Easter 2: The Introduction of and an Admonition from Saint Thomas

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John 20:19-31

One of the dangerous things about a job like mine — where part of the time you’re producing ideas — is that, because of the way inspiration works, sometimes your best work happens right as you were blithely wasting time. And that tends to happen when you’re using any available mental energy left over from Holy Week, which is none, cramming everything in to your last week before you go on vacation so that you can really take a break.

So I was on Facebook this week…

… and my friend Karen posted that she was working on her sermon (as I should have been at the time) and, because this week’s Gospel reading is about Thomas, she couldn’t stop thinking about the introduction of another Thomas — Thomas Jefferson — in the musical Hamilton. As many of you who have heard me or Lyn and Abby Roberts talk in the last two years already know, Hamilton is the hip hop musical about treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton and his role in the Revolution and the early years of America.

In the musical, the actor who plays Jefferson plays Marquis de Lafayette in the first act, because during the Revolutionary War itself, Jefferson was the ambassador to France. In the second act, however, Jefferson — or Thomas, as he’s called for most of the musical — opens the second act with a jazzy number called, well, “What’d I Miss?” That, plus getting the inspiration to rap at Vigil, helped me to produce something a little shorter than the dry bones, but enjoyable, I hope nonetheless.

The other thing that happened was that I ran into a roadblock with my sermon and went to get drinks with my friend Lorraine, who’ll be your guest preacher and presider next week. She and I had fun irreverently describing matters from Thomas’s perspective and how unfairly the church has treated him in calling him “Doubting Thomas” through the centuries.

And so that’s when this happened: an intro in the style of Hamilton followed by what I think Thomas would say to the Church today. You can help me out by snapping.

“How does the Son of God who’s risen from the dead
And appeared to Mary live —
Are you ready for more yet?
Appears to eleven of ‘em in the Upper Room*
A miracle is seen — Jesus risen from the tomb
But someone hasn’t heard the resurrection promise
You simply must meet Thomas, Thomas!”

(*No one knows the precise number of disciples present, though one can assume that is was actually ten (minus Thomas and Judas). But in hip hop, sometimes you need syllables, so I went with Eleven.)

What follows is a much less catchy letter to the church from the Apostle Thomas.

My dearest Church,

My name is Thomas, and I have a beef with you.

You see, I was a martyr. But you don’t call me “Thomas the Martyr.”

I was a saint, but you Protestants especially so rarely refer to me as “Saint Thomas.”

I went to India — India — to spread the Gospel. But you don’t call me “Thomas the Missionary to India.” 

I was a disciple that accompanied Jesus, saw him crucified. I was the only one not hiding when Jesus appeared to the disciples the first time. John straight up told you that everyone else was hiding out of fear. I wasn’t. But you don’t call me “Brave Thomas.” Oh no.

But I miss one resurrection appearance and I become “doubting Thomas” for centuries.

Look, I get it.

It seems, the way John wrote this, that I don’t have that much faith because I don’t believe the other disciples when they tell me that Jesus had appeared to them.

Easy for you to say, man.

You know the end of the story. You hold four accounts of the resurrection in your hands on the regular. I did not have that luxury.

Put yourself in my shoes. Your friend and beloved teacher just died a brutal and horrible death, and you and your friends are somewhat concerned that the same thing might happen to you. But you, Thomas, always the bold, practical one, decide that you’re not going to hide like the rest of them. You’re going out, no matter the consequences. And the disciples needed milk and wine and I drew the short straw. Whatever.

Then, when you get back from the market, your friends come to you all of a sudden and say, “We have seen the Lord!” The Lord — the guy you all are mourning. The dead one.

What would you say? Honestly? If you’d believe immediately, you’re probably pretty easy to pull pranks on. I’m just saying.

Look, maybe it was a lack of faith. But it happened one time, in the midst of a lot bigger things — you know, like Jesus coming back from the dead. And I’m a little worried about what my reputation as “Doubting Thomas” says about you, church. It was only the beginning of a long history of defining people based on one bad look, one mistake, one perceived mistake, one moment.

Believe me: for the rest of my life I thought of myself as Doubting Thomas, too.

You probably do it to yourselves, too. Who is the worst version of you that you define yourself by? Are you the Liar? The Betrayer? The Addict? The Black Sheep of the Family? The Victim? The Racist? The Bully? The Crazy One?

No, you’re not.

Any more than I, the real human Thomas, am Doubting Thomas. And this is not just about me getting my ancient wool undies in a wad.

It’s contrary to the Gospel of the Risen Lord that I saw with my own eyes.

If there’s one thing I know, it’s when we start to define ourselves by what we’ve done or haven’t done, this whole church thing falls apart. After that, it all turns into a ladder climbing game just like everything else.

But this Church thing isn’t supposed to be just like everything else. This Church thing isn’t even supposed to be about us. When we make it about us, or about any other person, we miss the miracle of resurrection and new life standing right in front of us.

We miss God.

