Paul, the Jerk

 Inspired by Acts 16:16-39

This is one of those stories that kinda gets buried in the Revised Common Lectionary, that’s the standard place that many churches get their Sunday readings from, except for churches that have pastors like me who want to try different things, like the Narrative Lectionary that we use. And so, this story rarely, if ever, gets preached on. And this time, I kind of see why. It’s a weird story, with some highly questionable ethics at play here. When I first started preparing for this sermon, I thought to myself, what in the world am I gonna do with this story!? And maybe it’s because I don’t really like this story! I know, shameful, right! What kind of a pastor doesn’t like a Bible story? Not only is this story weird, not only does it contain some disturbing Christian ethics, but what does it even have to teach us? 

That if you’re as holy as Paul then Jesus will break you out of jail? Try telling that to the black men of the U.S. who are five times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, but let’s not get off track. Tradition has elevated Paul to near Jesus-like status over the centuries. He is given credit for much of our theology, as well as for growing this new religion by preaching and planting new churches across the then known world. And to his credit, I think he’d be mortified by the pedestal that we’ve put him on. And this story that we have before us today, is yet another example of why we should not. The story begins with a scene that sets up the main story, which is Paul’s imprisonment. There was a woman, unnamed of course, who was a slave but not just any slave, this slave had the unique ability to tell the future. 

Her owners exploited that gift to make a lot of money. She had been following Paul around, proclaiming that he was a servant of the most high God and that he was offering a way of salvation for them. None of which was a lie, right! However, she was really getting on Paul’s nerves and so he takes her gift from her. Like a televangelist he says, in the name of Jesus I cast you out of her! Scholars have debated for centuries about why Paul did this. What got under his skin so badly? And though they’ve come up with lots of reasons why, I really wasn’t interested in any of them. I am more interested in what he did next, or should I say, what he does not do. Because the ramifications of this are tremendous. 

And I don’t mean for his work, but for her life. Because now she was worthless to her owners. As if a slave could be knocked down a peg, somehow Paul has done just that for her. A slave is worth what they can do and she could no longer do what made them all that money. So now what was she to do? Notice there is no follow-up to her story. She is used here simply as a prop for the rest of the story. Does she become a Christian? I really don’t think so. I think their egos would have mentioned that if she did. There’s lots of possibilities but none of them are any good. She either died of starvation or was sold into sex slavery. There just weren’t many options for her. And for what? What good did this do and for whom? All because Paul was a little annoyed? Let’s keep moving through the story. 

So, as anyone could guess, the owners of that slave woman are majorly po’d! They drag Paul and Silas into the town square and accuse them of disturbing the peace. And without a trial, they get beat and thrown into prison. Now here is where you're tempted to say, oh, poor Paul and Silas, look at how they suffer for the cause. Ok, I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong to feel that, but just hold on a second before you go there. Next comes this dramatic scene with an earthquake breaking open their cells. The jailor, fearing for his life at the thought of losing his prisoners, is about to fall on his own sword, when Paul stops him, letting him know they are still there. Very odd that they didn’t escape, but we’ll get to that in a sec. 

Thankful, the jailor takes them into his own house, which leads to his baptism, but the story doesn’t end there. The next morning the jailor gets orders to release them but instead of them just leaving and going about their business, Paul just can’t leave well enough alone. Last week we talked about just how much privilege Paul enjoyed, well-to-do family, highly educated, Jewish elite, Roman citizen, a man, dripping with privilege, and here we get to see that on full display. And it ain't very pretty. He tells them, no! I’m not leaving. I’m a Roman citizen and have just been unjustly punished and incarcerated. So I’m staying right here and if they want me gone, the authorities can come and escort me out personally! My apologies to all named Karen but he goes full-blown Karen on them! If you don’t get that joke, it’s ok, it’s probably not worth getting anyway. 

So, what do all these scenes tell us about Paul? They tell us that Paul is still the same jerk he’s always been! The same jerk that he was way back when he first met Jesus. And having read all of Paul’s letters, I think he’d be the first one to tell you that. I love that about this story. On Wednesday night, the last question I asked our Bible discussion group was, “Why did Jesus choose someone as horrible as Paul?” And without missing a beat, Denise hits the nail on the head and says, “It gives hope for the rest of us.” This is yet another example of how Jesus doesn’t need you to be perfect, or holy, or righteous, or always on your best behavior, or whatever you wanna call it, in order for Jesus to follow you wherever life takes you, in order for you to have a working, healthy, robust relationship with Jesus. 

