Saturday, April 19, 2014

Reflections on Easter - Matthew 28:1-10

Read the text here: Matthew 28:1-10

Resurrection – Surprised by Hope!
The title is partly borrowed from N.T. Wright’s incredible book “Surprised by Hope!”
Jesus was dead – completely dead!  No question about this.  The Romans had made sure of it before they removed Jesus from the cross and there were witnesses including some of the women and the disciple John to the reality of Jesus’ death.  Joseph of Arimathea also could have seen that Jesus was dead when he had him wrapped in burial clothes and placed in the tomb.  Everyone in the story knew this and this meant some kind of an ending for everyone.  For the Romans and the leaders of the Temple it meant the end of this troublemaker, this messianic pretender; the end of the one who challenged their power and authority and wealth and privilege.  Now these men whose priorities and way of life represent the power of death were free to continue as they had.  Jesus’ death is further confirmation that no one challenges the powers of death and gets away with it!  Power, wealth, position, violence, hate, fear – these are the powers which control the world.  And any and all challenges will be crushed!
This is also what the disciples believed.  The powers of death had won – Jesus was dead.  Jesus was not the Messiah and all hope was gone.  The only thing left to do was to run away and give in to the controlling powers of death.  What else was there to do?  The new way of being the world represented by Jesus had died on the cross – love, grace, forgiveness, peace, hope all lay shattered at the bottom of the cross. 
But on the 3rd day after these crushing and terrible events of crucifixion some odd news arrives.  The women had gone to the tomb but Jesus was not there.  His grave clothes were all that were left, except there was an angel who had announced that Jesus is raised from the dead!  Jesus is alive!  Impossible!  This is the reaction across the board – Impossible!  The disciples don’t believe it.  The leadership doesn’t believe it.  The testimony comes from women, who are unreliable and who ever heard tell of this before anyway.  Jesus had told them this would happen, but they didn’t believe him or they didn’t understand or they didn’t pay attention, after all they were all too busy planning the Messiah’s military take-over.  But here is the proclamation: Jesus is Risen!  What could this possibly mean?
Good question!  What does it mean that Jesus is raised?  What did it mean for the first disciples and what does resurrection mean for us?  First of all, it means that the powers of death are completely defeated.  That all of those things that the world thinks are important ultimately do not hold the power they think they hold.  That they are false gods, idols that are themselves shattered by the victory of love, of grace, of forgiveness, or peace and of hope.  That no matter how overwhelming the powers of death and darkness seem they have already been defeated.
Secondly, it means that we who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus; we who claim this story as our own now have a new calling and a task. A new way of life is now set out before us.  For the resurrection of Jesus is both and end and a beginning – it is the end of the power that death holds over us and the beginning of a new life in Christ; the beginning of a New Creation which is rooted in community and takes upon itself the task of proclaiming in word and deed the victorious power of life, of love and grace – of hope. 
This had life-changing implications for Jesus’ disciples in the story and it has life-changing implications for us who are Jesus’ disciples and followers today.  For we too struggle with the powers of death that want to deny and dismiss the resurrection as irrational or absurd.  And if that fails, then more insidiously, they tempt us to internalize and spiritualize the resurrection.  And this strategy is very successful.  Too many of us who claim to be followers of Christ see in the resurrection only a personal, spiritual message that pulls us farther and farther into ourselves.  So resurrection becomes about me and Jesus, or about me going to heaven, or about me finding myself, or about me enlisting the power of Jesus to become wealthy and successful, about me, me, me – see the pattern here.  This is no different from outright denial.  For like it or not, ultimately resurrection is about the community of believers of which I am an integral part, it is about God’s wonderful and beloved creation to which I have a responsibility.  So when it comes right down to it, the Gospel calls upon us to make two affirmations about resurrection:
1.     Resurrection means that the powers of death are defeated – completely!
2.     We have a calling and a task – which is to continue in the footsteps of Jesus.
This calling to ministry is for all the baptized – and it is to put all our efforts into the work of standing against the powers of death.  Specifically this means: to reach out to provide for those who are in need, to feed the hungry, to provide homes for the homeless, to see that those who need healthcare receive the care they need, to visit the lonely, to work for justice, to welcome those who are wandering, to reach out and embrace all people in Christ’s love, to work to care for this earth and to conserve the natural resources God has given to us, to oppose violence in all forms, to denounce those who would victimize the victims, to work for justice and to reflect God’s love and grace and acceptance and forgiveness; to stand for peace and to represent an abiding and always present hope.  For the powers of death have been defeated already and no matter how they rage and what power or prerogative they claim, Christ has already won the victory.
            Surprise!  Hope is alive; love is here; unconditional grace abounds; forgiveness is available to all and Peace is showered upon us.  Christ is Risen!  He is Risen indeed!

