Take These Things

A Sermon for Sunday, March 4, 2018. John 2:13-22, Third Sunday of Lent

While I was doing some online research for today’s sermon, I discovered the following meme, which offers some sage advice:

The caption is funny precisely because many Christians forget or ignore that Jesus sometimes got mad during his life and ministry.  Nobody wants to see and talk about angry Jesus, especially that time he made his own whip out of cords and drove the merchants and money changers and livestock out of the temple before dumping coins on the floor and overturning tables.

Instead, we’d much prefer this image of Jesus clearing the temple by cartoonist and pastor Cuyler Black:

While the cartoon is a humorous interpretation and play-on-words for a 21st century culture that is familiar with extreme sports terminology, what Jesus actually does is far more risky and dangerous than a skateboarding stunt.  Therefore, it is crucial that we take a hard look at images that attempt to portray exactly what is occurring in the text as well as the story itself:

Jesus is furious and causing a scene. The inside of the temple is a mess. Dove are flying out of cages, sheep are fussing and running around in circles. Coins are spinning through the air and across the floor. People are scrambling to get out of the way. Merchants stumble over one another while others shake their fists at Jesus or grab him by the sleeve to make him stop. Jesus is livid as he swings a whip of cords in one hand and picks up tables with the other, all while shouting: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

The Gospel of John puts the event front and center, right near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The temple visit marks Jesus’ first public appearance, immediately following the calling of the disciples and the private wedding at Cana where water is turned into wine. The writer of John’s gospel wants readers to know right away that the outraged Jesus in the temple is the one he described in the first chapter as the Word who is God—the light in the darkness that shall not be overcome, the Word that became flesh and dwells with humanity, the Word that is full of grace and truth.

On the surface, it may seem as if Jesus’ outrage is not congruent with John’s description of God in Christ or what we know of Jesus from other gospel stories. The idea of Jesus being angry and causing a ruckus in the temple of all places is hard to imagine. It’s not a scene that sits comfortably next to accounts of Jesus’ healing, feeding and caring for the marginalized of society. The whip-holding, table-flipping Jesus sure doesn’t seem like the type who would want children to come and sit in his lap. But Jesus’ anger is an important part of who he is and not something that should be easily dismissed.

Over the centuries, Christians have mistakenly domesticated Jesus in their own image and have come to see him as this gentle, nice, serene person who is always smiling and giving a pat on the back. And believers have, at times, overlooked the fact that Jesus and God are connected.

Christ is God incarnate, both fully human and fully divine. Everything we know of God as the almighty creator of the universe and sovereign lord of the heavens and earth is manifested in the bodily flesh that is Jesus; unfathomable power and an incredible, mysterious force of logic and love embodied in a single person. It’s truly quite astonishing, and seems reasonable then to conclude that such an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being in human form is not going to be nice all the time. The late Christian author and theologian Mike Yaconelli once put it this way:

What characterized Jesus and His disciples was unpredictability. Jesus was always surprising the disciples by eating at the wrong houses (those of sinners), hanging around the wrong people (tax collectors, adulterers, prostitutes, lepers), and healing people on the wrong day (the Sabbath) … Jesus was a long way from dullJesus was a dangerous man—dangerous to the power structure, dangerous to the church, dangerous to the crowds of people who followed Him. …If Jesus is the Son of God, we should be terrified of what He will do when He gets his Hands on our lives.”[1]

(The triune) God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good. God is our great strength and comfort. And Jesus, God-with-us, is the bread of life, the true vine, the light of the world, the Good Shepherd and the resurrection. But neither God nor God in Christ is safe or tame or nice.

The anger that erupts from Jesus upon entering the temple, though, is not irrational or petty. Jesus is not throwing a tantrum because he didn’t get his way or upset because he’s hungry and cranky. Whenever Jesus became angry, it was because he saw injustice and irreverence.

