Here is the audio of my sermon from Sunday, March 6, 2016 at Peakland United Methodist Church. The text was Philippians 3:17-4:1. You can listen on the Podcast app by subscribing here.
I remember as a child gathering outside of my home church on the front lawn as the church service was beginning. We had our palm branches in hand and were already waving and running around as we waited. Then, at the appropriate time, one of our parents would open the doors to the church and we would proudly march, wave our branches high, and shout “Hosanna!”
It was the only time we could act this way in church. The parade like behavior on Palm Sunday was only reserved for Palm Sunday.
The limitations were removed on Palm Sunday. We did not have to be “just right and proper.”
While church is indeed a sacred place, too often limitations are placed on young people and the young at heart. Too often the limitations frown upon processing through the building making a joyful noise or the excited behavior little bodies show when they come to church. This kind of parade like behavior is not always welcomed. We like things to be “just right and proper.”
Read Jeremiah 31:31-34.
The other night our youth group served a meal at Park View Community Mission. In Lynchburg 24% of the population lives in poverty. Every Wednesday evening, Park View hosts volunteer groups like our youth group who serve a free meal to anyone who shows up during the serving times.
There were whites and African-Americans. There were young and old. There were homeless and working poor. There were those with disabilities and there were those without.
A quiet librarian, who is a tiny woman, gently returns books to their shelves. Around her, books are beginning to move . . . off the shelves and around the library. This is just one of what will become many psychic nuisances. Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Dr. Raymond Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), and Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) geek out in their own way as they investigate the nuisances. After losing their lab and research positions at the university, they branch out to start their own business.
An old, run-down firehouse is renovated to become the 24-7 headquarters for the Ghostbusters. It is here that they meet Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) for the first time. Dana comes to the Ghostbusters because there seems to be a strange glow and menacing monster inside her fridge. While, Ray and Egon take interest in the actual case, Peter takes more interest in Dana. This is the character that Bill Murray plays so well. He is intelligent, and cool-headed, making side comments whenever he can.
The movie, no doubt a classic summer blockbuster, combines two elements that, prior to this film, were never combined . . . well. It did well the special effects, which require painstakingly detailed work. The floating, green, slimy ghost, the horned beasts, and the other strange things that need ghost busting. On the other hand, it is comedic gold. The dialogue is quick and smart, and with the combined alumni from the schools of Second City/National Lampoon/”Saturday Night Live”, there is little doubt of its awesomeness. The comedy that Murray, Aykroyd, and Ramis learned in these settings is the kind that requires spontaneity and improvisation. And these are some of the masters.
Theologically, what does Ghostbusters offer us? When Winston (Ernie Hudson) joins the team, he and Ray talk about the Biblical connections to the end of days kind of stuff that is happening around them. Winston didn’t believe in the supernatural when he started working for them, he just needed a job. But after seeing it, he believed, which for him makes the possibility of the Revelation-like end of the world even more believable.
A metaphorically reading of Revelation would leave us with various “beasts” that would bring destruction upon the earth. The message at the end of Revelation is that no amount of beasts or destruction will prevent the victory of Jesus Christ and the creation of the New Heaven and the New Earth. And yet, we as Christians play a significant role in the Kingdom of God. We are agents of that Kingdom, eliminating the beasts that roam the earth for the simple intention of destruction. Like the Ghostbusters, we seek out the dark creatures of our world to eliminate. We set out to put an end to poverty, racism, hate, bullying, oppression, marginalization, and neglect. We have a responsibility as people of God to do this justice work. And, like the Ghostbusters, people are going to think we are foolish and strange for doing so. But it is our calling. It is our vocation. It is our purpose. We are the ghostbusters for the Kingdom of God.
At the sound of his name, Noah has become quite a controversial figure these days. The film has been declared “unbiblical” by many, while deeply theological by others. (For example, there is this YouTube video that someone thought I needed to see after posting a comparison chart and some discussion questions.) What follows is a theological reflection on the film. I know that there will be some readers who will disagree with me, and that is okay. I am assuming that you have seen the film. If not, I recommend reading this spoiler-free review.
