Today I invite you to hear with me stories of Jesus’ last week according to the Gospel of Luke. The seven or so days before the last supper with his friends and disciples on Thursday evening, his arrest in the garden, his trial and crucifixion. Days of journey to Jerusalem. And days of ministry in that great multi-ethnic city where Roman soldiers, representatives of the conquering empire, watched warily as conquered Jews ironically gathered to celebrate their festival of deliverance and freedom, Passover. The oppressor keeping a tight reign on the oppressed lest there be subversion and rebellion. Hear the trajectory and strategy of Jesus’ resistance to injustice. And ponder with me how it might be instructive to ours?
As Jesus traveled the back roads of Galilee, through the dusty, little towns, people gathered in crowds to hear him teach and preach, to be present when he healed the sick.
15 People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. 16 But Jesus called for them and said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 17 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it."
And people continually brought him their questions. One day... 18 A certain ruler asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 19 Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 20 You know the commandments: 'You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.'" 21 He replied, "I have kept all these since my this, he said to him, "There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." 23 But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. 24 Jesus looked at him and said, "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." 26 Those who heard it said, "Then who can be saved?" 27 He replied, "What is impossible for mortals is possible for God."
As Jesus and his disciples traveled, Jesus would teach them. One day he said to them for the third time... "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32 For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. 33 After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again." 34 But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.
Jesus and his disciples approached that famous city, Jericho, and there was .... 35 a blind man... sitting by the roadside begging. 36 When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. 37 They told him, "Jesus of Nazareth is passing by." 38 Then he shouted, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" 39 Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" 40 Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be
brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, 41 "What do you want me to do for you?" He said, "Lord, let me see again." 42 Jesus said to him, "Receive your sight; your faith has saved you." 43 Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God;
and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.
Jesus ... 1 entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." 9 Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost."
28 After ... this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
29 When Jesus had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, "Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it.'" 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?" 34 They said, "The Lord needs it." 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying
"Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!"
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop." 40 He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."
41 As he came near and saw the city, he looked at the great city on the hill and saw the temple mount, and he wept over it, 42 saying, "If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God."
Entering Jerusalem Jesus went straight to the temple....
45 ... he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; 46 and he said, "It is written, 'My house shall be a house of prayer'; but you have made it a den of robbers."
47 Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; 48 but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard. 1 One day, as he was teaching the people in the temple and telling the good news, the chief priests and the scribes came with the elders 2 and said to him, "Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things? Who is it who gave you this authority?" 3 He answered them, "I will also ask you a question, and you tell me: 4 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?" 5 They discussed it with one another, saying, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say, 'Why did you not believe him?' 6 But if we say, 'Of human origin,' all the people will stone us; for they are convinced that John was a prophet." 7 So they answered that they did not know where it came from. 8 Then Jesus said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things."
As he continued to teach in the temple, Jesus told the people stories of masters who went on long journeys and entrusted their estates, their vineyards, to servants. Some of these servants were very faithful and others not so much. One day the chief priests and scribes and elders of the temple, who were always watching Jesus,
20 .... sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. 21 So they asked him, "Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. 22 Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" 23 But he perceived their craftiness and said to them, 24 "Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?" They said, "The emperor's." 25 He said to them, "Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." 26 And they were not able in the presence of the people to trap him by what he said; and being amazed by his answer, they became silent.
Another day ....
45 In the hearing of all the people Jesus said to the disciples, 46 "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. 47 They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation." 1 He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; 2 he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3 He said, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; 4 for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on."
He continued to teach about resurrection and the Messiah, son of David, about end times. And most importantly he told the people to pay attention! Stay alert! Keep watching for all the surprising things that God was doing in unexpected ways.
37 Every day he was teaching in the temple, and at night he would go out and spend the night on the Mount of Olives, as it was called. 38 And all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple.
1 Now the festival of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was near. 2 The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Jesus to death, for they were afraid of the people. 3 Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve; 4 he went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers of the temple police about how he might betray him to them. 5 They were greatly pleased and agreed to give him money. 6 So he consented and began to look for an opportunity to betray him to them when no crowd was present.
Hear the stories, my friends. Ponder them. Question them. Let them lead you into Holy Week. And may they lead us on our journey seeking God’s justice and love. Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2018. All rights reserved.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Text: John 3: 14-17
March 11, 2018
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC of Fort Collins, Colorado
Note: This Sunday, for the first time in decades at Plymouth, we sang Old Rugged Cross and In the Garden as our focus hymns.
