Sunday’s sermon: To An Unknown God

Text used – Acts 17:16-31

  • We humans have such an odd relationship with the unknown.
    • Certainly experience some fear/trepidation toward the unknown
      • Scariest part of any psychological thriller/horror movie = part where camera focuses in on the face of the whoever’s acting in the scene → hear the scary/suspenseful music + see the dawning horror on the person’s face → But we can’t actually see what they’re afraid of … and those few drawn out moments of not being able to see is worse than anything else.
      • Human’s innate fear of the dark → story of having to empty the food scraps bucket as a kid
      • Fear that comes with any the unknown of medical/health situation as well, either for ourselves or for our loved ones → In those first moments – those moments when we first realize that something in wrong, those moments between any tests or examinations and any results, those moments right after we’ve received a diagnosis – we are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the unknown.
    • And yet, as human beings, we are also fascinated by the unknown.
      • Quote from famed British author/essaying Aldous Huxley: There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.
      • Fascination that has fueled every scientific breakthrough since the first humans started investigating and inventing things
        • Stunning example of that this past week: initial test images from the James Webb Space Telescope that were released this week revealed never-before-captured images of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way → what scientists call the “gentle giant” whose gravitational pull literally holds our everything together[1]
      • Fascination that extends far beyond the realm of the real into the vast reaches of the fictional → Anytime anyone imagines what could be in the unknown, a story is born.
        • Fictional representations of what could have been in the past – in the blacked-out sections of history that have been lost to time and memory → either what has been lost in the historical record or what was never a part of the historical record to begin with
          • E.g. – author Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge series (books: The Evening and the Morning[2], Pillars of the Earth[3], World Without End[4], and A Column of Fire[5]) imagines the building of a great cathedral in a small English village and the life that goes on around it throughout the centuries → It’s a series based in historical fact but fueled by the unknown storylines of people’s lives.
        • And, of course, fictional representations of the future – what could be called the Greatest Unknown.

    • And truly, throughout history the Church has played a significant part in wondering about the unknown. I mean, in essence, that’s faith, right?
      • Can’t empirically prove the existence of God
      • Some of the more mystical, complex elements of theology/tradition: doctrine of the Trinity → how God can be both three persons (God, Christ, and Holy Spirit) and yet one eternal God
      • Can’t even wrap our minds around all that God is because … well, because God is God and we are not.
      • And so in that space of unknown between us and God, we find faith.
  • Today’s Scripture reading = fascinating e.g. of the interaction btwn. faith and unknowning → Paul’s experience in Athens
    • First, let’s back up for a little context. → only a few verses in between what we read last week and where our reading started this morning, but a lot of action in those verses
      • LAST WEEK: left Paul and Silas at the home of the prison guard in Philippi → Paul and Silas had been beaten and thrown in prison for their acts of witnessing (and for casting out the demon that enabled the slave girl to be a fortune teller and therefore losing her owners a lot of money) → Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns in the prison at midnight → earthquake broke all the chains and opened all the doors → Paul and Silas and the rest of the prisoners stayed put instead of fleeing à their actions and their faith inspired the prison guard and his entire household to be baptized and become followers of Christ
      • FROM THERE:
        • Paul and Silas journeyed to Thessalonica → experienced much resistance and persecution from Jews in that city (weren’t happy that so many Gentiles were included in this new Jesus movement) → formed a mob intent on arresting Paul and Silas (similar to the situation they experienced in Philippi) → found only the person who had been housing Paul and Silas in Thessalonica → jailed him and some other believers instead
        • Other believers help Paul and Silas to leave Thessalonica under the cover of night → Paul and Silas travel to Beroea (received a much more hospitable welcome) → But those from Thessalonica were still so outraged and worked up by what Paul and Silas had been doing there that they followed them to Beroea and began to stir up the crowds there as well!
        • Believers in Beroea sent Paul away to the coast for protection while Silas and others stayed in Beroea, panning to reunite with Paul as soon as possible
      • Verse just prior to today’s reading: Those who escorted Paul led him as far as Athens, then returned with instructions for Silas and Timothy to come to him as quickly as possible.[6]
    • As our passage for today begins, one of the scholars that I read this week summed up Paul’s situation pretty well: Here is Paul, alone in Athens, after being driven out of Philippi, Thessalonica, and Beroea, a solitary witness, once again trying to be faithful in yet another strange and complex situation.[7] → Clearly, Paul has his feet firmly planted in the unknown.
      • Unknown city
      • Unknown situation (on his own – without traveling companions or other believers for the first time in a long time)
      • Unknown culture → At the time, Athens was a highly learned city –a hub for intellectual and cultural life within the Roman empire teaming with scholars and philosophers, historians and poets, artists and architects, and so many more. Athens was, after all, the city of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. So anybody who was anybody in the ancient Roman world – or anybody who wanted to be anybody! – went to Athens to try to make their mark on society. And suddenly, not through his own planning but through the necessity of circumstances, Paul found himself in Athens alone.
    • To his credit, didn’t seem to quell Paul’s spirit – beginning of this morning’s text: While Paul waited for [Silas and Timothy] in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. He began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-worshippers in the synagogue. He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day.[8]
      • Reminder of religious policy of the Roman Empire → For the most part, the Roman Empire left other religions alone so long as those adherents A) didn’t cause trouble for the Romans, and B) continued to do what the Romans required of them (pay taxes, mostly).
        • Jesus’ words from Mk: “Give to Caesar what belong to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”[9]
      • So with this policy, a place like Athens – a melting pot of people from all over the empire who had come to study and learn and flourish, a city full of people who would have brought their own religions with them from whatever corner of the empire they hailed from … a place like Athens would have been awash in various religious centers and shrines and all manner of worship necessities. And being the fervent evangelist that he was, Paul felt the need to speak.
    • Paul goes toe-to-toe with some of the philosophers → And poor Paul. He ends up getting dragged before another court! – text: They took him into custody and brought him to the council on Mars Hill.[10]
      • Mars Hill = rocky hill just outside Athens, meeting place of “the council of the Areopagites,” the court of Athens → dealt with all manner of issues: capitol crimes, legal matters, political issues, educational and religious affairs[11]
      • Yet even before this grand court in this intimidating setting, Paul speaks words of faith into the unknown! – text: Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you.”[12] → And from there, Paul goes on to tell the people about this previously unknown God.
        • God who created the earth and the heavens
        • God who created humanity in all our complexities and beauty, all our foibles and our imperfections
        • God who came to save God’s most beloved creations: us
  • And there are two powerful lessons for us to take away from Paul’s witness in this moment bursting with the unknown.
    • First: Paul’s conviction, Paul’s certainty → Paul doesn’t claim to have all the answers to every question that the council could ask, but when it comes to his faith, Paul stands firm.
      • Secure in his relationship with God
      • Secure in his trust in person and work of Jesus Christ
      • Secure in his call to share his faith with any and all
      • Just because the situation all around Paul is full of the unknown doesn’t mean that Paul has to let that unknown erode his conviction. Even with all that he’s been through, even with all that he is currently facing, even with all the unknowns that his own future holds, Paul stands firm in his faith.
    • Second: Paul doesn’t throw that firmness back in the faces of those listening to him → Paul cites his own convictions and his own experiences. He makes observations – observations, not judgments – about the city of Athens and the variety that he finds there. He draws in some cultural references that will mean something to those around him without warping or manipulating the culture. In all his witnessing, Paul doesn’t condemn the people of Athens. He doesn’t accuse the people of Athens. He doesn’t use his faith to threaten the people of Athens or to shame them for their unknowing. Paul simply declares the Good News of God in Christ Jesus to them, opening up a door to perception for the people of Athens in between their known and their unknown. And, friends, our challenge is to follow that example.
      • Scholar: The challenge is to say to those around us, “We see your spiritual hunger. Might we offer sustenance from our rich store of spiritual resource?” The challenge is to find the imagery and language that allow us to enter another’s world in order to speak our truth honestly, respectfully, and effectively. What does it mean to be so fully rooted and grounded in God, so centered in our own experience of the Christian story, that we cannot keep from sharing it?[13] → In the midst of all the unknowns in the world – the world around us and the world within us – “What does it mean to be so fully rooted and grounded in God, so centered in our own experience of the Christian story, that we cannot keep from sharing it?” Amen.

[1] Ashley Strickland. “New image reveals the ‘gentle giant’ at the heart of the Milky Way” from https://www.cnn.com/2022/05/14/world/milky-way-black-hole-science-newsletter-wt-scn/index.html.

[2] Ken Follett. The Evening and the Morning. (New York: Penguin Books), 2020.

[3] Ken Follett. Pillars of the Earth. (New York: New American Library), 1989.

[4] Ken Follett. World Without End. (New York: Penguin Books), 2010.

[5] Ken Follett. A Column of Fire. (New York: Viking), 2017.

[6] Acts 17:15.

[7] John S. McClure. “Sixth Sunday of Easter – Acts 17:22-31 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 473.

[8] Acts 17:16-17.

[9] Mk 12:17.

[10] Acts 17:19a.

[11] “Areopagus” from The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible – vol. 1, A-D. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), 216-217.

[12] Acts 17:22-23.

[13] Randle R. (Rick) Mixon. “Sixth Sunday After Easter – Acts 17:22-31 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 476.

Sunday’s sermon: A Tale of Two Households

Female hands holding two houses.

