Saturday, March 24, 2012

Lectionary Notes for Palm/Passion Sunday, Year B


Readings for Palm/Passion Sunday, 4/1/12:
Mark 11:1-11 (Palms), Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 (Palms), Isaiah 50:4-9a (Passion), Psalm 31:9-16 (Passion), Philippians 2:5-11 (Passion), Mark 14:1-15:47 (Passion)

** A Special Note: Some churches choose to focus on one or other set of texts on this Sunday that begins Holy Week: either Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday texts. Personally, I combine both passages into one service: Palm/Passion Sunday. My homiletics professor at Drew, Charles Rice, suggested reading the Palm Sunday gospel text very early in the service, and placing the sermon very early as well. Then, toward the very end of the service, the Passion gospel is read, without comment/preaching, dramatically or otherwise. I have found this very moving and effective. **

Mark 11:1-11
  • This is a passage that aches to be visually depicted in our congregations. That's why, I think, we wave the palms, or have processions on Palm Sunday. We need to see it, experience it, and be part of it. In our church, the choir and the children process in the opening hymn, waving branches. Do you have some visual marking of this text?
  • "Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there . . . " Not necessarily Jesus prophesying, as some have interpreted. Just Jesus telling them of the plans he has made ahead of time. We never seem satisfied with things just happening in the realm of the natural - we always seem to want to add a supernatural element to scripture, as if it is not powerful enough otherwise.
  • Make sure to compare Mark's text with Matthew's and Luke's account of events. What do you notice that is different? What's the same? Significance?
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29:
  • Gate/entry imagery - This is good Palm Sunday imagery - entering in to give thanks to God.
  • "The stone that the builders reject has become the chief cornerstone." Such a powerful verse, used to describe Christ by the prophets. But good for us too: when others reject us, God accepts us. In God, we can become the cornerstone, not a rejected scrap. Hope!
  • "This is the Lord's doing." Giving credit where credit is due. We're not so good at that many times.
  • "This is the day that the Lord has made." This is such a popular opening to worship. Why do we like this verse so much? I think it does a good job of truly reminding us of the fact that each day is God's precious gift to us.

Isaiah 50:4-9a:
  • "The tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word." Sustaining the weary with a word. That's a gift; that's power. Who can accomplish this feat? Isaiah, apparently! :) But seriously - perhaps this is the gift we're called to live into as preachers. With God's Word, we can sustain the weary.
  • "I gave my back . . . and my cheeks . . . I did not hide the face." Let us not think that there is nothing of Jesus' 'turn the other cheek' teaching in the Old Testament, that the OT only speaks of 'an eye for an eye' - this passage show us its just not so!
  • "I have set my face like flint." Nice image.

Psalm 31:9-16:
  • "My eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing." This verse jumped out to me personally one year when our congregation had lost 5 dear parishioners all close together in time. The congregation as a whole seemed to be 'wasting away from grief' in body and soul. I think grief often comes in groups like that, so much all it once that it seems difficult to bear. I have to notice, though, that this psalmist is speaking about very individual grief that comes not from loss of others, but from a seeming rejection by others. This reads almost like a school kid who is being picked on by everyone. I don't mean to make it less important because it is such a personal pleading. God knows we all have personal pleading. But an observation...
  • This psalm comes in all three years of the Passion Sunday readings. How come?
  • "I have become like a broken vessel." Nice imagery, given all the biblical language about potter/clay/jars/vessels. Last year I attended the Northeastern Jurisdictional UMW quadrennial meeting in Baltimore, where the theme was 'vessels for mission.' We talked about empty vessels and full vessels. Refilled vessels and pouring out our vessels. And cracked vessels. What shape is your vessel in right now?
  • "My times are in your hand." Giving God our times. That simply, that completely.

Philippians 2:5-11:
  • "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus."
  • "did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited" I find this such a unique statement. Imagine if Christ had used his equality to exploit? What would that look like? Perhaps this is what the devil was tempting Christ to do - to exploit his equality.
  • "emptied himself" Emptying ourselves.
  • "every knee should bend . . . every tongue should confess." Hm. This is one of those passages often used by people who are seeking to convert non-Christians and those of other faith traditions as proof or encouragement about the task at hand. Frankly, it makes me a bit uncomfortable. If the idea is that people will ultimately be moved to worship Jesus even against their will, I'm not sure I'd want to see that display...

Mark 14:1-15:47:
  • I guess you have to ask: why this huge, all encompassing text, when much of this material will be included later in Holy Week? The answer, on the practical side, is that the sad fact is many in our congregations won't be back again until Easter Sunday - won't be at Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. They need to know how we get from Palm Sunday to Easter Morning. But on a deeper level, for me at least, nothing beats the contrast of starting a sermon with the joy of the Palms and ending with the reality of the cross.
  • This text as a whole is almost too huge to comment on, hence my note at the top of this page on my practice of just reading/hearing the text. It is the story. How can we elaborate? I guess I'm not going to try!



