Sunday, May 26, 2019

Gifts of God's Grace: Peace and Hope

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.  Romans 5:1-11 (NRSV)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

The 509th Infantry Regiment is an Airborne Infantry Regiment of the United States Army. It has a long and proud history. Previously called the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment or the 509th (PIR), this battalion conducted the first parachute infantry combat jump by the US Army during World War II. In total, the 509th made five combat jumps during that war with its final action during the Battle of the Bulge, where the battalion fought a desperate battle against 2 German Panzer divisions. Vastly outnumbered, the 509th held their ground, later earning the unit a Presidential Unit Citation.  Their second.

After World War II, the 509th remained inactive for nearly two decades, until 1963, when it was reformed and stationed in West Germany on the front lines of the Cold War. Since then, the paratroopers of the 509th have served with distinction, more recently in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan. 

In 2011, the 509th was deployed to eastern Afghanistan, situated in the Khost, Paktia, and Paktika provinces, all on the troubled border with Pakistan. It was augmented with two other infantry units: the 4th Brigade Combat Team and the 1st Infantry Division, along with two Provincial Reconstruction Teams and two Army National Guard Agri-Business Development Teams. The total strength of this task force was approximately 4,500 personnel. During the 10 months of its deployment, the brigade, in partnership with Afghan National Security Forces, conducted counter-insurgency operations and supervised governance, development, and agricultural projects in coordination with the Afghan government. During the deployment, eight brigade soldiers were killed in action.

I know all of this about the 509th because my son was assigned to this regiment. And was part of its 2011 deployment to Afghanistan. It was the responsibility of the unit he commanded to safely deliver these 4,500 men and women to the front lines and back. It was also his unit that was responsible for returning the bodies of the eight soldiers killed in action to their families.

“Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person - though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die...” 

As I read these words written by Paul to the church in Rome, it  was hard not to recall the stories of these eight soldiers that my son had shared with me. Stories of bravery and selflessness. Stories of tragedy and loss. Stories that, on this Memorial Day weekend, we remember, along with so many other stories of the men and women who have bravely served this country. Whom we honor this weekend. Who have given their lives for what seems to be a never-ending search for peace.

The peace, though, for which these eight soldiers sacrificed themselves is not the peace that Paul is talking about in our Romans text today. This peace is not a political peace, an external peace. Instead, it is a peace within. An internal peace. Shalom - that fullness and wholeness that we have talked about so much this year. 

“...[R]arely will anyone die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves God’s love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” 

This peace, this shalom, this inner wholeness - comes to us, not through a successful military campaign, but through the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Who, through his death for all people - for all sinners - has fully reconciled us with God. And we, who have been given the gift of faith, are, therefore, no longer at war with God, but at peace. Experiencing that shalom. That fullness of relationship with God who proves God’s love for us through the death of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ. A love that is poured into our own hearts - that is gifted to us through the Holy Spirit.

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? And, yet, we know it is hard. Because, even though we have been given this gift of faith and this reconciliation with God through Christ, we still struggle. Whether it is challenges at work or in our personal lives. Whether it is conflicts in our relationships at home or here or elsewhere. Whether it is loss and grief over the death of a loved one, whether expected or unexpected. Or over a broken relationship. Or just over our broken world...we struggle. And we wonder. Like Jesus on the cross that Good Friday, who cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we wonder where God is in the midst of this pain and struggle.

Paul knew pain and struggle. Wracked with grief and shame over his own former life as a persecutor of the early believers. Grief and shame he continued to wrestle with and to name in future letters that he would write to those early churches after after he had been converted. Communities who were, themselves, often experiencing conflict and challenge. 

Paul knew pain and struggle. In his 2nd letter to the church in Corinth, a letter I might add was written while he was imprisoned in Rome before he was eventually executed, Paul shared what he had experienced as he had worked to carry out God’s mission. “Five times,” he wrote, “I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journey, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the the sea...from false brothers and sisters, in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And,” he concludes, “besides [all these] other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak?” he cries. “Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?” he shouts. 

Paul knew pain and struggle. But, he also knew that God knew pain and struggle. Because God had lived on earth, had experienced the challenges and heartbreak of Paul’s - and our own - humanity. God, who comes to earth. To us. To experience our same struggle and darkness. To be with us. In love.

Because that’s really the point, isn’t it? Love? As we are tested - as our faith is tested and refined through suffering, Paul writes that it is this suffering that produces endurance. That this endurance produces character. And that character produces hope. A hope that does not disappoint. Because it is a hope that is borne out of love. Out of a love that is grounded in the resurrection. A love that says that pain and suffering will not be the end. That death will not be the final word. But that through Christ’s death and resurrection, we experience life. And reconciliation with God. And peace. And hope. All of this - the result of love. Of God’s love. For you. And for me.

Two weeks ago, I shared with you the very difficult story of my father’s death by suicide. The time after his death was a time of deep darkness and confusion for me. Wondering why it had happened. Wondering what I might have done to prevent it.  Wondering how I might have shown better expressed to him how deeply he was loved. Not only by me, but especially by God. 

In was in that time of darkness. In that time of confusion and wondering that I found great comfort in words written in that same letter by Paul to the church in Corinth, words that come at the end of that famous “love” chapter that is so often read at weddings, but really intended for a congregation struggling with conflict and division: 

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Friends, God knows our pain because God knows us fully in Jesus. Yet, God also promises that, even in the midst of our confusion and despair and our dim understanding, God, in love, continues to work in our midst and in our world. To bring peace and hope to a broken humanity. This is the promise of Easter. This is our promise from God, for now and for that future time, when we will see God face to face.

May we trust in this promise. May we share it. And may it give us and all people peace and hope for the future. Amen.

Preached May 26, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Easter 6
Readings: Romans 5:1-11; Matthew 11:28-30

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Sent With Joy: Telling Your Story

Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And the man sprang up and began to walk. When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice. When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, “Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them. Acts 13:1-3, 14:8-18 NRSV.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, from Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord; and from the Holy Spirit, our Advocate, our Helper, and our Sustainer. Amen.

We continue this week in the Acts of the Apostles. Or, perhaps, it is better named the Acts of the Holy Spirit. Because, as we saw in last week’s story, it is the Holy Spirit that is the primary character of the Acts narrative - the primary character in forming and shaping the people of God into the church.

Last week, we heard the story of Peter and Cornelius in Caesarea, located some 78 miles northwest of Jerusalem, along the Mediterranean coast. Today’s story begins in Antioch, which is another 300 miles north of Caesarea, also along the Mediterranean coast. 

