Tuesday, March 27, 2007

"Extravagantly Dying" -- A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C

By The Rev. Matthew Emery
Preached at Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, Illinois, on March 25th, 2007

“Extravagantly dying.” I think it’s safe to say that this is probably not the most common pairing of words in our thinking and speaking. We more often speak of “extravagantly living”—regardless of whether you think that living extravagantly is a good or bad. And there are other things that we think we should do extravagantly: extravagant loving, extravagant welcome, extravagant generosity. But extravagantly dying? Is there such a thing?

Certainly the power of death seems abundant in our world. This past week marked the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, and its stench of death seems to cling to almost every word in our newspapers and minute on our newscasts—the CIA leak case and the Scooter Libby trial, the Walter Reed Hospital scandal and even the entirely-too-early build-up to the 2008 presidential campaign. And yet, even with all that, we still find ways to shy ourselves away from really dealing with it head on, banning the display of coffins of US war casualties and numbing ourselves to battle scenes on TV. Even the Register-Star’s cover on Monday that featured a rather candid testimony from my friend Nick McCord, who spent a year as an Army specialist in Iraq, seems more the exception than the norm.

Of course, it seems somehow “easy” for me, the preacher man, to stand up here and talk about government actions happening thousands of miles away. What about the forces of death at work right here? What about sitting in a parking lot crying as you’ve never cried before, when that first true love just told you they’re HIV-positive? What about the moment the doctor comes back into the exam room with that less-than-cheery look on their face? What about watching the coffin being closed for the last time?

In the midst of all these, how can I speak of extravagantly dying—or, even more, how dare I?


Of course, I do dare speak. I dare to speak because I too am just as caught in the world’s web of brokenness and death that entangles us all. But more so, I dare to speak as one who has already been given over to a different kind of death in the waters of my baptism. [pause] A different kind of death? An extravagant death. A death-destroying death. A perfume fragrance kind of death.

You see, there is a competition of sorts going on in and around this story from the gospel of John. Unfortunately we don’t get quite the full picture of it from the selection appointed by the lectionary for today. If we were to have been reading along in the story, though, in chapter 11 we hear the story of Jesus resurrecting Lazarus after being ‘in the tomb four days’. At the end of that story, someone goes and tells the religious authorities about what Jesus had done, and so the religious authorities decide that they are going to try to kill him. Then, in the few verses after this morning’s reading, we hear that the religious authorities decide that they need to kill Lazarus too.

But here, in the middle of this building plot, in the midst of the forces of ‘bad’ death, so to speak, we see something different: a moment of calm, an intimate, passionate, compassionate gathering. We hear the anticipation of ‘a new thing springing forth. Do you not perceive it?’ Do you not see the warm caress of body to body, flesh to flesh as Mary anoints Jesus? Do you not see the joyful feast, thankful friends and followers preparing food for Jesus?

And, as people who know the rest of the story, who live the rest of the story, who are the rest of the story, we can see how this story points forward to the ultimate new thing that God has done. Mary touches Jesus feet just as Jesus would touch the feet of his disciples in service to them a few days later. The feast is prepared for Jesus just as Jesus would give thanks and share the meal in an upper room a few days later. Even Judas is seen betraying himself and his own interests in these days before he betrays Jesus. And all of this is said to happen 6 days before the Passover, the day when the Passover Lamb was to be selected.

This something different—this scene of abundance and extravagance—all seems to point onward to another something different. In the midst of the cheep, tawdry forces of ‘bad’ death, we are pushed forward to the extravagant death on that Friday we call ‘good’. We see the One who is here embraced by friends ‘lifted up’ to embrace us all. We see love poured out that we might be the fresh scent of extravagant perfume for the world. We see that the attempt to kill by the forces of bad death ends up in the death that kills death itself, which pushes on to the life the raises all to life.


So, again, these two words: “extravagantly dying”. It isn’t so much that they are a prescription for self-help, that in the midst of death we can figure out some way to do it that some how will make it less ugly, less painful, less gut-wrenching. Rather, in a place such as this, can we be extravagantly dying in the waters of our baptism, that we might extravagantly rise to new life in Christ? Can we be the ones extravagantly pouring ourselves out in service to Christ, only to find ourselves being served by him? Can we be the ones joining in a meal that proclaims the extravagantly dying One, only to find ourselves greeted at the table by the Risen one? Can we be a people of such extravagance in the midst of the death within us and all around us that our whole story is crafted to point to the extravagant dying that destroys all death, the new life that raises all creation to life?

