Grace Presbyterian Church

A Warm and Welcoming Church

Sermon: Of Opened Minds and Empty Stomachs

Grace Presbyterian Church

April 18, 2021, Easter 3B (recorded)

Luke 24:36-48

Of Opened Minds and Empty Stomachs

There are some awkward things about having this particular reading from Luke’s gospel scheduled in the lectionary for this particular Sunday, the week directly after the perennial reading from John’s gospel on the faithless Thomas. Part of the challenge is that this story is rather dependent on the account that has come directly before it in Luke, the account of the two disciples who unwittingly encountered Jesus as they walked from Jerusalem to the nearby village of Emmaus. They don’t recognize him (despite his impressive unfolding of the scriptures to them) until he breaks bread with them at table (and promptly vanishes). You end up either having to include all those verses in your reading, which makes for a very long scripture reading, or provide some sort of recap of the Emmaus road story in the text of the sermon, as I have just done.

The other challenge is that the Luke account as given here is awfully similar to last week’s reading from John, aside from the Thomas part of that reading. Jesus shows up in the closed room in which the disciples are meeting, says “Peace be with you,” shows them the scars of his crucifixion in his hands and side, and does just a little bit of commissioning:

  • John 20:21: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
  • Luke 24:47-48: “…repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” 

There are differences, though, and perhaps that’s where our attention should go.

While Jesus, in John’s gospel, does show the disciples his hands and side as a means of verifying who he is, the same Lord they had seen crucified days before, this effort at convincing takes up much more space in Luke’s account. Verses 38 and 39 mostly consist of Jesus’s challenging the fearful and disbelieving disciples to see, and even to touch, the very evidence of his crucifixion – the scars in his hands, feet, and side. Here, though, this evidence is presented not only as a form of identification, but also verification.

The disciples, according to Luke, thought Jesus was a ghost. That’s not exactly a common term in the Bible. There is a curious and tragic story in 1 Samuel 28 of King Saul seeking out a medium to conjure up the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel, and a few random references in the prophets. In the New Testament the only other appearances of the word “ghost” besides this one are in the parallel accounts of Jesus walking in water in Mark and Matthew, when the disciples thought Jesus must be a ghost because, well, people don’t walk on water. 

There may also be an allusion here to prevailing Greek philosophical thought about what happened to a person after death. Much Greek thought presumed a type of duality between soul and body – indeed, some such thought sounds as if the body was nothing more than a prison for a soul that yearned to be free. With that idea in the background, the disciples might have jumped to the conclusion that what they were seeing was Jesus’s spirit cut loose from his crucified, dead body, and Jesus was taking great pains to debunk that thought. 

Let’s be fair, though: the disciples had reason to wonder. Remember that those two disciples who had just returned from Emmaus had finally recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, only for Jesus to vanish from their sight (v. 31). Then, back in Jerusalem, just as those two had been relating their story, Jesus “stood before them.” No knocking on the door, no climbing through a window just “Jesus stood before them” where Jesus had not been standing before them a moment ago. That isn’t normal behavior for a human body.

Nonetheless, here Jesus was showing the crucifixion scars on his flesh-and-bone body. Finally, one more piece of evidence came about, one which also possibly served a practical purpose. 

Jesus asks, “Have you anything here to eat?” Y’all got any food around here?

Someone comes up with a piece of broiled fish, and Jesus eats it. Ghosts don’t eat human food. After all, it’s been a few days since that Last Supper. If the flesh and bone didn’t convince them, chowing down on a piece of fish seems to do the trick. 

It matters very much here that Jesus isn’t a ghost, not some kind of disembodied spirit roaming about and walking through walls. It’s a human body, but obviously not merely a human body. It is, in short, a mystery, appropriate to the appearance of a crucified yet risen Messiah. And Luke’s account is deeply interested in making sure that the disciples, and Luke’s readers, grasp this. The resurrection is no mere spiritual thing. 

The other difference between the Luke and John readings has to do with what Jesus says to the disciples. You may remember in John’s verses, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Luke will get around to the outbreaking of the Holy Spirit, but not until his “volume two,” the book we call the Acts of the Apostles. Here, though, there is another matter that Jesus needs to address with the disciples, still reeling a bit from the fear and uncertainty that had overwhelmed them at Jesus’s appearance among them.

See verse 45: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures…

This seems to be a great concern of Luke’s in recording Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances to his followers; the two who had seen Jesus on the road to Emmaus remembered in verse 32, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (emphasis mine). It is also spelled out in verse 44, when he tells them that the things that he had taught them – “everything written about me in the law of Moses, the psalms, and the prophets” – had to come to pass. 

Again, Luke will give his account of the outbreaking of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts. But first, before the Holy Spirit was to come, Jesus needed the disciples to have their minds opened to understand the scriptures. 

Note also that this could only come after the disciples’ fearfulness had been dispersed. It’s worth putting as directly as possible: a mind surrendered to fear is a closed mind. It’s one thing to be afraid in a particular moment; if a car is careening out of control and you’re trying to get out of the way, yes, fear is appropriate. However, if you are paralyzed by that fear, if you have surrendered to that fear to the point of incapacity, you’re not going to be able to get out of the way of the reckless car. To live with a mind always conditioned by fear, finding reason to fear in everything, is to have a mind that cannot possibly be opened to hear what the scriptures have to say to us. A mind surrendered to fear is a closed mind, and no amount of Holy Spirit can do much of anything with that.

You might have noticed that we live in a society today with a lot of minds surrendered to fear, and a lot of leaders (in the church and otherwise) who are more than happy to stir up lots of fears to keep those minds surrounded and surrendered and paralyzed by that fear. Take for example one frequent “news” story of late, the “surge” of would-be immigrants at the country’s southern border. Never mind the pandemic, or violent radicals attacking the US Capitol building; no, the gravest threat to our nation is a bunch of people trying to migrate to the US because their homelands were devastated by not one, but two major hurricanes last year. You’d think being wiped out by hurricanes gave people evil superpowers the way some politicians go on about this threat, but as long as there are people, or potential voters, who are looking for an excuse to be afraid and to blame someone else for their fear, such fearmongers will keep stoking those fears. 

But those who give in to those fears and fearmongers will not be able to hear the scriptures or understand what Jesus is calling us to do in those scriptures. They’ll be great at cherry-picking those scriptures to find reasons to hate people and to exclude people and to demean others as somehow not loved by God (as if such a person existed), but that thing about following Jesus and telling others the news, as the women were instructed on that Easter morning? A mind surrendered to fear can’t do that. 

That leaves us in an uncomfortable place. We often get quite comfortable in those fears. Being able to label and to “other” those we fear makes us seem somehow superior or more significant at least. But that is nothing less than closing the door to Jesus, who is waiting there in “the least of these” for our ministering and reaching out in God’s love.

We are left to lift up that fear and give it up to Jesus, the one who seeks to open our minds so that we can see and hear and learn the life of our Savior in those words. Let go of the fears that the world around us encourages and promotes, and let Jesus open our minds, so that we might follow where Jesus leads.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #245, Christ the Lord is Risen Today; #251, Christ Has Arisen, Alleluia

Sermon: Never Back to Normal

Grace Presbyterian Church

April 11, 2021, Easter 2B (recorded)

Acts 4:32-35; John 20:19-31

Never Back to Normal

(I am again compelled to open this week’s message with a disclaimer of sorts. This first part may be a bit more personal than preachers should necessarily get with their sermons. In this case I can’t come up with any better way to get to the point, though, so here goes.)

Back on Wednesday, as I had been grappling with these two scripture readings and how they would guide us in this time, I came across one of those “Memories” posts that Facebook likes to put out each day, with a sampling of posts that you’ve posted on that calendar date in years past. The one that caught my eye most of all was from three years ago. 

In that post I was explaining why I was going to be away from this church for a span of two to three months: first for some professional and vacation time, then to undergo a significant surgery. Specifically, as some of you will remember, I had a colostomy.  Much of the post consisted of some basic explanation of why I would be away for that length of time, or how my ability to do my job had been hindered to the point of non-functionality, or a lot of different other things. One idea that came up a couple of times in that note was that the period after the surgery would be at least somewhat occupied with finding whatever form of “normal” might be after the surgery.

