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Friday, April 21, 2017

Tah Dah! The Great Easter Surprise

Matthew 28:1-10

Christ is risen, Alleluia!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
A well-known and often ignored piece of advice to pastors regarding children’s sermons is, “don’t ask questions.” You never know what you’ll get – you know the adage, “Children say the darnedest things?” Of course, there is also the saying that Jesus himself quoted, “Out of the mouths of infants and babes….”
Well, there is a pastor who asked this question in an Easter Sunday children’s sermon a few years ago: ‘What were Jesus’ first words to his disciples after he was raised from the dead?’ To be honest, he didn’t expect an answer. It was sort of a rhetorical question; but before he could give the answer from Gospel of this morning –a little girl waved her hand eagerly, excited to answer the question, so the pastor called on her. “I know what Jesus said,” she answered; “Tah dah!”
Well, today we do indeed celebrate the great “Tah dah!” of the church, for—
Christ has risen! Alleluia! He has risen indeed! Alleluia!
You know, what it is lacking in dignity, “Tah dah!” more than makes up in accuracy, as a reasonable response when presented with the wonderfully surprising, unprecedented, and miraculous resurrection of Jesus.
Tah dah!
This Easter Sunday, we celebrate with great joy the wonderful surprise of that day when Jesus was raised from death to life.
While the real first word the Risen Lord Jesus spoke was in fact a very ordinary greeting – in this extraordinary moment, “Tah dah!” would have seemed about right.
Imagine that you are one of the women who approached the tomb of Jesus that morning. The sabbath is over, so for those in and around Jerusalem that day, it was a regular workday.
The shopkeepers and merchants, the innkeepers and even the government officials and temple caretakeres were cleaning up and recovering from the Passover festival of the week before, even as the great multitude of visitors who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover departed to return to their homes.
It was back to business for many in Jerusalem that day.
It was not, however, business as usual for Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, mourning the death of Jesus. For them and for the other disciples, still reeling from the events of the week before, experiencing a communal sense of loss and failure, grief and shame, there was nothing ordinary about this day.
For these women, a visit to the tomb seemed in order.
It’s the same place where they had sat and watched as the dead body of Jesus was wrapped in linen and lain to rest just a couple of evenings ago. Aside from perhaps anointing the body, the women may simply have wanted to spend time where he rested—they  felt closer to him there.
You may have experienced the same kind of need, following loss.
Cemeteries are full of granite markers placed for our loved ones who have died, a place where we can go and remember them. Some of us have, in our home or in another special spot a place where we can go to remember and feel close to those we have lost.
But as the women approach the tomb, perhaps hoping to experience something of the essence of Jesus but expecting to experience nothing more than grief that day, two extraordinary things happen. On that first Easter morning, just as on the afternoon Jesus died, there is an earthquake. An earthquake!
What must they have thought? Did they remember the way the earth shook as Jesus died on the cross?
Then they saw an angel of the Lord descending from heaven, rolling back the stone from the entrance to the tomb, and they heard him speaking to them, saying, “Do not be afraid.”
These women, who perhaps had lost all hope, who are deep in mourning, who are the only two disciples brave enough to leave the upper room where the rest of the disciples were hiding out on this day, suddenly see an angel whose appearance is like blazing, blinding, white-hot lightening, from whom they are suddenly given words of hope, comfort, and reassurance. “Do not be afraid.”
Jesus is not here, the angel says, he has been raised from the dead just as he had promised he would be. Look in the tomb. See for yourselves.
So, the women take a look, and then, perhaps another, because indeed, “tah dah!” Jesus is not there. His body is gone. The tomb is empty.
The stone was rolled away not to let Jesus out but to let the women in; to let the women in so that they could see and witness for themselves the empty tomb.
Tah dah!