Friday, April 11, 2014

A Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday - April 2014

Read the Procession of Palms text here: Matthew 21:1-11
Read the Passion text here: Matthew 26:14-27:66

Who Is This and What Is Going On Here?
Pontius Pilate, Roman Prefect of Judea
This weekend we enter into the Passion of our Lord.  This is the most important week of the year for those who are disciples of Jesus.  For the love and commitment of God to the creation and to us, who are God’s beloved children, is put on display in ways that are both profound and overwhelming.  But at the same time it is a bit baffling because throughout his ministry and especially during the story of the passion what emerges as important, and essential for Jesus (and for God) is in direct conflict with those things that we humans have determined are essential and important for us.  This is starkly obvious when the events of the Passion and Jesus’ actions are compared and contrasted with those of various other characters in the story. 
So beginning on this weekend when we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem and we begin to make the shift to the Passion, and then continuing through our remembrances of the events of the Passion on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday we are going to focus on comparing Jesus’ attitudes, teachings and actions with the assumptions and actions of three primary characters in the story: Pontius Pilate (Palm Sunday) – the disciple Simon Peter (Maundy Thursday) – and the disciple Judas Iscariot (Good Friday).
Pontius Pilate – the Prefect or Governor of Judea.  Not a whole lot is known about who Pilate was before and after his term as Prefect for Judea.  But there are a few things that can be said.  It appears that Pilate was from the north of Italy, a descendent of a tribe that held out against Rome for sometime early in the period of Roman expansion.  Eventually however, they were conquered and integrated into Roman life.  In order to have had a successful aristocratic life (and Pilate was a Roman aristocrat, even if he was a 2nd level aristocrat) he would have needed two things: 1. A Classical education – which he undoubtedly received; and 2. A Patron – and there is every indication that he had the patronage of a notoriously powerful and important official who was close to Emperor Tiberius.  With these two things Pilate was able to secure an appointment as an officer in the army and certainly spent several years on various campaigns as he moved up the ranks.  Just from his actions in Judea it is obvious that Pilate was always more of a military officer than a diplomat.  He must have done well because then the Emperor himself appointed him to the post of Prefect of Judea.
The job of the Prefect was like being a sub-governor, he was under the authority of the Governor of Syria, but for the first 5 years of his appointment the Governor of Syria engaged in a conflict with the Emperor and was detained in Rome until that was resolved. So Pilate was on his own and he wasted no time letting people know who was in charge.  Now as Prefect, Pilate’s job was NOT to Romanize the population, it was really more pedestrian than that.  His job was three-fold: he was to collect taxes, to secure trades routes and to keep the peace.  And the last one there was probably the most challenging part of the job.  For no matter what he did the people of Judea hated him, and it appears that the feeling was mutual.  But as brutal as he could be he still was a remarkably calculating man, who carefully nurtured his relationship with the High Priest Joseph Caiaphas and allowed the Temple officials a fair amount of autonomy.  And Pilate had another challenge – he had to keep a tight reign on his own troops, the Roman Legions under his command.  These troops would have all been from outside of Judea and they way too often got out of control and did things that sparked trouble.  Pilate at times had to harshly punish his own troops to maintain order.  You might say that being the Prefect of Judea was like learning to walk a tight rope.
