Whenever you hear the gospelers making a comment about the Pharisees and scribes, you should pay attention. You should do so not because they’re portrayed as the foil for Jesus, as the “bad guys,” but because of what they represent. Far too often we think of them as these mythic villains in Jesus’ stories and then conflate them with all Jewish people, ignoring the reality that Jesus and his followers were also Jewish too. It would be far better to describe them simply as religious leaders or even the religious elite.
I need to begin today with a few words on current events. We heard from our Attorney General this week that there is a biblical injunction from St. Paul in Romans 13 to follow all the laws of the ruling government. Therefore, the recent policy to separate families at our southwestern border is endorsed by God. The Press Secretary when asked about it doubled down by saying, “Enforcing laws is biblical.”
So let’s take a look at what Paul wrote in context within his letter to the Romans. In the verses leading up to chapter 13 Paul exhorts the Roman Church to do this, “Let [your] love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” He continues in that train of thought about empathizing with others and doing good and then he gets to the verses referenced by our political leaders.
We’re back in that Upper Room. The candles on the table have burned down considerably. The smell of the bread, and the roasted meat still linger in the air. In the corner lie the basin and the bowl Jesus had used to wash their feet.
Judas has gone out from that place to begin the plan he has cobbled together in his mind hoping for God knows what, and, our Gospeler tells us, “It is night.” The sun has gone down, and in Jewish custom even now, the day has changed. It is now Good Friday.
If you thought our reading from Mark detailing the resurrection story fell a bit flat this morning, you’re in good company. No, we did not somehow cut it short to create more drama; this is exactly how Mark’s gospel ends as it was handed down by the oldest and most reliable manuscripts. “So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Period. It bothered biblical scribes so much along the way, that they tacked on not one but two different endings to try clean it up.
In the Greek it’s even more troubling ending with the literal phrase, “they were afraid for…” and that’s it. Imagine those first hearers of Mark’s gospel gathered in a house church, meeting under the cover of night in Ancient Rome anxious about their own lives and hoping that the authorities wouldn’t discover them. “Wait, is that it? What does Mark mean ‘They were afraid for…’ For what? Are you sure that’s how it ends? Is there really nothing more? Did the women say anything? Where’s Jesus? Isn’t he supposed to be resurrected? I thought this was ‘Good News,’ but it doesn’t make sense. Reread those last couple of verses again.” And so they did.
If you asked me on any given day who my favorite author happens to be, I’d say it’s Frederick Buechner. Mr. Buechner is a Presbyterian minister whose vocation has been to write. His books range from collected sermons and memoirs to reflections on faith and novels. Sometimes he writes about his craft and how it works both in his art and also in his life. This week I’ve been reflecting on something he wrote in his collection of essays entitles, The Clown in the Belfry.
He writes, “The word fiction comes from a Latin verb meaning ‘to shape, fashion, feign.’ That is what fiction does, and in many ways it is what faith does too. You fashion your story, as you fashion your faith, out of the great hodgepodge of your life—the things that have happened to you and the things you have dreamed of happening. They are the raw material of both.
John tells us that some Greeks—some foreign born practicers of Judaism—have made their way to Jerusalem to take part in the upcoming feast of the Passover. While there, they seem to have heard about Jesus and his teachings and the miracles he has done. Maybe they saw him when he came into the city riding the donkey amid the shouts of “Hosanna!” Perhaps they overheard someone at the local coffee shop talking about Jesus raising of Lazarus from the dead, which happened just couple of days before. Regardless of how they found out about him, these people know they want to meet Jesus in person. So they seek out Philip, the most Greek sounding name out of the lot, and make their request. “Sir,” they say, “we wish to see Jesus.”
Philip finds Andrew, and they in turn go and speak to Jesus. Instead of replying to their request—John doesn’t tell us if those Jewish Greeks met with him—we hear Jesus respond that the hour has come for him to be glorified. He then uses a metaphor from agriculture to tell us what he means, describing how a grain of wheat—a single seed—gets buried in the earth and dies. If we stop and think about it, we know this about seeds in general. Seeds of any kind—be they apple, sunflower, or pumpkin—dry out and are useless, unless, of course, they get planted into the ground. And once they get planted something miraculous happens. With moisture and sunlight, a single pumpkin seed can produce a whole vine full of new pumpkins—anywhere from six to twelve per seed. In turn, each of these pumpkins themselves will produce about 450-500 more seeds. Through the single seed dying, a tremendous amount of new life results.
A couple of years ago I awoke in a tent in the Pemi Wilderness in the heart of the White Mountains National Forest. I had spent the previous two days hiking in the area—the first day I made it to an AMC hut near Galehead Mountain, a good 6 miles from the trailhead. The second day I ascended South Twin Mountain and continued on to Bondcliff, where I met a couple of friends who hiked in from the other direction. Together we made our way to the Guyot Campsite for the night.
On that cold morning, I was both excited to be there—my first overnight backpacking trip in a tent—and also pretty beat. We all had done a significant amount of hiking with heavy backpacks the previous day, and so talked briefly about skipping West Bond—one of the 4000 footers—and just heading out to my car. But after some coffee and a hearty breakfast, we decided to leave our packs near the trail and did the mile to the peak. Mist hung around in patches that morning, and the trail to the summit became tight with bushes and tree branches. Just as we got close to the summit we encountered a steep incline up rocks for the final push. My toe began to hurt, and the exhaustion from the previous days hit me hard. I wasn’t sure this would be worth the effort.
“For those who want to save their life, will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and lose their life?”
These words from Jesus lie at the very core of the gospel, and they remain tremendously difficult both to hear and put into practice. How can we lose ourselves and, by so doing, save ourselves? You can spin that around and around all day long but it doesn’t make logical sense. If I want to get somewhere, I need to go that way. If I want to save my life, then I must take measures to ensure my well being. It does not flow that if I want to get something in the end that I need to do the opposite. But that’s exactly what Jesus is after.
And it’s the heart of the gospel.
Over the course of the past year, I’ve been delighted with a little hippopotamus named Fiona. You may know her story: Fiona arrived six weeks early at the Cincinnati Zoo weighing in at a slight 29 pounds — hippos normally weigh between 55-120 lbs at birth. She had to be bottle fed by a team of neo-natal caregivers, and for a long time things were touch and go. Slowly she began to grow, found her legs and took to swimming.
She received her name due to her ears which look just like Fiona’s from the “Shrek” films, and because it means “fair one.” She became an international social media phenom, and she recently celebrated her first birthday. I’d encourage you to check her out.
But even though she’s tremendously cute, Fiona’s a wild animal. In fact, the hippo is the deadliest land animal in Africa, more dangerous than the elephant, lion, or river crocodile. Hippos are territorial, and while they’re strict vegetarians, they will hurt humans with their immense jaws if you unintentionally get too close to their area.
During Advent we visited the church of friends of ours for a musical celebration. We had to get there pretty early to ensure we found good seats, and then had a long lag sitting in the pews. We chatted with our friends getting caught up on their lives. At some point, my friend handed me a laminated card that was in the pew. “What do you think of this,” she asked.
I looked down and read the card. Written in typed print were the words,“I made my donation online.” I looked up confused.
“It’s for the offering plate,” she said. It took a couple of moments before it dawned on me that those who set up their regular giving online could toss that card in the basket when it came around to have something to place in the basket. My friend said, “They did it because some parishioners didn’t want others round and behind them to think they were cheap or shirking their responsibility in supporting the church.” I was a bit stunned, and I could tell my friends didn’t like it either.