Search

Bishop Michael Rinehart

Lynchings in Conroe

I arrived at my high school social studies class one day to discover we were watching footage of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. I had heard of such things, but this was the first time I had seen the footage, which turned my stomach. I felt an anger rising within me. Our teacher said we must never forget this. Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.

Later, I read Elie Wiesel’s firsthand account, Night. It was the first book I had ever read that made me bawl.

No one likes to rummage through the horrific history of the sins of the past. History repeats itself, however, and therefore we must not whitewash that history.

Recently I visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the so-called “lynching museum,” with some friends. This memorial is located in Montgomery, Alabama, situated in Montgomery County. This memorial tells the truth about racial terror in the U.S. we must never forget, because those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.

This memorial opened in April of 2018. The center of the six-acre area features 800 large steel blocks etched with a county where lynching occurred. Those lynched in that county are also listed. Understandably I paid close attention to the counties in Texas, where I live. Here are some photos. The last is closest to home for me.

  1. Bennett Jackson
  2. Frank McGehee
  3. Charles Scott
  4. Joe Winters
  5. Warren Lewis
  6. Tom Payne

When I returned to my home, also in another Montgomery, Montgomery Texas, also in Montgomery County, I decided to learn more about these six men. What I learned was never taught to my children, though they both went to school here, and did the required reports on local history. What I learned only scratched the surface, of what we must remember.

I already know a thing or two about lynching. Lynchings increased across the South after the Civil War as Reconstruction ended and Federal Troops were withdrawn. They were a way to reinforce white dominance, with the use of fear and racial terror. Black men were raped for crimes such as looking at a a white woman.

Lynchings were often public. Thousands were known to attend. Hot dogs were sold. Postcards if the lynching were sold in a carnival-like atmosphere. They were sometimes announced before the victim was chosen. Fingers and other parts were cut off and passed around as souvenirs. Victims were hung, shot and then burned, without a trial.

Before starting this journey, I went to the front yard of my own church, Tree of Life Lutheran Church. Tree of Life is built on property, some of which was purchased from two African American families who have family burial sites there. Our church has cared for those graves and curated the space around them. I wondered if any of the six names would be there. They weren’t. I have requested an appointment with a local Baptist minister where these families worshipped to see if I could learn more. Look for a subsequent post on this topic later this year.

As I dug into the six names, I braced myself for what I would learn. My journey took me through many articles and web sites. By far, the most helpful was http://www.lynchingintexas.org, a website dedicated to document the recorded lynchings in Texas that took place between 1882 and 1942. They are up to about 500 people.

1. Bennett Jackson – December 19, 1885

On December 19, 1885, a 19-year-old man named Andy/Bennett Jackson was accused of breaking into a white man’s house and attacking his wife and children. He was killed before a large crowd, at what the papers described as a “lynching picnic” on the Conroe Courthouse Square in Montgomery county, by a crowd who waited for District Court Judge Masterson to leave town for Houston, so the picnic could take place. The event was advertised 48 hours in advance, in the Houston Post. Jackson was identified by a description of a little girl just before she died. He was convicted, sentenced and executed by “Judge Lynch.”

http://www.lynchingintexas.org/items/show/418

2. Frank McGehee – May 15, 1887

Andrew/Frank McGehee was shot to death “by persons unknown” in his cell, in Willis, Texas, after the Marshall had gone home. He was accused of shooting a white man, after an altercation, caused because McGehee wouldn’t “move aside in a narrow passageway.” A mob overpowered the guard and shot McGehee and another man to whom he was chained.

http://www.lynchingintexas.org/items/show/343

3. Charles Scott – February 28, 1908

Charley Scott was a “feeble minded” man found in a woman’s back yard. He was accused of “attempted rape.” He was found hanging from an elm tree near the Montgomery County Courthouse in Conroe, with a sign “Warning to negroes found prowling in white folks homes.”

It’s fascinating how many articles describe how people gathered quietly, how orderly the mob is, how guilty and carefully warned “negroes” are.

http://www.lynchingintexas.org/items/show/87

4. Joe Winters – May 20, 1922

Joe Winters was burned in Conroe’s downtown courthouse square in 1922 after a girl accused him of rape. African Americans at that time insisted that the two were dating, and that she betrayed him when caught in the woods. The Montgomery County Sheriff reported “being overwhelmed by the mob.” He was chained to an iron post, soaked with gasoline and set on fire, while thousands of men, women and children watched. Of course, no trial was held.

5. Warren Lewis – June 23, 1922

One month later, on June 23, 1922, an 18-year-old “mentally retarded” boy named Warren Lewis was hanged by a Montgomery County mob of 300 people. A field hand, Lewis was accused of going to a white woman’s house and attacking her. The Montgomery County Sheriff said that by the time he arrived it was “too late to save him.” There was, of course, no trial.

Tom Payne – February 2, 1927

Tom Payne was charged with fighting with a white man, cutting him and robbing him. He was being taken to Huntsville for “safekeeping” when a mob of u known persons surrounded them. Attempts to identify the mob were unsuccessful according to Montgomery County Sheriff Ben Hicks.

Epilogue

Well, that’s what I discovered. And this is just one county. Moreover, these are the ones we know about. There are many more stories from that era, but no clear citations.

For example, James Kinder and Alf Riley were cornered by a crowd in Magnolia Texas on March 17, 1908 and accused of flirting with a white girl. The two men were shot to death in the street. The sheriff arrived said that when he arrived it was too late to do anything about it. No charges were filed.

In another story, Clem Scott was seized by a group of white men and hung from an elm tree in the Montgomery Courthouse Square in Conroe. Sherriff Mayben Anderson and deputies took no action to stop them. Justice of the Peace CT Derby held an inquest and declared that Scott had been “hung by the neck with a rope in the hands of persons unknown.”

In June of 1941 Bob White was accused of raping Ruby Cochran in Livingston. He was convicted by an all-white jury. After it was revealed he was one of sixteen men who had been taken into the woods and been brutally beaten by Texas Rangers to exact a confession, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction. His confession had been written by someone else, with many factual errors. He was consequently arrested again and charged. He went on trial three times. Dude Cochran, Ruby’s husband, shot him in the head during the third trial. Cochran was released $500 bail. At his trial even the District Attorney recommended a verdict of “not guilty,” which of course happened.

Furthermore, there have been numerous disturbing events since the lynching age. In 1973 Greg Steele, who had been threatened because he was dating a white girl, was arrested in a bar room scuffle. He was shot to death in the Montgomery County Courthouse two days before Christmas. An officer was charged and found not guilty.

In 1981, Clarence Brandley was convicted of raping and murdering Cheryl Lee Fergeson. Brandley was working as a janitor supervisor at Conroe High School. Fergeson was a visiting 16-year-old athlete from Bellville High School attending a volleyball tournament. She was strangled to death. Her body was found in the loft above the Conroe High School auditorium.

The white janitors all have one another alibis. Texas Ranger Wesley Styles told them, “One of you is going to have to hang for this” and then, turning to Brandley, added, “Since you’re the nigger, you’re elected.”

There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Blood was found on the Fergeson that was neither her’s nor Brandley’s.

The first trial was declared a mistrial. The all-white jury said he was guilty, except for one person, who said there was no evidence. Afterwards, he received threatening phone calls calling him a “nigger-lover.

At the second trial, one witness for the prosecution from the first trial refused to testify, because he had changed his mind and no longer believed the other custodians’ conflicting account of events.

Brandley spent nine years on death row. He was freed by a Supreme Court decision that forced MONTGOMERY County to drop charges in 1990. Evidence (Caucasian pubic hair) had mysteriously been stifled and later disappeared altogether. Another suspect, Robinson, a white janitor, told a friend he had done it. This not presented to the defense. Later it was found Robinson had Type A blood, the type found on Fergeson’s blouse.

The events are the foundation of a book: White Lies: Rape, Murder and Justice Texas Style, by Nick Davies.

Brandley was denied compensation from the state fund for wrongful conviction. He was the third person in history to be released Death row exonere Clarence Brandley Dies…from death row in Texas. He was ordained a Baptist minister, settled in the country, founded a church, and then died last year on September 2, 2018, at the young age of 66.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarence_Brandley

Houston Chronicle: Man Convicted of Murder In Error Denied Compensation.

Houston Chronicle: Wrongfully Conviced ex-Death Row Inmate Dies

The Three Days: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter

The Three Days are actually Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil. A number of our Gulf Coast congregations do an Easter Vigil.

Here is a sample bulletin from Christ the King Lutheran Church in Houston, in which services for the Three Days are bound together.

 

 

Maundy Thursday – April 18, 2019

Holy God, source of all love, on the night of his betrayal, Jesus gave us a new commandment, to love one another as he loves us. Write this commandment in our hearts, and give us the will to serve others as he was the servant of all, your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14 – Passover. Yahweh to Moses and Aaron: This month shall be the beginning of months for you. This day shall be a day of remembrance for you.

Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19 – What shall I give the Lord for his benefit to me? I will lift the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26 – Paul’s Eucharistic theology: I passed on to you what I received: The words of institution.

John 13:1-17, 31b-35 – Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. A new commandment I give you: Love one another.

 

First of all, on the Thursday before Easter we remember Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, in which he offered them bread and wine and saying, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

Secondly, we remember him taking off his outer garment, kneeling downs and washing his disciples’ feet, saying, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” To be a Christian is to serve other with humility.

Finally, we remember Jesus’ words on this night, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

“Maundy” comes from the Latin word “mandatum,” meaning “command.” On this night, the night before his crucifixion, we remember Jesus’ command to eat bread and drink wine together, “Do this in remembrance of me,” to lead through humble service, and to love one another.

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them… 

“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Since the wedding of Cana we have been hearing, “my hour has not yet come.” Well, now we are told the hour has come.

The word “love“ appears seven times in John 13. “Love” is mentioned 39 times in John’s Gospel, more than the other three Gospels combined. One might be led to think this is an important theme.

Elisabeth Johnson, professor at the Lutheran Institute of Theology in Meiganga, Cameroon, points out that Jesus does not focus on Judas, but rather on his mission. He is a servant who talks about being glorified, and glorifying God. He exemplifies this glorification by taking on the role of the lowest servant/slave. This is the opposite of the glorification of the Roman cursus honorum, in which one ascended from slavery to divinity by a series of predetermined steps. This concept of divinity is a self-emptying movement of downward mobility from divinity to servanthood.

John wants us to know that when it came time to deliver his last sermon to his inner circle, Jesus talked about love and service at the center of things. “By this shall all people know you are my disciples…” Love is the defining mark of the church. What if love was the defining mark of your church? What could stop a church like that?

 

 

Good Friday – April 19, 2019

Merciful God, your Son was lifted up on the cross to draw all people to himself. Grant that we who have been born out of his wounded side may at all times find mercy in him, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 – Suffering servant: Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.

Psalm 22 – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

Hebrews 10:16-25 – Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins. By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. This is the covenant: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds. I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.
OR

Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9 – For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

John 18:1 – 19:42 – Jesus’ arrest, trail and crucifixion, all the way to his burial by Joseph of Aramathea and Nicodemus.

 

The Good Friday Liturgy

The Good Friday liturgy is on page 326 of the Evangelical Lutheran Worship pew edition and 634 of the ELW Leaders’ Desk Edition. There are no paraments for the Good Friday service. They were removed during the Maundy Thursday stripping of the altar. The altar is completely bare. Crosses that cannot be removed are veiled. The service begins and ends in silence.

The liturgy is simple, and similar to the Roman Catholic rite, only without communion. Hymns are sung without instruments or with minimal accompaniment.

  • Prayer of the day
  • Three readings
  • Sermon
  • Hymn
  • Bidding prayer
  • Procession of the cross, and
  • The Solemn Reproaches

The pastor may be vested in just an alb, without stole, to symbolize the austerity of the service. The earlier Lutheran Book of Worship Manual on the Liturgy discouraged stoles and chasubles as “inappropriate.” (p. 321) Some congregations vest the pastor in a black cassock, With or without the surplice. Roman Catholic rubrics call for red. Some wear purple. So, the practice is all over the map in North American Lutheranism.

3:00 is the tradition time for the Good Friday service, but in societies where people have to work, the service is often done later. In Texas, Good Friday is a state holiday (one of eleven states).

 

The Solemn Reproaches

As you prepare for Good Friday, click here for Mark Mummert’s helpful blog post on The Solemn Reproaches for Good Friday.

In the Good Friday rite of Evangelical Lutheran Worship, one of the options during the Procession of the Cross is to sing the Solemn Reproaches. This ancient text, known also as the Improperia, first appeared in Good Friday or Holy Saturday rites of the ninth century. The text then slowly spread in use through the middle ages and then was finally added to the Roman rite in the fourteenth century. One of the great controversies with the ancient text is its anti-Semitic stance and usage. This known history makes the use of the text today very difficult. But, thankfully, the Evangelical Lutheran Worship text of the Reproaches has been revised for contemporary usage.

The structure of the text is simple: each reproach begins with an expansion on Micah 6:3: “O my people, [O my church,] what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!” Then, each reproach continues with a new biblical claim, not unlike that of Micah 6:4; “I brought you up from the land of Egypt…” Finally, each reproach concludes “…but you have prepared a cross for your savior.” The assembly responds to each reproach with a petition for mercy; in the ELW text the response is the Trisagion (the “thrice holy”) of the eastern church: “Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy on us.”

The biblical claims are a tour de force of scriptural allusions, from both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament:

  • I led you out of slavery into freedom;
  • I led you on your way in a pillar of cloud and fire;
  • I made you branches of the vine and never left your side;
  • I gave you the kingdom and crowned you with eternal life;
  • I washed your feet as a sign of my love;
  • I raised you from death and prepared for you a tree of life;

The next to last reproach in the ELW text merits the most attention.

O my people, O my church, what more could I have done for you?

Answer me.

I grafted you into my people Israel,

but you made them scapegoats for your own guilt,

and you have prepared a cross for your Savior.

 

       Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal,

       have mercy on us.

This additional reproach in the classically anti-Semitic text calls the church to repentance of all earlier versions. Further, when sung in the Good Friday liturgy in which the Passion from John’s gospel could be heard as an indictment of the Jewish nation, this reproach, along with the newly reworked Bidding Prayer in the ELW Good Friday rite will helps considerably.

Various musical settings of the Solemn Reproaches exist that allow for the reproach to be sung by a cantor and the response by the assembly. Several settings, including one that Mark composed, are included in the Music Sourcebook for Lent and the Three Days from Augsburg Fortress.

One last word: these Reproaches find themselves in a rite that is widely unknown among ELCA congregations. Churches do lots of different things on Good Friday — tenebre, three hours with the “seven last words,” cantatas, even requiems (which Mark does not recommend). Mark strongly recommends the Good Friday rite as it is in ELW.

 

 

Good Friday: Hung from a Tree

 

According to James Cone, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Martin Luther King was a young, 27-year-old pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama when 14-year-old Emmett Louis Till was lynched in Mississippi, for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Till was visiting from Chicago. Roy Bryant and Roy’s half-brother J. W. Milam abducted him, then beat and mutilated the teenager. They were acquitted. Later, protected by double jeopardy, they admitted to killing the boy.

Emmitt Till’s lynching was the most recent in a long line of lynchings used to control and strike fear in the black population since the Civil War outlawed slavery. Lynchings were announced in the newspaper in advance, and sometimes attended by thousands of people. Hot dogs were sold, and postcards were made next to the mutilated and burned body hanging from the tree. Victims were frequently tortured prior to being shot or burned. Convictions were rare. Reports after the fact said the lynchings were perpetrated by “persons unknown.” One could be lynched for making eye-contact with a white person.

Roy Wilkins, the executive head of the NAACP, spoke for many: “It would appear from this lynching that the State of Mississippi has decided to maintain white supremacy by murdering children.” [Cone, James H. (2011-09-01). The Cross and the Lynching Tree (p. 66). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.]

After the Civil War, up to the lynching of Emmit Till, thousands of black men and boys were lynched, causing some to comment that life was worse for blacks than during the slave era. Some white Christians spoke out against such atrocities, but it was unsafe to do so. Some collaborated, and the rest were merely silent in the face of such evil. Silence, of course, implies consent. The innocent were hung from a tree at the hands of those in power.

This is astounding: that few could see Christ in the face of the black man, or boy, hanging from a tree. The utter inability to identify the lynched with the crucified is an indictment on white Christianity.

To be a people of the cross means seeing the cross not merely in the past, but in the present as well. In the cross of Christ, God sides definitively with the despised, dispossessed, disenfranchised and powerless of the world – those deprived of their lives. Who are these people today?

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,

    yet he did not open his mouth;

like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,

    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,

    so he did not open his mouth.

 

By a perversion of justice he was taken away.

    Who could have imagined his future?

For he was cut off from the land of the living,

    stricken for the transgression of my people.

 

They made his grave with the wicked

    and his tomb with the rich,

although he had done no violence,

    and there was no deceit in his mouth.

 

Isaiah 53:7-9

It should come as no surprise that the African American community came to identify with the suffering servant, the crucified one, as had so many oppressed people throughout history. Can the rich and powerful understand the cross? Can they perceive the kingdom of God? Perhaps, Jesus said, insomuch as a camel can go through the eye of a needle.

I was a 36-year-old pastor in Conroe, Texas in the summer of 1998 when James Byrd, Jr. was dragged to death in Jasper, Texas by three men, two of whom were white supremacists. He was dragged three miles behind a pickup truck on an asphalt road. He died when his body hit the edge of a culvert, severing his arm and head. They drove another mile, then deposited his torso in front of an African American cemetery. Of the three perpetrators, one died by lethal injection, one is on death row, and the other has life in prison. But locals were strangely quiet about the event. Jasper is in our synod.

