Thursday, April 13, 2017

Sermon: Holy Wednesday. Now. Now. Now.

A Sermon preached in Christ Church, Grosse Pointe, Michigan
by The Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate
Wednesday in Holy Week, April 12, 2017
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Today’s reading (John 12:27-36)offers this sense of urgency about it.  I could not help but recall hymn 333 from our hymnal, words by Jaroslav Vajda – Now the silence – sometimes sung as a fraction anthem.  This hymn captures the immediacy of Christ’s body broken and poured out for reconciling the whole world to himself.

Now the silence Now the peace Now the empty hands uplifted
Now the kneeling Now the plea Now the Father's arms in welcome
Now the hearing Now the power Now the vessel brimmed for pouring
Now the body Now the blood Now the joyful celebration
Now the wedding Now the songs Now the heart forgiven leaping
Now the Spirit's visitation Now the Son's epiphany Now the Father's blessing
Now Now Now

In today’s gospel, we overhear Jesus:

Now my soul is troubled. Now is the judgment of the world. Now the ruler of the world will be driven out. Now I have come to this hour and now I offer salvation to the whole world. Now I have glorified my father’s name. Now you have heard God’s voice.

In the urgency of this moment, Jesus can face his death because he faced life, “in the beginning.” In the Gospel of John, the emphasis is not on death but on the arc of Jesus’ life – his incarnation.  Now through Jesus death, a community is formed and bound together. Now, Jesus offers reconciliation and permanent relationships between God and God’s people (us!).

Last week, at the Diocesan clergy retreat, we reflected deeply on Howard Thurman’s work.  Thurman was an activist, pastor, professor and spiritual advisor to many in the Civil Rights movement, including MLK.  He is perhaps best known for his 1949 book, Jesus and the Disinherited. In that book, he responds to Gandhi’s question of him, “What is the message of Jesus for those whose backs are against the wall?” Thurman held that the message includes a deep integration of Jesus’ teaching on the transforming power of love in the midst of oppression and the non-violent reconciliation that Jesus offers. 

And what does that mean for us? 

It means the transforming power of reconciliation in this urgent moment of Jesus and it means we experience love, heartache, empathy, care, concern and compassion for this and every Christian community.  It means we are bound together, now, by his death because we are bound together by his life.

Now in loneliness, Jesus is with you. Now in despair, Jesus holds you together. Now in struggle with family members, Jesus weaves yarns of reconciliation around your family. Now in hopelessness brought on by unemployment, loss of a loved one, failing health, or any number of things, Jesus promises to be with you until the end of the age.

Now we hear the good news of God’s urgency: live life fully. Now we are called to glorify God’s name in our lives, in our relationships, in our care of others. Now, you have the light.  Now, believe in the light. Now, you are children of light.

Now. Now. Now.

Sermon: Holy Tuesday, Dying to Self

Image result for dusty festival ground 

A Sermon preached in Christ Church, Grosse Pointe, Michigan
by The Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate

Tuesday of Holy Week, April 11, 2017
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be always acceptable to you O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Listen here

A few years ago, my partner and I attended the Wild Goose Festival.  It’s a 4-day gathering of church geeks and “spiritual but not religious” seekers to engage in spirituality, music, art and social justice – in a variety of venues: small group conversations and main stage performances.  Most of the attendees that I met were looking for connections or experiences to fuel their faith and inspire action.  People came not just to “check out” the festival, they wanted an experience.

It sounds like the Greeks were those kinds of attendees, seeking an experience, not just information. They didn’t just wander into the Passover festival to stroll around the dusty grounds. Could be that Jesus may have been the whole reason for their trip.  They first meet Philip. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” So Philip, who himself was there to see Jesus, turns to his Andrew who then joins him to tell Jesus about these people who want to see him. It’s not an unusual request, really. It’s possible that most of us have asked this or thought it.  I wonder if the Greeks knew what they were really asking? 

Do we really know what we are asking?

