Inconvenient Discipleship

Sermon on Luke 3:7-18 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

This past Friday, my family and I ventured out to procure our Christmas tree. We were in a festive mood: we had a good friend in town, our 17 month old was happy and well-rested, and everyone was finally ready to decorate the house for Christmas. imgresBut when we got to the tree farm, our holiday spirit vanished pretty quickly. The weather was clammy and uncomfortable, the ground was muddy and covered with forsaken tree limbs, the remaining trees were scraggly and hard to come by, and somehow there were gunshots in the distance. It was a little like looking for a tree in a Cormac McCarthy novel. By time we had acquired our tree, I was thoroughly exhausted and feeling not at all festive. As it turns out, my Christmas spirit lasts only as long as it is convenient.

Or perhaps, that experience was preparation for this morning’s gospel reading. Today we return to the banks of the Jordan, to hear John the Baptist angrily call his people to repentance. In the gospel according to Luke, John’s wrath is particularly evident: “You brood of vipers!” he charges. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance, because every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” John, like the fire and brimstone prophets of old, is putting the fear of God into his audience, which is further illustrated by his chilling depiction of the coming Messianic judge: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” This fear-based evangelism is not an unfamiliar strategy, and it seems to have been effective for John. Luke tells us that the people who gathered at the Jordan, even the tax collectors and soldiers, were moved to ask what they should do, how they might forestall the coming wrath. Given John’s rhetoric elsewhere, you would think that he would prescribe dramatic acts of contrition. Instead, John’s instructions are astonishingly straightforward. To the soldiers, he says, “Don’t extort money by threats or false accusations.” To the tax collectors, he says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” And to everyone else, John the Baptist says simply, “If you have two coats, give one to someone who doesn’t have one.” The juxtaposition is startling. Here’s John the Baptist, in a pique of prophetic rage, telling those he has just warned about divine judgment that discipleship isn’t all that hard. In fact, there’s a level to which it is convenient: if you have extra, share what you have left over. It’s really that simple. If John were writing a self help book, it might be titled, “How to succeed in discipleship without really trying.”

John the Baptist shows up in our lectionary fairly regularly, especially during the season of Advent. This is interesting, because this season reminds us that there’s a level to which John got his prediction wrong. At the very least, he seems to have misunderstood the nature of God’s judgment. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus, the one John was preparing us for, wields neither a winnowing fork nor an ax. Later on, in fact, John’s disciples ask Jesus if he is indeed “the one who is to come,” implying that John was disappointed with how the ministry of Jesus was unfolding. In the other gospels, Jesus picks up where John left off, telling parables about separating the sheep from the goats and the wheat from the chaff. But in Luke’s gospel judgment occurs not when God separates the wheat from the chaff, but when people are confronted with and indicted by their failure to apprehend the grace made known in Jesus Christ. In other words, the proclamation of Jesus in Luke’s gospel is fundamentally different than that of his cousin John.

Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than their different approaches to generosity, particularly when it comes to coats. When John exhorts the crowds who come to be baptized, he tells them that discipleship isn’t all that complicated; it’s as easy as giving away your extra coat. But a few chapters later, in the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus says “from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” imgresThe implication is that as the person who stole your coat is running away, you should call out and say, “Hold on; you forgot something.” John frames generosity this way: if you are warm and your sister is cold, you should do whatever you can to make your sister warm, as long as that does not make you cold. Jesus, on the other hand, frames generosity in a far more dramatic way: if you are warm and your enemy is cold, you are called to do whatever it takes to make her warm, even if you end up cold. For John the Baptist, generosity is about common sense; it’s about doing what anyone an ounce of compassion would do, about sharing what wouldn’t be difficult to part with. For Jesus, discipleship is an inherently risky proposition; it requires us to become vulnerable, to give of our very selves. Jesus calls us to look beyond what is convenient or safe and risk ourselves on behalf of others. This risky model of discipleship asks us to think about the humanity of Syrian refugees before we think of them as potential enemies. This is an inconvenient discipleship; it transcends common sense and fundamentally changes the way we understand the world.

