Saturday, March 31, 2018

"Easter Fools" - Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018

Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 20:1-18

In case you somehow didn’t know, today is Easter Sunday.  It’s the high, holy day of the Christian year, the day that we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and the ultimate victory of life over death, of love and joy over pain and despair.  If it happens to be the day that we have biscuits and gravy and grits for breakfast and get Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies, well, all the better.  It is Easter Sunday.  But it is also – April Fools’ Day. 

Easter and April Fools’ are generally in pretty close proximity, but rarely do they fall on the same day.  The date of Easter depends on cycles of the moon and falls somewhere within a six week period each year, while April 1 falls on a Sunday only once every seven years, on average.  The last time Easter fell on April Fools’ Day was in 1956.  For a lot of us, this has not happened in our lifetime.  It will happen next in 2029, and then again in 2040 - but after that, not again in this century. 

The two days could not be more different.  It is unclear exactly where April Fools’ Day came from, but many believe it started with the change from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar in the 1582.  Under the old calendar, the New Year was celebrated on March 25, but festivals marking the New Year were put off until April 1 if March 25 fell during Holy Week.  The year that the calendar changed, there were a lot of people who did not realize the year now began in the cold of January, and they went ahead and celebrated the New Year on April 1 - and so they were called “April Fools.”  It is unknown whether this is actually the way that April Fools came about, but it has come to be a day for “fooling” people – a day for hoaxes.

One of the best media-generated April fools’ jokes dates from many years ago.  It was a news report that aired on BBC.  It opened with a line about Spring coming early that year, prompting the spaghetti harvest in Switzerland to come early, too.

Against a video backdrop of happy women harvesting spaghetti from trees, claims about the cultivation of spaghetti were made in a serious and straightfaced manner. Spaghetti’s uniform length was explained as the result of years of painstaking cultivation. The ravenous spaghetti weevil, which had wreaked havoc with harvests of years past, had been conquered, said the report.

Afterwards, the BBC switchboard lit up with calls about the piece.  Many people asked where they could go to watch the harvesting operation in person.  Others wondered whether spaghetti would grow well in Britain, and could they buy spaghetti trees for themselves?

Well, we all know about April Fools, a day for jokes, a day for trying to get people to fall for unlikely stories.  April Fools, of course, is not a religious holiday, and has no connection at all to Easter.  Easter is not about preposterous claims – it is a day in which the disciples were given the news that Jesus, who had been crucified, was actually alive… a day that we celebrate the news that death is not final…. 

Wait a minute...  It may be that there is more of a connection between Easter and April Fools than we may have thought.  And since I may be retired, or as Jere likes to say, rewired the next time Easter and April Fools' Day coincide, if I am ever going to look into this, today is the day.

On Easter, Jesus fooled the power of empire.  As we have read and considered and experienced through our journey through the gospel of John since the beginning of this year, Jesus was a threat to the religious leaders.  He threatened their place, their role, their authority by saying that God’s favor and power and blessing was available to everyone, even to outsiders, even to sinners, even to foreigners, even to Samaritans.  This did not go over well.  He said that the law was made for our sake, not the other way around, and that to choose a legalistic application of the law over human life and flourishing was to do violence to the spirit and intent of the law.  He said that the law was basically summarized in “Love God and love your neighbor.” 

Jesus hung out with the wrong kind of crowd.  He broke social taboos.  He criticized the financial operation of the temple.  He had harsh words for those who were self-righteous and hypocritical.  At the same time, he was all about grace and forgiveness but as the power brokers saw it, he was far too lenient on sin.

Jesus was a threat to the way things were done, a threat to the prevailing order, a threat to the powers that be.  He scared them because they feared that he would excite the crowds and bring on the wrath of Rome.  This man of love and grace and forgiveness and integrity and honesty was such a threat that they wanted him gone.

Now for the Romans, Jesus was a minor problem.  For Pilate, the Roman governor, he was more of an irritant, and in the end, even if he didn’t see much harm in Jesus, he was willing to have him put to death in order to keep the peace.  In the eyes of Rome, Jesus died to eliminate the risk of future rebellion.  It was the way that empires always deal with those who pose a challenge, who threaten their power.  And so Jesus was arrested and beaten and mocked and hung on a cross.  Problem solved.

But the joke was on them.  Jesus could not be contained by the tomb.  The problem was that Jesus just would not stay dead.

Rome continued with this solution to its Jesus problem, its Christian problem, its minority religion problem that refused to bow to Caesar problem.  In that day and time, to say “Jesus is Lord” was a dangerous statement, because the empire demanded that subjects say “Caesar is Lord.”  Christians suffered persecution and worse.  Many were martyred.  Caesar thought he was in charge of the world and that Jesus would be forgotten.  But the joke was on him.  Today, Caesar is a salad – and millions of people confess not that Caesar is Lord, but that Jesus is Lord, and are gathering this morning to sing “Alleluia!” 

That’s not all.  On Easter, Jesus fooled Mary and the other disciples.  Mary came to the place of Jesus’ burial to mourn, just as many of us have gone to the graves of loved ones to mourn.  When we go to the cemetery, the last thing in the world we would expect to see is a grave opened up.  The last thing in the world Mary expected was to find the stone rolled away.

