We learn it from the figs

A sermon for Palm Sunday

Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, Mark 11:1-11 (Procession), Mark 11:12-14 (Eucharist Gospel), Mark 14:1 – 15:47) (Passion)

In my four years of high school, our football team won twelve games, six of those in one year. Save that one, the Home Coming parade was a grand affair, almost. Yes, there always were class floats, and there always were class beauty queens, and there always were cheer leaders, and there was even the occasional school club thing. Everyone was there, students, teachers, parents, some folks from prior classes, some younger siblings. Everyone cheered. Regardless of the celebratory cheers there was a sense of the inevitable. We knew what that evening’s results would be, it would not be pretty, and sometimes it could be ugly, once really ugly, 62 points ugly.

Waving our palms, parading in to “… sweet hosanna ring….”  feels a lot like those home coming parades. In one sense its full of expectations, finally all our long held hopes and dreams are going to be fulfilled. Shortly victory will be ours. Our enemy will be vanquished, and we will be free of oppression. Life will be as it is supposed to be. We will reign supreme. All those whom we long feared, will bow in submission to us.

So why this uneasy sense? So why does Jesus cursing a fig tree make the hair on the backs of our necks stand up?

It’s an odd little story, all of two verses. There are figs all around, Bethphage means house of unripe figs; Bethany means house of figs, (Sakenfeld, 2009) and where the whole Lazarus thing happens; and it got everyone’s attention. Figs or no figs, where is the story going?

Throughout scripture figs are a common prophetic parallel for Israel. Sometimes indicating peace and prosperity. (Sakenfeld, 2009) Though Jeremiah, Joel and Micah compare Israel to a fruitless fig tree.  (Petersen & Gavenat, 2010) Will there be prosperity or failure?

That it is not the season for figs perhaps foreshadows high expectations, of the so recent joyous welcome, and deep disappointment everyone silently fears. Israel’s prior fruitlessness preceded time of divine judgement. (Petersen & Gavenat, 2010) Is judgement at hand? Whose?

Jesus’ curse emphasizes the downward spiral of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. (Harrelson, 2003) And all this happens in the shadow of the Mount of Olives the site of the bitter battle between David and Absalom. And also the site of God’s ultimate victory revealed by Zechariah. (14:1ff) (Petersen & Gavenat, 2010)

Is this the time for final victory or yet another defeat? I wonder ~ I wonder.


Harrelson, W. J. (2003). The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press.

Petersen, D. L., & Gavenat, B. R. (2010). New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville TN: Abingdon Press.

Sakenfeld, K. D. (2009). New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon.

The hour is ripe

A sermon for Lent 5

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-13, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

Jesus has gotten everyone’s attention. That happens when you raise someone from the dead, as he did Lazarus. In Jerusalem, brimming with people gathering to celebrate Passover, the crowds are following Jesus. It gets the Pharisees fatal attention; they observe that the whole world is going after Jesus.

Among those in the crowd are some Greeks, not unheard of, but unusual. They also want to see Jesus. Some suggest they don’t speak Hebrew, so they make contact with Greek speaking Philip. (Hoezee, 2015) Their request is simple:  “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Their request reminds me of Philip’s first encounter with Jesus. Perhaps he is the second of John’s disciples Jesus invites to “Come and see.” for when Nathanial hears the messiah is from Nazareth, and asks “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Phillip answers “Come and see.” In both chapter 1, and here in chapter 12, the verb ‘see’ expresses not a just a visual sensation, but the desire to be in relationship. What they seek is beyond a casual introduction. They seek the covenantal relationship Jeremiah describes, one that is written on the hearts of God’s people. Through Jesus they seek to know the LORD God. (Jacobson, Lewis, & Skinner, 2015) The Greek seekers would not use the word, nonetheless they seek shalom, the peace, the wholeness of life, lived in the presence of God. The Greeks desire to see Jesus denotes that they recognize Jesus as God’s son. (Jacobson, Lewis, & Skinner, 2015) The Pharisees are right, the whole world is seeking Jesus.

