On Being Broken, And Having a Future

I really enjoyed my recent series of Lenten devotions. I enjoyed the discipline of having to sit down with scripture, to write them, and keep them short. I’m looking for something else to contemplate, probably Martin Luther’s Large Catechism, simply because I want to use it as a teaching tool. I should probably know what I am teaching.

But this morning, I was thinking of something else — about this ministry it seems I am called to do. About the young people it appears I am called to do it with.

One of my kids — I won’t say who — described life in the foster system like this:

You don’t matter. The law doesn’t exist to protect you. Oh, there are laws and rules, but they’re only used against you, and never in your favor. You mess up, you will be punished. But no one will ever be punished for hurting you. You’re nothing.

No one has to explain this world to me. I’ve lived in it much of my life. It was my childhood — nowhere near as brutal as the lives many of these kids are living — and it was also my experience in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (institutionally, the decision makers in the ELCA enforced their rules and adhered to their principles only so far as those could be used against me or it was convenient to do so; otherwise, there were no rules, or at least no rules that worked in my favor). If anything, I probably identify a little too closely with these kids because of this. I suppose that’s a risk. I don’t honestly care.

But they don’t have to explain their worlds to me. They don’t have to explain lonely, silent suffering. They don’t have to explain cruelty and indifference. They don’t have to explain incoherent and capricious rules that never work in their favor. They don’t have to explain never being normal, ordinary, human beings. They don’t have to explain the ache to be just that. Because I know this world. My wife Jennifer knows this world.

And yes, finally, these are people to whom I matter — matter a lot. Who love me and accept me and want me in their lives. Who don’t judge me and don’t stare icily at me and flip through pages wondering about all the awful things I’ve done that make me an inferior, untrustworthy, and unacceptable human being, a threat to all that is good and decent. Because there is no good and decent in their world, and they know it. To be wanted, to belong, to find some meaning in all of that — it’s all I’ve ever really wanted out of life.

I go where the Holy Spirit calls me. To people whom God has called me to love. And it happens, right now, to be a tiny handful of teenagers out west no one else really wants or loves. This is not what I imagined, and it is certainly not what I would have chosen.

We are all broken people, these kids, my wife, and me. Not in the generic, passive sense used by the church, used to somehow describe our sinfulness without actually pointing a finger or naming a name or labeling anyone an actual “sinner,” but as objects actively grabbed and bent and twisted and broken by people (in and out of institutions that include the church) too callous to care about our fates and wellbeing or so cruel they simply enjoy the sport of breaking us.

It’s hard to tell the difference, sometimes.

I love these kids. I think think they need me. I know I need them. They are my future, evidence that God does indeed love me and have some kind of plan for my life that doesn’t involve me dying alone and unwanted in a gutter somewhere.

They are my meaning. And they are my belonging.

Diversity and Conformity

Tyler Cowen has a lengthy interview with social scientists Jonathan Haidt (of Heterodox Academy) worth looking at. I’m still working through the interview, but here Haidt makes a point I’ve long wanted to make — that the push for “diversity” in America’s institutions is actively making them less tolerant and more conformist.

You want to basically bury racial and other kinds of diversity in a sea of uniformity. You want to give people a sense of common mission, you have common uniforms, so you want to make people feel they’re all part of the same — that’s what you do if you need a group to function effectively together. In the academy that is not our goal. We’re not trying to turn out classes of “our graduating class will go forth, and they will all work together as a unit to accomplish greatness.” No, that’s not what it’s all about. We want clashing ideas.

We don’t want uniformity and homogeneity, we want the benefits of diversity, but the irony is we have so focused on racial and other kinds of demographic diversity, because of the political slant of the university, because of the sacred values of the campus left, we have so focused on that kind of diversity.

There’s this wonderful line from George Will, in some essay he wrote, “There’s a certain kind of liberal that wants diversity in everything except thought.” That’s where we are. We now have almost a kind of uniformity the military has, where everybody’s on the left, which gives us cohesion, but that kills the very function of the university, which is to have diversity of thought, so we can change our minds. We challenge each other in the marketplace of ideas.

