Sunday, June 10, 2018

3rd Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 3:20-35 

In Mark’s gospel Jesus’ ministry begins immediately with healing, confronting powers and principalities and “encountering the power of unclean spirits and demon possession.”[i] And in response, in today’s Gospel reading, the Pharisees and scribes level “a charge against Jesus, accusing him of being in league with the ruler of demons.”[ii] His own family arrives on the scene, saying he is “beside himself” or “out of his mind.”

Responding to their accusations, Jesus takes seriously the realities of Satan and other demonic powers. His direct speech about Satan makes us uncomfortable because in our “secular age” we live in a largely “disenchanted world” where “talking about the Devil is more and more awkward” and more “like telling a story about ghosts, alien abduction, or Bigfoot.” [iii]

Whatever our understanding of these powers are, the reality that Jesus names here is that we are captive “to the powers of evil signified by “Satan,” powers that continue to seek our allegiance” even now.[iv] “The proper name “Satan” comes from the Hebrew … word that simply means adversary.”…Biblically, Satan names that which is working against God and God’s kingdom in the world.”[v] These are the powers that “capture us and cause us to hurt ourselves, to hurt others, and to hurt God.”[vi]

And, captive to these powers, in our communities and neighborhoods, and even within our congregations, we become the “house divided” that Jesus references as we continue to label people as “out of their minds” and in direct opposition to the Gospel — the Good News of Jesus Christ — we demonize, “other” and de-humanize the ones who stand outside: the refugee, the immigrant, the person with brown or black skin; the convict, the poor, and the homeless; those who are differently abled and those whose mental health is compromised.

Nearly four years after comedian and actor Robin Williams’ death by suicide, suicide returned to the news this week followings the deaths of designer Kate Spade and chef Anthony Bourdain.  In addition to having resources and celebrity, all three of these beloved sons and daughters of God had the unfortunate distinction of belonging to the group of people – those between 45 to 64 years old –  who have the highest suicide rate (19.21%) in our country. But the next highest group affected is those 75 and older at 18.59%.[vii] And, across age groups, veterans account for 22% of suicides. No one is immune. 

And yet, despite its prevalence,
despite the fact that each year more than 44,000 Americans die by suicide, and, on average, in our state, one person dies by suicide every six hours, mental health conversations remain difficult and conditions like anxiety, bipolar, depression, and psychosis remain highly stigmatized.  [viii]

The first words of Mark’s Gospel say, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) but in his book Jesus and the Disinherited Howard Thurman wrote, “Christianity is only good news, if it’s good news for “those who stand, at a moment in human history, with their backs against the wall.”[ix]

Thurman’s words provoke us to recognize the ways in which too often today, people affected by mental illness still live with their backs against the wall.

And it’s not only “those people,” the ones we don’t know. It is us, it is our children and our sisters and brothers.

Fully 1 in 5 adults experience mental health conditions every year.
1 in 5.
And because few of us grew up in settings where mental health was openly discussed, we think, “I should be happy.” “I just need to be more positive.” “I just need to work this out for myself.” And when we don’t find that way forward all on our own, without medication, professional help or counseling, we become more frustrated, more disappointed and more critical of ourselves. [x]We churn in an eddy of dis-ease, shame and mis-understanding, with voices echoing in our heads:

“I am unforgiveable.”
“God punishes and condemns me.”
And “I have no purpose.”

And those are lies. Those are the very evil lies that Jesus names when he “[exposes] our captivity to the “strong men” of our lives.”[xi]

Today’s gospel demonstrates that, truly, “we are enslaved to oppressive spiritual forces …[and] God is acting in Jesus as [our] liberator, emancipator and rescuer.”[xii] 

The Good News that Jesus brings is the assurance of grace that says,

“I am forgivable.”

“God loves me.”
And “God has a purpose for me.”

And it is in those moments when we are freed to “experience the gracious and stunning love of God.”[xiii]

It is really important to say out loud here that people who complete their deaths by suicide are not outside of God’s grace; their disease tragically altered their lives and brought about their premature deaths, but they are not separated from God’s love.

A clergy friend shared the story of a congregation where a row of eight headstones sat at one end of their cemetery. Each of the markers was for a person who had completed their death by suicide. At the time of their burials, the graves had sat beyond the fence around the cemetery; they were considered outside the grace of God at their deaths. Since then, compassion had prevailed and the fence had been moved, so that today, they stand united with the other saints who were laid to rest there.

