The Second Sunday of Easter, Year C

Took us a bit, but here it is!

Texts for today — CLICK HERE

Lectionary Lab Live podcast — CLICK HERE

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. Acts 5:30

When I was a kid, the phrase “hanging him on a tree,” meant only one thing – lynching.  But, strangely enough, since I grew up in the segregated South, it was not the infamous lynching of African-Americans by the Ku Klux Klan that I thought of.  No, I don’t remember hearing anything about that until I was in High School.  The lynchings I knew about were on TV, in the Westerns, where the people “took the law into their own hands,” and deciding to forego judge and jury they “strung up” the bad guys on a tree.  Most of the time, in the westerns I was allowed to see as a child, the lynching didn’t actually take place.  The “good guy;” that is, one of the Cartwrights, or the Rifleman, or Matt Dillon, or Paladin, etc; arrived just in time to prevent injustice from taking place.

 

When I got to college,  studied a lot about the Civil Rights Era, which was only natural at a Quaker College still deeply involved in protests against the war in Vietnam.  I learned a lot about the KKK’s use of lynching as a tool of terror, employed to keeping an oppressed minority in line; not only in the south but all over this country.  And yet, I still failed to connect the dots – I still saw Jesus’ death through a theological lens, as an action which saved me from my sins on a cosmic plane – while at the same time viewing the multiple lynchings of Black men, women and children as the awful consequence of human sin.  But, in those days, I never thought of the death of Jesus on the cross as a lynching.  Nor did I begin to think of it that way when I entered Divinity School and began to study the bible in depth.  For some reason, I never put two and two together and got four.

Then I became a Lutheran, and went back to seminary for further studies, and one day I was   in the library of the Lutheran Seminary in Columbia, SC doing my homework for worship class. I was reading through and commenting upon the “Proper Prefaces,” parts of the Great Thanksgiving Holy Communion prayer that change with the season, and I read this line in the Proper Preface for the Passion – “you gather your people around the tree of the cross, transforming death into life . . .”

And suddenly it hit me “Jesus was lynched!” Jesus was not just executed; he was lynched, strung up, “strange fruit,” hanging from the tree of fear, rage and injustice.

I raised my head from the book and looked around the room and I spotted a cross upon the wall.  And I had something like a vision, or a dream, or an hallucination. The cross changed into a hangman’s noose dangling and twisting in non-existent wind.  Then it changed again, and again; first  into a hangman’s noose, then an AK-47 machine gun, then a sword, then a suicide bomber’s vest.  The image changed, over and over – instruments of death and destruction used by governments and terrorists alike, to kill, demoralize and intimidate.  “Jesus was lynched!”

In the lead up to the story we read this morning, Peter and the other Apostles have been preaching in the Temple about the resurrection of Jesus.  They have also been performing healings. The High Priest hears about it and has them arrested and put in jail. Why?  Because back in Acts 4:18 the Sanhedrin had told them not to preach anymore in the name of Jesus. They are in clear violation of their parole.  Off to jail they go.  But God sends an angel to release them.

Now, if I had been arrested twice and jailed once by the people who had cruelly tortured and killed my leader, and if I had ordered to cease and desist and I had already angered them by defying this order, and if I found myself standing outside the jail in the wee hours of the morning, free as a bird and with a good head start, I think I would have gotten out of town as fast as my rented donkey would carry me.  Or at least I would have gone into hiding deep in the bowels of the city.

And I really would have expected Peter and the others to do the same. After all, these are the same people who denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed. These are the same people who were nowhere to be found as Jesus breathed his last upon the tree. These were the same people who hid behind closed doors even after they heard about the resurrection.

But no. Peter and the other Apostles went right back to the Temple, went right back to preaching the gospel, right back to casting out demons and healing the sick. I’m sure the Sanhedrin were filled with equal parts anger and wonderment when the guard came to them and said, “The Galileans have escaped prison.  But, we don’t have to call out the bloodhounds – we know where they are.  They’re back in the Temple, preaching away.”  The High Priest and the others must have just shook their heads.  “They must be stupid, or stubborn, or both.”

