Saturday, April 30, 2011

Conspiring at the Empty Tomb

Matthew 28:11-15
Easter 2
Holy Humor Sunday
May 1, 2011
William G. Carter

While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.

Of all the jokes that are told today, here is the most comical: did you hear the one about the guys who thought they could lock-up the tomb of Jesus? They couldn’t keep the door shut. The stone was rolled away.

Today we celebrate the great joke that God has played on the powers of evil: Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead! And we join in the heritage of those who name this as God’s Holy Humor.

In the Orthodox Church, there is a custom that I have heard about but not yet seen. The day after Easter, all the Orthodox priests gather for cognac and cigars (that sounds so civilized). They eat fine food and tell jokes. The room is filled with raucous laughter.

I’ve discovered that Presbyterian clergy are a bit more muted. This year, nine of us went out to lunch at Twigs in Tunkhannock on the day after Easter. There was no cognac, perhaps some strong coffee, and certainly not enough jokes. But the desire was there, and it is appropriate.

Jesus is alive. That is the joyful news that stays in the air after Easter. He is alive, and he brings us alive. Theologian Jurgen Moltmann puts it this way: “With Easter, the laughter of the redeemed, the dance of the liberated and the creative play of fantasy begins.” We know God in Christ is breathing – breathing in, breathing out, and upon us. As Moltmann says, “From ancient times the Easter hymns have celebrated the victory of life: they laugh at death, mock hell, and drive out the demons of the fear of sin . . . O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” (The Church in the Power of the Spirit, p. 110)

So we celebrate Easter by celebrating God’s gift of life. The operative word is “celebrate.” Celebrate. I bet you know the old joke:

A new monk arrived at the monastery. He was assigned to help the other monks in copying the old texts by hand. He noticed, however, that they were copying copies, not the original books. The new monk went to the abbot to ask him about this. He pointed out that if there were an error in the first copy, the same error would be continued in all of the other copies.

The abbot said, 'We have been copying from the copies for centuries, but you make a good point, my son.' The abbot went down into the cellar with one of the copies to check it against the original.

Hours later, nobody had seen him, so one of the brothers went downstairs to look for him. He heard a sobbing coming from the back of the cellar and found the about leaning over one of the original books, crying.

“Father,” he asked “what is wrong?” The abbot spoke through his sobs, “The word was celebrate.”

It’s an old joke with an ever-fresh punch-line. We get snared in the grim routines of discipline, the hum-drum rituals that have long since lost their purpose. Each generation of Christians must live the Gospel in a true and meaningful way. We cannot put our hearts on autopilot. We are invited to welcome what God is creating among us, in the joy of God’s Spirit. We welcome what Christ has been raised to keep doing.

That is not always easy, of course. Sometimes we just don’t get the point.

Three recent converts to Christianity die and arrive together at the Pearly Gates. “We are running late today,” says Saint Peter, so I will just ask each one question. “Tell me, why do we celebrate Easter?” he asks the first man.

“That’s easy,” he replies. “That’s when Jesus was born.”
“I’m afraid not,” says Saint Peter, “and I can’t let you in.”
Turning to the second man, he says, “Do you know why we have Easter?”
“Certainly,” he replies, “that’s when Jesus split the Red Sea.”
“I’m sorry,” St. Peter replies, “you will have to study some more.”
Turning to the third man, St. Peter says, “And you? Why do we have Easter?”
“Easter,” he says tentatively, “is when Jesus came out of the tomb.”
“Excellent. Please continue.”
“He was in the grave for three days.”
“Very good. And then?”
“And after three days he comes out of the tomb, sees his shadow, and we have six more weeks of Lent.”

Sometimes our dullness of spirit prevents us from receiving the joy of God. The French philosopher Voltaire put it this way, "God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh."

Other times, as I said last week, it’s our fear of Easter – our fear of God doing something new, something vital, something alive, and especially – fear of God doming something right here.

As a professional religious leader for twenty-five years, I confess my own reluctance at God getting a little too close. It’s frightening. It’s risky.

Fred Craddock tells about the pastor who went to visit a lady in the hospital. She was quite sick, had been for some time. She could barely hold up her head. Evelyn was tired and burdened. They chatted for a bit, and she said, “Before you go, could you pray for me?”

“Sure, Evelyn, I would be glad to pray. ‘Lord, bless this woman, for she is your servant. Cure her affliction, restore her to health, and heal her in your grace.” Just as soon as he said ‘Amen,’

Evelyn looked up and said, ‘Thank you.’ And then she said, ‘You know, I’m actually feeling better.’ She sat up, shook her head, slid to the side of the bed, put her feet in the slippers, stood up. She turned and looked at him, and said, “I believe I am well. Thank you for your prayer, pastor. This is amazing. I feel great. Thank you so much for your prayer. It has made all the difference!” The nurses came in, they were all amazed.

