Thursday, March 29, 2018
I was commenting to my wife a couple of days ago that the three hardest seasons to preach are Christmas, Easter and Pentecost—how do we find something new or fresh or engaging year after year after year. Yet, in spite of my consternations and anxieties, God always provides the approach or tact I need to take in telling the old, old story.
Like others in my Narrative Lectionary group, I struggled with which passage from John to share for our Good Friday service. I settled on 19:16-30...a continuation of where we left off a couple of weeks back. Why not continue the story?
v. 16-22 – Jesus is handed over for crucifixion. Pilate plays his part declaring Jesus “King of the Jews.”
v.23-24 – Soldiers divide Jesus clothing among themselves, cast lots for the ‘seamless’ tunic.
v.25-27 – Jesus entrusts the care of his mother, Mary, to his disciple, John.
v.28-30 – Jesus dies. He is thirsty...takes a last drink...and dies. “It is finished.”
Thoughts and Reflections—
“It is finished.” In addition to being a pastor, I am also an English instructor at our local community college. As an English teacher, I take an interest in all thing ‘grammatical.’ So, when I come to these final words of Jesus in John, I cannot help but ask, “What is ‘it’ that is finished?”
‘It’ is a pronoun—a word that takes the place of a noun. Pronouns allow us to converse without constantly repeating the topic, subject, person’s name, etc. For example, without pronouns, we’d have to talk like this: Hi, James! How is James’ dog doing? Has James’ taken James’ dog for a walk lately? And, how is James’ mother? Awkward, right? So, we are very thankful for words like ‘you’ and ‘she’ and ‘it.’ The word that the pronoun stands for is its antecedent: Hey, Mike. How are you? The antecedent of ‘you’ is Mike.
It is finished. What is finished, what is ‘it’? What is the antecedent of it?
When we lived in Venezuela, our oldest daughter, Jess, turned 15, and as is common in many Latino cultures, at age 15 there is a big to-do—la Quinceañera. We had a great party and feast for Jess...something like 80 people of all ages. Things got started around 8pm. There was dancing, food, speeches, more dancing, a cake, more food, more speeches, more dancing. When my wife and I finally got home around 3:30am, you better believe we exclaimed, “It is finished!” The party was over, the task was complete, the project was done. Is that what Jesus meant? He had come, he had preached, he had inaugurated the Kingdom, he had healed, he had taught...and was it now all done? Was he declaring a project over, completed, finished?
In April of last year, Ms. Ofelia called together a volunteer VBS team and divvied up the tasks: Ms. Dina and I would tell the Bible stories; Ms. Jeanne and Ms. Roseann would lead the music; Ms. Brenda and Ms. Cynthia would plan and purchase food; Ms. Erin would head up the decorations (obviously, without faithful women, nothing would happen in our church!) We got everything going, and the people started working on their areas. On the Sunday before VBS was to begin in August, we all gathered one last time in the Methodist Community Center. Erin had decorated the place amazingly. The kitchen was stocked, the fridges full, and everything was laid out. The Bible Story Corner was set up. The music area was ready—sound-system, video monitor and all. As we looked around, we knew that all the preparations were made. All the plans had come together. Everything was ready. With a wonder sigh of relief and anticipation for the start of VBS, we could all agree, ‘It was finished.’ Is this what Jesus might have meant? Had everything been prepared and was his death the last stroke that would initiate something amazing?
Our Lenten season draws to a close. For some, this has been a time of self-denial, self-sacrifice—some 40 days of no caffeine or no sugar or no meat, or some 40 days of daily Bible reading or meditation or prayer. As it comes to an end, some will sigh and say, “It is finished.” Done. Over. Back to normal life now. For some, this has been a time of self-denial, self-sacrifice—40 days of prayer, meditation, Bible readings, or 40 days of dietary restriction. As it comes to an end, these will sigh, smile and say, “It is finished...the time of preparation is over. God, use me now to impact lives, to strengthen our congregation, to change our community, or to touch one person’s life.”
For Jesus, either his project or his preparations were done—probably both. How about for you? What does “it is finished” mean for you? Could this Good Friday and Easter weekend be the end of a chapter in your life...and the beginning of something completely new? The work of Jesus on the cross was exactly that for us—the end of the old covenant, the beginning of a new covenant; the end of guilt and self-loathing, the beginning of forgiveness and God-praise; the end of alienation from God, the beginning of a new relationship with God. So, what is this day, this season, for you?
It is finished.
