Image by Sarah Jenkins.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 25, 2018
“A Social Justice Alternative to the Palm/Passion Sunday Readings”
From the Gospel of Matthew
Throughout the service, there is a running commentary (in italics) as well as hymns and litanies interspersed between the readings below. Except for the first reading from The Message, all other texts are NRSV.
Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
21 1-3 When Jesus and the disciples neared Jerusalem, Jesus told two of them: “Go over to the village across from you. You’ll find a donkey tethered there with her colt. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone asks what you’re doing, say, ‘The Master needs them!’ He will send them with you.”
6-9 The disciples did exactly what Jesus told them to do. They led the donkey and colt out, laid some of their clothes on them, and Jesus mounted. Nearly all the people in the crowd threw their garments down on the road, giving him a royal welcome. Others cut branches from the trees and threw them down as a welcome mat. Crowds went ahead and crowds followed, all of them calling out, “Hosanna to David’s son!” “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God!” “Hosanna in highest heaven!”
10 As he made his entrance into Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken. They were unnerved; people were asking, “What’s going on here? Who is this?”
11 The parade crowd answered, “This is the prophet Jesus, the one from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Invitation to Worship
One: Cry out, people of faith! Rejoice and praise God!
Our Savior draws near to Jerusalem.
All: Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God!
One: Come, people of faith! Come out from your busy lives and
join the crowd in celebration.
All: Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God!
One: Blessed is Jesus Christ, who did not turn back for fear.
After his baptism with John in the Jordan and subsequent 40 days in the wilderness, followed by three temptations, Jesus went about the countryside calling disciples and began to teach an alternative way of life and his confrontation with entrenched systems. Today we’re going to hear some of the reasons that led to his ultimate execution. I call it the social justice passion story, focusing more on the reasons for his death than the gruesome experience of his death alone. Instead of glorifying his death, it is a call to understand his life. And the call upon us, as his disciples, to live the life Jesus taught. As we listen, remember, everything he did was grounded in love.
Yesterday we saw our nation come up against an entrenched system. Led by brave teenagers, they will face violence – threat, intimidation, and worse. Yet, we cannot lose the hope of reconciliation with those whose views of the world are in complete opposition to ours.
The kind of social justice he sought, as Cornel West describes it, is love walking around in public. Protest without hope in fellow humanity will leave us feeling empty. “God so loved the world” that God sent Jesus. To reconcile the world. So, to the story of Jesus.
Jesus began drawing crowds by healing people with sicknesses and diseases, those in pain, and others. Jesus saw them – their full humanity. In his teachings, he turned common expectations upside down. For example, he called those who grieve “blessed.” The pure in heart, the meek, those who show mercy. And blessed are those who are harassed because they seek justice. The kingdom of heaven, Jesus said, is theirs.
Then he continued to teach by reinterpreting the Law. Let’s be clear that he wasn’t denouncing his religion lest we play into anti-Semitism. He loved it enough to call its leadership to faithfulness. He said, “Don’t think I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I have come to fulfill them.” Then he began to teach, repeating several times, “You have heard it said, but I say to you. About murder, adultery, divorce, making vows, and others like these:
5:38 “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
In our world today, some atheists act more Christ-like than those who profess to be Christian. Jesus’ harsh critiques of the religious establishment in his day make complete sense in light of our own experience. For example, this one:
Love for Enemies
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of our God in heaven; God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as our God is perfect.
6 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your God in heaven.
2 “Whenever you give alms to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your God who sees in secret will reward you.
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Jesus concluded his re-interpretations and summed it all up in this way:
The Golden Rule
7:12 “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.
To the crowd of lepers and tax collectors and prostitutes, the poor, the oppressed, and marginalized, with the religious establishment standing by, he said:
6:5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to Abba who is in secret; and Abba who sees in secret will reward you.
7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your God knows what you need before you ask.