What holds a people together? What holds a diverse people together? Because something has to. A community of people has to have something in common — an ideal, a purpose, a culture, a language — in order to be united, and a diverse people have to somehow be united in order to find strength in diversity.

This is why diversity is, in many ways, so stifling, conformist, and intolerant — it demands uniformity of thought and outlook. That tightly constructed and brutally demanded outlook becomes its unity. The “differences” celebrated (race, sexual orientation, gender) become almost completely irrelevant given no one within the “diverse” community is allowed draw differing conclusions about the world or human purpose. The belief in diversity itself becomes the unifying principle, the ideology, that holds a community together. It becomes a culture as well, though it is a top-down culture and ideal imposed upon people, rather than a a set of practices and an outlook that forms organically from the bottom-up. It’s a form of assimilationism, just as unforgiving and just as brutal, and nothing more.

While life is never easy for non-conformists (like me), ideologically constructed forms of belonging can be much worse than ways of belonging based on shared organic culture, language, or ethnicity. One can at least be raised in language, and there are often (though not always) acceptable ways of dissenting or non-conforming in a culture. (I think this was one of my problems with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — I could not conform to the “culture” of the ELCA because I wasn’t raised in it, and the ELCA is not really held together by its confession of faith.) But ideologically imposed ways of belonging are exceptionally hard because they demand not just assent but acceptance and rigorous adherence — there are no proper ways to dissent or non-conform when an ideology is being imposed.

Which is why diversity creates an intellectual and moral monoculture, one that will be brittle and inflexible and incapable of effectively thinking about or dealing with the very real problems of the world. And this is why it will eventually fail, and be consigned to the scrapheap of hugely unsuccessful ways of organizing the world and solving the human condition.

He Is Risen Indeed!

Today was Easter Sunday in the Western Church, and I didn’t preach. Nor I am going to pretend I did, though next Sunday, April 3, I will preaching and presiding at First Reformed Church in Chatham, New York. If you are in the area, please, come and hear some good news! And receive the grace of God!

Easter (Year C)

  • Acts 10:34–43
  • Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24
  • 1 Corinthians 15:19–26
  • Luke 24:1–12

1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. 2 And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. 5 And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? 6 He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” 8 And they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, 11 but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened. (Luke 24:1–12 ESV)

Why do you look for the living among the dead? Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

The eleven did not believe. They dismissed the reports of the women out of hand. But Peter had enough sense to wonder, to want to go look for himself.

And he found an empty tomb, with the burial shroud crumpled up (or nicely folded, however you envision it) where they had lain him. And Peter marveled at what he saw.

Marveled. Because Jesus is no longer dead. It would soon become apparent to all that he had risen from the dead. But it would take a little time. It would take the breaking of bread, it would take Jesus meeting his disciples as they huddled, frightened, in a locked room.

But the world would come to know — Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Some Thoughts on the Coming Church Plant

I know, it is Holy Saturday today. I should be resting, mourning, lamenting, the death of Jesus. Not knowing what comes tomorrow when we go to his borrowed tomb.

However, my mind is whirring. In a little less than a month, Jennifer and I will be leaving upstate New York and heading out West — to something strange and unknown.

To acquire some new family.

And start a church.

I’ve been thinking a bit about that church, this worshiping community, will look like. And here are some of the things that I’ve been considering.

1) We’re going to begin as a bible study with communion with a solid focus on the story told in scripture. There will be a basic introduction to the Bible — what is it, where does it come, and who keeps it these days? — and then an introduction to the story of scripture as outlined in Nehemiah 9, the Gospel of Mark, and the Apostles’ Creed. We’ll start small, and probably do these studies in public places (coffee houses?) to begin with. As Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel:

19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (Matthew 18:19–20 ESV)

2) Our confessions of faith will be the historic creeds of the church – the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed, and I plan to use Martin Luther’s Large Catechism as a teaching tool as well. Luther’s language is blunt and even earthy – he could be a profane man at times – and the large catechism teaches the faith by focusing on the ten commandments, the lord’s prayer, and the apostle’s creed. (The small catechism also includes teaching on baptism and marriage.) The creeds are important because they are condensed understanding of the story told both in scripture and the gospels (in much the way Nehemiah 9 is of the entire story of the Old Testament). However, they also connect us to the Church catholic and apostolic, however tenuously, and will anchor this little worshiping community in the tradition of the greater church.

