I Am. I Am Not.

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.”

The Way of the Cross

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.

I hope they bless your Holy Week observation as much as singing them blesses mine. Continue reading “The Way of the Cross”

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?”

The New Version of Me

A Good Friday Meditation; John 19:31-42


2015goodfriImagine 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?

Updated from a piece I wrote for Good Friday, 2009.
Art: Detail from The Descent from the Cross by Rembrandt, 1634

Two Horrible Words

Sermon for March 29, 2015 || The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday Year B || Mark 14:32 – 15:47

twohorriblewordsUsually 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.

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)

The Unfair Fight

(Sermon for Sunday, April 1, 2012 || Palm Sunday Year B || Mark 11:1-11; Philippians 2:5-11 (NOTE: At my church, we read the Passion Gospel at the end of the service, so this sermon moves from Palms to Passion.))

I’ve always been struck by the incongruity of the scene. A crowd lines the dusty road leading up to the gate of Jerusalem. They are there to see a parade, but the spectacle is just a fellow riding a baby donkey. People spread their cloaks on the ground as a sign of respect. But Jesus isn’t stepping on the cloaks: the donkey is.

The crowd shouts aloud, “Hosanna! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” Now when David entered Jerusalem, he did so at the front of a grand procession – “all the house of Israel,” II Samuel tells us. They were carrying the Ark of the Covenant. There were shouts and the sound of the trumpet and the sacrifice of an ox and a fatling. And “David danced before the Lord with all his might.” David had just defeated the Philistines and his dynasty was assured. His triumphant march into the city was a victory march.

But when Jesus rides to Jerusalem, he rides alone. No army. No conquering legions. The people in the crowd shout for the return of the kingdom of David, but all they see is a lone man atop a baby donkey. As I said, I’ve always been struck by the incongruity of this scene.

Sensing something to be incongruous – to be out-of-place – means that there are expectations that are not being met. If you go to a job interview at State Street in a t-shirt and jeans, there’s a better than average chance that the interviewer will take one look at you and send you home. The interviewer has the expectation that you will enter the room in your best suit, and the incongruity of your casual clothes will trigger discomfort and then disapproval in the interviewer. But say that you wear your t-shirt and jeans to the park to throw a Frisbee with the guys. No incongruity there. The expectations match the scenario.

When Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the back of the baby donkey, he is actively challenging the expectations of the crowd that is shouting “Hosannas.” They praise him while he rides in humility. They celebrate his arrival in the capital city while he knows the outcome of his arrival will be bloody. They show him the respect due to royalty. And all the while Jesus is boldly defying the people who have no respect for him, the chief priests and their lackeys, who have until now hoped he would keep a lower profile.

And in the greatest incongruity of all, the crowd shouts for the return of David’s kingdom; that is, a kingdom marked by a sovereign Israel, an Israel with no Roman occupiers. But Jesus frustrates this expectation, as well. In this case, the crowd is thinking too small. They have only their own country on their minds. But Jesus isn’t concerned with the Romans. They’re small potatoes. When Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the back of that baby donkey, he sets in motion events that will drive out, not the Romans, but the power of death, the grip of evil, all the forces of darkness. No wonder no one was expecting that.

Jesus hovers above the crowd, sitting atop the donkey as the beast shambles ahead. He remains above the crowd not for the glory of the exalted position, but in order that the powers of death, evil, and darkness might get a clear view of their target. And in seeing this small, humble human being, those powers underestimate their foe.

The powers of darkness do not realize that this Jesus riding on the donkey is someone they’ve met before, albeit in a more glorious form. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul tells us why the powers don’t recognize Jesus. Paul says, “Though [Christ] was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross.”

The powers of darkness have their expectations too. The incongruity of Christ’s humanity throws them. They have no idea who they’re dealing with because Jesus acts in ways they never expect. While the powers of darkness would always seek to exploit, Christ empties. While they would always seek self-aggrandizement, Christ humbles. While they would always seek to get their own way, Christ becomes obedient to the point of death.

How could the powers of darkness possibly think they could win if they completely underestimate their opponent? And all the while, Christ is here on earth, learning all about the darkness, participating in the brokenness of people’s lives, bringing wholeness, bringing hope, bringing light.

And yet, the darkness sees the little man on the back of the baby donkey and wishes for a more impressive opponent, if only so the fight would be more interesting. But what the darkness fails to realize is that this is the most unfair fight of all time.

The powers of darkness bring all of their standard weapons to the ring: fear, mistrust, the desire to dominate. They expect Jesus to bring the same. But Jesus brings no weapons at all. Instead, he brings the willingness to sacrifice. He brings the love that gives him the courage to lay down his life. He brings the peace that passes all understanding.

They are David and Goliath, and David left his sling at home. Normal expectations would ask how Jesus could possibly win this fight. But we know the incongruity of God’s love. We know that God loves us even though we don’t deserve such an amazing gift. We know that God loves this broken, messed-up world so much that God sent God’s only Son to save the world. We know that God rejoices in letting us in on the secret that our expectations are always too small. God let slip this secret when the women went to the tomb on Easter morning.

But we’ll get there with them next week. First, the powers of darkness marshal. First, Jesus rides humbly into the teeth of the storm. First, the battle.

The new version of me

(A Meditation for Good Friday; April 10, 2009 || John 19:31-42)

Imagine with me the thoughts of the Pharisee Nicodemus on his way home from helping Joseph of Arimathea bury the body of Jesus.

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 from 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 my old version 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? Will the light return?