Thank you to our liturgists this morning for leading worship and reading the Scripture. Will you be in prayer with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be good and pleasing to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Have any of you heard or sibling rivalry? How many of you have experienced it? [Ask for a show of hands for both.] Well, today we are going to talk about why talking to other Christians, siblings in Christ, is often so much harder than interfaith work—basically sibling rivalry. Today, I am preaching a different kind of sermon. I want us to think about how we can stay in conversation, in dialogue, or maybe even in community with those who believe very differently than we do. It isn’t easy work, but it is the test of progressive Christianity for our time. I am going to do this by a little bit of honest testimony about my own experience and then conclude with a concrete practice that is sort of a take-home exercise. How does that sound?
I remember the rooms—a yellowing hand-embroidered pillow with the words from the King James Version neatly, yet obvious hand-stitched: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” It was on the chair I was offered. The chaplain was always offered the chair with the John 3:16 or other verses embroidered pillow on it, of course, as a sign of respect. The patients almost always cried. So many elderly patients get far too few visitors—getting old can be lonely. I remember one patient. She buckled over on herself in the wheelchair every time I would visit, tears flowing, and was overcome with tears and I just kept singing and singing. It was all I could do, for I was without words for the first time in a year. I had discovered a secret language of communication, however, that could overcome dementia, Alzheimer’s, differences of theology, and age—a couple of singable, simple hymns that always said what I could or would not.
I had, up until that point, been a smart-ass seminarian, a self-described and self-righteous social justice warrior, a progressive firebrand who believed that he was somehow sent or cursed by God him or herself to be one of the only out gay liberal voices at a Southern, United Methodist Seminary. I was, needless to say, a miserable seminarian for three years completely out of my element in a world of bowties, suits (seersucker), big hats, and conservative/politely closeted formalities of Emory University. Don’t let me even get into what I thought of the subtle racism,
Coca-Cola idol Worship, and the coffee hours at local churches (I kid you not) complete with chocolate fountains and tiers and tiers of cucumber or pimento cheese finger sandwiches every single Sunday.
After my first full year of seminary, I had a transformative experience that reshaped how I now hear and see “traditional” or conservative Christianity not as a sworn enemy but a potential partner for if nothing else healthy conversation. That is when things took a turn for the better. I entered a full time three-month summer program called CPE with Emory University Healthcare and Emory University Hospital as a chaplaincy full time intern for the summer.
This is where I found or reclaimed my calling after having lost it somewhere in Atlanta during that turbulent first year of seminary. My call to ministry wasn’t primarily social justice advocacy (even if I am good at it) as I had expected, but geriatric and elder care, nostalgia nurturing, and old time religion translation and meaning making for the progressive church. In addition to being assigned to overnight on call shifts at the main hospital and weekly shifts as the chaplain for Emory’s shocking Electroshock Therapy program (ECT), I spent most of my time at Wesley Woods—Emory’s geriatric hospital and nursing care campus.
It was there that I discovered the power of these hymns, “Old Rugged Cross” and “In the Garden” among others to literally create common ground, common language where it wasn’t before. Even as some of the theology in them made and still makes me cringe, I was able to see the meaning they have for others. It isn’t all about my liberal theology and me. This is also the case for our passage today: John 3:16. As I was willing to let go of just a little of my pride and perfect progressive pedigree, learn to sing these simple, personal, nostalgic rural hymns…. I was able to reclaim a call to ministry after that first year of seminary. It is with this same gratitude and attitude of openness that I learned singing hymns with the elderly in Atlanta that have been able to survive Christian ministry as an out gay minister in my 20’s. The humility to know that people may dislike what I stand for, but I can still work to find ways to relate is powerful. These hymns remind me what is a stake: a sense of the humanity of the other and a willingness as a progressive to laugh at myself. This is not something we remember how to do often on the progressive side in these times—and it matters more than ever.
I learned that these old folksy hymns, Scripture like John 3:16 from the KJV, and other signs of traditional faith were tools for pastoral care, conversation, and being with people in the hardest times of their lives and deaths when words and lectures and difference no longer matter. If someone is dying alone and you are his or her only companion as chaplain or you as friends or family, what do you say? I know some of you have experienced this. What did you say? Do you lecture them about not being liberal enough even then? No, you sing. No, you find common ground in this one life to live. We have been rejectionists of tradition for a longtime, and that is good. A lot of it needed to be rejected. We have learned, through trouble and toil, a new way to be Christian and progressive (Amen!)… but now comes the hard part for the UCC (the next step)… still remaining in community with those who are different without being condescending.
Often when we talk about our sister and brothers in other Christian traditions, we do it with the condescending tone of the older brother. We love our sisters and brothers, but they are just so misguided… wait till they grow-up like us.
My patients, like the one with the John 3:16 pillow, probably didn’t vote the way I did. They probably would not have been kind to my husband, and me but they were vulnerable humans for whom their faith had kept them all the day and nightlong. Their faith could have kept them, helped them survive and endure situations in life beyond my understanding and often beyond words. Who am I to take that from them?