So let us pray as Jesus taught: Our Creator, holy is your name, Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is…
Jesus didn’t just talk, teaching with empty words. He put his words into action and expected it of his disciples. This is just one of many stories:
Feeding the Four Thousand
15:32 Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.” 33 The disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?” 34 Jesus asked them, “How many loaves have you?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.”35 Jesus ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground. 36 He took the seven loaves and the fish; and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 37 And all of them ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 38 Those who had eaten were four thousand men, besides women and children. 39 After sending the crowds away, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.
The crowds were relentless. The disciples were often clueless. And the criticism by the authorities unyielding: “How dare you say that about us?” And sometimes we can hear it. Was it anger? Was it disappointment?
A Tree and Its Fruit
12:33 “Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
One: Now the time has come, the day of consequences for challenging those
in authority. They clearly believed his teaching about the kingdom of God was
All: Break the chains of oppression;
One: Set the prisoner free;
All: Share your bread with all who are hungry; Clothe the naked.
One: Shelter the homeless and Give protection to the lost.
All: Why is this subversive? Isn’t this Good News?
One: Indeed, why do the powerful want to silence him?
Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection
16:21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Jesus Again Foretells His Death and Resurrection
17:22 As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, 23 and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.” And they were greatly distressed.
A Third Time Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection
The crowds following Jesus only got bigger, making the authorities more nervous every day. His abilities went far beyond stirring up the crowds, however. It was his miracles and healing power. It was his great love and compassion for hurting humanity. Among many stories is this one:
Jesus Heals Two Blind Men
20:29 As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. 30 There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 31 The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” 32 Jesus stood still and called them, saying, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.
Again, imagine the constant pressure of the crowds. He grew tired and weary, and sometimes it became evident he needed time away to be alone and pray, like this incident:
Jesus Curses the Fig Tree
21:18 In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.20 When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21 Jesus answered them, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. 22 Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.”
As we celebrated this morning with the procession of palms, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the crowds threw their cloaks and palm branches on the ground to welcome him like a king, but a different kind; not like the one also entering Jerusalem the same day on the other side of the city, riding on a chariot surrounded by soldiers, whose power came from force, not love.
Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
21:1 When they had come near Jerusalem, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.
10 As he made his entrance into Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken. They were unnerved; people were asking, “What’s going on here? Who is this?” 11 The crowd answered, “This is the prophet Jesus, the one from Nazareth in Galilee.”
But the celebration quickly transitioned to provocative action.
Jesus Cleanses the Temple
12 Immediately then, Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 He said to them, “It is written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
but you are making it a den of robbers.”
14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children yelling in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what they are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; but have you never read,
‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
you have prepared praise for yourself’?”
17 He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
The Anointing at Bethany
26:6 Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. 8 But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? 9 For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Jesus Denounces Scribes and Pharisees
23:1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one God—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant.12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.
26:1 When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, 2 “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”
3 Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, 4 and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. 5 But they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”
Meanwhile, Jesus and his disciples and other followers gathered for the Passover meal.
The Institution of the Lord’s Supper
26 While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in God’s kingdom.”
Invitation to Communion
One: Come to this table because Christ invites us. Come hungry, ready to be fed.
Come thirsty, ready to drink. Come to re-member.
All: We come in remembrance, but much more: In recalling the life of Jesus, we are
moved by the death of Jesus, to be Christ-like among suffering humanity.
One: Let us join here not in passive recollection, but active commitment.
Jesus Prays in Gethsemane
26:36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38 Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” 39 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “Abba, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”
40 Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? 41 Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
42 Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “Abba, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”
43 Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Get up, let us be going. See, here comes my betrayer.”
