Sunday, March 31, 2013

Changing Course in Mid-Sentence

Changing Course in Mid-Sentence

Acts 10:34-44            Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013

Before I can really get underway with this sermon, I really need to say a word or two about the scripture passage for the day, especially on a day when we might have thought we would be hearing about tombs and frightened disciples and stones rolled away and Jesus’ missing body, and Mary standing, weeping asking the gardener in the cemetery where they had taken Jesus. Of course, there have been, and there will be, other Easters for the reading of those passages. Inasmuch as this is likely to be my last Easter in this pulpit with you, I thought I’d choose for today a lesson that concerns one of the outcomes of those first sightings of the resurrected Jesus, as the disciples began to make their way into the world with the word about his resurrection and all that it promised.
The very first disciple to move beyond the Jewish people with this new saving word about salvation through the risen Christ was Peter, who found himself drawn to a Roman centurion’s house, a man named Cornelius. He wasn’t sure why he was going but he felt called to go, and once there, he was welcomed and he began to preach to them. Then Luke tells us,
While Peter was still speaking,
the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.
I just love this verse from Acts. It was a moment in which everything about our faith was made new, and made available for the whole world. Any preacher who thinks he or she is in charge of worship, or in charge of much of anything in any ultimate kind of sense, is always taken aback by the Spirit that came storming in “While Peter was still speaking...” I imagine Peter, in mid-sentence, Peter who had delivered a 500 word sermon earlier in Acts about the living Christ, Peter was only getting warmed up here in this story from his visit to Cornelius’ house, Cornelius: the first non-Jew to be converted to Christianity. He didn’t even get to deliver any clever sermon illustrations. He had no more than started to speak, when WHAM! the Holy Spirit took over, and what could he do but step aside?
This kind of work of God, which interrupts us in mid-sentence, brings on the surprising news that is really new, not the tired old stuff of human invention. I once read a headline on the front page of our Presbytery’s newsletter that declared boldly, “Presbytery Approves Discovering God.” Now, where was the controversy in that decision? Was it a split vote? But when I read on, I discovered that the story had to do with an upcoming design for the Presbytery’s work, called “Discovering God’s Call.” Oh. Well, that’s not quite as funny. I am always in hopes that God’s surprising word will intervene in the mundane places in our lives with a sort of newness that interrupts us mid-sentence, especially if the sentence was about to say some bland and predictable thing about a God who is author of something completely unbland and non-predictable, like resurrection of the dead, something we don’t just see every day.
Late in the life and ministry of one of those folks who was sometimes called a “preachers’ preacher,” Pastor Edmund Steimle was working up a sermon on one of the scripture passages for Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. He read from Lamentations chapter 3, which declares: “God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.” As he worked his way through the passage Dr. Steimle thought to himself, “At my age, this promise of newness every morning is at best a mixed blessing. I have come to the point in life when I really don’t want anything new in the morning. I want my slippers right beneath my bed where I left them the night before. I want my orange juice and bran flakes for breakfast, as normal. In my advanced years, I can do without a lot of newness, especially in the morning.”[1]
Maybe he would have sounded like an old crank to some of us, but to others of us, he declares the sort of thing we may have said just this morning. And, of course, Easter is the ultimate in total morning newness. How can we cope with it? We may think we have something to say about it, but just as we begin to speak, the Spirit may intervene with the kind of new thing that saves a day we thought could never be saved.
One fact of Easter that is inescapable is that God is forever demonstrating something new God has in mind, something that it is likely we did not expect. When it was created, did the earth expect dinosaurs, orangutans, poison oak, Boeing 737s, $5.00 cups of coffee at Starbucks or that there had once been water on its next-door neighbor planet? With God, as Roseanne Rosanadana used to say, it’s always something. We might like to be in our accustomed place, slippers on the floor next to the bed right where we left them. We Presbyterians like to have votes and debates about whether we should approve discovering God, if only God would stay put where we could get a bead on him. We might have preferred sameness, we like things to stay where we put them, we like to think we have the world under control, but things have a way of getting rearranged by a God who, at the very least, seems to have a unique sense of inventiveness if not humor.
Roman guards dozing beside Jesus’ tomb expected a dead body to stay where it had been deposited, and their slippers to be right where they left them the night before. Peter, who grew up in an orthodox household, expected non-Jews always to be where they belonged in his thought-world, on a lower rung in the kingdom of God than those who were children of Abraham. But then along comes this shake-it-up God, and BAM! Even a pagan Roman officer of the occupying army receives the very Spirit of God, along with everyone in his unclean, non-kosher household.
I imagine Peter, standing slack-jawed, mid-sentence, when, as the scripture said, he “was still speaking,” and “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” All. All as in every single person, Jew, Gentile, clean, unclean, tall, short, fat, skinny, the one who just passed the bar exam on her first try and the one who can’t pass a bar. God seemed to be making no distinction, showing no partiality as Peter had begun to understand when he started his little speech about Jesus, who was crucified and then rose from the dead to call forth disciples in his name.
Isn’t it just like God, when we have no sooner found our slippers and stocked up on orange juice and bran flakes, to pull the breakfast rug out from under us and declare a new thing? Here are two poems, both by a modern English poet, Steve Turner, who, as is generally the task of poets, takes us to a place where we may receive fresh views on seemingly tired subjects and make them new every morning. First, this take on Good Friday, the day of Jesus’ crucifixion:
The Nail Man[2]
by Steve Turner
Which one was it
that held the nails
and then hammered them
into place?
Did he hit them
out of anger,
or a simple
sense of duty?
Was it a job
that had to be done,
or a good day's work
in the open air?
And when they
clawed past bone
and bit into wood,
was it like all the others,
or did history
shudder a little
beneath the head
of that hammer?
Was he still there,
packing away his tools,
when ‘It is finished’
was uttered to the throng,
or was he at home
washing his hands
and getting ready
for the night?
Will he be
among the forgiven
on that Day of Days,
his sin having been slain
by his own savage spike?
Secondly, Steve Turner’s take on Easter Day, the Day of resurrection:
Poem for Easter[3]
by Steve Turner
What came first
Easter or the egg?
Crucifixion or daffodils?
Three days in a tomb or four days
in Paris? (returning
Bank Holiday Monday).
When is a door
not a door?
When it is rolled away.
When is a body
not a body?
When it is risen.
Why was it the Saviour
rode on the cross?
To get us
to the other side.
Behold I stand.
Behold I stand and what?
Behold I stand at the door and
knock knock.

