Income Tax, Philippians 2:5-11, and Passion Sunday
2011-04-11 by David von Schlichten

We have to pay those pesty taxes to help support the programs and people who keep our nation going. That is, part of living in a community is paying taxes to help run that community.

Through his kenosis (Philippians 2:7), Jesus pays the highest tax of all. King Christ empties himself that we might be filled.

In response to this donkey-riding, cross-carrying, self-emptying king's sacrifice that pays for our salvation, what do we pay to show our gratitude, to show that we are citizens of the kingdom of God?

Foot-washing is a good start.

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator

Free Sample from
2011-04-10 by David Howell

Preaching Matthew 26:14–27:66

by Anna Carter Florence

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat: this is my body."

It was the best gift anyone has ever given. It was also a brilliant idea, considering that human beings are programmed to be (1) forgetful, and (2) hungry.

Jesus knew us. He knew how our bodies and our minds work. He knew that our bodies, for example, need food, every day. Food gives us energy and life. Lack of it stunts growth and cripples us. Forget to eat, and the body goes into shutdown mode, until we die. So the signal that we are running low on food is hunger; it is the body’s way of telling us that we need to eat again. Once we do, our bodies are sated and the hunger disappears—until the next time the food energy runs low. That is the cycle, and it is not optional: when we need food, our bodies are programmed to be hungry.

There are other kinds of nourishment human beings need in order to live, too. The nourishment of love, for instance. Or kindness. Or joy. Or peace. Jesus knew this, too. He knew that you can starve a person with lack of gentleness just as surely as you can starve her with lack of food—which is probably why we refer to many of these necessities as "fruits of the Spirit," since our souls, our spirits, literally die without them. The problem is that some of these hunger pangs are trickier to recognize; we may not always know how dangerously malnourished we are. But, when you start to feel like nothing you do is right; when you begin to think of yourself as broken and not worth fixing; when you find yourself asking, "Who would ever want to be friends with me?"…you aren’t crazy. You’re hungry. You aren’t weak. You’re hungry. And there is nothing for it except to stop and eat, because the hunger is playing tricks on you.

What kind of food? This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood, poured out for you. Stop, tear off a piece of broken bread, and remember what you have forgotten, in your hunger: I gave my life so that you could have life. There is nothing on heaven or earth that can separate you from the love of God.

Jesus knew that we are programmed to run out of food, spiritual or otherwise. And here’s the brilliance of his idea: okay, maybe we won’t admit we’re starving for love, but our bodies won’t let us be hungry forever! Sooner or later, we’re going to have to eat. Pick up a piece of that bread, pass it to the next person . . . and the sacrament takes hold. Remember? I’m right here, as near to you as bread. Remember? You’re not a total loser; you’re just hungry. And the bread is not just a spiritual snack, a little pick-me-up to get us through the afternoon. It’s the kind of bread that can save your life.

Matthew’s story of the Last Supper shows us exactly why we need this bread so much. In one seat, we have Judas, the disciple who is going to betray Jesus. In another seat we have Peter, the disciple who is going to deny him. Think about it: two men who loved Jesus with all their hearts, who followed him, who were chosen by him. Two men who believed Jesus could make the world a better place. One of them would even go on to build up the church in incredible ways. But at this supper, they show us exactly why we need this bread so much, and so often, because they get up from the table, full and replete, and they go out and make two of the worst mistakes they’ve ever made.

Judas and Peter, with every possible advantage, and they totally blow it. Jesus even predicts it for them. One of you is going to betray me, he says. One of you is going to deny me. And don’t waste your breath boasting about how brave you are, how invincible, how strong. This is the truth you have to hear: you are my disciples, and you will deny me. Not just once, either. Three times. Before the rooster crows, which he does, every day. Every day!

Do you see?! There is a pattern here, Jesus says, that you are going to have to get your head around, because if you don’t, you will die of grief. Every day, the sun comes up, and the cock will crow. You will be hungry; you will sit down to eat. Break the bread, and remember: this is my body, broken for you. Fill your bellies, fill your hearts, wipe your mouths, and get up from the table. You may actually make it for three minutes, but probably not. You’ll forget that my grace is sufficient for you. You’ll forget that there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus. You’ll forget that you are made in God’s image, every single one you.

Don’t even bother to speculate; you just will! You are human; this is how God made you. When night comes, if you’re a glutton for punishment, you can actually count how many times you’ve denied me by denying the grace that is yours, but I don’t recommend it; better to lie down and sleep until morning comes, and the rooster crows, which he always does, and always will, right on cue. That’s how roosters are made. That’s how you are made.

That is how life is, for disciples of Jesus. Eat, drink, and remember. Deny, repent, turn around. Keep coming to the table. Keep passing the cup to one another.

Sylvia Plath and John 11:1-45
2011-04-08 by David von Schlichten

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was an American writer known for her bitter, dark poetry and for her fierce struggle with mental illness, a struggle she lost when she killed herself at the age of 30 by sticking her head into an oven while her children slept in the next room.

One of Plath's best-known poems is "Lady Lazarus," in which the speaker recalls two times that she almost died and says that she is in the midst of number three. The first time was an accident, but the second was a suicide-attempt. She laments that that doctors were able to save her and states that she is now a demonic phoenix who will eat the men who try to save her.