Text used – Acts 16:16-34

  • This morning’s text, y’all … mmm, mmm, mmm! This morning’s text is one of those Biblical stories that could easily be it’s own Hollywood box office drama.
    • It has …
      • Intrigue
      • Action
      • An exorcism!
      • A courtroom (complete with false accusations!)
      • One of those “all was lost … but then!” moments
      • Prison AND a prison escape
      • And it ends with lives changed. Really, this story has it all!
    • It’s also one of those stories that we can pretty easily break down into two parts, and those parts are defined by two different households and the choices they make.
  • Before we dig into that, let’s take a minute for a little backstory for some context. → remind us how we got to where we are in Acts today
    • Reminder: Acts = continuation of account written by author of Luke’s gospel → so Acts = Good News, part II
    • Main character throughout most of Acts = Paul
      • Acts begins with disciples/Pentecost
      • Focuses on Peter for a few chs.
      • Enter Saul → Saul’s dramatic conversion → spends the rest of the book chronicling Saul/Paul’s many missional journeys to start churches and share the gospel of Jesus Christ far and wide
    • Leading up to today’s portion of the story = major drama!
      • Paul’s original traveling companion/evangelizing partner = Barnabas
        • Started a lot of churches together
        • Walked A LOT of miles together
        • Even put together their own ministry team with a few of their own followers/disciples
      • BUT backing up some verses from today’s passage, we read that Paul and Barnabas had an argument – text: Some time later, Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit all the brothers and sisters in every city where we preached the Lord’s word. Let’s see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John Mark with them. Paul insisted that they shouldn’t take him along, since he had deserted them in Pamphylia and hadn’t continued with them in their work. Their argument became so intense that they went their separate ways. Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus. Paul chose Silas and left, entrusted by the brothers and sisters to the Lord’s grace.[1]
  • Part 1: household of the slave woman
    • Like any good story, this one begins with sometime to draw us in right off the bat → Paul and Silas are out doing their work in God’s grace – “on the way to the place for prayer”[2] – when they come to the attention of this slave woman … a woman with an uncommon … gift?: “a spirit that enabled her to predict the future,” a spirit that enabled her to make a lot of money for her owners[3]
      • Interesting bit that gets lost a little bit in our translation: Gr. translated as “slave” when describing the woman is the same Gr. translated as “servant” when describing Paul and Silas → Is there an element of choice involved in this? The woman is indentured. Her freedom is not her own. Paul and Silas are devoted to the service of God. Through this service, they find an ultimate and eternal freedom – the freedom of Christ.
    • Maybe it’s this servitude connection that draws this woman to Paul and Silas. We don’t really know. But whatever draws her, it’s a powerful, persistent draw! – text: She began following Paul and us, shouting, “These people are servants of the Most High God! They are proclaiming a way of salvation to you!” She did this for many days.[4]
      • Draw that’s so powerful and persistent that it eventually pushes Paul over the edge → Paul finally turns to her and casts out the spirit that’s been enabling her to predict the future → And we can’t really blame Paul, right? Remember, time-wise we aren’t that far removed from Jesus being arrested, tried, convicted, and killed for spreading the message of God’s love and grace. And how Paul and Silas are going around trying to spread the same message. And here comes this woman shouting and pointing and drawing attention to them again and again and again. I mean, really, if someone was following you around all day shouting about your business and drawing attention in a time and place when it wasn’t entirely safe for that business, you might get a little testy, too, right?!
      • Fears are justified → action and attention ended up coming back on Paul and Silas in spades – text: Her owners realized that their hope for making money was gone. They grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the officials in the city center. → And this is where the choice comes in. Just like everyone else within earshot of this woman, her owners surely must’ve heard (or at least heard about) her claims as to who Paul and Silas were.
        • Must’ve heard about their mission
        • Must’ve heard about their message
        • Must’ve heard about their faith
        • In fact, we know they did because of what they said in front of the court: They said, “These people are causing an uproar in our city. They are Jews who promote customs that we Romans can’t accept or practice.”[5] So they knew that Paul and Silas were proclaiming a message of faith and witness. And they could have paused to listen – to let that message seep into their minds, into their hearts, into their spirits. They could have given the word of God a chance to work in and through them. But instead, they chose to follow the way of greed. Their fortune-telling, money-making slave was no good to them anymore, and that was what mattered to them: recompense and revenge. They actively chose to reject the work and worship of God.
    • Result: Crowd joins in the attacks against Paul and Silas (as crowds so often do) → authorities order Paul and Silas to be stripped, beaten, and thrown in prison “with great care”[6]
      • “with great care” = challenging translation → sounds soft and maybe even compassionate BUT Gr. here is more forceful and restrictive, more like “thrown them securely in prison” or “in prison beyond a doubt”
        • See this in the description of Paul and Silas’ imprisonment – text: When [the jailer] received these instructions, he threw them into the innermost cell and secured their feet with stocks.[7]
  • Brings us to part 2: household of the jailer himself (different household, much different choice)
    • Despite their imprisonment, Paul and Silas are “praying and singing hymns to God”[8]
      • Maybe for their own benefit → to keep their own spirits lifted
      • Maybe for the benefit of those around us (text: the other prisoners were listening to them[9]
      • Surely, though, God was listening to them. – text: All at once there was such a violent earthquake that it shook the prison’s foundations. The doors flew open and everyone’s chains came loose.[10] → In this darkest and most desperate moment, Paul and Silas are displaying a strong and wholly devoted faith. And God’s response to that faith is equally strong. Not only are Paul and Silas’ chains released, but every door in the prison is opened and every chain is loosed.
        • Brings to mind God’s promise through Is (words that were probably running through Paul’s mind as well, since he’d been a Temple scholar before his conversion): God has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners[11]
    • Clearly a situation that presented the jailer with his worst nightmare → jailer (who had been asleep) wakes up to find every door in the prison open and assumes that all the prisoners have fled → literally about to fall on his own sword rather than risk the wrath of the Romans over having lost every single prisoner → Paul stops him: “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all here!”[12] → jailer is so overcome with disbelief and gratitude that he falls on his knees before Paul and Silas à leads them out of their bondage and out of the jail himself and asks the ultimate question: “Honorable masters, what must I do to be rescued?”
      • More familiar version of this question: “What must I do to be saved?
        • Heard similar question asked of Jesus by the rich young ruler in the gospels
        • And truly, this is the It’s the question that’s the whole point of Paul and Silas’ many journeys. It’s the question that’s the point of their work and their message, their witness and their prayers. “What must I do to be saved?” And so they give the jailer the answer that they have given to so many before him and will give to so many after him: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your entire household.” They spoke the Lord’s word to him and everyone else in his house.[13] → And so the jailer is present with The Choice.
          • To believe or not to believe
          • To embrace faith or not to embrace faith
          • To give their hearts, their minds, their lives to God … or not
    • And, of course, the jailer makes the opposite choice that the slave woman’s household makes – text: Right then, in the middle of the night, the jailer welcomed them and washed their wounds. He and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. He brought them into his home and gave them a meal. He was overjoyed because he and everyone in his household had come to believe in God.[14] → And I have to point out that the ending of this story is just as important as the rest of it because not only are we given the jailer’s choice – to choose faith, to choose God – but we’re given a glimpse into just how immediate and life-changing that choice can be.
      • Affects the jailer’s action
      • Affects the jailer’s spirit
      • Immediately upon actively choosing God, the jailer acts in compassion and hospitality to those on the margin – those he had literally just released from his own prison. He takes these men into his own home, bandages their wounds, and gives them something to eat. And not only are his actions affected, but his state of being is affected as well. We’re told that the jailer was “overjoyed” because he and his whole household had come to believe in God.
        • Gr. really interesting word here → denoted the physical act of rejoicing but also includes an internal causality for that rejoicing → makes the joy a central part of the subject’s sense of self instead of just a reaction to some external event → Because of his choice – because he chose God – the jailer was given joy – joy on an essential, elemental level … a kind of joy that can’t be taken away.
    • And friends, we are given that same choice each and every day. When we wake up in the morning, do we choose God? As we go about our days – the rollercoaster of ups and downs as well as the most tedious moments – do we choose God? In the ways we interact with others, do we choose God? As we wind down at night and prepare for sleep, do we choose God? At the very core of who we are, do we choose God? Amen.

[1] Acts 15:36-40.

[2] Acts 16:16.

[3] Acts 16:16.

[4] Acts 16:17.

[5] Acts 16:20-21.

[6] Acts 16:23.

[7] Acts 16:24.

[8] Acts 16:25.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Acts 16:26.

[11] Is 61:1.

[12] Acts 16:28.

[13] Acts 16:31-32.

[14] Acts 16:33-34.

Sunday’s sermon: Testimony is Invitational

Text used – John 20:1-18

  • Stories make up the realm of who we are – our past, our present, and even our future. Stories build meaning. Stories construct our shared experiences. Stories connect us to one another and to the world around us. And it’s been this way as long as humans have been communicating with one another.
    • Stories = how we relate to one another
    • Stories = how we teach one another and learn from one another
    • Stories make up the very structure of our lives → Just like the bones in our bodies give our muscles and sinew and our very skin something to cling to – something strong and stabile and solid – stories are the strong and solid foundation on which our identity is built. There is nothing in our lives that doesn’t involve some sort of story.
      • Your relationships produce stories → There’s nothing quite like listening to a pair of people – spouses, siblings, friends, neighbors – tell a story together.
        • Each person adding their own details and impressions
        • Each person remembering things just a little differently
        • Each person’s telling feeding off the other person’s telling until story itself has taken on a life/personality all its own
      • Big events in your life are saturated with stories: story of driving out to Bob and Arlene’s with Grandma Viv for Thanksgiving every year → passing the same one-room schoolhouse every year → hearing the story of how that was the schoolhouse that Grandma and Bob went to as kids
      • Even places in our lives our rich with stories.
        • All the stories that swirl around you when you’re in your home
        • Or this sanctuary. I bet if you asked …
          • Gail: story about the Bible stand and her dad
          • Cindy/Nancy: story about the rose window and Wayne
          • Joanne: story about paraments and her husband, Bill
          • Many: story about remodeling the sanctuary
          • If you flip open the Bibles in the pews, many of them have been given in honor or in memory of someone, and each one of those dedications comes with a story. Or if you flip open your hymnals, many of those bear name plates in honor or in memory of someone as well, carrying not only the story of that dedication but also the story of the congregation that those hymnals came from: The Presbyterian Church of Le Sueur.
    • Point: We are story. Story we are. Story is in us and through us and around us and flowing from us all the time.
      • Author Philip Pullman: After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.
      • And as Christians, this is particularly true. We find our identity, we find our hope, we find our purpose in God’s grand story of faith. It is the story that grounds us. It is the story that inspires us. It is the story that gives us direction when we are lost and comfort when we are in distress. And it is a story that is undeniably and inextricably a part of our own stories as well. And today, friends … today, we get to bask in the fullness and glory of the climax of that Grand Story of Faith. Today, we get to celebrate both the origin and the ultimate purpose of that Story. Today, that beautiful, miraculous, radical Story both circles back to the beginning and starts anew because today, we can boldly and joyfully declare that Christ our Lord is indeed risen!
  • Today’s gospel story is unique in that it’s the only Easter gospel account in which the resurrection Jesus actually makes an appearance in the garden
    • Mt’s account[1]: multiple women coming to the tomb → find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty → encounter the stranger/messenger/angel in the shining clothes: “Don’t be afraid. I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said.”[2] → women run to share the good news (this beautiful, miraculous, radical story) with the disciples → encounter Jesus on the road
    • Lk’s account (very similar)[3]: again, multiple women coming to the tomb → find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty → encounter two strangers/messengers/angels in shining clothes: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He isn’t here, but has been raised.”[4] → women run share the good news (this beautiful, miraculous, radical story) with the disciples → Peter (in disbelief at their story) runs to the tomb himself to check and finds only the linen burial wrappings → disciples encounter risen Jesus later (road to Emmaus story[5])
    • Mk’s account[6]: multiple women coming to the tomb → find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty → encounter one stranger/messenger/angel in a while robe: “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here.”[7] → women are so terrified and alarmed by this encounter that they flee the tomb, saying “nothing to anyone because they were afraid”[8]
    • That’s a lot of story all tangled up in one place … in one event … in one person! But John’s account tangles it even further. – today’s reading = Jn’s account[9]
      • Jn’s account = more characters
        • Mary Magdalene (goes to the tomb alone)
        • Simon Peter
        • Unnamed beloved disciple
        • Two angels dressed in white → not messengers as in the other gospels (only words they utter in Jn’s account: “Woman, why are you crying?”) → more placeholders
        • And, of course, Jesus. – text: [Mary] turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).[10] → What a story! What a story! Can we even imagine ourselves as Mary in that moment? Can we feel first her despair and consternation at finding the body of her beloved Teacher missing? Can we feel her racing, anxious heart and her racing, frantic thoughts? “Where is he? What have they done to him? Where have they put him? What does this mean?” Can we feel her confusion and desperation when she first encounter “the gardener”? Can we feel the dawning of recognition and awe, not slow and steady but quick and crashing the second she hears her name fall from those lips that were both familiar and wholly unexpected? You see, friends, this is the beauty of the story of our faith. It invites us in.
          • Invites us into the experiences of others
            • Experiences of God
            • Experiences of faith
            • Experiences that mirror our own
            • Experiences that are vastly different from our own
            • Experiences like Mary’s encounter with the Risen Christ on that first Easter morning
            • Scholar: Before they became the Bible, the stories of Scripture were lived. Unfortunately, that seems lost on many of us. Once they became cemented within the canon, they no longer smelled of the real world. The dust of ancient walking paths settled, and the sweat of an early morning run evaporated. … John tells the story of that first resurrection morning, and the portrait he paints … invites the reader to feel at home with people a lot like us.[11]
  • Friends, our faith is a relational faith. We were created to be in relationship with God, and in order to demonstrate the love and grace not only possible but promised in that relationship, God came down to dwell among us in Jesus Christ. God took on the fragile and mundane form of the same creatures that God created for love and faith and devotion. God endured the pain and shame and suffering and brokenness of humanity on the cross to make that love as unmistakable and conspicuous as possible. That pain and that brokenness are a part of our story. That love and that grace are a part of our story. The miracle and scandal of that cross and that empty tomb are a part of our story.
    • Story that shapes us
    • Story that is shaped by us and our own experiences → How we tell the story of our faith shapes how people hear the story and, in turn, process their own stories. Our story adds to their stories and vice versa.
      • Sort of like a beautiful, complex macrame creation full of different colored threads, different kinds of knots and hitches, different textures, different bits and baubles to accent and adorn this Grand Story of Faith that we all share
    • Like the story that Mary experienced that morning, it’s a story meant to be told … meant to be shared … meant to be proclaimed
      • Exactly what Mary did – text: Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.[12] → Mary told the disciples. And probably the other women that had followed Jesus as well. And her friends. And her relatives. And maybe even strangers she met on the street. And the disciples told others. And the other women told others. And Mary’s friends and relatives told others. Maybe even the strangers on the street told others. And they told others. And they told others. … And here we are today. → built into the resurrection story itself is not just an invitation but a directive to tell the story and to keep telling the story
        • Learn from the way Mary told her story → Mary had just come from the garden in the early morning hours. She had been weeping. She was probably hot and sweaty and dusty after first running to get Peter and the belove disciple, then running back to show them the empty tomb, then running again to the disciples after her encounter with Jesus. She was probably still shocked and confused and overcome with emotion as she told her story that first time. Maybe her words were jumbled. Maybe she mixed up the order of events in her excitement. Maybe her story came out all in a rush before she could even remember to breathe, so she had to repeat it. I’d be willing to bet that it was perfect and measured and edited and practiced. But it was her story, her beautiful, miraculous, radical story. And she told it. And she kept telling it, not because it was perfect, but because it was
          • Thomas Long (book: Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian): Christians believe that we cannot tell the truth, not the whole truth, without talking about God, and if we cannot tell the whole truth, we cannot be fully alive as human beings.[13]
  • Friends, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! It’s a story that’s true. It’s a story that’s powerful. It’s a story that’s worth telling. Again and again and again. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Mt 28:1-10.