It’s important for us to understand that, after Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples initially remained in Judea, the province where Jerusalem was located. Continuing to share what they had witnessed with their own eyes. They did this mostly in the temple and the synagogues simply because they were Jewish. This was their community. However, it wasn’t before this became a problem for the religious leaders. Things escalated. And, eventually, one of the apostles - Stephen - was stoned to death.

It was Stephen’s stoning that scattered and drove the disciples out of Judea in fear. Yet, we know that even in the midst of fear and darkness, God is always at work. Bringing about new life. So, as the disciples were being driven to places further away, their mission continued. And churches were planted along the way. 

One of those churches was the church in Antioch. Antioch was a cosmopolitan city located in the Roman province of Syria. It was the capital city, a center of Greek culture, and a commercial hub. After Stephen’s stoning, many Greek followers fled to Antioch, introducing Christianity to the large population of the Jewish diaspora who lived there. It was in Antioch that Jesus’ followers were first named “Christians.” Because of this growing community, Barnabas was sent by the Jerusalem church to guide the believers in Antioch. 

The Antioch church was diverse. We see that in the opening verses of chapter 13. Names that reflect many different cultures: Barnabus, from Cyprus - a Greek island off the Mediterranean coast. Simeon, nicknamed Niger, of African descent. Lucius, from Cyrene, a North African. Manaen, a foster brother of Herod Antipas, killer John the Baptist and ruler at the time of Jesus’ death. And Saul, whom we also know as Paul, which is his Jewish name - Saul being his Roman name. He had been brought to the church in Antioch by Barnabas, from his hometown of Tarsus, which is where he, too, had escaped under his own threat of persecution.

Our story opens with the community worshiping and fasting. Then, present their midst, the Holy Spirit tells them, “Appoint Barnabas and Saul to do my work.” They continue their fast and worship and it is then, after they have finished, that they lay their hands on Barnabus and Saul and send them on their way into the unknown to share their own stories of faith - their own stories of meeting Jesus.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about being sent. We live in a time that is very different, yet very similar to that of the early church. The church, as we know it, is in a period of decline as the reality of Christendom - where the church was once central to society and culture - is no more. As Christendom disappears, the church is being pushed to the margins. We are no longer an accepted part of the culture. We are moving into a time and place that is very similar to that of the early church. This can feel challenging. We might wonder how, in the midst of this upheaval and change, we are to continue to do God’s mission? As fewer and fewer people walk in the front doors of our church, how are we to continue to do God’s mission?

Last week, we talked about sharing our story - the story of this place. Grace & Glory. And how this community has, from its very beginning, like the Antioch church, been a place of inclusivity. Where difference and diversity are celebrated. Where those on the margins of society are welcomed and valued.

Today, our focus is on sharing your story. Yes, I said, sharing your story. Each one of us, like Paul and Barnabas, has a story to share. A story or stories of when we have met Jesus in our lives. Perhaps it was in a moment of utter darkness and, maybe, it wasn’t until years later that we recognized Jesus present. Beside us. Or perhaps it was in moments of light and Jesus’ presence was immediately clear to us. Whatever those moments, I, without hesitation, believe that each of us have stories to share of when we have met Jesus. Stories that, if they are shared, become life-giving stories in which God’s mission of sharing the good news is carried out. 

Yet, I think it only fair that, before I can ask you to share your stories, I must share one of mine.

It happened in the summer 2006. I was in my first year of seminary. With a group of students - none of whom I knew beforehand - I went to a small village in Italy for three weeks to study medieval theology, spirituality and worship.  One day, early in the trip, I met a fellow student - a young woman named Cari. She has given me permission to share this story. Now Cari had grown up in the Salvation Army. This is a church that does wonderful work in our world, but it is also a church with very fundamentalist beliefs.  Cari’s family had been in the Salvation Army for generations. Her grandparents were important leaders nationally in this church. Cari had been involved in it from early on and had been active as a youth leader and a summer camp director. She was on a trajectory to become an important leader in the Salvation Army.

But, there was one problem. Cari was gay. And, as much as she tried to fight and to deny it, eventually, to be her authentic self, she had to come out. And when she did, she was shunned by her church. By her own family. And by any community she had really ever known. This resulted in a deep depression, a suicide attempt, and a resulting 3 month hospitalization. By the time I met her in Italy, she had only been out of the hospital for a few weeks. And she was searching. Trying to make sense of everything. Trying especially to understand where or if, in the midst of this darkness, God existed.

Now, before I go further, there is a part of my own story that I need to share with you. A part that is immensely painful for me and that brings up a vast amount of shame and sadness. I’ve mentioned before to you that my father died when I was 14. What I have left out of the story is how how he died. Which was by suicide. Now, there is much to this story, but it’s important that you understand two things. First, he was dealing with mental health issues, which is often true with those attempting suicide. Second, at the time he died, suicide was not discussed. Unlike today, where we have finally began to speak about it more openly, it was a taboo subject at the time. And so, because of that, there was and still is for me a lot of shame connected to his death.

So, that day in Italy, when Cari shared her story with me, I felt as though the Holy Spirit was nudging me to share my story with her. To share my story of my own father’s suicide, so that she would know that she was not alone. And that, even though it might feel to her that God had abandoned her as her church and family had, God had not. I wanted to share with her that God had created her in her own uniqueness. That God loved her - a love reflected in Jesus' death on the cross. And that God would always be present with her, bringing new life for her out of this dark place. All these gifts of our Lutheran tradition that had taken me years to fully understand - I was being called to share this with her. 

But, I was afraid. Because I had never witnessed like this before. I had never evangelized like this before. It was terrifying, because it required me to be deeply vulnerable with her. To share my shame-filled story with her, not knowing how she might respond, or think of me. And I was uncertain of even what words to say. Yet, somehow, the Holy Spirit put words into my mouth and I shared my story and God’s story with her.

Each of us have stories to share. Stories of darkness where we have wondered where God is. Stories where, often in hindsight, we see that it was in the midst in those dark times where we truly met Jesus. Jesus, who knows our suffering. And our shame. Jesus, who brings us out of death to life.

What is your story? You - me - like Barnabas and Paul, we are called to share it. And, as we do, things may not happen exactly as we expect, as we heard in the second half of today’s story. Yet, somehow, even in the midst of our human messiness, the Spirit continues to work. Through us. Giving us the words so that others might meet Jesus, just as we have met him. 