Lectionary Notes for Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B


Readings for Fifth Sunday in Lent, 3/25/12:
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-12, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

Jeremiah 31:31-34
  • "new covenant" - I wonder how many times in the scriptures God tries to renew a covenant with God's people. How many times would you try again with someone who had betrayed, neglected, hurt, or forgotten you?
  • "I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people." This is God wanting a real relationship with people, for God to be the one to whom the people belong. Imagine, if God's law is on our hearts, within us, perhaps we can learn better to live by its spirit and not by its letter. God is trying a different approach in this new covenant - a law of love we carry inside of us.
  • "they shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest" - God is for all - not just for the knowledgeable and educated, who have power to teach others - God is for all.
Psalm 51:1-12:
  • Ah, a favorite psalm. And like Joel, an element of confession. This psalm is one I'm mostly likely to use if I'm feeling the need to come before God in a confessional mode. Do you have a confessional prayer in church every week? We do not, and I think as Protestants, we sometimes get nervous about confession, even corporate. But even if we don't share sins with a priest, confession is a necessary part of our relationship - any healthy relationship, really.
  • Where I disagree with the psalmist, (thought to be David writing after the sin with Bathsheba) is in his claim: "against you, you alone, have I sinned." Rarely do our sins only affect God - that's the worst about them - our sin hurts others. David's sin, for instance, resulted in a man's death, and a child's death, according to scriptures.

Hebrews 5:5-10:
  • Check out Genesis 14:17-20 and Psalm 110:4 for context about Melchizedek. 
  • I don't usually think of Jesus as a "high priest." What priestly functions do you see Jesus filling? How is Jesus priest? The author gives his answer in verses 7-10.
  • :8 - I also don't think of Jesus as one who had to "learn" obedience, but as one who simply was obedient. But maybe there is more power in thinking of Jesus learning to obey God through his faithfulness to God's plan for him. What do you think?

John 12:20-33:
  • :24 - This verse is often used in funeral liturgies/readings. We probably don't think of grain dying when we plant it, but grain becomes something entirely different when it is planted. Are you willing to be planted, to be come something entirely different?
  • :25 - Compare this verse to Mark 8:35 - Is Jesus saying the same thing in each passage?
  • :27 - "Now my soul is troubled." I think the only other place Jesus makes a similar statement is when he is praying in the garden before his arrest. I think it can be a brave thing to share when your soul is troubled.
  • :27-32 - Jesus makes so many "grand speeches" in John's gospel, so different than his style as recorded in the Synoptic gospels. What do you think John is trying to communicate to us about Jesus?

Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Lent, non-lectionary - Point of View: Mary, Mary, Mary


Sermon 3/18/12
Luke 7:36-50, 8:1-3, Luke 10:38-42, John 12:1-7, Matthew 27:45-50, 55-61, 28:1