That’s the one thing I am now convinced that I completely got wrong in the run-up to that surgery. My life is not “normal” anymore, and never will be. It is mathematically not “normal” in the sense that 50%+1 of the population will not ever experience this surgery and life after it. It is neither emotionally nor intellectually “normal” in that it never does fail to be a bit of a shock, even if just a small one, to wake up and find this thing there. 

My life is not “normal,” and never will be again. Is there a routine to my life? Sure, and most weeks I can keep to that routine of maintenance and care without too much disruption to the rest of my life. (Most weeks the condition of pandemic shutdown is far more disruptive and destructive to getting things done than colostomy care ever is.) Still, I don’t get to go a week or whatever without being reminded that this thing is there, and that it isn’t going away.

That condition – that things are not “normal,” and are never going to be “normal” again – is something that the followers of Jesus are learning in the readings from the gospel of John and the book of Acts today, even if the reason for it is far more joyful (albeit rather frightening too).

In John’s gospel, we get Jesus’s first encounter with most of his disciples and followers after his resurrection. Yes, Mary Magdalene had seen Jesus in the garden and had come and told them, but (typical of a group of men) they didn’t really believe her, even though Peter and John had seen the empty tomb also. Jesus got into the room despite the locked doors, and once inside with the thoroughly un-peaceful disciples, pronounced to them the needed blessing “Peace be with you.” As if to verify his identity, he showed them the scars of his crucifixion – not a ghost, but a real live-though-once-killed human body. He “breathes the Holy Spirit upon them” (we’ll presume this was not during a pandemic), and essentially commissions them as his witnesses. It’s a good finale to a gospel, potentially, when you step back and look at it. In some ways it’s not extremely dissimilar to the end of Matthew’s gospel.

There was one small problem, though: where was Thomas?

We don’t know. We are given no indication of why Thomas wasn’t there when the disciples were gathered in that locked room. Maybe he was hiding somewhere else. Maybe his grief was such that he couldn’t bear to be around the others. Or maybe he figured, with Jesus gone, there was nothing else to do but to go back to his old life. Nothing left to do but to go back to “normal.” After the time he had spent among Jesus’s followers, time in which he had gotten a reputation for saying things other wouldn’t say, like “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way?” in chapter 14 of this gospel; or “Let us go with him so we can die with him” even earlier, in chapter 11; after those and other things, maybe he just couldn’t see any hope in staying, and decided to go back to his “normal” life.

Somehow the disciples got out of that locked room long enough to find him and convince him to show up next time despite his expressed disbelief (we call him “doubting,” but frankly I’m not sure that’s a strong enough word for his response here – maybe more like “faithless”? Or “hopeless”?). He does show up, and Jesus singles him out. Here his penchant for brash statements comes out for the good as he makes the breakthrough acclamation – “My Lord and my God!” – to which this whole gospel has been building. Even so, Jesus takes a little shot at him – “oh, so you believe because you’ve seen me? How much more blessed are those who have faith without seeing me…”  And it’s worth noting that in the next chapter, when a bunch of the disciples are gathered together, Thomas does show up.

But make sure to note this: Jesus would not let the disciples’ lack of trust (with or without Thomas) stand in the way of his call to them. We could almost read this same factor into the story of the two disciples who encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. No matter what the motivation, Jesus wasn’t letting these disciples go.

If we were to look at the two readings as some kind of “before” and “after” portrait pair of the lives of Jesus’s followers, this scene clearly offers a “before” portrait. The disciples huddled in fear in their locked room, Thomas off who knows where. Jesus intervenes with, among other words, that breathed charge to the disciples to “receive the Holy Spirit” back in verse 22. What of that? What happens then?

If this is the “before” picture, our reading from Acts 4 gives us an “after” snapshot. Luke, in the early chapters of this follow-up volume to the gospel bearing his name, pauses the narrative occasionally with these brief descriptive portraits of the community of the early followers of Jesus. The passage of some amount of time (likely not that much, even with all that happens in it) and the intervention of the Holy Spirit (both in Jesus’s words and the intervening Pentecost event) bring that community to the place we see here, and it’s a very different scene from the one in John. 

It’s one of those scenes that the modern church really doesn’t know what to do with. It is intensely … communal, in a way that frankly disturbs us. Our accommodation to societal norms of individual property –  the “American dream” of home ownership and all that – leaves us squeamish at the appearance of what looks like, frankly, a commune. Nobody claiming private ownership of their stuff? People selling their property and putting the proceeds in the common treasury to be distributed strictly according to need? I’m going to guess most preachers are studiously ignoring this passage today. Furthermore, if you quoted this passage out of context, not mentioning its scriptural origins, you’d likely get a lot of politicians and others to denounce this with one of the big scare words of our time, “socialism.” You get a similar account in Acts 2:43-47, and brief notes in Acts 5:12-16 and Acts 6:7

Things are different after the Holy Spirit intervenes. There’s really no honest way to read the book of Acts and not get that idea. And it’s not as if this is all richly rewarded; the community in fact comes under persecution, both from religious leaders and an empire not tolerant of difference. The community is ultimately largely scattered and driven out of Jerusalem. As a result, this faith goes mobile, spreading into Samaria and then through the Mediterranean basin throughout the rest of Acts. 

The seed of it all is a community touched by the Holy Spirit, responding without fear (even if that takes a while) and without shame, living in the way Jesus taught his followers to live and the way that Holy Spirit guided them to live. In short, the community of followers of Jesus simply could not and did not return to “normal,” and the world was changed by it.

And yes, the church universal and local faces that same challenge after the most non-normal year we’ve seen in many years. The great question facing us all is, simply, do we desperately hold on to some hope of going back to “normal,” or do we follow where Jesus is calling us to go?

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #239, Good Christians All, Rejoice and Sing!; #817, We Walk by Faith and Not by Sight

Sermon: Christ is Risen! Shall we live like it?

Grace Presbyterian Church

April 4, 2020, Easter B (recorded)

Acts 10:34-43; Mark 16:1-8

Christ is Risen! Shall We Live Like It?

I am compelled to preface this message with something of a disclaimer. The good saints and scholars behind the development and organization of that road map for preaching and proclamation known as the Revised Common Lectionary would prefer that I not preach from this gospel reading today, or any Easter Sunday. That resource tends to favor readings and lessons from the gospel of John during Lent and especially Holy Week, and forwards John 20:1-18 as the principal reading for the day, with the Mark passage as an “alternate” reading. To be fair, that’s a lovely reading with the wonderful bit between Jesus and Mary Magdalene where she thinks he’s the gardener and all that. In fact, if it were up to the RCL you’d hear that passage from John every Easter Sunday, as Matthew’s and Luke’s resurrection accounts are also listed as “alternate” readings in Years A and C of the lectionary, respectively.

Others take up this push, such as the commentaries and other resources provided by, say, our denomination, which for the most part only acknowledge the reading from Mark as an “alternate” option for the day, and in some cases provide no support resources for it at all. For example, the lectionary-based commentary I use as a preparation starting point once I’ve made my way through studying the scripture reading itself doesn’t include any commentary for the Mark text. It’s John or nothing for Easter Sunday. 

So of course I preach from Mark.

The Mark reading’s unpopularity isn’t that big a surprise, I guess, once you’ve actually heard the reading. Let’s not mince words: it is deeply unsatisfying. No celebration, no rejoicing, not even an actual appearance of Jesus. Just a “young man” announcing and women fleeing in fear. Frankly, having the Acts reading as a supplement, in which the Apostle Peter gives an account of post-resurrection appearances of and even meals with Jesus, feels probably more useful in this cycle than in any other.

The Mark account kinda makes that first hymn feel a bit out of place, doesn’t it?

(A few necessary disclaimers here: the “additional verses” found in most Bibles are almost unanimously understood now to be much later additions to the text of Mark – the style and language are unbearably different. Also, it’s not at all clear that this is where Mark meant to end his account; it is possible that some further original material was lost. To the degree that this matters, this is the position I would take.)

There is one virtue in Mark’s terse account as we have it, though, that isn’t really found in quite the same way in the other, more voluble readings, certainly not John’s. Note that the cast of characters is quite small. A few women are making their way to the tomb to finish the work of preparation that had been cut off by the sunset approach of Sabbath when the body was being buried. Their main concern seemingly was to wonder how they would actually be able to get into the tomb to finish anointing the body with spices and other elements for its residence in the tomb. When they arrive, in the tomb is not the body of Jesus, but a “young man” sitting to one side (not named as an angel, but fulfilling that role), who makes the announcement in vv. 6-7: 

Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.

