Archives for March 2015

What does it take to believe?, 2 Easter (B) – 2015

April 12, 2015

Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

Last Sunday, the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we proclaimed with joy and wonder: “He is risen!”

That was the theme for the day, that was the truth renewed and declared. The stone is rolled away! The Lord is alive!

And what we have is an empty tomb.

The women came to the tomb with the spices they had prepared for the body. Seeing heavenly messengers, they believed and ran to tell the men.

But when the women told their news to the disciples – what they had seen and learned at the tomb, that empty tomb – the men didn’t believe them! “These words seemed to them an idle tale,” says one gospel.

And so when we read the story of what happened next, when Jesus came into the house and stood among his disciples, we have to wonder what was going through their minds. After all, these were the same disciples who had refused to believe the women until they could see with their own eyes. And even running to the tomb to see what he could find, Peter did not go in: He stayed outside, seeing only the emptiness.

And then, as we read in the Gospel of John today:

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them. … Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”

They got it! They finally believed!

But not all. No, just as there were disbelievers at the tomb, there is a disbeliever in their midst in today’s story: Thomas. No sooner does one believe than another does not, and these back-and-forth tales persist throughout the Christian story.

“But Thomas … one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’”

Thomas was the holdout. There is no record of the other disciples’ response to this, but they could hardly claim the moral high ground. Looking back in John’s story only a few sentences, we read that Jesus showed them his hands and his side. It was only then that the disciples “rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”

What is it about proof? Why do these disciples – the ones who were closest to Jesus, who walked with him, ate at table with him, listened to the wisdom of his preaching – require something more in order to believe? And how much is enough to tip the scale?

“Tip the scale”: That’s the image to hold in mind as we think about this.

Have you ever watched one of the many dog shows on television, a dog show that has tricks and trials? Sometimes dogs will have to run an obstacle course, and one of the obstacles will be a teeter totter sort of thing, where the dog will run up one side, and carefully balancing, carefully stepping past the middle point, will tip the board down on the other side. At this point, the dogs often seem not to walk, not even to run off the board, but to jump off, in their excitement.

Faith is much like that teeter totter. It’s a balancing act of running up one side of consideration to the tipping point, and having reached that dangerous ground, that area where you can stay safely balanced on your comfortable side, or you can even stand in the middle if you’re very, very careful – and then jumping, with all you’ve got, to the other side, where you might find the downside of the plank, or you might find only thin air.

This is a useful application of the expression “leap of faith,” because that’s exactly what it is. Most often, what we find when we get to that fulcrum, that tipping point, of faith, is only spiritual “thin air” on the other side. It’s much safer, we think, to stay on the uphill side where we have solid wood under our feet. It’s more uncertain, scarier even, to have to scramble to keep our footing and balance just like those dogs on the obstacle course, before deciding to jump!

The threshold of the empty tomb of Easter morning is a fulcrum, a tipping point, a place of decision. Imagine two people on a teeter totter, facing each other. What is in between them, in the middle, is the threshold of that tomb. The door. The entry or exit. What does each one see? A way in? A way out?

In his collection of essays “A Grief Observed,” C.S. Lewis wrote:

“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose that you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?”

Such is faith.

What is necessary for us to believe? We can all practice religion: That’s what we’re doing now, in acting out worship and remembering Christ in the Eucharist. That is the stuff of identifying ourselves as Episcopalian or Methodist or Baptist or any of a myriad of Christian labels and distinctions.

All of us who call ourselves Christian are not necessarily converted to faith. Tongue in cheek, we might claim that there is complete agreement in this church and every other church about whether to have wine or grape juice for communion, whether to have candles on the altar, or whether to have an altar at all. But those are the things of religion. And yet, so often those are the things that divide us, that get in the way of Christian believing and Christian community. But Jesus was not concerned so much with matters of religion as he was with matters of faith.

Think back on the stories of Jesus, his ministry, his interactions with people. Do you remember the stories of the Pharisees criticizing Jesus for eating food that was unwashed, for healing on the Sabbath, for sharing a meal and associating with those who were considered the less desirable people of society? And what was his response in every single case? Those are trappings, those are not the things that are important. Those are not the things of the Kingdom of God.

