Dear faithful readers, all 15 of you…
After a few busy weeks off, I've decided to suspend this blog for now. It's changed premise at least twice, and the new format requires more time than I have to put towards this effort. Thank you for coming along for the ride. It was fun while it lasted. Perhaps in the future I'll resurrect it, but for now, it's that one thing too many.
Thursday, April 17, 2014
By this point in your reading, Easter has almost come, and if you don’t already have a message planned, you’re probably feeling a bit behind. And you probably are, considering that Holy Week has several preaching demands, and Easter preaching should always be a consideration several weeks prior to Easter. But hey, life happens, so let’s talk about a few ideas.
For starters, this week requires some more preliminary concerns.
1. Audience—The congregation of Easter Sunday is usually larger than other Sunday of the year, and is probably your biggest attendance at a Sunday service. I don’t add, “except Christmas Eve” here, because Christmas Eve rarely falls on a Sunday. But it does happen, about once ever 7-8 years. The audience, therefore, is somewhat larger than usual, perhaps even significantly larger than usual. As such, you’ve probably got a few who rarely go to Church, and some who probably have no idea who Jesus was, let alone Peter, Pontius Pilate, Mary, or anyone else. They also probably have a very loose understanding of Resurrection, beyond the idea that Jesus rose from the dead.
I generally preach at around a 5th grade reading level anyhow, but you’ve got to go even softer with this one. Some clergy look at Easter as a reward to those who have been keeping the faith and maintaining their prayers, and an Easter egg hunt for everyone else. And that will be true, regardless of what you preach. But there is an opportunity here. If you’re stuck in the bog of regularity, consider going off the beaten path. If you’re used to preaching a mere celebration, consider a challenging sermon, but use simple language, and be extra-concerned about using church jargon this week.
Some preachers are afraid to scare off potential parishioners with anything scary. However, it’s only scary if their soul is in turmoil, or in need of rescue. As per usual, good sermons should comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comforted, and Easter is no time to back off of that mission. In short, BRING IT! Don’t hesitate to preach comfort, but there are some who have not idea what Lent is, have not said a prayer or opened a Bible in years, so this is their annual dose of religion…what will you put in their ears to heal their souls and invite them back the next week?
2. Repetition—If you’re dusting off last year’s Easter sermon, or one from 2 years ago, may I suggest the following: Easter liturgy is usually exactly the same from year to year, regardless of the lectionary. The same is true with Christmas Eve. The lessons are the same, year A, B, and C. I’m also willing to bet the music is almost exactly the same, with the exception of a special offertory hymn or something like that. While at Christmas, the people will complain if you don’t sing “Silent night”, I’ve never heard someone say, “Well if they don’t play Hail thee Festival Day, it’s just not Easter!” Consider the fact that some people will have the perspective that they have no incentive to come to Church, because you say the exact same thing every time they come. And if you’re using the same lectionary, liturgy, music, and even sermon, they’re completely correct, and their point is valid.
Rick Warren suggested a couple of weeks ago on his blog that you begin your preaching on Easter with a sermon series. This can be an entrance for people to come to the Church for Easter, but with the incentive of returning the next 4 weeks to hear the rest of your series. After a month, you might just have them for good, if your sermon is good.
3. Wasted Advertisement?—Many churches invest a lot in the idea of advertising Easter like crazy, through posters, flyers, or direct-mail publications. It seems that most people who come to church for the first time, come at 3 peak-times of the year: Christmas Eve, Easter, and late August to early September for the back-to-school time. As such, churches like to advertise like crazy about Christmas and Easter, although they typically don’t even think about back-to-school time. I’ve made a hobby of collecting Easter/Christmas advertisements that come in the mail over the last few years. Every time, I call the pastor after Easter, and I ask, “Did you see a boost in membership after advertising Easter (or Christmas)?” The answer has usually been: No. They typically say, “We might see a boost in Easter attendance, but no boost in membership.” The long-and-short of this, at least in my interpretation is, advertising only works to potentially get people in the door. Once inside, they will only stay if they like your product. And if your product is watered down because it’s Easter, they won’t know that you’re not watered down all of the time. So, with that in mind, ask yourself the following questions:
a. What good things that ALSO advertise your church do you cancel on Easter, because it’s Easter? Sunday school? Bible Study? Youth programs? If you cancel these things, how are visitors supposed to test-drive your church?
b. Do you put all of your energy into advertising, and none into the sermon? If you advertise the greatest service of the year, yet put almost nothing into the sermon, will it be any good? Will they be attracted in any way to returning to hear you say anything further next Sunday? If the sermon is the last consideration, what will people take home?
c. Regarding Easter-egg hunts…how many people do this at home for their kids anyway? I once served a church that collected extra eggs and baskets for the kids who had nothing on Easter. However, I’ve almost never seen a child come to Easter Mass without a basket. Even our nearly-homeless families tuned up in nice clothes on Easter, and some of them even out-dressed the regular congregation. This year, at least where I live, the focus of the Easter Egg hunt has shifted to mid-week. In fact, I noticed 2 churches that did a “glow in the dark” Easter egg hunt last Thursday, almost 2 weeks before Easter. So the underlying question here is, “How much energy and attention do we give to something the people do at home anyhow?” Do YOU (the pastor/preist) have to give this any of YOUR attention this week? Can this be delegated to allow you more time to prepare a sermon?
d. With all of this in mind, consider how much are we “mailing it in” for Easter, when we should be AMPING IT UP for Easter? Really give your attention to things such as visitor welcome bags, guest-book, data capture visitor cards, and all of the things that could actually be used to retain a few people after Easter. Easter can become a time when we get focused on ourselves and our church parties and Easter Egg hunts, that we neglect to follow through on keeping those folks we are trying to attract.
