The Path of Life: Re-reading Psalm 16

In light of the Resurrection, what do we do now? This question is central to our reading from Acts today (Acts 2:14,22-36). Peter and the other disciples are in Jerusalem for Shavuot (Pentecost), a Jewish festival celebrating the giving of the law (Torah) at Mt. Sinai. The disciples are not the only ones in the city. Jerusalem is filled with many different pilgrims and tourists speaking many different languages. During the festival, a mighty wind blew through the disciples and tongues of fire appeared over their heads. The disciples made Jesus’ story known to crowds who heard that story in their own languages.

In the church calendar, we celebrate Pentecost 7 weeks after Easter. We will hear that story on June 4. But our interpretation of today’s reading depends on remembering the Pentecost event. Peter is explaining to a confused crowd what just happened. And he does this in a specific way. He dug into the Hebrew Scriptures (what we sometimes call the Old Testament) to understand what God is doing now. By engaging scripture, Peter suddenly read Psalm 16 in a new way.

Peter’s sermon does something new. He took seriously where he was (Jerusalem under Roman control), who he was speaking to (Jews from everywhere), and what scripture teaches (quoting Psalm 16:8-11) in light of an ongoing conversation with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Ellen T. Charry writes, “Christianity is born by wrestling with ancient texts in light of startling events that require textual grounding…” (Brazos Theological Commentary – Psalms 1-50, page 76). Peter knew Jesus because he spent time with him. He was there when Jesus heal the sick and shared God’s love through word and deed. He mourned Jesus’ death and celebrated his resurrection. Peter’s faith is molded by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Psalm 16 was, most likely, a psalm designed to show people what a “morally flourishing and satisfying life with God” can bring. But after the Resurrection, the text changed. The Psalm is now an invitation to cling to Christ. Even though the reading of the text changed, the hope within the text did not. Hope begins and ends with God so let’s set the Lord always before us.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 2nd Sunday of Easter, 4/23/2017.

Locked: what Jesus does when the front doors are locked

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:19-31

My sermon from 2nd Sunday of Easter (April 23, 2017) on John 20:19-31. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below. You should know that I modified the sermon, slightly, on the fly. I changed some of the tenses and where I put my pauses.

So who locked those doors? In our reading from the gospel according to John today, we know why the doors were locked. But we don’t know who did it. Many of the disciples of Jesus were together – in that room. All of them knew what happened to their rabbi, to their teacher. They were there when Jesus was arrested. They knew he died. And yet….many also knew that something had changed. John’s version of Easter morning involved disciples running to find the tomb empty and Mary Magdalene mistaking Jesus for the gardener. Some of the disciples, after they see the empty tomb, return to their homes. Mary, after Jesus meets her in the garden and calls her by name, went and told others what she saw. John’s Easter morning is full of movement. Everyone is rushing from one place to another and everyone is telling a story. The writing is so fast paced, no one has time to sit and reflect on what just happened. Instead, the empty tomb and the Risen Jesus is just experienced over and over again. Easter morning, according to John, is fast and furious and it doesn’t stop.

But in today’s reading, evening comes. Some of the disciples who spent the day rushing around are now together. We don’t know, officially, who is in that room. None of the disciples who see Jesus that first evening are even named. But let’s assume that the disciples in that room knew about the empty tomb and knew Mary’s story. And because the disciples here are unnamed, I think we’re invited to use our imagination and believe that all kinds of disciples are there. There are those in the room who were there at the start of Jesus ministry, those who met Jesus on the road and were impressed by his teaching and his faith, and those who shared a meal with him, were healed by him, and knew that he was different. These disciples knew Jesus. They now know the fullness of his story. They know that Jesus is raised from the dead and out there in the world so as the sun sets, they shut the doors, and lock them.

Now, as the sun goes down, there are things the disciples need to do. Torches need to be lit, candles placed on tables, and windows shut to keep the cold night air at bay. They need to do what we do when the day fades and night moves in. But the disciples are also doing something more. The disciples in that room are preparing for a new day. As Jewish people, they follow the Jewish calendar. New days don’t start at midnight or when the sun rises. For them, a new day begins at the moment when an old day ends. The day of Easter is about to close. The frantic pace and wonder of that morning is starting to fade. Now is the time to close the doors, secure the windows, and light some candles because something new is about to come.