Maybe you remember those days. Thankfully, similar changes have happened in the majority of Christian traditions, and today, Christians who complete their deaths by suicide are interred or inurned with the same rites of committal and commendation as anyone else.

For each of us here, confident of God’s mercy made new every morning, we can live this Gospel’s Good News out loud in our lives and in our congregation, neighborhoods and communities.

If you are struggling, know you are loved. You matter. You are wildly loved. You are not alone. Stay with us. Please. You brain chemistry is broken, not you. Ask for help. Seek counseling. Work with a doctor to manage the right dose and kind of medication. Freedom awaits. But hear me when I say, if you cannot do any of those things, it doesn’t change the facts: You matter. You are wildly loved. You are not alone. Stay with us. Please.[xiv]

If you are healthy today — and it’s always today because mental health isn’t static and set, it changes and depression can come roaring back into a person’s life without warning — if you are healthy today, learn the number for the Suicide Prevention Hotline. Learn about Mental Health First Aid and QPR trainings that will equip you to respond to others whose mental health is affected. Advocate for comprehensive access to healthcare. Learn about warning signs of suicidal thoughts and behaviors and learn how to listen non-judgmentally to people when they are hurting. Learn and share information about the resources that are available here in Shelby and Cleveland County, and walk alongside people who are hurting, without trying to “fix” them. [xv]

Following Jesus, we are freed to open our imaginations to see the world that Jesus sees, where, as Paul writes in Romans 8:21, “we obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

No longer a house divided, we are freed to become a community where we practice care and love and reconciliation, working out the messiness of our lives face to face with real people. That is who the Church is called to be in this hurting world.

Pray with me…
Healing and life-giving God,
Thank you for your Son Jesus who defeats all the powers of evil that persist in this world;
Thank you for your abundant and healing mercy and grace.
Give us courage to confess our dependence on you and name our sin and willfulness when we try to “go it alone.”
Strengthen us by your Holy Spirit to follow Jesus into the world with Your love.

[i], accessed 6/9/2018.
[ii], accessed 6/9/2018.
[iii] Richard Beck. Reviving Old Scratch. xv.
Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Location 4329). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
[v] Beck, 8.
Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), Kindle Locations 4330-4331.
[vii] 45-54 19.72%, 55 – 64 18.71%, 75-83 18.2%; 85+ 18.98% according to, accessed 6/9/2018.
[viii], accessed 6/9/2018.
[ix] Howard Thurman. Jesus and the Disinherited, 11.
[x] Adapted from Rev. Keith Spencer.
Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), Kindle Location 4337.
[xii] Beck, 44-46.
[xiii] Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), Kindle Locations 4335-4336.
[xiv] Adapted from Rev. Jason Chestnut (@crazy pastor)
[xv] Adapted from Rev. Keith Spencer.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

2nd Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 2:23 – 3:6

Perhaps you have heard this story:
One day, someone was walking along the street and watching while two men worked. One would dig a hole about three feet deep, and then walk down the street about twenty-five feet and dig another hole, and on and on. Then a second man would follow behind the first and fill the hole back up. Like the streetscape projects happening uptown right now, this was hard, gritty work in the hot sun.

And, finally, with his curiosity piqued, the outsider approached the men and said to them, “Guys, I’ve been watching you work, but I don’t understand what you are doing. One of you digs a hole, and then the next one fills it in. It doesn’t look like you’re accomplishing much of anything.”

And gently, the first two men explained that usually they had a third man on their crew but he was out that day. You have to understand, they told the outsider, it was his job to plant a tree in each hole.
You see, these obedient workers had learned well how to work diligently, and they were committed to the established pattern of work that they had established. Each of the workers knew exactly how to do his part. They were hard-working, well-intentioned and earnest.

But no one had ever painted a picture of what their obedience and toil could accomplish.

No one had ever invited them to participate in the bigger vision or told them that they weren't just out there digging holes and trucking dirt. They were supposed to be planting trees, and beautifying their city and increasing green spaces.

