Giving Up Popularity: Sermon by Laura, 4.13.14 Palm-Passion A

Scriptures: Matthew 21:1-11, Matthew 27:15-25

Some weeks ago, Lucas came home from kindergarten visibly frustrated. On his bus ride, a girl who is usually one of his friends had allied herself with another kid, and they were singing, loudly and repeatedly, the popular song “Let it Go.” Have you heard this song? It’s the Oscar-winning “power anthem” from the Disney movie Frozen; the character Elsa sings it as she’s “letting go” of conforming to the repressive expectations of others, and releasing her powers to create an ice castle. In a sense, Elsa “gives up popularity” as she claims her identity.

But Lucas had never heard this song, because Keith and I limit his “screen” time and are often ourselves unaware of pop culture. So, as his friends sang a song they knew and he didn’t, they seemed to be enjoying the power of popularity, and he felt like the odd one out. So he started singing one of his favorite songs back at them:

“There were twelve disciples Jesus called to help him:
Simon Peter, Andrew, James, his brother John,
Philip, Thomas, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus,
Thaddeus, Simon, Judas, and Bartholomew.
He has called us, too. He has called us, too.
We are His disciples, I am one and you!
He has called us, too. He has called us, too.
We are His disciples, we His work must do!”

I tell this story with Lucas’ permission, because it illustrates some dynamics of “popularity.” Lucas and his peers are kindergartners, but already they have entered the serious challenges of a social world in which, moment to moment, shifting power dynamics sort people into the categories of “in” or “out.”

Hearing his story took me straight back to my school years. They are so often a crucible of popularity issues, as rapidly developing youth are beset by the questions of identity and belonging. As a pastor’s kid myself, I regularly felt like the “odd one out,” engaged in activities unchurched peers didn’t understand.

Remembering that loneliness as Lucas told his story, I felt torn. Maybe I should expose Lucas to more popular culture to make it easier for him to fit in with other kids? Or maybe I ought to simply marvel at my 6-year-old, who had the courage to sing a song identifying him, over and against popular culture, as belonging with a particular company of people, the disciples of Jesus Christ.

Because the truth is, discipleship of Jesus the Christ will probably not increase Lucas’ “cool” quotient among his peers as he grows. It means spending time doing things which are less and less a part of America’s popular culture. Frankly, just showing up at Sunday morning worship these days marks all of us here out as “odd.”

And on Palm Sunday, church people engage in especially strange behavior. Think about it. At the beginning of worship, we picked up palm fronds—we in La Grande, Oregon, a long way from where palms grow!—and we marched around singing “the king of glory comes, the nation rejoices.” It’s a once-a-year celebration, in which we put ourselves in the places of people whose symbolic action had extraordinary meaning in an ancient culture far removed from ours in time and space.

But I think the first Palm Sunday was an even odder happening that ours today. We call it Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, and it’s often been portrayed as a spontaneous event in which the whole city drops gives Jesus a royal welcome, in which he is popularly recognized as Messiah. I think we get this picture from Luke’s gospel, where Jesus says that if the people were silent, the stones would shout.

But Matthew’s narrative omits that piece, and I think the recognition of Jesus is less clear. There seem to be two groups present, the “crowd” and “the city.” One commentator notes, “The crowds function as a character in Matthew, as disciples en masse.”[1] It may be that this crowd includes folks who began gathering around Jesus at the beginning of his ministry; who listened to his Sermon on the Mount, and who were amazed at his authority to heal and cast out demons.

These are people who are primed and ready, to recognize Jesus as the “Son of David,” Matthew’s key words for the popular messianic expectations. The way Jesus enters Jerusalem at the start of Passover week is absolutely deliberate. He is not dragged there passively, and he could have chosen to enter on foot, like any other pilgrim.

