Signs

A Sermon for Palm Sunday; The Liturgy of the Palms: Luke 19:28-40, Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, The Liturgy of the Word: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 23:1-49, Psalm 31:9-16

Today we have returned to the traditional Palm Sunday format. For the last several years we have not read the Passion, today we return to that tradition, sort of. I will continue to focus on the reading preceding the procession of Palms, our reenactment of Jesus triumphal entry. I choose to do this because this is a pivotal moment in our Lenten life, a time to reflect upon our reflections. We will have time to reflect on Jesus’ Passion, ~ ~ on Good Friday. Between today and then, you are invited to attend Blytheville’s Holy Week services, schedules are on the hall table. If you cannot you are invited to find ways you can observe this most holy of weeks; there are prayers for every day in Holy Week beginning on pg. 220 (BCP).

The week before last, as I was pondering these next 8 days Les Emmerson’s song Sign Sign Everywhere A Sign played on the radio sparking a thread of thoughts (Emmerson). Emmerson writes about all the rules that surround us. Rules that tell us

  • how to wear our hair;
  • that trespassers will be shot;
  • what we have to wear;
  • where we can and cannot watch, or sit, or eat;
  • that tell us we ain’t supposed to be here; and
  • that we don’t have the right membership.

All those signs remind me of Paul’s list of sins, the things we aren’t supposed to do. If you go looking you will find a list of Paul’s lists. There are lists of

  • sins,
  • sufferings,
  • trials,
  • credentials,
  • spiritual gifts,
  • outcomes of sin,
  • his sins,
  • his accomplishments, and

Given Paul’s background as a Pharisee, the origins of their teaching rules to help the Jewish people keep God’s law, his lists make sense, they could be helpful. Unfortunately, the rules of the Law became the ends in themselves for the Pharisees. I’m concerned Paul’s lists, especially of sins and vices, in our hands, have become ends in themselves. The focus is so much on do this don’t do that, where we can be and that we aren’t supposed to be there, that God’s everlasting, always, everywhere present forgiveness, grace, and love gets lost.

Since Christmas, actually, since Advent, we have been hearing stories of signs. Some stories are full of signs. Some stories are signs. Taken together it is clear God is up to something. This morning a crowd of fishermen, tax collectors, Samaritans, harlots, blind men, demoniacs, and cripples, a ragtag bunch of, pathetically unfit, long sick women, lepers, more cripples, and blind (Culpepper) and everyday people ignore the signs of their long history of occupation and oppression, the signs that tell them they cannot gather, that welcoming this itinerate rabbi, whose birth was announced by angels, and proclaimed by shepherds, who welcomes them, cleans them, raises their dead, and arrives on a colt, to chants of Hosanna, is a highly subversive act of treason (Tew). This morning we witness Jesus’ continuing resistance to the temptation to act in his own self-interest and choosing to follow the path given by divine vision, choosing to challenge religious and political power (Epperly).

Our world is as full of signs as Jesus’ world, and Emmerson’s worlds were. There are signs that tell us,

  • where to go,
  • what to do,
  • where we are welcome, and
  • to stay out.

We have our own signs, that tells others,

  • where to go,
  • what to do,
  • where they are welcome, and
  • to stay out.

There all sorts of signs, all sorts of expectations, all sorts of temptations to act for our own behalf. Like so many things acting our own behalf is a mix of decisions. Sometimes such a decision is a faithful thing, sometimes it is falling to temptation.

This week Joan Chittister wrote about the sixth step of Benedict of Nursia’s sixth-century program of spiritual development. It is “Be content with the lowest and most menial treatment,” meaning that life without expectations is a much happier place to be. More importantly, being content with the least allows you to be who you are, where you are — nothing more, and most importantly nothing less, (Chittister). Because as Jesus’ life and ministry, from Christmas to today, reveals, you are beloved children of God, who every day witness the signs of the peace of heaven right here on earth.

