Sunday, April 28, 2019

New Beginnings—a sermon for the start of a new ministry, on John 21

Rev. Teri Peterson
Aberdeen: Kingswells
New Beginning
John 21.1-19 (CEV)
28 April 2019, preaching in Laurene

Jesus later appeared to his disciples along the shore of Lake Tiberias. Simon Peter, Thomas the Twin, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, and the brothers James and John, were there, together with two other disciples. Simon Peter said, “I’m going fishing!”
The others said, “We will go with you.” They went out in their boat. But they didn’t catch a thing that night.
Early the next morning Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realise who he was. Jesus shouted, “Friends, have you caught anything?”
“No!” they answered.
So he told them, “Let your net down on the right side of your boat, and you will catch some fish.”
They did, and the net was so full of fish that they could not drag it up into the boat.
Jesus' favourite disciple told Peter, “It’s the Lord!” When Simon heard that it was the Lord, he put on the clothes that he had taken off while he was working. Then he jumped into the water. The boat was only about a hundred yards from shore. So the other disciples stayed in the boat and dragged in the net full of fish.
When the disciples got out of the boat, they saw some bread and a charcoal fire with fish on it. Jesus told his disciples, “Bring some of the fish you just caught.” Simon Peter got back into the boat and dragged the net to shore. In it were one hundred fifty-three large fish, but still the net did not rip.
Jesus said, “Come and eat!” But none of the disciples dared ask who he was. They knew he was the Lord. Jesus took the bread in his hands and gave some of it to his disciples. He did the same with the fish. This was the third time that Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from death.
When Jesus and his disciples had finished eating, he asked, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than the others do?”
Simon Peter answered, “Yes, Lord, you know I do!”
“Then feed my lambs,” Jesus said.
Jesus asked a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter answered, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you!”
“Then take care of my sheep,” Jesus told him.
Jesus asked a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus had asked him three times if he loved him. So he told Jesus, “Lord, you know everything. You know I love you.”
Jesus replied, “Feed my sheep. I tell you for certain that when you were a young man, you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will hold out your hands. Then others will wrap your belt around you and lead you where you don’t want to go.”
Jesus said this to tell how Peter would die and bring honour to God. Then he said to Peter, “Follow me!”


I love to cook. I get it from my mother—she was a phenomenal cook, and a good baker too. I don’t seem to have inherited baking skills, but cooking is definitely my forte. Just like my mother, I can create something delicious out of almost any ingredients on hand, and I very rarely use a recipe. I just sort of put things together until it seems right, and I can count on one finger the number of times in the past twenty years that it’s gone horribly wrong and I had to order a pizza instead. I find cooking fun and relaxing and energising all at the same time, and it makes me happy to spend an afternoon in the kitchen, even though I mainly cook for myself.

Not so for Laurene...she will freely admit that cooking for herself isn’t her strong suit, and that if left to her own devices, she might accidentally end up with only scrambled eggs and a handful of almonds in the pantry. So the past few weekends, it’s been a little like this: I say, “I made dinner, come and eat!” And she does, without asking too many questions.

I’m not comparing myself to Jesus by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a little like this morning’s gospel story. Jesus has a few ingredients handy, and he whips up a breakfast for his disciples, who maybe don’t quite recognise him by sight, but they don’t ask too many questions, they just come and enjoy the meal he has prepared for them.

The disciples must have grown tired of hiding in their upper room in Jerusalem. It isn’t clear how much time has passed since that Easter morning, but at least a couple of weeks. We don’t know what they did with themselves, only that more than half of the original 12 decided to go back to what they knew best: fishing.

Despite the fact that everything had changed dramatically, when faced with uncertainty, they fell back on their old ways. And so the night found them rowing out into the lake, just as they had done thousands of times before.

But this time, something was different. They worked all night, crisscrossing the lake, dragging the nets, searching for the fish that would certainly be there. And yet, as the sun began to rise....nothing. They were experienced fishermen, it was the way they made their living before Jesus called them, but by morning they were exhausted and empty-handed, which they freely admitted to the stranger who shouted to them from the shore.