And so she ran to tell the others.  Peter and John returned with her, running ahead.  They found that the tomb was empty, all right.  We read that the other disciple, who was John, saw and believed, but apparently what he believed was Mary’s report that the stone had been removed.  They did not buy that rising from the dead stuff.  Peter and John went back home.

But Mary remained.  When she looked in the tomb, there were two angels standing there.  “Woman, why are you weeping?” they said.  “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” she said.  Then she turned around, and there was Jesus.  But she didn’t recognize him.  She thought he was the gardener.  “Sir, if you have carried him away, just tell me where you have taken him.”  But then Jesus spoke her name.  And she knew.

The best news, the greatest news that we hear can evoke both laughter and tears.  Relief and joy and shock and surprise and disbelief and a flood of happiness, all at once.  A loved one pulls through a terrible illness.  A child we have worried ourselves sick about turns out to be safe.  Even at a memorial service, we mourn for a loved one and at the same time celebrate a life that has blessed us.  Tears and laughter. 

We have all experienced this.  In 2015, the Oxford Dictionary named its Word of the Year.  Some of the runner-ups were dark web, on fleek, ad blocker, and Brexit.  The winner was not a word at all, but a picture.  It was the tears of joy emoji, a symbol of a whole mix of emotions that end in joy.

I picture it that way for Mary.  Tears of joy, laughing and crying at the same time. 

Mary ran to tell the others.  She announced to them, “I have seen the Lord!”  But their response is underwhelming.  They do not seem to put stock in Mary’s news.  It was literally too good to be true.  As Luke puts it, “It seemed to them an idle tale.”  Something like a bad and completely inappropriate April Fools’ hoax.

But the joke was on them.  Later Jesus appeared to the disciples, and they believed.  Jesus was alive!  And there was no doubt laughter.  Jesus could laugh with Mary, laugh with the other women, laugh that she had thought Jesus to be the gardener.  He could laugh with the disciples when he showed them the holes in his hand and side.  Laughter and tears together.  What started with weeping ended with alleluia. 

Easter is a celebration that the greatest joke is on death itself.  There is a reason that Jesus’ resurrection is celebrated in the spring.  There is even a certain logic to the way the date of Easter is determined each year.  Easter is the only holiday based on cycles of the moon.  It comes on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the spring equinox.  That sounds pretty complicated, but it makes sense if you think about it: Easter coincides with the greening of the earth.  Christ is risen and the whole world comes to life.  The grass is turning green.  Birds are singing.  Woodpeckers are hard at work.  Robins are coming back.  Crocuses are popping up and daffodils will soon be blooming.  Folks are getting their lawn mowers ready, or at least thinking about it.  

At Easter we think about bunnies and chicks and lilies, living, growing things.  These are all signs of new life.  But there is a big difference.  These things are natural.  They are expected.  Easter is not at all natural, not at all expected.  Imagine a police officer banging on your door in the middle of the night.  “Sir, I have some good news.  Your son who was buried last week is alive.”  We just don’t get news like that.

Barbara Brown Taylor said, “When a human being goes into the ground, that is that… You say good-bye.  You pay your respects and you go on with your life as best you can, knowing that the only place springtime happens in a cemetery is on the graves, not in them….”

Easter is a celebration that death does not have the last word. Frederick Buechner put it this way; “Resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing.”  The joke is on death, because in the end, God’s love proves stronger even than death.  

This is Good News.  This is Great News.  This is news that calls for Alleluia!  Because death is not just something that confronts us at the end of life.  Far from it.  Death confronts us every day.

Pastor and writer Nadia Bolz-Weber says, “The Christian faith, while wildly misrepresented in so much of American culture, is really about death and resurrection.  It’s about how God continues to reach into the graves we dig for ourselves and pull us out, giving us new life, in ways both dramatic and small.”

Sometimes we dig a grave for ourselves.  And sometimes, life seems to do it for us.  We all need Easter because we all long for life.  I’m not only talking about the hope of a future on the other side of physical death, though that is certainly part of it.  But the fact is, brokenness is all around us.  Death is a part of our lives right now.

We all know about disappointment.  We all know about heartache.  We all know about things going badly wrong.  We look at our world and see violence, greed, poverty, disease, terrorism, abuse, just egregious inequality, and a whole lot of fear.  Outright cruelty seems to be part and parcel of our national conversation. Within our circle of friends and family there will likely be broken relationships, unemployment, problems with drugs and alcohol, serious illness.  We may be facing divorce or financial crises or legal troubles or just plain sad stories.  There are plenty of cases we would think to be hopeless, beyond fixing, beyond repair. 

We all know about Good Friday.  We live Good Friday all the time.  It is a Good Friday kind of world.  And I think we are really here today because we have all had it with Good Fridays.  We know hurt and pain and suffering all too well, and we are ready – we are desperate - for Good News.

The Good News of Easter, the message of resurrection, is that even when we don’t expect it, even when we don’t believe it to be possible, God brings new life.  It is surprising.  It is amazing.  It elicits those alleluias.