In the season of Easter, we tell stories not of religion, but of faith and believing. Of standing at the entrance to the tomb, and deciding whether to go in. Of being closed in the house with the disciples and greeting our Lord. Of the women, the only ones who believed without question or denial. Of Peter and the other disciples. Of Thomas, called “Doubting Thomas,” because he demanded to see and touch. Of Paul and Annanias.

May each of us this Easter season come to know the Risen Christ in a new way. May the event of Easter be a unifying experience, to bring together the Body of Christ, instead of breaking it again on the cross. May we celebrate our differences that will be honored in the gathering of Pentecost and the sanctification of the Holy Spirit at the end of this season. May we remember that it is Jesus Christ who unites us as Lord and Savior, so that we cling to our faith more firmly than we do to our religion.

And may we think about something in this Easter season: How will we put ourselves into the story?

What does it take for you to believe?

You stand at the entrance to the tomb. You have heard the testimony of the women. You know what the disciples know.

What is your story of faith? What is your response to the Easter news?

 

— The Rev. Machrina Blasdell currently teaches religious studies for Park University, Parkville, Mo., following 12 years as executive director of an interfaith council in the San Francisco area. She enjoys her family life, growing roses and making anything chocolate.

Today is the day, Easter Day (B) – 2015

April 5, 2015

Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 or Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18 or Mark 16:1-8

Can you image that celebrating Easter might bring danger for most of us? The danger comes from our knowing in advance the outcome of the drama – that Jesus rose again. Knowing what is going to be said and sung this morning, we are in danger of not being shocked by this unimaginably joyous, unprecedented event.

If we are not careful, Easter can become just another one of those stories with a feel-good, happy ending. If we are not careful, we will cease to be slack-jawed. If we are not careful, the hair on the back of our necks will not stand up when we hear the almost unbelievable Good News.

This is so, because familiarity can bred, if not contempt, then at least a ho-hum, of-course-he-rose-on-the-third-day kind of attitude. If we succumb to this familiar thinking, Jesus’ death on the cross is hardly a life-changing gift, but rather a short pause in a celebration lined only with bunnies and baskets, colored eggs and family dinners.

Obviously, in the depth of our faith, we cannot afford to become so complacent. It is important that we understand Easter profoundly and appreciate its ultimate value; important that we remember that it follows and gives meaning to the weight of Good Friday and the pain that black day bears. The sadness and darkness of Good Friday discloses several things that should never be glossed over – lest Easter lose its goose-bump-producing, almost too-good-to-be-true character.

The women disciples were among the very few who stayed with Jesus until the end, waiting with him until he died. They knew he was dead, that it was no illusion. For them as well as for all his followers, Jesus’ crucifixion and death seemed at first a crushing, disillusioning end, without hope or redemption. For them, all was lost, all was dark. Despite the promises they wanted to cling to, it appeared that Jesus and his cause had been defeated. After all, he had suffered the humiliating shame and the discrediting reality of death by crucifixion. Maybe his opponents were right; his death showed him to be just a deluded messianic pretender.

Despite this apparent reality, the women stayed with him throughout this tragedy. The women stayed with him even after his death. Despite their despair, they went to his tomb early that morning. Yet what these broken-hearted, still-faithful women found when they arrived was that the body of Jesus was not there. So they became the first to experience the frightening, awesome discovery that sometime during the night he had risen.

At first, however, they did not know what to make of his absent body. Terror and amazement seized them, and they fled the tomb. These women became the first believers for whom it was not enough just to know that the tomb was empty. Because for all who are discerning, the empty tomb does not prove the meaning of the Resurrection. The women’s experience shows us what else is necessary.

It was facing Jesus’ death and continuing to stay true to him afterward that allowed them to discover the Resurrection. They found that he was alive to them in a way they could never have imagined, in a way that could never end. They discovered that what the world put to death, God raised high. This is the meaning of Easter: God’s love triumphs over every barrier.

Easter means that no power on earth can destroy the reality that is Christ.