So in the middle of these preparations to welcome a brand new day, someone gets up and locks the doors. We don’t know who does that. But we do know why they do. They are afraid. The disciples don’t know what the religious and political authorities might do now once night has come. Now, light and darkness are big themes in the gospel according to John. The light is always about being near to Christ, being in relationship with him. The shadow, the darkness, is a sign of being apart. When Judas left to go arrange for Jesus’ arrest, he went into the night. When Jesus was arrested, it happened at night. So the disciples, on this first evening after Easter, are afraid of what might happen next. They’re trying to keep themselves safe. They believe that the right kind of locked door will be able to stop the Roman Empire from coming in and doing to them what the Empire did to Jesus. That locked door does more than keep the night outside. It also walls them in. The walls and ceiling and doors of that little space become the limit where their light can shine. Because of their fear and what they know can happen out there, they choose to lock themselves in, creating a world for themselves that they think is safe. They believe they’re staying next to the light. They believe they’re keeping close to Christ. They can’t imagine anything but darkness being outside those doors. So Jesus does what they could not. He comes into that room from the outside, from that place of fear and terror and he goes through that door the disciples locked. The door was locked because the disciples knew the sun was setting. But they didn’t realize that a new day for the entire world started because the son rose.

As people, we’re good at locking doors. We know how to surround ourselves by walls of our making. As a church, the concrete cinder blocks and closed doors surrounding us right now can create this false experience as if what we do here is only for us. As if the Jesus we encounter in the Word and in Holy Communion is only for those who get it – for those who are already here, those who have already seen the risen Lord. But the Jesus we meet in here is also the Jesus who is out there. The Jesus who shows us God’s love through the very faith God gifts us – is the same Jesus who is loving God’s world out there. And the Jesus who promises to be with us, holding us, being present no matter what the world throws at us – that Jesus is already out there, ahead of us, living in the places where life might take us. Jesus isn’t telling the disciples to ignore their fear – they still lock that door the following week – but he tells them their fear cannot overcome what God is already doing. The world is full of Thomas’ needing to hear Jesus’ story from our lips. The world is full of a shadow that needs to experience the hope, mercy, and justice, that Christ, through us, brings. And the world is full of locked doors that need to be overcome by the love Jesus shows. The gift Christ brings to his disciples is a connection with the light and grace that nothing can overcome. His invitation to those in that locked room, as the end of one kind of reality turns into something brand new, is for those behind that door, and for all of us right here, we’re invited to go out, to share Christ’s love, to be that – kind of light – because Jesus is already out there.

Amen.

Ground Goes Boom: A sermon for Easter Morning.

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Matthew 28:1-10

My sermon from Easter Sunday (April 16, 2017) on Matthew 28:1-10. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below:

Silence. Then noise. Noise. Then silence. When I lived in New York City, I craved the noise of the city street. On warm days like today, I loved to open the windows of my 5th floor walk up apartment and just listen to the traffic below. I would hear my neighbors, sitting on their fire escapes, talking to one another in languages I didn’t understand. And, just down the block, the Piragua man would be telling jokes while he shaved a block of ice to make a young child a delicious treat. But now, as a parent with two young children, my need for noise has changed. The traffic of city streets below my apartment window has been replaced by the sounds of plastic cars being launched off my dining room table. The words of my old neighbors are now overwhelmed by words from new neighbors led by a cartoon tiger named Daniel with his friends the Power Rangers, Peppa Pig, and Thomas the Tank Engine I now long for those seconds of silence I’m able to scrape together when the rest of my family are busy playing on the other side of the house. The sounds that fed my soul in the past do not necessarily feed me now. Sometimes, I need the noise of a loud city street to remind me that there is life in this world. And sometimes I need a bit of silence to remember all the life there is in me. We live our entire lives surrounded by cycles of noise and silence. When we’re in the womb, the rushing sound of blood pumping through our mother’s veins is as loud as a running vacuum cleaner. And when we’re a little older, one of the first skills we learn is how to sleep through the silence. We don’t always get to choose the silences and the noises that surround us. But we do learn how to live through them. The noise and the silence makes a rhythm we live out each and everyday. And that rhythm can bring us meaning, if we only learn to look for it.

