Tuesday, March 28, 2023

God Save Us!: A Sermon for Palm Sunday

Photo by Pastor Nate Elarton on subsplash.com

Typically on Palm Sunday, I have preached on the absurdity of the people waving their palms and cheering as Jesus entered into Jerusalem and then, a mere five days later, calling for his crucifixion and death. It is easy to get excited and angry about how people flowed quickly from praising their Messiah to demanding Pontius Pilot hang him up next to the other criminals.

The actions of the crowd still irk me, but today I thought I would reflect on something else – the word “Hosanna”. I want to talk about this word today because during my research, I came across a common thread regarding the word “Hosanna” that I had never thought about before.


When you hear the word “hosanna”, where does your mind go? How does it make you feel?


I always heard “hosanna” as a cry of celebration. As in, “Hurray! Jesus is here!” The crowd is celebrating the arrival of a celebrity.


But, it seems, that might not be the case.


Scholars' best guess is that "Hosanna" is a contraction of two Hebrew terms: yaw-shah, meaning “to save” or “deliver”, and naw, meaning “to beseech” or “pray”. In Greek, it translates to soson dei, meaning “save us”. In casual conversation, you could think of it like “God help us”.


Now go back and picture Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. At face value it would seem that the Jerusalem fan parade is glorifying God’s name, but they are not really. They are crying out for help, to be saved.


The people cheered. They tossed branches from the nearby trees to the ground, and they called out, "Hosanna."  They looked upon this prophet - rumored to be the Messiah - and they cried out to him, "Save us."


“God, help us!”


These are the cries the crowd makes as Jesus triumphantly enters Jerusalem.


Isn’t that the most basic of all our prayers? “God, help us! God, save us!”


Over the last decade or two, Palm Sunday worship seems to be pushed aside. Not that we don’t bring palms to church each year, wave them during the procession, and have them blessed so that they can be made into crosses, and subsequently into ashes the following year, but often today’s scripture lessons would lean more towards the Passion than the palms.


It is thought that as fewer people attended daily Holy Week services, especially Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, it became important to ensure that congregations, at the very least, heard the story of Jesus’ journey to his death on the cross before hearing of his resurrection on Easter Sunday.


Therefore, Palm and Passion stories got merged into a single liturgical Sunday.


I understand that reasoning completely. If we move directly from a Palm Sunday procession to an Easter parade, we will have missed the story and experience of the passion.


As insufferable and horrific that the events at the end of Holy Week are, we need to slow ourselves down and let the story play out throughout the week. We shouldn’t rush through the Passion just to get to the celebration.


We need to experience each as it happened, not try to squish it all into a single Sunday morning.


And so our journey starts today with that primal prayer – God save us.


The crowd was asking to be saved from the Romans. They wanted deliverance from an occupying army. They wanted to be saved by the Messiah that they had been promised.


Now, we’re not under the thumb of a Roman army, but I’m sure I can’t be the only one whose prayer includes some form of “God save us, God save me?”


It is a complicated thing to ask, "What does God save us from?"


When we wave our palms and boldly cry out, "Hosanna," do we dare imagine what we really want God to save us from?


Anger, depression, death?


The endless stream of violence?






When we cry out “Hosanna”, we are appealing to God from the most vulnerable places inside of us. We are asking God to make us whole again.


Ah! And now we come back to the crowd who changed their mind by the end of the week.


The people wanted salvation, which they defined as "freedom from the Romans."


"Save us," they cried, but then Jesus did not set about saving them in a manner that they could recognize.  He did not take up a sword and send the Romans fleeing.


Instead, he went and had supper with his friends; he went and prayed in a garden.


It only took a few days for the crowds to switch from crying "Hosanna" to the shouts of "Crucify him" as they lost their patience waiting for what they expected to happen upon the arrival of the Messiah.


We, the reader, are dismayed at this, but would we have acted any differently? If the change we so desperately desired was not happening in the way we expected, would we not get angry?


God answers our cries of "Hosanna" in ways so utterly unexpected.


God comes. God incarnates. God marches on to death in order to bring us salvation.