One night in 2008, Julio Diaz got off the No. 6 train in the Bronx. Suddenly, a teenager brandishing a knife stopped him and demanded his wallet. Diaz immediately complied with the young man’s request, but as he ran away, Diaz called out and said, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.” As Diaz removed his coat, the teen asked him what he was doing. Diaz replied, “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money.” Bewildered by this astonishing demonstration of generosity, the would-be mugger accepted Diaz’s invitation to have dinner at the diner he visited every night on his way home. When the bill came, Diaz said that he would be happy to treat, but that the young man had his wallet. Diaz made him a deal though: he would pay for dinner and give the teen $20 in exchange for returning his wallet and handing over the knife. The young man complied without hesitation and went on his way. By risking himself, Julio Diaz saw the humanity of someone who had made himself an enemy. By thinking beyond safety and convenience, Julio Diaz was able to see the young man who robbed him, and indeed the world, in an entirely new way.

In these final weeks of Advent, we are called to reflect on the risk inherent in the incarnation: the fact that God came to what was his own, and yet God’s own people did not accept him. Yet in spite of this rejection, the Word became flesh, dwelled among us, and became the means for our redemption. When we recognize that the entire world has been and will be redeemed through the supreme risk at the heart of the gospel, we can see the world in an entirely new way.

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Hospitality

There’s a video making the rounds on various social media platforms.

For those who didn’t watch, the video follows a man dressed like a waiter as he delivers meals to homeless people on the streets of Los Angeles.  The meals are arranged on plate and require flatware.  As he delivers the food, he says things like, “Sorry about the wait, sir” and “Did you have the chicken?”  The people who receive these meals greet the guy with a mixture of surprise and appreciation.  Towards the end of the video, we see one recipient share part of his meal with an acquaintance.

On one hand, there is a very kitschy character to this video.  It’s dripping with sentimentality and a little self-congratulation, and was clearly designed to be shared as many times as possible (I’m just doing my part).  On the other hand, there is something very beautiful about this man’s service to the people in his community.  By dressing up as a waiter and serving a meal that requires a fork and knife, this man starts with the fundamental assumption that everyone is entitled to their dignity, no matter what their life circumstances may be.  More importantly, this video reminds us how important relationships are.  After receiving their meals, nearly all of the recipients introduced themselves to the guy dressed as a waiter.  Every encounter depicted in the video started a conversation.  Notably, it was typically the people being “served” who took this next step in building a relationship.

We often get caught up in the notion of doing things for those who are “less fortunate” than we are.  In some ways, there is nothing wrong with this.  If we have an abundance of something, we are called to share it.  But this is very basic discipleship.  This was the minimum standard that John the Baptist articulated to usurious soldiers and greedy officials at the beginning of Luke’s gospel.  Jesus calls us to a much deeper level of commitment.  Jesus tells us that if someone steals our coat, we should call them back and say, “Wait! Take my shirt too!”  I don’t think this is because Jesus wants us all to walk around shirtless (ahem, Matthew McConaughey); I think this is because giving someone our shirt after they have our coat requires us to build a relationship.  It requires us to call that person back and find out why they took our coat, to find out how we can work together to improve their experience of life.  Ideally, we are called to do things with those who need help, to recognize that we are all part of the same creation, to embrace the fact that we are all people for whom Christ died.

Worry

Today is Saint Joseph’s Day.

imgresMost of the information we get about Joseph comes from the first chapters of the gospel according to Matthew.  Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man who had great respect for and devotion to God’s law.  Matthew’s gospel also indicates that Joseph is of the line of King David; he is the means by which Jesus is connected to Israel’s storied monarchy.  Finally, the First Gospel makes a pretty strong connection between our St. Joseph, who is told in a dream to hide the Messiah in Egypt, and Joseph the son of Jacob, the dreamer who saves his people by bringing them into the land of Egypt at the end of Genesis.  The Gospel of Matthew, in other words, paints Joseph as a noble and righteous protector, the first-century equivalent of a knight in shining armor.

So it’s a little surprising that the gospel reading appointed for St. Joseph’s Day comes not from Matthew’s gospel, but from the gospel according to Luke, in which Joseph is a parenthetical character at best.  The reading is the one story canonical story that describes the young life of Jesus: when Jesus is twelve, he and his parents go to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.  On the way home, Mary and Joseph realize that Jesus is not with them and they return to Jerusalem, only to find Jesus holding forth among the elders in the Temple.  Mary scolds him, saying, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”  It’s striking to me that in this gospel reading appointed for his feast day, Joseph neither says nor does anything of significance.  The only thing we are told he does in this particular situation is worry.