Jesus is risen! Alleluia! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Jesus has been raised from the dead, the angel tells them.
Jesus has risen from the dead just as he said he would be, just as God had planned, just as the Scriptures foretold it, because the truth is that neither death, nor hell, nor the tomb itself, can hold Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah, who came to set his people free in the most astonishing, perfect way possible.
This is good news for us. For the fear and joy, the pain of illness, and broken relationships, the reality of our vulnerability and the frailty of life, the victorious resurrection of Jesus is nothing short of a life-giving, world-changing miracle.
The angel sends these women to be messengers themselves, carrying a holy “Tah dah!” for the disciples of Christ. “Quickly!” He says, “Quickly go!” Go tell the disciples this wonderful news. Tell the disciples that Jesus has been raised from the dead! Tell them that Jesus is still on earth and even now he’s on the way to Galilee where he will meet them!
So the women, with a mix of fear and joy, rush down the road to share this good news with the disciples.
They don’t understand what has happened and danger still surrounds them. But there is compelling good news to share, and the women can’t wait to share it.
Jesus has risen! Alleluia! He has risen indeed! Alleluia!
And then, Jesus meets the Marys. On the road. On the way.
“Tah dah!”
The women immediately know him and they throw themselves to the ground and they take hold of his feet and they worship him.
In the whole of our gospel today, I think this is my favorite verse. It is a “tah dah” moment, this moment of recognition, where Jesus appears to the women and well, what can they do but fall to the earth? What would we do?
And yet in that moment, Jesus’ response isn’t all that profound “Greetings!” he says.
The women are overcome with joy and wonder and awe and fear, and Jesus is so nonchalant, “Hi!” he greets them.
In their amazement, they have to touch him. They grab onto his feet. He has died, and yet here he is standing in front of them, and he is real! They can feel him!
Tah dah!
I know if I were one of those women, I wouldn’t ever want to let go. There, on the road, still holding onto him, they worship him. They acknowledge him as their Lord.
Jesus repeats the message of the angel – go tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.
Jesus has risen! Alleluia! He has risen indeed! Alleluia!
The good news for us is in the details of the story. Jesus lives so that we will never die. Jesus lives so that we can live fully now and later. Jesus lives so that, though our lives contain both sadness and joy, guilt and shame, fear and wonder, we can be assured that Jesus is with us in and through it all.
This resurrection is ongoing, it is a daily reality, because Jesus is still defeating the powers of evil and death, still bringing us new life, and will bring us ultimately to life everlasting; knowing this makes all the difference in the world.  
We still meet God on the road, in miraculous and every day instances of goodness and joy, as comfort in our struggles, as healing and hope and forgiveness and steadfast love. God leads us constantly to new life through the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Every time that we are up against a wall with no way out; or are suffering the betrayal of those we trusted; or confused about the ways of the world and the suffering we bear witness to, God shows us that these challenges, assaults and struggles are temporary. They will not defeat us. In every way that counts, Jesus is with us and in the power of the resurrection is holding us and making us strong.
            The mystery and power of the resurrection of Christ is the great Tah dah! of God’s compassion poured out for the world. In the mystical power of his love, we can be assured that whatever the future brings, God will strengthen us and empower us. Whatever fear, pain, or challenge we face, God promises that we will not face it alone.
Rather, God promises that there is nothing stronger than God’s love, and God proves it through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For, since Christ has risen from the grave, nothing can keep us from God’s love and power to save.
            As Jesus met the women and as Jesus he will meet the disciples in Galilee, the risen Christ will meet us on all our journeys. The tomb is empty. Jesus reigns victorious over the grave. And so, it is with Easter joy and Easter confidence that we proclaim the great mystery of faith:       