Now, the selling of animals and exchanging of money was necessary for the festivals occurring in the temple during Passover. People traveling from long distances would need sheep and doves to make burnt offerings and those who came from foreign lands would need to exchange their money for the local currency to purchase the animals.  Jesus doesn’t seem to have issue with this economic practice; otherwise he’d be ranting through the outdoor marketplaces in every town.

The problem Jesus seemed to have is that these transactions were taking place in the temple—a place intentionally set aside to worship God. What Jesus witnessed was a lack of respect and reverence for God on display. Practices that weren’t harmful in of themselves, but distracted people from giving their entire attention to God. And thus, Jesus was consumed by righteous anger.

Righteous anger is considered to be good, conscientious, moral, healthy anger and there’s always a time and place for such emotion. Alice Pau, the American suffragist, was angry that women were denied the right to vote. The civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was angry about racial segregation. And peace activist, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was angry at apartheid in South Africa. In our daily lives, it is normal to feel righteous anger about bullying, abuse, poverty, racial inequality, and so much more. God has wired us to show deep compassion and care for the broken and suffering in this world; it’s only natural that we become angry when we read the news headlines and see yet another act of violence and oppression. Righteous anger is good and we are called to practice it and be an instrument of change.

With that in mind, it is very tempting to preach and read today’s story as if we’re only called, like Jesus, to deliver righteous anger by taking up a whip and overturning the tables of the injustices we most despise. However, the writer of a biblical commentary I read last week reminded me that the writer of John’s gospel has something else in mind:

“The text pushes us to imagine Jesus entering our own sanctuaries, overturning our own cherished rationalizations and driving us out in the name of God. Surely we can be honest enough to acknowledge that often enough we put ourselves and our institutions at the service of the powers that are decidedly less than God.”[2]

It would be naive for us to read this text and believe that Jesus is only criticizing everyone but us good Christians and our places of worship. As the biblical commentator notes further:

“For the truth is that neither the prophetic impulse nor the institutions called to embody it are well served by the quick assumption that because he is ‘our’ Savior, he is perpetually well pleased with us. It is important for us to tolerate and explore…the queasy anxiety of seeing Jesus with the whip of cords in his hands and hearing him with the righteous judgment of God on his lips—knowing that he speaks for us, yes, and with us, but also to us and even against us.”[3]

In other words, we are not perfect followers and we don’t have this whole faith thing figured out. We make mistakes. We turn our back on God and neighbor.  It’s what we confess together every Sunday and frankly, we need Jesus to call us out when we’re wrong. We need tough love that speaks truth to our waywardness. Jesus’ righteous anger comes from a deep place of love for humanity.

So, if Jesus were to enter our sanctuaries, what might he rail against? What are the distractions and displays of disrespect and irreverence that would cause him to yell aloud with righteous anger: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house something else” What tough love speech would Jesus give?

Would Jesus be angry that worship spaces designed for the purpose of communing with God have evolved into a place where folks primarily come to socialize with and be entertained by others?

Would Jesus be angry with people who play games, text and check emails on our smart phones during any part of worship?

Would Jesus be angry with people who clap and cheer after a musician gives glory to God through a special anthem because they were thoroughly entertained, not because they are praising God for the gift of music? Or would Jesus be angry with some who allow a negative attitude about a hymn prevent them from finding joy and meaning in other parts of worship?

Would Jesus be angry with those who make grocery lists on the back of their bulletins and pretend to listen? Or with others who are so focused on every aspect of worship being flawless that they miss the chance to be surprised by the mystery of grace?

Would Jesus be angry with people who set up metaphorical tables covered with misplaced allegiances, religious presumptions and judgments, smug self-satisfaction, arrogance, envy, spiritual complacency, nationalist zeal, and political idols? [4]

Would Jesus be angry with those who worry more about the empty pews than being delighted by the people who have come to praise God? Or with the many who claim to be friendly and welcoming and yet never take the time after worship to know the people who sit on the other side of the room?

Would Jesus be angry with the people who pray for the well-being of others, but don’t always work to ensure their well-being?