The pastor, however, was quiet. He went out to the parking garage, got in the car, and before he turned the key, he prayed again, “Lord, don’t you ever do that to me again!”

Do you know what he feels? We want God to keep running the world in the way that we have seen the world being run. But all of a sudden, God interrupts his own world with something amazing.

There was an old lady named Sarah. We heard the story about her today. She chuckled about the possibility of pleasure in her old age. She knew God to be good, but not particularly generous. Then this ancient woman finds out that she’s having a baby and Medicare is picking up the tab. All she can do is laugh. And God replies, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” And God tells her and her husband that the baby’s name must be “Yitzak – Isaac” – the Hebrew word for laughter.

Did the enemies of Jesus really think they could shut down God? Matthew tells us this crazy story of how the religious establishment tried to pay off the guards at the empty tomb. They set up a conspiracy to lie about the resurrection. What they missed, of course, what was totally hidden from them, is that Jesus really is alive. It is God who cracked open the tomb. It is God who will not be bought off. It is God who gives life where nobody expects any life. Easter begins in a graveyard . . . and it propels us toward the Great Banquet. This is God’s doing.

When we gather for the Lord’s Supper, we celebrate the miracle of miracles: that Jesus Christ is alive. He is risen from the dead. The sacrament is not a funeral meal – of course it’s not a funeral meal! Look at the menu: there is no ham, no scalloped potatoes, or no green beans almondine.

No, this the joyful feast of the people of God. The betrayal is over, the crucifixion is finished, the tomb is busted open from the inside – the One who was dead now lives. That’s the difference between Last Supper and Lord’s Supper.

We take in the Risen Christ by faith. His life fills our lives. And Easter happens again and again.

Note: This sermon is plundered from a variety of sources. Any original portions (c) William G. Carter

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Afraid of Easter?

Matthew 28:1-10
April 24, 2011
Easter Sunday
William G. Carter

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And 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. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then 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.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

This is our big day! The trumpet is sounding. The hymns are bouncing off the ceiling. A hundred flowers give their testimony. All heaven and earth converge upon us to announce that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. In so many ways, nothing needs to be said. All we need to do today is show up and soak up the joy.

Easter is that kind of celebration for the church. It’s our family reunion, when the people of a scattered church make every attempt to be here. Whatever plans they have made for the rest of the day have been arranged around this hour. It’s obvious to me that good-looking people shine even brighter. They dress up for this festival, and many of them are even on their best behavior.

This is the day that the Lord has made. It births the church of God into existence and sets the pattern of our weekly hallelujahs. It is Easter Sunday, the day of our great joy!

And it sounds odd that it is also a day of great fear.

Maybe you noticed that about the scripture lesson from the Gospel of Matthew. Four times “fear” is mentioned as a noun or a verb. Whatever happened at the Jerusalem tomb set off shock waves in both people and the earth. The ground started shaking, the guards outside the tomb started shaking.

I’ve never been in an earthquake, but I have seen the faces of people on camera. Most recently it was footage from just over a month ago in Japan, in a country shaken and devastated. Nobody expected it. People shaped their faces in silent screams before the wailing began. It was a terrifying moment.

Easter begins with an earthquake. I don’t know if Matthew wants us to take that literally or not. He has already told us how the heavens and the earth echo in the great events of God. When Jesus was born, the heavens created a new star in the sky (2:2). When he breathed his last breath, the rocks split and the tombs around Jerusalem cracked open (27:51-52). Now, on the third day, there are aftershocks near Golgotha.

Matthew claims it was an angel; he was bright as lightning and powerful enough to push back the stone. And when the professional soldiers of Rome got a look at him, they were “sore afraid.” Very few things could ever shake up a soldier, but this it. In “sheer terror,” they trembled and fell over as if they were dead.

This is part of the Easter story, too. The soldiers are afraid of Easter.

Oh, I know: it says they were afraid of the angel; the angels of the Bible are very frightening. Not one of them looks cute like Roma Downey or handsome like Denzel Washington. They instill fear – which is why they open their mouths, and the very first thing they say is – what? – “Don’t fear! Don’t be afraid!”

This angel doesn’t have a spear, a helmet, or a suit of armor. He looks like a lightning bolt, says Matthew, and that’s enough to shake the consciousness out of those soldiers.

When they wake up, they are also going to be afraid of Pontius Pilate. He was the Empire’s governator – and he’s the one who assigned them to guard the tomb. “Keep it secure,” he said, “don’t let anybody near it.” And if Pilate hears that they have fallen down on the job, they will be as good as dead! Either that - or they will be reassigned to fight the barbarians of Scotland. It doesn’t look for those soldiers.

What we have here is a political satire of Caesar, Pontius Pilate, the military guard, indeed the whole Empire. They are no match for an invisible God. They can’t even protect a graveyard from a couple of women. It’s an editorial cartoon about the dead-end ways of the world’s worship of power and brute force.

