Palm Sunday, Year C, 2016

The Passion narrative seems particularly resonant this year, with its scenes of crowds shouting for a sacrifice to ease their anxiety, hoping for blood to appease their anger. We see now that these kinds of crowds are not a historical relic, but part of the human condition. I know many of us are deeply anxious about the current political situation in our country, for good reason, but I do think Jesus has good, if somber news for us today.

Going back to the Palm Sunday reading, you may have noticed a few things. There are no palms for one thing. Jesus’ disciples lay their coats for Jesus, not palm branches. And no one shouts “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Instead they shout,

“Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Luke is deeply interested in peace, and the particular peace that Jesus brings to a violent and oppressive world. The disciples’ words echo the words of the angels who appear to the shepherds upon Jesus’ birth.

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

But, there is one key difference. The disciples do not shout “peace on earth”, they shout “peace in heaven”. Perhaps they are still hoping Jesus will exercise military power, organize the Jewish population to overthrow the Roman military rule. We think of the group of disciples here as being a joyful contrast to the bloodthirsty crowd that calls for Jesus’ death. But even these disciples, who have been following Jesus, may want blood. They are thrilled that Jesus is finally traveling to Jerusalem, that he is finally going to set straight the powers of the day.

But of course, the only blood Jesus intends to shed is his own.

After his betrayal, Jesus meets the violence of the crowds in Jerusalem not with resistance, but with a clear sense of who he is, and a deep trust in God’s providence for him. Jesus does not achieve peace by trying to make everyone happy. Jesus doesn’t hold press conferences and try to appease the Romans, the corrupt powers in Jerusalem and his ordinary followers. No, Jesus remains completely clear about his values—following God means loving God and your neighbor. He knows his Father will be with him, even as he trembles in fear in the Garden.

We don’t get to the resurrection in today’s readings yet, so I’ll leave us here, standing before our crucified Jesus. Standing before our God who was willing to face us at our violent worst, who was willing to love us through our own violence, even when violence is not what he wanted from us.

The good news is that Jesus loves us through our worst, and that he shows us a way of peace in a violent time. Peace does not mean avoiding conflict, but being true to our Christian values even if it becomes costly to us. The final promise we make in baptism is to: Strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. This means respecting the dignity of people of every religion, every race, every nation and every political party.

The Bishops of the Episcopal Church recently met and released the following statement:

We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others.”

On Good Friday the ruling political forces of the day tortured and executed an innocent man. They sacrificed the weak and the blameless to protect their own status and power. On the third day Jesus was raised from the dead, revealing not only their injustice but also unmasking the lie that might makes right.

In a country still living under the shadow of the lynching tree, we are troubled by the violent forces being released by this season’s political rhetoric. Americans are turning against their neighbors, particularly those on the margins of society. They seek to secure their own safety and security at the expense of others. There is legitimate reason to fear where this rhetoric and the actions arising from it might take us.

In this moment, we resemble God’s children wandering in the wilderness. We, like they, are struggling to find our way. They turned from following God and worshiped a golden calf constructed from their own wealth. The current rhetoric is leading us to construct a modern false idol out of power and privilege. We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others. No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we must respect the dignity of every human being and we must seek the common good above all else.

We call for prayer for our country that a spirit of reconciliation will prevail and we will not betray our true selves.

Our bishops know we are sinners and we are saints. We have the capacity for violence and the capacity for reconciliation. Developing a spirit of reconciliation is hard, hard work. Picking a side and the demonizing every person who disagrees with us is much easier, but we are the light of the world, we are the body of Christ. And like Christ, we are called to be out in the world actually encountering and relating to people who are different from us. Jesus was in conversation with Pharisees and tax collectors, sinners and Romans. Jesus spoke with outsiders and insiders. The early church was a hodgepodge of Jews and Gentiles, poor and rich, those in power and those out of power.

We can be clear about our values while still treating people who think differently than we do with dignity. We can disagree about policy related to immigration or ISIS while agreeing to be friends. But our promise to treat each person with dignity, and Christ’s overwhelming love for all humankind makes it impossible for us to embrace racism, hatred of the refugee, and hatred of Muslims.