When we listen to the gospel according to Matthew, we hear a rhythm of noise and silence that is the heart of Jesus’ story. When Joseph, Mary’s fiancée, finds out she’s pregnant, he wants to break up with her but he plans to do so quietly. God changes Joseph’s mind by sending him a very noisey dream filled with words from an angel. As Jesus grows up and begins to teach about God’s vision for the world and what God’s love actually looks like, his teaching and healings are met with a silence filled with confusion, fear, and jealousy. When Jesus is finally arrested and interrogated by the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, Jesus stays silent. He doesn’t answer many of Pilate’s questions. Even the soldiers, when they are mocking him while he hangs on the Cross, get no real response. The rest of the world rages but Jesus…doesn’t. Instead, when death finally comes, the weeping of his disciples and the grumbles from the guards posted outside his grave cannot penetrate the stone walls of his dark tomb. For 3 days, quiet surrounds Jesus. For 3 days, he knows death. And then, once the sabbath day is over, a group of women leave the city. Since it’s before dawn, the city is still asleep. The terror and sadness of Jesus’ death still hung in the air. The women want to finish the traditional burial rituals for their friend. And I imagine, as they walked, they stayed quiet. They didn’t dare break the silence with even a whisper. So God, with an angel and an earthquake, breaks that silence for them.

Now, Matthew does something different in his telling of the resurrection. Not only do the women feel the ground shake, they hear the grinding of stone as the angel opens the tomb. They watch as professional soldiers faint in fright, their armor and spears clattering as they hit the ground. And, just in case that wasn’t enough, the angel, sitting on the rolled away stone, speaks. The silence of death isn’t broken only by seeing an empty tomb. That quiet is shattered by an earth that moves and bellows. Soldiers from the greatest military power in the world, fall over; their weapons clattering and announcing the failure of their power. These women followers of Jesus, disciples who clung to his teaching, heard his promises, and saw him die – they are having their expectations undone. The silence of pain they carried with them is being broken. The noise of the world is being undone by the love of God. And it’s after the ground moves and the earth shifts when the silence of death is finally undone by something very human and very soft. It’s merely a voice that shares the message. It’s a word that announces the promise. The angel says “Jesus is not here.” And with that, the rhythm of the world is undone. The women expected death – but now, only new life remains.

We know the noises that make up the rhythm of our lives. And it’s sometimes easy to point to the loud and over the top sounds that other people can also hear. But there are those noises that keep us silent. There are those thoughts and fears and concerns that stay with us, in our hearts and in our heads, never letting us go. They are the weights we carry on our shoulders and the troubles that burrow into our souls. They are the worries, anxieties, fears, and sadness that make us feel less than whole. No one else might hear the noises we hear. But they are loud. And they can push out hope. But they can’t push out God – because Easter is when the noises we know and silences we live through are met by the love and promise of Jesus Christ.

Because God decided that creation was worth living in. God decided that the sick, the poor, the outcasts, those who are afraid, and those who are weighed down – are worth friendship, healing, and love. The rhythm of noise and silence that makes up our lives will not be our final story. There is a new rhythm in our reality that God has already written. It’s a rhythm where the noise of this world is replaced with the noise of hope, generosity, and love. It’s a way of life where service to others is a language everyone’s speak. It’s a reality where our pains, our sickness, and our sorrows are embraced by Jesus Christ because you are worth more than any of the silence that has been imposed on you. Your rhythm of noise and silence, of fear and hope, is now in the hands of a God who does not let the silence of death win. Today we celebrate Easter. Today we remember that the rhythm of this world has already been changed. We celebrate the gift of God’s love that makes a difference now. Because Jesus did more than conqueror death; he lived through our noises and our silence and wrote us a new ending that will not be contained in a tomb.

Amen.

Play

Do Not Be Afraid: an Easter Reflection

The Gospel Reading is Matthew 28:1-10.

One of the most common phrases in the bible is “Do Not Be Afraid.” When angels bring messages of hope and promise, they begin with this simple phrase. We imagine angels to be gigantic beings with white wings, golden crowns, and carrying swords and harps. When an angel shows up, the sight can be terrifying. But an “angel” is really someone (or something) that brings a message from God. And God’s message to the two Marys is “do not be afraid.”