Entertainment Weekly was perhaps one of the first outlets to say that the director
faithfully follows the message of the slim biblical text in the Book of Genesis, but he fills the gaps with spectacular CG effects, Tolkien-esque creatures
The film is based on the Genesis narrative of Noah, the man who found grace in the eyes of the Lord, as found in chapters 6-9. The film’s production notes cite the Book of Enoch, the Book of Jubilees, and the Dead Sea Scrolls as additional sources. These are ancient texts, which are not found in the Christian canon, but were likely widely read in the ancient world.
Ari Handel, the co-writer of the film, told Jacob Sahms of HollywoodJesus.com that they started with Genesis. “The commentaries are there to draw on to take themes and questions that people have been asking about the Noah story for hundreds and thousands of years,” he said. The Genesis account wrestles with the themes of destruction and new beginnings (or second chances) and Handel told Jacob that they “wanted to humanize those issues and make the audience empathize with them.”
Adam Hamilton, minister at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, agrees that these are powerful themes in the Genesis account. The themes, he argues, gets overshadowed in the film and when “Christians insist that the stories be read like an historian’s report of ancient history.” I don’t disagree with Hamilton, but I have to wonder if what we carry with us when we enter the dark theater – our expectations, our baggage, our hopes of a great film or of a horrible film – is what overshadows the themes. Yes, the director Darren Aronofky is a self-proclaimed atheist. But that fact does not eliminate the themes of the Biblical account – the themes of destruction and new beginnings. The way the story is told is different from Sunday school – not unlike Cecil B. DeMille did with the Moses narrative in the classic film The Ten Commandments. The original Noah story was told and retold through oral tradition long before it was ever written down. The fact that artist liberties were taken, should not be a surprise.
Darren Aronofky took the lead as the film’s co-writer and director. Aronofky has been thinking about Noah and the themes of his story since middle school. The 13-year-old Brooklyn native wrote a poem called “The Dove” in which we get this theological gem:
Evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin but the rainbow and the dove will always live within every mans’ heart.
The film begins with Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family as the only descendants left of Seth – the third son of Adam and Eve. Seth, unlike his older brother Cain who killed brother Abel, remained faithful to the ordinances of God. While the descendants of Cain kill animals to eat (they believe they gain power through the meat) and use up the earth’s resources, Noah and his family live a simple life.
One evening, Noah has a dream where the earth is destroyed. Unclear about what the dream is about, he packs up his family and home and they hike to the mountain of this grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). Methuselah’s father was Enoch “who walked with God.” It is believed that Enoch did not die a physical death, instead he was so faithful to God that one day he just walked into eternity. These are Noah’s genes.
Methuselah mixes some drink for Noah (which has earned him the “witch doctor” nickname). Upon awaking from his sleep, Noah tells Methuselah of his dream about the world being destroyed by water, not fire. As they discuss this, Noah acknowledges that the Creator’s goal is rebirth. Water has long been the theological and spiritual symbol of rebirth. Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3 that he must be born again, drawing upon the images of water in the womb. The sacrament of baptism reminds us that in Christ we have a new life.
Noah follows the Creator’s instructions and builds an ark with the help of the Watchers. The closest we get to the Watchers in the Christian canon is the nephilim. These are the Tolkien like creatures that Entertainment Weekly spoke of. These creatures of Earth’s rock each have a dim light within them. The Watchers themselves represent the thesis of the film – there is light within us – there is peace in the midst of evil. The Watchers are fallen angels striving to redeem themselves with the Creator, which is accomplished when they are faithful in their assistance with Noah’s call.
There are a handful of images that get played and replayed through the film. The image of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, both humans are glowing creatures of light. This is followed by the image of a black snake coming out of a green snake, leaving behind the skin. Then, the image of the fruit of the tree, beating like a heart, acknowledging that The Knowledge of Good and Evil is itself life. The fruit of the tree is picked and eaten, which is followed by the image of Cain killing Abel.
Peace has been engulfed by evil.
This series of images communicate a theological understanding of sin and salvation. When Noah tells his family the story of creation (remember that the bulk of Genesis was first oral tradition before it was written scripture), these images repeat themselves. Humanity was created in the image of God. But when the first humans disobeyed by eating the fruit of the tree, sin distorted the image of God. The image of God in humanity continued to get distorted until the point where the wickedness was so great (humanity was striving to be its own ruler – as Ham tells the human leader, “There is no King, only the Creator is God”) that God decided to flood the earth to give it new life. The themes of destruction and new beginnings.
