Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Wednesday in Holy Week - Never Understanding Judas

I'm grateful to Seth Olson for his sermon this morning, which gave me some clearer focus on today's gospel and which should soon be available here.

I preached a sermon on Judas when I was at VTS. I remember that it didn’t go very well. Partly, of course, that’s because of the preacher. But part of it had to do with Judas. Preachers love talking about Judas because we don’t really understand him, but the fact that we don’t really understand him makes him a difficult subject for a sermon. It’s hard to preach on something that neither the preacher nor the congregation understand.

The gospel accounts work hard to portray Judas as a terrible scoundrel. Given the apologetic nature of their writings, that makes sense. They needed to let everyone know that Judas was bad—as John puts it that “Satan entered into him”—so that Jesus’ triumph over evil would outshine the fact that the Christ had chosen a traitor to follow him. Still, though, questions remain unanswered.

Today’s gospel brings us face to face with Judas’ treachery in heightened, good-and-evil terms. Jesus predicts his betrayal. All of the disciples gasp in horror. Peter asks the beloved disciple to ask Jesus who it was. Jesus says that it’s the one he gives the bread to. Then, he gives it to Judas, and, “after he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him.” Jesus tells him to do what he is going to do quickly, and he runs out to the confusion of the other disciples.

Jesus gives Judas the bread. Satan enters into him. Jesus tells him to hurry up and do his deed. How are we supposed to make sense of that?

Jesus is in charge. Even when he is subjected to the authorities who interrogate, torture, and kill him, Jesus is still shown to be in control. Does that mean he caused Judas to do this? Does it mean he wanted him to? Does it merely imply foreknowledge? How does it work? How can it be that Jesus kept his betrayer that close—even urging him to carry out his betrayal?

We don’t know. We are as confused as the disciples. We are dealing with forces bigger than ourselves. All we know is that Judas betrayed Jesus, yet Jesus accepted what came to him as part of God’s will. We cannot make sense of that, but we are intrigued by it. Why? Because it is our story, too. Why do we betray our Lord? Why do we turn our backs on God? Likely never in as dramatic terms as Judas’ arch-betrayal, we are still guilty of the same. How do we make sense of it? We can’t. But we cling to the fact that despite our treachery God is still in control. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tuesday in Holy Week - Saving Embrace

The readings for today can be read here

I wouldn’t know, but I bet there’s a strange and wonderful sensation that a musician gets when he hears his own music playing on the radio or that an author gets when she sees her own book on the shelf in the bookstore. If you’re on the radio or on a shelf, you must have made it. You’re legit. It’s not just your friends and family who say that you’ve got talent. You’ve been recognized as someone worth noticing. That’s a little bit like what it meant for some Greeks to find Philip and say, “We want to see Jesus!”

Jesus was a travelling preacher. He’d been wandering around the countryside for a few years, offering a strange and inviting message to anyone who would listen. His was a distinctly Jewish movement, and he spent most of his time preaching about what it would take for his people to return to their God. According to John’s gospel account, he had been to the big capital city a few times and had joined the dozen or so other charismatic figures in the temple courts who were trying to make a living by proclaiming a message for the masses, but this time things seemed a little different. These Greeks—these gentile converts to Judaism—had heard about Jesus and wanted to know more. Jesus’ fame was spreading across ethnic and philosophical lines. More and more people were attracted to his sermons. Philip went and got Andrew, and both of them, excited at what this might mean, went to tell Jesus. And what did Jesus do? He went away and hid from them.

It’s not that Jesus was afraid of the spotlight. He disappeared because he knew that the only way he could really draw all people to himself was by being lifted up from the ground and hoisted onto a cross. And no one wants to follow a preacher who is leading his followers towards death.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternity. Whoever serves me must follow me and be with me wherever I am. Things are about to get ugly. But what should I say, “Father, save me from this hour?” No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. This is what it is all about. This is how God will glorify me and glorify himself. I will be lifted up, and then I will draw all people to myself.

There’s a prayer in the Prayer Book that begins, “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace…” Just when it seems like Jesus is going to make it big as a powerful preacher with a potent message, he runs away from his fans. Just when he is achieving real cross-over in a whole new demographic, Jesus ducks out into the shadows. Why? Because he knows that the world needs more than just a preacher with a good message. Because he knows that the only way to really bring the whole world together is by stretching out his arms on the hard wood of the cross. We follow not the one who has huge crowds hanging on his every word. We follow the one who hung shamefully on the cross so that we might be transformed by his death.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Monday in Holy Week - Costly Perfume

Today's readings can be found here.