In Mark’s gospel today, Jesus comes into the lives of the Pharisees as an outsider and challenges them to expand their vision for what it means to be obedient. He challenges them to question what it is they are doing in their sabbath-keeping, what does it mean to be obedient to God’s commands. “He is proclaiming—in word and deed—a new way of understanding who God is.”[ii]

It would have been so much easier for Jesus to just go along with the status quo. After all, just before today’s gospel reading, the disciples and Jesus are gathered at Levi’s house where they sat and ate together; the disciples weren’t going hungry int hat moment; surely, they could have waited until the Sabbath was over to eat the grain from the fields where they were walking... And the man with the withered hand wasn't in any hurry; he didn’t ask to be healed; surely, Jesus could have waited until after the Sabbath to offer his restoration.

Instead of just going along, Jesus challenged their understanding of who God is and what it means to seek the kingdom of God that has drawn near. (1:15) He teaches that Sabbath-keeping isn’t about displaying an empty and devout piety or observing a religious practice for its own sake. Midway through these scenes Jesus tells them, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.” (2:27)[iii]

Sabbath-keeping is not about checking a box or crossing it off your to-do list.

It is about a practice that invites us into life with God – the very same God who loves every one of us, regardless of our economic or social status, regardless of the label the world places on us. This radical life-giving God gives us new life in the forgiveness of our sins even when we have done nothing to earn that grace and shows us that “there is life available, greater and more abundant than we ever imagined.”[iv]

This radical life-giving God sets this day apart and calls it holy.

It is important, not because keeping the Sabbath demonstrates our own diligence and obedience, but because keeping the Sabbath frees us to live differently, and perhaps, even to see differently.

For the people of Israel who came out of slavery in Egypt, the idea that everyone, even slaves and servants, are given a full day set apart from work truly was radical. Imagine their surprise when they learned that their one, true God saw them. God saw the people who go unseen or ignored, the people who work without respite or reward, without refreshment or rest.

And today, God invites us to see them, too.

As Pastor David Lose writes,

God gives us the law to help us get the most out of life and, in particular, to help us get more out of life by helping others, by looking out for them, by taking care of them and, by extension, taking care of each other. [v]

The vision that Jesus casts is one where relationships are more important than rules.
Hear me say that again, relationships are more important than rules.

It is a vision that recognizes that all too often Sabbath-keeping becomes a meaningless pantomime, the repetition of empty motions without any experience of the transformative power of God’s love in our lives.

It is a vision where the Gospel is not only read out loud but lived out loud everyday in our lives!

Pray with me now…
Radical and life-giving God,
We give you thanks for your abundant grace poured out on us regardless of time and season.
We give you thanks for the gift of law that calls us into relationship with you, with each other and for the sake of the world.
By your Holy Spirit, strengthen and empower us to live in the richness of your mercy and the joy of our salvation, restored to relationship with you.
We pray in the name of Your Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus.

[i] Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16) (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Location 3354). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Feasting on the Word, (Kindle Locations 3502-3503).
[iii] David Lose, In the Meantime.
[iv] Feasting on the Word, (Kindle Locations 3525-3527).
[v] ibid

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Holy Trinity Sunday

While our first reading is the story of Isaiah’s call to prophesy, it is first and foremost, the story of how Isaiah is a witness to the extraordinary, of something that is “normally concealed from the human eye.” Where, on Pentecost, in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke recalls Joel’s own description of the Holy Spirit being poured out upon the people, saying, “your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17), in this reading, we hear Isaiah describe his own vision of the Lord.

First he describes seeing the Lord seated on a throne and the hem of the Lord’s robe filled the room. This is the majestic and sovereign ‘Adonai’ — “God of the universe”, “Holy God, Mighty Lord, Gracious Father”, “Holy and mighty, holy and immortal” — whose glory we name in the Great Thanksgiving when we sing the sanctus using the words from verse 3: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (6:3)

Next, Isaiah describes the presence of the seraphs, celestial winged serpents near to God, and when the seraphs speak, the text tells us, “The pivots on the thresholds shook and the house filled with smoke.”

This encounter with the Lord was neither cerebral nor academic; it was tactile and it was physical. Shaking and trembling disturb you, and alert you to what is happening around you; smoke gets into your nostrils and lingers on your clothes, and even your skin. The encounter stays with you.

Isaiah’s extraordinary encounter with the divine echoes in the lives of Moses, Ezekiel and even Paul.

