March 25, 2010

Insurrection Sunday

by Ragan Sutterfield
Luke 19:28-40; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Luke 22:14-23:56

“For I hear the whispering of many—
terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me,
as they plot to take my life.”

These verses from Psalm 31 are a proper preface to Palm Sunday. This is the Sunday not so much of children waving palms with hosannas as it is the beginning of a drama that will end in execution, murder, and suicide. This is the beginning of the end of the key conflict between the kingdom of God and the empire of the world.

The crowd has it right when they proclaim, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven.” But we should not take from this that Christ is coming in peace, at least not of the kind maintained by the empire until its legitimacy is threatened—the peace of stasis, peace without conflict. Christ is entering Jerusalem for peace, and violence, unrest and insurrection are the sure signs that the kingdom of peace is threatening a world bent on coercion and injustice. Christ’s response to this violence is to take the downward path toward death—the path of humiliation for the sake of righteousness.

Humiliation is a common theme in the lectionary readings for this Palm Sunday. In Philippians Paul calls us to have the “same mind” as a savior who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” In Isaiah the one who sustains “the weary with a word” does not hide his “face from insult and spitting.” Then we have Jesus entering Jerusalem in triumph with the first gospel reading and hanging on the cross by the second.

Paul calls us to follow this path of humiliation and so we must ask, how do we enter on this downward path?

From Psalm 31 to Isaiah to the Gospel, humiliation is the result of righteousness and obedience. We should take away from this that if we are to be righteous, if we are to follow the ways of Christ rather than the competing ideologies of our age, there are going to be times when the world will humiliate us (Sojourners recent attack from Glen Beck?).

But in all of the readings for this week we also see that in our humiliation, as in our humility, we must be radically dependent upon God. In this radical dependence we die and let our life carry on in God—let God become our body and breath. We follow the Psalmist saying, “I trust in you, O Lord; / I say, ‘Your are my God.’/ My times are in your hand.”

This Palm Sunday as many of us march around our churches waving palms, remember that these will be the ashes representing our death when they are burned for Ash Wednesday—that if we follow Christ into Jerusalem humiliation and death will follow. This Sunday is the beginning of the radically new insurrection of the Gospel—an insurrection that begins with humiliation, moves to “death—even death on a cross,” and ends with God’s faithful deliverance and resurrection.


March 09, 2010


by Janice Love
Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32

To see as God sees.

I have had the delight this Lent to have always before me the picture of Charles McCollough’s sculpture, “The Return of the Prodigal.” (pictured*)

It has led me to contemplate not only the joy of heaven over one sinner who repents but also the suffering of God over the lost, the dead, the unrepentant. Perhaps it is parents who best glimpse this pain as we ache, grieve and pray for our children, at times tempted to shout out, as in Psalm 32, “Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.” As loving parent to the whole world and all its messy brokenness, oh, how God must suffer. Frederick Buechner in Wishful Thinking reflects that “…Christ’s love sees us with terrible clarity and sees us whole…The worst sentence Love can pass is that we behold the suffering which Love endured for our sake, and that is also our acquittal. The justice and mercy of the judge are ultimately one.”

To see as God sees is the calling of the church that we might too join heaven in celebrating what God celebrates.

In Lent we focus on the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem to reconcile heaven and earth. Reconcile comes from the Latin ‘reconcilare’ meaning “to bring together again” or, literally, “again make friendly”. During the transfiguration, back in chapter 9 in the gospel of Luke, we hear the voice of God reconfirming Jesus’ anointed status and commanding that we “listen to him!” After coming down from the mountain, Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem. By chapter 15, we find him determinedly on his way, teaching and healing. Large crowds are traveling with him. His teachings include calls to humility and compassion. And chapter 15 opens with the statement, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.” All of them! To listen to him. See God’s arms beginning to open wide in welcome, the throngs of angels readying their cheers. And then the keepers of correctness pop the balloon.

The Pharisees and scribes, the trained theologians, are grumbling again about the company Jesus keeps. In response, Jesus rattles off three parables in quick succession, the longest one about the man and his two sons being the last told, before turning again to address his disciples. If the first two parables have been surprising, the last no doubt elicits open shock. The behavior of the youngest son violates so much correctness that the knickers of the Pharisees and scribes “listening” must be in knots. Asking for his inheritance before his father has died, selling the property given to him, traveling to a foreign country, wasting his ill gotten gain on women and wine. Perhaps they even laugh upon hearing that when the youngest son’s fortunes take a turn for the worse, he ends up alone with the pigs, unclean animals that further deservedly cement the young son’s very own uncleanness. Ahhh, justice.

And then the turn. Having gone as low as a young Jew might, he “comes to himself”. In humility and repentance and in order to save his life, he decides to return home, confess and appeal to his father’s compassion for a job as a hired hand.

And then the welcome. Even before the repentance of the son is known, while he is still far off, there is the undeserved, over the top, arms wide welcome of the father. For it is not only the youngest son who has suffered.

And it is this that the eldest son does not see. The eldest son sees what he has always done for his father and he sees what he does not have. He sees the sin of his brother and he sees the rightness of his position on the matter. He sees from where his vested interests are. He does not see the suffering of his father and therefore does not understand his joy, even though the reason for it is repeated to him three times: ‘because he has got him back safe and sound’, ‘because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ One wonders if the Pharisees and scribes, so like the elder brother, are able to see now that Jesus has told them three parables.

