Sermon for Easter

Sermon for Easter Day, year B

The Very Rev. Andy Jones

April 8, 2012

The sermon draws on the alternate Gospel reading for Easter Day, year B in the Revised Common Lectionary Cycle.

You can find that reading here.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

All over the world, in places much like this one, people are gathering to hear those words proclaimed!

That Jesus of Nazareth, who preached and taught that the Kingdom of God has come near, that we can experience that kingdom here and now…

Who preached and taught that the Kingdom of God is for all people, for the people on the fringes of society, for the people who have been overlooked by those in power,  for the people who had been thought to be less than acceptable, disposable…

Who preached and taught that the Kingdom of God is for sinners, even sinners like us!

That Jesus of Nazareth, who taught that those who believe in him might experience eternal life in the presence of God.

All over the world, in places much like this one, people are gathering to hear that Jesus of Nazareth who was dead, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, who suffered death and was buried, who descended to the dead… Is Alive!  That he has been raised from the dead!  That he is still among us!  He has not abandoned us!

All over the world in places much like this one, people are gathering to hear and proclaim:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

And with these words the things that Jesus taught us, the things that he said and showed us, take on a new import and meaning.  Words that might have been lost to history, or if not lost, consigned to the pages of dusty tomes in the stacks of obscure libraries have become central to the way that we seek to live our lives.  They have become the center of a faith that has changed the world.  We have placed our trust in them and they have become our Truth, our Faith, our Life.

With those words we have been set free.  With our hope set in Christ’s resurrection we know that we will not die forever.  We will not be annihilated.  There is life beyond what we can see and touch, what we can smell and taste, what we can feel and experience here and now and that life has been promised to us by the one whose resurrected life we celebrate today.

We are set free to live our lives boldly in His name.  We are set free to teach and to proclaim the vision of the Kingdom that He has shown us.  We are set free to challenge injustice wherever we encounter it, to lift up the poor and lowly, to defend the widow and orphan, and to work to bring the kingdom that He described to fruition here and now.

With those words we are set free to risk ourselves for one another with the assurance that we will always be fully embraced and loved by the God in whom we long to live and move and have our being!

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

All over the world today become are gathering to hear and to proclaim those words.  I wonder…  are we here today to hear?  or to proclaim?

The women who went to Jesus’ tomb that morning were certainly there to hear.  It must have been awfully dark that morning.  I know that Mark tells us that they went in the morning when the sun had risen but I am sure that for them, the world was very dark.  They had lost their teacher, their Rabbi.  The person around whom they had built their lives had been taken from them, beaten, humiliated, and hung on a cross to die.  Try to put yourself in their sandals.  It is hard to imagine a darker place.  As they walked to the tomb they had nothing to proclaim but their grief and loss.  I am sure that they would have told you that the world, life, even God had treated them very badly.  Can you imagine anyone who needed to hear our Easter Proclamation more than they did?

Sometimes we arrive at the tomb filled with assurance; a clear and abiding sense of God’s love and presence, “convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38,39).  And so we stand outside the entrance of the tomb and cry to anyone who passes by that Christ is risen.  Sometimes we even dare to enter the tomb, of our own volition, where we proclaim with joy that he is risen indeed!

Other times we arrive at the tomb like, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, compelled, against our will, forced into the darkness by events outside of our own control.  Sometimes we arrive at the tomb unable to say the words ourselves, needing more than anything to hear someone else say them in a way that will invite us into the light where we just might be able to breathe once again…

“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him” (Mark 16:6).

The tomb is still empty and he is still out there waiting for us, just beyond the horizon.  Just beyond the limit of our ability to see right now.  Don’t be afraid.

 “…he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16: 7).

