Sunday, April 08, 2018

Recognition—a sermon on Luke 24

Rev. Teri Peterson
St. John’s
Luke 24.1-49
8 April 2018, Easter 2 (personal favourites week 1)

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” Then they remembered his words.
When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.
Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognising him.
He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”
They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
“What things?” he asked.
“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognised by them when he broke the bread.
While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.
He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”


Today is the second Sunday of the season of Easter—a season that lasts fifty days, including seven Sundays, beginning with Easter Day, and leading up to Pentecost. Easter is the longest feast season in the Christian calendar, and is also intentionally longer than any season of fasting, because it is the most important time, centring on the most important story of our faith. That means we get to sing Easter hymns for seven weeks, and the scripture readings are chosen to help us celebrate Christ’s victory over death and his continual presence with us here in the land of the living. 

This year during the season of Easter, I’ve chosen my own favourite stories from the Bible to preach on. I read the Bible for the first time when I was about 15 years old, and I sometimes say that I was “converted by scripture”—it was through reading the story that faith took root in my life. Never let anyone tell you that something is “just a story”—stories are powerful, they help us make meaning, organise our worldview, and shape how we live. One of my favourite quotes is from the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who said "I cannot answer the question "What ought I to do?" unless I first answer the question "Of which story am I a part?"" 

Immersing myself in the story of God and God’s people has helped me to see which story I belong in, and that in turn has helped me know what to do, in all kinds of situations. And so as we seek to encounter the living Christ this Easter season, I thought I would share with you some of the pieces of that story that have been most meaningful to me on my faith journey, why they are important, and how they keep shaping my life. As we travel this feast season together, I’d encourage you to also think about how you are part of this sacred story, and how it speaks to you, and what pieces of scripture are particularly meaningful to you, and how they help you as you seek to live faithfully in the world today.

And so this morning we heard this story from the end of the gospel according to Luke. Usually we hear one little segment of it at a time, which obscures one of the things I love about this chapter: that it all takes place on the same day. It’s the story of the first Easter morning, afternoon, and evening. And it has two of my most favourite things in the whole world: talking and eating. 

The women who encountered the angels at the tomb were apparently quick to believe—the angels say “remember how he told you?” And they remember! There seems to be a whole group of them: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and an unknown number of other women. These are women who have followed Jesus throughout his ministry, who used their resources to support him and their fellow disciples, and who must have been listening carefully and taking in all that he taught by both word and example. We don’t know much about them and they haven’t had their stories fully told, but that first Easter morning, they are the ones who become the Church, hearing the good news and believing it, and then running out to share it. 

The response of the male disciples is so rude that our English translations have sanitised it to “nonsense”. A better but still child-friendly word might be garbage or manure. The men are having none of it. Maybe they don’t remember what Jesus said? Maybe they choose not to believe women—they are not the first nor the last men to disbelieve the words of women. Maybe they can’t fathom the truth of anything they haven’t seen for themselves. 

Whatever the reason, they don’t recognise their friend and teacher and Lord in the story of that morning, and they begin to disperse...and two of them start their walk home, to Emmaus. Seven miles is a good two-plus hour walk. When a stranger joins them, they think nothing of telling their sad story, and even add that “some women of our group” told this tale of resurrection, but they obviously don’t believe it. And Jesus essentially says the same thing the angels had said to the women: remember what I told you? But they don’t remember, and he has to tell them again, for the whole of a two-hour walk. By the time they reach their destination, they still don’t understand, but they invite this stranger in. And only then, when he does the same action he has done with them hundreds of times before—takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them—only then are their eyes opened and they recognise him. And only then do they come to believe, which causes them to do the same thing the women did: to remember what Jesus told them, and then to run back—seven miles back!—to tell the others.

I think it’s so fascinating that the way Luke tells the Easter story, a crowd of women are first to hear and believe, and then two disciples we’ve never heard of before get to walk with Jesus for hours, and share a meal with him, and then they believe....and only then does Jesus appear to Simon Peter, and then the others. This is not a story centred on the 12 male disciples whose names we know so well. Ironically, they are the last to believe!