Three-hundred denarii is a lot of money. It’s 300 days’ worth of wages for a laborer. If you worked six days a week, it’s almost a year’s worth of pay. At minimum wage ($7.25 an hour), and assuming 8-hour days, that’s about $17,400.

I want you to imagine for a minute what would happen if I told the congregation that we were going to spend $17,000 to have a guest vocalist come to St. John’s to sing one song on Good Friday. Or imagine what your spouse would say if you came home and announced that you had spent $17,000 on a bottle of wine for dinner that night. Or imagine what the neighbors would say if you spent $17,000 on fireworks for your next birthday.

As he makes his final trip to Jerusalem, where he will be killed, Jesus stops for dinner in his friends’ house. While sitting at the dinner table, Mary, one of his hostesses, takes a pound of perfume made of pure nard and anoints his feet and wipes them with her hair. I think the value of that gesture gets lost in translation. Three-hundred denarii is a lot of money. And what Mary does with it is an overwhelming statement of humility and sacrifice. It’s the kind of awkward, beautiful moment that two friends will always share together; every time they meet again, they will think of it. Mary’s act of anointing Jesus is a way of showing that nothing else, absolutely nothing else, matters as much as what is about to happen to Jesus.

Judas questions why that perfume was not sold so that the money could be given to the poor. John, the author, tries to give the reader some inside information to clarify the situation, but I partly think he muddies the water. By telling us that Judas said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief, John leads us to believe that his objection was baseless and selfish. That might be true—Judas might have had his eye on the cash—but, when I stop and think about how lavish and ridiculous and ludicrous that gesture was, I think Judas might be right. Why wasn’t the perfume sold and the money given to the poor? And why does Jesus respond, “You always have the poor, but you do not always have me?” How can we justify this kind of expense—the inexplicable use of $17,000 for a one-time, one-person moment?

If you believe that nothing is as important as the death that Jesus will die, then the anointing makes sense. If you can see that the value of what will happen to Jesus is immeasurable, then the perfume is justified. If you can see that the cross is what transforms the whole world, bringing hope to the poor, then the three-hundred denarii is well-spent. Our challenge, therefore, is to become like Mary—willing to give up everything to participate in Jesus’ death. We must lose ourselves in the inconceivable gift that is the cross. All that we have and everything that we are must disappear in the sight of Calvary. The needs and concerns and alternatives must vanish because the only thing that matters is what happens on the cross. This week is about losing everything else so that only one thing occupies all aspects of our being.

Sunday Sermon - Palm Sunday, Year A

April 13, 2014 – Lent 4A

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

A little while ago, we were all crying, “Hosanna in the highest!” And then, just a few minutes later, we changed that cry to, “Crucify him!” When we proclaim, “Hosanna!” we are praising God for sending us our savior—literally our “rescue.” But then, like the crowd in Jerusalem, we turn against the one who came to save us, and we call for his crucifixion. Because the words are chosen for us, it’s as if we have no power to steer ourselves on the right path. Every year, this chapter of human history repeats itself as the faithful become the faithless—the devoted become the despisers. How does that happen—not just in the story of Holy Week but in our own story, played out over and over again?

Did you hear Peter’s confidence when he told Jesus, “Even though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you?” When confronted by his master’s prediction that all of his disciples would turn and run away, Peter stepped us and assured Jesus that he was wrong. “I would never desert you, Lord!” And, only a few hours later, when questioned by some bystanders in the courtyard of the high priest, Peter cursed and swore an oath, saying, “I do not know the man!” And the cock crowed, and Peter ran out, weeping bitterly.

Did you hear Judas’ disbelieving question, when he asked Jesus, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” To the shock and horror of his disciples, Jesus announced that one of them would betray him. Even Judas, who had already accepted blood money from the Jewish authorities, could not believe what was happening—what he himself had done. “Can this be?” he asked. “Is it true? Have I done this terrible thing?” And Jesus, looking straight into his eyes, confronted his treachery, and said, “You have said so.” Eventually the grief was more than Judas could bear. Unable to undo his terrible wrong, he threw the money back to the authorities and went out to hang himself.