Some people just don't want to live, do they? Jesus calls us out of the tomb, but many of us choose to stay dead. Jesus also calls us to roll away the stone and unbind each other, but we don't always do that, either. 

For Sunday's sermon, I am pondering the following:

1. What kills us?

2. How does Jesus bring us back to life?

3. How are we to roll away the stone and unbind each other?

David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator

Lazarus and the Planet and Unbinding Each Other
2011-04-04 by David von Schlichten

Christ brings life to Lazarus and to all of us, including creation (cf. Romans 8). Perhaps one way to go homiletically this coming Sunday is to use the raising of Lazarus as a springboard for preaching about our call to help care for the planet. Christ brings life; we are to go and do likewise, including for the planet (with God empowering us!).

In  general, the Lazarus text does not only show us that Christ brings life -- although that's plenty. The text also indirectly calls us to be those whom God uses to bring life.

God also calls us to unbind one another and let each other go.

So who is stuck in death? How does Christ call them to life? How can we unbind them?

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator

From this week...
2011-04-03 by David Howell

Preaching John 11:1-45

by Anna Carter Florence

When Jesus had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out." The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."

Resurrection is a divine initiative. But unbinding? That may be up to us.

If you are like me, you have read this passage over and over again. The words are haunting; they rise up to meet you, whether you summon them or not: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would never have died! Is there any story in the gospels more to- the-point, and more heartbreaking, than this one? John writes that even Jesus wept. We do, too, because the gospel writer so perfectly captures the human experience of death. God, how could you? Why would you? If you had been there, God, my beloved would never have died!

Once again, maybe this is a survival impulse: to accuse God of absence. The alternative—that God was there, but simply passive, or inactive in the face of death—is intolerable. It flies in the face of simple faith. It spits in the eye of faithful trust. John 11 is the crux of that most wrenching of human dilemmas: how can bad things happen to good people? How can tragedy come to the homes of God’s faithful ones? Why would God not intervene, when any of us would? Why would God allow senseless loss, absurd violence, when none of us would ever choose it? God, how could you? Why would you? Oh God, if you had been here, my brother would never have died!

Theologians have spent centuries ripping their hair out over these issues, precisely because they have witnessed the intense pain of their sisters and brothers. And while there are certainly many brilliant and helpful systematic proposals (as well as some exceedingly unhelpful ones), none can protect us from the agony of the experience, when it comes. And it does come, to each of us. John 11 is our story.

But notice this: John 11 is Jesus’ story, too. Even Jesus feels the heartbreak of grief, when his friend Lazarus dies. "Jesus began to weep," says verse 35, and it is the Bible’s shortest verse, perhaps because there are simply no words to describe pain this deep. When death comes, there is nothing you can say. There are only oceans of pain to feel. Jesus, because he is human, feels it, too.

Of course, Jesus is also God. So in this story there is a resurrection, a divine summoning of the dead man to come out of his tomb. Lazarus rises from the dead, and his sisters’ prayers are answered. This is not something the human Jesus could ever do; this is the power of God-in-Christ at work. John 11 is the prime example of Jesus’ human and divine sides at work, simultaneously, on our behalf. Weeping, yet raising. Coming to us, yet moved by us. Calling us out of our tombs. And telling us to unbind him, and let him go.

This is what struck me, upon reading the text this time: God raises the dead, but we are the ones who have to unbind them. God calls us out of our tombs, but we are the ones who have to let one another go free.

Pull the thread a little further, and you may land here: Resurrection is not the last act, in this story. The last act is unbinding, and God gives it to us, to do on behalf of one another.

No one goes willingly into a tomb. The community puts you there when you are dead. The community wraps you with strips of cloth, swaddling you with layers and layers of bandages. This is absolutely fitting, if you are dead. But if you are alive, or if you are miraculously raised—and who among us has not witnessed a miraculous raising to new life of one who had long been given up for dead?—then these bandages are problematic. No one can move if they are bound head to toe with strips of cloth. No one can be free if they are swaddled in layers of stuff.

Jesus does the God-work of resurrection, but he tells the mourners to do their part by unbinding Lazarus and letting him go. It is an odd command, if you think about it: why should a resurrected man need any more help? Then I do think about it:

How many resurrections have you witnessed that have failed, ultimately, because the resurrected one could never undo all those bandages by herself?

How many times have you seen a miraculous recovery turn into a relapse, because the community didn’t do its part to let the recovering one "go free" of the old patterns and habits that kept him in bondage?

How many mourners have you met who rather enjoy the task of mourning at their loved ones’ tombs, rather than the task of unbinding them and setting them free?

There is nothing more tragic than a miraculously resurrected human being—one who has been touched by the divine grace and power of God—who trips and suffocates on her own bandages. And in the church, we see this: people eager to come out of their tombs, yet unable to move. Families praying for healing, but unable to let go.

The grace of God is a gift we can never replicate. But we can sure muck it up. Human beings can certainly hold one another back in the walk toward new life.

What a Lenten story that would make.

Anna Carter Florence

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