How are people taught to devalue human life in this way? Or, how is it that we are taught to devalue some lives more than others?

When white police officers can shoot unarmed black men who are running from them, and not get convicted, even when the entire episode is caught on camera, how much different is this than a lynching? Do we have the courage to proclaim the cross today, in our context?

Jesus is crucified every day. Can we see the miscarriages of justice in our day, or do we remain silent? Sandra Bland was stopped for failing to signal. Because she refused to put out her cigarette, she was dragged her from her car, thrown to the ground and handcuffed. She was found later, hung in her jail cell. Her death was ruled a suicide.

A few months earlier Freddie Gray was killed in Baltimore after being arrested for carrying a switchblade. The previous year Eric Garner was killed after being put in a choke hold. Michael Brown, Jr. was shot to death by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson. No charges were filed. 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot to death in seconds for brandishing a toy gun in a park.

This is just a small sample of dozens of such incidents. Over 100 unarmed black people were shot in 2015. How shall we respond? Do we have eyes to see the cross in these events? Are we willing to speak up when we see others become victims of injustice? As followers of the Crucified One, do we have any choice?

For the loved ones who grieve these senseless deaths, it seems little can console. Suffering poses a test of faith. Emmitt Till’s mother found hope beyond tragedy in the Crucified One. The innocent one hanging from a cross, who died and rose again, whose name we know and whose stories we tell 2,000 years later, turned “defeat into triumph, ugliness into beauty, despair into hope, the cross into the resurrection.” [Cone, James H. (2011-09-01). The Cross and the Lynching Tree (p. 69). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.]

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.

2 Cor 4:8-10

Cone points that out Barth, Tillich, and Niebuhr, white theologians who spoke frequently about the cross, had little to nothing to say about the manifestation of the cross in contemporary American society: lynchings. How could they have missed this?

Not every white religious leader missed the point. German Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945, for defying the Third Reich’s racist policies. “When Christ calls a man, he calls him to come and die.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, revised and unabridged ed.; New York: Macmillan, 1959, p. 99.)

The cross is more than a nifty logo for religious folks to hang around their necks. It is a stunning statement of power through weakness. The cross is the defining heart of the Christian faith. It represents God’s love for humanity, all of humanity, even the outcast and downcast. The cross is God’s definitive statement in favor of the poor and powerless of the world, who are so often cast into the trash by the rich and powerful.

It is not enough to place the cross in the context of the Roman Empire. We must see it in the context of our empire today. It is the Christian impulse to seek out the least, the last and the lost in our world today. It is our impulse to shed light on evil in our world today.

Are you suffering today? Christ is with you. He suffered unfairly as well. Know that you are loved with an everlasting love. Are those around you suffering? Let us receive new eyes, to see the cross in our context.

 

 

EASTER VIGIL – April 20, 2019

Eternal giver of life and light, this holy night shines with the radiance of the risen Christ. Renew your church with the Spirit given us in baptism, that we may worship you in sincerity and truth and may shine as a light in the world, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Hebrew Bible Readings:

  1. Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a– Creation.
    Response:Psalm 136:1-9, 23-26
  2. Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13– Flood.
    Response:Psalm 46
  3. Genesis 22:1-18 – Testing of Abraham.
    Response:Psalm 16
  4. Exodus 14:10-31;15:20-21 – Deliverance at the Red Sea.
    Response:Exodus 15:1b-13, 17-18
  5. Isaiah 55:1-11– Ho! Salvation offered freely to all.
    Response:Isaiah 12:2-6
  6. Proverbs 8:1-8; 19-21; 9:4b-6or Baruch 3:9-15, 32 – 4:4– The wisdom of God.
    Response: Psalm 19
  7. Ezekiel 36:24-28– A new heart and a new spirit.
    Response:Psalm 42 and 43
  8. Ezekiel 37:1-14– The valley of the dry bones.
    Response:Psalm 143
  9. Zephaniah 3:14-20– The gathering of God’s people.
    Response:Psalm 98
  10. Jonah 1:1-2:1– The deliverance of Jonah.
    Response:Jonah 2:2-3 [4-6] 7-9
  11. Isaiah 61:1-4, 9-11– Clothed in the garments of salvation.
    Response: Deuteronomy 32:1-4, 7, 36a, 43a
  12. Daniel 3:1-29– Deliverance from the fiery furnace.
    Response: Song of the Three, vv. 35-65 (apocryphal)

Romans 6:3-11 – We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

John 20:1-18 – Jesus’ resurrection and appearance to Mary Magdalene

 

 

RESURRECTION OF OUR LORD – April 21, 2019

God of mercy, we no longer look for Jesus among the dead, for he is alive and has become the Lord of life. Increase in our minds and hearts the risen life we share with Christ, and help us to grow as your people toward the fullness of eternal life with you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Acts 10:34-43 – Peter’s sermon: We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear…
OR
Isaiah 65:17-25 – I am about to create a new heaven and a new earth.


Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 – God’s steadfast love endures forever.


I Corinthians 15:19-26 – Paul’s discourse on the resurrection. Death as the final enemy.
OR
Acts 10:34-43 – Peter’s sermon: We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear…


John 20:1-18 – Jesus’ resurrection and appearance to Mary Magdalene
OR
Luke 24:1-12 – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women with them find the stone rolled away, encounter an angel, and run to tell the apostles.

 

 

Looking Ahead Through Easter

 

Easter is April 21, 2019. The great 50 days of Easter takes us to Pentecost on June 9, 2019. A week of weeks.

 

 

Acts At-A-Glance

 

  • April 21, 2019– RESURRECTION OF OUR LORD: Acts 10:34-43 – Peter’s sermon: We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear…
  • April 28, 2019– Easter 2C: Acts 5:27-32 – Peter to the high priest: The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, so that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.’
  • May 5, 2019– Easter 3C: Acts 9:1-6, (7-20) – Saul’s light from heaven. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
  • May 12, 2019– Easter 4C: Acts 9:36-43 – The resuscitation of Tabitha in Joppa (Peter).
  • May 19, 2019– Easter 5C: Acts 11:1-18 – Peter’s report to the church at Jerusalem on why he ate with the uncircumcised. His vision.
  • May 26, 2019– Easter 6C: Acts 16:9-15 – The gospel enters Europe. Paul has a vision during the night: A man from Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’
  • Thursday, May 30, 2019 or Sunday, June 2, 2019 ASCENSION OF OUR LORD: Acts 1:1-11– As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’ Note: This is also Mother’s Day in 2016.
  • June 9, 2019– PENTECOST: Acts 2:1-21 – Day of Pentecost. Roaring wind and tongues of flame.

 

 

Easter Gospels at-a-glance

 

  • April 21, 2019– RESURRECTION OF OUR LORD: The women at the tomb find the stone rolled away
  • April 28, 2019– Easter 2C: Doubting Thomas. Revelation: He will come on the clouds.
  • May 5, 2019– Easter 3C: Breakfast with Jesus on the beach. Be fishers and shepherds.
  • May 12, 2019– Easter 4C: Good Shepherd Sunday.
  • May 19, 2019– Easter 5C: New Commandment. Love as the mark of the church.
  • May 26, 2019– Easter 6C: John’s vision of the Holy City Jerusalem. Jesus’ vision of the coming of the Holy Spirit, the comforter, who will teach us everything.
  • Thursday, May 30, 2019 or Sunday, June 2, 2019 ASCENSION OF OUR LORD: While he was blessing them [at Bethany], he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
  • June 9, 2019– PENTECOST: John 14. In my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever.

 

Note: The Gulf Coast Synod Assembly is May 17-18, 2019.

 

 

A Brief Introduction to the Acts of the Apostles, volume 2 of the Gospel of Luke

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
– Acts 1:8 

Acts 1:8 is Luke’s exordium, his theme verse if you will. Jerusalem, Judea and the ends of the earth: this is the outline of the rest of Acts.

  • Acts 1-9 Jerusalem
  • Acts 9-12 Judea and Samaria
  • Acts 12-28 The ends of the earth

Luke wrote Acts (Acts 1:1-2. Luke 1:1-4). The author never identifies himself, but following tradition, let us call him Luke. Acts is a 28-chapter volume 2 of Luke’s gospel. “The story in Acts is essential in understanding who Jesus of Nazareth was, and what he means,” said Dr. Ed Krentz as he lectured us in Houston, Brenham and New Orleans in 2009. He encouraged us to use Acts for the second reading during this Lukan year.

Luke claims to be a traveling companion of the apostle Paul on the journey in which they get shipwrecked. Luke speaks of Paul and his team as “they” until Acts 27:1, when all of a sudden, he starts speaking in the first person (“we”). So, we assume that’s when Paul’s entourage picks up Luke. Someone by the name of Luke is mentioned several times in the Bible: Col. 4:14, 2 Tim 4:11, Philemon 24.

