the means of economic injustice from those in power and now he was calling them vipers. They tried their best to trap him in his words, but went on as if they weren’t even there.
On Wednesday the Teacher left the city and traveled to a nearby hill where he continued to teach. Some of his followers made comments about the beauty of the city from their high vantage point, but he responded by telling them that all of it was coming down, not one stone would be left.
He talked about his new order, one in which those would be blessed who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, befriended the lonely, clothed the naked, and cared for the sick.
He pointed at the children in their midst and said that unless the adults started acting like the kids, none of them would have a spot in the new kingdom. And he ended with his favorite catchphrase about the first being last and the last being first.
For those at the bottom of all things, this sounded like Good News, but for those in power in the city, this was too much.
On Thursday, the Teacher continued to teach and gather with his followers, but it was time for the religious festival so he retreated to an apartment in the city with his closest friends. They told stories about the past, what had led each of them to where they were. They shared a few bottles of wine, and kept partying late into the night.
But before it was all said and done, the Teacher took a nearby loaf of bread and said, “Hey, this is me, and I’m going to give myself for you. So when you eat it, remember what I did.” And then he took a nearby cup and said, “This is my blood, I’m pouring it out for you and the world. Do this whenever you drink to remember me.” They feasted and celebrated, but one of the friends left through the backdoor when no one was looking. He loved the Teacher, but some of what he said had gone too far, and he was going to put it to a stop before they were all killed.
Later they traveled to a nearby garden, the Teacher urged his friends to stay awake but one by one they fell asleep. So he knelt on the ground and he prayed about all that was going to take place. The last thing he said in his prayer was, “Let your will be done.”
And as he looked up from his posture of prayer, the betrayer arrived with soldiers. They quickly rushed into the garden and arrested the Teacher. The dozing followers ran off in fear not knowing what was about to happen.
On Friday the Teacher was brought before the occupying Governor, the one who arrived at the city in the military parade. The soldiers and the leaders demanded that the Teacher needed to be publicly executed. But the Governor, strangely enough, could find no fault with the man. So he decided to bring the Teacher before a crowd of people and offer them a choice. They could free the Teacher, or a leader of the terrorist rebellion who was responsible for destruction across the city.
The same people who were on the road less than a week before shouting “Save us!” now shouted with reckless abandon, “Execute him!” So the leader of the rebellion was freed, and the Teacher was sentenced to death.
Soldiers stationed nearby beat and whipped the Teacher right to the point of death and, to mock him, they covered him with a three piece suit and a striped power tie. They forced him to carry the instrument of his death, a noose, up to the top of a hill for all eyes to see. As the soldiers strung up the line from the highest branch on the highest tree, the Teacher looked out over the scene and said loud enough for people to hear, “I forgive you, because you have no idea what you’re doing.”
And then they placed the rope around his neck, and pulled until he was hanging in the air. And the Teacher died.
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.
Typically, I resist the temptation to tell the whole story of Jesus’ final week on Palm Sunday because I want to encourage folk to come to services for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. But, knowing this year is a strange year with the calls for Social Distancing, I know not who will be able to join us online for worship on Thursday and Friday and I can’t help but think that if all we encounter today is the crowds waving their branches with their Hosannas and their hope, then Easter doesn’t make sense.
Or, to put it another way, why did Jesus go from being loved to being dead?
The passion week, no matter how it’s told, refuses to let us imagine it as some sort of spiritual or ethereal dilemma. It is fleshy and tactile and real. It takes place in time, in our time. It compels us to encounter the truth of the incarnation, that God chose in Christ to come and dwell among us. And even more, it forces us to come to grips with the fact that we nailed him to a tree.
I return again to the question of Jesus’ death. It is strange that Jesus was killed considering how we so often talk about him inside and outside of the church. Jesus who just wants us to love each other a little bit more. Jesus who just wants us to engage in active listening. Jesus who just wants us to spend more time in our Bibles and more time in prayer. Why would anyone kill anyone pushing that kind of message?
Why did Jesus have to die and why did he have to die on a cross? Well, because that’s the way the Romans executed those deemed a threat. Hang them high so all can see what happens if you challenge the powers and the principalities.
Why did Jesus have to die? He wasn’t what we wanted.
We don’t crucify people anymore – we’re too dignified and respectable for that. Instead we isolate them in prison, we demonize them on Social Media, and we berate them behind closed doors. We can’t stand those who would call into question the practices and policies that put money in our pockets, we stifle anyone sniffing around our firstness and rightness and presumed righteousness. And we certainly don’t want anyone to ever call us hypocrites.
Or, as the Rolling Stones so eloquently put it, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well you might find you get what you need.
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.
Holy Week isn’t about us. It’s about what Jesus went through because of us. In the end, as we sit in the shadow of Jesus’ death 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 to do save ourselves.
