Magnetic Atonement

Sermon for Sunday, March 25, 2018 || Palm/Passion B || Mark’s Passion

The mystery of just what the crucifixion of Jesus Christ accomplished is too grand for any single metaphor to capture. And that’s what theories of the crucifixion are. Every one is a metaphor, a description of something using the terminology of something else. From the earliest years after the crucifixion, Jesus’ followers sought to make sense of the event, but every explanation fell short of the whole truth. So they kept adding new metaphors to the mix. Taken together, we see a clearer picture of the length and breadth of God’s love and grace displayed in the Passion of Jesus Christ. Yet the entire picture eludes us, and will always do so.

St. Paul says, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly.” But that shouldn’t stop us from looking. And so, fully aware that this is one of myriad metaphors for what is happening on the cross, I’d like to you talk about what I call “Magnetic Atonement.” There are plenty of other names for this idea, but the “magnet” is my metaphor of choice today. Continue reading “Magnetic Atonement”

The Day of Preparation

Sermon for Good Friday, April 14, 2017 || The Passion according to John

The story of Jesus’ Passion, which I just read, overwhelms me. Truly. After reading it aloud, I feel like I’ve hiked a mountain. The beauty and grief of the Passion takes my breath away. Because the Passion overwhelms me, I find that when I sit down to write sermons about it, I must focus on a single moment in it: one detail that can help tell the story as a whole. They say the devil is in the details, but when it comes to the Gospel, the divine is in the details instead.

The detail that caught my eye this year comes at the very end of the narrative directly after Jesus bows his head and gives up his spirit. The detail is a simple marker of time: “Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity.” Continue reading “The Day of Preparation”

Who is this Jesus?

Sermon for Sunday, April 9, 2017 || Palm/Passion Sunday, Year A || Matthew 22:1-11; Matthew 26:36 – 27:56

As we move in our service from the humble triumph of Jesus’ festive entry into Jerusalem towards his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, there is one question on my mind. It is the question asked at the end of the Palm Sunday Gospel reading. “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’”

Who is this Jesus?

At the end of today’s service, we will read the Passion Gospel; that is, the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, suffering, and crucifixion. It is a story that is at once beautiful and heartbreaking, and I cannot read it without being moved. Indeed, it makes me tremble, tremble, tremble, as the old spiritual says. Today, as we hear this powerful story of our Lord’s unbreakable love for us and for all creation, I invite you to listen to how Matthew’s telling answers the question asked in today’s first Gospel story: “Who is this?” Continue reading “Who is this Jesus?”

Here is Your Son

Sermon for Good Friday, March 25, 2016 || John 19:25-27


HereisyoursonThe Passion narrative Stacey just read can be quite overwhelming. It is by far and away the longest reading we listen to all year, and there’s a lot going on. There’s Judas’s betrayal, Jesus’ arrest, Peter’s denial, the trial with the high priest, the interview with Pilate, the frenzy of the crowd, the crucifixion, and the last words from the cross. There’s so much going on, in fact, that we can easily lose sight of the overarching story of the Gospel when we find ourselves overloaded by this painful and heart-breaking narrative. So instead of talking about the entire Passion narrative, each year I like to focus on one little moment of it that speaks to the whole story. On this Good Friday, that moment happens between the soldiers gambling for Jesus’ clothes and Jesus drinking the sour wine.

“Meanwhile,” the Gospel tells us, “standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”

Have you ever noticed the beauty of this moment? Have you ever noticed how succinctly these three verses sum up Christ’s mission of reconciliation? I see in my mind’s eye these two people standing apart from each other. One weeps silently for his beloved friend, and his tears wash two clean lines on his dusty, grimy face. The other has no more tears; she has cried her eyes dry, and now she just stands there counting her son’s breaths, treasuring each one in case it’s his last. She always knew this day would come, but not like this. God, not like this.

A few other women comfort Jesus’ mother, but his beloved friend remains several paces away from them, perhaps not wanting to intrude on their stunned grief. He stands there alone, wondering how it all went wrong, wondering if he had been hoodwinked or if he had just gotten caught up in messianic hysteria. No, I believe. He doesn’t mean to, but he says the words out loud. Then he adds, I just don’t understand.