3) Because, for better or for worse, this will be a Lutheran church. I was formed as a Lutheran, as was my wife, and no other expression of church or understanding of the gospel makes real sense to me. The teaching and the worship will basically be Lutheran. Worship will be liturgical, though I’m going to crib a fair amount of the liturgy from the Reformed Church in America. It will focus on God’s grace. the gospel is, as I understand it, what God in Christ does for us. We respond, and our response is important, but I want to focus the teaching on who we are given that God has reached out to us in Christ. I don’t want to teach about Jesus as much I as want to help people meet Jesus.

4) The New Testament does not diverge from the old, which is the story of God calling a people, their failure to be the people God called them to be, and God’s increasing movement toward that people – to do ALL of the world of salvation, rather than just some of it. This story – of calling, failure, and redemption – IS THE STORY I want people to meet Jesus in and find themselves in. To make this tale, of calling and failure and redemption, be the story that tells them who they are and what their lives mean.

This also means all of the promises God made to Abraham, to Israel, to David, and through the prophets, are resolved and fulfilled in the person of Jesus, in his life, death, and resurrection. There are no promises of God left flopping around yet to be fulfilled.

5) My understanding of God’s work is incarnational — that God uses the finite, flawed, and very limited means that are us to be grace, love, and mercy in the world. My understanding of God is also sacramental as well. I believe deeply that the power of God is present in ways we do not understand in baptism and communion. Jesus is bread and wine. Baptism does, by itself, save, because we have the promise of Jesus that it does. God uses means to communicate and convey grace, bread and wine and water and words are means, and so are our lives. We respond to God’s grace with love so we can show that grace in the world, and bear witness to God’s never-ending love for his people, and for humanity.

Our response to questions about God will be the same as Philip’s — “Come and see!” And I’m hoping we can get to that place in John’s Gospel where the Greeks show up and say to us, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

6) Everything else is adiaphora – not essential. I’m not a prophesy person, and I believe most of what is written in prophetic books about “the future” (Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation) has already transpired. We won’t focus on such books except to remind ourselves that God promises victory to those who persevere in faith because God is with us. These aren’t unimportant writings – Revelation is God’s judgment upon Rome in all its brutality – but they aren’t predictive writings. They don’t lay out a future to come. They give us assurance that God has not forgotten us in our suffering, and that we are not alone.

7) It will be important to read Paul normed by the gospels, rather than the other way around (which I think too many Christians tend to do). I also tend to read Paul prophetically, rather than as a lawgiver. That is, I read Paul in light of the failure of the church/people of God to be faithful. Are we still the people of God? What does it mean to be faithful? How does God deal with us when we fail to be faithful?

8) There are some tools we can use to let the world know about us – I’m thinking Facebook and Meetup, which is an internet app I’ve fiddled with but haven’t used. That will let people know we are out there. I also know there is some interest for some distance participation, and Youtube and Periscope will be good ways to accomplish that (and maybe even Skype!). The best way will be word of mouth – the witness of those who say “come and see!” I think that will happen too.

9) Mostly, our focus will be on what Jesus told us were the greatest commandments – to love God and love our neighbor. We will figure out what that means in the place we find ourselves in as we gather, as we teach and praise and proclaim. And live out our lives accordingly, as gathered, forgiven, and redeemed people proclaim the good news of a crucified king who saves the world.

This little community doesn’t have a name yet. Molly suggested Grace Church — a nice Lutheran name, though she likely doesn’t know that. I like exile motifs myself, like By The Waters of Babylon or Eretz Nod, but’s that a mouthful. And doesn’t entirely communicate what I think I’m trying to accomplish. I have no doubt the right name will find us, eventually.

