Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday

Matthew 27
15Now it was the governor's custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. 16At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. 17So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, "Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?" 18For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him.
19While Pilate was sitting on the judge's seat, his wife sent him this message: "Don't have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him."
20But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.
21"Which of the two do you want me to release to you?" asked the governor.
"Barabbas," they answered.
22"What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?" Pilate asked.
They all answered, "Crucify him!"

In the twelfth century he was called Robin Hood, an endless source of trite songs and tedious films.

In Jacobean England he went by the unlikely name Guy, as any child who can recite poetry will tell you: “Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot.”

In the 1950’s he was called simply “Che,” proof-positive that dying young and leaving a good photo will improve your chances of becoming an icon.

By the 1980’s he was rather faceless, choosing instead to adopt the name “Contra,” a banal name that anyone with high school Spanish will tell you means “against.”

One man’s pirate is another man’s privateer. A rebel remains an outlaw until he becomes a revolutionary hero. "We must hang together,” Poor Richard said, “else, we shall most assuredly hang separately." Such is the potential plight of the bandit, rebel or outlaw.


6Now it was the custom at the Feast to release a prisoner whom the people requested. 7A man called Barabbas was in prison with the [others] who had committed murder in the uprising. 8The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did. (Mark 15)

An alphabet soup of translations leaves no doubt about the character of this man: One calls Barabbas an insurrectionist; another gives him the name revolutionary; and yet another calls him a rebel.

Why choose Barabbas?

Only one man chose to challenge the real power of Rome, and that man was Barabbas. He took to the hills with his friends and began a campaign to win the hearts and minds of the people.

Only Barabbas opened clinics and schools and taught the children to hate their enemies.

Only Barabbas destroyed the electrical grid to give the rich a taste of village life.

Only Barabbas burned crops to make the people dependent on the food he could provide.

Only Barabbas was willing to recruit teenagers to strap explosives and shrapnel to themselves and head for the marketplace.

Why choose Barabbas?

Historians will tell you that the nature and intensity of the opposition will indicate the severity of the social conditions. A violent uprising tells the story of hardship and frustration; Empty benches during a confidence vote means times are good.

Why choose Barabbas?

Because we can’t resist the anti-hero. He has been a staple of storytelling from the beginning, outwitting the police, getting the girl, always being kind to the little people.

Why choose Barabbas?

Because he is readily understood. What on earth is Jesus offering? What does his programme look like? How can someone with the power to move mountains submit to a pathetic functionary like Pilate?

Why choose Barabbas?

He might be a murderer, but he’s our murderer. He wants to free the people, feed the hungry, and make the Rome pay for years of humiliation. Barabbas is someone to be proud of, and someone willing to do something, finally.


Never underestimate our capacity for short-term thinking. I try not to think beyond my next meal, let alone what will happen tomorrow. We seem perpetually attuned to the now, what I want, what I need, what I deserve, what should happen to me. Barabbas is the hero of the now, the rebel with an immediate cause, a name that is as easy to shout as “crucify!”

Jesus is the champion of the long-term. John’s Jesus says “take courage; I have conquered the world!" But this is no conquest that the “People’s Front” would recognize. This is spiritual revolution, the kind of transformation that enters a heart immediately but only changes a community with time. Barabbas’ revolution continued upon his release, then he disappears from history. Jesus’ revolution would cause Rome to fall, but what is Rome when you have conquered the world?

Jesus is the champion of the long-term. First and last, God wants a relationship with us, and can only achieve this by entering our experience. God lives and dies (at our hands) to experience the fullness of life on earth: to learn and grow, to make friends and challenge family, to laugh at the pub and cry at the death of a good friend. God met every kind of person and landed in every kind of situation. And having tasted life, Jesus chose death, even death on a cross, knowing that spiritual revolution is the only real hope for the future.


From our viewpoint, Jesus or Barabbas doesn’t seem like much of a choice. Failed revolution or spiritual revolution. Next week or eternity. Jesus or Barabbas doesn’t seem like much of a choice at all. But someone wise once said look again at the situation and consider these two men. Wouldn’t Jesus choose Barabbas too? Wouldn’t Jesus gladly trade his life for Barabbas, as he would gladly trade his life for me or for you?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Palm Sunday

Matthew 21
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

He has been played by Harrison Ford, William Hurt, Michael Douglas, Jack Nicholson, Kevin Kline, John Travolta (sort of) and Martin Sheen (ad nauseum).


It seems there is no end to the public’s appetite for films featuring the American President. The President appears in the Oval Office so frequently that the studios simply recycle the set. Apparently the set for “The West Wing” was deemed too accurate and was therefore off limits during the Warner Brothers Studio tour.

