Monday, April 18, 2011

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion - "The Cry of the Whole Congregation" - April 17, 2011

Four voices. Four distinct and unique voices from four people who, as far as we can tell, never knew each other or even came into contact with one another. Yes, the voices are distinct and unique, but each is uttered with an urgency and clarity untarnished for roughly two-thousand years. And, despite their differences, their individual perspectives, all four speak with remarkable similarity, especially given their independence of each other. As it happens, we know their names—at least, the names that got attached to each voice fairly early on—but we know blessed little else about them or their original audiences. The stories they told with their voices took precedence over anything they would tell us about themselves.

Mark, who probably spoke first (or at least got written down first) was most likely Greek, and most likely speaking in or around Rome in the first century to a group of believers who were unfamiliar with Jesus’ Jewish roots. The stories he had heard and assembled about Jesus paint the picture of a servant Savior who is at once swift and forceful in overturning the powers of evil. For Mark, the impact of this Savior’s words is almost overshadowed by the number of miracles and healings he performs.

Then there is Matthew’s voice, which for a long time was thought to belong to one of this Jesus’ original Twelve followers. We figure Matthew was most likely a Jewish Christian who wrote in a locale much closer to where his subject actually lived. Matthew saw Jesus primarily as a teacher—a teacher, moreover, who was skilled in interpreting Jewish law and forming a community of followers. And so Matthew’s voice presents a Jesus who tells more parables, gives clear instruction about forgiveness and church discipline, and likes to stress the moral implications of Jesus’ kingdom.

Luke is the softy of the bunch, choosing to stress Jesus’ concern for the least, the lost, and the little. He’s the one who collects and records Jesus’ parables of the lost coin, the Good Samaritan, and the Prodigal Son…and what would Christianity be without those? Luke is the most educated of the voices, most likely a doctor who travelled with the apostle Paul around the Mediterranean for a while, and his sophisticated grammar and style show it.

And then there is John, the outlier. He is the most poetic of all the voices, accomplished in the use of metaphor and irony. Unlike the others, John chooses to tell a few stories in depth rather than hashing out everything he ever heard about the man. For John, Jesus’ signs were of utmost importance. We typically call them miracles, but for John they were signs because they signaled something about God’s glory that was being revealed in Jesus. John wrote for a congregation or a group of congregations who were likely Jewish but who had been ostracized from the religious community because of their claims about Jesus. John often gets a bad rap because people find him the most difficult to understand, but somehow his voice would really be missing if it were lost.

All four had their special emphases to make, their theological points to drive home, their particular perspective. And all of them are telling the truth. Yet something profound happens to these four distinct voices when they get to the part of their story where Jesus enters Jerusalem just before the Passover. Differences in their perspectives begin to fade away and their voices start to unite. All at once, they start telling the same story with some of the same key details. Yes, there are some discrepancies in a few words now and then—signs of their distinct perspectives creep in here and there—and some of them record Jesus’ encounters with the temple authorities more fully than others, but, by and large, the four voices start to tell the same story.

Something happened—something momentous—surrounding this man Jesus from Nazareth as he came from the backwater villages of Galilee into the fevered Passover celebrations of Jerusalem during the time of the Roman army’s oppression. Something was happening—something worth remembering correctly—as he borrowed a room for one last meal with his disciples. Something significant was happening as he faced betrayal and denial from these same disciples and was handed over to his enemies. Something miraculous was happening as he was stripped and hung on the cross and treated like a nobody.

It is as if all four voices know that, regardless of what else they communicate about the man and his ministry, this part containing his last days is the most important. It is the crux of his mission, his identity. This part will define him, more than any of his teachings, miracles, signs, or parables…even the parable of the Prodigal Son. Likewise, all those parables and miracles and teachings must be interpreted in light of what transpires to Jesus in Jerusalem. Jesus of Nazareth, these voices mean to tell us, came in to the city highly regarded by his people as a new king but ended up getting crucified instead after a charade of a trial and laid in a borrowed tomb. And somehow the news articulated by these voices changed the world and the destiny of all creation.

At our high school Bible study this week we put on our theologian hats and took a look at what have come to be called “atonement theories.” Fancy word, I know. Atonement theories are essentially assessments of these events that seek to explain just why Jesus had to die and how his death makes us one with God. In short, who was this Jesus and why did his death matter?

Did Jesus need to die, for example, because someone needed to pay the price of human sin? That is one theory. Or did Jesus die because that is how God needed to conquer evil and darkness once and for all? That is another theory. Or perhaps Jesus died because God needed to give his people an example of how they are to love one another completely; that is, by laying down one’s life for another? The youth looked at Scriptures passages and hymn lyrics and even a Kanye West song that seemed to suggest and support any number of these theories for how Jesus’ death restored us to God.