I want to continue exploring the idea of the Greeks among us, but first we need to explore

Jesus’ strange reply. Philip tell him some Greeks want to see him. Jesus answers: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified….” Jesus is not looking at a clock, nor at the position of the sun in the sky. The term “The hour,” or ‘the time’ denotes the decisive moment to act; it’s that moment “when people are challenged to decide how they are to prepare for God’s imminent intervention.” (Sakenfeld, p. time) The Greeks’ visit is a clue to the Pharisees the whole world is following Jesus. (Harrelson, 2003) Their presence is also a clue to Jesus, his time is now. (Petersen & Bevery, 2010)His wandering answer, and much of the next five chapters is to prepare his disciples is to prepare us, for what’s come. In John’s Gospel, this is the last public appearance of Jesus, until Friday. (Lewis, 2015)

The Pew Research Center “is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.” (Pew Research, 2013) I’ve known their work for years. Their Religion and Public Life Project, Religious Landscape Survey provides a wealth of information. Among which are maps that show the percent of religious traditions by state. You’ll not be surprised to know in Arkansas 53% identify as Evangelical. You may know 16% identify as Mainline Protestant, which includes us. I expect you do not know the third largest religious group in Arkansas are the 13% who identify as unaffiliated. (Pew Research, 2013) Note, they believe in God, they are unaffiliated with any religious tradition, for a variety of reason. In terms of this morning’s Gospel, they are the Greeks among us. They want to see Jesus. If my math is right there are about 2000 neighbors in our near parish boundaries religiously unaffiliated, who want to see Jesus. We have the opportunity to go beyond these open doors and just by being who we are make ourselves known. And as this morning’s Gospel story reveals, when they are ready seekers will ask, in one way or another to see Jesus.

In the Gospel, the question is a sign that it was Jesus’ time. Today, the request to see Jesus is a sign it’s a seekers time, their hour to discern how to grow in faith community into the fullness of God’s presence right here, right now. It is also a sign to us, it is our time to be disciples, to be an evangelist, to warmly, honestly, with their apprehensions, excitements, misgivings, and anticipations as guiding beacons, welcome them into the house of the Lord, which may or may not be within these walls, but is within this community. And yes, we are among the smallest of many faith communities here. And it’s true, our collection of traditional ways of being present are less than others. But I am coming to believe this not a deterrent, but an advantage, because the unaffiliated seekers are not attracted to the usual and customary trappings of faith. And with less to sustain, we are perhaps less likely to be restrained, perhaps we are more likely to simply welcome those who, even if they don’t know it, know the Lord. (Jeremiah 31:34) As we approach Psalm Sunday and Holy Week may we be at peace, the time is ripe for a stranger, friend, or neighbor to seek Jesus the hour is now to journey with them to see Jesus, from the foot of the cross, from the door of the empty tomb, at the right hand of God.


Harrelson, W. J. (2003). The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press.

Hoezee, S. (2015, 3 22). The Lectionary Gospel. Retrieved from Center for Excellence in Preaching: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/

Jacobson, R., Lewis, K., & Skinner, M. (2015, 3 22). Sermon Brain Wave. Retrieved from workingpreacher.org: http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=604

Lewis, K. (2015, 3 22). Commentary on John 12:2033. Retrieved from Working preacher: http://www.workingpreacher.org/

Petersen, D., & Bevery, R. G. (2010). New Interpreters’ Bible, One Volume Commentary. Nashville TN: Abingdon Press.

Pew Research. (2013). Religion and Public Life, Religious Landscape Survey, Religious Groups, Maps. Retrieved 3 2015, from Pew Research Center: http://religions.pewforum.org/maps

Sakenfeld, K. D. (2009). New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon.

