From Acts 10
Like that sheet flapping in the wind on the mast that night on the sea
when the waves crested over the boat, threatening to cover them in icy death
like a sheet.
And suddenly, on that sheet of water, a body.
Clear and clean of the tempest around it. Beckoning him to come out and walk
that body that would be laid in the tomb.
Peter knew this vision. He’d seen a sheet coming from heaven before.
It hung in the temple, torn in two now.
-at least, that’s what he was told.
On it, a picture of the heavens.
Another sheet from the heavens. From heaven to the floor.
And also that sheet at the foot of the slab where the body lay in the tomb
folded neatly by four corners.
On it had been what was to be made clean by the women bringing spices.
No need for all that mess, it turns out. All was clean.
And now this sheet another sheet four corners carried by invisible hands.
On it, all sorts of unclean things like that body laid in the tomb.
Unclean before, But now clean.
Clean without spices. Clean without ritual. Just clean
by that body laid in the tomb.
He should expect nothing but clean things.
Peter had seen this sheet a number of times.
And, eventually, as he lay on a sheet
as we all do…
What will Peter find then in that vision?
Only something clean now.
Clean by that body
as he’s laid in a tomb.
Acts 10:1-17, 34-35
1 In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2 He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. 3 One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” 4 He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; 6 he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” 7 When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, 8 and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa. 9 About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. 17 Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate. 34 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
Deliver to us, oh Christ
Be it on a sheet
On our lips
In our song
…however you see fit.
Let us know you more today.
This reading schedule that we’re now following, the Narrative Lectionary, allows us to hear all sorts of Old Testament stories from September to Advent, all sorts of Jesus stories from Christmas to Easter, and now we hear about what happens to those first disciples and missionaries after Jesus has risen and ascended. Last week you heard Jesus’ call to make disciples, and this week we get a peek at Peter trying to do just that.
He’s out on the mission field, talking about Jesus, a Jesus who is no longer physically present, and traveling around spreading the Gospel to the Judeans.
Only the Judeans.
Peter was of the mind that Christ’s message was meant specifically for those who worshiped YHWH, the God of the Jewish people, the children of Israel.
And so it’s a nice little surprise to have this scene in the book Acts of the Apostles open up on a Gentile, on Cornelius. We confidently assume that he’s a Gentile because he’s in the Roman army and while there were certainly probably conscripted Jewish persons in the Roman army (as Josephus, an early historian notes), it wasn’t the norm.
But the writer of Acts, who was also the writer of Luke, makes sure to mention that Cornelius was a “lover of God.” Devoted to God. Even as a Gentile.
What you don’t realize, of course, is that this a major plot twist of Game of Thrones proportions. In the ancient world, you knew who the God followers were by their creed, by what they did and did not do, and their family. Gentiles, because of they did and did not do, because of their heritage, were not God followers. They were not YHWH followers.
Rob Bell in his book Love Wins which we used a few years ago as a book study talks about how they were doing a display at his church one time with influential people who made a difference in the world; who worked for peace and love and justice. And there was a picture of Gandhi that someone had set up there. And someone at the church wrote underneath the picture, “Too bad he’s in hell…”
The rest of Bell’s book is a reaction to that statement.
Peter, the disciple who walked with Jesus, who knew Jesus quite literally, was sitting as a prophet in the town of Joppa. Those of you who are Bible scholars will recognize that city…it’s the place where that other wayward prophet, Jonah, tried to escape to in order to avoid doing God’s work. Here we find Peter in Joppa attempting to do God’s work.
He will soon find out that his workload is about to expand…
He’s hungry, and he goes up to pray. And, of course as he’s in the middle of his meditation, he starts to imagine food. Because he’s hungry. He obviously doesn’t know that the stomach will win over every other desire in the body, even holy ones. You never go grocery shopping when you are hungry or you will buy the store, including those little snack cakes that are so good and yet so bad. Likewise, never pray when you are hungry (unless you are fasting) or else you will imagine that God is telling you to go and eat as an answer to your prayer.