Ok, now on to the lessons. Sunday is getting closer.
It should be no surprise that the RCL and BCP are exactly the same for Easter lections. As such, the following commentary will work for both.
The Old Testament lessons for Easter are traditionally replaced with readings from the Acts of the Apostles. So what if you focused your sermon series, or at least your sermon for Easter, on the idea of “What do we do, after Jesus is resurrected and ascended?” Which is to say, when it’s all up to us to carry this Gospel forward, how does that change what we do? The church tries to honor this concept with Ascension Day, which is 40 days into Easter. Although you don’t quite have the crowd you have on Easter. In my experience, weekday mass attendance, even for high holy days, is pitiful. So why not capitalize on this idea now? We’ve just been through a season of “40 days” of Lenten preparation. What if your sermon began this week on “The Next 40 Days”?
In this lesson from Acts, which is 10 chapters into the book, Peter is preaching about the mission of the Apostles: to carry forth the faith after Jesus was gone. “We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem.” Peter makes the point just after this that Jesus only appeared to a few people who were chosen by God to be witnesses, and he commanded them to preach, to testify, that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead, and that Jesus was the one prophesied by the prophets.
Now, if you read this to the people, it sounds cold, and flat, and without real meaning, until you amp it up for their understanding. They have no idea who Jesus is, let alone the Apostles, the Prophets, and they’re not real eager to meet their Judge, nor to talk about anything as serious as the living and the dead.
Here’s a brief sample of one idea:
“Genuine Christians are not people who sit and reminisce. We are not meant to be people who hear a word, and save it in our pocket for a rainy day. We are the witnesses of Jesus Christ in this world, and the world will only hear of him if WE speak, WE preach, WE give testimony, and WE remind them that HE will be our judge and no one else. This mission begins with us. Some of us have just gone through Lent, while others are just hearing these things, or hearing them anew in a new light.
We know absolutely nothing about some of the people who were witnesses of the actual resurrection. In fact, most of the Apostles are a mystery to us. We have rumors of some, only the names of a few others.
Meanwhile, the greatest “Apostle” of the Early Church was not only absent from the life of Jesus, absent from the death of Jesus, and absent from the Resurrection of Jesus, but he also was a hunter of Apostles, killer of Disciples, and enemy of the Church…until God opened his eyes, and Christ entered his heart. He was born Saul, but we know him as Paul. So if you find yourself this morning feeling like someone who missed the boat, missed the show, missed the life of Jesus, the death of Jesus, the Resurrection of Jesus, and only know his name…perhaps you have even been an opponent of the Gospel…well, then you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in some really good company—because this is Easter.
Easter is a time to seek resurrection for yourself. Easter is a time to catch a boat that has already sailed. Easter is a time to become an even greater Apostle than the 12, because Easter has no expiration date. Jesus’ tombstone doesn’t exist. The tomb is empty. The cross is taken down. The nails we put there have been removed. Nothing is holding you back from becoming a faithful witness…at least, nothing on God’s end is holding you back. What will you do with the NEXT 40 days?
1. What did the Apostles think when Jesus was raised? Do you suppose they had any idea that he would leave this work to them?
2. What happens next, for us? When Easter is over, and the plastic eggs are all gathered, what do we do next?
3. Do people know this message well enough to share it? Peter says to his audience, “You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching the Peace of Jesus Christ—he is lord of all.” Do our people know this message? How can you train them in one week to become evangelists in your town, this week, with power and authority?
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
There is a powerful sermon in preaching the VISTORY of Jesus Christ through the words of this Psalm.
However there is also a danger in this kind of a sermon for a crowd who has not shared in the victory. It’s like having a pep-rally for the visiting team in our home town gym, or attending a parade for someone whom you do not know. So much of the faith is so foreign even to some of our parishioners, that this message may be premature for their ears.
For those who are looking for a resurrection, and end to their temptations, and who have taken on Lenten disciplines and come out victorious, Easter is a celebration, and a chance to be proud of the spiritual progress they have made. But that’s a small crowd.
Preaching to this small percentage has the danger of sounding like a finger-pointing indictment against the rest. It can be done, but it must be done carefully. The sin of the Church must include the preacher’s sin, and the invitation to move forward must include the pastor as well.
I follow Rick Warren on twitter, among others, and I find it very impressive that he actually searches for people who claim to be beginning his book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” which is a 40-day trial of self-examination and self-reflection in the light of the Gospel, and he constantly tells people who claim to be starting his book, “I’ll be praying for you for these next 40 days, and a time or two, he went through his own book again as a spiritual discipline, so to walk that path again, even for the good of his own soul.
