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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday

Jesus of Nazareth challenged the ruling authorities, drew dangerously large crowds, made inroads among leadership, remained blameless before the law yet a threat to the standing order because he would not stop challenging the sinful domination system:  after months of plotting they executed him.  It was government sanctioned political assassination.  No remote God was happy or felt avenged.  The God who had drawn near in this humble, poor Jewish man knew sorrow and was acquainted with grief at the betrayal and rejection of relentless love.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Simeon's Story

This is a narrative sermon delivered in the Shaw University Divinity School Chapel service on March 23, 2013.  It is both an preaching text and a teaching exemplar.  In this particular instance, I had to create imagined characters who could give first person accounts as observers of the events in the biblical account.  

While narrative preaching may not be the bread and butter of the pulpit, it can be a valuable contribution in a number of ways.  In this case, a narrative sermon provides an imaginative alternative for high holy days such as Palm Sunday when the preaching text may be similar from year to year.  The different approach allows a preacher to enliven a text in new ways across many years of ministry.  

Secondly, a narrative sermon series can offer a unique way to develop sermons on a set of characters from scripture or a series of stories in a book of the Bible.  

Additionally, preachers will find that occasional narrative preaching can also assist them as readers to see more deeply into texts, as for instance the very brief comments made by the gospel writer about the disciples coming to pick up the colt with the simple statement, "The Lord has need of it."  What sort of background made that easy to do?  Alternatively, was it more complicated than the gospel account explains?  Asking these probing questions assists preachers to seek richer and fuller understanding of the text.  

Finally, I would also say that retelling a scripture narrative as a sermon also opens the door for teaching scripture in context.  The retelling can weave surrounding chapters and pericopes into the text being examined, using cultural, geographical, and social background as well as including details from other adjacent stories to elaborate the more focused narrative.

Luke 19:28-40  (Liturgy of the Palms)