Is there any better way to commence Holy Week than with "Hosannas" on our lips?


Is there any more faithful way to embark on this sacred journey than to ask God, out of the deep, honest places inside of us, to "Save us... please, save us"?


As we head into the dark days of Holy Week, anticipating the gruesome events of Good Friday, let us not hide from those horrific events.


Cry out “Hosanna” today and then experience deeply God saving us through Jesus through each day and each event of this journey.


Hosanna. Soson dei. God help us.

Friday, March 24, 2023

Beyond Resurrection: A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Well folks. We are coming to the end of our Lenten journey, and our discussions on what it means to belong – to each other, to the church, and to God. These long readings from John’s Gospel during Lent have a depth and a power to them that can, if we take them into our hearts, reach the very core of our lives.


Last week we went through the valley of the shadow of death and today we hear about death and new life, about the end of some things, and, perhaps, the beginning of others. Death is always a topic close to home, one that seems to get closer every year. On the eve of Palm Sunday and Holy Week, it’s particularly immediate.


So, it makes good sense to hear Ezekiel preach to the valley of dry bones, and to listen to Jesus command, “Lazarus, come out”, and to wonder what all that means and whether it matters.


Jesus receives news from Mary and Martha that their brother Lazarus is ill. John tells us that Jesus was across the Jordan in Perea where John had been baptizing. Bethany, where Mary and Martha lived, was approximately 20 miles away. When Jesus receives the news he says, "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". Since John knows that Lazarus did die, how is it that he reports Jesus as saying that this illness does not lead to death?


Then Jesus waits two days longer before making the trip to Bethany. In the difficult circumstances of life what is one to think when God does not act as quickly as we would want him to?


Commentators have given various explanations as to why Jesus delayed his trip to Bethany. Some have suggested that Jesus does not order his life by human demands but by divine directive.


Another suggestion as to why Jesus delayed his trip to Bethany is that he wanted to wait until Lazarus had been dead at least four days before arriving in Bethany. According to Jewish tradition, the soul lingered around the corpse of a dead person for three days before its final departure. Note Martha's comment to Jesus about the four days since Lazarus had died. According to this explanation, Jesus waited two more days so that there would be no question at all about the reality of Lazarus' death and thus his resurrection would have a much greater impact on people and bring greater glory to God than the healing of an illness.


Since the glory of God is what matters for Jesus, he waits for an opportune time to manifest God's glory in a most clear and powerful manner and thus bring to completion the work he was to do on earth. It should be noted that this final and greatest miracle, unlike the previous ones, is performed not on behalf of people who are strangers and at best have inadequate faith, but in a circle of people who are dear and beloved friends and disciples. Jesus lets Lazarus die, this one whom he loved so dearly, and allows his sisters to go through unspeakable sorrow even though his love for them was tender and profound.


Jesus weeps for the death of his friend Lazarus because he knows what death can do, he knows that death disrupts and interrupts belonging. Jesus knows that death is full of grief, life-shattering, gut-tearing, amputating grief that hurts so terribly, Jesus weeps because of his own impending death, and that he can’t stop death or take it away.


The tears of Jesus sanctify every tear, and his deeply troubled spirit makes holy our own grief, pain, and fear in the face of death. There is nothing in this world stronger or more final than death, and there is nothing in this world that can rebuild what death tears down.


But we know we are promised something “beyond resurrection”. As resurrection people, we have hope, we have faith, that death is not the end. And that the belonging we are promised is life eternal – knowing Jesus here and now, after death, and after resurrection. As resurrection people, we belong to a community that believes in eternal life, in resurrection, in life after death. We find hope in the resurrection, aware that things will die but knowing that something new will be born from that death.


This is where John’s final, and probably most important, “I AM” statements comes into play. Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”


Some translations omit “and the life,” with the assumption that this phrase is a redundancy on the part of Jesus. Our first impressions may be the same. We tend to focus on the resurrection as a distant promise, our guarantee of salvation, our eternal life with God and Jesus in heaven. But what might it mean that Jesus is the resurrection and the life? That we are raised to life, not as a future existence in salvation, but to life right now, right here, with Jesus?