As always, I wish you all the very best in your pulpits, at your podium or on your bar stool this weekend. This will be a full weekend for many of us, but let us never forget—Emmanuel, God is with us. Amen.
(Go HERE to read my intro to this series.)
Friday, March 23, 2018
Our Narrative Lectionary provides this week’s passage as John 19:16b-22 with an option for 12:12-27...for those who want to preach on the Palm Sunday theme. I’ve decided to follow the more traditional route—Palm Sunday, but I’m trimming the passage a bit by focusing on John 12:12-19. Let’s see where John takes us this week...
v.12-15 – These verses are the reason for this day of celebration. Jesus enters Jerusalem amidst the shouts of the people and waving palm branches. We can focus here on the joy of the day, the people caught up in hope and expectation. We can remember the prophecies fulfilled in the person of Jesus.
v.16 – We find here one John’s ‘asides’—a bit of commentary that guides us to make connections even as Jesus’ disciples later made connections.
v.17-18 – We do get a better understanding of who this crowd is: these are folks who had seen and heard about the Lazarus affair, the resurrection of Jesus’ friend. In fact, if we read the verses just prior to this passage (v.1-12), we see that the narrative begins at Mary & Martha’s B&B. Many of the people there for supper have been hanging out with Jesus, Lazarus, and Mary & Martha—these are the same folks who now make up much of the crowd coming to Jerusalem.
v.19 – And, here we see the Pharisees’ disdain. “Look how the whole world has gone after him.”
Thoughts and Observations—
While this is about Jesus’ grand entry, I can’t help think of some folks I know—those who like to make a grand entrance. I’ve even visited a few churches in which the pastor likes to enter this way—oh, not with donkeys, palms and shouts of ‘Hosanna!’, but amid the cheers of their members. Oh, did I fail to mention that I’ve had those moments myself? Yep, riding the crest of the wave is heady stuff. But, only one person really merited this entry—the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Only Jesus really deserves this kind of praise...so we may want to think twice before handing out this kind of praise in any other direction, and we may want to check ourselves if that praise is coming towards us (I’m reminded of the chorus of “The Ballad of John and Yoko”....)
My focus for this week will be vs. 17-18:
17Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. 18Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him.
These folks had something to shout about! They had seen or just heard about the amazing thing that had taken place back the Mary and Martha’s B&B—the resurrection of Lazarus. Here was someone who had reversed death! Here was someone who could potentially save sons and daughters, parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters...and their own selves from the finality of death. Surely this was Messiah...and if this was the work of Messiah, oh, how things would change! They had seen and experienced something that had turned their world on its head. They experienced a worldview shift—from one that posited death as final and forever to one that recognized that even death is not the end. Their experience changed their lives—they had something to shout about.
What about us? Has our Christian experience changed our lives? Is the Christian faith something that has changed our worldview? Does Jesus change the way we see the world? Has the Christian faith permeated all areas of our lives? In short, has our faith in Jesus changed us?
If not, then what is this we’re doing? Is the faith a compartmentalized, intellectual assent that provides a bit ‘fire insurance’ just in case all of “this” is true? Is our Christianity something we don on Sunday mornings with a smile and a gentle attitude...just something we do one day a week? Are we simply hanging on to something that was important to Mom or Grandma? Is the Church just one social outlet among many, perhaps one where I’ve been asked to be on or chair a committee...a place that gives me nothing more than another outlet for social connection and perhaps a bit of power or prestige? If any or all of these are the case, there is probably not much to shout about.
But, if Jesus—his life, teachings, death and resurrection—have so impacted our lives that we are now different people; if the Christian faith has turned or is turning our broken, fractured lives and families into something whole and healed; if God’s Word—the Scriptures—has provided wisdom for living, hope for living, promises for living; if the community of faith has rescued us from a life of loneliness; if the social ministries of the church have filled our lives with purpose; if this faith has permeated our lives, shaped our worldview, provided us with a deep sense of connection to God and neighbor; if Jesus—as with Lazarus and those standing around watching—has brought us back to life and has shown us that death is not the end; well, we have something to shout about. Hosanna!! Blessed is he who comes in the name of Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!
When we find a sale at the local grocery store, when hear that there’s a new ethnic restaurant opening, when we hear that government is giving us a tax break (has that ever really happened? 😊 )—when we hear good news, we share it. What about the Good News? Are we sharing that as well? When Jesus has truly impacted our lives, changed our lives, it’s easier to share that Good News.
