“Finding the Purpose”

pptF9B.pptm  -  AutoRecovered.jpg*Preached on 28 April 2019, a First Christian Church of Hampton.  The Easter season is an opportunity to explore the birth of the Church and how the disciples lives’ were so changed, they themselves became a beckon to Christ.  It is much to ponder in an age when we really need to think about what it means to “be church” – not as an organization or for us to have some sense of belonging, but as those filled with a purpose that truly invites others into relationship.  Lots to ponder!  – Vinson

The Gospel of John 20:19-31 (New Revised Standard Version)

 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.   If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  But Thomas (who was called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.   So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them.  Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe.”  Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

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INTRODUCTION

There comes a time to each of us as believers, when we must live the resurrection, and yet the Sunday after Easter is invariably a tough one.  The busyness of Lent and certainly Holy Week are over, and fatigue then hits in the wake of the drama… the trauma… and even the early word of the Good News.  Clergy and choirs alike everywhere tend to feel as much relief that it is over as joy.  Then, somewhere in the recesses of the mind and heart there a question always arises, “OK, what’s next?”

Let’s be honest, it’s usually not a question of energy, but of anxiety, as God’s word, in this case, from John, initiates us into the experience of those first disciples.

It’s Easter evening, when Jesus appears among the disciples.  It has been a bewildering day of it.  Gathered in the upper room, one could reasonably infer that nearly all of them had been hidden there through the bulk of the horrific and uncertain recent days since that last meal together.  Given the sabbath would have gone from Friday night to Saturday night, they would not have traveled any distance even if they had wanted to.  They still had the room for their use, even if was serving as a protected place to just absorb all that had transpired, especially with the reports from the women, Peter having gone himself to find the tomb empty, but unlike the women – not having encountered Jesus.

The setting is, if we are faithful in reading the scripture, a bit depressing.  We are told that “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked.”  They were afraid.  They were unsure of how to get on with being Jesus’ disciples.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Sometimes, if we are really honest with ourselves, we have a similar thought, it being:  what do we now do as disciples… as church?  Invariably, everyone will look around, scanning faces, hoping someone has the answer.

FOR INSTANCE

So let’s start there — in the ground of God’s wisdom — and think for a moment about the scene, through what John writes.

Jesus’ tomb is open and the stone rolled away, but the disciples’ house is closed with the doors locked as tight as the tomb had been.

Jesus is on the loose and appearing here and there, but meanwhile the disciples are bound in fear and hiding.

The few that ventured forth left the empty tomb of Jesus had entered their own tombs of fear, doubt, and blindness right along with the rest.

Jesus words of faith, hope, and love shared by the three Marys, Joanna and the rest Mary Magdalene’s on Easter morning, had seemed an idle tale.

The doors of faith have been closed, their eyes shut to the bold new reality.

They locked themselves in, the doors becoming the great stone sealing their tomb.

They separated themselves and their lives from the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.

But before we get judgmental about them, especially Thomas, we have to admit that we too know such days.  We’ve experienced them.  The days when we prefer to just stay in bed, pull the covers over our head, and close out the world and not deal with the full reality – both the death AND even the resurrection.  It even happens to churches.

We might THINK we know what it is to lock ourselves in, but does that provide only a false sense of “security?”  Might we – instead – actually be sealing our tomb and imprisoning our lives, our minds, and our hearts?

If Easter evening has come, the empty tomb has been seen, the words of Mary Magdalene saying “I have seen the Lord” have echoed… yet there is the holing up with those known best, while the doors are locked with fear.

Here’s the thing to note; as John describes the upper room, the doors, the locks – he is speaking of much more than about a physical space, its walls, doors hanging on pivots that were the typical hinges of the time, and wooden locks like Jesus might have once made when he was a carpenter.  What John, who is the one gospel author who always uses story to get to the meaningfulness of events, vice just straight facts, is actually describing is the interior condition of the disciples as the locked places of lives are always more about what is going on inside than around.

So a week after Easter, the witness of John asks:  How is our life different after Easter?  Are we living in the freedom – and yes – the joy of resurrection?  Or, are we still behind locked doors?  John sets this scene to ask us to pause upon the deeper questions, witnessed through the disciples’ behavior and words:  What are the closed places of our lives?