Mary, Mary, Mary


What do we really know about Mary Magdalene? As usual, not much. But in Mary's case, we probably think we know more than we do. We assume an awful lot about poor, misunderstood Mary Magdalene. She is mentioned only rarely in the gospels; in fact, mentioned only one time outside of accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In one passage in Luke, there is mention of the fact that Mary Magdalene had been cured from possession by demons by Jesus, and that she was traveling with him along with some other women and the Twelve as he was teaching and preaching. Other than that, Mary Magdalene is only mentioned in the context of being at the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion, helping the women with burial rites, and then, of course, most significantly, at Jesus’ resurrection, as the first witness, the first teller of the news. She’s mentioned nowhere else, despite popular beliefs. Even now you are probably wondering, but what about this passage, what about that passage? But we have to set the record straight. Mary Magdalene is not the woman caught in adultery. She is not labeled a sinner. She is not a prostitute. She is not the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet. She is not the Mary who is sister to Martha and Lazarus, not the Mary who is praised for simply sitting at Jesus’ feet. All we know for sure is that she was following Jesus, that she witnessed his crucifixion along with other women who were followers.
I’m not exactly sure how or why these several separate women in the scriptures become merged into one. It happened very early in church history, that these several stories began to be folded into one in the Christian narrative. We see evidence that Jesus was inclusive of women in his ministry – radically inclusive for his day – he has women who follow along with the rest of the disciples, he speaks to women in circumstances that were normally considered inappropriate, and he heals women along with men, commending them for their great faith. But after the church was born, when the disciples were leading and growing congregations, women’s roles in the movement began to be suppressed and minimized. By the 6th century, the Pope, Gregory the First, preached a sermon merging the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, and Mary Magdalene, together as one person – three women, as one woman. And it was not until 1969 that the Catholic Church officially stated that the sinful woman, Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene were actually three separate women. That’s well over a thousand years of assuming Mary Magdalene to be not only a sinful woman, but more particularly, a prostitute, when the scriptures simply tell us no such thing! Centuries of paintings show Mary Magdalene with bright red hair, worn long, rather than covered as would have been appropriate. Films and musicals, even my own beloved Superstar, have portrayed Mary as a prostitute. Mary Magdalene has been seen as the example of a life redeemed, a forgiven woman who turned things around. A nice story, just not based on the truth!
But then, in the last several years, the tide seemed to turn – people started to get interested in Mary Magdalene again. And if I had to point to what sparked the interest, I’d point to Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code that was so popular, now almost a decade ago. The book suggested that through DaVinci’s artwork, you could discover the hidden secret – that Jesus really married Mary Magdalene and had a child with her, and that Mary was really the most devoted disciple, whose image had been smeared by those who were jealous of her and her power and bent on telling a certain version of Jesus’ story. Interest in Mary Magdalene exploded, even though Brown’s book was a work of fiction, and people started reading some of the Gnostic Gospels, writings that were not included in our scriptures, which also pictured Mary Magdalene as a prominent disciple, though never as Jesus’ wife.
So who is Mary Magdalene, really? Personally, though I’ve read and enjoyed both The DaVinci Code, and the Gnostic Gospels, I like to focus on what the biblical scriptures tell us, with what is really in the text before us, and understanding that, before adding other sources. So who are these Marys, exactly, and really, who end up so blurred together? Let’s look at what the scriptures actually say.
First, Mary Magdalene. We see her at the tomb on Easter morning. But we’re not ready for Easter yet. The only other place Mary is mentioned is in the other text we read today: “Soon afterwards Jesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.” This is the only mention of Mary Magdalene other than at the cross, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. From these few verses though, we know that Mary and some other women went with Jesus and the twelve on his preaching and teaching tour. For women in his day, that is a huge and risky commitment. We know that Mary was healed by Jesus, even though we might not understand what it means to be possessed by demons. And we know that these women provided for Jesus and disciples, which suggests that they were women with some wealth and resources at their disposal to use to support Jesus’ ministry. And that is simply all the scriptures say about Mary Magdalene.
Then, there’s Mary of Bethany. We know she’s not Mary Magdalene primarily because Magdala and Bethany are two different places! Mary of Bethany is the sister of Lazarus and Martha. We see her in three significant scenes: We see her sitting and listening at Jesus’ feet while he was at her home, and while Martha prepared a meal. Martha was upset with Mary, but Jesus tells her she’s chosen the better part by listening to him. We see Mary upset with Jesus when Lazarus dies because Jesus did not arrive quickly enough to heal him. This time it is Martha who shines in her understanding of resurrection, and Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. And finally, we see Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfume, and Judas, or in other gospels, all the disciples, being upset over her wastefulness. But Jesus commends her for her act of extravagant love.
And finally, the other woman who is often confused with these two Marys is the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus’ feet at the home of Simon the Pharisee. She and Mary of Bethany both anoint Jesus’ feet, and so the two have often been mistaken for one another, but anointing of feet was not a particularly unusual act. It probably happened to Jesus many times that aren’t even recorded. And thinking of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute also probably comes from this passage about an unnamed woman. This unnamed woman is never called a prostitute, just a sinner, but wearing her hair down, and the way Simon speaks of her being known as a sinner suggest that she may have been a prostitute. But there’s no conclusive proof. So this sinful woman anoints Jesus’ feet with ointment and her own tears. Simon is critical of Jesus for letting such a woman perform this act of devotion, but Jesus, with a parable, says that her sins are forgiven, and because her sins are so completely forgiven, the woman reacts with deeply loving behavior.
These are the three woman who have been rolled into one, but their stories are really quite unique. And there are even other Marys in the Bible – a few actually – but just mentioned by their very common name. So with their identities untangled, we then have to ask what we learn for ourselves. I think restoring Mary Magdalene’s reputation is a worthy endeavor on its own – she deserves to be remembered for what the gospels tell us she was – a follower of Jesus and the first witness of the resurrection. But what do we learn from her? As I’ve said, we’re looking, this Lent, at who we say Jesus is, and what that says about us. So who does Mary Magdalene say that he is? And who does Mary of Bethany say that he is? And who, even, does the sinful woman who anointed his feet say that he is? For each, in different ways, Jesus was quite literally their savior. Mary Magdalene is healed from something described as demon-possession. Seven demons, actually. Whatever this meant, it would have made her ritually unclean and shunned from society. Jesus saves her. Jesus forgives the sins of the unnamed woman, and takes a burden of guilt from her, and she responds with such love, such relief, such thankfulness. Mary of Bethany has her brother returned to life, and finds Jesus’ affirming her choices of discipleship in more than one situation. Jesus has saved these women. Who do they say he is? Their savior. And because they see him this way, their lives change dramatically. Their lives after meeting Jesus are almost unrecognizable from the lives they led before they met, knew, and followed him.
Last week, we talked about Pontius Pilate, and his apathy. He recognized Jesus as someone important, but it didn’t matter to him more than his own power and status. Who Pilate was was more important to him than who Jesus was. He isn’t changed by who Jesus is. When we look at Mary Magdalene and these other women, the questions are the same, and Mary, like Pilate, recognizes Jesus. But the difference, the critical difference, is in the response. Who Jesus is changes Mary Magdalene, and the others, because who Jesus is changes how they see themselves. Mary of Bethany is singled out by Jesus more than once for her sincere discipleship, and we hear more about her than most of the twelve, which tells us how significant she was. The ‘sinful’ woman has her sins forgiven and shows Jesus an act of love, ignoring the insults of a prominent Pharisee. Mary Magdalene packs up and literally follows Jesus, even supporting Jesus and the twelve financially, which would enable them to preach and teach without worrying about their resources. They know who Jesus is to them, and because of it, their lives have changed.
The question is still the same for us this week: Who do you say that Jesus is? How does who he is to you change you? Does knowing Jesus change you? Are you changeable? We’re well into our Lenten journey now, a time of preparation for Easter. I believe that Lent is a time to prepare ourselves to be more changeable on Easter morning. On Easter morning, we’ll see Mary Magdalene in her most significant role yet – the very first witness to the resurrection. And on Easter morning, we’ll have to ask ourselves once and for all who Jesus is, and how it changes us.
I have shared with you before a question I have heard churches should ask themselves: “if your church disappeared today, who, besides its members, would miss it? Who would notice it was gone?” Who would miss this church, besides us, if it was gone, because of the difference we make? We can ask the same question on a personal level: How would your discipleship be missed if you weren’t around? Would your life be any different than it is now if you weren’t a follower of Jesus, or would it be basically the same? In other words, what changes are visible in your life because of who you say Jesus is and what that means you are called to do? Are you changeable? Are we changeable?
Jesus saved them. And it changed their lives. Amen.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Lectionary Notes for Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B


