Monthly Archives: March 2013
(As always the actual sermon differs some in content,but this is a rendering of a version of the sermon.)
“God is on the Loose!”
by Andrew Kukla
Luke 24: 1-35
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.
Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”
Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.”
So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
This has been quite the week, not this particular year – every year, it is quite the week. It is a week of parades and cheering, of betrayals and sobbing. It is a week of great highs and great lows. It is – for all of that – a very real week. Its messy, it’s turbulent. It’s out of control.
We don’t necessarily like to think of it that way, we like to think of everything as being under control. It’s all a part of God’s plan, it’s all intended, necessary, scripted out. We are here because God wanted it that way. That is what we wish to believe about the turbulent times in our life… but along the way in truth it feels all out of control. Our lives, and the story of this week as well: cheering crowds when they should have been mourning, fearful people when they should have been cheering. Just as they knew Jesus was coming to die but didn’t really get it so they cheered his coming to die, now they should know that Jesus told them he would rise again, but given a firsthand account that Jesus isn’t in the tomb any more they still think it’s just an idle tale… women being women.
Funny that the men dismiss the women for being idle, when the women are the ones out and about and the men are hiding away. The women had gathered, they came together, Mary and Martha and Joanna and the others, to put the spices on Jesus’ body for burial. They hadn’t had time when he died. The Sabbath began on Friday evening through Saturday evening and so when he died they had no time to do so. Jesus’ body lay unprepared sealed in the tomb waiting for them to have time to attend to it, and as early as they could on Sunday morning they gathered the necessary supplies and set out to attend to his body’s final preparations.
So early Sunday morning, this morning, they set out with each other for company and they went to the tomb not expecting anything out of the ordinary prepared to do the very ordinary task of anointing this body for burial in death. But they get to the tomb and it’s open. Ever had one of those moments where you come home and you find you have left the front door open or that it has been opened (not that I would ever accidently leave a door wide open) and your first thought isn’t that something that is inside has gotten out… but that someone that was outside has broken in. Now in Jesus’ case it wouldn’t have been grave robbers because he was a poor man who died the poorest of men but they would have worried that it was broken in to for desecration… he died in shame and very unpopular after all. So now maybe they ran in expecting to see the worst and what they see is… nothing. No body. His body is gone, its been taken… what is going on???
Here they are to prepare his body in death but it is gone and now these grieving women are also confused and angry – “why can’t anything about this story go right? All we want to do is prepare his body and mourn this man we loved.” And then…
Then suddenly a man is there – an angel is there, we know it’s an angel because angels are always greeted in fear and the women are struck to the ground by their fear… kneeling before him as he says, so matter of factly – why do you look for the living among the dead? Why are you here?
This has been a week of questions, fitting because Jesus has a ministry of questions and questioning. And the question now is why do you look for the living among the dead? Why are do you expect to find him here… dead… lying in the tomb? Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember what he told you? His life cannot be contained. Not by the laws, not by the Pharisees or the chief priests, not by Rome or your own desires for who he will be… and not by death. Jesus life cannot be contained by any of our structures. And then they remembered!
They remembered – that word has weight, it claimed them this memory – they remember that indeed the angel right, Jesus is turbulent, Jesus turns expectations upside down, turns the world upside down, why didn’t we expect this – of course he isn’t here, of course he wouldn’t treat death any differently than he treated life. We should have expected an empty tomb because Jesus doesn’t play by any rule book – certainly not ours. So they run to tell the other disciples.
Have you had that moment when you are bursting with good news and you just have to tell anyone, everyone, but certainly your closest friends – and they couldn’t just text them so they ran to tell them… and hit a brick wall… a brick wall of unbelief. The disciples say.. poor Mary and Martha… Joanna… sit down –you must be tired. And they’d wink at each other… “sit down Mary, we all miss him, and we know how hard this must be, but he’s dead. I know it’s hard, I’m broken up by it too but he’s dead.” Now while they console the women (who I’m sure are wondering what is going on again because they don’t need to be consoled).. While this is happening Peter has slipped out and run to the tomb because Peter is eager.. always eager to find good news.
And he looks in the tomb and he finds the tomb empty… no angel for Peter, no risen Lord yet but an empty tomb and he’s amazed. We do not hear that he believes, but he is amazed. His world is rocked, he who is the Rock in no longer on sure ground… he comes back to – well we actually don’t know what reception with the disciples, but we know it’s not belief because we have this others story.
Two disciples travel and talking, and sad about the events of this day. They are not two of the twelve but of the larger body and they know all the inside scoop. “Did you hear that story about Mary… yah shame, she’ll be okay though…” and a stranger comes along and they stop their internal conversation. But they are surprised that he doesn’t seem informed about what is going on – surely everyone has heard, didn’t he read the Facebook statuses? The tomb is empty, this upstart Jesus’ body is gone, and the women of course are telling tales about it – oh I’m sure it’s a hoax, you can edit pictures and videos to show anything these days but they are telling tales and we don’t know what to make of it.