If anyone had a good reason to be afraid, it was the early disciples of Jesus. They witnessed Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, and execution. They saw their friends deny their relationship with Jesus and run away in fear. They felt vulnerable, exposed, and completely confused because Jesus’ death wasn’t what they expected. They expected Jesus to “win” by removing the Roman Empire from Jerusalem. They expected King David’s kingdom to be politically and military re-established. The followers of Jesus didn’t expect Rome to “win” instead.

But the Marys didn’t expect an angel to be in the tomb either when they came to finish the burial rituals for their teacher and friend. The message for the women was simple and profound. Their expectations were being rewritten by a God who rewrote the experience of life and death. Life is no longer defined by the limited time we have on earth. Life, instead, begins and ends in a God who cannot be overcome by violence, pain, or sin. Life is about a love that breaks the bounds we try to give it.

A love that is boundless is an amazing gift. It’s also a gift that scares us. The invitation to love like Jesus is an invitation to change our relationships with the people around us. We’re invited to serve people we do not know. We’re invited to share meals with people who do not look, talk, or believe like us. We’re invited to break the limits we place on our realities. We’re invited to bring new life to our world by participating in what God is already doing: transforming the world so no one is ever afraid again.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for Easter Sunday, 4/16/2017.

The Cross: A Good Friday Reflection

The Second Reading is Hebrews 10:16-25.

One of my favorite features about this church building are the crosses. Before we enter the sanctuary, a large cross hangs over the doorway. Above the altar space, another large cross looms silently but still speaking volume. And then, from a distance, we can see the large roof slope upwards, forming a crown with a cross on top. These crosses do more than provide a nice place for birds to sit. Each cross proclaims this is where Christians are.

But in the words of Sharon Ringe, professor emerita of Wesley Seminary, “With its exalted status as the focal point of our faith, the cross has lost its power to scandalize.” In the years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, crosses did not show where Christians were. Crosses were located at the edge of cities marking the palaces where people died. Crosses were used to execute slaves or those accused of committing treason against the Roman Empire. Crosses were symbols of pain and suffering. Each cross proclaimed this is where the Empire won.

Our reading from Hebrews is an attempt by the early faith community to “articulate the religious meaning of the cross in imagery and language powerful enough to transform the immediate horror it represented.” The cross is never plain. The cross always points to those who used it. The Roman Empire saw Jesus as a threat during the yearly Passover celebration. Pontius Pilate used the cross to eliminate the problem violently and completely. Good Friday remembers this violence and the world that uses violence to punish others.

But Good Friday also remembers what happened next. The cross was the Roman Empire’s ultimate symbol of pain and death. Yet in the least likely place anyone would reasonably looked, God showed up to save the world. Jesus did not run away from death. Rather, Jesus confronted it. Jesus saw the violence, pain, and love of power inherent in the world. And he lived, taught, and died showing there is a different way to be. The cross is a symbol of horror that became a symbol of life because God does not let death triumphant over hope and love.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for Good Friday, 4/14/2017.

A Good Friday Cross Walk Reflection

My church joined with two local churches to host a Cross Walk through Park Ridge, NJ. We walked through the eight stations of the Cross from Jesus’ condemnation to his death. We began in a church sanctuary where I preached the first part of the manuscript. We then ended in a church graveyard where I finished off the service. There is no audio since I was outside.

Also, preaching in a church graveyard next to the grave of a 1 year old (died in 1816) while my two young kids are playing in a pile of dirt in the distance is…it’s compelling.

At the Start

One of the books that’s supposed to be on my kids’ bookshelf, but is usually on the floor of their bedroom, is called “Subway.” The story takes place during a dark, rainy day in New York City. Two kids and their parent are bored. They need to get out of their apartment. They need to have an adventure. So they grab their metropasses, run out their front door, and head to the local subway station. After hopping down some stairs, they’re out of the rain and on the platform. It’s there, while standing under some florescent lights and safely behind the yellow line, that everyone waits. And waits. And waits. Since the kids are New Yorkers, they know which way the train is supposed to come from. They know which side of the platform they should be standing on. They know their adventure is about to start. So they wait for their Subway story to story.