When they heard him say to cast their nets one more time, I bet they looked at each other and tried to decide if it was worth it. Maybe this stranger had seen something that indicated fish there? Or maybe he was just a little crazy, and they should paddle to shore and go home to their beds. Maybe they discussed it and decided one last try was worth it. 

It’s only when the huge catch started to swamp the boat that John told the others that it was Jesus. They didn’t realise yet. Peter, the very one who had the idea of going back to their old lives in the first place, was so eager to go see for himself that he jumped out of the boat, leaving his friends there to struggle. 

When they finally got their enormous catch to shore, there were 153 fish—some commentators say that’s the number of nations known at the time, a symbol to remind us all that the disciples were meant to fish for people, and the whole world—gentile and Jew, slave and free, male and female—would be included. But aside from those, Jesus already had bread and fish on the fire, and he said the words I imagine the disciples longed to hear after such a night: “come and have breakfast.” 

And Jesus took bread, and broke it, and gave it to them. And even though they didn’t ask who he was, they recognised him. That act of hospitality, hosting them for a meal, feeding their bodies as well as their spirits, was distinctive—they would know him anywhere, when he took bread, broke it, and gave it to them. And so they shared breakfast on the beach, no questions asked, just passing around food, telling stories, building each other up in the fellowship.

After the meal, as the fire was dying down to embers, and the sun climbing higher in the sky, Jesus did have some questions. Or rather one question, for one of them.

“ you love me?”

It’s fairly unusual for scripture to record people’s emotions, so we know it must have cut deep into Peter’s heart, as John says he was sad and hurt, to be asked this question three times, to be reminded of the three times he had denied even knowing Jesus, to have his loyalty and motives questioned. Yet each time he answers with a resounding yes, and Jesus gives him a job: feed my sheep.

Coming on the heels of Jesus feeding them himself, it seems a fairly obvious leap: as you have been served, go and serve. As you have been fed, go and feed. As you have experienced hospitality, go and offer hospitality to others. 

And Peter, of course, is the disciple who is often a stand-in for all of us—he is the rock on which the Church is built, the symbol of all who will follow Christ in years to come. So when Jesus asks his question and gives his charge to Peter, we ought to hear it as being given to us, the church, the Body of Christ: If you love me, do what I have done.

It isn’t the first time Jesus has said this, of course—he has told them before “love one another as I have loved you.” It’s a tall order, to show each other the same kind of love that Jesus did. This isn’t about simple words, but about actions—he gave the command to love as he loves just when he had finished washing their feet, and here he gives the instruction to feed and tend right after literally feeding them. It takes intentional effort, to show this kind of love to one another, to extend hospitality beyond what comes naturally or is written in the rules. To love the way Jesus loves means to lay down our lives for one another—and sometimes, that will be inconvenient, and sometimes it will be expensive, and sometimes it will feel completely impractical or undeserved, but that is our calling: to love with the same depth and breadth as Christ. To feed each other, and serve each other, to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice, to hold each other up, and to hold each other accountable to the calling God has given us, to treat one another as sisters and brothers, as members of our own body, even.

This story of breakfast on the beach is the end of John’s gospel—and therefore the beginning of the Church. The day started with the disciples believing that this new beginning was the same as the old one had been, going back to the way they’d always done things. But that way doesn’t work anymore, if it ever really did. This isn’t a going back. Jesus is not in the business of calling us to go back to the past. This is a new beginning, with new rules, new relationships, and new expectations. This is a world of resurrection life, where everything has changed. In this new resurrection world, we have experienced God’s goodness and we want to share it with others. We have been fed, and so we turn around and feed others. We have been welcomed, and so we welcome others. We have received abundance, and so we do everything possible to offer that abundant life to others. Just as the disciples would recognise Jesus anywhere when he took bread, broke it, and gave it to them, so too the world will recognise the Body of Christ, the church, when we take bread, break it, and give it to others.

Jesus asks us: do you love me? If our answer is yes, then the call is clear: prove it, by loving one another in the same way as he has loved us.