If you have not truly experienced Jesus, may today, this week, soon!, be the time that you allow this person—his life, teachings, death and resurrection—touch, fill and change every part of your life. If we have had that life-changing Jesus-experience, what are we waiting for? We have something to shout about! And, we may just find that because of our ‘shouting,’ because of our testimony, because we’re willing to tell others of the change we have found in Jesus, lives may be changed and the church may grow and our influence can impact home, business, school and community. Then, those standing on the outside may say again, “Look how the whole world has gone after him!”
(Closing song—“Shout to the Lord.”)
And, that’s where I think I’m going this week—a call for people to examine their lives, to examine their faith: is it a faith of ‘going through the motions,’ of is it a faith that works like leaven throughout their lives? ‘Cause if this faith has truly changed us, we do have something to shout about—whether it’s Jesus coming through the gates of Jerusalem or through the gates of our lives.
Saturday, March 17, 2018
First of all, I want to thank all who post ideas and questions to our Narrative Lectionary group on FB—you help us to think and move forward.
Last week, I—and, it seems, many others—struggled with what and how to preach the passage we dealt with. Again this week, the passage seems dryly narrative (whoever thought I’d complain about ‘narrative’?!), and I’ve had to dig a bit to get to the message. But, again, God is faithful....
As one commentator points out, this is obviously a seamless continuation of the previous passage, divided only by 13th Century editors who introduced the system of chapters and verses. So, we may want to read the entire narrative (John 18:19-John 19:16a) to keep things in context:
v.1-3: The Romans flog and mock Jesus
v.4-7: Pilate argues again with the Jewish leaders. The Jewish antagonists change their charge from political (“he claims to be a king” 18:34) to religious (claims to be ‘Son of God’ 19:7).
v.8-11: Pilate and Jesus resume their conversation, and the issue of power surfaces.
v.12-16: Pilate again argues with the Jewish leaders. They return to political arguments (v.12). Finally, seemingly reluctantly, Pilate hands Jesus over for crucifixion.
Thoughts and Observations—
Pilate is an important enough figure to be included in our creedal confessions:
“...Suffered under Pontius Pilate....”
It’s no wonder the Church has had this love/hate relationship with this man. Some in our Lectionary group have bemoaned the leniency that some have shown Pilate; others reject the vilification of the man. Above, even I have read a bit of reluctant leniency into the story—but, I’m not sure if the reluctance on Pilate’s part comes out of his sense of justice or out of being dragged into local issues he rather not have a part in (I lean towards his sense of justice, but my wife will tell you that I’m a hopeless romantic, too trusting of others and always wanting to presume the best....)
For the preaching of this passage, verses 10-11a hold the key. First, whenever Jesus speaks, I tend to focus there—Jesus is always central for me, and if Jesus says something, I better dig there if I hope to find gold.
“Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”
Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above."
Power. Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines the term:
1) ability to act or produce an effect...2) possession of control, authority, or influence over others...3) physical might...political control or influence.
Where does power come from? Jesus reminds us that power comes “from above.” We see the gift of power entrusted to humankind in Genesis 1:28 –
God blessed [the male and female] and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
There is it—right in the middle of the verse: Rule. The Creator gives humanity power over this world. And, with the gift of freewill, we get to choose how to use that power. Pilate claims his ‘power’ here in our passage this wee...and even recognizes that he can use his power how he wishes: “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”
My daughter has a coffee mug that I notice every time I visit her apartment, a mug inscribed with, “I’m and ER Nurse—what’s your superpower?” I chuckle each time but only because my daughter really is a force, a power, to be reckoned with. However, I’m also reminded when I see that mug that we all have power—we can all produce an effect, have some control or influence over someone...and we may even possess physical might.
As parents, spouses, children, grandparents, aunts and uncles, members of the community, neighbors, employees, employers, managers, workers, voters, cooks, maids, school administrators, teachers, students, police officers, soldiers, politicians, pastors—every one of us has a place of power with respect to others. How do we choose to use that power?
As we come to the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry and as we live through this time of Lent, I cannot help but think of the beginning of his ministry—his baptism and journey through the wilderness/desert. At the end of those 40 days, Jesus was confronted with both the devil’s power and his own power. The devil revealed (or claimed) his power to hand over the worldly kingdoms to Jesus. The devil also recognized Jesus’ power to turn stones to bread, to escape death and make a big scene...and his power to set up the devil as a god (one to be worshiped.) But, as we have preached and taught many times, Jesus did NOT use his power to serve himself. Rather, as we follow Jesus through his ministry, he uses his power to heal the sick, give sight to the blind...he uses the power of story (parable) to reveal the kingdom. He uses his social power to welcome the outcasts (Zacchaeus), to forgive the broken. And, here before Pilate, his choice is to not use his power to effect a different outcome—he ‘uses’ his power to follow the course set for him.