Look, we all fail. Human failure is nothing new. Whether you screwed up big by, you know, denying Jesus three times (no one calls Peter “the Denier,” I might add) or whether you just happened to miss an appearance of the risen Christ, we all need a second chance. Or a third. Or a fourth. Et cetera.

Because I’m not saying that John made any mistakes in what he told you. That story is how it went down.

It’s just that people focus too much on me, Thomas, when what John was writing was a story about Jesus.

I missed the boat. I didn’t believe my fellow disciples — not Mary, and not the guys. I admit, I got really sarcastic with the “Look, unless I put my fingers in the wounds….” that really was in poor taste, I admit, whether the Messiah was dead or alive, and the church has, not surprisingly, entirely missed the subtlety of my humor there.

But focus on Jesus instead of me for a second. It’s a story about Jesus, after all.

Notice what he did. Jesus didn’t scold me or label me “doubting Thomas.” He gave the other disciples a whole week to try to convince me, and then he showed up himself. He showed up and he blessed us and he looked at me and said “This is my body. Reach out your hands. It’s really me.”

Turns out, Church, that’s what you do every Sunday. Every Sunday you gather together just like the disciples did. You gather together, and just like us, some of you are sure you’ve seen Jesus and some of you not so sure this isn’t a bunch of bullhockey and for some of you, the level of your belief just depends on the Sunday. But Jesus still shows up, blesses you, gathers you around the table and says to you: “This is my body, given for you. It’s really me.” In bread. In wine. In water. In Words. In all of us.

Jesus is here, too, if you know how to look.  And I think you do. You’re the Church, after all.

Yours in Christ through the Ages,
Saint Thomas

——————————-

I know. Writing a letter from a dead guy about how he got shorted by the church was not a normal way to spend a weekend. But you don’t keep me around because I’m normal.

The good news is redemption: that, like Thomas, you deserve to be known by more than your mishaps and mistakes and your questions and your doubts. Because think too much about yourself and other people, and you miss the real miracle of church: that the risen Jesus is here, offering himself.

Because the Church’s story is still a story about God, not us. The Church’s story is one where Jesus’ response to doubt is not wrath, but instead to show up every single time, no matter who believes or doesn’t believe, and say: “This is my body, given for you.”

Jesus is here — let the church rejoice, and all God’s people say: Amen.

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Easter 1: The Thunder of Joy

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Easter faces! Pastor Anna and Robert “Bob” Stehlin, our assisting minister for Easter Day.

Matthew 28:1-10

For all our fretting in the institutional church that its numbers are shrinking and its influence waning, Easter still draws a crowd. It’s still acknowledged and recognized by our wider culture, even though it tends to culturally play second fiddle to Christmas because well, people like babies and presents, and the Christmas narrative gives us both.

But Easter remains, calling the church to open its arms even wider than usual to everyone on Easter morning: we get to meet new people, including the families of beloved members and other out of town visitors and folks who can’t make it at other times of year. Easter is our all hands on deck day, our Super Bowl, when we remember how Jesus came back from 28-3… no, just kidding.

There’s something bigger here than just a big comeback and there’s definitely something bigger than bunnies and eggs though believe me, I will be enjoying my share of chocolate today.

(A feast day is a feast day.)

But seriously, other than the feast day element, the bunnies and eggs don’t make that much sense in light of the Gospel story. Admittedly. You heard it from the pulpit. In the words of the late Robin Williams and children everywhere, “Bunnies don’t lay eggs!”

But then, I guess crosses and tombs don’t make for fun children’s decorations.

Just this week, Late Show host and faithful progressive Roman Catholic Stephen Colbert described Easter as only a liturgical church person really could: “Jesus is the reason we celebrate Easter, okay? He’s why we have the eggs! It’s the true miracle of Easter that Jesus emerged from the tomb and made that bunny lay an egg. And then the bunny did goeth forth to hide those eggs… this is the Word of the Lord.” (1)

You may miss the idea or even get offended if you don’t know that Colbert is a faithful Catholic.
His point, of course, is not to make fun of Easter, but to poke fun at how we get wrapped up in the details of our celebrations of spring and egg hunts when there’s actually a much better, older story that you can’t get at Target. And, that story, given the absence of any bunnies or eggs in this service, is why you’re actually here. I hope. I did not dress in white to recall the Easter bunny, but you can tell your kids whatever you like to get them to like church. That’s fine.

Look, I’m not here to make you feel guilty. Quite the opposite, actually. Eat all the Cadbury eggs you like today. I will be!
I’m not here to do what pastors have too often done on holy days: tell you to put aside the fun stuff and focus on a serious, somber thing for a moment. Not at all.

Today is a joyful day, and Lord knows we need some joy these days. But it’s bigger than egg hunts and the Easter bunny and the details of what’s for lunch.

You see, in a world where governments gas their own citizens and we’re all a little more on edge than usual, in a world where we’ve got a lot more fear than love and a lot more death than new hope, Easter finds us just as the weather warms up and creation, too, comes back to life.

And quite frankly, that’s even better than a chocolate bunny. And I love chocolate.

Because people debate whether God is real all the time, but one thing that we cannot deny is that death is real. We see it all the time. In our lives, on the news, on social media.