Readings for Fourth Sunday in Lent, 3/18/12:
Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

Numbers 21:4-9:
  • I think this is one of the strangest passages in the Bible. Making a serpent of bronze to fend off poisonous snakes seems strangely idol-like to me, but God commands Moses to do this. And the snakes that are biting people were sent by God to begin with! I really don't get it.
  • The people are again complaining to Moses - why did you take us from Egypt? They do this literally countless times. How do you think Moses keeps the faith? Their complaining no doubt wears on him.
  • How do we act like the people? Complaining about what is new and reminiscing for the 'good old days'?
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22:
  • Steadfast, according to dictionary.com is "Firmly fixed or established; fast fixed; firm. 2. Not fickle or wavering; constant; firm; resolute; unswerving; steady. God's love for us is constant and unwavering. Take comfort!
  • Verses 17-18 match up with our text from Numbers today.
  • Do you believe that God causes our illnesses as a punishment from sin? That theology is certainly present in the scriptures, and here in this Psalm. Jesus tried to lead people to a different way of thinking, but even today, many associate sickness with punishment. What do you think?
Ephesians 2:1-10:
  • a typical flesh/spirit argument going on in the first verses. The fleshly desires are bad and sinful. This argument seems so dismissive of the human God-created physical selves and tangible, bodily experiences that we have? Is it really so bad to be 'in the flesh'?
  • God, rich in mercy. Jesus . . . immeasurable riches of his grace. Great phrases. What kind of riches do you want?
  • "by grace you have been saved." - This cannot be said much more clearly. How are we saved? By grace! Not be what we do or don't do - we'd never make it that way. Not even by how strong our faith is. We respond in faith, but we're loved and saved by God's grace.
John 3:14-21:
  • In verse 14, Jesus is referring to the passage we read in Numbers today. The serpent that Moses lifted up prevented the people dying from the poisonous snake bites. Jesus makes a parallel argument about his effect on people.
  • :16 - Try this to look anew at the most famous verse of the Bible - where it says "the world," insert your own name. "For God so loved Beth that God gave his only Son . . .so that Beth who believes in him . . ." Then trie it with the name of the person you like least. God so loved them too!
  • :17 "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." This is an important verse, and I think it helps us ground verse :16, instead of using verse :16 as an exclusive litmus test type verse. Not to condemn. To save. I hear to many Christians in the condemning business. Less in the saving business.
  • :20 - what in your life would you not want exposed to light?