The story is an echo of the beginning of this same book. The wise men from the East arrive at the palace to ask, “Where is the king? We have come to worship him.” And Herod says, “Here am I. I am the mighty king.”

The three wise men say, “No, not you. We are looking for the brand new king, the infant king, the real king.” So Herod tries to destroy the child so he can remain the king; this only proves his illegitimacy in God’s Kingdom, and the child Jesus is saved until Herod dies.

The Easter story sounds just as pathetic, yet with a note of sad comedy. Matthew would have us imagine their explanation to their superiors: “Yes, Commander, it went like this. At O-Dawn-Hundred, there was a seismic disturbance.”

Why didn’t we feel it at our outpost? “Well, sir, we have reason to believe that an extra-terrestrial being appeared to move the gravestone.”

I see that from your report. Sergeant, are you delusional? “Well, no sir, although it was difficult to tell. He kind of resembled a sunbeam, and that was right before we blacked out . . .”

What did you see when you came to your senses? “Well, we say a couple of peasant women, sir, but they were, uh, running away and, uh, singing . . .”

On Easter, the brutal powers of the world are served notice: God’s invisible power is stronger. The principalities of the world shall be defeated by a couple of singing women. It’s no wonder that soldiers were afraid, and fell down as if they were dead . . .

But listen to these women: they are fearful too. In the insight of one scholar (Stanley Hauerwas), they come to the tomb out of faith. They remembered Jesus’ promise that he would rise on the third day, and it was the third day. There is no mention in this story that they bring spices to anoint the hastily-buried body. No, Matthew wants us to see their faith, their trust in his promise, their perseverance after all the men folk ran away.

Here they are, at Ground Zero as the earth is knocked off its axis. The earthquake shakes them too. There is nowhere to hide, nothing to hang onto. The Laser Beam Angel will not talk to the soldiers, but he does talk to them, to the women. He will not let them fall over and play dead, but speaks the news directly:

- I know why you are here: you have come to see Jesus.
- This is what Easter means: Jesus is alive, yet he is invisible as God is invisible.
- He is going ahead of you to Galilee and you will see him there! So go and tell his disciples.

And as they run with great joy, they are also filled with fear. Matthew insists on it: it’s the same word for “fear” (phobos) that consumed the soldiers. The women feel fear, too, but the fear comes as they are going to do what God’s angel wants them to do. It’s in the midst of their obedience that they have profoundly mixed feelings.

After all, there lie a number of Caesar’s soldiers around the open tomb, incapacitated and equalized. What kind of dynamite are these women playing with?

And what if Jesus really is alive, unseen but alive? What if every lesson he taught us still holds: that the poor in spirit are blessed, that the hungry are meant to be filled, that the holiness of God brings shalom to every kitchen, workbench, and marketplace? What if all those healings he did are a sign of the kind of God that we have?

I can understand the fear. What if all of this Good News is true? What if the emperor’s brutality, the high priest’s hypocrisy, and the good friend’s treachery are not the rules that run the world? What if God rules, judges, and redeems?

This can be unsettling. If Jesus is raised from the dead, it means the world is not as predictable as anybody thinks it is. It means that people with high control needs are going to find themselves shaken. It would mean we will no longer live as if death determines our living.

That reminds me of a story. The great writer Robert Louis Stevenson was raised by Presbyterians. His grandfather was a famous preacher in Edinburgh. When he reached a rebellious age that he never quite outgrew, he let his hair grow long, wore flowered shirts, and frequented unsavory establishments. His wild life coincided with his fame as a writer.

Stevenson had lifelong respiratory problems and was often sickly. Once he got a letter from a self-important missionary who heard about his moral behavior, and wanted to preach to him “as a man in danger of dying.” Robert wrote back with characteristic humor, “You should visit me as a man in danger of living. I am a very sick man, but suppose I get better. Any fool can die; as a matter of fact, all do. I’m going to need much more help if I go on living.”

We must not be afraid of life, for that is to be afraid of Easter. To be afraid of Easter is to be afraid of God. To be afraid of God is to be afraid of trusting, affirming, healing, embracing, enjoying, and working for the benefit of every one of God’s children and creatures.

I came into the sanctuary early to see the flowers. There are so many that all of you have provided, and I wanted to make sure I still had a place to stand. After a long winter, it is a blessing to stand in the presence of beauty and abundant life. I consider the lilies, how they praise their Creator as they are created to do. They praise God and they are never afraid. They are the very picture of what all of us are called to do.

When Jesus is raised from the dead, the women who are witnesses run from the empty tomb in great joy and deep fear. When Jesus meets them, he says "Hello!" and says, “Stop being afraid!” But they are terribly shaken. Shaken alive, shaken awake, but shaken.