Christ is Risen! Alleluia!  He is Risen indeed! Alleluia!


A Shocking Thing to Do

John 13:1-17, 31b-35           
            Here we are, gathered together as Jesus and the disciples were that night. It is the night in which Jesus was handed over to die. He knows what’s coming. He knows he will be leaving his disciples, going to his passion and death.
            There is so much that he must have wanted to say to them. There must have been so much he still wanted to pass on. We know about the feeling that there is never enough time in our lives, that there is always more that we want to do, more that we want to say, more wisdom, or experience, or instruction that we want to leave behind..
            If you knew that you were about to go on a journey, or about to die, leaving “your people” – whoever constitutes that group for you – what is it that you would want to say? What is the final message that you would want to give? And what would you do, if you could, to make your final commands, directives, instructions – whatever you might want to call them, memorable?
            I can imagine Jesus thinking about this. After all, his disciples have at times proved themselves to be pretty dense – misunderstanding his actions, missing the point of his teachings, a little too self-centered at times, a little too distracted. Just like us.
            But then comes this night, and Jesus knows that he is going to leave them. In a few hours he will be arrested; in less than 24 hours, he will be crucified. And his disciples will be left to carry on, to carry forth the message of God’s incredible mercy and love, to proclaim the greatness of God, embodied in Jesus and experienced through him. What would you say or do?
            Despite all their fear and confusion and blundering, these disciples will have an enormous mission before them. While there will be some who embrace their mission and the message of forgiveness, new life and salvation through Jesus, there will be many others who will feel threatened by it, who will want to destroy this fledgling community and the message they carry just as they will have killed Jesus himself. The subversive, counter-cultural message of strength and power demonstrated through love will receive mixed reactions after Jesus’ death and resurrection just as during his lifetime.
            Jesus knows that the stress on this community will be enormous.  They must learn to live and work together, loving and supporting and serving each other, so that they will be united in the work they do as they love and support and serve those whom Jesus places in their path.
            And so, Jesus chooses a way to convey the message in such a way that it will be memorable, that it might survive and thrive among them when he is gone.
            As the supper ended, Jesus got down on his knees in the middle of his disciples. Jesus knelt at their feet and, one by one, he washed them.  Jesus washed the feet of his disciples! It was a shocking thing to do. Shocking, and memorable.
            As middle-class American Lutherans, we get pretty squeamish about people washing our feet, or touching our feet, or even, in some cases, just looking too closely at them. Just imagine if we lived in first century Palestine where most of the time simple sandals are the only footwear worn, as we walked everywhere along the dirt roads and fields. Miles of walking done each day along dirt streets and pathways, creating dirty, calloused, gnarled feet. You can imagine why, then, when you entered someone’s home, your feet would be washed by a servant if the household had any, or you would wash your own feet.
            But tonight their leader, their teacher and, as at least some of these disciples were beginning to understand Jesus, the Messiah, the Anointed One, their Lord knelt in a position of servitude and washed the feet of every disciple there that night. Jesus demonstrated humble service. And as he did so, he gave them a new commandment. That they love one another just as he had done.
            For the kind of love that Jesus came to share is love in action. It is love that is expressed in so many ways, often ways that challenge us and call us out of our comfort zones. It is extreme love. It is the Jesus brand of love, the way Jesus loves us and now calls for us to love one another.
            It is love without regard for class, or gender or age. It is a fierce love that is blind to difference. It is love that embraces the marginalized, serves the poor, feeds the hungry, comforts the stranger, cleanses the body and the soul, provides life-giving water, and welcomes the outcast.
            Jesus’ kind of love is love that knows no boundaries and is delivered in memorable acts that are heroic, as well as everyday acts of kindness, acceptance, forgiveness, love and mercy.            
            The message is still counter cultural. It exactly the message we need to hear. We, who are gathered together in this sanctuary tonight as the disciples were gathered around Jesus; we who will receive the Body and Blood of Christ in a meal that was instituted that night and fed to those disciples first; we who will gather again tomorrow to contemplate the life-giving cross of Christ, on which was hung the Savior of the world; we need this message.
            Love one another: by this you are known. Love one another: by this everyone will know that you are my disciples. Love one another, and do not despair. For the Lord is with you.
            You do not understand now, but later, you will understand.
            Tonight, so that everyone can participate, we will deviate slightly from the traditional foot washing of which we read and in which we have engaged in the past. Tonight, we will each come forward to have our hands washed, and cleansed for service – for loving action in Jesus’ name. And then, two of the leaders of our congregation will anoint each hand, marking it with the cross of Christ in whose name and by whose love we serve.
            As Jesus has given us a new commandment, may his Spirit guide, empower, and bless the hands, feet and tongues that show forth his love.


