Grace Presbyterian Church

A Warm and Welcoming Church

Sermon: More Than a Feeling

Grace Presbyterian Church

May 9, 2021, Easter 6B (recorded)

John 15:9-17

More Than a Feeling

Time to check out the pop charts [note: imagine these being sung]:

“All you need is love…all you need is love…” 

“Do ya loooove me (do ya love me)…now that I can dance?”

“What’s love got to do, got to do with it?”

“Black is the color of my true love’s hair…”

“I can’t help falling in love with you…”

“Crazy little thing called love…”

“I love a rainy night, love a rainy night…”

“Love…love will keep us together…”

“What the world needs now is love, sweet love”

I am honestly convinced that if some alien from another planet dropped in on earth and tried to figure out just exactly what “love” is based on the songs human beings sing about it, that poor alien would probably return to its home planet in a dazed and confused stupor. That alien might conclude that “It hurts to be in love…” or maybe even that “Love is a battlefield,” or perhaps even that “Love stinks.” At the very minimum that alien would probably still be singing one more title, “I want to know what love is…”

One might suggest that hanging around the church might offer the alien some better examples, but even then confusion might still be pervasive. Is it “Jesus loves me!” or “Jesus loves the little children”? (Considering that the “me” in that first song is usually presumed to be a child, the alien might wonder why we have to say it twice.) “Love divine, all loves excelling” might be helpful, at least. Then there’s “Come down, O Love divine” and “I love to tell the story” and “Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love” and “Jesus, lover of my soul” and many, many more. I don’t know how much help our alien subject would get from these titles, but hopefully the hymns themselves would give this intrepid researcher something to work with.

Still, though, the alien might be best served by hearing a song (or at least a title) in which the word “love” doesn’t even appear: “More than a feeling…”

Let’s be fair, the word “love” does get used in ways that don’t always make clear just what we’re talking or singing about. And for those of us who would follow after Jesus, it can be a bit of a search process to get a grasp on the whole idea. We have of course 1 Corinthians 13 that treats the whole idea of love pretty extensively, but with more description than definition -love does this, love doesn’t do that. There is also the beginning portion of Hebrews 13, which gives the command “Let mutual love continue” and then gives several examples of what that looks like. (It is this passage that today’s second hymn takes as its source.) No doubt you could come up with numerous other readings from scripture that speak to the topic of love.

And then there’s today’s gospel reading, what many scholars consider the high point of John’s gospel. It is a chunk taken out of what is commonly known as Jesus’s “farewell discourse” among biblical scholars and is also a continuation of last week’s reading about abiding and bearing fruit. For a passage that seems to be mostly the middle of something at first glance, there’s a lot going on in these nine verses, and some of those things being said challenge quite severely our often-sentimental concepts and definitions of the word “love” and the way we toss it around rather casually.

Take, say, verse 12: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” When you live in a world in which love is most often spoken about or portrayed in songs or movies or such as a mushy, indefinable feeling that apparently strikes unbidden and can seemingly disappear as fast as it appeared, the idea of love as a commandment can be pretty hard to stomach. I can’t help who I love, we might think. And this isn’t even the first time this word – “commandment” – has appeared in this passage, and that earlier appearance in verse 10 might help us understand things a little better:

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my father’s commandments and abide in his love.

Much like last week’s passage about abiding and bearing fruit, this commandment about love turns out to be tied up in a promise. See how it’s set up: if you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love. Will – not “can” or “might” or “ought to.” Will. In the keeping of the commandments of Jesus, the disciples are abiding in his love. The love is in the doing. 

In a way this brings us back to those passages like 1 Corinthians 13 and Hebrews 13. The love is in the doing; the patience and kindness and lack of arrogance or boastfulness of 1 Corinthians, showing hospitality and remembering the imprisoned and not falling in love with money of Hebrews. For that matter, perhaps the most basic lesson in how love looks might be found in Matthew 25:31-46, with all of its talk of what we do or don’t do for “the least of these.” Our feelings on the matter don’t really matter. 