Here at Kingswells you are embarking on a new beginning —a new partnership in ministry, and during this season of resurrection life is the perfect time to start. But remember: a new beginning is not a going back. Christ does not lead us back, only ever onward, toward the kingdom of God. As the prophet Isaiah said: do not remember the way things used to be, because God is doing a new thing. Embrace this new thing that the Holy Spirit is doing among you! When you reach out—to each other, to the community, and to your new minister—with hospitality, with food, with grace, even with just checking in to see how things are going or making an effort to get to know someone beyond the usual small talk, you may just find that life bursts forth in all its fullness, right here. If you have known the love of God, and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, you’ll want to share it! And how better to love God in return than by loving God’s people, the very ones sitting next to you today? When the love of God is palpable in a community, people will be drawn to experience it themselves. So take this chance, a new start, to put love into action, to be the church, and to follow Jesus onward, wherever he may lead you all next—you can be sure he’ll feed you for the journey, and then hand you the bread and ask you to feed others too, until the whole world, all 153 fish, is in the kingdom of God together.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

The tomb was already empty—a sermon for Easter

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St John’s
To The Core 2.0
Matthew 28.1-10
21 April 2019, Easter

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’ 

I have always pictured that first Easter morning going something like this: really early, like 4am early, just before Ann gets up to start cooking bacon for the Easter breakfast, the Spirit of God blows like a wind that can break rocks and rolls back the stone in front of the tomb, allowing the breath of life to rush in. Jesus breathes deep, opens his eyes, stretches a bit, and strolls out of the tomb into the dewy darkness of early morning. He obviously goes for a walk or something, to limber up and clear the morning fog, and then when the women appear at the tomb with their burial spices and oils, he comes walking back through the garden to show them the power of God’s love, which completely freaks them out so he has to say their names repeatedly, telling them not to be afraid. The women run back to tell the men, who don’t believe them until Jesus appears to them too, and voila! Easter Alleluias!

Well, in three of the four gospels, when the women arrive at the tomb, it is indeed already open and the angels are inside waiting for them. But in one—this one, Matthew’s telling of the Jesus story—they arrive to a tomb still sealed shut, with guards at the door. It is not until the women arrive, the sun barely peeking over the horizon, that the light explodes around them and the earth moves beneath their feet and a dazzling angel rolls the door back, then sits down casually and invites everyone to take a look. 

The tomb was already empty. Before the door was opened. Before the angel arrived. Before the sun came up. Before anyone could even think to look inside. The tomb was already empty. 

The earth was not the only thing quaking that morning. All who saw it were shaken to the core—the fundamental truth about the world, that death is final, the end, had just been broken open and changed everything we thought we knew. 

Where once it was possible to believe that force equals power, now there is an empty tomb.

Where once it was possible to believe that might makes right, now there is an empty tomb.

Where once it was possible to believe that one race or class of people is better than another, now there is an empty tomb.

Where once it was possible to believe that capital punishment worked, now there is an empty tomb.

Where once it was possible to believe that shame and silence could keep people in their place, now there is an empty tomb.

Where once it was possible to believe that faith, hope, and love were nice feelings but not very useful, now there is an empty tomb.

Like the cross shining in the burned shell of Notre Dame, life rises from the ashes of everything we thought we knew.

The guards couldn’t take it. They were paralysed by their fear, and Matthew tells us in the next few verses that their inability to allow God to do a new thing sent them running to the chief priests for a cover story. The political and religious powers, those who made the rules and enforced them, the ones to whom people looked for guidance and answers, for help and hope? Their reaction was to find a way to maintain the status quo, to rationalise the story into something that would make sense, and then to spread that story far and wide—far and wide enough that Matthew, writing 50 years later, knows it. Those with earthly possessions and power were, at their core, unable to let resurrection be true. 

But the women…after all this time with Jesus, hearing him teach and seeing him heal, they recognised the words “do not be afraid.” And while they were afraid anyway, there was somehow just enough space opened up where the certainty of death used to be for new words to sink in to the core of their being: “he is not here, he has been raised, as he said.” 