And here we are – waiting for Good Friday story to start. Many of us are here because we know how this Jesus story works. We know that Jesus, the Son of God, lived a human life and died a very human death 2000 years ago on the other side of the world. This is a story some of us know well. It’s also a story some of us might not know yet. Today might be our 90th Good Friday or it could be our very first – or at least the first we might remember. The story of Jesus’ journey to the cross is an old one. But it’s a story God asks us to always see as new. Today, we gather together, connected to the believers who have gone before us and to the believers who will come after us. We are here to tell and experience this ever-living and ever-present adventure one more time. We will walk what has traditionally been called “the Stations of the Cross.” To me, a station is just an episode; it’s one small scene in the larger act of Jesus’ journey. We will start with Jesus’ condemnation by the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate. We will hear about his torture and his long walk through city streets. There he will see women, friends, and a stranger will be drafted by the Romans to carry his Cross. Soldiers will mock him. Passerbys will torment him. We’ll be there at the foot of the Cross when Jesus strengthens the final bounds between his community. And we’ll hear his final cry. As we tell Jesus’ story, we will reflect on our own social realities, like we did last year, on the places in our world where too many people experience brokenness and pain.

So, here we are. We are at the start of the journey. We are on the platform, knowing the story that is coming. We are looking into the tunnel, into the shadow, into the darkness. As the story comes near, we will feel a wind of foreboding and fear. We will experience the rumble caused by words and prayers. We will walk Jesus’ journey – knowing that the shadow of the present, no matter how ominous, can never overcome God’s precious and eternal light.

At the End (graveyard)
We started this journey, waiting for the rest of the story to come. Like the kids’ waiting for the Subway, we stood on our version of a platform, looking into the shadow of a dark subway tunnel. We started today by looking into the abyss. And then the story came. In sacred spaces surrounding First Congregational UCC and Pascack Reformed Church, we retold bits and pieces of Jesus’ story. Along the way, we walked together, singing songs, and stopping in a very public place to remember that Jesus’ live in a very public way. We shared prayers and remembered that the suffering of the cross is a story too many people experience every single day. And now we end like we began, standing together, but in a new place. A different kind of place. A place where Jesus’ story was supposed to end.

So what comes next? We hear in scripture that, after Jesus’ death, his body was taken down. A man named Joseph, a disciple of Jesus, had recently paid for a tomb to be dug for himself and his family. Instead, he gives it to Jesus. Jesus is placed hurriedly in ancient Jerusalem’s graveyard. There isn’t time to properly prepare his body for burial so the disciples make plans to visit the tomb and finish the rituals that help people mourn and grieve. Jesus ends up in this kind of sacred place – a place where stories about people are remembered, recorded, and sealed in graves and tombs. Over time, the stories of the lives buried in places like this one, usually fall out of memory. But the echo of their lives still reverberate throughout time and space. Each generation is an heir to the generation that came before it. Each person, through their actions, their love, their successes, and their failures, impact the people around them. In ways we can not fully articulate, we stand here as people who contain the legacy, the stories, and the realities of everyone who has come before us. Jesus died because the Romans wanted to end his story and his influence. But God had other plans.

At the end of the children’s book Subway, the children beg and plead to stay on the train. They want to keep riding. They want to stay on the adventure. However, in the story it’s half-past-eight. It’s long past bedtime. The kids turn out the light, close their eyes, and fall asleep. But they make a promise. Their adventure and story they just lived through will live on, even in their dreams.

I invite us today to hold onto the story of Good Friday. We know how the story turns out. We know Easter will come. But there are times in our lives and in our world where Easter can only be spotted in our dreams. There are times when the Cross is all we feel and all we know. But the Cross is a story Jesus does not run away from. Instead, he challenges it. He faces it. He struggles through it. Because sometimes the only way to Easter, the only way through Holy Week and only way through our lives, is to just live through it.

Benediction
And now may the God who was born,
Who had siblings and knew what it was like to grow up,
Who made friends and lost them, who felt joys and shed tears,
Who brought good news to the poor,
And showed the world what God’s kingdom, God’s future, God’s hope, and God’s love actually looks like,
May the very face of that God shine on you, be gracious to you, and give you and this entire world – peace.

Amen.