Luke is the only one who coordinates the gospel with secular history. Luke is the only gospel that mentions any Roman Emperors. Without Luke we couldn’t date anything. Luke mentions:

  • Caesar Augustus
  • Tiberius
  • Claudius (Acts 18)

The title is The Acts of the Apostles, but it might just as well be the Acts of Peter and Paul. Peter figures large in the first eight chapters, then a little bit after Paul’s conversion (chapter 9). Chapter 13 to the end of Acts, chapter 28, well over half the book, is devoted entirely to Paul’s missionary journeys.

When Stephen was being stoned (Acts 6 and 7), those who stoned him laid their coats at the feet of someone named Saul. Saul approved of the stoning (Acts 7:58, 8:1).

Saul’s conversion happens in Acts 9:1-19a (our text May 5, 2019). It is Luke that tells us that Saul was from Tarsus (Acts 9:11, 30; 21:39; 22:3). Paul never mentions it in any of his letters that we have. Tarsus is the capital of Cilicia, the eastern most region in southern Turkey, abutting Syria.
It is where Antony first met Cleopatra 33 years before the birth of Christ.
The Romans governed Tarsus in Paul’s day, and as a legacy left a system of roads that facilitated Paul’s travels.
The overland route through Asia (modern day Turkey) could be followed even when sea travel was impossible.
The trade route went from Troas to Pergamum (the capital of Asia), on to Sardis, through Galatia to Tarsus.
Tarsus was therefore linked with the main roads westward, and therefore to the great Roman centers of Ephesus and Corinth, as well as Syrian Antioch and Jerusalem to the east and south. [Paul, The Mind of the Apostle, A.N. Wilson]
The ancient writers speak of the Tarseans as pirates, seafarers and worshippers of Mithras. This accounts for Paul’s comfortability with travel, and sea travel in particular.

According to archeological evidence, Mithras worship was practiced in Tarsus until the fall of the Roman empire 450 years hence. A characteristic of Mithras worship was that worshippers would drink the blood of the sacrificed bull, or a cup of wine as a symbol of that blood. (It is easy to imagine how Paul’s Eucharistic theology emerges.) They would bathe in the blood, and it was believed that you would inherit the strength and life force of the bull. A child growing up in Tarsus would be impressed by this. Even a Jewish child.
Paul is a citizen of the Roman empire according to Luke. He writes with a vigorous and distinctive style of Greek prose. This is not his second language. In other words, he is a Greek-speaking Jew, a second class of Jew according to the Hebrew speaking Jews from which Jesus came. And Paul was not a peasant. Any history of Greek prose which omitted Paul would be incomplete. He speaks in Greek. He thinks in Greek. And as a Greek speaker he was a citizen of the world, part of a universe much larger than that of Jesus and his disciples.
In Paul’s day, Roman citizenship could be purchased for 200 drachmae (two-years wages for a laborer). Luke tells us that Paul was a tentmaker. Tents were for the wealthy. Mostly for Roman troops.

 

 

Acts in the Revised Common Lectionary

 

Acts doesn’t fare well in the Revised Common Lectionary. The only time we read from Acts is in the Easter season (including the Day of Pentecost). We read from Acts 1 only on Ascension Sunday/Easter 7. We read from Acts 2 only on Pentecost, and Easter 2A-4A. We have readings from Acts 3-5 in Easter B and C. Lutherans never read from Acts 6, 12-15, 18, or 20-28 in worship. The only time we read from Paul’s missionary journeys (Acts 13-28) is Easter 6A, Baptism B and Easter 6-7C.

This year (C), with all our jumping around (Acts 10, 5, 9, 11, 16, 1, 2), we only read once from Pauls’ journeys, Easter 6C, May 1, 2016: The gospel enters Europe. Paul has a vision during the night: A man from Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’

 

 

Easter: Acts 10:34-43

Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

God shows no partiality.

Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. God does not make distinctions between Jews, Muslims or Christians. God does not show partiality to one race or another. Rich or poor. Male or female. Anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable Peter says. Gentiles who believed in God were called God-fearers.

After John’s baptism, this Jesus went about doing good and healing those oppressed by the devil. Nevertheless, they put him to death by hanging him from a tree.

Peter’s message in Acts 10 (Easter) and Acts 5 (the Sunday after Easter) is the same as the message in his Pentecostal Sermon (Acts 2): This Jesus was put to death by hanging him on a tree, but God “exalted” him on God’s right hand. Of this we are witnesses.

Hanging from a tree was considered a curse in Jewish tradition. Jesus had aligned himself with the outcasts, by eating and drinking with them. He was executed as a powerless man.

But God raised him from the dead, and called us to preach forgiveness in his name. Have you fallen short of the justice to which God calls you? Have you failed in your self-powered efforts at righteousness? Forgiveness is free. All who call upon the Lord receive full pardon and forgiveness for their sins.

That forgiveness frees us to move forward into grace. The knowledge of the resurrection frees us from fear of death, fear of the powers that threaten to destroy us. We are free to move into the new world with joy.

Paul proclaimed the same message. Have this mind that was in Christ Jesus: Though he was in the form of God, he humbled himself, taking on the form of a servant, and became obedient to death, even death on a cross. Therefore God highly exalted him and gave him the name which is above every name. Exaltation comes from humiliation. Life comes from death.

We are invited to see death not as the end, but as the beginning. We are given a glimpse of what we cannot see with our mortal eyes: that there is more to life than meets the eyes.

But death and resurrection isn’t just for the afterlife. It is to be lived now. In Acts, Christianity is called The Way (8:2, 9:25, 18:25, 18:26, 19:9, 19:23, 24:14, 24:22). It is not a belief system alone, but a way of life, a way of being in the world. The cross, the resurrection, grace, forgiveness, empower us to live as new creations. We die to ourselves, so that we can arise to new life in Christ, now.

So, what grave clothes will you be leaving behind?

 

 

Easter Sunday

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy God has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…

—1 Peter 1:3

 

If we are worth anything, it is not because we have more money or more talent, or more

human qualities. Insofar as we are worth anything, it is because we are grafted on to Christ’s life, his cross and resurrection. That is a person’s measure.

—Archbishop Oscar Romero, March 4, 1979

 

Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in

Springtime.

—Martin Luther

 

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

—Philippians 3:10-11

Prodigal God: For those who have been in the series Prodigal God, here are some notes for Easter Sunday that pull the series together, under the heading “Redefining Hope.”

 

Paul’s understanding of the resurrection: Earlier this year, February 10, 2019, we had a couple of weeks of readings from 1 Corinthians 15. At that point I shared some perspectives on Paul’s understanding of resurrection, with the help of James Tabor. Paul does not understand resurrection as we often do in today’s society.

 

The Isenheim Altarpiece: David Lyle Jeffrey invites us to a Holy Week meditation on the Isenheim altarpiece, the largest work of the late Medieval painter, Matthias Grünewald. The artist painted it for the monastery of Saint Anthony in Isenheim, located outside a town known for caring for the sick. The monks cared for those with the Plague and various skin diseases.

 

(Note: Our Gulf Coast friends, Vonda and Jim Drees, direct the Grünewald Guild, 14 miles northwest of Leavenworth, Washington, on the Wenatchee River in the Plain Valley. Go visit for snowcapped peaks, rushing waters, golden meadows, art and faith.)

The wings of the Isenheim altarpiece are closed for most the year, showing a stunning crucifixion scene. The crucified Christ is covered with plague-like sores. This demonstrated to patients that Jesus not only understood, but shared their afflictions. The realism of Grünewald’s depictions of these diseases is unique in this period, and instructive.

 

To the left is Mary Magdalene on her knees, with an alabaster jar. Unfortunately, Mary comes to be mistakenly associated with the “sinful woman” with the alabaster jar of ointment in Luke 7:37. The apostle John comforts Mary. A surrealistic John the Baptist with a surrealistically large finger points to Jesus.

On Easter, an a few other holy days, the doors open at the center, and an equally amazing resurrection scene is revealed. Jeffrey calls it, “ perhaps the most stunning representation of the resurrection in all Christian art…”

On the right panel is a transfigured and ascending risen Christ, with Roman soldiers at his feet and rising sun behind his head. It is a new day dawning, a turning point in history as Jaroslav Pelican put it.

 

Women, The First Preachers of the Resurrection: Luke 24:1-12

 

I read Luke 24 as one who strongly believes that the women went to the tomb before dawn to anoint the corpse and found instead an empty tomb. It is the one constant in the varied accounts.

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

Mikeal Parsons, in his excellent commentary, says,

Luke narrates four events after Jesus’s death: his burial (23:50–56); the empty tomb (24:1–11); and two postresurrection appearances to his followers, first to Cleopas and his companion (24:13–35) and finally to the Eleven (24:36–53).

