Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, April 13, 2014: Palm Sunday

Texts: Isaiah 50:4-9a  +  Philippians 2:5-11  +  John 12:20-43

On a morning when so much has already been different than usual — the earlier start time (ahem!), the blessing of the palm branches, the gathering with our neighbors — I feel obligated to share with you one more way that we’ve departed from the usual this day. Most Christian congregations, at least those that follow the lectionary, have heard a different gospel passage than the one we’ve just heard. They’ve heard the account of Christ’s passion on the cross from Matthew’s gospel, the tale of Jesus’ arrest and trial, suffering on the cross and death, and his burial in the tomb. This tradition of reading the passion story the Sunday before Easter is an old one, and comes from a time in the Protestant churches when our observance of the Three Days of Holy Week was less established. The logic was that in order to understand the meaning of Easter and experience the joy of the resurrection, we needed to witness Jesus’ death on the cross and consider its meaning for each of us and all of us.

Over the last few decades though, as Christians of all backgrounds and denominations have gradually recovered the ancient church’s keeping of the Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, the lectionary’s logic has made less sense. The story of the arrest, crucifixion and death of Jesus is told on Good Friday, and many of you began to ask why that story needed to be heard twice in one week. The fact that you were asking the question was an indication of just how fully the traditions of the coming Three Days had taken root. So, at this, the beginning of Holy Week, I want to invite you once again to the discipline of these days. I want to ask you to clear your calendars, to make space in your busy lives, to enter fully into the passion of our Lord as he moves from the hopeful crowds of Palm Sunday to the intimate gathering with his friends on Maundy Thursday, to the agony of the cross on Friday, and then the gathering around fire and water and story and song at the Easter Vigil on Saturday. It’s a lot of church, to be sure, but as with so many things, the more we invest ourselves into the coming week, and one another, the deeper the rewards to our shared faith.

Having made the decision to save the remembrance of Jesus’ crucifixion and death for Good Friday, however, the question of Palm Sunday remained. This is the day when we wave our palm branches and sing our hosannas, welcoming Jesus into the holy city of Jerusalem. It is a day full of pageant, in the scriptures and in our own assemblies. Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, and in Matthew’s gospel on a colt as well, in order to signal that he is the fulfillment of ancient Israel’s expectation of a messiah that would save them from their oppression. That is, in fact, the meaning of the word that marks this day, “hosanna.” It means “save us” or “rescue us.”

Why did the crowds that greeted Jesus in Jerusalem expect that he could save them? Throughout his ministry, Jesus had taught with authority, healed the sick, cast out demons, and even raised the dead. As he moved through the countryside, among the people, he was not afraid to name the powers and principalities that held the people captive, that kept them oppressed. For their part, the people had long expected that God would send a messiah, one who would serve as their champion to liberate them from those who occupied God’s promised land. As we wave our branches this morning, we must ask, how are we like those who gathered on the streets of Jerusalem when Jesus, at last, came to town? Who have we been waiting for? From what powers do we long to be set free?

But his disciples, perhaps, weren’t so happy to see Jesus turn his face toward Jerusalem. Perhaps you remember last week, when Jesus heard that Lazarus was ill and decided to turn around and head back to Judea.  The disciples were afraid for his safety, saying “Rabbi, the Temple leaders were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”  Thomas seemed to know precisely what they were headed for, as he goaded the rest of the disciples to follow Jesus saying, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  They must have wondered, as we do, why Jesus walked willingly toward his own death, toward the cross.

In the passage from John’s gospel we read this morning, Jesus addresses precisely this question. It is full of sayings that have become so familiar, they almost overshadow everything else in the story: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” and “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  These remarkable declarations, however, are in response to something mentioned only briefly at the beginning of the passage, something easy to skim over.

“Now among those who went up to worship,” the passage begins, “were some Greeks.” Jesus, who had met with Pharisees and Samaritans alike, at this late hour in his ministry is now being sought out by Greeks, people whose religious and cultural backgrounds could not have been more foreign. They approach Andrew and Philip, who were among the first to follow Jesus when he spoke to them, saying “come and see” (John 1:39). Now these foreigners declare that they want to see Jesus, carrying echoes of that first meeting with Jesus across the Jordan where John had been baptizing (1:28).