Sermon © 2007 by The Rev. Matthew C. Emery. All rights reserved.

“The Road of Truth” - A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, Year C

“The Road of Truth" -- A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, Year C

  • Deuteronomy 26:1-11 (The annual harvets festival called the Feast of Weeks provides the setting for this reading. This festival celebrates the first fruits of the produce of the land offered back to God in thanks. In this text, worshippers announce God's gracious acts on behalf of Israel.)

  • Luke 4:1-13 (After being filled with the Holy Spirit at his baptism, Jesus is tempted by the the devil and defines what it means to be called "the Son of God.")

By The Rev. Matthew Emery
Preached at Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, IL
February 25, 2007

A battle is being waged. Sound the trumpet. Gather the forces. The stakes are high. Prepare for engagement. Envision the victory.

One face of the battle has been seen every day for years now, in our newspapers and on our televisions, our radios, and our computer screens. Is Iraq suffering from an insurgency or a civil war? Should we have gone into Iraq in the first place, and now that we’re there, should our military “stay the course” or do we “surge” or do we pull out? Are we, the United States, truly the world’s last and only ‘indispensable nation’—and, if so, what does that mean?

A battle is being waged.

One face of the battle goes on behind the pages of our newspapers, for it is the face of what doesn’t get covered by our mainstream media. The genocide in Darfur; the gatherings of poverty-fighters protesting in Washington; the closed-door meetings of multi-national conglomerates that operate outside the laws of any nation. Or how about the fact that the same number of people who were killed in the Tsunami a couple of years ago die of AIDS every 18 days—150,000 people every 18 days, all year ‘round, every year. You didn’t hear about the AIDS crisis on the TV news this morning, amidst the probably 10 or more minutes they dedicated to telling you about the weather? Neither did I.

A battle is being waged.

Another face of the battle, a gentler, milder looking one, could be seen at our Friday Forum that we had with Mayor Larry Morrisey this past Friday—and no, I’m not talking about the battle over sales taxes. The mayor believes that the story this community chooses to tell about itself and its potential is perhaps the most important factor in the continuing revitalization of the whole of Rockford. This past fall, I pointed out a similar observation to our congregation’s Church Growth and Vitality Task Force, namely that as long as we continued to allow ourselves to think of our downtown location as an obstacle to overcome, it will continue to be one—and that as soon as we began to see and believe that our downtown location is an asset, it would indeed become an asset.

A battle is indeed being waged.

Another face of the battle played out in the desert wilderness. The battle wasn’t about the ravages of the wilderness. The battle wasn’t about being hungry, even though the story tells us that Jesus was indeed hungry. I don’t think that the battle was even chiefly about Jesus overcoming the devil. Rather, the battle that we hear played out in today’s reading from Luke, and that we see playing out in all these other faces today, is the battle for the truth.

I see this battle for the truth most strongly in the second temptation by the devil recorded in today’s story:

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’

It’s interesting, this temptation, because it isn’t even about a temptation of something Jesus wasn’t supposed to have. We often talk about temptation in that way—‘I was tempted to break my diet and eat that piece of cake,’ or ‘I really wanted to lie to her about what happened yesterday, but I resisted the temptation.’ But, power and dominion over all the kingdoms of the world, this isn’t something bad for Jesus; indeed, that is part of the faith we proclaim as Christians, that blessing and honor and power and glory and dominion ultimately belong to Christ.

But, you see, we have this battle raging, the battle over truth—and the truth that seems to be most at stake in the battle is the truth about our identity, the truth about who we really are. And so, likewise, in the episode of the battle we see Jesus in, the truth about who he is—what he is, how he operates, why he’s here—this truth of Jesus’ identity is on the line.

