Images of the Passion

Betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Judas greets Jesus with a kiss.

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Kiss of Judas (Le baiser de Judas) - James Tissot.jpg

Jesus before Pilate

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The first nail

File:Brooklyn Museum - The First Nail (Le premier clou) - James Tissot.jpg

+   +   + James Tissot [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons James Tissot [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Like bread dipped in wine

File:Brooklyn Museum - Mary Magdalene Questions the Angels in the Tomb (Madeleine dans le tombeau interroge les anges) - James Tissot.jpgA single picture in the sanctuary will stay the same from Palm Sunday through to Easter morning: the picture of Mary Magdalene peeking into the tomb and seeing angels.

The paintings we are using beginning with Palm Sunday are by James Tissot, a 19th century French artist who, in the last decade and a half of his life, painted 365 works depicting the life of Christ, and then began a series on the Old Testament, exhibiting 80 works before his death. The collection was purchased by the Brooklyn Museum. It’s on my list for the next time I go visit my daughter.

The images will shift as we move from Palm Sunday, through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and then to Easter. They accent different parts of the passion story, yet always preserving the larger narrative arc from the Garden of Gethsemane to the empty tomb. Only one painting is in all four sets, the resurrection, because this narrative is not ultimately about Judas’ betrayal or Pilate’s sentence, or Peter’s denial, or the jeering crowds at the cross. This story is about the resurrection. The death, yes, but the death that leads to life.

When we arrive at Easter, it would be tempting to have all the pictures represent the risen Christ, but this is a place where we run out of images. We don’t know how to paint the resurrection. We don’t know how to portray heavenly messengers. The betraying and dying are part of our human experience. What happened next is not.

To what shall we compare it? We are forced to use stylized images – angels with wings, for example, or haloes and shimmering light.

File:Grudziądz Polyptych 12.jpgThe resurrection can’t be painted like Peter fleeing the cockcrow. The empty tomb can be painted, but Jesus climbing out of a grave is a concept, an idea, not something we have ever seen.

We are up against the limits of human experience. And yet, we know something about death and life. For our Lent midweek services in Michigan one year we invited people to share something of their faith journey. One man came and told of the day he was on patrol in the jungles of Vietnam and heard the click of a landmine beneath his foot. He froze, then told all the rest of his platoon to move away to safety. This was his end. He faced it. But when he finally lifted his foot, the explosive didn’t go off. He was dead, but now he lives.

We can’t picture the resurrection of Jesus in our minds, but losing life and receiving it back again we do understand. We have been there, most of us, one time or another. Maybe more than once. Caught between the army of pharaoh and the Red Sea, when suddenly a path appears. Barren and too old for the promise to be fulfilled, but then there is a child. Carried into exile for fifty years, the city left behind in ruins, and then comes the royal decree opening the way to go home. Again and again in scripture and in life, the unexpected happens, hopelessness is turned to joy, prison doors are opened, ruptured lives are healed, broken ties restored.

We can’t paint it. But we know it. We know what it feels like. We know what it tastes like. It looks like an empty tomb. It tastes like bread dipped in wine.

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Image: James Tissot [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Master of the Třeboň Altarpiece [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A threat to the order of the world

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Watching for the Morning of March 25, 2018

Year B

Palm Sunday / The Sunday of the Passion

Sunday is both festive and sobering. It begins with that great procession into the church waving palm branches, the crucifer bearing the cross and pounding on the sanctuary door crying out “Open to me the gates of righteousness,” and the usher flinging wide the doors and declaring “This is the gate of the Lord; The righteous shall enter through them.” The pastor exclaims, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” and the congregation responds “This is the Lord’s doing, it is marvelous in our eyes.”

The organ swells, the hymn begins, “All glory, laud, and honor to you, redeemer, king.” The crowd enters, evoking the great drama of Jesus entering Jerusalem and the coronation rituals of Israel’s ancient kings. The choir will sing something loud and boisterous. And, as the music fades away and we settle into our seats, we will hear that this Jesus will be crowned with thorns.