What we discovered, however, is that there is no one right or wrong theory; they all contain some element of truth and honesty, and the all kind of overlap and blend together at some point. Maybe the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection is simply too profound to be wrapped up neatly in a few words, or contained in one voice. What is interesting, though, is that the gospel voices themselves never seem to be too concerned with exactly how Jesus’ death reconciles us with God. They simply get down to the facts of what happened on that fateful week and let the power of the story speak for itself. They do their best in communicating the chain of events that allows us to understand that in the person of Jesus God himself is somehow intersecting with this world in a way no one can fully comprehend. They do their best in lending their voice to a story that is so crucial to creation’s existence and future that even had they been silent, the stones themselves would have found a way to proclaim it.

For even though words to explain it often fail us, we know it is this story of Jesus in Jerusalem that lets us know how completely God loves us. We know that it is this story of Jesus at his Last Supper which compels us to serve our neighbors whether they live here in Crestview or on the cost of Japan. We know it this story of Jesus in Gethsemane that reminds us it is not our will that will eventually have sway over our lives, but rather the will of the God who sends him. We know it is this story of Jesus before Pilate that frees us from the need to justify ourselves before God. We know it is this story of Jesus on the cross that allows us to look even into the tragedies like that of Blacksburg four years ago and speak a word of comfort and promise that God does not forsake his children even in the hour of death. We know it is this story of Jesus in his last days in Jerusalem that somehow wraps up all our shortcomings and presents them to God and offers us, in exchange, a new way of living that is filled with hope.

And so this morning we hear a rendition of those events, and you’ll be asked to lend your voice to the story. The particular version we recite does not belong to any one of those four voices; rather, it is a compilation of all of them together, like they are speaking in harmony. Specifically, note what your voice does as our worship plays out. Pay attention to the particular words that come out of your mouth, how they begin with praise but end with death threats.

And when today’s reading of that story is finished…when the last nail has been pounded through weakened flesh, when the last bystander has left the scene, when the taste of that wine and bread on your tongues has begun to fade, and when, on Sunday, the women hurry to the tomb with their embalming spices, the four ancient (yet modern) voices will want to know…what will we do with ours?

Will we join our voices and our lives with theirs in the urgency of proclaiming these events and how they change the world?

Or will we shut up and be silent and leave the stones to speak in our place?

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Fourth Sunday in Lent [Year A] - April 3, 2011 (John 9:1-41)

The sermon portion of the closing worship each year at the Virginia Synod’s event for 5th and 6th-graders, which is called “7th Day,” involves a series of skits put on by each group of youth who are attending the event. Each group (and there can be 25 or more) is given a little snippet of Scripture from one of the gospels, and they come up with a way of presenting or portraying that snippet without speaking and without costumes. Each skit usually takes about ten seconds and is performed up on the stage in front of the entire assembly. They shuffle up on one side of the stage, perform the piece of Scripture in somewhat rapid fashion, and then exit the other side of the stage while the next group is coming on stage behind them. As can be expected, the skits are often very humorous, sometimes puzzling, and occasionally very moving.

One skit at this year’s event, held about a month ago, featured a young girl who was blind cast in the role of Jesus for a healing story. I had seen the girl several times during the course of the weekend being guided by a personal aide up and down the steep hills and staircases of the retreat center. She also carried a white cane and she appeared to me to have no vision at all. As her group got ready to perform, I found myself wondering how she might be experiencing the event (especially since the sermon was silent), how challenging it must be some people to be fully incorporated into relatively simple tasks. Suddenly, there she was, hand outstretched, her aide pointing her body in the direction of the people who were pantomiming imaginary ailments. They had to stand right up close, stretching their heads out and pressing them into the palm of her hand.

Maybe she had volunteered to act out the role of Jesus herself, maybe her group members had assigned it to her, maybe they had drawn straws for the part—but, to be honest, it kind of caught me off guard. I must confess that to me she may not have been the obvious selection to play Jesus, especially because navigating the stage could have been difficult, but, man, did it work! It was a beautiful portrayal of the story, and, like all experiences with the gospel of Jesus, it contained a poignant element of surprise. I was humbled to watch from my seat on the front row as the person who probably most often dwells at the margins became the agent of healing and grace.

It’s safe to say that people with illnesses or disabilities were viewed a little differently in Jesus’ day. Rarely were they seen as agents of healing or grace. Rarely were they even incorporated into daily life. Without the aides offered by modern technology and today’s educational systems, such people were often left at the margins of life. Furthermore, their malady was often seen as divine punishment for some sin either they or someone in their family had committed. That made interaction with them even more of a taboo on most occasions. Blindness, especially, was to be pitied and feared, for in ancient Greek culture, seeing was equated with understanding, sight with knowledge. In fact, the verb “to see” in ancient Greek is the same word for “to perceive,” or “to regard” or “to discover.” It was thought that someone who was unable to see could never really comprehend anything on a meaningful level.

So, as you can imagine, the blind man in this gospel story was most of all to be pitied, left at the margins to beg. As they approach him, the disciples wonder whose sin might be responsible for his condition, his or his parents’? Jesus’ grace, however, transforms the scene, complete with the gospel element of surprise. At once, the man born blind is brought into a relationship with God’s own Son and his condition is changed into a display of God’s glory.

And, all the while, the nearby Pharisees react in a similar fashion to my callous first impression of the young girl’s skit at the synod event: surely this man cannot be the Messiah.

