Palms and Shout Outs

Luke 19:28-40, Common English Bible

 After Jesus said this, he continued on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.  As Jesus came to Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives, he gave two disciples a task. He said, “Go into the village over there. When you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If someone asks, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say, ‘Its master needs it.’”Those who had been sent found it exactly as he had said.As they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They replied, “Its master needs it.” They brought it to Jesus, threw their clothes on the colt, and lifted Jesus onto it. As Jesus rode along, they spread their clothes on the road.As Jesus approached the road leading down from the Mount of Olives, the whole throng of his disciples began rejoicing. They praised God with a loud voice because of all the mighty things they had seen. They said, “Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.”Some of the Pharisees from the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, scold your disciples! Tell them to stop!” He answered, “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.”

         Is it possible that in the church year it’s only been three months since we heard the announcement of the birth of Jesus by the angels in the heavens to the shepherds?  Remember their message?

“Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

And here we are today remembering the day when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem.  Instead of angels announcing his birth, a multitude of his disciples are now shouting:

“Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord.
Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.”

         Now on this day in Jesus’ life the earth, through God’s people, echo back to the heavens, “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.”

         It is a contrast, isn’t it?  From angels announcing peace on earth to God’s people announcing peace in heaven.

         Why do we need this contrast?  What’s the point?

         There were two kings arriving in Jerusalem that day.  One was the Roman king, Herod.  Pomp and circumstance and a red carpet with soldiers to ensure that peace would be kept.  If anyone dared to lead a revolt against the Roman Empire, it would be squashed and the rebels would be killed.  Peace in the Roman Empire was a necessity.  The Empire could not allow that peace to be overcome.  This peace is a peace that comes about because of force and power of an earthly king who requires that people, because they are afraid of death and know that this king, his government and his soldiers can take their lives at any moment.  All that’s required is his order.

         Jesus, the other king who is arriving in Jerusalem on this same day, has arrived and given orders to his followers, too.  His orders are also clear, and his followers—those who see him as their king—are going to do what he tells them to do.  There are no soldiers; there is no pomp and circumstance, red carpet for him.  Instead, people take off their clothes on the road to be his red carpet.  For most of these followers, their clothes—their cloaks—their outer garments that protected them from the weather—were the most expensive thing they owned.  They were willing to use their garments so the one they recognized as their king, the Messiah, the one sent from God to save them from the evil Roman Empire had arrived.  Jesus’ followers were celebrating that the one who had healed so many, the one who treated them like they were really God’s people, the one who loved them unconditionally, and the one who taught them as none of the Pharisees and Rabbis had ever taught them was finally arriving in Jerusalem and would set the world right.  There could be an army forming to support him.  Was there?  They were hoping so.

         That’s why the other king was there.  He was there to ensure that if there were an uprising with this man, this Jesus, it would be stopped immediately.  The Pharisees knew this—at least the ones we hear from in this passage.  They are fearful that King Herod is not going to wait to see what happens next.  They are fearful that the soldiers will be turned loose and they, too, could die.

         Peace…peace…peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens?  Maybe so, because it certainly isn’t looking too peaceful on earth right now.

         Which crowd would you be with?  Would you be with those watching King Herod arrive in Jerusalem—being a good and dutiful Roman citizen pretending, because you really are one of God’s people, to worship the Roman king—because you don’t want to lose your life and have your family suffer?

         Or would you be with the crowd watching Jesus arrive hoping that he was going to wage war on Rome with soldiers waiting behind the scenes because you’re ready to see that fight.  You’re ready for God’s peace to reign on earth, and if it takes violence from Jesus and his soldiers—you’re in because it will put an end to the terror and power of Rome. 

         That is the contrast for this day.  Jesus’ disciples, this multitude of disciples welcoming him into Jerusalem, did not believe that he would soon be on a Roman cross dying.

         Which crowd would you be in on this day?  What kind of peace would you be hungry for and desiring so badly?  The peace of the Roman king that allowed you to live and breathe as long as you compromised who you professed to be in the world? Or the peace of Jesus—the peace that you assumed was about to take place because Jesus was going to put an end to all the compromising.  You would now be able to quit pretending to be something you’re not just so you could live and breath and have peace provided by Rome.  Jesus was about to bring in his kingdom—God’s kingdom on earth—the old days of normal would return.  God’s people would again have their own king who would lead them as Moses had led them.  Slavery to this empire would end.  God’s reign was coming.  Jesus was bringing it.

         This is the peace on earth that this crowd was expecting.  Which crowd are you in today as Jesus arrives in Jerusalem?  Which crowd will you be in as Holy Week, the last week of Jesus’ life, unfolds?  What is the price of peace on earth?  Let us leave today wondering which crowd, which king would we support.  Let us leave here today knowing that on Palm Sunday, the story was yet to be finished; and peace in heaven seems much more likely than peace on earth. 