The last verse of the sign song is:

And the sign said, “Everybody welcome.
Come in, kneel down and pray”
But when they passed around the plate
at the end of it all
I didn’t have a penny to pay
So I got me a pen and a paper
and I made up my own little sign
I said, “Thank you, Lord, for thinkin’ ’bout me.
I’m alive and doin’ fine.”

It is a curiously Lenten verse. You know Lent is a season of repentance. Our tendency is to think in terms of saying “sorry” or giving up some evil passion (like chocolate) or taking on some good act (like sending a bag of canned food to the food pantry) to make up for the sinful ones. All that misses the core meaning of the word which is to change direction. In the end, the sign ranter finds his contentment at the least, he discovers who he is, where he is, and he is thankful for it.

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign; this is a week to ignore all the signs, the ones that exclude you and especially the ones that include you. This is a week to seek contentment; to be who you are, where you are. As the times of our lives are getting darker, this week will get darker and darker; today’s cries of “Halleluiahs” will become shouts of “Crucify him!” We will need all of who we are because as the darkness grows, we will be tempted to believe that the light is faltering. It is an opportune sign (Luke 4:13).


References

Chittister, Joan. “From Where I Stand – step-6-it-possible-be-contented-even-disappointments.” National Catholic Reporter. 10 4 2019. <ncronline.org/news/opinion/where-i-stand/step-6-it-possible-be-contented-even-disappointments>.

Culpepper, R. Alan. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Luke. Vol. 8. Abbington, 2015. 12 vols. Olive Tree App.

Emmerson, Les. “Sign Sign Everywhere A Sign.” Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, n.d. 10 4 2019. <google.com/search>.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 14 4 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Tew, Anna. “Protesters, Palm Sunday (C).” 14 4 2018. Sermons that Work. <episcopalchurch.org/library/sermon/protesters-palm-sunday-c-april-14-2019>.

The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, 1979.

 

 

Commissioning, believing, and signs

A sermon for Easter 2

Acts 2:14a, 22-32, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31, Psalm 16

Good morning it’s good to see you this 2nd Sunday of Easter a week after our Lord’s resurrection. Except it’s not, no I’m not talking about  the millennia or so that’s past in John’s Gospel it’s later that night, just hours after Mary, Peter and the unnamed disciple saw the empty tomb; just hours after Jesus spoke to Mary just hours after  Mary’s shares the tale. John writes that they are gathered behind locked doors because they are afraid of Jewish leaders. Makes sense, it’s all very fresh. Elisabeth Johnson posits they are also afraid of Jesus; they’ve been nothing but miserable failures; in Jesus’ hour their actions are nothing but denials and desertions. [i] Having just learned Jesus is walking about I’d lock the doors too. But locked doors don’t matter.

All of sudden Jesus is in the room; we don’t know what the disciples expect; however, a greeting of shalom – divine peace Jesus breathing in their faces; and commissioning them probably isn’t what they expect.The familiar words in this part of the story are forgiving and retaining of sins, which we, largely thanks to institutional warping and the reformation’s interpretation of sin miss-hear. First of all the commission is that we are sent just as Jesus is sent and Jesus is sent to do the work of God which is all about restoring all God’s people to relationship with God. So it makes sense that retaining and forgiving is all about Godly relationship. Gail O’Day notes that for John, sin is a theological failing, not a moral or behavioral transgression [ii]  as Jesus says: I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he. [iii] To forgive sin is to make known the love of God that Jesus himself has made known [iv] which is what we are commissioned, sent into the world to do. In short when our witness leads to belief that’s forgiveness; and when it does not its retention. And belief brings us to Thomas.