  1. Burial (Palm/Passion C)
  2. Empty tomb (Easter 3C)
  3. Appearance on Road to Emmaus (Easter 3A and 3B, Easter evening C)
  4. Appearance to the eleven (Ascension A, B and C)

All of the postmortem texts appear in the Revised Common Lectionary, although they are spread out over three years and range from Palm/Passion Sunday for the burial, to Ascension day for the appearance to the eleven. (The Narrative Lectionary, Year 3, includes the first three of these events consecutively, on Good Friday, Easter, and Easter 2, but excludes the fourth entirely.) Curiously, we do not read Luke’s unique Road to Emmaus account on a Sunday morning in RCL Year C.

Who are the women at the tomb? They vary from gospel to gospel. Marilyn Salmon at United Seminary in St. Paul points out that this story appears in all four gospels, and in each gospel, Mary Magdalene is present. While the stories vary, there is consensus about this. And there is also another Mary in each gospel, one of the seven in the New Testament. Matthew includes “the other Mary” (28:1). Mark adds “Mary the mother of James and Salome” (16:1). Luke includes Mary mother of James (24:10). In addition to these Marys, there are “other women.” Who are they? Luke told us in the previous chapter, just a few verses ago (23:55-56), that they had followed him all the way to Jerusalem from Galilee:

The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.

These are the same women that were with Jesus in his ministry in Galilee. Women play a vital role in Jesus‘ story in the Gospel of Luke. Elizabeth, Mary his mother, Anna, Joanna, Susanna, Mary Magdalene, the women who funded Jesus’ ministry, the five other Marys, and so on. The women follow Jesus in Luke, literally from Galilee. They are followers, disciples.

How many “other women” are there? We are not told. However, earlier in his gospel (8:2b-3), Luke told us that there were “many” women who were with Jesus and the twelve:

… Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

Perhaps two. Perhaps 20. The women find an empty tomb and are understandably “perplexed,” perhaps as Mary was “perplexed” when the angel appeared to her as a young, pregnant teenager three decades earlier.

Two angels appear to them, saying, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here for he has risen.” And then the angels tell the women to remember what Jesus told them, back when they were “in Galilee,” that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinful men, be crucified and on the third day rise.

They immediately go to tell the eleven, but the eleven do not believe. It seemed to them an “idle tale.” This is a sexist slur. Even today we still hear phrases like “an old wives tale” to discount the veracity and testimony of women. Luke is not critiquing the women. Luke is critiquing the disciples.

It was women who accompanied Jesus in his ministry. It is women who helped to fund his ministry. It is women who stood by Jesus even when Judas betrayed and Peter denied. It was women who stayed with Jesus at the foot of the cross, in his most difficult hour, until he breathed his last breath. And it was women on Easter morning, who proclaimed the good news of the resurrection. Sadly, it would be women upon whom an institutionalized church would turn, to marginalize, and exclude, within only a few generations.

Jürgen Moltmann has famously said,

Without women preachers, we would have no knowledge of the resurrection.

Perhaps we are like the women at the tomb, announcing the resurrection to an unbelieving world, that often sees the story as an “idle tale.” We announce a new day dawning, a turning point in history that frees us to love unconditionally, live hopefully and give generously. We are privileged to share a foolish story that suggests that death does not have the final word. To announce what the angel said to a young, expecting Mary:

For nothing will be impossible with God.

(Luke 1:37)

St. Paul Brenham, Lent V, April 7, 2019

Lots of positive energy this morning at St. Paul Brenham. This congregation has come through some struggles, and landed in a really healthy place. I’m deeply grateful for Pastor Phil Fenton’s solid leadership.

How nice of the confirmation class of 1888.

They blessed over 100 quilts

It’s hard to hear the accompaniment in this video, but watch the boys on the left front row. They seem to be having a thoroughly good time.

I appreciate the Lenten motif and all, but as someone who speaks with his hands, and has been known to pound the pulpit, I got stuck by the thorny pulpit a few times at the early service.

They asked if I would be willing to play something schmaltzy on the piano during the offering, so, ask and you shall receive…

After worship, which included a baptism, the altar guild put the rather ornate lid back on the baptismal font. There’s probably some fancy liturgical name for this thing, but I don’t know what it is. When in doubt ask an Episcopalian.

(Thanks, Matt Bryan, for the balcony shots.)

after a decade at St. Paul, Phil is retiring, in August around his birthday. The countdown has begun…

Palm/Passion Sunday – April 14, 2019

Luke 19:28-40 – Processional Gospel with Palms. The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. An anti-triumph, in contrast to the Roman triumphal marches after a conquering victory.

Isaiah 50:4-9a – Game face: I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting… therefore I have set my face like flint…

Psalm 31:9-16 – In you, O Lord, I take refuge. Let me never be put to shame. I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.

Philippians 2:5-11 – Christ hymn: Have this mind, that was in Christ, who didn’t count on his equality with God, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant, and becoming obedient, even to death on a cross.

Luke 22:14 – 23:56 – The Passion: Lord’s Supper, Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial, trial, crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus.
OR
Luke 23:1-49 – Passover dinner and arrest. Shortened version begins with Jesus before Pilate: “Are you the king of the Jews?” Longer version includes the burial by Joseph of Arimathea.

Sovereign God, you have established your rule in the human heart through the servanthood of Jesus Christ. By your Spirit, keep us in the joyful procession of those who with their tongues confess Jesus as Lord and with their lives praise him as Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

 

Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday

 

The Sunday before Easter usually begins with a blessing of the Palms outdoors and a processional. Participants are given palm branches to wave. Information on the procession can be found in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship Leaders Desk Edition, p. 662-626.

Lutheran World Relief offers fair trade “eco-palms”. It’s too late to order for this year, but it’s worth mentioning: This year we’ll purchase $4.5 million in palms. Most of them will be harvested in Latin America. Very little of this money reaches the actual farmers. This fair trade program gives $.05/palm back to the community and pays farmers fairly, eliminating the large corporations that pocket the profits and underpay workers. Creating a steady market in communities means they will care for and keep up their palms, rather than devastating the forest. Consider this for next year.

After Palm Sunday worship, some palms should be dried and stowed for burning to make ashes for next year’s Ash Wednesday.

 

 

History

 

This is a long post. First I’ll share some history of Palm/Passion Sunday, then take the Scripture passages one at a time.

Pre- Vatican II, Passion Sunday was the fifth Sunday of Lent (the beginning of Passiontide) and Palm Sunday was the sixth. Dominica in Palmis, Dominica or Dies Palmarum was the beginning of Holy Week. In 1969, Pope Paul VI moved Passion Sunday to Lent VI, creating “Palm Sunday of the Passion of our Lord.” In Germany it was called Black Sunday, since the crosses were all draped in black on that day for Holy Week.

I grew up with Passion and Palm Sunday mixed. It was explained that the passion was read on the Sunday before Easter because many people did not attend Good Friday services, and therefore would never hear the story of the cross. So, people who didn’t attend Good Friday would skip from a festive entry into Jerusalem to Easter. Easter with no cross.

Recently there has been a move back to letting Good Friday carry the weight, and allowing Palm Sunday to be just that, a celebration of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.

 

 

Isaiah: Game Face

 

The Hebrew Bible text is Isaiah 50:4-9a, about the abuse the suffering servant is to endure. In Isaiah, Israel is the servant, God’s servant, called to be a blessing to its own people, and a light to the nations/the Gentiles. Israel will not be great because of their power and glory, but because of their humble servanthood.

In chapter 50, part of Second Isaiah, coming out of the Babylonian Captivity, Israel, the Suffering Servant speaks. “I have been given the tongue of a teacher.” Is suffering not our teacher? Do we not learn by our mistakes, our failures and our shortcomings? The Suffering Servant is not arrogant, but now a listener, a learner. “God has opened my ear.”

“I gave my back to those who struck me… I did not hide my face from those who insulted and spit on me.” One lesson in humility can go a long way. There is nothing like being thrown into the dog house to teach us humility. “Therefore, I have set my face like flint.” Everybody plays the fool, sometime. No exception to the rule.

In the midst of this humility, the Suffering Servant is able to see God’s deliverance. There is hope. “He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.” Paul echoes something similar in Romans 8. “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

I can see why the early church latched onto these passages to describe Jesus, the Suffering Servant. The cross is about power through weakness. The cross is about God’s vindication of the powerless and outcast. Jesus is the ultimate suffering servant, show us what true glory is about.

 

 

Philippians 2: The Christ Hymn

 

Paul’s Christ Hymn in Philippians 2 comes up on this Sunday in years A, B, and C. The only other time it pops up is on The Name of Jesus, which many Lutheran congregations omit, and Proper 21A/Ordinary 26A/Pentecost +20 in season A, which usually falls in September. This passage is so central to Paul’s Christology in general and incarnation in particular, that one hates to miss an opportunity to preach it.

