Submit Your Own!
By David von Schlichten
Sermon on the Last Word of the Cross
Good Friday, Year A,
for Friday, March 21, 2008
(word count: 918)
There are two books in the Bible that do not mention God. One is Song of Solomon, which is a collection of love poetry. The book that does not mention God even once is the Old Testament book of Esther. Esther tells the story of a plot to kill all of the Jews in Persia. The queen Esther, with the help of Mordecai, saves the Jews from genocide. The king of Persia is mentioned 190 times, but God is not mentioned once in the book's ten chapters.
So what we have in the book of Esther is a story of God appearing to be absent. In reality, however, the book makes it clear that, while there is no mention of God, God is still present. Through Esther and Mordecai, God saves his people from death. It just goes to show that, just because God appears to be absent, does not mean he is.
By the way, the Jews celebrate the story of Esther on the festival of Purim, which began last night and continues today, this day on which we Christians encounter what looks like the absence of God only to find that it is really God saving his people.
Such is the cross, yes? The cross was ugly, dark and bleak. The cross was the kind of event that people pointed at and said, “If God exists, how can he allow such evil to happen?” The cross looks like evil, death, doom. It looks like the absence of God. Even Jesus himself cries, “God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you absent?”
In reality, the cross is God saving us from death. The shock of the cross is that what looks godforsaken is actually God-forgiving us and God saving us. The cross is to inspire, not despair, but confidence, trust, even solemn joy. God seems absent, but is actually present, saving us.
When you behold the cross, do you think of despair, or do you trust, have confidence, that even though God seems absent, he is actually present and saving us? Do you trust – do I trust – that God is present in the cross, saving us? You are saved through the cross.
But Dave, don't I have to be all good and nice to be saved? No, you are saved through the cross. Be a good person, yes, but being a good person does not save you. The cross alone saves you, O baptized child. Do we trust in the cross? Not in our piety or our good intentions or in our repentance, but in the cross?
Jesus does cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” but he also expresses great trust in God. We hear that trust in the last word for the afternoon. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” In that ultimate statement, Jesus is not merely saying, “Okay, I'm done. I'm ready to die.” Many of us interpret the statement that way, that, when Jesus says, “I commit my spirit into your hands,” what he is saying is, “I'm all done down here doing what I need to do, so now I am handing my soul over to you by allowing myself to die.” Such a statement does express trust in God, but it is not quite what Jesus is saying.
Remember that Jesus, at this point, is quoting Psalm 31:5, which says, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Psalm 31 is about a person who is great distress, but, even though he is in great distress, he still trusts God. When Jesus quotes Psalm 31:5, then, he is basically saying, “Father, even though I am in great distress, I still trust that you will save me.” Even though people are killing me; even though I was kept up all night; even though they made fun of me and beat me; even though you seem absent; I still trust that you are present and active in a saving way.
Like the book of Esther, Jesus hanging on the cross feels the absence of God, but he still trusts that God is with him. He still entrusts his spirit to God, and we, thanks be to God, can do likewise. Esther and the cross teach us that we can count on God even when God seems absent.
The cross teaches us that we can commit our spirits to God every day.
When we need to forgive people who have trespassed against us, we can do so, trusting that God will bring healing and justice. With trust, we can pray, “Forgive them, Father. They know not what they are doing.”
When we need to reach to outcasts, we can say, “Truly I say to you, God welcomes you to paradise,” trusting that God does, commiting ourselves to God.
When we need to take care of our families, we can do so, even when doing so is difficult, trusting that God is present and active in the apparent absence.
When we feel forsaken, we can say so, knowing that God is actually present and that his shoulders are broad.
When we are thirsty, hungry, poor, sick, grieving, forgotten, we can cry for a drink, confident that God will hear us and send someone to help us.
And someday, when life is fading in the sky and death shines like Venus, we can say, with confidence, “God, because of you, it has been accomplished, and into your hands, as I did every day, I once again commit my spirit.”
There's Going to be Trouble
By Tom Steagald
Jesus comes to the city of Jerusalem and there is going to be trouble. He knows it. We know it. And try as we might to avoid it, we will not. Try as we wish to forget it, we cannot, and partly the Gospel writers will not let us. They make us look again and again at the dread narratives of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, his trials and scourging, his crucifixion, death and burial. Chapter upon chapter, verse upon verse, what has heretofore been in each of the Gospel accounts a more or less quick run-up in the ministry of Jesus till now, the Triumphal Entry, now the story slows to a donkey’s crawl, shows us every dark detail in bright relief.