Their response, understandable but still terribly disappointing, was to run away: the three descriptive words that trail them are terror, amazement, and fear. Curtain falls.

As disappointing as this ending feels from a dramatic or literary point of view, or how unsatisfying for those weaned on a steady diet of Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the garden, there is, I repeat, one significant virtue, one powerful advantage to this account and its abrupt ending: we have no one to hide behind. No Magdalene in the garden, no Peter and John racing back and forth, no other characters to detract from the one urgent, pressing, inescapable question posed by this gospel’s ending:

What are you going to do?

The young man’s statement rings out, hanging in the air. “But go … he is going ahead of you to Galilee … there you will see him.” Follow him, y’all. He’s gone on ahead of you; he’s waiting for you there; follow him. “There you will see him, just as he told you.” 

Referring to those competing theories about the end of Mark’s gospel, one reason I’m disinclined to believe that this is the ending as Mark meant it is that if Mark had really intended to stop here, there would have been no reason to include even verse 8. The most gut-punch ending possible would have been simply to stop with verse 7 and let that call hang in the air forever. 

Apart from what looks like a failure of nerve on the part of the women (but don’t dump on them, folks, since the men are nowhere in sight), we do have that question hanging in the air for us as Mark’s gospel closes, and it is left hanging for perhaps Mark’s most important audience: us. 

It falls on us to decide, will we follow him? Will we go after Jesus?

And goodness, no, I’m not asking if we’re going to “be Christians.” Talk about a word that has been so badly misused and abused and misappropriated for such large swaths of the past two thousand years! Given the number of truly ungodly things that have been passed off over the last few years (but that hardly for the first time!) as being done by “Christians,” it’s fair to wonder if that label itself is finally outliving its usefulness. Wearing a favored label or being part of a particular favored group is absolutely not the point of any of this, any of what Mark or any other gospel writer has been laying out over the course of their particular accounts of jesus’s life and death and resurrection. 

And to be frank about it, the term “believer” is equally useless, or maybe even more so. Though again, the answer to come is hardly unique in the history of the church, let’s take the faith (and the Protestant version of it to a great degree) as it has been worked out over the course of the more than four hundred years that it has been in action on this particular continent. Think of the various missionaries who accompanied Spanish conquistadores into places like Florida or what is now the US Southwest; the ever-so-high-minded Puritans who came ashore in New England; the wildly fervent proponents of various Great Awakenings across the continent through the nineteenth century; or the proponents of the great evangelistic crusades of the twentieth century. All of those movements, to a great degree, devoted their efforts to the propagation of particular points of belief. Perhaps somehow it was assumed that right action would automatically follow, but an awful lot of the emphasis was on right belief.

Did you ever get introduced to the “Roman Road” to salvation?

Did anyone ever talk to you about “steps” to being a Christian?

Did you ever get an evangelistic tract?

So let’s take a step back now, looking at our church and our society as it currently stands, the result of all those propagations of good belief. A country that has never truly lived up to its stated founding ideals; a society that has repeatedly shown itself willing to sacrifice “the least of these” as in Matthew’s gospel for the comfort and safety of the few; a church that even in non-pandemic times manages to be as fractious as ever and to be more segregated than just about any other entity around us; let us look at all those things, and let’s honestly ask ourselves: how’s that “belief” thing working out for us?

At this point, as Jesus has gone ahead to Galilee, about the only label that we should really be concerned about now is “followers.” Followers of Jesus. Followers who go where Jesus goes, regardless of the scorn or mockery or whispered asides or economic loss or really anything, even regardless of whatever danger might come to us for doing so.

Even though with the new liturgical season it is no longer serving as our charge, that charge at the end of the service we have been using through Lent is worth holding on to:

Disciples of Jesus, do not shun the way of the cross, but follow wherever your Lord may lead you.

Even though it’s not recorded in Mark’s gospel, we kinda assume that somebody must have gotten the message the women received at the tomb if only because, well, Mark must have been writing this gospel to somebodywho most likely wouldn’t have cared or even known any of this if the women had stayed terrified and fearful and never told anybody. That there was anyone out there at all for Mark to write to with this account of Jesus’s life and teaching and death and, yes, resurrection, does lead us to figure that somebody must have eventually spoken up, and gotten everybody to follow Jesus to Galilee. 

And because of that, Mark’s challenge rings on to us. Are we, fearful and terrified as we sometimes are, going to follow where Jesus is leading us? Or have we lost the plot so badly that we can no longer even see where Jesus is calling us to go?

It’s not too late finally, truly, at whatever cost or risk, to be followers of Jesus, not merely in all that we think or believe, but especially and inescapably in all that we say and do. And this resurrected Jesus, out of the tomb and gone on ahead of us, is calling us to nothing less. 

Let us follow him where he leads; there we will see him, just as he tells us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #232, Jesus Christ is Risen Today; #254, That Easter Day With Joy Was Bright

Sermon: The Colt and the Crowd

Grace Presbyterian Church

March 28, 2021, Palm Sunday B (recorded)

Mark 11:1-11

The Colt and the Crowd

One of the great challenges of Holy Week is that, to be blunt, the stories featured in the major services of the week – Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday – are awfully familiar. After all, we tell them every year, and they do represent the climactic events of the life of Jesus, events that shape the faith and theology of Christianity itself (at least when we’re doing it right. 

It is the final three, of course, that are the focus; today, Palm Sunday, is something of a curtain-raiser on this final act of the drama of Jesus’s life and ministry. That is not to say, however, that this event is itself devoid of significance for our faith or our theology, nor that it is devoid of significance to us who seek to live out our lives as disciples of this Jesus, not merely name-droppers of Christ whose lives and actions adhere far more to social attitudes and customs than to anything biblical or spiritual.

Every gospel tells this story slightly differently – for example, the palms that give this day its name are mentioned only In John’s retelling of the story. There are a couple of particular elements of Mark’s account that might hold greater significance for us than we are accustomed to hearing. One of those has to do with how Jesus specifically entered into Jerusalem; the other, with those (in addition to the disciples) who joined him on the way. 

We get in the first half of this account the curious story of Jesus sending two of his followers to find and bring a colt, specifically one that “has never been ridden.” If anyone questions their taking the colt, they are told what to say; they say it and are able to proceed.

Now other gospel accounts differ here. Matthew has the two followers going to fetch a donkey *and* her colt. John specifically mentions a donkey. But taking Mark at his word, we have only the word “colt” (especially one that “has never been ridden”) to work from, which could indicate a young donkey or even a young horse. Here’s the thing, though: either way, choosing to enter the city on a colt is a strange choice.

A horse would have been the likely choice for an important person, say, the Roman governor of this district, who would likely have been riding into Jerusalem from the Roman seat of government at Caesarea Philippi to serve as a reminder that, while y’all may be having your big festival and all this coming week, don’t forget that we’re in charge. If you do, we have ways of reminding you, ways that you won’t enjoy.

A donkey was much more likely to be the mode of conveyance for an average joe, if such an average person were riding any animal at all. Not flashy or fancy, but dependable, reliable, all that. 

Of course, many people simply walked wherever they went, including (for most of their time together) Jesus and his disciples.

Riding an untrained colt, though, messes with all these pictures. The degree to which it undermines the pomp and spectacle of a Roman triumphal entry is likely clear enough, but even the average joe on his well-trained donkey gets called into question here, if for no other reason than the comfort or safety of the old donkey over the young colt. And for all the humility of the entry otherwise, Jesus is still riding – that is a gesture of a person of some significance, on some level worthy of the adoration to come, as a crowd of people gather around and begin to prepare the path.

Ah, yes, the “crowd.” Again, different gospel accounts portray it differently. John’s story suggests that the “great crowd” that had come to Jerusalem for the festival heard that Jesus was coming to town migrated over to greet him (12:12). Matthew speaks of a “very large crowd” in 21:8. Even Luke (19:37) speaks of the “whole multitude of the disciples” cheering and shouting their “hosannas” to Jesus. 

Mark, on the other hand, speaks of “many people” who were spreading their cloaks on the ground, or breaking off branches to mark the way for Jesus to ride. “Many people.” So we know that there are more than just the twelve disciples, but this doesn’t quite carry the force of numbers that phrases like “great crowd” or “very large crowd” or even “whole multitude” have. 