Interesting they don’t really trigger on Jesus next comment when he says – come on you guys! Really? This is the best you can muster? You still don’t get it do you???
Then Jesus begins to talk to them and teach them… how quickly Jesus turns the tables on them, on us. They were trying to tell Jesus what’s what and all of the sudden without them even noticing he is the one teaching them, bringing scripture to life about his life about life for the world. They don’t know its Jesus but their hearts are burning as he teaches them the way all things are made new… and when they reach a split in the road and Jesus makes as if to keep going they ask him to stop because the day is nearly over and won’t he stay and eat with them – they want more of this man’s teaching. And then Jesus – at table – breaks bread and that’s the moment they remembered. That’s the moment that they are claimed by the memory and they remembered and their eyes are opened. O! M! G! Oh my God, and he vanished, he’s gone. And they now know, and they believe, and they’ve been caught up in the turbulence of God and they are Mary and Joanna and the other women and they run back to gathered companions to tell them it is true – he is risen, he is risen indeed!
The story of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is not actually primarily about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Oh it would seem that way right, it would seem like that is the story. But the real story that the Gospels would like to tell us, and they do it in different ways, but the story they really want to tell us is the process by which we begin to believe that Jesus is risen. The Gospel account are about us wrestling with what has already happened. In truth Jesus has already risen before any of the story telling begins. No idea when he actually rose, just that the first time they go to check it out it’s already happened. The story we have to tell is the story of the process by which we begin to believe that Jesus is in fact has risen, God is on the loose!
The disciples, women and men, traveled to a tomb to find a body and they find emptiness. And then an angel visits them, Jesus visits the two, and by the time they make it back to Jerusalem – did you catch this tidbit, by the time they make it back those gathered are talking about Simon being visited as well. God is on the loose! Jesus’ life will not be contained, not even by death. Jesus is not to be found in one place but all over the place, he’s so much on the move he is vanishing before our very eyes once our eyes are open… God is on the loose – God has places to go, people to see.
This is not a moment to linger in, the world is turning on its axis – death has been defied, the rules have been shattered. Every effort that has been made to contain God to pin God down, to make God obey our desires has been shattered and God is on the loose – to tomb is empty, and everything is made new.
The question is – do we believe it? Why do you look for the living among the dead – don’t look for God in what was, but what is and is becoming, God has places to go and people to see and its time for us to catch up, to get caught up in that newness.
Remember – my body broken for you, remember – my life poured out for you, remember my commandment- love one another as I have loved you. This is the work of Resurrection.
And the question is not – is he risen? But what are we doing about it, how are we living resurrection in the life of the world, and how is the world different today than it was yesterday. Not just different but more life affirming, life giving, more abundance of God’s goodness and grace.
We know the story and how easily the story become routine for us. We put on pretty pastel dressed, we play big music with extra musicians and we ALL come so church on this day because it is what we do – but how do we live different tomorrow because of today? Today means nothing if the world isn’t changing because of it.
Let us repeat that again because it pretty much sums up everything Paul will ever say, if tomorrow is different than yesterday because of today than today was meaningless – Christ’s death was meaningless.
We don’t gather to simply say He is risen, Alleluia, Amen. Christ doesn’t our storytelling to end there… what Jesus wants for us is to also be on the move – on the loose, that we too have places to go and people to see and when we do it we do it as Christ – as resurrection people, whose lives give life, whose stories preach good news. Whose words and ways and actions speak resurrection, not for ourselves but for the life of the world.
Do not look for the living among the dead – but BE the living among the dead! Thanks be to God, Amen.
One final comment, from the Benediction. Note that when we do the resurrection call and response we say: “He is risen…. He is risen, indeed.” Intriguingly if we play with that we are saying that the resurrection happens, in deed. Its not about words, but actions. We do not say that the resurrection is real, we are meant to LIVE that the resurrection is real. Make is so!
Tonight we will gather in churches, homes, and community spaces in many ways to worship, fellowship, and hear the story of Maundy Thursday. “Maundy” because it is the night Jesus gives us a new commandment… a new old commandment really. “To love one another.”
As we prepare to gather two messages about this night jump out at me.
The first is that in every account Jesus knows that this meal will end in betrayal and denial, abandonment and death. This is the perfect time for Jesus to launch his preemptive strike. The opportunity we, in our mindset, would use the intelligence information that we have received to strike out at our opponents before they can hit us. Come on Jesus, take Judas down.