Dead refugees washed up on the beach. Videos of ISIS killings.

And closer to home, we cope with injustice and fear and death of our own. We struggle with violence of every stripe. We struggle with the opioid epidemic that has taken so many brilliant people from among us.

And in our own personal lives, we hear of sudden deaths of friends and loved ones. It all starts to wear on you. Sometimes, if you’re like me, you think that if you hear of one more shooting or one more cancer diagnosis or one more missile launched, you might lose hope entirely.

Death is real and, thanks to technology, it’s more in our faces than ever, and it’s terrifying. We hug our loved ones close and we pray death won’t touch any of us any time soon despite our fears.

But you didn’t come to church to have an existential crisis. You came to hear the story of the empty tomb.

In that story that we read from Matthew’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene and the mysterious “other Mary” head over to the tomb to visit Jesus’ grave, like any of us have done for loved ones whom death has taken from us.

Then all of a sudden the earth shakes and, well, you know the rest.

Just last night at the Vigil, we remembered the ancient Easter proclamation that says “let this holy building shake with joy.” (2)

Well, it’s about to. This morning’s sermon is participatory. (Don’t worry Paul, there won’t be anything to repair.)

You see, since ancient times Easter has been much more profound than Easter eggs, which only help us celebrate something bigger — springtime. New life. The end of death and the beginning of hope.

With death always in front of our faces, today we dare celebrate in hope. We dare dance and be happy. We dare make this holy building shake with joy.

Because Jesus was dead on Friday. Real dead. Dead dead.

And now the earth shakes and the tomb is empty ad we stand with the women at the tomb in baffled hope and wonder the same thing: Are we crazy?

Is it crazy that you came here, when so many went to brunch? (If you got forced to come, you may think so.)

Yeah. We are. And today we’ve come together in our illogical hope that someday, somehow, even the tragedy death we see today will be swallowed up in victory too and all things shall be made right. It’s illogical, yes. But it’s what gets some of us up in the morning despite our nihilistic tendencies and today, we’re all invited. Today, we dare to have hope that death’s days are numbered.

Scholar N.T. Wright laments at how often we attend to Easter out of obligation, murmuring alleluias instead of shouting them. He writes: “Is it any wonder people find it hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus if we don’t throw our hats in the air? Is it any wonder we find it hard to live the resurrection if we don’t do it exuberantly in our liturgies? Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as simply the one-day happy ending tacked on to [the Lenten] forty days of fasting and gloom?” (3)

And so, adults, children, youth, wake up — this is where you come in.
St. John Chrysostom lived in about the 300s and was considered one of the greatest preachers of the early church. His Easter homily is still a feature in churches around the world as a tradition arose around it: stomping out death. And so, before we go to the table, in celebration of Christ’s victory over death, you are invited into the ancient tradition of stomping out death. In the early church, after the long Lenten fast and the observation of Holy Week and the Great Three Days, it was a tradition to read St. John’s Easter homily at the Easter celebration and for the whole congregation to stomp their feet at every mention of the word “death,” symbolizing how death has been defeated and put under our feet.

We’ve come through Lent and Holy Week to Easter. And now, I’ll be preaching John’s short but rousing Easter homily in celebration, and you, for your part, are welcome to listen, enjoy, and stamp your feet in victory whenever you hear the word “death.” And thus, we remember the thunder at the tomb. And thus, this building shakes with joy.

Let’s try it: “death.” Good.

Here we go.

Are there any who are devout lovers of God? Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival! Are there any who are grateful servants? Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord! Are there any weary from fasting? Let them now receive their due!

If any have been working from the first hour observing of Lent, let them receive their reward. If any have come after the third hour, let them with gratitude join in the feast! Those who arrived after the sixth hour, let them not doubt; for they shall not be short-changed. Those who have tarried until the ninth hour, let them not hesitate; but let them come too. And those who arrived only at the eleventh hour, let them not be afraid by reason of their delay. For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.

The Lord gives rest to those who come at the eleventh hour, even as to those who toiled from the beginning. To one and all the Lord gives generously…. The Lord honors every deed and commends their intention. Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord! First and last alike, receive your reward. Rich and poor, rejoice together! Conscientious and lazy, celebrate the day! You who have kept the fast, and you who have not, rejoice this day, for the table is bountifully spread! The calf is a fat one — let us feast like royalty! Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the banquet of faith. Enjoy the bounty of God’s goodness!

Let no one grieve being poor, for God’s universal reign has been revealed.

Let no one lament their constant failings, for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the death of our Savior has set us free.

The Lord has destroyed death by enduring it. The Lord vanquished death when he descended into it. The Lord put death in turmoil even as it tasted of his flesh. Isaiah foretold this when he said,”You, O Death, were sent into chaos when he encountered you below.” Death was in chaos having been eclipsed. Death was in chaos having been mocked. Death was in chaos having been destroyed. Death was in chaos having been abolished. Death was in turmoil having been made captive. Death grasped a corpse, and met God. Death seized earth, and encountered heaven. Death took what it saw, and was overcome by what it could not see.