We have come to Jerusalem. Our Lenten fast is nearly over. What lies ahead of us in the week that follows are the sacred days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Great Vigil of Easter, and Easter morn.

We have heard so many tragic stories lately, it is hard for this story of Jesus to move us anew: Young people with their phones videoing their flight from a gunman. Images of endless rubble in Syria. War upon war in the region. Random bombs exploding in the streets of Austin. More school shootings. Young people marching and hateful speech attacking them. Presidential lies. Congressional lies. Assassinations. Corruptions. Corporate malfeasance. Porn stars on the nightly news. It will almost be a relief to hear a story as relatively simple as the story of Jesus’ passion.

But it is not a small story; it is the whole human story in one terrible story: perfect goodness hated, tortured and driven from the world.

Except he is not driven from the world. The grave is empty.

The story we tell of Jesus’ final hours is not meant to make us sad. It is not told to evoke sympathy. It is told to reveal the callous brutality of power. It is a mirror on the human race, a mirror on the human soul. Something is wrong in us. Yet even more importantly, the story is told to reveal the heart of God. God does not answer violence with violence. God does not answer hate with hate. All our cruelty and sorrows God willingly bears. The only judgment here is what we must face about ourselves.

Abut us and about God, but most importantly this story tells us about this Jesus. Though the world judged him a fraud, God vindicated him. He is condemned as a sinner. He is crucified as a threat to the order of the world. But God voids the sentence. The tomb is empty. The words of Jesus stand true. His deeds abide.

We will tell the story Sunday, but it is too much for one day. So we will tell it more slowly beginning next Thursday until we are prepared to walk into the light.

This Sunday we turn to the passion narrative that will occupy us on the three days from Maundy Thursday to the Vigil of Easter. Daily verses and reflections continue to be posted at Holy Seasons.

The Prayer for March 25, 2018

Almighty God,
Jesus, your anointed,
walked the holy path to Jerusalem and the cross,
faithful in all his steps,
that your new creation might be born in us.
Wrap us ever in your eternal mercy
and guide us in all our ways that we may be faithful to you and to all.

The Texts for March 25, 2018

Processional Gospel Mark 11:1-11
“’Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.’” – Jesus arranges to enter Jerusalem as the kings of old, and a great crowd responds with cries of acclamation.

Processional Psalmody: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
“Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.” – A song of salvation from an ancient festival in Israel as the community enters through the gates into the temple, rejoicing in God’s deliverance.

Gospel Mark 14:1-16:8
“It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.” – The climax and center of Mark’s Gospel is the sequence of events in Jerusalem when Jesus is arrested and crucified.

Reading: Philippians 2:5-11
“He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
– An early Christian hymn reciting the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus. It is used by Paul to remind the community of the mind of Christ and to call them to abide in his Spirit.

The appointed reading for Sunday include also Isaiah 50:4-9a (“I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard.”) and Psalm 31:9-16 (“They plot to take my life. But I trust in you, O Lord.”). The appointed Mark text is from 14:1-15:47 or an abbreviated portion, Mark 15:1-39, (40-47).

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Image: Saint Marcello church in Paruzzaro [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


Palms and Passion

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Watching for the Morning of April 9, 2017

Palm Sunday / Sunday of the Passion

A noble dying, a shameful death. A royal claim upon the city, and a rejection of that claim. The cries of Hosanna are not sounds of praise, but pleas for aid and deliverance made to the passing king – but then the crowd will cry for blood. Sunday is both. Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday. The festive gathering and procession to church with palm fronts waving and the fabulous hymn “All Glory Laud and Honor,” and the gut-wrenching story of a mob in the night and fleeing disciples and Rome determined to show this royal claimant the true power and might of empire.

Our Lenten season is nearing its end. And though Easter is coming, the light that shines on Easter morning shines against the dark background of the human enterprise. We are a long way, yet, from living as children of God.

But the story is not only about human violence and power; it is also about the faithfulness of God and the fidelity of Jesus. He is willing to go to his death without breaking faith in the promise of God that the Spirit of God shall prevail. The reign of God shall dawn. The human heart shall be transformed. Grace and mercy shall govern all creation. Death shall give way to life.