Can you even resist wanting to call out “Who’s there”? And the instant you say it, even in your mind, you know the answer: “Jesus.” Ever new, ever alive, ever willing to save the nail-driver who filled his body with pain as readily as saintly people who feed the poor in a soup kitchen. All. Christ will have all. God shows no partiality, that’s what Peter said he was beginning to realize. We can realize it too. It’s a good Easter Sunday realization.

The account of Peter’s visit to a Gentile soldier’s home in Caesarea is filled to the brim with newness, it has the newness of grace for all, fairly bursting from the page as we read it. Especially in this day as we see the resurgence of tribalism and clanism in places like Iraq and American politics, Peter’s very first words in Cornelius’ house are startling. An impartial God? I don’t know, I might like to find my slippers right where I left them.

Then again, I might like being found even more.

Copyright © 2013 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Quoted in “Growing Old and Wise on Easter,” by Tom Long, Journal for Preachers, Easter 2001, p. 33.
[2] © 2002 rejesus ltd:
[3] 2002 rejesus ltd.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Something to Hold Onto

Something to Hold Onto
Isaiah 50:4-9a
© copyright 2013 Robert J. Elder
Sunday, March 24, 2013            

It is the Lord GOD who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?

Every time I hear this line from Isaiah, I think of several things. The first, of course, is that these are words of an innocent man. Secondly, I also see Jesus, having recently made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, hanging on the cross, also an innocent man, holding onto the Lord God with an innocence that no one in the mob that day seemed to recognize. And then I hear in my mind the words of Paul in Romans 8, uttered at so many services held at the time of death: “Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.”[1]
Palm Sunday and Easter are so very different, separated by a wide week of suffering and death. The difference between Palm Sunday and Easter is something like the little boy who had a ticket to the circus, who went into town and saw the great parade of wagons, clowns and exotic animals, and then went home because he thought that having seen the parade, he had seen the circus. We know this isn’t so. And if we think about it at all, we know Palm Sunday is not a little Easter. In some churches where folks receive palms to wave, they fold them into litte crosses. This is where Palm Sunday is headed, toward the cross.
The justification of God, given to us, free of charge in Christ, that is something we can hold onto.
Why is this so? The apostle Paul had an answer to that question. He said that though Jesus was in the form of God, he set that aside in order to empty himself, take the form of a slave, and be born as a human being. He said Jesus became the sort of servant for whom a call to face death was not regarded as too great a task for one seeking to be faithful.
What does it mean to be a slave or a servant – they are the same word in the original language – what does it mean to be a slave or servant who is willing to be obedient even to death? Few of us would have any idea. The “Suffering Servant”[2] depicted bythe prophet Isaiah is the prime Old Testament witness to a calling to pursue freedom through servanthood. And as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he was preparing to perform the greatest service ever done for humanity.
Hearing the Word of God
Speaking the words of God’s suffering servant, Isaiah said, “Morning by morning he wakens – wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious...” Have you ever thought about the need for our ears to be “wakened”? I have often been asked by friends and family, on workcamps, retreats, and vacations, how I can sleep through my own snoring. It’s easy for me, I say, my ears are asleep along with the rest of me! What a great image Isaiah uses for preparing to hear the Word God has to say to us: that God wakens our ears to hear. Before telling, God makes us ready to hear. We may think our ears work fine already, but reflect on how often our pre-set opinions can block out a new thing, especially a new thing God would have us hear. We are so accustomed to listening for what we already think that a new word might well pass us by, it’s just not familiar enough.
Remember the old story about the man with beans in his ears. His friend tells him, “You’ve got beans in your ears,” but he responds, “What?” So his friend repeats his words a little more loudly, “I said, you’ve got beans in your ears.” But the man responds again, “What?” So the friends shouts now, “YOU’VE GOT BEANS IN YOUR EARS!” and the man responds, “Sorry, I can’t hear you, you see, I’ve got these beans in my ears...” It’s a silly story that points out two things: our need to hear, but also that often the very thing we need to hear is something we already know. Like an old commercial for corn flakes that urged us to taste them again for the first time, many times the words of our faith are something we need to hear again for the first time.