What is your superpower? Where do you have power in your life...over whom? And, how are you using your power?
“Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”
Do you realize we all have that power? We can free others or crucify them. We have the power to bully and abuse (no, bullies don’t exist only in the school yard); to abuse and maim—physically or emotionally; to rob others of their self-esteem, self-worth and integrity; to crucify/kill people’s hopes, plans and dreams. And, we have the power to protect and serve; to heal; to build others up, to strengthen their self-esteem; to feed others' hopes and dreams.
God has given you power. How will you use your power? Will we bow to the pressures of the world or give in to the desires of self? Or, will we use our God-given power to bring life and hope and joy to the world around us. Will we use our power to effect good in the lives of others? Will we use our influence, wealth, voices and strength to only better our own position in life, or will we—like Jesus—use our power to bring life to others?
So, this is where I think I’ll be going this week. I know there are many examples in the news about the abuse of power. Perhaps you’re in a setting where you can use those newsbits with glee (you have that power). Perhaps, like me, keeping an open relationship with your congregation ‘trumps’ the temptation to bring too much political stuff to the pulpit. In any case, wishing all of you the very best as we proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ this week.
Saturday, March 10, 2018
Our Evangelist gives yet another narrative from the life of Jesus, continuing the story from our previous reading/sermon passage. I must admit from the beginning, I had no idea how this might preach when I started studying this passage on Monday. In fact, I struggled with this...and even considered seeking a different passage for this Sunday. But, I stayed with it, certain that God would be faithful as always to help me find something, some nugget, to share with our congregation.
In this unfolding story in John 18, Jesus is now brought before the occupying powers—the Romans who govern Judea.
v.28-32 – The irony and pain of these verses boggles the mind. The Jewish ‘religious leaders’ take Jesus to Pilate...because their faith prohibits them from executing Jesus. How convenient! “Well, we can’t do it because it’s against our faith—let’s find someone who can!” And, they don’t even go inside the palace because they would become unclean and unable to sit for Passover—a celebration of God’s freedom for the Jews from a pagan, foreign power. (Oh, the irony....) Pilate doesn’t want to mess with this. I’m sure he thinks there are bigger fish to fry.
v.33-38a – Here we find that interesting conversation between Pilate and Jesus. Have you read it without the surrounding commentary? It’s rather odd:
Pilate: “Are you the king of the Jews?”
Jesus: “Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me?”
Pilate: “Am I a Jew? Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
Jesus: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
Pilate: “You are a king, then!”
Jesus: “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
Pilate: “What is truth?”
Two overarching themes come out of this conversation—“kingdom” and “truth.” If those were the things important to Jesus, they better be important to us.
Kingdom: As far as the Jewish leaders and Pilate are concerned, there are two kingdoms—for the Jews, the legitimate kingdom of Judea; for the Pilate, the legitimate kingdom of Rome. That’s it. Jesus indicates there is another kingdom...the very kingdom that he has been preaching since the beginning of his ministry, a kingdom that is not from ‘here’ but “from another place.” Interestingly (or oddly), Jesus mentions this kingdom only three (3) times in the whole Gospel of John—here and in his conversation with Nick in John 3. That’s it. I may need to step outside of John for my sermon and remind our people that Jesus came proclaiming this kingdom from the beginning—Matt. 3:2, Mark 1:15, Luke 4:43. In fact, Matthew and Luke are saturated with this kingdom-talk; many of the parables recorded in those Gospels are kingdom-parables. Always, this kingdom of God, of Heaven, is different from the earthly kingdoms; it is ‘other’—invisible, with relatively up-side-down values and perspectives, etc.
Truth: The statement in our passage differs from many other self-statements of Jesus. This almost reads like the thesis I teach my English student at the college: “...the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth.” Nowhere else that I can recall does Jesus express his reason for being so directly, clearly and succinctly than here. Of course, Pilate questions even the idea of truth. Of course, our clever modernists and postmodernists of the last 60 years think they are the first ones to question truth. I guess the writer of Ecclesiastes got it right: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. (1:9)
“Truth” appears in the Gospel of John 23 times...and in the epistles of John 19 times—42 mentions. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, a combined total of 4 times. In the writings of Paul, a combined total of 43 times. Yes, ‘truth’ is important to John. Perhaps because of his interaction with those influenced by Greek thought? Perhaps out of his own search for truth? What we do know is that he heard “truth” in Jesus a lot.