I can't see why they were worried...
I don’t know why they were worried…

When I was a kid, I had a tendency to wander.  Most notably, I got lost at the State Capitol building in Connecticut and at the cliff walk in Newport, RI.  None of these incidents ever seemed like a big deal to me; after all, knew where I was the whole time.  Needless to say, my parents did not feel the same way.  When I finally turned up after these unaccompanied sojourns, my parents would greet me with that strange mixture of relief, anger, and concern that is typical of worried parents.  As I’ve entered adulthood, I’ve come to understand that the worried emotions my parents exhibited stemmed entirely from love.  I think this is why the lectionary appoints the reading from Luke’s gospel for Saint Joseph’s day.  Joseph’s anxiety is typical of all worried parents who would rather die than see something bad happen to their children.  This is particularly extraordinary when you consider the unusual circumstances of Jesus’ birth.  In spite of the fact that Jesus was not technically his son, Joseph loved Jesus as his own.  This sacrificial love is emblematic of the love that God has for each and every one of us.  We put our trust in a God who worries for the creation he loves, who is concerned those who are his children by adoption.  And the ultimate message of Lent is that God would rather die than see something bad happen to God’s children.

Good News

Sermon on Luke 2:1-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.

Every Christmas Eve, millions of people around the world tune in to listen to a Service of Lessons and Carols from King’s College in Cambridge, England.  HDR tonemappedFor those of us who are passionate about choral music, it’s always one of the highlights of the year, an opportunity to hear one of the world’s great choirs singing some of the classics of choral literature as well as some new compositions.  As much as I love hearing new and old favorites, however, one of my favorite moments of the service comes at its very beginning.  After the choir and congregation have sung “Once in Royal David’s City,” building from a single treble voice to a majestic wash of sound, the Dean of the Chapel intones the words of the Bidding Prayer: “Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmas Eve our care and delight to hear again the message of the Angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which has come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.”  I love this prayer, not only because of its beautiful language, but also because it implies that this is a story we have heard before and need to hear again, that the story of Jesus’ birth is indeed good news.

The term “good news” is used quite a bit in our culture.  There are whole websites dedicated to the sharing of good news.  For the most part, all of this “good news” is the stuff of feel-good human interest stories, the last three minutes of the 6:00 news.  A sampling of headlines makes this pretty clear: “At 82 years old, finally the ‘it’ girl on campus,” “Canadian Lottery Winner donates $40 million to charity,” “Girl donates her American Girl doll to raise money for the troops.”  You get the idea.  While I’m sure that all of these are wonderful stories of compassion and generosity, this is not the “good news” that the Angels proclaim in Luke’s gospel.  The “good news” proclaimed to the shepherds on that Middle Eastern hillside twenty centuries ago has much broader and more significant implications.

If you think about it, the gospel according to Luke presents the birth of Jesus is kind of an odd way.  You would think that the evangelist would want to focus exclusively on the baby and his family, on their joys and trials, their triumphs and hardships.  But instead, Luke begins his account of the birth of Jesus by talking about politics.  In particular, he focuses on a peculiar decree made by Caesar Augustus.  The emperor wanted to take a census of his diverse empire so the appropriate taxes could be levied.  This makes sense; this is part of the reason that our constitution mandates a decennial census.  It gets weird, however, when we hear that everyone was required to return to his hometown in order to be counted.  That’s just bizarre.  Why would you force someone return to a place he no longer lives in order to conduct a census?  If you do that, you’re not going to get an accurate count.  Scholars have wrestled with this, and some have come to the conclusion that there was no census, that it is a literary device used by the gospel to make sure that Jesus was born in Bethlehem so that the prophecy of Micah could be fulfilled.  But I wonder if Luke mentions this decree from Caesar Augustus to show us what the exercise of worldly power looks like.  The emperor used his authority to command people where to go, even when those commands didn’t make any sense.  By mentioning this decree, Luke exposes the way the world is: people are subject the whims of tyrants and forced to do their bidding.