Following God is costly. Jesus was willing to lose everything—power, privilege, even his life. Are we willing to follow?

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Epiphany 7, Year A, 2011

I have a confession.

I have a big problem with our Gospel lesson today.  Rather, I have a problem with the way this text has been used in the Church.  This gospel lesson has been used as a justification for people staying in abusive relationships and I have to address that before I can move on and preach the text.

Domestic violence is a huge problem in the world and in our community.  Domestic abuse—whether verbal or physical—is not limited to other classes or races.  Some of the worst domestic violence cases I’ve encountered were situations in which both partners had multiple degrees and extremely high incomes.

There is almost certainly at least one couple in an abusive relationship here today.

Historically, the Christian church has not done a great job of helping victims of abuse leave their partners.  Passages like the one today have been quoted to victims—often women—and these women for generations have been told to turn the other cheek and to stay faithful to their vows.

I want to be very clear that I, with great confidence, do not believe Jesus was addressing people in abusive domestic situations here.  Remember, last week we read verses 21-22 of this same chapter,

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

What is domestic abuse if not a violent combination of anger and condescension as described here? Jesus unequivocally condemns abusive behavior.

If you are currently in an abusive relationship, or you are not sure but you think you may be in one, please contact Father Paul or me. Our conversation will be confidential and we will try to get you the help that you need.  You can also contact the organization Woman Space, who are experts in these matters.  Their web address is womanspace.org.  Their chaplain, Susan Victor, is wonderful and will be leading our adult forum next Sunday.

Okay, moving on to the text.

We are still hearing The Sermon on the Mount and Jesus is still referring to Hebrew Law and then upping the ante.

The old law, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was developed to stop people from trying to right wrongs with disproportionate violence.  This way, if a sheep was stolen, the sheep needed to be replaced, rather than the other farmer’s farm being burned to the ground.  The law was designed to rein in our impulse for revenge that escalates our conflicts.   It’s a pretty good law!  It’s sensible!

But Jesus turns the tables and tells his audience that if they are slapped on one cheek to offer their other cheek!  And if someone steals their coat, they are to give them their cloak as well!

At first it appears that Jesus is encouraging victimhood, that the Christian’s role in the world is to be pathetic and taken advantage of.  But Jesus knows that the power of God is not going to be shown through spectacular acts of revenge—anyone can enact revenge.  The power of God is shown through strength of character and through love.  And really, what shows more strength then calmly and steadily turning one’s face to receive a second blow?  And imagine if a Roman on a horse came by and stole your coat, how better to illuminate the bad behavior of the Roman than by offering him your cloak, which was the only garment you had left to keep you warm.

What shows more strength than loving your enemies?  It does not take much character or will power to hate your enemies.  If your upstairs neighbor plays his music too loudly, and won’t turn it down when you ask politely, it’s much easier to call the police than to bake the guy some brownies and ask him nicely one more time.

Walter Wink, a professor of biblical interpretation at Auburn University, supports the view that Jesus is not asking his followers to be victims. He believes the word for resist—antistenai—is mistranslated here, since the same word is used to describe warfare in other parts of the Bible.   He believes Jesus intends to communicate that his believers should not resist evil violently. Wink argues that Jesus resisted evil all the time, whenever he encountered it, so it would not make sense for him to tell his believers not to resist evil.  Wink believes Jesus is trying to stop the cycle of violence. [1]

Martin Luther King, Jr. understood the power of this point of view.  Rather than interpreting “turning the other cheek” as blind acceptance of the abuse of power, he used the text alongside Ghandi’s teaching to help create the peaceful protests of the Civil Rights era.  In 1964, Gunnar Jahn, who was presenting King with the peace prize, quoted King as saying,

If you will protest courageously and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written [in future generations], the historians will [have to pause and] say: “There lived a great people – a black people who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.” This is our challenge and our overwhelming responsibility.[2]

King demonstrated to us that turning the other cheek, refusing to respond to violence with violence, can change an entire country.  We saw similar protests earlier this month in Egypt, which also affected great change.

And maybe the great large scale non-violent protests do have something to say to us about our personal struggles.