Our own culture has lost its mooring with regard to truth. We hear about ‘fake news.’ We hear people talk about ‘your truth and my truth.’ We don’t know what to believe any more, it seems. We can pick our own flavor of truth by selecting a news network that simply agrees with our own way of seeing the world. And which one is right? Which one has the truth? I have a feeling they are all missing the truth. The truth, in the end, lies in Jesus—his word, his life, his teaching.
Truth? There is another kingdom still today—something beyond the United States of America, beyond los Estados Unidos de Mexico (recall, I live on the US/Mexico border....) When we look at that other kingdom, we do see a different way of living that is crazy generous, that loves enemies, that welcomes strangers, that calls us to earn so we can share with others, that calls us to embrace ambitions of kindness, goodness instead of wealth and power, that forgives and moves on, that accepts the social outcasts as equals, that steps aside and allows the other to take first place.
Do you want to know more about this kingdom and about truth? “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” Again, the message is, listen to Jesus. Do you know what he says?
v.38b-40 ~ Pilate tries; he really does. He sees the injustice of this situation, but his goal is keeping the peace, not necessarily executing justice. He lets the Jewish crowd decide. Barabbas (trans., ironically, son of the father) is freed and Jesus remains. But, that seems to have been the plan all along.
And so, we are one step closer to the cross, an instrument of death and torture that this Jesus-kingdom transforms into a symbol of life and forgiveness...but that’s another story.
Friday, March 2, 2018
Our Narrative Lectionary hopped right over some really important passages (John 14-17), but I guess time is limited—and Easter is rushing up to meet us. In any case, these Gospel readings continue to reveal the unique and crucial character of John’s witness.
V.12ff – John provides the setting, including his now-familiar asides (more asides than a Shakespeare villain!) Jesus has been arrested, and two disciples—Peter and Bro. Anonymous—follow along to see what is happening. I begin to notice that John includes small details that the other Gospels do not—a color, a feeling. Here, “it was cold, and [they] stood around a fire they had made to keep warm...Peter also was...warming himself” (v.18). We don’t get too many glimpses of the weather (except an occasional freak storm on the waters).
While many pastors—with good reason—are going to focus on Peter’s denials, something else calls to me from this passage.
19Meanwhile, the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching.
20“I have spoken openly to the world,” Jesus replied. “I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. 21Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.”
This really hit me: “Surely they know what I said.”
Too often, so many who claim the name of Christ—who call themselves Christians—really don’t know what Jesus said. In fact, there is too often a confusion of popular culture, old sayings and what is found in the Bible.
I recall once driving through the small town in north Georgia where we were living and serving at that the time, and one of the churches on the main highway had on its marquee the following: “God helps those who help themselves.” Why would a church put a saying of Ben Franklin on their church sign? I’m guessing someone there didn’t know the difference between Scripture and Poor Richard’s Almanac. Besides, isn’t a huge part of the message of the Gospel that God helps the helpless?
On another occasion, as the congregation I was serving was considering renovations and how to pay for it, one of my lay leaders earnestly advised me, “Brother Jon, you know what the good books says, ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be.’” I’m not sure if he actually thought that came from the “Good Book” or if his ‘good book’ was The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Again, the biblical message differs— “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Jesus...in Matt.5:42).
So, do we and our people know what Jesus said? Do we all have an idea of which words of Scripture are really Jesus’ words? How would our congregation stand up to the interrogation?
Of course, this brings things all the way around to Peter’s denial. His denial was upfront—“I am not [one of his disciples.]” Our denials of Christ are less obvious. We show up for worship. We serve on the committees. We may even help lead worship or prayer time. But, are we not denying Christ when we fail to learn what he said? Are we not denying the Scriptures their due power in our lives as Christians when we don’t even know what the Scriptures say? How can God’s “refreshing, wisdom-giving, joy-birthing, eye-opening, sweet, rewarding, useful, instructive, rebuking, correcting, justice-working book we call the Bible” impact, shape and form our lives, thinking and worldview if we deny it access? (see Ps.19:7-9 and II Tim.3:16-17)
Surely they know what I said. Do they? Do we? What would we say? What would we and our people say if they were called forward to testify that evening as to what Jesus said?
Listen...the cock is crowing....