Even more cautious is the relating of what happens when Jesus and his followers and the “many people” get into Jerusalem. They went into the city, Jesus looked around at the Temple, and then…he went back to Bethany with the disciples. No sign of the “many people from before. The fireworks wouldn’t start until the next day, in Mark’s reading, when Jesus came back to the Temple and disrupted the commercial establishment there.

In short, the way Mark tells the story, it’s a pretty decent crowd, but not quite anything like the “multitude” other gospel accounts suggest. Hearing the story from this perspective might cause us to consider another question, one that should give us caution: which crowd are we with?

As noted earlier, it would not have been uncommon for large-scale processionals to enter Jerusalem, particularly coming from the Roman center of Caesarea Philippi, with numerous soldiers and horses and chariots and all the fine stuff that makes a tremendous impression on, well, impressionable crowds. Such processions would enter Jerusalem at a different gate, not the same portal to the city that Jesus and his followers used coming from Bethany and the Mount of Olives to the east. Such processions tended to attract large crowds, maybe even “very large crowds,” because it was sometimes useful to stay on the good side of the Romans, or because the procession overtook you and you had no way to get away from it, or frankly because they were large and impressive. While there’s no way to know for certain if such a processional was entering Jerusalem the same day or even the same time as Jesus and his followers, it’s not necessarily impossible that this was the case, or that such a processional might have entered days before or would enter days thereafter. 

Which crowd are we with? Are we spreading out branches and cloaks on Jesus’s way, or are we out there paying homage to the Empire and its claim to ultimate power? 

If we expand our view, however, there’s one more crowd we might need to ask ourselves about: the crowd that calls for Jesus’s crucifixion, after Pontius Pilate has questioned him. 

The chief priests and other religious authorities had brought Jesus in and questioned him, frankly to no avail, nonetheless they handed him over to that Roman governor of the time with their charges against him. Pilate, frankly, wasn’t terribly impressed, even though Jesus mostly kept silent before him. Rather than release him outright, though, he decided to play a political card and offer him as part of a traditional release for Passover, one of those ways he (like any skilled politician) curried favor with the people. 

Behind Pilate’s back, though, those religious authorities had already been playing those crowds gathered to witness that spectacle. In a scene that is unbearably resonant with contemporary culture, they persuade the crowd to demand that, instead of Jesus, Pilate release to them Barabbas, an insurrectionist and killer. Blindsided by this turn of the crowd, Pilate finds himself backed into a p.r. corner, and orders Barabbas released and Jesus crucified. 

The hymn “My song is love unknown” seems to allude to this contrast of crowds in its third stanza (as we have it in our hymnal):

Sometimes we strew his way and his sweet praises sing, 

Resounding all the day hosannas to our king. 

Then “Crucify!” is all our breath, and for his death we thirst and cry.

Which crowd are we with? The ones resounding “hosanna” to Jesus all the day, or the ones stirred up by madly jealous religious leaders to demand that Pilate “Crucify!”?

Do we let ourselves be swayed by the big-name preachers, with all the book sales and TV broadcasts, into letting our faith be hijacked by our political desires or cultural fetishes? Is our faith in our Christ or our country? Who do we follow, and who do we bend into unrecognizable knots to conform to the other? Which crowd are we with?

Indeed, Pilate, ever calculating for his own advantage, gives in to the pressure and condemns Jesus to death, and sets loose the insurrectionist and killer. So, yeah, there’s some relevance in our text for today.

We tend to read this narrative, in the longer form, as if to suggest that the “many people” following Jesus on what we call Palm Sunday turned against him by the end of the week and were demanding his death only those few days later, but we don’t know that for certain. Jerusalem was a large city for its time, and with numerous visitors coming into the city for Passover, there were plenty of people around to make up the angry and violent crowd – good religious folks, too, the lot of them – at the trial before Pilate. We should not therefore excuse ourselves with the “everybody else did it” excuse that is rather popular among human beings. No, we can’t assume that everybody else did it. We can’t justify ourselves by claiming to have gotten caught up in the hysteria and claiming that ‘we didn’t really mean it’. Our call is to follow, right to the very end, no matter what other crowds or Important People demand of us. 

What crowd are we with, as we come to this week of weeks? What is our cry? 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #197, Hosanna, Loud Hosanna; #198, Ride On! Ride On in Majesty.

Sermon: The Grain that Bears Fruit

Grace Presbyterian Church

March 21, 2021, Lent 5B (recorded)

John 12:20-33

The Grain That Bears Fruit

Am I the only person who reads this passage from John’s gospel and wonders what happened to the Greeks?

You know, there at the beginning of the reading, simply “some Greeks” who had come to the festival of Passover and approached Philip about seeing Jesus? Philip goes and tells his brother Andrew and then the two of them go to Jesus with the request and…Jesus starts talking about being glorified and grains of wheat and saving or losing your life, and then even more stuff that somehow feels a little bit out of left field? All of this happens, and we never hear about those Greeks again. 

There is a lot in this discourse that can get frankly confusing or disorienting to keep track of in our study or hearing. There is the business of those who seek to hold on to their lives instead losing them, and those who do not cling to life in this world instead holding on to eternal life There is the business of serving and following. There is what appears to be a quick exchange between Jesus on earth and a voice from heaven, and finally the line which in many studies or commentaries is held up as the key takeaway from this lesson: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John is even nice enough to add one of his little parenthetical explanatory comments here, to make sure that we understand that Jesus “said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die,” that is, crucifixion – a mode of execution in which the one being killed was truly lifted up for all to see. And yes, the echo of last week’s reading, with the serpent and Son of Man both being lifted up, is pretty clear.

This does come at a turning point in John’s gospel. The events of Palm Sunday are recorded just before this portion of chapter 12. The next chapter, chapter 13, begins with the event we commemorate on Maundy Thursday, although John’s story speaks of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet rather than bread and cup being shared. The rest of the gospel marks that final week of Jesus’s earthly life and ministry, with lots of private teaching time thrown in. 

So, this is the climax. That crucifixion – Jesus being “lifted up” – is only a few days away. 

This is an important image. The idea that Jesus being “lifted up” in crucifixion would be anything but the ultimate humiliation must have seemed naïve if not downright delusional to anyone who picked up on the image. Crucifixion, as the Romans devised it, was meant not only to be physically agonizing, but also to provide the ultimate humiliation indeed: stripped naked, nailed up to this cross, exposed for all the world to see and mock.

To suggest that such an event would be, far from a humiliation, an exaltation – a moment in which Jesus’s being “lifted up” would actually “draw all people” to Jesus – would have drawn a snort of derision from those Roman soldiers tasked with carrying out the execution, and probably a derisive laugh from those religious authorities who had had enough of Jesus by this time. And yet Jesus proclaims it exactly that: the moment, or the impetus, or the act in which all people are drawn to him. 

It doesn’t make sense.

And yet there is a key that is easy to overlook in this passage, back in the first part of the reading: that small line about a grain of wheat. 

It’s hard to do much with a single grain of wheat. You get a lot of such grains and grind them into flour and bake bread, you have something good, but a single grain? Not so much.

In fact, as Jesus tells it, the only thing for a single grain to do is die. 

The grain that falls into the earth, and “dies,” that’s when the new life happens. The one grain becomes many grains. Each one grain begets many grains, bears much fruit, bears new life, and many are fed. Here’s an image of hope for this long slog to the end of Lent; new life from old, new fruit from one seed. 

But this isn’t just an image of hope: it’s also a calling. The one who can’t be like that single grain, well, is dead. The one who yields to the soil, to the nurturing and watering and care visited upon the field, yields much fruit, a bountiful harvest. This was Jesus’s path; and if we claim to follow Jesus, it’s our path too. When we quit clinging to the comforts and benefits of this world, the things that allow us to be secure in our own rightness and aloof to the cruelties around us, such as the shooting in Atlanta this week; when we lay aside that comfort and yield our lives to Jesus’s life, that’s when we bear fruit. 

But it begins with the single grain, one that falls into the earth and dies.