O death, where is your sting? O hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and death is cast down! …Christ is risen, and life is set free! Christ is risen, and the tomb is empty! For Christ, having risen, is only the firstborn of those who have fallen asleep. To Christ be glory and power forever and ever. Amen!” (4) 

And that, my friends, is why I enjoy my chocolate bunnies.

And so, in short, it’s a good day. So be happy. Throw your hats in the air. Celebrate. Or, as the kids say: turn up. Amen.

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Pastor Anna’s favorite Easter card of all time.

1. Stephen Colbert, The Late Show, 8 April 2017.
2. The Exsultet, an ancient Easter proclamation. Learn more here.
3. N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, New York: HarperOne, 2008. 
4. St. John Chrysostom, Easter Homily. Another translation can be found here.

Judas, Pastor

Judas, you.

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Mosaic depicting Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, c. 1210. 
Basilica di San Marco (Venice, Italy)

John 13:1-7, 31b-35

My Vermont colleague posted a question for Holy Week pondering on Facebook this week:
Name someone that you would turn in to the police in return for a month’s pay. Now sit with that and pray. (1)

We have all betrayed someone. Most of us have someone in our lives that we’re willing to betray in the future: given enough money, given enough danger, given enough pressure, given enough coercion and fear.

We like to think of ourselves as good people.
But we are all Judas, in a way.

One of the final chapters in Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Accidental Saints is called, “Judas Will Now Take Your Confession.” (2) There was a time when I thought such mentions of Judas — including a friend’s mention of “Judas the prophet” over beers on a Saturday — was trying too hard to be edgy, that it was provocative and little more. And in some cases, I still think I was right about that. But being a pastor over a few years has made me realize something: we are all Judas.

But we don’t like to think of it that way. It’s more comfortable to think of Judas beyond the pale, as a bad person, the villain in the Gospels, far removed from us. Judas, we safely think, was a bad person. 

We like to think of ourselves as good people, but none of us would claim to always be good. In fact, thinking of ourselves or others as “good people” gets in our way as much as it is a false comfort. It allows us to think that we don’t mess up quite as badly as “bad people” — until we do. Then, we question our entire worth.

I’ve been watching the TV series Shameless, wherein a character goes through a bad time, betraying nearly everyone she loves. Finally, another character gets into her face and says, in a low growl, “You think you’re a good person. You’re not.” (3)

This “revelation” puts her into such a bad tailspin that she nearly self-destructs entirely, rendering the entire show hard to watch.

We tend to divide people in our world between good people and bad people. We think that only bad people do certain things, and good people don’t. Bad people are racist. Bad people are sexist. Bad people are homophobic. “Good people,” we think, are none of these things. And when people accuse us of such things, how often do we say: “But I’m a good person,” keeping us comfortable, but still wrong. “I’m a good person” helps us to feel better, but it also keeps us from learning. We all mess up.

When you become a pastor, people look at you differently. You become seen as the universal “good person.” The collar makes people see something in you that wasn’t there before. People suddenly see you differently — as someone who is kind to everyone, gives until there’s nothing left, doesn’t get irritated, and would certainly never do something like make a racist comment, accidentally drink too much and inconvenience other people, get in fights with your family , cuss a lot, be insensitive to someone’s feelings, or betray someone’s trust. When you’re a pastor, people see you as the good person they strive to be, someone incapable of really screwing up.

And what no one tells you is that that will never be true.

You’ll always be just as messed up as they are — they just usually won’t be able to see it through the collar.

And thus you learn, through knowing yourself, that really, there are no good people. There are only humans who need a word of grace.

Judas will now take your confession.

We are all fallen. We are all Judas. Me included.

We say that we are all sinners, but we don’t really believe that. We put others, and ourselves, on the “good person” pedestal.

And if you think that I am somehow less likely to screw anything up interpersonally or otherwise than you are, we need to talk. Neither my theological education nor my ordination made me need grace any less than I did before, which was, and is, a lot. I need grace every bit as much as you do. Maybe more.

It is Maundy Thursday, and Judas will now take your confession.

Between the washing of the disciples feet and the giving of a New Commandment, something really significant happens in John’s Gospel. Judas is dismissed by Jesus, who knows exactly what Judas is going to do. The disciples think that Jesus has just sent him out to buy Passover supplies because, as we who are getting ready for the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday know, festivals take a lot of supplies. It’s a likely excuse.

But only Judas and Jesus know where he’s really going: to tell the authorities exactly where to find Jesus to arrest him. To betray the Son of God.

John’s Gospel adds, ominously: “And it was night.”

But before Judas is dismissed, Jesus, knowing full well what he would do, stoops down and washes Judas’s feet with every other disciple.

Contrary to what most of us have been taught, the foot washing in the context of John’s Gospel is not primarily about service. It is a tender act of love, compounded by the commandment to love one another (4). It certainly involves service, of course: in that we humans naturally serve those we love.