Dread narratives fill the next few days. For Jesus and for us.
We have heard these stories so many times, already, of course—and that is part of the problem I think, and by that I mean why we most of us would rather not dwell on what Jesus’ trip down from the Mount of Olives and into the city really means: we have heard it all before, and it is hard to hear, heartbreaking, in fact. Too much to take in. And so we turn away, most of us—close our ears to these stories by getting out of ear shot, which is to say: most of us will not come back to church this week, do not really want to hear these sad stories yet again. We know them well enough: don’t have to listen to them over and over.
Add to the familiarity this: we are human: we all of us tend to close our eyes as we approach the cliff. And so, though there are two services every day, we most of us don’t want to see the tragedy, not really. Maybe some vultures do, but not the most of us. It’s spring, after all, you know. The trees are in bloom, the grass is greening up, the robins are singing—that is just so much more pleasant to the senses than the dark and sad stories this week wants to tell us. Today is a happy day—everyone loves a Palm Sunday parade—and we will dress up again next Sunday, too, in our new dresses and suits and Easter bonnets besides. From victory unto victory, from party to party, festival to festival, and if it does not suit us to bathe in all the unpleasantness between now and then, so what?
Yes, yes, Jesus was betrayed by his friends and falsely accused by his enemies. But let’s accentuate the positive, you know? That is what people like us want to do.
Of course, of course, he was beaten by his enemies and crucified by the merciless Romans. But let’s eliminate the negative. Let’s keep on the sunny side of life, aim our thoughts at springtime and resurrection; let’s latch onto the affirmative and not mess with all that mess in-between. The children are beautiful; why talk about the ugly?
Only one reason I can think of: the gospel writers want us to see it, which is to say they want us to see him, want us to see the trouble just up ahead, whether we have stomach for it or not.
Jesus comes to Jerusalem, and in Matthew’s memory this is the first time, and also the last time, that Jesus has visited or ever will visit the holy city—the holy city, full as it is of unholy alliances. In Jesus’ time, the Temple represented both God’s bountiful blessings and the religious leaders’ parasitic taxations. It was a symbol of Jewish freedom, but also of their bondage to the complicity between the Romans and the Temple authorities. The taxes collected at the Temple paid the stifling Roman tribute; the Temple leaders demanded more and more from people increasingly unable to pay, and increasingly unwilling to pay because their offerings were not used as a gift for God’s house but as blood-money to Tiberius, the self-proclaimed god of the known world. The religious leaders were complicit with the pagan Romans; the people worshiping in the Temple paid the price… .
So that when Jesus tore-up the place, drove out the money-changers and their wares, many of the common people most likely applauded, because in Jesus’ time the politician-priests kept the high altar busy and the lowly populace in line.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the navel of the universe, said some, while others said it was just as turned-in on itself, a little hole full of filth and intrigue, graft and grime.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jesus cried, who murders the prophets—as Jesus himself was hailed at his coming—murdering the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you.
Jesus comes to Jerusalem, for the first and last time, a prophet to be sure and then some, and it will not end well. There will be trouble, as there was the last time.
Does anyone remember the last time Matthew showed us Jesus on a donkey, anywhere near Jerusalem?
It is a trick question. The last time we saw Jesus hereabouts, riding on a donkey, we didn’t really see him, exactly, only the great bulge in his blessed mother’s virginal belly as Joseph led them all to Bethlehem. Neither was Jesus in Jerusalem that time, not properly—but only in the neighborhood, sort of, in a little village at the far edges of the city’s furthest precincts, home of David, but not much else.
Even so, Herod the Great—called Herod the Monstrous by many of his subjects—was aware of Jesus’ near advent, knew the time of his appearing. From the mouths of foolish foreign wise men Herod heard of that tell-tale star, of the predicted birth of a new Jewish king. And Herod was troubled, Matthew tells us: “troubled, and the whole city with him.”
Crazy kings crazify their subjects, don’t you know, and crazy kings adopt deadly strategies to crush their would-be replacements. No surprise, then, when soon after the wise men take their star charts, their birth announcement, their gold, frankincense and myrrh and head off to Bethlehem, Herod and his minions hatch a murderous plot by which all the infant boys in the area would die. The soldiers were just following orders, I guess, but the moral of the story, one of them anyway, seems to be this: the rulers of this world do not easily cede power to others, but are willing and ready to crush their opposition to retain control.