Except for Peter it’s the truth. Down from the heavens comes this huge sheet and on it is a banquet of delicacies: oysters, ham hocks, head cheese, bacon wrapped everything, muscles steamed with garlic and a side of aioli, roasted rattlesnake (which is quite good), stuffed guinea pig (a specialty in Peru), and all sorts of tasty treats. This vision is more exciting than most I have.
In the midst of his meditation, Peter hears God say, “You are hungry. Grab a fork. Dig in!” To which Peter, thinking it is a test, says, “No way, God. You have forbidden this.”
At which point God shakes God’s head, imagining Peter to just be “Minnesota nice,” politely refusing the first time, and encourages him again saying, “I’ve prepared all of this. None of it is unclean.”
It happens three times, and leaves Peter puzzled. What does this mean?
And then these Gentiles shows up at his door. These Gentiles representing one who was not in the fold, who, though he may have been doing good in the world, was not seen as “Godly.” A Gentile who, were his picture to be posted in the religious houses of worship as someone doing good and making peace in the ancient world, may have had some sort of writing under his name not unlike that scrawled by one of Rob Bell’s parishioners, “Too bad he’s not one of us…” Or is he?
I wonder if sometimes we think that God is testing us, when actually God is expanding our horizons by inviting us into a new way of looking at life, at our world, at all things.
I wonder if sometimes we imagine that we’re being faithful, when actually we’re not embracing a new vision that God has given to us.
I wonder if perhaps, at this moment, Peter finally got Jesus. He had walked with Jesus, heard Jesus’ say he loved him, experienced the crucifixion and the resurrection, but I wonder if this moment, years after all of that walking and wandering and face-to-face interaction, was when Peter actually understood the amazing love that God was showing through Jesus.
And if that’s the case, and I’m sitting here thinking I know Jesus, that I understand love, I wonder what is on top of the sheet that God is lowering in my own sight today.
And I wonder what is on your sheet, too. I wonder if I know Jesus.
I wonder if on my sheet it is that bully from grade school that I haven’t quite embraced. Or that person who I disagree with over politics. Or that person I can’t imagine spending eternity with, or that family member I can’t forgive. Or maybe there’d be a mirror on top of my sheet, and I’d stare myself in the eye and finally be forced to come to grips with that shadow side of myself that I imagine is ultimately unlovable. That’s what I fear the most.
What’s on your sheet?
And then I wonder what we might realize about that vision. I wonder what we might do with our new understanding of Christ’s love. I wonder if today is when we truly get to know Jesus.
I wonder what we will do with what is on our sheet.
After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Bet You Think This Sermon’s About You
Every morning is Easter morning.
But today it feels especially real.
Help us to be resurrected today!
I have this wonderfully terrible habit of singing in sermons. On Easter morning we’ve sung Billy Joel, Tom Jones, and last year we even sang some Pharrell…you know, because we were happy…
I could choose a from a bunch of different ones today and I know you’d join me. Like:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…
Jesus Chris is Risen today!…
I’m just a little silhouette of a man…
Today’s little piece comes from Carly Simon-
You’re so vain. You probably think this song is about you. You’re so vain! I bet you think this song is about you, don’t you, don’t you?
I’m not one for listening in on other people’s conversations, but it does strike me as ironic that, whatever beef Simon arguably had with Warren Beatty…rumors and legend say this song is about him…well, whatever beef she had with him, the song was about him if those are true!
I don’t think that makes him vain. It just makes him astute! She’s mocking the fact that he probably thinks the song is about him…but it is about him!
Vanity is something we all secretly celebrate, but pretend not to. Wednesday of this week I tied my own bow tie and took a selfie of it. It only took me 40 minutes and four different Youtube videos to get it marginally right. I gave it a B+.
The night before, Tuesday night, I had to go shoe shopping because my only pair of black dress shoes had a hole worn right through the bottom of it. On Holy Week, there are fewer nightmares worse for a pastor.
