I Corinthians 15:19-26
“Meet us now in our places of death” it says in our prayer of confession. “Meet us now in our places of death.” Meet us in Brussels. Meet us in Paris. Meet us in Boston. Meet us in Mali, Turkey, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Ivory Coast. Meet us in workplaces and schools and neighborhoods touched by violence. Meet us as we sit by dying loved ones. Meet us in morgues and funeral homes. Meet us in households ruled by fear and violence. Meet us on battlefields.
This week, we are reminded that the places of death are many. Like Mary, like Peter and the other beloved disciple, we strive to come to grips with death’s power. We mourn. We retreat in fear. We struggle with our anger and confusion.
In response to the stories of death and destruction, our world speaks of further death and destruction. “We must utterly defeat our enemies. We must wipe them from the face of the earth. Then we will be safe.” We live by an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. Our world is bound by the ways of death.
This is a day to wrestle with the places of death in our world. It is a day to ask where God is in the midst of all this death. How is the God we proclaim a reflection of the world in which we live? Sometimes we proclaim God to be as violent as we are. “God exacted punishment on the whole human race by putting the Son to death on a cross.” “God is waiting to judge you – and, perhaps, condemn you!” Many of our theologies and proclamations about God are bound up in the world’s violent response to violence. Jesus is perceived to be the victim of God the Father’s need for retribution. We speak of Jesus as the one killed in our place to satisfy God’s judgement on the world.
Is it any wonder that the world, including many adherents of Christianity, sees violence as the answer to violence? How much of the violence is inflicted by those who see themselves as agents of God’s anger and retribution? Turn on the news and you will hear many declare, in the name of Christianity, of our need to exact violence upon our enemies or those who have sinned. Nation battles nation. One group wages war on another. Parents batter children. There was talk, when I was in seminary, that one professor advocated that men “punish” disobedient wives with beatings. (This advice was given privately, to those men who listened to every word he spoke.) We even see misfortune, illness, and death as signs of God’s righteous anger.
At other times, our proclamations of good news seem to be foolish and naïve. As God’s people, we proclaim God’s goodness. People look at this violent world and challenge us, “Where is your God? How is this good?” Sometimes, in the face of all of this death, it may seem, to use Paul’s words, “we are of all people most to be pitied.” (I’m using those words out of context!) The world may wonder at our proclamations of good news when we are surrounded by death. It may seem that what we strive to offer is a mere panacea that ignores the real world. We proclaim a message that is no earthly good. We speak and dream of that sweet by and by—yet accept that we live in a very different world that doesn’t play by God’s rules.
We come to the empty tomb confused, mourning, angry, and maybe despairing. We live in a world still torn asunder by violence, by hatred, by fear. We live in a world where death surrounds us. We don’t need empty words. We don’t need a message of good news that denies the realities that confront us daily. We need Easter good news that speaks to the deaths that surround, confront, challenge and frighten us.
We are not unlike those disciples and friends of Jesus who saw Jesus’ death looming and ran away—or stood at a distance—or even collaborated with those in power. Where is God in this story? Is God working with those who executed Jesus? Does God endorse the violence that brought about Jesus’ death? Or is God’s promise that if we just muddle through, eventually we will know a different world?
We cannot come to the story of the resurrection without looking not only at Jesus’ death, but also his life. We affirm, we proclaim, that in Jesus we glimpse God. Was Jesus a man of violence? No! This is the man who said make peace with your enemies, make peace with your sisters and brothers in the faith, do not strike another person, put away the sword. This is the man who tore down the dividing walls of hostility. He didn’t build them. He knew the consequences. He knew that God’s ways of peace and reconciliation would not be readily or easily accepted. He knew his death was coming –not at God’s hands, but at the hands of all those who were threatened by the ways of peace and justice that would bring people together. When Jesus died it seemed that his disciples had not only lost someone they loved, they lost his message. Those in power crucified not only the man; they crucified the message. What he proclaimed seemed to die on the cross.