And when they find their voices, I will sing along.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Seismic Activity

Matthew 21:1-11, 27:50-51, 28:1-2
Palm / Passion Sunday
April 17, 2011
William Carter

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” (21:10)
Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. (27:50-51)
And 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. (28:2)

My friend Harry grew up at Disston Memorial Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Every year, he said, Palm Sunday "reeked of sameness."

Two Palm Sundays were all you needed to figure out the pattern. The first year you experienced it. The second year you lived it all over again. Every year, on schedule, the local florist delivered the same standing order: two large leafy plants in gold foil pots, one on each side of the pulpit. Lang's Floral Shop annually called them "the Presbyterian Palms."

Every year, the minister began the service the same way. He said two ancient lines from scripture. "Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord." The congregation mumbled back, "Hosanna in the highest," just like last year.

There were three Palm Sunday hymns in the green hymnal. At Disston Memorial Church, they were always sung in the same order. To hear my friend Harry tell the story, that's just what the people wanted, because it was just what the people expected, because that's just what the people experienced each Palm Sunday.

Of course, what the people really wanted and expected was for Ethel Willard to sing a solo. She was a soprano, the closest thing Disston Memorial Church had to a soloist. And for 28 years in a row, she stood to sing Faure's "The Palms." Nobody ever came to church on Palm Sunday to listen to the preacher. No, they came to hear Ethel Willard.

One year, a new organist tried to play the solo a little faster, but Ethel didn't budge. She was the seasoned expert, after all. She knew how slowly it was supposed to go. After worship, the throngs dashed forward to greet her. With one voice, they declared, "Ethel, it wouldn't be Palm Sunday without you singing "The Palms.""

In the memory of my friend Harry, that's how it was. Year after year, the same.

I can tell a story like that. Maybe you can, too. In the church where I grew up, I don’t remember anybody sang "The Palms." I had to wait until I was a pastor in my first church before the tune arrested me. But we always did the same old thing. We sang the same three Palm Sunday hymns in the same order out of the same old green hymnal every year.

Every year, there's something the same about Palm Sunday. It's the only worship service when Protestants feel comfortable handing out props. We don't normally do that. But year after year, this day is special. In some churches, they are developing the custom for everybody to gather outside the building. At the appointed hour, people parade into the sanctuary. We tried that here one time, but nobody joined in. They wanted to sit in the same old pews.

That seems so comforting. Whether or not there's an annual parade, annual props, or annual solo, Palm Sunday is the same exciting day, year after year after year.

All the Palm Sunday stories in the Bible sound much the same. Jesus climbs on the back of a humble donkey. The disciples lead the way. Since it's Passover time, they are surrounded by a large crowd. To hear Matthew's account, we don’t know if the crowd is there because Jesus is present or because the Passover holiday is at hand. It is not clear.

What we do know is what they sang as they traveled. As Father Joseph Fitzmyer says in his commentary, they sang the same, old Passover song every year: three lines from Psalm 118.

The first line went, "Save us, O Lord!" To put that in Hebrew, the word for "save us" is "Hosanna!" That word Hosanna is a prayer that stretches back to when Israel was in Egypt, and God turned them loose. Now, after hundreds of years of living under the thumbs of Syrians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and now Romans, they sang hosanna in weary hope.

The next line they sang was, "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord." That’s the blessing of a Savior. After praying to be saved, now they prayed for a Savior. They never saw actually one, year after year, but they kept praying.

And then, in case people didn't remember how to do a Passover parade, the third line of the old song said, "Bind the festal procession with branches." (Psalm 118:25-27)

As far as the song was concerned, Father Fitzmyer says, they sang it every year. It might as well have been "The Palms," sung for the 28th year in a row.

But then, in one particular year, in the year Jesus rode his donkey into town, the people sang that song and the whole city shook.

Matthew says it was a seismic event. The verb “shook” is the verb “seismos.” He uses earthquake language to describe it. It's curious, since Matthew is normally a straight-shooter who doesn't talk in metaphors. Yet when he says Jerusalem was "shaking," he means to say that Jesus came to town and suddenly it was 9.7 on the Richter scale! The whole city shook. And that's not what we've come to expect on Palm Sunday.

My friend Harry remembers Disston Memorial Church; nothing ever shook on Palm Sunday. Not even the rafters. Well, maybe when Ethel sang "The Palms," she shook a little bit. It was often noted that, as Ethel advanced in years, the depth of her vibrato grew deeper. Sometimes it sounded like she was singing in two different keys simultaneously. But everybody loved the song, and she had sung it so many times that no one seemed to care.

What if Palm Sunday promises more than the same, old songs and the same, old prayers? If today is Palm Sunday, the whole city should be shaking, for Jesus Christ is coming to town.

When I got started as a preacher, I thought my whole business was to shake people up. I thought my job was to start a series of earthquakes, to the glory of God. Give them some new idea. Upset some established custom. Shock the religious sensibilities. Sometimes I would look for a strange scripture passage they had never heard before and preach it. "How about the 3rd chapter of Leviticus?" As I looked out upon a sea of glazed eyes, I was right: they had never heard that before.