Now, I’d like to end by sharing, oddly enough, my favorite part of this story, which I think exemplifies this so well! If we rewind to the part when they are in prison. The author states that at midnight, just before the earthquake happened, Paul was praying and singing. And you might be thinking, well of course he was praying and singing, he was Paul, as you look up at him on that pedestal. No, forget the pedestal. This was Paul, the jerk, who used his privilege whenever it suited him, used his privilege to humiliate others out of spite, who didn’t use his privilege to help the lowly of society like that slave woman whose life and livelihood he demolished because he was in a bad mood that day, that is the Paul that is praying and singing! 

That is the Paul that the author wants you to see, because the author knows that you too will find yourselves at your own midnight hours, when you are at your lowest of lows, when the world seems to be against you, when you know that some of your plight is your own fault, when you don’t feel worthy of anyone’s help, let alone God’s, when you sit in one of the many prison cells that this life has to offer, some of them self-made, rethinking your life, your decisions. It is precisely at your midnight hour that the author wants you to remember Paul, the jerk, who, in spite of everything, knew that Jesus is always willing to hear his heart’s pleas, in the form of prayers that sounded like songs and songs that sounded like prayers, even in a cold dark prison cell. I’d like to leave you now with a well-known poem called "Sympathy" written in 1899 by Paul Laurence Dunbar. 

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
      When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
      When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
      When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals –
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
      Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
      For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
      And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting –
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
      When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore, –
      When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
      But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings!

Thanks be to God. Amen.


Wolf Turned Sheep

 Inspired by Acts 9:1-19

Now we are officially done with the Gospel of John and are moving on to a couple weeks in the book of Acts. After which we will end this program year in the letter to the Philippians. The book of Acts is an interesting little book. It follows the four Gospels and gives us a glimpse into the life of the new baby religion we now know as Christianity. Like any startup company or organization, it was a bumpy ride at the beginning. And truth be told, the road never really has smoothed out for us since. It’s just the nature of our calling. Being called to follow Christ guarantees a bumpy ride because so many of Christ’s teachings go against our grain as the human animals we are. And this story from Acts that we have before us today gives us an interesting perspective into that. So let’s take a closer look. 

It centers on a man named Saul, whom the church eventually comes to know as Paul. This is his second appearance. He appeared earlier in Acts as a young man who held the coats of those who were participating in the lynching of Stephen, an early follower of Jesus. So, right out of the gate this guy was bad news, and of course, he was, right, if he was raised around people, religious extremists, who thought it was ok to murder people who thought differently in the name of their god. It’s not rocket science, is it! So, what happens when Saul comes into some power of his own, he follows right in those religious extremists’ footsteps and starts killing what he probably thought were religious cultists who were destroying his religion! That would be us Christians! It’s amazing how eerily current these old stories are. 

Saul had an interesting background. He was Jewish by birth. Came from a well-to-do family. He was well educated. He was from Tarsus, which was known for its university since the days of Alexander the Great some three hundred years prior. He was either a Pharisee, which was a religious leader of a particular branch of Judaism, or at least someone high ranking in that organization. However, he also had the curious distinction of being a Roman citizen by birth as well. Something that was very hard to come by for a non-Roman. So, all that is to say, this guy was dripping with privilege! The average person would have done anything to have just one of those privileges that I just listed. He had them all. And what did he do with them? 

He participated in the systematic, government-approved, persecution of a group of people who he believed had strayed from their religion, and to be frank, were growing in number to the point that they were becoming the competition. Jesus takes one look at this bigoted, murderous, persecutor, and in true Jesus fashion, doesn’t see a lost soul, Jesus sees potential! As if Jesus said, I’ve been looking for someone with qualifications like you, and I’ve got just the job for you! You’re gonna be our first missionary to the rest of the world, Saul! Well, I’m slightly paraphrasing. Saul was on his way to Damascus to continue persecuting the church wherever he could find them, and on the way, Jesus appears to him in a blinding light. Now, let me just pause the story there for a second and make a connection to the Gospel of John that we just finished reading. 