Maybe there is something to be said for maintaining one’s dignity and continuing to act in a kind a loving manner when someone is trying to dominate or take advantage of you.  Of course that does not mean we have to yield to the demands of the person with power.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue, because I’m hearing from more and more of our kids about bullying in school.  Even our little second and third graders are trying to figure out what it means to stand up for yourself, but still be a kind and loving person.  How do we teach kids about the injustice of the world?  That people behave in rotten ways, even people who are not inherently rotten?  How do we so root them in God’s love that they can move confidently through life, knowing their valued place in the world?  How can we help prepare them to be non-violent resisters, who don’t accept bullying as the status quo and help to change the culture in their schools?  Seriously, if you figure this out, please let me know!

In the meantime, those of us who are adults can start to act out resisting evil in a way that show the evildoers that we are different.  Yes, we will stand up for ourselves.  But we will conduct ourselves with the highest ethical behavior.  We will not bully back, or slander, or slash tires, or gossip.  We will not throw a punch or destroy someone’s credit rating.  We will protect ourselves and our families, by distancing ourselves from the evildoers, or by going through appropriate legal channels, but we will also treat the person who torments us with dignity and we will pray for them.

This may seem difficult when our blood is boiling, but Jesus is looking out for us when he ups the ante on these laws.  He knows that perpetuating the cycle of violence only brings harm to everyone involved.  He knows that living a life of dignity and restraint will help us not only be more faithful Christians, but be happier, to boot!

When we learn how to lovingly and firmly resist evil; when we find a way to see the humanity in our enemy; we are given a kind of freedom.  Jesus shows us a way to live our lives in which our identity is so rooted in being children of God that our enemies’ behavior does not define us.  We may not feel stronger than our enemies, but God is always stronger than evil and we belong to God.

Thanks be to God.


[1] http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/wink_3707.htm

[2] King, Martin Luther as quoted by Jahn, Gunnar in his 1964 speech presenting King with the Nobel Prize.  http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/press.html

Easter 6, Year C, 2007

Don’t you love receiving a gift?

Someone hands you a package and first you notice its shape and feel how heavy it is. You admire the gift’s packaging and if you’re polite, you read the card, which expresses the giver’s intent and affection.  Finally, after an appropriate period of time has passed, you begin untying bows, and tearing through paper to discover the mysterious object you can now call your own.  When you’re done admiring the gift, you thank the giver, completing the exchange. 

Gifts are a symbol of relationship, affection, love, or obligation.  We give gifts to welcome, to celebrate, to honor and occasionally to assuage guilt.  We also give gifts to mark thresholds in people’s lives.  Matt and I get married in roughly. . .27 days and many people have been honoring this transition through gifts.  This tradition is so formalized now, our society even codifies it through registries where the engaged couple goes to a store and tells the store what they want people to buy for them! 

Thankfully, even though the disciples are entering a new threshold of their lives, they do not get to register for which gift they’d like to receive.  Our Gospel reading today is John’s record of Jesus’ farewell discourse.  Jesus makes a long speech at the last supper, trying to prepare his disciples for his death.  In the section we read today, Jesus is reassuring his followers that they will still be in relationship with him after he leaves.  He says they will receive two gifts:  Jesus will give them his peace, and the Father will send them an Advocate-the Holy Spirit.

We don’t always know what gifts are good for us.  Matt and I recently went through our registries, taking out some of the excessive stuff that we registered for during a greedy binge.  For instance, we realized that just because we thought a Kitchen Aid mixer was cool didn’t mean we would ever use it or even have the space for it in a kitchen.  Sometimes the gifts you think you want, are not the wisest choices.  If the disciples got to choose their gift, they would choose to have Jesus stay with them, in bodily form, forever.  Like most of us, the idea of change makes them a little nervous and the idea of losing a dear friend makes them incredibly sad. 

But Jesus has better things in store.  Jesus knows that his death is not the end of a story, but the beginning of a new relationship between his Father and humanity. Jesus knows that the gifts he and the Father are giving will nourish God’s followers for the next two thousand years.