Somewhere deep inside, the two Marys heard Jesus’ voice echoing in their memory. They saw and heard him, and began to put the pieces together…and in the empty tomb of their hearts God did a new thing: joy triumphed over fear, love triumphed over hate, life triumphed over death. They heard the angel’s message and turned—with a little fear and great joy—to run and tell the others.

And it is then—with their backs turned to the grave, no longer able to see the angel in bright raiment—then they see Jesus. 

Contrary to my mind-movie, they do not see him at the grave. They only see him when they turn away from the grave and go to spread the good news. They only see him when they put the tomb behind them and allow joy to edge out fear. They only see him when they cannot rely on their vision of the angel any longer.

Then they see Jesus—on their way to tell the others.

They practically run right into him, actually. I imagine they nearly knock him over in their excitement, as he appears in their path. And immediately, they touch him—he is not a ghost—and they worship him. Unlike the last few verses of the story we will hear next week, which say of the disciples “they worshipped him, and some doubted” these women, who have stayed just as close to Jesus this whole time, attended to his needs, soaked up his words, and were first to feel the ground move and the stone roll—the women worship him. 

But Jesus doesn’t want them to stay there, any more than he wanted Peter and James and John to stay on the transfiguration mountaintop. Jesus has a mission for these women. He commissions them—you might even say he ordains them—to tell his story, to give instructions to the others, to share the good news. And off they go. Not a moment’s hesitation. They are ready to tell the other disciples. The message Jesus gives them to tell? Go. Get out of your locked upper room, stop hiding, and go out in the world. Go back to the place that birthed you. Get out of this capital city with its trappings of wealth and power and mockery of religious piety. Go back to the margins of society, to the edge of the province, to the place where only peasants live and where people believe nothing good can happen. Go there, to Galilee. It’s when you get going that you will see me.

Jesus gets right to the heart of the matter: resurrection is not confined to one empty tomb. It’s not just a story of this one time God did something amazing—resurrection is the core reality of who we are as God’s people, and therefore it is something we look for, something we practice, all the time. If we keep the story to ourselves, we will never run into Jesus. If we insist on gluing our eyes to the messenger with his dazzling appearance, our eyes will be blinded to Christ. If we keep looking at the tomb, remembering how things used to be, we will miss Jesus waiting for us on the side of the road…sleeping under a bridge…riding next to us on the bus…sitting in the next desk over…meeting their children at the family contact centre…in the lead story of the nightly news…at the till in Sainsbury’s…behind the bar at the Spinnaker…cutting us off in traffic…lying dead in the street…teaching our children…collecting parcels from the food bank…sitting at the other side of the sanctuary.

If we keep resurrection to one day a year, filled with great music and beautiful flowers and new clothes, we will miss out on the earth-shaking truth that God wants in, to the core of our being, to make us new. Jesus’ resurrection is a sign of the world’s transformation—the first fruits of the kingdom of God, coming here on earth as it is in heaven. And our resurrection, little by little, day by day, moment by moment, story by story, step by step, is part of that transformation into the eternal. It may shake us…we may not understand…we may be afraid. 

We may want to find a way to make it make sense, though we never can, because, frankly, mystery never makes sense, and God is beyond our comprehension. We may want to hold on to the moment, to the memories, though we never can, because memory fades while God’s mercies are new every morning. We may want to boil it down to a moral, or a nice platitude about heaven, but we never can, because God’s story is so much bigger and because Jesus demands we meet him on his terms, not ours. We may want to tell a cover-up story because we can’t handle the enormous change, and the enormous risk, of what God is doing.

And we may not want to turn our back on the tomb. We may want to stay and lament, to remember days gone by, grieving that the world is not the same as it once was. There’s something strangely comforting about staring into the abyss and claiming we don’t understand.

But ultimately the truth is this: the tomb was already empty. And the women only found Jesus when they turned away from it and went out into a world that would never be the same. He said he was going ahead of them—and he is, going ahead of us, even now, into the future God is still creating, a future of life in all its fullness.

Christ is risen—he is risen indeed! And those who tell the story, and live the story, and let it live in the very center of who we are and what we do…we are resurrection people, Easter people, and when we turn out away from the tomb and toward the world, we see Jesus alive and on the loose, changing everything we thought we new. Hope wins. Life wins. Love wins.