Jesus enters the city under occupation and in the end occupies our place on the cross.
The crowds demanded their salvation, and Jesus gave it to them by giving himself.
“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Amen.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.
The people who seem to have it all just drive me crazy.
Now, you’re good and faithful and kind people so you don’t know what’s its like to feel the way I do, but when people go about parading all of their successes and all of their perfections I just get all sorts of frustrated.
It’s even worse when the people in question are Christians.
These people are the type who get on social media and brag about all the blessings God has showered down on top of them, all the while giving you a tour of their 3.5 million dollar house.
They are the type of people who, after experiencing some apparently divine miracle, start raking in the dough from the righteous investments and then brag about their vacation home on the other side of the world.
They are the type of people who make it seem as if being a Christian simply means there are no problems, no fights with spouses, no disagreements with kids, no bills to be paid, no medicine to take, so long as you invite Jesus into your heart.
But what about the other Christians?
What about the disciple who’s coping with poverty and hunger? What about the family that shows up in church only to get in the car and continue the fight they paused when they pulled into the parking lot? What about the person sitting in the pews week after week feeling less and less sure about this thing called faith?
To be clear: Miracles happen, and the less fortunate can become the most fortunate. After all, Jesus did say that the first will be last and the last will be first. It just seems like sometimes those who go from last to first want to remind everyone that they got there on their own.
Which, of course, is absurd.
But that doesn’t stop us from consuming it with reckless abandon.
We are suckers for the supposedly self-made fortunes, and the get rich quick schemes, and the take this pill to lose all your fat babble.
And, frankly, if we want to pour ourselves into those narratives, we are more than welcome to do so, they just don’t have much to do with the Lord.
Every verse in the Bible is important.
That’s why, every week, we read the Word aloud in this space and we affirm the importance of that Word by responding with: The Word of God for the People of God… Thanks be to God. There are, of course, verses in the scripture for which it becomes a little harder to affirm our gratitude for something that appears confounding. But, as Christians, we believe that this book continues to speak new and fresh and good words into our lives, even today.
Every verse is important but (dare I say it?) there are some which are more important than others. What we’ve read today, the call of Abram, though short and to the point, it contains some of the most important words of all: Now the Lord said to Abram…
That might not seem like much, but it is not too strong of a statement to say that the entire structure of our faith hangs upon this foundation that we, at other times, call revelation. Now the Lord said to Abram… If this is something we believe to be true, then everything else falls into place accordingly.
Like most books, we learn to read the Bible in particular ways. Some of us learned this explicitly from a pastor or a Sunday school teacher, and others among us just picked it up along the way. There are a great many ways to read the Word and how we do it can make all the difference.
The two primary ways of coming to the text, of reading it and hearing it, are to do so anthropologically or theologically.
Now, before I lose all of you to the midmorning nap session that can come from using words like the ones I just did, bear with me. All they mean is that we can encounter the Bible as if its all about humanity (and largely only about humanity) or as if its all about God (and largely only about God).
How we read the Bible, and in particular this story near the beginning, is a big deal.
And it comes down to grammar.
Again, I recognize that I am tempting fate by dragging out such ideas this early on a Sunday morning, on Daylight Savings no less, but the grammar we use in the life of faith communicates more about who we are and whose we are than we recognize
God is the subject of the verb right here at the beginning of Genesis 12. That means we’re not the main characters of the story – God is.
The story of the Bible is, of course, the great tale of God with God’s people’s, but (more often than not) we read it as the story of who we are, and what we’re supposed to do, or not to, and the more we focus on ourselves the less we realize that God is the subject of the verb.
But we don’t like this.
Not one bit.
So time and time again we change the grammar. We do it whether we’re lay or clergy, we do it in the pulpit and in the classroom, and the results can be devastating.
I can vividly remember attending a college campus meeting of Christians shortly after moving away from home in which all of the faithful freshman were encouraged to gather together for a worship service in an auditorium. There was a band that played familiar songs, and we said familiar prayers, and this scripture from Genesis 12 was used by the speaker that night.
She went on and on about how Abram was faithful in traveling to where God sent him. She talked about how Abram is an example to all of us whenever we encounter something new and strange and different. She kept returning to this singular idea that no matter how difficult college life might feel like, all of us had to keep the faith, to stay the course, and to be like Abram as strangers in a strange land.
I know she meant well, and I know that she truly believed in what she was saying, the only problem is most of us were already nervous as it was, and now it felt ten times worse. She left us with this idea that our faith was being put to the test, and that only if we held fast to our moral convictions would we remain, as she put it, sheep of His flock.
It was all about us, and it had almost nothing to do with God.
We, whether we’re college freshman or not, are all functioning narcissists. We think the world revolves around us and we want to know how everything will affect us and we act as if the entirety of the cosmos is resting on our shoulders.