Christian discipleship is never, in my experience, a “been there, done that” phenomenon. Rather, it is a constant cycle of returning to God, re-examining ourselves, and bringing someone else on board the next time we start the cycle over again. So if Easter is the well-deserved celebration, who will you bring in on the next round of conversion?
St. Francis de Sales says in The Introduction to the Devout Life:
“Consider Jacob’s ladder, for it is a true picture of the devout life. The two sides between which he climb upward and to which the rungs are fastened represent prayer, which calls down God’s love, and the sacraments, which confer it. The rungs are the various degrees of charity by which we can advance from virtue to virtue, either descending by deeds of help and support for our neighbor, or by contemplation ascending to a loving union with God. I ask you to regard attentively those who are on this ladder. They are either men with angelic hearts, or angels in human bodies. They are not young, although they seem to be so because they are full of vigor and spiritual agility. They have wings to soar aloft to God in holy prayer, and they also have feet to walk among men in a holy and lovable way of life.”
It’s ok to celebrate the achievement of walking with God, but only if we make it our equal aim, to continue to walk among men, climbing both upward and downward between heaven and Earth, and bringing others along for the climb.
This lesson is the fruit of the tree planted above. “Set your minds on the things that are above, not on things that are on the earth…”
As a bonus, here’s Francis de Sales’ conclusion to the previous reading on advancing from charity (selfless acts of love, or selfless love itself) to devotion:
“Believe me, devotion is the delight of delights and queen of the virtues since it is the perfection of charity. If charity is milk, devotion is its cream; if it is a plant, devotion it its blossom; if it is a precious stone, devotion is its luster; if it is a rich ointment, devotion is its odor (perfume), yes, the odor of sweetness which comforts men, and rejoices angels.”
Likewise, resurrection is but the first day of a new life in Christ.
John 20:1-18 or Matthew 28:1-10
Unlike the remainder of the lessons, the Gospel option does change from year to year. Year A gives us the John or Matthew option, where Year B gives us Mark, and Year C offers only Luke’s gospel. Christmas only ever offers Luke’s gospel, because that’s the only Gospel with the elaborate infancy narrative. But that’s a digression…
The first consideration is to make sure what you’re preaching (especially if it’s mostly a recycled sermon) actually matches the text. John’s gospel offers a quite different account of Easter morning than the synoptics. This is not to invite you to give a treatise on the difference in the 4 Gospels on the resurrection narratives. If you’re considering this, roll up a magazine or newspaper and smack yourself in the face and say, “NO!” It is to warn you to be careful to preach on the text before you.
If preaching from John 20:1-18…
John’s gospel offers un an uncomfortable view of Easter morning. Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty, and runs away scared (like in Mark’s Gospel) to tell others (which she didn’t do in Mark’s Gospel, but rather said nothing to nobody). Peter and John have a race to the tomb. John wins the race, but doesn’t go in, but rather peeks to find only a cloth that had covered Jesus’ head wrapped up in a ball. Peter arrives a little later, probably out of breath, and they go in together. The Gospel reports something I find fascinating: “Then the other disciple (John) saw, and believed, but as yet did not understand the scripture, that he must rise form the dead.” For John, the author of this Gospel, belief came first—understanding came second. Sound familiar?
Consider asking this question of your people: can you believe, without understanding? John certainly did. He had a sneaking suspicion, yet he believed, and through belief, he came to a fuller understanding of the scriptures by further study, teaching, and investigating.
A second perspective here is that of Mary seeing Jesus, but not knowing at first that it was Jesus. First, she is weeping because she thinks someone has stolen Jesus’ body. At least, that’s what she reports to the Angels. In fact, she then says to a man whom she thinks is the gardener, “If you took him, show me where, and I’ll take his body away.” Then he calls her by name, “Mary,” and she turns around and says, “Rabbouni” which John translates for us as “Teacher.” She was talking to Jesus, but was not aware that she as talking to the man for whom she was weeping. This is almost like showing up for your own funeral. The other Gospels say that she returned to anoint his body, although John gives that job to Nicodemus, but either way, Jesus gets to see the love Mary has for him, even though she doesn’t know it’s him! What a beautiful scene.
Here’s a question…if Jesus heard us speak about him, and witnessed our sermon on Easter morning, as an anonymous stranger in the congregation, would he get any sense that we love him, even as much s Mary? Would he say “Amen” to our sermon? What if one of those strangers in the congregation IS Jesus?
After this, Mary reported to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” What will you report?
If preaching from Matthew 28:1-10…
First, look at your last Year A sermon, 3 years ago…what did you preach on then? If it was Matthew, which may be the case, consider whether the people should wait another 3 years to hear John’s narrative. Or if the last 2 were on John, consider whether this is time for Matthew’s Easter Gospel to have its day in the sun.