It is within this context that the angels make their announcement.  Even as the known world is being subjected to the whims of a capricious ruler, an angel appears to a group of shepherds and says, “Do not be afraid, for behold: I am bringing good news of great joy that will be for you and all people.”  The word that we translate as “good news” or “good tidings” is euaggelion.  While both of the familiar translations are accurate, they do not capture the full scope of the Greek.  You see, euaggelion was not used for everyday good news; euaggelion was used specifically to announce the birth of a new emperor.  The angels are not simply telling us that something good has happened in Bethlehem; the angels are telling us that a new king has arrived.  Even as the rulers of the present age are forcing their will upon the world, the angels announce that a new ruler has been born and that the world is going to change.  The message of the angels is that this world can be transformed.  The message of the angels is that the days of the powers of this world are numbered.  The message of the angels is that God has come to dwell among us and has promised new life to the world.  When we hear the good news of Christmas, we are called to reevaluate our lives, reorient our priorities, and make ourselves ready for a transformed world.

Even though the angels’ announcement is ultimately a political proclamation, we must remember that today we celebrate the arrival of a very different kind of king.  While most worldly rulers are heralded by military parades and housed in magnificent palaces, the king we welcome today was heralded by a humble donkey and housed in a stable.  While most worldly rulers demonstrate their power through oppression and violence, the king we welcome today reveals his power in compassion and love.  And while most worldly rulers would do anything to stay in power and preserve their lives, the king we welcome today gave himself up for us on a Roman cross.  Today we affirm the deep logic of the Christian faith: in the Incarnation, God became one of us and demonstrated how we are meant to care for one another.  We are not meant to impose our will on others, we are not meant to presume that we know better than our neighbors, we are not meant to turn anyone away because of who they are or what they have done.  God has taken our human nature upon him; thus, we are called to welcome as a gift from God anyone who shares our humanity.  We are called to humble ourselves before the one who humbled himself as we reach out in love to the world Christ came to save.

choir-service-bigPerhaps the most dramatic moment of Lessons and Carols takes place silently and away from the eyes of the congregation.  As the organist plays the final notes of the prelude, the choir gathers in the rear of that beautiful chapel.  As they prepare to sing “Once in Royal David’s City,” sixteen young boy trebles huddle next to one another, uncertain about which one of them will sing the first verse.  It is not until the choirmaster sounds an opening pitch and points to one of them that they know who will sing an unaccompanied solo for the hundreds gathered in the chapel and the millions listening around the world (no pressure!).  It’s a powerful and dramatic moment, one that requires the boys to be ready for anything.  But more importantly, that nervous child singing about the birth of Jesus for millions upon millions of people is an icon of the Incarnation, a celebration of the fact that God shared our frail humanity and came to bring us good news.

Sarcasm

Sermon on Luke 16:1-13 preached to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on September 22, 2013.

One of the realities of our digital age is that nearly every website gives its users the opportunity to comment on the website’s content.  Just about every article on the internet has a section below it where readers can offer their opinions about what they have just read.  This comment section is, in some ways, similar to the editorial page in a newspaper.  There is, however, a significant and important difference.  While the content of the editorial page is scrutinized and selected by an editor, there is no such filter in an internet comment section.  Literally everyone who can type (and quite a few people who can’t) is given the opportunity to make their voices heard over the information superhighway.  As you can imagine, there are some very disturbed, angry, ignorant, and downright crazy people who post in these comment sections.  If one spends any kind of time on the internet, one quickly learns that these comment sections rarely edify and frequently frustrate.  Responding to these comments is not an option, because the torrent of negativity unleashed by every minor disagreement is overwhelming.  It is better simply to ignore the comments.  The arguments are pointless and the unintended consequences can be catastrophic.  Brothers and sisters, I adjure you by God: for the sake of your physical, mental, and spiritual health, do not read internet comments; it’s simply not worth the anguish.

So while I was reading some internet comments the other day, I was reminded about a particularly annoying brand of internet commenter.  This is the person who wanders into a forum and makes a comment that is specifically designed to make people angry.  imgresFor instance, a University of Oklahoma fan may wander into a University of Texas forum and proclaim how terrible the Longhorns are.  Obviously, the person who does this is not even trying to contribute to the conversation; he’s just trying to get people riled up.  In internet parlance, this person is known as a troll, and the activity he engages in is known as trolling.  As frustrating as internet trolls can be, the most insidious thing about them is that they see what they do as a public service.  If you challenge an internet troll to contribute something of substance to the discussion, he will respond that he is: he’s being intentionally provocative, he’s causing us to moderate our position in response to his ludicrous opinion.  The reality, of course, is that this generally isn’t true: the internet troll is usually just being a jerk.  It’s interesting to me, however, that those who troll tend to embrace this narrative in which they are provocateurs, contributors to the internet symposium who force us to do the hard work of self-examination.