Now, living with the assurance of Easter – living with the faith that God can take our hurt and pain and disappointment and bring blessing, faith that God can somehow take our feeble efforts and bring forth something wonderful, faith that out of all the deaths of this life God can bring new life – can appear foolish.  Our reading from 1 Corinthians speaks of the foolishness of the cross, and later in 1 Corinthians, Paul says that we are Fools for Christ.  You might say that followers of Jesus are Easter Fools.  

Easter means that in the end, the joke is on death.  Beyond all of the deaths we experience, there is the new life that God gives.  Beyond all the deaths of this life and even beyond, there is resurrection.

That is the Good News, the Great News of Easter.  Alleluia!  Amen.

(Children will have noisemakers to use whenever they hear the word “alleluia.”)

"Palms, Passion, and Power" - Palm Sunday, March 24, 2018

Text: John 19:1-16a

Palm Sunday is one of the weirder Sundays of the year.  I mean, it is fun, to be sure.  We don’t get to have a parade in church just every week.  Waving the palm branches is pretty cool, and there is a kind of pageantry and drama that is missing on a lot of your “average” Sundays.  Of course, some years we gather outside in the warm spring sunshine for our Palm Procession and other years we have 6 inches of snow, like today, so you just never know how it will go.

So you’ve got the logistics of it, which can be both odd and challenging, but that is not what stands out to me the most about this day.  As far as worship goes, Palm Sunday is a day in which we can encounter a kind of emotional or spiritual whiplash.

Today is designated both as Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday.  Jesus enters Jerusalem to cheers and adulation, but by the end of the service, he is heading to the executioner. 

Most of us like the parade part.  We like the anticipated triumph of Palm Sunday.  It is kind of a rehearsal for the really big celebration of Easter.  And of course we take some joy in knowing that the dark days of Lent are almost over.  The temptation, of course, is to go straight from the excitement of Palm Sunday right to the joy of Easter.  It is the same temptation we always face: to ignore or reduce or bypass the pain of life.  But somehow, on this Sunday, we try to hold up both the anticipation of victory and the reality of loss side by side, and it isn’t easy. 

We have been in John’s gospel since Christmas.  Nearly half of John, 10 of 21 chapters, report on the last week of Jesus’ life, the week we have come to call Holy Week.  We have been looking at events from that week for several Sundays now.  But today, we have started out with a kind of flashback, back to the beginning of the week, back to what is called the Triumphal Entry.

It was the beginning of Passover week, and the crowds heard that Jesus was on his way, approaching the city.  So people ran to greet him carrying palm branches, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

It is interesting that here we are, on a day that has been long known as Palm Sunday, but John is the only gospel to report that people actually brought palms.  Matthew and Mark and Luke report that the crowd laid their cloaks or garments on the ground, and Matthew and Mark also say that the crowd laid leafy branches on the road.  But you know, Cloak Sunday or Garment on the Road Sunday or Leafy Branch Sunday just doesn’t cut it, it just doesn’t have the cachet of Palm Sunday.

There is a reason that the people brought palm branches.  This was not insignificant.  A palm was a symbol of victory.  To wave a palm was to make a statement.  It was kind of like waving a flag.  This was the way that one welcomed a king, welcomed a hero, welcomed a conquering general.  It was a way to announce Jesus’ coming triumph.

And it was also, in a sense, a form of protest.  It was political speech.  You might think of it as a parade, but you could just as well think of it as a protest, a demonstration.  Instead of signs and banners, the crowd carried palms.  The message wasn’t lost on anybody.  Jesus had come to town, but others were also coming into town. Roman soldiers entered on horses, armed in a display of power.  A conquering ruler would enter on a white stallion.  Jesus?  He sat on a donkey.  This was a different kind of king.  But the crowds welcomed him with symbols of triumph and really, a statement of defiance and resistance. 

Was it triumph?  Was it victory?  The crowd thought so.  They thought they understood.  But they had no idea.  The crowd actions said that Jesus was entering the city in triumph, as a king.  They were sort of right.  But they were deeply wrong.

We pick up the story several days later.  In last week’s scripture, Pilate has a conversation with Jesus that leads to him asking that question, “What is truth?”  Pilate announces to the crowd that he finds no reason to charge Jesus.  There was a tradition of releasing a prisoner at the time of Passover, and when Pilate offers to release Jesus, the crowd shouts, “We want Barabbas!” 

In our reading for today, we find that Pilate is still not eager to see Jesus killed.  Which is notable, because as we mentioned last week, in a world of brutal rulers, Pilate was known to be especially brutal.  He was the kind of guy who could have a handful of people killed before his morning coffee break and not give it a second thought.  But he sees no reason to have Jesus put to death.

So Jesus is flogged and mocked and brought out before the crowd with a crown of thorns and purple robe.  Again, Pilate announces that he finds no case against Jesus.  But the crowd shouts “crucify him!” and says that Jesus should die because he claims to be the Son of God.