Matthew adds a few more characters to this story, far more than 3. Here there are 2 Marys, a “great earthquake” which breeched the sealing of the tomb by the Pharisees who found some way to glue it shut or bind it closed, an angel descends and rolls back the stone and sat on it; the guards who were there guarding the tomb pass out from fear of seeing an angel; and the angel speaks to the two Marys, “I know you’re looking for Jesus. He ain’t here (new Texan translation), for he is risen, like he said. Come and see where he was laid.” Now go tell the disciples that he is risen from the dead, and behold he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. [Now scram!]” I’ve obviously taken some liberties with the language a little here, but the point is that these women, for the sake of your sermon, did not see Jesus, but rather heard a report of Jesus’ resurrection from an Angel, who was also the first to breech the seal of the tomb.
On the way to do that, they see Jesus, who says “Howdy”, which most translations offer as “Hail,” but who talks like that? Seriously?! The two women then cling to his feet, and worshipped Jesus. He then tells them not to be afraid, but to go and tell his brethren to go to Galilee, and that they will see him there.
A few things to consider as preaching points…
- We are being asked to be witnesses to something we, likewise, have not witnessed. Do we accept the testimony of others enough to make it our own? How many witnesses do we need before we can share news for ourselves?
- Matthew adds a detail to his translation of Mark’s Gospel, reporting that the women didn’t just run away afraid, they rain in faith to tell others, and on the way, Jesus greeted them. What does this say about our faithfulness? Perhaps first we must run to tell others, and on the way to do that, Jesus equips us with the rest.
- Consider talking about the next 5 verses, when the priests and elders try to create a conspiracy theory to debunk the resurrection of Jesus. I find it fascinating that even from the early days, proud people who had no other explanation than the truth would pay money to fabricate something false, just so people they didn’t like wouldn’t be considered as right, or righteous, or correct. If it were me, I might have been more afraid that the dude I just crucified was alive and might come looking for me! Instead, they are so invested in a lie, that they throw more money at it to try to feed it. Does feeding a lie ever make it true? Does hiding the truth, ever succeed at making it false?
When preaching any of these things, particularly for this Sunday, try as hard as possible to begin where the most faithless person in the room is, spiritually, and work up from there. Those who are more mature will come along for that ride. But those who are spiritually immature, have no where else to get on that bus, unless you slow down, and let them get on board. Once they’re all on board, take that bus wherever you want. [In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis took that bus to heaven.]
Easter is nearly here, but it’s not too late to prepare something good to preach.
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This weeks lections:
BCP & RCL
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
John 20:1-18 or Matthew 28:1-10
Blessings on your sermon prep.
The Rev. Dr. Jon C. Jenkins+ SSC
Thursday, April 10, 2014
Add to this the fact that many clergy either have come to believe, or were taught to believe, that the Passion narrative is potent enough, and long enough, to suffice for the sermon on Palm Sunday. Let me stress how much of a HUGE MISTAKE I think this is to the life of your parish. As already stated, most people won't be in your church on Good Friday, so other than this Sunday, when will they ever hear the details of the crucifixion? It's not as though we read these on any other day of the year. The same people who needs these sermons also say, "I can't watch the Passion of the Christ because it's too gruesome, or too gory. Why did they have to show all of that?" They tune out the moment it gets uncomfortable.
Another detrimental factor is this pattern of reading the passion as though it were a play, and having the people play parts, and the who congregation says, "Crucify Him!" While this endeavor to get the people to participate in the passion is a noble effort, it is usually a failure. People are so busy listening for their part, they don't listen to the story. This is one more of those things they have to get through so they can move on to filling easter eggs for next Sunday. Unless this is performed for them, and in a fashion that brings it to life, these readings tend to be so deadpan that our Lord is left crucified, and not an eye in the house sheds a single tear, because they're on the verge of falling to sleep from boredom.
So, now that I've ranted sufficiently about the neutering of this Passion in our Churches, the last bastion of hope to redeem these patterns is YOUR sermon.
This week, I'm not going to concentrate on every lesson, but rather on the Gospel. Here are some common themes, but also opportunities for focused preaching on the Gospel for this week.
2. Passover/Betrayal--Matthew's Gospel for this week includes the Passover. Not many people actually know what we mean by "Passover". perhaps there is a sermon on that subject, which we all use to a lot, but don't usually talk much about. however, if we leave it there, the elephant in the room is the dead Jesus on the cross. The Passover also sets the stage for the prediction of the betrayal. Jesus says, "The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me." Which was all of them. They all dipped in his bowl. He gave all of them a morsel, not just Judas. This is also a terrific Maundy Thursday sermon. So if you're planing to preach foot washing, or something like that for MT, you might consider talking about betrayal. Everyone in your congregation has likely been betrayed at one point or another. Give some examples from life in general, or make up a few generic betrayal motifs form movies or your general experience. How does betrayal feel, particularly to the righteous? This is a good place to leave them for holy week, and to excite one intrigue for the remainder of the services.
3. Eucharist and Forgiveness--while the Maundy Thursday service is really the place to talk about the institution of the Eucharist, perhaps you might focus on Jesus' words: "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins." How often do we consider this Passover meal, of which we partake each Sunday, to be about the forgiveness of sins? What does the blood of Jesus have to do with the blood of passover? Although in John's gospel (which will be read on Good Friday) Jesus is sacrificed as though he is the passover lamb on the day of preparation Matthew tells that story as though Jesus is giving his blood at the meal to be a covenant passover for his disciples. Do you know about the history of temple sacrifices? Perhaps this is a good time to make that connection for your people. if you need a cheat sheet, read Hebrews 9-13. That is an excellent exposition of how we go from sacrificing the blood of bulls and goats, to Jesus' sacrifice on the cross. before you close, answer this question, "What does this whole thing about blood have to do with our forgiveness?" People want and need forgiveness. How do they get it in your Church? Confession…or more frequently, by partaking of the blood of Jesus?