The reason I bring this up is that in our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus seems to be trolling us a little bit.  This is probably the most bizarre parable in all of the New Testament, because it seems to go against everything that we know about what Jesus did and taught.  This is especially true in the gospel according to Luke, in which Jesus is incredibly concerned with how preoccupied people are with money and influence.  To get a sense of how strange this parable really is, we need to take a look at some of the other moments in Luke’s gospel, many of which we’ve looked at over the past few weeks.  Just a few weeks ago, we heard Jesus tell the parable of the great dinner, in which he warned us not to think to highly of ourselves, not to exploit the influence we believe we have in order to gain advantages over people.  A few weeks before that, we heard the parable of the rich fool, who built huge silos to store all his stuff and ensure his security, only to die that very night.  And next week, we will hear the story of Lazarus and the rich man, in which a man is thrown into Hades because of his obsession with his wealth and possessions.

So when we arrive at the parable in today’s gospel, the parable of the dishonest manager or the shrewd steward, I think we’re right to feel a little thrown off, perhaps even a little uncomfortable.  The story goes like this: a rich man has a business manager and discovers that the guy is mismanaging his boss’s assets.  Maybe he’s made some bad investments, maybe he’s skimming off the top, maybe he’s just incompetent; whatever the reason, the rich man demands an audit from his steward.  Instead of buckling down, getting the books right, and hoping that his boss will give him another chance or instead of updating his resume and hoping that he can get some honest work, the manager proceeds to go around to his boss’s debtors and reduces what they owe the rich man.  The thing is, he doesn’t do this out of the goodness of his heart, he doesn’t do this because his boss is unjust; he does this in order to get consideration from the people whose debt he’s forgiving, he does it for purely selfish reasons.  At this point, we can’t wait for the owner’s reaction.  This manager is going to get it!  He’s defrauded his boss; he’s been completely selfish.  There’s no way that he’s going to get away with this.  So imagine our surprise when Jesus tells us that the rich man commended the steward for acting selfishly.  Really?  Did you get that right Jesus?  Not only was the rich man not mad, but he praised this dishonest manager?  As if we weren’t confused enough already, Jesus goes on to instruct us to follow this manager’s example: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

 

What is going on in this baffling parable?  Is Jesus really telling us to emulate this dishonest steward?  Are we really supposed to follow the example of a guy whose life is dictated by his own selfishness?  It’s hard to say.  One disadvantage of the study of Scripture is that we don’t have the tapes.  We don’t know how Jesus sounded when he said the things recorded in the gospels.  The result of this is that many of us tend to have a Scripture reading voice in our head (mine is some combination of James Earl Jones and Billy Graham).  Whatever it sounds like, it’s usually magisterial and full of authority.  But the reality is that Jesus probably had a variety of ways of communicating.  Sure, there were times in his ministry when a Scripture reading voice would have been very appropriate, like in the Sermon on the Plain.  But, what about when Jesus takes up a little child in his arms and says that it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs?  Are we supposed to think that he spoke to these children the same way that he spoke to the crowds?  Probably not.  sarcasm01In the same way, I wonder if we are mishearing this parable of the dishonest manager because we are assuming our James Earl Jones/Billy Graham voice.  What if we’re missing a note of sarcasm in Jesus’ voice: “Go ahead, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, because when it’s gone they’re totally going to welcome you into the eternal homes.  See how that works out for you.”  Now, I may be treading on some perilous ground here, but this interpretation seems more consistent with what we’ve heard before and what we’re going to hear in Luke’s gospel.  In the parable of the rich fool, Jesus makes it very clear that we shouldn’t be preoccupied with wealth because we can’t take it with us, because wealth is not eternal.  In the same way, it stands to reason that if we make friends with our wealth, that thing which isn’t eternal, those friendships won’t last very long.  Regardless of how we hear this parable, I think it’s clear that Jesus is being intentionally provocative, that Jesus is encouraging us to look closely at this dishonest manager and determine what we can learn from him.