Instead, what he does is less a spontaneous parade and more a carefully planned “street theater,” designed to send a specific message and provoke a certain response. He begins the procession from the Mount of Olives, the location the Messiah was traditionally expected to appear. He chooses to ride a donkey and colt prearranged at a nearby village; such a steed sends a particular message about the kind of power Jesus as Messiah claims—it’s not a warhorse.

Matthew notes that Jesus is also fulfilling Hebrew prophecy:  “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” It is an action designed to display the continuities between Jesus and the whole of scripture. For those with eyes to see, Jesus clearly proclaims that he is not the odd one out but one who integrally fits in the story of God’s chosen people, one who fulfills the vast, cosmic unfolding of God’s saving grace in history.

It seems “the crowd” enthusiastically picks up on these signs. “Hosanna!” they shout, which means “Save us!” but which is also an exaltation of praise for a royal figure. But the other group present, “the city,” is stirred up at this odd scene, “in turmoil,” the text says, using a word that elsewhere in Matthew refers to the shaking of an earthquake. He may be popular among the rag-tag crowds, but the city does not know Jesus, and they ask, “Who is this?”

The tension which will build throughout of Holy Week starts here. This central question is asked over and over again, and decisions are made. We know how quickly Jesus’ popularity will fall; when given the chance to release him, the crowd, influenced by religious leaders who oppose Jesus, will reject him in favor of Barabbas, who the text says is “notorious,” reminding us how dubious a quality “popularity” can be.  Jesus will go, with nary a word in his own defense, to the cross.

Can you imagine the loneliness of riding through that cheering crowd, knowing that even his closest friends will betray and desert him when he’s arrested? I think we do know those feelings from our own journeys, so I think we can we appreciate his courage and faithfulness. He remains steadfast in the seductions of the crowd’s adulation.

Palm Sunday is like “the Temptation Part 2.” Jesus made one choice to give up popularity back when the devil tempted him with the splendor of worldly kingdoms. “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him,” Jesus replied, and in the moment of entering Jerusalem, he chooses again. He chooses the passion of God over popularity.

Holy Week is known as Passion Week. The Passion of God is the Passion of Jesus. The word “passion” comes from the Latin, meaning “to suffer.”  The good news of Palm Sunday is the good news of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the good news of the entire story of God who creates in a desire for love, who repeatedly suffers the betrayal of the beloved, and who ultimately chooses to be “overcome by love” in order to bring us—God’s beloved ones—back into loving relationship.[2] Our God is a God of passionate love, a love which defies all the world’s wisdom and propriety, a God who suffers not because of out-of-control emotions, “but because true love inspires willing sacrifice.”[3]

In the entire course of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we see the One who was in the form of God emptying himself to walk this earth as a human being, choosing to face and absorb the hard realities of human violence, pride, and frailty. Jesus loves, forgives, and stays by our side, overcoming the power of fear, sin, and death, so that we may return to the true communion with the God who passionately longs for us. One author writes, “His passion is not sentimental, but fierce. It goes all the way.”[4]

In Jesus’ passion and compassion, his suffering for us and with us, we know that we are never alone. Any “lonesome valleys” we must walk, whether physical pain, separation from loved ones, the pain of leading in unpopular situations, we know that Jesus has already been there, and Jesus walks those roads at our side, giving us the comfort of companionship and the power to bear on through the pain.[5]

So if you felt odd waving your palm branches today, I invite you to welcome that oddity. It may not make you popular, but it puts you in the company of those who have chosen to center their lives, not in the fluctuating opinions and gossip of the crowds, but in the fierce and steadfast passion of God. We wave these palms today because we recognize Jesus as “the king of glory” and the Lord of our lives. Following him, seeking to walk in his ways, we are also called to receive God’s passion for us as we live in compassion for others. We give up popularity as we accept the invitation to an odd and holy life which imitates and participates in the passionate, life and death commitment of God in Jesus Christ. It is not an easy, but when you feel like the odd one out, remember that he chooses to be with you, passionately giving himself to be on this strange and winding journey with humanity. He will never forsake us.