I started the day looking for that son of mine.  He went outside early, as expected, to do his chores.  It is the day after Sabbath, so there is a little extra work to do with the animals—a little extra cleaning the messes they make, a little extra stocking the mangers with feed, a little extra spreading of straw on the ground.  
I was saying morning prayers, planning my day, waiting for Elazar, that’s my son’s name, to share breakfast with me.  When he did not come inside, I finally stepped out to see whether he was having a problem with his chores.  To my surprise, he was nowhere to be found.  And the donkey’s colt he loves so much was gone as well.  I wondered if the colt had run away.  Maybe Elazar had to go searching.  The mother donkey was happily chewing her food and did not seem to be bothered at all.  I decided I had better start looking for them myself.
I stopped by my neighbor Asher’s house first.  Asher is a tailor who makes and repairs fine cloaks and other garments.  Of course, most of us do our own basic sewing and make our everyday work clothes as best we can.  Still, Asher makes a good living selling fabric and garments for all the special occasions when people may not have time or skill to make their own.  
Asher said, “Peace be unto you, Simeon.  Come into my home.  It’s very busy now as so many travelers are coming to Jerusalem for the Passover.  In these festive seasons I make much of the income I need to feed my family for the year.  But I always have time for my good friend Simeon.” 
I got right to the point to ask if Asher had seen Elazar this morning or might have any idea where I might find him.  Asher said, “I did hear some conversation outside in the early morning.  I thought Elazar might have been talking with you, Simeon.  But if it were not you, then I suppose some other man must have stopped to talk.  Simeon, I’m sorry, but it seemed normal, so I did not bother to check.  Wait, my boy Zachary is helping me this morning.  Maybe he saw something.  Hey Zach, come speak with Simeon and me for a moment.”
A small boy appeared carrying a large stack of folded fabric.  Peeking over the top of the cloth, he listened to his father ask, “Did you see Elazar going anywhere this morning?  Simeon can’t find him or the young colt.”
Zachary replied that his mom had sent him outside early to sweep off the threshold and the front yard. He added, “I saw Elazar and my big brother, David, talking with two men.  The men had come to borrow the colt.  When Elazar asked why they wanted the colt, they said, ‘The Lord has need of it.’  Right then, Elazar and David got so excited.  They did not even think to come in and tell anyone what was happening.  They just asked those men, ‘Can we come along?’  That’s when they all left, heading back into the direction of Bethany with the colt.”
I looked at Asher, and he looked back at me.  We paused a moment to collect our thoughts.  Then Asher said, “Simeon, we knew this day was coming, but we did not know when.”  
You see, Asher and I had been following the news of Jesus of Nazareth.  Not so long ago, we had gone out into the wilderness by the Jordan to hear the preaching of John.  We were convicted by his words, so we were baptized for repentance from sin.  Later word came around that John had announced Jesus as the promised one that we should follow.  Ever since, we began to take whatever opportunities we could to see him, to hear him, and to learn about him.  
For a few months now, a small group of people here on the edge of Bethpage and Bethany met together occasionally to tell each other what we have heard and seen.  We talk about the things Jesus is teaching and the mighty works he has done.  Recently, some of his close followers dropped by our meeting to let us know that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.  They said that when he came, he would need our help to carry out his plans.  They asked us to be ready to do what Jesus would ask us to do.  So our families had agreed to be ready.  Elazar is still a by, but at his age he is also a son of the law.  Like his elders, he has been drawn to Jesus.  That’s why this morning, he knew to be ready.
I felt a rush of joy to know that our humble family could now be of service to Jesus.  We are simple people.  We keep animals.  I hire out my service to haul goods with my donkeys.  This young colt had never been ridden and never carried a heavy load.  He was almost ready for joining the working stock.  Yes, he was ripe for work.  But why would Jesus need this colt?
Remember Asher pointed out that next week is Passover.  Of course, that is the time when our children ask a question at the Passover table, “Why is this night different from every other night?”  I have to say the question came a few days early for me.  Why was this first day of the week different from any other day?  
For a long time it seems, Asher and I stood together pondering this news.  But soon we began to hear the sounds of a crowd coming out of the direction of Bethany.  We went outside to get a view of what was happening.  In the distance, there were people walking in the road, and more people walking along beside the road.  They were shouting and laughing.  Some seemed to be singing.  As they got closer I could make out what they were saying.
“Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hail the Son of David!”  People were cutting branches from the palm trees and waving them.  It was as if a sea of green banners were waving and washing down the road--green waves of hope, waving above our heads, signaling that change is coming.
In a way I was confused about the words people were saying, even though I knew about Jesus and had high hopes for what he might do.  What marvelous words these were!  Who would say such things as these?  Of course we all hoped for the Messiah.  Asher and I grew up studying the Torah and the Prophets, and we had sometimes disputed what signs of the Messiah’s coming we should be watching for.  Now, all of a sudden, right by my humble home, people were shouting as if the Messiah was about to pass by.
Then, as I peered at the approaching tumult, lo and behold, I saw Elazar, walking along leading our colt.  On the back of the colt sat the great teacher Jesus.  Just as the Prophet Zechariah had said, he was riding into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt.  I was so proud to see Elazar there with him.  And David, Asher’s older boy, was running back and forth with many others, placing their outer garments on the road as a carpet in front of the colt.  It was a kind of moving carpet, as they waited for the donkey to pass, then gathered the garments and ran carrying them again to put them on the road ahead of Jesus.  