[SONG “Now when a grain of wheat”]

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #53, O God, Who Gives Us Life; #247, Now the Green Blade Riseth

Sermon: The Crisis of Jesus

Grace Presbyterian Church

March 14, 2021, Lent 4B (recorded)

Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

The Crisis of Jesus

For today’s gospel reading, It’s just about possible to make any sense out of it – especially that first verse – without reference to the reading from Hebrew Scripture assigned for the day. It is true that the readings given for a particular Sunday are usually meant to bear some relationship to one another, but seldom is the connection quite so explicit as in today’s reading. So we really might as well go ahead and examine what happens in this account from the book of Numbers before we try to understand what Jesus is talking about.

We find the Hebrew people on their journey through Sinai, having been unable to gain passage through the land of Edom and seeing a way around that region. As happened more than a few times during these wanderings, the people lost their patience and began to complain, both against Moses and against God. You know that on some level they are complaining just to complain, since one of their chief complaints seems to be that there was no food and the food was terrible. When you can’t even be logically consistent, you’re frankly just trying to be a jerk.

At this provocation, poisonous snakes were set loose among the Israelites, and many of them died while others were suffering great pain. Somehow this provoked an outcry of confession among the people, and they pleaded with their terrible awful no-good leader Moses to plead for their lives before God. Their terrible awful no-good leader Moses did exactly that, and God gave Moses a curious instruction: make a replica of one of the serpents and put it up on a pole, and the people who were bitten by the real serpents would be able to look at the fake serpent and avoid dying from their wounds. 

While this sounds like borderline idolatry, in fact it works as the opposite of an idol. In order for their lives to be spared, the people would have to look at the very consequences of their sin directly, without flinching or looking away. You either confronted the wrong you had done, or you died, rather painfully at that. You could not help but be reminded of the sin you had committed and the painful consequences of that sin – not only for yourself, but for others. 

Moving to the gospel reading for today, we begin with that very image, of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. We do so, unfortunately, by lopping off the beginning of John’s account of Nicodemus and his visit to Jesus. We lose Nicodemus’s initial greeting and Jesus’s impatient let’s-get-down-to-business response; we lose the imagery of being “born of the Spirit” and the wind blowing where it will as image of the Spirit, and we miss Jesus’s chastisement of Nicodemus and his fellow religious leaders for not hearing Jesus and his testimony (which, so far in John’s gospel, mostly consisted of the clearing of the Temple we read of in last week’s gospel reading). Today’s reading begins at something of a pivot in this discourse, as Jesus turns from what has happened to what will happen.

The parallel isn’t exact here: when the Son of Man is “lifted up” it won’t be about the healing of a bunch of poisonous snake bites. But the comparison does work, and to help it along it will be useful to take a closer look at two words in this discourse and check on the original Greek, which contains some nuance that our English translations, even the NRSV, don’t quite catch. One of those even affects The Most Famous Scripture Ever, the one which is so widely known and memorized as to make this whole passage almost unpreachable.

I suspect most of us have that verse programmed into our brains (if we do at all) in the old King James Version: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” So pervasive is this widespread piece of learning that other translations (such as the NRSV in our church’s pews) hew pretty close to that version. In all of these cases there is one word in this verse that, while not necessarily translated inaccurately, is translated in such a way that a particular nuance of the Greek text is not preserved. That word is, believe it or not, “so.”

When we hear “God so loved the world,” we automatically translate it in our own minds as to say “God loved the world so much.” The Greek from which all these versions are translated, though, uses a word that is accurately translated “so” but with a different shade of meaning; were we to render that nuance in English, it might come out as “God loved the world like so,” or “God loved the world this way” if we were to put aside the word “so.” In this way the act of God giving God’s “only begotten Son” is tied again to the Moses’s raising up of that serpent in the wilderness. God’s love for the world is not separate from the world being confronted with the consequences of its sin. Jesus raised up on the cross confronts the world with its own sinfulness and the horror that comes of that sinfulness. 

Keeping this context and shade of meaning in mind then opens up the remainder of the reading in a way that is less bound to the kind of rhetoric and definition about “judgment” that often derails full understanding of the words of scripture. That other nuanced word of the Greek text, this one found in verse 19 and there translated as “judgment,” opens this up even more. 

In that verse, the Greek word translated as “judgment” is kreis (κρεις). And yes, “judgment” is a proper and accurate way to translate that word. However, the variety of “judgment” referenced here is not really fully captured by the way we tend to read the word “judgment” in scripture. We lapse over pretty quickly into all the images of hellfire and brimstone that have been popularized in certain strains of American theological thought and miss the immediate moment that this word wants us to notice. It might be useful to consider the English word that is adapted from that Greek word kreis: “crisis.” 

This puts the focus on that immediate moment, when the world sees verse 14 in action – “the Son of Man be lifted up” and the world confronted with its sinfulness and the consequences of that sinfulness. One might see this as the “moment of crisis,” or “moment of truth” to use a long-standing English-language idiom. Once the world sees “the Son of Man … lifted up,” once one is confronted with Jesus on the cross as the ultimate consequence of our unrepentant sinfulness, there is no more innocence, so to speak. It is the moment of truth.

One cannot walk away from that “sight,” that realization, that confrontation with the sinfulness of humanity and the horror it wreaks, without having to make a choice. Eventually we are going to choose one or the other: we will believe, we will take up the journey of faith, we will follow…or we won’t. We will eventually embrace the light, or we will shy away from it for good. To put a popular music spin on it, that old song title from the Doobie Brothers – “Jesus is Just Alright” – doesn’t really work as a response. Jesus is the one we are seeking or Jesus is the one we are fleeing.  

Perhaps the hardest part of all this is to keep verse 15 in mind when all of the other verses come tumbling after with words like “condemned” and “darkness” and “evil.” But that verse, maybe even more than the famous verse preceding it, is where hope is sustained in this reading. Condemnation is not the purpose of this raising up; salvation is.

One of the other challenges in reading such scripture is to hold it in tension with other words from scripture, for example the reading from the letter to the Ephesians. Its concluding verses might not have quite the fame of John 3:16, but they hold no less significance. We can be prone, unintentionally I’m sure, to hear the scripture from John and slip into the idea that the act of believing becomes our salvation. Not so. That’s not what John is saying, and this letter to the church at Ephesus squashes that misconception flat. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Even that act of believing is God’s gift; it is God’s grace that activates and works and saves, and that is our salvation; we did not do anything to “win” it or “earn” it or “grasp” it in any way. 

This is how God loved the world; salvation – life eternal – comes by the Son being lifted up, like that old bronze serpent in the wilderness. It’s all a gift of God’s grace – nothing we have earned, nothing we can earn. The most we can do is not flee from it.

For the One who was lifted up, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #634, To God Be the Glory; #462, I Love to Tell the Story

Sermon: Zeal for What?

Grace Presbyterian Church

March 7, 2021, Lent 3B (recorded)

John 2:13-22

Zeal For What?

The good folk who formulated the Revised Common Lectionary seem to have decided that the season of Lent, Year B, should start off with some Angry Jesus. After last week’s account of Jesus calling out Peter as Satan, today we get the story often labeled as Jesus’s “cleansing of the temple.” What’s more, we get it in the version found in the gospel of John, which seems in some way more intense and, well, frankly, violent than the accounts found in other gospels. 

After all, in John’s gospel this event happens very early in Jesus’s public life – you could even argue that this was his first public appearance. Yes, John had pointed him out in his baptizing activities, and a few disciples had come to him, and he had turned water into wine at that wedding in Cana, but this was out in front of the whole world, in about the most public place one could be in Jerusalem. For another thing, while the other gospel accounts of this story do speak of Jesus driving out the moneychangers and animal keepers and in some cases flipping their tables over, only John includes that business about Jesus fashioning a whip out of cords to drive the animals out. He’s not just picking up a whip that was lying around; he made a whip on the spot. To put it bluntly, something set Jesus off, and he acted on it.

Jesus’s words point pretty clearly to what set him off. Evoking words of the prophet Zechariah, Jesus directs particular ire at the sellers hard at work on the temple grounds with the cry “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” We find in the very last sentence of the book of Zechariah (14:21) the exultation that, on the day of the final victory of the Lord over Israel’s foes, that “there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.” Jesus’s cry thus evokes the degree to which the state of the temple was far short of its intended ideal as the house of the Lord. 

