Sunday, March 29, 2015

Expect the Unexpected

Mark 11:1-11
March 29, 2015/Palm Sunday

            From the first day of my senior year in high school, the melody to Pomp and Circumstance was on continuous replay in my head. It was a tune I knew well. I’d heard it played at other graduations. I had played it in the school orchestra. I had watched while other graduates processed to its dignified and stately cadence. But I knew that this year Pomp and Circumstance would be played for me – and approximately 300 of my fellow classmates.
            Whatever the merits of the piece may or may not be, I have a hard time imagining a graduation ceremony without it. To me, Pomp and Circumstance is a big song for what really is a big deal. Whether it is graduation from high school, college, graduate school, or trucking school, graduation is a big deal. It is an accomplishment. It is an achievement. It signals the end, not just of a course of study, but of a significant time in the graduate’s life. And in the same breath, it proclaims the new life that is about to begin. Graduation is a big deal, so why shouldn’t graduates process into their moment with pomp and pageantry? It is only fitting, and it is what we should expect from an occasion like that. A procession to graduation is both pomp and circumstance.
            Pomp and circumstance, pageantry and royal procession is also what we expect of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. If pomp and circumstance wasn’t the actual reality, it is hard to tell that from the way many churches observe this particular day. Palm Sunday lends itself to the dramatic, and many churches answer that call to drama with glee. There are great processionals into the sanctuary; children, youth, choirs, young, old, walk in waving their palms. The music of processional is grand and booming. It is a moment of great excitement and expectation. Lent has been a somber business, but on this day we get to celebrate a little. Sure, Easter will be the bigger celebration, but maybe the pomp of Palm Sunday is a bit of a rehearsal for what will come the following week.
            Thinking about Palm Sunday in those terms, as a day of grand procession, may make our observance today somewhat of a letdown. We do have palms, but they weren’t brought in as part of a royal parade. We have glorious music, but we have that every week. In truth, there isn’t a lot different about today’s worship from last week’s – or the week before that, or the week before that. I’m not pointing this out to make any of us feel bad. That is not my intention at all. Actually, I think we’re probably closer to the procession that we read about in Mark’s gospel, than if we had invested great pomp into today’s service.
            I’m not convinced that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, especially in Mark’s telling, was all that grand. In my bible it is titled as “Jesus’ Triumphal Entry,” but how triumphal was it really? If we are really being honest, Mark’s telling is rather anti-climactic. Jesus and the disciples were approaching Jerusalem, and they were at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives. Jesus sent two of the disciples ahead of him into the village. He told them that the minute they entered the village they would find an unridden colt tied there. They were to untie that colt and bring it back to Jesus. Jesus warned them that if anyone should ask why they were taking the colt, they were to respond, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.”
            The disciples did what Jesus told them to do. They were questioned just as Jesus told them they might be. They responded the way they were instructed to, and they brought the colt back to Jesus. They threw their cloaks across the back of the colt, and Jesus rode it into Jerusalem. It is true that people did gather to welcome him into the city. They cut leafy branches and spread their own cloaks on the ground before him.
People followed behind him and walked ahead of him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
This sounds royal and pomp-full enough, but Jesus doesn’t do anything that you might expect once the parade is through. He makes no speeches. He doesn’t do any miracles. Instead he goes to the temple, looks around at everything, realizes it is late, and goes back to Bethany. He doesn’t even stay in the city. He returns the way he came. Anticlimactic.
Mark puts a great deal more emphasis on the telling of how the disciples managed to get the colt of than he does on Jesus’ actual entry. The procession seems almost like an afterthought. And while the procession itself had a certain amount of drama and pomp, that ended as quickly as it began. One aspect of Mark’s version that I had not picked up on before was the fact that the colt was unridden. You don’t have to know much about horses or donkeys or colts – and I don’t – to know that a colt that is unridden will not be prepared for a rider. This was an animal that had not felt the weight of a human being before, but Jesus was very specific about the unridden part. When I really think about that, it is hard not think in rodeo terms. Wouldn’t the colt have bucked at this new thing happening to it? Wouldn’t it have resisted someone sitting on top of it? Does the fact that Jesus rode it mean that he worked a miracle with it much like the ones he worked with humans? It would seem that there was a certain amount of clairvoyance involved with the story already. Jesus seemed to predict exactly what would happen when the disciples went into the village. Perhaps Mark’s emphasis on the retelling of it was to point out that Jesus knew exactly what would happen? Honestly, I’m not sure I have an answer or an explanation for any of this. But I do think there is a deeper point being made.
