Sunday, March 25, 2018

Parading on a Pack Animal of Justice: A Sermon for Palm Sunday 2018

**A sermon on John 12:9-19**

We come to this familiar Palm Sunday narrative and encounter what many headers in Bibles unfortunately label as “Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.” While we may be tempted to turn this parade of palms into victory lap of the Messiah, this is a more subversive picture John aims to paint.

The Gospel of John is potentially the most intricate of the four gospels when it comes to creative literary patterns and allusions. Likely written towards the end of the first century, the writer, possibly the beloved disciple, has had time to reflect on and refine his telling of the impact of Jesus’ ministry not only on the Jewish people, but also and especially the whole world. The writer wants to ensure the movement continues beyond his final stroke of the pen.

One of the ways John goes about this is through the art of inclusio, creating parallel imagery on opposite sides of a short story that eventually move you towards a center, where you find the real focal point and charge of the narrative. In this morning’s reading, John intentionally draws the reader from the outer layer of the Chief Priests and Pharisees, moves inwards to the crowds, and ultimately zooms in on Jesus and his movement into Jerusalem, which is where the entirety of the gospel has been headed all along. 

We begin with the outer layer and the presence of the Chief Priests and Pharisees.  They arrive on the scene with one goal- to put Lazarus to death. We often miss this detail, as the lectionary drops us into the triumphal entry just after this vital framing anecdote. Yes, rather than rejoice in the unbinding of one who was once dead but now alive, they become enraged by their cynical envy and invade the crowds on a covert operation to squash this gospel that has become their greatest perceived threat to religious power and interpretation of the law. Yet, when they encounter the crowds, their mission is thwarted, leaving them to cross their arms in disdain for a gospel far too inclusive for their liking. As John writes on the bookend of today’s reading, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”  The world- as in the light has come into the world, for God so loved the world, the cosmos has gone after him. 

As I read this text this week, I found myself wanting to yell at the pages- of course they did! Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Death was exposed as fickle in the work of this one named Jesus, how could any cross arms in judgment and wish the end of the long-awaited fulfillment of their story’s greatest hope: newness of life! 

Then I paused. In many ways, religious communities have not changed since that first Parade of Palms. When movements of liberation begin to rise up in the broader world, the church often either stands on the sidelines as jealous bystanders, frustrated by witnesses to resurrection happening beyond our control, or undercuts movements as judgmental cynics. Yes, there are fragments of faith communities who participate in social revolutions and protests, often led by marginalized peoples and then labeled as rebellious, activist, leftist, outside the norm, etc. Meanwhile, the dominant (white) American church, in the broader scope of our history, is apprehensive in our public witness and tends to trail behind at the eleventh hour of these movements that intersect the gospel with the pressing issues of our day. We rarely are the networks of people on the forefront of mobilizing change despite the fulfillment of our greatest hope: God has raised both Lazarus and Jesus from the dead!

Then there is the second layer to John’s story. The crowds. While initially tempted to turn their response to the raising of Lazarus from the dead into a romanticized celebration, praising their lifting of palms as if, yes, they get it, John’s unique approach to this story is to paint with a bit of irony as the only of the four gospels to reference the branches as palms. These palm-laden celebrations were akin to a parade of champions greeting political figures and war heroes as they returned from conquest, a version of a military procession less the tanks and soldiers and add some chariots and horses. The aim of at least portions of the crowd, in light of the resurrection of Lazarus that rightfully stoked their longings for salvation from an oppressive Roman empire, is to leverage Lazarus for a new political movement with Jesus as their national hero and revolutionary war leader. With palm branches in their hands and Psalm 118 cries of “hosanna, save us” on their lips, John illustrates with a satirical tale of nationalized religion with an undercurrent of aggression we may be tempted to drape around a reduced gospel.

Again, while it would be easy to engage with a layer of judgment, we are not much different still. How often do we allow our discipleship and Christian witness to be co-opted by agendas both progressive and conservative and used to leverage political leaders we mistakenly believe can save us? We even parade our version of Jesus as one who has conquered all others. While we have been transformed by the good news of resurrection, a story we genuinely long to embody for the sake of our more vulnerable neighbors near and far, we give evidence that we are still bound by death as we demonize those with whom we disagree and leverage our motives as absolute and most “right.”  In this sense, the watching world often sees the church on opposite sides of the same road along Jesus’ parade route as we wave our palms of power and chant epithets of dominance that reflect more of our political allegiances than those aligned to Jesus, who rode into town on a pack animal. 

This is where we find the center of John’s alternative narrative of allegiance. Instead of a chariot or a horse, “Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it.” Other translations use another, more “traditional” word, to describe Jesus’ impromptu discovery of this four-legged creature whose sole purpose is to carry the heavy loads of the traveler. Upon this pack animal, the Messiah cuts through the parades of power and pokes fun at the Pharisees threatened by the message of compassion, grace, and welcome. Then, borrowing the words of the prophet Zechariah, John underscores the function of the imagery, “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.” 