Actually, let me take that back: if our feelings on the matter prevent us from doing those things that make for love, then those feelings do matter. But feelings aren’t love, not this love that Jesus is talking about and commanding here.

If we aren’t scared enough of this whole business of love that Jesus talks about, verse 13 ought to accomplish that with its talk of laying down one’s life for one’s friends. Of course, Jesus was soon, in a modern metaphor, to put his money where his mouth was. Except of course that in that case, the “friends” for whom Jesus would do that wasn’t a group limited to those disciples listening at this moment.

There’s also this business of servants and friends. A servant, or slave, in the Roman Empire was not a “friend” to anyone except another servant or slave. There might be some necessary level of professional respect in some situations, but “friend”? Never. For Jesus to invoke the word “friends” here is an elevation or maybe a confirmation of just what Jesus has invested in the sometimes-unclear followers who had travelled with him and worked with him across these years. It was also a foreshadowing of what was to come for them, though they probably didn’t really grasp this at the time. 

If we had forgotten about the first part of this chapter, we get our reminder in verse 16: “And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last…”. This business of abiding in Jesus’s love and loving one another all is bound up in that bearing fruit instruction from last week. Maybe one might even say that this abiding in Jesus’s love and loving one another the way Jesus loved his disciples is actually what that “bearing fruit” business looks like in practice. And again, the love is in the doing. To cop last week’s sermon title, it’s what we do.

I’m not here to ban silly love songs or any of that, but we best realize that the love that Jesus speaks of here is of a completely different order and kind. It is commanded of us and demanding of us. And at the very minimum it is much, much more than a feeling. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #754, Help Us Accept Each Other; #—, Live in Love for One Another

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Sermon: It’s What We Do

Grace Presbyterian Church

May 2, 2021, Easter 5B

Isaiah 27:2-6; John 15:1-8

It’s What We Do

I have lived in two places, that I know of, with active, commercially viable wineries, businesses that produce and sell wine for consumption by the general public.

No, I have not lived in California’s Napa Valley, nor have I ever lived in upstate New York. And I haven’t even been to France, much less lived there.

Those two cities with wineries were Lawrence, Kansas, and Lubbock, Texas. I don’t know if the Lawrence winery is still in business since I left, but I did double-check and the Llano Estacado winery in Lubbock is still there. I remember them both because I bought wine from both (as gifts for others, since we don’t drink the stuff). 

Kansas sounds unexpected enough, I’m sure, but let’s talk about Lubbock. We have a particular mental image of “wine country,” with lots of green and probably in a valley and all sorts of other stuff, and Lubbock, in most minds, isn’t that. That part of Texas, almost up in that state’s Panhandle, is flat and dry, mostly. Lubbock is actually a pretty pleasant city, or was in my experience, but it’s the type of place that might be accurately described as “in the middle of nowhere.” Amarillo is a couple of hours north, Midland and Odessa are further south, it’s a very long way to Dallas and Fort Worth to the east-southeast, and if you drive much farther to the west from Lubbock you’re in New Mexico. It is also a city with dust storms. I know because, again, I experienced one while there as a visiting instructor at Texas Tech many years ago. I dare say that’s still the most unique weather experience I’ve had.

None of these things, to be sure, suggests “wine country” to most folks.

Yet the Llano Estacado winery does business there and has been doing so for more than about forty-five years now. (It takes its name from the Spanish phrase for “staked plain,” a term for the region in general attributed to Spanish explorers in the region driving stakes into the ground to keep track of their route. Geologists will insist that the name really refers to particular geological features on the rim of the terrain, but don’t tell that to the locals.) So how exactly does wine growing and winemaking work in a region that doesn’t seem like a place where it would work?

Well, there are a lot of different ways it works, but they mostly come down to paying attention to the land where your grapes are being planted and grown, and not trying to do everything the exact same way they do it in Napa or Bordeaux. In some cases you get the best results by growing different grapes, ones more suited to the particulars of the local climate. In other cases you need to tend to the vines differently or root them in different conditions, or allow them longer or shorter growing periods. In short, it’s possible to do, and can be done quite successfully, but it requires being sensitive and responsive to the local conditions in which you’re doing your planting and growing. 