May God give you the courage and the words to share your story. Amen.

Preached May 12, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Easter 4
Readings: Acts 13:1-3, 14:8-18; Matthew 10:40-42

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Sent With Joy: Telling Our Story

Grace and peace to you from Almighty God - our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

We ended Matthew last week with the words of the Great Commission - with Jesus sending the disciples out to go and make disciples. To baptize. And to teach. With a promise - that he would be with them always. Matthew ends leaning into the future.  

Today and next week we move into the book of Acts. Now Acts is the next chapter in the story. Acts is about that future. About the work of the disciples. The mission of the church to share the good news of Jesus. In faith. And in doubt. Both, inevitable parts of a life of discipleship.

Our reading this morning is from Acts, chapter 10. It’s the story of the conversion of Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman Guard. But, really, it’s the story of the conversion of Peter. In five scenes.

Scene 1. There was a man in Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion in the Italian Company. He and his whole household were pious, Gentile God-worshippers. He gave generously to those in need among the Jewish people and prayed to God constantly. One day at nearly three o’clock in the afternoon, he clearly saw an angel from God in a vision. The angel came to him and said, “Cornelius!”

Startled, he stared at the angel and replied, “What is it, Lord?”

The angel said, “Your prayers and your compassionate acts are like a memorial offering to God. Send messengers to Joppa at once and summon a certain Simon, the one known as Peter. He is a guest of Simon the tanner, whose house is near the seacoast.” When the angel who was speaking to him had gone, Cornelius summoned two of his household servants along with a pious soldier from his personal staff. He explained everything to them, then sent them to Joppa. Acts 10:1-8 (CEB)

Our story opens in Caesarea, a prosperous port that served as the Roman capital of Judea. Our focus is on an officer in the Roman guard, named Cornelius. A good Roman name. He is a centurion. In our day that would be equivalent of a colonel. He is no low level character. Instead, he is known for his generosity, for putting his money where his mouth is, and, particularly, for his devotion. Cornelius is a God-worshipper. A Gentile God-worshipper. For Cornelius to become a follower of Christ, it would mean converting to Judaism. Circumcision. And, in his case, a likely loss of position and social status. 

As our story opens, Cornelius has a vision. At the height of day, an angel appears to him and directs his attention to Peter, who is no short distance way, but is staying in Joppa, an area that is primarily Jewish. The angel instructs him to send for Peter, even adding directions to the house where Peter is staying. Cornelius, this field officer who is used to giving commands, follows the angel’s commands, sending his servants along with one of his trusted soldiers to go and get Peter. 

Scene 2. At noon on the following day, as their journey brought them close to the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted to eat. While others were preparing the meal, he had a visionary experience. He saw heaven opened up and something like a large linen sheet being lowered to the earth by its four corners. Inside the sheet were all kinds of four-legged animals, reptiles, and wild birds. A voice told him, “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!”

Peter exclaimed, “Absolutely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

The voice spoke a second time, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” This happened three times, then the object was suddenly pulled back into heaven. Acts 10:9-16 (CEB)

The delegation of three set out for Joppa. It’s a distance of about 4 miles. As they arrive, Peter is at prayer. Perhaps he’d been fasting, because during prayer, he becomes hungry. While he waits for food to be prepared, he has a vision. An odd vision. It it, he sees an object descending from an open heaven. Now, in scripture, heavens open for important revelations. Do you remember Jesus’ baptism, when the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit came upon him in the form of a dove? This object in Peter’s vision, which appears to be a linen sheet, has on it various animals of the earth. Then, there is a voice from heaven, telling Peter to “Kill and eat.” 

But, Peter is a good Jew. He follows all of the required food laws. So, Peter objects. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean,” he says. Then, the voice speaks a second time. “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” This same dialogue happens three more times in the vision. And then, suddenly, the linen sheet is pulled back into heaven.

Scene 3.  Peter was bewildered about the meaning of the vision. Just then, the messengers sent by Cornelius discovered the whereabouts of Simon’s house and arrived at the gate. Calling out, they inquired whether the Simon known as Peter was a guest there.

While Peter was brooding over the vision, the Spirit interrupted him, “Look! Three people are looking for you. Go downstairs. Don’t ask questions; just go with them because I have sent them.”

So Peter went downstairs and told them, “I’m the one you are looking for. Why have you come?”

They replied, “We’ve come on behalf of Cornelius, a centurion and righteous man, a God-worshipper who is well-respected by all Jewish people. A holy angel directed him to summon you to his house and to hear what you have to say.” Peter invited them into the house as his guests. Acts 10:17-23a (CEB) 

As Peter is upstairs puzzling over this fascinating vision, there is a knock at the door. The Spirit tells Peter to go downstairs and meet this delegation. And to not ask any questions. So Peter does. He meets them and hears their report of a second vision - that given to Cornelius. Then, he offers them lodging. Because hospitality is not simply about being polite. To show true hospitality is to offer a social bond. In the case of Peter and these Gentiles, inviting them into the place where he is staying as his guests, is a big deal. It is a big, anti-cultural deal. And it foreshadows our next scene. 

Scene 4. The next day he got up and went with them, together with some of the believers from Joppa. They arrived in Caesarea the following day. Anticipating their arrival, Cornelius had gathered his relatives and close friends. As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in order to honor him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Get up! Like you, I’m just a human.” As they continued to talk, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them, “You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders. However, God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean. For this reason, when you sent for me, I came without objection. I want to know, then, why you sent for me.”

Cornelius answered, “Four days ago at this same time, three o’clock in the afternoon, I was praying at home. Suddenly a man in radiant clothing stood before me. He said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayers, and your compassionate acts are like a memorial offering to him. Therefore, send someone to Joppa and summon Simon, who is known as Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, located near the seacoast.’ I sent for you right away, and you were kind enough to come. Now, here we are, gathered in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has directed you to say.” Acts 10:23b-29 (CEB)

So, the next day, Peter and the delegation get up to go to Cornelius. Notice that Peter does not go by himself, but he takes with him some of the believers from Joppa. This is not simply a personal mission, but a mission of the church. Cornelius, in Caesarea, has timed their arrival. To prepare, he has gathered together his entire household, as well as, some close friends. Then, Peter and the delegation arrive. And, as Peter, the Jew, crosses over the threshold into this Gentile’s house - something that would be completely unacceptable in Jewish custom. An act that would make Peter unclean and, afterward, would require that he go through cleanliness rituals. As Peter enters his home, Cornelius - this important military official - falls at Peter’s feet and worships him.