[2] Mt 28:5-6a.

[3] Lk 24:1-12.

[4] Lk 24:5b-6a.

[5] Lk 24:13-35.

[6] Mk 16:1-8

[7] Mk 16:6.

[8] Mk 16:8.

[9] Jn 20:1-18.

[10] Jn 20:14-16.

[11] Sean White. “John 20:1-10 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: John, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 308.

[12] Jn 20:18.

[13] Thomas G. Long. Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 5.

Sunday’s sermon: Testimony is Sincere

Before the Scripture reading:

  • Before we read this morning’s Scripture reading, tell me what we’re going to hear in the Palm Sunday story. Think about it in terms of a play being staged. What are the essential elements of the Palm Sunday narrative? (And no peaking at your Scripture reading this morning.)
    • Who are the characters?
      • Jesus
      • Crowd
      • Disciples
      • Donkey
    • What’s the setting?
      • Jerusalem
      • Road
    • What are the props that we need for this scene?
      • Palm branches
      • Cloaks
    • Okay … keep those elements in mind as we read John’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem this morning.

Text used – John 12:12-27

  • So of all those things we talked about before we read our passage for this morning, what elements were a part of John’s narrative? [pause for answers] What elements weren’t there?
    • Let me help jog your memory a little bit. – read Mk’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry: When Jesus and his followers approached Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave two disciples a task, saying to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.’” They went and found a colt tied to a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. Some people standing around said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them just what Jesus said, and they left them alone. They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields. Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.[1] → Other than a few central elements, that’s significantly different from what we read this morning, isn’t it?
      • Similarities
        • Crowds shouting “Hosanna!”
        • Jesus riding a donkey’s colt
        • Palm branches (Though did you notice that Mark didn’t actually call them palms?)
        • Quoting one of the First Testament prophets, Zechariah: Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion. Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem. Look, your king will come to you. He is righteous and victorious. He is humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the offspring of a donkey.[2]
        • But that’s basically where the similarities end, right? Mark gives us a lot more detail about the actual entry itself – about the act of Jesus riding into the city. But John gives us a lot more detail about the acts surrounding that central event.
          • More detail/background about the crowd
          • More detail about what was happening with the Pharisees (sort of a behind-the-scenes look)
          • More detail about what transpired btwn Jesus and the disciples directly following their entry into the Holy City
          • Mark – as well as the other synoptic gospels, Luke and Matthew – give us fanfare. John’s gospel, on the other hand, gives us … you might be able to guess this by now … testimony.
            • Scholar: John focuses squarely on the entry into Jerusalem and includes details that serve only to affirm the event as a momentous occasion, a sign of Jesus’ lordship, and a foreshadowing of his final victory. … As with so many passages in John, the would-be mysterious sayings and doings of Jesus [touched on by the other three gospels] are revealed from the outset as portents of good news.[3]
  • One huge clue that points toward this good news – giant Biblical neon arrow – that’s only present in Jn’s account = reference to Jesus’s recent miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead – text: The crowd who had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead were testifying about him. That’s why the crowd came to meet him, because they had heard about this miraculous sign that he had done.[4]
    • Significance of “testifying” in this passage = emphasized by the Gr. → So here’s the thing about ancient Greek. Sentences aren’t structured the way we structure them in English. The myriad of different endings on the words tells you what the subject and object are and which verbs go with which parts of the sentence. But sentences are rarely laid out the way we lay them out in English.
      • English = subject + verb + object → e.g.: He reads books.
        • Subject: He
        • Verb: reads
        • Object: books
      • Instead, in ancient Greek, the sentences are structured by importance – the most crucial thoughts or words or phrases are placed at the beginning of the sentence. And that verse about the way the crowd that had been present at Lazarus’ resurrection was testifying about Jesus … I bet you can guess what the first word of that Greek sentence is. Testifying.
    • And the testimony of that crowd – that crowd that watched Jesus weep and then call a dead man out of his tomb – brought this crowd that greeted Jesus with palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna!”
      • Chain of testimony was sincere enough – candid and genuine and wholehearted enough – to bring more and more and more people to Jesus’ presence
      • Chain of testimony = so obvious it even has the Pharisees grumbling – text: Therefore, the Pharisees said to each other, “See! You’ve accomplished nothing! Look! The whole world is following him!”[5]
  • And just in case that foreshadowing about raising Lazarus from the dead wasn’t pointed enough (which is clearly wasn’t because our Scripture this morning said: His disciples didn’t understand these things at first. After he was glorified, they remembered that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.[6]) … just in case call that foreshadowing wasn’t enough, Jesus gets even more pointed with his words toward the end of today’s passage. – text: Jesus replied, “The time has come for the Human One to be glorified. I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.[7]
    • As the daughter of a farmer and the granddaughter of not one but two prolific gardeners, this is probably my favorite of Jesus’ sayings.so much testimony in just a few words
      • Speaks truth about the effort that will be required → Anyone that has done any planting – whether it’s a single houseplant, a backyard garden, or hundred of acres of farm fields – knows that planting takes work. Your hands have to get dirty. Your brow might get sweaty.
      • Work has to be intentional → Especially when you’re talking about something larger like a garden or a farm field, you can’t just plant willy nilly, scattering seeds wherever you feel like it. You have to make the space in the ground. You have to put in the seed. You have to cover it up. You have to pay attention to where and how your seed is planted. How deep should it be? Is there an “up” side and a “down” side? (I know I can’t be the only one who’s planted bulbs upside down before!) Does it need shade or full sun or something in between?
      • Work has to be ongoing → You have to water it. You have to water it again. You have to weed around it. Maybe it needs some sort of fertilizer or it needs to be sprayed for bugs. Maybe you need to build a fence to keep out critters that want to try to eat what you’re trying to grow. You have to water it again. You have to prune it. Planting seeds is never a one-and-done endeavor.
    • And all of that comes into play in Jesus’ words here.
      • Speaks truth about the effort that will be required of Jesus
        • Work that is intentional → Nothing reveals just how intentional – just how purposeful and willing and deliberate – Jesus’ actions are than the last verse of our Scripture reading this morning (again, Jesus’ own words): Now I am deeply troubled. What should I say? ‘Father, save me from this time’? No, for this is the reason I have come to this time.[8]
          • Sheds a stark but sincere light on Jesus’ testimony → Even Jesus himself had reservations about what was to come, but he knew that this was part of his story – part of the testimony that his very life was meant to be – and so he kept on telling it. “This is the reason I have come to this time.”
        • Work that is ongoing → Jesus story … became the apostles’ story … became the story told by the Church throughout the millennia … has become our story.
          • Story of love
          • Story of grace
          • Story of service
          • Story of gathering in
          • Story of making space
          • Story of hope
      • Jesus also speaks truth about the effort that will be asked of any who follow after him – Jesus’ own words: Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever. Whoever serves me must follow me. Wherever I am, there my servant will also be. My Father will honor whoever serves me.[9]
        • Scholar: After all, taking on a new identity means saying good-bye to another. When we welcome strangers, we invite what is strange about them to come along too. When outsiders are allowed in, what was familiar no longer is. … Yet unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. Being a servant of Christ, being a part of the church, is to be in an honored position, but being one of his life-giving grains means inevitably to fall to the earth. … This passage reminds us that at the heart of Christianity is a bunch of unsettling truths: some things we are familiar with need to die, in order for new life to arise; the work of the Spirit will not be contained in set patterns; and anyone and everyone who wants to get involved should do so. In the end, the blessing and honor of God come not to those who follow guidelines, but to those who give up their lives in service.[10] → It’s a story that’s true. It’s a story that’s powerful. It’s a story that’s worth telling. Again. Amen.