So I’m at the shoe store late at night after working, eating with the kids, and doing pajama time, and I’m at the shoe store and there are just so many options for black shoes and my brain is fried. And so, not being able to get a hold of Rhonda to show her the various shoe selections I had to choose from, I texted the next best thing: our Youth Director, Brian.
He’s a fashion-minded guy, even if he often gets fashion wrong. And so I texted him pictures of six different pairs of shoes and asked which one I should buy.
His first text back was, “Can I just say that I’m loving that this is happening right now?” I wrote back and said, “Well, my black dress shoes have a hole in them from walking to work every day, so I have to get some.” He wrote back, “There’s a sermon in there somewhere…go with the first pair.”
And I did. And the last pair because he convinced me that at that price I should get two. And I think there is a sermon in here somewhere.
How many of you walked here today?
I think as city dwellers we walk more than the average bear. Walking is good for me; I map my routes by how I will walk or train to a destination more than I do how I will drive to a location.
And these disciples who had walked with Jesus around ancient Palestine for three years had, I’m sure, holes in their feet, and holes in their hearts, and had emptiness in their souls as the one they had followed around for three years, walked around with, met an end on a cross like a common criminal.
The one they called Rabbi was now the one that was mocked and tortured and, well, dead.
Why wear holes in your shoes if the story is just going to end like that, right?
Do you ever think about that, with all your walking?
Walking to work, putting in the time, hoping not to get fired or being underpaid, or being paid well but having no time for your family or enjoying any of it? Maybe that’s you; maybe it’s not. But I know we’ve all walked in relationships that wore on us. We wear holes in our shoes…but for what? For stress? For fatigue? For that deal we lost or that ceiling that finally came crashing down on us?
I mean, this is what I’m getting at: we wear a lot of holes in our shoes in this world, and I’m just asking if we’re wearing it on the right stuff? Are we wearing holes in our shoes on stuff that gives us life, or stuff that takes it?
These brave women come to the tomb to put a period on the end of the wandering days. They’re going to wash Jesus; a loving act done out of respect for who he was. And then I imagine that they thought they’d leave the tomb and go back to whatever it was they were wearing away at three years ago. A dead end to three years of wandering.
But little did they know that it wasn’t the end of the story; just another beginning. Little did they know they weren’t going to care for him out of respect for who he was, but for who he is.
And did you note that when Jesus appears to them as they’re running away from the empty tomb, what do they do? They grab his feet; they bless his feet. These feet that they had followed for three years. Getting off of their own feet that Jesus had washed just a few days ago to give thanks to God that the story hasn’t ended, that the holes in their shoes were worth more than they thought they were, that they hadn’t just wasted their time here.
Giving thanks to God that, at that very moment, they too were experiencing resurrection. On that Easter morning, Jesus wasn’t the only one raised. They were, too.
We secretly love vanity. And you’re all dressed up so nicely today. And, look, I’m wearing those awesome shoes and a sophomore effort at a bow tie.
So today we’re going to publicly embrace vanity because, guess what, this reading today from Matthew, this reading, this sermon, is about you. And I’m not being ironic; I’m being absolutely serious.
Because this reading is the permission that you’ve been waiting for, the good news that you’ve been longing to hear: Jesus’ resurrection is yours, too. And that’s good news for those of us who waste our shoe leather on things that give so little reward. We could use a resurrection from that life.
Resurrection is not just something that happens after you die, at least that’s not what I look forward to the most; resurrection is that thing that happens to you when you truly begin to trust that God in Christ is reconciling all things for the good of the world, that God loves you more than you can ever imagine, that God invites you to live in such a way that your shoe leather will be well spent on serving, healing, and helping and that it won’t go to waste.
And that when you get holes in your shoes, when you’re tired, when you’re worn, when you think it’s all been for naught, your story is not ending. Jesus has promised resurrection just for those moments.
