Sermon transcript for April 13, 2014
Matthew 21:1-11; 27:32-37; 49-61
April 13, 2014—Belmont UMC
Ken Edwards, preaching
The young man came up to me on the street and as he greeted me he began to pull a small black leather New Testament out of his shirt pocket. He looked earnest and he said to me, “Sir, may I ask you a question?” I responded reluctantly, “I guess.”
He proceeded to take me through the four spiritual laws, popularized by the Campus Crusade people and then he asked me, “Are you saved?” I said, “Yes, I am a United Methodist pastor.” Then he repeated the question, “But are you sure you are saved?”
I wanted to tell him about the three movements of grace as outlined by John Wesley and suggest the possibility of an ongoing work of salvation but it occurred to me that a simpler answer was what the fellow wanted and so I answered, “I am certain.”
He still wasn’t convinced and he followed up with, “If you died tonight, would you go to heaven.” Again I thought of lots of theological ideas such as the sovereignty of God went through my mind but I thought better of it and answered, “Yes.” He smiled, called me “Brother,” and moved on to his next opportunity.
Are we saved? Is God’s work of salvation being realized in our lives? “Saved” is one of those church words that we used to hear more often. But on Palm Sunday we cry out “Hosanna!” a word that has come to have the tone of adoration, much like “Hallelujah!” but the word really has a tone of desperation and literally means, “Save us!” or “Save us, now!”
Jesus looks like a savior, even though scholars say that Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a donkey was a deliberate political statement to the prevailing authorities. He has raised a dead man in Bethany, 2 miles away and his reputation as a teacher and healer has led many people to hail him as one who has the power to save Jerusalem. People gathered along the parade route, throwing their coats and branches in his path, like greeting a victor returning from battle. Victory is in the air! “Save us!” “Hosanna!” “Save us, now!”
It makes for a beautiful story. On that day the crowds praised and sang to Jesus in the streets, but by the end of the week another crowd would mock him and call for his death. On that day the crowds cried out to him, “Save us!” but by the end of the week another crowd would yell at him while he his hanging on a cross, “Save your self!” At the beginning of the week, Jesus looks like the victor but by Friday he looks every bit the part of a loser. How can a man who is hanging on the cross save the world?
God has chosen to save us by surprising means. It’s a paradox of sorts. But we are being saved, not from political powers, outside forces, as was the hope of many along the parade route when Jesus came into Jerusalem. But God saves us from the forces of evil and from those tendencies within us that would threaten to defeat us and keep us separated from God. God offers the salvation that we need, not necessarily the one we want.
God saves us through God’s willingness to be vulnerable and this vulnerability is revealed in the life and death of Jesus Christ. He was born of human parentage, an infant in a cruel world, a world that wanted him dead. The word became flesh (vulnerable) and lived among us.
This vulnerability is revealed in the ministry of Jesus, in his willingness to associate with the lowly, the outcast, and the poor. Jesus’ love for children, his willingness to include women among his followers, and his attention to those who had been cast to the margins of society were acts of vulnerability that resulted in the criticisms and threats.
God’s vulnerability is expressed in Jesus’ willingness to do what was right and what was good, to do God’s work, even when it brought criticism from the religious and political establishment. Those who are prophetic in this world, who are courageous to tell God’s truth, will always be vulnerable to the threats of the status quo.
God’s vulnerability is expressed in Jesus’ willingness to choose ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Even at the risk that some of those ordinary people will betray him.
God’s vulnerability is expressed in two scenes of Holy Week. The first happens in an upper room where Jesus goes to celebrate the Passover with his disciples. He shared wine and bread with them and said a very human thing, “Don’t forget me.” Later on the cross he would out of a sense of abandonment, “Why have you forgotten me?”
In John’s Gospel he not only takes his place with the 12, he gets up from the table wraps a towel around his waste and begins to wash the disciples’ dirty feet. The vulnerable one came into the world to serve, not to be served.
Dr. Doug Meeks has pointed out that servants are the powerless and most vulnerable people in our world, but the towel of a slave becomes the authority symbol of the church, for only those who serve have authority in the kingdom of God. It is the towel of servanthood—it is the towel that wipes the eyes of Saul of Tarsus, it is the towel that cradles an orphaned baby in Malawi, Africa, it is the towel that wraps the casserole carried to a grieving family, it is the towel that wipes the brow of a migrant worker. We are saved by the vulnerability of servanthood! (From lecture notes.)
It is only Jesus, the servant who has the authority to save us. Hosanna! Save us, now!
We are saved by God’s vulnerability, ultimately revealed in God’s sacrificial love. The second scene of Holy Week is the scene of the crucifixion. Crucifixion was no unusual in Jesus’ day. Yet it is our belief that not only was Jesus crucified, but he was crucified for us.
Paul wrote, “Why you might be willing to die for a good person, but God shows God’s love for us in that, at the right time, Jesus died for the ungodly (that’s us).” (Romans 5:6)
In Jesus we are reminded that God was willing to become vulnerable to our suffering. This God suffers with us and understands our suffering. This symbol of suffering as a symbol of salvation is difficult to understand, but a God who doesn’t suffer with us isn’t much help to us, frankly. It is this God who loves the world and has the power to save us!
When my wife and I were quite young, we took our camping gear and made a tour of Virginia. We pitched our tent at Virginia Beach. On a Sunday when we were packing up our little car to go home, we decided to attend worship at the campground. We met an older couple there. They were smartly dressed in white slacks and matching polo shirts. We started a conversation and the woman said, “I feel like I know you from somewhere.”