The Passion hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus” asks, “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?” Then it answers, “Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee. 'Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee. I crucified thee.”
I think the hymn has it right. It was not God who demanded the crucifixion. It was human beings. The violence and death was not God’s choice; it was human choice. What Jesus chose to do was be faithful to God’s ways and endure the consequences of a world that could not or would not embrace and accept the message and grace that Jesus embodied.
Mary, Peter and the other disciple came to that place of death – they came to the tomb. And the tomb had been emptied – emptied of its power. The empty tomb, the resurrection is where we see God’s answer to the rejection of Jesus, God’s answer to all the violence and fear that led to his death. This is where God is active! The resurrection is God’s resounding affirmation of the life Jesus lived – of the image of God embodied in him – the healer, the reconciler, the one who reached out and touched lepers, ate with sinners and tax collectors, the one who welcomed children, women, Samaritans – even Gentiles. The resurrection is God’s YES to the one who chose to trust in God’s love even as he faced his own death.
Why do we not know – even yet – that the violence of this world never yields good fruit? Soldiers return from war wounded in body and spirit. Children raised in violent homes are likely to continue the cycle of violence. Nations that suffer violence find ways to retaliate with more violence. Many of those who feel isolated, rejected, and without hope seek justice through violent means. The cycle is never-ending when violence, hatred, fear, and dismissive judgment are given free reign, are embraced as necessities.
Episcopal Bishops published a statement this week that says: “We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others.” Those who crucified Jesus thought they were winning – they thought they were ensuring the safety of the nation by silencing a person and a movement that challenged the brokenness. They thought death would be the end.
But God said, “No!” The resurrection declares that God will triumph over the ways of death that so enslave the world. Paul writes in I Corinthians, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” And God has destroyed that enemy. That is the good news of the empty tomb, of the resurrected Jesus. Those who crucified Jesus thought that death meant the end – of him and of his message. God destroyed that enemy death – saying yes to Jesus and yes to the message of his life.
Our world needs Jesus’ message embodied in those who seek to follow him. We need those who will cross the boundaries that divide and seek true peace that emerges from reconciliation. Our world needs those who heal, those who dispense mercy, those who walk into the places of death and proclaim that God is not absent, but present – offering victory over the ways of death and destruction. We need to find ways to address the hurts that fester and the isolation that brews despair.
The good news of Easter is that God has destroyed the power of death. Yes, that means we may trust in the promise of a life beyond this life. Yet, that promise gives us the courage to live God’s ways today – proclaiming love in a world that too often lives by hate, proclaiming reconciliation in a world that sees division as the only way to be safe, proclaiming a deep peace that comes not through intimidation and coercion, but through the recognition that all are created in the image of God.
God meets us in our places of death and God says, “See, the tomb is empty. Death’s power has been vanquished. Live! Live into the life of Christ!”
Sermon from 3/13/2016
It’s hard to allow the different gospel writers to speak in their own voices. We conflate the gospel witnesses to become one story. Add to that story centuries of tradition and it’s hard to let the individual gospel writers have a unique voice.
This morning’s story is one of those that is difficult to hear through John’s voice because there is similar story in Luke’s gospel – and there is a lot of tradition caught up with the story!
In Luke’s gospel, the woman is unnamed. She came to the house of one of the Pharisees when that Pharisee was hosting Jesus at dinner. Her actions were disparaged by Jesus’ host. Jesus responded by affirming the deep gratitude that the woman had expressed – a woman who knew the depth of God’s grace and forgiveness that had been bestowed upon her through Jesus.
In John’s story, the woman is named – Mary. This Mary is known to us as the sister of Martha and of Lazarus. These three were close friends of Jesus. It is a very different story from the one in Luke’s gospel. One of the aspects we too easily miss is that it is part of a larger story – the story of Jesus raising Lazarus. In John’s gospel, an initial event sets in motion an extended exploration of its meaning and its consequences. We have to begin to hear this story as a continuation of the story of Lazarus emerging from the tomb.
