Sometimes, God Calms the Storm; Sometimes, God Calms You

This week’s sermon from Boonville Presbyterian Church.

Click here to listen at

Mark 4:35-41

I’m normally suspicious anytime someone tells me that there are “just two kinds of” anything in this world.  I find that reality rarely lends itself to such neat and tidy categories.  At no time is this suspicion more likely to be true than when we are talking about relationships.  There are all kinds of relationships in this world.  Probably about as many different kinds as there are people who have them.

Now, having said that, I’m going to break my own rule.  I’m going to look at two different kinds of relationships that people can have with one another: conditional and unconditional.

Conditional relationships are based on something outside the people involved.  Something is usually expected of each person involved in the relationship.  For example, if you were a boss with an employee who didn’t do the job right and repeatedly showed up to work late with a consistently bad attitude, you probably wouldn’t be inclined to say, “Golly, I bet you’re a nice person with a good heart.  This relationship means so much to me, I just can’t fire you!”  Would you do that?  Of course not.  That would be ridiculous.  In employer-employee relationships, there are certain expectations that have to be met in order for the relationship to continue.  It’s conditional.

But, on the other hand, imagine that your teenage son or daughter comes to you after a bad breakup.  “Mom & Dad, so-and-so dumped me and I’m really down about it.  Is there something wrong with me?  Could anyone ever love me for who I am?”  In that moment, no parent in his/her right mind would say, “Golly, I’d really love to be here for you right now, but I am just not impressed with your report card from last semester.  Why don’t you bring that C in Chemistry up to a B?  Then we’ll talk about who can love you.”  Would you do that to your child?  No, that would be equally ridiculous (not to mention heartless).  Your love for your child is unconditional.  There is nothing that child did to earn your love and there is nothing that child can do to lose your love.  It’s not based on anything.

We need both kinds of relationships in this world.  They’re both good.  But it’s really important that we not confuse these two kinds of relationships with one another.  A friendly boss is still your boss at the end of the day.  That’s just how life works.  Likewise, you parents have to help your kids grow up to be healthy and successful people, but that’s still your child at the end of the day (and no bad grade will ever change that fact).  We can’t treat our conditional relationships like unconditional relationships.  We can’t treat our unconditional relationships like conditional relationships.

Our consumer-oriented culture only knows how to deal with one kind of relationship: the conditional one.  Everything comes down to some kind of quid pro quo contract.  Most of us believe that unconditional relationships exist, but we don’t have any way understanding or categorizing them in our heads.  Our society’s economic style of thinking doesn’t give us the kind of conceptual tools we need to form a mental picture of what unconditional love looks like.  The results of this kind of relational confusion are obviously disastrous when we start “keeping score” with our partners or our kids.  It starts a never-ending competition where no one wins and everyone loses.  The very essence of the relationship gets lost because we’re not thinking of it as the right kind of relationship.

The same thing can happen with our spirituality.  A lot of folks in our society tend to look at their personal relationship with God as a kind of quid pro quo contract (i.e. a conditional relationship).  They think they can offer God moral obedience, dogmatic belief, or church attendance in exchange for the benefit of answered prayers or an afterlife in heaven.  Almost everyone has prayed a prayer like this at some point: “Dear God, help me pass my math test and I’ll promise to stop swearing for a month.”  On the one hand, these prayers are great because people are reaching out to connect with God in moments of stress and crisis, which is exactly what we should be doing.  On the other hand, they turn our relationship with God into something it’s not: a conditional contract.

We end up with a God who looks more like Santa Claus than Jesus: “he’s making a list, checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.”  This kind of God brings us toys in exchange for good behavior.  That’s not a very healthy idea of God for us to believe in.  We’ll end up fearful of God, nervously glancing over our shoulder, wondering if we measure up to the standard or if we’ll be sent to hell with coal in our stocking.