When Moses was leading the people of Israel to meet God, Exodus 19 says they stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and “[it] was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. (Exodus 19:18)

When Ezekiel was confronting Israel, Ezekiel 38 says the Lord declared, “… On that day there shall be a great shaking in the land of Israel;  …and all human beings that are on the face of the earth, shall quake at my presence, and the mountains shall be thrown down, and the cliffs shall fall, and every wall shall tumble to the ground….  (Ezekiel 38:20) 

When Paul was imprisoned with Silas in Philippi, Acts 16 says, “Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone's chains were unfastened.” (Acts 16:26) 

Encountering God should affect us – leave us changed in some way; we should not be the same as we were before.

Often in Scripture we see God enter into relationship with a person who was then set apart to bear witness to God. (Romans 1:1)

After the Lord appeared to Moses in the burning bush and told him that he would lead God’s people out of Egypt, Moses protested, but God gave him a staff and healed him from leprosy so that the people would recognize his authority, as one whom God had sent. (Exodus 4:1-12) 

And again, when the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, he protested that he was only a boy, but, “Then the LORD put out his hand and touched [his] mouth; and the LORD said to [him], "Now I have put my words in your mouth. (Jeremiah 1:9)

And again, when Ezekiel was commissioned to speak the Lord’s words to the people, a scroll was spread out before him and the Lord instructed him to eat it. When he had eaten it, he testified that “it was as sweet as honey.” (Ezekiel 3:4)

And again, when Paul who was first known as Saul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, he fell down in the road and was blinded for three days, before Ananias laid hands on him and he regained his sight and began to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God. (Acts 9)

When it was Isaiah’s turn, the prophet responded in confession and the seraph placed a burning coal upon his lips to purify and sanctify him.

His confession is both for himself and for the people of Israel:
"Woe is me!
I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" (6:5)

In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther teaches that the purpose of confession isn’t to
“come and say how upright or how wicked you are….[but] to lament your need and allow yourself to be helped so that you may attain a joyful heart and conscience…”…It is “to hear what God wants to say to you.” (LC, 478)

And the gift that Isaiah receives, and that we all receive when we encounter the Holy who is God, is the Word that brings absolution or forgiveness, for the comfort and restoration of our souls.

God responds to our lament with forgiveness, providing balm, and as the African-American spiritual promises,
curing the sin sick soul and making the wounded whole. (Washington Glass, “Balm of Gilead”)

Isaiah is a witness to the extraordinary.
Shaken and disturbed,
humbled by the awesome power of God,
compelled to confession,
and fashioned in forgiveness, he is sent out into the world.

This morning, I want to ask,
What will shake you into response?

Where have you heard God speaking and you cannot overlook or dismiss it any longer?

Are you moved to confession for yourself or for the world in which we live?
Not pointing fingers, mocking others for their beliefs or calling other human beings names but naming instead what Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls “the real deathliness that hovers over us and gnaws at us….”[i]

What will it take for you and I to voice true lament at the ways in which the brokenness – the sinfulness – of our human nature – our conceit and vanity – are on display? And how might we shine light into the darkness and tear away the veil that covers “the fear and the pain that individual persons want so desperately to share and to own but are not permitted to do so.”[ii]

Brueggemann describes the prophetic imagination to which we are called in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets:
as one that cuts through the numbness
and penetrates the self-deception so that,
to the ends of the earth, God is confessed as Lord.

Inhabited by the power and Spirit of God, our hearts are burning because our Holy God is here, setting us apart and calling us into the world as witnesses.

Let us pray.
Your way, O God, is holy. (Ps. 77:13)
Thank you for restoring your people with abundant grace and forgiveness;
Created for relationship and set apart as Your people, draw us to you in confession when we turn away from you;
Fashion us now into a people who bear witness to your love for all.
We pray in the name of the Father, Son + and the Holy Spirit.

[i] Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination (p. 45). Augsburg Fortress - A. Kindle Edition.
[ii] ibid

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Easter Sunday

Mark 16:1-8

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our LORD Jesus Christ.

Appropriately on this first day of April, the ending of Mark’s gospel reads like an April Fools’ Day joke.

The women who came from Galilee to Jerusalem with Jesus,
looked on from a distance at his crucifixion,
and watched as his body was laid in a tomb,
returned to the tomb very early in the morning,
taking burial spices with them. And there

“Surprise! He is not here.”

Instead of finding their Lord exactly where they expected, they found an empty tomb

And though they must have heard the young man’s blessed assurance, “Do not be afraid”, their surprise was mixed with the wonder and amazement of mystery, and then with terror and fear.

