Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 † Mark 11:1-11
A video version of this sermon can be found here.
We have been marching for a long time.
I was a cold war baby. I remember as a young boy having it seared into my head that the Soviet Union was a ruthless, godless nation that brainwashed its people into believing crazy things that I, as a privileged child of a true and free democracy was safe from.
It was a powerful message that shaped me. In fact, it took me until college to begin to realize that I just may have been played, that it was entirely possible that I too had been brainwashed—that messages of supremacy and themes of otherness and images of power had been reinforced in my life and my own culture that shaped me toward some understandings and soured me to others.
I began to suspect when I got to know people who thought differently, who shaped their lives around values and priorities that authoritative voices in my own life had learned to fear or reject. I began to suspect when I traveled to places that I understood from my childhood formation had little value or interest and discovered that I learned, that I grew, that my eyes were opened.
Deuteronomy 34:1-12 † Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 † 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 † Matthew 22:34-46
Back in 2000 my daughter Claire and I went camping with a dear friend and his daughter. The next year another dear college friend and his daughters joined us. Soon enough, my son Peter was old enough and he started coming, building what became a summer camping tradition that lasted some 15 years—essentially through the school years of all our kids.
The annual July drive to our camping trip in Mount Rainier National Park was always a highlight of the year. We hiked all through the park and in nearby locations. We celebrated meals together and spent long hours in conversation around the fire. We created memories that shaped us and will outlast my lifetime. The kids are older now. Half of them are married and have started their own families.
There was one year, one conversation I was reminded of this week. We had been going to the same campground—Ohanapecosh in the Southeast corner of the Park—for at least a decade and we dads began to wonder if we ought to change it up a bit. So we proposed the idea of a new location, a new adventure for the following year to the kids. Before we could even finish the sentence, and with one voice they all cried out: “No! It’s tradition!”
Now, let me try to explain the impact of this on me in the moment.
Isaiah 45:1-7 † Psalm 96:1-13 † 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 † Matthew 22:15-22
A video version of this sermon can be found in the context of online worship here.
We know from the outset that there is no good will here. Matthew tells us at the beginning that the Pharisees are out to entrap Jesus. They are looking to take him down. They are not seeking truth. They are long past that point. They are out for blood. And we know well enough they will soon get it.
And they form a strange alliance to set their trap. Now, we don’t know much about the Herodians in the Matthew text, but their name suggests they are loyal to Herod. They are not religious; they are political—Roman partisans. They see the heavy hand of Roman rule on the Jewish people as justified, which puts them in opposition to the large population of Jerusalem that bristled under ongoing Roman occupation and rose up in popular armed rebellions on both sides of this story.
So let’s just say there is some tension here. I suppose we might know a thing or two about that.
Matthew 21:1-11 † Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
I suspect it is good for us to remember, especially on a day like today, that where we start is not where we end. It’s true of this infection curve that has become so ubiquitous to our Facebook feeds and news casts; it’s true of the limitations we are being asked to put on our movements and interactions; and it is true of this story of a parade and the tightly-packed cheering, chanting, dizzy crowd that may cause you to squirm as much as it does me, alert and militant in our commitment to social distancing and to the prevention of spreading this infection to our neighbors and loved ones.
But here we are at the beginning of a Holy Week that is going to get even more crowded and super-heated than it already is here among the palms and coats and shouts, before we find ourselves just a week from now amidst the quiet of dawn and a garden and a tomb that is empty of even its one quarantined resident.
Genesis 12:1-4 † Psalm 121 † Romans 4:1-5, 13-17† John 3:1-17
Have you ever wondered why Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night? What do you suppose could be possible reasons for this?
It is a striking detail to include, especially given what he says next:
So Nicodemus knows that what is happening has everything to do with the presence and the power of God. It rings with truth. He knows it. Yet he appears to be sneaking around, keeping his identity protected, proceeding with caution, and maybe even a little fear. And did you notice, even though its just him, he says, “We”
Isaiah 62:1-5 † Psalm 36:5-10 † 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 † John 2:1-11
So what is going on here?
Is this a story about a wedding that hasn’t been planned very well, a potential social disaster, a mother and son bickering because they don’t want their friends to be embarrassed? It could be. “Woman”--mother, why are you asking me. It’s not my time. And yet, apparently it is. Jesus’ objection seems to drown in the flow of the story as water jars are quickly filled, as an oblivious steward is astounded, and as a wedding is saved with about 400 bottles of really good wine no one accounted for.
Or maybe it’s not that at all. Maybe the party wasn’t about to collapse. Maybe this wasn’t about poor planning. It could have been even worse: a story about a poor, struggling family doing their best to pull off a celebration demanded by social customs that they could not afford. Suddenly this gift not only saves the day, but delivers them from shame.
Or, it could be that this was a celebration that was simply winding down: “When the wine had run out,” the story goes, as if this was the expectation, as if there was an understanding that all good celebrations have a closing time.