I imagine Cleopas and his companion running at top speed the seven miles back to Jerusalem, arriving out of breath, doubled over and gasping for air while they tell their incredible story...and hearing the excited chatter of their fellow disciples talking about what Peter experienced...and then Luke writes that while they were talking about this—so picture the clamour of at least a few dozen people, men and women, all talking about what happened at the tomb, on the road, at the table, in Peter’s living room—and while they are talking, Jesus appears among them. And even then, in the middle of talking about how he is alive and has appeared to some of them...even then, when they see him, they are afraid and think they are seeing a ghost!

I imagine Jesus must have been slightly incredulous at this point. He’s already shared the news, appeared to three of them, and now they are literally discussing his resurrection when he walks in, but they still think he’s a ghost and are terrified. And so he does what any ghost who wants to prove himself real would do: he asks for some food, and eats it in their presence, and they can’t see it going down his esophagus or anything, like you can in cartoons, so he must be real!

And even then, it says that while they were joyful, they were also disbelieving. Yet still Jesus tells them that they are to witness to the good news, to go out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, sharing what they have seen and heard. Even while they are still doubting, he commissions them to be the Church, to work for the kingdom, to preach and pray and heal, to remember what he said and to live as if it is true. 

There are so many things to love about this story, it’s hard to pick just one. 

Sometimes I think my favourite part is how Jesus is revealed more than once in the sharing of a meal—he promised that we would see him when we break bread together, and on that first Easter afternoon and evening he proved it was true, that every time we come to this table, we see him, and we learn to see him more clearly, until eventually we can recognise Jesus at every table. 

Sometimes I think my favourite part is how big the community of disciples is revealed to be—not just the twelve, but first a crowd of women, then two people we’ve never heard of until this chapter, who talk about a large group of Jesus’ followers, and finally the people we would have expected Jesus to appear to first. It’s a reminder that even those who seem to be closest are still just on the same journey all of us are—and we are all in it together, no one is better or worse, and it’s important to listen to the experiences of encountering God that other people have.

This week, though, I think my favourite part is how often the word “while” is used. While the women were wondering about the open, empty tomb, angels appeared. While two disciples were walking on the road, carrying their sadness and confusion, Jesus reminded them of the story they were all a part of. While they sat at table together, he took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them, and their eyes were opened. While the whole crowd of disciples was talking about all these appearances, Jesus walked in. While they were joyful, they were disbelieving.

God doesn’t wait until we are ready, or until we understand and are prepared. The Holy Spirit doesn’t wait until we get to the right building or say the right prayer. Jesus doesn’t even wait until we recognise him...while we are walking along, talking to our friends, sitting at the dinner table...while we are sad, confused, joyful and disbelieving...while we are in church or at home or out and about...Jesus comes alongside us, opens our minds and hearts and eyes, because recognition is more than just seeing, more than just believing, it’s the work of eyes and ears and heart and mind and body together. While we sing and pray, or eat and drink, or cry and rage, or play and work...while we live our lives, that’s where Christ will be, calling us to witness to the good news, to build the kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Everyday Resurrection—a sermon for Easter Day

Rev. Teri Peterson
St John’s
Everyday Resurrection
Mark 16.1-8, 1 Corinthians 1.18-31
1 April 2018, Easter Day 

1 Corinthians 1.18-31 (CEB)
The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved. It is written in scripture: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reject the intelligence of the intelligent. Where are the wise? Where are the legal experts? Where are today’s debaters? Hasn’t God made the wisdom of the world foolish? In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching. Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters! By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class. But God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing. So no human being can brag in God’s presence. It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus. He became wisdom from God for us. This means that he made us righteous and holy, and he delivered us. This is consistent with what was written: The one who brags should brag in the Lord!

Mark 16.1-8 (CEB)
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb. They were saying to each other, “Who’s going to roll the stone away from the entrance for us?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!) Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled. But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.


This week I noticed something I’d not really seen before in this gospel reading. The very first verse says “When the Sabbath was over, Mary, Mary, and Salome bought spices...” For some reason, in my mind, I had always read it as “brought” spices—as in they gathered them up from their own kitchens or stash of burial supplies, and got together and took them to the tomb. But of course they couldn’t do that, because they were in Jerusalem, not at home, and so they had to go and buy them...when the Sabbath was over, since there would be no commerce taking place during the Sabbath.