And Jesus? Well what we recall of that evening, and are invited to remember over and over again, is that Jesus instead says… “this is my body, broken for you.” When Judas actually does betray and the disciples wish to respond with the sword? There is that pesky counter-intuitive Jesus again saying, “No more of this!” (Luke 22) Jesus’ only preemptive strikes are in love and service – with love and care. There is no place for the use of violence even in the defense of his life. Jesus heals those wounds and moves into the darkness of what is to come with defiant love.
Another thought to put alongside this. This is something it took a Buddhist monk to teach me about Holy Week (thanks to Thich Nhat Hanh in Living Buddha, Living Christ). We have a tendency to call this the Last Supper. In what way is this Jesus’ last supper? Only if you do not imagine that Jesus actually rose was this his last supper. He will broil fish with his disciples in just a couple more chapters. We will eat this supper with him over and over again (monthly usually… but in some traditions and places far more than that). This is the first of many such suppers that sits in the tradition of many such meals before it. The feast of unleavened bread – become the Sacrament of the Lord’s Table (or whatever name you give it).
Thich Nhat Hanh talks about it as the First Supper… and his words have never left me since I read them because they are startlingly true to me. They are filled with the love Jesus commands of us on this Commandment Thursday. I will leave you with just some of his words,
In the Jewish tradition, the sacred of meal-times is very much emphasized. You cook, set the table, and eat in the presence of God… It is very close to the Buddhist appreciation of interbeing and inter-penetration. When you wake up, you are aware that God created the world… Christianity is a kind of continuation of Judaism, as is Islam. All the branches belong to the same tree. In Christianity, when we celebrate the Eucharist, sharing the bread and wine as the body of God, we do it in the same spirit of piety, of mindfulness, aware that we are alive, enjoying dwelling in the present moment. The message of Jesus during the Seder that has become known as the Last Supper was clear. His disciples had been following Him. They had had the chance to look in His eyes and see Him in person, but it seems they had no yet come into real contact with the marvelous reality of His being. So when Jesus broke the bread and poured the wine, he said, This is My body. This is My blood. Drink it, eat it, and you will have life eternal. It was a drastic way to awaken His disciples from forgetfulness.
When we look around, we see many people in whom the Holy Spirit does not appear to dwell. They look dead, as though they were dragging around a corpse, their own body. The practice of the Eucharist is to help resurrect these people so they can touch the Kingdom of Life… When we pick up a piece of bread, we can do it with mindfulness, with Spirit. The bread, the Host, becomes the object of deep love and concentration… when we practice this way, every meal is the Last Supper. In fact, we could call it the First Supper, because everything will be fresh and new.
I had this moment when I realized that I missed the timing on my Lent Devotional… and when I remember we were in the middle of the showing of Jesus Christ Superstar here at church. It was, as always, fun and intriguing and… emotional. 2 hours from pre-Palm Sunday to Jesus’ death. It’s a fast journey, each moment you kind of want to stop and reflect and inquire about what is going on right now – but you don’t have time because it’s on to the next scene. And the whole play stops at Jesus’ death. It leaves you with a lingering question – who was/is Jesus? Was it all real? Did it really happen? What are we to believe?
The play asks that from many perspectives: Judas foremost but also Mary Magdalene, Peter, the High Priests, Pilate and… well… us.
And while the actual events of the movie took a whole week to play out, according to the story, I imagine it felt that fast to them too. Can’t we just pause it – take a step back – figure this all out. Sometimes I presume that they should have known more because they were right there watching it all happen… and yet I doubt that really helps that much. They are so caught up in events beyond them they end up just as confused as I am. We watch from the outside-in when we read these stories and it affords us a much better angle from which to understand. Perhaps that’s why I love watching this play. Perhaps that is why I love worshiping my way through Holy week – each service standing for itself, not pushing ahead, trying not to jump to the end of the story but letting the moment take you. Living the story as if you are in it, and not watching from audience:
A raucous entry into the city of all cities with large crowds and GREAT praise music…
A Passover meal and foot washing and broken bread and hanging in the garden and betrayal…
A trial followed by a trial followed by a trial and crowds get more and more blood thirsty leading to the execution of incarnation of Hope…
A day that was meant to be worship spent hiding from death and confronting the reality that how does one worship when the object of worship has died…
And then an empty tomb… stories of being alive… can’t find evidence to say it’s true but also that it’s not? Could it be… could it be that Jesus is alive again?
I thank you for the privilege of walking this journey with you… I hope to see you through the next four days as we live this story in search of life on the other side of death.
I’m thinking about divisions, polarizing conflict… discord. This week we shared that a church in our presbytery is seeking to leave the denomination. Every week I engage in at least one conversation (every day?) where there are passionately held convictions that are in conflict. We fight (and I do mean fight) over laws and interpretations of laws both ecclesiastical and political (and social as well).
