Flint-like
2009-03-31 by Stephen Schuette

I’m working at tying some “strands” together.  The suffering servant remains focused, is not thrown off by his present predicament.  He is centered in trust.  The “mind” of Christ, Paul seems to suggest, is not like our mind.  Our minds throw us off in countless ways with our thoughts always leading us astray long before we act.  But the mind of Christ, as with the servant in Isaiah, is centered on a purpose.

These connect with both the palm or passion narratives.  Since the entirety of the Gospel is reflected in each story you can’t help but see that the Jesus in the procession is a figure who is looking well beyond the moment, centered in a calling that is not about his own glorification.  The palm procession is a vignette out of a larger story that is moving forward.  He is the regal figure who empties himself – the royal with a different mind.

And in the passion verses there are distractions everywhere.  Two possible “side-trips” away from the main plot is suggested by a focus on either money (the jar of ointment) or power (the sword in the Garden).  No question, they are huge distractions.  But Jesus stays centered, focused, flint-like.

To be so centered, to have such a “mind,” to fulfill our calling, isn’t this what it means to follow Jesus?





Embracing Passion
2009-03-31 by Amy Butler

Well, if we’re going to go with passion this week, then (as usual) our biggest gift will probably also be our biggest challenge.  As I pointed out yesterday, the assigned lectionary text for passion is full of all kind of narrative options—it’s almost too much of a good thing.  The challenge presenting itself is how the preacher will acknowledge the richness, depth, and somber reflection running throughout the passion narrative while still giving the people something accessible enough to take with them.

Frankly, you’ve got me on how one might read all of that scripture in an appropriate liturgical flow, but I think the whole story has to be told somehow.  At this point, I probably would be looking to our very gifted church staff to help me structure a service that could lead us through the narrative with poetry, song, dramatic readings because, though we work hard to help our lay readers learn about projection and enunciation, I generally hold out very little hope for a riveted audience through 119 verses, if you know what I mean.

Preaching in this context, in my mind, would then highlight one narrative or pericope, and serve as another way of telling the story.  In my congregation we celebrate communion on the first Sunday of the month, so in addition to all the drama with or without palms and/or passion, we’re also setting the Lord’s Table. 

I don’t know how you hear the voice of God, but to me that timing is equivalent to God’s voice offering a really great sermon idea.  With all the chaos swirling around Jesus—with all the chaos swirling around us—perhaps we might pause to explore the intimate meal Jesus shared with those closest to him, diving into the text as an anchor point to help us hear all the rest of the passion story.  Here’s what I imagine I might say to my people:

Right in the middle of events that are heating up and spinning out of control, Mark gives us a quick peek into . . . the dynamics of a family dinner.  You know those, right?  They are the dinners where, from the outside the scene can easily be described objectively, like that famous Norman Rockwell painting of Thanksgiving dinner.  Everyone is leaning in over the table glancing happily at each other.  The mother is proudly bringing in the turkey with Dad gazing on happily, ready to carve.  It all looks so blissful, like a, well, like a Norman Rockwell painting.

We see the shiny outside and can objectively tell how many people are sitting at the table, if they look happy, how brown the turkey is.  But (and you know this) if you’re on the inside, if you’re IN THE KNOW, well, then, you have a good sense that what appears to be the case from the outside is really a situation with many more layers, fully known and understood only by those who are members of the family.

You wouldn’t know, for example, that Aunt Elizabeth has recently become a vegetarian and is furious that the family has decided to go ahead and serve turkey for Thanksgiving anyway . . . or that cousin Nancy and her boyfriend have just made an announcement that they’ll be getting married this summer (but he’s a loser and no one wants to say it out loud) . . . or that Mom forgot to buy cream of mushroom soup at the store this week and as a result the green bean casserole is kind of runny.  You would not know that your sister feels especially proud because she made the rolls from scratch or that everyone’s a little nervous about Mom’s new husband attending for the first time. 

All of that subtext is there, sometimes making dinner especially uncomfortable and sometimes making it particularly wonderful, but despite the subtext and layers of private understanding, everybody shows up to dinner because they are a family, and showing up to be with one another is what families do.

Yes, if we were looking at Norman Rockwell’s painting we wouldn’t know all of those things, and we don’t know all the subtleties of what was going on with Jesus and his disciples that night in the Upper Room.  We can read the text and make objective observations about foot washing and bread sharing, but we’re not really in the know.