That’s when he looks up at Jesus, and his friend’s lips begin to move. He’s trying to speak, but he can’t catch his breath. After all, the cross kills by suffocation, not by loss of blood. With a monumental force of will, Jesus pulls himself up, using the nails for leverage. He sucks in a ragged breath and looks down first at his friend, then at his mother. His gaze connects them, and they stumble towards each other. With fleeting breath, Jesus manages to say, “Woman, here is your son.” His mother leans her head on his friend’s shoulder. Jesus inclines his head, “Here is your mother.” His friend wraps his arm around her and squeezes.

While dying on the cross, Jesus stitches together this new family. He creates a new relationship built on two people’s own relationships with him. Before Jesus redefined it, the cross was the ultimate symbol of domination and separation. The cross brutally demonstrated who was in charge and who was discarded, the human garbage of the empire. But even before the resurrection – even in this beautiful moment we are discussing here – Jesus is changing the meaning of those two planks of wood. No longer would they be the terrifying symbol of ruthless subjugation. Now the cross would be the symbol of the promise of eternal life, which is really the promise of eternal relationship with God.

By creating this new relationship between his mother and friend, Jesus reminds them and us that his mission is one of reconciling us to each other and all things back to God. Indeed, it’s no accident that the Gospel writer never names these two people. We know his mother’s name is Mary and tradition tells us that his beloved friend is John. But the Gospel steadfastly resists naming them as such, and does so for this purpose: So we can put ourselves in their place. So we can feel ourselves being called “beloved” by Christ. So we can feel in our relationships with Christ the unique closeness that a mother has for her child – the act of cherishing. And in feeling this intimacy with Christ, this belovedness, we might feel the call to create and engage in deep relationships with others, each one fostered by Christ’s love for all people.

This is the story of the Gospel: God came to us to bring us back into relationship with one another and with God. Good Friday marks the cliffhanger in that story, the moment when it all looks bleak. But even in this bleakest moment, even while struggling for breath on the cross, Jesus is still bringing people together, still performing miracles.

Art: Detail from “Christ on the Cross with Two Maries and St. John” by El Greco (1588)

Three Parades

Sermon for Sunday, March 20, 2016 || Palm/Passion Sunday C || Luke 19:28-40; Luke 23

ThreeParadesIn our lovely, little town of Mystic, today is a day of parades. There’s one this afternoon that will get all the press – the St. Patrick’s Day parade will attract throngs of green-clad people to Main Street to watch and revel at a charming small town spectacle. The Highland Pipe Band will set the tone as they march off from Mystic Seaport towards downtown. Hundreds of people on floats, in cars, and on foot will follow, not to mention the real reason to go to parades, which is the fire engines. They say everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, and the same extends to Mystic’s parade four days later.

In addition to our town’s parade, we here at St. Mark’s remember not one, but two more parades today. In the first parade, a baby donkey walks down the Mount of Olives towards Jerusalem. A man rides on its back, and people hail him as the “king who comes in the name of the Lord.” In the second parade, the same man staggers out of Jerusalem under the weight of the cross, and people deride him with mocking shouts: “If you really are the king, then save yourself.”

These two parades – separated by less than a week’s time in Luke’s Gospel – couldn’t look more different. In the first, Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem with “the whole multitude of the disciples” praising God. In the second, Jesus stumbles his way to the place called The Skull, whipped and beaten, too exhausted to carry his own cross the entire distance.

But if we take a deeper look at these two parades, we discover they aren’t as different as they appear on the surface. In both parades, Jesus subverts expectations. He could have ridden into Jerusalem on the back of many a more respectable beast, but he chose a baby donkey. Why? Well, for starters there was Zechariah’s prophecy to fulfill:

“…Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey…” (9:9)

But beyond prophetic fulfillment, Jesus chose this humble farm animal to show the incongruity inherent in people’s expectations of their king. They wanted a warrior. They got a healer.

Jesus’ walk to Golgatha continues this subverting of expectation. “Save yourself,” people jeer. “If you are who you say you are, then break out of here and dispatch these Roman soldiers as you go!” What they don’t realize, however, is that Jesus has no interest in saving himself. He wants to save them.

In both parades, a vulnerable Jesus turns his face towards danger and death instead of running the other way. He had been saying for the entire journey south that Jerusalem was where everything was going down. This was high noon, and Jesus purposefully left his six-shooter at home. He rides into the city weaponless, with his deputies cringing and looking for likely hiding places. He chooses this utter vulnerability because it illuminates his innocence, the fact that he is put to death for no just reason. The second parade, the one to The Skull, happens because he continues defenseless. Pontius Pilate is just looking for an excuse to release him, and surely Jesus could have provided one. But no. Jesus is staring down the power of death itself, and he’s not about to blink.