I once got a letter from a young friend of mine who is a pastor. He was preaching his way through the lectionary, the three year cycle of scripture that many of us use to organize our preaching. By the time he reached his seventh year of ministry, he had been through the readings twice before. He wrote to ask what I thought he should do. This was going to be his third time through the same readings. His question made me think, “How many times have I heard the parable of the prodigal Son? How often have I been instructed by the incomparable words of the Sermon on the Mount? How important is it to remind ourselves of the truth of John 3:16, that God loved the world enough to send a savior to us?” I think I remember writing to him something like, “The difference between hearing and hearing again is not as great as you might think. Those very same worshipers have heard most of those Bible passages many times, long before you began reading them with them.” When God opens our ears, as Isaiah said, it may not be something entirely new that we are to hear, but something familiar that strikes us in a new way this time around.
One of the significant aspects of discipleship involves hearing the Word of God, even if, as in the traumatic events of Holy Week, that Word seems destined to shake us up.
Doing the Word of God
You may recall that the letter of James is the one that declares that “faith without works” is just about as good as no faith at all. One of the jokes that perpetually makes the rounds in churches depicts a person dying and finding himself in hell. He looks around and sees Martin Luther and John Calvin standing nearby. He is deeply troubled. His own life was not that exemplary, but how can these two great figures of the Protestant Reformation have found themselves on the wrong side of the Pearly Gates? So he asks them. Calvin responds, “I’m afraid it’s some bad news, really. Apparently works do matter.”
That story may seriously overstate the case for the importance of the doing of the Word of God, but it highlights the fact that coming to church, hearing about the content of our faith is only part of the disciple’s task. It is good to know the content of the truth about salvation. But knowing the work of salvation rightly leads to doing the work of salvation. Isaiah wrote words concerning the work of discipleship which line up so readily with our anticipation of the events of Holy Week: “I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.” Jesus set his face like flint – to give his life away.” Jesus has been described in many ways, but one appealing way is as “a man for others.” How does that square up with a descriptive phrase like, “I have set my face like flint”? It means that his course to the cross, though made in humility, was undeterred. He was a self-emptying servant who taught and lived the truth that greatness comes only in service, that true greatness resides in those who give of themselves without thought of return.
In one of his books, concentration-camp survivor Elie Wiesel recalled the day when he, still merely a teenager, along with his fellow inmates, was finally liberated from the Auschwitz death camp by allied soldiers. On that day, powerful, strong men broke down the hated fences of the camp, and released the emaciated prisoners. Wiesel remembers being struck by the reaction of one African-American soldier who, upon seeing Wiesel and his fellow prisoners, was overcome with grief. He fell to his knees, sobbing at the sight of them. At this, the newly-released prisoners walked to him, put their thin, starved arms around his burly shoulders, and comforted him.
I have seen people have such reactions to Michaelangelo’s statue of the Pietá in Saint Peter’s cathedral in Rome, the statue of Mary, holding her dead son in her arms. They weep at the sight of the dead Jesus, and yet, at the end of the long, horror-filled week, it is Jesus who puts his bloodied arms around us, to comfort and restore us.
Doing the Word of God involves an attitude of self-giving service which itself is an unequaled gift of God to those who would follow Christ.
This coming week represents the church’s annual celebration of the greatness of the gift of Christ to the world. The tragedy of it is that many will not hear. On Good Friday evening, when we worship here together and recall the cost of the servanthood of Jesus, there will be but a handful of us present compared to those on the bandwagon on Easter morning. It is so hard to fully comprehend and live the life of resurrection – to receive the embrace of the crucified and resurrected Christ – unless we have first heard the truth about the cost of salvation.
If you are planning to come to only one service this coming week, I would pray it would be on Friday, and if you can come to but two, make it Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. I will pray for you in your knowing and doing God’s Word this week, as I hope you will pray for me, so that we may come to know that the faith we hold onto, in reality holds onto us.