All over the world today people are gathering to hear and proclaim these words.  And it should be clear at this moment that it isn’t just the words that are important.  The gathering is important too.  Being called out of the darkness can be a terrifying thing.  It can fill us with amazement and awe that might, in the absence of companions to help us make sense of it all, leave us mute and afraid.  It can also be a scary thing to stand in a world that sees no justification or rationale for the bold claims we make about the kingdom of God.  About its call for justice, dignity, and respect for even the least among us.  And for our need to proclaim the good news of God in Christ.  It can be terrifying to contemplate risking our selves and what we have to speak up for those who do not have the voice to speak for themselves.

We need one another here in this place, in the tomb where the darkness is overcome by the light.  We all need to be here together, those who need to hear and those who need to proclaim, the broken and the healed, the fallen and the lifted up, because it is all of our voices, joined as one, that represent the Body of Christ, left to die upon the cross, and yet alive, living amongst us, as one of us, now and forever as we proclaim;

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

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Sermon for Good Friday

Sermon for Good Friday

April 6th, 2012

This sermon stands in the shadow of the Cross on Good Friday.  The Gospel reading for Good Friday is John 18:1 – 19:42.

You can find it here.

 

How has this happened?  How did we get here?  Jesus, the one whom we have been following, who has been teaching us about the Kingdom of Heaven, who has shown us a new way to see God, ourselves and one another…  Jesus whose entry into Jerusalem we celebrated with a parade as we waved palm branches and cried Hosanna… dead… dead on a cross… dead… at our own hands.  How could this have happened, Why did it happen?

We sit here today, our hearts broken, bereft, haunted by these questions as we recount once again the story of the passion.

It is a powerful story, one that has been told for generations, and so as each generation recalls this story as it’s own, it is a story that begins over and over again.  It is a story with many beginnings.

We began our telling of the story today in a garden across the Kidron valley, the place that Jesus took his disciples after he had shared a meal with them and washed their feet.  But if we are in search of answers to the questions that haunt us: how and why, we need to look back to another beginning, to a dream, to a dream that echoes the words of a prophet:

“…an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from his sins.’  All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us’” (Matthew 1:20-23).

God is with us, among us, as one of us.  This claim, this proclamation, this truth which lies at the very core of our faith has proven problematic to many: as Paul says in first Corinthians “a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).  It was problematic to the early church as well.  There were schools of thought within the Christian Community that held that Jesus was not really, not fully human, and there were schools of thought that held that he was not fully God.  And while those movements were judged by the early church to be heresies it would be silly to say that we don’t continue to struggle with Jesus’ “dual citizenship” even today.

It seems after all to be a contradiction in terms, a matter of definition, of ontology.  How could God, from before time and forever, the holy immortal one, creator and ruler of all that is, be at the same time, flesh, bound in time and space to a body, profane, a creature like us?  How could these two incompatible ways of being exist at the same time, in one being without somehow annihilating one another?  Could God be among us as one of us and still be God?  Wouldn’t one somehow cancel the other out?

And yet, even as we sit here today, with Jesus dead on the cross, dead at our own hands, we have the audacity to say:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ

the only Son of God

eternally begotten of the Father

God from God, Light from Light

true God from true God

begotten not made

of one being with the father.

Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation

he came down from heaven:

By the power of the Holy Spirit

he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,

and was made man.

 

“Came down, became incarnate, and was made man…” Unpack these words, these verbs we use to describe Jesus’ life among us and the metaphysical mystery of Emmanuel, God with us, deepens.  It quickly becomes apparent that if these claims are true something has to move, to change.

If God has come down, become incarnate, been made man… if God has truly shared our nature then either:

God is no longer God: immortal, beyond space and time, holy, pure, and creator,

or

the creation, flesh, time and space, are no longer profane, apart from God, or “dirty,” as our definitions seem to demand.

No wonder “Emmanuel” has proven a stumbling block or foolishness to so many.

So what has changed, God or the World?  “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.”  We hear those words in a lot of ways.  Their meaning transcends the bounds of a single explication, of even a Good Friday sermon…  but the trajectory of this line of thinking helps us to narrow our focus a little.