Entering the empty tomb is uncomfortable, at best.

In fact, it is so uncomfortable that scholars think early Christians added onto the Gospel writer’s account to create an ending that was more satisfactory.

Don’t we all want an Easter story that is wrapped with a pastel bow, filled with jubilation and has a happy ending?

Instead, Mark tells us the women fled and said nothing to anyone.

As uncomfortable as it is, the women’s response to the empty tomb creates a mirror in which we see ourselves. In our own experiences of following Jesus, most of us can name surprising and joyful highs and moments of wonder and awe, but also those times of disorientation, and places where we have felt only terror or fear.

The Good News is the empty tomb is not the end of the story. The young man tells the women that Jesus has gone before them to Galilee, where his ministry and their life of following Jesus began.

To see Jesus again we must look ahead.

This morning, we celebrate the miraculous news of the Resurrection with joyful songs and shouts of Alleluia, but this afternoon and tomorrow, or the next day, we’ll return to our own Galilees— the places where we come from,
or where we work and live, and in our everyday routines.

May we remember that
Jesus goes before us into our neighborhoods and city streets;
Jesus goes before us into our schools and college campuses;
Jesus goes before us into our offices and board rooms;
Jesus goes before us into hospitals and doctor’s offices;
and Jesus goes before us into the prisons and treatment centers.

This Easter the Gospel asks us to be willing to tell the story of the Good News of Jesus Christ even when the ending remains unwritten. It asks us to share the Resurrection hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15), confident that God is working in our midst to accomplish his purposes all around us and ready to follow Him.

Thanks be to God.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Maundy Thursday

Mark 12:22-42

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our LORD Jesus Christ.

I don’t know about you but many of my favorite memories feature food. I often tell a story about my grandmother, who didn’t bake, except for meringues, but she always had pantry shelves filled with Pepperidge Farm cookies. I remember too, as a child, going to my friend’s Polish Catholic parish where we ate cabbage rolls, potatoes and sweet pastries. I remember Sunday brunch with hearts of palm and dinners where roast beast was carved at the table. I remember my mother’s paella and coq au vin and eating barbecue and Brunswick stew from Creedmoor. But these food memories aren’t just from childhood.

Two years ago, a group of folks here in Shelby created a community Thanksgiving meal.
Inviting people to come and eat,
they took donations of turkeys and side dishes, sweet tea and desserts;
they prayed before the meal to bless the gifts of food and presence that had been given;
they broke bread, opened chafing dishes of mashed potatoes and green beans, uncovered pie plates and tins of cookies;
and gave the bounty to the neighbors who gathered.

Somehow gathering around a table for a meal fills more than our bellies and nourishes our bodies; it contents our hearts and strengthens us for what lies ahead.

Tonight, on Maundy Thursday, named for the mandatum, or command, that Jesus gives his disciples in John’s Gospel “to love one another as I have loved you,” we inhabit another part of the story from the night of Jesus’ arrest — the meal. In John’s Gospel, it is not a Passover meal, but in the synoptic gospels – Mark, Matthew and Luke – it is, and that’s significant because the Passover meal is not just about sated appetites, full bellies and nourished bodies; it is an act of remembering the mighty act of God’s salvation — God’s rescue —from death and slavery.

The people of Israel were enslaved by the king of Egypt, and when he would not free them, God promised judgment against the people there; the Israelites were told to mark their doorposts with the blood of a slaughtered lamb and the blood would be a sign of the covenant they had with God, and God would pass over their households and save them. (Exodus 12) After his own people suffered God’s judgment, Pharaoh let the Israelites go and they fled Egypt but throughout their journey to the Holy Land, God accompanied them.

In the same way, the meal we share at the Table every time we celebrate Holy Communion together remembers the mighty act of God’s salvation in our lives.