But, this isn’t about Peter. This is about the mission on which he’s been sent. Jesus’ mission. The church’s mission. Peter tells Cornelius to get up. He reminds Cornelius that he is human, just as Peter is human. Then, Peter asks Cornelius why he there

Scene 5. Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all! You know what happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism John preached. You know about Jesus of Nazareth, whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit and endowed with power. Jesus traveled around doing good and healing everyone oppressed by the devil because God was with him. We are witnesses of everything he did, both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to be seen, not by everyone but by us. We are witnesses whom God chose beforehand, who ate and drank with him after God raised him from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell on everyone who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. They heard them speaking in other languages and praising God. Peter asked, “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Surely no one can stop them from being baptized with water, can they?” He directed that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited Peter to stay for several days. Acts 10:30-48 (CEB)

Invited by Peter, Cornelius shares his vision. We might expect that, in turn, Peter would share his. But, he doesn’t. Instead, Peter shares Jesus. He shares the good news in words, using a cultural model of Jesus that helps Cornelius understand.  Peter adapts his Christian message to the circumstance. Peter meets Cornelius where he is.

And, then, even before Peter has finished his brief sermon, the Holy Spirit swoops in. And falls on everyone - Jew and Gentile alike. The Jews that Peter has brought with him are astonished at this. Peter now fully gets it. He understands the vision. And, for him, there is only one conclusion: these people are to be baptized. Our scene, and our story, ends with an invitation for Peter to stay. And, in accepting this invitation, Peter is accepting a social bond. Affirming that Cornelius and his entire household are full members of the body of Christ. 

I’ve been thinking alot over the past several weeks about the story of this church. How the founders of this congregation sought to form a church here. In Oldham County. An area that, by then, had doubled in size since the mid-1970’s thanks, in part, to the construction of Interstate 71. But, also - let's be honest - thanks in part to white flight out of Louisville in response to school desegregation. 

How, in a time and place,where cultural norms might have frowned upon an openness to anyone of any race, sexual orientation, or any other difference that might put someone at the fringes of our world, this church was boldly formed as a Reconciling in Christ congregation, breaking boundaries that separate people. Celebrating differences. And proclaiming that unity here in this place is found in Christ.

Or how, this congregation, once again, broke boundaries in welcoming our elders to gather, to share their experiences and their wisdom - wisdom that comes from many years of living. Affirming their value in a world that values youth over age.

Or how, again, this congregation broke boundaries in this place - the wealthiest county in Kentucky, where one would not expect people to be hungry. But a place with a hidden population of people who are food insecure. And how this community would lean into the future by opening a food pantry - something inconvenient and time consuming. Yet, something that has become a beacon in this community, bringing people on opposite sides of the economic ladder together. A place where dignity and God’s love flourishes. 

Or how, last year in a time when anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric was at some of the highest levels we have seen in decades, this community publicly responded by co-sponsoring the Girmay family through Kentucky Refugee Ministries, along with Third Lutheran. This family who, after nearly 10 years in camp, is successfully building a new life for themselves and whose presence blesses us here today.

What amazing boundaries this congregation has crossed in its 26 years! What more there is to do! We, like Peter and the early church, are sent out into the world. To proclaim the Good News in our words. To share our story - the story of Grace & Glory - and how our story connects with God’s story and with the mission of Jesus Christ. And with the Holy Spirit, already at work, ahead of us, awakening curiosity, preparing hearts and minds, and sending other Corneliuses to us or we to them, giving us the words to help them connect their story with God’s story. And, in the process, like Peter, experiencing our own conversion.

This is the Good News of Jesus Christ. Crossing boundaries. Open to all people. May we continue to follow the work of the Spirit here in this place. Amen. Alleluia!

Preached May 5, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Third Sunday of Easter
Readings: Acts 10, Matthew 9:36-37

Sent With Joy

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and from our resurrected Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

A few years ago, there was a book that was very popular, entitled, Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Any of you remember it? Well, if you’re even a bit of a punctuation nerd as I am, it’s probably sitting at home on your bookshelf. Its author, Lynne Truss, a former editor seriously concerned about the current grammatical state of our world, defended proper punctuation. Stressing how important a correctly placed comma or semicolon or apostrophe or question mark could be for our understanding. And for world peace!

Punctuation is really important. So important that, in fact, there is a huge subculture of people who write punctuation jokes. Here’s a couple for you. Why did the comma break up with the question mark? Because it questioned everything. (I promise, they get better!) Why did the comma break up with the apostrophe? Because it was too possessive. (One more.) Why did the comma break up with the exclamation point? Because it was always yelling!

Okay, so what does punctuation have to do with today’s reading? If you remember, last week, after Mary heard from the angel that Jesus was risen, she was told to go back to the disciples and tell them to meet their risen Lord in Galilee. Then, on her way, she ran into Jesus, and, after she fell at his feet and worshiped him, he, too, told her to go back to the other disciples and to direct them to Galilee.

When we started reading the Gospel of Matthew at the beginning of this year, do you recall where Jesus started his ministry? He’d been baptized by John at the Jordan in Judea. Then tempted in the Judean wilderness. It was after those two events that he began his ministry. But, not in Judea. Because he heard that John had been arrested, he moved to Galilee. It was there, in Galilee, where he began. Matthew points out that this move fulfilled a scripture from the prophet Isaiah. That the people who lived in the dark - in the Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, alongside the sea, across the Jordan, in Galilee of the Gentiles - that these people living in the shadow of death had seen a great light. In the Galilee of the Gentiles.

Jesus healed and taught in the Galilean countryside, moving ever and ever closer to Jerusalem. Where the conflict with the religious and political leaders would escalate to the point that Jesus would be crucified. Then to Golgotha, the hillside outside of Jerusalem, where he would be crucified and buried. And then, on this same hillside where Jesus would rise from the dead. The conclusion of Jesus’ mission on earth. Marked - and here’s the punctuation part - marked with a huge exclamation point!

And now, with today’s story, we are back once again in Galilee. And beginning a new phase in the mission of Jesus. Marked with a different punctuation marked. With a colon. A punctuation mark that is not an ending. But that points us forward into another phase. An unfinished phase. A phase in which we are still taking part. The unfinished story of the church.