I do not wish to speak to any of those particular conversations. I do wish to think about how we exist as communities in conflict. There is something very ‘Holy Week’ about such a conversation. The community around Jesus in Holy Week is very much in conflict. Jesus becomes the lodestone to radical shifts in meaning. “You have heard it said… but I tell you…” There are various reactions to these shifts… from those in favor but clearly not understanding the shifts fully (like Peter) to those very much against the shifts who require the death of Jesus to end the conflict. In such weeks stability often becomes more important (of ultimate importance?) than wrestling with conversations that create ambiguity.
I like to call this the yellow brick road phenomenon. We wish to have a clear road before us to our destination. Anything that makes that “way” murky is tossed aside. Anything that clarifies it is embraced (sometimes without question). And I can see the allure of this… I feel the allure of this. And yes, I hear words like “the way is narrow” (Matthew 7) and know that there is some truth to clarifying the way we should go. I also hear words like “the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9) I hear Daniel told to go his way because the words are to remain secret and sealed. (Daniel 12) Some knowledge is just beyond us. In fact it is knowledge of good and evil that the garden says we were not to receive. Much woe comes to the world when we require drawing lines around what is good and what is not.
It is enough for me to travel with people… knowing we shall differ in outlook and truth but also knowing that the love and care that unites us is stronger than all that.
Let us – from whatever conflict we are in, whatever truths we hold – join in that prayer at least. That love is indeed strong enough to hold us.
Today Facebook is full of red and pink equal signs. They are posted in solidarity for marriage equality. I posted mine and knew that it would cause some people I love sorrow. People who have strongly held views on marriage that will see my solidarity as wrongly placed.
I am not the strongest voice of advocacy. I am one of those people who come off very neutral and don’t particularly wish to offend people. (Okay I have my offensive moments, but generally I don’t wish to be the cause of those moments.) Usually in such moments of solidarity I will stick with the token action that makes me feel good because it is some token support but also flies under the radar.
When I posted the red and pink equal sign I knew that this might just be more than a token sign. I represent a church, and speak as a pastor and such signs have ripples. But this much I know from my own writing. I do not think unity or community based on staying silent on issues of justice has any value. So while I speak for myself alone, and not my church which has people of diverse opinions, I felt the need to speak more than simply a token sign on this day when marriage equality is being debated in court rooms, office spaces, and homes around our country.
Before I precede a few more words, I do not speak this from a pulpit; I wish it to be dialogue in which I do not hold all the power. I’m fallible and not invested with any special knowledge. In fact that is, in many ways, exactly my point. I have no special knowledge, and to all who know the mind of God with certainty I can only respond… I wish that were so for me, but I find myself having to discern and in such discernment clarity is never as easy as I would hope. But to sit here and not speak because that is easier, or less offensive – is actually offensive to me. So here is what I have said, and wish to say again about marriage equality:
I don’t really want to argue about it. We can all call up scripture and laws and ideas that support our various sides. But legalism is hardly a good master – in theology and in other places. Because I speak as a follower of Jesus it is on these grounds that I come to my position of solidarity for the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgendered people to form committed relationships… no not even just that, to be married in the greatest sign of committed love our culture knows.
I believe God created in love and for the sake of love and to deny love hardly seems in keeping with God’s intentions. God also created a covenant people in Israel and yet God moved beyond the single definition of “the right way to live” and in Christ Jesus, as Paul tells us, we moved beyond distinctions like Male and Female, Jews and Gentile, Slave and Free… to recognize the whole community of God in all its rich diversity. Jesus even got called on having too small a world view when he said he only came to the Jews. There are narrow times of inclusion in our scriptural history – but I do firmly agree with the many people who will note that the moral arc of both history and scripture is towards inclusion and justice.
To my mind this challenges us to move beyond what is “right” in “my book” to recognize that God’s book is bigger than any one of us can imagine. I respect that people see this differently. I fully claim that to do this means I choose some of God’s voice over other of God’s voices in scripture and I can understand how some do not agree with me, but all of us are making these kinds of choices – scripture does not have a single voice. And again and again scripture bends towards loving all people free of our decision that we are right and they are wrong (regardless of what particular things we are measuring). In fact Jesus tends to want to hang out with those we presume are wrong, and call to account for their lack of love the people who are sure their appointed way is righteous.
I do not know God’s mind in all things. Knowing that I would err in discernment I would rather have to account for why I was too loving of God’s creation, than not enough.
I will recount one more memory. It was in Merida, Mexico for a Columbia Theological Seminary month long trip as part of an Alternative Context trip. We visited our partner seminary there. It was an awkward meeting. It was awkward because while we were there to share our bonds of mission and love of Christ they were also very clear that the women among us were in error. Those women had wrongfully heard God’s calling on their lives. Women were not called to be pastors. That was clear for them, biblically clear.