In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther explains, “The words ‘given for you’ and ‘shed for you’ for the forgiveness of sins show us that the forgiveness of sin, life and salvation are given to us ….”[i] “The treasure is opened and placed …upon the table [for everyone.]”[ii]And he reminds us that it is not our eating and drinking that do it, but “the bread and wine set within God’s Word and bound to it.”[iii]

Daily, we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. But, unfailingly, God rescues us, delivering us “from sin, death and the devil.”[iv]

Again, hear Martin Luther’s teaching, “There are so many hindrances and attacks of the devil and the world that we often grow weary and faint at times even stumble…the devil is a furious enemy;…when he cannot rout us by force, he sneaks and skulks at every turn, trying all kinds of tricks, and does not stop until he has finally worn us out….For times like these, …the Lord’s Supper is given to bring us new strength and refreshment. ”[v]

On this Maundy Thursday night, like the disciples often did, we want to deny what is going to happen to Jesus. We want to remember the scene the way Leonardo Da Vinci painted it: an upper room with a festive table overflowing with food and wine where Jesus and his disciples gathered. We want the garden to be filled with birds’ night song and the sweet aroma of fresh blooms, instead of the shouts of soldiers and the pungent smell of burial spices.

But tonight, especially, we cannot deny Jesus’ fate. Gathered here tonight, we are bearing witness not to a farewell party, but to the last meal of a condemned man, because we cannot get to the joy of Easter without first seeing Jesus stripped and mocked and finally, executed.

As darkness falls, we join the whole company of disciples around the world and across time who come to this Table, confessing our sin and naming our need for God, confident that God gives us “food for the soul [ that] nourishes and strengthens [us for what lies ahead.]”[vi]

Thanks be to God.

[i] Martin Luther, “Small Catechism,” Book of Concord. 362.
[ii] Martin Luther. “Large Catechism,” Book of Concord. 470.
[iii] ibid 467.
[iv] ibid 459
[v] ibid 469.
[vi] ibid

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Palm Sunday (March 25, 2018)

Mark 11:1-11

Today, at the beginning of Holy Week, we heard first about Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem and then we heard the account of his execution just days later. Our human brokenness is realized in our Lord’s crucifixion when the same disciples who confessed Jesus as Lord ran away and hid after he was arrested.

We’ll visit the events of the Three Days – from the last Supper through Holy Saturday – later in the week during our worship on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, but today I want us to stay a little longer with the crowds shouting Hosanna, crying out to Jesus to “save us.”

Marcus Borg, a theologian and scholar who wrote about the historical Jesus in a number of books including one titled The Last Week, described what was taking place that day. It was the beginning of the week of Passover, the “festival that celebrated the Jewish people’s liberation from” Pharaoh who had enslaved the people of Israel centuries earlier.

The Roman governors of the region lived nearer to the Mediterranean coast, but they regularly traveled to Jerusalem for the major Jewish festivals. Proceeding down the western Watershed Ridge, Pilate and the imperial army would have approached Jerusalem in a mighty procession with armored foot soldiers, the cavalry on horses, weapons, banners and all the sounds of a conquering army.[i]

According to Mark’s gospel, which was written in Rome, to Christians living in Rome, between 65 and 70 CE, Jesus approached from the opposite side of Jerusalem,
from the eastern Mount of Olives, riding into the city,
not on a stallion, but on a borrowed colt. Bishop Mike Rinehart of the Louisiana-Gulf Coast Synod notes, “Royalty arrives on a donkey in times of peace (Genesis 49:11, Judges 5:5, 10:4). [and it] arrives on a horse in times of war.”

For Roman citizens, familiar with the governors’ triumphant marches, Jesus’ arrival would have been a clear and obvious challenge to the status quo. Instead of riding high atop a warhorse, Jesus, the Prince of Peace, rides into town on a donkey, not as a conquering hero, but as a humble servant king.[ii] Instead of a lavish demonstration of human power and military might, Jesus displays the already (but not yet) present kingdom of God. The kingdom is not yet fulfilled because we still live in sin, but God is present in the midst of our suffering, in the midst of persistent injustices and unacceptable deaths.

Most of us have never lived under occupation, nor known the oppression that enslaved peoples have known. Few of us, including me, have even witnessed it first-hand. But Jerusalem was an occupied city, where Israelites lived under Hellenist Greeks until 164 BCE and then fell again in 63 BCE to Rome. The emperors were brutal and exploitative, and when there were revolts, whole cities burned and rebels were crucified en masse.[iii]

While it is ancient history for us, for Mark’s audience, those massacres would have been as familiar as the horrors of the Holocaust are to us today. In the midst of this destructive and disruptive violence and dis-ease, Jesus affirms that “God’s resolve for peace in human communities is unshakeable.”