[1] Mk 11:1-11.

[2] Zech 9:9.

[3] Alexander Wimberly. “John 12:12-19 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: John, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 82.

[4] Jn 12:17-18.

[5] Jn 12:19.

[6] Jn 12:16.

[7] Jn 12:23-24.

[8] Jn 12:27.

[9] Jn 12:25-26.

[10] Alexander Wimberly. “John 12:20-26 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: John, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 88, 90.

Sunday’s sermon: Testimony is Insistent

Text used – John 18:28-40

  • Every night at bedtime, I read to my kids.
    • First read to Julia → tuck her in, sing to her → head downstairs to read to the boys → tuck them in, sing to them → say goodnight and turn out the lights
    • Truly, reading to my kids is one of my favorite things to do.
      • Fun to read through pictures books when they’re Julia’s age
      • A whole different kind of fun to read through chapter books now that the boys are older → hanging on together as the story twists and turns from one chapter to the next, from one night to the next
      • Right now, we’re reading the first book in a popular series called the Wings of Fire series by Tui Sutherland.
        • Books about a land populated by all different kinds of dragons
        • Very creative
        • Great dialogue
        • Really fun to read out loud
        • One of the great things about Sutherland’s writing is she’s really good at cliffhangers. The end of each chapter leaves us wondering and guessing about what’s going to happen next, especially now that we’re about halfway through and the storyline has really taken off.
          • The thing about cliffhangers: they can be a little tough on the nerves, right? → perfect e.g.: When I finished our chapter last and went to reach for the bookmark, Luke said to me (in a very exasperated way), “Mom, why do you keep saying things that make me think?!” (referring not to anything I’d actually said but to the cliffhanger chapter ending that I’d just finished reading)
            • Had a conversation about the arc of a story
              • The importance of a climax and how that’s what makes the story interesting/moving (my e.g. last night: “Once upon a time there was a snake. He had a rattle on his tail. The end” = lame story … not good) → importance of building up to a climax
            • And as I was talking to the boys about this – the whole idea of story building and climax and how it’s important for stories to make you think – it dawned on me that that’s exactly where we are with our Scripture reading this morning.
              • Today’s text = one of those uncomfortable points in the storyline that makes us squirm … that makes us think … that builds us up for what is to come
  • Tying last week’s story and this week’s story together
    • Last week = period of time just after Jesus’ arrest[1]
      • Jesus is questioned by Annas, one of the chief priests and Caiaphas’ father-in-law
      • After receiving Jesus’ unsatisfactory answers to his questions, Annas sends Jesus to Caiaphas, the high priest
      • And in the midst of all that, we read John’s account of Peter’s three-times denial of Christ.
    • Today’s text follows directly after that but still skips a bit
      • Verse 24 (last week) = Annas sending Jesus to Caiaphas
      • Verses 25-27 = Peter’s 2nd and 3rd denials
      • Verse 28 (today): The Jewish leaders led Jesus from Caiaphas to the Roman governor’s palace.[2]
      • When we put it all together, it seems to indicate that Jesus is being passed around a bit: chief priest to high priest to governor. And I don’t know about you, but to me, that seems to indicate that those who arrested Jesus don’t really know what to do with him.
        • Get further indication of this as we continue with this morning’s text: [Pilate] asked, “What charge do you bring against this man?” [The Jewish leaders] answered, “If he had done nothing wrong, we wouldn’t have handed him over to you. (Which, you’ll notice, isn’t really an answer.) Pilate responded, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your Law.” The Jewish leaders replied, “The Law doesn’t allow us to kill anyone.”[3] → It feels a little like a really dangerous round of hot potato, doesn’t it? Clearly the Jewish leaders want Jesus gone – permanently gone – but they can’t do it themselves. But Pilate doesn’t really want to deal with Jesus either. So what are they going to do with this problem … this radical … this man?
  • Let’s take a closer look two little bits in today’s text before we move on. → bits that could be easily missed but are really interesting – Bible-nerd interesting!
    • 1st – finish out the first verse of today’s reading: The Jewish leaders led Jesus from Caiaphas to the Roman governor’s palace. It was early in the morning. So that they could eat the Passover, the Jewish leaders wouldn’t enter the palace; entering would have made them ritually impure.[4]
      • Particular verse = giving us some timeline context → tells us that Jesus’ trial is happening on the Day of Preparation, a day to prepare for the high holy day of Passover
      • Particular verse also gives us some ironic insight into the minds of the Jewish leaders – scholar: The key detail [here] is the narrator’s note about ritual defilement. There is a historically plausible explanation for this note. The Mishnah stipulates that dwelling places of Gentiles are unclean … The narrator’s comment [establishes] its theological irony. The trial narrative opens with [the Jewish leaders] insistence on ritual purity and their meticulous attention to the demands of their faith, and it will end with their complete denial of the claims of that faith.[5] → The Jewish leaders are so concerned about being made unclean by simply stepping over the threshold of Pilate’s house – of this unclean Gentile’s house – even while the very errand that brings them to the house is beyond unclean: killing Jesus. The irony is both thick and significant.
    • 2nd interesting bit: Just after the Jewish leaders tell Pilate that the Law doesn’t allow them to kill anyone, we get this little aside verse in parentheses: (This was so that Jesus’ word might be fulfilled when he indicated how he was going to die.)[6]
      • Rewind to 2 previous points in Jn (both Jesus’ own words)
        • Jn 3:14: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up.”
        • Jn 12:32: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.”
        • It’s clear that Jesus is referring to crucifixion in both of these references … but as the scholars that I read this week pointed out, crucifixion was a form of execution practiced only by the Romans.
          • One scholar: [This verse] is the only time in the trial narrative in which [John] interrupts the story to provide explicit theological commentary; Jesus’ crucifixion at the hand so of the Roman government is to be interpreted in the light of Jesus’ earlier predictions of his death … The maneuvering of Pilate and [the Jewish leaders] in reality is in the service of Jesus’ exaltation and return to God.[7]
  • Following this exchange, Pilate takes Jesus into his house so he can question Jesus himself. → challenging back-and-forth btwn Jesus and Pilate
    • Pilate keeps trying to get Jesus to either admit to or deny something … anything!
      • Pilate: “Are you the king of the Jews?”[8]
      • Pilate: “Your nation and its chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”[9]
      • Pilate: “So you are a king?”[10]
    • Jesus’ evasive and enigmatic responses
      • Jesus: “Do you say [I am the king of the Jews] on your own or have others spoken to you about me?”[11] (answering a question with a question … classic deflection)
      • Jesus: “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world. If it did, my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested by the Jewish leaders. My kingdom isn’t from here.”[12]
      • Jesus: “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into this world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice.”[13]
        • Followed by Pilate’s final (perhaps exasperated? perhaps resigned? perhaps introspective?) question: “What is truth?”[14]
    • So let’s think about this interaction in terms of what we’ve been talking about throughout Lent this year. Let’s think about it in terms of testimony. On the surface, it seems like Pilate is seeking Jesus’ testimony, doesn’t it? It seems like Pilate is offering Jesus one opportunity after another to tell his story. But is that really what he’s doing? I don’t think it is.
      • Testimony = insistent → It’s emphatic, unrelenting, resounding because it’s our story. One of the central aspects of testimony – of our own faith stories – is that testimony speaks to your own experience. It speaks your Not anyone else’s story. Your own. And it speaks your story without being influence or led by where someone else wants your story to go or thinks your story should go. It is your story and your story alone.
        • Throughout this interaction btwn Pilate and Jesus, Pilate is trying to get Jesus to say one, definitive thing: either Jesus is or is not the King of the Jews (as the Jewish leaders have accused him of claiming)
          • Trying to lead Jesus’ story
          • Trying to influence Jesus’ story
          • Trying to force Jesus’ story into one small, simple, predictable box: king or no king → But Jesus’ own story is so much broader and so much deeper than that simple formula.
            • Rev. Barbara Essex: [John] portrays both [the Jewish leaders] and Pilate as those who have eyes but do not see and ears but do not hear. Jesus – the truth and light – stands before them, and they are so caught up in their own political fog that they are unable to see God’s new thing in their midst.[15]
        • But again and again, Jesus insists on telling his own faith story as it is. He doesn’t let the Jewish leaders tell it for him. He doesn’t let Pilate tell it for him.
          • Makes me think of a line from Maya Angelou’s poem “Our Grandmothers”: She said, But my description cannot // fit your tongue, for // I have a certain way of being in this world, // and I shall not, I shall not be moved.[16] → In the poem, it’s a line spoken in the face of all the ugly, profane, dismissive, belittling names that Black women have been called … names they’re still called today. In Jesus’ context, even in the face of what he knew it would mean … even in the face of what he knew was coming … even in the face of the surety that this portion of his story was coming to it’s climax and ultimate conclusion, Jesus told his story. He wouldn’t let others tell it for him. He would not be moved – not by those in power, not by those who held his life in their hands, not by those who refused to see and hear. He would not be moved.
            • Rev. Essex’s conclusion weaves in the threads our own stories with Jesus’ story: [John] turns the question back to us. In the end, we must all make a decision about Jesus – for or against. How we respond depends on whether we see and hear.[17] → It’s a story that’s true. It’s a story that’s powerful. It’s a story that’s worth telling. Again. Amen.

[1] Jn 18:12-27.

[2] Jn 18:28a.

[3] Jn 18:29-31 (plus my own insertion).

[4] Jn 18:28.

[5] Gail R. O’Day. “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 9. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 815.

[6] Jn 18:32.

[7] O’Day, 816.

[8] Jn 18:33.

[9] Jn 18:35.

[10] Jn 18:37a.

[11] Jn 18:34.

[12] Jn 18:36.

[13] Jn 18:37b.

[14] Jn 18:38a.

[15] Barbara J. Essex. “John 18:28-38a” in Feasting on the Gospels: John, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 271.

[16] Maya Angelou. “Our Grandmothers” in The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou. (New York: Random House, 1994), 254.

[17] Essex, 271.