Evil does not win.
Unfortunately the debates about whether or not Noah is Biblical – word for word from the Bible – has overshadowed Aronofky’s thesis: Evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin. If you have seen the film, you would most likely agree with me that evil seems to prevail in the film. The film is filled with darkness and it feels worse when the storms and the rain come. Peace only seems to appear at the end of the film, represented by the broad, all-encompassing rainbow.
Noah takes the call to build the ark seriously. Humanity has rejected God and this is a serious offensive. Aronofky and Handel, as they did in other films such as Black Swan, dive into the exploration of obsession. To say that Noah goes a little crazy while he is on the ark is putting it mildly. Noah becomes so obsessed with the wickedness of humanity, that he truly believes that his sons will be the last men on earth. If Shem’s unborn child is a girl, Noah will kill her. But, if the child is a boy, he will let the child live, and he would be the last human on earth.
Noah is given an almost insurmountable job, to go build this giant ark. How could he do that? To do that and let everyone else die. What kind of power of will? What strength of purpose would you need? What weight would he have to carry? Those are things we wanted to convey through the story.
In this instance so many of us can relate to Noah in a way or another. Noah is obsessed with his mission, that he becomes blind. His wife (Jennifer Connelly) pleads with him to see the good in their sons – in humanity – which she does. But Noah is clear that the task is for humanity to cease in its existence.
When Noah goes into the human camp, what we assume is to find wives for two of his sons, he is encountered with a wickedness that is overwhelming he cannot handle it. This scene, of animal tossing, cave man like behaviors, and the air filled with cries and hissing, is a pivotal scene. Under the cloak of darkness, a raw piece of meat is thrown over the fence. A longhaired, bearded man, walking like an ape, grabs the meat. He scuttles off, passing in front of Noah. Noah watches him as his chipped teeth bite into the raw meat. As the ape-like man turns to face Noah, he hisses. In that moment the man’s face looks an awful lot like Noah’s. (I only caught this the second time I saw the film.)
Noah sees wickedness in himself. And it changes him. It hardens his heart. And he becomes obsessed with his own wickedness. He is not worthy to be saved, so clearly God’s intention is for him to perish as well.
Is this in the Bible? Literally, no. The Genesis writer provides no account of what happened while Noah and his family were on the ark. But, it is Biblical? We can argue that it is.
We believe that God created the world, and it was good. We believe that God created humanity in the image of God, and God declared that it was good. We believe that sin entered the world and it distorted the image of God within humanity. We believe that the journey we call faith is a journey of redemption, restoring the image of God back to its original beauty. We believe that in the midst of this journey, evil exists. We believe that we all have fallen short of the glory of God. We believe that through accepting the power of Jesus Christ, we reject the spiritual forces of wickedness. And we believe that the day will come when there will be no more violence, no more crying, no more pain and suffering, only the peace of the Kingdom of God.
Today is Palm Sunday. It is a joyous and celebratory Sunday as we praise Jesus as the Son of God. We process into the sanctuary with palm branches waving high. It is a special time. But, Palm Sunday is also the hinge in the Jesus Story. Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week, when the story takes a dramatic turn.
History tells us that there were two processions that day into Jerusalem. From the east, Jesus entered on his humble donkey, and from the west Pilate entered with his array of imperial power. It was a visual reminder of who was in charge. The soldiers, the chariots, the swords, and the bows- all instruments of war – reminded the people of Jerusalem that Caesar was King.
And not just King. The imperial power came with an imperial theology that clearly stated that Caesar was Lord. Caesar was a son of the god Apollo. Pilate’s procession did not only bring a political reminder, but it also brought with it a theological reminder – that all this talk about a Jewish Messiah was nonsense because the people already had a son of god in Caesar.
Jesus’ procession, which we know from the Gospel text, was planned. Before arriving to Jerusalem, Jesus gives his disciples the instructions to prepare the donkey and her colt. Did Jesus know that Pilate was processing in from the other end of town? Assuming that he did (he is Jesus), it is yet another incident when Jesus turns the world upside down.