The people who heralded Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem that day would not have been surprised by the idea of someone royal or important riding into the city on the back of a steed, whatever that steed would have been. The spectacle of a ruler processing into the center of his kingdom on horseback would not have been unfamiliar to the people who watched Jesus. Yet the emphasis on this unridden colt seems to be a metaphor for Jesus’ entire life and ministry. On the surface it would seem that Jesus was following in the tradition of the royalty who had gone before him. However, he was doing a new thing. In a moment of tremendous expectation, he was doing the unexpected.
I imagine –really I know – that the people who had been following Jesus all that time – the disciples and the others alike – had a great many expectations of him. But Jesus was never going to be bound to their expectations. That was the point. This was not a great king in the traditional sense riding into his city, ready to usurp and oust the oppressors who were in power. This was a humble man riding into a city in the most humble of ways. The crowds shouting “Hosanna” and laying down cloaks and branches before him did not change that. This was a humble man who was doing a new thing, an unexpected thing. Had the disciples and anyone else who had walked with him all that time been paying attention, they would have known that with Jesus they should expect the unexpected.
With all of the drama of today, we who know the rest of the story know that the real drama is yet to come: the terrible, brutal drama of Good Friday and the amazing and terrifying drama of Easter Sunday. That is the real drama of this story. We know that. But I fear that we know that to our detriment. Have we lost our ability to see how unexpected Jesus’ new thing was? Have we become complacent, maybe even smug, in our knowledge and assurance of what is about to happen? Have we forgotten that in this week above all weeks, we should expect the unexpected?
Although it wasn’t my intention at the time, my choice in sermon titles for today has become my theme for this coming week. Expect the unexpected. Yet expecting the unexpected is perhaps the hardest thing I have to do in these coming days. Because I do know what’s on the horizon. I do know what’s coming. I do know the heartbreak of Good Friday, and the ache and darkness of Holy Saturday. I do know the stunning awe that comes with the sunrise on Easter Sunday, and I most definitely know the joy of proclaiming, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” Our challenge is to get past what we know, or what we think we know, and experience anew what this week brings. Our challenge is to expect the unexpected from a story that we have heard countless times before. We must open our hearts and our minds to expect the unexpected.
A song that I find completely unexpected is one recorded by singer and songwriter, Emmylou Harris; Jerusalem Tomorrow. The song tells the story of a con artist. This guy traveled from town to dusty town performing miracles and wonders for people who wanted desperately to believe. He could “tell a tale and make it spin.” He hired a kid to fake blindness, so that the narrator could make him see again. As he puts it, it wasn’t such a bad way to make a living. But his livelihood was becoming as dry as the dust under his feet. The people had stopped listening to him, and believing in his abilities. They had found the real thing. The narrator meets this man, this humble, unassuming man. The man invites the narrator to follow, promising him a reward on down the line. So our narrator agrees to follow this man, if only to see what all the fuss is about. He’ll follow and it looks like they’ll be going to Jerusalem tomorrow.
Emmylou speaks this song rather than sings it, and her voice drips with the cynicism of someone who thinks he’d seen it all. He knew the tricks of the miracle trade. There was nothing that could surprise him, nothing he didn’t expect. But as you listen, you realize he has no idea what will happen in Jerusalem tomorrow.
Perhaps our worship today seems a bit anticlimactic, just as Mark’s telling of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem seems to be. But in what seems to be an unassuming kind of story, there is something new happening. There is something unexpected on the way. The good news for us this day is found in the paradox that in this old, old story there is something new for us to hear, to feel, to experience, to witness. No matter how long we have lived, how many times we have heard the story of Palm Sunday and Holy Week and Easter, there is still the new thing, there is still the unexpected. So let’s give thanks that God’s new thing in Jesus cannot be dimmed by our cynicism. Let us give thanks that we are still called to expect the unexpected, and that we will feel once again the grief and the joy and the overwhelming amazement at what will happen in Jerusalem tomorrow. Let all of God’s children say, “Amen.”