And so begin the actions that led to the execution of Jesus upon a cross – the means and method of the Roman Empire to send a warning to other would-be prophets. When we gather back here Thursday night, we’ll hear the events that follow his betrayal, Peter’s denials, false accusations, passing Jesus between religious and Roman authorities to avoid culpability, the crowds demand that he be executed, and finally his hanging from a cross. And then, how on the first day of the week, we learn that even though the world may attempt to silence the love of Jesus for suffering humanity, God wins. “You kill him, I’ll raise him.” But for now, we remember in the words of the litany in your bulletin:
Litany of the Passion
One: Christ Jesus, in agony in the garden of Olives, troubled by sadness and fear,
comforted by an angel;
All: Christ Jesus, betrayed by Judas’ kiss, abandoned by your friends,
delivered into the hands of the powerful;
One: Christ Jesus, accused by false witnesses, condemned to die, struck by servants,
covered with spittle;
All: Christ Jesus, disowned by your disciple Peter, delivered to Pilate and Herod,
condemned as a criminal;
One: Christ Jesus, carrying your own cross to Calvary, consoled by the
daughters of Jerusalem, helped by Simon of Cyrene;
All: Christ Jesus, stripped of your clothes, praying for your executioners, pardoning
One: Christ Jesus, entrusting your mother to your beloved disciple, giving up your
spirit into the hands of your Father/Mother, showing us how to live and how to die
through the example of your sacrifice.
All: Let us remember his death, but more importantly, let us imitate his life.
One: The cross,
All: we will take it.
One: The bread,
All: we will break it.
One: The pain,
All: we will bear it.
One: The joy,
All: we will share it.
One: The Gospel,
All: we will live it.
One: The love,
All: we will give it.
One: The light,
All: we will cherish it.
One: The shadows of death and hate,
All: God shall perish it.
Resources for this service:
I have used the litanies so many times, I'm sorry I don’t remember their source.
Songs from this service interspersed with readings:
All Glory, Laud, and Honor and Hosanna, Loud Hosanna – traditional processional hymns for Palm Sunday
For Communion: Jesus Took the Bread by Ruth Duck in the UCC hymnal
Why? By Dosia Carlson in the UCC songbook Sing Prayer and Praise. It asks questions like “Why is there suffering, chaos and torture? What is the truth in a world without sense? Where is the wisdom that leads to discernment? Who will encourage us, be our defense?” The chorus answers: “Come, Jesus Christ, bring justice to all, truth to our lips, strength to our hands, that we may follow you, day by day”
What Have You Done for Me? By Tony Alonso, published by GIA. It focuses on Matthew 25, “I am the hungry… What you have done for the least of my children you have done for me.”
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 18, 2018
“I Would Be a None Too”
John 12: 20-36
Some Greeks were among those who had come up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and made a request: “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” 22 Philip told Andrew, and Andrew and Philip told Jesus.
23 Jesus replied, “The time has come for the Human One to be glorified. 24 I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.25 Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me. Wherever I am, there my servant will also be. Abba will honor whoever serves me.
27 “Now I am deeply troubled. What should I say? ‘Abba, save me from this time’? No, for this is the reason I have come to this time.28 Abba, glorify your name!”
Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”
29 The crowd standing there heard and said, “It’s thunder.” Others said, “An angel spoke to him.”
30 Jesus replied, “This voice wasn’t for my benefit but for yours. 31 Now is the time for judgment of this world. Now this world’s ruler will be thrown out. 32 When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.”(33 He said this to show how he was going to die.)
34 The crowd responded, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Human One must be lifted up? Who is this Human One?”
35 Jesus replied, “The light is with you for only a little while. Walk while you have the light so that darkness doesn’t overtake you. Those who walk in the darkness don’t know where they are going. 36 As long as you have the light, believe in the light so that you might become people whose lives are determined by the light.” After Jesus said these things, he went away and hid from them.”
There is so much going on in this passage that I couldn’t possibly cover the whole thing with any depth in 15 minutes. So, I want to share a few highlights.
With my family’s background in farming, I’ve always appreciated the line: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Yup, that’s how it works, although I wouldn’t describe planting seeds as sending them off to their death. Farmers as the grim reaper. Perhaps it helps that Jesus then explains: “Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever.”
But, no, that doesn’t really help. It just adds another one of those head-scratching sayings of Jesus. I mean, I love my life. What’s wrong with that? In fact, since losing 60 pounds five years ago, I’m healthier than I’ve been since my 20s. Hiking, biking, snow-shoeing. Plus, I love the work I’m doing. I love doing this! The church feels healthy and is becoming what I have hoped and prayed for.