It was spiritually deflating to encounter people passionate about Jesus who were also passionate about denying acknowledgement that God might in fact call a woman to ministry. Parse that action as you will, it denies the full personhood of my female colleagues. They were less than.
I do not believe God thinks anyone one is “less than.”
Sin or not, following in God’s way or not, we are all God’s creation. God loves us all, calls us all, desires love for us all. It is not good that men or women should be alone. Genesis says this in the same story people will quote to deny marriage equality. We are all picking and choosing which part of the story to listen to… and I, for myself and my hope for the world, will pick what I see as the part of love. Let us not deny it for anyone, let us not think that some of our brothers and sisters are “less than” we are. Let us not presume that our own ways are so righteous that we are in the place to throw stones, to cast down, to set people beyond the walls of our community. And yes, many will say that are not doing that… but when you reserve a privilege for those who are “right” and deny it to those who are “wrong” than you have drawn a line and made it a wall.
No more walls.
Nothing separates us from the love of Christ Jesus… no more walls.
To those of my friends who will think I’m caving to the pressures of society. To those who think I have strayed from biblical mandates. To those who are sure and clear where I am not. I still love you, and endeavor to respect you. But I say this not to cave in, or betray, or stray… I say this because I believe God is love, and God desires no more walls around love. And such belief requires I act in concert with those desires.
No more walls.
Yesterday we celebrated Palm Sunday. We joined in the triumphant entry into Jerusalem to welcome Jesus as King: ““Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (Luke 19:38)
The “multitude of disciples” welcomed Jesus with words very close the same greeting Angels gave him at his birthday in Luke’s Gospel. These are the words, clearly, we use to recognize the Messiah, the Lord’s anointed, our Savior. And yet a brief moment later Jesus, as if muttering to himself because he knows that no-one is willing to listen, says, ““If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! (Luke 19:42)
The city, the crowds, the disciples even, want a king in power and might to deliver Israel… and yet Jesus knows this is no way to peace. Instead Jesus will wash feet, eat with the powerless, confront authority, and turn all our notions of king upside down when he dies on the cross. More than that even, Jesus will turn upside all our predetermined ideas of what it means to be God. Our notion of God will die (must die)… so that who God needs to be for the world to have peace might rise and live. This is what kingship means in Jesus’ way… this is how peace is arrived at – not competing for power, honor, and success. But for putting love of other before all else.
And if this is what it means to be king? What does it mean to follow in that king’s way? When it comes to live the life of love and service – to live the way of the cross, will we abandon our king and leave the stones to do the shouting?
I haven’t done well with devotions this week. I apologize.
This has been a crazy week. I have experienced a couple of big personal highs – I sold a house, I maybe bought a house. My kids got over sickness quicker than I thought. There are good things happening.
And yet… stories of rape grabbed headlines, not just rape but a whole community’s participation in downplaying it or fully covering it up. Another more personal story of a related nature was brought to my attention as well that compounded my sorrow. In related sorrow a conversation across country took place with some pastor colleagues of mine about schism in the church… and then a story close to home moved into a next chapter that brought that same sorrow even closer.
Highs and lows. I suppose it is a fitting time to enter Holy Week. I have always been confused by Palm Sunday. I’m never quite sure what to do with it. I remember causing a stir at church several years ago when I called it a false high. People didn’t like that. They want to celebrate. What do I do with that? Jesus walks into Jerusalem talking death and suffering and the crowds following him, completely unwilling to listen, are celebrating the arrival of a King.
How do I get on board for that celebration? How do you excited about this moment of time when the larger backdrop is not good news and has no cause for celebration? I’m struggling with this right now… I’m struggling with it as I prepare a sermon for Palm Sunday, and I’m struggling with it in my own life. I want to be happy and celebrate, but somehow I feel guilty for it.
Then I hear Jesus, Jesus who KNOWS all the sorrow to come, say, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:40) Jesus sees rightness to the celebration – even though he knows that the crowds don’t understand what is happening. And maybe it’s similar to Mary pouring expensive oil on his feet to celebrate him in that moment. Maybe Jesus is saying, don’t let the larger sorrows of life, don’t let the massive injustices of our landscape make us unable to enjoy the good moments when they come. I worry about living blind to the injustice and letting happy moments mask the sorrow. But Jesus once again reminds me to find the balance… that just as we cannot ignore the lows –we cannot bring the highs down. Holy Week needs Palms Sunday just as much as it needs Good Friday…. It needs Maundy Thursday just as much as it needs Easter.