What keeps us locked in our own tomb?

Perhaps it is fear of the unknown that keeps us locked in our tomb.  If we are paralyzed by our fears, it’s as if our feet are caught in a glue trap, and this will hinder our movement toward the resurrection.

Perhaps it is the questions we fear, the disbelief, and/or the conditions we place on our faith, that keep us locked in our tomb.  If we cannot speak openly and honestly about what puzzles or confuses us, it will hamstring our movement toward the resurrection.

Perhaps it is sorrow and loss that keep us locked in our tomb.  If we are so absorbed in our own woundedness that we cannot look up, it will restrict our movement toward the resurrection.

Perhaps it is anger and resentment that keep us locked in our tomb.  If we are unwilling to embrace the light of new ideas, the exploration of possibilities, and hesitant to make changes, it prevents our movement toward the resurrection.

But here’s the thing, Jesus won’t be halted by locked doors, thanks be to God!  John tells us  “Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  Jesus enters into the locked places of life… unexpected, uninvited, and sometimes downright unwanted… and if we happen to be absent in the moment, Jesus will then too – as Thomas found out.  Standing among us, Jesus still offers peace and Jesus still breathes new life into his disciples.

I suppose that’s why I’ve found myself thinking again about a man I once knew some thirty plus years ago when I was a regional medical center chaplain in Kentucky, and this poor soul had been brought down from the mountains. If I was his chaplain, I also found him inviting me into being a student of God’s grace.  The gentleman had an awful combination of an aggressive cancer and out of control diabetes.  I had been called to an ICU because he was throwing things and the nurses were looking for a way to calm him down.  They had put him in an isolation room, to minimize what other patients could hear, and when I stepped into the room, I realized his body had been whittled away while nothing would heal.  Gone were his legs and even his hips.  The cancer had spread into his abdomen and there was no hope, medically speaking.  He had days to live, I was told.   OR So They Thought!  God had other plans.  It was not an easy first meeting, as he would only stare at me in constrained fury.  I finally said it was OK for him to be angry and I would be available if he changed his mind.  Days later, his sister tracked me down.  It seems he couldn’t remember my name, but he did remember a short, bearded chaplain, so the staff had no difficulty knowing it was me!  At her behest, I returned again to him and we entered into conversation.  He believed in Jesus, but he needed more.

He had sought to become perfect before he gave his life, not realizing Jesus was his perfection.

Dying, he thought he had no life to give, not realizing Jesus could do a lot with what little he had.

He thought his life had no meaning, not realizing Jesus IS the source meaning.

Finally, coming to a place of giving his life to Christ, I remember him asking me, “What can half a man offer?” 

We all tend to go straight to the limits we perceive of ourselves.  Factual?  Perhaps.  But absent of the insight of God.  In his case, he had quite a lot to offer – once he began to rely on Christ and not himself.  I witnessed God use him, half a man, one that not only puzzled the doctors when the cancer  retreated and healing occurred, but who in the many weeks he was there changed his siblings not just to a reenergized faith in Jesus Christ, but to step into the joy that surrounded him.  He became the one who lightened the hearts of others.  I would see worn-out nurses step into his room and step back out with a renewed spirit.  He couldn’t read or write, but his sister sent me a note the next year… he was a happy man, one they had not known and could have only been hoped for – alive for reasons medicine could not say, but we could!

We forget, it is not about what one has or doesn’t.  It is always about what God has.  It is not what this church has in people and resources.  It is always about our openness to what God can do, through Jesus Christ.

So a second time, Jesus appears.  This time it is to Thomas, saying again, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.”  Speaking to all of us who have not seen the Resurrected Lord, but depend upon the Word, it is Thomas who is offers the first declaration in scripture of Jesus’ divinity, as he proclaimed: “My Lord and my God!”

SO WHAT?

As believers — we know, we trust — that Christ always stands among his people, in whatever places we are found, saying, “Peace be with you,” and breathing life into that which may appear lifeless.