When our loved ones need us to, we become like servants for them. Whether they’re our children or our grandchildren or our partner or our elderly parents or a dear friend or relative, when a loved one needs us, we serve them however they need to be served. We bathe them, wash their clothes, change their sheets, and feed them. But we don’t call these acts of service, as if we were hired hands or community volunteers. We call these acts of love. So it is with the foot washing. 

And Jesus showed this love to Judas, too. Knowing that this man would betray him, he still got down and washed his dirty feet. He still showed love to him, the same as every other disciple, right before he screwed it all up royally, setting in motion the events of Thursday that would stop the heart and cease the breath of the Son of God on Friday.

And we have all been where Judas sat: in that moment before you change a course of events forever, screw everything up, do something that cannot, will not, ever be undone. I have.

Judas will now take your confession.

In the chapter with that same title, Nadia Bolz-Weber points out that Judas is not the only one who betrayed Jesus before he was crucified. Peter denies that he even knows Jesus three times. His Lord and Teacher was on trial, and he denied three times to have ever even known him. All the other disciples flee, and only the women are left. And yet Peter receives absolution. The other disciples see the resurrected Christ.

They get to experience grace at Easter. Judas doesn’t.

Judas dies alone, wracked with guilt, in a field of blood (5).

Nadia Bolz-Weber posits that Judas never receives a word of grace because he was in isolation, removed from the community where he could have heard it. We cannot produce grace for ourselves. And that’s hard, since we’re used to producing things for ourselves: money, food, physical fitness, good grades, success at work — maybe even cleaning products, if you’re enough of a hippie. But grace and love, we cannot produce by our own effort. These must be experienced with other people.

Nadia writes, “Were we able to receive [a word of forgiveness] through pious, private devotion — through quiet personal time with God — the Christian life would be far less messy. But, as Paul tells us, faith comes through hearing, and hearing implies having someone right there doing the telling.” (6)

Tonight, we are here to do the telling for each other.

Being a pastor has so far taught me one clear thing: There are no good people. There are no bad people. There are just sinners in need of a word of grace, of tender care, of love. And some of us have just heard that sorely needed word a little more than others.

We are all Judas. We have all screwed things up royally. We have all done things that cannot be undone.

What makes all the difference is an act of love. A word of grace.

And that is why we are here: for Christ, and for each other. In the community where grace is heard and love is experienced, by all people, even the betrayers. Especially the betrayers. Because we have all been betrayers.

Because the love of this night — this night that Judas was here for, even though he messed it all up right after — is a blessing that, like our baptisms, cannot be turned back. I end with Jan Richardson’s poem for Maundy Thursday. She writes:

“As if you could

stop this blessing

from washing

over you.

As if you could turn it back,

Could return it from your body to the bowl

From the bowl to the pitcher,

from the pitcher to the hand that set this blessing on its way.

As if you could change the course by which this blessing flows.

As if you could control how it pours over you:
Unbidden, unsought, unasked,

yet startling in the way it matches the need you did not know you had.
As if you could become undrenched.

As if you could resist gathering it up in your two hands

and letting your body  follow the arc

this blessing makes.” (7)

Beloved, what we need is here (8). Let us love one another, offering the word of grace that each of us needs. For we are all Judas, all messed up, all in need of love.

Judas will now take your confession. Amen.

1. The Rev. John Michael Longworth, OEF, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Rutland, Vermont.
2. The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, Convergent Publishing, p. 163.
3. Shameless, Season 4, Episode 7 (Available on Netflix.)
4. Gail R. O’Day, The Word Disclosed: Preaching the Gospel of John, St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002, p. 139.
5. Bolz-Weber, p. 164-165.
6. ibid., p.165-166.
7. Jan Richardson, “Blessing You Cannot Turn Back,” The Painted Prayer Book, http://paintedprayerbook.com/.
8. Line borrowed from Wendell Berry with love.

Palm Sunday: Rediscovering the Story

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The 2017 Palm Sunday crowd gathers at Our Savior’s Lutheran, South Hadley, MA.

Matthew 21:1-11

A lot has happened this week in the world.

If you could not or did not see the videos of the chemical attacks in Syria, you should at least consider whether you should watch them. They are available online. But a word of caution: to borrow a phrase from earlier in Lent, what you will see if you view them, or what you have seen if you have already, cannot be unseen.

And in response, our own nation has launched air strikes against the Syrian government.

Just last night, 30 Christians were killed in Egypt in Palm Sunday bombings.
And here we are, insisting on waving palms and shouting hosanna, because it’s Holy Week.

It’s Holy Week. So what?

When I first think of it, it seems almost silly with all that’s going on in the world to insist on giving so much time and energy to religious observance. This is especially true when I consider that so many people around us may only show up at Easter at best, and even that, for some, as is at least partially out of obligation.

I do not have precise answers for staring suffering in the face, for violence or death or where to find hope.

But what I do know is that the narratives that form us — the stories of our families, our country, our faith — are the eyeglasses through which we see the stories on the news.

It’s through those stories that we come to conclusions about ourselves and our world and what is hopeless and what is redeemable. It’s through those stories that we see ourselves and our place in the world. For example, if my family story is that people in my bloodline are giving and caring people, then I will be encouraged to be generous and attentive. If we believe that America’s story is one of ingenuity and bravery, then a true patriot will do her best to have courage and see creative solutions to problems.