Pilate takes notice of this.  “Son of God” was one of the titles of Caesar.  The crowd is making the point that Jesus is a threat to Rome, that he is directly challenging Caesar, and that as Caesar’s representative Pilate must act.  If Pilate does not have Jesus crucified, the crowd is saying, then Pilate himself is no friend of Caesar.  So Pilate has Jesus come back for another conversation.  “Why do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate asks.  “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”  But Jesus replied, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” 

Pilate and Jesus have this conversation about power.  In a sense, this entire episode, the whole of Holy Week and for that matter, the whole of the gospel is about power.  For Rome, for Pilate, power really meant the ability to kill people.  Get in the way of Rome, violate Roman law, fail to pay your taxes, and the ultimate Roman answer was violence.  Throughout its vast empire, from Persia to Spain, Roman law was built on the threat of Roman swords, Roman crucifixion, Roman slavery.  Just as Jesus had come into Jerusalem on a donkey, Roman soldiers had entered Jerusalem mounted on horses, Roman standards held high.  It was a show of the military power and might of Rome, which was not to be challenged.

Jesus represented an entirely different kind of power, and Pilate doesn’t know what to make of it.  It scares him, it threatens him, just as it threatened the Jewish religious leaders.

Pilate represented coercive power – power over.  Power to threaten, power to harm, power to abuse.  Power used in the service of one’s own self.  In the temptation in the desert, Satan had tempted Jesus to use his power for his own purposes.  But Jesus rejected that kind of power and that use of power.

Jesus did not use power over, but power alongside others, power for the sake of others.  His was a power to heal, a power to build up.  He uses the power of story, or parable, to teach and inspire and convict and transform.  He uses social power, relational power to welcome outcasts and touch people on the margins.  And so he breaks bread with tax collectors and sinners and people of questionable reputations.  He uses the power of forgiveness and the power of acceptance to change lives.  

And there was a great power in knowing who he was and what he was about.  Pilate, the one who would seem to have all the power here, is the one who unsure, the one who is on the defensive.  Pilate is backed by the power of Rome, but Jesus embodies the power of God.

Now, we can give power a bad name.  Aspiring to power sounds un-Christian.  But I think that is because when we think of power, we think of Pilate’s kind of power, coercive kind of power, rather than Jesus’ kind of power, relational power.  Our church is a part of AMOS, a community organizing group.  To make changes in the community, you have to have power.  Power is not a bad thing in and of itself.  So AMOS focuses on building power through relationships with one another, with people in our community, and of bringing that power to bear in ways that build up the community.  Power is the way we get things done.

The fact is, we all have power, maybe more than we realize.  There are bumper stickers out there that say, “I’m a teacher - what’s your superpower?”  or “I’m a nurse – what’s your superpower?”

Maybe it’s a question worth asking.  “What’s your superpower?”  We all have power.  We all have influence, we all have capability to bring change, to make things happen to accomplish important things.

As parents, spouses, children, grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, community members, neighbors, employees, supervisors, voters, teachers, students, church members—every one of us has some measure of power.  How do we claim that power, and how do we choose to use that power?

What is your superpower?  And, how are you using your power?

Often as not, the power we have is relational power – power we gain by virtue of relationships with others and especially power that comes from God.  Remember Jesus’ words to Pilate?  “You would have no power if it were not given from above.”

If you know me well at all, you won’t be surprised that I feel a need to comment on the NCAA basketball tournament this morning.  In fact, it would be just plain wrong for me not to.

I went to school at Evansville, and back in the day, one of our biggest rivals was Loyola.  Years later, both schools are now in the same conference again, the Missouri Valley, and both because of that connection and because of the fact Loyola had not made the tournament since 1985, I was rooting for them.

And I’ll be darned if the Loyola Ramblers don’t go out and win three games in a row in the final seconds, all against higher ranked opponents, before crushing K-State yesterday.  (And as we Cyclone fans know, beating Kansas State is always a good thing.) :-)  Amazingly, the big media star from Loyola is not their star player Clayton Custer, who transferred to Loyola from Iowa State, and not their coach Porter Moser, who has toiled for years and finally reached success.  The big story is Sister Jean.

If you have watched the games, you know who I’m talking about.  Sister Jean is a 98-year old nun who has been the team chaplain for the Loyola men’s basketball team for 25 years.  98 years old, and everybody wants to interview her.  She has a graciousness and honesty and humility and obvious love for these young men that is powerful.  And it has touched people.  Charles Barkley wants to hang out with her at the Final Four in San Antonio.  They have Sister Jean bobbleheads.  Who would have thought that a 98-year old nun would be the darling of the NCAA Tournament?

She’s not physically powerful.  It is not a coercive power.  It is not power for her own sake.  But hers is a powerful story.

The Apostle Paul had a weakness, something he described as a “thorn in the flesh,” and prayed for it to be taken away.  But the answer was, “My power is made perfect in weakness.”  Power in weakness is a completely different kind of power than the power Pilate was talking about.  But it is real.

Jesus was turned over to be crucified.  It appeared that the powers of this world had won.  But there was power found in weakness.  There was power in the cross.

Tony Campolo told about a week he spent as junior high camp counselor.  (I have to say here that I spent a week myself as a junior high camp counselor.  I did that once.)

At this particular camp, there was a boy named Billy who suffered from cerebral palsy.  Other kids were very cruel.  They picked on him.  As Billy walked across the camp the other kids would imitate him and make fun of him.  Tony was irate.