And that is exhausting.
For some reason, bad theology mostly, we think this whole story from Genesis 12 is going to be about Abram as if Abram has special powers or holy characteristics that make him worthy of God’s affections. There had to be something special about Abram that led to God choosing to bless the world through him.
But, the truth is, we don’t know anything about Abram at this point in the story. At least Noah was a good man when God told him to build the ark, but Abram’s got nothing. All we know from Genesis is that he is the son of Terrah, and his wife Sarai is barren.
And yet, those skim details are everything! They are everything because these two people carry nothing significant about them or within them. What happens from this point forward is about what God does in the lives of two people who had no potential for anything on their own.
God chooses nobodies to bless the world.
I don’t know how that makes you feel, but it brings me great comfort. For, if God could bless the world through two people who had no hope in the world, then maybe God can do something even through someone like me.
Or someone like you.
And, again, notice the grammar. God is the one who blesses the world through Abram and Sarai, not the other way around. God is the one who makes a way out of no way which, incidentally, is the entire story of the Bible.
God promises to do what is impossible for humankind, God calls into existence things that do not exist, God is the subject of the verb.
If it were all on us, if it were all up to us, we would fail. We can’t bless the world because we are far too concerned with blessing ourselves. We can’t fix the world because we are so fixated on our own problems. We can’t redeem the world because we are the ones who need redemption.
We can’t even keep our promises.
But God does.
That’s a pretty crazy thing to think about when you hear it for the first time or the thousandth time, it just also happens to be true.
Lenny Duncan is a pastor in Brooklyn, NY at a church that has rapidly grown under his leadership. He is a gifted speaker and is sought after across the country as someone who can speak the truth of the role of church in the 21st century. He wrote a book that I’m reading right now called Dear Church.
But the fact that Lenny became a pastor is a miracle.
It’s a miracle because he had a far greater chance of ending up in prison than behind a pulpit.
He’s a former drug dealer, sex worker, homeless queer teen, and a felon.
He tried church again and again and again when he was younger, and every time he did he left feeling worse than when he arrived. He was told, explicitly and implicitly that he was not enough, that he needed to correct his ways before coming to the Lord, and that he needed to take a good hard look in the mirror to find out if he was really worthy of Jesus’ love.
That only led to more of the same in his life.
Until one day, miraculously, he entered a church just like any other church, sitting in the first pew with a backward cap on, listening to people whisper about him under their breath, but this time he heard something different. Not a different sermon or a different prayer or a different hymn, but a different invitation.
An invitation that felt like an invasion.
“This is Jesus’ table; he made no restrictions, so come.”
There was no membership meeting, no checking of theology, no “friendly” talk with the pastor before he was invited to the table of grace. He was welcomed simply as he was, and that was revolutionary.
He describes the moment that he heard those words and walked up the center aisle like this:
“Tears welled up in my eyes as I walked forward… this welcome to the table was something I had never experienced before. I didn’t even know what it was. It awakened the shadow side of my relationship with God that I hadn’t had the courage to look under. It was like a knife that cut instantly through years of shame and brokenness and released me from those bonds. Grace is like a knife sometimes.”
That invasion of an invitation changed him forever. It changed him because instead of being invited to change or transform or get his life together, he was invited by a mighty God who works the changes that we couldn’t on our own.
Right then and there God called him to a new and strange and different life. Not because he had any of the prerequisites or the right schooling or the right amount of faith, but simply because God loves to make something of our nothing. Amen.
Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that it in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
This is where it all really starts, here back at the beginning. Sure, we’ve got the creation of the whole cosmos in the first seven days in Genesis 1, but this is where the story gets good.
It gets juicy.
The story of Adam and Eve is perhaps the greatest of stories, up until the advent of Jesus Christ. What we discover and find here in the garden is inexhaustible, it can never be fully mined, and it cannot be explained away. So much, if not all, of who we are is founded upon what happens to these two with their mid-afternoon fruit snack.
Today we re-enter the strange new world of the Bible and learn how the created order became utterly disordered.
The garden is called paradise and in these few verses paradise is lost. Of course, when we hear the word “paradise” we conjure up in our minds all sorts of images and ideas that don’t really have much to do with Eden. It’s not all crystal clear beaches and palm trees and drinks with ice that never fully melt away. It is paradise simply because it was a perfect communion between God and God’s creation.
Which, if we’re honest, doesn’t sound too much like paradise to us.
We can’t even fathom how communal the communion is because it just sounds wrong. And if it sounds wrong it does so because we don’t like the idea of being too intimately connected with anything, let alone God.
We know what we’re really like behind closed doors and in our internet search histories and in our knee-jerk reactions. We know how quick we are to judge and how untrusting we can be, and frankly we’d like to keep God out of all that, thank you very much.