But religious stories are even bigger than that. They tell us not only how we should live, but how we got here and where we’re going. And this year, we will be telling this story of resurrection literally as creation comes to life in springtime.

This week, we religiously observant Christians (if we dare to call ourselves that) have the opportunity to live the story we proclaim: the story of the last days of Jesus Christ, his death, and an unexpected ending that is revealed on the night that ancient Christians remembered God’s whole saving history.

Right when our world and our nation are at a tipping point, this story is calling to us again, if we dare to see the world through it. We are invited to forget that we know how the story ends and place ourselves into the story itself: to feel the palm branches, to taste wine and bread, to feel cool water on our feet as they are washed, and to come and mourn at the foot of a wooden cross.

In a world surrounded by violence, death, and suffering, we are being called to stare both love and suffering — God’s love and suffering — in the face.

Our Holy Week story began when you first gripped that palm in your hand this morning. That palm, which will be burned to make the ashes when we restart the story next year — that palm made you a part of this story that you’re invited to see the world through.
The paraments have changed to red, telling us to pay attention. We have come to the holy city, Jerusalem, where we have a few things happening with a few different characters. First, at Jesus’ suggestion, the disciples commit what I assume is the equivalent of first century grand theft auto — in the name of the Lord. They take a colt and a donkey and bring them to Jesus — and ostensibly, Jesus rides them both at the same time. Don’t ask me how that worked, but picture it how you will. Matthew’s Gospel is odd like that.

And Jesus rides along, and a crowd begins to gather. Now, this is before social media could gather people from all over the place in minutes, way back when members of a crowd had to hear and see and decide to gather on the spot. And the odd thing about the way Matthew tells this story is that the city and the crowds become speaking characters.

“When [Jesus] entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’

The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’” (v.10-11).

Anyone who has ever loved a city — or any place, really — knows that places have personalities. Each place decides what it values, and it shapes everything from its streets to its rituals. Jerusalem here can be safely classified as “skeptical.” It is a place where religions are born and messiahs are common.

And yet, a crowd still comes to gather around Jesus, the prophet and teacher who has been drawing huge crowds, the one who is rumored to have healed the sick and driven out demons and restored sight to the blind and even raised the dead.

We have a common need as humans to gather around things in community, to gather with strangers in the street and lift up a common purpose. We spoke about this on Wednesday night. We have a need for what Diana Butler Bass calls “the commons,” or, to get fancy with Latin, “communitas.”

Long ago, people understood the value of the commons. Today, we see the remainders of their value of community. In nearly every New England town including ours, you’ll find a town common or town center: a place that once bustled with life, often right outside the doors of the congregational church, as the sacred extended into the world. It’s where people met up, where deals were made, where couples met. In Puritan times, it’s where people were held in the stocks. I always imagined that if I were a New England resident in the 1600s, I would be in the stocks for dancing or, more likely, my favorite charge: “for laughing on the Sabbath.”

And the commons is where people celebrated. New England Puritans may have not been all that into celebrating, but most cultures were. When the day of Pentecost came, it was in the middle of a festival in Jerusalem. How fitting that the Spirit of God that binds people together would show up in the midst of a festival where people celebrated together and laughed and danced with strangers.

But these days, things are more privatized, and we worry a little less about the whole community and a little more about our individual friend groups and family units. Of this, Diana Butler Bass laments that “we have forgotten to dance in the street with strangers.” (1)

Dancing in the street with strangers is exactly what happened on Palm Sunday. The crowds gathered around God in the flesh, celebrating his arrival, shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” He was, they believed, the one to save them from oppression.

We have largely forgotten how to gather as a crowd with friends and strangers with a common purpose like this.

But it still happens. Every now and then, it still happens.

At Wednesday night supper this past week, we talked a bit about where it happens: at sports stadiums like Fenway Park or Gillette Stadium, or out on the beach gathered with strangers as Fourth of July fireworks pop all around. We still have a capacity — even a need — to have a common bond with others, even people we’ve never met.

This week, you are once again invited to gather with friends and strangers for communitas. In our world of pain and suffering, where so much is confusing at best and horrifying at worst, in a world of things we cannot unsee even when we want to, we are invited to see the world through this story of love and suffering and death and new hope.

We’ll also be reminded that crowd mentality isn’t a universal good because we, as humans, are pretty screwed up people. If you’ve been in church for long, you’ve probably been reminded over and over how the same crowds that shout “Hosanna” on Sunday shout “crucify” on Friday. As a call to worship written by a mentor of mine once read, “Today he rides a donkey that has never been ridden; how soon will you lay him in the tomb that has never been used?” (2)

He knows how this will end, but Jesus still shows up. 

And Jesus will show up on Sunday whether or not any of us shows up to form our community around the story, or whether we choose to see our world through it.

You may not be able to make it on Thursday or Friday or Saturday night. You may have work or family or school obligations or you may just be wiped out from all you have to do. That’s okay.