As large as the crowds were on the road between the Mount of Olives and the City of David, they wouldn’t have included everyone. Some might have been obligated to attend the governor’s procession or been curious about the spectacle. And John’s gospel tells us, “[the Jewish religious leaders] had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”[iv] That meant being rejected, exiled from worship and cut off from community. So, some people would have stayed away because they were afraid. The cost of choosing instead to follow Jesus was high.

Now as then, following Jesus means choosing another Way, one that isn’t rooted in fear or force but in the Good News of God’s saving power and life-giving grace. The Good News, as Pastor Bobby Wilkinson writes, “those who wield death … have no real standing against the One who wields the power of new life.”[v]

Entering into this Holy Week, we are invited to hear the gospel call to prayer and action for the sake of the world and to take the risk of following Jesus in plain sight, all the way to the cross.

Let us pray…
Hosanna, Lord God,
Thank you for Your Son Jesus who comes into the world and brings life to all of us who choose death;
Accompany us through this Holy Week that we would confess what we have failed to do and receive your forgiveness and mercy;
Lead us by Spirit to bring life and light into our community as witnesses to Your love.

[i] Marcus Borg. The Last Week. 2-3.
[ii] “Passion/Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018.”, accessed 3/22/2018.
[iii] Borg, 14-15.
[iv] John 9:22
[v], accessed 3/23/2018.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Fifth Wednesday in Lent (March 21, 2018)

Isaiah 12

In Mark 12, when Jesus answers the scribe who asks, “What is the greatest commandment?” and repeats the words of the she-ma to his followers, he concludes with the command to “love the Lord with all your strength…..”

Remembering how Jacob wrestled at Peniel with an angel of the Lord, or how Joseph was thrown into a pit by his brothers or even how Jesus himself carried the weight of the cross to his own crucifixion, we might wonder how literally we should take his words. But as with the words from Psalm 19 that we just prayed, Jesus isn’t speaking of physical strength or even of character, but the strength – the power and resilience – given us by God and experienced in faith, and it is grounded in a witness of all of God’s might acts across history.

In the book of Isaiah, the prophet recalls the character and actions of the Lord our God who has acted throughout history to save God’s people. In the first eleven chapters, the prophet has been narrating Judah’s history and in the remaining chapters there will judgment and rebuke against the people of Israel, and eventually, an offering of hope restored to returning exiles.[i] But in chapter 12, Isaiah stops and offers his own doxology or hymn
of thanksgiving and praise.

For us the prophet’s words provide us with a turning point. Throughout Lent, we have been looking back at the covenant relationship that God has given us and our ancestors of faith before us; now in the last week of Lent, we are approaching Holy Week which will begin with Sunday’s liturgy of the palms, when we will stop and enter into Jerusalem with Jesus, accompanying him with waving palm branches and shouts of Hosanna, words that means “Save us.”.

Fittingly, Isaiah’s “own name means God of salvation.”[ii] Salvation is one of those words that stirs debate but generally, most of us can agree with the definition Old Testament professor Rolf Jacobson provides: “human salvation is from something bad, for something good, and is accomplished by God.”[iii] In Lutheranism, on the matter of salvation, everything depends on God.  Salvation is God’s free and unmerited gift to us.

In these two stanzas, the prophet recognizes that God desires relationship more than judgment, saying “for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away.” And then he echoes the words of Moses and the Israelites when they were delivered from the Red Sea:

The LORD is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father's God, and I will exalt him.[iv]
and then he describes God’s gifts of goodness and abundance as wellsprings.
In Lent we have been mirroring Jesus’ own forty days in the desert, fasting and praying. So where , like Jesus, and like the Israelites before him, do we now find our strength?
How much greater now is our own thirst for the things of God because we have fasted from impulses?
How fitting it is then that the prophet invites us to share in the joy of the unexpected and undeserved experience of God as we conclude this season where God has drawn us into closer relationship.

Let us pray.[v]
O Lord our God,
Show us your everlasting love that we may serve you from the obedience of our hearts.
Lead us in the way of your peace, that our souls may be restored.
Guide us in the way of the cross, that we might proclaim the strength of your love.
We pray in the name of Your Son Jesus,

[i] Elizabeth Webb. Working Preacher Commentary.
[ii] Audrey West. Working Preacher Commentary.
[iii] Rolf A. Jacobson, Ed. Crazy Talk.
[iv] Exodus 15:2
[v] Adapted from Sundays and Seasons Midweek Lenten Series: You Shall Love the Lord Your God.