Sunday’s sermon: Testimony is Truth-Telling

Text used – John 18:12-27

  • He’s a good man. He’s a giving man. He’s a man who loves his family and his friends and is deeply loved by them in return. And he’s also a man who’s had a rough day – a really, really rough day. He’s a man who’s stressed and worried. He’s a man who’s feeling pulled in a lot of micro-directions – who’s feeling the weight and tensions of expectations: expectations from the past, expectations from those who love him, expectations from those who don’t love him, and expectations from himself. He’s a man who’s trying to do the right thing in the face of a mighty struggle but who feels like, no matter what he does, the only luck that keeps finding him is bad luck. At the end of the day, his business is threatened, his reputation is in jeopardy, his family is stressing him out, and George Bailey is at the end of his rope. → Wait … why are we talking about a Christmas movie 3 mos. after Christmas in the middle of Lent, esp. when we just a read a Scripture passage usually reserved for Holy Week?
    • One word: DICHOTOMY
      • Definition of a dichotomy: a literary technique that divides something into two equal and contradictory parts or between two opposing groups[1]
      • George Bailey – the main character in Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic – is a time-honored example of a dichotomy one description online: Grumpy, disillusioned, dissatisfied George Bailey appears on our television screens every Christmas. He’s an unhappy and even unlikable man for much of the movie, but what we love—what we keep coming back to see year after year—is the inherent goodness, the unfailing selflessness hidden away beneath all that grumbling.[2]  That’s exactly what makes us love George Bailey – those glimpses of goodness and generosity, compassion and selflessness that we get even in the midst of his grouching and distress.
        • See it when he dances with Mary at the very beginning
        • See it when he takes over that old Building and Loan after his father’s stroke, indefinitely postponing his grand plans for a life of adventure and travel and grander things
        • See it reflected in all the faces and lives of the people who show up at the end of the movie to help George – the people who’s lives he’s made undeniably better by helping them out … even when he didn’t know it
        • Throughout his life – even in the times when he couldn’t see it … especially in the times when he couldn’t see it – George Bailey’s story was inextricably entwined with the stories of the people around him in Bedford Falls. His story lifted up other people’s stories. His story made space for other people’s stories. His story gave a spark and a shine to other people’s stories, even when he felt like is own story was dull and boring … even when he felt like his own stories was useless and unimportant, a story better left untold.
    • Today’s Scripture reading presents us with an interesting dichotomy in a story where we’re not used to finding one: story of Peter’s denial of Christ
  • FIRST: interesting point at which to compare Jn’s gospel to the synoptic gospels (Mt, Mk, Lk)
    • Mt, Mk, Lk = “synoptic gospels” because they share so many similarities
      • Similar stories
        • Stories of Jesus’ life/travels
        • Stories that Jesus told – parables
      • Similar words of Jesus
      • Similar order of events
      • Long-accepted theory by Biblical scholars = Mk was written first Mk’s account was used as a template of sorts by Mt and Lk all 3 used some long-lost secondary source that included quotations of Jesus (called Q source by scholars)
    • Jn = somewhat separate thing all together – many of the stories in Jn aren’t found in the synoptic gospels Or, if we do find them, the way that the story is recounted in John is markedly different than the account in the other gospels. What’s interesting about comparing John’s gospel to the synoptic gospels at the point of today’s passage is that here, with the beginning of Jesus’ trial and through the story of his crucifixion, John’s gospel lines up with the other three gospels more than at any other point.
      • Scholar: [Here], we find dramatic similarities with the Synoptics. Perhaps this is because the Passion Narratives are likely to be the first Jesus stories fixed in the Church’s oral tradition. John follows the same pattern as the other three while highlighting specific Johannine motifs.[3]
  • So let’s dig into our story for this morning. There are two particularly powerful dichotomies in our story that have a lot to teach us about faith and about testimony.
    • First dichotomy = Peter himself … and, more particularly, Peter’s testimony
      • Remember our encounter with Peter last week? When Jesus was washing the disciples feet – teaching them about hospitality and love and service?
        • First, Peter = so devoted he refuses to let Jesus, his revered and cherished rabbi, stoop to the degraded position of washing Peter’s own, humble feet
        • BUT after Jesus tells Peter that those who want a place with Jesus must have their feet washed by him, Peter = so devoted that he begs Jesus to wash “not only [his] feet but also [his] hands and [his] head!”[4]  Clearly, Peter is willing to do anything to prove his adamant and unwavering devotion to Jesus. Hmmm.
      • Btwn that reading and today = 5 more chs. of Jn’s gospel
        • Mostly Jesus’ final discourse (lesson/sermon) for his disciples
        • Includes Jesus’ prediction of today’s events: Simon Peter asked him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus replied, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.” Peter asked, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times![5]
        • Also includes confrontation in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus is arrested Peter is so hungry to prove his undying devotion that he takes his sword and cuts of the ear of one of the high priest’s servants[6]
      • Clearly, there is a fire within Peter – a fire of dedication and loyalty. It’s an intense fire. It’s a zealous fire. It’s a fire that stirs him to great passion and fierce faithfulness. At least, it did … until today, when Peter finds himself gathered around a very different fire with a group of people trying to tie Peter’s own fate to the fate of The Accused – that rabblerouser and unrest-mongerer Jesus who was just inside being questioned at that very moment. Suddenly Peter’s zeal fizzles like a dud firecracker that snaps and sputters but refuses to ignite, and the dichotomy of Peter’s testimony is revealed.
        • Suddenly Peter’s words don’t match his actions
        • Suddenly Peter’s story takes an unexpected (and, some would argue, unflattering) twist
        • Suddenly Peter’s zeal and steadfastness are drowned out by his own voice – his own frantic and fearful denials that he even knows this seditious Jesus character
      • And yet as we sit here more than 2000 yrs. later – as we sit here in our comfortable pews and our lives of abundant safety and security – are we sitting here judging Peter too harshly? – Rev. Barbara J. Essex (both reminds us and convicts us): Peter’s denials are prudent, given the circumstances. He is afraid and with good reason. He is surrounded by a multitude of the enemy – Roman and temple police and officers – armed and prepare to shoot first and ask questions later. What would we do if we were in Peter’s situation? Likely keep our mouths shut and hope for the best. Peter’s actions are understandable.[7]  This is a good point at which to remind ourselves that Jesus knew was Peter was going to do. He’d already called it out. He had acknowledged it in front of everyone … but he also let Peter stay. Jesus could have condemned Peter, turned him away, and Peter’s thread in the Grand Story of Faith would had ended in a ragged, unresolved, fraying moment of shame. Instead, Jesus not only lets Peter stay. He continues to work through Peter and his ministry – through Peter’s own testimony – time and again throughout the early life of the church. Peter’s testimony even in this lowest moment is a truth-telling testimony in that it speaks only to Peter’s own life … Peter’s own heart … Peter’s own story. In his denial, he doesn’t denigrate those who do claim to be followers of Jesus. He doesn’t deflect by pointing an accusing finger at the disciples (presumably the beloved disciple) who came with him and accompanied Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard. He doesn’t trample the significance and truth of Jesus’ own story by denying that Jesus is important or that his ministry was the life-changing experience that it was. Peter only speaks to his own story.
        • Encounter that reminds us that even when we don’t have “the perfect words” for our own testimonies, there is power in them still
        • Rev. Essex speaks to this: In the midst of failure, disappointment, and shame, however, this is not the end of Peter or his story. His failure sets the stage for a marvelous comeback. Peter emerges from the passion story with more fire and passion than ever – rightly directed, channeled, and empowered. Peter never gives up in the face of failure or shame. Peter always comes back for more. The next time may be his opportunity to embody true discipleship – hearing and doing the word, and engaging in acts of compassion and justice.[8]
    • Other dichotomy in the midst of today’s text speaks to the power and efficacy of the good news of the gospel in the face of all the muck and trouble the world can throw at it You see, in the middle of Peter’s story of denial – truly, even in between denials themselves – we get Jesus’ words of radical and elemental truth in the face of the high priest’s questioning: Meanwhile, the chief priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. Jesus answered, “I’ve spoken openly to the world. I’ve always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews gather. I’ve said nothing in private. Why ask me? Ask those who heard what I told them. They know what I said.” After Jesus spoke, one of the guards standing there slapped Jesus in the face. “Is that how you would answer the high priest?” he asked. Jesus replied, “If I speak wrongly, testify about what was wrong. But if I speak correctly, why do you strike me?”[9]  In the midst of Peter’s denials (could Jesus hear those denials even as he was in the courtyard being questioned?), Jesus testifies to the power of truth, to the freedom of truth, to the ultimate and unbreakable nature of truth. Even in the face of everything that has already happened – Judas’ betrayal, his rough and merciless arrest in the garden, Peter’s own denials even as they were happening in that moment – Jesus’ truth remained unchanging. The good news of Jesus’ life and teaching – the presence of God among the people and God’s unmatchable and unrelenting love for them (for us!) – remained unchanging. No matter what the world tries to throw at it, the ultimate testimony of the gospel remains: God loves you. God hopes for you. God wants to be a part of your life.
      • Rev. Essex: It is a fact that we deny Jesus in our daily walk. … We all have moments when we fall short of what we confess and what we say we believe. Like Peter, though, beneath the surface there is the faith and the will to do the right thing. There will be things to test our faith, commitment, and resolve. In any given moment, we may deny that we know Jesus and that we are his disciples. We do not love all the time or love completely; we pick and choose when and how we follow Jesus. We give in to the pressures of the culture: consumerism, justice for some but not all. We rely on electronics and social media for community, instead of being with people. Peter denies his connection with Jesus while surrounded by enemies. It is a life-and-death situation. Our situations may not be as dramatic, but they are just as crucial. The challenge and invitation is to determine how we will handle ourselves in a world that lulls us into complacency and compromise.[10] Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] https://literarydevices.net/dichotomy/.

[2] K.M. Weiland. “11 Dichotomous Characters – and Why You Should be Copying Them” from https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/12-dichotomous-characters-and-why-they/.

[3] Ginger Barfield. ”Commentary on John 18L12-27” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/peters-denial-2/commentary-on-john-1812-27-3.

[4] Jn 13:9.

[5] Jn 13:36-38.

[6] Jn 18:10.

[7] Barbara J. Essex. “John 18:25-27 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: John, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 263.

[8] Essex, 265.

[9] Jn 18:19-23.

[10] Essex, 265.