To see as God sees requires our willingness to enter into God’s suffering for the world so loved. It is not that hard to find. As Gordon Harland in Christian Faith and Society insightfully states, “there is enough pain and sorrow in any city block to crack the heart of the world.” Harder perhaps is the willingness to be present enough with one another that we are able to enter into one another’s suffering. To be present to God is how we are able to enter into God’s suffering. It is in part what the Sabbath is for, time to be present to God and to one another, to let go of the vested interests that blind us to what God sees.

But it is potentially overwhelming, exhausting, painful work. This is why, I think, God in God’s wisdom, calls us into community with one another. The church as the Body of Christ is better able to bear the weight of this cross than what we might be capable of as individuals, for the ministry of reconciliation has been given to the church (2 Cor. 5:18). But we have also been given the message of reconciliation (5:19) – of Jesus’ reconciliation of heaven and earth. The hardest and most impossible reconciliation has already been accomplished and we are a new creation in Christ. Hear the angels’ cheers? Now that’s worth celebrating! 

(*Pictured: "The Return of the Prodigal", terra cotta by Charles McCollough, 2006; “The Salt of the Earth: A Christian Seasons Calendar 2009/2010,


March 05, 2010

Sooner or Later

by Kyle Childress
Luke 13: 1-9

Many years ago I heard Walter Brueggemann say to a room full of preachers, “We must always hold before our people God’s commands to obedience.  Always.  But we must also always be patient with one another as we fail to heed those commands.  Always.”

The readings for this Sunday are all about God’s commands to obey and our failure to obey.  According to Luke, Jesus found himself in a conversation about some current tragedies, the gist of which had everyone wondering if the people who suffered the tragedies had it coming or not.  Perhaps bad things happened to these people because they were bad.  Jesus says, “No. These people were no worse than anybody else.  But I tell you, this is a reminder that everyone had better change their ways.  Sooner or later there is an accounting.”

When I was a Baptist kid growing up in a small town in west Texas going to funerals was a common part of life.  It was also common for the preacher at the funeral to make sure that the occasion of burying someone was also the opportunity for everyone else to repent and “get saved.”  It didn’t matter that everyone there was a born-again-washed-in-the-blood-baptized-by-immersion-Bible-believing-Baptist-Christian.  Yet sitting there with  death ever so much before us and the hotter-than-blue-blazes Texas summer heat adding to the sense of urgency, both because none of us wanted to go to hell and all of us wanted to get out of the stifling church, we took seriously our own sins and the call to repent.  Sooner or later there is an accounting.

Over the years, I went to school, read books, and rebelled against Fundamentalism.  When I heard Brueggemann long ago, I recall some of the mature, sophisticated clergy – the very kind I yearned to be like – respond, “The language of command and obedience is too harsh.  Where’s the grace?”  Likewise, I came to believe that calling people to repentance at funerals was too harsh.  We needed to speak of comfort and grace, instead.

Jesus tells us of grace.  He says there was a fig tree which did not produce fruit and the owner said, “Cut it down.  It’s not producing; it’s taking up space and using up the nutrients of the soil.”  The caretaker responded, “Give it more time.  Let me fertilize it, work the ground around it, and see if I can get it to bear fruit. Next year, if it still is bare, then we’ll cut it down.”

Sooner or later there is an accounting.  Perhaps the grace is that there is still time.

After being a pastor for twenty years with most of the same people, I’ve learned to not be shy about God’s command to obedience and our call to repent.  I’ve also learned that being friends gives us a grace and patience with one another that allows us to talk about God’s commands and our failures in ways that I didn’t understand when I was younger and a short-term pastor.  Some of these friends have told me that lying in a hospital bed dying of cancer does clear one’s mind of the underbrush of trivialities; the focus becomes God, life, and death.  That’s why a good pastor can say, “Well, let’s talk about your death.  Let’s talk about God.  And let’s talk about dying well and reconciling with God and with all your friends and loved ones.”  I’ve found that people in such circumstances are often starving for such a conversation.

But people in such circumstances know that time is short.  What about the rest of us?  What about all of us who are not in hospital rooms or attending a funeral?  Perhaps that’s why we have Lent.  From the beginning on Ash Wednesday when we look into one another’s eyes and hear the unvarnished truth, “You are dust and to dust you shall return,” Lent is talking about God, death, life, and getting our lives in order.  It is about clearing away the underbrush of trivialities and focusing our lives upon the commands of God and our failure to obey those commands.  And it is about us being patient with one another as we face and repent of our failures.

One of my mentors and heroes was Browning Ware, long-time pastor of the First Baptist Church of Austin, Texas.  He was tall, angular, and ruggedly handsome with a crusty voice that could put the fear of the Lord into pompous religionists or share the love of God with an overworked, under-rested, discouraged waitress at an all-night coffee shop.  One day an old, rattle-trap pickup drove up to the downtown First Baptist Church and two men got out dressed in work clothes.  The older man was on crutches and was being helped by the younger man as they made their way into the church office and demanded to see Browning Ware. Without an appointment, the receptionist hesitated about what to do but Browning happened to pass by and see them.  Warm and loud words of greetings were exchanged; apparently the two men were father and son and members of a rural church Browning had served many years before as a student pastor, and they all went back to Browning’s study.  The older man on crutches pulled up his split pants leg to expose an awful smelling, bandaged-wrapped leg.  He explained that he had gangrene and the doctors were warning of dire consequences.  He said, “Browning, when you were my pastor you always told the truth.  Now tell me the truth.  Am I going to die?”  And the rest of the afternoon these three friends, father and son and pastor, spoke of the truth of life, death, and God.

The truth is that sooner or later there is an accounting.  The grace is that we still have time to repent.