We seem mesmerized by the symbols and all the power. And we’re not alone. Tony Blair wanted his own version of Air Force One and only backed down when the British press dubbed the idea “Blair Force One.” Remember Brian Mulroney’s special podium? He had one constructed early on, meant to look “presidential.” I think it had a beaver on it. Luckily the press mocked that one away too.

Power and the trappings of power fascinate. I can confess that I have a rather awkward looking photo of me and my brother standing ridiculously close to the White House (it’s no longer possible to get that close). We’re standing beside a small fountain that looks exactly like someone has been whited-out of the picture. I like to tell people it was Nancy Reagan.

And motorcades. There is an entire sub-genre of films that include a presidential motorcade: and not just motorcades in Dallas either. If you want to build tension or fill some screen time, just insert a motorcade flying past a few Washington landmarks. This is one, however, that the movies usually get wrong. The real motorcade is up to thirty cars long, too long for movies, and a reminder that life is stranger than fiction.

It leads me to ask. Jesus, where is your motorcade?

Sure he had one, if you count a donkey and a colt, the foal of a donkey. And people running along side, while not exactly Secret Service (another sub-genre of films), they were trying to protect their friend. This was a bid to make Jesus look “presidential” if only for a few minutes, to leave an impression with the gathering crowds. And gather they did, if only to see this one who mocked the triumphant entry they knew so well.

The king’s entry, you see, wasn’t of the coronation kind, as we might be led to believe. The king’s entry was a regular occurrence, like a motorcade, witnessed every time the king came home or moved about the town. Even the “hosannas” and the palm branches happened often enough for people to see what was happening. The fall festival, marking the harvest had one too, with the very same shouts that met Jesus that day:

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

It was about the trappings of power met by popular imagination. The response was as routine as “Hail to the Chief.” The ruler of the day would enter the Holy City at the height of the harvest festival, wanting to make a connection in the popular mind between the bounty and his government. The people saw through it like Blair Force One.

It didn’t stop them from trying. When Herod was but a simple governor, appointed by his powerful friends Mark Antony and Octavian, he lost his position for a time. He fled to Rome, back to his friends, only to return with a title to secure his position. He had the senate in Rome grant the title “King of the Jews,” ending any ambiguity about his role. And considering all the struggle to get the title, we can well imagine how he would react of anyone ever showed up saying “We’ve come seeking the baby born King of the Jews.”

And boy, did they love their titles. Octavian, who defined the age, was give the title “the Illustrious one” (we say Augustus) and “the first head.” Never satisfied, he was called “the son of god” and in death he was given the month of August, to match the length (it is said) of his famous father who got July. And all Brian wanted was a nice podium.

It leads me to ask. Jesus, where is your motorcade?

Jesus arrives, making fun of the titles and pomp and all the trappings that people in power claim to need. His first task was to take the treasury, not to appoint a finance minister, but to turn tables and reclaim the temple. Having set his face to Jerusalem, we knew he would have to go. We knew that eventually he would arrive, and begin the project that would redefine power for all of time. And so he enters:

His motorcade was a couple of beasts.
His advisors were tax collectors and sinners.
His chief of staff was a fisherman.
His Oval Office was the Upper Room.
And His podium was the cross.

He entered a once holy city, now overrun with the symbols of Rome. Eagles here, standards there, coins and statues with hated symbols of Roman occupation. Jesus entered a city polluted with royal power, proclaiming violent men gods and foolish men kings. It was in this setting, surrounded by gaudy monuments and idolatrous symbols that Psalm 118 finally made sense:

The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

The city’s infrastructure looked impressive, but it was rotten to the core. Stone stood upon stone, but the construction was a mere façade hiding the truth: this city would reject the effort of the True Architect and opt instead for little more than a movie set. The high walls impress, the symbols shine in the near-eastern sun, but it’s not real. None of it is real. It is a California fake standing in for the real thing.

But take heart. The stone that the builders rejected will become the chief cornerstone, and though the construction will be a simple wooden cross, it will stand for all time. Amen.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Ezekiel 37
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” 7So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 11Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

Looking outside, I feel chilled to the bone
On a warmer day, we might be soaked to the bone
I may need to learn more, to bone up on it
Perhaps we disagree, a bone of contention
Maybe you have a bone to pick
Now I’m weary, even bone-tired
You look thin, all skin and bones
Help me out here, throw me a bone
I can’t change, it’s bred in the bone
You feel slighted, or cut to the bone
There is little doubt, make no bones about it
That’s quite an assortment of phrases, a real rag and bone shop
Now for a sermon, where some are dry as a bone

Any others?