Those words also help explain the reply of the temple authorities. Rather than launching into a full-fledged assault on Jesus for the disruption of temple business, their reply indicates that they remember Zechariah’s words as well; thus they ask for a “sign” for Jesus’s prerogative to do this. They know as well as Jesus does that this isn’t how the temple is supposed to be.

Other gospel accounts of this incident, besides placing it during Jesus’s final week in Jerusalem instead of the beginning of his public ministry, hint that there is double-dealing going on in this temple marketplace. Since particular animals “without blemish” were required for sacrifice in temple ritual, those who came to participate regularly brought their own sacrifices. However, those sacrifices might be judged insufficiently unblemished or “pure” to meet temple standards. How convenient, then, that this marketplace was right there to provide “pure” animals for sacrifice, at what was certainly a most reasonable fee, right? At minimum, the potential for abuse in such a system was clear, and in the other gospels such abuse is strongly hinted as a reason for Jesus’s anger. Here in John, though, it seems to be that it is simply the presence of the “traders,” in Zechariah’s words, that is the offense. 

Does it indeed serve the purpose of the temple for these traders to be present? Or does it become an obstruction? Does it hinder the people from being able to offer their sacrifices without being exploited or drained of their meager resources? Does it detract from the holiness of worship? These are all possible responses to what happens in these first verses of John’s account, reinforced by that quote from Psalm 69 the disciples recall at this point.

That phrase – “Zeal for your house will consume me” – sure seems to fit here. You can see why John reads this thought into the disciples’ collective thought; Jesus has seen the temple overrun by marketplace activity and he went all crazy on them. The remainder of the reading, though, should perhaps give us pause before rushing headlong into taking this as our particular lesson from the story.

We have already noted that rather than outright condemning Jesus for his act, the temple authorities ask Jesus about a sign. His answer, as much as those temple authorities might not get it, is what truly unlocks what Jesus is about at this moment, and it turns out that Jesus might not really be quite as concerned about the building as it seems.

Jesus answered the authorities, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” And let’s be honest, the reaction of those temple authorities is, on the surface, very logical. The temple has been “under construction” for forty-six years, as they observe (which suggests it still wasn’t quite complete), and this one man thinks he can build a whole new temple in three days? Dude must be crazy is a perfectly reasonable way to respond to such a statement, if you’re going to take that statement literally. 

However, those temple authorities didn’t get what Jesus was saying, and apparently Jesus’s own disciples didn’t either, at least until after Jesus had been resurrected years later. John is particularly fond of this little trick he pulls here – sticking in a little after-the-fact editorial comment that unveils the “real story” behind a moment like this one. In this case, the hidden nugget of wisdom John drops has everything to do with what the true “temple” really is, and what it really means to worship God in spirit and in truth. And it doesn’t necessarily have much to do with a building.

John’s little insert is pretty simple, actually: “But he was speaking of the temple of his body.” 

On the surface, it might seem like a non sequitir – wait, what does his body have to do with the temple? – but following the logic of the statement we find ourselves with a whole lot to unpack. For John to epeak of the temple of Jesus’s body points way, way ahead in the story. John acknowledges this in his note that the disciples only really understood what Jesus was saying here after the resurrection. 

This becomes part of the gospel that sweeps through the infant church in the book of Acts. You can hear it in Stephen’s last great speech before his stoning, when he tells his listeners that “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands” (which is itself an allusion to Isaiah 66:1). God is not bound up in human buildings at all, nor can the worship of God be so bound.

Hopefully, if we’ve learned anything in this past year, we’ve learned that. Indeed it was a year ago tomorrow that we held our last service in our sanctuary before the pandemic started shutting things down. We ended up finding ways to keep worship going, somehow, even if our cats became unintentional fixtures of the service for a few months. 

Not all churches seemed to learn this lesson. You might remember that there were a number of churches that insisted that they had to continue meeting together, no matter how much virus-spreading that caused. You could also see churches rushing back into in-person worship only to have to resort back to the remote version when people started contracting the virus as a result. At the risk of seeming to denigrate fellow Christians, what kind of God do they think they worship? Some kind of God who can be contained in a building? 

Or are they bound by all sorts of external concerns that in fact have very little to do with the worship of God Almighty? Are they so bound up with the idea that worship itself is bound up in a particular building (not unlike the temple in the biblical account)? 

If the center and focus and reason and locus of our worship is in anything other than the person of Jesus Christ, we’re doing it wrong. Even as at some point we do return to worship in the sanctuary, we had better be reminded that there are those who cannot gather with us or with any church in person even under the best of circumstances and remember that Jesus would not have us exclude them from the worship of the Lord because of that hindrance. 

The way we as the larger church think about worship needs to be different, now and forevermore. Anything that detracts from the source and object of our worship being Jesus and Jesus alone has to be put out of mind for good. If we can’t do that in the church writ large, we aren’t serving anybody particularly well – not God, nor Christ, nor ourselves nor the world around us. And it’s probably best to start that rethinking and reimagining now, before we are back together again all vaccinated and protected, and think we have permission to let everything go back to “normal.’ There are some “normal” that should never return, and the whole idea that the worship of God in Jesus through the Holy Spirit can or should be contained to a building needs to be one of those “normal” that never rears its head again.

For Jesus Christ, our only Temple, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #61, Your Law, O Lord, Is Perfect; #394, Christ is Made the Sure Foundation

Sermon: “You Keep Using That Word…”

Grace Presbyterian Church

February 28, 2021, Lent 2B (recorded)

Mark 8:27-38

“You Keep Using That Word…”

One of the favorite scenes in the cult-favorite movie The Princess Bride involves Inigo Montoya, a Spanish-born master swordsman in the employ of a low-rent thug named Vizzini, who has kidnapped the crown prince’s bride-to-be. Vizzini has a habit of exclaiming the word “inconceivable!” upon seeing something happen that he did not expect, typically involving their pursuer as they flee with their kidnapped princess-to-be. After one such exclamation from Vizzini (when their pursuer fails to fall to his death after the rope he is climbing is cut), Inigo responds with one of the most classic lines from the film: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

You won’t be surprised to learn that line has taken off, becoming among other things a particularly popular social media meme, frequently applied to the words of certain politicians and certain of their followers. One could well argue that it could stand to be used in the broader church these days, as certain corners of Christendom demonstrate repeatedly that they have utterly failed to understand much of what Jesus said at all in their public actions and words. And here in today’s reading we have a pretty good example of a time when it could have been used appropriately in scripture, if somebody had bothered to invent it by then. The word in question in this case appears in verse 29, and it sets off everything else in this account.

The day’s appointed lectionary reading actually started only in verse 31, when Jesus begins to teach his disciples about what was to come, just after Peter has had his big breakthrough moment about who Jesus is. But that breakthrough moment is so important to what happens in this passage it seemed best just to go ahead and read it. That might seem strange to say; the disconnect between the two seems rather sharp and severe. As it turns out, that is precisely Jesus’s point.

Jesus and the disciples are on their way to Caesarea Philippi, a major seat of Roman imperial influence in Palestine, when Jesus begins to ask the disciples what they’re hearing. This comes after an extended stretch of Jesus’s ministry consisting mostly of miracles and teaching. The disciples have seen not one, but two miraculous feedings in Mark’s account, and numerous healings and exorcisms to boot. The teaching episodes have intensified along the way as well. Not everything has gone smoothly; things got rough and nearly hazardous on their visit to Jesus’s hometown of Nazareth. Still, after the slam-bang pace of the first 7 ½ chapters of this book, things slow down just a bit as Jesus begins to solicit the disciples’ thoughts here.

The responses are not that surprising: John the baptizer, not that long executed by Herod; the great prophet Elijah, or possibly another of the prophets of old. Then Jesus turns the tables, asking the disciples their own opinion. Since Mark isn’t much for setting a scene, we don’t know if Peter blurted out his answer immediately or if there was a period of silence or verbal hemming and hawing first, but out the words come tumbling: “You are the Messiah.”

Jesus’s first reaction seems strange enough: the rhetorical equivalent of a great big “SSSSHHHHHH….”. But it’s what comes next that sets off the fireworks, and to grasp that we need to remind ourselves that the word “messiah” had acquired meanings in the popular imagination that went beyond what might have been found in the prophetic literature or in rabbinical teaching of the time. Such meanings were heavily influenced by the situation in which the people of Palestine found themselves, under the rule of Rome.