Regardless of the circumstances! — Jesus shows up bringing peace, offering peace, embodying peace.  Regardless of the circumstances! — Jesus shows up bringing life, offering life, embodying life.  Neither may change the technical circumstances of our life and world… for this world can be a messy and challenging place.  But the life and peace of Jesus’ resurrection enable us to meet and live through those circumstances – endowed with his peace, his breath, his life – sent into the life of others.

We just need to unlock the doors of our own hearts and lives and CONFIDENTLY step out daily into this life which sprang forth from Easter!

Amen.

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“A Name’s Witness” (An Easter Sermon)

PPT for WordPress*Sermon preached on Easter, 21 April 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton. -Vinson

Gospel of Luke 24:1-12 (New Revised Standard Version)

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.  They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.  While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.  The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.  Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”  Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.  Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.   But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.  But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

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INTRODUCTION

On that long ago Easter morning, the women went to the tomb.  It was custom for the nearest women relatives to wash and anoint the bodies of the dead, but in this case it is the closest women followers of Jesus who come in the early dawn to do the sad task.

They are startled to find the tomb empty, the stone rolled aside, and then taken further aback by angels asking the rhetorical question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  After all, they say, “He is not here, but has risen,” adding in explanation, “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”  THEN, it is said, “they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.”

Luke then notes how “it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.”

Women figure prominently in the Jesus movement, and one of the things most notable in the Gospel accounts is the name-dropping.  Whenever followers of Jesus are mentioned, male or female, it is invariably because they became leaders of the early church, whether in Galilee, Jerusalem, or within the larger Roman Empire… and even in Rome itself.  It’s a way of saying, “You know so and so, this is when he or she started out.…”

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Names always matter, especially in the Gospel of Luke, and invariably those mentioned were still very much alive at the time of writing.  Through their lives, the story of Jesus Christ is told.  It is the same even now for us.

FOR INSTANCE

Enter Joanna, a disciple of Christ, who is specifically mentioned in a mere two verses of the Gospels.  As typical of most of the disciples, there’s virtually no background information as to the family she came from, what village or city was her hometown, or even if she had any children.  Married to Chuza – the manager of Herod Antipas’ household and who essentially controlled the treasury and property of the court, Chuza and Joanna, could have been either Jewish or Roman, although Joanna is certainly a Jewish name.

During her lifetime, and most certainly the period of Jesus’ ministry, King Herod, otherwise known as Herod Antipas, was the tetrarch of the Galilean territory.  It can get confusing when reading the New Testament, with three King Herods recorded in the Gospels and Book of Acts.  The king that Joanna would have known, being married to a member of the king’s court, was the second Herod; every bit as fearful of any threat to his reign as his father who had ordered the death of the infant boys in Bethlehem when word came to him via the Magi of the birth of a King.  This Herod she knew had built his court at Tiberias little more than a dozen years earlier, just a few miles away from Capernaum, atop an old Jewish cemetery despite all the Galilean protests, and with funds from excessive taxation.  One can well imagine what the locals thought of him, or of members of his court as they traveled nearby.  Who knows, as one intentionally named by Luke, her husband could have been the one who oversaw its very construction.

When one thinks of the context in which Joanna lived as a member of the court, she would have been present when John the Baptist had come along, one whom we are told in the Gospel of Mark [6:20] that Herod had both fear and protected “knowing him to be a righteous and holy man.”  Joanna would have known that Herod not only befriended John in prison but held great respect for John, and it’s entirely possible she had heard John herself and grown curious of this Jesus, whom John spoke of as one whose sandal he – John – was unworthy to even so much as untie.  Being married to a member of the king’s court, Joanna would have no doubt heard in court gossip of Herod and Herodias’ contentious quarrels over John the Baptist, and would have been present at the horrific birthday party for Herod when the head of John the Baptist was presented after he  reluctantly ordered his execution at the behest of his wife and daughter.

The Eastern Orthodox Church believes Joanna retrieved his head from the dung heap where Herodius threw it and buried it upon Herod’s land on the Mount of Olives.  Whether true or not, Jesus was certainly in nearby Capernaum where Joanna is now revealed as having joined his group of followers, as one healed by him, in the cryptic reference of Luke 8 where it is said “some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”  I would have to wonder if Jesus’ healing of Joanna’s mind had anything to do with what she had seen at Herod’s court.