It's hard to not take what we just learned from John into this story. Do you remember when Jesus referred to himself as a shepherd, the great shepherd of the sheep, a shepherd who would protect the sheep at all costs, protect them from the wolves who would try to sneak in? And then, at the end of the Gospel of John, at his arrest, Jesus steps in front of his disciples, his sheep, in between them and the police there to arrest him, in protection, and gives himself up, exemplifying his status as the great shepherd of the sheep. I can’t help but see that Jesus in this story, again, as the great shepherd, stepping in front of a wolf on his way to harm Jesus’ sheep. Saying, ah, ah, ah, not this time. Only instead of killing or scaring off this wolf, like a typical shepherd would do, Jesus turns him into a sheep! You gotta love these plot twists! 

Jesus asks him, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?” Saul asks, “Who are you?” Jesus says, “I am Jesus, the one whom you are harassing!” And again, we have to pause here and take in another profound moment. Did you notice Jesus said, “me”? “Why are you harassing me?” Saul wasn’t harassing him! Saul was harassing Jesus’ followers. Saul was probably thinking, “Harassing you? I don’t even know who you are!” Here is another place we have to apply what we’ve learned from John. In the Gospel of John, salvation was all about relationship. That’s the lens through which Jesus saw salvation. Relationship with Jesus, the Word made flesh. That’s how important relationship was. That’s how close Jesus related to his followers. So close, you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. 

Being one with Christ meant that what you do to us, you do to Christ. On top of that, at the end of the Gospel of John, which we read last week, we got the threefold, “Feed my sheep…take care of my lambs…feed my sheep.” Meaning, it was now our turn to be Jesus for the world. Again, whatever you do to them, you do to me, Jesus says, and what you’ve been doing, Saul, just ain’t gonna do. So, Jesus sends him, now blind, to a follower by the name of Ananias in Damascus, and Saul’s assistants help him get there. Meanwhile, Jesus appears to Ananias and gives him a heads up that Paul is on his way. Ananias says, “Come again, Jesus? Saul, the murderous, bigoted, persecutor of the church? You want me to help him? You sure you got the right guy?” 

I love the back and forth these two have, highlighting just how close their relationship is, and modeling just how close our relationship with Christ can be. To Christ’s credit, Christ doesn’t get angry, but does give an assertive, “Go! This man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites. I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Which, on the surface, kinda sounds harsh, I know, as if Jesus is gonna punish Saul for his past behavior. However, I kinda find it a bit humorous. Because what actually happens is Jesus is just gonna give him a lot of work to do! Here he sounds all tough, like, I’ll teach him to persecute my people, and Jesus’ idea of punishment is just to give him a ton of work to do! But back to the story. 

I want you to put yourselves in the shoes of Ananias, as he is walking to the house that Saul is staying in, to help this known bigoted, murderous, persecutor of the church. What must have been going through his mind? Well, Jesus has really lost it this time! Or, what did I do to get this job? Or, am I walking to my death? Imagine the emotions he must have been going through: fear, anger, disappointment in Jesus, despair for this Jesus movement that he’s trying to protect. Imagine the transformation that has to take place inside Ananias during this long walk toward Saul. He was about to be face to face with the Osama bin Laden of his day, to help him! He finally gets there, opens the door, and this is where another profound moment happens. 

Ananias walks up to Saul, lays his hands on him, in the same way a pastor lays hands on new members joining the church, or a newly baptized baby, and calls him, “Brother.” Calls him brother. Wow! How do we even begin to process this! How in the world did he get from, have you lost your mind, Jesus!, to calling Saul brother? Well, maybe it’s just because I’ve still got John on the brain but I really think we’ve got to circle back to what John has taught us these past few months. It all boils down to relationship. If salvation is all about relationship, how we relate to God and others, then Ananias may have thought, “Well, I’ve got to start somewhere, and the only place I can think of starting with this guy is that, no matter our differences, we both call the same God Father, in their vernacular, and that makes us siblings.” 