I now picture them looking for the first star after sundown, the mark that one day was ended and another begun, and as soon as it was dark enough to count, rushing out to the market stalls just as they were opening, carefully picking out what they would need from unfamiliar merchants still setting out their wares.

Once they had the supplies, though, they didn’t go straight to the tomb. It would, after all, be nighttime. And so, even now they were prepared for what they had to do, they still had to spend another night waiting, weeping, and wishing things were different. They had a whole night to re-live every moment, wondering where it all went wrong, to doze fitfully in between discussing their plans for the morning.

Early in the morning, they picked up their freshly-bought spices, and took their grief to the tomb. Only one detail remained: who would roll away the stone? These were strong, independent women—I know the type. We bristle a bit when people imply we aren’t muscular enough to move chairs and tables or to lift boxes and open doors. And yet, arms full of jars and sachets, eyes full of tears, they felt they would be too weak to open the tomb. Maybe too weak in muscle strength, or maybe too weak in spirit or stomach. They needed help, and they didn’t know where to ask for it.

And then they looked up.

It must have been quite a shock, to find the tomb already open. But that pales in comparison to what happened next. They entered the tomb and saw a messenger who uttered the most famous biblical advice no one ever heeds: do not be afraid! And then proceeded to tell them the impossible: “he is not here, he has been raised.”

He has been raised.

I imagine that once again, they looked up...only to see the roof of the tomb, a reminder that this could not be, that death encircles and engulfs and there’s nothing more to see. 

Then the messenger told them what may turn out to be the most difficult news of all: Go and tell the others, he is going ahead of you to Galilee, you will see him there, just as he told you.

And Mark reports that the three women were overcome with terror and dread, and they fled from the tomb, and said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

And that’s it. That’s the end. Overcome with terror and dread, they ran away and kept the story to themselves. We don’t even know what happened to those spices they so carefully prepared just a few hours before.

What is it about this moment that was so terrifying? Why would they be overcome with dread? Why wouldn’t they tell anyone what had happened?

Obviously, at some point, they did tell someone, or else we would not be here today. But first there was fear, doubt, questioning.

The words from the messenger that seem to have been the last straw were these: “he is going ahead of you to Galilee, you will see him there, just as he told you.”

Go home, the messenger says. Go back to the place you know best. Go back to your neighbours, your family, your familiar streets and schools and workplaces. Go to your own everyday will see him there, just as he told you.

Not in the big city, not in the Temple, not in the graveyard, not in the instrument of torture, not in the special places and special foods and special buildings and special your everyday life. Just as he told you.

That is where resurrection happens, and where it matters most: in the everyday. Not just the one day with the special brunch and the pretty dresses, not just in the sanctuary, but in the everyday.

This message should probably scare us too, if we’re being honest. If this thing Jesus said is true—he has been raised, he is not dead, but alive; the tomb cannot contain the grace and love and promise of God—if this is true, then all those other things he said are probably also true. And if we will see him back in our everyday lives, that means that his teachings apply to those everyday lives as well. All that talk about acceptance, love, justice, and peace...all that refusal to allow anyone to be an outcast...all that insistence on caring for each other, without regard to our own social status or savings account or religious rules...all those examples of feeding people, healing people, challenging the status quo, refusing violence, pushing the leaders to do the right thing, and loving our enemies...all the promises about never being alone, about there being enough for everyone, about being given the words we are to speak, about love being more powerful than fear or hate, about seeing the image of God in every face, and knowing Jesus’ presence best when we are serving the poor...

All of that. Back home, in everyday life. He is going ahead of us, and we will see him there, because he has been raised, and the world will never be the same.

Of course, the world looks the same. It still seems an awful lot like a Good-Friday-world, with violence and fear and misuse of power making most of the headlines. Our everyday experience, as individuals or as a church or as a nation or a global community, doesn’t seem to line up with resurrection. God’s wisdom and power seem an awful lot like foolish weakness to us. Even we who sing Alleluia will with our next breath use words like “impractical” and “naive” when the preacher tries to suggest we actually live this life of faith in tangible ways.

But it is true: resurrection changes things. At the very least, it changes the way we see. Remember the women going to the tomb: And then they looked up!