We can see that dynamic in ourselves, too, of course—all of us, rulers of our own tiny fiefdoms, are loathe to let go our control of whatever it is we think we control, are quick to unsheathe the sharp edges of our tongue, to wield the blunt force of our silence, to quench the spirit of others so as to maintain our own little power. But the Spirit of God is ever at war against the empires of the flesh, the big ones and the little ones. Jesus comes into the fortified unholiness of each heart as much as he does to the city of Jerusalem. Humble, on a donkey—but ready to be king in our lives and living, ready to break down the walls we build one against the other, ready to shatter our spears and unwheel our chariots; which is to say, ready to make peace, make peace among people inclined to war, whether at the far reaches of our world or the near quarters of our churches and homes and businesses.
IVToday, we see Jesus on a donkey again, humble and meek as a child, as he comes in peace to the city—but once again the whole city is disturbed, Matthew tells us. Outside the city, while Jesus is still among the common folk, who are following him before and behind—out there they hail him as a prophet, as the Son of David, are thrilled at his arrival. In the city, where there is politics and complicity, agreements and understandings, the religious leaders who are political leaders are in turmoil at the news of his approach. Interestingly, the Greek word we translate turmoil often means earthquake.
We may rather not think about it, would rather keep it light, but Jesus’ coming shakes to its foundations the holy city and its unholy associations. There is going to be trouble because Jesus’ coming again to Jerusalem threatens the powers that be in the very same way his first advent threatened the madman Herod—and so no surprise that soon after Jesus’ arrival, after the multitudes have taken their cloaks and palms and prophecies of Jesus’ enthronement, really, a new king has come to town: Hail, the Son of David! they say—after the crowds have dispersed and Jesus himself has retired for the evening to a town called Bethany, another murderous plot is set in motion: a plot hatched some days before when the leader of the leaders said, better for this one man to die than for all the people to die.
The King’s representatives will quite agree, because the powers of this world, religious or political, do not easily cede power to would-be replacements, no matter who sends them. Jesus comes to the city of Jerusalem and there is going to be trouble.
There is going to be trouble, and Jesus knows it. For this hour he has come to his people at all, to challenge, finally—which is to say in a final way—the false gods of empire and idolatry. When the Jews were captive in Egypt, they were forced to serve Pharaoh as if he were god—they lived and died at his malevolent command—but the God who is god, who alone has the power of life and death and who alone is worthy to be worshiped, who is King of the Universe, blessed be he, got glory over Pharaoh and his bows and his chariots and his
When the Jews were exiled in Babylon, rustled away from their homeland like cattle and rebranded with the stamp of Nebuchadnezzar, who made an idol of himself and commanded that all the people bow down and worship him, his power and his might, and a lot of them did, followed those orders—when in Babylon, worship as the Babylonians do—but not all of them did: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did not, and there was trouble when the people of God stood against Nebuchadnezzar and his idolatrous orders, and in his would-be-divine fury threw them into a fiery furnace so hot that the ones who threw the young men in were incinerated, but Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were cool in the furnace—because the God who is god sent them protection.
The gods of this world, dark lords and Pharaohs, self-worshiping Kings and Christ-pretending Caesars, do not go quietly into the night. They fight. They war. The keep their version of the peace—which is to say, they suppress dissent—at the point of a spear or sword. Jesus comes to the city of Jerusalem and there is going to be trouble, for on this bright, beautiful Palm Sunday, Jesus is not the only one entering the city, his is not the only parade. Pontius Pilate is coming, too, governor of the territory, who hates Jerusalem and its people, but today he comes, as he comes every year at this time—the beginning of Passover—leading a host of Roman troops to reinforce the small garrison already stationed near the Temple. The Empire comes to enforce the peace, to quell any disturbance, to forestall any trouble.
Rabbi, tell your followers to be quiet! We don’t want any trouble with the Romans. We don’t want them to hear… Jesus said, “If these were quiet, even the stones would shout.” An earthquake—that is what comes of Jesus’ entry into the city. A reordering of the world, a redistribution of power: the high will be brought down, the lowly will be lifted up. It is the way of God, and it is beautiful thing to see, but only on the other side of the dreadful things—there are dreadful things to see, in ourselves and in the world, but Jesus comes to the city.
There is going to be trouble. Try as we might to avoid it, we should not, for trouble is not all there is going to be.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
By rick brand
One person's effort.