Sunday, March 22, 2015

All Will Know Me

Jeremiah 31:31-34
March 22, 2015/Fifth Sunday of Lent

            The movie, Return to Me, is a sweet story about a new heart; literally. Bob and Elizabeth, a young couple very much in love, are on their way home from an award gala when they are involved in a fatal car crash.  Elizabeth is killed, and the decision is made to donate her organs. Her heart is given to a young woman named Grace, who without Elizabeth’s heart would have surely died herself. 
            Grace’s transplant is successful. She lives. Not only does she manage to keep breathing, she rides a bike, sings at the restaurant her grandfather owns, and does many other things she wasn’t able to. With this new heart, Grace lives more fully than she had ever been able to in the past. But she cannot forget that the life she is now living so completely is because of someone else’s death. Her family’s rejoicing at her new heart and new life so filled with possibility walks hand-in-hand with another family’s tragedy. Grace wants to somehow thank the family of her donor. She wants to honor their loss, so she writes a letter. The donor and donor family was anonymous so she has no names or personal information beyond an address. But she writes the letter regardless. The letter reaches Bob, the widower in the story. However in his grief he is unable to open it, so the letter sits on his desk, unread, and is eventually covered by other mail.
            To make a long story short, Bob and Grace eventually meet and fall in love; Elizabeth’s heart beating in Grace’s body connects them in an unexpected way. They find their own happy ending, complete with the twists and turns that make for good cinema. But it was this new heart that opened up a new life for them both.
            A new heart.  A new life.
            Although the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah is not exactly about a heart transplant, it is about something new – a new covenant. The Law, which was once written on tablets of stone, will now be written on the hearts of the people.
            “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.”
            Verse 31 begins, “The days are surely coming …” and then we hear these powerful words of hope and assurance that come with this new covenant, this new promise God will make with God’s people. God has forgotten what has passed.  Now is the time for the new. Forgetting is a dominant theme in these verses in Jeremiah. As I understand the larger context, the people have been paying for the sins of their ancestors. Their complaint has been that God never forgets the sins of the past – even the sins committed by others. New generations continue to pay for the transgressions of the old. When will they stop being punished for the sins of their parents? When will God finally forget?
            In the verses immediately preceding our passage, God assures the people that he has, indeed, forgotten. No more will the people be judged for the sins of those who went before them. No more will a child’s teeth be set on edge because a parent ate sour grapes. From now on, God tells them, there will be new life in your midst. Humans and animals will once again multiply. Judgment was brought on them for wrongdoing, but blessings will be bestowed as well. God tells them that he has plucked up, but he will also plant. One commentator wrote that God is reversing the previous relationship with Judah and Israel. No longer will their relationship with God be based on disobedience; instead it will be based on a new covenant, a new promise, a new heart.
These are some of the most recognized verses from Jeremiah. Some scholars see this as the gospel before the gospel. This covenant that God promises will not be like the old one. Before God took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt. Like a parent leading a small child, God carefully showed them the way they were supposed to live. God gave them the Law, but the people broke the Law over and over, and broke their relationship with God over and over.
            But now, in this new covenant, the Law will be more than mere words. The Law will be written on their hearts. The Law will live within them. They will no longer need to teach or instruct one another on the Law. It will no longer be a course of study. Instead the people will fully and absolutely know the Lord. They will finally and completely be God’s people, and he will be their God. All people – learned and unlearned, rich and poor, strong and weak – will know God in both heart and mind. In the days that are surely coming, they will know the Lord, and the Lord will forgive their iniquity, remembering their sins no more. With this new covenant, God is giving the people a new promise, a new life, and a new heart.