For any of you out there who want to be part of this but aren’t in Spokane, or won’t be any time soon, keep track of us here. We’ll find a way for you to participate, I promise. In the meantime, you can always pray for us. And for the work we’re called to do.

Good Friday 2016

44 It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45 while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. 47 Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” 48 And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. 49 And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things. (Luke 23:44–49 ESV)

Pilate, beholding a living breathing Christ, found no guilt him. The thief, sharing The Skull with Jesus and dying on a another cross beside him, knew Jesus had done nothing wrong.

But it is in Jesus’ death that the centurion fully beheld the nature of the man dying — “Certainly this man was innocent!” (Ὄντως ὁ ἄνθρωπος οὗτος δίκαιος ἦν)

And he praises God.

A believer. A gentile believer, present, there, at the foot of the cross, witnessing the whole sorry spectacle.

What kind of death is it that a man can die and demonstrate his innocence? I don’t know. The centurion was likely well-acquainted with death, having doled out a lot of it himself in his life. He’d seen men (and women) die in all sorts of circumstances. They were familiar, the ways of death, how men died, and something about this death — this execution — was different. Different enough to bear witness to the innocence of the one dying.

Different enough to cause a man to believe. To praise God.

Jesus was different. Because he was truly innocent. Innocent in ways we are not.

We are the thieves hanging beside Christ, getting our due reward. We either know that, and beg forgiveness, or we rage against the apparent impotence of God. “Save yourself! SAVE US!!”

I both like this understanding and I hate it. Christians, especially since the Enlightenment, struggle mightily with the morality and meaning of suffering. Especially innocent suffering, the suffering of children, suffering undeserved. Often, we require our victims, in order to be proper victims, to be pure and blameless, to lead simple lives untainted by sin, to have contributed nothing to their own situation. And somehow, if they have, if they are sinners, well, they have brought their suffering down upon themselves.

This isn’t idle speculation. I deal with young people every day who try to make sense of the evil, the brutality, the violence they have lived (and sadly, are living) through, and sense in their bodies and their souls they somehow came to deserve it because … because why? And where was God in the dark and terrifying places where they were all alone with the people who abused them? What does it mean to suffer, and suffer virtuously, and be innocent and undeserving of one’s suffering?

As Christians, we confess our sinfulness. Our lack of innocence. We confess it. We believe it. We know it to be true.

Because Christ was innocent in ways we are not. Ways even children are not. Without sin in ways we cannot be. He responded to our fear, rejection, and violence with love, not despair or anger. His wounds bear witness to his love for us, and not our hatred toward him.

Jesus died the death of an innocent man — a death we can be part of, a death he willingly shares with us. A death we cannot die on our own.

Maundy Thursday 2016

47 While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him, 48 but Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” 49 And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51 But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. 52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? 53 When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” (Luke 22:47–53 ESV)

The crowds. Always coming to Jesus. Coming to hear him speak. Seeking an encounter with God — a word of forgiveness, a healing and resurrecting touch, the spectacle of God doing something incredible in the world.

Earlier this week, after Jesus and his disciples entered Jerusalem, we heard that “all the people were hanging on his words” and that he was surrounded by the people when the scribes and the chief priests tried to trap him in a discussion about taxes with a single dinar coin.

And right before Luke tells us of the plot to betray Jesus, he writes this:

37 And every day he was teaching in the temple, but at night he went out and lodged on the mount called Olivet. 38 And early in the morning all the people came to him in the temple to hear him. (Luke 21:37–38 ESV)

And now a crowd has come. To see him arrested. In the place where Jesus and his disciples spent the night.

His disciples want to fight — Jesus, after all, told them earlier that evening that the time was coming to prepare, to pack bags and buy a sword and get ready to flee — because they think the time has come. Right now. Here on the Mount of Olives.

But it hasn’t. Not yet. In one more miraculous act of healing, Jesus restores the ear of the injured servant.