This is what John’s story has been building to and moving out from in this morning’s gospel lection. The gospel writer declares, to cynics like the Pharisees, others who lust for violent opposition and political power, still more to you and me, do not be afraid. Christ has come as the very presence of God among us who carries the burdens of the whole world now gone after him. This is what mobilizes the witnesses of the crowd "to continue to testify" to the subversive and humble witness of the One able to resurrect new life and alleviate their long-standing fears.

It is no secret that the condition of the world these days is saturated in fear. When we consider the on-going realities of white supremacy and police brutality, sexual harassment and assault, the events in Austin Texas, and more: we are a people afraid. In light of all this and more, there have been a steady stream of rallies, marches, and digital parades, each a modern cry of, “hosanna, save us.” Each with strong critics and those questing to leverage the campaigns as means to garner political power and possible theological conquest.  

Yesterday’s March for Our Lives was no different. As thousands of youth sought to resurrect new life out of the death that threatens to bind them and their peers, many cynics sought to squash their movement through name calling and false assumptions about being paid actors; others, for sure, looked to leverage the movement for their own powerful gains. All the while, courageous young people like David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez, students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, rode into Washington as if on the back of a youthful colt in a quest to alleviate fear. The youth, many who are Christians, declared #enough and #neveragain as their own hosanna demands for immediate action related to gun laws the adult realm has been too cowardice to confront. As I marched in the Philadelphia rally with my family, including four young children, I read signs and heard stories from thousands of youthful organizers for change. Along the way, I heard the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero, martyred for his witness among the poor in El Salvador, “We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses; that God wants; that God demands of us. I also thought of both the words of Jesus, “the kingdom of God belongs to children,” and those at the end of today’s gospel, “Look, the world has gone after him.”

Then I thought of the call of the church. In a world strained by fear and crying out, “hosanna,” we are to be a people mobilized, neither by cynicism nor conquest, certainly not the myth that politicking alone can save us. Rather, in light of the reality of resurrection, we are to embody the humble posture of Christ who rode upon the back of a pack animal and carried the heavy burdens alongside the broken and oppressed, anxious and afraid, children and youth, near and far. What this may look like will vary from person to person, for some it may mean marching, others community organizing, and others something totally different. This is where I find encouragement in the words of the late church planter, innovator, and faithful activist, N. Gordon Cosby, who said just before he died:

“At this point in my life, and at this point in our world's life, I am asking what is to be my focus- to what am I to be giving my limited time and energy? What is the new thing, the genuine thing, that God wants me to be learning, doing, being now? For me the central question is what it means to be the authentic church of Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected? What is its nature? Its essence? And how can that essence be structured and expressed so as to become a healing agent in the world?” 

In many ways these are the questions posed neither by the Pharisees nor the crowds, but by Jesus who found a young ass and sat on it as he made his way to Jerusalem.

Friends, as we begin our Holy Week pilgrimage, hear the central message of John’s gospel: do not be afraid. While the journey ahead is laced in sorrow, it is also framed by resurrection hope- the same God who raised Lazarus from the dead will also do the same with Christ. This is good news worth chasing after in a fearful world. Actually, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, the world is already doing just that. So may we respond to their parades of hosannas, not by way of cynicism or quests for dominance, but saddled upon our donkeys as we humbly shoulder the real pains of the world and dismantle whatever powers stand in the way. And if you are not sure what this looks like, I suggest you ask the kids. Amen. 

Monday, March 5, 2018

Agitation as Public Witness and Mark of Discipleship

This is the fourth time in our second home. You would think we would have learned by now. 

Whenever the self-proclaimed "Maytag Man” comes over, I watch and learn as though his apprentice. I now am at least slightly above amateur status when it comes to the disassembly and reassembly of a washing machine; yet I still do not know how to keep tiny socks from clogging the drain system. 

In between the generational rants about how they "don’t make appliances like they used to in the olden days," I pick up a few things that just may make it so I do not have to call the Maytag Man every time the machine stalls mid-cycle. 

This time around, I learned some new terminology: the agitator. 

This tall stem in the center of the drum of washing machines rotates and spins, occasionally gets tangled with an old t-shirt or sweater, and is vital to the wash cycle. The agitator's movement, which may appear abrasive, dislodges the grime and creates the right amount of soap suds to get the clothing clean, soft, and free of that late-night-run-and-sweat smell. If there is no agitator or agitation, there is no change to the condition of the clothing. The dirty clothes merely sit in standing water and the detergent remains at the bottom of the drum. 

As our Maytag Man described this central component to the spin cycle, I began to think of all those modern-day agitators who refuse to allow our social fabrics to remain undisturbed in the standing waters of injustice and despair. 