Dear people, Jesus wasn’t raised for Jesus. Jesus was raised from the dead for us, so that we might be raised from those things that wear holes on our spirits and lives. Trust it! Today, you’re invited to trust it once again.
Because, Carly Simon was kind of right: this story is about you. And me. And all the imperfect things in this world that need some resurrection. You bet this sermon is about you.
Thanks be to Christ for that. Christ is risen, Alleluia!
Famous Last Words
“Pardon me, sir. I did not do it on purpose.” The famous last words of Marie Antoinette after she stepped on the executioner’s foot.
“I should never have switched from scotch to martinis.” The famous last words of Humphrey Bougart.
“Dammit…don’t you dare ask God to help me!” The not-so-famous last words of Joan Crawford as her housekeeper started to pray for her at her bedside.
“Now now my good man, this is no time for making enemies.” Voltaire said this to the priest who, at his deathbed, asked him to renounce Satan.
We like clever or meaningful last words. Perhaps it doesn’t matter how a person lived, as long as they have a nice quip at the end to cement them into the fabric of humanity.
I think we see this love in the fact that there are some Good Friday services that only focus on Jesus’ last words…and in each of the four Gospels we get different last words.
But the striking thing about Jesus’ last words is that none of them, in any of the Gospels, are words of condemnation or hatred. They aren’t whimsical quips. They are all, to a one, words of love, forgiveness, prayers for reconciliation, and little snippets of Jewish prayers that he probably learned as a boy.
Even the famous, “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” is a recitation of the 22nd Psalm, and “Into your hands I commend my spirit” is the bedtime prayer of Psalm 31.
Our practice of just saying whatever is on our minds at the moment is called into question when we look at the cross and realize that, in the throes of death, Christ’s mind was on those words he had learned as a little boy: words of comfort, peace, and even lament…but lament not in anger or vengeance, but in sincere sadness. It’s why I thank God that I have some of scripture and the liturgy memorized. I pray that in my final hours my mind can go there, too.
When we look on the cross, I think many people think they are seeing God’s “last word” to humanity; and that it a word of judgment.
But in reality, the cross is humanity’s final judgment on God. The cross is where we send things that we do not like to listen to for very long, and a message of self-giving love and peace that is so radical…like the kind Jesus spoke of, embodied, asked of humanity…well, we’d rather not listen.
We still would rather not, most days. We like messages of receiving love, of living peacefully ourselves and letting the others fend for themselves still today, maybe helping them as long as we’re still OK.
The cross is not God’s judgment. The cross is humanity’s judgment of God. It is humanity’s famous last words in response to a God who loves radically.
Which is why God turns the cross on its head. God, in Christ, makes the cross a final word of hope for humanity instead of a final judgmental word of humanity.
In the cross we find God’s promise to love no matter what ring out mostly clearly, like a meditation bell bringing us to our sense.
God is seriously in love, and won’t even let us get in the way; won’t even let death get in the way.
Today we sing that we see “the life-giving cross,” not the life-taking cross. Because today we understand that God is able to take our judgments, our pains, our failures, our very lives, and turn them into something else: resurrection through Christ.
And even if it takes a cross for us to see it, God will go there.
Behold, people of God, the life-giving cross on which was hung the salvation of the whole world…God’s final word of hope. God’s final word of love.
23For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
What is something passed down to you that you treasure?
I was given my grandfather’s pocket watch when I graduated from college. He had been dead for seven years by then, and my father had kept it waiting for the time to give it to me.
I used to wear it a lot, too. I loved it, a winding clock. At night you could hear it tick in our bedroom.
A few years ago our apartment was broken into, and while we didn’t have much to take, they were sure to grab it. You know you have to upgrade your electronics when every piece of electronic furniture in your home remained.
But they took my grandfather’s watch. My watch now, I guess. And it really was the one thing that would be missed by me. And they snatched it away.
The watch wasn’t just a reminder of my grandfather for me. It was a way to carry him with me. And my father with me. And a long line of Browns who came from Dublin years ago, landed in Georgia, and set up farming in Alabama and Florida because, well, that’s all they knew how to do.
