Palm Sunday, Year C, 2010

We have just read the entire Passion of our Lord.  But I want us to take a step back to Palm Sunday, to find ourselves with Jesus and the disciples, outside of Jerusalem, awaiting the final chapter of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

We are reading through the Gospel of Luke this year, and the Palm Sunday reading is a little different from the readings in Mark and Matthew. There are no palms, actually.  No hosannas, either.  And the crowd that cheers Jesus on is not the crowd of locals that will soon shout “Crucify!”, but a large group of Jesus’ own disciples.

These disciples have been with Jesus along his journey, they have heard him speak of Jerusalem and of his own death over and over again, and yet they are still caught up in the moment, caught up in the memory of all the wonderful things they have seen Jesus do.  Together, they praise God in one voice, shouting

“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”

The disciples love Jesus, and are glad that God sent Jesus to them, but you get the sense here that they are still wrapped up in the idea of Jesus as an earthly king who is going to rise up against the Romans and bring the Jewish people back to political power.

Jesus does not rebuke them, or try to finesse their expectations.  He knows that even if they have the details wrong, their impulse to praise God is a good impulse.

The disciples are going to go through a huge emotional and spiritual journey.  They are going to experience the death of their friend and king and have to reframe their entire experience with Jesus.  They are going to have to grieve the loss of what they thought would be, and experience the wonder of the risen Jesus on their own terms.

And, to me, at least, there is something really beautiful about Jesus allowing them to have their joy and their hope, even if the joy and hope is misdirected.  In fact, Jesus tells the Pharisees that if his followers did not praise him stones would cry out in their place.

Praising God, as Martha Stewart might say, is a good thing.  Jesus trusts himself enough, and trusts his Father enough, to know that Jesus’ death and resurrection will speak for themselves.  Jesus does not have to persuade or convince his disciples with words.  The very act of his resurrection will be enough to make them understand that Jesus’ kingship was never about earthly power, but about changing spiritual reality. For now, it is enough that his followers praise him and his Father.  Their praise does not have to express a perfectly formed and correct theological thought.

We, too, get wrapped up in hoping Jesus will do things for us in this world.  I’ve known people who swore God provided them parking spaces.  We all know sports teams, actors, and musicians who credit their award winning performances to God.  (My husband swears some of those shots Butler made Thursday night in the NCAA tournament had to be helped by the Holy Spirit.) People certainly said their prayers one way or the other during the last election and during last week’s Health Care Reform vote.  Those prayers may have been meaningful or superficial; they may reflect gratitude for something God has no interest in whatsoever! But the impulse to praise God, the impulse to give God credit for our successes is a good one.

When we praise God, we point to something true about God.  We point to God as creator, provider, caretaker, redeemer, savior.  And the more we praise God, the more we will come to realize that our praise of God can come independent of our personal circumstances.  The reality of God’s faithfulness is the reality of the resurrection.  God offers us new life whether we are getting parking spots or not, whether our sports team wins or not, whether our political party is in power or not.  Jesus’ death and resurrection apply to our lives no matter how rich or how poor we are, no matter how happy or sad we are. The good news of Jesus’ resurrection is so important to our souls that it transcends any other circumstances in our lives.

So, this Holy Week, we invite you to join us as we follow Jesus’ story in Jerusalem.  We invite you to experience the last supper, Jesus’ death, and Jesus’ glorious resurrection.  And we trust that whatever is going on in your life, the good news of God’s resurrection will make you want to praise God, too.

Proper 28, Year C, 2007

Before I begin, I must say that the research and many of the images from today’s sermon are the result of the work of the Thursday night bible study group this month.  I’d like to thank Steve Bragaw, Emily Bardeen, Sherry Hauff, and Elizabeth and Bruce Guss for their insightful contributions.

“Ozymandias”

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.                       