I also thought about how I was paying by the hour as I entertained this mental sidebar. 

I thought of those who protest in the middle of major intersections, arms in tubes linked with immigrants, as they agitate as advocates alongside those in pursuit of a better and safer life for themselves and their children. I thought of others who put up t-shirt memorials on the front lawns of churches to agitate and draw attention to victims of local gun violence. I imagined the faces of friends around the country who form human shields in communities like Charlottesville to agitate the plans of white supremacists with torches in hands as they chant racist and anti-Semitic phrases. I thought of those who join the New Poor People’s Campaign and cry out for economic and racial justice to agitate systems bent towards the rich and privileged. I thought of all who post their #metoo stories as a way of agitating silence about the vile realities of sexual harassment and abuse that continues to perpetuate a culture not-yet-free of misogyny. I thought of artists whose works agitate our social conscience as we consider how the prison industrial complex feeds off systemic racism, the ghettoization of America, and neglected public education in our urban centers. 

This week, I also thought of the young people who have said #enough, #neveragain, and #marchforourlives in light of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that took the lives of 17 young people. Their youthful agitation just may be what finally, albeit abrasively, removes the filth of broken gun legislation that makes it all-too-easy for mass shootings to occur in schools and at concerts, shopping malls and move theaters. 

In each of these movements, and many others, there are people of faith who join the efforts to ensure the cries and concerns of our most vulnerable neighbors are rallied behind as the very cries and concerns of God. Their discipleship, manifested through public demonstrations, agitate the powers that be so to remove the filth of oppression and stench of injustice that makes the human condition unbearable. In many ways, this is what Jesus, the greatest agitator of both political and religious dysfunction, meant when he called those to follow and carry cross. 

I also believe this is akin to what Karl Barth wrote:
"This is our hope and our need both as Christians and as members of society. But do not expect me to provide a solution! None of us may boast a solution. There is only one solution, and that is in God himself. Our task is only the candid, absolutely thorough, and- I should like to venture the expression- priestly agitation of this hope and this need, by means of which the way to the solution, which is in God, may be made clearer to us” (The Word of God & the Word of Man). 
This Lent, as I make my way through the 40-day pilgrimage, I am leaning in to how the Spirit is calling me to holy agitation. I am pondering, aware of such freedom to wonder being yet another sign of my privilege, the ways I am being dared to carry cross and follow Christ through advocacy and solidarity alongside my neighbors. 

I am even opening myself to be agitated, confronting my own entanglement in systems and cultural narratives, some propped up by religious institutions and traditions, that stray from God’s dreams for the world Go so loves. 

After all, agitation is the holy, reformed, and redemptive work that disturbs the standing waters of despair just enough to lead us to restorative and resurrected hope. 

A sermon delivered at The First Presbyterian Church of Norristown on March 11, 2018. 

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Carrying Our Cross Alongside Those Denied of Themselves: Discipleship in a Despairing World