Copyright © 2013 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserve

[1] Romans 8:33.
[2] The four “Suffering Servant Songs” in Isaiah are [1] 42:1-9; [2] 49:1-6; [3] 50:4-9a; [4] 52:13-53:12.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

April Fool?

April Fool?
© 2013 Robert J. Elder     
Luke 23:1-24

Herod questioned him at some length, 
but Jesus gave him no answer.
The chief priests and the scribes stood by, 
vehemently accusing him.
Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt 
and mocked him;
then he put an elegant robe on him, 
and sent him back to Pilate.
That same day Herod and Pilate 
became friends with each other.
The story of Jesus’ trial and execution is, in some ways, a sort of Whodunit. In the end, when all was said and done, who was really responsible for the death of Jesus? If we were the Jerusalem District Attorney, whom would we charge? The candidates for blame in our passage today appear to be Pilate, Herod, the elders, chief priests and scribes of the Temple. But beyond our passage, shouldn’t we include Judas, who betrayed him, the disciples, who abandoned him, and Peter, who denied him? Is this just about the whole list of potential suspects? Should anyone else be on our list?
In his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, Luke reported that the earliest Christian preachers in Jerusalem reminded the people that “you handed over and rejected Jesus in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life...”
This certainly expands the list of suspects dramatically. Was it Pilate, the priests, or Peter? Was it Herod or the disciples? Was it the butler in the study with the candlestick? Was it every living soul in Jerusalem who failed to cry out for justice for an innocent person that day? I can't think of anyone who comes through this narrative looking very good. How do you charge a whole city with murder?
And what about the fact that whenever we fail to claim Jesus in our day, to acknowledge his lordship in our lives, we deny him anew, placing ourselves in the same unsavory company as those who denied him first? Are we, too, guilty of his death?
Lent is such an counter-cultural season. Traditionally, it is a penitential season in which we are meant to ponder our shortcomings with honest hearts -- at least as honest as we can muster. It is a time to meditate upon the supreme sacrifice of Jesus, which would never have been necessary if we had been as good and flawless as we spend most of our lives trying to convince ourselves and others that we are. For its part, our culture turns its back on Lenten themes, on “guilt trips” in general, on anything that might serve as an assault on our blithe search for a boosted self-esteem.
It isn’t easy for any modern preacher to stand before sophisticated people who have, or have had, successful careers, long lists of friends, newer model cars in the parking lot, that you are, in spite of your college degrees and many successes, fallen, sin-filled, and in need of repentance and salvation. (“My goodness,” you may be mumbling to yourself, “I got out of bed and made it to church, surely that counts for something on the good side of the ledger, why must I be subjected to yet another guilt trip from the pulpit? Don’t these preachers ever get tired of this subject?”). Sorry, it’s Lent for me too. The Lenten season of the cross, of betrayal and repentance, always seems out of place among successful people. If the point of the sermon today is to discover “whodunit,” surely everyone here can be marked off the list of suspects at least.
Christine and I were in Oklahoma City last summer for my a high school reunion, which was held a few block away from the site of the old Federal Building. You may recall it was a building which Timothy McVeigh decided would be a good symbol to destroy, killing a host of innocent people in the process, including little children ion the building’s preschool. I recall making our way through Lent back then, as we were treated to interviews with attorneys, legal experts, and authors of books about the trial of Timothy McVeigh for the Oklahoma City bombing. Why? Well, his execution was scheduled around that time, and it was to be the first federal execution in many years. In those weeks leading up to the execution, yet again we saw the video footage showing the ruined carcass of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, where one of my high school friends was killed along with 160-some others on that horrible day. By human standards of justice, if ever anyone deserved to die for a remorseless and brutal crime, it was Timothy McVeigh.
“Drama teachers will tell you that, for us to be engaged by a play, there must be a certain amount of distancing. We often think that the reason we love theater is that a play has characters with whom we can identify. But if we too closely identify with the characters, if from the moment they walk on stage we say, ‘Hey, that’s me,’ we are so busy defending ourselves, we can't get into the drama.”
The sins of other people are always much more interesting to us than our own, and it is precisely because they are not our own that we are free to be fascinated by them. I doubt many of us have stayed up nights making plans to blow up public buildings. The right sort of people, those who gather in this sanctuary this morning, or sit at the computer monitor to read yet another joke about the well-documented failings of famous public figures, seem so often to think of ourselves as somehow innocent of the moral foibles by which we are ready to judge others.
I remember sitting in the family room of a well-to-do couple during my graduate school years, listening to them go on and on about the fact that nobody in America understood a work ethic any more, that people on welfare did nothing but give birth to babies to burden the future of everyone around them, and that the world in general was just going to hell. This from people who already had spent at least 20 years, and proceeded to spend the next 20, benefiting from a social security system from which they received far more than they ever put in. I am also thinking of the rounds of school shootings, where the media seems in such a hurry to portray the shooters as loners and losers, thereby helping us distance ourselves from any feeling of kinship with such people.
"Moral condemnation,” one preacher wrote, “appears to work like binoculars. Look through one end, at somebody else's trespasses, at a safe distance, things are magnified. Look back at yourself, through the other lens, everything is tiny, insignificant, mere peccadilloes.”
We may give ourselves permission for our fascination with heinous crimes and their just desserts because we believe as deep down as we care to go that there is nothing vaguely similar between us and the Timothy McVeighs or the members of Al Qaeda. He was a loner, borderline nut case, apparently absent of conscience for what he had done. We like our evil pure, distilled down to its essence, not discolored with bothersome exceptions and details. It helps us keep our distance.
But evil is messier than that. Our culture demands electric power, and as soon as it looks as though we won't have as much as we want, making us more like the vast majority of the rest of the world, we think nothing of slamming salmon runs, further despoiling our air, and using farmers' irrigation water to get it. We refer to ourselves with the breathtakingly narrow description of “consumers,” as though all there is worth knowing about us is our appetite for ever-more goods and services, and we've built an entire advertising economy around creating, then meeting those consumer appetites, all at a cost to many things that are truly precious. We gladly sentence a thug who smacks a convenience store clerk to a long jail term, but if a multi-million dollar athlete is involved in violence, even murder, that can become their ticket to notoriety and further riches rather than punishment. We've created an entertainment culture that worships shamelessness and graphic violence, then wonder why children carry pistols and semi-automatic weapons to school.
To those who shouted for his execution on that April day in A.D. 33, the April fool appeared to be Jesus, the would-be king, all dressed up in mocking royal robes and crown of thorns, a buffoon who looked about as much like a king as a drunk sitting in a doorway downtown begging for change looks like the Duke of Windsor.
But the fools on that day as on this are the ones who think of evil as something that can be found only in others, never in ourselves. This may be one reason Paul was led to write, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