Another problem with this way of thinking is that it makes the success of our spiritual lives dependent on the success of our material lives.  What happens when we pray for a miracle and don’t get the one we wanted?  I’ve known many sincere believers who have prayed fervently for the recovery of a loved one from a serious illness, only to watch that person die.  “Dear God, heal my wife of cancer and I promise to quit smoking and go to church more often.”  What happens to that person’s faith if his/her wife dies anyway?  It’s sad to think about, but it happens in the real world.  I’ve seen it.  Our faith is what we depend on to carry us through these horrible tragedies, so we had better make sure it won’t collapse under the weight of unanswered prayers.

There is a story of a time when Jesus’ disciples missed an opportunity to learn what real faith is all about.  This is comforting to me, by the way: knowing that Jesus’ disciples missed the point more often than they got it.  It gives me hope for myself.  In fact, that’s why I like to read the Bible: it’s the only book I can read and find people more messed up than I am.  If God never gives up on them, then I can trust that God will never give up on me.

Anyway, this particular story takes place as Jesus and his disciples were crossing a lake in a boat one day.  A bad storm snuck up on them and things were looking pretty grim.  They were sure that this was it.  All their hard work and sacrifice as disciples was about to go to waste: sucked beneath the mighty waves of the Sea of Galilee.  And just where is Jesus while of this is going on, where is the one in whom they had put so much faith?  He was taking a nap!

Have you ever felt like that in a moment of crisis?  “God, where were you when I got that diagnosis?  God, where were you when my loved one died?  God, where were you when I got laid off from my job?”  I can relate to those disciples in the boat because, sometimes (in my life, anyway), it really feels like God is asleep on the job.  I have sometimes asked the very same question that the disciples asked Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  Do you not care?  That’s the question that bothers us so much in times like that.  Does God not care about me?  Do I not matter in the grand scheme of things?  Does God not exist?  Am I all alone in a meaningless world?  These are hard questions.  In fact, these are the hardest questions a person can ever ask.  They are the ultimate questions that give voice to the deepest fears in our hearts.

In this story, the disciples do finally get the miraculous solution they were looking for.  Jesus wakes up and calms the storm with his divine power.  The hero saves the day.  But, after all is said and done, Jesus asks the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

Have you still no faith?  Obviously, the disciples had some kind of faith because they knew exactly who to call when the situation got really hairy.  They prayed for a miracle and they got it, but they still missed the point.  The point is not the miraculous rescue from the storm.  That was simply a convenient arrangement of circumstances based on a conditional relationship with God.  The point of this story is that God is with us.  Jesus, asleep in the stern, is the main image we readers supposed to take away from this story.

God’s presence with you in the storms of life is unconditional.  There is no circumstance that God can’t handle.  There is no minimum faith requirement for getting “Jesus” into your “boat”.  Before, during, and after the storms of life, God is there, holding us all together in the arms of unconditional love.  There’s nothing you can do to make God love you any more; there’s nothing you can do to make God love you any less.  God loves you and there is nothing you can do about it.

Sometimes, when you face the storms of life, you get the outcome you’re looking for.  Sometimes, God calms the storm.  But then there are other times, when things don’t work out like we planned, prayed, or hoped.  In those moments, God calms you.  Whatever the outcome of your circumstances, the important thing to remember is that you are not alone, you matter, God is real, and God does care about you.

Faith, in these circumstances, means trusting in that love and embodying it in the way that we live our lives, so that we, through our love, can become living reminders of God’s love to each other.  Where is God when someone you love is going through life’s storms?  God is in you.  That inner impulse you feel to pay your respects, send a card, bring a casserole, or lend a hand?  That’s God.  On a larger scale, that still, small voice in your heart that makes you want to speak out against injustice whenever you see God’s children, your brothers and sisters, being treated unfairly?  That’s God too.

Whenever you listen to that inner voice and act on it, you are living a faith-filled life.  I would even say that you are living a godly life, a spirit-filled life.  And, best of all, when you live like that: you are making it easier for someone out there to trust that we are not alone in the storms of life, that we matter, that God is real, and that God cares about us.  And that’s what faith is all about.

The Empty Tomb

Easter sermon from Boonville Presbyterian.