Would Jesus be angry with pastors and leaders of the church for focusing too much attention on the maintenance of the institution—the upkeep of the building, the budget, the stewardship campaign, new equipment—instead of the practices of faith? [5]

These are the questions we must ask in this season of Lent in which each of us are called to look inward and discern how we have let certain things get in the way of our relationship with God.

I don’t know for sure what Jesus would specifically be angry about if he were to walk through the doors of Pleasant Hill Presbyterian’s sanctuary or any sanctuary. I don’t have the answers.

But I do know this: Jesus’ deep desire for a sacred space where people can worship and experience the holy is what leads to his death at the hands of the religious authorities who were greatly offended by Jesus’ outrage. As a seminary classmate and friend wrote recently on this text:

“’It is zeal for your house that will consume me’ reveals itself to be a prediction that the very ones who are most zealous for the Temple are the ones that will ultimately destroy Jesus. Those who have the greatest investment in the success of official religion will chew Jesus up and spit him out. You see, establishment religion cannot abide Jesus, who is the world-shaking intrusion of God’s free and radical love into the world.”[6]

Let us heed then the words of Christ who will flip the world over and scatter all the distractions that compete for our time and attention so we may be fully immersed in God’s presence; so that we may give our whole hearts to God.

Let us also take the things that turn us away from God and remove them from our midst. The things are not what matters in this life or the next. All that ever matters on this journey with Jesus is Christ himself, and his radical love that rises from the ruins, binding us forever to God and one another.


[1] Dangerous Wonder by Mike Yaconelli, 2003, Navpress

[2] Feasting On The Word, Year B, Volume 2: Lent Through Eastertide, 2008, Westminster Knox Press

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20060313JJ.shtml

[5] https://robertwilliamsonjr.com/overturning-established-religion-john-213-22/.

[6] Ibid.


Meeting Jesus in the Mud

A Sermon for Sunday March 26, 2017 (The Fourth Sunday of Lent) John 9:1-17 and 24-41

One of God’s greatest gifts is…mud. Glorious, messy mud.

For many children, playing in the mud provides endless enjoyment.

Mud pies to serve at a party with friends—each delicacy decorated with pebbles, twigs and flower petals.

Mud puddles to stomp and splash in after a good thunderstorm—brand new rain boots spattered with artful gray streaks.

Mud creeks to explore for signs of tadpoles, minnows and crawfish—squishy clumps wedged between the toes in that cool water.

Teens relish moments romping in the mud too.

I have a fond memory from seven years ago when the high school youth from this church did mission work in Houma, La in July. Nearly every day there was an afternoon downpour.

By the middle of the week, there had been so much rain that a pool of water, a couple of inches deep nearly 30 feet in length had formed on our lodging site—a muddy oasis that had to be experienced by a group of teens who had worked hard all day doing construction work. They spent more than an hour running and sliding through the giant puddle, giggling and shouting the entire time.

Did you ever have those exhilarating experiences growing up? Do you remember what it was like to play in the mud as a kid and the unbridled fun you had?

Of course, there are also plenty of adults who don’t mind playing and working in the mud. On mission trips to Honduras, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic or even a couple hours away in the Blue Ridge Mountains, it’s impossible to avoid getting filthy.

         After a long day of digging holes, carrying rocks, pouring concrete, laying bricks, building homes, adults—caked in a muddy mixture of dirt, cement and sweat—wear their grime as badges of honor.  I’ve seen many adults tease each other over who has worked the hardest by the amount of mud they have on their clothes.

There is something exhilarating and satisfying when we are covered in God’s earth, isn’t there?

In the book Dangerous Wonder, author Michael Yaconeli recounts how a friend did a one-man show on Jesus’ life in which he imagined Jesus and the disciples taking a break in the Jordan River after many days of travel and doing ministry. The scene plays out like this:

Jesus and the disciples were all in the river taking baths when the beloved   disciple,  John, reaches down to the floor of the river and brings up a huge mud pie. Preoccupied with their washing, none of the disciples notices. John takes careful aim at his favorite target, Peter. SPLAT! The mud pie strikes Peter in the face. John immediately ducks underwater as though he is scrubbing.