Neither of them, it seems, had the power to choose the right path. And, truthfully, neither do we. That’s why we reenact this drama every year—to remind us that, like Peter and Judas, we do not have the strength within ourselves to remain faithful and loyal to the one who came to save us. But what will we do? Where is hope to be found?

We come again this year to watch our Lord walk the path that is ahead of him—the road that leads to betrayal and arrest and torture and death. Unlike us, he never swerves. With focus trained on the cross ahead, he journeys down the path appointed for him. His faithfulness overcomes our faithlessness. His steadfastness absorbs our betrayal. His unwavering love for sinners like us—those who turn their backs on him—is the only thing that makes it possible for us to know forgiveness. So come again to Holy Week. Journey alongside our savior and watch as his selfless sacrifice brings hope to you and me. Amen.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Walking the Right Path

Words and actions don’t always line up—even with the best intentions.

In Matthew’s portrayal of the passion narrative, when Jesus confronts his disciples about his betrayal, Judas asks, “Surely not I, rabbi?” And Jesus replies, “You have said so.” It’s an odd back-and-forth that doesn’t show up in the other accounts. John’s account comes the closest to Matthew’s exchange. In that version, all the way back in John 13, Jesus whispers, “Do whatever you are about to do quickly,” and Judas runs out. But Matthew is the only one who gives us Judas asking Jesus whether it is true. I hear his words as half-way disbelief. “Did I really do this? Surly I didn’t really do this, did I? Was I mistaken? What happened?”

Only a few lines later, Jesus again confronts the disciples, saying, “You will all become deserters.” And Peter characteristically responds, “Not me!” Jesus confirms it, saying, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” For me, the fascinating part is how earnestly Peter denies it a second time: “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” But, of course, we know how the story goes.

Sometimes we deny what we know is true. Sometimes we confidently state what we believe will happen even though we have no control over what follows. To me, in Matthew’s passion, it feels like everyone other than Jesus is out of control. Judas careening towards betrayal. Peter skidding towards denial. All of the disciples hurtling towards desertion. Jesus alone walks in control. The journey ahead is one he not only accepts but chooses and even controls.

The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. My heart wants to do what’s right, but the sin within me leads me to ignore even my heart’s desire. Often, of course, the Spirit enables me to take the right path, but sometimes the path isn’t mine to choose. Somehow, though, Jesus walks the path of suffering ahead so that my missteps might be redeemed. Peter and, I believe, even Judas find redemption in the strength and resolve of their rabbi. Like them, the redemption we look for doesn’t come from choosing the right path but from the one who did on our behalf.

Monday, April 7, 2014

An Invitation to a Holy Week?

Alright, Good Reader, I need your help. If you thought the gospel lessons were long for the last three weeks, buckle your seatbelts. We’re in for a doozy. This Sunday brings the Passion Narrative. All of it—at least Matthew’s version of it. We read it as a dramatic reading—splitting up the parts. But a lot happens even before we get there.

We start with the blessing of the palms, a procession around and into the church, the singing of “All glory, laud, and honor.” We continue with the usual readings (no Decalogue this time). Then we have the long Passion Narrative read with a collection of voices. (Have I mentioned that it’s long?) And then, THEN?, the preacher gets into the pulpit to preach? Knowing that we still have the Creed, Prayers, Confession, Peace, Great Thanksgiving, Fraction, Communion, Prayer, Blessing, and Dismissal, does the preacher dare say more than, “Enough said?”

Wait, wait, Good Reader. Don’t give up. No, the preacher need not explain the drama that unfolds before us during Holy Week. Hopefully, we will resist the desire to “delve deeper” into the mechanics of the story. Hopefully, we will stop well short of restating what needs not be restated. But what should we say? What does the congregation need to hear from its preacher on a day of such drama? Should it be a story? Should it be an exhortation? Should it be merely an “Amen?”

Although there’s plenty of time for you to change my mind, right now I’m planning for this Sunday’s sermon to be an invitation.

We stand on the cusp of Holy Week. The days ahead will come quickly, now, and, if we get too busy, we’ll miss all of them. This is our chance to let them fill us rather than tune them out. If the preacher can resist the temptation to say more than 250 words, the people will have a chance to hear an invitation to the heart-changing drama that still lies ahead.

