Our readings today are pretty intense. We started with Job, an ancient morality tale that begins with an imaginative, and pretty distressing, exchange between God and Satan. But I’m not going to talk about that today. We read Jesus’ teaching about divorce and fidelity in the Gospel according to Mark. I’m also not going to talk about that today, but if you’re curious, I did preach about this Gospel lesson six years ago, and you can find it here on my website.
And finally, we have a few pieces from the Letter to the Hebrews, which, for my money, is the most complicated writing in the entire New Testament. This is what I’m going to talk about today. We’ll be hearing snippets of Hebrews for the next six weeks, and I know this writing is hard enough to understand after reading it a dozen times. Hearing it read aloud once just won’t cut it if we want to encounter the Letter to the Hebrews in any way beyond just letting its words sail over our heads. So today I’d like to set the Letter to the Hebrews in context and then dive into one of the elements in our confusing reading from this morning.
Today we begin our journey through Holy Week. We walk with Jesus as he enters triumphantly yet humbly into Jerusalem, as he eats a final meal with his friends and washes their feet, as he prays in the garden, as he is betrayed, arrested, and convicted, as he suffers on the cross and dies, as his body is laid in the tomb, as he rises again on the third day. We call the story of Jesus’ final days his Passion – that’s passion in both senses of the word: passion as his all-consuming love for sinners like you and me, and passion as an act of suffering, his pathos.
“You are the light of the world.” Just let that sink in for a moment. It’s an astounding claim that Jesus makes. “Let your light shine before others,” he says, “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Let your light shine. We remember so many of the commandments Jesus gave us: Love God with all your heart, love your neighbor as yourself, love one another as I have loved you, go into all the world and preach the Gospel. And here is another commandment of Jesus hidden in the midst of the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount. Let your light shine before others.
Sermon for Friday, March 30, 2018 || Good Friday || Passion According to John
Way back in Chapter Four of the Gospel According to John, we hear Jesus use a particular phrase for the first time. The phrase is special for it links Jesus’ identity to the divine identity of God. This one little phrase is just two words long, with only three letters among them. The phrase is “I Am.” In Chapter Four, Jesus says these special words to the Samaritan woman at the well. They’ve had a long talk about living water and where to worship, and their conversation ends with Jesus revealing to her his divine identity, saying, “I Am.”
These two little words reveal his divine identity because of their link to a famous passage in the book of Exodus, in which Moses meets God in the burning bush. God gives Moses the mission to free the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. To gain some credibility, Moses asks to know God’s name. “I Am Who I Am,” says God. Jesus echoes this name many, many times in the Gospel of John, beginning first with the Samaritan woman.Continue reading “I Am. I Am Not.”→
On the Wednesday of Holy Week, for the seventh year in a row, I have had the pleasure of presenting the Way of the Cross along with several teens from my churches. The teens present each station as a stationary tableau, each full of potential energy, but each remaining still. It’s quite a moving service, and the teens always do an amazing job. To accompany their presentation, I wrote a series of musical stations, which I present below in a slightly compact form.
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”→
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”→
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?”→
Imagine with me the thoughts of the Pharisee Nicodemus on his way home from helping Joseph of Arimathea bury the body of Jesus. Nicodemus appears at the end of the Passion Gospel reading, as well as two other places in the Gospel according to John, both of which are referenced in what follows.
Two years ago, I knocked on a door. I waited until nighttime and wrapped myself in a traveling cloak with a deep hood so no one would recognize me. Was I afraid to be seen with Jesus, who my colleagues branded as a dangerous radical? Yes, but fear was not the main reason for my caution. I was ashamed. I was ashamed to admit that I didn’t have all the answers, ashamed that someone else’s words could make me feel so infantile, like a newborn baby. So I hid myself in darkness, not to protect against prying eyes, but to conceal me from myself. I hid from myself. I hid from the version of me that Jesus was beckoning to emerge from some long forgotten exile.
I used to relish my position on the council, my authority as an arbiter. I took pleasure in the blank looks of acceptance on the faces of my litigants. They invested me with the power to judge, and I failed to notice when that power mutated into self-assured complacency. Predictability became my idol. There was never a new problem to be solved, never something I couldn’t explain or interpret or analyze. Over the years, I forgot how to ask questions because I was always the person with the answers.
Until that night. Until my vestigial curiosity awoke that night. When I first opened my mouth, my council voice came out, and I made a grand statement about knowing who comes from God. I could tell immediately that Jesus was not one to be cowed by my position or impressed by my stature. “I tell you the truth,” he said, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
I didn’t know what to say. I remember opening and closing my mouth several times. I remember Jesus smiling at me – patient, eager. Then my breath forced an “H” sound from my throat, and I was surprised when the word “how” came to my lips. I was asking a question. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” The floodgates opened, and for the rest of the conversation, all I did was ask questions: “Can one enter into the mother’s womb a second time and be born? How can these things be?”
Ever since that night, I have heard his words carried on the wind. Since the wind blows where it chooses, my idolatrous reliance on predictability has vanished. Since I don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes, my fantasy that I have all the answers has disappeared, as well. On my way to see Jesus, I was hiding from a new version of me. But everyday, I felt Jesus’ words drawing that new version out of me.