If Joanna purposefully placed herself in Jesus’ listening audience, she must have been rather conspicuous in her hopes that Jesus would take mercy on her – this woman of supreme privilege standing among the desperate and the poor who flocked to hear words of healing; this woman of a court absolutely detested by the Galileans around her, and who in such proximity to the palace that a Roman soldier or two might have recognized her, perhaps even the centurion whose daughter Jesus had just healed.  One could say she made a choice Herod would not, and put it on the line to seek life in Jesus, well before their actual encounter.

Did Joanna return to King Herod’s court after her healing?  Probably.  She may have wanted to show her husband that she was miraculously well.  Perhaps she gained King Herod’s ear, since he was known to be sympathetic to John the Baptist’s teachings, certainly we do know that the king’s foster brother, Manaen, is found in Acts 13:1 as a teacher in the church.  Who introduced him to the Lord is anyone’s guess.  Nor do we know what happened to her husband over time – only that she used her privilege…

to travel without male escort,

to immerse herself with the most marginalized of society,

to choose and undertake a life of wandering, discomfort, poverty and fear together with a life of generosity, courage, and faithfulness as she financially backed Jesus’ ministry paving the way for his food, shelter, and hospitality and that of his disciples,

to listen to Jesus’ sermons, as one of the first women disciples, and…

to accompany the mother of Jesus at the foot of the cross on Calvary.

As one of only three women witnesses to the empty tomb, the angels, and the risen Lord – Joanna continued to travel in the apostles’ company, and is likely one of the women mentioned in the Upper Room during Pentecost, in Acts 1:12-14, where the Holy Spirit came upon the followers of Jesus and filled them with power to evangelize to the nations.

So it should be no surprise that scholars have concluded that the disciple Joanna is the same woman as the Christian Junia, spoken of by Paul in his Letter to the Romans (16:7), with the Roman name Junia being a form of the Hebrew name Joanna, presumably her adopted name after becoming a missionary.  Given that Paul reports she was with the Lord before his own 34 AD conversion, and for him to have given Junia such praise as a famous apostle, she had to have been a witness from Jesus’ baptism until his crucifixion.  Only a few women deserve that title.

SO WHAT?

“Why do you seek the living among the dead?”  Joanna, in the company of Mary, the mother of James,. and Mary Magdalene, and others whose names are lost to us, heard that question that God puts to the saints — and the strugglers — of each generation.  Yet, shocked, disoriented, fatigued, and sorrowful as they were that morning, they also heard the crucial statement that followed:

******** “Through the living Jesus, I give YOU the gift of life.” ********

If we were, like Joanna, given two lines to be visible in the pages of the Gospel, as those through whose life the story of Jesus Christ is told, what will be our own witness of the one who heals us, saves us, and gives us the power to be Christ’s evangelists in our own chaotic age?

As those who have heard the Good News of Christ in our own age, that dawn morning holds before us the implicit question, what will we do with our own encounters with the Risen Lord, as those now called to tell the story of Jesus Christ… his mercy, his love, his healing?

We have been called.  We ARE called still  — DAILY —  to be an Easter people.  And as an Easter people, “ALLELUIA IS OUR SONG!”  ALLELUIA!  ALLELUIA!  Our Christ is Risen.  ALLELUIA!

Amen!

 

 

 

 

“Finding One’s Voice” (A Palm Sunday Sermon)

PPT for WordPress*Sermon preached on 14 Apr 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton, on Palm Sunday. -Vinson

Gospel of Luke 19:28-40 (New Revised Standard Version)

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.  When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples,  saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here.  If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’”  So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them.  As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”  They said, “The Lord needs it.”  Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.  As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.   As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen,  saying,  “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”  Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”  He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

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INTRODUCTION

What if I told you that Christmas only made it into two of the four gospels?  Or, that only two of the gospels mention the pregnant Mary?  Or that only one notices there was no room in the inn?  Or only two speak of shepherds watching their flocks by night, the angels singing, the star that guided the wise men, and the babe in the manger?