Sunday’s sermon: Testimony is Hospitable

Text used – John 13:1-17

  • “Come on in. Have a seat. Make yourself comfortable. Can I get you something to drink? Water? Coffee? Diet Coke? I’ve got some crackers and cheese … some Rice Krispie bars … some freshly-baked cookies … lunch … dinner. The weather’s nice. Let’s sit out on the deck and enjoy the sunshine. OR It’s so chilly today. Can I get you a blanket?” And so, so many more ways we try to extend hospitality. So many ways that we welcome people into our homes – into our most intimate and familiar spaces.
    • We understand the cues that we receive from people here because they’re the cues that we grew up with … but that’s not always the case for others
      • Lots of varied hospitality customs around the world → some counter to each other![1]
        • E.g. – tipping in many industries here in the U.S. (esp. the hospitality industry – restaurants, hotels, transportation services, etc.) is not only expected but those wages are relied upon by those working in those industries BUT in other countries – South Korea, for example – tipping is considered an insult
        • Even more widespread e.g. – pointing → We don’t worry too much about pointing here (as long as you’re not pointing at someone for some obnoxious or disrespectful reason). But in many other places around the world, pointing in some form or another is considered distinctly more rude if not downright offensive.
          • Malaysia and Indonesia: pointing with your finger = incredibly offensive
          • Many countries in Africa: pointing is only done when what you’re trying to indicate is an inanimate object, never used for people
        • Not just actions and gestures that can be difficult to navigate from one culture to the next → Is anyone familiar with Howard Mohr’s book How to Talk Minnesotan[2]? It’s a tongue-in-cheek cultural guide to all things Minnesotan written by one of the original writers and guest voices on Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion.” One of my favorite explanations in it is Mohr’s description of waving at someone when you pass them on the road. You don’t wave with your whole hand and definitely not emphatically! That’s far too emotive for us Minnesotans. You keep your hands on the steering wheel and raise your pointer finger … maybe your pointer and middle finger together, but never more than that. And if you happen to pass the same person on the road later that same day, you definitely don’t need to wave again. That’s excessive. And we laugh at things like that, but I have to tell you that when my mom moved to Minnesota from New York more than 40 yrs. ago, many of these cultural standards were completely foreign to her.
          • Funny story: one of Mom and Dad’s first dates → Dad showing up at the wrong time → “dinner” lunch vs. “dinner” supper
    • Sure, we can laugh at crossed wires when it comes to hospitality customs because at least these ones weren’t serious breaches of cultural expectations. But in our Scripture reading this morning, Jesus crosses the wires of a much more serious hospitality custom … but he does so with a definite purpose, a holy intention.
  • Today’s story = probably one of many people’s favorites → There’s both a tenderness and a comforting insistence in Jesus’ words and actions in this passage.
    • Gives us some poignant and essential context at the beginning
      • Gives us the time: just before Passover – the last Passover that Jesus would celebrate with his disciples in that upper room
      • Even more powerful – gives us insight into Jesus’ mind and heart: Jesus knew that his time had come to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully.[3]
        • Gr. “love” = agape love, love of goodwill and compassion, unselfishness and humanitarianism[4] → This is the love that does for the other – does whatever for the other – not because you have to but because they are human and you are human and that common ground stirs you to action.
          • Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: It is God’s divine love or human love that mirrors God’s love. → And in Jesus’ case – in the case of the Son of God who was both fully human and fully divine – maybe it was even both: God’s divine love and the human mirroring of that love.
        • Gr. “he loved them fully” = lit. “to the end, he loved them” → There is a sense of purpose and completion to this phrase. It tells us that, at least in Jesus’ own mind (as much as the gospel writer could know or guess of it, anyway), Jesus felt that there was no more he could give … no greater he could love … nothing left undone in his relationship with those closest to him.
    • Also provides some dark foreshadowing for us – text: The devil had already provoked Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son, to betray Jesus.[5] → Even before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on what we now celebrate as Palm Sunday … even before that Last Supper when Jesus would call out the truth that one would deny him and one would betray him … even before Judas’ fatal deal with the chief priest and ill-fated kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane that would point Jesus out to those sent to arrest him … even before all that, here in this sacred moment, betrayal was already stirring in Judas’ mind and heart.
  • Central action of today’s text: [Jesus] got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing.[6]
    • Rev. Dr. Ginger Barfield, Professor Emerita of Biblical Studies and Theology at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in South Carolina, helps us understand the cultural context of this a bit more: The foot washing as an Ancient Near Eastern rite of hospitality is not an unexpected thing to encounter in a scene such as this. In fact, foot washing was customary. John’s portrayal is not typical, though, because of several factors: the person of lower status should wash the feet of the higher-status guest. Jesus flips this; the foot washing should happen as guests arrive. As the guests are already at the table, another routine is disrupted; this should be a simple and unobtrusive act. Jesus’ washes feet at the table and converses during and after about the act.[7]
      • Let me ask you a question. Does this idea make you feel uncomfortable? Not in the abstract sense, but if you close your eyes and imagine yourself in this midst of this story … imagine yourself sitting there with the disciples … imagine Jesus moving slowly and purposefully from one person to the next, gently and carefully washing and drying their feet before moving on to the next … imagine Jesus finally moving in front of you, kneeling before you, washing your feet, drying your I want you to picture it for a moment. I want you to hunker down in this story for a moment. Feel the water on your feet. Feel Jesus’ hands, steady and earnest. Feel the rough towel. As you sit with that image … with that feeling … let’s venture into a little foot theology.
        • Rev. Kathleen Long Bostrom, prolific author of both adult and children’s books and honorably retired PC(USA) pastor gets right down to it for us with this passage: With very few exceptions, we do not consider feet to be the most attractive parts of our bodies. … Because we use feet every day, all the time, they take quite a beating. … Feet are usually not a very pretty sight. Yet feet are the object of wonder when a baby is born. “Look at that tiny foot!” we say, “Those tiny toenails!” … Barefoot babies are adorable; barefoot adults, not so much. … [Yet] how wonderful it is to have one’s feet washed, after all that those feet have been through. Because the footwashing comes at an unexpected time, the disciples know immediately that this is something out of the ordinary. It is a remarkable act of tenderness at a point in time when the disciples need a little TLC. Like the woman who anoints and washes Jesus’ feet, Jesus pauses at the cusp of his own anguish and tends to his flock. They will not soon forget what he does for them on that dark night.[8] → In this action that to us seems both intimate and strange, both loving and disquieting, Jesus in literally putting hands and feet to his faith. He is embodying his love for his disciples in the most incarnate way possible: by washing the road dust and weariness off their travel-worn feet. It’s not his job. It’s not his place. But it is his testimony. It’s his witness to how great and all-encompassing the love of God is – a love big enough to kneel down and wash even the dirtiest, most bedraggled feet. No matter who they are … no matter where they’ve been … no matter what they brought with them – what dust they carried, what muck they walked through, what callouses they bore … through his actions, Jesus tells them God’s love story for them.
  • But Jesus’ testimony doesn’t stop at his actions in our passage this morning.
    • First = Peter’s reaction → You see, by his very nature, Peter is dramatic enough, bombastic enough to point out in no uncertain terms just how counter-cultural Jesus’ act is. Peter objects. : When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.” “No!” Peter said. “You will never wash my feet!”[9]
      • Peter = trying to be humble (as loudly and ostentatiously as possible)
      • Peter = trying to be a servant
      • Peter = trying to do things “the right way”
      • But as so often is the case throughout the gospels, Jesus has other plans – plans that Peter can’t even begin to understand … yet. Not for lack of trying, though.
        • Peter’s attempt to understand after Jesus tries to explain = both amusing and endearing: Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.” Simon Peter said, “Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!” → All we can do is shake our heads. Oh, Peter.
        • Jesus’ response makes it clear that Jesus’ actions are enough
  • Passage concludes with Jesus giving the disciples their own charge → Jesus is speaking to his own story but also intertwining his story with that of the disciples. He’s instructing them to carry on his thread of love and humility – text: After he washed the disciples’ feet, he put on his robes and returned to his place at the table. He said to them, “Do you know what I’ve done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am. If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do. I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them. Since you know these things, you will be happy if you do them.[10]
    • Rev. Trygve David Johnson, Dean of the Chapel at Hope College in Michigan: In the foot washing, like the incarnation, the method is the message. In the washing of the disciples’ feet Jesus chooses to empty himself rather than to promote himself. This act of humble service and submission is the church’s model of mission into the world, the means by which God’s “glory” will be experienced by all who will follow after Jesus has gone to the Father. The genius of this strategy is that everyone can do it – whatever rank, title, gender, or race – all can serve another. If we did, this strategy would allow God’s glory to shine into every life. Hence this foot washing is more than a humble act of deference; it is a sermon to the world about how to love.[11] → Jesus’ testimony in this moment – the faith story that he tells both in his words and his actions – is a story of humility, a story of servanthood, a story of love, a story of grace. It’s a story that’s true. It’s a story that’s powerful. It’s a story that’s worth telling. Again. Amen.

[1] Lily Cichanowicz. “11 Surprising Customs from Around the World” from Culture Trip, https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/articles/12-surprising-customs-from-around-the-world/.

[2] Howard Mohr. How to Talk Minnesotan. (New York: Penguin Group), 1987.

[3] Jn 13:1.

[4] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: https://somuchbible.com/word-studies/annotated-scripture/john-131-17//

[5] Jn 13:2.

[6] Jn 13:4-5.

[7] Ginger Barfield. “Commentary on John 13:1-17” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/jesus-washes-feet/commentary-on-john-131-17-3.

[8] Kathleen Long Bostrom. “John 13:1-11 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: John, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 110, 112.

[9] Jn 13:6-8a.

[10] Jn 13:12-17.

[11] Trygve David Johnson. “Holy Thursday: John 13:1-17, 31b-35 – Homiletical Perspective” from Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 275.