Whatever paradise might have been for Adam and Eve, whatever the community called communion looked like, it definitely wasn’t like the world today.
Nations reeling from the threats of the Corona-virus and what it means for the so-called global community.
Children relying on free lunches at schools during the weeks because they don’t have any food to eat at home over the weekend.
Individuals seeking solace and comfort in the digital community because meeting people in the real world has become too difficult or too frightening.
But here we find our first parents in the paradise of God and there is only one rule. Can you imagine? You can do whatever you want! You are never in need of anything at all! There’s just one teeny tiny restriction. Think of the generosity of God here before the fall. God has opened up the entirely of everything for them with one little exception, and it’s not enough.
Imagine it like this: You’re a child, and you’re spending the afternoon at your grandmother’s house. The weather is perfect outside and she’s got this incredible playground for you to enjoy, there’s a pitcher of cold lemonade waiting for you on the porch and you can do anything you want! Except, your grandmother tell you, you can’t leave the yard.
Fair enough right?
Until the next door neighbor comes to the slats in the fence and calls out your name. “Hey look, I’ve got a few toys over here on my side, why don’t you come over here and play with me?”
There’s one rule – don’t eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil – Don’t leave the yard.
Enter the snake, the next door neighbor.
Did God really tell you not to eat from that one tree?
Did your grandmother really tell you not to come and play over here?
God wants you to be able to eat – just take a bite.
Your grandmother wants you to enjoy yourself, come and join me.
The seeds of doubt are planted.
You can’t help herself, and before you know it you’re playing in the sandbox on the other side of the fence, the fruit is dripping out of the corners of your mouth.
And Adam, your best friend, he doesn’t even put up a fight and just jumps right in with the fun.
And your eyes are opened. That’s the way scripture puts it. The effect of our first parents’ choice was instantaneous. They now know what they didn’t know. There’s no going back to what life was like before. They’ve had a taste of the other side of the fence.
What do they fell with all of this new knowledge? Are they puffed up and feeling invincible? Are they ready to take over the world?
They are afraid, they are ashamed, they are embarrassed. They see themselves as they had never seen themselves before, and they can’t stand the sight. They fashion some fig leaves together to make clothes, and they go hide in the bushes.
This is the root of all sin. It was then and still is now. We want to be God. We want to determine out own limits. We want to be in control of ourselves and others.
And whenever we catch a glimpse of our true selves in the mirror, when we recognize all that we want and can not and should not have, then we hide ourselves away in shame.
And that’s the end of the story. Or, at least, that’s where the scripture reading stops for today. But, of course, that’s not the end – it’s only the beginning. Everything is uphill from here on out – uphill because it never gets easier.
But perhaps never is too strong of word.
But lets not skip to the end too quickly.
In the garden they make their choice, they begin to see, and they decide the best course of action is to hide, from each other, from themselves, and from God.
Prior to their decision this fear and shame was inconceivable, but now they find themselves in the bushes.
And this, for better and much worse, is exactly who we are. We are stuck in the bushes for good, hiding in our own self-knowledge, hoping that God won’t find us and see us as we know ourselves to be.
This is truly where everything went wrong.
It is the division between all that is good, namely God, and all that is bad, namely us.
We are, whether we like to admit it or not, rebellious, disobedient, idolatrous, and selfish.
And it is precisely at this moment in the story, as we see Adam and Eve hiding, that we often let the story run off in the wrong direction. For, I hope you have noticed so far, that almost everything I have said in this sermon has been entirely about us – our choices, our mistakes, our futility.
It hasn’t really been about God.
This text, usually for the worse, has been used as a call to arms for those who would call themselves Christians in one of two ways.
One, we are told about how bad we are and how badly we need to feel about how bad we are. We leave church wallowing in self-pity and feeling even more exhausted than we did on the way in for all of our sins, past, present, and future.
Or, Two, we’re told all about how people outside the walls of the church are bad and how it is our job to go out there and fix them in all of their badness by bringing them in here so they too can start feeling bad about how bad they are.
And, sure, sometimes we do need to feel bad about our badness. Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? Of course not.
But, that’s not the whole story.
For as much as we might want to believe that its all up to us, or that the church exists to help broken people fix themselves, or that we have to go searching for God, or whatever else – that’s not the story of the Bible.
The story of the Bible is that God is the one who comes to be and dwell and find his lost, and broken, and even dead creation.
Notice, this is the first thing God does after the fateful choice of Adam and Eve. God doesn’t hurl down lightning bolts from the sky or send in a billowing tornado out of anger. No, God goes into the garden, and like a loving parent (or grandparent), kindly intones, “Adam, where are you?”
Adam, Even, and all the rest of us are lost. And for some strange reason, we keep willing ourselves to believe that we are the ones who have to find ourselves. We keep trying to get back to Eden as if we are capable of doing so.