If there was going to be a salvific moment for either of them, it was going to be through relationship. It was going to take both of them to rethink how they related to each other and their God. Can you imagine a world where we engaged with people from that starting point, especially those we disagree with, especially those whom we fear, those whom we feel have our worst interests at heart, those who we see as the enemy? Can you just imagine that? Jesus could. Which is why a call to follow Christ guarantees a bumpy ride, guarantees a whole lot of work, is guaranteed to go against our grain. Thankfully for us, when our shepherd Jesus takes one look at us, Jesus doesn’t see a lost soul, Jesus sees potential, Jesus sees the future of the church. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Right Where We Started

 Inspired by John 21

So, last week was supposed to be our last reading in the Gospel of John. And you’d think I’d be ready for that, as some of you know, this Gospel is not my favorite. But lo and behold, here we are, reading yet another chapter from this Gospel, and, of all people, it was me who wanted to do that! This chapter that I just read is the final chapter of John, and not only does it contain one of the most profound stories in the entire book, it just didn’t seem right to not read the last chapter! We set out to read through this Gospel, yeah we skipped a bit here and there, but you don’t skip the ending! Anyway, I understand, sort of, why this chapter wasn’t included in our list of readings. First, not everyone agrees that this chapter is original to John and might have been added later. And second, for lack of time, we always end each school year with readings from the early church in Acts and one of the letters. 

Understandable yes, but I just didn’t agree. So, here we are in the final chapter of John and we have one last appearance of the resurrected Jesus to the apostles, separated into three sections. And if these stories were added later, then think of them as deleted scenes; stories that didn’t make it into the final cut but are still worth our time and attention. And if you’re the kind of person that likes storylines completed, tied with a nice little bow at the end, then this chapter is for you, because that’s exactly what it does. It answers those few remaining questions that were left dangling at the end of the last chapter. Like, what happened to the disciples after the craziness of Holy Week and Easter? And, what about Peter? How awkward was it after the whole rooster debacle after Jesus reappeared? And maybe a question that isn’t so apparent but equally important, what does this all mean for us? 

Let’s start with the disciples as a whole. The chapter opens up, of all places, on the seashore. And if you think about it, that shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. This is where Jesus met many of them for the first time. But it is a bit odd, isn’t it? After everything they had been through, not just during Holy Week and Easter, but the past three years with Jesus, they just went back to their ordinary lives, fishing on the sea. Tradition, as well as the rest of the Christian scriptures, have led us to believe that they all went on to become these huge pillars of the early church, missionaries, even bishops! But not this author. This author places them right back where they started. And there’s something I really love about that. 

It tells me that, in spite of the transformation that has taken place in their lives over the past three years, they are still who they were, they are still the poor, uneducated, simple fisherfolk that they were when he met them. And Jesus honors that by meeting them there, on the seashore once again. He doesn’t correct them. He doesn’t say, “What in the world are y’all doing here?” He simply meets them where they are. Oh sure, Jesus had lots of additional work for them to do, but now I wonder, if the comfort and familiarity of fishing on that sea, remained a constant in their lives, even to the end. And here’s why I think that’s important to consider. In a few moments, we will be welcoming new members to our community here at Bethlehem, ten of em’. Praise God! Yes, give yourselves a hand for being the kind of congregation that people want to join! 

One of the things that Holy Week really drives home is the transformation that Jesus creates in our lives; transforming us into the best little children of God that we were meant to be. And I’m all for that! But this first scene drives home another truth of our faith lives, that God loved us fully, just the way God found us, and there is nothing that anyone could do to make God love us more than the way God found us. On top of that, whatever you were or have become since God found you, is worthy of God’s love and attention. Whether you are a simple fisher, a teacher, a metalworker, a small business owner, a parent, a singer, self-employed, a law enforcer, whatever makes you, you, God, and God’s people, welcome and honor. As such, we don’t set out to make you into somebody you are not. And I don’t think that is said out loud enough. 

Let’s move to the next scene, which zooms in on Peter. The last time we saw Peter before the crucifixion, was in a courtyard outside the place Jesus’ trial took place. And the author wants you to remember that scene as he shares this scene. How do we know that? Because of the fire. The author writes that Jesus waited for them to get back on land and when they got to him they found him by a fire ready to cook the fish they had just caught. But it wasn’t just any fire, in the Greek the author writes that it was a charcoal fire, something that gets lost in translation. Why the need to be so specific? Because when Peter was outside in that courtyard, while Jesus was being tried and convicted, and while Peter was denying he was a follower of Jesus, three times no less, what was he standing by? A fire. And not just any kind of fire, a charcoal fire! 