The angel gave the women the clue that unlocks for every Christian the power of the Resurrection. The angel instructed them to tell all the other disciples that Christ was raised and had gone before them into Galilee. The angel told them that they should quit looking for Jesus in death, but rather, find him alive in a new way, in the life of the world. If they could do so, they would discover the meaning of the Resurrection. They would discover that even despite our lack of commitment to God, God remains committed to us – in a loving, unconditional, no-strings-attached kind way – despite how much or little we might deserve that love. They will discover that God makes them the most precious beings in creation – people who are worth dying for.

Easter is coming face to face with a Jesus who has not just reversed the power death, but has completely triumphed over it.

Today is the day in our faith to proclaim this fabulous news. The Good News of the Resurrection is that Christ is a light that overcomes all the darkness that life can entail. That light overcomes the darkness we experienced in Holy Week when we passed through vivid reminders of our human frailty and sin, reminders of how easy it is for us to be gobbled up by the power of the enemies of God.

Now – today – we can declare that things are different.

Now we know we have the love and light of Christ going before us and living within us. Now we can see the way and dare to bring that love and light to the darker parts of our world.

Today our Prayer Book allows us to begin saying, as a response to the dismissal, “Thanks be to God – Alleluia, Alleluia.” Now we can express, once again, the joy of these empowering words. Now we go forth from this service back into our workaday world in a renewed and transformed way. We can go forth with confidence and courage because we know that as Christ went before the disciples into Galilee, he also goes before us into all the world.

Christ leads the way for us, ever going before us, raising us with him from the depths – from sickness and pain and even death, from disappointment and sin and despair and grief. Christ ever goes before us as our light in the darkness, allowing us to reflect his light into the world.

Today we move with the women at the tomb into a renewed life, ready to face everything with joy, and filled with God’s love, proclaiming and showing that Christ is risen, indeed. Today we shout, “Alleluia !! Alleluia !!”

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of ”John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

He lives, Easter Vigil (B) – 2015

April 4, 2015

Exodus 14:10-31, 15:20-21; Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 114; Mark 16:1-8

Welcome friends. This is the night. This is the night we gather as God’s people to hear the stories that matter most to us, the stories that teach us who we are. What we believe. What we long for. What our hopes and dreams are. These stories teach us what our God is like.

Just for a moment, please close your eyes. Imagine that this Paschal candle is a campfire. We are God’s tribe, seeking light in the darkness, comfort in the wilderness. This is the night when we gather with God’s people from all over the world and tell once more the story of our deliverance. Are these stories Good News for you? What do they tell us about our tribe? What do they teach us about our God?

It started with a burning bush. When Moses encountered God at the burning bush, he heard God’s voice. God spoke to him. God revealed his name to Moses on that day: God said that his name was “I am.” And in that encounter at the burning bush, God also revealed his character – God showed Moses, and us, what he cares about.

God said to Moses at the bush:

“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Our God hears the cry of the poor and the oppressed. And our God is the God of freedom.

Moses did as God asked that day. He journeyed back to Egypt, to Pharaoh’s palace where he and been brought up as an adopted prince of Egypt. Moses confronted Pharaoh as God instructed, saying to Pharaoh: “Let my people go.”

Pharaoh said no when Moses and the Hebrew people cried for freedom; but God said yes.

Are we in bondage? Do we have eyes to see the powers of this world oppressing God’s people? If God’s people are suffering, take heart! Our God will lead us from slavery to freedom, from bondage to liberty. That is who our God is.

So God stretched out his hand to save the Israelites from Pharaoh. Even when things seemed desperate, when there was no way out, God made a way. Standing between the armies of Egypt and the sea, Moses stretched out his hand, and led the Hebrew children through on dry land. God led them through with a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night.

Our God will find a way when there is no way. Even when we are blind and can’t see a way forward, God brings us new hope, helps us see in a new way. Our God is the God of exiles, leading us home through the wilderness, guiding our way, day and night.

The people of Israel – our ancestors in faith – finally made it out of the wilderness, into the good land that God had promised. But the powers of this world did not stop trying to take away the freedom and abundance that God had given them. First Babylon. Then Syria. And finally, Rome.