But wait, what if I wasn’t healthy? Would I hate my life? Should I hate my life if the church felt stagnant and our ministry seemed defined more by moving backwards than forward? For that matter, is cancer supposed to make us hate our lives? Pain? Addiction? Grief? No. Would losing a job or a spouse or our home make us hate our lives? But hey, we could say, “Yeah! I get to keep my life forever?”
So, I explored this text a little more and found some weird advice. For example, an article entitled “How to Hate Your Life.” Or Lesson 67 at www.bible.org: “Why You Should Hate Your Life.”
This one verse deserves a whole sermon or six of them on its own. Can I just leave it at, “Don’t hate your life. Live your life to its fullest potential” and then move on for today? Because, like the seed in the ground metaphor, this is more about what fruit our lives bear. Anything else ultimately doesn’t matter.
Another verse I want to highlight: Jesus asked, “Should I ask God to save me from this difficult time?” I thought we were just told to hate our lives. Let’s remember the context. Jesus is just mere days now from being betrayed, swords pulled in the Garden, the sham trial, and his execution. Not surprisingly, he asks of his own struggles and fears, “Should I ask God to save me from this difficult time?” However, he immediately adds, “But this is why I came among you.” He then refers to his death. To which the crowd said, “but wait a minute.” They told Jesus that the Law, the Bible, says the Christ is supposed to live forever. Who are you talking about? What is this you say about the Human One, or as we may know it better, the Son of Man. Their bottom line: “This is crazy. What are you talking about?” To that, Jesus told them to follow the light while it’s here with you. As long as you have the light, follow the light… and so on and so forth.
Like much of the Gospel of John, the logic is hard to follow; it’s circular, it doesn’t go from point A to point B. Instead we’ve got this swirling mix of love and hate and light… and planting seeds that die, as well as a Christ that dies. As I’ve said before, John needs a good editor. Clarity. Make your point, please!
But after all that, perhaps my favorite line is the last one. Not because the passage is finally done, but for its clarity. “After Jesus said all these things, he went away and hid from them.” That’s clear. Except for why. Why tell them to follow the Light and then go hide?
Well, here’s at least one idea. And it takes us all the way back to the first line of the passage. “Some Greeks came to the festival,” meaning they came to Jerusalem for Passover, “and said, ‘Sir, we want to see Jesus.’”
Some Greeks came. Who are these Greeks? So let’s remember, context again: word had spread far and wide about Jesus – part-time miracle worker, healer, teacher. And increasingly a full-time enemy of both religion and state. Fascinating guy, right? Who wouldn’t want a personal look? So, who are they? Citizens from the land of Plato and Socrates? Perhaps they came to Passover to observe out of curiosity. They may have been spiritually hungry, open to exploring. Or maybe they just happened to be passing through. Or, as some scholars suggest, they may have been Jews living in Greece; Jews who were part of the diaspora centuries before during the time of the exile who never returned home.
Either way, they were outsiders in Jerusalem. But no matter who they were, they were seekers. And what did they want? They wanted to “see” Jesus.
Have you ever heard of the “nones?” I’m sure you have. Not the religious ones. Not the ones in Catholic orders living in convents. I mean the folks who are not affiliated with any religious tradition. They may have been. Many were at one time. But these “nones” are the ones who answer polls and surveys with “none” when asked about their religious affiliation. And why not? How can you blame them? When they’ve asked to see Jesus, they’ve been given creeds they had to agree with first. When they asked to see Jesus, they were handed a pledge card. When they asked to see Jesus, they were given a committee assignment.
John Pavlovitz says this much better in a blog post entitled “Dear Church, Here’s Why People Are Really Leaving the Church.” A few of the things he lists include: 1) You never leave your building, 2) You choose stupid fights – not to fight racism but each other, 3) You tell us we can come as we are – unless we’re gay, a feminist, believe in climate science, or consider family planning a choice.