So Sunday is joy and pensiveness and wonder. Sunday is celebration and mystery and thankfulness. Sunday begins with palms in our hands and then brings us to the table to receive the bread – the foretaste of the feast that will come.  It is a good and proper way to prepare us for the observance of the three days that carry us from Maundy Thursday into the first light of Easter.

(I apologize to those who follow this blog regularly that, during this season of Lent, it has been somewhat erratic. I have been focused primarily on the daily devotions for Lent we publish on the church website and at our Lent site.)

The Prayer for April 9, 2017

Almighty God, Holy and Wondrous;
trusting your promise, Jesus entered Jerusalem
knowing the path that lay before him.
Grant us a share of his Spirit
and the courage to follow his way of love;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for April 9, 2017

Procession with Palms Reading: Matthew 21:1-11
“The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” – Matthew’s account of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem.

Processional Psalm: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
“Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord… The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” – A song of salvation from an ancient festival in Israel as the community enters through the gates into the temple, rejoicing in God’s deliverance.

Reading from the prophets: Isaiah 53:1-6
“He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole.” – Isaiah’s vision of the suffering servant who bears the sins of the people.

Passion Reading: Matthew 26:1 – 27:61
“Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” – The passion narrative according to Matthew.

Readings as appointed for Passion Sunday

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a
“I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” – One of the ‘servant songs’ from Isaiah describing a teacher who suffers, but trusts completely in God’s vindication.

Psalmody: Psalm 31:9-16
“I hear the whispering of many– terror all around!– as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.” – A cry from one who faces the threat of a violent death, yet expresses his complete trust in God. It echoes with themes of the passion.

Second Reading: Philippians 2:5-11
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”
– An early Christian hymn reciting the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus. It is used by Paul to remind the community of the mind of Christ and to call them to abide in his Spirit.

Gospel: Matthew 26:14 – 27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54

Image: By Pietro lorenzetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We are their children

Sunday Evening

Palm Sunday / Sunday of the Passion

Mark 14:1-16:8

File:A Woman Praying over the Dead Body of Christ LACMA AC1998.240.2.jpg14:39 Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

It’s pretty clear from the Greek that the Gospel of Mark was composed as an oral Gospel. When you listen to someone tell the story of something that has happened to them, it has a much different rhythm than a written document. To put it simply, the stories we tell tend toward extensive run-on sentences joined by the words ‘and’ and ‘but’: “we went here and we did this and we did that and then this happened and then somebody said this and then we all agreed to that….”

You can see this in the Greek of Mark’s Gospel. Translators take out all those ands and buts and turn it into a written document, but it is a living voice, the story of a community, the story that is our story. When Mark names Simon of Cyrene you can see the congregation nod, because they know him or his family. When Mark names Mary the mother of young James and Joses, you can hear the murmurs of appreciation for these men and their mother.

When Mark tells us of Peter challenged by a servant girl and trying to deflect her attention by going into the outer court, and you hear the challenge growing as others begin to question it, you know there are people present in the listening congregation who have stood in that courtyard – or their parents have stood there. And they know about Peter’s understandable but unthinkable betrayal, and they are filled with appreciation for the grace of Jesus who knew this would happen and who received Peter back. And they know what Peter has meant to them all.

When Mark tells his story, there are people in the congregation who have faced that ultimate test and failed. And others with friends and family who did not fail, but were crucified by the Romans or became the victims of violence from their neighbors and friends. No one holds it against Peter. It is our story. And it magnifies Jesus.

He died with eyes open. He died with courage and strength and dignity. He is not beaten into silence before the High Priest or before Pilate; he is possessed of that inner stillness that knows when to speak and when words are of no use.

He died with honor, so that even the Roman centurion had to admit he seemed like a son of the gods – or, as they all now know – the Son of God, the beloved, the anointed one.