So, picture it, here is Jesus, in a sense, recreating this scene for poor Peter. I mean, can you just imagine Peter, walking from the boat to where Jesus was waiting for them, he sees the glow of the fire at first, but the closer he gets he realizes this is the same kind of fire that he was standing by when he denied being a follower of Jesus, three times. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, he thinks, as he swallows hard, realizing that after knowing Jesus for three years, nothing is ever a coincidence. What must have been going through his head in that moment as he got closer and closer to Jesus? Was he about to get chewed out by Jesus for what he had done? Peter had been carrying that guilt this whole time for sure, and maybe he thought, “Eh, Jesus wasn’t even there, maybe he doesn’t even know!” But Peter knew better. 

So, they are finishing up a hearty breakfast, and just as Peter may have thought he was in the clear, Jesus asks, “Simon, do you love me?” Ugh, what a punch to the gut that must have felt like! Imagine a family member asking you that? You’d probably say, “Well of course I love you! Why would you even ask that! With feelings of hurt and anger swelling in you. But Peter just says, “Yes Lord, you know I love you.” “Feed my lambs.” Jesus says before asking him a second time, “Simon, do you love me?” A second time? Did he not hear me the first time Peter must have thought. Or, is he just pouring salt into the wound? But Peter, with all due respect, just says, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Take care of my sheep.” Jesus says, before asking him a third time! “Simon, do you love me?” 

Notice the use of Peter’s birth name, not the name that Jesus gave him, but the name—the person—who he was when Jesus met him. Not a coincidence! But now Peter is getting a little frustrated. He says, “Lord, you know everything. You know I love you.” “Feed my sheep.” Jesus says. Now, it doesn’t say if Peter was able to connect the dots here. I hope for his sake he was able to, at some point, to have that aha moment, where he realizes why Jesus asked him this three times. I mean, Jesus may have just conquered death and the grave but he’s not done speaking in riddles! This was Jesus' way of saying, we’re good, you and I, we’re ok. Imagine just how much Peter needed to hear that! And of course, Jesus never misses an opportunity to put people to work, with the threefold, feed my sheep, take care of my lambs, feed my sheep. 

Which is a good segue to the last, seemingly insignificant scene, and the question, what does this mean for us? After Peter and Jesus have their moment, Peter sees the disciple that Jesus loved and asks about their future. Now, this disciple has appeared many times throughout this Gospel. Never named, just described as the disciple whom Jesus loved. And I have refrained from addressing this til now, and for good reason. Scholars have debated for centuries who this mysterious disciple was. Some say it was the author, some say John, which may or may not be the same person, some say it was Lazarus. But there’s one theory that I like best, and that it is the reader of this book, you and I, all of us. So, when Peter asks, about the disciple whom Jesus loved, it’s the author’s way of not only acknowledging the reader, but also caring for our future. 

But Jesus basically tells Peter, don’t worry about it. It’s none of your business what happens to them. You do your work, and let them do theirs, Peter. Because we have the same job: to feed the sheep, to take care of the lambs, to feed the sheep. And we get to do that with everything we bring to the table, everything that makes us, us: all our experiences, all our pain, all our joy, all our skills, all our faults, with everything that makes us, us, from the day God found us, to this very second, we are called to feed Jesus’ sheep, to take care of Jesus’ lambs, to feed Jesus’ sheep—to be the hands, feet, eyes, ears, mouth of God in the world, no matter what. All because Jesus accepts us, welcomes us, loves us, just as we were, just as we are. Thanks be to God. Amen.


The Great Gardener

 Inspired by John 20:11-18

Gardening has always been an important part of my life, especially during my formative years, but certainly continuing to today. Gardening has been a vital connection point. My only grandfather that I knew lived in Colorado, and since I grew up in California, I didn’t get to see him very much. He’d visit for the holidays, and we’d visit him in the summers when we could, but that’s about it. So, if was going to have a good relationship with him it was going to take some work. And most of that work was my dad handing me the phone and telling me to talk to grandpa. For a kid this was asking a lot. For a very introverted kid, this was asking too much. In hindsight, I’m glad I was handed the phone. Though we talked often, our conversations usually took the same form every time.  