His anger at the kids reached a fever pitch on Thursday morning.  It was Billy’s cabin’s turn to give devotions.  Tony wondered what would happen, because they had chosen Billy to be their speaker.  Tony knew they just wanted to get Billy in front of everybody so they could make fun of him.  Billy made his way to the front and you could hear the giggles rolling through the crowd.  It seemed to take forever for Billy to give his devotion, all of seven words.  This is what he said:


When Billy finished, there was dead silence.  Tony looked over his shoulder and saw junior high boys bawling all over the place.  A revival broke out in that camp after Billy’s short testimony. 

Tony Campolo says that as he travels all over the world, he has met missionaries and preachers who say, “Remember me?  My life was changed at that junior high camp.”  The counselors had tried everything they could think of to get the kids interested in Jesus.  They even brought in baseball players who told the kids their batting averages had gone up since they started praying.

But God chose not to use the superstars.  God chose Billy.  And Billy’s honest and sincere faith was powerful.  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Jesus was turned over to be crucified.  The week that began with a parade of such high hopes ended with a march toward death.  The powers of this world had apparently won.  But there was another power.  You will have to come back next week to hear the rest of the story.

“What Is Truth?” - March 18, 2018

Text: John 18:28-40

Following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day, students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School spoke out in the midst of their grief and pain.  They were very eloquent in demanding change to make our schools and communities safer.  The response of these students was very powerful.  But within an hour or so, the story was out over the internet that these were not real students but “crisis actors” paid by anti-gun lobbyists.

It was particularly offensive to attack and try to discredit high school students in the midst of loss, but that has almost become par for the course.  We live in a time of wild conspiracy theories, alternative facts, and fake news.  And a lot of folks are only too eager to believe it. 

The way that news spreads via social networking makes it possible for false stuff to get out there in a very short amount of time.  And indeed, a recent study showed that lies travel much faster via Twitter than true stories.  A paper released a couple of weeks ago by scholars at the MIT Media Lab analyzed 126,000 rumors that were spread on Twitter between 2006 and 2017.  They looked at claims that were evaluated by major fact-checking organizations and found that false rumors traveled “farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information,” and especially politics.

It wasn’t that those who were spreading the lies had more followers on Twitter – in fact, the opposite was true.  But it does seem to be the case that the novelty of made-up news is just too good not to pass on.  And we all tend to be taken in by things that we want to be true.

We can all participate in this phenomenon to some extent.  It is easy to live in an echo chamber, only listening to views that match our own opinions and preconceived ideas.  And we are all likely to shade the truth, at least a little, to favor our own position.

Not only do we have those out there purveying lies, there is also a growing hostility to the media and to those seeking to do investigative reporting – attempting to uncover and report on the facts.  It can be difficult to even agree on what the facts are.  It is not an easy time for the truth.

Just this week, the Wall Street Journal had an article titled “Truth Isn’t the Problem – We Are.”    The author noted that while the term “post-truth” has been around for decades, its use skyrocketed in 2016 and is now pretty much an everyday term.  Among other things, truth has become a matter of tribal identity, and that believing the opposite of what so-called experts claim can be a pledge of allegiance to one’s political or opinion group.  So to disagree with 97% of climate scientists that human actions have an impact on climate change, or to insist the genetically modified crops are unsafe, despite an exhaustive study by the National Academy of Sciences concluding there is no such evidence, is at the heart of it not so much an assertion of what is true but a claim of group identity.  But man, it really messes with the truth.

All of this is to say that the question of what is truth is about as contemporary an issue as we can find.  And so our scripture for today seems to be, as they say, ripped from the headlines.

Jesus has been arrested.  Peter has denied him three times.  After appearing before the Jewish High Priest, Jesus has been taken to the Roman governor Pilate.  And what does Pilate ask?  “What is truth?” 

Before we look more closely at that question, let’s go back to set the stage for this conversation. 

After the meal on Thursday night, Jesus was betrayed by Judas and arrested.  He was taken to the priest Annas and then Annas’ father, the high priest Caiaphas.  The Jewish authorities were given a certain amount of freedom in regards to legal matters, but they could not mete out capital punishment.  And it was the conviction of the powers that be that for the good of the nation, Jesus must die.  Only Rome could pronounce that sentence, so Jesus was taken to the Roman governor Pilate.

Now, Pilate did not live in Jerusalem.  His full-time residence was in Caesarea Maritima, along the coast.  What was he doing in Jerusalem?  Well, it was Passover.  A celebration of the Israelites gaining freedom from a foreign power.  This would understandably make the Roman authorities a bit nervous.  So to keep the peace and in a display of power, Roman soldiers were present in numbers during Passover, and Pilate the governor was in town as well.   

From what we know of Pilate, he was a brutal and repressive official.  Writing in the first century, Philo said that Pilate “had vindictiveness and a furious temper.”  He went on to describe Pilate’s “corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never-ending and gratuitous inhumanity.”

Bottom line: Pilate is not a nice guy.  He is sometimes portrayed as a weak and indecisive ruler, but that certainly was not the case.  Pilate was actually governor on two different occasions.  In repressing a potential revolt in Samaria, Pilate was so heavy-handed and brutal, he had so many people killed, that he was recalled to Rome for a time, but later returned to serve again as governor.

Now, don’t think of governor here as we have governors today.  Pilate was essentially a mini-king, answering to nobody but the emperor.  He didn’t have to get the legislature to go along with the budget.  If he wanted someone condemned to death, he could make it happen – he wasn’t constricted by the judicial system. 