Resurrection is a lens for everything—from how we read scripture to how we think about politics to how we spend our money to how we talk to our neighbours to how we treat the earth to how we pray. As Frederick Buechner said, “resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing.” Instead it means that God always has the last word, no matter how brutally we crucified him, and no matter how carefully we sealed the tomb. And this is what God says: “behold, I am doing a new thing, even now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

There is always a new thing. There is always life. There is always light shining in the darkness. Even the doubts and despairs, the fears and questions and griefs...even they can be opened, and known, and loved, and beautiful. 

The poet David Whyte wrote the perfect poem for this resurrection reality:

To hold together and to split apart
at one and the same time,
like the shock of being born,
breathing in this world
while lamenting for the one we’ve left.*

This is what Easter does: it holds together and splits apart, and we are left breathing in a brand new world, even as we lament the one we’ve left, the one we thought we understood, the one where we were comfortable even though we could not grow and thrive in it. Easter morning is when we are delivered from darkness to light, from a story that ends in pain to a story that never ends, from a world that trusts in its own wisdom and power to a world grounded in God’s wisdom and power, however foolish and weak it may seem.

And we, like the women that first Easter morning, are right to be afraid...and also to get on with it anyway, to follow the messenger’s instructions, to heed Christ’s call: to go back to our ordinary lives and live this new truth, this new resurrection reality, because we will see him there. Our changed lives will be how people know the story, even when we don’t have words to tell it, though we—like they—will hopefully tell it anyway, even if our voices tremble, because this is the best news: He has been raised.

May it be so.


* 1st stanza of CLEAVE from the upcoming book THE BELL AND THE BLACKBIRD

Friday, March 30, 2018

Finished Business—a sermon for Good Friday

Rev. Teri Peterson
St John’s / OGA
Finished Business
John 19 NIV
30 March 2018, Good Friday (NL4)

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face.
Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews gathered there, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”
As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!”
But Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.”
The Jewish leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.”
When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace. “Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”
Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”
From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”
When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon.
“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.
But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”
“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.
“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.
Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.
So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.
Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: jesus of nazareth, the king of the jews. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.”
Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”
When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.
“Let’s not tear it,” they said to one another. “Let’s decide by lot who will get it.”
This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled that said,
“They divided my clothes among them
    and cast lots for my garment.”
So this is what the soldiers did.
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,” and, as another scripture says, “They will look on the one they have pierced.”
Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.


It is finished.

It feels so final....because it is. Death is the most “final” thing in our human experience. Sometimes, hopefully most times, we encounter it at the end of a long life—and we say “she lived a good full life.” Sometimes we narrowly escape and we say “it wasn’t my time yet.” Occasionally we might joke about ghosts, saying they’re hanging around because they have “unfinished business.” And, more often than we wish, we hear about someone gone too soon, and we say “they had their whole lives ahead of them” or “they had so much left to do, to give, to teach, to create, to learn, to say.” 

It feels jarring, then, for a man who was just 33 years old to say “it is finished” as he breathed his last.

It’s hard to imagine that his work is finished. The world could have done with more of his teaching, his healing, his praying, his presence. 

The loss must have felt overwhelming to his friends and family. Many of us have known that grief, that sense of life cut short, of wishing for more time, of hopes dashed, of light extinguished far too soon.

I often say that the Gospel According to John looks at Jesus from above, from a cosmic perspective. John’s opening words are “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” 

And yet here, at what seems to be the end, we are pulled down from the heights of heaven into the valley of the shadow of death. It doesn’t get much more opposite than this—from the lofty abstract divine poetry to the depths of human pain, betrayal, and grief.

And yet that is exactly what the cross does—draws a straight line from heaven to earth, from the abstract to the all-too-real, from God to humanity.

Sometimes I think we have preferred God to be in the pretty words, the beautiful artwork, the wonder of creation...and then we have lost the ability to see God in the shadowed valley. We ask “where was God” when tragedy strikes. We can’t see the face of God in the midst of hurt, brokenness, or despair. We look at the world, which looks so unlike the kingdom of heaven, and wonder how it can be possible that Jesus’ work was accomplished. When we are surrounded by, and participating in, greed, sexism, racism, poverty, judgment, grief, anxiety, and so much more that wounds us, our neighbours, and our can we see God, let alone proclaim Jesus’ work is finished? 