But hey, at least now days, if you pay hush money to silence a porn star for an affair you had while your wife is still breast feeding your newborn, come on in!
But actually, that’s exactly right. Let’s hear it for heretics and doubters and people whose lives are just as messy and screwed up as the rest of us pretending to have it all together. Isn’t that exactly who Jesus came to share the good news of liberation?
Some Greeks came to Jerusalem. Where should people go today if they want to see Jesus? How often would that be inside a church? Not to bad mouth the church, but regardless of whether you were a first century seeker or 21st century none, where would you go?
Don’t get me wrong. Gathering in sanctuaries to sing and pray and listen is vitally important. It is respite care in a world that exhausts us, that discourages us, that angers us, that scares the pants off of us. We meet God here, or at least it provides a path where we meet God here sometimes. And the Holy Spirit heals us here, or at least sometimes. When the time is ready. Rituals have a purpose to help us return to center. Sabbath gives us a rhythm and reminds us to breathe and put our problems in perspective. We come here to remember to practice gratitude through generosity. All vitally important. And then. And then, we are sent right back into the world to put our renewed faith into action.
But, sometimes I think I could become a none too – not the one with a habit and long black skirt, except maybe on Halloween. But folks like Pastor Gabe from Junction City could cause me to become a none if no other option existed. Pastor Gabe publicly took issue with John Pavlovitz’s blog post and argued with a young woman who reached out for understanding. He quoted some scripture at her and concluded, “People leave the church because they hate God and they hate God's people. There is no other reason.” She replied, “I don’t hate God. Instead of quoting scripture, how about listening to our questions?” He retorted, “The reason why you feel threatened and alienated when you hear the Bible quoted to you is because your conscience is guilty.”
Yeah, he could turn me into a “none” too. And sadly, this wasn’t satire. It wasn’t a teaching moment. It was simply evidence of what author Anne Rice called a “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group,” the reason she loves Jesus but left the church. Pastor Gabe’s whole, very lengthy exchange turned my stomach. And breaks my heart. What evidence of Jesus did this young woman see?
Again, the passage began, some Greeks wanted to see Jesus. Twelve more confusing verses later, the passage ended, “Jesus went and hid.” What was all that stuff in-between about? Life, death, hate, seed-planting… follow light around in circles…?
Well, boil it all down, and I think I hear Jesus ask, “What are you willing to die for.” To some Greeks and the seekers in all of us: “For what are you willing to die?”
If we asked that question of people who consider themselves nones or spiritual but not religious, I think the church would expand exponentially. Not that church growth is the point, but if we told people the truth:
You get what I’m saying… If we were less concerned with our own lives, you could call it “hating” our lives, but I’d rather not; if we were concerned more with the life, health, and well-being of our neighborhoods, cities, countries, and the planet we share with billions of people than we were with our church (ouch), we would make a difference that would matter in the grand scheme of things. Confronting racism. Standing up for refugees and immigrants and supporting #MeToo. Getting people to love God more than their guns. Maybe we wouldn’t attract a single new person, but at least our neighbors might see Jesus. And isn’t that the point?
But it may require the death of many of the expectations we place on what is important in the church. In fact, how many churches are dying because they wouldn’t die? Die to programs that didn’t make a difference in the world. Having a building but no ministry. Die to worship that speaks of concerns and in a language utterly unintelligible to anyone outside the narrow confines of their particular faith. Die to the way things are “supposed” to be or have always been done. Die to the fear that we might die.
Which is no different than the same questions we could ask in our personal lives. Can we die to the fear that we might die, or rather, will die? Die to the way things are “supposed” to be or have always been done? Die to worshiping things that are meaning-less? Die to a way of life that makes no difference in the world?
To what must we die. And for what are you willing to die? Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Jesus said all these things and then went off to hide, which strikes me as one of the funniest things in the Bible. But why else would Jesus go off and hide other than to encourage his followers to be the Light? So that the whole world might see Jesus. And if I wasn’t being clear enough, so that people can see Jesus in you.