4. Future promises--"I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine unit that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom." Why this line isn't in our eucharistic liturgies, I'll never understand. This is the conclusion to Jesus' act of sacrifice, the final line to the Eucharist, and yet we never read it…except this Sunday! Jesus promises that when we do this, we make him present, because he will not do this again until we are partaking of the same banquet in God's kingdom. What a powerful message of promise, hope, anticipation, and a target for christians to cling to: I want to be at that table, when the Lord toasts a glass to our redemption, our success, and our enjoyment of his kingdom. As such, we in turn toast him every Sunday, and at every mass, until we see him in His Father's Kingdom, across the table from ourselves. Simple question, "Why are we doing this? Why do we eat flat bread, and take a sip of wine one day of week? It isn't even enough for a meal. We barely get a taste. And yet…it's a teaser, a foretaste, a promise of something better yet to come: the banquet, at which we get our fill, and are completely satisfied." Something like that.
5. Peter's denial, sleeping disciples, could you not pray one hour--again these are themes for Maundy thursday and actually are represented as reasons for our prayer vigils thursday night. Perhaps the sermon theme here is, "When did you last walk away form Jesus? Did you promise you wouldn't, and then did? How many times has this happened? All the while, Jesus prays for you. The betrayal theme returns here, but with a different focus. The betrayal of Judas is treated like a foregone conclusion, but does it have to be? this isn't Judas' story. This is YOUR story. How will your story end?
6. The innocence of Jesus--the Gospel does a good job of portraying Jesus as an innocent victim, but just as Judas is treated as a foregone conclusion, so is the crucifixion in some people's minds. It's what's supposed to happen, so they aren't shocked by it. Have you ever preached on the innocence of Jesus? In the church I serve now, the children are going to put on a passion play in place of the Gospel. I've yet to see it, but I think I'm going to preach on this subject this Sunday, and perhaps I'll call back the child playing Jesus, pass out some nails, break out a hammer, and suggest that they left something out…this child wasn't crucified properly. He hasn't bled yet. The people would probably get pretty uncomfortable. "Why would we actually crucify this child? He hasn't done anything. He's just playing Jesus." Why indeed? Why did we crucify Jesus? He was just as innocent, just a little older. Does he somehow deserve this pain, agony, torture, and passion (suffering)? Jesus was every bit as innocent as this child, yet because he's older, because we've heard the story, the assumption of this narrative takes away the sting of the innocent Lord being crucified for us. What if it was an elderly person? What if it was our favorite pet, beaten to death by a stranger in the street when all they wanted was to nuzzle up to them and perhaps share their love. What would you do to a neighbor who shot your dog for no reason? How mad would you get? And yet we read this gospel, and at the end, no one is steaming mad, no one is upset, or angry. Why? The material is there, perhaps we're just not participating enough in the journey.
7. You can't take some things back--In Matthew's Gospel, Judas tries to return the money. Perhaps this is a unique opportunity to talk about the value of apology, after the deed is already done? What can we do, when the blood is already spilled? Many people hold on to regrets, and never get peace. What if Judas had returned to Jesus after the resurrection? What do you think would have happened? Peter denied Jesus, and did nothing to help. The remainder of the disciples who swore an oath to die with him if it came to that, were nowhere to be found. Paul was a bounty-hunter of Christians and Apostles, and yet he was turned around, and became a super-apostle. Peter talks to Jesus after the resurrection, and they make peace. At what point do we give up on second chances? At what point do we condemn ourselves to the Field of Blood? How do we seek forgiveness of the things we can't take back?
8. Pilate--there is a particular intrigue of Pilate in Matthew's Gospel, in that Matthew presents Pilate as one who wants to free Jesus, and perhaps even comes to believe in Jesus. Only Matthew gives us the dream of Pilate's wife concerning Jesus. Only Matthew speaks of Pilate washing his hands at the sentencing. the regular idiom, "I wash my hands of this," is based on this scripture, and yet those who say it probably don't consider the crucifixion at all when saying it. But then something stark happens in contrast; the people say, "His blood be on us, and on our children!" WHOA! What a promise to make…particularly after Jesus is raised form the dead. What would it have been like to be one f those people who said, "His blood be on us, and on our children," and then Jesus comes walking down the street? What would you say? What would HE say? How much of this blood is really on our hands? Have we done everything we can to give Jesus a fair shake, or are we merely counting on his forgiveness? The tricky thing is, does forgiveness come without repentance?
9. If you haven't read Scott Hahn's "The Fourth Cup" in regards to the crucifixion, take some time to read this during this week. http://www.star.ucl.ac.uk/~vgg/rc/aplgtc/hahn/m4/4cp.html
Well, that's 10 sermons. One of them might suffice for you. If not, tell me what you're up to. I always like to get new idea.