I am reminded of the story of a Polish children’s author and orphanage director, who moved with the 200 orphaned children he cared for into the Warsaw ghetto, and later accompanied them to their deaths in Treblinka. He encouraged them to put on plays, to dress nicely, to continue their lessons, up until the very end. He was offered his own freedom multiple times, but said he would not leave “his” children. He knew what lay ahead, but he refused to save himself, walking with them every step of the way, holding their hands, cheering them, holding out hope to them, embracing them even at the end. We might well ask “where was God” in the Warsaw ghetto, or the extermination camps, or the battlefields, just as we ask it about Gaza, and Syria, and Grenfell, and Parkland. The answer is right here: walking alongside those who suffer. Not far away, not trapped in beautiful paintings or perfect poetic phrases, not just enthroned among the stars, but there in the crowded trains and dusty roads, holding the hands of children.

This is what we see on the cross, the line pulling together heaven and earth: the man who gave himself to us...walked with us the road of this world’s suffering, stretched out his arms in welcome and embrace, gathering people to himself, and offered his life to our brokenness that we might finally see the truth: that there is no separation barrier between that cosmic poetic vision of God’s grace and our humanity. The cross reaches from the heights to the depths to show us the breadth of God’s love. Even in the valley of the shadow of death, when it feels like hope has been extinguished, the light shines and darkness did not overcome it. And while that particular work is indeed finished, the light still shines—for Jesus said “you are the light of the world”...and so the work of doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, the work of revealing the kingdom of God among us, goes on—and Sunday’s coming.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Not what it looks like—a sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Not What It Looks Like
Mark 11.1-11, Mark 14.1-31
25 March 2018, Palm/Passion Sunday

Mark 11.1-11 (NRSV)
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’ They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
   Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 
   Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Mark 14.1-31 (NRSV)
It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.’
 While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’
 Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
 On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, ‘Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?’ So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.’ So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.
 When it was evening, he came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.’ They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, ‘Surely, not I?’ He said to them, ‘It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.’
 While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’
 When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, ‘You will all become deserters; for it is written,
“I will strike the shepherd,
   and the sheep will be scattered.” 
But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.’ Peter said to him, ‘Even though all become deserters, I will not.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ But he said vehemently, ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And all of them said the same.


Can you imagine how confusing that first Holy Week must have been for the people around Jesus? Even his closest friends didn’t understand what was going on. I wonder how many of them felt like they were missing something in the moment—like there was more to this than meets the eye, or like there was something under the surface and things were not really as they appeared. I sometimes think the only people who truly understood were the religious leaders who wanted Jesus killed—they saw that he was changing everything, and what that would mean for their power, where others could not, and often still cannot, see past the trappings of a children’s story.

When they entered Jerusalem, the people tried to make it a triumphal procession like that of a king or military leader—cutting branches from the trees and tossing their cloaks in the road so Jesus wouldn’t get dirty riding into the city. The disciples treated it like a victory parade, singing praises, and getting the crowd to cheer along. Now, I love a parade as much as the next person—floats, and people throwing candy, and marching bands. But that Palm Sunday procession was not really what it looks like. This parade was more like a protest. No big war-horse, no army with its pikes and plumes and shields, no bugler announcing the arrival of the king, no perfect choreography or costumes. Instead it was a ragtag bunch of peasants clustered around a rabbi on a donkey colt. 

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen someone riding a donkey, but let’s just say that it isn’t even slightly graceful. No matter what you do, everyone looks ridiculous on a donkey. Now imagine a donkey colt—small, unruly, spindly legs, uncertain about carrying this load. For Jesus to choose to enter Jerusalem this way was the ultimate act of satire, of political theatre. By doing so he shows what is truly ridiculous: relying on the empire and its trappings of violence and power. 