Sunday’s sermon: Testimony is Personal

Text used – John 11:1-44

  • Stories make up the realm of who we are – our past, our present, and even our future. Stories build meaning. Stories construct our shared experiences. Stories connect us to one another and to the world around us. And it’s been this way as long as humans have been communicating with one another.
    • Oldest known form of written language from ancient Mesopotamia[1] (northern edge of the Persian Gulf → modern day Kuwait/Iraq/Iran) dates back to around 3400 B.C.E. → But long before that, people were telling stories.
    • Oldest known cave painting recently found in limestone caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi are at least 45,500 yrs. old[2] → But even before that, people were telling stories.
    • People told stories to explain natural phenomena. They told stories to remember and pass on their history. They told stories to teach and entertain their children. And, of course, they told stories that connected them to the Divine – to whatever god or set of gods they worshiped.
      • Stories of their understandings of the Divine
      • Stories of their worship of the Divine
      • Stories of the actions of the Divine that either they had seen or perceived themselves or stories of those in the past who had seen and perceived the Divine
      • Yes, friends, stories and faith have gone hand-in-hand for millennia – as long as human beings have been worshiping.
    • And as Christians, we are no different. Every Sunday, we read a part of our Story of faith. We try to glean knowledge and insight and understanding from the stories of others’ experiences with God and apply it to our own lives and actions. We base our actions in worship – both corporate worship and our own individual prayer times – on the stories passed down to us in the Scriptures, especially those pertaining to our sacraments. And we share our own experiences of God in our lives and in the world around us – the glimpses and whispers and nudges (sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle) of God moving and working in us, guiding and protecting us. In short, we share our testimonies – our own stories of faith. → 2 reasons we do this according to Thomas Long
      • FIRST, it’s about speaking Truth – Long: Christians believe that we cannot tell the truth, not the whole truth, without talking about God, and if we cannot tell the whole truth, we cannot be fully alive as human beings.[3] → Telling our stories – particularly those parts of our stories when we experience God’s presence in our own lives, those places where the threads of our own stories are so interwoven with the threads of God’s story that we cannot tell them apart … telling particularly those parts of our stories is an integral part of who we are. A part that we cannot ignore if we’re going to live fully into our identity as Christians.
        • Important to notice that this has nothing to do with converting others → If someone else hears your story and chooses or feels led to embark on their own journey of faith or, even more dramatically, to become a Christian, then that’s incredible! But we don’t share our testimonies for the sole purpose of bringing about change in someone else. We share our testimonies because we can’t not share them.
          • Long: Even if every person in the world were already a Christian, we would still need to talk about God in the same way that a mariner needs to talk about the sea. We would need to talk about God to be truthful, to be whole, for life to be full.[4]
      • SECOND, it’s about continually discerning what we believe – Long: We don’t just say things we already believe. To the contrary, saying things out loud is a part of how we come to believe. We talk our way toward belief, talk our way from tentative belief through doubt to firmer belief, talk our way toward believing more fully, more clearly, and more deeply. Putting things into words is one of the ways we acquire knowledge, passion, and conviction.[5] → Our faith journeys are just that – journeys, ongoing and in process, always changing and developing and becoming. And talking through our faith in terms of the ways we see God moving and working in our own lives is a huge part of that journey.
  • In their essence, this is what the gospels do. They are the written accounts of people trying to work through their faith – people coming to believe – as they work through experiences of the Living God in Christ Jesus. → particularly the case for John because it was written so late
    • Already some established faith practices and early theology about Jesus as the Son of God by the time John wrote his gospel roughly 70 yrs. after Jesus’ death and resurrection
    • And it’s because John is such a testifying gospel – because John’s gospel is such an inextricable mix of experience/story on one hand and theology/belief system on the other hand … it’s because of this particular combination that we’re focusing so much on testimony throughout Lent this year.
  • Today’s gospel story = what I think is the most powerful story of Jesus’ own testimony, his own, personal experience and expression of faith in one of life’s rawest and most difficult moments: a moment of grief
    • Today’s story begins by explaining Lazarus is ill → his sisters, Mary and Martha, send for Jesus → At this point in the gospel, Jesus and the disciples has been in Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival of Dedication – what we know more commonly as Hanukkah. After leaving Jerusalem, they had headed “back across the Jordan [River] to the place where John had baptized at first.”[6] This is where those sent by Mary and Martha find Jesus and relay their message: “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”[7]
    • Then we come to what is probably the most challenging section of today’s text – this portion where Jesus chooses to linger at the Jordan River for two more days before heading to Bethany. Initially, he tells the messengers and the disciples that Lazarus’ illness will not be fatal, but as they prepare to set out, Jesus reveals to the disciples that Lazarus has, in fact died.
      • Difficult because we all know the worry and desperation that Mary and Martha are sitting in as they wait for Jesus … even as Jesus, himself, chooses to wait a couple more days
        • Sat by the bed of loved ones who have been ill
        • Received news of diagnoses in doctors’ offices and over the phone that has brought our world to a screeching halt
        • Prayed for healing and wholeness with every ounce of our being
        • Wept tears of grief and even anger at funerals of those who have died because of their illnesses
        • We’ve been in those places – in those moments – because of our deep love for the people we were with – a love that spans miles, a love that endures treatments, a love that sparks hope even into the darkest moments of diagnosis and side effects and illness and pain. And because we know just how hard those moments are, we can be frustrated with Jesus in this part of the story – because the “Why, Jesus?” on our minds and our lips in this moment is a “Why, Jesus?” we’ve voiced before. The waiting part of this story makes us uncomfortable … because the waiting part of life makes us uncomfortable.
    • But it’s also in this moment and in the rest of the story as it unfolds that we see Jesus at his most vulnerable, at his most human, at his most personal in John’s gospel. When Jesus and the disciples finally reach Bethany and Jesus is confronted with the grief of Mary, Martha, and all the others who had come to mourn Lazarus, Jesus grieves as well. – text: When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you have been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. He asked, “Where have you laid him?” They replied, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to cry. The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!”[8]
  • And it’s in this moment – this moment when Jesus allows the grief of the community to overcome him, this moment when Jesus is fully personal and fully present and fully human, this moment when the Son of God, indeed when God Incarnate!, weeps in response to the shock and pain and grief of illness and death … it’s in this moment that we witness Jesus’ own, personal testimony in his actions.
    • Plenty of places throughout the gospel – and even plenty of places just in today’s reading – when Jesus testifies with his words
      • Jesus’ conversation with Martha before they go find Mary: Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.” Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”[9]
    • But when Jesus weeps at the tomb of his friend – when Jesus grieves in and with the community that surrounded Mary and Martha – we see Jesus’ testimony in his actions. We see him embodying the tender blessing of love and kinship as well as the stinging pain of loss. We see him embodying the reality that steadfast faith doesn’t always mean a life of ease and joy, a life without hardship or suffering. To the contrary, we see him embracing suffering and pain as an unavoidable part of a life of faith as is experiencing that suffering and pain within the loving embrace of community.
      • Rev. Erica Schemper (who led worship here back in January) wrote a daily devotional piece for the These Days publication on this passage: It’s easy to move quickly to the miracle when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. But here, right in the absolute center of John’s Gospel, is this beautiful story of Jesus grieving with a community. He weeps when he realizes his friend is dead. He weeps when he sees the depth of sadness in those around him. We all need the space to sit with our sadness. John 11 reminds us that God came among us not just to raise us from the dead but also to stop for a moment and weep with us.[10]
    • Yes, at the end of today’s story, Lazarus is miraculously raised from the dead – a powerful foreshadowing testimony to what is to come for Jesus himself, especially since this is John’s last account of any kind of lengthy encounter for Jesus before he turns to the Passion Narrative that will lead Jesus to the cross … to the tomb … to his own death and resurrection. And when Jesus resurrects Lazarus – when he instructs those with him to remove the stone from the mouth of Lazarus’ tomb and calls Lazarus forth, when he lifts up a prayer of thanks to God and give the final command to “Untie [Lazarus] and let him go” – Jesus is completing the testimony of his actions. With his own tears and his grief, Jesus testifies to faith in the struggle – in the “valley of the shadow of death.” And with his own act of resurrecting Lazarus, Jesus testifies to the eternal hope and truth that even death cannot defeat the power and presence of God’s love. It’s a story that’s true. It’s a story that’s powerful. It’s a story that’s worth telling. Again. Amen.

[1] Aisling Serrant. “The World’s Five Oldest Written Languages” from DigVentures, https://digventures.com/2013/10/friday-five-five-oldest-written-languages/.

[2] Sarah Cascone, “Archaeologists Have Discovered a Pristine 45,000-Year-Old Cave Painting of a Pig That May Be the Oldest Artwork in the World” from ArtNet, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/indonesia-pig-art-oldest-painting-1937110.

[3] Thomas G. Long. Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 5.

[4] Long, 6.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jn 10:40.

[7] Jn 11:3.

[8] Jn 11:32-36.

[9] Jn 11:21-26.

[10] Erica Schemper. “Sunday, October 31, 2021: Good Grief” in These Days, Oct-Dec 2021. (Louisville: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation).

Sunday’s worship: A Prayer Service for Ukraine

With everything that’s going on in the world, I decided that what we needed this Sunday was a prayer service – a special time for us to pray for the world and specifically for Ukraine. There were four main elements to this service that I wanted to share this week: Scripture readings, a poem by Ann Weems, a blessing/prayer by Kate Bowler, and a Prayer for Lament from the Book of Common Worship

 

Scripture readings:

Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, the Chief Rabbi for Ukraine, asked Jews and Christians around the world to pray Psalm 31 in solidarity with those in Ukraine who are under attack by Russia. So our First Testament reading this morning was Psalm 31.

Our New Testament reading came from Matthew 25:31-46 – Jesus’ reminder that whatever we do to and for those around us who need us the most, we do for Jesus.

 

Poem: “I No Longer Pray for Peace” by Ann Weems

On the edge of war, one foot already in,

I no longer pray for peace:
I pray for miracles.

I pray that stone hearts will turn
to tenderheartedness,
and evil intentions will turn
to mercifulness,
and all the soldiers already deployed
will be snatched out of harm’s way,
and the whole world will be
astounded onto its knees.

I pray that all the “God talk”
will take bones,
and stand up and shed
its cloak of faithlessness,
and walk again in its powerful truth.

I pray that the whole world might
sit down together and share
its bread and its wine.

Some say there is no hope,
but then I’ve always applauded the holy fools
who never seem to give up on
the scandalousness of our faith:
that we are loved by God……
that we can truly love one another.

I no longer pray for peace:
I pray for miracles.

written by Ann Weems for Ash Wednesday 2003

 

A Blessing for Ukraine” by Kate Bowler

after the prayer (my own words): On her Facebook post that included this prayer, Bowler concluded with these words: “Dear Ukraine, though we shudder to watch what is happening, we will not look away.” Indeed, we shudder, friends. Indeed, we lift up our prayers. And indeed, we will not look away. We will not ignore. We will not forget. We will not excuse atrocities and suffering and injustice. Though we shudder to watch what is happening, we will not look away.

 

Prayer for Lament (from the Book of Common Worship, ©2018 Westminster John Knox Press)

            Extinguish a candle.

                        In the darkness, O God, we cry out to you …

                        Where are you leading us?

                        How are you calling us?

                        What is your will?

            Silence.

                        Make us one body; reconcile all people.

            Sung response:

                        Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.

                        Lord, have mercy upon us.

                        Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.

                        Lord, have mercy upon us.

            Pour sand from pitcher.

                        From the dust, O God, we cry out to you …

                        Why am I forgotten?

                        Why am I forsaken?

                        Why are you so far away?

            Silence.

                        Make us one body; reconcile all people.

            Sung response

                        Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.

                        Lord, have mercy upon us.

                        Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.

                        Lord, have mercy upon us.

            Tear cloth.

                        In our pain and division, O God, we cry out to you …

                        Where is my family?

                        Where are my friends?

                        Who is my neighbor?

            Silence.

                        Make us one body; reconcile all people.

            Sung response

                        Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.

                        Lord, have mercy upon us.

                        Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.

                        Lord, have mercy upon us.

            Place empty plate and cup on table.

                        In our hunger and thirst, O God, we cry out to you …

                        When will justice come?

                        When will peace come?

                        How long?

            Silence.

                        Make us one body; reconcile all people.

            Sung response.

                        Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.

                        Lord, have mercy upon us.

                        Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.

                        Lord, have mercy upon us.

 

            God of love and justice, you have made it clear to us that you tire of our church words and religious festivals, and that the worship you want from us is an ethical life lived out in a society that reflects your justice. Hear our prayers for your whole creation, saying,

God of justice, save your world.

            We pray for the church and for all who live by faith, doing charity and advocating for social change.

God of justice, save your world.

            Cultivate peace between nations, between people, and between political parties.

God of justice, save your world.

            Protect and comfort those enduring the violence of war, especially those in Ukraine who are in pain, in fear, in hiding, in mourning; those enduring the injustice of crime, or the destructive forces of nature.

God of justice, save your world.

            Almighty God, guide all the nations of the world into your ways of justice and truth. Establish among us that peace which is the fruit of righteousness, that this world may become the kingdom of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

God of justice, save your world.

Preserve those who suffer violence at home or bullying at school. Embolden those who see their trouble to help bring relief, help, and compassion.

God of justice, save your world.

            Grant your healing mercies to those who are ill or facing death, especially those whose worlds have been turned upside-down by COVID-19 today, yesterday, or anytime in the last 2 years. Uphold those who care for them, especially our healthcare workers who are not only physically exhausted but emotionally and mentally and spiritually exhausted as well.