It slowly dawned on me that religious people are quite adept at handling such shake-ups. They anchor themselves to the same pews, cross their arms, and wait out the windstorms.

Then one fateful day, I remember waking up to discover I had become as institutionalized as the people I was trying to shake up. Even though I enjoyed everything fresh and new, I was boring. I drove the same routes and took the same shortcuts. I went through the same motions. Perhaps all of us have our customs, our manners, our ways of coping with chaos. We need routines to repeat, rituals to replay, and songs to sing over and over again.

Such things provide a firm foundation. They offer order. They give stability and coherence. Change for the sake of change can be a terrible, unsettling thing. The cruelest thing we can do is to turn out the lights in someone's favorite room, rearrange the furniture, and leave people to bump around in the dark. That's not cultivating faith; that's destroying it. Faith grows best when we know where the furniture is.

It's hard for whipper-snappers like me to admit it, but it's true. As we get older, our innovations become habits. Our new ideas become annual traditions. That's not all that bad. Sometimes it gives us great security.

Jesus told a parable about two different people who went into the construction business. One of them built a house on firm bedrock. The other built a house on shifting sand. The same rain fell on both houses. The wind blew on both houses. The storms beat upon both houses. One house stood firm, and the other house blew to bits. Guess which one kept standing.

We need some bedrock to build our houses on, some rote practices to get us through the day. Have you noticed how many people are brought closer to God by singing brand-new hymns? Not many. I hate to admit it. If a hymn is in the new hymnal, it's fair game. Let's sing it!

What do we really want to sing? What do we need to sing? The old favorites. The songs we've been singing for 28 years. We need Ethel Willard singing her song.

But we need Jesus, too. And Matthew says that when Jesus appeared on the scene, the whole city shook.

It's not the first time that happened, you know. Way back in chapter 2, some wise men from the East came knocking on King Herod's palace. "We've come to worship the king," they said. Herod said, "Well, here I am. I'm the king."

"No, not you," they said. "We're looking for a brand-new king, who rules over the world. Even the stars in the sky have begun to worship him." When King Herod heard about King Jesus, he and his whole city began to shake.

After Jesus rode into that city, he made a beeline to the Temple. He discovered an institution full of more commercialism than K-Mart at Christmas. So he tipped the tables and drove out the souvenir vendors. The only profit the moneychangers saw that day was the prophet Jesus. And they began to shake.

Then Jesus gave sight to the blind, and dancing lessons to those who couldn't walk, and he heard some children singing. The rule keepers and the holy rollers saw it and heard it. And they began to shake.

Then Jesus went out to the suburbs to spend the night. Traveling back to town, his stomach began to growl. He passed by a fig tree that looked as fruitless as the temple. It made him mad. And even that fig tree began to shake.

If we come every year to see Jesus ride into town, he looks like a gentle prophet on the back of a humble donkey, surrounded by a crowd of people who sing the same old songs. But let’s not be naive. When God sends Jesus into town, there is a whole lot of shaking going on.

He looks so gentle, riding on a farm animal, but he confronts the selfish.
He comes to cure the sightless, and makes the self-righteous to lose their sight.
He comes to make children to rejoice, and curses the fruit tree that refuses his doxology.

A shaken city asks the same questions that will always shake us: Who is this Jesus, and what does it mean to welcome him into our lives? It can be an unsettling place to stand. My very foundations may tremble at the power of God.

The truth of Palm Sunday is that we can never stand totally secure in our own strength. We can never declare ourselves free from God's interference and influence in our lives. It means that we are provoked by two continuing questions, namely: Who is this Jesus? And what right does he have to shake us up?

Those are the questions posed by Palm Sunday. They quickly heat up Holy Week. And they are the questions that ultimately put Jesus on a cross to die.

Please understand this: the people who put him on the cross chose stability over shaking. For them, there was only one real alternative: get rid of Jesus. What else could they do? It took about a week. Plans were made after dark. They had to find an insider to pay off, line up a goon squad to arrest him, trump up some charges, and convince the Romans.

By Friday, they were pretty sure that he wouldn't interfere with anybody ever again. It took a few hours to make sure he was really dead. And then – do you know what happened? At the very moment of his death, the earth shook and shuddered. The rocks split. The tombs opened. The temple tapestry ripped in two. Finally it was quiet. They took him down and sealed him in a tomb. Everybody thought, "Jesus will not ever bother anybody again."

It was a comforting thought. I know a lot of people who hope for that. More than anything else, they want their lives to be free from any act of God.

There's only one problem. After a day of rest, some women went to the tomb on early Sunday morning. And just as they got there, the ground began to shake.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Pilate's Dilemma

Matthew 27:15-26
Lent 5 / Congregational Memorial Service
April 10, 2011
William G. Carter

Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

This is a text that starts a lot of conversations. Any one of them could be pursued.