He died with courage and endurance in the face of great suffering, refusing the drugged wine. He died with a confession of faith on his lips – the psalm the begins “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” that confesses “You are the Holy One, enthroned, the Praise of Israel” and prays “deliver me from the lion’s mouth” and declares “Let the ends of the earth pay heed and turn to the LORD.” It is not a cry of abandonment, but a prayer of faith and trust.

He died with courage and dignity and only the leaders of Judah shamed themselves, snatching him in the dark though he taught openly in the temple, plotting to act by deceit and trickery rather than nobly in the open, sending thugs in the night rather than acting openly in the day, abusing an innocent man.

He showed himself honorable in a dishonorable world. He showed himself true in a deceiving world. He showed himself compassionate in a brutal world. He alone merited the royal purple, though they put it on him only to taunt and torture. He alone wears a true crown, though they gave him a crown of thorns.

He was not a fool. He was not surprised by what happened. He knew what was coming. He knew that one in the inner circle would betray him. He knew that all his inner circle would abandon him. He knew that his body would be broken like the bread and he would not drink wine again until that day when God’s kingdom dawns in its fullness. He knew Peter’s denial.

He was not a fool. He knew what was to come, but he trusted God would use this to reclaim and redeem his rebellious world. He sought God’s will not his own safety.

All this is in the story Mark tells. A living story for a living community. A community who knows that the empty tomb inspired terror at first. But Jesus went before them. The risen Christ met them. God voided the sentence imposed by the Jerusalem council and by Rome. God voided the judgment that Jesus was a liar. There was no mortification in the tomb, no decaying of the sinful flesh. God raised Jesus, declaring him righteous – raising him as the firstborn of the dead, the first of the resurrection when all humanity is judged and the world made new.

And that little band of refugees and survivors that listens to Mark tell his story, that little band that gathers around a shared table, that little band gathered in allegiance to Jesus and to one another, that little band is an anticipation of what is to come when all creation bows before the holy and righteous one.

And we are their children, gathered around the same table, telling the same story, and kneeling before the same Lord, trusting God’s declaration that he is the one who reigns and shall reign over a world where the debt of our sins is wiped away and we inhabit once more the garden world God made.





Philippians 2:5-11

File:Kirche San Michele de Murato, Korsika - Der Sündenfall (die Schlange reicht Eva die Frucht vom Baum der Erkenntnis).jpg

San Michele de Murato, Corse – Fall of man

6Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

The Greek word for Christ’s emptying of himself is ‘kenosis’. In seminary we wore the cloak of learning with theological jargon that identified us as members of an elite class. Every educational discipline does the same thing. We use technical terms and language to define ourselves as members of a special class of the knowledgeable.

It isn’t just academics that love this illusion of being special. Those who work with their hands mock those ‘eggheads’ who can’t fix a thing. We mock the ‘fruits and nuts’ of California as they the ‘rubes’ of the heartland. So-called liberals mock so-called conservatives – and vice-versa – as if they were utterly ignorant of the most basic truths. Abortion, sexuality, guns, pick a topic, any topic, and we lift ourselves over the ‘others’.

In a world of constant king-of-the-hill, of a perpetual squabble over the pecking order, Jesus is among us as one who emptied himself.

And then we use him to lift ourselves over others – because we know how to use the word kenosis, or because we are true believers of one kind or another.

Christ emptied himself. He who is Lord of all becomes the slave/servant of God. He who is master of all accepts a master. He who is bound by none becomes bound to all. The one who is the incarnation of the eternal word of God bends to wash feet. I am among you as one who serves.”

We all want to escape the servant class. We want to be our own boss. We hunger for freedom from, not servant to. We promise that Christ will make you free, without carefully pondering the sentence that freedom comes from abiding in Jesus’ teaching, from letting Jesus’ teaching and spirit be your guide and – shall we say – master.

He emptied himself. And we struggle mightily to turn that submission into some kind of self-assertion, some kind of courageous individuation, some bold and exalted lead by example. But it is what it is, submission to the will of another.