But, let’s look a little closer at today’s story. Notice that Matthew writes that the eleven disciples meet Jesus on a mountain. The curious thing about this is that there are no mountains in Galilee. By including this in the story, the gospel writer is reminding us of all of the mountaintop revelations we have witnessed before. Think of them. (I once wrote an entire research paper on these mountaintop experiences.) There is the mountain where Noah’s ark rested after the flood, where he offered a sacrifice to God and where God made a new covenant with creation. Then, there is Mount Horeb where God called Moses, speaking to him from the burning bush and revealing God’s name, and calling Moses to deliver God’s people out of bondage. Then, there is Mount Sinai (also known as Mount Horeb), where God delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses, after Israel had been freed, and where God and Israel entered into covenant.

Then, there is the New Testament. Think about Jesus’ own story. He was tempted on a mountain in the wilderness. His first teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, was on a small mountain. Jesus was transfigured. On a mountaintop. And it was on a mountaintop, where Jesus had risen in glory. By including this, by making reference to this simple location, Matthew is recalling for us all of the salvation story, from one revelation to the next. The first phase of a story that has been marked with an exclamation point. And the second phase that is about to begin.

So, the disciples meet Jesus. Like the two Mary’s, they fall at his feet and worship their risen Lord. Did you catch the entire phrase there, in verse 17? “When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.” The word for “doubt” used here - distazo - is used only one other place in all of the New Testament. In a story we heard a few weeks ago, when Peter jumped out of the boat and began to walk on water towards Jesus. Matthew 14:29. “Then Peter got out of the boat and was walking on the water toward Jesus. But when Peter saw the strong wind, he became frightened. He distazo. He doubted. 

These disciples. As they greet their risen Lord, who they are seeing alive with their very own eyes and who they now fully understand - at least some of them understand - that Jesus is truly the Son of God. Even then, some doubt. 

Have you ever doubted in Jesus? Has something ever happened to you that put a big question mark there in your life right in place of your faith? Perhaps it was an unexpected and tragic death in your family. Or an illness. Or perhaps it was the loss of a job. Or a divorce. When it seems that this resurrection stuff is just too much to believe in. When it feels as if we, just like the Galileans, live in the shadow of death. And we, too, like the disciples, doubt.

In Matthew, though, doubt is not the opposite of faith. Instead it is an inevitable part of a life of faith and discipleship. Peter, who, as he was walking on water and then heard the wind and became afraid and doubted - that same Peter would become the “rock” on whom the church would be built. As Wes Allen notes, doubt does not preclude the disciples from being entrusted with the ongoing work of the mission of Jesus. With God’s mission. Because even in the midst of their doubt, they are being sent out into the world. Sent to share the joy of Jesus’ resurrection to all nations through the full authority of God, given in its entirety to Jesus. Because it is in raising Jesus, that God has vindicated his life and mission. It is in raising Jesus, that God has demonstrated power and authority that is greater than that of any human ruler. It is in raising Jesus, that God has shown power and authority that is greater than the forces of evil and death. It is with this authority, given fully by God to Jesus, that the disciples are sent into the world. To make disciples by baptizing them - welcoming them into God’s family just as we welcomed Marcus a little over a week ago - and teaching them to obey everything that Jesus had taught and commanded them. It is with the full authority of Jesus Christ that the disciples will go out into the world. Even in the midst of their doubt and fear. Because it is not the disciples’ power and authority that will accomplish this second phase of Jesus’ mission. It is God’s power and authority in Jesus Christ that will accomplish their mission. That will accomplish our mission.

That’s right. Our mission. This is our mission, too. Our mission as the church. Our mission as God’s people here at Grace & Glory. Because this mission is not simply for those who are called to full-time ministry or mission work in the church. This mission is your mission as disciples of Jesus Christ. Just like those first disciples, you are sent with the same power and authority in Jesus Christ. To witness. And to share where Jesus has met you. To share even in the midst of your doubt and your sense of unworthiness and your fear that you won’t have the right words to say. You are called. And you are sent. Just as the early disciples, to witness to the love of Christ with God’s full authority behind you. 

That, my friends is our mission statement here at Grace & Glory. A mission statement that belongs to each and every one of us. To gather as God’s people. To grow in faith and the love of God. To go out into the world to share God’s love with others. And to give to others what God has first given to us. 

Finally, if all of this feels way too overwhelming, may you remember what Jesus told the early disciples in the midst of their own fear and doubt and unworthiness. What Jesus tells us in the last verse of Matthew. “And, remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” 

May you journey with joy, walking with the courage that Jesus is beside you as you share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world. Amen.

Preached April 28, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Second Sunday of Easter (Holy Hilarity Sunday)
Readings: Matthew 28:16-20, Psalm 40:9-10

God's Greatest Promise: A New Creation

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 worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” Matthew 28:1-10 (NRSV).

They’d been there that afternoon when Jesus died. The two Mary’s. Mary from Magdala, known as Mary Magdalene. And another Mary, mother of James and Joseph. Standing with the other women a distance away from the cross. 

They’d followed Jesus from Galilee, these two women. Like many others, they’d traveled the 80 mile distance to Jerusalem. Not really that far for us. But, for them, it felt like a world away.

They’d been there that afternoon at the cross. Watching. As the Jesus they loved was mocked and beaten by the soldiers. As the twelve scattered. Yet, they, and the other women had remained. Standing a distance away. Watching. As the day grew darker and darker.

They’d been there that afternoon as the earth shook. At that very moment when Jesus died. They’d felt the earthquake. Heard rocks split in two. Later, they heard that the temple curtain - the curtain that covered the holiest place in the temple, the place where only the priests were allowed. They heard that the curtain had torn in two. From top to bottom. As the earth shook. As Jesus died.

They’d been there as Jesus’ body had been taken down from the cross. Placed by Simon in his own new tomb. Simon, one of the many disciples like they. But, one who had wealth and could afford this one gesture of respect and dignity for Jesus. Who had suffered so much. And who had been treated so poorly. Humiliated. Shamed. Even crucified.

As Simon placed Jesus’ body in the tomb, they’d been there, too. The two Mary’s. Sitting opposite the tomb. Watching.

Early on the day after the Sabbath had passed. On the first day of the work week, they’d gone back to the tomb. The two Mary’s. Perhaps they wondered if it was really true. Really true that Jesus had died. That he was gone forever. Or, maybe, it was all just part of some nightmare. Some horrific dream from which they prayed they would wake up.