Which brings us to this day, the beginning of the week of Passover. And on this day the Governor would be making one of his few trips to Jerusalem.  Normally he lived in the coastal seaside resort city of Caesarea where he had a beautiful seaside residence.  Kind of like living on a beautiful resort on the Florida coast.  No wonder he hated coming to Jerusalem, not to mention that the city was also the center of anti-Roman hate and trouble.  Everything came together in Jerusalem.  And, no surprise, when he came he brought all of his legions.  He dare not travel alone or with only a small guard.  He would have entered into the city on that Sunday with the full strength of the Roman garrison from Caesarea.  All of the troops would have been mounted on horseback; with banners waving and standards held high; they would have put on a show of force.  For his part it is well known that Pilate preferred to dress in his military uniform, with full battle armor.  This tall and strong Roman official in the prime of his life would have been a formidable sight as he entered into Jerusalem mounted on his steed surrounded by his troops.  The armor of these troops would have glistened in the sunlight, the sound of the horses hoofs would have been deafening. I suspect there was little cheering, but people probably lined the streets, and looked out of the windows in silence and fear as they watched this show of force  For this entrance would have left no question about where the power lay and who was in charge: Pax Romana = The Peace of Rome = might makes right = Peace established by violence or the threat of violence. Do not cross us!
On the other side of the city another entrance was taking place at roughly the same time as the Governor’s entrance.  A Rabbi, a teacher from the Galilee had arrived and his followers and disciples had cut off some palm branches and were spreading their garments on the road encouraging the bewildered locals to join in the cheering and celebration.  Hosanna in the Highest they cried – Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.  The contrast with the other procession could not be greater – Jesus is mounted on a donkey, there is no armor or weapons, there is cheering and celebration at least from the group of Jesus’ disciples and followers in contrast to the fearful silence of the other.  But Jesus also brings the promise of peace: Shalom – perfect well-being – unity with God and within God’s human family brought together in love.  Peace, not through force or threat or violence – but through love and grace.
From there the events escalate and eventually these two world collide as Jesus is eventually early Friday morning brought before this Roman Governor.  Jesus – who’s name means God’s saves face to face with a man named Pilate, a name which mean one who is master of the lethal weapon the javelin; The power and strength of the Empire facing off against the powerlessness and weakness of the Kingdom of Heaven. Despite the efforts of many in the early centuries of the church to exonerate Pilate and make him into someone who has his hands tied and essentially is tricked into condemning Jesus, make no mistake Pilate was the power and he would not have balked at condemning yet another peasant rabble-rouser to crucifixion.  No matter how much the situation is set up by the Sanhedrin or how much Pilate might have been intrigued by this Rabbi Jesus (and the Gospels differ in their accounts of all of this) – make no mistake - the final word is with Pilate and he would not have waffled – this was after all, his job.  Indeed he had been there, done that many times before.
See these two men standing in that judgment hall eye to eye.  Pilate in his military uniform and Jesus who is almost stripped naked.  Pilate is the opposite of everything Jesus stands for: power, wealth, prestige and position were attained and maintained by Roman violence, and by the subjugation and humiliation of others.  Power was the primary value.  But not for Jesus – Jesus stood for love and grace – forgiveness – acceptance of all – peace – non-violence.  Pilate represented strength – power through strength; Jesus embodied weakness – perfect strength comes through weakness.  Jesus’s teachings would have been impossible for Pilate to comprehend, no wonder his famous question is remembered today: “What is truth?”
The truth as embodied by Jesus is no less perplexing to us today – for the truth of Jesus is found in the weakness of the cross.  For in the cross we see perfect and overwhelming love; in the cross we see complete unconditional forgiveness; in the cross we see Jesus’ arms stretched wide open to receive us – all of us - in love and grace; in the cross we are restored to unity with God and with each other; in the cross we have peace/shalom; in the cross is our calling to live lives which reflect this love and grace; to embrace weakness and non-violence; to give up the pursuit of power and status and wealth; to open our hearts and lives to all people!
In the cross is abundant life!
In the name of the Father, the Son+ and the Holy Spirit.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Reflections on the text - Lent 5A – John 11:1-45