Our forebears chose themselves when they clutched at the fruit of the one forbidden tree – the tree that was sure to grant us knowledge not only of life’s beauty and joys (which they already knew) but its sorrows and horrors, the fruit that promised we could be like God who knows every woe. Is there a child killed God does not see? Is there a woman abused, a man tortured, a body desiccated by hunger or disease that God does not know?   A hellish cruelty God does not taste? Ah, but we will be like God? We will be our own gods!

Jesus doesn’t reach out to pluck that fruit. He doesn’t grab and grasp. (I don’t know why the translators use ‘exploit’ for a word used of robbery and rape, the seizing of a prize.) Jesus doesn’t seek to be as God. He chooses to be a slave/servant of God. He chooses to be what our first parents were created to be.

Jesus declared that the reign of God was dawning. And everywhere he went he embodied that reign: forgiving sins, healing, freeing, restoring, uniting, reconciling. It was a journey of submission to the will of another, not the assertion of his own will. Every fiber of our being wants to go the other way. We are children of the first Adam not children of the new Adam. Still he stands before us as the completely faithful one, the one we crucified but God raised, the one who bears perfect witness that the true and imperishable life is found in relationship to the eternal one rather than submission to our passing passions and desires.

We are children of the first Adam. But God has invited us to be a child of the new Adam, to be united with his son, to die with him and rise to newness of life. God invites us to bend the knee now before the one to whom all creation shall ultimately bow. God invites us to enter now into the glory that awaits.

It is an invitation we do not deserve. But he is among us as one who serves.


Photo: By Dnalor 01 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

“I stand at the door and knock”

Watching for the Morning of March 29, 2015

Year B

Palm Sunday / The Sunday of the Passion

File:Northwestern College Chapel Door.jpgSunday, the young person carrying the cross representing Christ in our midst, will leads us in procession from our picnic area up to the sanctuary, She will stop at the closed doors of the church, knock loudly and cry out with the words of the psalm: Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.”

It is a symbolic gesture that reminds us of Jesus coming to Jerusalem to claim the allegiance of the city. Jesus’ arrival on a donkey amidst shouts of acclamation was a claim to kingship, following the ancient pattern of Judah’s kings coming up from the Jordan and knocking at the door of the temple.

With those three loud knocks the usher will throw open the doors so that the cross and the crowd may enter. He will answer the crucifer’s request with the words that are also from our psalm:

“This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through them.”

I will call out to the crowd:

“The stone which the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone!”

And the people will answer:

“This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes!”

In that simple yet profound action lies the most important question for any congregation’s life: Is Christ welcome in our midst? Is our door open to him? Do we recognize him as the Lord of our sanctuary? Do we rejoice in his presence?

The answer to that question is never truly clear. Every parish, of course, claims to belong to Christ. But what we claim does not always match what we are.  Jerusalem was the city of God. The leaders of the city and temple believed that all they did was for the glory of God. But the story that follows is one of rejection and murder. The Christ is slain, not welcomed.

Palm Sunday – the Sunday of the Passion – is great fun. The gathering before worship with coffee and hot cross buns, the children escorting the cross and the energy of the procession with palms, the singing of “All Glory, Laud and Honor” as we crowd into the sanctuary – it’s delightful. But it all contains a serious question. And that question is not only whether the congregation receives Christ with joy, but whether each of us welcomes him as our true and eternal king. For the kingship of Jesus is not like the British monarch – good theater, parades, and a benevolent smile on a variety of good works – Christ has come to reign. Christ has come to do the actual governing: to be the prime minister, the house of Lords and the house of commons, to set policy and practice.

Christ knocks at the door to claim our allegiance. Christ has come to govern our hearts and our lives. Christ has come to make us sons and daughters of God.

Behold, I stand at the door and knock

For our daily Lent devotion from Los Altos Lutheran church, and for sermons and other information on Lent see our Lent site.