We seem rather bone-conscious. Maybe this is owing to the fact that we live in what some call a “bone house,” a body that is literally framed by bones. And many of us remain non-vegetarians, where bones are part of our reality.

Bone-consciousness has a larger context too, surrounded as we are by death. This may seem less pointed in our present death-denying culture, but in the days that gave birth to these phrases, death was ever present.

During the golden age of Dutch painting, the still life came into it’s own. Bowls of fruit, a fish, some fresh flowers, and maybe a walnut: all set out to display the new wealth of the age. Then the discord: some where in the painting is a reminder. In a family portrait a beggar appears. Near the side of another painting there is an hourglass, time passing. And just in case you need something less subtle, perhaps a skull sits there on the table among the fruit and nuts. Enjoy you life now, these artists say, but remember the reality we all face. Bones are a reminder of something few need help remembering: “you are dust, and to the dust you shall return.” Bones are just the middle step.


“Mortal, can these bones live?”

In a season of famous questions, we meet Ezekiel. He is a prophet to those in exile, those forced from their homes and compelled to live in Babylon. He has visions of a nation restored, and from this we enter the valley of dry bones.

Famous questions, of course, come from famous conversations. In this case, it is Ezekiel’s conversation with God that prompts the question. “Can these bones live?” A wise prophet says “only you know this LORD, only you.”

Then the LORD says “Prophesy to these bones,” Mortal, “and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” And then a promise to the bones: “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” God adds sinew to bone, and flesh to sinew, and causes breath to enter them and they shall live.

And just in case the symbolism was lost on the reader, God adds these words: "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.' Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.”


If pressed to find a name for the last century, we might be tempted to look to technological advances, such as the birth of flight, to define the age. Perhaps we might look at ideology, the century long struggle between communism and capitalism. Or we could be more honest, and recount Great War, Second War, Cold War and call it, along with most historians, the Century of War.

And unless you have the good fortune of being born after 1989, the date historians peg for the end of the century, you were reared in the context of this warring century. And with all shared experiences, there are common motifs, elements of our reality held in common.

This leads to the other defining characteristic of the last century, and one that may well sadly continue: the mass grave. There is no greater sign of human failure than the mass grave. It belongs to a century of war and the madness that humans visit on each other.

At Yad Vashem, the State of Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust, there are many inscriptions and plaques in and around the museums. But the starting point, the place where this reminder begins, is a long set of arches inscribed with Ezekiel 37.14:

“I will put my breath into you and you shall live again…”

We long for the day when the world is truly bone-tired of war, and the causes of war are resolved, and God’s children, all of God’s children, shall know peace.


Lazarus was dead. There is no doubt whatever about that. Lazarus was as dead as a doornail. Four days in the grave, in a place where burial remains a next day affair, meant that there could be little doubt that Lazarus was dead.

The circumstances of his illness, and death, and the eventual arrival of his friend Jesus, occupy most of the eleventh chapter of John’s gospel. The delay in coming, intentional or no, the caution about travel, the bitter recrimination: all of these elements become little more than background in this Judean still life.

The tableau includes the obvious signs of death: the tear-stained faces of Mary and Martha, the crowd looking in, some with empathy and some with curiosity, and the seeming finality of the stone, rolled firmly in place. There, amid the portrait of suffering and death Jesus shouts "Lazarus, come out!" Lazarus is no longer dead.

We are confronted by the power of God. The “little resurrection” of Lazarus cannot be explained away, nor should we try. The mystery of God’s power confounds us, filling the valley of dry bones with sinew and flesh and breath, filling the putrid cave with a life, filling our lives with daily reminders of God’s desire that we live. Jesus said, “your brother will rise again.”

But he said more. There, in the middle of this still life with Lazarus, Jesus says perhaps the most important words to frame this Lenten season, to point to the days that will surely come. Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

The skull and the hourglass remain, tangible reminders of the death that none of us will escape, but the defining motif of this painting is the promise that “those who believe in him, even though they die, will live.”

In this season of conversation and questions, Jesus speaks through the text, past the characters in the story, beyond chapter and verse, down through the ages and directly to us. He frames the painting and places it in an important gallery for all to see. We see it among the other great works. We are drawn to the colour and outline, and cannot help but move in. We regard the elements and composition, we begin to interpret the work and find some meaning. We are reminded that death is gone and the power of God surrounds us.

Then, off to the side, we see a small note, the kind that every curator places beside an important canvas. We lean in, and we read the fine print beside this tableau of resurrection and life, and the find the title of this painting simply this: “Do you believe?"