Peter reaches for his own mud pie, takes careful aim at Matthew and lets it fly. WHAM! James wastes no time responding with his own mud pie, and soon bedlam breaks out amongst the disciples. A full-fledged mud fight is under way.

 Philip and Bartholomew sneak up on Judas, whom they didn’t particularly like anyway, and nail him with two mud pies.

 Simon the Zealot…lets loose with a huge mud pie. John ducks and the mud missile hits Jesus right in the middle of his forehead. All the disciples freeze. After a long silence Thomas leans over to Simon and says, “You idiot! You just hit the Son of God with a mud pie…He’ll turn us into turtles!”

 Jesus gazes slowly at each of the disciples, each one fearing the worst.

With a knowing smile, Jesus stops when he sees Simon, who refuses to look Jesus in the eyes. Jesus reaches down into the mud and comes up with a very large mud pie and—BAM!—Simon is hit squarely on the top of his head, and as the mud slithers down his face, everyone, including Jesus, breaks into laughter.

During Jesus’ day, mud was a treasured substance that had many practical and enjoyable applications for daily living.

Mud was the prime building material people used to make things—jars, pots, plates, tools, ovens, art, tablets, roads, homes and other structures. Additionally, it was used to heal wounds on the skin or give relief to aching muscles, i.e. the mud facial and mud bath.

Now, as far as anyone knows, mud was not considered a cure for a more serious infliction like blindness.  But that doesn’t stop Jesus from mixing spit and dirt into mud and placing on the blind man’s eyes.

           Mud is an essential part of life and it is also sacred because it is of the earth that God created and formed out of darkness and brought into the light.  Thus, it’s no surprise that Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, uses mud to create something new, to give sight to a blind man who was born unseeing.

More alarming is the Pharisees’, the religious leaders’ judgment of the blind man and Jesus.  In spite of this extraordinary act of compassion, the Pharisees believe the blind man is a sinner from birth who is undeserving of healing and that Jesus is a heretic.

The Pharisees have become so self-righteous and full of absolutes and lofty ideals that they’re no longer grounded in God’s ways. They care more about their own status and prestige than getting their clothes dirty by helping their brothers and sisters in need.

The Pharisees have become completely detached from those they are called by God to serve.  They claim to be all knowing about God while ignoring the God who dwells with the poor, sick and oppressed, the Christ who is willing to get mud on his hands to show love to another human being. They’ve forgotten the beauty and joy of playing and working in the mud and being in relationship with others.

The Pharisees behave as no one else matters but them and their absolutes about how God works. And sadly our history shows there have been hard-nosed religious folks who’ve acted just as arrogantly and dogmatically ever since.

The late science historian and mathematician Jacob Bronowski commented on this egotistical behavior of some human beings in the 1973 BBC documentary Ascent of Man:

“It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken.”

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here, to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.”

Jesus, according to the Gospel of John, spits on the ground and makes mud with his own saliva and touches the blind man’s eyes. And minutes later, after washing his face in a nearby pool, the man is able to see for the first time in his life!

Christ’s actions are a reminder that we as his followers are supposed to touch people—to reach out and dirty our hands if necessary to bring love and life to someone else.  We as followers are called to meet Jesus in the mud.

And it will be clear and beautiful… if we have the eyes to see it


A Song for Dead Saturday: Hurt by Johnny Cash

(originally written and performed by Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails)

I hurt myself today 
To see if I still feel 
I focus on the pain 
The only thing that’s real 
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting 
Try to kill it all away 
But I remember everything 

What have I become 
My sweetest friend 
Everyone I know goes away 
In the end 
And you could have it all 
My empire of dirt 
I will let you down 
I will make you hurt 

I wear this crown of thorns 
Upon my liar’s chair 
Full of broken thoughts 
I cannot repair 
Beneath the stains of time 
The feelings disappear 
You are someone else 
I am still right here 

What have I become 
My sweetest friend 
Everyone I know goes away 
In the end 
And you could have it all 
My empire of dirt 
I will let you down 
I will make you hurt 

If I could start again 
A million miles away 
I would keep myself 
I would find a way

What’s So Good About Good Friday?