Right after Lazarus emerged from the tomb, John’s gospel tells us:
“Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and seen what Jesus did [calling forth Lazarus], believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done….Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘…You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’…So from that day on they planned to put him to death.”
Instead of seeing the raising of Lazarus as a sign of God’s redeeming presence, the leaders saw it as a threat – a threat to be eliminated. Just before this passage we’re told, “Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.”
This story of Mary anointing Jesus with the costly perfume follows. Although there are indications that there was a secular practice of anointing throughout the Middle East – to indicate gladness, biblically, the notion of anointing is of someone being consecrated, set aside or set apart for God’s service. This is especially true in the New Testament.
The Pharisees and the chief priests saw Jesus as a threat. Mary saw him as God’s anointed – a reality she made public by anointing his feet with this costly nard. Her actions demonstrated her ability to see something different from what the chief priests or Pharisees saw. Her actions even challenged the perceptions of others close to Jesus – his own disciples. Her anointing was an act that declared her belief that Jesus was “the resurrection and the life.” Her anointing pointed to God’s anointing of Jesus as the beloved Son, the one who throughout his life would be faithful to God’s ways and impart God’s very presence. She didn’t change who Jesus was. She didn’t set him apart. But, through her actions she publically declared her faith in who Jesus was, his life and his witness. It was, in some ways, a dangerous declaration. After all, there was a price on Jesus’ head!
Today, we celebrate the sacrament of baptism. I can’t tell you how many times throughout my ministry that I’ve had a parent say to me, “We need to get our child done!” We struggle with the notion that somehow in this sacrament we are “doing” something to make a child (or adult) acceptable to God. Baptism becomes the church’s “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” that ensures acceptance in the heavenly realms.
But, we don’t force God. We don’t make children or adults acceptable to God through this sacrament. This is our affirmation of a Godly reality that is not always evident in the world. Today, we join together to proclaim that these children are God’s children, known, created, called, and loved. In a world that is driven to label – often in destructive ways – we proclaim the label that matters above all others: “You are God’s child!”
In this sacrament, we commit to letting that label, God’s child, be the primary label in this place. No matter what the world says, here, we see each other as those created in the image of God –known, called, and loved by God. We promise God to nurture that knowledge in the children who are baptized – and in each other. It is a counter-cultural thing to do in a society that quickly judges and often dismisses or condemns. It is not easy, for the world tells us to label and to judge on the basis of so many things. But here, we remember, and we strive to live by the one label that matters – God’s children. Our actions proclaim that knowledge.
Mary’s anointing of Jesus is an interlude in the story of the growing opposition to Jesus and the rising threats against his life. Her act is remembered as a testament to the reality of who Jesus was. When we gather, when we share these sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, we are proclaiming a reality that the world often refuses to see – that all are created in God’s image and that all are invited to feast at God’s table.
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
from March 6, 2016
“I once was lost and now am found,” that wonderful hymn Amazing Grace declares. That hymn reminds us of the first part of this story we call the parable of the Prodigal son. I can no longer encounter this parable without acknowledging the interpretive work done by Biblical Scholar Kenneth Bailey. Bailey says that too many layers of tradition and lack of understanding of Middle Eastern culture have led us to mis-hear and misinterpret this parable. Even the title we’ve given the parable skews our hearing –the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Our emphasis is on the younger son’s actions. We hear this as a story about repentance. The son finally realizes the error of his ways and returns to the father to beg forgiveness.
Bailey says the parable, if we begin to read it through Middle Eastern lenses, is about all three characters – the Prodigal Son, his older brother, and the father. In fact, the parable is primarily about how this father responds to his sons. Middle Eastern culture would immediately recognize that the father in this parable acts in unexpected ways.
First, the younger son, essentially, said to him, “Drop dead, Dad. I want my inheritance.” And the father gave it to him. The father would have given him a portion of the ancestral lands. This son publically shamed his father – first, because he asked for his inheritance before his father had died, and second, because he would have then sold off the land that was understood to be a sign of God’s presence. He could not have done this without the entire community knowing. A father who would allow such disrespect was unheard of! He was showing a reckless love for this son.