Let’s face it: most of us have never lived in a place occupied by a foreign power, so it’s not easy to relate to what Peter and the other disciples were experiencing in Roman-occupied Palestine. Still, such pressures can do bad things to theology. In this case, at least among some, the anger or hatred felt for their Roman occupiers began to bleed over into their anticipation of a promised deliverer. When the whole idea of “messiah” is all bound up with saving God’s people, saving the people of Israel, well, it’s pretty easy to convince yourself that driving out the Romans has to fit under that definition, right? For quite a few that did indeed become part of the hoped-for messiah’s job description, so to speak.

We don’t know for sure if Peter fell into that category, but it’s not a stretch to guess so, given the evident harshness of his response to Jesus’s teaching that came after the big happy moment he had just had. When Jesus – for the first time in Mark, but not the last – begins to teach that the Son of Man (his own word for his work, rather than “messiah”) would suffer and be rejected by the authorities and be killed, Peter’s response is described with a particular word (here translated as “rebuke”) that frankly rules out a response rooted in sadness or shock or fear. Peter – the same Peter who had just pronounced Jesus as “Messiah” – was now practically bullying Jesus into taking back that talk about suffering. Let’s not mince words; in Mark’s telling this is an angry and emotionally violent moment.

What Peter dished out, he got back tenfold.

Notice it isn’t just the verbal response – the words “Get behind me, Satan!” that get all the attention – that Jesus responds with here. To utter those words, Jesus turns to the disciples – that is, turns away from Peter as if to say if this is what you think I’m not even going to look at you. It doesn’t hurt to make sure the other disciples get the message as well.

Suffice to say that Peter, and the disciples as well, were finding out that the word “messiah” did not mean what they thought it meant.

In the next moment Jesus even turns his attention away from the disciples and calls the crowd that had accumulated around them for teaching. There, in verse 34, is the command that so many seem to fail to understand even (or maybe especially) today in the church:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

There is no room for appropriating the Messiah (or the Christos to use the Greek in most manuscripts of Mark) for our own personal or political or even religious desires. If we are about anything but what Jesus lays out here – taking up our cross and following, our lives being taken into the work and life and witness of Jesus and his gospel – we get the response that Peter had just gotten. And yeah, this applies to a lot of people who have been in your news headlines since, oh, say, around the first of the year, no matter how much they invoke Jesus’s name and cover themselves in “Christian” garb of whatever sort. When you’re trying to lead Jesus around where you want to go and to hurt whomever you want to hurt in Jesus’s name, well, “Get behind me, Satan!” is about the only response appropriate for you. Don’t think you’ll get away any easier than Peter did.

I’m not enough of a church historian to know, but I’d not be surprised if that tendency – to appropriate Jesus and the gospel to promote the church’s rather distinctly secular agendas – has been a problem as long as the church has been in existence. It does seem, sometimes, to be a particularly American trait. We are particularly prone to equate the adjectives “American” and “Christian.” That’s never been appropriate for any other nation, and it’s not appropriate for us either. If our first loyalty, our first impulse is to anything other than Christ, we’re doing it wrong. And yet we have an awful lot of folks around who seem quite willing to announce that Jesus has exactly the same agenda that they do, and somehow not grasp that it’s supposed to work the other way ‘round. 

So it’s simple as this: you can either follow Jesus where he leads, or you can tell Jesus where he’s supposed to go.

You want to be a disciple of Jesus? Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow. Simple, though of course not simple to do at all. 

You think “Messiah” means something different? That word may not mean what you think it means.

You think you know better what a Messiah is supposed to be than Jesus does here? You have a mind to tell Jesus what Jesus is supposed to do and not do? 

Well, we know what Jesus has to say to that.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #49, The God of Abraham Praise; #726, Will You Come and Follow Me (The Summons)

Sermon: Lent Again? Already?

Grace Presbyterian Church

February 21, 2021, Lent 1B (recorded)

Mark 1:9-15

Lent Again? Already?

It can’t really be Lent again already, can it? 

It’s not hard to feel that way right now. Lent already? It’s true that it falls pretty early this calendar year, but it’s also true that after nearly a year of Covid-induced shutdowns and isolation and mask-wearing and anti-mask-wearing jerkishness and over 400,000 deaths and complete and utter failures and corruption of leadership, not to mention the usual disasters over the course of a year like devastating hurricanes and now winter storms that have frozen several Southern states solid, it can feel like last year’s Lent never ended. How can it be starting again already?

Given the stress of this particular entry into Lent, it might be a good thing that we are in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary, which means that the gospel readings for this year, for the most part, come from the gospel of Mark. That means that for this first Sunday of Lent, which features those scriptures dealing with the temptation of Jesus, we get Mark’s account of that event which, as you can see, is dramatically different from the accounts in Matthew and Luke. And that might be a very good thing in this particular moment.

Matthew takes eleven verses to tell this story, including the account of the three specific temptations to which Jesus was subjected. Luke also includes those three specific temptations (though in a slightly different order), taking thirteen verses to tell the story. Our man Mark, on the other hand, tells it all in two verses, and doesn’t include those bits about turning stones to bread or jumping off the Temple or offering up worship to the unworthy tempter. No, what we get from Mark is this: 

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

As the social-media joke goes, that’s it. That’s the tweet. That is, in Mark’s telling, the whole story.

What in the world are we possibly supposed to learn from this, and how does this make Lent any more bearable?

One point to note is that the context in which this account happens makes a striking difference. We heard the account of Jesus’s baptism six weeks ago; here, having it follow directly and even abruptly into the wilderness story is particularly jarring. Jesus has just come up from the waters of the Jordan, the heavens torn apart and the spirit descending like a dove and the voice calling him God’s beloved, when all in an instant – and this is Mark’s description here, not mine – “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness”. Jesus didn’t ask for this. 

On the other end of the story, when Jesus comes out of the wilderness, things haved changed, John his baptizer has been arrested, and Jesus returns to his home region. He was earlier described as coming from Nazareth in Galilee, what one scholar described as a “third-rate village in a second-rate province.” Jesus doesn’t just go home to that second-rate province, though; he goes with a mission and a message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Because of the vagaries of Greek verb tenses, the precise rendering of the first half of that sermon can be a little challenging to translate. One might even be best advised to go full vernacular and put a southern spin on it: “It’s time, y’all! Here comes the kingdom of God!” At the minimum that might give us a more definite sense of the urgency of thie message, or for that matter the urgency of pretty much everything about the gospel of Mark and its account of Christ’s words and deeds. (Speaking of which, these are the first words we hear from Jesus in this gospel.) 

The two-verse narrative itself does include some tantalizing details of its own. It makes clear that Jesus is being tempted or “tested,” also a good translation of the Greek, and a slightly different thing than being tempted. Temptation, after all, purports to encourage the temptee to choose some desirable thing – bread, or ultimate power, say – over fidelity to God. Testing, on the other hand, is just that; being hard-pressed, challenged, possibly hurt, all to discover what our capacity to answer or finish or endure is. That puts a different spin on what Jesus was facing out in the wilderness, and maybe, if we look at it right, it changes what Lent is or can be for us. We aren’t called to “overcome,” or “triumph” over all this; just endure. Just finish. Remember Paul’s words about how he fought the good fight, completed the race, kept the faith? He never claimed to have won the fight or the race; he simply endured and finished. Maybe that’s a Lenten discipline all its own.

There’s also mentioned the presence of angels, ministering to Jesus all through the forty-day testing, apparently. Whereas other accounts suggests that angels came to Jesus after it was all over, Mark tells us they were there the whole time. Maybe that’s another Lenten lesson for us; no matter how long or how tough or how much of a slog it all becomes, we are not left on our own, cut off from God’s care. That ministering presence is still with us, if we just look and pay attention and don’t get caught up in our own myopic lack of understanding.

Oh, yes, there’s also the bit about the “wild beasts.” Jesus was “with” them, Mark says – not that they were menacing or threatening Jesus; nothing like that is suggested. Simply, “he was with the wild beasts.” Who knows, maybe if we quit abusing and exploiting and destroying our fellow members of creation out of raging greed and reckless indifference, maybe we could be with God’s creation too, with all the comfort and care it has to offer. 

But maybe the thorniest text clue is that very first statement – not that Jesus went into the wilderness, but again that “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” Again, Jesus didn’t ask for this. It’s not as if he stood there dripping in the water thinking “ok, now I go off into the wilderness and fast for a while…”; no, the Spirit – God, in short – forced Jesus into the wilderness. It was something Jesus had to face, evidently, or else why doe God do this?