As we see Jerusalem, city on a hill, looming large on our horizon… as we approach Holy week. May we practice ways to celebrate the good and lament the bad – even at the same time. May we lean neither too quickly into Easter, or wallow too long in Friday. May we not compress a week of journeying through highs and low into a single event… but truly walk the journey up and down and up again learning to take each moment for what it is – good and bad.
Sunday we reflected some on Paul’s shift to a communal vision from his more individual piety focus during his time as a Pharisee. Along the way we talked some about the image of being the Body of Christ. Such work, being a corporate witness of grace and love and not simply getting our individual lives in order, is hard work. And whenever I think of that I am reminded of these great words from Southern Gothic fiction writer, and staunch Catholic, Flannery O’Connor:
“I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it. ”
Well said, may we live it well also.
I don’t normally create a written text of sermons but by request I did so of the 8:00 am version of this morning’s sermon. For any others that would like it, here it is:
Paul: Called to be the Body of Christ
(fifth in a Lent series on Portraits of Faith)
By Andrew Kukla
So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” All who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?”
Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.
See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.
Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!
As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.
2 Corinthians 5
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Okay so today for a change I am not going to start are saying that Paul is one of my favorite characters, because it wouldn’t be true. In fact Paul is rarely anyone’s favorite character in the Bible. Partly I think this is that he has an uncompromising vision, which puts him as a good partner to Jesus himself who also has a bit of uncompromising vision but isn’t that a little part of the problem… it can be hard to get humility from Paul. Let’s face it – Paul is good at everything he does and he likes to remind us of that from time to time. And we don’t really like people who are always reminding us how much better than us they are at everything they do.
There is another problem with Paul. He is a rhetorician. He love words… he loves LOTS of words. When Paul is trying to go from A to B he manages to take a stop at X, Y, and Z along the way. Most of us don’t want all those extra words and want to say, “Okay Paul I didn’t really hear all that, just tell me what I need to know.” Now I’m a philosophy major at heart – so there is a piece of me that loves that about Paul. In Paul’s time the equivalent of church education WAS education. In the emerging rabbinic tradition the rabbi was the expert of knowledge and learning. They were the seat of all intellect. The lawyer, priest, and scribe. I like this as a philosophy major because philosophy majors like to tell ourselves that all learning was originally philosophy and that all other disciplines and majors are simply the children of philosophy. Now we tell ourselves this today because there is nothing practical you can do with a degree in philosophy so we have to come up with some good reason for it! But, that was Paul. Paul was the educated person in a day when religious education was education. He was the intellectual elite as well as a spiritual leader. So as we think about who was Paul, he was that guy that knew everything. He was the guy who had all 600 some laws memorized, he was that teacher and expert in knowledge that you went to when you had questions. He could sit and listen to your dilemma and tell you what to do, and he would have been the keeper of faith and faithful ways to live in the world. He was lawyer, doctor, spiritual advisor, and teacher.
And Paul – we know because he tell us – was really good at it. Paul walked through life knowing that everyone wanted his opinion… and so he gave it to them before they even asked. So when we first encountered Paul in the biblical text he is a good and zealous Pharisee and when these Christians pop up… these people who followed Jesus, Paul heard of them. And they saw the world differently and Paul knew that his answers were right and theirs were wrong and he because a persecutor of the Christians. Those Christians, he says, add 1 and 1 and get 4 and we know that isn’t right. So he dedicated himself to stamping out their wrongness. We know he was there at the stoning death of Stephen and he approved of all that was done. Then one day Paul is walking on the road to Damascus and he has an encounter with the Risen Jesus as a blinding light that makes it so he cannot see anything. There is probably more than just a little bit of metaphor going on here as Paul who knows everything cannot see anything let alone the truth that is right before him.
As we picked up with this story early we saw Ananias, who is called up by God to heal Paul, continue God’s work in Paul and something like scales fall from Paul’s eyes and his sight of the world is totally different, his view, his perspectives are changed. His priorities in life have been turned upside down, and still a follower of the same God he lives that out in new ways in the light of Jesus Christ.
It is here, in this shift and change that we see in Paul that we might find some of the shifts and changes that should be at work in our lives. We have been talking about journey and a lot of people who have been changed in amazing and good ways by God at work in them. Before we move to these shifts in Paul it bears notice that some sin, some short-sightedness or challenges do dog us our whole lives. None of us becomes perfect in our journeying, and Paul – newly reborn in Christ – doesn’t suddenly become humble because of this shift. Paul will still tell us, “here is my trophy case of things I’m really great at – perfect at – and while none of that means anything in Christ, just to make sure the record is right… I’m really good at everything.” That doesn’t really change in Paul but there are other amazing shifts in Paul. One of these is that Paul, in his life as Pharisee, is wrapped up in his individual piety. How am I – emphasis on the I – righteous? This is Paul’s priority, his own righteousness. The keeping of the law is not about demonstrating God’s good news, but about how good I am. I did this, I did this, I did this, and this, and this…. And Paul was good at it, and this was his priority and all of the sudden Paul gets to place that this isn’t true anymore.
