Sermon for March 23, 2016

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Prelude: Rick Garven, organist

Welcome: Rev. Neal Locke, First Presbyterian Church

Good morning, and welcome. I love preaching here in this church, where some of my earliest memories as a child are listening to the sermons of the Rev. Don L. Foresman, who was a pastor here during the 1980s. Rev. Foresman went on to become the district Superintindent for El Paso, and then in the late 90's he retired to his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I happened to be attending college at the time. I ran into him once at a conference. He remembered me, asked about grandparents, Betty and Ruben Larson (members here), and then we talked for awhile about the church and ministry. At the end of our conversation, he walked with me over to the conference bookstsore, picked up and paid for a little red booklet, which he handed to me. It was called "The Christian as Minister." He said to me, "I want you to read this. I think God might be calling you into ministry as a pastor." Rev. Foresman was the first person to tell me that.

Last April, after a lifetime of faithful service to God's kingdom, Don Foreseman went home to be with the Lord. So as I find myself once again in this beautiful sanctuary, where it all began, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to express my gratitude to him, and to this church that nurtured me and my family for many years.

Hymn: The Old Rugged Cross

Prayer: Rev. Neal Locke

Lord, you have said that the grass withers and the flower fades, but your word endures forever. Open our hearts and minds today to the message you would have us receive. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our rock, and our redeemer.

John 13:21-30

21 After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.” 22 His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. 23 One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. 24 Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means.” 25 Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” 26 Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. 27 As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. So Jesus told him, “What you are about to do, do quickly.” 28 But no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. 29 Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the festival, or to give something to the poor. 30 As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.

A Rough Year for Bad Guys

When I came back to El Paso almost four years ago, in this group of downtown church pastors, I was the "new guy" and as such, I got last choice of which day to preach. The scripture passages are essentially the same every year for Holy Week. Monday is always the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, Tuesday is always the passage where Jesus tells his followers that his hour has come. Wednesday is always the betrayal by Judas Iscariot, Thursday is the last supper and washing of the disciples feet, and Friday is always the passion story--the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus.

So...for my first two years, guess who got to preach on Judas day? Have you ever tried flipping through a hymnal to see if there are any Judas hymns? David Lowrie, at least, was thankful. Before I came, he was the new guy and always had to preach on Judas day. But finally, this year, I wasn't the new guy anymore. Finally, this year, I had my choice of days and scripture passages. And so, when we were going around the table voicing our preferences, I was probably about as surprised as everyone else to hear myself say, "I'll take Judas. Again."

That meeting was on the 19th of January. Four days prior to that, Alan Rickman died of cancer. Alan Rickman was the actor who played Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies, and the Sherrif of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, among many other villanous roles. And just four days before Alan Rickman died, David Bowie also died of cancer. David Bowie was a rock star, but I knew him best for playing the role of the evil Goblin King in Jim Henson's movie "The Labyrinth."

And so the world was mourning the loss of these two iconic "bad guys" and as we sat around this table preparing for Holy Week, something in my spirit said, "Take Judas. Again."

hat exactly is it about "bad guys" that we love to hate? The special genius of David Bowie and Alan Rickman was not just in playing bad guys. The villains they played so well were deep, complex, not black-and-white-pure-evil like comic book villains in the 1950s, but nuanced, ambiguous, complicated, in shades of gray. Sometimes they did despicable things, but sometimes they did noble things. Sometimes, you weren't even sure they really were bad guys, and sometimes in the end they turned out not to be.

I think there may be some value in reading Judas Iscariot in this light, and so today I'm going to ask us to suspend our judgment on this character who is perhaps the baddest bad guy in the entire Bible--the man who betrays God's son, and hands him over to be crucified.

I realize that's a pretty big request. The gospels do not suspend judgment on Judas. Matthew and Mark both call him a betrayer the very first time his name is mentioned, at the calling of the disciples. Luke says that the devil entered him, and John a few verses before our passage today, says that Judas actually IS a devil.