May we trust and give ourselves over to the grace and peace of Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

[1] Audrey West, Exegetical Perspective on Matthew 21:1-11, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010, 153-155.

[2] Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion, Grand Rapids:William B. Eerdmans, 2004, 18.

[3] Dean, Ibid, 21.

[4] Sara Miles, http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20110411JJ.shtml

[5] K.C. Ptomey, http://www.fpcnyc.org/media/sermons-pdf/2009/090405.pdf

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Giving Up Control: Sermon by Keith, 3.9.14, Lent 1A

Scripture Readings: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11

I came across something this week that really spoke to me about this text.  And I wanted to share it with you.  It is a commercial that really isn’t selling anything.  It comes from an organization in India called the NAIK foundation.  I don’t know much about them, except that they are a charitable group working in community development among India’s poor.  The commercial tells a story of a boy who finds some money.  Now, I can’t really tell you how much he finds, the bill says 50 on it.  50 Rupees, maybe.  If that is the case, it would be worth about .80 cents in the US.  But in a country where about 1/3 of the population makes about a dollar a day, what he finds is a lot.  This kid feels rich…and tempted.  It might be compared to finding somewhere between $25 and $50 on the ground while out on a walk.  Let’s watch and see what happens.

(show video)

I was kind of nervous about showing you that ad at the beginning of sermon.  That little boy is a lot cuter than me and your mind might stick with him.    But I love his story and how it is the perfect entrance into these first passages about Lent.  These are texts that we might at first think temptation is the main topic.  But it’s not.  Yes, the serpent or the devil are in both, and yes, something tempting is offered in both, and one story is what happens when Adam and Eve give into those temptations, and the other one is a story of what happens when Jesus doesn’t give into the temptations he is faced with.  But that’s just part of the story, and to get the whole picture, we have to go to the beginning.

God spoke, and the Spirit moved over the chaos and creation was: the earth, the oceans and waters, the sun, the moon, the stars, the trees, the grass, the birds, and the fish.  And the sixth day, God created Adam, the first human, and declared “it was very good.”  Now, God didn’t say this because Adam was the most perfect thing God had made and it took him 6 days to figure it out, after all God also made the creeping things that day.  We rank right up there with the worms.  But God said it because he looked out over all of creation, all of it, and declared it very good because it was complete.  Now everything could live in relationship with each other as God intended.  That’s very good.

God created so that a relationship could exist between the Creator and creation.  The creation story first and foremost is a story about God.  And that is good.  But it is when we make it a story about us, when we move God to the sideline, that’s when the story becomes not so good.  That’s what happens to Adam and Eve.  They attempt to make the story about them.  God puts Adam in the garden to till and keep it, to be a part of it, to literally be a slave to it.  “Adam, I’ve surrounded you with everything that is good for your needs.  I will even walk with you in garden, I will give you a partner as you name the animals and do the work of the master gardener I created you for.  But, do not eat of tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

What happens next opens up lots of theological questions, like “Who created the serpent?” or “How do animals talk?”  I don’t want to go there, not today anyway.  But what I want to look at is what the serpent tempts Eve and Adam with.  Adam was right there, so the fall isn’t all her fault, guys.  He tempts them with the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Even though they are surrounded by everything God has declared good, the serpent says that they can have the power to declare what is good and evil, too.  Just like God.  And they bite. And suddenly all the good things they are surrounded by don’t look so good anymore.  They look upon their own bodies as something that must be hidden by the plants that were once food.  Even being in the presence of God is something that is no longer good, but something to be feared and hide from.