Partly due to his limited English, and partly due to my 10 year old conversational skills. He’d ask me about the weather. Easy enough. I’d ask him about his. He’d ask me about school. Always a sore subject for me, so I moved on from that as quickly as I could. And then, finally, he would ask, “How’s your jalapenos doing?” Now we were getting somewhere. This I could talk about. You see, my grandpa had a massive garden, both flowers and fruits and vegetables: corn, melons, tomatoes, grapes, prickly pears, carrots, and…jalapenos. I was so in awe of his garden when we would visit him, his ability to create food, his ability at such an old age, he was already 74 when I was born, to tend to so much land by himself, he was just one of those people who was one with the land, and I was in awe. 

So, back home in California, with what little backyard I had, and the clay filled soil that I had to work with, I did my best in my little garden. We started a grape vine from one of his. Never produced a single edible grape. Tried tomatoes, but the bugs ate them faster than we could. I had a nice cactus garden! However, it was the jalapenos that really shined. My grandpa would say, “Don’t water them too much! You gotta keep them angry! That’s how you get hot ones.” I don’t know if there is any truth to that but let me tell you, those jalapenos were hotter than the blazes of hell, and my mom’s salsa she made with them? Was lethal! Lethal! Anyway, all that is to say, gardening was how he and I connected. It’s how my dad and I connected. It’s how my daughters and I have connected. And it hasn’t just been fruits and vegetables that have grown over the years in all those different gardens. 

Here at Bethlehem, we’ve been reading through the Gospel of John since December, and back in September we started reading some of the great stories from the Hebrew scriptures that paired well with the upcoming Gospel of John. And the first story that we read was the creation story from Genesis 1. And in that story, God is doing some gardening. Only it’s not just fruits and vegetables that God is growing but everything, flowers, animals, bugs, light, water, you name it God was gardening it. And when God was done, did God hang up the divine shovel and rake for good? Not by a long shot. It was now time to do some other kinds of gardening.  

Gardening relationships with everything and everyone that God had created. And that kind of gardening, God continues to do to this very day. If you’re a visitor today and you’re thinking, where in the world is this guy going with this. Don’t worry, the regulars are thinking the same thing, they’re just used to it! Ok, so fast forward to the Gospel of John, and gardens have been coming up again and again. Hmmmm, wonder what that’s all about. Well, I’m about to tell ya! The Gospel of John opens with these words, “In the beginning…” Where have we heard that before? Genesis 1, which begins with, “In the beginning…”, immediately placing us in that original garden. Then, throughout his ministry, Jesus and his disciples return to a garden to rest and recharge and reconnect.  

Then at the end, Jesus is arrested. Where? In a garden. Then Jesus is crucified. Where? In a garden. Then Jesus is buried. Where? In a garden. And finally, Jesus rises from the dead. Where?... You’re so smart! Look at you! In a garden! Ok, even the biggest skeptics have got to admit, that can’t be a coincidence! What is going on here? Why is the author consistently bringing up the image of a garden? Well, I think it’s less about the garden itself, and more about the one who is doing the gardening. I laugh each time I read that Mary thought Jesus was the gardener. It’s easy to read that as a case of mistaken identity, but I’m not so sure the author did. I think the author wants you to go a little deeper and realize that Jesus wasn’t just the gardener, but Jesus was thee gardener.  

The Gardener by Joel Briggs
The great gardener, the one who has been gardening from day one, the one that gardened the world and the entire cosmos into existence, and has never stopped since the Earth took that first spin around the sun. The great gardener who wasn’t content to just throw some seeds and hope for the best but remains in our lives, tends to us, nourishes us, prunes us, loves us into more than we ever thought we could be. The great gardener who is always gardening no matter what we may be going through, no matter how angry us little jalapenos may be at times. That’s why all those moments in Jesus’ life took place in a garden, because no matter what we are going through God is always gardening! 

When life is challenging you the most, God is gardening new life into yours. When you feel all hope is lost, God is gardening new life into yours. When you are at your most spiteful, most rebellious of moods, God is gardening new life into yours. When you suffer the deepest losses, God is gardening new life into yours. When you are soaring through life’s highest highs, life’s greatest joys, God is gardening new life into yours. When anxiety takes hold, when depression takes hold, when despair takes hold, when fear takes hold, God is gardening new life into yours. And there is nothing, nothing, that you could ever do or say, that could make God ever stop wanting to garden new life into yours. Thanks be to God! Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Power Redefined: A Three-Part Sermon for The Three Days

Inspired by John 19:23-20:10 

Maundy Thursday

Over the course of these three nights, we will explore three distinct ways that Jesus defined power. Let’s get right to it. As I’ve mentioned before, these readings from the Gospel of John haven’t been matching up really well with the church calendar, or at least, not the way that we are used to. For instance, we’ve been reading the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday stories for weeks now, in what has become a very extended Holy Week. But as I’ve also mentioned, I hope you have appreciated the way that this has caused us to slow down and digest these readings in a deeper way.  