And to Judas, to the crowds, he tells them — your hour, the power of darkness, has come.

Here we are, not ready for the darkness. The time has come for us to scatter. The mob is a fickle thing. It presses in and hangs on words and seeks the redeeming touch of God, it happily eats when bread and fish are miraculously provided, but it also gawks and eggs on and stands in mute wonder at spectacle. It wants a winner, and then it begs for blood and it demands death. And who are we to challenge the crowds when they show up in force with murder on their mind? What courage can we muster when we, the few (or the one), stand before the many?

Who are we when the hour or darkness has come? When darkness, in all its awful power, has descended upon us, wrapped us up tight, and won’t let go?

HOLY WEEK Stay Awake!

29 And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

34 “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. 36 But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

37 And every day he was teaching in the temple, but at night he went out and lodged on the mount called Olivet. 38 And early in the morning all the people came to him in the temple to hear him. (Luke 21:29–38 ESV)

The disciples — and let’s face it, us — constantly ask Jesus: “When is the time? Who will be saved? Will many be saved? How, then, can anyone be saved?” We want answers. We want assurances. Both that we’re in, but also that someone else is out.

We we want to know who our neighbors are, and who they aren’t.

But Jesus doesn’t play our game, naming names. When we ask him for certain answers — “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” (Luke 13:23) — he doesn’t say yes or no. He tells us to busy ourselves with the work of our own salvation. Don’t worry about who is saved — live like someone who wants to be saved. Who is saved.

I think this is what Jesus means when he tells us to “stay awake.” (Though I have been awake for the last couple of hours, and I wonder — with the teens I am parenting and ministering to, if I will ever get a complete night of sleep again.) If you don’t know when the day is coming, it’s best to just live like someone who is ready.

My boss, a district general manager who wanders his district a lot, does something like this. He doesn’t tell anyone that he’s coming to visit our offices because he doesn’t want us to get ready. He wants us to be ready, all the time, to make an account of ourselves, to show that we are working as we have been trained and taught. (Do I stack up? You’ll have to ask him.)

To live like the day will always be today, that the trap will always be strung, that the district general manager will always show up and ask hard questions, is to be ready. And that, I believe, is what Jesus is asking of us. Always be ready. Live like you are ready. Love God and love your neighbor, bear witness to the goodness and grace that is God’s kingdom. That is what it means to be ready.

That is what it means to stay awake.

HOLY WEEK No King But Caesar!

19 The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. 20 So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. 21 So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. 22 Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” 23 But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” 25 He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 26 And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent. (Luke 20:19–26 ESV)

“Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” Upon which hangs much of the political theology of Christendom, and of the church.

I’ve always found it a troubling theology, because it presumes there are things which belong to Caesar — things beyond this coin which bears his image. That we owe love, loyalty, obedience to Caesar.

And I’ve never been entirely sure we owe these things to Caesar, Paul’s words in Romans 13 notwithstanding. This answer of Jesus’ is another really good non-answer. The coin bears the likeness, the image of Caesar, and an inscription proclaiming him the king and savior of the world. It’s a created thing and it clearly belongs to its creator, the one who stamped and claimed it.

It brings to mind the words of God in the creation account in Genesis 1:

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
(Genesis 1:26-27 ESV)

We bear the image of God. And it is to God we truly belong. Not Caesar. We owe nothing to Caesar. We do not belong to him. Nothing we have, nothing we are, belongs to him.

Missed, however, in building an entire edifice of political theology on this quote, is the accusation that comes at the beginning of Luke 23, when Jesus is brought before Pilate to answer the charges of the council and the mob.

“We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” (Luke 23:2 ESV)

So this clever answer, upon which the whole notion of two kingdoms — the right hand kingdom of God and the left hand kingdom of the world somehow reflecting the good order of God’s creation — is part of the indictment, a justification for treason because Jesus did not, in fact, answer affirmatively, “Yes, you must pay taxes.”

Because we have no king but Caesar!