When the son returned, we hear a story of repentance. Bailey says, again, it is the father’s actions that surprise. The son doesn’t really get a chance to repent. The father ran to meet him – Bailey says Middle Eastern men would never run. He threw a party – fully and publically restoring his son to the family.
Bailey suggests that the real power and punch of this parable is found in the story of the older brother. This was one of the parables that Jesus used to counter the complaint the Pharisees made that Jesus was “welcoming sinners and eating with them.”
As the parable continues, the father demonstrates the same kind of costly love that he had shown for his younger son. When the older brother returned and refused to go in to the banquet, he, like his younger brother, was publically shaming his father. When his father left the banquet to invite the older son to come in, he showed a willingness to set aside all convention and expectation to restore this son to the family.
When my younger sister, Elaine, was almost 7, my parents took us to the World’s Fair in New York City. As we were wandering through one of the exhibits, Elaine got separated from the rest of the family. My parents were frantic. This was long before the days when everyone would respond quickly and seriously to a report of a missing or lost child. One announcement was made over the PA system. “Would Elaine Robinson please ask an adult to escort her back to the lobby?” (Can you imagine such a request being made publicly today?) Dad went looking for her and Mom and I waited in the lobby. I happened to glance up as she entered and headed for the escalator. Being the responsible big sister, I chased after her.
She had been having a wonderful time. “Didn’t you hear the announcement?” I asked. “No,” she replied. “I must have been in the playground across the street. Do you want to go see it?”
She didn’t know that she was lost. She had wandered off by her own choice and done what she wanted to do – leaving frantic parents to search for her.
She didn’t know she was lost! Jesus is telling the Pharisees that they, like the sinners, are lost. They may not know it, but they are lost. They can’t separate themselves from the sinners that Jesus welcomes. And he would be glad to welcome them!
Jesus’ parable is an invitation to his hearer’s to enter the banquet – to gather at the table and share God’s love. He leaves us hanging. We don’t know if the older brother went in to join the festivities. And that, Bailey suggests, is intentional. This is a parable that God’s people always need to hear. It’s always tempting to see ourselves as God’s chosen, God’s righteous – and see the gaps between us and those who are obvious sinners. The church embraces the business of judging those outside, of seeing and naming the faults. The church sets itself apart, at times, seeking to preserve its purity. Jesus reminds us that we are always, to some degree, lost – and that God seeks us out and invites us anew into the fullness of God’s presence.
I found a great story in my cookbook, Extending the Table. The cookbook is a collection of recipes and stories from all around the world. The stories come from people who had spent time in many third world countries. This story is by Rebecca Pereverozoff, of Akron, PA.
One night a young man named Dipu stormed angrily into the home I shared with friends in Bangladesh. He had exchanged harsh words with his father and was seeking refuge for a few days before leaving to make his own way in the world. He vowed never to return to his father’s home.
The following night we heard music in the distance – a harmonica, drums, and singing. We wondered what the sounds of merriment were for, concluding there must be a wedding nearby. Then, suddenly, the celebrants came to a halt in front of our home.
As they crowded around, we recognize our guests – Dipu’s father and several of his college friends. They slapped Dipu amicably on the back and pulled him into their circle as they sang and danced. “We’re here to take you home,” said Dipu’s father. “School wasn’t the same without you,” his friends said. Dipu hugged his father and, with music and mirth, returned home.
Our eyes and hearts were full as the sounds of the party faded in the distance. … I thought, “This is what the kingdom of God is all about – loving people into the kingdom, replacing anger with joy.”
She caught the sense of the parable. The father loves his sons, extravagantly. When they are lost, he seeks them out and invites them to be restored to his presence. When we hear in this story that the younger son repented, we place the responsibility for being found on ourselves. We forget that it is God who seeks us – even when we think that we are fine on our own.
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