On one level, I think we sympathize with the guy.  He’s in a position that too many of us have been in at one point or another; he’s about to lose his job.  And the only way he knows how to take care of himself is by being shrewd but also by being selfish, by looking out for number one, by worrying about himself first and about his impact on other people later.  This manager looked at his situation and was terrified, because all of his possessions, including his job, his friends, and his money are in jeopardy.  As one New Testament interpreter has remarked, possessions are our guard against nonexistence.  This manager was convinced that if he lost his possessions, if he no longer had what he once had, he would cease to exist, that he wouldn’t matter, that his life would be meaningless.  This manager defined himself in terms of what he owned, he defined himself in terms of what he could get out of other people, he defined himself in terms of things that are passing away.  But what Jesus reveals us to us in telling this parable, what Jesus reveals to us in all of the gospel according to Luke, what Jesus reveals to us in his death and resurrection is that we are not defined by what we have.  We are not defined by how much we make, by what circles we travel in, by how nice a car we drive, by who our parents are, by how much education we have, by who we voted for, by what we post on the internet, or by any of the thousands of other ways that our culture defines value.  We are not defined by what we have; we are defined by the fact that we are beloved children of God.  That’s it.  Jesus tells this story not to give an example of how not to behave; Jesus tells this story to remind us that what we have does not define us; Jesus tells this story to reminds us how much God loves us.  Jesus reveals the depth of God’s love for us on the cross.  By destroying the power of death, Jesus affirms the promise that nothing can separate from the love of God in Christ.  When we embrace our identity as beloved children of God, when we lose our preoccupation with what we have, then we will be empowered to share the love that God makes known to us in Jesus Christ, the love that transcends divisions and unites us, the love that reminds us of our eternal home.

Nonsense

We have arrived at the day for which we have been preparing for the last 40 days.  It is Easter Day, the day of Resurrection, the day when we remember and celebrate the fact that the women went to the tomb and found it empty.  And yet, despite the season of preparation, despite our disciplined efforts to make room for God in our lives, despite the fact that we have been looking forward to this celebration for weeks, we may still feel unready.  We may still feel unprepared for this celebration, because the Resurrection challenges our assumptions and transforms the way we look at the world.  Even as we celebrate the fact that Christ has been raised from the dead, we may have lingering doubts.  After all, people do not rise from the dead in our experience.  In spite of all our preparation, we may feel unready to proclaim that Christ is risen.

We are not the first people to have these doubts.  Luke’s gospel tells us that the women went to tomb early in the morning, only to find the stone rolled away and the body of Jesus gone.  After two men in dazzling clothes asked why they were looking for the living among the dead, the women rushed to tell the apostles, who dismissed it as “an idle tale.”  This word that Luke uses can also be translated as “foolishness” or “nonsense.”  For the apostles (and probably for the women who went to the tomb), the idea that someone could rise from the dead was ludicrous.  First-century Jews knew just as well as twenty-first century skeptics that people do not rise from the dead, that death is the end of the story, that talk of resurrection is nonsense.  The apostles had the same doubts that many of us have.  The tomb may had been empty, but that doesn’t mean that Jesus’ followers were ready to proclaim that Christ is risen.

emptytombNevertheless, even as the apostles dismissed the women’s story as nonsense, one of the apostles ran to the tomb to see if it was true.  I can only imagine what Peter’s inner monologue was like as he rushed to the place where Jesus had been buried: “This is so stupid.  Those women must have been seeing things.  Maybe the gardener was messing with their heads.  Anyway, there’s no way that Jesus’ body is gone.  There’s no way that he rose from the dead.  Things like that just don’t happen.”  Peter was among those who confidently dismissed the very idea of resurrection, and yet as he approached the tomb, doubts may have crept into his mind.  What if the tomb was empty?  What if he really had risen from the dead?  Luke’s gospel provides a wonderful detail: as Peter arrives at the tomb, he has to stoop to look inside.  As he approached the tomb, he had to slow down and pause at its entrance.  He had to take a deep breath and stoop to peer into the gloom, terrified of what he would (or wouldn’t) find.