Let’s hear the next part of the story. Jesus grew up under the oppression of Rome. He saw how Rome broke the backs of the poor – all those fishermen and laborers that were the focus of Jesus’ ministry. But Jesus brought these poor women and men Good News! God’s kingdom is at hand! In God’s kingdom, there will be enough bread for every day. No one will be hungry. God’s kingdom means justice for the poor.

We have journeyed with Jesus through Lent, watching him heal the sick and bring hope to the hopeless. And we have seen his turn toward Jerusalem through this Holy Week: how he entered the city on Palm Sunday, to cries of Hosanna. When Jesus entered the Holy City that week, he went to the Temple, where he overturned the tables of those who were buying and selling, confronting the people who were controlling access to God’s love and grace represented by the Temple.

As Jesus taught in Jerusalem that week before Passover, he kept confronting the authorities, challenging the way they made life hard for the poor. The religious authorities had a lock on God’s grace and forgiveness. And the religious authorities worked with the secular authorities to impose taxes that kept the poor people poor and lined the pockets of the comfortable. Jesus confronted both, challenging them with his vision of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom where all would have enough and peace would prevail.

Rome was always quick to put down any sign of rebellion. Roman justice was swift and brutal, and it usually kept the provinces, such as Jerusalem, in line. And so they put this zealot named Jesus to death. They didn’t like what he had to say, so they killed him, as they killed thousands of others, nailing him to a cross on the outskirts of the city, as a public example of what happens to those who cry for justice.

Just as Pharaoh said no to Moses’ call for freedom, Rome said no to Jesus’ call for justice.

But God said yes. Our God is the one who leads us from oppression to justice.

Now Rome thought it could silence Jesus by putting him to death. Killing Jesus would be their final solution.

But God would not let anything on earth silence the Good News. Not even death. So even though they killed Jesus, nailed him to a cross and tried to forget about him, now he lives. Tonight, he lives. This is the night when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.

Our God is the God who leads us from death into life. Not even death can stop God’s love, God’s peace, God’s justice, God’s abundance.

Because now, God’s kingdom has taken root in us. Now, Jesus lives in us.

Every time we reach out in love to help someone in need, Jesus rises victorious again. Every time we share the abundance God has given us, God’s kingdom grows. And it will grow and grow until it reaches the ends of the earth.

This night, and every night, and every day, Jesus lives. He lives now in us.

 

— The Rev. Jason Cox has served as associate rector for Youth Ministries at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., since 2011. Prior to working at St. Columba’s, he directed the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, a year-long service and discernment program for young adults, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Before ordination, he served as an intern in the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, working with homeless clients in a transitional housing facility on L.A.’s skid row.

The blues moan in the gospel shout, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2015

April 3, 2015

Isaiah 52:13-53:12Psalm 22Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9John 18:1-19:42

Take up your cross, the Savior said, if you would my disciple be.

Well, today we see what that really means. Today, we kneel to venerate the wood of the cross on which hung the Savior of the world. And we recognize that we are completely incapable of following his commandment and carrying the wooden weight of the burden he took on for our sake.

In many ways, realizing that has been our entire Lenten project.

The ash crosses we marked ourselves with 40 long days ago were our white flags of surrender. Our cries of “uncle.” Our declaration that we can’t. That we know, deep down, exactly what God expects of us: to act with justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with God. To love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. To take up our cross and to lay down our lives for our friends.

But we can’t. For we are but dust, and to dust we shall return. And we know that if we were fully living into our baptismal commitments, we would be up there – tortured, bleeding, hanging from a tree. Because the world does not exactly reward those who act with justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.

And so we don’t. We do what’s comfortable. We do what’s safe. We do what’s nice. We love our comfortable, safe, nice lives, and do not want to lose them – even for Christ’s sake.

Recently, a group of teens were being introduced to the Book of Common Prayer in their Sunday-school class, and when they got to the section on Proper Liturgies for Special Days, one of them asked, “Why do we call it Good Friday?”

It is such a predictable question that it’s easy for us to try to answer it without thinking, without listening to what is really being asked. This particular teenager wasn’t just asking why we call it “Good Friday” when it is the day that Jesus died. He was asking why – if we call it Good Friday, if it is Good News that Jesus died for us on the cross – our worship, then, is so solemn, so somber, so filled with genuflections and prostrations. If, as we proclaim, it is a “Good Friday,” why do we not shout joyfully and sing as the Israelites did at the shore of the Red Sea? Why do we not praise God with the trumpet, and lyre, and harp? Why, today of all days, are all our songs of glory in a minor key?