The resurrection will happen with or without us, tbh.

But we are invited to be a part of it.

We are invited let it form us. To see the world through it and maybe, just maybe, begin to answer some hard questions about justice and peace and suffering and hope. So even if you can’t make it, take some time to observe and ponder: Maundy Thursday and the Last Supper. Good Friday and the crucifixion. Holy Saturday and the Great Vigil. If you need help brainstorming how you can do that if you can’t make it to our service, let me know.

But from now on, you are the crowds. You are the disciples. You are the witnesses. 

Forget that you know how this story ends. Learn again to dance with strangers and see your world through new eyes, so that maybe we can find hope for justice in the midst of the chaos and pain in the world around us. Put on the eyeglasses of the story of Jesus, just for this week.

Today we gather around the table and we remember the palms and wander into a warm spring afternoon. 

After that? Well, I’ll see you Thursday.

Amen.

1. Diana Butler Bass, GroundedFinding God in the World – A Spiritual Revolution, New York: HarperOne, 2015, Chapter 7: “Commons.”
2. the Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming, Call to Worship, written for St. Mark United Methodist Church, Atlanta, GA, Palm Sunday 2010. 

Lent 5: Collapsed Highways, Tombs, and Dry Bones

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The city crest of Atlanta is a phoenix, symbolizing the city rising out of ashes.

Ezekiel 37:1-14
John 11:1-45

They say the truth will set you free, but not before it’s done with you. (1)

I was attending a panel that Parker was a part of when I heard the news on Friday: Interstate 85 in Atlanta collapsed due to fire, shutting down traffic in both directions. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this highway. Essentially, it’s a step away from the aorta of Atlanta, my very car-based home city, being cut. It’s as if someone shut down I-95 in Boston for the foreseeable future — just imagine that Boston had less of a public transit system. Mass chaos. Once again, Atlanta suffers due to fire.

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The fire and subsequent collapse of one of Atlanta’s busiest highways.

Atlanta, known as the Phoenix City because it was resurrected from a fire Union General Sherman’s troops set during the Civil War, is being tasked with rising from the ashes again. And again, like the last time, it has a lesson to learn. This time, it’s a lesson that both ice and fire have tried to teach it: it relies far too much on cars and highways. It needs a viable public transit system. It needs to break its largely race-based addiction to living outside the city and traveling into the city by highway.

They say the truth will set you free, but not before it’s done with you.

We talked last week about what you cannot unsee. Well, it’s hard for me to unsee a surreal road collapse that cripples my home city. And it’s hard to unsee death and resurrection in our Gospel text today.

The man’s name is Lazarus, a name that’s become almost synonymous with resurrection. Just yesterday, when cell phones were new, my best friend Samuel rescued his phone from a pool and, after four days in rice, it came back to life.

Naturally, that phone’s name was Lazarus.

Lazarus, when we meet him in this story, has fallen ill. Jesus delays the visit for reasons we can’t quite fathom other than it set the stage for resurrection. When he finally comes to Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem, he is greeted by his friends and disciples, Mary and Martha. Both of them say the same thing: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

It seems almost like an accusation, or maybe a lament. I can’t imagine Jesus not taking a pang of guilt in the gut when he heard those words not once, but twice. How often have you felt responsible when someone has started a sentence with “If you had been here…” or “If only you’d gotten here before now…”   

I have always found lament and questioning God, especially in the face of tragedy, to be both biblically and theologically acceptable. Mary and Martha, because they knew and loved and had a relationship with Jesus, knew how to question him. And God knows how to listen. God is big enough, as it is said, for both your questions and your anger. Sometimes things just don’t make sense to us. And how does God react when we question things?

“When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (v. 33).

We should not mistake Jesus’ feeling here for sadness, because that is not what these words mean. The Greek words for “deeply moved” and “disturbed” are closer to “groaning” and “anger” than anything resembling sadness. This is a gear-grinding, highly irritated, deep seated anger. Jesus is as angry as a driver sitting on a gridlocked I-495 with an appointment in five minutes in downtown Boston.

The Son of God is angry.

Angry at whom? Surely not his friends, weeping over their brother who had died.

Perhaps the question is not at whom —but at what.

Jesus, the Word of God himself, sees the affect of death on his beloved people. And it grieves him deeply. The great enemy, death, has been here.

They say the truth will set you free, but not before it’s done with you.

The Son of God here faces off with the enemy, Death.

Thomas G. Long, a storied Presbyterian preacher and preaching professor, has often spoken and written to pastors about the need for us to be aware that there are two preachers at every funeral. First, there is the obvious: there is you, the person giving the homily, and then there is the entity: “capital D Death.” (2)

Capital D Death is an entity who has a lot to say:

“This person is gone. This life is over. This will happen to all of us. There is no hope.”

Those who know me well know of my well-hidden nihilistic tendencies.

It was not until I heard these words from Dr. Long and began to officiate funerals myself that I began to understand how Jesus felt when faced with these people weeping over Lazarus.

It was not meant to be this way.