What if I told you that the Lord’s Prayer only made it into two of the four gospels?  This prayer Jesus taught his followers at their request, the prayer Christians have recited for more than 20 centuries, its words spoken in a diversity of languages and places the whole world over, by Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, and every sect and faction of the full diversity of the church universal… did you notice it’s in only two of the gospels?  Only two.

What if I told you that the Beatitudes only made it into two of the four gospels, with its words of blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the meek, blessed are the poor and so forth?

What if I told you that the parable of the Good Samaritan only made it into two of the four gospels, and the same is true with the parable of the Prodigal Son?

OK, now what if I told you that the story of Palm Sunday, of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, made the cut in all four of the gospels?  The story with the humble beast, the shouting crowds, the branches, the coats and cloaks spread like a carpet upon the road, though not all the details were shared by each – it took center stage in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

One could, I think, make the case that if Pentecost is the day the church was born, Palm Sunday marked the day that the followers of Jesus first found their public voices and summoned their courage, as the whole of the followers of Jesus, not just the 12 who were sent on a preaching mission, took to the streets publicly witnessing to God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.

FOR INSTANCE

Listen again to Luke’s description of the scene, as they entered the Golden Gate into the city of Jerusalem and “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!’”

It’s a city crammed for Passover, with visitors from all over the divided land that had been Israel and from across the Mediterranean, their clothing, manners, languages and accents making clear who were the city natives and who wasn’t.  In this festive scene, rooms went at exorbitant prices, markets were jammed as folks made their preparations, lambs were driven through narrow streets, smells of the hard unleavened bread wafted through the streets as it was baked, the curious gathered around musicians and street performers, as merchants sold their wares—spices and fruits, wine, probably trinkets, with coins exchanging hands – those of the Roman Empire, and upon the Temple Mount, other coins.

It’s controlled chaos.

Roman soldiers on foot and astride horses, helmeted and with gleaming breastplates, make their way on patrol in this complicated, ever on edge province, among a people who refused to worship the emperor as another God in a large pantheon.

Amidst this, in a neighboring village, Jesus’s disciples — armed with the code words “The Lord has need of it” — procure a colt that had never been used in a Temple procession, owned by those so poor that it had taken a significantly sized group pooling their funds together to be able to purchase it.

If we really think about it, until now the followers of Jesus had been just that…Followers,  Largely passive,  Reflective,  Listening,  Watching…: Jesus often having to pull them aside to explain his latest parable as they sometimes stumbled over his metaphors and allegories, while they journeyed the past three years all over the land, even stepping into what is now southern Lebanon.

When Jesus had argued with both civil and religious officials, they had watched with a wariness, probably marveling at his ability to parry their attempts to trap him.

When Jesus had defended an adulteress against those ready to execute her by stoning, I would imagine they held their breath.

When Jesus broke social taboos and conversed in public with a woman from Samaria, I expect they cringed.

When Jesus defied the Sabbath laws by cracking open and eating grain as they walked, or declared that the last shall be first, the first last, and the rich poor, they found the understandings they had grown up with being challenged.

When Jesus kissed lepers and healed those of broken bodies, don’t you imagine they must have been in both fear and awe at the same time?

Until this day, this moment in time, the followers of Jesus had been just that: followers, largely passive in the gospel accounts, doing what he asked of them, observant and sometimes questioning of his words and deeds as he drew them into an understanding of what God was doing.  But on this first day of the week, “Palm Sunday” as we call it now, we see their transformation as they enter Jerusalem.  Taking their first steps as actual witnesses, for the first time since they have known Jesus, the whole of them are shown proclaiming the Kingdom of God breaking forth, as they echo the words of the prophet Zechariah.