Being Anointed While Being Surrounded by Accusation and Plotting

This is my sermon text from Sunday, March 17:

John 12:1-11, The Common English Bible

Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was among those who joined him at the table. Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound, of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She anointed Jesus’ feet with it, then wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would take what was in it.) Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it. You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.” Many Jews learned that he was there. They came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. The chief priests decided that they would kill Lazarus too. It was because of Lazarus that many of the Jews had deserted them and come to believe in Jesus.

 

         This scripture passage is loaded with so many characters, actions and drama.  It is the perfect portrayal of being a disciple of Christ full of double meanings along with a requirement that we today recall other characters that John’s gospel has introduced to us.

         Recall that last Sunday we heard about the many ways that we are like the elder brother in Jesus’ story about the prodigal or lost son.  In case we didn’t really hear some of what Jesus was teaching with that hard to hear story about celebrating with a party when a lost soul returns home, John’s gospel gives us this reality show scene of Jesus with friends, disciples, neighbors and the threat of the religious police taking in everything that’s happening.

         Jesus is about to have dinner in Bethany with Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary.  Easy enough to understand.  Lazarus—the one he raised from the dead.  That’s our first clue, isn’t it?  This is no ordinary dinner with friends and disciples.  How often have you had dinner with someone who had been pronounced dead, and then, due to the guest of honor at the dinner, came back to life and is there to eat and drink with everyone at the table?  We can’t just breeze through this description of who’s present in the house, can we?  No wonder many Jews were there.  Wouldn’t you show up to see the one who brought Lazarus back to life?  Wouldn’t you wonder what was going to happen next—what would the religious leaders do about someone who was stealing their thunder and making them look really badly?  Reality programing at it’s best is playing out right before our eyes, and it’s about to get better.

         Martha, a disciple/follower of Jesus, Mary’s and Lazarus’ sister is again hard at work serving the meal—slaving away in the kitchen all day so that a meal could be prepared for Jesus, Mary, Lazarus and all the disciples present—including Judas.  I hear echoes of the elder son’s words to his father as I imagine Martha doing what she’s always done so well and here’s her sister Mary at it again.  The last time we saw them at a meal with Jesus, Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet hanging on his every word while Martha again, prepared and served a meal.  Martha’s discipleship is about serving others.

         Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet—that’s what disciples do with their beloved teacher—sit at their feet and listen and learn from them, has now become even more outlandish and stepped out of the prescribed role.  She has brought a ridiculous amount of expensive perfume, poured it over Jesus’ feet, and is now soaking up the excess of the perfume using her hair like a towel.  My father might make the comment, as he had done when I had too much perfume on—it smells like a French whorehouse.  To which Jesus would not even have blinked.  Mary’s discipleship is an act of adoration and gratitude to God’s holy one, and she has complete focus on this reality of who Jesus is and why he is in need of being anointed even in the midst of all that is happening around her.

         It gets even better as the scene unfolds.  Judas, also a disciple, speaks up to complain about the cost of this perfume and is thinking of how much of that money he could have gotten his hands on if rather than making such a wasteful display by pouring money out of bottle on Jesus’ feet, Mary had just given him the perfume and he could have sold it for cash.  Of course, like all good disciples, Judas covers his real motives by complaining loudly and in an accusatory tone, “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” Judas’ discipleship is about God’s making righteous or the justifying of those who have rejected and betrayed Jesus.  Nowhere in scripture do we ever see Judas condemned or separated from Jesus’ love—John’s gospel tells us clearly that Jesus loved them, all the disciples, to the end.  We can’t forget that Peter also betrayed Jesus, and he was not rejected either.  Jesus commanded him to “feed his sheep” just as he commanded Judas to do what he had to do—betray him.  Jesus knew his disciples well, just as he knows us well today.

         As an aside here, it’s important to address Jesus’ response to Judas, “…You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.” Jesus knew his scripture, and like all A+ students of Jewish scripture, Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 15:11:

Poor persons will never disappear from the earth. That’s why I’m giving you this command: you must open your hand generously to your fellow Israelites, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land.

It’s accurate to say that Jesus and all the disciples present, Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Judas and the others not named along with the religious authorities knew this scripture passage, too, from memory.  Jesus just abbreviated it here—most likely to make sure that he was not ignorant of Judas’ stealing and of his true motive for complaining about what Mary had done with the perfume.  Like all excellent teachers, Jesus really was reminding the dinner crowd of God’s command about the poor.  It reminds us today to examine ourselves:  Do we open our hand generously to our fellow Christians, to the needy among us and to the needy non-Christians—strangers we see everyday? And now we are getting to the heart of it.