What happened?  What’s this story about?  What does it tell us that when surrounded by the good gifts of God, Adam and Eve choose to turn from those gifts and the one who provided them?  This story is about trust and control.  The serpent convinces them that God can no longer be trusted, that God just might be holding back on the really good stuff.  And if trust in God is eroded, then the relationship with God is broken.    Adam and Eve’s story shows that when that trust is gone, they attempt to control and define what is good for their lives.   But when Adam and Eve aspire for that control, they damage their relationship with God, they spoil the bond that exists between the two of them, and they even mar how they live in and with the creation.  What they have done is attempt to play the role of creator, because they can’t trust the Creator, the one and only one who has authority to define what is good.  Maybe lack of trust in the Creator is the commonality of all of temptation, because lack of trust seems to be the basic root in desire for control.

So, what could be so wrong with an ice cream cone (or four of them) as we saw in the video we watched?  Maybe that young boy only tasted a cone once before and the sweet taste has lingered on his thoughts since then.  And what could be so wrong with bread?  Jesus was famished.  The thought of his mother’s homemade bread probably crossed his mind a thousand times since he went off into the desert.  What’s so bad about showing the religious leaders and the people of Jerusalem that Jesus was truly the Son of God by throwing himself off the temple?  Angels would surely catch him and set him safely on the ground.  Then all the people would turn their hearts and minds and praise to God, no more divisions, no more religious fights.  All would be united behind Jesus.  And look who was on the throne when the tempter unrolled the maps of the world before Jesus on that mountain:  Caesar.  He ruled with an iron fist and thousands across the empire had been enslaved, imprisoned, crucified or thrown into the arena for entertainment.  Who wouldn’t want Jesus, who Matthew calls the Messiah early in his gospel, on the throne, replacing the Pax Romana with the Kingdom of God on earth?  All these things the tempter offers up to Jesus looks not only good from our perspective, but very good.

So, what is good?  Can we discern the good?  First I have to say it cannot be done outside of a trusting relationship with God and trusting who God is.  Then it gets harder.  Temptations of materialism, security, and prestige are not foreign to us, and I mean us as individuals and as a church and society.  Whatever form temptation we may experience, we can pass through it only when we trust God to provide what we need and what is truly good. It starts with understanding that God is a God who creates in love for the sake of relationship, and since the fall, a God who acts in love as a relationship restorer.  As you go through scripture, everything God does is to restore the broken relationship that exists between the Creator and creation.  He sent the prophets, he gave the law.  And God even gives up control, when he sends his Son, himself, Godself, in Jesus, the Word made flesh living with us.  But that doesn’t mean he was temptation-proof.  He was fully human, and I think fully capable of giving into the temptations before him.  But his humanity lived in perfect relationship with his divinity, and in that relationship, humanity embraced and trusted the divine.

Maybe that is how we start trusting.  We first recognize that we aren’t God and by the grace of the Spirit, we also recognize that the One who is God is worthy of our trust.  We start depending on him for what we need.  And then we give up control, trust God, and become relationship restorers, too.  Jesus knew the path to a restored relationship with God wasn’t through satisfying his own hunger at the snap of his fingers.  But he did feed the thousands on the shores of Galilee so that they could come to a deeper understanding of the love of God.  He didn’t throw himself from the heights of the temple to prove who he was, but he did overturn the tables of the moneychangers and said they had made his Father’s house into a den of robbers when it should be a place where all are welcome.  He didn’t take a throne.  He took up a cross.

And it is there he faced his final temptation that came at him echoed in the words of the tempter in the desert.  “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”  And in a way that I wouldn’t have chosen, because in so many ways it makes no sense to me, Jesus died.  What looked like the end was the new beginning to something very good.  My relationship, your relationship, creation’s relationship with its Creator was restored by means of an empty tomb.  The ultimate relationship destroyer, death, was overcome.  Who would have seen it coming?  Not me.

That little boy we watched in the video was a relationship restorer.  He gave up what control he held in that 50 rupees so another could be lifted up and restored.  And my call to you, friends in Christ, is that during Lent, you give up control and trust the one who is in control, too.  During these forty days, look around.  Ask yourself, how can you use the good gifts that God has given you not to build up your own security or your own prestige, but to be a relationship restorer as well?  When you do, you just might hear a whisper from God, “Now that is very good.”