Or, perhaps, that early morning, as the two Mary’s were watching the tomb. Perhaps there was just a little bit of hope. Hope that Jesus’ own prediction would come true. That he would be raised from the dead after three days. Just as he said.

And, then, suddenly they felt another great earthquake. Just as they’d felt that afternoon at the cross. As the earth shook beneath them, they looked up and saw, of all things, an angel. Blinding them. Dressed in white. The guards who’d been stationed at the tomb - the soldiers who had been placed there by the religious authorities to ensure that Jesus’ disciples wouldn’t be able to steal his body and then proclaim that Jesus had risen. These guards, some of whom had mocked Jesus on the cross, they, too, shook. Like the earth. And then, in the greatest of ironies, they appeared to be dead. Just as Jesus was dead. And lifeless.

Except. Jesus wasn’t dead.

That was the earth-shattering news for these two Mary’s. Two women who, like the other women and like so many of Jesus’ disciples, were people with no power in their world. People with no money. Or no status. Just ordinary, everyday people. Hard-working people who felt left behind. It was easy for them to be cynical. To not expect or believe that Jesus’ resurrection prediction would come true. So, one can only wonder when they heard the news proclaimed by this dazzling angel, how much it rocked their world.  

There’s another character in this drama. Another unseen, unnamed character. Beyond the two Mary’s. And the angel. Beyond the guards and even Jesus himself, there is one more character woven into this first Easter story. We first met this character on Good Friday. As Jesus died, the whole earth shaked. The rocks split. This same character returned that early Sunday morning with another literal earth-shaking bang. This character? Creation.

We know, according to scripture, that since the fall of humanity and the entrance of sin and brokenness into God’s perfect and idyllic world, creation has groaned under its weight. Dominated by humankind, instead of lovingly cared for as God desired. Perhaps Creation is like the two Mary’s, just a little hopeful and longing for this very moment. For the news of Jesus’ resurrection. For the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into the world. And so, just like the women and the guards, when creation hears the news, it, too, responds. With an earthquake. A natural phenomenon that emphatically underscores the truly world-changing aspect of the resurrection of Jesus.

It’s easy to be for us cynical, isn’t it? Or without hope. To feel like the two Mary’s. Or, perhaps, even as creation might feel. To struggle under the weight of sin and brokenness. Whether it is our own sin and brokenness or that of the world. We look at the world and wonder how things can possibly get worse. Whether it is the divisiveness and discord in our public dialogue, or in our personal lives. Whether it is the inequality and unfairness that we experience. When even creation seems under seige and dying. When everything seems so hopeless. And it feels like death has the upper hand. It’s easy for us to be cynical, isn’t it? 

It is then that we, with the two Mary’s, with the angel, with the guards and with all of creation witness God’s answer. We see and feel and hear God’s response. God would not allow Jesus to remain dead. Jesus was resurrected. Jesus lives. 

Now, Jesus’ resurrection does not mean that God condones human sin and brokenness. It does not mean that God ignores the violence and destruction that we have perpetuated against God’s very creation. But what it does show us is that God submits to it, absorbs it, and lives through it to be in solidarity with all that suffer through it. 

And then, God resurrects the condemned one, the betrayed one, the crucified one to show that this act of violence perpetrated against Jesus is not the last word. Out of this death and darkness, God brings about a new creation. Death does not win! Life wins! God wins!

There’s one more piece - one more important piece - to the story. After the two Mary’s heard the news and the angel’s instructions, they left quickly to go. And to tell. And, as they did along the way, their world was rocked a second time as they met Jesus himself. They fell at his feet. And they worshipped him. And then, with his words “Do not be afraid” ringing in their ears, they continued on. To tell the others. So that the other disciples could also meet Jesus. Alive.

May this be our response to God’s greatest act. To the fulfillment of God’s greatest promise. May we meet Jesus on the way, too. May we also fall down at Jesus’ feet and worship him. May Jesus make us into a new creation. And, then, may we get up and go out into our world. Into a world that has grown cynical and that groans under the weight of sin. And may we, like the two Mary’s and like all of creation, share the earth-shattering news in our words and in our actions, so that others, too, may meet Jesus. Alive. In us.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia! Amen.

Preached April 21, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
First Sunday of Easter
Readings: Matthew 28:1-10; Psalm 118:19-34

God's Greatest Promise: Known At the Table

On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.

When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” He answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 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.” Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.”

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” Matthew 26:17-30 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Creator, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

I don’t know about your families, but in mine, the best place to hear things was at our dinner table. Whether it was at the end of a day, catching up on what was going on in our lives. Whether it was in our weekly Sunday dinner at the home of either my grandparents or my great aunt and uncle. Whether it was lingering at the table after a meal at our family reunion. It was at the table where we heard the news. Where we listened to the stories of our family. Where we learned who we were.

I’m sure it was not that different with Jesus and his disciples that Passover evening. After all, they’d been living closely with each other for three years. They’d traveled together throughout the rural areas of Galilee and, then, Judea. Learning from each other. Watching Jesus interact with people. Healing them. Granting forgiveness. Feeding thousands. They’d eaten many meals together. They’d also eaten the Passover meal together. Twice.

I wonder, though, if this meal didn’t feel a little different for them. This was the first time they were celebrating the Passover meal in Jerusalem. They came to Jesus and asked him where they should make preparations for this meal. I wonder how surprised they must have been when Jesus told them that everything was already prepared. And that, as they followed Jesus’ instruction, everything simply fell into place. 

I wonder, too, how distressing it must have felt to all the disciples when they heard Jesus’ prediction of how one of them would betray them. (The word in Greek really means “hand him over.”) Did they know then that it would be Judas who would hand Jesus over to the authorities? Did they know also know then that, by the end of the Passover celebration, all of them would have denied their relationship with Jesus?

I wonder if they knew the significance of that meal. When Jesus took the loaf of bread into his hands and blessed it, were they reminded of the thousands that had been fed that day with just a few loaves of bread and a few fish? Did it remind them of God’s promise to care for them, to give them their daily bread? To give them everything they needed to live?

When Jesus gave it to them (the Greek uses the same word here as that used to describe Judas’ betrayal - to “hand over”). When Jesus handed over the bread and wine to them, did they also know that Jesus was handing over his body? And his blood? 