         Some disciples, like Mary, are able to understand and realize who Jesus is—God’s son, the Messiah, who comes to take away the sin of the world—and her gratitude for this sacrifice of his life for her and for all of us is overwhelming gratitude and to give generously of all that she has.  She spares nothing.  There is no hint of scarcity and no hint of holding back any part of what she has to give to Jesus, her Lord and the giver of grace to all people no matter who they are and no matter their motives.  Just as the perfume is an extravagant gift she offers without counting the cost, Jesus is God’s extravagant gift to all God’s people—even those who betray him.

         It’s a reality show for sure, this setting and scene.  For me it is the perfect portrayal of people who are working to become disciples of Christ.  Disciples include all kinds of people with all kinds of accusations, motives, agendas, power plays, plots, deceptions, and betrayals.  Sinners—imperfect people in an imperfect world—surrounded Jesus, and he loved them to the end.  I believe he expects us to do the same.

         In John’s gospel we don’t see Jesus with the disciples at the Last Supper.  Instead we see Jesus doing exactly what Mary did for him—serving them by washing their feet and drying them with a towel—taking on the role of a servant.  He doesn’t tell them to eat bread and drink from the cup in remembrance of him.  Instead he commands them to become servants of one another and he reminds them that he is choosing to give up his life for them and for us—those disciples yet to come.  Jesus’ last words include telling those he loves that to willingly give up your life for your friends is the ultimate sacrifice.

         I think this entire dinner occasion is a study of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.  It is full of opportunities to see that people who complain about Christian hypocrisy are actually sharing common ground with Jesus.  Jesus recognized the hypocrisy of Judas, and he loved him to the end.  Jesus recognized the extravagance of Mary’s gift of perfume, and yet he understood it as a gift from Mary for his coming death.  He also knew that his death was going to be a result of the hypocrisy of the Jewish religious leaders who could not allow their power and control to be taken away by anyone—especially not someone who broke the religious laws and had people following him and listening to him—sitting at his feet in adoration even.

         Perhaps in addition to the overwhelming aroma of expensive perfume is the aroma of those who will betray Jesus—not only Judas but also Peter along with all the other disciples who will be hiding after Jesus’ death because they are afraid that the Jewish religious authorities will send the Roman soldiers after them next.  Perhaps because of the overwhelming aroma of the expensive perfume Jesus nor anyone else present can barely smell the stench of hypocrisy and betrayal in the room.  And Jesus loves them to the end without any condemnation.

         Yes, remember, Jesus is about to become the extravagant gift of our salvation—to take away the sin of the world—to make us right with God and to fulfill God’s promise and covenant with God’s people—all God’s people.  Jesus is about to become the extravagant aroma of being an offering for God—willingly laying down his life for his friends and for the world.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.  Because of God’s choice to become flesh and live among us, we now, in all of our hypocrisy and betrayal of Jesus are the aroma of Christ to God.  We become this aroma by loving and serving people who may betray us just like Judas and Peter.  We become this aroma by acknowledging that we have received the extravagant gift of Christ’s love for this world.

Jesus makes it clear that his path will lead him to Jerusalem where he will die, and he will be raised from death just like he raised Lazarus.  With the difference being that Jesus will now live eternally—never to die again.  Lazarus will die again, and he, too, will have the gift of eternal life along with his sisters along with us.  It is an extravagant gift in the midst of sin and betrayal and Jesus loved them all to the end.  Jesus loves us to the end—extravagantly—never counting the cost.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Sinning Like a Christian

Gets your attention, doesn’t it?  

Bishop Will Willimon, not I, used this title for a book that is being reissued and that I am using for an after Easter Sunday sermon series.  Many people say that Christians are too judgmental and that Christians talk too much about sin.  Maybe the reality is that Christians talk too much about other people’s sins.  Easter Sunday’s triumphant announcement of redemption rather than condemnation will help us to focus on these Seven Deadly Sins:

  • Pride
  • Envy
  • Anger
  • Sloth
  • Greed
  • Gluttony
  • Lust

Examining ourselves as fallen, imperfect people will help us to fully appreciate the redemption of Easter Sunday.

Come join us for Sunday worship beginning April 7 and ending on May 26 as we examine ourselves and just seven deadly sins that demonstrate the ways of Sinning Like a Christian.

Bishop Will Willimon’s thoughts will be a starting point for us as we work together to see ourselves as redeemed people who are working to become more like Christ each day.  Realizing each day that we miss the mark, and we continue to move forward in God’s grace by asking forgiveness and learning to live as broken people who are in desperate need of God’s love and the salvation of Christ.