There’s something to be said for this lesson in reading today’s scripture from the gospel of John. 

It opens with Jesus’s assertion “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” This is hardly the first time the image of God as vinegrower has appeared in scripture; the book of the prophet Isaiah is particularly stocked with such imagery, of which today’s first reading is just one example. Notice how verse 3 of that reading describes the Lord’s care for that vineyard – constantly watering and guarding it against any harm. The “song of the vineyard” in Isaiah 5 takes a similar tone in its description of the vinegrower’s care for the vineyard, only to be disappointed when it produced sour grapes. 

In short: God is the grower, Jesus is the vine, and as verse 5 in the gospel reading makes clear, we are the branches. In this setup our job is actually pretty straightforward: we live – or more particularly, we “abide” – in Jesus, and Jesus abides in us. 

Here’s the thing: our vinegrower knows where we’re planted. To go back to the example of the Llano Estacado winery, our vinegrower knows we aren’t growing in Napa or Bordeaux. We’re in Gainesville, Florida, and God the vinegrower is tending to the branch of the vine that is us with particular regard to the fact that we are in Gainesville and not in Napa or Bordeaux, or Lubbock, Texas for that matter. To step back from the wine metaphor, God isn’t nurturing or tending or pruning this branch of the vine the way God would tend a church in New York or Orlando, or for that matter the way God would tend First Presbyterian or First United Methodist or Holy Trinity Episcopal church in this town either. God is tending and nurturing and maybe sometimes even pruning Grace Presbyterian Church to be the witness of Christ as Grace Presbyterian Church, not as a clone of some other church around here.

And our job as Grace Presbyterian Church, planted here in this particular corner of this particular town, put most simply, is to bear fruit, the fruit of the vine that is Jesus. A grapevine doesn’t bear plums or avocadoes or some other fruit; it bears grapes. A church abiding in Jesus doesn’t bear nationalism or hatred (or anything like the “thorns and briers” of Isaiah 27:4); it bears nothing but the fruit that bears witness to Jesus and only Jesus. 

And here’s the wild part: in a way, the fruit we bear isn’t really up to us. That the work of Jesus the vine and God the vinegrower. 

To borrow the words of Rev. Melissa Earley, a United Methodist pastor in Illinois writing in the Christian Century:

I had been hearing Jesus’ words as a threat. If we didn’t bear fruit, it meant that we had become disconnected from the vine and we would be tossed out and burned. But what his words are is a promise. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit.” The vine branch doesn’t put “make grapes” on its to-do list. It just makes them, because it’s part of the vine. And it never makes pears or avocados or olives—when we are connected to Jesus, we bear the fruit of Jesus. We may not bear the kind of fruit that’s brag-worthy at church conferences or that judicatory officials praise. But connected to Jesus, the fruit of our ministry will be good.

(Some of that is Methodist language – think of presbyteries or GA in our case).

If we abide in Christ – if we dwell deeply in the life and work and words and death and resurrection of Jesus – we bear fruit. It’s what we do. And it’s good fruit at that. It won’t look exactly like the fruit that any other church bears, because we’re not any other church. 

Here’s the thing: this church bears fruit, and good fruit at that. Where there is need, we’re there to ask “how can we help?” We may not have the physical manpower to participate in some projects, but we’re there to give the support we can. We’re open to different ideas, as bears witness the art studios that dot our campus and draw in people of our community to take part in one of the greatest of divine gifts, the gift of creativity. Our membership has continued to support the maintenance and the mission of the church after more than a year of remote worship, and have frankly tolerated the weirdness of your pastor’s attempts to grapple with the technology of remote worship. We’ve been welcoming to those who come to those remote services perhaps without ever having heard of Grace Presbyterian Church before, or to those who haven’t been able to find a new home church since being part of Grace in years past. We bear fruit, and it is good fruit. It makes a good wine. 