So, of course they have them arrested, again.  And they are hauled in front of the High Priest and the court, again.  And they are talked down to and ordered about and treated like insignificant nobodies, again.  And they are ordered to quit preaching in the name of Jesus, again.  But instead of cowering and kow-towing and quaking in fear and trembling – Peter and the Apostles stood and spoke “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”  Then Peter and group spoke further truth to power and called out the Sanhedrin, the lynch mob, the posse, the town council, the citizens defense committee, the community watch, all those defenders of the status quo and the power of those in power, naming them a lynch-mob. “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you lynched.”

How could they be so bold?  What had happened to change them from cowardice to courage?  An encounter with the Risen Christ had happened.  As we read about in our Gospel Lesson, Jesus pushed through their locked doors, frozen hearts, and terrified minds and freed them from their fear.  God reversed the power of death by raising Jesus to new life; and Jesus reversed the power of the lynching’s terror by raising the disciples to new courage.

So, what does it mean for us to follow a man who was lynched?  Writing in “Christianity Today,” Duke Divinity School professor Christena Cleveland says, “When people who were on the outskirts gathered, Jesus was among them – not only because he ministered to them but because he was one of them. . . . . .Jesus didn’t simply care about people who were victims of Rome-sanctioned violence, he was a victim of Rome-sanctioned violence. In order to follow Jesus in his mission today, we often must choose a love that is based in solidarity . . . . we must not only minister to people who are marginalized, we must stand with them as Jesus stands with them” (CT, April, 2016)

Yes, Jesus, the one who was lynched, stands with them and he stands with us. And he stands with the Sanhedrins of this world as well.  Did you notice Peter preaching the opportunity for salvation to the very people who had been most instrumental in getting Jesus killed?  “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” Acts 5:31. Repentance and forgiveness. The good news is for the oppressed and the oppressor, for those on the bottom and for those who put them there.  The Good News is that those who were lynched are vindicated and those who have sinned are given the opportunity to be saved.   The Risen Christ changes everything.

A Guide to Preaching Holy Week: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil

What’s a busy pastor to do with so many services and sermons to plan for Holy Week? Well, the Bubbas have you covered — at least, we’ve got a few ideas that might help.

We have compiled The Lectionary Lab Guide to Preaching Holy Week, focusing this season, of course, upon the texts for Year C. You’ll find a plan for approaching the message of the season, as well as examples of services and sermons for Palm/Passion Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil/Sunrise, and Easter Sunday.

There’s a free podcast covering most of the material available here.

The printed guide — 21 excellent pages of material — is available here for only $1.99

If you like it, tell a friend or two, won’t you?

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C

Catch the podcast Lectionary Lab Live here

NOW AVAILABLE — The Lectionary Lab Guide to Preaching Holy Week (a podcast and a new publication with sermons and other ideas.)  Click here to see the new guide.

A Sermon by Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I don’t like snow, I really don’t.  I have lots of reasons I could tell you if you asked me why.  As an adult, I would probably tell you it has to do with the inconvenience and danger, especially in the South and in the mountains.  I like to plan my work and work my plan and snow throws everything out of whack.  As a child I sort of liked it, after all it usually meant school was closed – but it also meant staying home under the supervision of my older sister or brother while my parents went to work and, being Chiltons, they let a little authority go to their heads, and the rest of us, also being Chiltons and therefore resenting and resistant to authority, rebelled, and there was usually a rolling, room-to-room, five-child melee before the end of the day.  A person could get hurt at a time like that.

But, truthfully, I think I don’t like snow because it messed up my birthday party.  In my family, you didn’t get a party for your birthday every year.  There were five of us and there wasn’t a lot of money.  Most years you had a cake and a present from Mama and Daddy and maybe a card from the grandparents.  But everybody got a big party when they turned six.  Cake, ice cream, games, and best of all – you could invite your friends, and they could bring presents.  It was more than a party, it was a celebration, a rite of passage, a milestone.  And mine never really happened. I turned six in 1960.  On March 2, a Wednesday.  Wednesday, March the Second came, and it snowed.  Mama put the cake and the ice cream in the freezer and said we’ll do it next Wednesday. And it snowed. And we delayed to the next Wednesday.  Long story short – it snowed every Wednesday in March of 1960 in Surry County, North Carolina and I never got my birthday party. I don’t like snow.