            The language of these verses in Jeremiah is so beautiful, so poetic, that it is easy for me to get caught up in the sound and the emotion of them, without really understanding in a practical way what they mean. But what do they mean? God promises the people that he will make a new covenant with them. It will be unlike the covenant of the past. It will not only be words on paper – or stone – it will be something that lives within them. When God tells them that they will know him, it seems to me that this will be an innate knowledge; instinctive, intuitive. The estrangement between God and God’s people, the connective cord between them that sin severs, will be restored and refashioned. The people will know the Lord in a new way because they have been given a new covenant.
            What is a covenant? A covenant is a promise rather than a contract. A contract specifies failure. If I fail to pay my car payment, the contract that I signed with the financing company, then I will be in breach of contract. A contract specifies failure. But a covenant does not specify failure, it specifies faithfulness. God promises again and again to be faithful to his people. God promises that in spite of our failure to be faithful, God will remain so. In these words of covenant, God promises to forgive our sins and forget them as well. We have our side of the covenant to uphold as well. We must return this promise with love. We are called to love God, to love neighbor, to give our whole lives to living out the love God has for us. We are called to trust that God is faithful and to be faithful to God in return.
            While contracts have a time limit, covenants do not. The covenant God made with Abraham did not end with the covenant God made with David. The Davidic covenant did not end with the covenant we find in our passage from Jeremiah. The covenants of God flow one into another, finding their final fulfillment with the coming of Jesus -- God’s promise made flesh – into our midst.
            Contracts remain fixed between certain people, but covenants expand to welcome others. It is unfair to the context and nature of these words in Jeremiah to make them merely an allegory of the Christian life to come. Still we, the descendants of Gentiles, are here because we were welcomed into the expanding promise of God. We too have received a new heart.
            There are some of those beautiful words again – new heart – but what does that mean? Is it about seeing God’s world and God’s people with new eyes? Is it about living a life grounded in love – the love that works for peace and acts for justice? Is it just some sort of spiritual transplant?
            I’m not sure that I can explain what this new heart is in words alone. But I think I have seen glimpses of what it looks like. This past week in Nashville, Brent and I visited the Civil Rights room at the Downtown Nashville Library. In a small, soundproof room, a documentary made by CBS in the early 1960’s was playing. It featured Reverend James Lawson leading a training exercise in nonviolent resistance at a lunch counter sit-in. The students who were going to be “sitting in” had to be trained in what they would encounter and what it meant to respond non-violently. They were yelled at and cursed. They were physically manhandled. One man was pulled out of his seat. In a pause in the training, Dr. Lawson answered questions that the trainees had about what this would require of them, physically and emotionally.
            He told them a story about a friend of his who was targeted by the KKK. The man was dragged from his home, taken out to a desolated spot, tied to a tree, and was beaten. When the Klan members stopped beating him, they had a debate about whether they should let him live or die. It was agreed that they would kill him, but being “good Christians” they allowed him to pray before he died. This man, so physically abused, described the calm and peace he felt within. When he began to pray, he prayed for the men beating him. He prayed a prayer of forgiveness. He expressed no hatred, only love and compassion for these men who wanted nothing more than to see him dead. Some of the Klansmen were upset by this prayer. They told him to stop praying that way. But others recognized that he could pray any prayer that he wanted. Maybe the prayer touched some of these men in ways that we cannot know, because they let the man live.
            I wonder if new hearts were transplanted that day. I wonder if this black man, this American, who only wanted the same right to live and pursue happiness just as his white counterparts did, had a new heart within him. That new heart allowed him to see these men, who should have been his enemies, as fellow children of God. I wonder if these Klansmen who were guided by hatred and malice also received a new heart that day. Maybe as they heard his prayer, they saw not only this man more fully, but God more fully.  Perhaps they were given a new heart, and saw – even for a fleeting second – the way God sees.
            Is this what it means to know God fully? When we know God fully, we see as God sees. We see with love. We know with love. We act with love. We see one another as God sees us. In these waning days of Lent, as we move closer and closer to the cross, may we feel this new heart beating within each of us. And may all of us, who are children of God’s promise, say, “Amen.”