At least that’s one potential explanation for this text. One that doesn’t make me want to become a none. How about you?
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 11, 2018
“Content for Our Obituary Writer”
Ephesians 2: 1-10 – New Revised Standard Version
You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.
4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which God loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Some obituaries can be humorous, such as the one which stated that the deceased “respectfully requests six Cleveland Browns football players to serve as pall bearers so that the Browns can let him down one last time.”
Mary Anne Noland’s obituary began “Faced with the prospect of voting for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Mary Anne chose instead to pass into the arms of eternal rest in the love of God.”
Then there are those which ride along the edge of humor. The obituary for Mike Blanchard read “He enjoyed booze, guns, cars, and chasing younger women until the day he died.”
Others convey a less humorous message by the person who submits it. Josie Anello is survived by her son, ‘A.J.’, who loved and cared for her; daughter ‘Ninfa’ who betrayed her trust; and son ‘Peter’ who broke her heart.
But the children of Johanna Scarpitti really crossed the line with their obit which began “Ding dong the witch is dead, but the memory of our mother lives on.”
But then there are those for whom the pain is really on display and who even use obituaries to get revenge. Or maybe not revenge, but just to express their deep disappointment.
For example, the obituary for Leslie ‘Popeye' Charping, says he “lived much longer than he deserved. He served in the Navy not because of bravery or patriotism but as part of a plea deal to escape sentencing. Leslie's life served no other obvious purpose, he did not contribute to society or serve his community and he possessed no redeeming qualities besides quick witted sarcasm which was only amusing when he was sober.”
I don’t mean to make light of the dead. But I was struck by the similarity expressed by the author of the Letter to the Ephesians. Pretty harsh words. “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath.”
Kind of like a long-winded description of Johnny “Big Buck” whose obituary spoke of a life filled with affairs with beautiful, smart women, “mostly brunette.” Curious detail. Was that a statement of admiration or admonition?
I don’t much like the first half of today’s passage. The second half is much better, and more familiar, and usually read without the first. It’s basic Protestant Christianity: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. Not of our own doing, but as the gift of God. Not the result of works, so that no one can boast.” Sound familiar?
No wonder we skip the first part; disobedience, flesh and children of wrath… But without that, it doesn’t do much good to say we’ve been raised to new life if we can’t articulate what our old life meant. Saved by grace through faith. But from what?
Mike Blanchard was remembered for his life of booze, guns, and cars. Joanna Scarpitti’s children memorialized their mother by calling her a witch. And Leslie, Popeye, Charling, we’re told, had no redeeming qualities.
I don’t know what kind of pain they caused their families. But I have a problem with churches making everything about the faults of individuals when in the grand scheme of things, it’s all too small, trivial. Like when I was seven years old, I went forward for an altar call. It was an incredibly emotional experience as I confessed my sins and gave my life to Jesus Christ. I still remember it vividly. But I have to laugh. Was I dead because of my sin? Was I captive to the desires of my seven-year-old flesh? Following my passions? Not yet, at least.
And yet others do have very powerful stories of conversion, who totally get “dead.” My ministry in Cleveland was with a lot of men and women in and out of recovery who had gruesome stories of actions they had taken, mostly as a result of their drug and alcohol addictions, who were now, by the grace of God, one day at a time, living a sober life. They still had things about their past for which they felt shame and regret, but it no longer controlled their lives. But even my saying that tends to focus on addiction as “moral failing” without consideration of addiction as disease. Nor does it go beyond the fault of the individual. What does it say about the will of society to then not fund treatment centers?
So, yes, there is our past life. Whatever it might be. And there is the promise of new life. The slate wiped clean. Everyone is more than their worst mistake. A new life, as the text declares, we can’t earn because it’s a gift from God, not an achievement for which we can claim credit. But, again, saved from what? I don’t particularly care about whether individuals love booze or chase women.