In this poem, by Shelley, the reader is invited to picture a looming sculpture, vast in its scale and imposing in its grandeur.  Over time, the sculpture has been worn away and all that is left are two legs and a disembodied head, surrounded by desert sand.  On the pedestal of the sculpture lie the words, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my works, ye mighty and despair”!  This statue has once represented a great King, a great society and yet now nothing is left but ruin.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus overhears some people oohing and ahhing over the temple, which is beautifully decorated with stones and gifts.  The temple was the center of religious life in Jerusalem.  Since the time of David and Solomon, the ark of the covenant, which held the very presence of God, was kept inside a beautifully built temple in Jerusalem.  This temple had been destroyed and rebuilt 581 BCE, and the temple remained a sacred place. 

After he overhears these persons admiring the temple, Jesus acts as a prophet, warning his listeners that this very temple they are worshiping will be destroyed, and sure enough in the year 70 CE, the temple was destroyed by the Romans. 

The destruction of the temple was a symbol of the end of an era.  Since the time of David, controlling Jerusalem had been a fundamental part of the Jewish identity.  When the temple was destroyed, an entire way of framing the Jewish faith was destroyed.  So, it is strange that, when Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple to his listeners, he does not seem dismayed by the news. 

Jesus does not seem dismayed because he knows that  yes, a new era is coming, an era in which a temple to contain God would be wholly irrelevant.

This incident in the temple happens toward the end of Jesus’ ministry.  He is days away from being betrayed and arrested.   He knows that after his death will come his resurrection and that resurrection will change everything.  His resurrection will transform faith.  No longer will believers need to visit God in a static temple.  Instead God will be found in the hearts of all believers. 

And this message of hope is communicated on another level in our passage today, as well.  Many modern scholars believe the Gospel of Luke was written after the year 70 CE.  So, Luke knew about the destruction of the temple when he was writing the Gospel.  He also knew that Christian, during the time he was writing his Gospel, were being arrested, tortured and killed because of their faith by authorities of the Roman Empire.

Jesus words about the destruction of the temple and of an apocalyptic future were relevant to those who received Luke’s gospel.  They were the ones being brought before kings and governors because of Jesus’ name.  They were hated.  They were terrified. 

In this Gospel, Luke reminds the persecuted Christians that Jesus cares for them and that the Holy Spirit will be with them, even as they are interrogated and threatened.  This passage gives them direct advice:  not to try to create their own defense, but to trust the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit will give the persecuted the words they need to speak, when they need them. 

Luke also reminds them, through the prediction about the destruction of the temple, that no earthly authority, whether instituted by religious or civil law, lasts forever.  The power that oppressed them would not oppress them forever.  In fact, the Roman Empire would  not even be a power forever.

`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The Jewish temple did not stand, and neither did the Roman Empire that destroyed it.  The British Empire dissolved, and our capitalist empire will too, eventually.  The world around us is in constant change, constant flux.  Political power, physical structures, even social norms and behaviors-none of these remain constant forever.

Even our own Greenwood has seen enormous changes over the last hundred years.  In this month’s Crozet Gazette there is an article about Greenwood in the early part of the century.  Greenwood had a train station, shops, a highschool, even a hotel!  When the Langhornes moved into Mirador, Greenwood even had an early form of. . .paparazzi, believe it or not!

And while Greenwood may no longer have the population to start a high school or enough visitors to need a hotel, God’s faithfulness to those who live in Greenwood has never dwindled.  God’s love and affection for his people is not rooted in their structures or political systems or earthly power.  God’s love is the love of the creator for his creation.  God’s love is a parent’s love for his children.  And God continues his relationship with each of us regardless of our external circumstances.

As Christians, we don’t need political or religious structures for our lives to have meaning.  We don’t need to live in the most booming town or go to the most ornate church or be ruled by the biggest empire for God to love us, pursue us, and use us toward his ends.  God’s kingdom is about behavior and belief, not about power and wealth.

God’s kingdom is an active, living, breathing place.  Because it has no temples or structures or giant statues in the desert, it can never decay or be overthrown.  When we participate in God’s kingdom, even our temporal lives become connected to the eternal.  We may not be able to see or feel God’s kingdom, yet it will last longer than any kingdom that has ever been established on this earth.

Thanks be to God!

Advent 2, Year B, 2005

It is time to come home!