The answer lies in this truth: Today is a day for gratitude, but it is also a day of sorrow.

While we glory in Christ’s cross, we also mourn the fact that our sin made his sacrifice necessary. And we sorely grieve that, as the prophet Isaiah says in our reading today:

“By a perversion of justice he was taken away. … For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.”

Christ’s death is the means of our salvation. And it is right to give God our thanks and praise, for by virtue of his cross, joy has come to the whole world.

But we also mourn that an innocent man had to suffer and die because of our actions. And we mourn that the innocent continue to suffer, because we are unwilling and incapable of making the sacrifices to our comfortable, safe, nice lives to ease their suffering.

The great preacher Otis Moss, III, once said, “They could not distinguish between the gospel shout and the blues moan.” He was preaching on a passage from the Old Testament, from the third chapter of the Book of Ezra, about those returning from exile who laid the foundation for the new Temple:

“And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.”

The Rev. Moss uses this text to declare to us that we have a blues-note gospel – a gospel of great joy at the mighty power of our saving God, written in a minor key. A gospel in which our great joy at God’s power and mercy is often indistinguishable from our mourning at the need for that power and mercy; at our inability to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves – still less, as much as God loves them.

And so, on Good Friday, even as we kneel in awe before the King of the Universe, hanging on a cross for our sake, we also kneel in the sure and certain knowledge that we are not following in his footsteps on the Via Dolorosa. That we are not even denying him as we warm our hands by the fire. We are in the crowd, calling for his crucifixion.

And so our gospel shout that today is a “good” day – the best of all days – is indistinguishable from the blues moan that today is a day that is needed. A day that will still be needed, even as our praise at the empty tomb resolves the minor chords into major ones.

Good Friday reminds us that we have a blues-note gospel. That Christ’s death and resurrection may have saved us from sin and death, but we still sin and we still die. As we kneel at the foot of the cross, mourning our sin and the evil that we witness around us, we are forced to reckon with these facts – facts we would much rather forget.

As Easter dawn approaches and we ratchet up our gospel shouts and prepare to say that word we use during worship that has been buried for the last 40 days, we must not forget that our gospel shout contains those blues moans, those minor keys.

As the Rev. Moss reminds us, the blues moan is indistinguishable from the gospel shout.

Because while we mourn the necessity of Christ’s one oblation of himself once offered, we give thanks that it is a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. And that in him, God has delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before him.

And as our gospel shouts echo through the empty tomb, may we remember the profound and never-failing mercy of God, the mercy that holds fast even when we do not – that holds fast precisely because we will not – and be thankful.

 

The Rev. Jordan Haynie Ware is parochial associate for Youth and Young Adult Ministry at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Fort Worth, Texas.

Washed with holy love, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2015

April 2, 2015

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14Psalm 116:1, 10-171 Corinthians 11:23-26John 13:1-17, 31b-35

The disciples are gathered in the upper room for supper. Passover was beginning soon, and there was much work to be done. The air was tense – the disciples had heard rumors about the authorities coming to arrest Jesus. They knew that any disruption during the Passover feast would not be tolerated. And so they ate: quietly, quickly and unaware that this would be the last time they broke bread with Jesus, their beloved leader.

Jesus, of course, knew exactly what was about to happen. He had always known. And somewhere deep down in their bones, the disciples knew it, too. Whenever the unfiltered and uncompromising truth was spoken to power, power won. That much they learned from the prophets.

And yet, Jesus cut through the tension and anxiety that filled the air by quietly pushing back from the table, removing his outer robe, fastening a towel around his waist and bending down to wash the disciples’ feet.