Our gospel lesson begins: “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.  There they gave a dinner for him.”  The Greek word translated “dinner” here means more than just a meal – it means a party, a celebration, a time of rejoicing.  Last week we heard the story of the man whose son came home.  The man said to his older son, “We’re celebrating because this son of mine who was dead has come back to life.”  The father of the prodigal said it symbolically – here it’s literally true.  Lazarus was really, truly, certifiably dead –  and now he’s alive.  It’s that kind of dinner, that kind of celebration, that kind of party.

And in the midst of all the hoopla, Mary does an extraordinary, extravagant, celebratory thing.  She takes a pound of “pure nard,” a very expensive and aromatic perfume, and anoints Jesus’ feet with it.

It was an over-the-top act – but it was an over-the-top sort of day celebrating an over-the-top miracle. “This brother of mine, who was dead is now alive.” How many of us have lost someone whom we dearly loved and have thought or said, “I’d give anything to have them back?”  Well, Mary had her brother back and she gave the precious thing she had in gratitude.

Of course she was criticized.  Nobody ever does anything outside the norm without being criticized.

I guessing Judas wasn’t the only one – he was just the only one willing to put his objection into words. In one sense he was right.  Three hundred denarii was a lot of money – approximately a year’s wages for a working man – a carpenter or a field hand or a sheep herder.  It would have gone a long way to help the poor.  But in a more important sense he was dead wrong, and not just because John accuses him of being a thief, or because we, looking back with hindsight, know he will eventually betray Jesus for a similar amount – thirty pieces of silver. No, Judas is wrong because he fails to understand two things: the importance of gratitude and the uniqueness of Jesus.

Mary is grateful to Jesus for the life of her brother.  Jesus has given her a gift beyond words and beyond measure.  Jesus has restored to her one who has been a part of her world her entire life.  And Jesus had to give up his own life to do it.  As the previous chapter of John’s Gospel makes clear, Jesus knew he was being watched.  Jesus knew that the powers that be: Herod the fox especially and many other leaders of Israel, both religious and secular, had begun to talk together about what to do about him.  In their view, he was stirring up resentment against authority.  They much feared a rebellion, an insurrection, a revolt.  And when Lazarus walked out of that tomb they knew it was time to find a way to put Jesus into a tomb. The last line of Chapter Eleven says “. . . (they) had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they could arrest him.”  Mary knew then what it would take the others a long time to figure out – Jesus had literally given up his life to give Lazarus an opportunity to live again.  And so, Mary anointed his feet for burial.

Perfume was used by both men and women and it was normally put on the head.  Psalm 23 – “Thou anointest my head with oil.”  But when one was preparing a body for burial, one began with the feet.

Jesus named for the community what Mary demonstrated with her actions – “She is anointing me for burial because I am not long for this world. You will always have the opportunity and the obligation to provide for the poor, but I am only going to be here for a little while longer.”

Jesus uniqueness lies partly in the fact that he was here, with us, for only a brief while.  The vast majority of people who have believed in Jesus have had no opportunity to show gratitude to him for doing for us what he did for Lazarus – giving up his life to give us life eternal. But that temporariness is as true for the rest of us as it was for Jesus – we too are only here for a short while – and the older one gets, the shorter the times seems.   The uniqueness of Jesus’ time on earth is completed by the church’s proclamation that he was, and still is, Immanuel – God with us. His presence with us as God in the flesh, God incarnate, was brief.  But his presence with us as our Lord and Savior is neverending.

His words about always having the poor with us have more than one meaning.  At one level they remind us of our constant calling to compassion with those in need.  But, at a deeper level they remind us that Jesus lives on in the world, not Justin heaven at the right hand of the Father.  Jesus lives on in the Body of Christ that is the church.  Jesus lives on in the “least of these my brothers and sisters,” the sick, the poor, the hungry, the naked, the imprisoned.  Yes, Jesus lives on, in us, and in the church, and in the world.

We are invited to join with Mary in being extravagantly grateful and generous to the Jesus who died for us, the Jesus who lives in our hearts, the Jesus who lives in our midst – the poor whom we have with us always.

Amen and amen.