In it Paul not only defines the Christian’s posture in the world, but he also redefines divinity. God chooses to show divinity by self-emptying, and serving.

One of my favorite books is Michael J. Gorman’s, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology.

Now there’s a mouthful, but it’s more than gibberish. This is an incredible work of Christocentric theology. Gorman begins with the number of times Paul uses the phrase “in Christ.” When I reread the New Testament scanning for it, I’m shocked by the number of times that phrase is there, and how I’ve taken it for granted. To cite a couple: 

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, so that I may gain Christ and be found in him. Philippians 3:8-9

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. 2 Corinthians 5:17 

I remember Mark Alan Powell telling us that there are no places in the Bible where we are told to invite Jesus into our heart. Not that it’s a bad thing to do, but the New Testament never mentions it. Instead, it invites a flip-flop of that. Not Christ in us, but us “in Christ.” Paul has a robust “in Christ” spirituality and theology. What exactly does Paul mean by this turn of phrase? What does it mean, concretely, for Paul be “in Christ?”

Gorman has four main points:

  1. Cruciformity = Theoformity, or what is called theosis in the Eastern Christian tradition. To be in Christ is to live life in a cruciform way. It is to be claimed and shaped by Christ.  It is to be molded into the image of Christ. Theosis means humans becoming more like God. As Irenaeus said, later shaped by Athanasius: “God became what we are to make us what he is.” (See 2 Peter 1:4, Rom 8:29, 1 Cor 15:49, 2 Cor 3:18, 2 Cor 5:21, Phil 3:21). In Philippians 2, cruciformity, theosis is kenosis: emptying oneself.
  2. Justification is theosis. Justification, as Paul uses it, is more than a judicial term, a declaration of “not guilty.” It is more than a label. There is a transformation that begins to take place. Anything less is “cheap grace” a la Bonhoeffer, or “cheap justification.” Justification without justice is cheap, armchair grace.
  3. Holiness, then, is conforming to the cruciform character of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Holiness (sanctification) is not a supplement to justification, but the actualization of it.
  4. Non-violence is one of the essential elements of participating in the kenotic, cruciform God. To live the cruciform life is to empty oneself, to not lay claim to status and power, but to take on the form of a servant/slave.

That last part is critical: to live the cruciform life is not to lay claim to status and exercise power, but to take on the form of a servant. This is what it means to be “in Christ.”

Gorman’s scholarship and exegesis is impeccable. The first part of the book focuses on Paul’s Christ Hymn in Philippians 2, which he calls Paul’s “Master Story.” His brilliant work has huge implications for the church, especially in this postmodern context. Hear this ancient hymn, perhaps one of the first Christian hymns. Imagine the first Christians singing it in worship…

 

 

The Christ Hymn

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God,did not regard equality with Godas something to be exploited,but emptied himself,taking the form of a slave,being born in human likeness.And being found in human form,he humbled himselfand became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross. 

Therefore God also highly exalted himand gave him the namethat is above every name,so that at the name of Jesusevery knee should bend,in heaven and on earth and under the earth,and every tongue should confessthat Jesus Christ is Lord,to the glory of God the Father.

Gorman’s work here is brilliant. Christ’s kenosis, his self-emptying reveals the very character of God, and forms the key to understanding Paul’s theology, Christology, and ethics. The theology of this seminal passage permeates all of Paul’s letters. Gorman suggests that a kenotic Christ means a kenotic God. Paul’s understanding of Christ, and thus his understanding of God, is in two parts:

  1. Humiliation, verses 6-8
  2. Exaltation, verses 9-11

Gorman draws two conclusions:

  1. Humility is the character of Christ. Therefore, humility is the character of those “in Christ,” and
  2. Humility is the character of Christ, and therefore, also the character of God. Christ reveals the true, though often hidden truth about God: humility.

Humility is the character of those “in Christ.”

 

 

Although… not… but.

 

Although Christ was in the form of God, he did not count on it but emptied himself.

Notice the rhythm of this. Time and time again, Paul displays this pattern in his own behavior, probably unconsciously. And, this underlying pattern is woven throughout his letters. Here is the formula:

Although [x], not [y] but [z].

x=status

y=selfishness

z=selflessness

Although [status], not [selfishness], but [selflessness].

 

Now watch.

Examples:

  • In 2 Cor. 8:9, Although Christ was rich, he became not rich, but (so that) by his poverty we become “rich.”
  • In Rom 15:1-3, Although they are “strong” they must not please themselves, but humble themselves and put up with the scruples of the “weak” so that the body might be built up.
  • In 1 Thess. 2:6-8, Although Paul’s status as apostle allowed him to make demands, he did not, but rather he was gentle.
  • In 1 Cor. 9:1-23. Although Paul has the apostolic privilege to have a wife and get paid for his his work, he does not exercise this privilege, but (v. 12) endures these sacrifices for the sake of the gospel.

Paul is doing what he sees Christ doing in Philippians 2. Possessing status carries with it an inherent mandate to deny oneself; practice humility. Emptying himself and taking on the form of a servant is not denying his apostolic identity; it is fulfilling it. Although he has authority as an apostle, Paul empties himself, exercising humility as a Christlike act of love. For Paul, love seeks conformity to the self-emptying image of Christ. Humility is the character of Christ, and therefore the character of the one who is “in Christ.” Paul exercises his true apostleship by acting in conformity to Christ.

Humility is the character of Christ, and therefore, it is also the character of God.

Not only is Christ defined as kenotic, or self-emptying, not only is the Christian (the one “in Christ”) defined as kenotic, or self-emptying, but GOD is therefore defined as kenotic, or self-emptying.

Jesus expresses his very divinity in “downward mobility.” Gorman cites Hellerman, saying Phil. 2 is a contrast to the Roman “cursus honorum,” a lifelong, upward mobility to honor in the Empire, from slavery, to peasant, to aristocrat, to divinity (like Caesar). Jesus instead moves backwards, from equality with God, down the ladder to slavery, then even to public humiliation by death on a cross. The phrase “In the form of God” is Paul’s clearest Christological statement.

“In the form of God” vs. “In the form of a slave” was common parlance. For a god to be in the form of a slave was inconsistent in Roman thought. A god does not divest power. Divinity and kenosis don’t go together. Erik Heen points out ν μορφn θεοu is a phrase used in Emperor cult worship. After Augustus, the phrase was only used for the Roman emperor. So this hymn sets Christ up against the Emperor.

It is most likely that Paul didn’t write this hymn, but is quoting something early Christians sang in worship. We are hearing echoes of the first Christian hymns and theology.

The exaltation is not promotion, but a confirmation of his divinity. But is this emptying in contrast to what God is like? Is God in Christ doing something completely out of character? Or is self-emptying revealing the most intimate and profound character of God?

In other words, Gorman says, there are two possible readings of this text:

  • Christ renounced his deity: “Although Messiah Jesus was in the form of God, a status that means the exercise of power, he acted out of character – in a shockingly ungodlike manner, contrary in fact to true (imperial) divinity – when he emptied and humbled himself.” Or…
  • Christ exercised his deity: “Although Messiah Jesus was in the form of God, a status that people assume means the exercise of power, he acted in character – in a shockingly ungodlike manner, according to normal but misguided human perceptions of divinity, contrary to what we would expect, but, in fact in accord with true divinity – when he emptied and humbled himself.”

Of course, Gorman’s point is the latter. Jesus redefines divinity, and this ultimately changes the world irrevocably. Jesus subverted and deconstructed concepts of divinity when he emptied and humbled himself. This is an absurd story of God in first century Rome, which is Paul’s point in 1 Cor. 1:18-25.

Christ’s self-emptying then is not a termination of his deity; it is the fullest expression of it. Gregory of Elvira said that Christ’s majesty and divinity, though never lost, were “momentarily hidden,” as the sun is hidden behind a cloud. Gorman argues that Paul’s point is quite the opposite, that the humility of incarnation and the cross in fact reveals divine majesty. Like Father, like Son. Christ reveals the true nature of God.

Therefore, Gorman would rather translate hyparchon “because” he was in the form of God not “although” he was in the form of God. Because he was in the form of God he emptied himself… Placher calls this the “Narrative of a vulnerable God.”

Vulnerable God: Now there’s an oxymoron.

 

 

So what?

 

Oh, I think everybody knows so what. They may not like it, but the implications for the church are pretty obvious. If we follow a self-emptying Christ, who reflects a self-emptying God, then being “in Christ” means to be a self-emptying church, a self-emptying people, that the world might see the true God.

The preacher might give self-emptying examples from individuals in the congregation to make it personal. Or stories of saints and/or ordinary people. Schindler is a great example of one who poured himself out for others. The preacher might find examples from the congregation’s history or other congregations’ histories. One congregation I served in a changing neighborhood, while in seminary, turned part of their parking lot into a playground for neighborhood children. That’s rerooting.