This unexpected and scandalous act defied social convention and placed the disciples in a precarious position. Not only was Jesus breaking with custom by washing the feet of those subordinate to him, the very act of foot washing is a theological sign of a far more important underlying truth. By allowing their feet to be washed, the disciples were accepting what they did not deserve and what they had not earned: the love of Jesus. Peter protests, “You will never wash my feet.” But Jesus persists: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

This is the place we find ourselves on this Maundy Thursday: caught between a culture that promises that good things come to those who work for it, and a Christ whose love is so freely given – unearned and undeserved – that we can’t help but raise a fuss.

We say things like, “But just look at all of the mistakes I’ve made and the people I’ve hurt!” as Peter whispers in our hearts, “You will never wash my feet.”

Or we raise our fists and proclaim, “God can’t love me because I don’t know if I love God.”

“You will never wash my feet.”

Or we retreat into our shame and lament, “God can’t love me because I don’t deserve it.”

“You will never wash my feet.”

The great Anglican preacher and theologian John Wesley was right when he said, “There is nothing more repugnant to capable, reasonable people than grace.”

And yet, this grace that Jesus gives comes with a mandate; or, recalling our Anglican heritage, a maundy: Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Jesus spoke these words to his disciples, knowing full well what would happen to him later that same night. And we hear these words as we embark into the darkness of the Paschal Triduum, the holy journey through Christ’s Passion, death and resurrection.

The disciples were given Jesus’ mandate to love one another as Jesus loves them just hours before one of their own would double cross Jesus and hand him over to his accusers.

But that’s the risk of love – especially holy love.

Holy love is given freely to saint and sinner alike; to people who spend their lives doing everything they can to share that love with the world, and to people who spend their lives doing everything they can to reject and dishonor it.

And the freedom with which this love is given is at once its greatest blessing and its greatest curse, because the more we open our hearts to give and receive this love, the more vulnerable we are to betrayal – a crucifixion all its own.

In his poem, “Lachrimae Amantis,” the great English poet Geoffrey Hill writes in part

“What is there in my heart that you should sue so fiercely for its love? What kind of care brings you as though a stranger to my door through the long night and the icy dew seeking the heart that will not harbor you?”

Tonight, as Jesus’ love is poured out as warm water cleansing and soothing tired and worn skin; as bread and wine is made holy food and drink, we come to receive what we have not earned and what we do not deserve.

And if we will allow it, we may find our hearts broken open by a love that is stronger than our fickleness, stronger than our fear, and stronger even than the finality of death.

And through the darkness, we will hear the Savior’s voice, full of life and promise: “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

 

— The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is priest-in-charge of Grace Episcopal Church in Florence, Ky. He earned a B.A. in American Studies from Transylvania University and a Master’s of Divinity and certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

Welcome his folly into our lives, Palm Sunday (B) – 2015

March 29, 2015

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47 or Mark 15:1-39 (40-47)

The story just proclaimed presents Jesus as mocked three times, by three different groups: first, the religious authorities; then the secular authorities; and finally, the ordinary people, the crowd.

These instances of mockery have unexpected results. The pretensions of each group are dismantled. The stage is cleared of rivals, and the true king is enthroned.

Jesus appears first before the religious authorities. What brings him there? He acts and speaks contrary to vested interests, against conventional claims. And so he is taken captive at night. He is identified by a false kiss, surrounded by an armed posse and deserted by his followers.

Once Jesus arrives at the high priest’s house, he stands alone before the religious authorities. They eagerly seek a reason to put him to death. But even their false witnesses cannot produce sufficient evidence against him. Jesus then indicates he is the Messiah. The authorities regard this as blasphemy. They hit him, spit at him and mock him. They ridicule his role as a prophet.

How ironic this scene is! These religious authorities blindfold someone who sees and speaks God’s truth and attack him. By doing so, they expose themselves as void of religious awareness. It is not Jesus who blasphemes; they are the blasphemers, abusing God’s name by their words and deeds.

Next Jesus appears before the secular authorities. As the religious leaders fail to recognize him as a prophet, so the secular authorities fail to see he is a king. The high priest led Jesus to declare his messiahship; now Pilate leads him to declare his kingship, but once again, Jesus is rejected.

Pilate treats him as a fraud. He turns Jesus over to soldiers who clothe him and crown him in a mock ritual, even striking him with his own scepter. And so these secular authorities expose themselves as unworthy. They mock the king in front of them.