 

 

Adam Hamilton on Homosexuality, Washington Post Article

Being in Kenya and then Amsterdam visiting with family, I have not commented on Adam Hamilton’s article in the Washington Post on February 13.  Rev. Brent White and I are United Methodist clergy colleagues and share in the ministry of teaching Kenya United Methodist pastors.  We have different points of view on this topic and we also share some points of view on this topic.  His blog, http://revbrentwhite.com, where he writes frequently addressed this article by Adam Hamilton (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/guest-voices/post/on-homosexuality-many-christians-get-the-bible-wrong/2013/02/13/2443d062-761f-11e2-aa12-e6cf1d31106b_blog.html), and Brent also mentioned Rachel Held’s blog, http://rachelheldevans.com, where she addressed the article.  I’m ready to add my thoughts to this topic.  Not for the purpose of persuading anyone to change their mind for I am convinced that the Holy Spirit is already doing this work–and it’s work that I have seen occur in Adam Hamilton.  Let me explain.

I am one of those second, possibly third career, United Methodist clergy.  I’ve been in ministry all my life, and I did not accept the call into ordained ministry until I was 42.  That’s when I entered Emory University Candler School of Theology.  When I became a provisional full-elder in the North Georgia Conference in 2003, the first large group meeting for all provisionals in August 2003 included Adam Hamilton as the featured speaker.  He was just beginning to produce and publish his sermon series into small group studies, and Confronting the Controversies was his first study produced with a leader’s guide, participant book, and DVD.  I disagreed with his point of view on homosexuality in that series, and I fully believed then that he would one day change his position based on what he did say in that series.

I have continued to read and hear Adam Hamilton in person–twice now at the Festival of Homiletics in Atlanta in 2009 and again in 2012.  In 2009 he addressed his small group study When Christians Get It Wrong, and the topic of homosexuality appeared in that study, too.  I heard the beginnings of change in his thinking.  I was hopeful.  In 2012 after General Conference, I felt certain he had changed his point of view although the letter he and Mike Slaughter presented to General Conference did not state their opinions on the topic.

This Washington Post article makes it clear that change has occurred, and I am grateful.  Here are my thoughts on what Brent White, Tim Tennent and Maxie Dunham all seem to be agreement about:

  • Paul’s letter to Philemon appealing to him to set his slave Onesimus free as the correct and proper response for a Christian–there is neither slave nor master, Paul wrote, when Christ/the Holy Spirit abides in us–certainly sets the precedent for Christians to follow.  However, that did not settle the issue, did it?  Slavery has become illegal and unacceptable in most societies today.  Without the consistent efforts of people deploring this practice, and in this country without a war to make it the law of the land, slavery could still be legal.  We replaced it with Jim Crow laws and a system of segregation.  Scripture was consistently used to support slave ownership and Jim Crow laws and a system of segregation.  We do look back on these days now, and the majority of people shake their heads in wonder that we, as a nation, supported this way of life.  Paul’s letter to Philemon did not resolve the issue although I have always found myself in full agreement with his argument.  Too many people did not agree with his argument–people who considered themselves to be Christian.
  • On the issue of discrimination against women in the U.S. there is so much that was based on scripture that supported treating women as “less than men” and not “capable of being anything but emotional” along with legally, just as slaves, being property of men.  Here again we find Paul’s writings that most people who are educated in the source language of the New Testament now put into a cultural context and understand that Paul was speaking to his context and culture.  There are still many people who consider themselves Christian who still believe that women are less than men, and that women should have no leadership role in the church, in business or in society in this country today.  We can easily look to scripture to explain that their rationale is incorrect, and yet it doesn’t stop the continued discrimination in churches and in society.

Yes, the issue of homosexuality can be easily divided and addressed by laws in this country and by the church–separately.  It has taken the law to make slavery and discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, and race illegal in this country.  And sexual orientation/homosexuality is another issue that is now being addressed by our government and by churches.

I think the church should always be on the side of inclusiveness and always demonstrating the grace, forgiveness, love, and mercy of Christ.  This issue falls very firmly in the same camp as the ways scripture and the laws of the land have been used to exclude “others”.

Adam Hamilton’s thoughts reflect my thoughts that I began holding more than fifteen years ago.  My childhood faith tradition of Southern Baptist theology and scripture interpretation is something I considered rubbish when I reached my late teens.  Having become a divorced woman and then marrying again, my first faith tradition had no room for me in its walls.  Many churches still have no room for me within their walls as a member much less as clergy, and they will use scripture to justify their reasoning.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. asked, “If not now, when?”  He could have waited until more people were in agreement–more Christian leaders and more elected government officials–or he could follow Christ and do what he knew needed to be done to stop the use of scripture and unjust laws being used to discriminate.

Yes, I see the issue of homosexuality in the same light.  And like the issues of slavery and women’s equality, the future will see this issue ultimately resolved in the same ways that we had to work to make slavery illegal, Jim Crow and segregation illegal, and as we continue to work to make discrimination against women illegal and unacceptable in faith communities and in society.  We still have work to do on all three of these issues, and the question still remains, “if not now, then when?”