There are many interesting elements to this encounter between Jesus, the man born blind, and the Pharisees. Perhaps the first one is that the actual act of healing takes up such minimal space in the story. Only two verses out of the forty-one deal with the man’s gaining of physical sight. Jesus spits on some dirt, rubs the mud in his eyes, and tells him to go wash it off in the water. The bulk of the story, rather, focuses on how people deal with and make sense of the event. What is communicated here has less to do with Jesus’ ability to transform a hopeless situation (which is important, by the way) and more to do with people’s reactions to and reception of Jesus. That is, the light that Jesus brings to the world, as explained by this story, has less to do with physical healing and transformation and more to do with spiritual understanding and a restored relationship with the Creator.

When someone looks at Jesus, when someone perceives Jesus, do they see an imposter, a blasphemer, just another ordinary sinner? Or do they see the Son of God? Do they make little note of him, abdicating any judgment about how important he might be? Do they understand him to be a significant prophet, a godly man? Or do they understand him to be Lord? The entire range of reactions is presented by this gospel story. Those skeptical front-row Pharisees never come to see him as anything more than a sinner or a blasphemer. Never can they even bring themselves to mention Jesus by name! The man’s parents, full well knowing their son has forever been changed and healed, back off from any assertion about Jesus. The townspeople display pure puzzlement, and perhaps some curiosity. And even the man born blind, himself, slowly grows in understanding of just who this Jesus is. It is not until the end of this encounter that he calls Jesus “Lord” and falls down to worship him.

Pool of Siloam
Another interesting thing about this story is that it involves a critical turning point in John’s gospel. Up to this point, Jesus has performed other signs and has gotten into debates with the Pharisees and religious authorities, but here is the first time anyone is driven out of the synagogue—out of the community—because they confess Jesus to be the Messiah. Here is where belief in who Jesus is and why he matters begins to divide people for the first time seriously. In ancient Judaism, the synagogue was central to community and culture. To be cut off from them was to be cut off from life. And so it is a more than a little ironic that the man born blind, who before his encounter is cut off from life because he cannot see or know anything, is now after the encounter cut off from life because of the person who gave him sight.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, retain their position within the religious community, retain their standing in regards to God’s law, but lose out on a deeper understanding of what God is really like and how much their own sin blinds them to it. They turn a “blind eye” to the poignant gospel surprise.

For whatever reason, we can lose sight of the fact that Jesus has this divisive effect on the world, and on us. We can forget that he often creates division between people, just as we can forget that the presence of light, by definition, creates pockets of shadow and darkness. It has the ability to expose and create contrast, just as Jesus has the ability to expose sin and selfishness and the unwillingness to believe in God’s glory. I find that in both private devotion and in public worship we tend to stress Jesus’ inclusion of others who are different or outcast. We emphasize the joy and excitement of responding to Jesus, but we overlook or gloss over the fact that Jesus does cause division and sometimes conflict.

On some level, I suppose that if we were to err in overemphasizing an aspect of Jesus, concentrating on his loving and gracious embrace isn’t a bad one to choose. But on another level, if we ignore the fact that Jesus comes to bring light and expose the darkness we may fail to notice this feature of Jesus’ character and ministry that exists in our own relationships with him. We can forget that even Jesus himself was aware of this power he wielded. “I came into this world for judgment,” he admits, “so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”

This does not mean that his love is qualified in any way. As he himself says, he was not given to condemn the world, but to love it, and anyone’s life—anyone’s—may be an opportunity for God’s glory to be displayed. However, Jesus’ judgment does mean that it we must be honest about our sinfulness, too, our ongoing tendency to linger in the darkness about how completely God really loves us. As New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann once put it, “in order to be grace, it must uncover sin.” And in the presence of Jesus’ grace, we can range the whole gambit of reaction, just like the characters in this story…from hostility, to doubt, to disregard, to outright worship.

Realizing the multi-faceted nature of this encounter, I decided to emphasize the healing portion when I shared this story with the nursery school students in chapel this week. But before I could even put down the Bible once I had finished reading it, one of the students blurted out, “I wish I could just jump in that story and tell those people that…that…that God is a good guy!”

As I reflected on this comment with Christy Huffman, who alternates chapel duties with me, we realized that’s the essence of the story—of any story involving Jesus. He is the light of the world, and we are invited to jump right in to the story, his judgment and all, and let Jesus speak with us. We are to jump in and find that being so face-to-face with him will make us aware of our own sin, our blindness to the ways God loves us. Likewise, we jump in and learn he cleanses us anyway. We jump in…and see he makes a habit of turning the most pitiable, most forlorn, most marginalized of situations into arenas where God’s light may shine through. His healings, his holy meal, and of course his cross, all display a God who is at work, transforming the world into a place of new life.

In the end, we are to jump into his story—jump from the front row into the skit—and prepare our own muddied lives to be an opportunity to display God’s glory. Washed, and with our eyes blinking, we press our heads up into the palm of his wounded hands and begin, at long last, to see.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.