But the gospels are all written after the fact, by people who are obviously and understandably upset at the loss of their leader, their savior, their friend. You might say they have an axe to grind with that Judas guy. All we get is their side of the story. An alternative perspective would be the most helpful--but the two possibilities for that, the perspective of Judas the betrayer, or of Jesus, the betrayed...are notably absent. Neither one, in his last few days on earth, took the time to sit down and write out their thoughts for all posterity.

In the 1970s a papyrus fragment was discovered in Egypt, which claims to be the "Gospel of Judas." While it is most likely a product of the 3rd century, it does paint Judas in a more favorable light, as the close friend and confidant of Jesus, who actually commands Judas to betray him so that God's plan of salvation would come to pass. Judas, out of love and loyalty to his master, reluctantly obeys, but is then shunned by the other disciples who (still) fail to understand the big picture.

For one reason or another, the Gospel of Judas was not included in our Biblical canon, so while it's fun to read and speculate about, we ultimately don't have access to Judas' side of the story, at least not in our Christian tradition.

But what about Jesus? What about his perspective? We don't have his words or thoughts directly from his own hand, but we do get some of them, indirectly, as recorded by John. Just a few pages later in chapter 15, Jesus pours out his heart to his disciples one last time, and while Judas has already left the scene, I think there's something worth hearing. Jesus says, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. . . I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you."

1. Let's start with that last part. "You did not choose me, but I chose you." Jesus chose Judas, and called him, just as he chose and called the other disciples. Not only did Judas answer the call, God's spirit worked through him to accomplish good in the world. In Luke 9, Jesus sends out the twelve with power and authority, and we read that "they departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere...all of them except for Judas" (NO, Luke doesn't say that last part).

2. "I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father." That, too, includes Judas. The friendship Jesus extends to the disciples is not contingent on their behavior. All of the disciples betray Jesus at some point or another. Peter denies Jesus, Thomas doubts him, all of them run for their lives in the garden. Jesus also calls Peter Satan, and James and John are frequently rebuked for their pride and ambition.

3. Finally, "You are my friends if you do what I command you." Let's fast forward to the scene of the betrayal in the garden, Matthew 26:49 and 50. "At once he (Judas) came up to Jesus and said, 'Greetings, Rabbi!' and kissed him. Jesus said to him (wait for it...) 'Friend, do what you are here to do.'” Judas obeys. And Jesus has called him "friend."

So what's the point of all this? What is it about "bad guys" that we LOVE? Why do I want Judas, and the Goblin King, and Severus Snape NOT to be unquestionably bad, but rather only ambiguously bad?

I think it's this: I recognize that I AM Judas. I betray Jesus Christ every day, in a thousand careless thoughts, in a hundred petty words, in countless selfish actions. Yes, like Judas, I realize what I've done, and I repent. I try to give back the silver, but it's too late. My sins have already crucified my Lord.

I don't want Judas to be unquestionably bad. No. I want Judas, yes even Judas, to be human. To be redeemable. To be loving and loveable, despite his great sin. I want Jesus, knowing who I am, what I've done, and what I'm about to still look me in the eyes and call me friend. Because if there is grace enough for Judas, there is grace enough for you and me.

I said earlier that there weren't many "Judas" hymns in the hymnal, but we're going to end with one that comes close. "Are Ye Able" is an imagined conversation between Jesus (the Master) and his disciples (the sturdy dreamers). It has been my favorite hymn ever since I was a teenager, and its always the second verse that strikes a chord deep within my heart and has at times even moved me to tears: "Are ye able to remember, when a thief lifts up his eyes, that his pardoned soul is worthy of a place in paradise?" I imagine that in this verse, Jesus is looking right at Judas...and right at you...and right at me.

Hymn: Are Ye Able

Benediction: Rev. Neal Locke

Postlude: Rick Garven