We’ve done all sorts of crazy things all in the attempts at making this life more like whatever we think paradise should be.
We got rid of slavery only to instead have the highest rate of incarceration of any developed nation.
We tried to protect the freedom of the individual and instead we got greater wealth inequality than just about any other place on the planet.
We tried to produce advancements in medicine, and I just read that American life spans have shorten for the first time in decades due to the rise in the opioid epidemic.
Think about that for a moment – scores of people in this country would rather commit slow suicide than have to keep living with people like us.
Whenever we read this story from the beginning we forget that it is exactly that, a beginning. The rest of the Bible will be about how God refuses to abandon us even after we fail to listen again and again and again. God does not give up on his children even though they keep hopping the fence to go play with the forbidden toys. God keeps waiting on the porch with the lemonade.
And for a lot of scripture, that’s kind of the whole story. God on one side of the fence, and we his creatures hanging out on the other side. At times, God will toss over a little bit of manna, or a little bit of wisdom, to help make sense out of the chaos of our own making.
But then Jesus, God in the flesh, breaks down the whole fence, brings a new creation into existence. God, in Christ, rectifies the wrongs of Eden and opens up a new paradise for us, one even greater than what we had in that first garden.
And we, believe it or not, get a taste of the goodness of that promised garden right here and right now. This thing we call communion is both a foretaste of what is to come, and is also a call back to what we once had in the garden. This is what God offers us, even though we broke and break the rules, even though we chose to leave the paradise God gave to us.
For we, despite our attempts at self-righteousness and best intentions, are the kind of people who, one Friday afternoon when the sky went dark, as church and state were finally working together, democracy in action, happened to torture the Son of God to death on a cross.
And yet, with some of his final breaths he pronounces not damnation but instead invitation. The Son of man calls us by name, with open arms on the cross, and destroys the fence of our own making forever and ever. Amen.
The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elder he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Everything is politics.
Politics are everything.
I don’t know if it’s completely true, but I can remember a time when my family and I were able to watch the news at night and nothing about politics would come up. There were no brief shots of the Capitol building with soundbites of senators arguing with one another. There were no cutaway shots of political campaign rallies. And if there was a debate on television, it certainly wasn’t attended to in such a way as if people talked about it the next day like the Superbowl.
Whatever that time was, it’s long gone.
Now we can’t do anything, or watch anything, or read anything without the allure of politics taking center stage within the midst of our reality.
Politics are even seeping into the church!
So here I was in the middle of the week, racking my brain for something worth addressing in the sermon. I knew that it was Transfiguration Sunday, and that we’d be looking at Moses on the mountain in Exodus, and Jesus on the mountain in Matthew, and I was about to offer up a prayer to the Lord for a little bit of homiletical manna from heaven, when someone emailed me a YouTube clip in which two news reels had been edited together.
In the first, Rush Limbaugh, having just received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Donald Trump, said that America isn’t ready for a man to be president who kisses his husband so willingly on stage. He continues with some other homophobic remarks before moving on to address the other Democratic presidential candidates.
In the second clip, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the person Limbaugh was talking about, responds to the controversial comments by saying, “The idea of the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump lecturing anybody on family values – I mean, sorry but, one thing about my marriage is it’s never involved me having to send hush money to a porn star after cheating on my spouse. Let’s debate family values – I’m ready.”
Moses goes up on the mountain to receive a word from the Lord, to get the Law, and politicians debating the intricacies of moral law falls into my inbox.
God surely has a sense of humor.
Now, I’m not going to make this into whose righter or whose wronger, as if to comparing systems of morality would be at all helpful or even faithful. And yet, in both cases there is a clear understanding on the part of the speaker about rightness and wrongness, as if all of us should know the rules we are meant to follow and then we must follow them.
The only problem with that, is that none of us follow of the rules.
And that’s a truth far too inconvenient to handle.
Whenever we talk about right and wrong, which is just another way of talking about the Law, we do so at the expense of how Jesus and Paul actually talk about the Law. For, when we talk about the Law, we do so as if it is a bludgeon that we are privileged to use against those we deem unworthy. We hold over the heads of the transgressors and we tell them to get better or get out. The Law becomes our litmus test about who is good enough and who isn’t even close.
But according to Jesus and Paul, the most important part of the Law, in fact the purpose of the Law, isn’t to regulate our behavior… It’s to accuse us.
The Law shows us again and again and again that none of us, not even the best of us, have the kind of lives and moral histories that are enough to meet the righteousness of God.
Moses goes up on the mountain, gets a sunburn from getting too close to the divine, and comes back down with the stones tablets of what to do and what not to do.
The rest of the Old Testament is a story of the people called Israel who struggle to adhere to those very laws and, more often than not, they do the things they know they shouldn’t, and they avoid doing the things they know they should.