The real point of Lazarus’ story is not that he came back. Before too long, Lazarus died again, and Jesus wasn’t there, and Lazarus stayed very dead. So that’s not much of a point. The real point is that Jesus is Lord of the living and the dead. The real point is that the voice of Jesus carries – it carries even through the walls of the grave, and his word is the clearest word, and the strongest word, and the last word. That’s the good news that we Christians see that the world does not see.


There is a quote outside of Lazarus’ tomb that reads:

“The glory of God shall be seen in those who put their faith in Jesus in times of greatest distress and hopelessness. They are certain that he is greater than any distress, even greater than death itself.”


For Lazarus, the Gospel does not describe his future with Jesus, but his present. The raising of Lazarus gives him new life with Jesus. This new life is leaning on the breast of Jesus, reclining at the table with him, sharing food and fellowship. New life in Jesus is this intimacy, this closeness, this dwelling, lying on the chest of Jesus. It is here and now, because for the Gospel of John, it is not just the death of Jesus but the life of Jesus that brings about salvation. For the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, through which “we have all received grace upon grace”.


This is the ultimate definition of belonging – that we are never separated from God, even through death. Jesus knows he goes back to God after death. That’s his sense of belonging. And now that belonging is also for us.


Belonging sounds like our name being called. When Mary hears her name in the garden, she remembers belonging. By saying “rabouni”, she remembers belonging as a disciple. When Jesus called to Lazarus, he brought Lazarus from death. Lazarus heard the voice of Jesus and answered the call. The voice of God reassures us and calls us from the past into the present. The voice of God keeps our faith alive.


There will be a time when Jesus calls our names and will bring us out of death into everlasting life. Being in relationship with Jesus, belonging to Jesus, means facing death and grief with him and learning that still, in spite of the death and the dryness and the finality of the door at the entrance to the tomb of our hopes, Jesus can still be said to be life.


As we approach Holy Week, we hear Jesus’ voice calling out to us over all the others, calling into our tombs, calling us into discipleship. Jesus is preparing a place of belonging for us, a place of eternal life today, tomorrow, and forever, a place of belonging that means never being separated from God, even after death, so that we can face death with a new confidence, knowing that we are forever in God's hands.



"Belonging: A Preaching Workshop for Lent" hosted by Karoline Lewis

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Being Found: A Sermon for the Fourth Week of Lent

Picture by Robert Hodgell

Jesus and his disciples are walking in Jerusalem and a man blind from birth is seen. We are not told how Jesus knew he was blind from birth. The disciples raise the question whether the sin of the man or his parents was the cause of his blindness. He explained that sin had nothing to do with it, but it was an opportunity to manifest the power and glory of God.


Then Jesus used his saliva to make mud which he smeared on the man's eyes. He told him to wash off the mud in the Siloam pool. The man obeyed and returned with vision. Here ends the first miracle, but the man's neighbors could not believe he was the same man. Some said he was and others said he only looked like the blind one who used to beg. He assured them he was the one-time blind man. They asked him how he happened to get his sight. He explained what Jesus did to him and how he washed in the pool.


Why his neighbors took him to the Pharisees is not explained. They asked also how he was healed. Again he explained. This divided the Pharisees. Some said that whoever did the miracle could not be from God because he broke the sabbath law by doing so. Others contended that a sinner could not perform such a miracle. So, to solve the issue, they asked the man about his cure and what he thought of Jesus. The religious leaders doubted whether the man was born blind. They went to his parents for the answer. The parents admitted he was their son and was blind at birth. However, they would say no more because they did not want to get involved. They were afraid they would be excommunicated.


Now the Pharisees are back where they started. They go again to the healed man for further information. They demand that he take an oath to tell the truth. They claim that Jesus is a sinner. The healed man responds by saying that he does not know whether Jesus is a sinner or not, but he does know that he was blind and now sees. They ask him again to tell them how he was cured. The man refuses and asks if they want this information that they could become Jesus' disciples. The Pharisees claim to be disciples of Moses but doubt Jesus' origin. The man comes to Jesus' defense by saying that God does not hear a sinner and if Jesus were not from God, he could do nothing. They could not answer his logic, and decided to throw him out of the synagogue.