Ours is an incarnational faith.  We believe that God inhabits God’s creation.  God’s presence among us, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, in the person of the Holy Spirit, in the imprint of God’s very image on all that is, makes this world real, important, Holy.  The world that we experience is not, as some would say, an illusion or a veil that we need to move beyond.  The world that we experience is not a prison that we need to escape in order to experience God.  In Jesus, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, we see that God is here, in all that is, in the world that has been given into our care, and that God is present in us, our flesh, the very stuff of which we are made.

What has changed?  Neither God or the World!  It is our understanding of who and what we are, our understanding of the world around us that has changed.  “For us and for our salvation,” God has come into this world in a new and unique way, in a person, flesh and blood, just like you and I, so that we can finally see and understand who and what we are: beloved of God, God’s children, made in the image of God, sacred and Holy.  This has always been true, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed it was very good.”

So now we begin to get to the “how and the why” that haunt us on this day.  Emmanuel, God among us, incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth has died.  That is the way of all flesh.  In the words of a famous theologian, “To be flesh is to be continually dying before God.”  The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ did not begin on Palm Sunday.  It didn’t begin at the Last Supper when he sent Judas to do quickly what he had to do.  It didn’t being in the Garden of Gethsemane where he was betrayed and arrested.  The Passion began at the incarnation, when God committed to doing a new thing and became one of us and walked among us, flesh of our flesh and blood of our blood.  Even as an infant lying in a manger Jesus was already dying before God.

But why this death?  Why not just grow old together?  Why doesn’t the story end with Jesus, having spent his entire life teaching us, showing us the way to heaven, and modeling the kind of life that God created us for, dying peacefully in the arms of the beloved disciple, surrounded by his grieving but transformed friends and followers?  Why doesn’t the story end with Jesus being carried off in a whirlwind by a chariot and horses of fire like Elijah (2 Kings 2:11), or with him, having brought his people to the promised land, going off and dying alone in the presence of God to be buried in an unknown place like Moses (Deuteronomy 34:5,6)?  Why does Jesus die here, on a cross, in the prime of his life, at our own hands?  Who would have conceived a story with an ending like this?  What sense does it make?  What kind of God would demand such a thing?

Not God!  Flesh! God became flesh and walked among us as one of us and in so doing committed God’s very self to death.  All flesh dies and that reality, that truth, is to flesh abhorrent. It fills us with fear and trembling, with loathing and dread.  How can it be that I will die?  How can it be that I will cease to be?  And so the way of flesh, and Paul is very articulate about this, is to take matters into its own hands.  Our response to our own mortality is to struggle and to strive, to meet our own needs, to gratify ourselves and to build ourselves up.  We work hard to justify ourselves and to stand in a place where we can say that we have earned the right to an exemption: “we are dust and to dust we shall return?  No!  Surely I, of all people, will not go down to the pit forever…”

Our desperation to avoid the fate of all flesh is so great that we will even use and manipulate the people around us.  We will exploit them to accumulate treasure, to raise our status and profile, and to provide us pleasure in this transitory life.  We justify our willingness to raise ourselves at the expense of others because of the sense of scarcity that our own mortality creates in us.  Everything, including my time here on earth, is limited.  There isn’t enough to go around.  I had better get mine while I can and I have a right to build myself up even if it means that others have less than they need.

God comes among us, Emmanuel, and shows us that we are beloved, that we are made in God’s image, that we are holy and sacred and that nothing can separate us from the love of God.  That is the Good News of the Gospel!  “For God so loved the world that he sent his only son that those who believe in him may not perish but have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16,17).  Surely this is the answer that our flesh so craves.  We will not be extinguished, annihilated!  God’s love for us is unlimited and unceasing we will not die but will live forever!

But flesh is not so easily appeased…  The Good news might be good enough if it were spoken “just to me.”  If God had spoken from heaven, if God had become incarnate and just spent a quiet evening “with me” over some nice seven grain bread and a good glass of sherry my flesh might have been satisfied.  But that isn’t what happened.  God came into the world and made the whole creation new.  It isn’t just me and my flesh that is holy and sacred.  It isn’t even just me and my family, my tribe, or my nation.  It isn’t even just people that bear God’s image and likeness, that are created and loved by God.  It is the whole of creation!  And the implications of that truth are staggering!