He paid taxes, from the fat of the land, from coins found in fish. And he told his disciples (us) to do the same. However, Jesus surrendered to the order of the world without calling it good — a mistake I think Paul far too readily makes — because God’s kingdom is bigger than the order of the world, because God’s kingdom doesn’t need the order of the world to reflect its goodness, its grace, and its mercy. Because the order of the world is just as rooted in the fall of man as it is the good creation of God. (And possibly moreso.) Because taxes are a small thing, no reflection on the goodness of God, and we trust in God to provide. Not Caesar.

Because we do not belong to Caesar. We are not made in the image of Caesar. We depend on Caesar for nothing of real and lasting value. The grace we receive, the good news we preach, the kingdom we proclaim, is not Caesar’s. It is Christ’s.

HOLY WEEK Facing Death, Trusting God

41 And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44 and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

45 And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, 46 saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.” 47 And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him, 48 but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were hanging on his words. (Luke 19:41–48 ESV)

Those last two verses say something powerful.

Jesus was compelling. He was not just praying for this doomed city, but he went in to the temple and he drove out “those who sold.” And he quotes the prophet Isaiah, who proclaims the word of God for all those who are not Israel — foreigners, eunuchs, others formerly refused membership in the camp of God’s people — “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (לְכָל־הָעַמִּֽים)

The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, “I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.” (Isaiah 56:8 ESV)

Those who having nothing, no promise from God and no way of begetting children, now are included the promise god made so long before to Abraham. Jesus is the fulfillment of that, of all these promises. And all those in the temple were “hanging on his words.” The words he spoke as he taught every day in the Temple, the house of God.

That gathering is beginning. Jesus is getting ready to call the world to himself. He began with the lost sheep of Israel, scattered some crumbs for those as were listening, saw great faith in some of the cohort of the military occupiers of his home. He knew this word of God — that God loves Israel, chose Israel, redeemed Israel, forgave Israel, called Israel to love God and love neighbor — was a powerful word to many who were not Israel. A word to hang upon. Truth. Met in the flesh that was and is Jesus.

But first, he must die. Maybe must is too strong a word. I do not like putting moral imperatives on acts of God, even as Jesus does. He will die. And he does die.

Only in dying and rising does that word begin to really sprout and grow and become something staggering. A church that captures an empire, changes it, and changes us.

And Jesus knows this. Or rather, he believes it might be true. Has faith in it. He doesn’t really know it until he dies, and rises, and ascends. He must face death first, and the deep and abiding uncertainty that may, just maybe, death really is all there is, a final answer, the end of things.

SERMON The Stones Don’t Have to Cry Out

I preached this Sunday, March 20, at Emmanuel-St. John’s Lutheran Church in Hudson, New York. And it went something like this:

Palm & Passion Sunday (Year C)

  • Isaiah 50:4-9a
  • Psalm 31:9-16
  • Philippians 2:5-11
  • Luke 22:14 to 23:56

Ho-sanna, Hey-sanna, sanna sanna ho, sanna hey, sanna ho-sanna…

Anyone remember that melody? From Jesus Christ Superstar? Anyone?

We’re missing something in our readings today. We’ve got the whole bloody story of Jesus from that last supper in the upper room to the betrayal, to Peter’s denial, to Jesus being mocked and tried and handed over and put to death. On that cross, that cross Simon of Cyrene was forced to help him carry all the way up that hill. We even have his burial, in that borrowed tomb.

From a rented room to a borrowed tomb. No place of his own. We have that today.

But today is Palm Sunday, and we’re missing the Palms, the waving, the singing of “Hosanna” and the calling out — Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

I’m going to beg your indulgence today, but I need to read just a wee bit more scripture. The Holy Gospel from Luke, the 19th chapter.

28 And when he had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 When he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount that is called Olivet, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village in front of you, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it? ’ you shall say this:‘The Lord has need of it. ’” 32 So those who were sent went away and found it just as he had told them. 33 And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 And they said, “The Lord has need of it.” 35 And they brought it to Jesus, and throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 And as he rode along, they spread their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives— the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, 38 saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:28–40 ESV)

I’d always imagined the crowds waving Jesus into the city, riding on that colt with his bemused disciples who weren’t entirely sure what was happening.