When Jesus heard that the man was excommunicated, he came to him and asked if he believed in the Son of man. The man said if he knew who the Son of man was, he would believe. Jesus told him that he was looking at the Son of man. The man responded, "I believe, Lord" and knelt in worship of Jesus.


Onlookers arguing about the cause of one man’s blindness, and when Jesus clears the man’s sight, they argue about the source of the miracle. Since the healing took place on the sabbath, surely Jesus’ power could not have come from God. He wasn’t following their rules!


But the man’s testimony is clear: “Once I was blind, but now I see.” Results are his proof of compassion. And as always, Jesus himself points to actions as evidence of God’s love for this world. Hungry people are fed, blind people see, prisoners are released, and outcasts are welcomed. That, he is saying without argument, is the realm of God, here and now.


This story is an example among many of the meaning of sin throughout the gospel of John. For John, sin is not a moral category, but is the state of being separate from God, of not being in relationship with God, or choosing to not be in a relationship with God. The formerly blind man, after experiencing the healing power of God, now belongs to God and has openly declared his relationship to God by worshipping Jesus.


Like with the woman at the well, the blind man recognizes Jesus gradually. He goes from seeing Jesus the man, to Jesus the prophet, to Jesus who must be from God. Ultimately, Jesus reveals his true self to the formerly blind man, as he did to the woman at the well.


Once again, the recognition of who Jesus is, that Jesus is God, leads to a sense of belonging. In the case of the blind man, not only is it his recognition of Jesus that leads to belonging, but also the fact that he was found. When Jesus heard the man had been excommunicated, he went and found the man. In saying the words, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” at verse 35, Jesus is echoing the call of his disciples in Chapter 1 of John. A sense of belonging can lead to discipleship, and the man in our story did indeed become a disciple, a member of Jesus’ fold.


And that’s where our reading stops. But it’s not where the story ends. According to Karoline Lewis, John has a recurring structural pattern in his gospel – sign, dialogue, discourse or commentary from Jesus explaining the theology behind the sign. In order to get the full meaning and impact of the blind man’s story, we need to read into Chapter 10 as well. Jesus doesn’t stop talking at 9:41, and in Jesus’ words in the first half of Chapter 10 we find the interpretation of his miracle, the meaning of the healing of the blind man. The sign points to something beyond just a healing of the eyes. It points to what an encounter with Jesus signifies.


According to Lewis, “When the discourse on the healing of the blind man is ignored in the interpretation of John 9, the events in chapter 9 are not allowed their full meaning and impact.” What we find as we continue on into chapter 10 is that the blind man followed the words of Jesus and became a sheep of Jesus’ fold, with access to God’s pasture of abundant and eternal life. The man has heard the voice of the shepherd call him by name. Jesus will call us all by name, as he did with Mary Magdalene and with Lazarus. And to hear the voice of your shepherd is to know that you belong to him, that no other voices matter.


Belonging means being found. To be found when you’re outside, to be found when you’ve been thrown out, to be found when you’re wondering from where you will be provided, to be found when you’re wondering where your protection is coming from.


Jesus, our Good Shepherd, will always find us and provide for us in every way, especially protection and abundant life. Because of that, we will always belong to him. Amen. 

Pulpit Fiction
"Feasting on the Word" edited by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor
"Belonging: A Preaching Workshop for Lent" hosted by Karoline Lewis

Friday, March 10, 2023

Beyond Belief: A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

The reading we heard today, the story of the Woman at the Well, contains the longest conversation between Jesus and another character recorded in the Bible. It is extraordinary that this conversation occurs with a woman, a tired Samaritan woman, drawing water at the well, a well traditionally known to be Jacob’s well, in the heat of the middle of the day. And it is quite the contrast to the story of Nicodemus from last week.


Nicodemus is a named male religious leader who was traveling to Jerusalem during the Passover Festival. He sought Jesus out but would only meet with him at night. Nicodemus didn’t understand what Jesus was telling him, and that was where the conversation ended.