Read the text here: John 11:1-45

Not What I was Expecting!
How often do we ask questions where we already know the answer we expect?  I think quite often.  Occasionally someone will call the house and ask if I would like to take a “non-partisan” poll.  Usually I say no, but occasionally I have agreed.  So then the questions start and within the first couple questions you can tell this is not a “non-partisan” poll.  The questions, in fact, are designed to elicit specific answers and there is no space for an alternative perspective.  I know what I want to hear – end of discussion!  It is perhaps one reason why I have no respect for the polls to which everyone on television and in politics is always referring.  But we do the same for faith issues too, don’t we?  How often have you asked a question expecting a certain answer?  How often have you asked a question with the express purpose of making a point? 
Throughout the season of Lent we have experienced this same phenomenon in the Gospel texts from John.  Lent II – Nicodemus visits Jesus to question him, but gets more than he bargains for – “How can these things be?”  he asks in frustration when Jesus is not giving him what he expects. Lent III – The Samaritan woman asks Jesus where God is to be found and consequently where true worship of God is to be conducted – in Jerusalem or Mt. Gerezim?  She knows what Jesus will say, after all he is a Judean!  Lent IV – The disciples point to a blind beggar and ask Jesus whose sin is the consequence for this poor man’s condition – the man’s or his parents? After all, that is what everyone understood – bad things happen for a reason, and that reason is someone is a sinner!  But in each of these instances Jesus does not give the expected answer.  In fact, Jesus turns the questions upside down and completely changes course.  “You must be born again!” Jesus tells Nicodemus.  “Neither in Jerusalem or on Mt. Gerezim, God is worshiped in Spirit and truth here and everywhere!” Jesus tells the Samaritan woman.  And not content to simply dismiss the disciple’s small-minded question Jesus shows his contempt for popular wisdom by actually reaching out and healing the blind man!   Talk about turning things upside down!
This brings us to Lent V – and the Raising of Lazarus.  Jesus gets the message that his friend Lazarus is ill but instead of leaving immediately he “tarries” and by the time he arrives in Bethany, Lazarus is not only dead, but already buried – 4 days ago!  And he is greeted Martha: “If you had been here my brother would not have died!”  This outburst is filled with anger and hurt, but Jesus responds by simply telling Martha that her brother will rise again.  Well, yes of course, way off in the future on the last day, right? She replies.  That is when we will all rise again, but it doesn’t really help this situation now!  And it is at this point that we get the twist from Jesus.  Martha, and we the readers, are assuming that Jesus is pointing Martha and Mary towards hope in the future resurrection, to a heavenly time way off in the distant future.  After all what else can we say at this point, right?  Lazarus is dead now, and there is nothing to be done.  But this is not what Jesus is saying: “I am the resurrection AND the life!” He says!  This is not an exclusively heaven-focused faith at all – there are implications NOW for life – for your life Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ life, and your life too – dear reader!
This is the challenge of this story: the Gospel is not only about a future, distant heaven; in fact, the Gospel is not primarily about going to heaven at all.  The Gospel is about living life in the Kingdom HERE and NOW in the midst of our everyday lives.  “…The promises of God we announce are not only about life eternal with God or even about God’s forgiveness at the last day. Rather, the Gospel should make a difference now, make things possible now, open up opportunities and options now, transform relationships now. The promises of God are present tense, not just future.
So then, what difference does the Gospel make in your lives here and now?  Death is not the last word – Jesus brings life: a full and complete life – eternal life that begins now.  So what difference does this make in your lives here and now?  For Lazarus it meant being restored to the community and his family; for Mary and Martha it meant having the relationship with their brother restored; for the others who witnessed this event it meant a restoration of relationship and a new calling!  Do you notice the theme of the restoration of relationship?  Yet again this is central to the proclamation of the Gospel.  The Gospel is about the restoration of relationship – with each other and with God.
But there is also a calling included in this text.  Jesus tells the community to unbind Lazarus and to let him go.  The community is called upon to participate in this action of God’s.  Restoring life and breath was God’s work through Jesus, but it would have been kind of a useless exercise if Lazarus had been left to languish in the cave swaddled in his linen shroud.  Other hands were needed to continue and complete the work. 
And those hands are ours.  Like the other stories we have heard this Lent this story comes back around and looks squarely at each of us demanding we consider this important question: what difference does it make?!?  What difference does it make in your life here and now that Jesus is not only the resurrection but also the life?  That Jesus has come so that we might have life and have it abundantly?  That we are called to make a difference, to open the tombs of those who are trapped in darkness; to unbind those who are tied up in the shrouds of hardship, poverty, hunger, loss, illness and so on; to free those who are imprisoned by addictions and obsessions and all kinds of other death inducing situations?  To what response is Jesus calling you?  What does you're here and now eternal and abundant life look like?