May it be so.

Friday, April 19, 2019

People of the Cross—monologues for holy week

Monday: Temple Vendor (“who picks up the pieces?”)
It was a busy weekend in Jerusalem, with everyone beginning to arrive for Passover. We had our hands full, between worrying about the lateness of our lambs and wondering if we’d have enough turtledoves for the crowds wanting to make other sacrifices before the big festival. The courtyard of the Temple was crowded, and noisy, with birds squawking and people shouting and the Romans stomping about making their presence known. I didn’t even get a chance to look out and see what the singing and commotion was about yesterday, but I heard that the crowds were singing for a rabbi who’d just arrived. Some of the children were even calling him the Son of David, which won’t make the leaders too happy.

Since I couldn’t get away from my stall for even a second, I wasn’t prepared when this rabbi arrived in the Temple, trailing the crowd still chanting “hosanna.” At first he was just like any other visitor, looking around at the big stones and the high walls, they are a marvel after all. This place is beautiful, not to mention that God lives inside. That’s why we merchants are here, because people need perfect animals and the right currency to make their offerings, so we change their foreign money and sell them sacrificial doves and lambs. How would people worship if we weren’t here to help?

But then this rabbi started shouting, and somehow he was heard over the din of people and animals. He was shouting about a house of prayer—well, that’s what this is, a house of prayer. All of a sudden I knew why he could be heard above the racket, because all my senses narrowed as my own table was turned over and my bird cages scattered! I couldn’t think of anything as I grabbed as many birds as I could and ran out, slipping on the coins spilled from the currency exchange, with his voice chasing me through the gate, saying we’d made the Temple a hideout for criminals. 

Well, I don’t know about that, but I do know that I’m not sure about going back to work today. The city is abuzz with gossip about this rabbi, they say he’s called Jesus, and he might be The One. He’s certainly got us all talking about what is worship and what we need to pray properly. There’s lots of grumbling, too, about what he says about the Temple being for all nations, and about God being with him. I don’t know where this will all end up, but for today I think I’ll keep the birds at home and see if I can find him to hear more of what he has to say. Someone’s got to pick up the pieces.

Tuesday: religious leader (“he’s got to go”) 
There’ve been rumours for weeks, but we didn’t think he’d really come here. Especially during the Passover festival! After all he’s said and done, he has to know that it isn’t only we clergy keeping an eye on him, the Romans are too. And the last thing we need is a riot, or worse, a revolution. 

The rumours say this Jesus fellow has been attracting huge crowds, and then he teaches them how to break the rules that we have so carefully set up and followed for years. He even heals on the Sabbath! And worse than that, he feeds people, even the ones who weren’t prepared to take care of themselves when they left home to go hear him preaching in the countryside. He gets them sharing with each other and crossing all sorts of boundaries, mixing up women, and outcasts, and sinners, and people who are ill, and tax collectors, and regular men, all together as if they belong in one family or something. He’s turning people away from the true worship of our traditions!

He knows his scriptures, too, so it’s hard to catch him out. We asked him which commandment was most important, and he said to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself—he quoted Deuteronomy and Leviticus at us, and what could we say? He was right, of course. So we asked about taxes, and he turned the question around until we couldn’t answer without getting ourselves in trouble. Even when he heals people on the Sabbath he quotes scripture to defend himself, something about doing good and helping people in trouble no matter what day it is. It’s going to be hard to pin anything on him unless he makes a big mistake. 

I thought maybe that stunt with the donkey and the crowd chanting Hosanna would do it, since he was clearly pretending to be like our ancient kings returning to the city of David. And then when he had that tantrum in the Temple, we looked for a way to arrest him. But the crowds are spellbound. I don’t know what they see in him, but it’s getting dangerous. He’s not just a threat to our power, he’s a threat to everything we’ve got going here—peace with Rome, peasants who don’t talk back, and just enough religious freedom to arrange things our way. If he keeps talking about loving people who don’t deserve it, and mixing up different kinds of people, and bending the rules just for the sake of compassion or what he calls justice, well...I don’t like to speculate about what happens if the emperor hears about the crowds he draws and how they call him the Son of David. We need a plan. Maybe we can buy off one of his followers somehow? Whatever it takes—He’s got to go.