I don’t know how many of you have been following the news out of the States the past few weeks, as teenagers across the country have taken matters into their own hands and begun organising major political and protest actions. The first was a day a couple of weeks ago when they walked out of their schools in the middle of class, protesting gun violence, and then yesterday there were marches around the US, hoping to get the attention of politicians and voters. The school walkout was criticised by many white adults as just a way to get out of lessons, and some school administrators took over the student action and made it into 17 minutes of remembrance for the victims of the most recent mass shooting, rather than a protest action. It’s so easy to do—to turn a protest, a political satire, into something sanitised and safe and domesticated. But like the first Palm Sunday, there’s more going on than meets the eye, and this isn’t just another parade. We ignore the deeper meaning here at our peril, as students join Jesus in showing us all the reality of empire and what it demands of us.

As the week went on, Jesus kept trying to show what God was truly doing, but they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see. The woman anointing Jesus was scolded for her action, and when Jesus insisted she had done a good thing, that was apparently too much for poor Judas. But he wasn’t the only one confused about what Jesus was doing...through the ages, we too have turned Jesus’ words around and missed the point. He says “the poor you will always have with you and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish” and we have decided that means that there will always be poverty...when it’s far more likely that we should understand it to mean that the church, the Body of Christ, will be found with the poor...that our place is beside and among those whom the world has cast aside, not locked in our safe sanctuaries set apart from the consequences of capitulation to empire.

At the Passover dinner, everyone knew what to expect, as the ritual had been the same for hundreds of years...and yet even then, it wasn’t what it looked like. Jesus broke bread and poured the cup and with just a few different words, changed everything. And notice: the betrayer is at the table, sharing the feast. The denier is at the table, sharing the feast. The deserters are at the table, sharing the feast. And not one of them understands what is happening. At the first Lord’s Supper, as at every single communion table since, the people at the table entered into a mystery, in all their unworthiness, in all their confusion, in all their brokenness...and Jesus met them there, and handed them bread and wine, knowing that each time their eyes would be opened a little bit more, but that none of us would ever truly comprehend the grace of that moment. 

So why do we often insist that people must be able to understand what is going on before they can be admitted to the sacrament? It seems to me that even now, we have missed what is truly happening and focused only on the surface. But this meal is not what it looks like.

If that can be true of the stories we think we know so well, could it be true of other things too? What if what we think Jesus was all about is only one layer and there’s more to the story? He died for our sins, that’s true. But what does that actually mean? I think we have too easily decided that means that God required blood—that there was no other way God could continue to love humanity unless a sacrifice was made to appease God’s wrath. And that’s where we’ve stopped, despite the fact that there’s only a tiny bit of scripture to support that idea, and despite the fact that it portrays God in a pretty horrifying light. 

One theologian describes the deeper reality this way:
“The cross is not God's justice: it's our injustice, and God's grace anyway. The cross is not Jesus' sacrifice to God to pay for our sins. They're not paid for: they're forgiven. No payment is needed. Jesus' sacrifice is not to God: God demands nothing. Jesus' sacrifice is to us, to show us God's forgiveness: that even in our evil God loves us and calls us to love. The cross is what it looks like when love meets fear. And it is love that saves us." (Steve Garnaas-Holmes)

As we enter this Holy Week together, I hope we will look for the deeper meaning, for the reality beneath the surface. I hope we will read between the lines and see that Jesus is showing us a way of life, a way of love, a way of hope...a way that changes the world, and giving himself to us so we can give ourselves to him. Because the demands of empire grow greater by the day, and we cannot afford to keep paying them. The world cannot afford Christians who sanitise the story and make it safe for children...the children themselves are begging for more truth, more depth, and more passion. 

And in this Holy Week, I hope we will allow for some confusion. We will not be the first nor the last to feel a little off balance, to wonder what we might be missing, to have questions or doubts or uncertain hope as we encounter this story that is far more than it looks like. And so I invite you to take a moment to think about a question you would like to ask Jesus about his life or his ministry or his teaching, or about the events of Holy Week and Easter...any question at all is allowed, there are no silly questions, no doubts or confusion that are wrong or bad. And then write your question in the center of the cross you received when you came in. We bring all our fear, and hope, and wondering, and uncertainty, and hope, and questions to God and place them on the cross, knowing that Christ can handle it—after all, he lived with his not-very-bright disciples for years, and he even shared the Last Supper with them when they understood nothing and he knew they were about to run away. Just put your question there, and then fold the four arms of the cross over, closing it up like the tomb. And when the offering is collected, place your question in the bag, an offering of your deep self to God. 

May it be so. Amen.