To Be Lost, To Be Found, To Know the Difference

To Be Lost, To Be Found, To Know the Difference
Fourth in a Lenten series from Luke
March 10, 2013
© 2013 Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Luke 22:31-34, 54-62
Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat,
but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail;
and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.
Just when Peter thought he was most in touch, most in sync, most able to stand next to Jesus, to defend him to the death, just then, at his point of greatest self-assumed strength, just at that very moment he was lost. This man, who was the first to raise his hand during the pop quiz when Jesus asked who they would say he was, who was first out of the gate with, “You are the Messiah!” This is the one who three times said he did not even know Jesus. There’s a lesson in there for us in there somewhere if we will attend to it. He was lost.
On the other hand, just when Peter went to weep in bitterness, just when he could see that his strength had not saved his master, had not even made a dent, just when he saw he was helpless to do anything of significance, even unable to speak up for his own acquaintance with Jesus, just then he was found. “I don’t even know the man,” Peter declared, voice shaking with the lie. This coming from the man Jesus once called, “The Rock.” Some rock...! Yet Jesus had prayed for him, interceded for him. And we all know Peter went on to become one of the bravest proclaimers of the faith. He was found again.
To be lost, to be found, to know the difference.
Sometimes we are lost and don’t even know it. Just when we think we are strongest, most capable, most in touch with the will of God, just then we may find reminders of our weakness, of our incapacity to stand by Jesus on the pedestals of our own strength and merit.
In a backward way, we love Peter for his failure, don’t we? More often than we’d like to admit, our own overconfident declarations of faith are also overstated. “I believe...” we say, unreservedly, in church, along with everyone else, as the Apostles’ Creed is recited. Easy enough to say in here, isn’t it, even though most of us really just more or less mutter it? But back at work, back in the neighborhood, back amid the hustle and bustle and jockeying for position, the elbowing for recognition, when there’s a price to pay, we turn into Peter: “No, I’ve heard of Jesus, of course, but can’t say that I really know him.”
Before we are too hard on Peter, we might recall that for all the tragedy and pain of his denial of Jesus, it is only Peter who made it to the courtyard. He followed Jesus at least that far, which is more than the others could say, apparently. He may be like us in this way too, when we feel, perhaps, that even if we are not perfect, at least we are ahead of others. Still, even that action turned into defeat. Faith, it turns out, is not a contest to see who gets there first or farthest. The culpability for the betrayal and denial of Jesus is cumulative, each little misstep, each failure to understand, each refusal to follow, all add weight to the outcome, until finally we are left with Paul saying, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”[1] All. No wiggle room there.
I think one of the amazing features of the Bible that we share is that it consistently looks at our heroes with unblinking truthfulness. In Peter’s own time, the literature of the Roman world was filled with stories of gods and heroes, while ordinary people were all but invisible, mere background figures or canon fodder for the stories of the great and glorious. Not so in the Bible, especially here in the New Testament. Here, Simon Peter, unarguably one of the heroes of the faith, is clearly nothing more than a lowly fisherman from Galilee, whose language or dress or body odor gave his humble origins away amid the Jerusalem folks sitting around the fire in the high priest’s courtyard that night. An ordinary man. In terms of the literature of his own day, his story would never have even been written down. If we had been writing one of the gospels, we would likely have been tempted to try to clean up the story of Peter, the faith ancestor of all of us here. But no, the Bible is honest. It tells the whole story of who we are. Yet it is the very ordinariness, the very thought that Peter was as we are, an ordinary person who found himself in an extraordinary circumstance, this is what makes the story so convicting.
Just like Peter, sometimes, for all our good intentions and resolutions, we fall away, we fall short, we deny and betray, and we are lost. “Alcoholics Anonymous teaches its members to introduce themselves, “I’m Jane,” or “I’m John, and I’m an alcoholic, but by the help of a higher power, a recovering one.” We love Peter for embodying [what we know we are]. For most of us are quite ordinary in our sin. “No redemption would do people like us any good that required us to be heroic. We need a higher power.”[2] Sometimes we are lost.