Tonight, we would typically be reading the account of Jesus washing his disciple's feet, but we read that a month ago. We would also be reading the new commandment that he gave us, the new mandate: to love one another as Jesus loved us. But instead, tonight we find ourselves at the foot of the cross already, which is pretty profound in and of itself.  

Meaning, even at this point of the story, Jesus never stops. Even from the cross, Jesus continues to work. Which is why I find this story to be just as relevant for Maundy Thursday as those that we would normally read. In fact, this story might even be more appropriate to read tonight. Let me explain. As Jesus is hanging on the cross, I imagine he looks over and sees some soldiers dividing his belongings among them. And I imagine him thinking to himself, “Well, isn’t that ironic. As I hang here multiplying my love for the entire world, they are busy dividing.” It reminds me of an old Family Circus comic strip where someone asked the mom as she stood there with her four kids, “How do you divide your love among four children?” And the mom says, “I don’t divide it. I multiply it.”  

That’s how I see Jesus in tonight’s reading. Hanging there on the cross, multiplying his love for all, while the world scrambles to divide what they can, of something they do not understand. How Maundy Thursday is that! It’s a power that they were unaccustomed to. And maybe us too. But his ability to multiply his power, while amazing, is not what redefines power here, it’s what he does with it, while hanging on that cross. After Jesus is done watching the soldiers make fools of themselves, he looks over and sees his mom, and his best friend standing nearby. I can only imagine the state she was in. Even if we believe that she understood what was transpiring, on a spiritual level, which I do, even still, that was her baby boy. And those of us who had good moms know, ain’t no one gets in the way of a mom and her baby! 

But this wasn’t Mary’s time to shine. She had done her job, and done it well. Even in the darkness of that night, Jesus still shines, Jesus still has work to do, Jesus never stops. And here is the first of three ways that Jesus redefines what power is supposed to look like. With blood running down his body, he looks at his mom, looks at his best friend, and gives them to each other, as mother and son, making sure that his mom is cared for in her old age, knowing full well the misogynistic society that they live in, and maybe also to make sure that someone will be there for his best friend, giving him the best mom anyone could ever ask for.  

That is how Jesus decided to spend his last remaining moments on earth, in the midst of horrific agony. And that is what power is supposed to look like. Selflessly caring for others, even during challenging times. Caring for the future of others, even when you won’t benefit from it. Caring for others is the first way that Jesus redefines power during these three days. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Good Friday