Of course I have my memories; of course I remember. But that watch…it was a physical reminder of my ancestors, the “cloud of the faithful” as it is put in the letter to the Hebrews, that surrounds me even now.
And so one of the blessings of this night, people of faith, is that we get something passed down to us by Jesus. As Paul writes tonight: we are handed something sacred, special. It is more than a reminder, it is not a reenactment for sure; it is an event.
Tonight is an event. Communion, any time it is practiced, is an event. It is an in-gathering of the faithful who are living, and the faithful who have died, around the promise of Christ that in sharing these things together, Christ is numbered among us.
Christ comes among us.
It is one of the most blessed mysteries of our faith. It is like the mystery of my grandfather’s life being carried in my own pocket, but even more powerful, more sacred, because this mystery cannot be taken away.
You cannot steal Jesus. You cannot steal the bread and cup. If you steal the bread, I will bake a new loaf. If you steal my cup, I will forge or form a new one.
It is held by no one; it is offered for all. No thief in the night can snatch it away.
Not even Judas, who tonight will betray his own thoughts and convictions to try to take what is not his: Jesus’ life.
So tonight we eat and drink. Tonight we savor Christ’s meal of love. We acknowledge Christ’s presence amongst us as a gift that cannot be taken away.
And we’ll need that promise for tomorrow night.
1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately. ” 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowdspread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
What Did You Expect?
Hosanna, we cry.
Soon we’ll cry different words.
We are a fickle humanity, Lord
Not knowing what we do or say.
We need your help.
Guide us in this parade of life.
When we were chatting about this text with other pastors here in the area this past Tuesday, the facilitator asked us to imagine when the last time was when our expectations for something weren’t met.
Lots of things flashed through my head: Y2K, hundreds of books I’ve started but not finished, and the many times I’ve eaten gas station burritos (expectations are always way too high there).
And then more seriously my thoughts turned to myself. To the Church. To Christians.
We received another example of Christian’s behaving badly this week, as Indiana passed state legislation under the misnomer “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” I expect different out of us Christians; I really do.
Yes, Illinois has a similar law, but we also have legislation to protect minorities from discrimination. Indiana does not have the same protections. That’s my main concern. If we worship the one who looked out for those who could be marginalized, we have to be on the look out.
And before you imagine this to be a liberal or conservative issue, I want you to take a step back to see this legislation not from where you fall on the political spectrum, but through the lens of Christ and Christ’s message and example. Because, you see, this law has the word “religious” in it. And you and I are in a church on Sunday morning, which makes us in some sort of way implicated in this law as “religious.” It gives you the freedom, as a religious person, to not serve someone if it would betray your religious convictions.
I mean, this is the thing: Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors. Jesus hung out with prostitutes and publicans. Tell me who Jesus wouldn’t serve.
In a few days we’re going to hear a story about how Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, and I want to do a little Bible lesson for you here. Because the disciples of Jesus were a crazy crew from all sorts of places. And one of them, you might know, was Matthew. And what is Matthew remembered for being? Right, a tax collector.
But there is another disciple named Simon…no, not Simon Peter, but the other Simon (I guess imaginative names were in short supply in ancient Palestine). Simon the Zealot, is what he’s known by. Anyone know who the Zealots were in ancient Palestine? They were anti-government radicals. They were anti-tax folks. They were “let’s overthrow this whole shebang and let anarchy rule!” people. They were the group that your 14 year old rebellious teen joined.
So when Jesus kneels…as he will in just a few days…he will wash Matthew the tax collector’s feet, and then he will wash Simon the Zealot’s feet. I imagine them in my mind to sit next to one another.
Jesus will serve these people who probably wouldn’t even serve each other. Jesus will cleanse both of them, despite their occupation (after all, tax collectors were known for skimming off of the top) and despite their political radicalization (zealots lose themselves in their zeal).