After the service they invited us to stop by their RV for coffee. We found their “campsite” and their massive Recreation Vehicle. They had poodle with toenails painted pink and a matching bow in her fur. They gave us coffee and toast and we shared our faith stories. The woman said, “I’m pretty sure I’ve met you before but I can’t imagine where.” Kathryn and I had nothing in common with this couple. We were young and poor. Our clothes smelled of last night’s campfire and I felt a little embarrassed, but the older couple was gracious.
As we were leaving the woman came out of the RV to bring us a jar of honey as a gift. She said, “Oh I know where I met you before. We met at the foot of the cross.”
To find salvation we must bring our own vulnerabilities to this one who came from God. We were there at the cross and we do find ourselves in the stories of Holy Week. We were there when Jesus said, “One of you will betray me.” And we turned to the others and asked, “Is it I?” knowing full well the possibility of our betrayal. We were there with Caiaphas defending the status quo at all costs. We washed our hands with Pilate to rid ourselves of guilt and responsibility. We warmed our selves by the fire with Peter and refused to honor our faith. We were there at the cross when the Savior said, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
Sermon transcript for April 6, 2014
Belmont UMC—April 6, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching
This is a wonderful and surprising story. It is surprising because we are as deep into Lent as we can go and we are reading a story of resurrection. During a season in which we refrain from “Alleluias!” and we use unadorned branches in the place of flowers, here we have a story that stirs hope in us. But it fits the season because John uses the story to move Jesus closer to Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week. Jesus comes to Bethany, against the advice of his disciples. Bethany is only a couple of miles from Jerusalem, on the other side of the Mount of Olives. The story is pivotal because it connects us to the plot against Jesus. The storm clouds of Good Friday begin to hover over the life of Jesus.
Jesus has taken the risk of going to Bethany because of his good friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. This is a story about Jesus’ love for his friends and the evidence suggests that these three were among Jesus’ closest friends. It was with them that he could retreat. Jesus needed them and they needed him in return. Jesus loved Lazarus like a close friend. “See how he loved him!” There is no more moving scene in the New Testament than seeing Jesus weeping at the grave of his friend.
Everyone needs close friends like these three friends of Jesus—friends with whom we can relax, be ourselves, let our hair down and feel at home. These are the friends who know us, who are full of grace and forgiveness, and who hear our complaints and have permission to interrupt us with good news and special requests. These are also the friends who gently hold us accountable when we are on the wrong path. Jesus took a great risk for this kind of friendship.
We might put ourselves in the place of early Christians in the late first century, who are hearing this story for the first time. In this story we would hear of a Messiah, who called his disciples friends and loved them with passion and sacrifice. We would hear a story of Jesus who would call us friends, understand our human dramas and failings, weep with us and laugh with us, treat us with grace and forgiveness, and make us feel at home in his presence. We would hear the story of Jesus who befriends us and calls us forth to new life.
This is also a story about Jesus’ power over death, defeat and despair. John’s Gospel makes it clear that Lazarus is truly dead. He’s been in the tomb four days. If you’ve been to Israel you’ve probably been to Bethany and a place called Lazarus’ tomb. It is not an ordinary grave, but a cave dug out of the hillside. You enter and walk down stone steps deep into the earth and at the bottom of the steps is another opening for the burial. There is a deep, dark permanence to it and Lazarus is deep in the grave.
Ever practical Martha says, “Lord, it’s been 4 days and there will be a smell.” That’s crude but a real and practical response. So holding their breath and expecting the worse, the grave is opened and Jesus calls forth into the darkness, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus comes up, up, up, reaching the opening, shielding his eyes against the sun light and dragging his grave cloths behind him, wondering, “What has happened?”
Jesus said to the crowd, “Unbind him and let him go!” Take the signs of the death off of him. The point is not that Jesus protects us from death. He does not. We will all have to face death. The point is that because of what Jesus does with death, we do not have to fear it. “I am the resurrection and the life!” Jesus says.
God is the life giver and God has the power to summon us out of the dark places of despair and defeat. I’ve been to many funerals and I’ve never seen anyone come back to life. I have seen those who have given up, felt defeated, and reached a kind of finality, hear the summons of Jesus and found new life in him.
People often express defeat and despair. “I’ll never amount to anything.” “I’ll never kick this habit.” “I’ll never find a decent job.” “I’ll never find my way out of poverty.” Sometimes the hole gets deeper and despair darker. In our world where the disparity between the rich and the poor grows wider and wider, there is a culture of disparity for those who are poor.
For some folks depression feels like a slow death. People lose heart and hope. Some years ago I was called to a friend’s house. His wife had entombed herself in their bedroom with the blinds closed. She had been there for days living in the darkness of depression and grief. With much love and tenderness we coaxed her out into the light and finally into life itself. “Unbind her and let her go!”
Kayla McClurg wrote, “The Lazarus parts of us feel abandoned, deserted, dead. Lazarus is whatever lies beyond our ability to restore, so bound up in old beliefs or hurts that spiritual rigor mortis has set in. The Lazarus in us no longer seeks to grow and learn, no longer asks if we might be of use in God’s unfolding story, fearing the response. We hunker down in caves of regret, we zone out, grow numb, live small. Dead as dead can be.” (Inward/Outward, April 6, 2014)
But Jesus comes to us in the form of a faith friend, AA sponsor, Sunday School teacher, pastor, neighbor, to offer new life. In the church we are in the “unbind them and let them go” ministry. We come alongside those who despair and we bring them into the presence of the One who has the power to give life.
Where are you today? Are any among us defeated, entombed in the darkness of despair? Come to this table to eat and drink with us and meet Jesus here! Come forth and live again.