We learn that Barabbas had a first name: “Jesus.” He was “Jesus Barabbas,” prompting Pilate to ask the crowd, “Which Jesus do you want? Do you want Jesus Barabbas or Jesus the Christ?” That’s intriguing, since if you translate “Barabbas” it means “son of the father.” In case, the people are stirred up to choose Barabbas the criminal over Christ the Innocent. Sometime we could have a conversation about the downside of getting what we want.

In this text, Pilate’s wife sends the message of a holy nightmare. With apparently no warning, Jesus has invaded her dreams. Since the Gospel of Matthew begins with a number of God-drenched dreams, we need to pay attention to this. In the beginning of the book, in the Christmas story, Joseph is guided by four dreams; that’s how God protects the baby Jesus. And the three wise men have a dream; that’s how God protects them. Now Mrs. Pilate has a dream, which would offer protection for Jesus; but nobody listens to her.

A few weeks ago, we heard this text announce one of the most notorious verses of the Bible. It was verse 25, where a mob of people declare, “His blood be on us and on our children.” I made the case then and I would make it again: Matthew is making an unfortunate generalization. What was probably meant as a corporate confession of sin was twisted into a blanket accusation. It fueled Hitler’s hatred and torched many synagogues.

We could talk about Barabbas, talk about Pilate’s wife and her dream, talk about anti-Semitism. We could even talk about torture; in the text, we hear the empire “flogged” Jesus. They probably attached bits of metal to the cat of nine tails, as Mel Gibson showed us relentlessly in his snuff film from seven years ago. We could talk about the appropriateness of torture in light of God’s grace.

But the most compelling word of the text is not a word at all. It is the silence. Jesus takes all of this in silence. He never said “a mumbalin’ word.” That might be the most unsettling detail of this very unsettling text.

All the Gospel writers agree on his silence. When he is asked, “Are you the King of the Jews? Are you a politician?” Jesus says, “You say so.” Pilate doesn’t know that means, and neither do we. Jesus does not speak another word while he is condemned, tortured, humiliated, and nailed to the cross. Only then does he speak four words from a psalm.

The scene sets before us Jesus and Pilate in an unsettling silence. They are very different from one another. One is bound, the other is free. One is a prisoner, the other is his judge. One has restored life in other people, the other has the authority to take away life and does so regularly. They meet for an unfinished conversation, the details of which differ slightly between the Gospels. But all the stories agree that Jesus concludes the conversation by refusing to say another word. He refuses to defend himself. And the silence is so unnerving that the Roman politician walks out of the room.

Silence has that kind of power. A preacher I know once read his sermon text from the prophet Habbakkuk: “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!” (2:20). Then he began his sermon by staring them down. Didn’t move his lips. Didn’t fill the air with cute stories and religious mumbo-jumbo. Just stood there mute. Two minutes went by, five minutes went by. People started to fidget and twitch. One looked at her watch. Another decided to pull his check out of the offering envelope. Still - - nothing. At last a voice rang out; it was one of the ushers. “Hey preacher, would you say something? We aren’t a bunch of Quakers.”

Do you think any of them heard the sermon? I think they did, and they didn’t like it.

Silence is unsettling. The oncologist says, “I will call with the report at 9:00 on Wednesday,” and then the phone doesn’t ring at all. The single mother sleeps with one eye open on prom night, waiting for her daughter to get home, and it’s a quarter past three; nothing. The employment office promised to get right back to you with an offer, and now it’s been two weeks. You get down on your knees to pray, you pour out your heart, you want to grab God by the collar and shake out an answer – but not a sound in return.

Today we hear of a career politician, stuck in a tinderbox town where everybody seemed to have a set of matches. The religious phonies drag some troublemaker in front of him. He can read it for what it is: this Galilean chap has some charisma and they can’t stand him. Pilate doesn’t care about the specific charges. He will not step in the middle of a contest among theological skunks. They hurl their curses and accusations at the prisoner – but he will not say a word. The Roman governor asks incredulously, “Don’t you hear what these people are saying?”

Jesus just stares at him. His eyes, like lasers, drill two holes in the governor’s heart. He will not speak a word. It is a brief moment, filled with haunting ambiguity.

Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, says this ambiguity is the most important detail in all the stories of when Jesus goes on trial. These stories of judgment question our human judgment. The authorities judge Jesus, and in the process they are judged. And that unsettles every aspect of human authority.

The soldiers have had their chance to rough him up. An officer of the temple police smacked him in the face and gave him a swollen lip. They have kept him awake all night and forced him through two interrogations. Now his enemies shove him down to the Roman headquarters. They have no regard for Jesus. They hand him over as a criminal, although they have no specific charges. They insinuate how he deserves the Roman death penalty, yet refuse to explain why. His enemies force Jesus to go through all of this, yet he remains calm, centered, focused, and still.