"Christ and the Thief" by Nikolai Ge, Russian painter, late 1800s
“Christ and the Thief” by Nikolai Ge, Russian painter, late 1800s

This is God’s new commandment, that we should look at him: how in death he creates life, on the cross, resurrection.

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I’ve always been curious about why Christians over the centuries have referred to Christ’s death as Good Friday. What’s so good about it? Jesus is mocked, beaten and nailed to a cross where he suffers hours in agony before breathing his final breath.

And yet Luke’s gospel account of Jesus’ suffering and death tells us that in the midst of Christ’s final moments, something else in happening in the midst of the horror–something mysterious, something better, something hopeful.

The thief who recognizes the injustice of Jesus being on the cross: He is longer a criminal. He is a forgiven and redeemed soul.

The soldier who stands adorned in body armor and carries a mighty spear in hand: He is no longer believes in the Roman gods of his childhood and culture or feels an allegiance to the self-proclaimed messiah known as Caesar. He is a new disciple of the one true God whose promises to nurture and care for all of creation are steadfast.

The women who grieve from afar, long after everyone else has left the foot of the cross: They are no longer just pieces of property and second-hand citizens in a patriarchal world. They are bearers of the story of God’s dwelling on earth.

Maybe the good of this Friday is that even during suffering and death, the mysterious God is still transforming hearts and the world in love.

Even death is changed. Death is no longer the ending, but is instead destroyed as Jesus breathes his last.

Good often occurs amid the bad. However it is good none the less.


40 Days For Food Justice

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Although we’re a couple of weeks into Lent, I wanted to share this wonderful devotional resource that explores the meaning of the season through issues of food justice: 40 Days for Food Justice

Created by Rev. MargaretAnne Overstreet and sponsored by the Minnesota Institute of Contemplation and Healing (MICAH) and the Presbytery of the Northern Plains, the project–each day throughout Lent–highlights “one individual offering their perspective on food justice: what food justice means to them and where they see people and communities at work to promote greater food justice.”

My perspective on food justice was posted today and I’m grateful to MargaretAnne (whom I didn’t know prior to her contacting me) for inviting me to be a part of this project. 

Be sure to check out the previous 12 days from gifted leaders in the Church universal and don’t miss any of the 28 posts to come. These  essays are ideal for personal devotions and conversation starters, and the various perspectives will open your eyes, heart, mind and soul this Lenten season and beyond.

Re-creating Saturday

I have often viewed this time between Good Friday and Easter as Dead Saturday (also known as Nothing Saturday, Dark Saturday or Holy Saturday) and typically I spend the hours feeling depressed and morose while contemplating the death of Christ.   I am not the only one as I discovered (yet again) while reading a friend’s status and subsequent comment thread posted this morning on Facebook:

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I agree with every comment and yet as I read them, I felt something stir inside me. A new idea.

A new idea that began with the question: “What if we’re are looking at ‘Saturday’ all wrong?”

Certainly living in the tension of this ambiguous day is appropriate. Reflecting on how the disciples and world felt at the time of Jesus’ death is important for understanding and deepening one’s faith. But should we spend the entire day stuck in a funk–especially when we know how this is all going to turn out? 

It’s hard to forget or unlearn what we know so remaining in the doldrums of this Saturday for any number of hours seems to be a waste of time. After-all many of us preacher types are familiar with the phrase: It’s Friday/Saturday now…but Sunday’s coming!

I’m not suggesting that we immediately and prematurely jump to Easter Sunday or push people too quickly out of a necessary stage of grief and pain. I do believe wholeheartedly in the wisdom shared in yesterday’s Jaweed Kaleem’s Huffington Post column:

If you are not clear in your head about your understanding about somebody dying tragically, if you cannot reconcile that with the higher power of God or force of nature, this will be tough work for you,” said Handzo, who teaches chaplains and palliative care specialists. “You will probably not do it well, and you will burn out. You have to go through death to get to resurrection.