God of justice, save your world.

            Delivering God, through Jesus Christ, you come to us and teach us the way of true worship: doing good, seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow. Set us free to serve you, sharing your work in the world, by the power of your strengthen Spirit.

God of justice, save your world.

Holding Space for All Our Prayers:

            If you feel so moved, I invite you now to voice any prayers you may have weighing on your hearts before God. It can be out loud or in your own hearts.

PAUSE

            Lord, in your mercy, hear all of our prayers – those spoken and those that only echo in the quietness of our hearts. We lift them up to you in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray, saying: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

Sunday’s sermon: A Multitude of Questions

Text used – John 7:37-52

  • It’s always how the story goes – how the story makes its major twist. Well … maybe not always, but it is an age-old story.
    • Think of the Marvel Comic Universe – Iron Man, Captain America, Black Panther, and all the rest
      • Hero’s story is introduced
      • Hero becomes adored by crowds
      • Hero experiences a major setback
        • Loss of a major battle
        • Loss of a loved one – friend or family member or heroic comrade
      • Major setback leads to doubt
        • Doubt of mission
        • Doubt of the power of good in the world
        • Doubt of self
        • Doubt that comes both from themselves and those around them
      • Hero makes a colossal interior effort to overcome doubt just in the nick of time
      • Hero is even stronger on the other side of the doubt
        • Stronger in power
        • Stronger in purpose
        • Stronger in conviction
      • Hero saves the day
    • And while it’s difficult for us to watch those doubting parts – difficult to watch the hero beat themselves up and doubt themselves and wonder aloud if they’ve made any sort of difference at all – part of the reason it’s so difficult for us to watch is because we know how true-to-life that experience is.
      • We know the struggle of being doubted
      • FLIP SIDE: We know the struggle of doubting
      • We know how jarring doubt can be – jarring to our sense of self, jarring to the tenuous and fragile ordering of the world around us, jarring to the beliefs we hold dear. And yet doubt is as human an experience as breathing, especially in this day and age.
        • Live in an era of proof
        • Live in an era of scientific discovery
        • Live in an era of empirical fact over perceived reality → the measurable over the unmeasurable, the head over the heart
        • Often, we don’t trust a theory or proposal until it’s been tried and tested and thoroughly dissected by others, a process that requires doubt in its most honed and zealous form.
    • And certainly, that’s not always a bad thing! Medically speaking, where would we be if both practitioners and scholars centuries ago hadn’t doubted that blood-letting did anyone any good? I shudder to think! No, doubt is surely not always a bad thing … and yet, it makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t it? We don’t like to be doubted, not by others and especially not by our own selves. And we are especially uncomfortable with doubt when it comes to faith. For centuries, various elements of the Church have tried to squash doubt as quickly as possible – calling it heresy, calling it witchcraft, calling it apostasy, calling it anything and everything possible to drive it from the life of the Church. But how helpful is that, really? And how Scriptural?
  • Seems to me that today’s Scripture reading is full of doubt – full of questions not meant to innocently glean information but to reveal a perceived falsehood in line with a particular agenda
    • Context for today’s encounter with Jesus
      • Text begins: On the last and most important day of the festival[1] → backing up to the beginning of ch. 7, we learn this is the Jewish Festival of Booths[2]
        • Fall festival of thanksgiving
        • Reminder of the years when the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness after Exodus from Egypt → thankful for the ways God provided for them in the wilderness
        • Characterized by the building of huts made of branches that are reminiscent of the huts erected by the people of Israel in their time in the wilderness
        • One of what used to be three Pilgrimage Festivals → holy festivals when Jewish males were required to travel to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice at the Temple[3]
        • So for today’s Scripture story, Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem to celebrate and to give thanks. But, of course, Jesus is Jesus, and word is spreading fast and furious about all of the astounding things he’s been doing – the good and the not-so-good.
          • Water to wine
          • Healing
          • Hanging out with Samaritans (in Samaria, no less!)
          • Feeding a huge crowd with just a few loaves and fish
          • Walking on water
          • Teaching → all these inexplicable statements about living water and living bread and eternal life
          • Making all sorts of “I Am” statements that come perilously close to heresy  → Jesus’ “I Am” statements = same linguistic formula used by God when Moses was given God’s most holy name at the burning bush
    • Needless to say, when he went to teach in the Jerusalem synagogue during this Festival of Booths, Jesus was far from avoiding being noticed. → made sure of that in the beginning of our text this morning: Jesus stood up and shouted, “All who are thirsty should come to me! All who believe in me should drink! As the scriptures said concerning me, Rivers of living water will flow out from within him.”[4] → couple of interesting things here
      • First, flash forward with me for a minute to Jesus’ crucifixion in Jn’s gospel → Remember that all the gospels have different accounts of what happened at Jesus’ crucifixion. John’s account is the only account in which, after Jesus has died but before he’s been taken down from the cross, one of the Roman soldiers pierces his side with a spear, “and immediately blood and water came out.”[5]
      • Back to today’s Scripture: not exactly sure what “scriptures” Jesus is quoting here → not a recognized citation out of the First Testament
      • Also interesting that gospel writer is helpful for readers with a little explanation at this point (theological hindsight that we get a lot of in Jn’s gospel) – text: Jesus said this concerning the Spirit. Those who believed in him would soon receive the Spirit, but they hadn’t experienced the Spirit yet since Jesus hadn’t yet been glorified.[6] → But remember, John’s gospel was written around the turn of the 1st century roughly 70 yrs. after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, so it’s definitely not an explanation that those in Jesus’ hearing that day would have received.
  • Explanation that would clearly have been beneficial for those in Jesus’ hearing → You see, this is where the doubt starts to seep into our story this morning. This is when the barrage of questions begins.
    • Begins benignly enough with the affirmations of some – text: When some in the crowd heard these words, they said, “This man truly is the prophet.” Others said, “He’s the Christ.”[7]
    • But there are others in the crowd who aren’t convinced. – text: But others said, “The Christ can’t come from Galilee, can he? Didn’t the scripture say that the Christ comes from David’s family and from Bethlehem, David’s village?” So the crowd was divided over Jesus.[8] → Divided indeed! Is this man before them another prophet – revered but not a singular occurrence in the history of the people of Israel? Or is he the Christ, the Messiah – the One sent by God to save the people once and for all? Or is he something else entirely? The seeds of doubt begin to take root and grow.
    • Next part of Scripture reading can be divided into two curious occurrences
      • 1st occurrence: Some wanted to arrest him, but no one grabbed him. The guards returned to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked, “Why didn’t you bring him?” The guards answered, “No one has ever spoken he way he does.[9] → So clearly, these guards had orders to arrest this rabblerouser Jesus and his followers … but by their own admission, they were so taken in by his words – by the mystery that surrounded and infused the presence of Jesus that they just … couldn’t do it. I hear awe and even a little bewilderment in their response to the chief priests and Pharisees: “Why didn’t you bring him?” “No one has ever spoken the way he does.”
        • See the flip side of doubt in this → Sometimes doubt closes us to possibilities and newnesses, but there are other times – times like this one – when doubt actually leaves us more open. The Roman guards’ doubt in their orders to arrest Jesus not only left the crowd open to the possibilities that Jesus’ words and teachings offered, but it left the guards themselves open.
      • 2nd curious occurrence = reappearance of Nicodemus (“he of the midnight meeting and desperate questions” → Remember, we read about Jesus’ first encounter with Nicodemus, the Pharisee and Sanhedrin member, about a month ago. We talked about Nicodemus’ questions, and how he was a man seeking more than just answers but seeking God’s Truth in all its glory and fullness and immeasurable grace. And here, in this next episode of questioning and doubt and testimony, we find Nicodemus again. – text (following the guards’ awe-filled declaration): The Pharisees replied, “Have you too been deceived? Have any of the leaders believed in him? Has any Pharisee? No, only this crowd, which doesn’t know the Law. And they are under God’s curse!” Nicodemus, who was one of them and had come to Jesus earlier, said, “Our Law doesn’t judge someone without first hearing him and learning what he is doing, does it?” They answered him, “You are not from Galilee too, are you? Look it up and you will see that the prophet doesn’t come from Galilee.”[10] → This is such a fascinating encounter! The Pharisees attempt to disparage the intelligence of both the guards and the crowd by declaring that they only believe in Jesus because of their ignorance of the Law, clueless to the fact that one of their own (Nicodemus) has in fact already sought out this subversive and problematic Jesus to learn from him and believe in him. And when Nicodemus speaks up in an attempt at a mild but logical defense of Jesus – basically asking the Pharisees to hear him out based on the precedence of the Law they’ve already cited themselves – they scorn him and tell him to “look it up.”
        • Fascinating because I have to wonder what was going through Nicodemus’ head during this whole exchange … and what was going on in his heart
        • Fascinating because same doubt that left the guards open to Jesus’ teaching and Truth has closed the Pharisees to that same Truth
  • In a strange, inextricable, and powerful way, Doubt itself is a character in this strange little gospel exchange that John gives us.
    • Rev. Dr. Nancy S. Taylor, senior minister at Old South Church in Boston, addresses the unescapable presence of doubt in this story and the way it speaks to our faith: It is reasonable to assume that in every worshiping congregation there are people who lost their faith in the course of the past week, those who never had faith, and a great many for whom belief and doubt are strangely mixed together. … [In these challenging circumstances, John hopes] to pluck up our courage and equip our minds, hearts, and spirits for the arduous (and not so easy to defend or explain) journey of Christian discipleship. … John urges us to follow Jesus, even when we do not understand him. He aches for us to listen to Jesus, even though Jesus’ words and stories are perplexing. The author suggests that we trust the gentleness and openness of Nicodemus. He asks us to wonder and marvel at the defiant behavior of the temple police. He points to the uneducated crowd who find Jesus exceedingly compelling. … In other words, if we cannot see Jesus directly, we can at least see and experience him indirectly, through the eyes and lives of those who have risked everything, even their reputations, to follow him. Their witness is trustworthy.[11] → It was only after making it through the doubt – wrestling with it, going toe-to-toe with it, slogging through it and coming out the other side, possibly battered and bruised but still making it through that the heroes we talked about found themselves stronger, more convinced of their purpose and convicted in their mission. Maybe … just maybe … that’s the way it is with faith. And if that’s the case, maybe that’s why we do this “faith” thing together – to hold that openness for one another in the face of each other’s doubts and provide the trustworthy witness for one another in the most challenging moments. Amen.

[1] Jn 7:37.

[2] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sukkoth-Judaism.

[3] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Pilgrim-Festivals.

[4] Jn 7:37-38.

[5] Jn 19:34.

[6] Jn 7:39.

[7] Jn 7:40-41a.

[8] Jn 7:41b-42.

[9] Jn 7:44-46.

[10] Jn 7:47-52.

[11] Nancy S. Taylor. “John 7:37-52 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – John, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 246.