This is the good news the prophet is speaking in the passage from Isaiah we hear today.  You see, Jerusalem was the symbolic and physical home of the Israelites.  They had journeyed for hundreds of years, and finally secured Jerusalem under King David’s leadership.  The Israelites believed their wandering, their suffering was finally over.  Unfortunately, years later, the Babylonians swooped in and took over Jerusalem, exiling all the Jews. 

The Israelites understood this defeat as not only a political and military defeat, but a spiritual defeat as well.  They believed that their sins had caused the loss of Jerusalem.

When the Lord says, “She has served her time and her penalty is paid” in this triumphant passage from Isaiah, he is telling the Israelites the good news that they will no longer be punished by exile, but will be allowed to return home.

It is time to come home!

John the Baptist repeats some of these words from Isaiah when he proclaims the coming of Jesus Christ. 

See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
`Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,

Why echo this message of homecoming?  Jesus was not going to come in and drive out the Roman occupiers of Jerusalem. 

What is a home, anyway?   I’ve been traveling for a couple weeks, a little vacation, then some continuing education, and each time I drove back to Crozet, and sunk into my big comfy bed at the end of a long day, I could feel myself relaxing into being home.  Some of you have lived in this area since you were tiny and some are as new as I am, but somehow we have all come to associate this place with home.  Home is more than a physical place.  Home is an emotional and spiritual idea, too. 

When John announced Jesus’ coming, he was announcing a whole new idea of a religious home.  No longer would home be a physical place like Jerusalem.  Home would now rest in a person-the person of Jesus. 

It’s time to come home.

To come home to Jerusalem, the exiled Jews would need to a do a lot of work.  They would pack all their tents, hitch their belongings to their donkeys or camels, and begin the long walk back home. 

Coming home to Jesus takes work, too. 

John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance.  He knew that in order to encounter Jesus, the very embodiment of love, the people around him would need to cleanse themselves of their sins.  He knew a life of sin would prevent a homecoming with Jesus.

I read a wonderful book over vacation called A Song I Knew by Heart by Brett Lott.  This novel is a retelling of the Ruth and Naomi story, but with a big twist.  In this story, after years of dealing with the painful issue of infertility, Naomi and her husband have grown distant from each other.  In a fit of anguish, Naomi throws herself at her husband’s best friend and they are intimate together one time.  Naomi goes immediately home where she sits in a cold bath, trying frantically to feel clean and finds herself unable to move, but shivers uncontrollably in her cold and guilt.  Her husband comes home, finds her, lifts her out of the tub, then takes her to their family bed, where he covers her in quilts and lies next to her until she warms again.  Throughout the rest of her life, she is tormented by her guilt and thinks of her sin as a separation from love. . . a separation from love.   Instead of turning toward her husband, who loved her so, she separated herself from that love and clung to another.

Sin as separation from love. . .a powerful image isn’t it?  When we sin, we separate ourselves from love, we separate ourselves from home.  When we repent and are forgiven, we bridge that separation, we experience a profound homecoming.

Naomi feels the weight of her guilt for the rest of her life.  She never tells her husband what happened, and they stay married and eventually have children.  At the end the book, at the end of her life, she finds out that her husband’s best friend told him what happened immediately after the indiscretion. 

So, when Naomi’s husband picked her up out of the frigid tub, and warmed her with blankets and his own flesh, he KNEW what had happened.   He was forgiving her, loving her, despite her betrayal.

For forty years, Naomi carried around a guilt that separated her from her husband, her children.  If she had only spoken of her guilt to her husband, she could have experienced the depth of her husband’s forgiveness, God’s forgiveness, much sooner.  Perhaps she could have even forgiven herself.

Like Naomi’s husband, God is eager to forgive us, eager to wrap us in the blanket of his love, his acceptance.  God is eager to welcome us home. 

As we wait for Jesus’s arrival this Christmas, we can prepare for his arrival by coming clean, coming clean before ourselves, our loved ones, God.  We can examine ourselves for the ways in which we have separated ourselves from love, and turn to welcome love back in our lives. 

(Pause)

It is time to come home.