Let me use a recent example of where the UCC missed the point entirely! When Billy Graham died last week, there was an outpouring of emotions on social media and Facebook in particular.
Mostly the attitude I saw was extremely negative. Most of my clergy friends took time away from sermons, budgets, and whatever the heaven clergy are supposed to do to write long diatribes and Facebook post polemics claiming that Billy Graham ruined American Christianity and pointing out homophobic statements he made in the 1980’s as a reason to discredit his entire ministry. It made me wonder how many of the people I love now and who love me now [silently look out at our mostly older congregation] said or thought something homophobic in the 1980’s. Have we developed such a litmus test for “good progressive Christian” that we have forgotten about grace, about falling short, about forgiveness, or even process? Where did this litmus test for perfection come from in our circles? Are we any better or more holy than any other Christian because we have declared ourselves enlightened? Have we forgotten about grace and redemption? This is a question I would like to ask our denominational leaders in Cleveland. I sure hope that I am not judged, my life is not summarized, and my entire ministry isn’t evaluated based on my worst moments. Don’t we all hope our lives aren’t summarized by our falling and tripping?
As Progressive Christians, unlike other Christians, listening, inclusion, unity, and trying to build bridges is central to how we understand Jesus—so being the ones who are willing to stay in conversations, even the hardest conversations, fall on us (the Otis) as progressive Christians to find ways to be in relationship rather than cut off. For us, it is fundamental to our belief, so it is our job to stick with it. See it is our faith to be bridge builders even if it if harder on us than the others. Verses like John 3:16 and hymns like those we are singing today are hard for us, but it is our job to stay present and find the good even if hard at times.
I want to leave you today with a simple tool I call “The Great And” as a method of learning to speak with those with whom you disagree. “The Great And” is something I learned at a workshop called “Identity Bowling” this past summer at General Synod’s National LGBTQ Coalition pre-conference. Here is how it works: Whenever you want to say “but” in a sentence… instead say “and” –then see how the sentence comes together differently.
How many of you have ever caught yourselves saying, “I love you, but you drive me crazy” or “He is a good minister, but he is so young?” Anytime you end a sentence or start it with “but” you are negating whatever came before it. If you hear something you disagree with, if you respond with “and” you are not negating what they just said… rather you are adding your own thought on top of it. This is a radically different way of dealing with disagreement. The need to say but is the need to define yourself in your sentence rather than the need to communicate and
community. If you are confident in whom you are in the discussion, then you don’t need “but” anymore.
Billy Graham was a conservative, evangelical minister who said some terrible things about LGBTQ people in the 1980’s and he transformed many lives and brought American Christianity new vitality. We can even say that the Mainline progressive congregations wouldn’t be what they are today without him.
The Old Rugged Cross is a song about personal salvation, blood, gore, and the word rugged can mean something durable, changeable, natural, organic, enduring and that helps me sing that hymn in my own progressive way. Rugged is a word I relate to as a Coloradan.
In the Garden is an outdated, bad theology, terrible hymn we should never sing, and for many it is a powerful hymn that reminds people of their grandmother’s love of nature or finding God in nature.
Beards are itchy and some people like wearing them.
Or here are some harder examples formulated as what someone might says to us, and then I provide an optional response. Note that humor, irony, and play is helpful in disarming tension and keeping relationship intact.
Gay people should never be ministers… and it’s a little late for that.
The UCC is just Unitarians Considering Christ… and boy do we spend a lot of time considering him. You would almost think we were Christian ourselves!
Deportations are part of a fair legal system… and so should being allowed to take care of your neighbor, bring water to the refugee, and exercising our Christian values of love for the stranger.
Guns are part of the American dream, and for some of us that is feeling more like a nightmare.
The CSU stadium has ruined Fort Collins, and it has provided a space for the community to gather for music, marathons, and other events.
Being Christian, even a progressive Christian is a waste of time… if God existed there wouldn’t be such mess in the world… and some of us still find comfort in religion, in church community, and believing in a higher purpose.
These are hard conversation, but the simple word “and” can allow engagement without agreement. “The Great And” does three things—it leaves what the other person said intact (you aren’t going to change their mind with a but and a negation), it keeps the conversation going, and it allows you room to have a sense of humor. It does not mean that you agree with what they said, but it allows for relationship even in the hardest time.
Of everyone at Plymouth, I am probably the most hated and vilified member of our community by those on the outside as your proud and out gay liberal minister. If I can engage these conversations, humorously deal with the barbs, show up at events with people who really think I somehow symbolize the end of the religion as we know it, and attempt to stick with the “great and” responses rather than “but” retorts, then I promise you can do it too! It just takes some time and self-assurance, and it is worthwhile.
May we never give up the effort of building relationships, especially with others in our faith, even if it is hard and painful. After all, we are all in the same garden. Amen.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.