The text is Mark 16:1-8.

Click here to listen to this sermon at

A Wall Street executive once hired a consultant from the Czech Republic to come and advise him on business matters.  After a highly productive and successful series of meetings, the time had come for the consultant to return to his home country.

“I want to thank you for all you’ve done to help our company.”  The executive said, “Before you return to the Czech Republic, is there anything you would like to see or do here in America?”

“Well,” the consultant said, “I have always heard such wonderful things about the zoos in America.  We don’t have anything like them back home in the Czech Republic.  I would really like to go to the zoo.”

So the executive makes arrangements and takes the rest of the day off in order to escort his new friend to the zoo.  While they are there, the consultant is fascinated by the lions’ den.  He leans as far as he can over the railing to get a good look at them.  But suddenly, the unthinkable happens: he loses his balance and tumbles headfirst into the lions’ habitat!  The lions are on him in a flash and devour him so quickly that there is nothing left by the time the zookeeper arrives with the police.

“Okay,” the authorities say to the executive, “You were the only eyewitness to this tragedy.  Did you happen to see which lion actually ate your friend?”

The executive gives it some thought and says, “Yes.  It was the male lion with the large furry mane.  I’m absolutely certain that he was the one who ate my friend.”

So they shoot the male lion and open him up.  Alas, the lion’s stomach was empty!  So they proceed to shoot the female lion and open her up.  Sure enough, there was the poor consultant in her stomach.

Now, there are two morals to this story:

The first is that you should never trust the word of a Wall Street executive who tells you, “The Czech is in the male.”

The second moral to this story is that you should never be too certain about certainty.

As a society, we tend to put a lot of stock in certainty.  We buy products that come with a “guarantee.”  We buy all kinds of “insurance” to protect us from anything bad that might happen.  We trust the words of our political and religious officials as if they were gospel truth.  But just take a minute and think about all the times in history when people lost their lives over a certainty that later turned out to be completely false?

Several years ago, there was a science fiction movie called Men In Black starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.  In one scene of this movie, Will Smith has just found out that there are aliens from outer space living on Earth in disguise.  Tommy Lee Jones tries to comfort him with these words about certainty: “Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”  Certainty, it seems, is a very fickle thing.

Certainty is also something that is commonly associated with people of faith.  Preachers, theologians, and church goers often speak with great passion and conviction about things they know to be true, beyond any shadow of a doubt.  On the other hand, those who struggle with faith are often called “agnostic” which can be translated as “not knowing” or “uncertain.”  Agnostic people sometimes ask religious people questions about certainty like:

  • “How can you be so sure that God exists?”
  • “How can you be so sure that there’s life after death?”
  • “How can you be so sure that everything will turn out for the better in the end?”

In the minds of average people (agnostic and religious alike), certainty and faith seem to go hand in hand.  This association is so firmly ingrained that religious people are often made to feel a deep sense of guilt whenever they question some or all of their beliefs.  Likewise, agnostic people are often made to feel like there’s no place for them communities of faith (like church).  So many of them feel like they have to choose between the intellectual integrity their minds long for and the sense of reverence and belonging their hearts long for.  If faith and certainty are permanently associated with one another, you have to make a choice.  There is no room for questions or doubt.  It’s black and white.  You’re either in or out.  In the minds of average people (agnostic and religious alike), that’s what faith is all about.

This morning, I want to take that preconceived notion (faith = certainty) and put it on trial next to what the Bible actually says or, more importantly, what it doesn’t say (because you can learn a lot by paying attention to what the Bible doesn’t say).

Let’s start by looking at today’s New Testament reading.  Do you notice anything missing from it?  We have the women who show up at the tomb.  The stone is rolled away.  There’s a young man in white telling them that the person they’re looking for isn’t there.  They run away in fear.  Do you notice anything missing?  How about anyone?

Jesus!  That’s right, Jesus forgets to show up to his own party!  Today is Easter and we’re celebrating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  Isn’t it at least a little odd that the risen Christ doesn’t even make a single appearance in the reading?