It’s easy for a church like ours to get caught up in what isn’t here. We don’t have a large number of children or youth in the fellowship. We don’t have a great big choir or band. We don’t have a photogenic pastor who gets to preach at big conferences or assemblies or write for the big church publications. We don’t have big numbers. 

We do have willing, welcoming people. We do have the willingness to dig down deep and help. We have a fellowship that can take in people who can’t find their place in other churches, and they can not only survive but even thrive among us and find their places to give and serve in the life and mission of the church. We have the flexibility to be creative.

When we abide in Jesus, We. Bear. Fruit. It’s what we do.

In short, our job is to continue to abide in Jesus and let the fruit-bearing keep on happening. We’re not here to be First Presbyterian. We’re not here to be the megachurch in town. We’re here to bear fruit, the fruit of Jesus. 

Bear fruit. Be disciples of Jesus. That’s the work. It’s what we do.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #240, Alleluia, Alleluia! Give Thanks; #526, Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ

Sermon: Hearing Our Shepherd’s Call

Hearing Our Shepherd’s Call                                           Rev. Emily Rhodes Hunter, guest preacher
Psalm 23 and John 10: 1-18                                           

One of the best things about spring is the return of baseball season! I have to admit, I don’t follow baseball all that closely – I’m more of a football and basketball fan, personally – but the other day, I clicked into a sports article to see how the Nationals are faring so far this season. As I read about losing streaks, rosters limited by positive COVID tests, and unfortunate series sweeps, I was eager for any excuse to take my mind off these early season struggles. So, down the Internet rabbit hole I went until I found myself watching a video of the “Best MLB Brawls.” 

Looking on as punches were thrown, opponents wrestled to the ground, and seas of blue and red converged on the field, I couldn’t help but think of our current political climate. It’s no secret that we live in deeply polarizing times. Partisan politics carves up our country, our communities, and even our dinner tables into teams of “us” and “them.” Policy debates, once characterized by respectful dialogue and ideological disagreements, devolve into shouting matches, stereotyping, and name-calling. We are constantly at odds with one another, and just as the dugout always clears whenever a fight breaks out, we can’t help but get swept up into the melee.

It’s surprising to think that the early church wasn’t all that different than the world we inhabit. First century Christians lived in a pluralistic society, with many different groups and ideologies in constant conflict with one another. Our Gospel reading this morning was written within the context of a community forged in the fire of religious conflict.

New Testament scholar M. Eugene Boring (Isn’t that a great name for a professor?) explains that the Johannine community began as Jews within the synagogue who came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. They continued to be observant Jews, and there’s no suggestion that there were any sorts of disputes with the synagogue leaders. Everything was great . . . at first.

But as the Christian understanding of Jesus developed further, the Jewish leaders grew more and more concerned that Jesus was being exalted to a level that challenged the Oneness of God, a belief that set them apart from the various other religions in the Greco-Roman world, giving them a distinct identify. Not only was this blasphemy, but it was a serious threat to their self-understanding.

These disputes between the Johannine Christians and the Jewish leaders intensified until the Johannine Christians were excluded from the synagogue. It would have been simple if this were just a matter of building use, but unfortunately, this was a much larger problem for these early Christians. 

While the Christians were still within the synagogue, the Romans regarded them with toleration, as they did the other Jews. Once they became a separate community, the Christians no longer enjoyed the protection of belonging to a legal religion” (Boring, An Introduction to the New Testament, 636). This put them at risk for harassment, persecution, and even death.

Given this backdrop, it’s no wonder that our Gospel reading depicts a flock surrounded by threats. From thieves and bandits to wandering strangers and careless hirelings to ravenous wolves, the sheep are constantly under attack. Of course, these early Christians were hypervigilant about who comes inside the gates! Like the psalmist before them, who spoke of dark valleys and enemy threats, these early Christians knew what it meant to live amidst danger and conflict.