This weeks lections:
Matthew 26:14- 27:66
Matthew 26:14- 27:66
Blessings on your sermon prep.
The Rev. Dr. Jon C. Jenkins+ SSC
Friday, April 4, 2014
5th SUNDAY of LENT
This week we get a taste of the forerunners of resurrection, in preparation for Jesus’ conquering of death and sin at Easter. Year A provides us this nice glimpse into a subject we barely discuss at all outside of Easter, or at a funeral. First a vision in Ezekiel, then the resurrection of Lazarus, followed (chronologically, not liturgically) by some commentary on resurrection by Paul.
If you haven’t preached on this, consider sharing with your people the fact that Jesus is in the resurrection business, and so is His Church. What a marvelous time to begin a discussion of new life, even in the down-slope of Lent. Most of the art I compose, I do using re-claimed wood, trash wood, scraps of this-and-that, which is why I call my studio: “Resurrexion studios.” (I make the X look like a cross in the logo).
Another brief thought, before we launch into discussion of this week’s lessons: Rick Warren, who requires little more introduction than this, writes a weekly blog post, and often I find them supportive and refreshing. His post this week on pastors.com was on increasing membership after Easter by beginning a sermon series on Easter Sunday, and continuing the theme throughout the first weeks of Easter, as a means to get the crowds of Easter to return on Low-Easter and beyond. I think this is a tremendous idea, although if you’re going to accomplish this, now is the time to begin preparation, if you haven’t already prepared your Easter message. So many people are in need of a physical and spiritual resurrection. How might you be the means of that transformation, beginning now in thought, and launched through your preaching in the first weeks of Easter, after the resurrection of our Lord himself?
BCP 1979 Ezekiel 37:1-3, (4-10), 11-14
RCL Ezekiel 37:1-14
“Valley of the Dry Bones”
Toward the end of his prophesy, Ezekiel receives this vision of what would likely appear to be a horrific sight: God places him in a valley of death, and in the midst of bones, skulls, and utter desolation and dryness, God tells him to prophesy to the bones, and they begins to come together, bone to bone, sinew to ligament, until one joint at a time, the skeletons rise and bind together with lifeless flesh—until Ezekiel prophesies to the lifeless bodies that breath should come into them, and they should rise again. This, God says, is the image of Israel. Not only will God give them life in the midst of death, but they will be put on their Promised soil, the Promised Land, and there they will dwell with God.
Some people may not know that the old spiritual song, “Them bones, them bones, them…dry bones,” is a song based on these verses. We tend to preserve images of death and skeletons for Halloween, or All Souls Day, when we’re somehow already on board with death, graves, and the dead meandering about. In modern culture, people seem obsessed with zombie movies about the dead rising again, in search of brains, delicious brains!
If this prophesy is about Israel’s lack of faith in a dry season, what does it say about us when we are in arid times in our spiritual lives?
1. What hope does this passage give the person who thinks of themselves as dead in the eyes of God?
2. What power does God have over life and death? After all, weren’t we made of dust to begin with?
3. What can we extrapolate from the idea of God giving life through speaking to the breath or “pneuma” (in Greek), which is usually just as easily translated as Spirit?
BCP, RCL Psalm 130
Psalm 130 is one of the penitential psalms, but one that speaks to God form utter desolation, as though the writer were in the valley with the bones. (In fact, by the time of Ezekiel’s prophesy, he certainly would have been there).
“Out of the depths (abyss) I called to you O LORD, Lord hear my voice.” The presumption here is that this writer is so far from God that he feels like he is in a deep dark hole of desolation.
This psalm, particularly for this week’s conclusion of NOW WHAT to end you sermon, gives us a recipe that worked for another lost soul, who by the end of the Psalm offers us a word of advice, to “wait for the LORD, for with the LORD there is mercy; with Him, there is plenteous redemption.” The implication here is that the Lord heard these prayers, and as a result the author received mercy, which is undeserved forgiveness, and redemption, which is the restoration of things once lost.
In this psalm, the recipe seems to be:
Speak to God when you are down.
Remind Him that he is a forgiver, and without him, no one would stand.
Show your love and fear for the Lord.
Wait for him to respond in his own time, which is typically sooner than we think.
In his word, is our hope.
1. Is there anywhere we can hide our cries from the ears of the LORD?
2. Do we turn to God when we’re in trouble, or do we rather blame God for our troubles?
3. Are we willing to wait for his redemption and mercy?
BCP Romans 6:16-23
The BCP and RCL take separate forks in the road this week for the Epistle, although both walk through the valley of Romans to achieve this goal of addressing resurrection.
The BCP takes us to the middle of Chapter 6, where Paul addresses a very unique perspective that I think is right on with the modern mind’s view of redemption. Many people feel as though they are slaves to their own sin, while others avoid redemption because they would not be slaves of God, even if it saved their souls.
Some do the exact opposite, and don’t acknowledge their slavery to sin, and actually find more liberation in sinning than in righteousness.
Paul make several marvelous points that would be good focal points for sermons on this text:
“You are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness.” What we obey tends to have some power over the direction of our souls. At some points, sin does seem to have a mastery over our decisions. Who do we obey the most?