And if that were the end of the story, then our politicking and our moralizing and our finger-pointing would be fine. We could parade out the ledger books whenever someone took a step too far and we could hang them out to dry. We could saunter over to Fox News or NPR and give testimonies about who has done what such that some are torn down while others are built up.
But then Jesus shows up and ruins all of our fun.
The story from Matthew is eerily similar to the one in Exodus. A man is called to a mountain, he brings only a few companions, and it’s clear that whatever happens on the mountain changes everything.
For Moses it’s the giving of the Law, but for Jesus, it’s different.
Peter was there and Peter was like us. He loved the Lord, he volunteered for the Lord, he showed up when he was asked, and he found himself on the mountain path listening to the voice of the One who had called him out of whatever his life could’ve been. And as the light shines around and through and in Jesus, as Peter takes in the sight of Moses on his left and Elijah on his right, he must’ve been thinking about the Exodus story, he must’ve viewed his present through the past.
It’s no wonder he offers to build dwelling places on the mountaintop – that’s what the people called Israel were supposed to do.
But the mountaintop miracle is different this time. There will be no stone tablets, there will be no Law by which the people will discern who is right and who is wrong. Instead, there is only a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
And how does Peter respond to this remarkable Transfiguration? He is afraid.
Today we use the Law as a set of principles by which people like us can live good and perfect lives. Do this and don’t do that and in the end you’ll be good enough.
But none of us are good enough.
Jesus says before all of this mountaintop madness, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees you will not enter heaven.” No one’s righteousness exceeds the Pharisees!
Contrary to how we’ve been talking about it for so long, the Law isn’t about living the right way.
The purpose of the Law is what the Law does to us.
The Law is the means by which God brings us down to our knees.
The Law is the recognition that God is God and we are not.
The Law is what made Peter tremble on that mountain.
For, at its best, the Law compels us to see ourselves as we really are (no easy task); to see all of our wickedness and imperfection, and to wonder, “How could God love someone like me?”
That’s how Peter responded the first time he met the Lord on the boat, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinner.” Peter’s proximity to Jesus forced him to see things about himself he never would have seen otherwise, and it made him afraid.
He was afraid because he knew, just as some of us do, that the truth of who we are is no good. As St. Paul puts it in Romans, “None is righteous, no, not one.”
Jean Vanier was a Canadian Catholic theologian who founded what is called the L’Arche community in 1964. He was moved by the experiences of those with developmental disabilities who were often ostracized and sent away to live in institutions far away from everyone else. At first he invited two men with disabilities to come live with him in France. He believed that, as a Christian, he had a duty and responsibility to make these particular individuals feel loved and a part of a community. Their time together led to the establishment of a communal way of living where people with disabilities began living with the people who care for them, rather than being marginalized and put away.
Since then a network of over 150 intentional L’Arche communities have been founded in 38 different countries around the world.
Vanier wrote numerous books on his experiences, about the theology beyond the practices, and calls to others to learn how to live as intentionally.
Throughout his life, Vanier was regarded over and over again as a living saint. His patience with those who had experienced no patience at all was heralded as the paragon of virtue. Without his work, there is a serious chance that our understanding of those with developmental disabilities would be horrendous and not at all faithful, let alone kind.
Jean Vanier, at the age of 90, died last year in May.
Yesterday, the L’Arche organization published the results of an inquiry which investigated the claims about the early history of the community and Vanier’s role within it. The investigation was carried out by an independent agency and they determined that Vanier abused at least 6 non-disabled women during those early years under the auspices of spiritual guidance through which he manipulated them and they experienced long emotional and physical abuse.
Imagine your abuser being regarded by the rest of the world as a living saint.
None is righteous, no, not one.
That’s the point of the Law – on our own we can’t even fulfill a fraction of it. All that stuff that Moses brought down from the mountain, it is good only insofar as it shows us that we, all of us, are bad.
We’re all bad no matter how good we think we are and no matter how good we think other people are.
Because behind closed doors, when we think we’re alone, or that no one will ever find out – in the secrets thoughts of our hearts and minds – each and every one of us are more like Donald Trump and Pete Buttigieg and Rush Limbaugh and Jean Vanier than we are like Jesus Christ.
The Law exists to drive us to Jesus not as a teacher or as an example, but as someone who did something for us that we could not and would not do for ourselves.
Jesus is the only one who is fully obedient to the Law, the only one who can fulfill its demands, the only one whose righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees.
Jesus’s love and grace and mercy has overflown on to us so that we, not because we’ve earned it or deserve it, can stand before God justified by Jesus Christ.
When we come close to that grace, to the Gospel we call Good News, it brings us to our knees like it did Peter because we can’t make sense of it. If we are strong enough to look into the mirror of our souls we know that we’re no better than anyone else. And yet the cloud surrounds us anyway, the voice speaks to us anyway, and we are changed forever anyway.
