Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 22, 2015
Engaging the Texts
Jeremiah: Covenant language is an important part of the Hebrew Bible. Readers of the entire story in this testament learn of moments when the covenant was lived faithfully and moments when the people of God betrayed the covenant and failed to live into it. This is much like what we continue to do today.
"Covenant," as detailed in the Bible, is defined as the agreement between God and the ancient Israelites, in which God promised to protect them if they kept the law and were faithful. (1) The covenant between God and God's people is one that gets played out throughout the history of both Jews and Christians. The covenant that has been prophesied in chapters 30 and 31 of Jeremiah is now detailed in a more explicit nature. Unlike previous covenants, which have been displayed on stones, this covenant will be written on people's hearts. This is a profound image for preaching. Knowing that God's promises are not simply a contract written out in legal terms, but are carefully and consciously written onto our hearts can be a transformative reality for those who hear this message of grace. Helping listeners hear the difference between "contract" and "covenant" would be important.
Psalm: In this text we read of David's confession of sins and his repentance for those sins. He is pleading with God for forgiveness and the second chance that comes from the cleansing of one's transgressions through salvation. In golfing, a player can get a "do-over" by claiming a "Mulligan." Receiving a "do-over" in life is a profoundly important moment. We all are sinful and are in need of a "Mulligan." We receive this through the love and grace of God. We receive this through the power of the salvific acts of Jesus. We receive it by naming our sinfulness and being repentant for that sinfulness. Claiming that forgiveness is a vital step.
Gospel: In this reading, individuals who are not part of the Jewish community come to see and hear Jesus. They have come because they seek him. They had, like many during those days, heard of his teaching and healing. For all we know, they might have been friends with Philip. The grain of wheat needing to die in order to flourish is an element of nature that many would have been very familiar with. This reading also alludes to the reality of Jesus' own life that will be played out over the next few weeks through the readings during Holy Week. The allusions to his coming death are clear, but there is an homage to the baptism and transfiguration of Jesus as well. When a voice from heaven proclaims the glory of the Son, we are once again reminded of the past glorification and the glorification to come.
Preaching throughout the season of Lent can be incredibly enriching and powerful. We live in a culture that is profoundly image-rich and the texts during Lent are image-rich as well. We think and remember through images. Preaching sermons that are centered on images and use descriptive language can bring listeners into our preaching in important ways. Utilizing the power of these images as a preacher can add rich dimensions to the preaching moment and provide entry points for those in our communities of faith.
In the Gospel text, as well as the baptism and transfiguration stories alluded to in the imagery of the text, and in the covenant language of the Jeremiah text, we see and hear God "naming and claiming" God's beloved. One of the most blessed moments in pastoral ministry, for me, is to baptize someone. Naming that person as a "Child of God," claiming them for and within the community of faith, and placing the water on their head is a significant moment for the initiate, their family, and for the congregation. But for me it is also a profound and spiritual moment. The joy of being God's representative in these events has brought me to tears. The first baptism I ever performed was of two teenagers who came to faith through our youth ministry program. We all cried throughout the baptism. These young people had names, histories, and families, but being publically claimed as children of God for the first time was a powerful event for us all. These ritual experiences are special. The readings today once again take us to the claiming of God's beloved. Being beloved by God can lead us to a transformed life.
Stepping into the pulpit on this fifth Sunday of Lent, the images and threads of covenant, repentance, and claiming are quite powerful. But these diverse threads can feel disjointed and can lead to a sermon that is focused on too many different ideas. Discerning the primary focus is one of the most important steps preachers can take in helping their listeners engage the sermon. So pick one theme, one image, and one main thing. Let it shine. There are obviously links between these images, but the preacher has to make choices. What do your people in your pews need to hear? How can you best relate those images to them--through story, poetry, or images? Be aware of the contextual needs of your people and craft a sermon that addresses their needs.
Palm and Passion Sunday
March 29, 2015
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Mark 11:1-11 (Palms)
Mark 14:1-15:47 (Passion)
Engaging the Texts
Isaiah: The clarity of trust in this third Servant's Song, despite dealing with difficulty, is a testimony to faithfulness that few of us can exhibit. The phrase "morning by morning" reminds me of the lyrics of the hymn, "Great is Thy Faithfulness."
Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; All I have needed Thy hand hath provided-- Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me! (2) The promise of God's persistent love each and every day is one that has potential to bring comfort despite all we face in our daily lives. We may not always feel that love, but it is there nonetheless.
Palms text (Mark 11): Jesus rides into Jerusalem as David or Solomon might have entered the city to shouts and praise, but this strange king is on the back of a lowly colt. This is an image that most people in the congregation are familiar with. The allusion to the humble entry depicted in Zech 9:9 is evident. The people along the road were chanting Psalm slogans celebrating the entry of a king, but this leader is to be different from what anyone expected.
Passion text (Mark 14 and 15): The story of Jesus on the way to the cross is a multi-faceted look at a weeks worth of events and encounters: an anointing, a meal with friends, a trial and the cross itself. The opening image is of Jesus being anointed by an unnamed woman with very expensive ointment. The extravagance of this act portrays--for the reader and the listener--the ability for us all to be extraordinarily extravagant in our love for and care of others. Jesus proclaims that this woman's story will be remembered forever. What a phenomenal witness of grace. The move from Bethany into Jerusalem was dictated by Jewish law as the Passover meal had to be consumed within that city.
During the meal, the disciples are told of the upcoming betrayal of Jesus by one of his most trusted companions. Judas was not predestined to betray Jesus. He made his own choice and we, too, make our own choices in life--some good and some bad. As the week progresses, we see more intense scenes in the Garden of Gethsemane, the arrest, and the trial. All of these events bring us to the final acts of the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Many people today know more about this story from movies like The Passion of Christ and The DaVinci Code than they do from experiencing Holy Week services. (3) For this reason and others, engaging this Gospel text as Mark has written it becomes vitally important.
Preaching on Palm/Passion Sunday can be an issue for the preacher. There are so many rich texts and vivid images from which to choose that the task can become overwhelming. Knowing the focus of your message, whether palms, passion, or some combination of the two, is imperative.
There are a number of reasons to read and incorporate both the palm and passion texts. The reality is that some people will not attend all of the Holy Week services planned for your community of faith. Providing an opportunity for them to hear both sets of texts before they return for Easter Sunday is very important. However, simply reading all of the texts for this week can feel daunting, let alone preaching a sermon with so many foci for the day.
The preacher has to make a decision. Is the reading and hearing of the Gospel narratives with a very brief message enough in your context? Is there an expectation that you preach on all of the texts? Or is it possible in your community of faith to read all of the texts, preach a sermon of typical length, and know when church is over--it's over--without complaint if it "runs over"? Know your context as you begin this week's preaching preparation and lean into that.
Themes for this Sunday could include the image of journey. The journey through these texts is a complicated one, as is the journey that Jesus takes through this final week of his life. Another possibility is the use of juxtaposition between the crowd shouting "Hosanna" at the beginning of the week and the crowd shouting "Crucify" later in the week. One might also use the relationship between bitter and sweet as a way to talk about the highs and lows of the week's events by using the meal images in the texts.
We can all too easily identify with those who might be labeled as fickle in their choices as depicted in these readings, both the crowds and the disciples. But it is important to hear the presence of God and God's faithful acts in the life, suffering, death, and coming resurrection of Jesus. God is active and evident in these narratives. Jesus is not a helpless victim in all of this. He is the protagonist. He...