The Jewish leaders and temple police, along with Roman soldiers, bring Jesus to Pilate.  What takes place is very interesting.  If they were to enter Pilate’s headquarters in Jerusalem, this would make them ritually unclean for Passover.  So Pilate agrees to come outside to talk to them.  After a brief conversation, after hearing their accusations and concerns, Pilate goes back into his headquarters with Jesus in tow, while Jesus’ accusers remain outside.

So you have the most powerful person in that part of the world, a notably brutal ruler, speaking with an accused, marginal religious leader from an insignificant part of an insignificant country.  This is what you call a definite power imbalance.

And yet, Jesus seems to be the one in control of the situation.  He comes across as cool, calm and collected.  Pilate asks if he is a king, and Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

Pilate responds by saying, “Oh, so you are a king.”  And Jesus says, “Those are your words, not mine.  I came into this world to testify to the truth.”  And Pilate asks that question, “What is truth?”

You may have noticed that Jesus does not reply.  There is no answer.  There is only silence.  Pilate’s words hang in the air.

I don’t think Pilate is asking about scientific truth or fact-checking.  He is asking a bigger, deeper question. 

Pilate has only known expediency.  Doing what is safe, what makes sense, what will protect his position and power.  Jesus represents something entirely different.  In the face of an existential threat, with his life literally on the line, here is someone who is true – true to himself, true to his calling, true to his God.

What is truth?  What is the truth about us, and about God, and about life? 

In a sense, Pilate did not ask the right question.  The question is not “What is truth?”, but “Who is truth?” A few chapters before, Jesus had said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”  Truth, capital T truth, involves relationship.  It involves community.  It involves not just a set of beliefs, not just a group of facts, but it involves our actions, our living.

If you ride a bicycle, eventually your tires can get a little wobbly, a little out of balance.  A tire may rub on the brake pad at a certain place with each revolution of the wheel.  Maybe you have hit a few too many curbs or potholes, or maybe over time things have just gotten a bit out of kilter.  So what you have to do is to true the wheels.  You adjust the tension on the spokes in order to get the wheel to where it is true.

A bicycle wheel is a good metaphor for our lives.  Are our lives true?  Or have we become out of balance, not really our true selves?

I think of those leaders who brought Jesus before Pilate.  It is an absurd scene.  They do not want to make themselves ritually unclean, and so they do not enter Pilate’s residence.  Now, condemning an innocent man to death, perjury, conspiracy to commit murder – these don’t seem to be big issues, but entering a Gentile’s home right before Passover would be a real problem.  Things were definitely out of kilter here.  It seems to me that they were not being true to the faith that they professed.  And we can be the same way as we worry about small matters and ignore the larger claims of love and justice.  Living a true life means living a whole life, a life of integrity.

Some of us are reading a devotional book by Walter Brueggemann during Lent.  In the last week’s readings, Brueggemann said a couple of things that resonated for me in relation to this question of truth.

He writes,

Ours is a time like the flood, like the exile, when the certitudes abandon us, the old reliabilities have become unsure, and “things fall apart.” The falling part is happening for conservatives, and it is happening for liberals.  It is happening all around us and to all of us.  In such a context of enormous fearfulness, our propensity is to enormous destruction.  We grow more strident, more fearful, more anxious, more greedy for our own way, more despairing, and, consequently, more brutal.  That propensity to destructiveness is all around us.  On many days we succumb to its power; we succumb to the need to look only after ourselves and our kind, only selfishly, only ideologically, only “realistically.”  (A Way Other Than Our Own, p. 54)
That was the position of those who brought Jesus to Pilate.  They were being “realistic,” they told themselves, and were willing to sacrifice this man for what they considered to be the good of the nation.

Brueggemann writes that we have bought into a story of scarcity – that there is only so much to go around, only so many resources, only so much power, only so much capacity for joy and fulfillment and contentment, and that we better do what we can to take care of ourselves and our own.  This narrative of scarcity says that it is a win-lose world, and we need to do whatever it takes to insure that we are on the winning side.  We have bought into the anxiety and fearfulness of our time.  But then he writes:

The story we tell about scarcity is a fantasy. It is not a true story. It is a story invented by those who have too much to justify getting more.  It is a story accepted by those who have nothing in order to explain why they have nothing. That story is not true, because the world belongs to God and God is the creator of the abundant life.  (p. 51)

In Oklahoma last Sunday, we went to the Bacone College Baptist Church, which meets in the chapel at the college.  It was a very small group, as the students were on spring break.  We met a young couple named Eric and Yuree.  They had met at school there and got married.  Eric is from Wisconsin and Yuree came to the U.S. as a refugee from Burma – her ethnicity is Karen.  Her younger brothers live with them.  Eric has graduated and is the Assistant Pastor at the church; Yuree is still a student and she is a Christian Ministry intern at the college chapel.  They hope to go as missionaries to work in refugee camps in Thailand. 

Until coming to the U.S. a few years ago, Yuree and her family had lived in the refugee camps.  The camps have been there for 50 years – there are people who have lived their entire lives in those camps because of a fearful and brutal government in their own country.