And to top it all off, you know who else Jesus will wash? Judas. Ju-das. That disciple who will betray him over to the authorities. He’ll cleanse his feet, too. And who else? Peter. Peter who doesn’t get it, and who will just a few hours later deny Jesus in the courtyard. Even he, too, is served.
So tell me, brothers and sisters, how is it a restoration of our religious freedom, as Christians, to get legal permission not to serve?! Where is that found in these scriptures? ‘Cause I can’t find it and I think I’ve studied it more than most.
But what did we expect? After hearing this story today, what did we expect?
Because, you see, this Palm Sunday we join the crowd of people pledging our lives to Christ, shouting “Hosanna!” which literally means “Save us!” expecting God in Jesus Christ to do it. And both Matthew and Simon the Zealot and Simon Peter and Judas all shouted it. And they each had a different idea of what it would mean for them, and I imagine they each to a person were really disappointed with Jesus. Lots of unmet expectations here.
And we know this because many of this same crowd, including those ones who will be washed by Jesus, will shout “Crucify him!” or shout nothing at all 24 hours later.
What I mean is this: we tend to follow Jesus, we tend to yoke ourselves to God (to use last week’s sermon) when we like where we’re going. When it’s like a big parade and party. But the minute it means that we might have to serve those we’d rather not, associate with those we’d rather not, the minute it means that we might have to die to our own prejudices, our own limited idea of justice and fairness, our own egos…
Well, we’d rather have God die then follow God there.
Truly Jesus is right when he calls out from the cross, “Father, forgive them! They know not what they do…” We prove it time and again.
People of God, Holy Week is the week where we hear what God has in store for people who prove time and time again they don’t know what they’re doing. This week we hear just what kind of judgment God has in store for us who too often fail to serve, fail to speak out, who so easily shout Hosanna on Tuesday but then shout Crucify on Wednesday:
And this is the judgment-
You will be washed and fed and invited to wash and feed.
You will be blessed by Christ even as he hangs from the cross and Christ will ask God for forgiveness not vengeance.
You will be lost in the darkness for a little while…sometimes life is like that.
And then you will be invited to emerge from your tomb, often-times a tomb we’ve hewn ourselves out of our crazy attempts to restore ourselves on our own by our own ideas and standards.
And then you will feast again as a guest of the God who will not let you go, for Jesus’ sake.
Spoiler alert: that’s what’s going to happen.
But what did you expect from a God who ate with sinners and tax collectors? Wave your palms today, they will be silenced soon. But in that silence you’ll hear God whisper your name, invite you to rise.
And if we can expect anything from God, we can expect that this will not be the last time God will whisper our names, invite us to rise. God will do it tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, and then after that last day, when you’ve breathed your last. Yes; even then.
So follow all this Holy Week. Hear this story. It’s worth the journey. It’s not what you expect.
31When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Choose…But Choose Wisely
We stand before you Christ
As both sheep and goats…
And we’re not proud of that,
But today we are honest.
Choose us even so.
There was an article last week in The Atlantic by Olga Khazan on the topic of choice. You have choice; I have choice. We like choices…or so we think. Studies show that the abundance of choices in our lives actually makes us more miserable than more free.
We’re trapped by choice. Or, more rightly, we’re trapped between choices, paralyzed by the vast array of…well, most anything…at our disposal.
I remember talking to a friend of mine who is a director for ELCA churches in South America, now in Buenos Aires. But he and his family began their work in La Paz, Bolivia…quite different from Buenos Aires. And I remember the first time they came back to the states after having lived in Bolivia for two years, and he talked to me about how he went shopping at a big box store and stood in front of the mustard section of the aisle and froze.
His brain couldn’t comprehend the amount of choice there. “Culture shock” we call it.
I agree, of course, but for a different reason. My palate is finely tuned toward the mustard seed, and I do not wonder which one to buy, I wonder which one to buy today because I want, and will, try them all…
It’s interesting, of course, because Christ and the Christian church has been saying something similar for two thousand years. Freedom, true freedom, does not come from the ability to choose between this or that.