Let me add a little more wood to this fire: today’s reading is from Mark’s gospel, which most biblical scholars agree was the first of the four canonical gospels to be written.  It was probably written about thirty or forty years after the death of Jesus.  Now, we don’t have any original manuscripts for this (or any other) book of the Bible.  All we have are copies of copies.  Sometimes, these copies differ from one another.  For example, the later versions of Mark’s gospel have Jesus showing up and giving some sage advice to his disciples, but the earliest manuscripts we have end with this passage: the one where the women run away in fear at the end.

That’s kind of anti-climactic isn’t it?  I mean, the resurrection is kind of the central miracle in the Christian faith.  It’s the reason for today’s celebration, the highest holiday in our religion.  Wouldn’t you expect a more certain and definitive record of it in the earliest accepted account of its occurrence?

Now, let me be clear, I’m not trying to argue that it did or didn’t happen.  What I’m trying to point out here is that the earliest available editions of Mark’s gospel leave us with a big question mark, rather than an exclamation point.  Mark simply presents us with an empty tomb and then leaves us to make up our own minds about what happened.

I think this is good news for those of us who struggle with faith (and I include myself in that number).  It means that we are not required to check our brains at the door when we come into church.  It means that there is a whole lot more mystery than certainty in authentic Christian faith.  Most of all, it means that faith is more about staying open and asking honest questions about what might be true rather than forging and holding onto hard-and-fast answers about what we think is true.

It means furthermore that doubt is a friend of faith, not its opposite.  In fact, if we’re defining faith as openness to possibility, then doubt is what makes faith possible.  For those of us (like me) who worship at the empty tomb, standing there with a big question mark hanging over our heads, the only real opposite to faith would have to be certainty.

You and I seem to live in a time of unparalleled questioning.  Thanks to many brilliant advances in information and communication technology, we probably know more but understand less about the incredible diversity on this planet than any generation that has come before us.  We’re facing questions about science and sexuality, faith and philosophy, politics and pluralism.  Whether we’re talking about robots, rocket-ships, or religion, we are already coming up with answers to tough questions that our ancestors never would have dreamed of asking.

In the face of such daunting challenges, it’s only natural (healthy, even) to feel more than a little intimidated.  There are powerful voices in our society who are calling on us to return to yesterday’s answers in response to today’s (and presumably tomorrow’s) questions.  These fearful folks long for the comfort that certainty brings, so they hunker down, roll up the sails, and batten the hatches, hoping that their ship has the right stuff to weather the winds of change.  As those winds grow stronger and stronger, those voices of fear grow louder and louder.

It would be easy to let those loud voices and that powerful wind of change intimidate us.  It would be easy to give in and huddle together below decks in hopes that the wind will eventually stop.  That would be so easy to do if we didn’t know who we are, where we’ve come from, and how we got to where we are today.  Our ship, the church, was made to sail in these winds.  The wind is our friend.  If it wasn’t for the wind, we never would have left our home port.

Allow me to offer a few examples:

Today’s wind has brought us to face controversial and challenging questions about issues like religious diversity and human sexuality.  Fifty years ago, we were asking questions about whether two people of different races or ethnicities could get married and have a healthy family.  There were those who said it would never work because it was unnatural and went against the established order for human society laid out in the Bible.  Sound familiar?  It wasn’t until 1967, in the case of Virginia v. Loving that the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled bans on interracial marriage as unconstitutional.

Before that, folks in our church were arguing about whether or not women could be ordained to serve as clergy in our church.  There were some who said it would never work because it was unnatural and went against the established order laid out in the Bible.  Yet, here I am, a proud member of a generation where women in ministry are not only my peers, but also my predecessors in the pulpit.  I don’t think I even need to mention the name of Rev. Micki Robinson and her epic seventeen year ministry in this church.

Before that, there were folks who stood up and proclaimed that, because all people are created equal, the institution of slavery should be abolished.  People said it would never work because it was unnatural and went against the established order laid out in the Bible.  They even fought a bloody war over that question.  Yet, I think we can all agree that our country is better off for having faced that question and challenged its previously conceived notions.