It’s important for me to be reminded that this part of the of the Christian story. … It’s painful, but it’s also what can make things meaningful,” he said. “We can make a mistake a lot of times with people who are dying. We can take our beliefs and say ‘the resurrection is coming,’ or ‘things will get better.’ But some people are not ready for that, they are still hurting and mourning, and they don’t need that happy good news stuff. They need to be allowed to be where they are, to have that Good Friday time.

However, it seems that I and others are more inclined to believe that we have to spend this day mired in guilt, sadness and lament when it would be much more fitting to move through the suffering as a way of observing this Nothing/Dark/Dead/Holy Saturday.

Again, this doesn’t mean we should start shouting “Chris is risen! He is risen indeed!” and burst into loud choruses of Ode to Joy but it perfectly reasonable for us to be happy on this day and embrace the joys of life and God’s creation. True, God is dead, the Trinity is broken and the cosmos is torn…but simultaneously it’s not. God is still ALIVE, otherwise existence would’ve ceased to exist at the moment Jesus uttered his last breath. The world kept turning. The active and present God stayed on the move. There was a process that occurred between cross and empty tomb. There was something that raised a living body from the dead, that conquered death and exposed the cruel and violent powers and principalities. That process. That something.  That was God!

God who entered the world in human form (but still remained the holy and mysterious God) died and then raised God-self from the clutches of death–thus transforming the world and creating a new reality, vision, kingdom of God on earth and heaven.

It’s crazy and mysterious and yet true, none the less. God in Christ told the disciples this is exactly what would happen. He would be betrayed, abandoned, killed, die and in three days, be resurrected (Matthew 20:17-19, Mark 10:33-34 and Luke 18:31-33). The disciples were too bound up in the trauma and drama of those three days that they forgot Jesus’ words. But we have the benefit of hindsight, of being able to look at the texts and remember…again, and again, and again that death will not have the final say in this story of God and humanity.

Even though there will be pain, dying and death today and tomorrow on Easter and throughout the Easter season to come and beyond, death. never. has. the. final. say. NEVER. But God does:

No matter how much the mess and distortion make you want to despair, you can’t abandon the work because you’re chained to the bloody thing. It’s absolutely woven into your soul and you know you can never rest until you’ve brought truth out of all the distortion and beauty out of all the mess—but it’s agony, agony, agony—while simultaneously being the most wonderful and rewarding experience in the world—and that’s the creative process which so few people understand…You can’t create without waste and mess and sheer undiluted slog. You can’t create without pain. It’s all part of the process. (Rob Bell quoting characters in a favorite novel in his book Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering, 2009)

So instead of sitting around and feeling numb, let us be a part of the God-process that is shaping something out of suffering, that is transforming mess into beauty, death into life…

Pull out a carton of boring dusty-white looking eggs and dye them with an assortment of colors, either with your kids or by yourself.

Help your 4 and a half year old create a dio-rama with the small plastic safari animals she bought yesterday at the zoo.

Bake bread and take it to a neighbor who has been sick or who you’ve never spoken to.

Make some sandwiches and take them to the homeless men and women nearest to wherever you live.

Call up someone you disagree with and tell them you love them.

Plant some flowers in your yard.

Paint a picture.

Shovel snow from the walk.

Take photographs of the world around you.

Write a song.

Craft a story.

Create. Create. Create. (And) Re-create

Don’t stop creating.

Soap carvings, from "Drops Like Stars" by Rob Bell, 2009
Soap carvings, from “Drops Like Stars” by Rob Bell, 2009

The Only Way

Brave, thought-provoking, heart-felt posts from A Church For Starving Artists , The Blue Room Blog , and the Political Theology Blog , have encouraged me to share reflections on the theme of violence and Holy Week via a sermon I preached several years ago during a Maundy Thursday Worship Service  at a church I served in Maryland.