That narrative of scarcity that fears the other, that tries to take advantage of and subjugate and abuse the other, has been around a long, long, time.  We can get sucked into that story.  But it is not a true story.

Pilate went back out and addressed those who brought Jesus before him.  “I find no case against him,” he said.  But the crowd would have none of it.  When he offers to release Jesus, the crowd says, “We want Barabbas.” 

What is truth?  Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”  Truth is found in a life of integrity, a whole life, a life of care and compassion and generosity that rejects the false story of scarcity and fear and lives in the truth of God’s abundance.  Amen.  

Saturday, March 3, 2018

“Jesus, Mister Rogers, and You” - March 4, 2018

Text: John 13:1-17

Jesus can be so weird.  So odd.  I don’t mean goofy weird or creepy weird or inscrutably, unexplainably strange.  What I mean is that Jesus is just so very different from what we would expect.  Different from what society would expect of a respectable and successful person.

Consider this: Jesus is famous.  He is a household name.  He has a huge franchise.  Countless millions want to invoke his name and claim to be his follower.  Now the Church – the institution – may be falling out of favor, but not Jesus.  Jesus is popular.  Jesus is a big success.

How do successful people generally act?  How do they behave?  What are their goals and aspirations and visions?  What is their attitude toward life?

Generally, the instinct is to build empires.  To amass wealth.  To lead companies, to build bank accounts, to expand spheres of influence, to exert control.  Folks usually want to cash in on their popularity and make the most of their opportunities.  They take advantage of the symbols of status by driving a luxury vehicle, living in a mansion, flying first class, vacationing in exotic locations and doing it all in style.  They don’t have to do dirty or difficult or menial work – they can hire people to do it for them.

Most of us, of course, never manage most of these things but we aspire.  In our own way, we can aspire to bigger, better, more powerful, more impressive.  And then there is Jesus.

In our scripture for today, Jesus is with his disciples, sharing the meal on Thursday of Passover week.  We have been making our way through the gospel of John, and for the next few weeks we will look at scenes from the last week of Jesus’ life.  Amazingly, 10 of the 21 chapters in John focus on this one week.  The gospel takes place over three years, and if John gave as much attention to every week of those 3 years as he did to this one week, then the gospel of John would contain 1560 chapters (I did the math.)  Admittedly, a lot of important things happen in that week, but this is just to say how much John zeroes in on what we have come to call Holy Week.  And if we wait until Holy Week to look at the events of Holy Week, we’re going to miss a lot.  So here we are.

Jesus is with his disciples, it is just before Passover, and what does he do?  He washes their feet.  It’s not the image we would expect.  This is far from the way we expect a leader, a person of power, a respected person to act.  To imagine washing somebody’s feet, you might think that it actually is kind of creepy.  The fact is, this was not uncommon in that culture.

To provide for foot washing was a common act of hospitality.  Travelers walked hot and dusty roads, and the host often offered water to guests so that they could wash their feet.  But the foot washing was generally done by the guests themselves – you washed your own feet.   It was self-service.  Or there might be a servant who would wash the feet of guests.  But here, Jesus combined the roles of host and servant.  He wrapped himself with a towel – taking on the uniform of a servant.  And then Jesus himself washed his disciples’ feet. 

This odd combination of roles is what Peter objects to.  Hosts do not wash the feet of guests.  Rabbis do not wash the feet of disciples.  Leaders do not act as servant to followers.  Jesus’ actions offended Peter’s sensibility.  And if we are honest, this offends our sensibility.  Because we aspire to be a success, we aspire to at least a certain level of social standing, and that does not mean taking the role of a servant.

The conversation that takes place between Peter and Jesus highlights the striking nature of the hospitality that Jesus provides for his disciples.  This really is a surprising action.

Some of you may have come from traditions that practice foot-washing.  Many Mennonite and Brethren groups practice foot-washing as an ordinance or regular practice, and Christians from a lot of different traditions may from time to time practice foot-washing during Holy Week in remembrance of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

Martin Copenhaver, who was the president at Andover-Newton Seminary, told about the conversation a parishioner had in a small store near the church.  She saw a man who looked vaguely familiar and asked, “Didn’t I wash your feet last Thursday?”  The man responded, “I think so, but it was rather dark, so I can’t be sure.”

She went on:  “I had never done anything like that before.  That’s why I was so nervous.”  He said, “Well, it was a first for me, also.”

Then they both became aware that the shopkeeper behind the counter looked both shocked and confused by what she was hearing.  Seeing this reaction, the parishioner rushed to reassure the shopkeeper:  “It’s not like it sounds.  We are both part of Village Church.  We do that kind of thing there.”  The explanation did not help.  The shopkeeper laughed nervously and then abruptly changed the subject.

Well, it is shocking, really, but then, we are following One who consistently shocked others by doing outrageous things - like washing his disciples’ feet, a lowly servant’s task.

It has been customary through the centuries for the Pope to commemorate Jesus washing the feet of his disciples by washing the feet of twelve priests at the Vatican each Holy Thursday.  Over time, it wasn’t so shocking anymore, but more like a beloved ritual.  But then came Pope Francis, who washes the feet of priests, yes, but also women and Muslims and people with disabilities and prisoners.  There are those who have been aghast at what they consider outrageous and inappropriate behavior, but it seems to me that Pope Francis understands what it is about – that with Jesus, leadership means servanthood.