And sometimes we are found.
Sometimes we are found, though we have no sense within us that we are worth finding. In times when we weep bitter tears of resignation and failure, we wonder how we can go on, how we can face the world. It is when this picture of Peter’s weeping misery is before me that I am so captivated by Jesus’ prayer of intercession for him, even in anticipation of his failing, even as Jesus knew Peter was bound to fail, even so, he prays for him, intercedes for him.
Throughout the gospels, Peter fills the role of the “Everyman” disciple. He says things, does things, asks things, makes mistakes about things that represent the ways all disciples are in relationship with Jesus: faltering, stumbling, sometimes falling. It is no different for any of us than it is here in the gospel.
It is interesting that in the same breath, as Jesus made a prayer for unfailing faith for Peter, in that breath he prayed also for Peter’s return when he failed, and commissioned him with his prayer to strengthen others who follow. While Peter was on the road to being lost, was destined to deny his Lord that very night, even then Jesus was praying him back into relationship, was finding him again.
Probably no hymn in the world is more well known than “Amazing Grace.” Probably even those who claim to be totally unmusical, those who may think they have never memorized a piece of music, would surprise themselves when it comes to this song. See if you know it...
 [Sing it a capella....] Amazing grace, how sweet the sound...(now you...) I once was lost, but now am found...(now you...). See? We just know this hymn, it is a sort of hymn Peter could have written. In some ways, it is amazing that it is so well-loved, considering the confession that is called for in the very first line from anyone singing it: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me...”
A wretch? Is that what I am? I remember back in the 1970s hearing this hymn sung with a less offensive word used there, something like “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a soul like me.” Aw, isn’t that sweet? Jesus saved my unwretched little soul. We don’t live at a time when we go around calling people wretches, much less ask them to think of themselves that way, it might do harm to their self-esteem or something. No one likes to think of themselves in this way. I remember singing this hymn across the chancel from my colleague in my church in Texas, and mouthing “...that saved a wretch like you!” to him. He got tickled and started laughing so hard he couldn’t sing for the rest of the hymn.
Do we have problems referring to ourselves with a word like “wretch?” Of course we do, who wants to be a wretch?! It offends my self-image! I’m a pretty good person, certainly not a wretch. Thinking this way, we sound for all the world like Peter, puffing himself up to size in order to tell Jesus he would defend him to the death. Yet just when we think we are most found, least wretched, that is when we are lost. It is one of the paradoxical truths of the gospel. The dictionary says a “wretch” is “a miserable person, one who is profoundly unhappy or in great misfortune.” Just as Peter declared his willingness “to go with [Jesus] to prison and to death,” at that very moment when he thought he was the strongest, he was at that moment on the cusp of being the most lost. He was wretched, even if he didn’t know it, and we are no different.
Many of you probably know the story of “Amazing Grace.” The author, John Newton, was a new believer around the year 1750, yet after coming to faith he had continued to command an English slave ship. Eventually he saw that any role in the slavery trade was antithetical to the Christian faith, and he left the sea for good. He studied for the ministry, and for the last 43 years of his life preached the gospel in Olney and London. At 82, Newton said, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner (he was lost), and that Christ is a great Saviour (he was found).”
I once was lost, but now am found. He knew the difference after a lifetime lived between being lost and found. These are words that could well have been written by Peter. Indeed, I suspect that, given the right circumstances, they could be written by us all.
To be lost, to be found, to know the difference. The difference is in the one who does the finding. There is nowhere we can go that is beyond the finding power of Christ, who prays for us: “I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail...” Jesus prays for us. We were lost, but we are found. Thanks be to God.