Jesus arrested“The Only Way”, a Sermon for April 5, 2007, Colesville Presbyterian Church, Matthew 26:47-54

As I read the news earlier this week about deadly workplace shootings at Atlanta’s CNN Center and the University of Washington’s Seattle campus, my mind immediately recalled the murder of my friend Bonkey Nezeriah McCain that occurred 15 years ago in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama.

Bonkey was at the local Pizza Hut with other members of the Shades Valley High School football team, celebrating their Friday night victory over a rival high school. As the players were leaving the restaurant to head home, a car drove by and a teenage hand reached out of the window with a gun and shot into the crowd. Although he wasn’t the intended target, Bonkey received a barrage of bullets to the chest. He died hours later in the hospital.

Bonkey and his family were active members of Shades Valley Presbyterian Church where I grew up. We became friends in youth group. Bonkey was a gentle, kind and talented guy who always had a huge smile on his face. Bonkey’s death struck a huge blow within he hearts of his family, friends, church, high school and community. It particularly jolted me because it was the first time I have ever known someone who died from an act of violence. The tragedy opened my eyes to see that deaths like Bonkey’s happen all the time, and that the blood of innocence is spilled very day in our streets and neighborhoods.

I have kept the experience of Bonkey’s death very close to my heart for many years, especially when I worked as a reporter at the Birmingham Post-Herald after graduating from college. Covering the police beat took me to the scenes of many senseless shootings and in the homes of many grieving families. Those experiences enabled me to be a pastor–to not just share other people’s stories but be a part of their story. God was calling me to be a source of comfort and to guide others in their life stories–in times of joy and tragedy, love and loss.

As a pastor and Christian, I believe deep down in my heart that God’s love prevails over violence and death and that God’s love shines as a light into the darkness of the world. I know that God’s love and grace for humanity and all of creation is unconditional and steadfast. I’ve seen so many wonderful examples of God’s power in my life. And yet it’s what I precisely know about God’s love for us that makes me shake my head when I hear stories about senseless acts of violence.

There are those times, however, when I have great doubts about humanity because of the way we as a human race have responded to God’s love throughout history. As Satan tells Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane in a 1999 movie about Christ’s life: “Killing for Christ will be a big business through the centuries… You’re dying, your agony will give them another reason to kill and torture each other.” (Satan says these things as visions of the  Crusades and World War I appear behind them.

We know this to be true; killing for Christ has become a big business!  Jesus’ death and agony have given humankind other reason to kill and torture. But the reason is not, as Satan claims, the fault of God in Christ Jesus. No, it is our fault; it is our sin, our greed, our selfishness, our failure to recognize our own faults and to accept others who are different from us.

Just thing for a moment of all the killing that has been done and continues to be done in God’s name–the Holocaust; the lynching of black men, women and children during the 50s and 60s; the Jim Jones massacre; the war in Iraq; the genocide in Darfur; the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts; the Serbian conflict…

And if we’re not killing and violently harming others in the name of God, we’re doing it with no regard for God and the world God created. Just this week alone:

two women were killed in deadly workplace shootings in Georgia and Washington state

a woman was shot and stabbed by her estranged husband at a fast food restaurant in Louisiana

a 2-year-old girl was killed in a drive-by shooting in Kansas

a 40-year-old woman was killed in a drive-by shooting in Prince George’s County

11 plant workers were killed by a gunmen in Northern Iraq

a woman in the United Kingdom had her ear bitten off by her abusive boyfriend

And if we’re not acting out in violence, we’re endorsing it, even and maybe especially Christians. Often we hear preachers and church members of various denominations talk about Jesus vanquishing the unbelieving infidels of other countries with a sword or god dishing out wrath in the forms of tornadoes on “sinful communities” or deadly diseases on “sinful people.”  Look up images of Jesus on the Internet, and you will find several depicting Jesus carrying a .35 on a street corner or holding a rifle in a desert landscape.