Sermon for Third Sunday in Lent (non-lectionary) - Point of View: Pontius Pilate


Sermon 3/11/12

Point of View: Pontius Pilate

I think it’s strange that while the twelve disciples spent three years of their lives with Jesus, we know so very little about them, while Pontius Pilate, our point-of-view focus this morning, spent just a short time with Jesus on one day, and yet we hear more from Pilate than we do half the disciples. As seems usual for these biblical figures, we don’t know a lot about Pilate’s background – there are some conflicting stories over where he was born and what family he was part of – and we don’t know much about his life before he appears in the gospels. But we know that he was a prefect in Judea, and that prefects had certain duties – mostly military oversight and collecting taxes, but also judicial responsibility in some local affairs. During big religious festivals like the Passover, Pilate would be expected to be in Jerusalem, to make sure things were kept under control. And we know that he served as prefect in Judea from 26-36 AD, recalled to Rome perhaps just a year or two after Jesus’ trial. It seems that Pilate frequently found himself in conflict with the people he governed, and his superiors were not happy with his performance. (1)
In the gospels, Pontius Pilate appears only in the trial of Jesus and surrounding events. His name is occasionally mentioned in Acts and in the writings of Paul, but only in reference to Jesus being tried before him. And in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial, we get the same general story – we see a Pilate who seems to be struggling between a feeling that Jesus is innocent of the crimes he’s accused of, and a Pilate who is concerned about the crowds and potential mob rule, wanting to please the people to keep them under control. Jesus has been arrested, and already been interviewed by the chief priests. But Pilate had authority over certain matters – in fact, even the high priest was named by the Roman government (1) – and the religious leaders wanted Pilate to condemn Jesus. In Matthew’s account, on which we focus today, Pilate interviews Jesus, asking him if he is the King of the Jews, a claim with political overtones that would threaten both the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman authorities. But Jesus keeps silent, despite the questioning.
Pilate then offers to release a prisoner – Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus “who is called the Messiah.” At this point, we read some commentary from Matthew: Pilate thinks Jesus has been handed over to him because the religious leaders are jealous of Jesus' authority and popularity with the people, and also, his wife warned him to have nothing to do with “that innocent man” Jesus, because of a nightmare she had about him. Pilate seems to want to find a way to set Jesus free without having to actually come out and make the decision. The crowds shout for the release of Barabbas and begin to chant for Jesus’ death – “Let him be crucified! Let him be crucified!” We read that Pilate was overwhelmed by the crowd’s response, feeling he had no choice but to give in: “So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’” Then Pilate releases Barabbas, as the people requested, has Jesus flogged – we’re not even sure why – and hands him over to be crucified.
As with Judas, I have a lot of questions about Pilate. What do we make of Pilate and his actions? Did he just get caught up in something that was out of his control? Is it true what he thought? If he hadn’t allowed Jesus to be put to death, would there really have been a riot that the Roman soldiers could not control? Would Jesus have just been put to death another way by the angry crowds? Can you just decide to wash your hands of a situation and really be free from responsibility? Can Pilate simply declare himself innocent? Who, ultimately, is responsible for Jesus’ death? Could Pilate have taken a stronger stand? Wasn’t he in charge?
We are focusing this Lent on points of view: who people say that Jesus is, and how who they say Jesus is changes who they are themselves, or how who they are changes who they say Jesus is! So if we take these somewhat jumbled questions, and apply them to Pilate, what do we come out with? Who does Pilate say that Jesus is? Surely, we don’t have a lot to go on. But we start to gather a sense even from this scene in Matthew that Pilate catches a glimpse of who Jesus is. He has a feeling that Jesus is something different. He can see that the religious leaders are jealous of Jesus. He knows that his wife has had a strange dream about Jesus and pronounced him innocent. He sees that Jesus is unwilling to argue with him over accusations and frantically defend himself. He is reluctant to condemn Jesus, and anxious not to be held responsible for what will happen to Jesus. When we take all these pieces, these clues, and put them together, it seems that Pilate, if not ready to call Jesus the Messiah exactly, knew that there was something about Jesus . . .
But for Pilate, ultimately, who he is is much more important to him than who Jesus is. Pilate is a prefect of the Roman Empire. What Pilate wants most is to escape blame, from Rome, from the Jews, no matter who Jesus turns out to be. He wants to have no responsibility for the situation before him, which is ironic for someone who wants desperately to keep their role of responsibility and authority. Pilate might believe there’s something more to Jesus – but ultimately, it doesn’t make a difference to him, because who he is, what he wants – his power, his control, his position – all of that is more important to him.
As always, what we learn here, what we learn about Pilate is only meaningful if we can see ourselves in his place. So, I have to ask – are there things that you believe, but your believing doesn’t make a difference to you, make a difference in how you live your life? Let me give you some examples of what I mean. You know I am not a follower of sports, but I would have had to crawl under a rock to miss the story of Joe Paterno, Penn State Football Coach, and the scandal he faced late last year. Paterno was criticized not for abuse himself, but for knowing of abuse that was happening and failing to take sufficient action with what he knew. Many professionals, like teachers, medical personnel, doctors, and in many places, clergy, are mandated reporters, who are required, legally, to report suspected child abuse. The law mandates that with knowledge comes a responsibility to act.
Or think of the current election cycle. In the midst of the Republican primaries, one question I think voters have is: Do what candidates say and what they actually have done or will do in office match up? A common accusation is that candidates flip-flop on positions. Mitt Romney, for example, has been trying to appeal to more conservative Republicans, but has also been criticized then for distancing himself with previous actions and statements when he served as governor. Voters want to know: Is this what he really believes? Or is he just saying what he thinks I want to hear?
One more example. You have probably heard this famous poem by Pastor Martin Niemoller, written in the wake of Nazism and the Holocaust. First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me. We say actions speak louder than words, and if that is true, then inaction is a deafening silence.  
What about our faith journeys? What about discipleship? What I want to know is this: What do you believe about Jesus? Who do you think that he is? And what difference has that made in the way that you live? Or, like Pontius Pilate, are there too many things about who we are and what we want for ourselves for us to actually let what we believe about Jesus change our lives?
One of my colleagues posed a question on his blog: “What is the most destructive force in a congregation?” He listed multiple-choice responses, including unresolved conflict, which had the most votes, followed by power struggles, narrow-mindedness, gossip, and keeping secrets. But I selected the ‘other’ option and added in my own response: apathy. The church is at risk when we don’t translate what we believe into how we live as individuals and as a congregation. To me, what is most destructive to churches is just this dilemma that we see in Pontius Pilate. We believe something, but what we believe doesn’t necessarily change anything. Consider what we believe as a congregation: I trust that generally, we believe in God, believe in Jesus, believe that Jesus set an example for us, believe that we’re meant to be disciples, believe that God loves us, and so on. We might come down differently on exactly what those beliefs mean in detail, but at the core, I think we’re on the same page. Where we need to ask ourselves the hard questions, where we need to do some soul-searching is when we ask ourselves: what difference does what we believe make?
Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” What is it we are taking up? Taking up the cross means taking a risk to follow Jesus, and what we must risk is different for each one of us. What is holding us back? What is it that you are afraid to risk? I’m guessing, that with a little introspection, it wouldn’t take you long to answer that question. In our discipleship, in our faith journey, we get into trouble when the cost of following Jesus is always more than we are willing to pay, and when what it costs us is always a bigger concern than acting on what we believe. When we believe, but still fail to act, that’s apathy. When we believe, but still fail to act, that’s of more concern than those who don’t know what they believe yet. For Pontius Pilate, the cost to himself was his primary concern. He knew Jesus shouldn’t be condemned to death. But the cost Pilate would bear was too much. What he was willing to risk, willing to ‘spend’ on what he believed was nothing. What are you willing to spend? What will you risk? What is that task to which God is calling you that nags at the back of your mind, the corners of your heart? What do you believe about God? And so what? How has it changed you? Who do you say that Jesus is? And how will your answer change your life?
Amen.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Lectionary Notes for Third Sunday in Lent, Year B