And, then, when Jesus used the word “covenant,” were they reminded of the blood covenant that God had made with Israel at the base of Mount Sinai? How Moses had taken sacrificial blood and sprinkled it on the people as a reminder of their mutual covenant with God? A covenant that they broke time and time again? A covenant that was never broken by God? Did the disciples understand that, in this meal, Jesus was initiating a new covenant? A new promise that would be not only for Israel, but for the Gentiles? The ethnos, in Greek? For all the nations?

As they sat around the table that Passover night, reliving a tradition maintained over centuries, a tradition that was intended to remind them of God’s action in freeing them from bondage, did they fully know what was soon to happen and how it would change everything? I wonder.

Sisters and brothers, tonight, we, too, sit around a table, some 2,000 years after that first meal. We, however, have the benefit of hindsight. We know the ending to the story. How even though we, just like those first disciples, have betrayed Jesus in one way or another in our lives, how we have “handed him over” in much the same way. Yet, how, in this meal, Jesus hands over to us his body. And his blood. In this bread and wine. Given for you. For me. For all people. 

It is here, around the table, where we learn who we are as God’s children. What depth of love God must have for us that God would hand God’s only son over? For us? 

One can only wonder. Amen.

Preached April 18, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Maundy Thursday
Readings: Matthew 26:17-30, Psalm 116:12-15.

God's Greatest Promise: A Different Kind of King

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
    humble, and mounted on a donkey,
        and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
    Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
    but you are making it a den of robbers.”

The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,

‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
    you have prepared praise for yourself’?”

He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there. Matthew 21:1-17 (NRSV)

Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven! Amen.

In their book The Last Week, Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan write that there were two processions that entered Jerusalem on the spring day in the year 30. It was the beginning of the week of Passover. The most sacred week of the Jewish year. In the centuries since that time, Christians have celebrated this day as Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week. The first day of the last week of Jesus’ life. The most sacred week of the Christian year.

One of those two processions was a peasant procession. From the east - from the Mount of Olives - came Jesus. No longer walking, but riding. [If you read the text carefully in Matthew, it sounds as if Jesus was some kind of trick rider. I have a cousin who, before she was married and had children, was a trick rider. The ultimate trick, one which she was never able to accomplish, was to be able to ride two horses at the same time. Standing, with one foot on each.] In Matthew, we read that Jesus rode two donkeys. At the same time. Now, this likely didn’t happen in quite this way. But, as we’ve seen before, it is important for Matthew to help his readers understand that this Jesus was the complete fulfillment of the promised Messiah in Hebrew scripture. Particularly in the prophet Zechariah. “Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

This Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth. His message was about the kingdom of God. And his followers came from the peasant class. Throughout the gospel, Jesus has proclaimed the in-breaking reign of heaven. It has now fully arrived on that day in Jerusalem.

On the opposite side of the city, from the west, a second procession - an imperial procession - entered Jerusalem. It is led by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. They were not riding donkeys, but horses. In ancient times, horses were instruments of war. They were not used for agriculture or transportation. But to wage war. Or, in Pilate’s case, as a visible display of his power. Or, more specifically, a display of Roman power. 

Imperial processions like this were well-known in Palestine in the first century. It was the standard practice for the Roman governor to be in Jerusalem for major Jewish festivals. They didn’t do this out of reverence for the religious devotion of their Jewish subjects. But to be in the city in case there was trouble. In case there was an uprising. A rebellion.  And at Passover - the festival that celebrated the liberation of the Jews from another earlier empire - there often was trouble. 

Pilate’s procession displayed not only imperial power, but also Roman imperial theology. The Romans believed that the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome, but the Son of God. So, Pilate’s procession was not only a rival social order, it was also a rival belief system. 

Can you already sense the coming conflict? 

The rest of the Zechariah passage describes what kind of king the Messiah - the other Son of God - would be. “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and a battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” This coming king, riding a donkey, will banish war from the land. This coming king, riding a donkey, will be a king of peace. The first part of today’s story is this symbolic act. Jesus. Son of God. Coming to Jerusalem as a direct challenge to Rome.

The confrontation between these two kingdoms, between these two Sons of God, will continue through the last week of Jesus’ life. As we know, it will end with the execution of Jesus by the powers who ruled his world. Holy Week is the story of this confrontation. But, before we go further, we must first set the stage. And so, we come to Act 2 of our story today. And to Jesus’ second symbolic act on that first Palm Sunday.

We know that Jerusalem was the heart of Israel’s religion. It was also to be the ruling seat of the Messiah. The new King David would rule a restored kingdom from Jerusalem. So, Jerusalem was connected to Israel’s hope. Central to that hope was the temple. 

When it was first built by King Solomon, it became the sacred center of the Jewish world. It was called the “navel of the earth,” finding its source in God. Here, and only here, was God’s dwelling place on earth. To be in the temple was to be in God’s presence.

The temple was was also the source of God’s forgiveness. It was the only place of sacrifice. And for Israel, sacrifice was the means of forgiveness. It was only through sacrifice in the temple that certain sins could be forgiven and certain kinds of impurities could be cleansed. The temple was the place of mediation between God and God’s people. So, to stand in the temple, purified and forgiven, was to stand fully in the presence of God. So, it was the center of Israel’s religion and the destination of pilgrimage. Three times a year, the Jews would come from distant lands. We call these Jews the diaspora. After the exile and after Israel had been restored to their homeland, these Jews had chosen to remain in their countries of exile. Yet, they would still travel to Jerusalem. Three times a year. To go to the temple to offer sacrifice and receive forgiveness. 

Jerusalem, although the center of Jewish hope, was also a place with very negative associations. Beginning with King Solomon, it had become the center of a system of domination. This phrase, “domination system” is used by Borg and Crossan to describe the most common way of organizing a society in ancient and premodern times. It was a system that allowed the political and economic domination of the many by a few. A system that allowed those with wealth and power to use it to exploit others and to accumulate more wealth and power. And to use religion to justify it.

Under Solomon, power and wealth were increasingly concentrated in Jerusalem. This system of domination had continued in Jerusalem even under Roman rule. The high priest and the authorities were, in effect, the rulers of the Jewish people, although they owed allegiance to their Roman overlords. They were wealthy, from the local aristocracy. And, as long as they were loyal to Rome and maintained order, they were given a relatively free hand in ruling their people. So, by Jesus’ time, the temple was not only the center of sacrifice and hope for the Jewish people, but it had also become the center of the system of domination.