For whatever reason, Thomas wasn’t there. When the others tell him, he says he wants proof, just like they had, well … may be a little more. It’s very important to know the word ‘doubt’ never appears in Greek, it’s always belief and unbelief. When Jesus appears he says to Thomas do not be faithless (unbelieving) but believing. [v] Thomas’ response to Jesus’ offer is My Lord and my God! a profound confession that for the first time puts trust and relationship with Jesus together. [vi] O’Day notes Jesus offers Thomas what he needs, himself, and that’s what brings Thomas to belief. NT Wright summarizes the whole scene: touching is possible, seeing is enough, believing is best of all. [vii]

Now all of us want the best, so all of us want belief; however, no one, since early first century, ever had the possibility to touch, or see or even hear, so what is our source of belief, and how valid can it be?

Validity is the easy part, Jesus asks Thomas, as he asks Nathanael way back in chapter 1 [viii] Have you believed because you have seen me? only now he continues Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. You and I are among those who have not seen and yet believe; you are among the blessed.That leaves us with source of belief, and John actually tells us the answer.

 In the last two verses [ix] John changes voice, he begin speaking directly to the audience, speaking directly to you. He tells you, the signs in his book are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. We can easily understand miracles as signs. There are some in John’s Gospel account, many fewer than in the synoptic gospels. More interesting is understanding Jesus’ resurrection as a sign. The difference between seeing a miracle and seeing a sign is to see beyond the glitz, the super natural to see the truth: that Jesus is God’s anointed the Christ, the Messiah; that Jesus is our Lord and our God. This is what leads to Thomas’ profound confession. It’s not the physicality of miracles that lead to faith, it’s the truth they reveal; thus firsthand experience is not significant. What is significant is that we know the stories; that we know scripture whose power lies in making the presence of God in Jesus available to the faith community in each successive generation. [x] The same is true of our witness, which is only about sharing the transforming presence of God in creation in Jesus, and in the Spirit.

And now we are back to the beginning, not of John’s Gospel story, but of our worship. A colleague of mine blogged this week:

my question to you, dear reader, is this, “what does your life show that you believe?” If those two things aren’t matching, how can you change your life to better fit what you believe about God’s dream for his creation? [xi]

 It’s born of today’s collect in which we pray “…that [we] may show in our lives what [we] profess…”

Sometimes we live as we profess often we don’t. For many reasons we get anxious or threatened. Johnson writes:

The natural thing to do when we are feeling anxious or threatened is to hunker down and lock the doors, to become focused on our own security rather than the risky mission to which we are called.

Our trouble is, as she continues:

… is that Jesus cannot be stopped by our locked doors. Jesus comes to us as he came to the first disciples. … [and] he keeps showing up. As he came back a week later for Thomas, Jesus keeps coming back week after week among his gathered disciples — in the word, the water, the bread, and the wine … And he keeps sending us out of our safe, locked rooms, into a world that, like us, so desperately needs his gifts of life and peace. [xii]

John’s almost final chapter assures us all we need to come to believe that Jesus is God’s anointed, is revealed in our Holy Writ.

That brings relief. It also sends us out into the world to share the story, so others may come to believe. That is always a challenge, for lots of reasons, like life happens; nonetheless it’s true; our calling is to share with all the world that Christ is risen, Alleluia; and our prayer is for all the world to answer in fervent faith: [hand to ear]  Christ is risen indeed Alleluia!

 


[i] Elisabeth Johnson  John 20:19-31 Commentary by Elisabeth Johnson – Working Preacher – Preaching This Week (RCL) http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1991 1/4 RCL|Narrative|Evangelio|Index, Commentary on John 20:19-31, 4/23/2014
[ii] GAIL R. O’DAY, New Interpreter’s Bible  THE GOSPEL OF JOHN INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS
[iii] John 8:24 (NRSV)
[iv] Johnson, ibid
[v] King James John 19:27
[vi] Johnson, ibid
[vii] N. T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays, Yeas A, B, C Morehouse Publishing, 2012
[viii] John 1:48
[ix] John 20:30,31
[x] O’Day, ibid
[xi] Steve Pankey, Draughting Theology, Walking the Talk – Why I blog, April 24, WordPress,2014
[xii] Johnson, ibid