Wednesday: the woman who anoints Jesus at Bethany (he’s the one)
I’ve been saving this up for....I don’t know what. I put it up on a shelf, behind some baskets. I hid it there, myself, waiting until the day I needed it.
When I heard Jesus was staying nearby, after all that he’s said and done, after all I saw in the city this weekend, after hearing him myself, I decided today was the day. 

It took a few minutes of rearranging, balancing on the stool to reach up to where the jar was pushed all the way to the back. Alabaster is fragile, so I wanted to be careful, but it still felt heavy so the perfume inside hadn’t leaked at all. It’s a beautiful jar, and once I wiped off the dust it nearly glowed in the afternoon light. 

Before I could lose my nerve I went right in to the dinner, even though I wasn’t invited. The whole way there I was working the cork loose, to be sure I could open the jar quickly. I poured the entire bottle onto Jesus, almost before anyone reclining at the table could see me. The scent filled the house, overpowering the smell of the food. It was a rich delight for the senses, to feel the smooth ointment on my hands, to smell the perfume...but then I heard the voices rising. I was so focussed on offering my gift, trying to show Jesus my love for him, how much I thought he was worth, I hadn’t thought what others might say.

They were angry, and their words cut through my prayers like spikes into my heart. Calling me wasteful...calling me a waste. They didn’t seem to remember that Jesus always had time for the poor, and the stranger, and the widow. I’d heard him tell the stories about God’s kingdom being like yeast hidden in flour, rising up from within, and being like a woman who looked for a lost coin and rejoiced with her neighbours when she found it. I’d seen him touch the leper and sit at table with sinners. Hadn’t they heard the same teaching I had, about the woman who gave her only two coins, or about giving to God what belongs to God? Weren’t they there when he fed the multitudes with only a few loaves given by a child? I started to wonder if maybe I didn’t belong after all, if I had heard wrong when people called him the Messiah, the one coming to save us.

With tears in my eyes, I wiped his feet with my hair, and waited.
“She has anointed my body for burial” he said.
“You should always be taking care of the poor, just as she took care of me” he said.
“Wherever my story is told, hers will be as well” he said.

I looked up, and saw love in his eyes—Love far more extravagant than my greatest gift. 
He understood. I had offered everything I had to him, just as he was offering everything he had for all of us. He’s the One.

Thursday: the owner of the upper room (the room where it happened)
There are many great things about living in the city. I enjoy the hustle and bustle, and being close to the Temple means I hear a lot of interesting teachers speak. Most of the animals are outside the walls so it isn’t quite as smelly as some villages can be. My walls are stone and my house doesn’t leak if we get a big desert rain. And, like everyone else, since my family and I live only on the ground floor, our guest room upstairs can be rented out during the big festivals. I can go worship and then stay in my own bed at night, while making a little money by offering a space for people from the country to stay too. 

This year is a bit unusual, because the guest room upstairs is full for the night, but a few days ago a young man asked me if he could hire the room just for dinner time. I could use a few extra coins, so I said sure. We moved the packs to the roof, brought up some tables, and I set my daughters to cleaning and doing some of the cooking. Then a couple of this man’s friends—I guess he’s a rabbi, and they’re his disciples?—appeared and said they’re to prepare the meal. Well, I don’t know what sort of disciples they are who can cook, but my girls were glad of the help, and I could hear them giggling as they tried to teach these young men to chop vegetables and boil eggs and roll out matzoh. Then the disciples went off to the Temple to get their lamb sacrificed, and they brought it back ready to cook...perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise that they left that to the girls and went back to their rabbi!

When I opened the door to them tonight I was surprised how many there were. There was the man who’d arranged the room, he must be the rabbi. There were twelve of his disciples with him, and also some other followers too, women and men. I led them upstairs, and we laid out the Passover feast, and then left them to it. 