The truth is we should be afraid. If our moral laundry were to hang out to dry for everyone to see it wouldn’t be good. If we were compelled to share our inner thoughts and regrettable choices, none of the people here would ever look at us the same.
And for some strange reason Jesus looks upon all of that and comes to find us on our knees and says, “I’m going to do what you cannot. Get up and don’t be afraid.” Amen.
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor. The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!” The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!
I just want to own, here at the very beginning of the sermon, that this is not going to be one that leaves any of us feeling very satisfied. Perhaps when I preached on the politics of the church you left feeling charged up about the state of the world and the church’s role within it. Or maybe you walked away from the message last week feeling emboldened about reaching out to those of differing religious opinions.
But today it will be different.
This is one of those times when, no matter how hard we might try, there is no “good” answer to our question. The lack of anything we might call “good” is due, in large part, to our insatiable desire for every puzzle piece to fit perfectly into the puzzles of our lives, but that’s not really how things work.
To the query of why bad things happen to good people there exists no simple formula or convenient explanation. It cannot be brushed away as a rational truism, nor can it be ignored as if it doesn’t really matter.
What we bring to the Lord today, the pondering we feel in our hearts and minds, is at the heart of one of Christianity’s greatest struggles.
Therefore, there is a better than good chance that we shall all leave today with more questions than answers.
And that’s okay.
After all, who can know the mind of God?
Australia is on fire. A simple search on Google, or surfing through the cable news channels will show us satellite images in which you can actually see the fires raging from space. Smoke from the coastal areas have traveled so far that people on the western coast of South America are able to smell it in the air. Dozens of people have died and countless homes have been lost. And it could go on for another month.
Just a few days ago Puerto Rico was rocked by a horrific earthquake. In the aftermath of the devastation, 2,000 people have been displaced and millions still don’t have electricity with fears of water and food shortages only getting worse.
One of these events is happening on the other side of the globe and the other is not too far from here, all things considered.
And what do they share with one another?
Total indiscriminate devastation. Dead bodies. Children left without parents and parents left without children. People were unprepared and no one knows when life will go back to normal, or even if it ever will.
The other thing they share? Pastors and Christians trying to make sense of how God could allow, or will, such horrible things to happen.
A pastor of a large church in Arizona is currently blaming the fiery flames of Australia on their laxity around homosexuality. He claims that if the nation would allow people like him to come in and preach, if they systematically murdered people who displayed homosexual tendencies, then they would be able to stop God’s judgment from coming down upon them and the fires would stop.
A group of angry Christians are blaming the earthquake in Puerto Rico on the island’s inability to be grateful for the support of the United States during other recent times of need. They claim that if the residents of Puerto Rico expressed their gratitude to the Lord for what has been done to help then God will stop sending elements of devastating destruction their way.
I could go on and on. Countless examples in the last few days have come up to explain exactly why such terrible things are happening. The two I mentioned are some of the worst, but there have been plenty others – those who claim God is trying to remind us of God’s power, or that is God testing us to see if we’ll remain faithful.
And here’s the kicker about these, and plenty of other, tragic occurrences in there world – the best thing Christians can do (other than offering signs of help and support) is to just be quiet. The unyielding desire to discern some greater meaning, or meaninglessness, behind it all, is cruel and presumptuous. Any time we, and by we I mean Christians, offer pious platitudes or trite words of comfort it only results in our soothing our own guilty consciences and making God into a terrible monster.
It is rather astounding when we consider how often Christians, in particular, are so quick to explain a catastrophe in ways that result in God seeming like one who delights in torturing his little creatures, like a kid hovering over an ant hill with a magnifying glass.
And yet the desire to use words in a time when words cease to have meaning, totally makes sense. Think about it – How can Christians, people like us look upon devastation and destruction so vast and indiscriminate and continue to believe in the workings of God behind the very fabric of nature? What kind of God sanctions an earthquake, or a flood, or a fire? Why does God strike with such terror upon certain people and not others?
These questions are asked, by us and others, as if Christians have never had to answer them over the last 2,000 years, as if no disciples has had to sort through the rubble after a house collapsed, or wrestled with a final diagnosis, or buried a child in the dirt.
There are moments, plenty of them near and far, when we probably ought not to speak at all.
But, of course, we must speak.
We must speak for the God we claim to worship is the very One who speaks creation into existence, whose divine Word is the beginning and the end, who declares that even now a new thing is happening.
It is therefore in our speaking that we learn first what not to say.
Claiming that God is up there (as if God is up somewhere) pulling the strings resulting in the randomness of nature’s horrid violence while also believing we can account, somehow, for every instance of suffering is simply impossible and unfaithful. It forces people like us to justify some pretty unjustifiable things.