Live Sabbath, bring shalom, and know shekinah

A sermon for Lent 3: Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22

Knowing the philosophical and/ or religious beliefs of those you are negotiating with is central to the negotiating process. Beforehand no one thought world leaders would let zealot nationalists drag Europe into a world war. Not to many years later, no one really believed Hitler would actually start another European inferno that would once again put the world at war. The United States was surprised when Iraq did not run to democratic capitalism after we vanquished Hussein; we never thought Sunnis and Shiites would ever let their sectarian feud turn into a cataclysmic conflagration. Our negotiations with Iran challenge our understanding of Iran’s social and religious context, which will determine not only the negotiation’s outcome, but its fruits. (Brooks, 2015) The context of the other has always been central to negotiating, to getting your story understood. It’s true in this morning’s Gospel reading.

Most folks focus on Jesus’ rampage through the Temple, or his prediction of his resurrection. We hear them as unique events. But there is so much more. The Hebrew term ‘she-ki-nah’ refers to the present of God. (Jacobson, Lewis, & Skinner, 2015)  (Orr, 2004) In the Old testament shekinah is always on the move; from walking in the garden in Eden, to in a whispering voice calling Noah and Abraham into covenant, in Exodus as fire and cloud on a mountain top, and in covenant in the Ten commandments, then in a tent, then to Shiloh, then to Jerusalem and the Temple, to Babylon and back – twice, and in the New Testament shekinah move back towards earlier an Old Testament loci of individuals in community. Jesus’ tirade in the Temple is all about shekinah, all about the presence of God. He is one in a long tradition of challenging the Temple as the only place to be in God’s presence. (Jacobson, Lewis, & Skinner, 2015)

Jesus is challenging not only where God is, but the entire notion of the Jewish establishment’s relationship with God. Regardless of their outward appearance, Jesus is challenging whether or not the Jewish establishment, centered at the Temple, keeps Sabbath. This is more critical than our religious – legal perspective leads us to believe. We think, they are breaking the law. But, the Ten Commandments are not a foundation for case law; they are the description of living a free life in covenant community. A key way of knowing you are in covenant community is keeping Sabbath. (Jacobson, Lewis, & Skinner, 2015) And one way of knowing this is if you are at shalom (Hoezee, 2015) if you bring shalom, to all your life touches.

Shalom is often translated peace. And that is a good beginning; however, beyond the absence of external or internal disturbance shalom is a completeness of health and soundness in your relationship with God and your neighbors. (Orr, 2004)

Keeping Sabbath that brings shalom is in the details of the longest of the commandments. Note who is to keep Sabbath: you, your sons and daughters, male and female slaves, which includes servants, your domestic animals, and any guest, foreigner, or alien in your home. In short everyone, all flesh, of every status, is to keep Sabbath, everyone, all flesh, of every status, is to live in shalom. So now we know who and what, but why? How do we get to this understanding?

It turns out there are two sets of why; one comes from today’s version of the Ten Commandments, and the other from Deuteronomy’s version. (Deut. 5:6- 21) Exodus calls us to observe Sabbath, as a day of service to God given to worshipping the Lord. It is grounded in the creation story; God created in six days and rested the seventh, making it Holy, therefore we keep it holy, in keeping Sabbath. However, Deuteronomy, which represents a different theological perspective rather than a point in time, is based in Israel’s salvation from slavery; Israel rest, we rest, to remember salvation. (Orr, 2004) We, everyone, also rest to ensure those in any form of indenture, just as the Hebrews were in Egypt, get a break. Six days of work, is not a command to work six days, it’s a restriction, and no one should work any more than six days. (Sakenfeld, 2009)

Let’s review; Jesus throws a fit in the Temple to draw attention to the fact that the Temple does not bring shalom to the people, therefore is not keeping Sabbath, and therefore cannot be shekinah, a place where God dwells. But it looks like they do keep Sabbath, what is going on?