The one thing we do have, though, is experience being part of a family.  Specifically tonight I don’t mean our Thanksgiving Dinner families but rather our faith families, our community right here.  This was what the group gathered that night was like . . . they had become a family because they found commonalities in their hopes and dreams, ideas and promises around which they could gather, promising opportunities with this man Jesus whom they wanted so desperately to follow.  They had found, as different as they each were, that following Jesus was something that healed each of them, gave them hope, that had become something so critical to who they were that they were going to show up for dinner no matter what.

And this was the thread that tied them together when they all brought to the table such radical differences, such disparate perspectives, such strong personalities, such promise and potential, such personal pain and failure.  Yes, the meal we read about tonight is a family occasion on which they all gathered around the table, eyes focused on Jesus and they believed, even if only in passing spurts, that their differences were incidental, that the subtext of their life together was secondary to the greater purpose for which they were gathered.

They probably didn’t know it at the time, of course . . . they didn’t know what was ahead of them that night and in the days to come . . . terror and fear, wrenching goodbyes and deep regrets.  They certainly didn’t know that 2000 years later we’d be gathered here, peering through time into their family dinner, trying to make sense of the events ahead of us.

See, we already know that Jesus and his disciples will finish their dinner and head out into the darkness to set into motion high drama, a story we can barely bare to hear, the story of humiliation and torture, betrayal and failure, pain and death.  We cringe in advance because, around OUR table, we know the inside scoop . . . we know what’s ahead for them.But we don’t know what’s ahead for us.  We know that Easter’s on its way, and for that we can breathe a little sigh of relief.  What we don’t know is what difference, if any, these next few days of darkness and pain, and then onto the promise, might mean for us . . . practically, in this 21st century, sitting around THIS table.So here’s where we start our own trip into the passion of Christ and its meaning for us.  We’ll share together in that meal we heard about this morning.  And as we do we’ll be very aware of the subtext around this family dinner table.  We’ll know the sadness of those among us feeling loss, the absences of some dear faces we’re accustomed to seeing around the table that are not here this year.  We might even feel some fear or anxiety about what the days, months, year ahead might hold for us.  Still, we gather to share this meal with each other despite our fear or our sorrow or even our misgivings, because that’s what families do.

And as we gather around this table we’ll feel discomfort.  We’ll glance up at each other and realize there are some people around this table we hardly know at all, because there are so many new faces here and our lives are so busy and we don’t always take the time we should to invest.  There are even some faces we’ll see that make us feel a little (or a lot) of dislike, impatience or annoyance.  (That happens in every family, you know.)  Still, we gather to share this meal with each other and to walk into the days ahead together because we are a family and that’s what families do.

When we come to this table, folks on the outside might not know, but we know, that times are hard and uncertain, exciting and promising right now.  The pace of change in this congregation seems to be accelerating; our neighborhood is changing; we’re growing fast and facing new challenges everyday.  How will we honor the past and plan for the future?  How can we take steps into what will be, all together, so that everyone feels honored and included as part of this family?  There’s anxiety about this because, even though we know that was ahead for Jesus and his disciples, we don’t know what’s ahead for us, and that’s scary.  But, we’ll gather around this table and share in this meal together because families live through joyful times and uncertain times, and they hold on for what’s ahead . . . that’s what families do.

Welcome to the table of Christ, the table that recalls that meals so many years ago, when the very first followers of Jesus set out into the adventure of trying to live a life following Jesus.  Come and gather around this table and bring all of the hope, pain, love, uncertainty, fear and anger that you carry.  We’ll serve each other and then we’ll head out into these next few days nourished by the knowledge that we’ve come to the table together and served one another a serving of grace and courage that will fortify us for what’s ahead.And we’ll go out from this place like the disciples did that night, not sure what’s ahead of us but certain that we want to be part of everything God is doing in our world.  Yes, today we begin a week of pain and suffering as we follow Jesus to the cross.  But today as we share in the meal we turn to leave to follow Jesus together, because we’re a family of faith . . . and that’s what families do. 





Passion or Palms? Both.
2009-03-31 by Paul Janssen

Over the past several years I've taken to the practice of offering two very brief meditations during the service.  One on palms, one on passion.  The service begins with Palm Sunday hoo-hah, but is a steady sort of decrescendo, ending with a passion hymn.  Yes, we have services on Thursday and Friday, and yes, they are rather "dark."  Too dark for some folks to stand.  So I have taken to viewing it as a pastoral necessity for the congregation I serve (not commenting on what may happen with other folks) that we MUST get some passion in on this Sunday.  Otherwise, we enable the "false Easter:" we deny death, rather than celebrating its ultimate defeat.  So, the service starts at fortefortissimo, and ends at piano (pianissimo is for Friday night). 