The followers of Jesus enter the city, engaging in a kind of street theater.  On the ancient streets of Jerusalem, in front of God and Rome and everybody, they announce and proclaim that their allegiance belongs not to Pax Romana, the uneasy peace achieved by Roman force, but to Pax Christi… a peace to which we are invited, but never coerced… a peace which emanates from the very heart of God… a peace that Paul would one day eloquently sum up as passing all human understanding.  They announce him in a city that hosted the full weight of the political and military power of Rome, the Fortress of Antonio standing as a tall sentinel over the Temple Mount and city itself, declaring the reign of Caesar.  They announce him in a city with the Temple complex, its inner and outer courts visible over the city, declaring the reign of the organized religious power of the Temple, as the smoke of the sacrificial rites rises above them.

The followers of Jesus shout in public that they belong to God, an act that could be viewed as sedition.  If some of the Pharisees demanded of Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop,”  He knew full well that even if they “were silent, the stones would shout out,” while Pontius Pilate entered from the opposite side of the city, taking up residence in his fortress.  Keeping an eye over Rome’s most restless province as it celebrated God’s triumph over the greatest superpower of its day, Egypt, Pontius Pilate and his legions left the comfortable confines of his palace in Caesarea Maritima for the parochial space of Jerusalem, precisely because they distrusted associations, crowds, and gatherings – especially this one.

SO WHAT?

Perhaps, Palm Sunday has pride of place in all four gospels because…

This is the day disciples, called from their prior work for the past three years to experience what had been an intimate and private discipleship, now go public – announcing the kingdom of God.

This is the day when the disciples witness what God’s liberating love looks like.  Yet, only too soon discover — as much for our sakes as for theirs – what true forgiveness looks like through a journey with Jesus that will see them largely fail and then experience that very failure transformed in service to a resurrected Lord.

This is the day the first inklings of “CHURCH” began to find its feet and its voice and swore allegiance to the Prince of Peace.

And so — THIS day, which marks the beginning of what, at minimum, becomes a week of drama, trauma, and finally… of awe – may the church be born again, reborn on Palm Sunday in me and in you, reborn with vim, with vigor, with determination,… and — most of all, — with love, light, and faith to heal our hurting, struggling world.

Amen.

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“Cup of Passion” (Fourth in Series on Lord’s Supper)

PPT for WordPress*Sermon preached on 07 April 2019,  at First Christian Church of Hampton. – Vinson

Gospel of John 12:1-8 (New Revised Standard Version)

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.  There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.  Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.  But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”  (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)  Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.  You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

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INTRODUCTION

Six hundred years ago, Thomas a Kempis made an observation within his book, In Imitation of Christ, his writings still a classic treatise on Christian spirituality:

Jesus now hath many lovers of His celestial kingdom:

but few bearers of His Cross.

He hath many who are desirous of consolations:

but few of tribulation.

He findeth many companions of His table:

but few of His abstinence.

All desire to rejoice with Him:

few wish to endure anything for Him.

Many follow Jesus to the breaking of bread:

but few to the drinking of the cup of His Passion.

Many reverence His miracles:

few follow the shame of the Cross.

We may recall from scripture that on the night when the Lord’s Supper was instituted, a request was made by the sons of Zebedee as to their being able to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus, when he came into his glory.  If we recall the telling we likely also remember Jesus’ response, that they had no idea at all as to what they were really asking.  Said Jesus, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism of which I am baptized?”  Gathered around the Table, they were so busy figuring out how to be their amazingly awesome selves while they looked for positions of power, that they completely missed out that Jesus was speaking of his death – and how the very cup which was to overflow with grace would come at such a great price.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

I think this is why Thomas a Kempis was onto something with his succinct observation that “Many follow Jesus to the breaking of bread: but few to the drinking of the cup of His Passion.”  The feast we are all about!  Bread makes us happy.  It is one of our favorite things… happy food!  But, then the cup of Christ comes around, a cup we cherish because it IS a reminder of sins forgiven, but may at the same time resist that very cup because it invites us into discipleship that may bring discomfort and yes – sacrifice.  We naturally like the mountaintop, but the valley we would surely seek to avoid, the 23rd Psalm notwithstanding.

FOR INSTANCE

So it is that each and every Sunday we speak the words of institution, sharing those from the Gospel accounts of the last supper, or perhaps using the words from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  Communion was a big discussion item for Paul and it’s easy to forget his instruction comes amid and because of some very painful discussions within the church at Corinth.  Paul does not shy away from it.  Paul did not shy away from anything, from what is evident in the Book of Acts and his letters, as he now writes: “when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it.”