Pontius Pilate asks, "What evil has he done," knowing the crowd has no rational answer. He makes an offer that could release the man, but other voices prevail. He washes his hands of the matter – but somehow that doesn’t let him off the hook. It is unsettling.

The whole scene reminds us once again how the world resists the love and justice of very Christ through whom all things were made. As another Gospel warned us at Christmas time, "The world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own home, and his own people did not accept him" (John 1:10-11). This is the moment when the world is judged. The Light of the World has come into the world, and the world said, "Turn off the lights!"

And in the thick of it, Jesus stands silent. He doesn't have to say anything or do anything. He leads no revolt. He does not call in a high-priced attorney. His very presence exposes both the sham of his arrest and the indifferent arrogance of the Empire. This is not how we were meant to live: betraying one another, picking on one another, stirring up trouble against one another, striking one another, murdering one another. Yet Jesus neither strikes out nor gives in. In deep and holy silence, he confronts the truth about power with the power of truth.

Kent Groff, our guest speaker for later today, has a brief prayer-poem about this moment. He captures it in just ten words:

Silent statement,
Political action.
Paucity of words,
Audacity in deed. (“Facing East, Praying West,” p. 63)

A friend of mine stopped to see me when his mother was dying. Most of the time, she was at peace about her impending death, and her peacefulness was the disturbing thing for a lot of other people. Friends would stop by to see her, and many were anxious about it. They didn't know what to say. They didn't know what to do, so they brought some things. Some brought food, even though she couldn’t eat very much. Some bring little gifts, and she laughed, "What am I going to do with this?" All the time, he said, she remains still and steadfast -- because nothing could shake her.

My friend and I were talking about that. He said, "Did you ever notice that the person who has true power is not the one who fusses around, stays busy, does all the talking, or tries to push their way upon others? No; it's the person who stays rooted and focused on the ways of God. People like that don't have to prove anything. They just be. Much of the time, they don't have to say a word."

In all of Pilate’s questions, Jesus stands in secure silence. He doesn't have to say or do a thing. So it is Pilate who grows anxious. It's Pilate who tries to appease everybody. It's Pilate who tries to put a lid on the pressure. It's Pilate who goes on trial. Jesus may be bound in chains, but actually he is the One who is free.

Pilate has the army, but Jesus has the power.
Pilate has the throne, but Jesus has the authority.
Pilate asks the questions, but Jesus holds all the answers.

Tell me something: who's the One who is really in charge? And so he stands in silence.

It would be enough to join him in that silence this day. To be quiet. To hush, and to be still. There is nothing to say, there is nothing to prove – not any more. No amount of blathering or babbling on the church’s part is going to correct the injustice of Jesus’ condemnation. There are no words that will undo what the world has done.

Not yet, at least. That day is coming.

We will find our voices on the Third Day. “On the third day . . .”

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Have You Met My Friend Judas?

Matthew 26:14-16, 47-50, 27:3-10
April 3, 2011
Lent 4
William G. Carter

Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him . . .
When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed..."

Of all the people who populate the Bible, Judas Iscariot may be the most complicated. His story is told in three scenes today.

Whenever Judas is mentioned, two defining details are repeated. First, he is always called “one of the twelve.” He is a chosen disciple of Jesus who called him a friend. Second, Judas is always called “the betrayer.” His very life points to a theological mystery: what happens when the doctrine of election goes badly? Judas is chosen by God in Christ, and the chosen one turns out poorly.

The New Testament struggles to understand him. Three reasons for his actions are given.

He was Under the Influence: In Luke 22:3, we are told “Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve.” Satan tempted Jesus at least three times, says Luke, “departing until an opportune time.” Judas is one of Satan’s opportunities, and if his faith is not strong, he will be “sifted like wheat” (22:31). Similarly, Luke says the jokers around the cross will also tempt the Lord, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (23:37)

Judas represents the Dark Side of Predestination: “He was a devil from the beginning,” says the Gospel of John (6:70). In this view, Judas was part of a larger plot -- or a pawn in the divine plan. Some would say he was used by God, perhaps condemned before birth. He never had a chance. In Matthew, Jesus says an enigmatic word: “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have better for that one not to have been born” (26:24).

In the end, it was the Free Choice of Judas to betray the Lord. Was it greed? (Matthew 26:14) Disagreement with Jesus? (John 12:4-7) Depends what you read. Whatever his tangled thinking, Judas’ free will was misused. It could happen to any of us. As Matthew reports, Jesus declared one of the disciples would betray him. Each of them said, “It isn’t me, is it?” Any one of them had the capacity to betray. Judas is singled out for doing what any one of them might do.

Most likely, he was a tangle of motives. Some popular studies suggest Judas was a militant and wanted to force the hand of Jesus. He saw the miracles, knew the power, affirmed Jesus’ authority, but didn’t think Jesus was changing the world fast enough. So, goes the idea, he cut a deal with the enemies to press Jesus into step up into his kingship. Maybe so. We can’t say.