I don’t know what Philip and Andrew expected, but likely they did not expect to hear about death.  Hearing about death is not the answer we expect when we ask about Jesus. But it’s the answer he gave, “Unless a grain of when falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. If it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

Here, we learn how death and seeing Jesus are interwoven. To see Jesus means more than just looking at him, more than watching him on the festival stage, more than just believing his prepared speeches and watching him perform. To see Jesus, to follow him, means being participants and not spectators at a festival. If we want to see Jesus, we have to learn to die.  To the degree we avoid and deny death, we refuse to see Jesus. 

Professor Alyce McKenzie explains that, “… in Jewish thought, the death of a martyr was regarded as bearing much fruit.  It benefited the others and the nation as a whole.”[1] And in the Gospel of John, this kind of “fruit” is Jesus’ metaphor for the life of the community of faith.[2] So Jesus is using this parable to show that the heart of his saving power is in the community that gathers as a result of his death. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer emphasizes the gift of community when he writes in Life Together how, “…The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in [this] companionship a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God.  Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body…[receiving] each other’s benedictions …and the fellowship of [the community] is a gift of grace, nothing but grace, [allowing us] to live in community with other Christians.”[3]

Seeing Jesus in community means dying to all the parts of our life that blind us to love each other; fear of the other, the need to be “right”, anger or resentment of each other, even idealization or demonization of another. There are myriad ways that we separate ourselves from one another.  Ultimately, seeing Jesus means dying to our own self-sufficiency. We let go of our life in order to receive God’s life.

This is the work of Holy Week: learning how to die and looking through the window of death to see Jesus. This is the work of Holy Week: looking beyond the window of death to our transformation, to who we are becoming.  This is the difficult and painful work of Holy Week: dying to ourselves. It is soul-troubling, as Jesus quotes of Psalm 42.

Do you want to see Jesus? Where are the places in your life that are protected, guarded, insulated, sure. These are the places of blindness.  These places of pain and resentment
are exactly the places of transformation. These are the places where there is a single grain of wheat containing much fruit. These are the places where we can lose our life and live the life of Jesus.  These are the places where serving Jesus clears up our vision, frees us from what holds us back, and opens us to new possibilities. And this is the way of the cross: dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of living.

That is where Jesus asks to see us.

If the Greeks at that festival listened and really absorbed what Jesus taught, they saw their path to becoming his followers.  They heard a grain of wheat fall on that dusty ground. They saw the rich harvest come from that grain. They saw a cross being lifted to the sky – in small group conversations and in main stage performances. They saw a vision of all people drawn to that cross. They saw a light shine through that experience that beckoned them to walk in the light as children of the light.

May we, today, see Jesus in the transforming power of his dying.
And may we be seen by Jesus in our new way of living.


[1] Alyce M. McKenzie, Eavesdropping Discipleship: Reflections |”Sometimes getting within earshot of Jesus is transformative enough” as cited here on April 10, 2017.
[2] New Interpreter’s Bible, John 12:20-26 Commentary, page 711
[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community (Harper, San Francisco, 1954) p.6-7

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Sermon: Palm & Passion Sunday - Contrasts

A Sermon preached in Christ Church, Grosse Pointe, Michigan
by The
Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate

Palm Sunday (Year A)
8 April 2017
For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

Listen here
MC Escher[1]and[2] is one of the world’s
most famous graphic artists.
Although he was a sickly child,
and failed the second grade,
he excelled at drawing contrasts. 
You have seen his work –
Are the stairs ascending or descending? 
Is the water running uphill or down? 
Are those black birds on a white background or
white birds on a black background? 
Famous for his impossible constructions,
his work is inescapably mathematical,
respected for contrasts of  
intellectual and lyrical qualities.

Contrasts are the theme of today’s liturgy.
Marcus Borg[3] reminds us how the scene was set that 
“…spring day in the year 30,” when
two contrasting processions entered Jerusalem.
From the east, Jesus rode a donkey
down the Mount of Olives in a peasant procession.
The followers had journeyed from Galilee,
about a hundred miles to the north.
From the west, Governor Pontius Pilate
entered Jerusalem in an imperial procession.
The followers were enlisted cavalry and soldiers,
brought to reinforce the fortress
overlooking the Jewish temple.

These two processions embodied
the central conflict and contrasts
leading to Jesus’ crucifixion –
his message of Love against
the political message of power and might.