Sunday, March 15, 2015

God on a Stick

Numbers 21:4-9 
March 15, 2015/Fourth Sunday in Lent

            “Snakes.  Why’d it have to be snakes?”
            So said Indiana Jones in the movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. For those who may not be familiar with this movie, Indiana Jones is an archeologist and an unexpected hero.  He finds lost treasures and rare antiquities. He also gets into what can only be described as swashbuckling adventures, fighting off the bad guys who would use an archaeological treasure for nefarious purposes.  In Raiders, the “bad guys” are the Nazi’s.  The great irony of the story is that Hitler – who wanted to wipe the Jewish people off the face of the earth – wants to find one of the most sacred relics of Judaism, the lost Ark of the Covenant.  The premise of the story is that Hitler would be able to use the Ark’s supposed powers to win the war and rule the world.  Indiana Jones has to find it before Hitler’s minions do.    
            Indy and his friend and helper, Sallah, find the location of the ark.  It is buried underground in some sort of ancient cavern.  Sallah asks Jones, “Indy, why does the floor move?” Indiana throws a torch down and there they are: snakes, hundreds and hundreds of snakes.  “Snakes.  Why’d there have to be snakes?”
            Indiana Jones hates snakes. Seeing this movie for the first time, I felt vindicated that a courageous hero like Indiana Jones has the same phobia I do.  I hate snakes.  That is why it is exceptionally strange that I chose this exceptionally strange passage of scripture to preach this morning.
            Numbers is kind of a strange book altogether. It is in Numbers that we read the story of the talking donkey. Yes, there is a talking donkey in scripture. In the verses immediately preceding this one, the Israelites were helped by God in overcoming the Cannaanites. But in the next breath, the people forgot this. The opening verse in our story tells us that the Israelites leave Mount Hor for the Red Sea, “to go around the land of Edom.” They were still following Moses.  They were still being fed by manna and quail. But they were getting fed up with what they were being fed. They whined and complained against God and against Moses.
            “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and water, and we detest this miserable food.”
            If you think about it, this is a pretty funny line. We don’t have any water. We don’t have any food. And, by the way, the food stinks! The people had complained against Moses before, but if I’m correct, this is the first time they’ve really complained against God. What is God’s response? Snakes. Why’d there have to be snakes? What the NRSV translates as “poisonous” can also be translated as “fiery.” I don’t know which sounds worse. Regardless of the translation, the snakes slither through the people and bite them.  People are dying left and right, and those who are left quickly realize the error of their ways. They go to Moses, proclaiming that they have sinned against God and against him.  Please Moses, take away the snakes. Moses prayed for them, and in response to his prayer, God gave him the cure. Make a bronze image of a serpent and put it on a pole.  If someone is bitten, all they have to do is look at the serpent and they will live.
            I guess the first question to ask is why didn’t God just make the snakes go away? Another question to ask is why are we reading this story in the first place? The reasons we read this odd little story from Numbers is because Jesus spoke of it in our passage from John’s gospel.  Just as the serpent on the pole was lifted up and the people lived, so shall Jesus be lifted up on the cross so the people may live. Then Jesus spoke perhaps the most well-known words in all of scripture. “For God so loved the world…”
            However, beyond the serpent on the pole and Jesus on the cross, it is hard to reconcile the God who acted in Numbers and the God who sent Jesus. I understand why so many people see the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament as being two different Gods. Technically this is heresy, but it is still understandable. The God we read about in Numbers seems vengeful and punitive. Although the correlation between the people’s complaining and God sending the snakes is not stated specifically, it is implied. The people certainly think that God sent them as punishment for their sinful words. But is this an act of a loving God? People did not stop sinning once they left the wilderness. Jesus was born into that world of sin, and died to save us from the death that sin brings and from ourselves. Jesus was God incarnate, and was there because of God’s overwhelming love for the world. So why the snakes? Why’d there have to be snakes?