Jesus offers an alternative to Rome. Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem is one of peace. Jesus – the Christ – the long awaited Messiah – will drive out war with love and peace. The instruments of war will be replaced with instruments of peace.
Some scholars have referred to the Palm Sunday procession as a political demonstration. A few years ago, the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations received a lot of publicity. There have been Occupy movements before and since then. These movements, according to Wikipedia are about “social and economic inequality.” Instead of the 1% getting all the good stuff, while the 99% struggle to get by, there should be equality across the board, rather than a hierarchy. Some of you may remember this image floating around social media at the time:
No matter where you stand on the whole Occupy thing, Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem with so many people boldly proclaiming him as the Son of God (and not Caesar) was certainly seen by many of the day as a political demonstration. But when we read the rest of the story, we know that the proclamation and the praise turns into threats and cries for blood.
Palm Sunday reminds us of the tension that is the conflict between the earthly kingdom of power and war and the peaceful Kingdom of God.
Rev. Alan Combs serves as Pastor at Lane Memorial United Methodist Church in Alta Vista, Virginia.
Read Matthew 11:2-11.
John the Baptist is beginning to wonder what’s up with Jesus. As Stanley Hauerwas points out, John was certain that Jesus was the Messiah when he baptized him. Now he isn’t so sure. What changed? Well, for one, John’s in prison for calling Herod out on failing to keep the law. Even worse, there are a lot of folks who don’t appear to be taking to that whole “Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near” message John and Jesus have been proclaiming. 
Even John, the one who Jesus describes as “more than a prophet,” the one called to announce the Messiah doesn’t seem to be getting the Messiah he expected or asked for. So he sends his disciples to speak with Jesus. He charges them to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus’ response to the question is to ask John to look and listen, through the reports of his disciples, at what is actually happening all around them. Rather than to remain bogged down in what he thought it meant for the Messiah to come, Jesus challenges John to see the kingdom that is unfolding in their midst:
Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them (Matthew 11:4-5).
Yes, John is in prison, but those who are disabled and sick are now lifted up, rather than seen as accursed. Yes, there appear to be many who aren’t paying attention to the arrival of the Messiah, yet as Mary sings in the Canticle this week, Jesus has “lifted up the lowly” and “he has filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:52-53).
Despite all evidence to the contrary, the Kingdom of God has come near, and it is received first by those who are most in a position to hear it. They are the ones who most easily “take no offence” at Jesus because they have no stake in the powers and principalities that are threatened by this new kingdom in which the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the rich are sent away empty (Luke 1:52-53). 
As we live in the tension between awaiting the birth of our Messiah and the flowering of his kingdom in his return during Advent, we find ourselves again challenged by this Jesus who refuses to be who we try to make him into. This was true even of John, who must have wondered why Jesus didn’t make his disciples fast in the same way John did, and who hung out with people like tax collectors and sinners.
We are constantly surprised we are not getting the Jesus we asked for. Instead, Jesus challenges us to look at the places where his kingdom is actually unfolding. He meets us on his own terms, and he reaches out to people we may think don’t deserve it.
We are surprised to find a Jesus who actually makes demands on our lives, rather than kindly letting us know that the way we are living is all right with him as long as we are nice people.
We are surprised to find that he’s not upset with John for saying hard words to people in order to lead them (and us) to repentance. Jesus points out to the crowd: John’s a prophet, that’s what prophets do. They speak often unpleasant and unpopular truths to call us to repentance. (Matthew 11:7-9)
Instead, we find a Messiah whose kingdom is breaking into our world to our right and left, but the epicenter resides not in the centers of the powerful. Instead, we find it in the centers of those who are often marginalized and voiceless.
When we learn to see and hear the signs of this kingdom, we find ourselves charged in the same way as John’s disciples, “Go and tell what you hear and see.”
My sermon from Sunday, July 14, 2013 on Amos 7:7-17 and Luke 10:25-37 preached at Peakland United Methodist.
The theme of Jesus’ preaching and the broader framework of the Methodist movement was the kingdom of God. God is bringing a new world of justice, righteousness, generosity, and joy. Nothing less than a new heaven and a new earth conformed to Jesus Christ is God’s vision for creation. The victory that God won in Jesus Christ will be consummated and, wherever God’s righteousness exists, the kingdom is already present. (Kenneth L. Carder)