Readings for Third Sunday in Lent, 3/11/12: 
Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22


Exodus 20:1-17:
  • The Ten Commandments - all the rage in the last couple years with courtroom battles. People have spent a lot of energy defending these commandments. Are they worth defending? Do we follow as well as defend? While I don't feel they need to be posted in our courtrooms, I think they are still pretty important for us.
  • The ones I am most drawn to are the first commandments. God is God and our only God. We might not worship other deities, but sometimes we're in danger of worshipping our possessions, our work, our culture, or our country. We may not make golden calf idols, but we idolize plenty of things, don't we?
  • "Remember the Sabbath." This is so hard for me. We're recently started a twice-weekly prayer chapel at our church - 30 minutes to be still and be with God. I find even that hard. My mind is always racing over my to-do list. How do you keep Sabbath?
  • Coveting - that's another commandment that I think is so important. We always want what we don't have, no matter how much we do have. How do we live a life of gratitude?

  • Psalm 19
    :
  • "The heavens are telling the glory of God." These famous words from the Psalm are often set to music.
  • This imagery of the sun "like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy", this personification of the sun draws to my mind Greek/Roman mythology, and no doubt made contemporaries of the psalmist think of similar images of sun-gods in other religions. The difference? Here the sun is put into place by God, not a god in itself.
  • God is more than gold, sweeter than honey. A simple message - but reminds us of things we put too often before God in our lives.
  • "Let the words of my mouth and the meditations..." This verse is often used by pastors before they begin preaching. I like it, but if there's a way to use a Bible verse too much to the point of over doing, this one makes it on my personal list!