God did not create us with the intent to torture us by letting us love and then snatching us away from each other forever.

In fact, this whole thing grieves God deeply.

It’s why Paul would be inspired to write that “the last enemy to be destroyed is Death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

And Jesus, after the ripples of anger surge through him, I imagine him saying through gritted teeth, “Where have you laid him?”

Here, Jesus faces the hard truth of death.

In response to Jesus’ question, Mary and Martha say one of the most common phrases in John’s Gospel: “Lord, come and see” (v. 34).

We’ve heard this phrase a lot before in John’s Gospel, usually in reference to Jesus. It’s the phrase Jesus uses to call the first disciples (John 1:39): “Hey Rabbi, where are you staying?” “Come and see.” It’s how the disciples invite each other to follow Jesus (John 1:46): Philip, amazed by Jesus, comes and finds Nathanael. Nathanael is skeptical, but Philip just says what Jesus said to him: “Come and see.” It’s how the woman at the well invites the people from her town to follow Jesus. I imagine they were skeptical too, but she just says the same phrase we’ve heard before: “Come and see” (John 4:29).

And so when Mary and Martha repeat this phrase to Jesus, it has meaning.

You know when emotions are running high and some says just the right thing to you to get the tears flowing? That’s what happens here.

“Lord, come and see.”

And that is when Jesus broke down, staring death and pain in the face.

Our Ezekiel reading has Ezekiel facing a different kind of death. He stands over a valley of dry bones. We do not know how so many people died at once. All we know is that there are a lot of them, and they have been dead for a long time. In the Gospel of John, we have one recently dead person. In this passage, we have many faceless dead people, whose bones have dried and fallen together, a vast multitude.

Ezekiel stands staring at Death’s hopeless dominion.

And God’s voice comes to Ezekiel: “Mortal, can these bones live?” (v. 3).

And Ezekiel answers like a smart person would: “Oh, God. You know.”

“Prophesy to the bones, Mortal,” Ezekiel is told in this crazy acid trip of a vision of resurrection.

And Ezekiel does this crazy thing, because I mean, what would you do? And the dry bones come to live and become a vast multitude of people, no longer faceless, but also not breathing. And God commands Ezekiel to call God’s breath, God’s wind, into them.

And just as in Genesis, God breathes life into lungs and life happens. And Ezekiel got to be a part of it.

At the tomb with Mary and Martha, Jesus draws in a sharp breath, then bellows:
“LAZARUS! Come out!”

And the dead man stumbles from his tomb, still wrapped in grave clothes, but alive. The man who was once so dead he’d started to stink is now blinking at his relatives wondering what in the hell just happened. And this formerly dead man, like the formerly blind man last week, blinks at the bright sun and wonders at the miracle that is God’s redeeming work in him. And for the rest of history, his name will be practically synonymous with resurrection, and teenagers will name their formerly dead cell phones after him.

This is the moment in John’s Gospel that sets off the crucifixion.

All of this — the blind man, the raising of a dead man — has set off such a ruckus that the Jewish authorities are getting nervous. They are afraid that Rome will think that they are rebelling. And so, afraid of this new thing that is happening in their midst, plot to kill him.

They say the truth will set you free, but not before it’s done with you.

The religious authorities will face truths that they cannot unsee: a blind man given sight, a dead man raised — and they will respond with more death.

Just after this, John tells us that the high priest says that it’s better to have one man die — namely, Jesus — than to have the Romans come in and slaughter them all. And John says, for our benefit: “He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (John 11:51-52).

They say the truth will set you free, but not before it’s done with you.

God brings new life. God brings together that which is dead and scattered and hopeless. God’s great enemy is death, and God will face that enemy firsthand and transform it. And beginning next week with palms, we will remember the story together.

This Lent, we have learned. We have learned that God loves our imperfectly believing selves, just as Jesus engaged Nicodemus. We have learned that God sees us and knows us and gives us life, as with the woman at the well and with the man born blind. We have learned that there are both harsh truths and acts of God that we cannot unsee, and it is up to us how we respond.

They say the truth will set you free, but not until it’s done with you.

Today, God shouts out our names and calls us back to life. God is deeply disturbed by death — so disturbed that it gets God yelling like an Atlanta driver stuck in traffic on a broken interstate.

“LAZARUS, COME OUT!”

The Church is in a state of anxiety over shrinking numbers and changing times. The world is ready to bury us, for in some cases, there is already a stench. But the lesson of the next two weeks is already clear:

But no one can bury God. Not permanently.

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

And God shouts out to what is dead:

“Truth, come out!”

“Hope, come out!”

“Clarity, come out!”

“Church, come out!”

Yes, much in our lives, in the Church, and in the world has collapsed in flames like the Atlanta interstate. But Atlanta’s story is one of rising from the ashes, and so is ours. I believe the truth will set us free — but not before it’s done with us. Keep listening.

Even now, new life abounds, my friends. New life abounds.

Church: come out. Amen.

1. David Foster Wallace first wrote, “The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you,” in his novel Infinite Jest from 1996.
2. Thomas G. Long, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, 2009.