How does this happen? Why does it happen?  We sit here today, our hearts broken, bereft, haunted by these questions as we recount once again the story of the passion and we recognize that Jesus hangs on a cross before us because accepting who is, accepting the gift of grace that he offers, believing that the good news applies to us means that we must also believe that the gift of grace and good news that he brings also applies to everyone and everything in all of creation!  .  If we are to believe Jesus, and embrace the truth that he brings, we must learn to live with a sense of abundance, generosity and love.  We must proclaim the Good News of God in Christ to others, we must seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and we must strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being!  Jesus hangs on the cross today because it is so hard for the flesh to let go of its insecurities and needs, of its own fears and anxieties.  Jesus hangs on a cross today because we would rather reject the gift that he is offering than learn to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength.  How does this happen?  Why does this happen?  Jesus hangs on a cross today because we are so afraid to love our neighbors as ourselves.

 

A Sermon for Palm Sunday

This sermon is based on the Gospel Reading for Palm Sunday,Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find that reading here

 

Hanging on a cross is a terrible and agonizing way to die.  Nails driven, not through the palms of the hand, where they would just rip out from between your fingers, but driven through your wrists, and nails driven through your feet, crucified, hanging in the hot sun, your full body weight pulling against those nails.  Between the blood loss, the dehydration, the exhaustion and the pain your diaphragm stops working and the only way that you can breathe is to push down against the nails in your feet, raising yourself up to inflate your lungs and lowering yourself to exhale.  When that becomes too painful, or you are just too exhausted to continue your lungs begin to fill up with fluid and you literally drown, hanging there on a cross.

This is how Rome put its enemies to death.  You may think, now that I’ve sent a chill through the room describing that awful death, that the Roman Empire really hated the people that it crucified.  But all of that pain, all of that agony, all of that terror that was inflicted through crucifixion wasn’t actually aimed at the person who hung there on the cross.  The roads in and out of Jerusalem, in fact the roads throughout all of occupied Palestine were lined with crosses where people had been crucified and where their bodies had been left.  The real victims of crucifixion were the people who had been left behind, alive, to see this symbol of terror and death.  Crucifixion was a tool that Rome used to keep the subjugated people in line.  It was merely a way to keep order and to show people what would happen to those who dared to defy Rome’s rules, laws and requirements.

Another symbol of Rome’s power and the way that Rome maintained control was evident on the day that Jesus rode into Jerusalem.  On that very day when Jesus rides in on a colt, being hailed as the one who comes in the name of the Lord, as people were strewing his path with palm branches, Pontius Pilate, Roman Governor of Judea, is returning to Jerusalem from his summer palace at Caesarea Philippi where he has gone to be by the water at the hottest part of the year.  It is the festival of the Passover and people are streaming in to Jerusalem from all over the country.  Rome knows that nationalism and a sense of outrage will be grow stronger among the people of Israel as they attempt to celebrate their most holy of feasts under Roman occupation.  So Pilate has left his comfortable summer residence to keep the peace by bringing a company of soldiers to stand in the streets and remind the people of the power of Rome and what happens to those who dare to defy its power.

On this morning as Jesus rides into Jerusalem and we wave our palm branches and we lay them on the road we dare to hope.  We hope that at long last we might be freed from this terrible tyranny and that this awful display of murderous rage might finally end, that the world might be put right and that God might come to reign in the land of Israel again, that we would know that we are God’s beloved people, and that these scenes of death might vanish from the land.  We dare to hope and dream and we focus all of this on Jesus as he rides into town and we celebrate with a festive parade.  And then something almost unbelievable happens.  The one upon whom we place our hopes and dreams is handed over to the ones whom we seek to escape and we are the ones who hand him over!  We hand Jesus over to Pilate, the symbol of that world that oppresses and dominates, the world that destroys and crucifies, the world that finds its power in manipulation, oppression and death.  The one that we had hoped would save us from these horrors is left in the hands of that terrible power and is abandoned by all who knew him and loved him.