Circumcision becomes an example of this for Paul – individual piety. What have I done to show my identity that separates me out from the rest of the world and marks me as good and righteous. And now Paul says this doesn’t matter anymore, that missed the point. The point was that it’s about community. About being a community of reconciliation. We shift from, what do I need to do to be good, to what do we need to do to demonstrate God’s goodness in the world? Individual versus community, my righteousness versus God’s righteousness. And that is an important shift for us because a lot of time we want to think about my private faith, or my faith journey or my savior Jesus Christ or my personal relationship with God. And Paul says that isn’t the priority, or the emphasis of faith. That died, that was an old thing and it’s passed away in favor of new creation and in new creation the questions we ask are communal questions. How are we living God’s love in the world? How are we reconciling to one another and to God? How are we being the Body of Christ?
The Body of Christ is an important image for Paul. It is another priority shift for Paul. Before it was important to Paul that everyone looks like him. Paul says, “I have the right answers and the right way, and the right set of laws, and the right righteousness and you need to look exactly like me.” But as he shifts to communal identity what he doesn’t see is a community of uniformity. He sees a community of one-ness. Now what is the difference? What is the different between one-ness and uniformity… you may say it’s a philosophers nuance. But I’d argue it’s a very important distinction (being a philosopher and all). It is the difference between uniformity which says community is formed by all being the same and looking the same and thinking the same verses the understanding that community shares a mission but embodies it in different ways, we all have the same love – united in God’s as love – but we embrace that love in diverse ways. It from this that Paul can say to Peter you have a mission to the Jews and I to the Gentiles. Same love, different way of embracing it. Formerly that difference would have led him to persecute those who were practicing that love differently.
Again it is from this shifted understanding that Paul can say we are all parts of one body. An ear, and a nose, and hand and foot… and I’m sure Paul thinks he is a glorious part of the body but he gets that we are not all to be and act and speak the same. One body, one mission but not as a community based on uniformity. So that is what gives Paul this great language in Galatians, “we are no longer male or female, Greek or Jew, slave or free…” Paul saw his old world as separating apart and building walls, his life was about separating himself and his piety from others and he formed his identity as distinct from the other in way that he was better than them. And aren’t we all good at parsing differences in our identities based on single traits and then persecuting those who don’t share that trait. And Paul has shifted from this to understand that traits no longer divide us. It isn’t that we no longer actually men and women – but that these difference do not separate us but provide the gift of diversity in our community… differences in our unity with each other. The body of Christ. Rather than stamping out these differences we embrace them because they make us a fuller demonstration of all of God’s creation reconciled to one another.
You could say in these shifts that there is also a shift not from hate but from adversity and antagonism to one of love. Isn’t it fascinating that it is a text from Paul that gets read in most weddings? Who would have thunk it! You know the text I mean… love is patient, love is kind… and the greatest of these is love. This becomes Paul’s worldview, not adversity to the world but love the world, not building walls but building bridges, not stamping out difference but embracing them for a larger demonstration of God’s community. Our calling for Paul is to embrace and live that love towards all people.
So noting these shifts in Paul he then gives us a challenge. As he notes this shift from individual to community, separation to reconciliation, adversity to love… then Paul says that as we do this we are to be God’s righteousness in the world, God’s ambassadors. The idea of being the Body of Christ is no simple metaphor. We are called to live as Christ in the world, people should gaze on us and have an experience of Christ; the work we are doing is be God’s work in the world. We are to be God’s hands and feet, not because of our goodness but God’s goodness working through us. This is baptismal theology for Paul. We died, just as Christ died, to what was – the expectation and worldviews we once had, in order that we might live again to Christ, with Christ living through us. And so it is that we are ambassadors for Christ, not only speaking of Christ – but speaking for Christ as Christ to Christ. Wow – that is a big challenge and a big responsibility. This is part of why I think that even when Paul is being humble he doesn’t sound humble because he understands that all that we say and do in the world represents God in the world.
As I think of these shifts, and I think about what it means for my journey (wait no, not my journey, that died and is gone), as I think about what that might mean for our journey, I realize that in the Church right now. Not just First Pres but the larger Church – the big C Church. The Church is one of the greatest impediments to God’s community. The Church is on the ropes (not dying but struggling and being examined for good reasons). When those outside the Church look at us what they see is fighting. People who, every time we don’t get our way, leave and form a new church. What was one Body of Christ is becoming, increasing plentiful and increasingly smaller bodies of Christ. The Body of Christ is getting further and further separated; we aren’t building bridges but walls around our individual piety. So the outside world sees us this and says, “I like Jesus but I’m not that fond of Christians.”