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). 
I have read and preached on numerous occasions about Jesus’ invitation to cross-carrying discipleship. Yet when I recently wrestled with these words in the safe and comfortable confines of my local coffee shop, I paused. I have never been threatened with the fate of a cross. The ancient Roman symbol of criminality and treason has not been hoisted upon my shoulders or public record for any reason, let alone my faith. While I have faced a few inconveniences and made marginal life alterations based on personal convictions and matters of faith, I have done so at my own will. Even my choice to participate in occasional activism has been a free decision with minimal consequence. My story of discipleship encounters little resistance from outside authorities and is framed by privilege not persecution, which occasionally creates dissonance when I read Jesus’ words.
For most in the Western world, this is our story. We do well to acknowledge such positions of assumed comfort, especially as we pray for and become more aware of those for whom the cross is more than a devotional exercise but a daily burden carried as it intersects with the their race, orientation, economic class, the laws of the land, and encounters with oppressive systems in this nation and those abroad. Their voices and witnesses must be elevated as those most credible to speak to the depths of discipleship.
But my privilege is not the end of my struggle with Sunday’s gospel narrative. I also wrestle with the implications of Jesus’ invitation to the denial of ourselves as a prescriptive measure for discipleship.
Since the beginning of Lent, my newsfeeds have been dominated by stories of young people rallying around the country in light of the horrific events that unfolded on Ash Wednesday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. They are calling attention to how, in light of yet another mass shooting that has claimed the lives of our youngest citizens, they are regularly denied the very protection and security of themselves. While adults spin wheels in partisan debates about gun laws and how to make their schools safe and secure versus domestic war zones, youth are taking to streets and microphones to demand immediate action that improves their condition and eases their plight right now. I lament that grown-ups have made it so youth feel the need to act as their own advocates, but I am grateful they are doing just that. They refuse to be denied themselves and their right to life. We would do well to join their cause. 
The same could be said of those most marginalized by pervasive and systemic racism, women whose stories trended the #MeToo movement and underscored the reality of gender inequality, sexual harassment, and abuse, and others most susceptible to pipelines to prison that exploit young people of color in ghettoized communities that lack access to necessities like grocery stores, clean water, and quality education. Their very selves are being denied and their cries for a more just society frequently become exploited as pawns in abstract rhetorical games.
Again I hear Jesus and pause, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I then wonder, what does it mean to deny ourselves and follow Jesus when so many have had their selves denied not as a mark of discipleship but as victims of a broken, divisive, violent, and wounded world?
One answer may lie in our willingness to embrace the call of Christ to deny anything that isolates us from the concerns of or increases the risk of harm to our most vulnerable neighbors. Instead, we walk, possibly even march, alongside any and all whose selves are being denied. We do so no matter the cost to our personal well-being or the life of our institutions, preferring the divine thing of steadfast commitment to God’s concern for those on the margins over human things of privilege, power, insulated self-interest, and right to bear arms (Mark 8:33). This is the bedrock of Jesus’ words and witness that we are neither to be ashamed of nor deny in the midst of this “adulterous and sinful generation” (Mark 8:38).
Over the last three years of my call to serve alongside the faithful of this Presbytery of Philadelphia, I have been deeply moved by the cross-bearing, self-denying witnesses of our churches and related ministries. Congregations and worshipping communities have constructed T-Shirt memorials for victims of gun violence, attended judicial hearings for detained immigrants, provided hospitality for refugees, and written grants for mural projects created alongside artists previously incarcerated who work collectively towards restorative justice and the reform of the prison system. There are faithful saints who developed programs to provide nutrition for children in at-risk and neglected urban neighborhoods and other congregations partnered with local agencies to combat the opioid epidemic that continues to deny their neighbors wholeness and health. In all of these faithful expressions and more, isolated categories of conservative or progressive have been cast aside and minds set not on human things but the words of Christ, who was always on the side of the marginalized and oppressed.
As we continue to move through this Lenten journey, which began with an all-too-familiar reminder of the brokenness of the human and social condition, may we ponder what it means for us to deny ourselves for the sake of all those whose selves are being denied. May we continue to listen to the cries and concerns of our neighbors, especially the youngest disciples among us, in efforts to imagine how Jesus is inviting us to carry crosses either alongside or on their behalf. May we cling to and fix our minds on the words and witness of Christ versus any other human thing, to include partisan agendas. In so doing, may our discipleship begin to bear fruit of solidarity and hope in even the darkest and most despairing of places, no matter the cost.

*This post originally written for the Presbytery of Philadelphia. Artwork by Betsi Moise. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place: Modern Psalms for Lent 2018

Each year I develop a soundtrack for Lent titled, Modern Psalms for the Lenten Journey.  Usually they are weekly songs from varied contemporary artists, which I post here and pair with a biblical text. This year, I may only need a single album. 

“The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place,” by Explosions in the Sky.*

Purely an instrumental album, each piece moves between haunting and hopeful, mysterious and soul stirring. Even the track titles bear a sacred significance, seemingly liturgical in label. 

And the best part, there are no words. Because the condition of the world in the twenty-first century is in need of something more than lyrics and nuanced rhetoric. Words serve a place, especially when put to paper in efforts to organize communities, draft legislation, lobby for signatures, cry out in prayer, and call neighbors near and far to action on behalf of our most vulnerable neighbors. But our words are not enough, we need another kind of rhythm to move our souls and bodies, to link arms for causes that demand safety in our schools, enhanced legislation related to the reduction of access to firearms, fair economics, disrupted pipelines to prison, dismantled systems and institutions fueled by racism, universal provision of healthcare, gender equality, hospitality extended to immigrants and refugees, the end of sexual assault and harassment- especially in the workplace, and the stymying of wars started and sustained to pad the pockets of the 1%. 

The list could go on and on related to aspirations for social jubilee…but that’s where I put on this album to center my spirit and imagination, to draw me into the Lenten story for the next 40 days. It forces me to move beyond the limits of language and towards something and Someone completely Other. Still more, I am reminded that amidst all that is wrong with the world- and there is so much that is so very wrong- this planet is still that which God so loves. So it cannot be purely a cold, dead place. There is beauty to be found if we have the eyes to see and the ears to ear. And this beauty just may be the Spirit’s nudging us to press on in our work and witness as those called out of dust and towards resurrection hope. 

Paralleled Biblical Text for this Album: Genesis 1 (The Full Creation Story)

*I first discovered this album as a part of Rob Bell’s interview of a former seminary classmate of mine, Caleb Wilde, who wrote a book, Confessions of a Funeral Director. A collection of anecdotes that explores the sacred amidst death and dying, this book also makes for a great Lenten read. The podcast is fantastic, too.