We don’t get much information in this short reading today to explain how it is that this change is effected.  We know that the scribes and the Chief Priests and the Pharisees have been plotting to have Jesus arrested and killed and they have been looking for a way to do that.  We know that it is Judas Iscariot that gives them the information they need to finally arrest Jesus in a place without a large crowd of Jesus’ supporters who might have tried to save him.  But that same crowd that the chief priests, scribes and elders feared, when Jesus is brought before Pilate, turns against him and we stand and shout, “Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!”  How did this happen?  How could we have turned so quickly?  It may well be that Judas, the zealot, was hoping to force Jesus’ hand, to force him to finally come out in all of his power and glory and take charge of the situation and do away with their Roman adversaries.  It may well be that the people there in the crowd looked at Jesus beaten and bloodied bound there in the temple and thought “This isn’t what we thought!  He obviously isn’t going to save us from Rome.  Look, he’s not even carrying a sword!”  So in that moment of disappointment and anger at hopes raised in vain we yell, “Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!”  And send him to his death.  But how could we do this?  How could we betray him like this?

As I read this passage and I ponder all of these possibilities I keep coming back to the same conclusions.  It’s not that we are disappointed; it’s not that we are impatient, it’s not that we have been influenced by people who have been planted in the crowd to create this frenzy and lead us to call for Jesus’ death.  I think that the reason that we turn so quickly against the one that has come to love us is that we are much more comfortable with power that is asserted with force, that we are much more comfortable with power that is taken and assumed.  We are much more comfortable with power that comes by imposing the will of the stronger upon the will of the weaker.  We know how that kind of power works.  We have seen it in action.  It has been used against us and we know it works.  And we know that if we are lucky enough to be in a position of influence or authority we can wield this kind of power and get results right away.

Jesus rides into Jerusalem and declares that power comes in a different way.  Not through forcing people to obey, not through imposing penalties and sanctions not through demanding that people toe the line or die for daring to disobey.  Jesus comes and says to us that power comes through vulnerability, and being willing to offer yourself to those with whom you disagree, to those with whom you struggle, even to those who seem to hate you.  Jesus comes to teach us a different form of power, the power that guides and exists in kingdom of heaven.  But that is a power that is scarier to us even than the rows and rows of bodies that hang from crosses along the roads going in and out of the towns where we live and move and have our being.  It is a scary thing to follow Jesus on the way to the cross and believe that this is the way that we should behave towards one another, even if that other hasn’t adopted our methodology yet.  We have seen the fire hoses turned on our brothers and sisters.  We have seen the dogs loosed and we have seen the damage that a Billy club can do.  We know that people are imprisoned, that in some parts of this world they just disappear.  We know what it looks like when people attempt to change things in a non violent way.  A lot of people end up hanging from crosses.  So it is a scary thing to say that in a time of threat I will put down my weapons, that I will set aside the sharp sword that my tongue can become, I will lay aside my rhetorical tricks and my wit, my ability to talk my way around and through anything that you might say.  It is a hard thing to listen, and to invite you into a conversation, and to maybe give up some of the points that I hold dear so that we can find common ground where we might live and stand together.

It is a scary thing to stand with Jesus before Pilate and not become the very thing that we abhor.  On this day we see the result of giving in to that fear.  And in the week to come as we complete this journey moving ever closer to the cross and Good Friday we are called to examine our own lives and to look for the places where we may have become or conformed to that scary power wielding, death giving, world which we abhor.  What kind of power are we exercising?  Is it God’s power or is it our own?  When you get right down to it, it isn’t hard to tell the difference.  One looks like this (a raised and clenched fist) and the other looks like this (an open hand stretched out in love and compassion.)