But that’s not the story Luke tells us here. It isn’t the crowds shouting and clamoring for him. In fact, there might not be crowds lining the streets at all. There is a multitude — of disciples, Luke writes — and they are the ones who are suddenly shouting and chanting and praising God with those words from Psalm 118, Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!

The crowds, the multitudes, are his disciples, entering the city with him, chanting and praising, raising such a ruckus that the Pharisees ask Jesus to tell them to shut up.

It’s a little like an absurd and audacious carnival has wandered into town, making noise and hooting and hollering while everyone kind of looks on and wonders what on earth is going on.

Or maybe, it’s a little like some strange wanna-be presidential candidate — for those of you who are old enough, think Pat Paulson, or if you are a little more up on current events, Vermin Love Supreme, or maybe Jeb Bush — arriving with an entourage in Washington DC some January 15 and proclaiming that the new president-elect has just arrived, and hail to the chief!

Because few had heard of him, or took him seriously, and he most definitely did not win the election.

So, really, it’s no wonder things go south for Jesus and his disciples so quickly. The city of Jerusalem didn’t hail him as their new king — his disciples, and only his disciples, did. Only this multitude of Jesus’ disciples, convinced he’s King and Lord and come to take the throne. With the city and its people probably looking on in mute wonder, unsure exactly what this all means. Except that it’s spectacle. Strange and wonderful spectacle.

The Pharisees know who Jesus is, and they do something interesting. They don’t condemn him, they don’t say, “who do you think you are proclaiming yourself the king of Israel?” They look at him, as if he were one of their own, and demand he rebuke his disciples, that he silence them and their traitorous and even heretical utterances.

And hear what Jesus says:

“I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

The pharisees may think they know who Jesus is, but this city — its very stones — they know. They really know who Jesus is. The very stuff from which this city is build, ancient and worked with human hands, know his disciples aren’t wrong.

And the mute crowds, either curious or indifferent, who will on Friday morning demand “Crucify him” and “release to us Barabbas,” know nothing.

Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist tells the crowds who come to him in the wilderness to repent and bear good fruit, because it is not enough to be children of Abraham. “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.”

Stones. Mute. lifeless. Unable to testify to anything. But they could become disciples if God willed it, just as Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones came to life when God spoke and breathed life into them. Or these stones would cry out to heaven if the disciples were not there, in this strange procession, praising God, bearing witness, that blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord, peace in heaven and glory to the highest!

This, sisters and brothers, is why this week will end on a bleak hill called The Skull outside Jerusalem, with a wailing and gnashing of teeth, and then in a tomb borrowed from Joseph of Arimathea. Because there was never any hope — except maybe on the part of the disciples, who although they’d been warned three times by Jesus alone the way what was coming — and never any promise it would end any other way.

Jesus is not that kind of king.

This week, Jesus will stir up trouble. He’ll toss the money changers out of the temple. He will be asked about paying taxes to Caesar an answer in a very ambiguous way. He’ll prophesy the coming destruction of Jerusalem. It may be by Tuesday or Wednesday this audacious proclamation of his kingship is, at least in the eyes of some, beginning to amount to something. This Jesus really could be the King of Israel! And so, the chief priests will conspire, and whatever support Jesus may have gained — for Luke tells us they had become afraid of the people, who were hanging on Jesus’ very words — will vanish once Jesus is arrested.

And they will go from mute wonder to hanging on his every word to … demanding his death.

The stones remain silent. Eventually, just as Jesus prophesied, they will be pulled down, battered, broken, one by one, and nothing will be left but rubble.

But we are not silent. Not today. Not this week. Not ever. We bear witness. We testify. We have seen mighty works in our midst, the waves and wind calmed, the dead raised, the sick healed, and thousands fed. We do more than sit and gawk in wonder. We are his multitude, following along, proclaiming in a loud voice:

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!