Even in the midst of our doubts, even in the midst of our confident belief that the very idea of resurrection is nonsense, Easter challenges us to take a deep breath and stoop to peer inside the empty tomb.  We may look to satisfy our morbid curiosity, we may look to prove our skeptical neighbors wrong, we may look because we are desperately in need of God’s promise of new and abundant life.  Whatever our motivation, Easter challenges us to look for new life even in those places that have known only death and despair.  We may have our doubts, but Easter challenges us to look past our doubts and embrace the possibility of resurrection, the possibility of transformation, the possibility that this life can be renewed by the power of God who loves us.  When we stoop to peer inside the empty tomb and embrace the possibility of resurrection, we can proclaim to this world that God’s love and faithfulness have the power to transform a world that his enslaved to death and despair.  When we embrace the possibility of resurrection, we are given the opportunity to live resurrection lives of love and service to others.  Resurrection is more than an empty tomb; it is a promise that the world can be transformed, that the evil powers of this world are no match for the love of God, and that we have the ability to make this world a better place.  Even if we are afraid of what we will find when we peer inside the empty tomb, we are called to proclaim the resurrection by working for the transformation of the world.

Cloak Sunday

Today is Palm Sunday, which is easily one of the most schizophrenic days of the church year.  The day begins with exuberant hymns and shouts of “Hosanna” and concludes with silence and somber reflection.  It is a day of contrasts, a day of ambiguity, a day that prepares us for the emotional roller coaster of Holy Week.  I think, however, it’s important for us not to see Palm Sunday exclusively as an opportunity to get ready for Holy Week, but as a day that possesses its own significance.

Entry into JerusalemOur reading during the Liturgy of the Palms today came from Luke’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  As our deacon read the familiar story, I was struck by some unfamiliar and surprising details.  Unlike the other gospel accounts, the crowds do not shout “Hosanna” as they greet Jesus.  Furthermore, Luke identifies the members of the crowd as disciples of Jesus, which is a detail that is not present in any of the other gospel accounts.  Perhaps most troubling is the fact that Luke tells us that the crowd spread their cloaks before the Jesus, but makes no reference to branches.  Though John is the only evangelist who mentions palms (John is making specific reference to Sukkoth, the Jewish feast that involves waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna”), Matthew and Mark tell us that some kind of trees were involved in Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  I’ll admit that it was a little unsettling to distribute palm branches to our congregation as we listened to a gospel lesson that makes no reference to branches of any kind.

These disparities lead us to ask what specific message Luke wants us to derive from his account.  What is Luke trying to say about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and how it impacts us?

Luke’s most obvious omission is the fact that the crowds do not shout “Hosanna” as Jesus enters the city.  “Hosanna” is a transliteration of a Hebrew word frequently addressed to God that means “Save us.”  As I mentioned above, it is shouted during Sukkoth, when the people of Israel remember the time that their ancestors resided in temporary dwelling places after the Exodus.  It is a word that points to God’s saving action in history.  And one of the frequently occurring themes in Luke’s gospel is the fact that Jesus represents God’s salvation.  It is in Luke’s gospel that Mary refers to God as “Savior” in the Magnificat and it is in Luke’s gospel that Jesus proclaims that “salvation has come.”  For Luke, Jesus is the embodiment of God’s salvation.  In other words, it would have been redundant for the crowds to shout “Save us,” because God was already saving them through the person standing before them.

This brings us to the fact that Luke identifies the welcoming crowds as Jesus’ disciples.  In the other gospel accounts, one can make the claim that the crowds who shouted “Hosanna” when Jesus enters Jerusalem are the same crowds who shouted “Crucify him” during the Passion.  But for Luke, this is not necessarily the case.  Luke identifies the crowds that greeted Jesus as disciples, and also includes the detail of the Pharisees grumbling about all the hoopla.  It seems that Luke is making a very clear contrast between the disciples who greet Jesus with joy and the Pharisees to try to shut them up.

Perhaps the reason Luke presents Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in this way is to indicate that we have a choice.  We can joyously greet the salvation that has come in the person of Jesus Christ, or we can try to smother it.  We can cheer the world-changing power of the gospel, or we can try to stifle its message of transformation.  We can selflessly remove our cloaks and give of our possessions to make way for the gospel, or we can remain insular and self-absorbed.  Luke’s unique message is that we have a choice.  What will you choose?