Jesus appears before the crowd, and they call for his crucifixion. He appears before them again once he is crucified. These are people who welcomed him as a hero when he entered Jerusalem in triumph only a few days before.

He stands before them next to Pilate. A short time later, he appears before them helpless, hanging from a cross, suspended between earth and heaven, his blood seeping from his wounds, taking him down to death. Not far from his cross are the mockers, cowardly and cruel, who hurl abuse at him. They include casual passers-by, priests and scribes, and even those crucified with him. What they attack is his relationship with his Father. They call on him to rescue himself.

But Jesus refuses to abandon his trust in God. Those who mock him on the cross show that they are devoid of faith. They see the world solely in terms of brute power. They refuse to live as God’s children.

A triple mockery, and in each case, those who revile Jesus reveal their own bankruptcy. Thus the pretensions of each group are dismantled and the stage is cleared of rivals, in order that the true king can be enthroned.

In today’s story, Jesus is mocked three times. A series of ironies takes place as well, all of them pointing to a wisdom that stands in judgment on our folly.

When Jesus enters Jerusalem, the crowd welcomes him as king, yet days later, they call for his crucifixion. They are disloyal to him and to their own best interests. Often enough, we also show ourselves disloyal – to him and to ourselves. In their lives and in ours, how ironic this turns out to be!

For a king to be enthroned, there must be an anointing. That happens to Jesus shortly before he goes to the cross. A woman pours expensive oil on his head as he sits at supper in Bethany at the home of Simon the leper. This woman serving as high priest, this anointing at the dinner table, this king consecrated in a leper’s house – all of this is ironic, a monarch set apart not to rule, but to be buried.

It is the high priest in Jerusalem whose words reveal Jesus as the Messiah, and it is the Roman governor there who proclaims him to the crowd as king. Despite themselves, these two speak the truth. That they run from this truth, that they drive Jesus on to his death – this also is ironic.

Irony reaches a climax when Jesus arrives at Golgotha. There he is announced as King of the Jews by a mocking sign attached to his cross. Ironically, the sign declares more truth than its maker intended.

Most ironically of all, the cross, an instrument of shameful death, becomes the throne for this king, that place from which he reigns, the center of his realm. The places of honor on right and left, once coveted by his disciples James and John, cannot be given away, for they are occupied already – by convicted criminals.

So Jesus is enthroned upon the hard wood of the cross. Israel’s messiah, the Son of God, becomes a victim to bring to an end all victimization. He drains the cup of our human experience to the last bitter drop. He even knows what it’s like to feel deserted by God.

Jesus dies, and only then does somebody get it right. This is the final irony of today’s story, and it appears in the last spoken sentence. For the one who gets it right is a most unlikely somebody. A Roman centurion is marking time until the death occurs. He is there to make sure that none of the crucified are rescued by their followers or friends. He is a gentile, an officer of the empire, one who looks as an outsider on the turbulent life of Jerusalem during Passover season. He is there simply to maintain order.

A criminal dying on a cross is something this centurion has often seen. He knows how contemptible it is, particularly for Romans. Yet death on a cross looks different on this day, with this prisoner. And so the tough soldier blurts out about Jesus, to no one and everyone, “Truly, this man was God’s Son!” The centurion has for a moment glimpsed the supreme irony of enthronement on a cross of shame and death.

A couple decades later, St. Paul makes a similar point when writing to the Christians in Corinth. He tells them that the message of the cross is sheer folly to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is God’s power at work.

To the extent that we do not come to an awareness like that of the centurion and Paul, then we inevitably mock Christ and his cross, and thus reveal our own fatal folly. To the extent we do come to this awareness, we honor Christ and his cross, and show that we welcome God’s own foolishness, which is the most sublime wisdom.

Do we accept God’s folly for ourselves, or do we not? To refuse this folly is a terrible thing, even when done politely. It places those who refuse together with the characters in today’s story who mock Christ, who reject him as prophet, king, and son of God. Yet we remain free to make this refusal.

Today and always we can honor his cross and welcome his folly into our lives.

May we do this.

 

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is rector of St. Paul’s Parish, Baden, Md. He is the author of ”A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).