Bishop Brauer-Rieke from Oregon told me of some congregations in Portland, who were struggling in this difficult economy, with a colder-than-ever winter. Many were unable to pay their astronomical heat bills. One congregation, Redeemer, strongly rooted in the community realized that the houses in their neighborhood were built about the same time as the church, and therefore, the people in the neighborhood must be going through the same thing. They turned their focus from inward (their energy bills) to outward (their neighbors’ energy bills).

One pastor in our synod tells me his congregation was dying when he arrived. They figured, if we’re going to go out, let’s go out with a bang. They used their coffers to bless the neighborhood. They gave and gave. And of course, they started to grow. This is, in part, why, even when times are tough, cutting back on our percentage of giving is not appropriate. A church that doesn’t give isn’t a church.

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, so that I may gain Christ and be found in him.

Phil 3:8-9

The Christ Hymn of Philippians 2 echoes another ancient hymn in Isaiah 40-55: The Song of the Suffering Servant. God’s power is made known to the world in self-emptying. To paraphrase Irenaeus and Athanasius: “God became what we are to make us what he is.”

There’s no wiggling out of this.

The good news is, when we give ourselves away, that’s when we really begin to see what life is about.

 

 

The Triumphal Entry

 

Zechariah 9:9 says,

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

The donkey is actually the mount of royalty arriving in peace (Genesis 49:11, Judges 5:5, 10:4). On a horse if in war. This Jesus is royalty, but he is the Prince of Peace, and he is arriving in peace, not as a conquering hero. This king practices humility, as Paul also expresses in Philippians 2.

Charles Spurgeon writes, “Brethren, let us be lowly. Did I hear one say, ‘Well, I will try to be lowly’? You cannot do it in that way. We must not try to act the lowly part; we must be lowly, and then we shall naturally act in a humble manner. It is astonishing how much of pride there is in the most modest.”

Jesus’ entry is not a pseudo-humility. The donkey is royalty. The palms signify victory. There is a greatness here, but it is a greatness expressed not in pomposity, but in humility. Those who are truly great need not prove it. Einstein had a humorous humility to him. It is the nature of true strength, to not have to posture.

I have often thought, that if we, the church, could learn this kind of humility, the world would pay careful attention. It could be our greatest form of evangelism, living lives of humility. As someone has said, your life is the greatest sermon you will preach. Jesus showed his greatness through lowliness, his power through humility. The lesson for me this Palm Sunday is humbleness.

Do you wish to be great? Then begin by being.

Do you desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric? Think first about the foundations of humility.

The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.

– Saint Augustine

The gospel writers present Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as a kind of anti-Triumph – a parody of Caesar’s pompous march into Rome after each military victory.

Dan Clendenin calls it a Counter-Procession that ends with the death penalty.

He highlights three reasons Jesus is crucified:

  • Subverting the nation
  • Encouraging people to not pay taxes
  • Calling himself a king

While these are probably trumped up charges, the sign over his head on the cross confirms that this was probably the line of thought: “King of the Jews”.

Jesus was popular. He drew large crowds. Anyone who could draw a crowd of 5,000 men, plus women and children, was a dangerous person. Clogging Jerusalem’s streets drew attention to Jesus. An anti-imperial, anti-triumphal procession of peasants would capture attention of the authorities, who were expected to put down riots, much like we see in many places today. Jesus had to have known what he was doing by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey – what he was saying.

What does it mean for us to participate in subversive counter-processions today? What does it mean to empty ourselves as Paul talks about in this coming Sunday’s epistle text (Philippians 2)? What does it mean to pour ourselves out like a drink offering (2 Timothy 4:6)?

It is all well and good to ogle and reenact Jesus’ own procession, but how do we process into the world as a subversive community exposing systems of power and privilege? I think first we have to acknowledge them. They have to become topics of discussion. We have to name who is powerful and who is powerless, because the church has sadly gotten this wrong many times throughout history. (Read about the Doctrine of Discovery for example.)

When we live in humility, we will echo the voice of the people, and the voice of the powerless, who live under the power of those who wield the threatening death stick.

To walk the way of the cross is to tap into the power of compassion, listening, enlightening, and emptying. It’s the power of powerlessness.

Julius Caesar was born 100 years before Jesus. Known for his incredible speaking ability, his magnetic personality and his military genius, he was elected Pontifex Maximus in 63 B.C. at the age of 37. Today the Pontifex is the Pope, but back then it referred to the Pagan High Priest of Rome.

By reducing the taxes of the rich and by giving land to the poor, he became extremely popular with all levels of society. He conquered what are now Britain, France, Belgium and Germany west of the Rhine, making him the greatest military leader of his time. He is reputed to have known the names of every one of his men in battle. You can read more about this and what follows in Jesus the Last Day, A Collection of Essays published by the Biblical Archeological Society. © 2003 Biblical Archeological Society.

As popular as Julius Caesar was, the senate nevertheless elected Pompey instead, another military leader with his own faithful armies. The senate told Caesar to give up his army. He did not know what to do: submit to the will of the senate or to Civil War? On January 19, 49 years before the birth of Christ, Caesar said, iacta alea est – the die is cast – and his armies crossed the Rubicon River, entering Italy to change history forever.

From there he conquered Spain, then Greece, and Egypt where he lived with Cleopatra, then on to Syria and Pontus. He conquered the Mediterranean world with such ease he reported his victory with the words Veni, Vidi, Vici – I came. I saw. I conquered. He never once doubted that he had done the right thing. Because Rome needed the best general in charge, right? His victory proved that he had done the right thing; the gods were on his side. The victor is the winner and the winner is the gods’ choice, right?

When he returned to Rome, the people lined the streets for his Triumphal March. They waved branches and threw their garments before him as he rode into Rome on his horse. Some in history see him as the greatest military commander ever. Others see him as one who destroyed democracy and the Republic.

In subsequent years, every time land was conquered there would be a triumphal procession. The historian, Dio Cassius, tells us the triumphator would gather his armies and the Praetorian Guard, and enter Rome clad in armlets and a regal purple robe embroidered with gold after the rites of Dionysus. With a gold laurel crown upon his head that had been borrowed from the Temple of Jupiter, he held a branch in his hand.

The racially-diverse, conquered prisoners of war would march ahead of him, Africans, Jews and Arabs; proof the victories he had attained. When the triumphator arrived at the Roman Forum, he would command some of the prisoners to be put to death and the rest imprisoned or enslaved. He would ride up to the Capitol and perform certain sacred rites to the gods. The word “capitol” just means “the head.” The head of Italy. The head of the world. Later a triumphal arch would be erected to commemorate the event.

Each leader felt his triumphal march had to upstage the others. So the processions became more and more complex and lavish. Perfumes would be distributed to those along the way to create an aroma or aura. By 20 B.C, 20 years before the birth of Christ, the triumphal procession became the sole privilege of the Emperor, who would parade through the city as people shouted, “Hail Caesar!” A bull would be dressed up and led along in procession to be sacrificed to the gods at the end. A priest would walk behind the bull with a double-bladed axe for the sacrifice.

The Emperor’s face would be painted red like Jupiter’s statue so that he would be identified standing in for the deity. Indeed, Gaius insisted on being addressed as Jupiter and Nero was called Apollo.

Just before the sacrifice, the triumphator would be offered a cup of wine, but he would refuse, and instead the pour the wine out on the bull or the altar. The wine symbolized the precious blood of the sacrifice.

After the sacrifice, the Emperor would then sit on his Throne in glory.

Both Luke and Matthew base their version of Jesus’ passion on the Gospel of Mark, which was written in Rome, for Christians in Rome. They could not possibly fail to see what we 21st century American Christians almost always miss: Jesus’ procession to the cross is a parody of the Roman triumphal march. It follows a formula.

Jesus is taken first to the Praetorian guard, where he is clad with a purple robe and a crown of thorns.

They parade him through the city, shouting, “Hail, king of the Jews!”

His executioner walks alongside him.

The triumphator would be led to the Capitol, the Head. But Jesus was led to Golgotha, the place of the Skull.

Like the triumphator, Jesus too is offered ceremonial wine, but he too refuses it, echoing his words at the Last Supper, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:24-25).

At the end of the procession, the Emperor would sit on his throne. When Claudius returned to Rome after a military campaign, he ascended the steps of the Capital on his knees and then sat on his throne with his sons-in-law on his right and on his left. When Titus returned after destroying Jerusalem and the temple he had Vespasian on his right and Domitian on his left. When Jesus concludes his triumphal procession, he is crucified with two thieves, one on his right and one on his left.

The gospel writers want us to see Jesus’ last day not just as a triumphal march but as a kind of anti-triumphal march. Whereas the world glorifies power and violence and destruction; Jesus encounters the hatred and violence of his own religious tradition, and the hatred and violence of the world’s greatest empire and responds not with hatred and violence, but with submission to God’s will, and in his resurrection, finds a victory that transcends the human condition.