“Present your members to be slaves of righteousness for sanctification.” What if you could take out the part of you that sins, and bind it in chains, and present them before righteousness for judgment? What would be our bounty for hunting down the evil bandits in our souls, and taking them to the sheriff? This reminds me of the finest western ever made (in my humble opinion): For a Few Dollars More, starring Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef—Two bounty hunters after the same gang bandits, but for different reasons. They are too big to take on alone, so they enlist each other’s help to capture the enemies and turn them in for the reward. What if we sought the help of a fellow bounty-hunter of sin, to seek out our personal demons, and bring them to the sheriff, dead or alive?
“What advantage do you get from the things of which you are now ashamed?” Leave it to Paul to cut right to the heart of the matter. In retrospect, we are always regretful. In fact, many of our sins don’t produce anything good, ever. We’re usually ashamed to even talk about them to others. Why do we hide, protect, and even defend those things that only cause us harm? What advantage do we get from them? Probably some brief pleasure, that never really satisfies. Cigarettes come in a pack of 20. If they satisfied, wouldn’t you only need one? The same is true with other major sins and temptations. Men and women addicted to pornography never watch only one video, or one website. People addicted to food take more than one bite, more than one plate, and more than one bag of…whatever. If these things satisfied, wouldn’t you need only one? We have only one Lord, and he satisfies all our needs.
Finally, before moving on to our alternative in the RCL, let’s mention the final verse of this BP lection: “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Most English translations use the word WAGES here, although I’m not certain this is the right word. “Wages” gives the connotation that something has been earned, and perhaps there is some merit to the idea that the Devil has earned his pay, and his pay is the death of our souls. Or perhaps the employee here is sin. When sin or the devil succeeds, they get paid, and the cost to us is the death of our souls. However, I think the better term here is FEE, because this is not about what the devil earns, but about what it costs us when we fail to take the free gift of eternal life. Why do we toil and waste our money for things that cost us so much, when the good things in life are free: God’s love, redemption, mercy, and grace.
RCL Romans 8:6-11
In this later chapter from Romans, Paul sets in opposition FLESH vs. SPIRIT. He does the same thing in the 5th chapter of his letter to the Galatians. Here he says, “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God.” Yet, he says, “You are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” There that word is again: Spirit. The breath, pmeuma, or spirit which was called to breathe new life into the lifeless reconstructed bodies in Ezekiel, are here proclaimed by Paul to be already alive and well in the souls of his audience. Paul’s point here is that f the same spirit which raised Jesus from the dead dwells in us, we are just as capable of resurrection as Jesus, or as the very bones, dried and withered, in the valley at the feet of Ezekiel.
But here’s the kicker: “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” We have no greater adversary, aside from the devil, than our own carnal desires, appetites, and hungers for things that aren’t any good for us in the first place. A good healthy spiritual life almost always comes at the expense of some earthly pleasures, appetites, and hungers for things we are ashamed to tell anyone about in the daytime, but secretly crave at night.
1. How do we turn our attention more toward the inward spirit, than the outward flesh?
2. How do we manage desires for sinful things? If we can conquer the desire, the body follows where the mind leads.
3. If we are pre-wired for resurrection, why don’t we pull the stings that lead to righteousness?
BCP John 11:(1-16), 17-44
RCL: John 11:1-45
Taken out of context, we hear only the narrative of the Resurrection of Lazarus, and not the aftermath and what it meant to those in and around Jerusalem, Bethany, and Bethphage after this momentous occasion. Those follow in Chapter 12, and serve as a good follow-up Bible study to this week’s lections.
|I like this simple painting because it's the first I've seen of|
this event from Lazarus' perspective.
So Jesus was just in Bethany, the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha (about 2 miles down the mountain from Jerusalem), Jesus is somewhere nearby, although presumably not in Jerusalem (for he was being hunted there), and not in Bethany, otherwise why would he not have gone to Lazarus’ funeral. In fact, Jesus stays away a couple of extra days, and doesn’t return to Bethany until Lazarus has been dead for a total of 4 days. Jesus moves, particularly in this Gospel, according to God’s time, plan, and purpose. He tells his mother in Chapter 2, “My hour has not yet come.” He tells the disciples here that this is being done to reveal God’s glory. This will be the last of his 7 signs, in what we no call the “Book of Signs” in John’s gospel, and then immediately follows what we call His “Book of Glory” in Chapter 13.
WARNING: Peculiar verse that fascinates me as a scholar, but has almost no preaching value due to its peculiarness….