The woman in today’s story is an unnamed Samaritan, making her a religious outsider on two counts, whom Jesus found at the well at the brightest part of the day. While she didn’t understand at first, this woman was willing to have continued dialogue with Jesus in order to learn more about what he was saying. The ending of her story was much different than Nicodemus.


Before we get to much further into this story though, I want to back up the reading a bit to examine verses 3-4: “he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria.” The interesting fact here is that while Samaria is indeed between Judea and Galilee, travelling Jews would have never gone through Samaria, despite that being the shortest route. They would have gone west to the Jordan and travelled along the river, purposefully avoiding Samaritan people.


Saying that “he had to go through Samaria” was not technically true, there were other, more desirable routes, but theologically Jesus needed to go through Samaria to show that God loved the whole world, a need rooted in Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in our gospel lesson last week, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”. The whole world includes the Samaritans. And this was just the beginning of the radical inclusion of today’s Gospel story.


Going back to our woman at the well, most traditional commentary on the story of this remarkable encounter focuses on the woman’s five husbands, and the one she has now who is not her husband. Five husbands and not married to her current partner. She must be an adulterer. She is at the well alone at noon, according to this line of thinking, because she is shunned by the other women, who come together to the well in the cool of the morning. In this interpretation, Jesus exposes her lie, but he shows his compassion, saving the soul of an outsider, a marginalized woman, a sinner.


But there is no mention of sin or forgiveness anywhere in this text. These various marriages, and her current situation, would have been completely out of her control and of no fault of her own. These things don’t make the woman a sinner. But it may make her lonely, possibly feeling like she no longer belongs anywhere, or to any sort of community.


No where in their conversation does Jesus shame this woman for what’s happened in her life. Jesus does, however, listen. He provides the woman a sense of belonging by giving her a sense of being heard, listened to, and understood. By allowing her to tell her truth, Jesus is deepening his relationship with this unnamed woman.


Especially in comparison to Nicodemus, the woman at the well shows openness and wonder. The woman feels heard and seen, so she reveals her truth to him. And, in turn, Jesus reveals to her his true identity with the first of John’s “I am” statements. Jesus doesn’t say he is a prophet. He says that he is the Messiah but he is also more than that. Jesus is the “I AM”, he is God in our midst, the Word become flesh. The same “I AM” revealed to Moses in the burning bush is revealed to this unnamed Samaritan woman.


Because the woman is willing to listen to him, Jesus feels heard and seen, so he reveals his truth to her. This mutuality and reciprocity – sharing of truths, hearing each other, seeing each other – creates an invitation into believing and into relationship. In her truth-telling, there is an engagement in conversation – which I said last week was a key characteristic of belonging – which made Jesus feel comfortable to give his truth, to reveal his true identity.


By revealing this truth, Jesus shows an unnamed woman unconditional belonging – the kind of love that is only trustworthy when a person knows everything about you and then calls you their own.


And what was this woman’s response? To drop her bucket, run back to her town, and tell them to “come and see”. Her response was beyond belief, an exclamation of “wow! I belong to God, to a community of faith!” Despite not understanding at first, this woman was willing to remain in conversation with Jesus, taking her time to build her faith and then to become a disciple.


Ultimately, it’s not about getting the right answer. Faith isn’t about getting things right in order to belong. Faith is about “I AM” here for you. And that kind of belonging is beyond belief.


Pulpit Fiction
"Feasting on the Word" edited by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor
"Belonging: A Preaching Workshop for Lent" hosted by Karoline Lewis
"The Women's Bible Commentary" edited by Carol Newsom and Sharon Ringe

Friday, March 3, 2023

Born Again, Born Anew, Born From Above: A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

Ah poor Nicodemus. Skulking about in the dark, not wanting people to see him talking to Jesus. And then, after all that, not even getting the answers he wanted.


This conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus happens after the table turning incident in the Temple. The Jewish leaders are not happy with Jesus. At least, most of them aren’t.


Nicodemus is a self-confident and successful Jewish leader, a Pharisee. He is spiritually open and curious, but also rational. He is convinced by Jesus’ actions that he is “a teacher who has come from God” and implies that there are others who have this same belief.