Back in the seminary, Dr. Bruce Metzger peered through owlish spectacles and told us about a variant text for John 6:71. Judas was “son of Simon from Karyot (Kerioth),” a small town in the south of Israel. “Ish-cariot” may have been the Man from Kerioth. If so, since all the other disciples were from the Galilee up north, Judas may have tired of the preferential treatment toward those Yankees. We don’t know.

In one of Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermons, she makes a suggestion that makes sense to me:

Maybe he just fell out of love with Jesus. That happens sometimes. One day you think someone is wonderful and the next day he says or does something that makes you think twice. He reminds you of the difference between the two of you and you start hating him for that - for the difference - enough to begin thinking of some way to hurt him back.

Whatever his reason, Judas is the betrayer. He embodies the horrible words of Psalm 55:

It is not enemies who taunt me - I could bear that;
it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me - I could hide from them.
But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend, with whom I kept pleasant company...

The hard truth about each one of us is that we are capable of building relationships and capable of breaking them. We can make promises to people we love and then sell them out for a lower bidder. We might lean on friends and family for help, and other times we're in it only to take advantage of them. One of the hardest things about being a grown-up is realizing that, in every choice we make, we are going to affect a lot of people. We have the ability to deeply hurt others by choosing only what will please ourselves.

It gives us a glimpse of what God is up against in choosing to save the world. God is faithful and constant with us, even when we are selfish, destructive, and turned toward ourselves. Judas is not struck down with a lightning bolt for considering his betrayal or following through on it. Neither are we struck down. It’s that divine self-restraint that keeps the human race alive. God is full of mercy.

But this brings us to a really troubling part of the story. According to Matthew, God is full of mercy, but his representatives are not. For me, that is the hardest part of this tale.

Our storyteller is clear that Judas repents (27:3-4). He returns to the people who paid him off. He acknowledges his sin. But the religious leaders are harsh and unbending. They show Judas no leniency and allow him to wallow unforgiven. They have no interest in restoration. They show no capacity for compassion. The leaders make no room for a repentant sinner while refusing to acknowledge their own complicity in his crime. Matthew shows us a heartless church, so to speak, formed in grace but refusing to be gracious.

And so goes the church, exiling the member who makes a mistake, shrugging off the deacon who embarrasses his wife, refusing to welcome anybody who is not yet housebroken. The hopeless boozer is shunned. The public thief remains unvisited. All the while, the shrill church lady with an unpleasant mouth offers her commentary, parsing the world into good Christian folk like her and those who are unworthy of her angry God.

When my friend Brent took his own life, he did it because he felt he had nowhere else to go. He was a minister, and he was gay. He was a complicated man, on the one hand, raised by a church to despise people like himself; on the other, inclined to love every child of God. When life turned sour for him, when a tabloid reporter threatened to embarrass him for profit, Brent did not feel he could trust himself to people who might turn against him. All he could do, he wrote, was to throw himself on the mercy of God, who he trusted to be more merciful that the church he knew.

I would like to think my friend misread the situation. Four and a half years later, his friends still feel betrayed. But I can’t deny how he felt – imprisoned in an invisible cell without another way out.

When we make no room for the brokenness of another, we perpetuate the brokenness in ourselves. After Judas betrays Jesus, he is betrayed by the children of God. The people in his day who are most responsible for teaching the love of God are the same people who withhold that love from him. The Unforgiving Church gives him nowhere else to go.

The Bible never declares suicide to be a sin. It frowns on it, of course, because it is the taking of a life. But suicide is never called a sin by scripture, much less an unforgivable sin, any more than the betraying of Jesus is declared to be an unforgivable sin.

No, says Jesus, there is only one unforgivable sin, and that is to speak against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31-32). It is unforgivable to deny that the Spirit casts out demons, makes broken people whole, lifts up the lowly, empowers the inadequate, and blesses the poor in spirit. The unforgivable sin is to deny that God is forgiving, that God comes in the grace of Jesus Christ to heal and show mercy.

And that’s why we come to this Table: not to impress the God who knows how imperfect we are, but to claim the power of our crucified Savior. The church of Jesus Christ is created in his grace. We are called to live by his grace. We are chartered to welcome everybody home. In bread and wine, we declare that Christ is here, to forgive, to welcome, to embrace whatever and whoever the world pushes away. It is not our self-righteousness that we celebrate; we celebrate God’s mercy.

Matthew tells us that Jesus died because of the sins of Judas. But I think we can believe something more than that. We can believe Jesus died for the sins of Judas. Yes, I think we can believe that. Jesus died for the sins of Judas, just as he died for the sins of those who pushed Judas away.

Has the winter been so long that we have forgotten the Sermon on the Mount? Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)

(c) William G. Carter
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