Here, there is the recognition that the table isn’t always one big happy family, and sometimes, just like on the night Jesus was betrayed, it can get downright messy.  Yet addressing that very messiness is at the heart of the Gospel – this being the ministry of reconciliation – one built upon the bedrock of healthy relationships and communication.  So it is that Paul chooses to speak in the language of Passover, for such is generally understood within scripture to be the context for the Last Supper with the Gospel of John, as usual, sorta doing its own thing vice the other three.

Speaking of that time of Passover, the kitchen area was scrubbed to remove the last trace of yeast from any surface, before the new yeast would be brought forth after Passover.  The standards are exacting and onerous, and we can be assured it was the role of the women to attain them.  In fact, even today, the only relatively fast way to do it is a process that uses a flash fire.  So, Paul wrote:  “Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?  Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened.  For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.  Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” [I Corinthians 5:6-8]

Now I must confess I spent hours looking at my sermon this time, pondering how is it that we can clean out that old yeast of whatever might get in the way of “the new thing” that the Lord is doing, as Isaiah put it.

Surely this bears self-examination.  Surely there is the need to perceive the Body: in short, to get out of our own skin and live for others.  But the reading from John points to something more, as we hear of the actions of Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus.  Passover is near, and so too is Jesus’ “hour” as he spends time with them soon after the pivotal scene of Lazarus being raised, a “sign” – his presence at the table confirming that death does not have the final word – and his resurrection bringing many to believe in Jesus even as others plot his death.

We know that — in coming to the Table — there is imperative to clear out the “old yeast,” the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves and our motivations… the lies that we can pretty much save ourselves by ourselves… the lies that we can follow Jesus without risk and without pain.  These things and more would contaminate the fresh and unleavened dough, and they can really mess up our integrity as disciples.

But is there something more than just ridding the house of what needs to go away, as we approach the cup of the Lord?  What needs to be brought into the Holy presence that is of us?

Foreshadowing the humility of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, I cannot help but think of how Mary “took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.”  As the Gospel tells us, “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”  Pouring out her treasure, equal to a year’s wages for a common laborer, there doesn’t seem to be any other place in the Gospel where a gift of such large measure was publicly given to the Lord, other than the gifts of Joanna and others seem to have had an undeniable role in underwriting the 3-year ministry of the Lord.

But it wasn’t the monetary value that really matters, even if it got the interest of Judas, it is the extravagant love it represented, a love brought into Jesus’ presence.  So if we can understand the economic and charitable logic beneath Judas’s criticism, there is also a rigorous, unyielding piety that just cannot stomach a wild love like Mary’s.  That’s why acts of true grace and love regularly get slandered as deviance – not everyone can get their heart, much less their mind, around generous love.

At the very least, Mary’s hair calls attention to the profound intimacy of what she offers, in the tactile element of the anointing.  If the fragrance of her perfume, which in a in a word study of the Greek text and an underlying Aramaic word appears to be based upon an oil pressed from pistachio nuts, fills the house, then would not the gentle touch of her locks fill Jesus’ sensations?

We might also imagine that in witnessing such an expression of deep love, those watching might even find it either uncomfortable or that it exceeded good taste.  Scholars cannot agree about whether the detail concerning Mary’s hair lends an erotic air to the event, but even today it may be impossible to hear the story without raising an eyebrow at the profound intimacy of her act.  Let’s face it, if we were present in that moment, would we find Mary’s lavish love too much to behold?

SO WHAT?

Isn’t that sometimes what we experience with the cup?  A lavish love given us?  Yet also a call to be such a lavish love to others?  To give all of ourselves in worship, not just in the shelter of this sanctuary, but everywhere we journey during the passage of our days.  To be willing to be vulnerable, even to the point of what might seem too much.  To be those who aren’t just served, but who serve.  To have experienced the extravagant love of Jesus Christ, to witness the extravagant love of the disciple called Mary.  To be the cup of the Lord in a world that thirsts for love and lacks the depth of joy.

Amen!