Companion: Looking for what’s Hidden

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

John 13:1-17,31b-35

My sermon from Maundy Thursday (April 13, 2017) on John 13:1-17,31b-35. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below:

One of the nice things about having cats again is that, when I’m eating, I’m never really alone. When I pull out a chair and take a seat at the dining room table, I notice the tips of cat ears sitting patiently on the other side. Pretty soon, there’s a cat on the table, hoping that today will be the day when I let him drink all the milk in my cereal bowl. It’s adorable and annoying, especially when they try to grab the spoon right out of my hand. Cats and dogs, are some of the most persistent, patient, and fuzzy dining companions we get to have. And even when we think we’re alone, we’re not. They’re there, lying in wait under an ottoman, or a chair, or the table itself. These hidden companions are part of the story that unfolds when we sit for a meal. And if we forget that they are there, we risk having our lunch swiped from us when we’re not paying attention.

Paying attention to our hidden companions isn’t just something to do at dinner; it’s important for tonight’s reading from John as well. These verses from John 13 are heard every Maundy Thursday. And they make us uncomfortable because Jesus does a really strange thing: he washes feet. And even if we don’t know why foot washing was a thing in the ancient world, there’s something inside us that knows that foot washing is just – weird. In the words of one of our high school youth at our youth group meeting last Sunday, foot washing is… “Gross.” Feet are in shoes all day long. They get dry and cracked. They literally carry us around, and we barely think about them, until they stop working the way we expect. Feet are also beneath us. When we look down, there they are. So when Jesus gets up, removes his clothing, wraps a towel around his waist, and kneels at the feet of his students – he, the Master, the Teacher, the one who was there before the world was, is suddenly beneath them. He’s below. He’s serving the ones who are called to serve him. And when we imagine what footwashing actually was like in ancient Jerusalem – a city without indoor plumbing, or paved streets, or people owning closed-toed shoes – gross doesn’t even come close to describe it. The one usually assigned to wash feet would be a slave or a servant. A teacher shouldn’t be a footwasher. And yet…here is Jesus…being gross.

So if our feet are washed, what does that bring? I mean, it feels nice when our feet are in good shape and look good but Jesus is doing more than giving his disciples pedicures. We need to pay attention to the hidden companions, the hidden verses, that accompany this text. And those verses are…everywhere. They show up in the very first verse, in the word “hour.” That one word pushes us back to the start of Jesus’ ministry in John, when he is at a wedding and the party is about to end prematurely because the wine has run out. Jesus’ mom informs Jesus and he says “my hour has not yet come.” So he makes some wine out of water. It’s a wedding party full of food and drink that starts Jesus’ journey. And it’s tonight, when his hour finally comes, that his ending begins with a dinner party. The foot washing is more than one act of service we’re asked to replicate and ritualize. The foot washing, in the words of Rev. Karoline Lewis in her commentary on John, “is somewhat of a microcosm of God becoming flesh, God dwelling with us, now no greater than we are” (page 181). When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he summarized his entire ministry. The foot washing is a capstone to the life that Jesus lived. It completes his narrative, this part of his story, and becomes“a pattern of being….that the disciples will now need to take on” (page 181).

And this pattern of being is hard. There are moments when we’re asked to love those we don’t even like. There are moments when we are asked to serve people we do not understand and people we don’t want to even try to understand. The life of love Jesus embodies upends our expectations of what’s normal. Even if we hear the call to serve all people like Jesus did, there are still some people we don’t want to love. There are some we don’t think deserve to be loved. And that’s why Love is hard; love is difficult; because love messes with our expectations and reveals to us what God really wants us to see.
And there’s another hidden companion to tonight’s text that we need to see. We need to hear what happens to that evil, hidden in the room and explicitly declared in verse 2. Among the disciples, sitting in the room, is Judas. He watches as Jesus washes their feet. He feels the water that Jesus pours over his toes. His feet are dried by his teacher, his friend, and his rabbi. And, in verses we do not hear tonight, after all of that, Judas leaves. He heads out, into the night. Now, Jesus knew Judas will do this. He knew his hour had finally arrived. And yet…Jesus still served. He still washed. He still loved everyone, including the one who will deny him, the one who will betray him, and the ones who will run away when the cross finally comes.

The hidden companion to Jesus’ command to “love one another” is Judas. In the act of footwashing, the disciples are confronted with the entirety of Jesus’ story. For some, that sparked confusion. For others, hope. And for Judas…well…he left. In front of the entire group, he just walked out. The fear and tension and confusion around that dinner table must have been palpable. And it’s in the middle of all of that when Jesus said “love one another.” Love. In the face of betrayal, in the face of fear, in the face of uncertainty and our unrealized expectations, just love. Jesus doesn’t tell his followers to be a hidden companion in a world that doesn’t always know him. He tells them to love like he did, in all the different ways he modeled throughout his ministry and in the many other ways God will inspire them to see. Foot washing was just the capstone to the story of love Jesus lived out. And as he served, so should we, being visible companions to each other, to our neighbors, and to the One God sent to upend the world through love.