[1] Romans 3:23, NRSV.
[2] “Ordinary Sin,” by William Willimon, a Duke University Chapel sermon, March 28, 1999.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Power of Darkness

The Power of Darkness
Third in a Lenten series from Luke
Luke 22:45-53                        
Psalm 55: 12-14, 20-21 
March 3, 2013           
© 2013 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
When I was with you day after day in the temple,
you did not lay hands on me.
But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!
Take a moment to think about the verses from Psalm 55[1] that we said together a few moments ago. Just to remind us of the bitterness the psalmist must have felt as this psalm was composed, I’ll read the words again:
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;
we walked in the house of God with the throng.
My companion laid hands on a friend
and violated a covenant with me
with speech smoother than butter,
but with a heart set on war;
with words that were softer than oil,
but in fact were drawn swords.
I wonder if these words, or words like them, were on Jesus’ mind that night when he looked up and saw a crowd headed his way, with Judas leading the mob, pursing his lips for a kiss of betrayal?
I once heard about a struggling little non-profit agency on the East Coast, a local effort that helped to house people who were in need, people who, without someone to stand up for them, would be on the street. The agency struggled along doing its good deeds for the needy until one day, when a few fresh faces came onto the board of the organization, people with all the enthusiasm and promise that seemed to suggest they could help in significant ways. The first task they chose, however, was to begin exposing the weaknesses of the executive director to other members of the board. Finally, enough of the board’s energy was taken up with this discussion that their mission began to suffer, the director finally resigned, and the organization went out of business. An organization that for thirty years – with all its shortcomings and warts intact had still managed to help hundreds of families with housing needs – ceased to exist.
One observer of the human scene once said that some people, like Judas, cast out devils for a while … and then become one.
I find Jesus’ words about the power of darkness to be particularly chilling. Still, we need to recall that this is not the only “hour” about which Jesus spoke in his ministry. It is a word that comes straight across from Greek and Latin into our language: hora, meaning the time, the right sort of time, the opportune time, the blacksmith’s proverbial “strike while the iron is hot” sort of time. There had been other opportune “hours” in Jesus’ ministry, you can spot them running all through Luke’s gospel: The time when Jesus healed many, when he rejoiced, the hour of the disciples’ trials, the hour when the Son of Man comes like a thief in the night, the hour when the Pharisees warned Jesus about Herod’s evil intentions toward him, the time when the authorities expressed their desire to arrest him, the time when the Passover meal was eaten with his disciples.
Jesus had been among all these people who came to arrest him, day after day, yet they were afraid of the friendly crowds that followed him. How appropriate that they decided to come under the cover of night, when his loyal crowd, most of them, were home in their beds. In Luke 4, Jesus was tested in the wilderness and resisted, and Luke says that the devil left him until an “opportune time.” Alas, that time has come. Jesus is arrested. It is the devil’s hour, and the power of darkness provides the cover for their action which the light of day might have foiled.
All of us have known times when we intend something good, but we find no means at hand to accomplish it. The human tendency, then, is to take up any means at hand, the “ends justify the means,” as the old saying goes. But we all have seen, time after time throughout human history, that the means become, and even displace, the sought-after ends. The 17th century philosopher, Frances Bacon, once observed his own culture struggling with questions of means and ends, and reflected that when improved means are found to pursue unimproved ends, we discover that, as Bacon declared, “it is singularly amazing how long the rotten can hold together.” In the end, to abandon legitimate means to seek legitimate ends ultimately means the loss of those legitimate ends. Means become ends, methods become outcomes.