            What did snakes represent in the ancient world? They were a personification of evil. Think about the serpent in the Garden of Eden. One commentator wrote that the people have been thinking poisonous thoughts and speaking poisonous words. They could not seem to remember how God was with them, even in the immediate past. The longer they wandered in the wilderness, the more poisonous those thoughts became. Although I tend to stay away from analogy when it comes to scripture, perhaps the snakes are as much a metaphor for the people’s own venom in thought and word, as they were literal serpents.
            The Israelites had been wandering for a long, long time. Older generations were dying, and new ones were being born. For every moment that the Israelites recognized God’s saving presence, there were many more moments when they didn’t. From their perspective, one that was colored by wilderness wandering and a minimum of food and drink, Egypt looked pretty good. Just as they forgot God’s presence, they also seemed to forget exactly what their lives in Egypt really were. They were not halcyon days of bliss; they were days of slavery and backbreaking work. God saved them from that life. God called them to new life and made a covenant, a promise, with them to be their God and asked them to be God’s people. But in this story they can’t see that. They don’t remember that. They don’t fully trust that God is with them or that Moses knows what he is doing; until the snakes.
            How often am I like the Israelites at the beginning of this story? I’d say I’m like them most of the time. While trusting God and trusting in God’s presence and care should be the easiest thing I do, it is really the hardest. It is hard because I can’t see where God is leading me. I can’t envision life beyond plain old manna. I’m tired of this constant wandering, and I complain bitterly about what I think God is and is not doing in my life. My thoughts and words and lack of trust become snakes of my own design.
            Yet, just as God provided the means for healing to the Israelites in the wilderness, God also provides healing for me. If only I would look. That healing comes in the generosity and compassion of other people, in windows that open when doors close, and in a variety of other ways and through other people. But before we get too complacent in this moment of sweetness and light I’m offering, I think we need to hear a little more about that serpent on a pole.
            In II Kings, when a new king comes into power and begins to clean up the mess left by other kings, that bronze serpent on a pole is still in existence. And the king orders that it be smashed, along with any other idols that may have been used. The people were healed by the snake on a stick, but they forgot that it was only a figure on a stick, not God on a stick. Isn’t that really what idols are? Isn’t that what idolatry boils down to? It is worshipping God on a stick. God was not on that pole, any more than God is residing solely on the crosses in our sanctuary or even in our sanctuary at all. God is a living God. That is the God we worship, and it seems to me that a living God cannot be found in one place or in one symbol. The living God cannot be forced into a box of our own making or placed on a stick that is easy for us to look at. God is a living God. As one scholar commented, “God is on the loose.”
            Author Anne Lamott wrote that she knows that she has created God in her own image when God starts hating everyone that she does. If you put that on a much larger scale, it’s easy to understand the wars that are fought in God’s name.
            We want so much to understand God, to have a handle on God, to be comfortable with God. But God is not on a stick. God is a living God, and that is good news. A living God continues to create and call and lead. A living God is not bound by our conventions or our complacency. God is not static or fixed, but alive. This living God gives us new life.  This living God opens our minds to new ways of thinking. This living God opens our eyes to new ways of seeing. This living God opens our hearts to wide and wonderful loving. God is not trapped on stick, but alive and on the loose in our world. God is on the loose because God so loved the world, and because God so loves us.  Let all of God’s children say, “Amen.”