During Lent, one of the proper prefaces (the bit the clergyperson says in between the “It is right and a good and joyful think” and the “Holy, holy, holy” part) has been about getting ready. On Sunday it will be Holy Week, and the preface will change, but it’s not too late for us to hear the words of the Lenten preface and make sure we don’t miss them during the days ahead:

You bid your faithful people cleanse their hearts, and prepare with joy for the Paschal feast; that, fervent in prayer and in works of mercy, and renewed by your Word and Sacraments, they may come to the fullness of grace which you have prepared for those who love you.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

God's Plan? Jesus Wept.

This Sunday’s gospel lesson (John 11:1-45) presents preachers with a number of challenges. First of all, what sermon should come from such a long and multifaceted reading? The first lesson of preaching I was ever taught was to preach only one sermon—not two or three or four at the same time. Cut it down. Focus the message. But how? Another problem is how long to preach. A lesson this long—the third in a row—is deep and rich and deserves some exposition, but congregations have a harder and harder time sitting still for that long. This reading is 847 words long. If I read that at the same pace I preach, it would take me 6 minutes just to read the gospel. Then you’re going to sit and listen to me preach for another 10-15? Good luck, preacher.

More pressing in my mind, however, is the issue of fate…of purpose…of plan…of providence…of predestination. My friend Steve Pankey wrote about this on Monday. It’s a great post and has made me think of this passage and my faith and my hope and my understanding of who God is and how the world works and what I’m supposed to do about it. You can see my comments to that post and the back-and-forth he and I had about it at the bottom of the post. As I see it, we find ourselves facing the same question—as do so many people of faith: how can we believe that God is in control of our lives if so many things that happen seem antithetical to the God we know?

In Sunday’s lesson, Jesus tells the disciples of Lazarus’ soon-to-be-fatal illness, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Similarly, in last week’s reading (John 9:1-41), Jesus said, “[This man] was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him.” Both statements—and plenty of others in the Old and New Testaments—suggest that terrible things (disability, disease, death, etc.) are part of God’s plan. How are we supposed to make sense of that? Is the pulpit the right time to tackle this issue? Maybe—as long as the preacher doesn’t say that she or he has all the answers. That would be disastrous. Instead, if this is the theological nut that the preacher is desperate to crack (good thing I’m not preaching?), I’d say start with 11:35--“Jesus wept.”

Think about this for a minute: the Son of God, with all the power that the Almighty possesses, declares boldly that his friend’s illness does not lead to death but instead to his and his father’s glorification, knows that the result would be resurrection, and still comes to the tomb and weeps. He who said, “This does not lead to death,” still comes and weeps. He who has the power to raise his friend is still overcome with grief. Even though he is a full and clear participant in the divine plan, Jesus still encounters this moment as one of tragedy and pain and loss. Are these two states of being—these two mindsets—not incongruent? Can Jesus himself be confident and hopeful and foreknowing and still mourn his friend’s death? Absolutely. And so should we.

Is this part of God’s plan? Yes. Does that soften the pain? Perhaps but not necessarily. Is pain and grief still appropriate? Clearly. But is despair? No. That’s where the line is drawn. This gospel lesson is a proclamation of mature faith. It is the antidote to cheap, heartless preaching in the face of death and disaster. Even Jesus weeps, and we should, too. It is also the antidote to a theology based in human emotion rather than divine revelation. We do not divorce our belief in God’s providence from our experience of the world simply because we don’t like the way the world is going. Jesus didn’t like it either, but he still maintained his grip on God’s unfolding plan. His statement of faith—“this leads to glory”—isn’t cheap or ignorant of the loss. He embraces both the pain of death and the hope of glory. And we should, too.

Do we believe that even something terrible is part of God’s plan? Yes, I think we do. But does that mean that we understand it? No, absolutely not. Do we declare how something we don’t understand fits into God’s plan? No, absolutely not. Are we supposed to put on a happy face and pretend that everything is ok? No, absolutely not. But should still put our faith in God’s promise to bring everything to a holy completion even though we don’t understand how it’s working? Yes, I think that’s what mature faith is.

We believe that God will make everything right. We believe that brokenness will be restored. How? When? We don’t know. But we can’t let go of our belief that God has a plan and that he is in control. He is not asleep at the wheel. He is not absent from our disasters. He is not up in heaven weeping at a world he has no control over. He is at the tomb of his friend, weeping at the loss of a man he loved yet confident that it will lead to God’s glory. 
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