Last year, I reminded my colleagues to obey their own rules. No one on the council had discovered my secret meeting with Jesus, so my position was safe. The two versions of me occupied the same body, and, at that time, the familiar one dominated still. But I had begun to question and look past the veneer of institutional banality.
Jesus had shown up at the festival of booths and caused quite a stir. The chief priests had sent the temple police to arrest him, but they came back empty handed saying: “Never has anyone spoken like this!” I suppressed a smile. He escaped again. The rest of the Pharisees were outraged. One of them shouted: “Surely you have not been deceived, too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him?”
A small voice inside me murmured: “I do.” Then a louder voice: “Careful. Careful.” When I spoke, I tried to defend Jesus without giving myself away. “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” But they were implacable. That’s when I noticed something I would never have seen had Jesus not awakened my curiosity. These colleagues of mine, the keepers of tradition, the self-proclaimed protectors of the Law, were breaking their own rules. I could no longer be party to such bankrupt ideals and blind action. That day, the small voice grew louder, the voice attached to the new version of me.
Today, I buried my Lord. Two years ago, I went to see him at night to cloak my own shame. But today, the sun shines down, unaware that its brightness mocks the darkness in my soul. The sun shines down, and I walk out under its beams so the world can see where my allegiance lies. When first we met, Jesus said to me, “Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” It took two years, but here I am. Here I am in the light.
See, all you who pass by: I am one of his. I am not the person you knew. I am a new version of me, the version Jesus called out of me. See, all you who pass by: I am not ashamed any more. I feel the wind on my face, and I know his words are true. See, all you who pass by: is there any sorrow like my sorrow. My Lord is dead. It took his death for the old version of me to die. But will my new version survive with him gone? Will I have another chance to walk in the light? Has the darkness won? When will the light return?
Sermon for March 29, 2015 || The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday Year B || Mark 14:32 – 15:47
Usually the sermon follows the reading of the Gospel, but on this particular day – The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday – I prefer to preach first in order to help us orient ourselves towards the lengthy and powerful story we are about to hear. And because I think anything I would add after reading the Passion Gospel would serve only to lessen its impact. Also, this sermon will be unusually short since today’s service has a lot of extra parts, and so I’m going to limit myself to talking about two words. Only two words out of the 1,837 that make up today’s Passion Gospel. Those two words are: “Crucify him.” Those are your words. Three of us will be standing up here reading the rest of the characters, but you have a part to play, as well. Yours is the part of the crowd. Your part has one line, spoke twice. “Crucify him.”
I know many people who are so uncomfortable about saying this that they decline to join in, and I respect that. But I also think it invites further examination. When we shout, “Crucify him,” we place ourselves amongst Jesus’ opponents. We are given this opportunity – within the context of the liturgy – to join the crowd clamoring for Jesus’ death. This serves two purposes.
First, it serves as a corrective measure against the millennia old fallacy that “the Jews killed Jesus.” This mistaken outlook has led to ferocious atrocities perpetuated against Jews by Christians over the course of history, and it is unconscionable. That this malicious viewpoint still exists today among some Christians shows the worst side our religion is capable of. The Jews only killed Jesus in so far as everyone in the story besides Pilate and his soldiers is Jewish – including Jesus. Jesus was not the first Christian, and it was a couple generations before Jewish followers of Jesus stopped identifying themselves as Jewish. By putting ourselves in the group that shouts, “Crucify him,” we acknowledge that we, too, are part of the legacy of those people swept up in the bloodlust of the chief instigators of Jesus’ arrest. And by standing in that group, we liturgically atone for the sins of past Christians who persecuted Jewish people for “killing Jesus.”
The second purpose is this: by shouting, “Crucify him,” we give voice – if only for a moment – to the worst pieces of ourselves that want to have nothing to do with Jesus. If they wanted something to do with him, they wouldn’t be our worst pieces. Each of us has within us – hidden or not so hidden – these worst pieces. Pride. Envy. Hypocrisy. The desire to dominate. Separate. Isolate. And our fate hangs on our ability to recognize these shadowy pieces. To acknowledge them. To allow voice to the worst of what makes us, us. And once we’ve acknowledged them, we can confront them. Jesus is on his way to the cross, where he confronts the worst of the worst of the human condition. When we shout those two painful, horrible words – “Crucify him!” – the worst of the worst bubbles to the surface. And once on the surface, we can skim it off, like a layer of fat from a broth. With the fat skimmed off, we give it to Jesus. Jesus takes it to the cross. And there it is nailed with him. And there it dies with him.
I hope you will speak those two words today, despite how painful they are to voice aloud. Saying, “Crucify him,” is another way we make our confession. It is another way we acknowledge that sometimes we stand on the wrong side. And it is another way for us to realize the depths of love Christ has for us. Even though we ignore him and deny him and abandon him and crucify him, he does not stop loving us back into right relationship with God. He does not stop sweeping away the worst of our pieces and reconstructing us only using the good parts. So today, when you say those two painful words, “Crucify him,” remember that you have already been forgiven. And remember that next week, you’ll have the opportunity to replace these two ugly, horrible words with shouts of joy.