Let’s go back to the beginning: I am the LORD your God … you shall have no other gods before me. A little vocabulary; I expect you hear ‘the Lord’ as a title, and the word big g ‘God’ as God’s name. It’s the other way ‘round. (Strong’s) The use of the word ‘God’ not as a name affirms The Lord is not saying that there are no other gods; just that Israel, and now we, are not to be in a godly relationship with any other except The Lord. (Petersen & Beverly, 2010) And so yes, this is all about idolatry. And “other gods” may be any person, place, thing, or ideal believed to be more or as important as The Lord; it could be money, property, fame, power, or whatever may be the primary shaper of the Jewish establishment’s daily life. (Fretheim, 2015) And it’s revealed in their relationships, how they treat, their neighbors, even to the least of them. Jesus throws a fit, because something other than The Lord is shaping the day in day out life of the Jewish establishment. He is challenging them: “Where is shekinah?” He chastising them for keeping others away from shekinah. The gleaning I take away this morning is that the Ten Commandments, the fifth commandment in particular, is in fact a biblical foundation for economic policy and practice.

Sabbath, the time of work and the time of rest is to bring shalom to all so all know shekinah, the presence of God. Work and rest that bring peace and wholeness to all flesh bringing all to shekinah is the Lord’s economic polity.

Today is Sunday, a Christian Sabbath. We gather here to worship The Lord our God, to know shalom, to be shekinah. But it is not our destination, so much as it is “a place we’re sent from in order to meet, and partner with, God in everyday life.”  (Lose, 2015) It happens to be Lent, a time to repent, to begin changing our relationships with God and our neighbors, all of them. It’s time to see when was the last time you thought about how your beliefs, priorities, and actions kept Sabbath, brought shalom, and lived in shekinah? It’s an all-consuming change, that it involves all aspects of our lives especially economic, and political. It challenges us to give up fixations, like our political obsession with sex, and seek the far more complex ideal of biblically based policy and practice of economic justice. And it’s not just our personal lives, we seek to transform, we seek to reform the day in and day out lives of our society, of our nation.

Jesus knew well the philosophical and religious beliefs of the Jewish establishment. His negotiating style, pitching a fit in the Temple, worked for him. As for us, what the Lord requires:  (Deut. 10:12, Micah 6:8) is to live Sabbath, bring shalom, and know shekinah.


Brooks, D. (2015, 2 27). Converting the Ayatollahs. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/27/opinion/davidbrooksconvertingtheayatollahs.

Ellingsen, M. (2015, 3 1). Lent 3, Cycle B. Retrieved from Lectionary Scripture Notes: http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/

Fretheim, T. E. (2015, 3 1). Commentary on Exodus 20:117. Retrieved from Working Preacher: http://www.workingpreacher.org/

Harrelson, W. J. (2003). The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press.

Hoezee, S. (2015, 3 1). Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Exodus 20:1-17. Retrieved from Center for Excellence in Preaching: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php

Jacobson, R., Lewis, K., & Skinner, M. (2015, 3 1). Sermon Brain Wave. Retrieved from workingpreacher.org.

Lewis, K. (2015, 3 1). Dear Working Preacher An Embodied Lent. Retrieved from Working Preacher: workingpreacher.org

Lose, D. (2015, 3 1). Lent 3 B: Igniting Centrifugal Force. Retrieved from David Lose: http://www.davidlose.net/2015/03/lent3bignitingcentrifugalforce/

METZ, T. R. (2014, 12 7). Sermons that Work – Finding comfort vs. being comfortable. Retrieved from The Episcopal Church: http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/

Nave, O. (n.d.). Nave’s Topics. 2008: WORDsearch Corp.

Orr, J. (Ed.). (2004). International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. WORDsearch.

Petersen, D., & Beverly, R. G. (2010). New Interpreters’ Bible, One Volume Commentary. Nashville TN: Abingdon Press.

Sakenfeld, K. D. (2009). New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon.

Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary. (n.d.). WORDsearch.