  • 1 Corinthians 1:18-25:
  • "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing..." I don't know what to make of this verse, because I too often see it used as a "Jesus is the only way, see?" tool. But let's revamp it. An instrument of weakness is made into an instrument of power. That is what God does to things. Gives them a whole new life, and a whole new meaning.
  •  That theme carries into the whole passage - God doesn't just change meanings of things around, but meanings of people. We're flipped inside out by this 'foolishness' of Jesus Christ.
  • Compare this passage with the value of Wisdom we see in Proverbs. I think Paul is discounting being worldly-wise instead of God-wise. Better a fool for God than wise for the world?

  • John 2:13-22
    :
  • "my Father's house a marketplace." Maybe we don't have malls in our churches (maybe!), but how do we take the holy out of our holy places? Churches often play dangerous games with marketing and commercialism. Where do we draw lines?
  • "he drove all of them out" - this is one of few times we see Jesus so confrontational. When in your faith are you moved to be confrontational? What is worth making a scene?
  • In verse 21, John gives his take on Jesus' words in verse 19. What would you think Jesus meant?
  • Sermon for Second Sunday in Lent (non-lectionary) - Point of View: Judas


    Sermon 3/4/12
    Matthew 26:6-50, 27:3-10

    Point of View: Judas

                Can we see things from Judas's point of view? Or maybe, we are worried we can see from his point of view too easily? I remember, once in college, we were at a meeting of one of the faith groups I was part of on campus, and the chaplain noted that there were twelve of us, and he mentioned that we were like the twelve disciples. And I couldn’t help but wonder: then which one of us gets to be Judas? Who would want to claim to be Judas? Which disciple would you be willing to claim? Maybe one of the ones that barely gets a mention beyond their original call by Jesus?
                I told you last year a bit about my fascination with Judas. Of course, it started with Jesus Christ Superstar, and the actor I had a crush on, but it went beyond that, as I started to wonder about Judas and his role in the Passion story. I shared with you the nagging questions I had.  As we heard in our gospel reading today, Judas committed suicide, hung himself, out of guilt for his actions, for betraying Jesus and putting him into the hands of his enemies. I had been taught that suicide was a sin that condemned someone to hell. An unforgiveable sin. But it was the way Judas was portrayed in Superstar that made me start to wonder, because Judas was depicted almost as a hero in the story, misguided maybe, but still someone to root for. Right there, in our text today from Matthew, we read this: “When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented.” Judas repented. That word, the word used here – it’s the same word for repentance that Jesus and John the Baptist use when the first preach their message: Repent! If Judas repented, how could he be condemned to eternal punishment? And what’s more: In the gospel of John, Jesus talks about Judas’ betrayal being part of the plan. If Judas had to betray Jesus in order for Jesus to go through the suffering and death and resurrection, how can Judas be held accountable for his actions? Was he acting as part of his own free will, making his own choices, or was he predestined to betray Jesus? And if he was predestined, can he be judged for his actions?
                I presented all of these questions to my Sunday School teacher at the time. Her answer to me was simple: Judas committed suicide, so Judas went to hell. I was not satisfied with her answer. I was just sure there had to be more to it. So I wrote a letter to a publication that used to exist called Youth! Magazine. They had a column for questions like mine, and I hoped for an answer. My question never got printed, but the editor of the magazine wrote me back a long, wonderful letter, that I wish I could still find. In it, he said what I have come to believe is true – basically sharing with me a message from Romans 8 – nothing in life or in death can separate us from God’s love. He said God’s grace was so amazing that he was unwilling to put any kind of limits on God’s love, even for, or perhaps especially for – Judas. Needless to say, I found his letter very comforting. My Sunday School teacher, on the other hand, was not so excited to be so contradicted!
                When I was a senior in college, I had to write my capstone paper for my pre-theology major, and I decided to look at Jesus and Judas in literature. I discovered that sometimes Judas was portrayed as the worst person in all of history. Sometimes, like in Superstar, Judas was the misunderstood hero. But sometimes, Judas was portrayed as a mix of good impulses and bad decisions. Even though Superstar remained my favorite portrayal of Judas, I was particularly moved by these pieces of literature – a Judas who you could relate to. A Judas that made you wonder how you would have acted in his shoes.