Before that, another group of people declared that, because all people are created equal, a country should be run by democratically elected leaders and not a royal monarchy that was handed down from generation to generation by supposed “divine mandate.”  These same people also had a bold new idea that church and state should remain separate, in order to protect the freedoms of both.  Thus, the United States became the first country in the history of the world to be founded on an idea, rather than a common ethnic identity.

Before that, people like John Calvin and Martin Luther challenged a millennium of church tradition and authority, believing that people have the right to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, rather than waiting for some Pope to issue an authoritative doctrinal statement on behalf of the people.

Before that, a man named Jesus of Nazareth challenged the very foundation of religious and political power in his day.  He proclaimed a bold new vision of the kingdom of heaven-on-earth.  He gave us the core spiritual principles and beliefs that continue to shape our lives to this day.

Before Jesus, in the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament), there was a long line of Jewish prophets like John the Baptist, Jeremiah, Elijah, and Moses, who stood up to “the way it is,” questioned the legitimacy of the status quo, and proclaimed a bold and prophetic new vision of what might be possible, which leads us right back to that definition of faith as openness to possibility.

We gather together this morning to celebrate this mystery of the resurrection of Jesus.  We are confronted with the image of an empty tomb and a huge question mark hanging over our heads.  We are not given many concrete answers, backed up by the guarantee of certainty.  But, as we have already seen, we gather at this empty tomb with a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us.  They, like us and the women at the tomb in today’s gospel story, were gripped with an overwhelming sense of fear and amazement.  I can imagine us all standing there, staring into the darkness, maybe holding onto each other for support, wondering together what might be happening, not certain of anything, but open to what might be possible.

Where do you find yourself in this story today?  Are you perhaps a questioning believer who is afraid to let your doubts shine, for fear that they might invalidate or undermine your faith?  Are you perhaps a hopeful agnostic who yearns for a sense of transcendence and community, but is afraid that there is no place for you in any institution that calls itself a “church?”  Are you perhaps one of the frightened faithful who miss the old comfort of certainty from the “good old days,” who long for an anchor for their souls amid the winds of change, and who look to answer today’s questions with yesterday’s answers?  Whoever you are, I want to invite you, on this Easter morning, to join us at the empty tomb.  Let us hold onto each other as we stare into the darkness together with more questions than answers, overwhelmed by that odd emotional combination of fear and amazement, and let us do our best to remain faithfully open to what might be possible for us at this time and in this place.

Prophetic Preaching: Hoodies on Palm Sunday

I preached in a hoodie this week in solidarity with the collective cry for justice in the Trayvon Martin case.

The text is Mark 11:1-11.

Click here to listen to this sermon at

It probably feels a little strange to see your pastor preaching in a hoodie on Sunday.  Half of you are probably wondering if I’m trying to make some kind of point.  The other half of you are probably wondering if maybe we need to turn up the heat in here.  Both groups would be right (in a manner of speaking).

It all got started earlier this year when I realized that Palm Sunday would fall on April Fools’ Day this year.  I said to myself then, “Oh man, that’s too good.  I’ve got to have some fun with this!”  And the beauty is that it doesn’t even take that much work to find a connection between these two days.

The setting of the scene, as we already know, is the Jewish festival of Passover.  Jesus and his disciples were joining crowds of their fellow Jews as they made their way on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the holiday.  Passover is an annual celebration of Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt.  They get together each year and tell the story of how God set them free from foreign oppressors.  The message of Passover was particularly powerful to Jews in Jesus’ day as they survived under Roman occupation.

In order to halt any bright ideas about rebellion during this festival, the Roman governor (Pontius Pilate) made a point of marching his troops through the city as a display of Imperial dominance.  He wanted to send a clear message that Rome was in charge.  The troops marched through town with their banners proudly waving.  At the head of the line, Pilate sat mounted on his mighty steed.