 

The Devil’s Hunger Games: Sermon by Keith, 3.17.13, Lent 5, 40-Day Journeys

Texts: Mark 1:9-15, Luke 3:21-22, 4:1-15

Some of you may remember my sermon a few months ago were I told a story about a friend from Alaska who was ‘over the top’ in following Jesus.  If you recall, Keith read the scripture about giving all that you have away and following Jesus.   So, he left all his possessions in his car and walked away from it all naked in January in Alaska.  Keith lived, of course, because I have another Keith story to tell you.

We were back up in Alaska to complete some of the requirements to become pastors when we had dinner with Keith’s family. Now, he believes that the reason for scripture is so we can model our life after Jesus.  I can agree with that, up to a point.  He takes it to an extreme, if you couldn’t guess.  Keith had just finished a wilderness experience of prayer and fasting.  He had decided to do a fast in the wilderness because Jesus did a fast in the wilderness.  So, here he was at his dinner table, talking about his experience, the hunger, the visions he had, and how he had faced up to the temptations that had been put before him.  And as Keith finished his story, he says, “And on the 38th day, I came off of the mountain.”  “What do you mean, 38 days?  Jesus was in the wilderness for 40.”  “Oh, I didn’t want to upstage Jesus, so I only planned on being out for 38 days.”  I sat there, shaking my head thinking, “Man, I think you missed the point.”

So, what is the point of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness?  Now, I’ve heard people say that Jesus couldn’t really be tempted–he was God, after all.  But we cannot forget that besides being fully divine, he was also fully human.  I have to believe that because of his humanity, he could be tempted, he was capable of giving into these temptations and that he faced true trials, both in the wilderness and during his ministry.  For me, this is one of the reasons he is my Savior, and not just some 33 year experiment that God decided to try.   But it is from Jesus that we learn what it means to be fully  human and live into God’s divine will for us and his creation.

First, Luke assures us that that Jesus is not alone and separated from God’s love as the Holy Spirit fills him and is with him at both the beginning and the ending of this time.  I had to include Mark’s short reading of this experience because of how the Spirit drove or thrust Jesus into the wilderness.  I recently heard a quote about the Holy Spirit that went something like this, “Don’t expect the Holy Spirit to show up and sit quietly in back row.”  Where the Spirit it, there is movement and action.  I can picture the Spirit getting behind Jesus and shoving him into the wilderness.

So, I see this time for Jesus as a time of sorting after his experience of his baptism.  It’s not like a vision quest in some cultures where one goes out to find one’s identity and name.  His identity was found in his baptism.  What did that experience that happened in his baptism mean for his future?  It’s apt that this time of reflection, fasting and prayer happens in the wilderness, a place where both Moses and Elijah began their ministries as people of God.  And it is here that he begins that process of discernment of what it means for him to be the Beloved, the Son of God.  How will he live into God’s will?

And it’s also apt that this is where the temptations come in.  Again, I’ve heard people discount this story because they don’t believe there is a devil.  Whether you do or not, take the temptations that Jesus faced seriously.  If we are able to trivialize what happened to Jesus, we might be tempted to trivialize the temptations we face.  Temptations and trials were part of Jesus’ every day life, and they are a part of our real daily lives.  They are not theoretical, hypothetical, nor are they imaginary.  So whether you see them coming from some outside force or a character with horns or from somewhere deep in the psyche, they are to be taken seriously for the damage they can cause, even if they appear good.

And that is what the devil tempts Jesus with.  From the outside, the temptation don’t appear all that bad.  The devil doesn’t tempt Jesus to do obviously bad things.  And these temptations are not the kind of temptations for something desirable but not good for him.  The devil didn’t tell Jesus to make the rock into an angel food cake with sprinkles and cherry on top, but just bread to satisfy his hunger.  These temptations are placed before Jesus to see whether even good things can pull him away from following God’s will.