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Fourth Sunday in Lent

John 9
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

The season of Lent is about confronting hard truths. So here goes: everyday, we all get a day older. Even little babies, every day, are a day older.

It would follow that each of us has an anti-aging strategy. I’ve watched television, and I know that there are gels, creams, pills, and certain automobiles that claim to arrest the aging process. I’m not buying.

For me, renewed youth came in the form of my very first Ipod. It’s shiny and small, and contains more songs than I can possibly listen to in any single sitting. But man, do I feel younger.

A week or so after the dawning of the Ipod, came the next episode in my titanic struggle with aging: the eye-glasses. The lovely lady with an alphabet soup of fuzzy letters said “sorry Michael” and gave me these. Will my preaching improve now that I can make out the letters on the page before me? Only time will tell.

Looking closer, my friends at Wikipedia say this, in an article with the rather innocent title “accommodation”:

By the fifth decade of life [eyesight] has declined so the near point of the eye is more remote than the reading distance. When this occurs the patient is presbyopic. Once presbyopia occurs, [the patient] will need an optical aid for near vision.

I wondered why so many at presbytery wear glasses. That was the bad news. Then the good news:

The age-related decline in accommodation occurs almost universally, and by 60 years of age, most of the population will have noticed a decrease in their ability to focus on close objects.

In other words, we’re all in this together. Perhaps you would never describe a phrase like “universal age-related decline” as good news, but there it is. Admitting you have a problem is the first step toward recovery.


Failing vision was never a problem for the man born blind. He was a young man, and only later would face the “universal age-related decline” that we all face. In his case it wasn’t even sight-restored or vision-corrected, it was sight revealed. And it was also the source of perhaps the most compelling questions in scripture:

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The answer, of course, is as famous as the question: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

The preacher’s task is to begin in the least comfortable place in the passage and work outward from there. It is hard to fathom a situation where a lifetime of blindness was imposed in order to reveal God’s glory at some future date. Imagine instead a threefold movement in the way this story is told:

Thesis – Argument – Resolution

Our famous question then, rather than revealing some disturbing idea about the ways of God, reveals a thesis that only becomes plain as the story unfolds:

With spittle and dirt, the man born blind receives the gift of sight. Neighbours are confounded, and hear the story of the miracle first. Soon the religious leaders enter, similarly confounded and alarmed that this happened on the Sabbath day. His parents are called to testify, and in their fear can shed no light on the situation. The man born blind speaks again, and argues that only God could be the author of this miracle. He is driven from the synagogue. Jesus returns, and confesses what the young man had already come to believe.

Like all of life, this story is a mixture of what people know, what they think they know, and what they can’t know:

Where is this miracle-man, they ask: the man doesn’t know. We know this is our son, his parents say, and we know he was born blind, but we don’t know how he sees, and we don’t know who did this. The “religious ones” say Jesus was a sinner, healing on the Sabbath, but the man does not know: he can now see. The “religious ones” know God spoke to Moses, but do not know where Jesus comes from. The man replied: “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.”

The thesis is that God’s glory will be revealed through these events, the argument is a detective-like unfolding of the story, and the resolution is Jesus. Jesus reenters the story at the very moment that the “religious ones” reject the man born blind. Jesus reveals himself and names himself “son of man.” The young man can only worship him.

Like the young man, we know what happened, we think we know what it means, and we cannot know why some cannot see. When Jesus comes, the way is revealed, the truth is made plain, and life God holds for each of us is set out. Here is the astonishing thing: he opened our eyes.


Sight was added to the man born blind and he was cast out. Demons leave the girl who practices divination and the town erupts. Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners and is condemned. It seems that all the miracles and healing and all the reaching out to the least and last brings only trouble and isolation. It seems that everyone who has a direct experience of the power of God present in Jesus becomes suspect. It seems that the world clings to what is obvious and rational and expected and steers clear of the mysterious and irrational and unexpected. It seems that the very people that don’t belong or won’t belong are the very people Jesus seeks out. He seeks them out with one simple prescription: "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”

Among us some have tired limbs and weary souls: "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”

Among us some have addictions and afflictions we did not choose: "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”

Among us some have broken hearts and empty homes: "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”

Among us some have failing vision and moments of doubt: "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”

Jesus gathers them to himself. Jesus gathers us to himself. Jesus finds the least and last, the weak and weary and gathers them to himself to be his disciples and walk in his way.

We never learn the name of the man born blind. We never learn the name of Peter’s mother-in-law or Jarius’ daughter. We never learn the name of the man with dropsy or the widow’s son. We never learn their names because they are all of us: met broken and made whole through the attention of the doctor who is seeking us yet, seeking us yet.