Contrast this image with the image of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, surrounded by his usual riffraff as they waved palm branches and made a scene.  It was a deliberate mockery of Pilate’s procession.  Jesus was making fun of it!  It was like an April Fools’ prank, but with a point.

Jesus’ parody of Pilate’s pride was actually a brilliant and prophetic display of political and spiritual theater.  I call it prophetic, not because it was predicting the future, but because, in that moment, Jesus was engaged in the exercise of “speaking truth to power.”  People have this funny idea that prophecy is all about predicting the future or the end of the world.  In reality, the job of a prophet is to reinterpret the present from a spiritual point of view.  They present us with a vision of reality as it could be, if we would only open our hearts to what God is doing in our lives at this moment, or a warning of reality as it might become if we remain closed.

Jesus was hardly the first or last person in history to “speak truth to power” as a prophet.  We can all think of others who, through their words or actions, presented us with a vision of reality as it could be.  I have my own litany of saints who have affected me like that: Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gene Robinson, and many others.  Maybe you know of others.

Jesus had his favorites as well.  One of them was an ancient Jewish prophet by the name of Zechariah.  Zechariah had this crazy vision in his day that Jesus decided to make come true.  Jesus knew that people wanted him to become king of the Jews.  So, he decided to show them the kind of king he would be.  You might call this his “royal mission statement.”  He borrowed this donkey-riding image from the mind of Zechariah.  Zechariah said,

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.

Jesus would be a humble king and a peacemaker, not a guerilla fighter or imperial overlord.  And his reign of peace would include all the nations of the earth, not just his own ethnic group.  This, by the way, was also another slight against the Roman Empire.  They prided themselves on their large and (relatively) stable territory.  They rejoiced in what they called the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) that would one day spread to the ends of the earth through the imposition of military order.  Jesus shook his head at this idea and laughed.  He used the words of the prophet Zechariah to introduce another vision of world peace.

In this hilarious lampoon of Rome’s arrogance, Jesus is reminding his followers (and everyone else) where true power lies.  It doesn’t rest in the hands of the privileged few who happen to wield the death-dealing resources of an international superpower.  True power comes from God.  And it is not on display in the exercise of intimidation, but inspiration.  True power, as God sees it, doesn’t come from dealing death, but giving life.  It’s not about exclusion, but inclusion.  Real power, according to Jesus, doesn’t come from our ability to condemn, but to forgive.  This is the upside down vision of reality that Jesus is proclaiming to us on this Palm Sunday.

This leads me back to the hoodie that I’m wearing.  Most of you are probably aware of certain events that took place in Florida over a month ago.  An African-American teenager by the name of Trayvon Martin was on his way back from the store with a bag of skittles and an Arizona Ice Tea when a vigilante neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman, who has a documented history of aggressive and violent behavior, called 911 about a young black male in his gated community.  The 911 operators specifically told him to leave Trayvon alone, but Zimmerman picked up a gun and went after him anyway.  The facts of what happened next have not yet been established (it appears that there was some kind of fight), but we know that it ended with George Zimmerman shooting an unarmed minor in the chest and killing him.

Over a month later, George Zimmerman is still free.  He has not been arrested or charged with a crime.  The state of Florida has not even suspended his license to carry a concealed firearm.  In theory, this means there would be no legal barrier to prevent this same person from walking into this room with a gun right now.  If this had happened to one of our kids in Boonville, would we be satisfied to wait a full month before the authorities investigated deeply enough to make an arrest?  How safe would we feel if it was a student from Adirondack High School lying on the ground with a hole in his chest while the person who pulled the trigger was happily mowing his lawn a month later?  Wouldn’t we, in the very least, be passionately asking questions about the truth of what happened that night?  Of course we would.

In the weeks following Trayvon’s shooting and death, members of the media have been weighing in on this.  I realize you might be sick of hearing about it, but I’m following the advice of theologian Karl Barth this morning: “Preach with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other.”  Some pundits have tried to paint a mental picture of Trayvon Martin as a no-good thug by appealing to stereotypical images of young black men.  Geraldo Rivera went so far as to blame this incident on the fact that Trayvon was wearing a hoodie (like this one) on the night of his death.