Sometimes we have the good in mind but have no power to accomplish it. Jesus knew this, but trusted enough in God’s future to realize that though this hour was not his, other hours would be. There would be other hours, triumphant hours to come. In this situation, surrender and self-sacrifice were his only choices[2] as he held on to the confidence that the end of the story had not yet come, that there was more to be accomplished through God’s own time.
Here is a little something that I find interesting in this passage. Though they have come to arrest him, and Jesus knows this, he continues with the same sort of ministry that has characterized his life since his baptism in the Jordan: teaching and healing as signs of his kingdom. Even here, even as he is about to be handed over to those who are only too willing to do him ultimate harm, he teaches and heals. He teaches his disciples about the special impotence of violence to accomplish ultimate things, “No more of this!” he declares, and then he works to heal the effects of violence as he touches the servant’s ear and restores it. When it has been at its best, his church has been at this work ever since, teaching and healing, proclaiming and restoring.
Jesus knew that if his disciples took up the means of those who came to arrest him – the sword, the club, retaliation and bloodshed – it would ultimately taint and spoil their aim, which was to live out the love of God for all the world to see.
So the power of darkness has found its hour. What then? What is to become of the betrayer as well as the betrayed? Betrayal moves in two directions, it moves against the welfare of Jesus, but it also moves against the potential hopes and future Jesus saw in Judas when he called him to be one of his chosen disciples. Jesus had once chosen Judas, had seen something in him, some potential, had invested his time and energy into his relationship with him. Here we find that Jesus’ hopes and dreams for Judas are also betrayed. Maybe betrayal between intimates is always be like that, as tragic for the betrayer as for the one betrayed, perhaps more so.
There is a Fra Angelico painting in the Academy in Florence, Italy, where Judas is pictured with a black halo. In the island nation of Haiti, in the ragged city of Port au Prince, there is an Episcopalian Cathedral, in which you can find another depiction of the last supper. In the scene, Peter and Judas are depicted as white people, because, after all, they both denied Jesus, and white was the skin color of those devils who once enslaved the people of Haiti. The rest of the disciples are black. Yet Jesus appears as mixed race, a mulatto, neither black nor white, because of a local tradition in that culture that when the Messiah returns, he will save both white and black, the betrayer as well as the betrayed.
The power of darkness is not ultimate. The hour that Jesus mentioned passes, and another hour comes. A seed planted in dark soil, a baby after nine months in the darkness of the womb, they know the time when darkness has its hour, but they prepare there for other, brighter hours to come.
The power of darkness is proximate, but it too has lessons to teach, if we will attend to them. I’ll close this sermon with two bits of poetry, the first by contemporary Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas, the second from a hymn verse written for a hymn competition back in 1999, in anticipation of the new millennium.
Via Negativa, R.S. Thomas
Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
and places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.
Through the Darkness of the Ages[3], Hilary Jolly
Through the darkness of the ages, Through the sorrows of the days,
Strengths of weary generations, Lifting hearts in hope and praise,
Light in darkness joy in sorrows Presence to allay all fears,
Jesus, you have kept your promise, Faithful through two thousand years.
If we find ourselves deep in the hour of darkness, where there is betrayal all around us, remember there is another hour coming. Watch and be faithful.

[1] Psalm 55:12-14, 20-21, NRSV.
[2] Alan Culpepper, New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, Abingdon Press, p. 437.
[3] Via Negativa, and Through the Darkness of the Ages, copyright Jubilate Hymns, LTD., Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188.