Sunday, April 01, 2007

Turning Stones Into Glory

[Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday, April 1, 2007, with Luke's Passion as the Gospel].

“Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Why did Jesus have to die?

To save us from our sins, right? That’s how the story goes, isn’t it? Humankind was so screwed up that we could not get right with God. God needs a sacrifice for sin, a bloody sacrifice, but nothing we could offer was enough. So God sent Jesus, his only Son, to be that sacrifice. And because Jesus was perfect, his sacrificed has covered our sins.

Right? Something along those lines is what most of us think this story is about? It’s how everybody talks about it, right?

Actually, not everybody; not the Gospel writer Luke, for instance. These things are not what Luke thinks is going on here at all. There is no sense in this story, if you have just listened to it carefully, that the reason for this death is to provide a bloody atonement for our sins.

Then what is this story about? I take my cue from the first Gospel reading we heard today, way back at the beginning of this Service, the nice part about the palms. You remember don’t you? That funny little line at the end of the story—it’s unique to Luke as he tells about Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.

The religious leaders clearly think Jesus has gone over the top and they plead with him to get everyone to tone it down. Perhaps they were afraid of stirring up the political authorities. Perhaps they were just a bunch of Episcopalians made nervous by all the shoutin’.

Teacher, make your followers quiet down. If I made them be quiet, he says, then the stones in the road would shout.

And so I submit to you that the purpose of this story, of the cross, of Jesus’ death, is to turn stones into glory.

So I am going to tell you a different way of understanding this story, but first I am going to tell you of the practical consequences of telling it a different way.

There are many of them, but the one that is foremost in my mind and heart today comes out of my own experience in the past two weeks of my Cousin Jeff’s death. Jeff was the second oldest after me of my generation—forty three years old, a wife and three beautiful girls, 16, 13, and 9. He was a good guy: happy, generous, hard-working, faithful, almost always smiling. The line at eight o’clock at night at the visiting hours stretched out the door of the funeral home and down the sidewalk a hundred yards.

Jeff is dead. Died of brain cancer, against which he and his family fought bravely and hopefully right to the end. His wife Jamie, no one could possibly have done anymore, and she looked absolutely beaten.

And none of us knows what to say except what we think we are supposed to say. “He’s in a better place. There must be a reason. God’s will is hard to understand. God called him home.”

And because I am the designated family holy man, people especially feel the need to tell me these things, and I wish I had time to sit them down and explain why I do not think any of those things are true, but my own heart is so broken I can hardly speak. But Lord knows I want to stand in the middle of the room and shout, “Everybody stop. This sucks. This just sucks! And God thinks it does too. Would everybody just let God be broken-hearted along with the rest of us, please? The only thing God wants right now is for the very stones to cry out for the loss of this good man.”

You see, I think there is a direct connection between thinking that God insisted that Jesus had to die in order to be appeased by a bloody sacrifice, and our thinking that when someone we love dies, God must have a reason for inflicting this pain on him or her and us.

Now I will confess that you can find places in the New Testament that seem to back up that way of thinking and talking. But the story you just heard is not one of them, and, frankly, I’m sticking with it.

Luke’s Jesus does not die as an atoning sacrifice. He dies as an innocent victim. “Surely this man was innocent,” the centurion, who was supposed to be standing there like a stone, cries out. That is Luke’s message.

Now don’t get me wrong. Luke is absolutely convinced that Jesus is the Son of God. Go back and read the birth story we hear at Christmas every year. It’s Luke’s, and it’s pretty clear. This man is also divine. He himself is quite reticent about it. He’s humble, like we all should be, but that doesn’t mean Luke doesn’t want us to believe that this man is to be followed as the Son of God.

That is, in fact, his whole point. And we can absolutely trust this man, this Son of God, enough to follow him anywhere, because he himself has gone there—betrayed, humiliated, abandoned, and dead. All those awful places we have to go, he has gone. He is not just our God, he is our companion. Jesus walks with you and me, and not through some lovely garden, but into that funeral parlor and up to that coffin and back out on the street to take up living again even though that awful thing can happen to a good man.

Yet we still want to call it the will of God. “Only that,” as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “assumes a universe in which there are no other powers operating besides the power of God.”[1] And I, like her, do not believe that is true. I do not think Luke did either.

Whether we like it or not, the story of the Bible is the story of God sharing power with us. And the moral of the story is not that we should rely totally on God’s power, completely giving over our will to God, although I know plenty of Christians talk like that. I do not believe God wants us to rely completely on him or certainly not to completely abdicate our will. He gave it to us! The dream of God is partnership with the creation, with you and I, for the good of all. To obey God is to be God’s companion, not his lackey nor his punching bag.

We abuse the power God has given us. That is absolutely part of our story. And that too is what this story of Jesus’ death is about. It is a living parable of our ability to abuse our power in so great a fashion that we murder the ultimately innocent victim to assuage our own fear.

And now I just have to let Barbara Brown Taylor take over,

In this light, Jesus did not die to pay our bills. He died because he would not stop being who he was and who he was, was very upsetting. He turned everything upside down. He allied himself with the wrong people and insulted the right ones. He disobeyed the law. He challenged the authorities, who warned him to stop. The government officials warned him to stop. The religious leaders warned him to stop. And when he would not stop, they had to kill him, because he would not stop being who he was.[2]

So was the cross the defeat of God’s will rather than its realization? Yes, in a sense, if we mean by “God’s will” the punishment for our sins, or even the irrational, “Oh, let’s see, today it’s Jeff’s turn to suffer as part of my divine plan,” approach to God’s will.

But Jesus’ death was the will of God if we look at it this way, again with Barbara Brown Taylor:

One beloved human being chose to bear the consequences of being who he was and died with the same integrity that he lived. Insofar as it was the will of God that he live like that, then God’s will included the possibility [and, perhaps, even probability] of his death [as an innocent victim]—not as something God desired but as something God suffered.

Christianity is the only world religion that confesses a God who suffers. It is not all that popular an idea, even among Christians. We prefer a God who prevents suffering, only that is not the God we have got. What the cross teaches us is that God’s power is not the power to force human choices and end human pain. It is, instead, the power to pick up the shattered pieces and make something holy out of them.[3]

It is the power to turn a stone into glory. It is the power not to cause the death of my cousin, but to redeem it and him and you and me, a power whose vindication we will celebrate next week, so you had better come back because God and I are just getting warmed up.

Jesus died to show us the way through death, and on the journey, to show us how to teach stones to shout, "Glory!"

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, God in Pain: Teaching Sermons on Suffering (Abingdon Press, 1998), p. 116. The paragraphs that follow are inspired by, and occasionally paraphrase, her as well.
[2] Ibid., p. 117.
[3] Ibid., p. 118.

4 comments:

Susan Russell said...

Michael, this is wonderful! And so are you!

With love and prayers for a "holy" Holy Week!

Susan

polysloguy said...

Fr. Michael; this is absolutly the most wonderful statement on the Atonement that I have ever heard. And you have no idea how much i needed to hear this. Thank you; thank you!

A blessed Holy Week to you and a most joyous Eastertide.

James

episkathy said...

Michael, I jumped here from "Father Jake..." and was delighted to read your Palm Sunday sermon. It is a wonderful exposition of your understanding of the Cross, one that is needed today. You fed me, brother!

Thanks and blessings,

Kathy Glenn+
Diocese of Olympia, Retired

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