Normally, I would go down and preside at my own Passover table with my family. But since they’ve been working hard all day on two meals, ours is a bit delayed. So here I am, kneeling on the top step, trying to listen through the door. Most everything I’ve heard has been the usual way of the Seder, with the story of slavery in Egypt, plagues, and escaping through the Red Sea. But he also said something strange about the bread and wine and his body and blood, and I can’t tear myself away even though I know my family is downstairs waiting. There’s some confused conversation coming through the door, I think they’re coming toward me...perhaps I can be invited in to the room where it happens?

Onward—a sermon for Palm Sunday

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Matthew 21.1-15
14 April 2019, Palm Sunday, NL1-31

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.’
This took place to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet:
‘Say to Daughter Zion,
    “See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
    and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”’
The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’
‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’
‘Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, ‘Who is this?’
The crowds answered, ‘This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.’
Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money-changers and the benches of those selling doves. ‘It is written,’ he said to them, ‘“My house will be called a house of prayer,” but you are making it “a den of robbers.”’
The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ they were indignant.
‘Do you hear what these children are saying?’ they asked him.
‘Yes,’ replied Jesus, ‘have you never read,
‘“From the lips of children and infants
    you, Lord, have called forth your praise”?’
And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.


This week we finished the six week Lent Bible Study, which looked in depth at each of the days of Holy Week. We began six weeks ago with the story of the first Palm Sunday, and it was fascinating to research together some of the background that people there in Jerusalem that day would have taken for granted, but now we no longer recognise. 

We talked about not just the lines from prophet Zechariah that Matthew references, which would have been very familiar to people, but also the rest of the verse when Zechariah talks about the blood of the covenant, God setting the people free, God’s work of justice, and the king being meek but victorious. And the study also reminded us that the literal son of David—King Solomon—entered Jerusalem in a similar manner. The people who witnessed Jesus entering Jerusalem, and the people who first heard the stories when the gospel was newly written, knew all these stories. The scripture was ingrained in them, and Amy-Jill Levine, the scholar who created the study we used, said, “because they knew those earlier Scriptures, they heard the gospel with more finely attuned ears.” (Entering the Passion of Jesus, p. 30)

I’m reminded of being a teenager, and the day I realised that my study of literature was being hindered by not knowing anything about the Bible. I grew up in an unchurched family, and so literally had no idea what Christianity, or the holy days of Easter and Christmas, or Church, was about. But when studying literature I became painfully aware that I was missing a lot of references that would make understanding stories and poetry easier, so I decided I was going to read the Bible myself. I found one somewhere and snuck it into my room, and I read at night under the covers, so my parents wouldn’t find out. It took me somewhere just under a year, but I read the whole Bible from beginning to end. And suddenly I found so much more depth in everything else—from books to movies to even just phrases that are commonly used in conversation. It was as if a whole secret layer of life had been revealed. 

As I read I also found myself feeling like this story was True with a capital T—that it revealed not just all the literary references I had been missing, but indeed a new life. I used to say that I was converted by Scripture—the Holy Spirit was at work while I was reading as an academic pursuit, and my whole life was changed by entering this story.

Sometimes I wonder if we are caught in a strange cultural phenomenon right now, where the story of God and God’s people is simultaneously too familiar and yet unknown to us. We recognise the big movements, of Incarnation and Crucifixion and Resurrection, and we almost take for granted that everyone knows at least a few of the things Jesus said and did. But we don’t often know the fullness of the story, and so we miss the references back, and the connections to different times and places that might help us make sense of what God is still doing now. Like this triumphal entry story, where we don’t easily recognise the pattern Jesus is so intentionally following. It’s hard to be fully attuned to what God is doing when we don’t have good reference points to build on, and so we have lost some of the depth of the story, I think.

Jesus intentionally evokes the prophets of the past, coming in on a donkey rather than a warhorse as the Romans would have done, joining the throngs of people who are coming up to Jerusalem for the festival. The traditional psalms that people would sing on their way up to the festival include Psalm 118, with the lines “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest!” So when he joins the procession, people are already chanting these words. Earlier in the year we heard Jesus teaching “blessed are the meek”—and “meek” means someone who has power but doesn’t use it in a coercive way—and now here he is, the picture of meekness and majesty together. And gospel writers report that the whole city was in turmoil, because of this, and everyone was asking who this person is, who dared to paint this picture in front of everyone. 