Indeed, in both parades, Jesus has a grander agenda than anyone realizes. He is a king, but of a realm so much bigger than any physical location. He is locked in battle, but his enemy is so much larger than an intransigent religious establishment or even the entirety of the Roman Empire. He is going to die, but new life that triumphs over death will be the ultimate conclusion. The Pharisees want him to quiet his disciples. But Jesus says: You’re setting your sights too small. “If they were silenced, the very stones themselves would shout out.” The thief on the cross just wants to be remembered. But Jesus says: You’re setting your sights too small. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

These two parades show the beauty and glory of Jesus for who he is: the messiah who fulfills God’s promises in unexpected ways; the healer-king who puts himself squarely between us and the power of death; the savior who yearns for us to stop setting our sights so small.

There was a fellow way back in the fifth century who did just that. Like his Savior, he set his sights big – like entire island big. He had been captured and taken to that island in his youth and he had been made a slave. After many years in servitude, he escaped and returned to his homeland. He might have expected to live out his days in comfort after the trials of his youth, but Jesus is in the business of upending expectations. What’s incredible and beautiful is that this man listened to Christ’s call, and went back to the place of his captivity. Just like his Savior, he turned his face towards danger and death, despite his vulnerability. And he enlightened an entire island with the Good News of Christ. His name was Patrick, and a parade in his honor happens at one o’clock today. Hmm. Maybe all three parades have more in common than I thought.

Art: Mashup of “Entry of the Christ into Jerusalem” by Jean-Leon Gemore (1897) and “Jesus Falling Beneath the Cross” by Gustave Dore

Too Close

Homily for Good Friday || April 18, 2014 || The Passion According to John

goodfriday2014‘When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.’

“It is finished.” The clock has run out. The game is over. The final whistle has blown. It is finished. The end. Jesus releases the last ragged gasp of hard-fought breath. His mother and his beloved friend look up in time to see his body sag. A moment ago his spent muscles had been holding him up, keeping him from suffocating, but now…the nails keep his body pinned in place, another victim of Rome’s desire to turn execution into demonstration.

Imagine yourself standing with his mother and friend. The horror of witnessing his torture has already cleared the contents of your stomach. You’ve retched multiple times since, but with only bile as a result. You bit back bile of a different sort when the soldiers divided his clothes between them. You wanted to let them have it, to excoriate them for their cold-hearted avarice, but they have swords and spears, and all you have is your ragged faith in a dying man. You hear his last words: “It is finished.” And in that moment, those are the only words in existence. Nothing he said before enters your mind – certainly nothing about rising again on the third day. In that moment, “It is finished,” are the final words anyone will ever speak. They truly are the end.

After all, how could they mean anything else? He said he was “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” But his way led him to this horrible destination. His words of truth were suffocated out of him. His life ended. As we dwell here at the foot of the cross on this Good Friday, we hear those words, we hear the finality in them. “It is finished.” Full stop.

If you touch him now, you know his body will be unnaturally cold. Death is too close.

Even though it’s midday, thick clouds blot out the sun. Darkness is too close.

As his breath fled him, any last bastion of hope fled you. Despair is too close.

Fear. Shame. Domination. All of them, too close.

And as the weight of all the powers of evil and separation come careening toward Golgotha, as they bear down on you, as they crush you like they crushed him, those three words mutate in your mind, become gangrenous. It is finished. We lost.

And yet. The faintest ember of hope glimmers beneath the ash of your extinguished fire.

What if? The sun is still there behind the clouds, still warming the earth with its light, whether or not you can see it.

And yet what if all of this was a trap? What if Jesus, unwilling to risk anyone else, offered himself as the bait? What if Jesus positioned himself high on that cross so the powers of death and darkness and despair and fear and shame and domination could get a good view of him? Could not resist such a juicy target. What if Jesus knew what he was doing all along? Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Was his sacrifice a way to draw his enemies out, to draw them to him, to nail them to the cross with him? If so, no wonder they’re too close. No wonder you feel the crushing weight of the powers of evil careening toward Golgotha.

The words kindle again within you. It is finished.

Could he?

Could he possibly have meant something else?

In those final moments, did he know his plan had worked? Could he feel death and darkness and all the rest scuttling around his cross? Inching closer? Triggering his trap?

It is finished. No. Not the end.

It is accomplished. It is completed. My work is fulfilled. No. Not the end. This is but the middle of the story.