4068603688_94b17a345cIn response to the news that these Greeks want to see him, Jesus offers a cryptic metaphor, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit” (12:24). This, for the gospel of John, is an image of salvation. When you imagine a stalk of wheat, you can see the staff that bears the kernels at the top, almost woven together by the husk that surrounds them. Each of those kernels, of course, is a seed that carries within it the code, all the information needed for the earth to produce another stalk of wheat which will produce enough seed to multiply the crop again, and again, until the stalk of wheat becomes a wheat field. A grain of wheat is nothing, Jesus reminds us, a field of wheat is everything, it is enough to feed the world, but only if the seed falls to the earth and the cycle of multiplication begins.

For the last six weeks, the adult education forum has been “making sense of the cross,” studying the theories of atonement that Christians have used over the centuries to explain to themselves and one another why Jesus’ death and resurrection makes a difference for the world. Some theories focus on a cosmic struggle between God and Satan in which all of humanity is held ransom. Some theories focus on a sense of debt that must be paid for the weight of human sin. Some theories emphasize the way that Jesus’ life and death provide a model for our own human living. In her commentary on John’s gospel, Professor Gail O’Day suggests that none of these theories of atonement quite matches up with what we find here in these verses from John. She writes,

“It is important to begin by remembering that theologies of atonement are in actuality theologies of reconciliation — that is, they attempt to explain how God and humanity were reconciled to one another in Jesus’ death … Sacrifice is one way of understanding reconciliation, but not the only way. Jesus’ sayings in John 12:23-36 suggest an alternative model of reconciliation, one that is built around the restoration of relationship … Jesus’ death is described as both necessary and life-giving because as a result of it community is formed. The discipleship teachings (vv. 25-26), which in [Matthew, Mark and Luke] define discipleship exclusively as taking up one’s cross, instead define discipleship as serving Jesus and make clear that the goal of such service is restored relationship with God and Jesus. The passion prediction (12:32) also focuses on relationship, that through Jesus’ death all people will be drawn to him … Throughout the Gospel, this new relationship to God and one’s fellow human beings is described in metaphors of new birth and new or eternal life … Jesus’ death has this effect, not because it is a sacrifice that atones for human sin, but because it reveals the power and promise of God and God’s love decisively to the world.”

When I think of atonement, or reconciliation, like this — as an act of love initiated by God, multiplied as it takes root in each of us and grows into lives of loving service to our neighbor that result in more kernels planted, more wheat grown, more bread baked, more lives fed, more love shared, more life lived — then I think I understand better what Jesus means when he says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  It’s not so much about loving and hating, as clinging to versus releasing. We might hear it as “those who cling to their life lose it, and those who release their life in this world will see it live on forever.”

Earlier this week I was with an ecumenical group of parish pastors, seminary professors, and judicatory leaders (meaning, people who serve the church at the synodical or national level, or their equivalents in other denominations) at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.  We were asked to work together to try and define what we mean when we talk about “people of faith,” and to identify what conditions allow these communities to thrive. Our definitions were muddled, I think, shaped as they are by constructs and institutions that are, themselves, dying in so many ways, great and small. Over and over again however, those gathered returned to this idea, that the church need not be afraid of its own dying, of the things that are lost along the way, because we know and have always known that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain.” We know, and have always known, that what we cling to, we lose; but what we are willing to release for the sake of the world, we will have forever. Gail O’Day sees in these verses from John a much clearer definition of “people of faith.” She writes,

What is striking about [this passage from John] is that the connection between Jesus’ death and the life of the believing community is repeatedly stressed. The faith community consists of those who redefine the meaning of life on the basis of Jesus’ death. The faith community is the fruit of Jesus’ death; it is what shows forth Jesus’ love to the world.

In essence, the answer John’s gospel gives to the question of why Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem, why he led his disciples to a place where he knew he would die, why he was greeted by the throng seeking salvation, is us.  Not just us, but all of us.

The answer to the question of why, is that it accomplished what it set out to do. It created a people of faith who each carry within ourselves the seeds of a love that starts and ends with God. Not a cosmic war, not a debt, not a job description, but a love that created the world and everything in it so much that it took on flesh and blood to get closer to us and bring us closer to one another. A love that saves us over and over again.