Amen.

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Red: Blood in Exodus.

Our First Reading is Exodus 12:1-14.

It was my first year in college. I was picking up some lunch while on campus. I don’t remember why the glass Snapple bottle slipped from my fingers but I do know what happened next. I caught the bottle but I was too late. The bottle shattered on the ground while my hand was around it. A deep gash tore through one of my fingers. A trip to the university health center was in order.

At the health center, I was prepped for stitches. The nurse asked me if it would be okay for a student volunteer to watch the procedure. The student was thinking about a medical career. I said, “Sure. The more the merrier.” The physician assistant invited the student (and me) to watch the simple procedure. The finger still bled but I was fascinated. I tried to get the best position possible to see my finger put back together. The pre-med student looked at the still bleeding finger. She then ran out of the room. The sight of all that blood was making her nauseous.

In our reading from Exodus tonight, blood is central to the text. The ancient world did not have the medical knowledge we do. How the body functioned was a mystery to them (and is still a mystery today). But the ancient world did know the importance of blood. Blood flows. Blood is pumped through the body. Blood makes life happen.

And life is what the blood on the door is all about. Each family gathered together to take the life of a lamb (its blood) and make a sign on their door. The angel, checking each household, would see the sign of life and passover their house. The life of the lamb does more than keep the family safe. The life of the lamb also invites the family to experience the entire Exodus story. A story where God’s people are moved from slavery into freedom; from suffering into abundant life. God doesn’t want God’s people to just survive. God wants God’s people to thrive.

The story of Maundy Thursday is what a thriving life looks like. A life that thrives is a life that gives. A life that thrives is a life that serves even those who betray it. A life that thrives is a life that sees Jesus, serves everyone, and always loves.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for Maundy Thursday, 4/13/2017.

Collision: Two Parades Enter Jerusalem

Our First Reading is Matthew 21:1-11.

Broken branches. Dirty cloaks. A road covered with whatever is at hand. Today is Palm & Passion Sunday. We are beginning our journey through the center of the church year. We will spend this week re-experiencing Jesus’ final journey into Jerusalem. Jerusalem is flooded with visitors and tourists. The festival of Passover is about to begin. We can imagine every home, hotel, motel, and campground is bursting at the seams with guests. People can barely move through marketplaces jammed with merchants selling souvenirs, knick-knacks, food and more. Jerusalem is full.

And then Jesus comes. A crowd celebrated his arrival by putting cloaks and branches on the ground. By covering the road, dust and dirt stay on the roadway. Jesus’ donkey stays clean. The crowd treats Jesus like a king returning home from a victorious military campaign. He should have gold banners, soldiers carrying swords and shields, and prisoners of war and booty to show off. The entire city should be in their Sunday best to welcome him home. But, instead, we have a crowd full of tourists, the poor, and the sick. The crowd gathered at the last minute so they cut down palm branches from trees in the city. The crowd of almost inconsequential people meets a king who comes with “an army” of only a handful of disciples.

According to Matthew, the crowd that welcomes Jesus was large. But there’s a larger crowd that did not know who Jesus was. It’s probable that, at the same time Jesus is entering the city, another procession is entering Jerusalem from the other side. With so many people in the city, the Roman Empire needed to make an appearance. The Roman Governor Pontius Pilate arrived in the city at the head of his legion. His soldiers would keep an eye on the crowds during Passover and serve as a reminder that Rome is in charge. Rome’s procession would have banners with gold eagles on top. Every soldier would have their swords and spears ready to use. Pilate’s procession would inspire awe and fear, reminding Jerusalem that the mightiest empire in the world is in control.

Jesus and Rome are on a collision course. The might of the world is about to meet the might of God. Even 2000 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, we still place our trust in our ability to force others to do our will. We still celebrate power. Our power is about to encounter God. And, for a moment, we’re going to think we’ve won.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for Palm Sunday, 4/9/2017.