The first gift Jesus tells his listeners about is the gift of the Holy Spirit, whom he describes as our Advocate.  We’ll celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost at the end of May.  But before the Holy Spirit came rushing down upon those disciples waiting in the upper room, Jesus told his disciples about the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is God, and a gift from the Father.  The Holy Spirit’s role in our lives is twofold:  to teach us and to help us remember what Jesus has already told us. 

The word Advocate can also mean helper.  The Holy Spirit is sent to help us, specifically in terms of our relationship with the Father.  Jesus told us about the Father, and lived a life in complete union with the Father and through his death and resurrection united us with the Father. 

Remembering these things about Jesus is not easy, especially once Jesus ascends and no longer present to remind us.  God knows we humans need daily reminders.  Moses had only ascended to the mountain a few days before the Israelites started worshiping Golden calves!  We do not have a good track record with keeping God in our mind. 

So, to help us remember Jesus and follow Jesus, the Father sends the Holy Spirit to be our helper.  Not our nagger, not our judger, but our helper.  We can pray to the Holy Spirit to help us understand scripture.  We can pray to the Holy Spirit to help us know how to follow Jesus in our lives.  We can pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance when the church tries to sort out what Scripture means in relation to our modern society.  The Holy Spirit is a living, moving part of God that interacts with us directly

Today, [at the 11:00 o’clock service] we, with Greer’s parents and godparents will reaffirm our baptismal vows.  We make vows that are very profound and very difficult.  By saying our baptismal vows together, we remind ourselves that we have promised to turn away from Satan, evil, and our own sin and turn towards Jesus.  These promises are profoundly difficult to keep!  You should see the way Matt and I lick our chops as we check out the status of our registries online.  You can almost see the greed pouring out our ears.  As we turn away from Jesus and towards material things or other temptations, it is the Holy Spirit that can help us get back on the right track. 

Whatever temptations Greer may face, she can know that the Holy Spirit is her Advocate.  The Holy Spirit is for her and with her and will help her to follow Jesus.

The second gift is one Jesus leaves us.  Jesus gives us the gift of  his peace.  Worshiping a God for whom we have very little tangible experience is an anxiety producing experience at times!  Remember the golden calf.  Thankfully, we have access to Jesus’ peace, so we don’t need to create any golden calves.  Remember that Jesus was in complete union with his Father, so his peace is a peace beyond anything we can imagine.  His peace is the peace of God. 

I have a friend of mine who is job hunting at the moment and she tells me she is waiting to feel God’s peace to know she has found the right job.  The peace of God can be an indicator of a right path, but it can also be a spiritual soothing in a time of unrest.  One of the reasons we do healing prayer once a month here is to invite the peace of God to rest on people who are in some way in pain.  The peace of God is mysterious and can be elusive, but Jesus has given this peace to us as gift. 

Just like Matt and I can take back unwanted gifts to the store, we can refuse God’s gifts to us.  We can decide that we have enough of our own resources and we don’t really need the Holy Spirit or Jesus’s peace.  We can decide that we know absolutely what the Bible says and don’t need the Holy Spirit to gude us.  We can decide we need to be anxious and uptight and driven in order to succeed rather than inviting Jesus’ peace to rule our lives.  It is possible to reject the Father and Jesus’ gifts.

But why would we?  Why would we want to reject these wonderful gifts of relationship and connection.  Why would we not want to learn more about God, or feel a touch of the peace God feels when he looks upon us.  In these confusing and anxious times, why would we refuse these gifts?

God’s gifts for us are good gifts.  They may not be gifts we would register for or dream up for ourselves, but ultimately we don’t have really great taste.  The gifts we would register for are misguided.  Like the disciples, we want concrete answers.  We want to pin God down.  We want to pin our own lives down.  We want to know what will happen to us.  We want to know whether we’ll always be healthy or whether our children will do well for themselves.  We would register for the gifts of certainty, of uneventful lives.

But God’s gifts-the Holy Spirit and Jesus’ peace-are exactly the gifts we need to navigate the choppy waters of our lives.  They comfort us in times of trouble and give us deep joy when times are good.  They connect us when we are feeling lonely, and enter our relationships when we are surrounded by loved ones.

Jesus and the Father are handing us to fantastic packages, that contain gifts beyond our wildest imagination.  Are we going to open them?