Even in this day and age, it can sometimes seem like we’re surrounded by threats. As the COVID-19 crisis rages on, experts tell us that anytime we leave our homes or gather together with others, tiny particulates, invisible to the naked eye, threaten to infect us. We are constantly besieged by an invisible enemy, a deadly virus that can spread silently. In a global pandemic, every breath is a risk, every public outing could be our downfall, every cough or sniffle might spell doom. We’re weary of weighing the risks and benefits of every single activity, yet we cannot afford to let our guard down.

And when everyday choices have life and death consequences, of course, there’ll be trouble when we encounter people whose decisions or viewpoints don’t line up with our own. We needn’t look past our news headlines to see the carnage of our own conflicts. 

We’ve all seen video clips of customers berating store clerks who politely asked patrons to wear a mask. We’ve heard stories of people becoming irate when someone asks them to give them a little more space in the checkout line or the grocery aisle. We’ve noticed an uptick in racist comments and derogatory language casting blame on entire communities. We’ve bumped up against relatives whose expectations and boundaries and safety practices differ from our own. 

When we’re surrounded by threats, plagued by life and death choices, our nervous systems are wired for fight or flight. And ooh boy, this pandemic has brought on some knockdown, drag out battles. After more than a year of life in lockdown, there seems to be ample cause for despair. The big bad wolf growls indiscriminately at all of our doors, and the thief threatens to steal, kill, and destroy.

Nevertheless, it’s into just this context that the Good Shepherd speaks. He doesn’t say, “let’s neutralize the threat by killing the wolf” or “let’s lock the wolf up and throw away the key.” Instead, the Good Shepherd lays down his own life for the sheep. Our shepherding God doesn’t give us a sword to intimidate and threaten our enemies. Instead, God sets us a table in their presence and invites us into dialogue and fellowship with them as we seek mutual understanding.

Admittedly, it’s a pretty risky strategy. In the real world, if a shepherd lays down her life for her sheep, the sheep would be even more vulnerable than they were before. After killing the shepherd, who’s to stop the wolf from hunting down and gobbling up the flock? Surely, it’s not a good game plan! 

Yet, there’s something uniquely transformative about God’s self-sacrificial love. It’s a love that looks beyond the lines of us and them, a love that breaks down the dividing walls of hostility between us, a love that transcends conflict and invites us into the work of reconciliation. It’s a love that risks everything.

We know this love when we see it, Jesus tells us. It’s a love that is abundantly life-giving, a love that calls to us in the familiar voice of grace, a love that knows us more intimately than we know ourselves, a love that offers goodness and mercy and follows us all the days of our lives.

Even in the midst of so much turmoil, so much bitterness and polarization and distrust, the Church recognizes that Christ calls us out beyond our fear, out beyond our immediate self-interest, out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing, and into mutual healing and reconciliation. 

Sure, it’s easy to pick out the thieves and bandits and wolves, easy to label some people as bad guys, deserving of disdain. But there’s very little interpretive humility in that approach, and very little room for grace. The Good Shepherd sees beyond the artificial categories we create for ourselves and reminds us that “there are other sheep, not of this fold” and that no one, not even those other sheep will be excluded from God’s loving gaze.

That sort of all-encompassing love is alive and active in our world despite all the wolves that continue to prowl. Across the country, people are reaching out to their neighbors and helping one another make it through this incredibly challenging time. Landlords have shown grace when people have struggled to make ends meet. Teachers have gone the extra mile to make sure their students succeed. Volunteers helped folks sign up for vaccine appointments. Church groups sewed homemade face masks for their communities. Companies offered free internet hotspots so that people could stay safe and connected. Businesses made accommodations for parents home with their children. In countless, unexpected ways, a life-giving, shepherding kind of love is breaking through.

As we join together to offer comfort and support to people walking through the darkest valleys, each one of us has an opportunity to consider our role in creating greener pastures and more peaceful waters here in our community.

Where do you hear the Shepherd’s voice? What prowling wolves keep you up at night worrying for the safety of the flock? Where might we be called to offer life in abundance? May our Shepherding God guide us to the cruciform place where our fears meet God’s invitation, and may we know that goodness and mercy will always, always meet us there. Amen.

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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

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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