Monday, April 10, 2017

Parade of Difference

Palm Sunday 2017
That first Palm Sunday – was a raucous time in the city of Jerusalem. It was to be expected. After all, it was the beginning of the Festival of the Passover, when religious pilgrims cause the city’s population of roughly 60,000 to 70,000, to swell by 200,000 or more people, all there to commemorate and celebrate Israel’s defining moment, her liberation from Egypt at the original Passover, almost 1300 years before.
After all, this is the reason that Jesus and his disciples are there as well. They have traveled to Jerusalem, as Jesus has done every year for his entire life, for this religious festival.
Yet this year, on this day, something is different. Jesus enters Jerusalem, his ultimate mission fully on his mind. He knows that the end is coming for his earthly journey; this part of his story is coming to a climax. Jesus enters Jerusalem knowing that this time, he will not leave the city alive. Events have transpired, powers have been placed in motion, that will lead to his passion and death this week--And in eight days’ time, to the defining moment for all of us, his startling resurrection.
In eight days’ time, Jesus will achieve his ultimate victory over powers of evil and death as the stone is rolled away from his tomb and he defies the bonds of both earthly and supernatural power. But for now – the procession.
Being the first day of the Festival, there is not one but instead are three distinct processions that enter Jerusalem that day. These are the parades of contrast that I would like to talk about today.
First, of course, comes Jesus. Jesus enters Jerusalem through the east gate of the city – the gate through which the tradition of the People of Israel has always said the Anointed One, the Messiah, will enter Jerusalem.
Through the east gate Jesus enters the city on the back of a donkey as the people shout, “Hosanna!” which literally means, “save us now”. Then they add, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” This proclamation comes from Psalm 118, a psalm traditionally recited by Jews at two important times each year – it is recited at the Feast of the Tabernacle, and at the Feast of Passover. It recalls the way kings historically were welcomed back to Jerusalem as they returned victorious from wars.
  And as Jesus rode down from the Mount of Olives, the people waved palm branches – indicative of a festal procession, a sign of victory and celebration for Jews and Romans alike.
Palm Sunday 16 by Bernard Plockhorst
But this psalm was also understood to refer to the Messiah, the Anointed One who would come and deliver his people. In using these verses to exclaim their fealty to Jesus that day, the people were in fact hailing Jesus as their king, and declaring this as his royal procession.
At the same time as all this was taking place, on the opposite side of the city, entering the city from the west came Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, coming from Caesarea by the Sea, and bringing with him an entourage of at least 1,000 heavily armed Roman soldiers who would either be riding on horseback or chariot, or walking on foot. This procession was designed as a show of force; it was intended for the sole purpose of reminding the people gathered in the city of who was in control.
Lest any group conspire or think about raising up a rebellion, the message was clear: don’t. Don’t even think about it. You will be crushed. With all the extra people gathered for a festival that marked Jewish release from bondage in Egypt, it seemed like a good time to remind any who might be carried away by the hopeful undertone of the festival of the Passover that Rome was in charge. To drive this point home, it was Pilate’s intention to crucify several rebels on Thursday that week—just in time for the Passover. 
The third procession to enter the city, this time from the north with his own followers and royal soldiers was King Herod Antipas, who ruled over Galilee and Perea to the north and east of Judea. Like Pilate, Herod knew how to use violence to suppress rebellion and to express his power and authority over the people. And as he entered the city, his supporters lined the streets, cheering as he arrived.
There was good reason for any Jerusalemites in power or high status or wealth to support and cheer for this king – they were well aware that he had the power to strip them of everything they had if they displeased him, even to the point of exiling them or executing them if he desired to do so. Currying favor with the king was important to the livelihood of many of the residents of Jerusalem that day.