Narrowing our focus, we see Jesus:
the charismatic teacher
riding triumphantly into Jerusalem
who was the betrayed, abandoned
and humbled one facing death.
Our adoration of him gives way to
cries for crucifixion.
His consolation for us gives way to
his anguish and uncertainty before God.
His verbose message of compassion gives way to
an unnerving silence.

These contrasts point us to the One
whose love for us bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things and endures all things. 
These contrasts shout out loud
how God’s love never ends.[4]
These contrasts stress God’s continuous saving acts
throughout Israel’s history and
that of Jesus and his followers.

The drama compels us. 
We are drawn into the violence,
moral outrage and conflict of players
in a tragedy not unlike any TV drama we might see. 
We repeat this drama every year because
the enduring power of this narrative – 
our own narrative - captivates our imaginations. 
Why is that? Because our lives, too,
are fraught with contrasts.
Our culture values vitality yet
our bodies are frail.
School bullies get away with violence yet
we know we are supposed to love anyway.
Our bellies are full yet
our neighbors in Detroit are hungry.
Our lives are fraught with contrasts.

We see this contrast in the person of Jesus:
the source of the conflict and yet
the most calm and collected of all the actors. 
The others – Pilate, the crowd, the soldiers,
the bandits, and the bystanders
are all “beside themselves.” 
Perhaps their conflict with Jesus
reflects their own inner conflict with themselves 
and confronts them with who they really are. 

Is that a confrontation hard for us to bear, too?
We, as a society, yearn for peace and yet
we go to war. 
We want to be a nation of great values, yet
we use violence to control.

Perhaps through this drama, Jesus
“compels each into their own moment of truth.”[5]
What is a moment of truth?
It’s when you must make a decision
that has important consequences. 
It’s when you realize
maybe you have been serving two masters,
“having and eating your cake”
and you have to choose. 
In a moment of truth, your choice
both reveals and creates
the person you really are. 
Can we wonder together…how is Jesus, today,
both revealing and creating us as
a faith community –
grounded in love and hope and faith? 
Is this our moment of truth?

In the contrasting drama of his passion,
Jesus forced options. 
He didn’t manipulate behavior,
he stood before others so that
a response could no longer be ambiguous. 
Their choices revealed their values. 

Perhaps we, too,
know moments of truth in our lives
so filled with tension and so filled with truth that
only the best of who we are can come through
in utter clarity and for greater good... 
We respond with love and compassion.
We pray for peace and healing.
We respect the dignity of our neighbors.

In his own moment of truth, Jesus gave his life. 

Those who were keeping watch saw, finally,
who he was, God’s Son, with utter clarity.

So, we are compelled by Love. 
“Today we say neither the confession of sin
nor the confession of faith.”[6]
And that’s not because it would elongate the service. 
That omission is because although repetitive,
every year, we play the crowd
and confess our sin.
Each time, we accept
Jesus’ radical and essential forgiveness,
and confess our faith. 

This is our moment of truth,
in the contrasts of Hosanna and Crucify him. 
Throughout Holy Week,
from tomorrow, Monday through next Friday,
we will worship together each day
with a service that will draw us ever more deeply
to the full power of Easter. 

Every day, we hear with fresh ears (again!)
how to know & live the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Today’s contrasting drama draws us into
God’s gift of love and forgiveness,
through God’s mighty acts of unceasing love,
God’s intimate, delicate last breath and
God’s surprising resurrection
in the person of Jesus Christ. 

Today’s drama draws us into a thin place,
Like an MC Escher drawing
where distinctions between
time & eternity fall away,
where we proclaim how the death of Jesus
is integral to our Good News.  

May we know nothing but Christ and him crucified.
For through him, God redeems our lives
and the life of the world.
And through him, may we know God’s love
for us on earth as it already is in heaven.

[3] Marcus Borg, The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem, (HarperCollins, San Francisco, 2006), p. 2-4

[4] 1 Cor 13:4-8: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.

[5] David J. Schlafer, What Makes This Day Different?: Preaching Grace on Special Occasions, (Cambridge, Cowley, 1998), p. 86

[6] Ibid.