And I hear in Paul this call that we need to get over this personal piousness that builds up walls around our identity that focuses on me and my way in the world. We are building walls governed by lists of rules and laws and policies on how you can and cannot be a part of us. The church intriguing in the 20th and so far in 21st century has become the Pharisee – we are about rules and regulations about how to belong to us and I imagine that if Paul saw us today he’d have VERY colorful language for us about his sorrow in what we have become. We are a Body disconnected and not even reconciled to ourselves let alone all of creation.
If we are ambassadors in Christ, if we are the Body of Christ, if we are God’s mission of reconciliation to the world – God’s way of saying I do not count your sin against you but love you and want you to be one with me and mine, if we are all of that, what needs to die in us and pass away for us to be that again? This is our Lenten question as we look to Paul’s story, to God at work in Paul and in us. That we might die and rise in Christ that we might live not for ourselves but for the love of all people, a community that bridges in love and shares in grace. Thanks be to God, Amen.
We are in the transition point towards our fifth Portrait of Faith. We have spent time with the stories of Moses, Elijah, Mary, and Peter… now we add Paul (and I have to put this out there because its dying to be said, “Look we have Peter, Paul, and Mary”). A common thread to all of these stories is how much these characters grow through their stories. All of these are ordinary people put to extraordinary tasks doing extraordinary things. God works sacrament in our lives, makes our lives a sacrament on behalf of the world. God takes us in all our seeming “normal-ness” and works miracles (some big and some almost imperceptible) through us daily, particularly when we are willing to imagine we are a part of something bigger than our selves… a bigger identity, a bigger community, a bigger creation… and yes even a bigger God than we might imagine on our own.
Let me share three images of me from my past for a moment.
The first is in fourth grade. It was recess (any recess, this was a common story to me) on the playground of Longfellow Elementary School in Wheaton, Illinois. Many kids are running around and there are kick-ball games going on out in the fields. In all this commotion off in the corner of the sand section of the playground (back then we used sand to “cushion” under the swings) you would spot a very small, very blond kid. He would be digging in the sand, various holes connected by winding pathways and then… if you watched long enough, you might see him gather up some ants and put them in this dug up playground within a playground as if he is scientist testing the abilities of animals to find their way out of a maze. If that is, you could tell that was what he thought he was doing. Welcome to a first glimpse of Andy (now Andrew but back then, and still in the state of Illinois, I was Andy).
Fast-forward to high school… just about any night in high school. And late at night when I was supposed to be going to sleep you might see me laying out a comforter and pillow in my closet and turning on my closet light and shutting the door. At which point I would pull out a book and read… read… and read. Generally until about 2 in the morning every night – even though I had to get up and leave the house by 6:35. (Well actually I didn’t need to, I wanted to – but that is a different story.) I loved to read and read into the late hours of the night. This kind of time was as good as sleep to me… and yes one night my Dad did find me reading in my closet and told me to go to sleep.
The last story could be one of two stories. It could be me in a tiny village in a rural Tboli village in Mindanao in the Philippines. A place that has no conception of private space or privacy and introverts really just have to get over themselves and resign themselves to having no time to be alone. Or it could be a working as a hospital chaplain where, responsible for five floors in a 1,000 bed hospital, I had to visit hundreds of people a day who I did not know and who – often enough – had no desire to talk to me. And I guess you could add another imagine… me preaching in front of hundreds of people. Shaking hands and talking and greeting and welcoming, me being in a job where people ARE my job. My vocation. My life.
What is a die-hard committed introvert who would just assume play with ants and read books in his closet doing in a job where my primary task is to talk to people all day? Preach to large groups? Meet people I don’t even know?
Honestly I don’t know how that happens… I don’t know why I do what I do. But God sure can work some amazing things in our lives when decide to be willing to move outside of our comfort zones. I understand Mary feeling too insignificant to do her task, or Peter just wanting to fish in a boat with his brother. I AM Moses wanting to be left along in the wilderness, or Elijah having to take a nap because he’s exhausted from being around people so much.
But I have also learned, from them and with them, to not let that stop me from hearing Jesus call… follow me. Follow me to places you never imagined you’d go. I’m in for this ride called life, and I’m in it for trying to do it the Jesus’ way. I’m journeying and stretching (some days less than others) and while it may not always be the life I would have imagined I’d live, in the way I’d imagine it, doing what I imagined I’d do… I wouldn’t trade my journey – for all its ups AND its downs – for the one I might have imagined… from my closet, from that sand pit… from my own comfort zone.
Thanks be to God.