If we read it that way, this becomes gratuitous. A story about abundance for the sake of abundance—unnecessary, saving nothing, a sign, as John tells us, the “first of his signs” of a story and a savior that is so full of life that nothing will be able to hold it back—not powers or principalities, armies or political leaders. Gratuitousness, generosity, an onslaught of extravagance. There are many ways we could read this. The story does not seem to tip its hand.
This is a sign—the first of his signs, says the text. But a sign of what? What do the disciples see that makes them believe in him and sets this greater story in motion?
Isaiah 60:1-6 • Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 • Ephesians 3:1-12 • Matthew 2:1-12
I’m currently reading two books side-by-side. I don’t say that to impress you. In fact, I wouldn’t say that I planned it. Mostly, I fell into it. If I were more honest, I’d tell you that I can’t bear to read the one alone, so it is, as much as anything, a matter of survival.
The one—the hard one, the devastating one—is a book by Chris Hedges called America: The Farewell Tour. Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, formerly a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. I’ve talked about him before and about at least two of his numerous previous books. One is called War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. The self-evident title reflected on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another, Losing Moses on the Freeway, was an examination of the ten commandments as they relate to American culture. I recommend them both.
In addition to his years in the Balkans, the Americas and the Middle East, Hedges’ writing is informed by his religious education as a seminarian at Harvard Divinity School—thus the reflection he did on the commandments.
Hedges is a devastating writer. He writes in excruciating detail about the state of things, creating a provocative and difficult-to-deny indictment on where we are currently—the decay of American democracy, and perhaps even civilization itself as the common good has been sacrificed at the altar of greed. “We cannot battle racism, bigotry, and hate crimes, often stoked by the ruling elites,” he contends, “without first battling for economic justice.”[I]
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 † Psalm 90:12-17 † Hebrews 4:12-16 † Mark 10:17-31
There are five big words in the scriptures that speak to what God is like. Five big words that make the journey through the arc of the scriptures. Five big words that speak of God, and speak of us, because in the Christian biblical tradition, what it means to be human is to be in the image of God. What it means to be human is to delight in what God delights.[I] Five big words that speak of promise and possibility. Five big words that speak to what holds the world together. Five big words that give us something of an anchor in these unmoored times.
Five big words: Justice, righteousness, steadfast love, faithfulness, compassion.
I’ve been thinking about these lately, because I’ve been wondering about how we are going to hold together what seems to be spinning apart. I’ve been wondering about how we are going to find ways to live as one, to live with hope, to look to a future that is for everyone, not just for the 50.1 percent of us—or sometimes less—who can muster the votes to muscle our way or our version of the world on others. I’ve been thinking about these lately because, not only can we not agree on ideals, goals, truth. We seem not even to be able to agree on facts.
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16 † Psalm 19:7-14 † James 5:13-20 † Mark 9:38-50
In his book of essays called My Story as Told by Water[i], northwest writer David James Duncan writes of the chasm between his father and himself. His dad was a World War II vet whose perspective had been forever fixed by the searing experience of liberating a Nazi concentration camp. Duncan was a product of the protest culture of the 1960s Vietnam era. His experience was not unlike many in that age. He describes it this way:
In 1966, when I was fourteen, I began to question the war at our family supper table. The instant I’d speak up, my father would snap that the only reason I could criticize the war at all was that our troops in Vietnam were protecting my freedom to do so. I would argue back by saying that my freedom did not strike me as being dependent upon the clique of Saigon businessmen whom Americans were actually protecting, or on the deaths of the civilians our troops kept “accidentally” killing. Dad would then go off like a bomb, bellowing that I would never talk such rot if I’d seen a concentration camp.
Duncan describes the escalating series of arguments and tensions that grew night after night at the dinner table as both father and son found themselves dug-in deeper and deeper like fox-holes in perspectives that were shaped as much by their stations in life—Duncan as a student watching young men his brothers’ ages going off to a senseless and unwinnable war, never to come back, his father as a veteran of a more comprehensible war with an identifiable enemy, a clearer finish, and now a defense-industry salary that supported his family, including his son of fourteen years.
“I know now,” Duncan writes, “that no argument I could have constructed would have changed my father’s mind, any more than his ‘Nazi’ mantra could change mine. We needed wisdom.”
Isaiah 50:4-9a † Psalm 116:1-9 † James 3:1-12 † Mark 8:27-38
It’s almost as if these readings were chosen for the beginning of school, isn’t it? They are all about learning and all about teaching. And that would not be out of the realm of possibility. The cycle of readings that we share with many Christians throughout the world were formed by a classroom full of teachers who took many things into account as they studied the scriptures, paid attention to points of connection, themes, repetition, insight. There is, as we have noted before, a surplus of meaning here.
And yet, caution is advised. We may not want to look too closely this morning, unless we are prepared to be challenged.
The readings start out well enough with Isaiah: “The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.”[i]
That’s a powerful, moving image, isn’t it? To sustain the weary with a good word—who wouldn’t want to do something so lovely. Not only our actions, but our words have power—to encourage, to empower, to heal. What an important thing to remember in these days when words seem to be so frequently weaponized instead—deployed for maximum destruction.
St. Andrew Sermons