First, turn a stone into a loaf of bread.  Jesus is famished.  But by implication, if he can do that, he can feed everyone.  Why not alleviate the hunger of Israel?  And changing the rocks to bread also has a political implication.  The Roman Caesars would have wagons full of bread go through the streets of the larger cities handing out bread to the poor.  I remember reading in my history books of one Caesar saying that to keep the poor from uprising was to keep them fed and entertained.  The one who kept them fed had the keys to empire.

Second, you can rule all the kingdoms of the world if you just worship me.   Remember that most of the known world in Luke’s day was under the heavy-handed control of the Roman Empire.   The Roman peace came and was enforced with violence and oppression.  Wouldn’t a regime change with Jesus on the throne be for the world’s good?

And with the third temptation, Jesus is whisked away to the top the temple by the devil where he quotes scripture that God will protect the righteous.  Isn’t the temple is the place where the most righteous–the priests–carry out their work?  But, again, weren’t they just working hand-in-hand with the political leaders at the detriment of the people, especially the poorest?  “Throw yourself down and show the world your righteousness!  This will prove you are the Son of God and they will all see it!  They will truly know you are the Son of God!”

Do you see what each of these ‘good’ temptations are attempting to do?  They are attempting to put Jesus at the center of things, play into his ego, and elevate the self.   And Jesus says no to each and every one.  No, bread is not enough to define my mission and who I follow.  No, I cannot worship you, for worship belongs only to God.  And No, I will not test God.  Where the temptations attempted to put the focus on Jesus, Jesus puts the focus on God and God’s will.  And we see how this plays out in his life and ministry.  Though he refused to turn stones into bread, he feeds the hungry in the feeding of the 5000.  He does this not so people believe in him, but in the one who sent him.  He refused political power, but preached about God’s kingdom of love and grace that can be experienced now and cannot be crushed by the world’s powers.  Though he refused to jump off the temple to see if God would send angels to catch him, he goes to the cross to show the world that God’s will for life is greater than any power that may attempt to control or destroy it.

So, what’s the point of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness for us?  We take temptation seriously.  We do not downplay them; we do not try to justify them.  I don’t know how many times I have read in a Dear Abby column the long list of reasons someone is having an affair.  Justifying temptations won’t take away the pain and damage that happen when we succumb to our pride, our greed, our lust, our power, and even our self-deprecation.

But mostly we take seriously the temptations in our lives because we take even more serious the new identity we find in our baptism:  Beloved Child of God.  God now claims us as we claim God.   The Holy Spirit guides us everyday as we learn to walk in God’s will.  We are transformed from people with individual wants and desires to disciples eagerly praying and discerning God’s will.  Our questions change from “God, what is your will for me?” and “What will the church do for me?” From one way, those look like good questions, but do you see who they are about?  (point at self) The questions change to “God, what is your will?”  and “God, what is your Spirit up to?”  Those questions are about God and keeping God in the center of everything.  When we step out of the way, when we stop learning to depend upon ourselves, we learn to depend on God, and we will find that is when God will truly use us.

Now, we will still mess up and get in God’s way, and I share that from experience, even when I thought I was doing good.  But I also believe that the strength of God must be taken seriously in our lives, that God’s strength to resist temptation is not imaginary and the resources of God are not hypothetical theological dreams.  God does empower us with the Holy Spirit, the divine Word living inside and with us so that we can resist and overcome the real temptations in our lives and truly live into and follow the Divine will.  I’ve learned to ask a simple question, “How is God glorified in this?”  If I can’t see how, usually my will, my wants, and my desires have gotten in the way of God’s will.

Friends, the Lenten journey is a time to be intentional and receptive to the grace and love of God, but also to a time to receptive to discerning God’s will.  It takes time, it takes prayer, and it may even take a little fasting to learn to get ourselves out of God’s way.   But along the way, we will encounter a faithful God who leads us not only into the wilderness but also through the wilderness.  Amen.