*Art: Detail from “Crucifixion” by Nikolai Ge (1831-94)

Aaron’s story

Sermon for April 5, 2009 || Palm Sunday, Year B, RCL || Mark 11:1-11

Imagine with me the thoughts of a boy named Aaron whose family owns the donkey, which Jesus’ disciples borrow for his triumphant entry into Jerusalem.

They came up to our farm this morning — two of them — while I was doing my chores. I don’t like mucking out the stable, but Father says it builds character, whatever that means. Mother says when I turn twelve next year, I don’t have to do it anymore. Then mucking will be Benjamin’s job. He’s only eight. We live in Bethany, which is really close to Jerusalem, and Father does a lot of trading there and sometimes he takes me with him.

Anyways, these two strangers just walked right up to Stony – that’s what I call him because he’s gray and hard to move when he has a mind to stay put. They walked right up to him and started untying him. Well, I came out of the stable with my rake and started shaking it at them. And they backed off because they didn’t want to get splattered. I held the rake like a spear and said: “What are you doing with Stony?”

“The Lord needs Stony for a little while, son, but we’ll bring him back soon,” says the first one, and I say right back: “I’m not your son, and you can’t have Stony. He’s mine.”

Then I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up and Father was standing there. “Actually, he’s mine,” he says. I gave the strangers my best smirk, but then Father says: “And you may borrow the colt for as long as you need.” I threw the rake on the ground: “But, but Father…”

“No buts, Aaron.” And I knew he meant it because he said it in his deep voice. I watched the two men lead Stony away. When they were gone, Father looked down at me: “And don’t ever let me catch you mouthing off to strangers again. You know the story of Abraham and the three men.”

“Yes, Father.” Then he walked back to our house and when he was out of sight I hopped the fence and started following the two strangers. I decided it would be a good idea to keep an eye on Stony, just in case.

They led Stony a little ways toward Jerusalem and met up with a group of people. Then they threw their shirts onto Stony’s back like a saddle and one of the other men got on him. I’ve tried to jump on Stony a lot, but he never let’s me stay on. He jumps and bucks and shakes until I fall off. It’s not fair, ’cause Stony let this total stranger ride him.

I followed the group while they walked to the city. I made it into a game, running from rock to rock and trying to keep out of sight. I ran ahead and beat them to Jerusalem. There was a big crowd lining the road leading up to one of the gates. The people spread more clothes and even some tree branches on the road. They were all shouting and cheering and waving, like at a parade. I didn’t know what was so special about this stranger…except that he could ride Stony without falling off.

I tried to push my way through the crowd to get to the front so I could see better, but there were too many people. I walked all the way down the crowd looking for an opening, and when I got close to the gate, I saw another group of people. They weren’t shouting or cheering or waving. They were in a tight little group talking to each other. They sounded really mad. I heard one of them say, “Who does he think he is, a king?” Then they all laughed, but it didn’t sound like they thought it was very funny.

Then I remembered something I heard from my Rabbi last week. He said something about a king riding a colt like Stony. I crawled under the legs of the crowd and pushed my way through the gate into the city. I ran all the way to my Rabbi’s house, and when he let me in, I asked to see the scroll we were using last week — the prophet Zechariah. He still had it open on the table, but first he made me wash my hands and feet because I was mucking out the stable earlier. Then he helped me find the right place, and I read the lines over and over until I had them by heart: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations…”

If that’s right, then Stony is in good hands, I thought. I left my Rabbi’s, and when I got back to the gate, all the people were gone. The parade was over, and I was really hungry, so I walked home. When I got to the farm, Stony was tied back in his place. I tried to jump on him, but he shook me off. I guess only kings can ride Stony.

But what is that stranger king of? Why would a victorious king ride on a smelly donkey and not a chariot or a big warhorse? I guess it might be because the king is supposed to cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem. He wouldn’t ride one if he got rid of them all. The chariots and warhorses the Roman soldiers ride scare me. I’m short, and they wouldn’t even see me if I was in front of them.

But if he is king, then doesn’t he need chariots and soldiers to fight all the people who don’t want him to be king – like the Romans and those other people at the parade? Doesn’t he need the battle bow? How can he become king without fighting? How can he command peace to the nations? The Romans always say they bring us peace, but Father says it’s not really peace. Father says we are like prisoners…only without a jail. If the stranger who rode on Stony isn’t going to fight the Romans, how will he bring us peace?

Maybe he’ll bring peace by not fighting.