Jesus continues to redefine what power is supposed to look like as we make our way to the tomb. Last night, power looked like caring for others, even when the chips are down. Tonight, it looks like vulnerability. Now there’s a state of being that no one likes being in. And I don’t think many of us associate vulnerability with power very often, if ever. But I think we might be missing something when we don’t. If you were to ask random people to describe a power move, these new definitions that Jesus gave us would not make the list. Caring for others selflessly? How is that a power move? Being vulnerable, that sounds like the opposite of power, doesn’t it! Who likes to be vulnerable? Especially for us introverts, ugh, it’s one of the worst feelings in the world! Because you can’t be vulnerable alone. It requires another to see it. 
Come on Jesus, can’t I just be vulnerable all by myself? I promise I’ll get really good at it, if you just let me do it by myself! Jesus says, “I’m sorry but that’s not the way vulnerability works.” As Jesus hangs there for the world to watch, for the world to gawk, for the world to judge, for the world to misunderstand. No, being vulnerable takes more than one person. And that’s partly what makes it so powerful, but also because it’s unnecessary. You can go your whole life without being vulnerable. But think of it this way, what would your relationships be like without vulnerability? How deep, how rich, would your relationships be with both parties being vulnerable with each other? I’m guessing the answer is, not very.
So, what do I mean by being vulnerable? Well, it’s more than just admitting that you could succumb to disease, or die at any moment like the rest of us. No, those are just facts of nature. Those don’t take any work on anyone’s part. The kind of vulnerability I’m talking about is being open about your weaknesses, your faults, the things you don’t know, the things you don’t like that most people do, or just plain ol’ needing help, admitting you are at times, dependent on others. Jesus’ last words as he hung there from those ancient gallows were, “I am thirsty.” And, “It is completed.” Thirst is such a human condition. I imagine his enemies heard that and thought, “Pssshht, get a load of this guy. Mr. King of the Jews, Son of God! Can’t even get himself a drink now!” 
Do they help him out? No, they give him sour wine instead but that’s beside the point. Jesus redefines power by admitting a weakness, plain ol’ human thirst. When he had every right to yell at his accusers, scream from the top of his collapsing lungs just how evil they were, just how wrong they were. When, in any other story, he could have slung curses their way! I mean, this was his moment to say, “You’re all gonna regret this!” But instead, all we hear is a weak, “I am thirsty.” One of the things I’ve always appreciated about being in a Christian community is all the helping hands around you. There are always people willing to lend a helping hand when you need it the most. All my life I’ve had people around me saying, “If you ever need help, just let me know!” I love that.
But you know what will help people ask you for help even more than that? Asking for help yourself. Being vulnerable enough to ask for help yourself. For some reason, that’s just the way we humans work, isn’t it. It takes someone to start that vulnerable ball rolling. But once it does, others around you feel a little more empowered to ask for help when they need it. Think of it from a parenting perspective, if a parent wants to ensure their kids ask for help when they need it, then parents need to model that for them, parents need to show them what that looks like, and ask for help when they need it. 
It’s a role reversal, I know, especially when the parent is supposed to be the authority figure in power. But that’s exactly how I see Jesus’ last moments on the cross, exemplifying ultimate vulnerability, and the power that it can behold. So, the second way that Jesus redefines power this week is, vulnerability. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Vigil of Easter

Jesus continues to redefine what power looks like for us, in three distinct ways this week, as we now stand on the other side of the cross, at an empty tomb. On Maundy Thursday, power looked like caring for others selflessly, last night power looked like vulnerability, and tonight, power looks like humility. Our story opens early in the morning, so early it’s still dark, symbolizing that the truth of the resurrection is still hard to see for the characters in this story. I love how mysterious and quiet this story starts out. Mary Magdalene is the first one to show up at the tomb in those early morning hours. And what she finds horrifies her. The stone has been rolled away. She assumes the worst and she runs to tell Peter and another disciple, that Jesus’ body has been stolen. The two disciples take off to go see if what she’s saying is correct.
What they find is an opened tomb. Just like she said. They go in and find it empty except for the burial cloths. The author says that one of the disciples believed. But don’t be fooled into thinking this is some grand statement of faith. He simply believed that what Mary said was true. That the stone had been rolled away, and someone took his body. John makes clear that neither of them understood the resurrection at this point. And with that, the two disciples leave, while Mary stays behind to have an encounter like no other but that’s for tomorrow morning. In the meantime, here we are standing at an empty tomb. No one knows yet what really happened. All we have so far is an empty tomb and some bloodied linens. And this is what I find fascinating about that and why I associate this with humility.
In any other story of a God who dies and comes back to life, the part where they come back to life, would be loud. The whole world would hear it, everyone would know what was happening! There would be no confusion! There would be no mystery! There would be trumpets and angelic choirs and lightning and fireworks and thunderous applause! If this had been Zeus or Jupiter, oh, you better believe that everyone and their dog would have known they had risen! But, even now, after everything he’d just gone through, no one would argue that he had earned some fanfare here. Not to mention the fact that this could have been his great “I told you so!” moment! And yet, Christ rises so quietly, so unceremoniously, so humble. This is next-level humility. Christ remained just as humble as Christ was in life, even after death. This is not a savior whose resurrection went to his head!

This is a savior who continues to exemplify how we should live, how we should treat others, how we should practice our faith. This is a savior that continues to redefine what power should look like. Tell that to the politicians of our day. But it’s not just a lesson for them is it, but for all of us. We all exercise power of some kind, over others in our lives, and in these stories, I hear Christ reminding us to exercise it with humility; to exercise it with vulnerability; to exercise it by caring for others selflessly. I think this world has had enough of the usual kind of power. Amen? Thanks be to God through Christ, that we’ve been given a new example of power, and though it may not be very popular, it is what this world needs. Amen and Alleluia!