As Martin Luther says it, a Christian is absolutely free, subject to no one. And yet a Christian is absolutely bound, servant to everyone.
Christ uses yoke language to talk about it. “Take up my yoke…it is light.”
When you yoke, of course, you yoke to something, bind yourself to something. This, Christ says, is the most free you can be: when you’re bound to God.
These paradoxes all set the scene for the choice in today’s parable. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory…” Jesus says. For so many that sounds like “end times” sort of stuff, but if you know the Gospel of Matthew you know that Matthew believes Christ has come in his glory, with angels attending him, and indeed is in his glory at this very moment, both in the text and amongst us today. This little parable is not about the future, though it appears to be. It uses apocalyptic imagery to give you a glimpse into the here and now. Today, Sunday March 22nd, 2015.
This is not about the end times; the end time is today. That crazy street preacher is correct, the end is near, because now is the moment to choose. Choose…but choose wisely.
Think on that phrase “now is the moment.” Can “then” ever be the moment? No, of course not. And neither can “out there” as in the future. Now is always the moment. So much of our life is lived in the future and the past, where the moment is gone or not yet. Now is when we have to live. Now.
And so when Jesus is talking about these sheep and goats standing before him, he’s talking about now. Right now. Now.
Which changes the whole choice for us, right? Because we cannot waste a moment deciding. And for Lutherans this is hard, because we talk a lot about the irresistible love of God, right? And yet we also have free will; we must remember that. Our response to God’s call means something…it does. So today, right now, Jesus is on the deciding bench, the sheep and the goats are being separated, it is the moment of decision…but deciding on what?
Don’t get worried here…I’m not doing an altar call or anything. I’m entering the apocalyptic language. Go there with me. Sheep and goats: decision time.
I have a real problem with the examples that are given here by Jesus: clothing the naked, feeding the poor, healing the sick, visiting the imprisoned.
My issue isn’t with doing that…we should be about all of these things, right? My issue is that we, the church, Christians in general, have taken these actions and made them the goal of the Christian life instead of the symptom of a life transformed.
What I mean by that is this: I don’t think that the goat’s sin was that they didn’t feed, clothe, visit, etc. The sin of the goat is that they refused to be transformed into sheep. The goat’s sin is that they only clothe, visit, feed, when they choose to, when it will get them recognized.
And if you want proof of that, think on their implied response to Jesus’ accusation that they never clothed, fed, or visited him: “Well, Jesus, if we’d have known it was you, we would have done these things…”
They would have done those things if they had known that it was Jesus and that clothing, feeding, visiting would get them points in life. And, man, do we love getting points in life, right? It’s part of what helps us to make our choices, right? We choose to do and attach ourselves to the things that will get us further down the road, will help in the right way, will do the right thing that will advance us.
We seek out praise, it takes us up a few notches. We shun criticism because it takes us down a few notches. Everything depends on taking that next step forward toward the goal.
And, look, I’m not knocking goals. I’m not knocking ambition. I have both. I hope you have both. But when our goal becomes about us, when our ambition has the elevation of ourselves as the final answer, we’re using fuzzy math if we proclaim to be transformed by the grace of God.
See, the sheep were sheep that were transformed. Some people might say that they were transformed into Christ followers. That’s an interpretation I think. But more rightly, I think that they were anyone who had been transformed by the love and grace of God, which I see clearly in the person of Christ. And those aren’t the same thing necessarily.
Because I certainly know many Christ followers who never miss a Sunday of church, who give offering and do all sorts of charitable good, but who certainly aren’t transformed because they continue with their gossip, and their anger, and their hurting of others, and their inability to get over themselves for the sake of others, and their prejudice and homophobia and racism and…
If the tree is known by its fruits, it is equally known by its bark. And the bark of a Christ follower is transformed into the shape of the cross, producing the fruits of goodness because that’s just who they are now…not because they think it is who they should be, or because they think people are watching, or because they think that doing these things makes them better.