There has been a widespread response to Geraldo’s ignorant comment.  Last Sunday, pastors in churches all around the country joined together in a prophetic display of political and spiritual theater, just like Jesus’ famous entrance into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday.  They all preached in hoodies.  Since then, folks in other public professions have followed suit.  There have even been some of our elected officials who have worn hoodies into the halls of Congress.  I’m a latecomer to this action, since I didn’t hear about it until after-the-fact, but that’s okay because it fits well with what we’re talking about today.

Geraldo Rivera implied (intentionally or unintentionally) that wearing a hoodie somehow makes a person eligible to be shot.  If that’s really true, then I’m eligible to be shot right now and, as I already noted, there is nothing to legally stop George Zimmerman from walking into this room and doing so.

Now, you and I know that such an idea is ridiculous.  No one out there really believes that hoodies justify murder.  The importance of this symbol lies in its association.  This style of dress is associated with the hip-hop subculture which, in turn, is associated with negative stereotypes of African-Americans.  So really, underneath the surface, this is still a conversation about race.  Geraldo used the word  hoodie, but what he really meant to say was black.  Trayvon Martin was shot and killed because he was black.  The only thing that disturbed George Zimmerman was the sight of a young black man walking down the street in a suburban gated community.  Why?  Because young black men aren’t supposed to live in gated communities, according to the racist subconscious assumptions of our society.  We may have outlawed segregation on paper, but racism is still very much alive in reality.  And that, brothers and sisters, is a gospel issue.

We agree with the apostle Paul when he says that, in Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.”  We could easily add “black nor white.”  When I and my fellow-pastors wear these hoodies into our pulpits, we are standing together to make a bold prophetic statement.  We’re not doing it because we’re cold (although we are trying to “turn up the heat” on this issue).  The prophetic statement we are making has to do with the equality of all people in the eyes of God.  We’re saying that one black life, ended in violence, is no less disturbing or tragic than a white one.  This prophetic action is shining the light on this truth, which we all hold dear.

In a few moments, we’ll all be participating together in another bold prophetic action as we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  Around this table of Christ, we gather together and partake of one loaf and one cup.  We remind ourselves that we are all members of one family.  The same blood, the blood of Christ, flows through each of our veins.  This is the truth we believe in that trumps any other division or distinction we try to make among ourselves.  We are connected, through the mystery of this sacrament, to each other and to God.

On this Palm Sunday, we remember Jesus’ prophetic proclamation of the power of peace.  Likewise, we are making our own prophetic proclamations as we wear hoodies and share Communion with each other.  This celebration leads us into Holy Week, the final stage of our journey toward Easter.  We will be reminded during the coming week that there is a price to pay for speaking about God’s vision so boldly.  This willingness to confront is what ultimately got Jesus crucified.  He spoke out against the dominant system of power in his day and the system pushed back.  The system used all the terrible might at its disposal to silence his message.  But Jesus wasn’t afraid of them.  He didn’t keep quiet.  He continued to proclaim the prophetic vision loud and clear, even though he knew it would get him killed.  Why?  Because Jesus believed that love is stronger than death.  He believed that the prophetic vision of the kingdom of God was bigger than his own individual survival.  He trusted in resurrection more than survival.

As Christians, we are called to do the same.  We are called to be Easter people who believe in the power of resurrection more than survival.  Jesus has handed this prophetic vision to us, so that we might continue to proclaim its truth in the midst of a world that doesn’t want to hear it, but needs to hear it.  As a church, a household of faith, we are called to take chances.  We are called upon to risk our very lives for the sake of truth.  We are called to embody this truth in our words and actions at church, home, school, work, or play.  We should make those uncomfortable observations and ask the hard questions that we would rather ignore.  It will not make us popular or successful.  If we’re doing it right, it will lead us, as it did Jesus, to our own crucifixion and death.  But it will also lead us to experience the Easter-power of resurrection and eternal life, which will continue to stand firm long after the systems and the nations of this world have passed away.