How Absurd

A sermon for Lent 2

Genesis 17:17, 15-16, Psalm 22:22-30, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38

Decades ago, God promised Abram an heir. God was taking time, a long time, to keep it, so Sari gave Hagar to Abram to as a wife to him. It worked, Ishmael was born. Things did not go well, it takes a divine intervention to impose a peace. Now, more than a decade later Abram is 100 years old, Sarai is 90 and here’s God making the same promise. Abram falls on his face perhaps in obedience, except he is laughing thinking to himself: “What again!” How Absurd. (Howard, 2015)

It’s all a bit similar, to last week’s covenant story when God through Noah promises all life “Never again.” This too is an absurd story. It all begins when God asks Noah to build an Ark, big enough to hold two of everything and his family. Water is nowhere in sight. How absurd it is to build a boat, even as a hedge against a flood, so far from water.

On their way from Bethsaida to Caesarea-Philippi, Jesus asks who they think he is, Peter answers “The Messiah.” He’s right! Then, as we hear this morning, Jesus begin teaching about his suffering, rejection, death and resurrection. This is not Peter’s image of the messiah. What he and all Israel really want is freedom from the Roman occupiers. No one can free their people by dying! Suffering, rejection and death, is exactly the opposite of the messianic hope. How absurd! So, never one to stop and think, Peter pulls Jesus aside, and sets him straight.

Several millennia later we know there is nothing absurd about any of these bible stories. These stories are central to our faith, through them the divine covenants

  • with Noah that never again will a flood cut off a life,
  • with Abraham and Sarah who are to give rise to nations and Kings, and are our spiritual forebearers
  • and through Jesus salvation is offered to all.

There is nothing at all absurd in these stories. Except, the absurdity with in the texts themselves.

The gleaning I share this morning is absurd. Literally ‘absurd.’ “How absurd” just may be the most common first response to a divine encounter. I’m coming to see receiving a divine word as absurd is perhaps a warning to pay particular attention. If you receive a calling to go do something absurd, like building a floating zoo miles from any water, intentional deliberate prayerful discernment as to how to go about getting it done is a faithful path. When you receive a divine promise you will be a part of, or are central to, or will attain the impossibly absurd, prayerful, discernment preparation, is a faithful path. Upon receiving a particularly insightful understanding of God in the world, prayerfully discerning what you know that is about to really change is a faithful path.

At our vestry meeting, immediately following worship, we will choose which of this year’s goals to take on first. All of you are absurdly busy. Nonetheless discerning which ministry you are called to be a part of, whether it’s on this list or not, is part of today’s agenda, its art of living into our baptism, perhaps part of a Lenten discipline.

You have heard that at convention a few weeks back Bishop Benfield challenged us to go beyond open doors. For the next couple Sunday school classes we will do the exercises Bishop Benfield led us through during convention. First, we draw our parish boundaries. We’ll begin with a very short history lesson about parishes and boundaries. Then we’ll project a map of the surrounding area, and literally draw the boundaries. Secondly, we will take a closer look at what’s around us, just a few blocks in each direction. Both are an exercise in hearing God’s call to go beyond our front doors, into our parish boundaries, friendly or not, with all our regrets and grievances, into mutually responsible, interdependent relationships with all our neighbors and Christ. My take from today’s scripture lessons is that the most important thing we need to do is to listen for the absurd.


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Hoezee, S. (2015, 3 1). Sermon Starters – Genesis. Retrieved from Center for Excellence in Preaching: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/

Howard, C. B. (2015, 3 1). Commentary on Genesis 17:17,. Retrieved from Working Preacher: http://www.workingpreacher.org

PERKINS, P. (1991). THE GOSPEL OF MARK, INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS (Vol. 8 ). (J. P. Miller, & P. J. Achtemeier, Eds.) Louisville: John Know Press.

Rev. Whitney, R. (2015, 3 1). 2nd Sunday in Lent (B) – 2015. Retrieved from Sermons that Work: http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2015/02/06/2lentb2015/

Rogness, M. (2015, 3 1). Commentary on Mark 8:31-38. Retrieved from Working Preacher: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2316

Williams, L. J. (1983). Interpretation: A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING: Mark. (J. L. Mays, P. D. Miller, & P. J. Achtemeier, Eds.) Nashville: John Knox Press.