Most of you are probably familiar with Mister Rogers.  Fred Rogers had a PBS television program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, for 31 years.  Some of you know that he was an ordained Presbyterian minister.  He was commissioned to do ministry with children through his television program.

In Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, there were make-believe characters like King Friday XIII and Lady Elaine Fairchild, and there were also “real” characters like Mr. and Mrs. McFeely and Handyman Negri.  A Story Corps interview aired on Natinal Public Radio with one of the cast of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.   Fred Rogers met François Clemmons in 1968 after hearing him sing at the church they both attended, near Pittsburgh.  He was so impressed with his voice that he asked him to join the show. 

At the time, François was a graduate student trying to get his singing career going.  He was reluctant to accept Fred’s offer.  But after realizing he would get paid to appear on the show—enabling him to afford his rent—François accepted.  He was the first African American actor to have a recurring role on a children’s television series.

Part of his reluctance was that he was going to play the role of Officer Clemmons.  He had personally had negative experiences with police, and had experienced firsthand the violence that civil rights protesters had suffered at the hands of law enforcement.  So he really wasn’t sure about this. 

But fairly early on, a scene from the show convinced him that he could help make a positive impact on society.  In one episode, he had been walking the beat all day, and Mister Rogers invited Officer Clemmons to sit down and rest.  Mister Rogers had his feet in a plastic wading pool and invited Officer Clemmons to take off his shoes and rest his feet in the pool.  So he does, and then when he gets out of the pool, Mister Rogers takes a towel and helps dry off Officer Clemmons’ feet.  Fred Rogers knew exactly what he was doing - it was a picture of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

This was 1969.  There was a thing about mixing races in pools.  Martin Luther King had recently been assassinated.  But here on this children’s program, there were black and white feet together in the pool, and Mister Rogers drying off Officer Clemmons’ feet.  After that episode, Mister Rogers was on the receiving end of outrage and hate mail. 

In the Story Corps interview, Francois continued:

I’ll never forget one day I was watching him film a session.  And you know how at the end of the program he takes his sneakers off, hangs up his sweater and he says, “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are?”  I was looking at him when he was saying that, and he walks over to where I was standing.  And I said, “Fred were you talking to me?”  And he said, “Yes, I have been talking to you for years.  But you heard me today.”  It was like telling me I’m OK as a human being.  That was one of the most meaningful experiences I’d ever had.
Imagine that Jesus is not just washing the disciples’ feet.  Imagine that he is washing your feet.  Imagine that Jesus is looking right at you and saying to you, “I like you just the way you are.”

The call to follow Jesus is not a call to glitz and glamor.  It is not a call to fame and fortune.  It is not a call to popularity.  It is not a call to success, as the world defines success.  It is a call to service.  It is a call to love all of God’s children.  It is a call to probably get into some trouble, to probably offend some people somewhere along the line, because we are following One who got into trouble.

At the heart of Christian discipleship is service.  Next Saturday, we have a group who will be going on a mission trip to Oklahoma.  We will have fun, we will hopefully have some good food, we will enjoy being together, at least I expect that we will.  It’s not really a big sacrifice.  But it is about service.  We will be there to do what needs to be done.  Cleaning up the yard, hauling off debris, cleaning out storage areas, painting, doing fairly menial tasks – it’s not glamorous, but when we are serving we are asking, “What needs to be done?” and doing it.

Serving is doing what needs to be done for the sake of others.  And I see this over and over again.  In our church, I see folks who give of their time and effort, often in ways that go mostly unseen, to do what needs to be done.  I know that many of you serve in our community, serve in your neighborhood, make a real difference in the lives of friends and neighbors and family members and students and co-workers because you have hearts of service.

The thing about service is that it is something all of us can do.  Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve.  You only need a heart full of grace.  A soul generated by love.” 

The call to follow Jesus is a call to serve.  But there is also a flip-side to that.  For some of us, service comes fairly easily.  We enjoy serving others.  But if we have a need – whoa, that’s a different story.  We don’t want anyone doing for us.  We don’t need help.  We can take care of ourselves.  We are self-sufficient.

The fact is, we are all self-sufficient – until we’re not.  When we are unwilling to be on the receiving end, we are denying someone else the opportunity to serve.  And what we are really doing is keeping at arm’s length the possibility of relationship.

Peter was offended by the thought of Jesus washing his feet.  But once Jesus set him straight, Peter said, well, then not just my feet but my head and my hands too!  And Jesus said, the point is not the cleansing power of water.  It is the power of relationship.

The call to follow Jesus is a call to service.  But it is also a call to be willing to accept service from others.  We are all called to serve one another, and to serve all of God’s children.

We will receive communion this morning.  At times, we all come forward for communion, at times we may do it differently, but most often, we pass the plates of bread and trays of juice through the congregation.  A deacon may serve you, especially if you are on the end of a pew, but you may be the one to serve the person next to you.  The pastor and worship leader serve the deacons, but then a deacon also serves us.  You might think it is all just the choreography of the way we do communion, but behind it is this idea of all of us serving one another as we serve Jesus.  Amen.