I burst inside to get Rachel, my wife.  I told her to grab her tambourine, come to the street, and join the people celebrating as Jesus rides into Jerusalem.  When we got back outside, we found Asher and Zachary, and Asher’s wife Sarah, carrying beautiful garments to spread on the road in front of our simple little colt.  
In the crowd I saw familiar faces of the fishermen, scholars, workers, and of course the women of every status, disciples who had traveled with Jesus, had followed along to learn and assist him in his work.  Right beside the colt was a beggar, shouting loudest it seems, calling Jesus the Son of David and telling everyone that on this very morning he had been blind, but Jesus gave him sight.  Running along behind was a very short man in the finest of clothes, trying to keep up.  I heard someone say he was a tax collector who was giving back the money he stole from people.  Women were playing their finger cymbals, jingling their bells, and beating their tambourines.  Children ran and played in all the excitement.  It seemed that everyone was joining the great parade of people praising God and following Jesus.
We made our way into Jerusalem, and the crowd continued to swell into a great multitude.  Those who realized what was happening would join in the celebration.  Others followed along to gaze at the spectacle, mostly out of curiosity.  Such a scene attracted the attention of everyone, including the authorities.  Roman soldiers watched suspiciously, and I saw them send a messenger toward the Prefect’s court.  I’m sure Pilate was not pleased to hear what was happening.  Soon from the direction of the temple I could see officials of the Sanhedrin and their temple guards hurrying in our direction.  That made some people afraid, and the crowd thinned out a little.
Those Pharisees and Sadducees went straight up to Jesus and told him he should make all of us stop saying what we were saying.  They had hated him for a long time, and this big show of popularity and symbolism made them livid.  As usual, Jesus had a strong response ready.  He said if the people stopped shouting these things, then the very stones of the road and the stone blocks of the structures would take our places crying out in praise to God.  What a thing to say!  He never seemed afraid to get right in the faces of those pompous windbags.
I kept thinking about the other times I had seen and heard Jesus.   There were many times before that it seemed Jesus did not want to be called the Messiah.  But for some reason today was different.  He did not hush it up.  He did not deny it or give some kind of vague and confusing explanation.  He was willing to accept the title.  He was even acting it out from the teaching of the prophets.
Some were shouting, “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”  It was like the story they tell about when Jesus was born.  They say shepherds heard angels saying those very same words.  So much of what had gone before seemed to be coming to fruition on this day, in my town, in front of my house, and including my little donkey.
However, I noticed as we got right up to the city where Jesus could look out across the temple, the buildings, the streets, and the people, that Jesus’ face clouded up.  He seemed to be weeping.  Elazar later told me that Jesus had said something about the people not knowing the way to peace.  They were crying out peace, but they did not know peace.
After taking a few moments of reflection and resolve, Jesus gathered himself and went into the temple itself.  He began to confront the merchants and the temple staff.  He quickly took charge of the place.  Many of the crowd continued to cheer his actions.  Others watched in amazement or fear for what the guards might do.  Jesus activity on that day was relentless, it seems.  But the moment was passing, the excitement waning.  
People got tired or hungry.  Slowly, the crowds of people began to go back to what they had been doing.  Rachel and I gathered the family and the colt, and we headed back home.  We found Asher and Sarah preparing to wash the garments from the road and getting back to their work.  But none of us could keep from stopping in the midst of our work to talk about what had happened.  We kept puzzling over what it might mean.  
Jesus did not gather weapons and utilize the crowd to rush the centers of power and take over Jerusalem.  Some thought he would do that.  I don’t know why he didn’t.   But he also did not send us away and say we had gotten him all wrong.  I think he was accepting the title Messiah, but just what kind of Messiah is he?
I keep thinking about that moment when he stopped to survey the city.  What hurt him so bad that tears filled his eyes in the middle of his great day of triumph and celebration?  I would have expected him to beam with joy and to bask in all that glory.  But Elazar said Jesus was feeling sad for the way that God’s blessing for Jerusalem and for the people would soon be thwarted.  He was seeing that these enthusiastic crowds would be disappointed.  He said that the people did not understand or recognize the visitation of God.  He incited a multitude, yet he was disappointed by the response he got.  What a strange reaction to the day’s marvelous events!  I just don’t understand.
Jesus had asked for the colt so he could ride into town.  That must mean that he wanted to stir the crowds to action.  Yet he is showing no sign of organizing his forces for battle.  If not battle, what kind of action does he want to see?  I wish I could understand what this man has planned for us.  I am sure that he comes from God.
The words I’ve heard him speak stir my heart.  They make me yearn to know God better.  They raise hope for a better life and a better world.  What will the next days bring?  Will he now show us the way?  What does he want from us?  If not taking up arms, then what means  does he plan to use for transforming the world?
       As this day is closing, God, I am calling out to you.  Show us the things that make for peace.  Visit us and make yourself known.  Make us ready to follow Jesus wherever he may lead.  Make us ready to become who you want us to be.  Amen.
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