It caused a stir, because instantly people would have thought of Solomon, and of the prophecy of Zechariah. Jesus is practically an illustration for the Zechariah pages, of a king riding in on a donkey, bringing justice and freedom....the very things the Romans don’t want to see, of course. And more than that, Jesus will offer his blood as a sign of the new covenant, just as Zechariah wrote of the blood of the covenant, and he will do so without coercion and violence, despite that being what the people seem to long for.

The thing about evoking these past stories and building on them is that it also heightens people’s expectations. Because they recognise the symbols in front of them, they also anticipate what will come next. But Jesus is going to build on the past, not repeat it. He has no intention of actually being another David or another Solomon. He won’t be fighting for a literal kingdom of land and buildings and armies, or inhabiting the royal palace surrounded by hundreds of women, or forcing his will on people. 

So for all those people there shouting “Hosanna,” Jesus will actually turn out to be something of a disappointment. Their expectations will not be met. But that’s because their expectations are actually too low, too narrow. God, in Christ, has far bigger plans that simply expelling the Romans and installing a new human king in one small nation. Indeed, in Jesus, God is moving us forward, not backward. Think of the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry: he has gathered people from all walks of life, all ages, all socio-economic levels, all ability and disability. He has taught about God’s kingdom being upside down from the way of this world. He has fed people, and healed them, and broken the rules of the day to do so. He has insisted there are no insiders and outsiders, no difference between us and them, no distance to be kept between poor and powerful. God has no intention of taking the story back to what used to be, to some glory days that people think they remember fondly. This story is always going on, because God is the God of the living, and God is doing a new thing that will move the world ever closer to his kingdom. 

But the people won’t like it.

That day they chanted and cheered, they sang Hosanna and waved branches and laid their coats in the road so that the donkey’s hooves wouldn’t churn up dust and get Jesus dirty. The word “hosanna” means “save us!” And it’s likely that their prayer that day was truly “save us...from Rome, from oppression, from being pawn in another empire’s story.” And Jesus would do that, but not the way they expected. 

In the Bible Study we were asked what our prayer is today—Hosanna, save us...from what? And almost instantly the evening group said “save us from ourselves.” From our destructive ways, from the damage we have done to the planet, to culture, to our bodies, to our spirits. Save us from the things we think we want, but are terrible for others. Save us from the political quagmire we find ourselves in. Save us from repeating the mistakes of the past.

We know what happens next in the story. Or we think we do, anyway. We will enter this week of Jesus’ passion and we know that there’s the Last Supper, when he will reinterpret and add on to the story of Passover and freedom and the bread and wine of the covenant, and that he will be betrayed, and there will be a sham trial, and he will be executed by the state in the most horrific torture humans have ever devised. We know that isn’t going to be the end of the story, and that the grief of Friday will give way to the joy of Sunday. 

But I wonder if the expectations we have for these coming days, and what we think we know of the story, are actually hindering us, much like the expectations of the crowd in the streets of Jerusalem? Because yes, Jesus will save us, answering our prayers of Hosanna. But now, as then, he isn’t going to do that by taking us back to the good old days. He isn’t going to be restoring our past, or returning us to a time where everything seemed great and Sunday schools were full and politicians were kind and businesses offered really good defined benefit pensions and summer was always warm and sunny and whatever else we think we remember. 

For one thing, the rose-coloured glasses we wear to look back at the past leave out some pretty difficult truths, about racism and sexism and poverty and imperialism. But more importantly: God is not in the business of taking us backwards. When we join this parade, following Jesus mounted on a donkey, surrounded by children and peasants and waving palm branches, making a stir in the city, we are following a new path, going forward into a future we can’t yet imagine, but that God already sees clearly. It won’t meet our narrow expectations, but if we’re willing to keep walking, it will lead us onward toward the kingdom of God. 

May it be so. Amen.