The pomp and pride of Gaius and Nero are contrasted with the humility of Jesus, and so the pomp and pride of the world’s rich and powerful are contrasted with the humility of the world’s poor and common people. In Christ, God is not for the victor, but for the victim. God’s divine favor is not found in victory, but in humility, compassion, and service. In kenosis: emptying oneself (see the next devotion, below). Here’s the message: The salvation of the world depends upon God’s way, Christ’s way being made manifest in the world.

As followers of Christ, we are challenged on this day and every day, to not cater to power and the powerful, but give our lives for the poor and downcast of the world. The innocent. The powerless. The children. We are challenged to reject the hatred, violence, and power plays of the world, and risk living in the humility of Jesus the crucified Jew. We are not promised that there will be no cost. We are never promised that there will be no hour of trial or a cross with our name on it. In fact, Jesus warns us that there will be persecution, by those who reject God’s ways. But in the end, there will be a crown of glory that will outshine the suffering of this world.

 

Hear Paul’s understanding of the Triumphal March (and Mary’s anointing for burial?) in 2 Corinthians (2:14-15):

…thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.

There can be no mistaking Paul’s metaphor here: Christ is the ultimate Triumphator because he has destroyed the real enemies: sin and death. Therefore, we are freed to follow the cross in Triumphal Procession all the days of our lives, until we are led to our joyful resurrection.

 

Lent 5C – April 7, 2019

Isaiah 43:16-21 – Rivers in the desert: do not remember the former things. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

Psalm 126 – When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

OR

Psalm 119:9-16 – How can young people keep their way pure? By guarding it according to your word.

Philippians 3:4b-14 – I more than any have reason to be confident in the flesh (my own works-righteousness) but I regard them all as rubbish in order to gain Christ, and know him as Lord, a righteousness based on faith, not works. And so I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

John 12:1-8 – Mary anoints Jesus feet with costly nard and wipes them with her hair. Judas objects. And the much maligned: “You always have the poor with you, but not me.”

 

Lent C

Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.
– Joel 2

March 6 – Ash Wednesday: Dust. Ashes. Mortality. Repentance. Fasting. Don’t show off your piety.
March 10 – Lent 1C: First fruits for the Levite and alien. Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness.
March 17 – Lent 2C: Abram’s call. Faith reckoned as righteousness. Jesus laments for Jerusalem.
March 24 – Lent 3C: Repent, for there is only so much time left for the fig tree to bear fruit.
March 31 – Lent 4C: Lost sheep. Lost sons.
April 7 – Lent 5C: I am about to do a new thing… Mary anoints Jesus’ feet.
April 14 – Palm/Passion Sunday: Jesus entry into Jerusalem as an anti-triumph.

 

The Prodigal God

If you are reading Timothy Keller’s book The Prodigal God: recovering the heart of the Christian Faith, there is a study guide and DVD that go with each chapter.

Lent 1 – Chapter 1: The People Around Jesus
Lent 2 – Chapter 2: The Two Lost Sons
Lent 3 – Chapter 3: Redefining Sin
Lent 4 – Chapter 4: Redefining Lostness
Lent 5 – Chapter 5: The True Elder Brother
Palm Sunday – Chapters 6 and 7: Redefining Hope

 

 

Isaiah 43:16-21

Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

The Old Testament reading is from Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55), written 547-540 B.C. This section of Isaiah reflects the end of the Babylonian Captivity. God is going to make a way from Baghdad (Babylon), back to Jerusalem, through the wilderness. This evokes a former journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land.

Luther Seminary professor, Mark Throntveit, points out this text is laid out in a classic chiastic structure: A-B-B-A:

A: God delivers by making the sea into dry land.
B: Forget the former things.
B: I am about to do a new thing.
A: God delivers by making the dry land into a river.

Notice that there is a reversal in two ways. God’s judgment of the people through the hands of Babylon, ultimately sending them into slavery 900 miles away, will now be reversed through the hand of Cyrus, YHWH’s “anointed one” (messiah, christ). Secondly, the deliverance was making the sea into dry land. If YHWH could turn the sea to dry land, YHWH can also turn the dry land into a river.

Don’t miss the ecological overtones here. The entire cosmos will feel the redemption of God. Rivers in the desert may be the flow of exiles home, but it also hints of water that provides for all living things. The wild animals will honor YHWH, along with the jackals and the ostriches. The people, the land and all God’s creatures are interrelated. When one suffers, all suffer. When there is drought, the plants, animals and humans suffer. When there is war, the environment suffers too.

A more personal application may be made as well. We all go through wilderness experiences in life. There are periods of grief, when sadness seems to be ever-present, and hope a long-lost friend. Abuse, a diagnosis, the death of a loved-one, the loss of a job – all these things can send us into wilderness stages of life. Hope is believing, when things are darkest, that God can make rivers in the desert. Hope is trusting that in the midst of death, Christ brings a word of life. It is knowing that even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we are not alone. Through what desert are you going? Could God make a river through your desert? Preacher, what deserts have you been through? Could you share your journey?

This reading from Isaiah is a powerful reminder of the power of hope. No matter how bad things are, God has the last word. God can redeem what we cannot. No matter what you’ve done, no matter where you’ve been, no matter what you’ve suffered, God boldly promises forgiveness and healing.

Could Paul in Philippians 3 and John in Revelation 21 have had this passage in mind when they wrote these words?

  • Do not remember the former things, the things of old. (Isaiah 43)
  • But this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal… (Philippians 3)
  • Behold I am about to do a new thing(Isaiah 43)
  • And the one seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.(Rev. 21)

 

 

Mary’s scandalous act: John 12:1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” 9When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

It is six days before Passover. We’re getting close to Jesus’ hour (13:1), the hour when, having given so much, he will set the ultimate example by giving it all. For God so loved the world that he gave… Sacrificial love is at the heart of the gospel. There is no other gospel.

Jesus was at the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha. They threw a big dinner, a feast for Jesus. The disciples were present for this party. Lazarus was at the table. Martha, was busy serving, as usual.

Mary, ever-devoted, came out and poured a pound of perfumed nard, a year’s wages worth, on Jesus’ feet. This nard might have been imported from Eastern India or Nepal. She then wiped his feet with her hair, an act of deep love, a foreshadowing of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in the very next chapter. Touched by a woman, loose hair, the familiar Mary who had sat at Jesus feet before. This is a sensual picture, in a society where men and women are not to mix. Immediately Judas jumped on this.

Many of us and the Gulf Coast remember our friend, Professor Eliseo Pérez-Álvarez, who taught at the Lutheran Seminary Program of the Southwest (LSPS), housed at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin Texas. Professor Pérez points out that anointing was something done to kings (all male) by popes (all male), and vice-versa. But here, Jesus is anointed by a woman, from the country, working class, a lay person.

In Luke’s parallel version of this story (Luke 7:36-50) Jesus is eating at the home of a Pharisee, and the woman doing the anointing is a “sinful woman.” The Pharisee thinks that if Jesus was a prophet, he would know what “sort” of woman this is, and distance himself from her. Jesus responds by saying, whoever is forgiven much, loves much.

Judas’ argument in John’s version of the story is bit different. Being the treasurer, and one who is skimming, he complains that this money has been wasted. It could have been used for the poor.

Jesus said the ominous words: “She has saved this for my burial.” His hour having arrived, she marked it with an act of lavish generosity that Judas cannot fathom.

Jesus then uttered the well-known words, misused for centuries, “The poor will always be with you, but I will not always be with you.”

Jesus is alluding to a passage that his disciples would have known well, Deuteronomy 15:11:

There will never cease to be some poor people in the land; therefore, I am commanding you to make sure you open your hand to your fellow Israelites who are needy and poor in your land.

In Deuteronomy, the fact that the poor will always be with you it’s not an excuse to ignore them. It is, in fact, the reason to open your hand to those who are needy in the land.

Jesus is a realist. He knows there will always be inequity. There will always be people in need. He is not telling people to give up. In fact, Jesus teaches his followers to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and so on. Instead, he is saying, “There is a time for feasting and a time for fasting.”

This is Jesus’ last hurrah. It is a time for lavish gifts. You may recall that one chapter earlier in John, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Another reason for a celebration. Mary, Martha and Lazarus threw a dinner for Jesus. Wouldn’t you? What is your life worth?

Mary’s act is one of extravagant generosity and love. This is what Jesus lived, and what he taught. But extravagant generosity to whom? Jesus answers this. Unambiguously, I think, in Luke 14:12-14, if I may mix my gospels a bIt:

When you host a dinner or a banquet, don’t invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors so you can be invited by them in return and get repaid. But when you host an elaborate meal, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

Let’s not call it social justice for the moment. Call it extravagant love, extravagant generosity. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…”

May our lives, our churches, our streets, be filled with such love, that sweet, sweet smell of the rose, of Mary’s fragrant perfume, the smell of extravagant love and lavish generosity.

 

 

 

Immigration

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