Look! Here it comes again, riding on a donkey and a foal just as we expected. Let us prepare once again this Holy Week, to be saved by love.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, February 17, 2013: First Sunday of Lent

Texts:  Deuteronomy 26: 1-11  +  Psalm 91:1-2,9-16  +  Romans 10:8b-13  +  Luke 4:1-13

Good morning students, and welcome to your Lenten study hall.  My name is Erik Christensen and I will be your instructor for the next five weeks as we explore the ministry of Jesus in preparation for the great Three Days leading up to the festival of Easter.  The required reading for this class is the gospel of Luke, though there are select passages from the gospel of John that are recommended as well.  You can find these texts in most any bookstore, or in the bibles in the pew-back in front of you.  You can also find them online and in a variety of translations for both print and eReader formats.  There are no quizzes or papers in this class.  There will be one final, administered with water, and you will all pass.  Although there is no such thing as extra credit, you will earn brownie points if you can name the theological doctrine by which we all pass this course on the strength of another’s merits.

There really is a part of me that would still love to teach college or grad school.  Mostly so I could use that tone of voice (“Good morning students…”).  Looking for a season of the church year best suited to the living out of my professorial fantasies, Lent was the obvious choice.  Throughout its long and storied history, the season of Lent has been used as a time for the education and formation of people preparing to be baptized at the Easter Vigil.  As the church moved out of the first century and into a period of persecution, many found it difficult to remain true to the promises they’d made at the time of their baptisms — promises that we ourselves have made, or that were made on our behalf by parents and sponsors when we were children.  Christians facing political persecution in the form of imprisonment or even death would sometimes turn their back on the community of the baptized.  Lent was a time when those who had left the church could return, using these forty days as a period of repentance for sin and renewal in faith.

In the modern era, we recall and observe both meanings of this ancient season:

baptized_we_live_coverThis is a time of preparation for baptism. In fact, this year we are celebrating with Jessica Castro and her children Jessie, Angel and Lilly their decision to be baptized at the Easter Vigil.  In preparation for that event, Jessica Palys and I are meeting with the family for an hour each week before worship and studying together, using Dan Erlander’s short, wonderful, illustrated text “Baptized We Live: Lutheranism as a Way of Life.”  

And this is a time for each of us who are already baptized to be reflecting on the ways that we may have capitulated to the pressures of the world that tempt us to turn away from the promises made at baptism. Individually and collectively we use this season of Lent to repent for the ways we have broken or betrayed the solidarity with all God’s people that is the gift of baptism, and we renew our faith and our promises to be co-workers with all of creation in God’s in-breaking reign.

The stories we hear this morning, on this first Sunday of Lent, fit the theme of identity and temptation quite perfectly.  We are, perhaps, most familiar with the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness — first with bread, then with political power, and finally with the promise of divinity, even immortality.

These temptations come at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and they remind me of the three renunciations we make at the beginning of the baptismal rite before we are washed in these waters and initiated into the mission and ministry of Christ.  We ask,

  • Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?
  • Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?
  • Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?

To each of these questions the candidate responds, “I renounce them,” mirroring Jesus’ own renunciation of Satan’s tempting offers.

Last month I spent the better part of a week down in Atlanta, Georgia.  I was there by invitation from the Worship staff from the Churchwide offices of the ELCA to be part of a team of clergy who worked together on crafting new language for contemporary Christian worship.  In that process one of my assignments was actually to find new words for these ancient baptismal renunciations.

south_park_satanRecognizing that many of us are unfamiliar, even uncomfortable, with the use of the name “Satan” — surrounded by depictions of a red-fleshed bully wielding a pitchfork on South Park or various horror movie renditions of “the Devil,” I had to try and find new words that more accurately reflected ancient views of what we are called to renounce in our baptism.

In the gospel of Luke, the devil tempts Jesus with offers that expand in their scope. The first temptation is bread.  We may not think too much of bread, but if that’s true, then it’s probably a sign that we have enough of it, or enough money to never have to worry about where our next meal is coming from.  Of the world’s 6.7 billion people, almost 1 billion go hungry each day — that’s about 14% of the world’s community that prays “give us this day our daily bread” with an urgency we may simply never understand.

For these people, a person who could have made bread out of rocks would have been a magician — but a person who became bread for the whole world would have been a savior.

The second temptation is political power.  The devils tells Jesus, “to you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.”  There’s some sly humor in Luke’s gospel at this point, I think.  The devil is asserting that politics are the devil’s playground, and who among us hasn’t thought the same at some point in our lives, or even in the last week? In a world of back-room deals, the devil is offering Jesus the sweetest deal of them all.  But Jesus renounces the devil’s claim over politics, and in doing so I think he ennobles the political work of the church, our calling to use all the tools available to us to shape the world so that it more fully reflects God’s peace, mercy, justice and love.  In a world where politics too quickly becomes a synonym for division, the baptized people of God recall Paul’s words to the Romans, “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”

In a world in which political leaders living nations away controlled the lives of millions of people, a person who ruled the nations would have been a hero — but a person who prioritized people over power would have been a savior.