               My questions haven’t changed much over the years: Who is Judas? Why did he do what he did? The truth is, like many of Jesus’ disciples, we really don’t know very much about Judas at all, even if we see him depicted often enough in fiction, firm, musicals. We don’t know his family background, we don’t know what he did, we don’t know where he came from. I’ve read many different theories, but of course, most are conjecture, imaginings, really, rather than fact-based theories. And since we know so little about Judas, we also don’t know very much about his motivations for betraying Jesus. Only the gospel of John mentions that Judas is treasurer for the group of disciples, and suggests that greed for the payment of silver is the motivation for betrayal. But the other gospels never mention anything like this at all. As in our gospel reading for today, Matthew, Mark, and Luke segue with new interlude into mentioning that Judas was looking for an opportunity to betray Jesus. Things get confusing, for me, to understand logically. Why would the religious leaders even need Judas to betray Jesus? They knew where Jesus was, and showed up to hear him preach and teach all the time. It wasn’t as though Jesus was in hiding and Judas led them to a secret location. We can’t imagine that 30 coins alone would have tempted Judas to betray Jesus – even though it was a hefty sum, it wasn’t enough make him set for life, a year, or even half year actually. What motivates Judas? I wonder, very much. But what we know for sure is that almost every time Judas is mentioned in the scriptures, he is called, “Judas, who later betrayed him.” You never have to wonder how he will turn out. The scriptures say it over and over before the betrayal even unfolds. We know that from Mark, the earliest gospel, to John, the latest written, Judas is increasingly portrayed as villainous and evil. And I can tell you that while Judas was always known for his betrayal, it was a few centuries after the birth of the church that Judas began to be seen as the sole disciple responsible for Jesus’ death. In fact, over time, Judas began to be a symbol for all Jews who didn’t accept Christ, and was a figure used by anti-Semites in their hatred of Jews. Judas, who later betrayed him.
                Imagine if your whole life, you were called by a name that was based on one event, one action, even a bad one. Beth, you know, Beth who preached that awful sermon? Della, who messed up the offertory. Joe, who couldn’t hold down a job. Marge, who really screwed up her kids. Bob, who caused that car accident. What if, your whole life, you had to carry descriptors of your mistakes, even your worst ones, as part of your name? What if, in the telling of your life story, you had to stick with a label of your worst moment before even telling what happened. Judas, who later betrayed him.
    What does it mean to betray someone? In the case of Judas, the definition of his actions which I found to best fit was this: "To prove faithless or treacherous to, as to a trust or one who trusts; to be false to; to deceive; as, to betray a person or a cause." (1) That fits, doesn’t it? Whatever Judas’ motives were, I think we can accurately say he proved faithless to Jesus. Why ever it was, whatever caused it, Judas ultimately did not have faith in Jesus.
    What does it all mean for us? What difference does Judas’ betrayal mean for us? To me, in some ways, Judas is important in just the same way understanding every other text in the scriptures is important. We draw closer to God through understanding, and we understand by putting ourselves into the text, seeing ourselves in the story. Can we see ourselves in Judas, who later betrayed him? My biggest problem with how we’ve remembered Judas in Christian tradition is that by seeing him as so evil, we fail to see ourselves in him. Vilifying him makes us feel better. At least we’re not Judas, right? At least we’re better than Judas, the greedy traitor, Judas, who later betrayed him.  
    And yet, if we think of the definition of betrayal again, we have some hard questions to answer. To betray is to prove faithless to. Have you ever proven yourselves faithless to Jesus? We may find it hard to believe that after spending three years as a disciple following Christ from place to place that we'd then turn Jesus over to men we knew were trying to kill him. On the other hand, we may not find it so hard to think of ways that we betray Jesus, perhaps even on a daily basis. If to betray means to prove faithless, then we are indeed very much like Judas. Judas, for whatever reason, did not have faith enough to believe in the path Jesus was following. Do we have enough faith? Maybe, sometimes, more often than we want to admit, we don't have faith enough to believe that God has called us for plans beyond our imagination. We don't have faith enough to invest ourselves, our money, our time, and our gifts into God's care. We don't have faith enough to believe that God gives us grace, a gift there for the taking, without our needing to do something to earn it. We don’t have enough faith to actually follow Jesus instead of following our own plans for ourselves. And our lack of faith betrays Jesus as surely as Judas did.
    But if we can let Judas be redeemed, if we can let Judas be more than the one who later betrayed him, if we can believe, like that magazine editor did, that God’s unconditional love is truly unconditional, than perhaps we can help Judas move beyond, as we move beyond. If we can see ourselves in Judas, if we can admit that our actions often betray the Jesus we claim to follow, then we too, like Judas, can repent. But we can also move beyond. Judas couldn’t move beyond what he’d done and neither could those who would tell his story. I can’t imagine the grief and guilt he must have felt. And I wonder what might have happened, if Judas had chosen another path, if reconciliation might have been possible in his life on earth, as I believe it is always and everywhere possible with God. We are blessed always with the chance – the hope and promise really, that we can move beyond. We aren’t defined by our sins, but by God’s love and forgiveness. Beth, whose sermon made me think. Della, whose music touched my soul. Joe, whose life God changed. Marge, who is really wonderful with young people. Bob, who God loves. You, who proved yourself faithful to God’s love. Amen.