Text: Matthew 21:1-11
March 16, 2008
First Presbyterian Church of Henderson, NC
Rick Brand, Pastor
And most of the crowd that went before him and followed him shouted, "Hosanna to the son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! And when he entered Jerusalem all the city was stirred, saying "Who is this" and the Crowds said, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee."
The way that Matthew says that "Most of the crowd that went before Jesus" makes you kind of wonder about who else might have been there on that parade day. There were bound to be others who are supposed to have asked that question about "Who is this?" Human nature tells us that they had to be some sidewalk gawkers. That is the very nature of a parade. You have a parade and there are always the people on the side of the path, who will stop and watch. The sidewalk gawkers. They are the same people who stand around the parking lot and watch two people fight and never try to stop them. Friday morning in the News and Observer Hi and Lois comic strip had Chip come in the front door and tell Lois that there had been a horrible fight on the school bus. Lois says something seeing it. Chip the son says well, you can watch it live, it is already up on You Tube. It is up on You Tube for the sidewalk gawkers. In the great musical Jesus Christ Super Star, there is a line from one of the songs, Jesus, did you see me wave. There were those people in Jerusalem who were attracted to the noise and the shouting and who just stood around gawking at things. They are the ones who show up with the Hurricanes win the Stanley Cup but who never support the team or go to any game.
There are lots of sidewalk gawkers within the community who will tell the pollsters that they believe in God. 80 to 90 percent will claim that, and almost as many as that will say they believe in Jesus, but they have never shown up in church and they never seem to be interested in doing what Jesus says we ought to do, like feed the poor, care for the naked, visit those in prison, stop wars, give the coat to the naked, walk the second mile, pray for your enemies, be reconciled with those who have sinned against you. There was the side walk crowd there in Jerusalem.
And surely in Jerusalem there was a sizable number of people who where there at the parade to make sure things did not get out of hand. There are always the people who have the authority and responsibility for public safety. There are those who have to give the parade permit. There are those who have to block off the streets. In Jerusalem there were surely soldiers and authorities who were stationed to make sure that nothing dangerous, controversial or strange happened. There were the soldiers who were always curious as to what any group of more than five or six together were doing. The authorities knew what Reinhold Niebuhr said, that most of us may be decent citizens when we are individuals, but under peer pressure five or six can easily become a violent and dangerous mob. Moral Man and Immoral society. Certainly there were those that day who were there to keep the peace, maintain order, and preserve the status quo.
But most of the crowd Matthew says were the palm waving bunch. The disciples of Jesus. The ones who were excited about what they thought they knew what was happening. These were the disciples who had become so caught up in the words and hopes of Jesus: We had thought he was the one to redeem Israel; they had made a lot of "crazy" decisions, left their nets and their families; followed him all over the country side; slept on the ground, almost drown in mid-night storms, saw miracles and things that made them doubt everything they thought they knew about life, God and his kingdom. Now they come celebrating the coming of the Kingdom of God. Welcome the revolution, we going to throw out the Romans, bring in the Kingdom of God and put us in places of power.
And the incredible thing about this story is that they were all wrong. They were all wrong. Jesus came into Jerusalem for all of them and they were all wrong. The gawkers did not really know what they saw, they said he was just a prophet. The authorities had no power to control or to manage what was happening, to stop the revolution that was coming, and the disciples were not ready for the Kingdom that God was in fact, getting ready to give. Jesus came into Jerusalem to save and redeem them all. They were all wrong.
And Jesus keeps riding into our midst with the same desire to redeem all of us, and he keeps find the same sidewalk gawkers, the sixty percent of people who know what is going on, but who do not do anything about it one way or the other. There are still the people who are in positions of authority who want to exercise that power. The Church lady named Lucille. There was a big church dinner and the governor who was running for reelection was going to be speaker, and he got there late, he comes through the line for his food. Lucille gives him one piece of chicken like all the rest of the people. The Governor asks for a second. Lucille says No. The Governor say, Maybe you don't know who I am. I am the Governor of Texas. I have been campaign all day, I have not eaten. I am very hungry and I would like a second piece." Lucille said, "I am sorry, maybe you don't know who I am. I am Lucille, the woman in charge of giving out chicken and you only get one piece." People in authority.
Sidewalk gawkers, people who want to keep things under control, and you and I will be there. Those who want to be the disciples of Jesus. We wave the palm branches. We want to build booths, and put prayer in school, and keep the ten commandments, we want to help make Jesus' kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, we wear the wwjd bracelets, we get upset when Davidson College agrees to have Jews on its board of trustees. We want to be faithful to King Jesus and keep the Muslims out and prevent the Mormons from taking over.