There is that line in the old spiritual “Jesus walked this lonesome valley,” the one that follows up that first verse with the point-blank statement “you must go and stand your trial.” It’s appropriate to quibble with the next line, “you must stand it by yourself” – Jesus didn’t have to do that, as we’ve already seen. But there may be something to that first line, and maybe that’s the hardest lesson of Lent. Our life, no matter how much some blasphemous preachers would tell you otherwise, will not be all sweetness and light. Even those of the most penetrating and unshakeable faith will face testing; the unexpected cancer diagnosis, the lost job, the marriage gone to pieces out of nowhere, the child dead all out of time. Our own understanding of faith or God or our calling or our vocation may be tested, hard.

And sometimes that testing may show us that things do indeed need to change. We may need to move on to a new job or vocation. Our life circumstances may need to change. We have already seen members of our own congregation who learned through this extended time of testing in the pandemic that continuing to live on their own was no longer a good option, and they have already moved or are moving to live closer to adult children who can support and care for them. Sometimes testing is meant to provoke a change.

And that may be true for the whole church, maybe even especially the white Protestant portion of the church, in this extended time of testing. We’ve learned how little we’ve truly lived up to God’s call to live as children of God with all of God’s children, instead of just staying cozy with those who look like us and think like us and all that. We’ve been forced to see just how much our relative privilege or power has been built on oppression and suppression and exploitation and outright cruelty towards those not born white. Look at Texas right now and see the latest example of how poorly we have stewarded God’s creation, and how yet again “the least of these” are made to suffer the most, while the privileged escape to Cancun. 

Yes, the church is being tested. Some parts of that church, including some of your neighbors, will gladly ignore that testing and continue to exult in the privilege and power that protects and elevates them, no matter who suffers. We had better not be that church, folks. To survive and even thrive on the stoking of hatred and exploiting and abusing of others and destroying of God’s world is blasphemy, pure and simple, and leaves us on the wrong side of that message Jesus proclaimed after coming out of the wilderness. “It’s time, y’all. Here comes the kingdom of God!” And a church that persists in its own comfort and safety is going to find itself on the wrong side of that kingdom. This is where that word “repent” comes in.

So perhaps this past year really has been an extended Lent, and that date on the liturgical calendar last Wednesday is not really changing much about our spiritual circumstance. We have been and are continuing to be tested. But learn from this miniscule story in Mark; we are not left alone in this testing, even in isolation at home. We have a whole creation to be with as well. The testing may well show us it’s time to change directions, as discomfiting as that is. But no matter how the testing goes, we have a good piece of news to proclaim on the other side of it. As much as we don’t like the word “repent,” because that really does mean turning around and not doing that anymore, it is good news that turning around is even possible. 

It’s time, y’all. Here comes the kingdom of God!

Are we paying attention? Are we ready to move?

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #165, The Glory of These Forty Days; #166, Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days

No, these probably weren’t the “wild beasts” Jesus was with in the wilderness…

Sermon: The Praise of God

Grace Presbyterian Church

February 7, 2021, Epiphany 5B (recorded)

Psalm 147:1-11

The Praise of God

“Praise the Lord!”

More than one commentator on the Psalms has observed that when preaching from the Psalms, particularly one like Psalm 147 or its surrounding songs at the end of this great trove of song that all start with that word “hallelu-ja”, one might be best served by quoting this opening exaltation and stepping down. I might just as well move on to my usual concluding “Thanks be to God. Amen” and move on to the Affirmation of Faith. There’s really not much way to top that. 

I’m pretty sure that’s not what I’m getting paid for, however, and for that matter the psalmist doesn’t stop there either, but perhaps I can be as economical as possible with my words, the better to keep the praise of God as uncluttered and clear as possible.

In continuing, the psalmist, almost like a film director, moves seamlessly between tightly focused, intimate and particular scenes of God and God’s provision for creation and vast sweeping vistas that, for all their vastness, only hint at the scope of God’s power and majesty. The same God who “gathers up the outcasts” and “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” in one scene then “determines the number of the stars” and “gives to all of them their names” (2-4); the God who “covers the earth with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills” then turns and “gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry.” We humans tend to get caught up in one or the other – the cosmic or the immediate; the psalmist reminds us to praise God for both.

So “Praise the Lord” in all things great and small, right? Well, there might be more to say, based on the context in which this text first appeared. 

While we tend to think of the book of Psalms in general as being of the time of King David, and while many of the individual psalms do originate in or around that era, not all of them do; some come from perhaps a little earler, and some from later – even quite a bit later. This particular psalm, with a particular style and certain seeming references to language found in later parts of the book of Isaiah, seems to date from a period after the exile of the people of Judah in Babylon and their return under the direction of the Persian ruler Cyrus. It is a return, but not necessarily all that triumphant. Christine Roy Yoder of Columbia Theological Seminary describes the likely audience for the psalm in such a scenario thusly: “…the psalmist heralds the sovereignty of God for a ragtag and conflicted community composed of returnees, those who had been left behind to till and keep the land…and others, who were struggling in the aftermath of the exile to rebuild as a small colony on the fringe of the new world empire, that of the Persians.” 

You can almost imagine the returned exiles sneering at the rough, uncultured bumpkins who had remained, while those who had remained in Judah grumbled about the JINOs (Judeans in Name Only) who came barging in as if they owned the place. At any rate it is in the midst of this uncertain and fractious setting that the psalmist sings out the exhortation to “Praise the Lord” in the cosmic and the personal, in all things great and small. Perhaps hearing it from that perspective – one that might not be as different from our own as we’d wish – might give us a new perspective on just what kind of startling, upending, even radical call this is that is embedded in what seems a simple psalm of praise.

I was a little too young to grasp what was going on when the first pictures of our planet to be taken from space began to appear, as NASA and Apollo astronauts began to produce views of Earth that had never before been possible. The now-famous “Earthrise” image and others sent back from various Apollo missions around or to the moon put our planet in a perspective simply not imaginable before; from vast, unknowable horizons viewed by the naked human eye to a blue dot set in space. 

Later years have brought us a different alteration of perspective: with the aid of new technologies and scientific advancements, we can see smaller and smaller living organisms – microscopic bacteria, for example, that could easily nestle together one hundred fifty or so in a single E.coli cell. [Note: image below]

Obviously the psalmist would have had no clue about either such thing, nor the ability to visualize the earth from space or to view microscopic bacteria. And yet, the vision of the psalm extends all the way through these extremes and even beyond. Our exhortation to “Praise the Lord” encompasses both the vastness of the universe, and our planet’s small place in it, and the tiniest of living organisms, to which we are universes, smaller by magnitudes than our human eyes can see or our human minds can conceive. 

There is one more part of this psalm that demands consideration. To put it in more modern terms: God does not relish superpowers. 

It is not in our great accomplishments that God glories. God isn’t about delighting in the speed of the Kentucky Derby winner or Olympic gold-medalist sprinter, or the strength of the greatest weightlifter or most powerful wrestler. Since there’s apparently some football game tonight, we’ll also put it this way: God does not delight in Patrick Mahomes’s ability to scramble away from would-be tacklers, or Tom Brady’s ability to find receivers in tight corners.

No: God delights, as verse 11 says, “in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.” Remembering that this usage of “fear” is not about our modern “being afraid” condition, we see that this psalm-long exhortation to “Praise the Lord” touches upon this delight of God in those who pay their honor or adoration or respect towards God, those who know their own strength or speed or cunning or reason are no match for the vastness or the infinitesimal scope of God’s care for creation. God, you see, has taken care of the great and the small. Here’s a spot to remember the verse from Psalm 62, a few weeks ago: “For God alone my soul waits in silence (or “silently”); for my hope is from him.” This is, in short, what gives God joy.

In the vastness and unimaginable scope of God’s creation, “Praise the Lord.” In the infinitesimal inner reaches of God’s creation, “Praise the Lord.” In moments of triumph, glory, success, fame, or exaltation, “Praise the Lord.” In moments of struggle, division, conflict, or loss, “Praise the Lord.” In all things, “Praise the Lord.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #657, Sing to God With Joy and Gladness; #547, Go, My Children, With My Blessing