Our theme this Lent is Renewal, and for the final week in Lent: Renewing the World with Faith, Hope and Love


The Prayer for March 29, 2015

As Jesus came to Jerusalem, O God,
the crowds were overcome with hope and joy.
Watch over us,
renewing our lives and our world
that we may receive him as our true Lord and King
and prove faithful to him and to all
in lives of Faith. Hope and Love;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever

The Texts for March 29, 2015

Processional Gospel Mark 11:1-11
“’Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.’” – Jesus arranges to enter Jerusalem as the kings of old, and a great crowd responds with cries of acclamation.

Processional Psalmody: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
“Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.” – A song of salvation from an ancient festival in Israel as the community enters through the gates into the temple, rejoicing in God’s deliverance.

Gospel Mark 14:1-16:8
“It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.” – The climax and center of Mark’s Gospel is the sequence of events in Jerusalem when Jesus is arrested and crucified.

Reading: Philippians 2:5-11
“He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
– An early Christian hymn reciting the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus. It is used by Paul to remind the community of the mind of Christ and to call them to abide in his Spirit.


Photo By Micah Taylor (originally posted to Flickr as Knock) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

A participation in Christ

The Evening of Palm Sunday / The Sunday of the Passion

1 Corinthians 10

File:87365 Palm Sunday.jpg

Palm Sunday tradition in Poland creating palm trees from crepe paper and dried flowers

16The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?rsv

I choked on the wine, today. At that crucial moment at the end of the service, when the sip of wine from the chalice is drained (evoking Jesus draining his cup of suffering) and turned on its side with the words: “Jesus said, ‘I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,’” I choked. The wine hit my vocal chords, and though I suppressed the cough, I couldn’t clear my throat, so the words came out forced and feeble.

It was a powerful service. After the joyful opening, processing with palms from the picnic area where we’d gathered around coffee and hot cross buns to the doors of the church where the crucifer banged on the doors of the church with the words of the psalm “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and testify to the Lord!” After the singing of “All Glory, Laud and Honor” as we entered the sanctuary. After the choristers sang their joyful anthem accompanied by flute and piano. And after the children’s message about the meaning of all this, we turned to the passion story from Matthew. We listened to that great narrative, weaving into it the elements of Sunday worship – an offering when we heard of the woman’s offering when she anointed Jesus with precious oil, the communion when we heard Jesus speak of the communion, the prayers when Jesus prayed in the garden. Hopefully in the weaving together of these elements we will remember that what we do Sunday after Sunday is a participation in this story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is what Jesus told us: “Do this to remember me.”

As we moved towards the end of the service, the words of the passion story took over and our words fell away, yet interspersed with wonderful music from the quartet that gave further voice to the story and allowed us time to digest all we heard. All this moving towards that final moment when I would proclaim: “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” and we would hear the quartet echoing down from the loft “What Wondrous Love Is This?” before leaving in silence.

But I choked. I feared it would break the mood. But worship is not about mood. Worship is about participating in this story. We are those with whom Jesus walks. We are those who acclaim him our true king. We are those who share in his table. We are in the crowd as Jesus’ fate is decided. We are witnesses of his sacrifice. We are the women watching at the tomb – and we are there at first light when the tomb is opened and found empty.

This is worship. The word and the meal, the hymns and the prayers, the offering of ourselves – it is a participation in Christ, a participation in his dying and rising, a participation in his Spirit and Life, a participation in his mission and ministry.

In the power of this narrative of wondrous love, the breath of God is breathed upon us. And maybe the fact that I choked is okay. It is a story that should render us speechless for a time.

A crown of thorns


Matthew 27

File:Couronne d'épine de l'église Saint-Michel de Dijon.jpg29and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”

We saw pictures of this from Abu Ghraib. And it is not even that the Roman soldiers were particularly brutal – though it was a brutal time. This same thing happened with Stanford students in Philip Zimbardo’s famous 1971 experiment. Students were randomly divided into guards and prisoners and things devolved so quickly the experiment had to be stopped. Something dark happens when people are given such power and authority over others.

It’s disturbing how brutal we can be, how far we have fallen from the possibility that Eden represents. How does a “modern society” systematically gas and murder 11 million to purify their race? How can Hutus rise up against Tutsis with machetes? How are neighbors turned against neighbors in Bosnia? How is it possible that soldiers slaughter women and children at Sand Creek? How does any man rape? There is plenty of evidence that we can be a brutal species.