And of course, it is same miracle of grace over and over, that all of us are so far from getting it right. We keep twisting it and misapplying it. We have such trouble accepting the gift that is given. Jesus rides in for all of us, sidewalk gawkers, people in power, and us the disciples, all of us getting it wrong and yet Jesus keeps coming aback for us. Coming by the lake shore and inviting us back into his service. Jesus keeps coming back assuring us that we do not have to be right. Jesus rides in with the desire to bring redemption to us all. He keeps coming back, over and over, to offer us the gift of a Kingdom that is so different from what we have and even from what most of us can imagine or hope.
But he keeps riding in for all of us. Even when we are so far from the kingdom. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord
John 11, March 9, 2008, Lent 5A
By David von Schlichten
Sermon on John 11:1-45
for Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A
for Sunday, March 9, 2008
(word count: 745)
Grief tends to make us in this society uncomfortable. For instance, when someone is crying over the death of a loved one, we tell them, “Don't cry.” One reason we say this is that we feel uneasy watching someone be upset. For another instance, we do not allow people much time to grieve. We give people a couple days to mourn, and then we expect them to pull themselves together and return to the routine. Bereavement time in our society is short. Sure people can grieve, but then we expect them to get over it quickly and move on.
Of course, there are people who grieve too long. A loved one has been dead for a decade or more, but we are still crying over the death. If you find that you cannot get over your grief even though years have elapsed, you may need to get someone to help unbind you and set you free.
However, even though some of us stay tightly bound in grief, for the most part the majority of us do not have enough time for grief. People insist that we snap out of it and move on.
Further, even in the middle of the grief process we do not allow much grieving. I have often noticed how casual and light-hearted viewings are. People are chatting, even laughing, appearing to ignore the dead body in the room. Even in the middle of the bereavement period we seem reluctant to show grief.
One remarkable feature of God, however, is that God allows us to grieve. The psalms and other books of the Bible are full of sorrow, crying, wailing, and indignation. The Bible abounds with grief. The entire book of Lamentations focuses on mourning the destruction of Jerusalem. The Bible allows us to mourn. Jesus even says, “Blessed are those who mourn.”
In fact, in today's gospel from John 11, not only do we have Christ allowing Mary and Martha to grieve, but we have Jesus himself grieving. Jesus weeps. Even though he knows that he is about to raise Lazarus from the dead, Jesus still weeps. There is some debate about whether Jesus is weeping out of sorrow or anger, but, either way, Jesus finds the death of Lazarus upsetting. God feels for the people.
Sometimes people tell us that we should not cry in response to a person's death, but Jesus does. If it is acceptable for Jesus to cry in response to death, then surely it is acceptable for us to do the same.
Don't let anyone tell you that you should not cry over the death of someone you care about. You tell them, “Jesus wept over the death of Lazarus, so I can weep now.” Even if we are happy because we know the person is in heaven and is no longer suffering, we still may be sad. After all, someone we love has died, and we will miss her or him.
We can sob, and, at the same time, we can unbind each other to let each other go. Christ has indeed died on the cross and risen so that Lazarus and all of us can live forever. Next week we will meditate with crucial focus on Christ's suffering and dying, through which we receive life forever. We are dust, but Christ hangs on the cross to give us life in heaven. We can weep, but we are also to give thanks for the gift of life. Christ calls us out of the tomb of death, sin and the Devil. Christ calls, “Come out!” and we shuffle out, all of us, to the light of the risen, crucified one.
Christ calls us out of the tomb, and then he orders us to unbind each other. “Unbind him, and let him go.” As renowned preacher Anna Carter Florence has observed, God raises us to life, but we are to do the unbinding and releasing.
We can let each other grieve and help unbind each other, knowing that God gives us life.
We, the baptized, the people of the empty tomb and the crooked cross, Christ shouts to life. We are Lazarine. Christ allows us to grieve. He even weeps with us. Then Christ shouts us to life, ordering us to unbind each other, help each other break free from tight, constricting grief, sin and death, to walk in the cross's bright shadow toward the vacated tomb, our gaze away from the gauze.
Grieve and unbind.
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
By David von Schlichten
Thank you, Rick, for that affirmation. Bringing people to the cross is indeed essential.
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten
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