Passion or Palms? That is the Question
2009-03-30 by Amy Butler

I have a similar mental argument every November, when the inevitable conundrum arises: Thanksgiving or Christ the King?  This week we have the Spring version of that mental struggle as we approach the Sunday leading us into Holy Week and wonder: passion or palms?

The lectionary gives us two directions for Sunday, each a substantial scriptural exploration and each leading in different directions liturgically-speaking. 

While I suppose that no Sunday should ever really stand alone, this one especially does not, because whatever we do in worship this week sets the tone for the week ahead.

My mother always told me that when you face a hard decision in life it’s best to make a list of pros and cons, so after reading assigned passages for this year, the debate begins. 

  • On the one hand, if you use the word “passion” in your publicity for Sunday, you might get a few more interested visitors.  On the other hand, those who know what “passion” posted on a church sign means might steer clear, wanting just one more reprieve before Holy Week starts.
  • This year the text for passion is Mark 14:1-15:47, which, after a quick scan reveals the following narrative-rich options: anointing of Jesus with costly ointment; Judas’ visit to the High Priests; Jesus’ directions for Passover dinner; Jesus sharing bread and wine and those famous words of institution with his disciples; disciples sleeping in Gethsemane right after promising they would never *gasp* let him down; Judas’ kiss; the naked man running around; inquisition by the High Priests; public torture; Peter’s betrayal in the Temple court; Jesus’ interrogation by Pilate; release of Barabbas; more torture; the trip to Golgotha and Simon carrying Jesus’ cross; crucifixion; the women at the cross; Joseph of Arimathea and the tomb.  Whew.  On the other hand . . . that’s a lot of material to speed through in one sermon, not to mention the liturgical struggle of reading that whole passage in worship.  Mark’s treatment of the triumphal entry, while not as exciting at Matthew’s, still provides plenty of narrative material to explore.
  • Passion this Sunday could provide a somber and fitting start to Holy Week, particularly if you serve a parish that does not, for whatever reason, have much going on in terms of worship during Holy Week.  Your people may be looking to you to help them remember the details of the passion as they consider how Holy Week might be meaningful spiritual practice in their own lives this year.  On the other hand . . . what would happen if we did not wave palms and sing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor”?  Would the world come to an end?  In some congregations I know the answer to this question would be a resounding YES!  Change is hard and sometimes we have to lead it, but is changing up Palm Sunday really your burning conviction about the change your congregation must embrace?  Me?  I am thinking this year I might stick with trying to get new candles for the altar table . . . .
  • But the kids look so cute waving their palm branches and singing “Hosanna”!  If we go with the palms then we have a perfect liturgical expression involving children.  Without any complaints, they can parade around the worship space with excitement, no one hushing them, assuming an important role in helping worshippers imagine what it must have felt like that day that Jesus came into Jerusalem.  It’s a great intergenerational worship experience, and no one complains because IT’S IN THE BIBLE.  On the other hand . . . it’s hard to control kids with palms.  Liturgically speaking the service needs to be planned pretty tightly otherwise there’s too much potential for the gentle waving of palms to morph into an adult-endorsed opportunity to hit my neighbor over the head with a branch when I get bored.
  • But if we choose passion we should remember that most of us have somber services coming up all week long.  At my church we’re worshipping Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights, all three services subdued and rather dark.  Do we really need to do that on the Sunday before Easter, too?  On the other hand . . . our celebration of Palm Sunday can very easily slip from what was, really, a protest march into, as Fred Craddock says, a “false Easter.”  It’s much too easy to look at those cute little ones waving palm branches and forget that we’re not actually celebrating yet; that, in fact, there is a whole lot of suffering ahead of us.  Preaching the passion this week might help us set our minds toward the cross and be sure we do the hard work of Holy Week before we get to Easter.

So, what's it going to be: passion or palms?  Chime in with your pros and cons.





Our guest preaching blogger this week is
2009-03-29 by David Howell

Amy Butler who has been Senior Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington DC since 2003. She attended Baylor University and the International Baptist Theological Seminary, and will graduate with a Doctor of Ministry in Preaching from Wesley Theological Seminary in May. Amy is passionate about the cultivation of Gospel community; she enjoys reading, traveling, and writing. You can catch up with her latest adventures on her blog: www.talkwiththepreacher.com.




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