The final temptation is cosmic in scope.  The devil tempts Jesus with the promise of divine protection.  He says, “if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here for it is written, ‘God will command the angels concerning you, to protect you.’”  It is the promise of eternal life.  If you are the child of God, then nothing can hurt you, nothing can kill you.  That is the devil’s tempting lie.  But Jesus will be the one who shows us the breadth and the depth of God’s solidarity with all the suffering world.  A love so deep that it will not pass over death, but will enter it just as fully as each of us someday must.

In a world dominated by death, a person who escaped death would have been a legend — but a person who embraced death so that each of us could live more fully, less fearfully, would have been a savior.

So we, when we are baptized, follow in the footsteps of our savior, renouncing the devil’s empty offers in favor of a new life lived in solidarity with all the world’s people: the hungry, the oppressed, the weak and the dying.

As I looked for new words to communicate these ancient ideas, I tried to think about the range of situations in which people are baptized and how I would speak to each.  In one case, I imagined a worship service where those being baptized were old enough to answer for themselves, but still young enough that the traditional language would be far beyond their daily vocabulary.  I tried to find words that children could say with honesty and integrity.  This is what I came up with, and as we close this first lesson in our Lenten study hall I’m going to ask you to respond to these questions — if you feel comfortable doing so — with the words “I say no to them.”  As we finish, I’ll ask you to join me in reciting the Apostle’s Creed — remembering those words by which we were each baptized.  To make that easier, how about we each open our hymnals to page 229 in the front.

Friends, as you get ready to be baptized, I’m going to ask you to say no to the things that hurt you and to say yes to God.  Some of our words will be short and simple, and some will be long and complicated, but all will tell the story of God’s love for you and for the whole world.

Do you say no to hate, no to violence, no to greed and no to everything else that is the opposite of God’s peace, mercy, justice and love?

Response: I say no to them.

Do you say no to rules, no to habits, no to traditions, no to prejudices that go against God’s hopes and dreams for the world?

Response: I say no to them.

Do you say no to the things you do but shouldn’t, no to the temptation to do nothing when action is needed, no to everything that pulls you away from God?

Response: I say no to them.

Saying no to sin, and all that hurts us and God’s creation, I ask you now to say yes to God with the words used by Christians at their baptisms since the very earliest days of the Church.

Do you believe in God the Father?

I believe in God, the Father almighty,

creator of heaven and earth.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,

born of the Virgin Mary,

suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, died, and was buried;

he descended to the dead.

On the third day he rose again;

he ascended into heaven,

and is seated at the right hand of the Father,

and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy catholic church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and the life everlasting.

Amen.

 

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Sermons

Sermon: Saturday, April 7, 2012: Resurrection of Our Lord — Vigil of Easter

Texts:  Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a  +  Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21  +  Isaiah 55:1-11  +  Proverbs 8:1-8, 19-21; 9:4b-6  +  Daniel 3:1-29  +  Romans 6:3-11  +  John 20:1-18

It’s been such a beautifully warm spring, and now that all the various schools’ spring breaks are coming to an end, it feels like we’ve already begun the downhill slide into summer.  I know students are already counting the days ‘til the end of the school year, and not-so-secretly their teachers are as well.

Summer.  Even now, with childhood decades behind me, summer has a kind of mythic quality.  Sports and camps and vacations.  Bicycling everywhere with friends, but especially to the swimming pool.  Summer days spent at the pool.  Somebody’s mother barely keeping watch, with a paperback novel and a wide-brimmed hat to keep her nose from burning.  And us, long before we felt the pressure to “work on our tan,”  bouncing up and down in the shallow end, games of Marco Polo with kids you’d just met, and working up the nerve to take the test for the deep end.

Did you ever play the game where you and a friend dropped below the surface of the pool and shouted to each other, testing to see if sound could carry through water?  We would keep our eyes open so that we could try and read lips (which was no help at all, as the moment you open your mouth underwater to make a sound all you can see is giant bubbles escaping toward the sun).  I might yell, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but you would hear, “blay bluh obbla blah bah.”  Then, reconvening with our heads above water I’d ask, “did you get it?” and you’d reply, “The Empire Strikes Back?”  Ah, summer.