How quickly we forget why Jesus came in the fist place. How quickly we forget that Jesus came to spread God’s love rather than to justify our hate. The disciples, after sharing a last meal with their teacher, also quickly forgot the reason why Jesus is there among them. Not long after Jesus shares bread and cup, symbols of the suffering he will endure for humanity, a disciple breaks the body of another–draws his sword and cuts off the ear of one of the Roman soldiers who has come with Judas to arrest Jesus. The disciple is likely wrapped up in the idea that Jesus will be a king who violently overthrows the Roman oppressors.

But Jesus, who has spoken constantly in his ministry about resisting evil and the desire to do violence, says to the disciples (in the reading from Matthew’s Gospel): “Put your sword back in its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus utters the same command but with the following addendum: “Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me.”

The disciple, while rightly angry at the soldiers and protective of his teacher who is about to be arrested, beaten and crucified, has forgotten Christ’s words at the table. Although drawing the sword may be justifiable in this situation and the easy way to get out of this mess in the garden, it is not Jesus’ way. Jesus tells the disciple:

Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen this way?

Jesus, who is both human and divine, has all the power and right in the world to call upon God to send down armies of sword-carrying angels to wipe out the Roman Empire. In an instant, Jesus could’ve made it happen. He could’ve–as Satan tries to convince him in the TV film I mentioned earlier–ended it all by asking God to take him up to heaven from the garden of Gethsemane.

But Jesus doesn’t appeal to God to send armies of angels nor does he forget how God’s purposes must be fulfilled. Jesus knows his cup can not pass before him, that it must be drunk and spilled for the love of humanity and the freedom from sin. Jesus says int he film, shortly before he is betrayed by Judas, “I’m in the hearts of man and I will die for the everlasting kindness of the human heart created by my Father so men will make God’s image shine once again.”

In the betrayal scene from the movie Color of the Cross, which we viewed clips of during the Agape Meal we partook in earlier this evening, Jesus says to the disciple who cuts the ear of the soldier, “The prophecy must be fulfilled. I will come quietly.” Jesus then bends down and heals the soldier’s ear as it is recorded in Luke’s Gospel.

The prophecy must be fulfilled God’s way, Jesus’ way–the loving, suffering, non-violent way, the only way. A way vastly different from our own. And the way begins at the table and with the words of Christ who tells us that his body will be broken for us and his blood will be spilled for us. Not the blood of others, but Jesus’ blood. And it is at this table that we acknowledge and proclaim, not death’s victory over Christ, but God’s nonviolent victory through Christ’s death. Biblical scholar Walter Wink reminds us:

The last supper celebrates Jesus’ nonviolent breaking of the spiral of violence by absorbing its momentum with his own body…Jesus clearly rejected the military option as a way to redress Jewish grievances. He refused to lead troops in war against Rome, or defend his own cause by violent means… Throughout the history of his people’s violent and nonviolent struggle for survival, Jesus discovered a way of opposing evil without becoming evil in the process.

Let us come to this table on the night of Jesus’ last meal, Jesus betrayal and Jesus’ nonviolent resistance to those who arrested him. Let us come remembering and celebrating Jesus’ nonviolent breaking of the spiral of violence that humanity has committed, is committing and will commit after the bread is broken and the cup is poured. Let us come knowing that the spiral, no matter how dizzying it becomes, has been broken, is broken and will be broken by Christ’s suffering and death so that the world might be whole again.

In the name of the suffering and broken servant Jesus Christ our Lord who says it can only happen this way,



“Jesus,” 1999

“Color of the Cross,” 2006

“The Powers That Be by Walter Wink, 1999

“Lanham Woman Hit By A Stray Bullet Mourned, Funeral Held,” March 24, 2007

“Man Bites Off Partner’s Ear,” April 4, 2007, NW Evening Mail

“Man Accused of Killing Wife At Job,” April 4, 2007, KATC 3 News

“Girl Injured in Drive-By-Shooting Dies,” April 5, 2007, Kansas City Star

“Workplace Shootings,” April 5, 2007, CNN.com