This is the Jerusalem that Jesus entered on that first Palm Sunday. His message was deeply critical of the temple and its role in the domination system. From his early ministry and that of John the Baptist, both had pronounced forgiveness  apart from temple sacrifice. They had pronounced this forgiveness primarily to peasants. The hungry. The thirsty. The stranger. The naked. The sick. The imprisoned. Those not in power. 

So, when Jesus, in his second symbolic act that day, entered the temple and overturned the tables, he was not protesting the commerce happening in the temple. This commerce was necessary, because people traveling from far away needed animals for sacrifice. They needed to exchange their foreign coins into silver shekels to pay the temple tax. Jesus was not protesting this, but against the system of domination that was being legitimized in the temple by using God’s name. A system that was radically different from what the present and coming kingdom of God - the dream of God - was to be. A kingdom where Jesus, as the true Son of God, would be its king. Where Jesus, as the true Son of Man, would be a different kind of king. A humble king. A healing king.

Two processions entered Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday. The same question, the same alternative, faces those of us who would be faithful to Jesus today, just as it did the people of Jesus’ day. Which procession are we in? We, who have been given this gift of life in Christ in baptism - which procession are we in? We, who called to live lives transformed - lives worthy of that gracious gift of life that Jesus has given each of us. Which procession are we in? Are we choosing to follow the king of dominations systems, systems that continue in our world today? Or are we choosing to following the king called Jesus? The king who sides with the poor. With the weak. With those rejected by the world. Those with no power. 

We - who know the rest of the story - are we choosing to follow the king called Jesus? This Jesus, who is a different kind of king? 

This, for us, is the question of Palm Sunday and of the week that is about to unfold. 

Which procession will you be in? 

Preached April 14, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Palm Sunday
Readings: Matthew 21:1-17, Psalm 118:25-29

Cultivating Laughter, Song, and Dance (Letting Go of Being Cool and “Always in Control”)

When the Lord changed Zion’s circumstances for the better,
    it was like we had been dreaming.
Our mouths were suddenly filled with laughter;
    our tongues were filled with joyful shouts.
It was even said, at that time, among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them!”
Yes, the Lord has done great things for us,
    and we are overjoyed.

Lord, change our circumstances for the better,
    like dry streams in the desert waste!
Let those who plant with tears
    reap the harvest with joyful shouts.
Let those who go out,
    crying and carrying their seed,
    come home with joyful shouts,
    carrying bales of grain! Psalm 126 (CEB)

Grace and peace to you from the Holy and Blessed Trinity: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

Have you ever been in a really hard place in your life that suddenly turned around? Where you were struggling and struggling and, then, all of a sudden the path was made clear for you? That’s how we find things in tonight’s psalm. It opens with a look back to a difficult time in Israel’s history. To a hard circumstance. A moment of remembering. Scholars believe this psalm was written after the Babylonian exile. After the northern kingdom had been exiled. After the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. After the southern kingdom - Judah - was taken into exile.

But, this psalm is not actually about the exile. Instead, its focus is on the surprising turnabout of Judah’s fate. Of a people in exile. Suddenly freed from exile by the Persians - by Cyrus the Great - and restored to their homeland.  Psalm 126 is a pilgrimage song. It’s a psalm about the journey. A journey out of exile and disorientation. To a place of home and reorientation. This model of orientation - disorientation - reorientation is one created by Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann. It’s a model that fit Israel’s communal experience. It’s also a model that fits well for our lives. And for those times when things seeming to be humming along - a place of orientation. Then everything falls apart - that’s the disorientation. Then, just when we are at what feels like the very bottom, suddenly things turn around. They are restored. Not the same as what they were, but in a new way. In a reoriented way.

So, what’s our reaction, when everything turns around? When everything's made new again? When everything seems to work out? If we look at Scripture and, particularly, Psalm 126, we see a typical human response. “Our mouths were suddenly filled with laughter; our tongues were filled with joyful shouts.” Think of Miriam at the edge of the Red Sea when Israel had been saved from the coming Egyptian army. Or of Mary at the birth of Jesus after finding out she was an unwed mother. Our human response is to laugh. To sing. To dance.

There is something about laughter and song and dance that shouts “life,” isn’t there. Barbara Ehrenreich in her book, Dancing in the Streets, documents the importance of engaging in what she calls “collective ecstasy.” She writes that we are “innately social beings, impelled almost instinctively to share our joy.”  And Brene Brown, after analyzing her research on shame for a couple years, learned that “laughter, song, and dance create emotional and spiritual connection; they remind us of the one thing that truly matters when we are searching for comfort, celebration, inspiration or healing: We are not alone.”

What makes you laugh? Perhaps it’s hearing a funny joke. Or watching your children or grandchildren do silly things. It’s not a laughing at, but a laughing with. What Brown calls a “knowing laughter.” It’s the kind of laughter that connects us. That comes from the power of sharing our lies and our stories with others. What makes you laugh? 

What makes you sing? When you hear a particular song on the radio, does it ever feel as though you’re right back to the first time you heard it? There are many songs on the soundtrack of my life. There is a whole playlist of Taylor Dane songs that, whenever I hear one of them, I’m immediately taken back to my early 30’s and a crazy, head-over-heels infatuation. What’s the soundtrack of your life? 

And, then, there’s dance! Perhaps dancing is the hardest because there is no other form of self-expression that can make us feel more vulnerable. Dancing is about full-body vulnerability. Have you ever watched a toddler dance? Writer Mary Jo Putney writes that what we love in childhood stays in our hearts forever. If this is true, then, dance stays in our heart even when our head tells us we should worry about what other people think.

And, that’s really the problem, isn’t it? Full-throated laughter, singing at the top of our lungs, and dancing with complete abandon require absolute vulnerability. And a lack of concern for what anyone else thinks.  As we mature and are socially conditioned, we limit this vulnerability. We learn that we are to be cool and “always in control.” We do this because we want to feel good enough. Because we feel as if we don’t measure up. That we aren’t good enough. We feel shame.

Yet, all we need do, like the psalmist, is look back. To look back at God’s response to our shame and our sin. How God, in Christ, has destroyed it. And how God, in Christ, has brought about resurrection. And continues to bring about resurrection. And new life. Constantly moving us from disorientation to reorientation. To a new place. 

May God help us to let go of fear and judgment and the feeling that we are all alone. May God lead us to cultivate courage, compassion, and connection. May God transform us into wholehearted people. Into shalom people. That we might experience all the laughter, song, and dance that God desires for us. And for all people. Amen.

Preached April 10, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Midweek Lent Worship
Reading: Psalm 126