Whether you follow the order of the story from Luke as it appears in the Bible, we just heard the truth of Jesus’ identity proclaimed to us. In the order of stories in the Bible text itself, we just read the story of Jesus’ baptism, that day just before the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry where the Holy Spirit “descended on him … like a dove” and where the voice from heaven proclaimed “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” From there, this Spirit-filled beloved Son is next found—still with the Holy Spirit, or perhaps even because of it—in the wilderness. Even though the lectionary schedule has had us skipping around the story a little bit, we still just heard that same identity affirmed last Sunday, with the remembering of Jesus’ Transfiguration on the mountaintop, where again a voice came from a cloud, saying “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

And so, this identity, Jesus’ connection and commitment to the God of Israel, this is on the line in this battle. Like Jesus asks the disciples later, “who do you say I am?”, the challenges of the devil in this story seem to ask Jesus, “alright, Mr. Jesus Guy, who do you say yourself to be?”

Jesus clinging to his identity in God, the LORD God of Israel, this is what the people of Israel had been called to do from the ancient times. Today in the reading from Deuteronomy, we find a ‘liturgical formula’, a pattern for worship, that was set out in the covenant of the whole nation to help the people remember the truth about their identity. What’s taken as a given is that Israel is a nation of gift-givers who give in response to God's provisions of order and identity. And when they come with the gifts of their first-fruits—when, not if—when they come with the gifts, the covenant calls them to recall the whole of their story, the truth about who they are—their roots back to Jacob (that’s the wandering Aramean, by the way), their growth in Egypt, God’s deliverance from bondage and slavery in Egypt, God’s gifting them with a prosperous land.

Part of what we do as Christians in worship is much like this kind of ‘rehearsal’ of our identity and history. We come into the worship space, and we see the font of baptism—some churches even have it near the entrance, so you have to see it—we see the waters and remember that we are the people claimed by the promises of God, sealed in the waters. We read the scriptures together, not because they are some text book we learn lessons from, but because they tell a story that we find ourselves in and amidst and a part of. When we gather at the communion table, if you pay attention to the praying that goes on—the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, we call it—you’ll hear that a central part of that praying is a recalling of the history of God’s work in the world, from the creation of the world, to the Exodus, to coming to us in Jesus, to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. We recall all these things when we bring our offering of bread and wine, just like Deuteronomy called upon the Israelites to tell aloud a version of their story when they brought their harvest offerings.

This season we have entered now, the season of Lent, is similarly an opportunity for us to reaffirm the truth about our identity. Lent began this past Wednesday with the services of Ash Wednesday. As we are marked with ashes, and hear the words, ‘remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return’, we are forced to face a part of the truth our identity—the truth that we live as broken people in a broken world. This is not so easy a part of our identity to face—if you don’t want to hear yourself that you’re going to pass away back to dust, just try being the one placing those ashes and saying those words to one of your good friends or to a 6-year-old child.
Of course, Lent is not just about Ash Wednesday. Lent has historically been the season when we lead new Christians to baptism and when we remember our own baptisms—once again, that water-sealed identity just keeps popping up! Lent has also for many people involved prayer disciplines, and simplifying our living, and acts of giving to the poor. Again, we reconnect with our identity as a people having been given much by God, and thus giving much in return.

There’s another truth being battled over in the second temptation Jesus faces from the devil. Yes, there’s this issue of whether Jesus would take up an identity of power over the nations—even though that would mean giving up his identity as the Son of God. But I don’t think that’s not the only truth at stake here. Even the very premise of the devil’s temptation takes up the battle over truth. “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me.” Has it? Has the glory and authority of all kingdoms of the world been given over to the devil? Was that true in Jesus time … and more importantly, is it true in ours?

A battle is being waged. Sound the trumpet. Gather the forces. The stakes are high. Prepare for engagement. Envision the victory.

The battle, of course, is over the truth about who you are, who we are. The forces are raging, trying to deny the truth that you are the community of God’s people, loved and beloved. The battle is also over the truth about what the church is, and what we’re called to do. The forces are raging, trying to deny our calling to be Christ’s body in the world, trying to deny that our identity should make us at odds with some of the world’s values, trying to deny that our doors can be open to the whole people of God. And the battle is over the truth about our world, what it is, what is possible for it. The forces are raging, trying to deny that the world belongs to God, trying to deny that life is possible for all people, trying to deny that we can live in peace.

So, friends, the way ahead is not an easy one amidst this battle. We must choose which way we will go amidst the crossfire. Shall we choose the way of misinformation, of denying our identity? Or, gifted with the grace of God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, following Jesus’ path this Lenten season toward the cross, shall our way be the road of truth, the road of true life?


Sermon © 2007 by The Rev. Matthew C. Emery. All rights reserved.