Although I do care about attitudes that excuse “locker room talk” and “boys will be boys” that are complicit with the abuse of women, who don’t deserve to be “chased.” Men so weak “they can’t help themselves” around beautiful women? Really? But that’s also the same pattern that excuses pay inequity, and provides unlimited health insurance coverage for Viagra but not birth control. And I do care about booze. About companies that profit from peddling booze in the border towns around reservations, like White Clay, Nebraska.
But here’s my point: Christian theology too often turns this text and others like it into a screed about personal habits and individual salvation. It even ignores the text later in the same book of Ephesians which speaks of confronting the “powers and principalities.” Why is that?
Pope Francis declared this week that Oscar Romero will be canonized as a Roman Catholic saint. Finally. He was assassinated while saying the mass in a hospital chapel in 1980 by a right-wing death squad aligned with the government of El Salvador. Killed in front of patients and nuns hours after pleading on the radio for government soldiers to disobey the orders of their commanders to kill civilians.
Romero was the Archbishop of San Salvador, a mild-mannered man who was elevated to Archbishop because he was safe. He wouldn’t rock the boat. He wouldn’t confront the powers and principalities. But the suffering of his people led him to embrace liberation theology, saying “We must save not the soul at the hour of death but the person living in history.” He said, quite contrary to his earlier beliefs, that “A church that doesn't provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn't unsettle, a word of God that doesn't get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn't touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed — what gospel is that?” It was statements like that which caused Popes John Paul II and Pope Benedict to hold up his canonization. They did not approve of the church’s involvement in social justice. Also known as: Save them from their sin, not the sin of their society. Archbishop Helder Camara said, “When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why they have no food, they call me a Communist.”
I might like to skip over the first half of today’s passage because it has been trivialized into personal foibles and bad habits. Or turned into accusations – “you’re just captive to the flesh” has been quoted many times to me. But then again, how can we proclaim, “I’ve been saved by grace through faith” while claiming no need for change? It seems pretty pointless. Cheap grace. And fooling ourselves. Lent calls for self-examination.
There are clearly both individual and social implications in Christianity, as well as this text. Requiring both halves. That’s where hope lies. Adam Eckhart invites us to view this text, the whole text, from the perspective of a “redemptive ethic.” A process of critiquing and transforming – ourselves and our world.
So, what might it mean to bring a redemptive ethic to today’s divided and polarized world? Goodness knows there is enough to critique. So, then, consider this about the powers and principalities: What holds power over you? What about today’s divided and polarized world holds its power over you? For example, is it the power of hope? That’s what this text proclaims. Or is it the power of despair? Every week I confess at times the power of despair, its temptation toward hopelessness, growing suspicions which can lead us to disengage. A cynicism that is susceptible to anger. An anger which leads to hatred. A hatred that leads people to conclude they want nothing to do with anyone who does not agree with them. I want to be saved from that. Our country needs to be saved from that.
The first half of today’s passage considers what we are saved from. Or need to be. The second half is the how. By grace, not by good works – no matter how many marches and meetings we attend. By God, not our own effort – which, thankfully means hopelessness and cynicism, hurt and anger, are temporary and can be overcome.
But there’s a little line I had never noticed before. It’s not just what we are saved from but what we are saved for. Sure, we’re not saved by good works. But the text goes on to say we are now “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Huh. Salvation is to result in a way of life filled with good works. Christians are always talking about salvation being a ticket to heaven, with everyone else “left behind.” Have any of you ever seen or heard that line before, that little tiny “it changes everything” verse before? Especially the preachers in the group? We had the from, but not the for. We had the how, but not the why.
But here it says it clearly: Created in Christ, we were made for good works. Here, not heaven. Now, not later. On behalf of a world, so loved by God, that Christ came to show us our way of life. Hopefully providing some good content for our obituary, which of course is not the point.
But it does beg the question, having heard what was said about Johanna Scarpitti, and especially Popeye Charping, how do you want to be remembered?
What do you want your obituary writer to say?
 Adam Eckhart, “Pastoral Perspective on Ephesians 2,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, p. 112