There is no good reason a child is diagnosed with incurable cancer.
There is no good reason that a family is forced to seek refuge in another country.
There is no good reason that a hurricane devastates entire communities of people.
Equally problematic are the attempts at explaining suffering as a particular response to our own sinfulness. As if God is keeping some sort of ledger and whenever we, his creatures, get enough tallies in the sin department God has to punish us for our failure to be obedient.
These foolish and yet all too popular beliefs barely deserve our time and focus, but suffice it to say, God promised never to do such a thing to God’s people after the flood, and time and time again in the New Testament we are told that Jesus has already died for all of our sins, past, present, and future.
To make any assertion that the suffering of people in this life is specifically willed by God is a simply a denial of the Good News made manifest in Christ Jesus.
And here’s where it gets even more unsatisfying – The teachings of the church, revealed in the work and words of Jesus, boldly declare that suffering and death, in themselves, have no meaning or purpose. This is a difficult pill for us to swallow because we want to apply meaning to anything and everything.
For some reason we’ve made it out in our minds that everything happens for a reason. And perhaps that’s true, to some degree, but that’s not the same thing as believing that God specifically makes everything happen the way that it does. Some things are beyond meaning.
And, though it might pain us to admit it, this is some of the best news of all – for it frees us from the fear of living unworthy lives. It breaks us from the captivity of the never ending navel gazing that dominates our existence. It means death really isn’t the end. And that’s the best news of all.
Knowing this, knowing the cross and the empty tomb await Jesus in every part of his life, gives us a profound glimpse at how much of a rebel God really is. Rather than contentedly pulling the string behind every little instance, God grants freedom with reckless abandon to a bunch of creature that don’t quite know what to do with it.
Here is the crux of our dilemma – We have such an innate desire to explain all things, to find meaning behind all things, to have an answer to every single little problem that we fail to see that this hubris is what vexes us the most.
There are some things that simply have no explanation, and certainly not ones that provide us comfort. We are not comforted in whatever we receive because we believe that we are the masters of the universe when, in fact, the opposite is true – we are all at the whim of the universe, of the random and unexplainable events that have the power to tear us down to the floor.
But we are Christians, we have the challenge and the gift to see the world and all of its realities as if seeing two things at once. We look out at all the brokenness and the terror that defy explanation, and then we also see the overwhelming beauty of a world that allows for people even like us to live in it. To see it this way, two things at once, is to both mourn and rejoice in the same moments.
It is like holding the wonder of creation which also recognizing that we cannot live without death.
And death really is the key to all of this, to all of our questions and all of our fears, for Jesus subverts death and makes a way through death to new life.
This is not to deny the devastating power of death in this life, or to gloss over the suffering of individuals and communities across the globe. There are definitely things we could be doing right now that would greatly help those who are most in need. But as Christians we also bear witness to the cross, to a sign of death, which for us is also a sign of triumph.
God does not give in to the natural powers of this world, but instead shatters those very powers and forever vanquishes the empire of death’s dominion.
Or, to put it another way, Easter changes everything.
Easter, after all, is a sign of God’s rebellion against the cruelty of the world. Easter liberates us from fearing the thing we fear most. Easter boldly proclaims that not even death can have the final word – the final word belongs to God.
I said at the beginning of all of this that perhaps the best thing for Christians to do in the wake of suffering is to stay silent. And now, having gone through and said all that I’ve said, I wonder if I should’ve heeded my own advice. For no matter what we say, it never quite hits the mark we’re hoping for.
Think about it this way: Imagine in your minds someone you know, perhaps a friend or a coworker or even someone in your family and they’ve just gone through a terrible ordeal. Maybe a car accident has left someone dead, or their house burned to the ground, whatever. And then, as you go to this person for the first time on this side of the tragedy, your first inclination is to comfort them, or yourself, with talk of meaning. So you say something like, “Well, God must’ve wanted another little angel in heaven” or “God is trying to remind you to be grateful for the things you do have” or “Everything happens for a reason.”
Those words accomplish nothing.
Well, that’s not true. They do accomplish something: they make things worse.
If we believe it would be cruel and unfaithful to say such things in the moment when another person’s sorrow is the most real, then we ought never to say them at all.
God does not delight in our deaths, nor does God rejoice in our sorrow. God is not the secret architect of evil, and God does not rain down suffering as a test for his creation.
Instead, God is the conqueror of death, God weeps with us when we weep, and God will never ever abandon us.
Which ultimately leads us, here at the end, to thoughts about how we might faithfully respond to the unexplainable devastation that takes place in this world. Platitudes and trite aphorisms have to go; silence is preferable.
But if we cannot remain silent, then we would do well to follow the example of Jesus and rage against the injustice of this world, to lift up our clenched fists to the sky, and then get down in the ditch with those who need us the most. Amen.