Three processions, for three distinct purposes. The contrasts between Jesus’ historic Palm Sunday procession and the parades of Pilate and Herod are striking. Pilate and Herod enter on warhorses, not unlike the victorious procession of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. when Jerusalem capitulated to him as he entered the city on his way from Tyre to Egypt during the Macedonian conquest. They are preceded and surrounded by heavily armed companies of soldiers. Their processions epitomize military might and muscle. Against Pilate’s and Herod’s armies, Jesus’ poor and ordinary provisions stand out:
He has no herald at arms; no trumpets sound; no chariots of state precede him into the city; there are no liveries that follow. None in his procession carry weapons – only palms. There are no prancing horses or running horses that would create a distance between Jesus and the people, or force away a needful one who came to appeal to Jesus for help.
Rather, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a quiet ass, the mightiest king coming in the most humble of means.
Two of the three men entering Jerusalem on that Festival Sunday were iron-fisted men known for their cruelty. The third is Jesus, known for his healing and mercy.
Two ride war-horses, while Jesus rides on the back of not just a donkey, but the foal of a donkey.
Two are carrying weapons of war, surrounded by military power, exuding the authority vested in them by the state of Rome; Jesus rides in humility, making his royal claim, with every choice declaring that he is the Anointed One, the Messiah, sent by God, proclaiming God’s love. His weapons are forgiveness, grace and mercy; his authority is divine; it comes from God above.
We can compare and contrast all the differences between these three today, and what we will find is that it all boils down to this: Jesus will give the world what the Herods and Pilates of the world never can – eternal life and peace, and a way forward that leads to justice and joy.
And as the processions enter the city something happens. They don’t cross paths, they don’t engage in a show of force or conflict, in the moment they likely not even aware of the presence of the others. But as Jesus enters Jerusalem even as Pilate and Herod enter the city through opposing gates, the earth shakes.
Quakes are mentioned only three times in this gospel: now, at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, at the time of his crucifixion as our King bows his head and dies, and on Sunday a week hence, when he rises from the tomb, his resurrection illustrating the true power and victory of our Lord and Savior. It is as if the spiritual energies that collide and clash here cannot be contained. Even the earth and the heavens bear witness to the majesty of Jesus and to the ultimate power and authority that are his to command.
As we contemplate the contrasting processions of that first Palm Sunday, we are invited to our own commemoration of the Festival of our Passover, where Jesus serves as the Lamb of God, come to take away the sin of the world. We are invited into a week that changed the world.
We are ushered into the story and remain as bystanders and witnesses when Jesus seals his fate by cleansing the Temple and declaring that God’s house will be a holy house of prayer where all are welcome – Jew and Gentile, insider and outside, rich and poor, outcast and sinner, and where all will be healed by the power of a God so merciful, so gracious and righteous, that he redefines the Passover, redefines salvation itself, blessing us with the gift and reality of everlasting life.
You and I, my friends, are among the multitude of souls who are invited into a week brimming with death and life and life after death for all who believe in God’s power and authority over every element on earth. This is God’s gift to us. This is our reality. This is our story. We are invited to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, to receive blessing and absolution for our sins, to be fed and nurtured in the faith, to be cleansed for service in Jesus’ name, and to be witnesses of the great and glorious power of God to save. May we all be blessed to know these truths as we embrace the Passion and Cross of Christ in these days.
I urge you to accept this invitation. Immerse yourself in the greatest story ever to unfold, and all for the sake of humankind, for the sake of the kingdom of God. Then and only then in eight days, will we be ready to embrace and to receive the glory of the resurrected Christ. Amen.