How do three men chain another to their pickup truck and drag him three miles down an asphalt road? Or beat a young man senseless and leave him to die, tied to a Wyoming fencepost? We who were made in the image of God?

Why do we tolerate poverty? Why do we tolerate ignorance? Why do we enjoy watching ritualized violence like the world wrestling federation or the NFL? What is the power of violent video games? Humans are capable of such supreme works of beauty and such terrible ugliness. We can build architectural wonders and death camps. We are capable of great generosity and stunning selfishness. We can fall on a grenade for our buddies – and toss the grenade in the first place.

We are such strange creatures. Noble and ignoble. Kind and cruel. Tender and brutal. Compassionate and callous. Able to weep with those who weep, but to laugh while tormenting others.   A crown of thorns.

Jesus doesn’t just say, “Try harder.” God doesn’t ask us to “do better.” The cross of Jesus is like Matthew Shepard’s fencepost. It makes us see. See not just the violence of which we are capable, or how far we have fallen from our true humanity, but where God chooses to stand. Among the crucified.

The cross makes us see. See what we don’t want to see. See ourselves. See God. And, seeing, we are carried out of the darkness into the light.

The God of justice


Matthew 26

File:Jesus bearing the cross - Sagrada Familia - Barcelona 2014.JPG

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

59Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death

They needed an excuse. Not that they needed to justify their actions to themselves – they had good reasons, and they, after all, are the smart and intelligent leaders of the land who know what needs to be done and how to get it done. But there needs to be the appearance of propriety. Plausible deniability. Cover.

When King Ahab pouts because Naboth will not sell him his field, Jezebel, daughter of the Sidonian king, shows Ahab how power is exercised in the real world. She finds two willing witnesses, sets Naboth between them at a public liturgy, has her “witnesses” accuse him of cursing God and the king, and has him executed.

As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.

The leaders of Judea have become Naboth and Jezebel, adept at the exercise of power. They understand the real world of Rome. They know how to pull the levers of power. They have a dependent class of people to use as a rabble to cry out for Jesus’ death. The only thing to work out is the official story so Pilate will bring the terrible power of Rome crashing down on this uppity peasant who challenges their world.

They have abandoned the way of God for the way of the world.

It is not hard to rationalize their decision. If Jesus gains enough followers, if he becomes a threat to Rome, if his followers cause any political instability, Rome will quickly march in, depose them all and appoint someone else to rule the land. Romans want order. They want nothing to interfere with the flow of tribute to Rome.

These leaders in Jerusalem can’t control Jesus. He is a loose cannon. Talk of justice, talk of the reign of God – these are dangerous ideas. A few wondrous deeds, a healing, and suddenly people will think anything is possible. He must be silenced. And more than silenced – he must be neutralized completely. He must be crushed. He must be disgraced in the eyes of all.

It is the way of power. Whether with the skill of lobbyists in congress or lawyers in the courts – drag out the case for years until the poor suitor is penniless or exhausted – the advantage lies with the strong. They need only the thinnest veneer of respectability.

So the God of justice is served by the unjust. The protector of widows and orphans, the defender of the poor, the avenger of the alien with no one to protect him against predation – this God is preyed upon. 30 pieces of silver. An accusation that he has threatened the temple. A couple lackeys to say he claims the kingship. And Rome will smack him down.

But he doesn’t stay down. The God of justice arises. The defender of the poor defends his faithful one. Death must give back its victim and the power of this world is shown to be powerless.

So we watch the machinations of politicians and corporations; bankers, lawyers and lobbyists; clever manipulators of markets and social opinion. But the world belongs to the God of justice. Jerusalem was destroyed. Rome no longer exists. A succession of Romes have come and gone, but the followers of this Jesus are still here, passing on his words and deeds, and living by the knowledge that Ahab and Jezebel do not get the last word. It is spoken by the God of justice.