The Easter Vigil isn’t totally different from summer days spent at the swimming pool.  Here, too, there is a kind of mythic quality at work.  You felt it, didn’t you, as we gathered outside to light the fire.  Something old and primal, which is right. People have been gathering around fires to tell stories since humanity first stood upright and discovered the secrets of flint and steel.  Something mythic about walking into the dark with our little candles to light the way.  Something older than electricity and television going on here.

We have our swimming pool games tonight as well.  Seven times now we’ve dropped below the surface of the Christian story and God has met us there, trying to be understood through the surrounding baptismal waters.

She met us beneath the waters and called out “in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the waters.”  It was a long round, by the end we were ready to come up for air.  She met us above the surface of the waters, asking “did you get it?”

“I’m not sure,” we replied.  “It was the story of creation, right?”  “Right,” she said.  “You know the story, now remember what it means.  It means you have always been mine.  You are a part of the creation I gazed upon and called good.  And it started with water.”

“This is fun. Let’s play again!”  We dove below the waters once more and there we heard God speaking (with an oddly Australian accent) these words, “then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea.  The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into a dry land; and the waters were divided.  The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.”

“How about that one?  Did you understand what I said that time?”  said God, and we answered, “it’s the Exodus, it’s the time you saved us from slavery.”  “Right,” He said, “that’s part of what these waters mean as well.  You have been captive, and captivated, by all kinds of empires.  You’ve even been enslaved by them.  But I’m rescuing you.  You are free people.”

“That is so cool.  Do it again!”

So down we went for a third time and there God met us with His fuzzy face and dramatic voice, calling through the waters, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!”

We met again, faces still dripping wet, and said, “I didn’t get that.  What were you saying?”  And God replied, “it would be so easy for you to waste your whole lives chasing after fantasies of power and wealth, and in the end you would be terribly alone.  I’m giving you these waters, waters that will actually quench your thirst, waters that will bind you to peoples and nations you don’t even know.  I will do this, for you, for free.”

We were ready to stop playing right about then.  These waterlogged words were difficult to hear.  They were so confusing, but God pressed on.  Gripping us by the hand she plunged us a fourth time beneath the waters and called out, “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live… lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”

Knocking our heads left and right, trying to get the water out of our ears, we had to admit, “I didn’t understand that at all.  What were you saying?”  And she replied, “these waters are truth, they call you to a new life, a new maturity.  When you come out of them you will have to live in a new way, a justice-making way.”

By now the sun was hot, and we could feel the skin on our noses getting tight.  “I think we should get out and put on sunscreen.  I’m starting to burn.”  But God pulled us beneath the cool waters and said, “I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.”

That round was especially long, longer than we could ever possibly have held our breath, so we rose from the waters that fifth time convinced that we were going to drown.  “What’s the point of this game?” we demanded.  “Are you trying to kill us?!”

“No,” God replied, “I am saving you.  When you live in these waters, you will be different from the world around you.  Your loyalties will not be the world’s loyalties, and there will be a cost to living in this way.  I cannot spare you from the trials to which you will be put, but I will always be with you, and because you have been drenched in these waters, the world’s fires can never consume you.”

When we sank below the waters for the sixth time, it felt like it surely had to be the last.  Once again God opened Her mouth to speak to us beneath the surface, but as the air bubbles left Her mouth it felt to us as though all the air was leaving our bodies as well.  Again she spoke through the water, and this time there was no mistaking her words, “Do you know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”

Oh God!  Is that how this game ends?  Did we wade into the shallow end only to be drowned in the deeps?  Has God been playing with us all along, leading us to our doom?  Is this the cost of our baptism?

There we lay beneath the waters, no air left in our lungs to pull us upward.  There we lay for a full three minutes, three minutes that felt like three days.  Then we heard God’s voice again, as clearly as if we were already risen from the pool.  “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.”  We breathed in these words like they were oxygen. “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed.” And our bodies began to rise, the light of the sun beyond the surface of the water visible again to our eyes. And, “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the LORD!’”

We rose from the pool, our feet now touching the bottom, our eyes and ears streaming with water and our mouths wide open to allow air back into the deepest chambers of our chest.  God waiting patiently for us to gain our bearings, then asking, “Did you hear me through the waters?  Do you know now what they mean?”

And we replied, “Alleluia!  Alleluia! Alleluia!”

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