In between the end of his speech to his disciples about Lazarus’ death, which they confused for sleep, Thomas adds an uncomfortable phrase: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” I’ve spent a lot of time thinking on that phrase. Some of my students thought it was about following Jesus to Jerusalem to be arrested and killed with Jesus. Although it seems they’re not heading toward Jerusalem just yet. But that’s not really the subject at hand. Thomas seems to imply that they are all going to return to Bethany to die alongside Lazarus. Some scholars I’ve read spend their entire exposition on this verse talking about the name of Thomas simply meaning “the twin.” Others believe Thomas is rallying the apostles to accompany Jesus to Bethany, and on to Jerusalem, toward the ultimate end of death in utter blind faithfulness. The same scholars attribute Jesus’ 2 days delay to fear, and prayer in the meantime, over what he will do when he returns to Bethany. This is not consistent with the picture painted by John in the rest of the gospel, which as I have already said was one of great control over time, and even his own will. Jesus doesn’t even exclaim words of dereliction on the cross in this Gospel. Just, Mother, behold your son; son behold your mother.” John’s gospel never speaks of Jesus at prayer, and when we call his various sayings “prayers,” they are usually more like speeches. So this idea of Jesus being afraid, or out of control with fear simply don’t seem consistent here. Some scholars think that Thomas is aware of what this return to Bethany is, in that it is exposure to “The Jews” who are constantly portrayed by John as enemies to Jesus, and who appear here to console and grieve with Mary and Martha, and who then make report back to Jerusalem of Jesus’ activities in Bethany. These scholars believe that Thomas knows Jesus is going to die, and he has no desire to outlive his master. One of the “heaviest hitters” in John scholarship merely states, “Some would see here an ironical truth, as St. Paul says, ‘All men have died in Christ’ (referring to Romans 6:8).” Yet another major John scholar attributes Thomas’ utterance here to mere ignorance, but ignorance veiled in faith in Jesus. This is the first time Thomas is portrayed in John’s gospel, and the next is his famous doubting proclamation after Jesus’ mysterious appearance after the Resurrection. Whatever, the reason for its appearance here, it is peculiar. Jesus doesn’t respond at all, he merely moves on to Bethany.
We then get multiple layers of recognition of Jesus’ role as Messiah, as well as Mary and Martha’s recognition of him as the Christ.
First, Martha runs to meet Jesus on the way to her house. “Lord, if you had only been here, my brother would not have died. Yet even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus reassures her that Lazarus will rise again, which she interprets to mean in “the last day.” Jesus then tells her that he is resurrection, and life. Martha runs home and gathers Mary.
Mary comes out, to the same place, and says pretty much the same thing: “Lord if you had only been here.” She is followed by “The Jews”, which are present to grieve with her and console her, but who have also been present by John as adversaries to Jesus the whole Gospel long. Jesus sees Mary weeping, and this troubles him and he is deeply moved. And Jesus cries.
Some of “the Jews” say, “See how he loved him.” While others said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man form dying?” Cynicism comes from some of these Jews. Some translations read that Jesus was again deeply moved, or “moved from within,” while others say that he was “greatly disturbed.” The sense here is that the first time, Jesus was moved to pity. This time he is moved, but moved to disdain for these Jews. The question I recently asked my students was, “Is there room for both?” Could Jesus be moved out of love, and also disturbed in anger over those who are cynical at the sight of his compassion. I think the answer is an overwhelming YES!
Jesus then goes to the tomb, has the stone removed, and Jesus’ prayer is again more of a statement than a request: “Father, I thank you for having heard me 9assumes a prayer or request has already been made). I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing near, so that they may believe that you have sent me.” Then he cried out, “Lazarus, COME OUT!” And he came out wrapped in bandages. As a result, many of “the Jews” believed in him. Were these the friendly Jews, or the cynical Jews? When they report back to Jerusalem, is it to turn him in, or to tell about something truly awesome they have seen that changed their perspective? John is unclear on these points.
The point he is clear on, however, is that Jesus is Lord over resurrection.
Peripheral to the lessons for this Sunday, is the idea of preaching on this text for a funeral. All of the Gospels in our tradition are selections from John, and this passage is among those, for the obvious reason of the citation: “I am resurrection and life.” But another verse that can be good to preach on for a funeral is, “Lord, if you had only been here…” So many people come to funerals with similar regrets. Here are a few: “If I’d only called the priest. If I’d only called the Priest sooner. If I’d only called one more time. If I’d only stopped by. If I’d only hugged my brother a little longer the last time, or said ‘I love you’ one more time…did I remember to say it?” Some people come to funerals with regrets over what they wish they had done or said, while others have the grief of having been there the entire time, and they are now relieved…but wish that they weren’t. Some faithful family members who were there to the bitter end are relieved by the release of the burden of caring for a sick loved one, but they are equally grieved by guilt over feeling that ease.
“If I’d only…” is a common refrain to numerous laments. Addressing it with these verses might help to finish that sentence. “If I’d only called the priest sooner…God would still be in control. If I’d only said ‘I love you’ one more time…you’re going to get that chance. “If I’d only,” is a phrase that should be left at the gravesite, because it makes no sense after the resurrection to those who believe.
- How do we put regrets to bed, to sleep forever?
- How does real belief in the resurrection change our world-view on everything?
- Do we, as Christians, consider ourselves to be in the resurrection business?
- If we could resurrect one thing in our lives, what would be first in line?
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Here are this week's readings:
Ezekiel 37:1-3, (4-10), 11-14
John 11:(1-16), 17-44
What are you preaching on this Sunday? If you are willing, please comment to this post to share your thoughts/ideas. Try to keep it short (300 characters or so). Elaborate if you feel you need to. We're not looking for the whole sermon here, just the premise, central idea, etc.
May God bless you in your preaching preparation.
The Rev. Dr. Jon C. Jenkins +