That beautiful bald New Mexican monastic Richard Rohr talks about this in his wonderful work The Immortal Diamond. He notes that, “Before transformation, sin is any kind of moral mistake; afterward, sin is a mistake about who you are and whose you are.”
The grand mistake of the goats is not that they didn’t feed, clothe, visit, etc. The grand mistake is that they thought they had a choice in the matter…it was a mistake in identity. People transformed by the grace of God have no choice but to do these things.
I was chatting with someone the other week, and they were telling me about their new job and the great accolades that they were getting for their work. They expressed feeling kind of awkward at receiving so much praise so early on. I told them to hold both praise and criticism lightly, as both become idols by which we define our being and our worth.
And then I said, and I don’t know where this came from, but I said, “We do not live for the opinions of others; we just live for others.”
Perhaps it came from years of reading these texts and trying to live in this way; or perhaps I just hit a moment in my life where something clicked, but that line, I think, encapsulates exactly what this text, and even this journey through Lent, this movement of death and resurrection, means.
Because as long as we think that we can or cannot when it comes to being living missionaries of God’s grace in the world, we are stuck in the hell of choice. As long as we think we have the freedom to feed or not to feed, to clothe or not to clothe, to give or not to give, we are in the hell of choice…and it can be an eternity. An eternity of hell even worse than staring at mustard varieties on end (though some of us would love that…mustard is heavenly).
If you think you’ve heard this all before, then I’m glad. You were paying attention to the sermon I gave two weeks ago. This theme continues to pop up in these texts like a golden thread buried in the parables: we must, if we are to be known as Christians, be about grace and love in our very being, which our actions then testify to. Our actions do not necessarily testify to our being, though. Even goats are willing to clothe and feed if it will get them ahead. The transformed life does it because that’s what we do in Christ’s name.
It’s what we do. We are transformed.
Lent is that time where we yoke ourselves again to practices that remind us again who and whose we are. We give of our money and time because that is what a Christ follower does: they give as they have been given. We clothe the naked not worrying if they will sell the clothes to buy drugs, and do it because that is what a Christ follower does: they clothe as we have been clothed with the grace of God. We feed not wondering if the person in front of us has a job or could have a job or has enough food at home, but because that is what a Christ follower does: we feed because we weekly partake of the bread of life, the wine of compassion.
And every time I fall back into the choice model of my life and faith, I have to remember that actually I only have one choice: to be transformed or not.
And sometimes I choose not to be transformed. Sometimes by baser self gets a hold of me, and I find myself numbered amongst the goats of this world, hoarding what I have, sharing only when it looks like it will get me praise and notoriety or get me ahead.
But sometimes, those magical Christ moments, I find myself sheepishly, quietly, living into who I am: one yoked to Christ in this world. And in those moments, I have to be honest with you, I’ve never felt freer or like I’m more able to participate in God’s freeing work in the world.
Free because in those moments I am truly who I am, and my relationship with God and humanity is as it should be; it is righteous. And when that happens it’s kind of like the whole universe opens before me, into an eternity of beauty and wonder, and happiness falls away, as does sadness, and only pure joy remains.
Joy that feels as if it can be everlasting if only I can always live as one transformed. Maybe you’ve been there, too.
That’s what I imagine heaven to be. That and rows of mustard where we need not choose between them, but can try them all.
Feed or don’t feed. Clothe or don’t clothe. Visit only if it gets you ahead. I guess we can live like that, people of God.
But if we are truly people of God, if we truly trust that, then I don’t see how we can live in that hell choice. No. In these last days of Lent, let us affirm our true sheepish nature and give with abandon, live with abandon. Jesus calls for us to be so, invites us, tempts us, entices us to live freely in this world as people who are servant of all and yet free. It is the greatest grace in the world to be yoked to God’s love, to be transformed.
Let us choose to be transformed. For eternity.