He is curious to find out more about Jesus and his social networks and requests a face to face meeting with him. But Nicodemus is not ready for everyone else to see him talking with Jesus so he makes the appointment for the middle of the night where he can keep his faith a secret from his public life.


Nicodemus’ imagination is caught by Jesus, but he is not ready to declare his faith in the light of day. Jesus’ response to this is that just saying you believe isn’t enough. You must be “born anew” to see God’s kingdom. But Nicodemus doesn’t understand, even when Jesus tries again with “born of the spirit.”


There is an impatience that is read into Jesus’ words, a command that you must be born again, an urgency of people making a decision to accept Christ as their lord and Saviour to be paramount. This leads to a frustration of questioning why Nicodemus doesn’t understand, or why he continues to question, or why he just doesn’t accept Jesus’ words at face value.


But there is another way to interpret this interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus, and that is one of invitation, of being comfortable in misunderstanding, and accepting the invitation to go further into dialogue with one another despite the misunderstanding. Being part of respectful conversation and dialogue is part of that feeling of belonging.


Particularly in this dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, Jesus is saying that a piece of belonging is being born anew. He is telling Nicodemus that he needs to be born again by water and spirit in order to re-engage his relationship with God, to let God work in his life.


However, Jesus doesn’t make much progress here. Nicodemus interprets Jesus’ words on a literal level, and he questions how a person is physically born again. But Jesus’ words are ambiguous. The Greek word anothen has multiple translations – anew, again, and from above. Nicodemus hears only the second one and is not able to recognize what Jesus is offering, and who Jesus is.


Let’s explore these three notions – born again, born anew, born from above.


I’m sure you have heard the phrase “born again Christian”. It is a common phrase that is often misinterpreted. We fully well know that we can’t be physically born again. Being born again means to have accepted faith in Jesus, to accept the teachings of Jesus as real, and declare a belonging to the Christian community.


Along those lines, to be born anew is to have a spiritual renewal. Perhaps some doubt has crept in, some uncertainty about the path that should be followed, about your relationship with God. To be born anew is to renew your relationship with God and to rediscover that sense of belonging to God.


One of the ways we can think of being born from above is to look at John’s pneumatology. To belong to God, to belong to Jesus’ community, is being born from above because of the very promise of the Holy Spirit, the gift from Jesus to the disciples when he reveals himself to them after the resurrection.


This spirit is breathed into us by God, the same breath that gave Adam life in Genesis and that brought the bones back to life in Ezekiel. God’s spirit is inside of us and with us. To be breathed on by God is to belong to God, and to belong to God is to belong to the Spirit, the advocate, the comforter, the protector. It is this promise of belonging that Jesus’ is trying to give to Nicodemus.


With this promise of the Spirit comes a promise of eternal life, not only in the future or after death, but here and now. Being born from above, accepting the Spirit into you is accepting the presence of God, a relationship with God, a belonging with God today and forever.


Part of that belonging is feel God’s companionship walking alongside you, sometimes helping, sometimes teaching, sometimes comforting, sometimes advocating. This is the belonging to which Nicodemus is invited.


All of these terms – to be born again, to be born anew, to be born from above – all of this is a promise to be a child of God. Belonging to God is recapturing that sense of what a child feels to belong to a parent. A parent provides food, water, and protection to their child. So does God provide food, water, and protection to us.


The questions that Nicodemus must consider are the same questions that we must consider:

            To whom will I belong?

            With whom will I belong?

            To what will I belong?

            With what community do I belong?


What does it mean for us to consider being born again, born anew, born from above? Being born again is not about a new mystical experience but it is about a way of living out the life of God in the world. When you see it like this, you see God, through Jesus, seeking to establish a relationship of love and community with us. It means we need to make some decisions about how we orient ourselves to God, how we belong to God, and how we are to live our lives in that awareness of belonging to God.


So, my friends, how will you be born again this week?


Pulpit Fiction
"Feasting on the Word" edited by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor
"Belonging: A Preaching Workshop for Lent" hosted by Karoline Lewis