Sermon preached March 28, 2010
Texts: Luke 19:28-40; Luke 22:14-21, 39-46; Luke 23:13-25, 44-46
There was a kindergarten teacher in Texas who was helping one of her students put on his cowboy boots. He asked for help and she could see why. Even with her pulling and him pushing, the little boots still didn’t want to go on. By the time they got the second boot on, the teacher had worked up a sweat. She almost cried when the little boy said, “Teacher, they’re on the wrong feet.” She looked, and sure enough, they were. It wasn’t any easier pulling the boots off than it was putting them on. She managed to keep her cool as together they worked to get the boots back on, this time on the right feet. He then announced, “These aren’t my boots!” She bit her tongue rather than get right in his face and scream, “Why didn’t you say so?” like she wanted to. Once again, she struggled to help him pull the ill-fitting boots off his little feet. No sooner had they gotten the boots off when he said, “They’re my brother’s boots. My mom made me wear ‘em.” Now she didn’t know if she should laugh or cry. But, she mustered up what grace and courage she had left to wrestle the boots on his feet again. Helping him into his coat, she asked, “Now where are your mittens?” He said, “I stuffed ‘em in the toes of my boots.”
Some days are difficult. Sometimes things in life go from bad to worse. That is the story of this week in the life of the church as we read the story of Jesus last week. Except in the story of this week, things go from really good to terribly awful. This week is an amazing and frightening roller coaster ride, and if I were to choose a secular theme song for it I might choose, The Beatles, “Helter Skelter” – a rocking song about a roller coaster ride.
For many of us, we might like to skip the ride. We might like to go from palms to lilies, from this Sunday to next, but we will not – at least not today. Today we are going to look, even if briefly, at the whole week. We are going to ride the roller coaster. I dare you to come along. I dare you to look at the whole story with eyes wide open. I dare you to consider how this roller coaster of a story might make a difference in your life. We are going to take the ride of this week not chronologically but thematically. It’s time to get to the bottom and go back to the top of the slide.
Then Jesus withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.” In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.
Inner work, tending the inner life, seeking healing for our psychological and spiritual wounds, seeking forgiveness for our sins and misdeeds, seeking an inner peace and joy, cultivating awareness, gratitude, compassion and love – if we take the story of this week seriously, we take the journey within seriously. Joan Chittister writes, “Only by going inside ourselves to clear out the debris of the heart rather than to concentrate on trying to control the environment and situations around us do we change the texture of life” (Living Well, 41). Are you willing to explore the deepest recesses of your soul, to allow God’s Spirit into even the most hidden places inside – even those places of anguish and disappointment? Are you willing to struggle inside with the tough choices being a disciple of Jesus Christ can ask of us sometimes? I dare you.
Then they shouted out together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed over Jesus as they wished.
The trial of Jesus makes a mockery of justice. The trial of Jesus also illumines how the powerful can warp justice. In a way, Pilate, representative of the Roman Empire, is toying with the people. He doesn’t have to give anyone a break. He has ordered executions before, because it is his job to keep the peace, the peace of Rome. Sometimes a little honey mixed in with the vinegar helps keep the peace, so Pilate in this story is willing to release a person to the crowd. Crowds can be manipulated, however, and this crowd is whipped up into an anti-Jesus frenzy. Pilate may have gotten more than he bargained for, but he remains in control, and if it is Barabbas the crowd wants, Barabbas they will get. But to make sure that everyone knows Rome can be strong as well as magnanimous, Jesus will be crucified, killed as an insurrectionist.
There is injustice in the world. The world is not as it should be. Too many people go hungry. Too many people lack clean water. Too many people get sick and are not treated. Too many children lack affordable immunizations which would prevent them from getting sick. Too many people live in fear that they might say something about their government only to disappear into the night. After the earthquake in Haiti, I heard things about their history I had never heard before. Haiti is poor, but its poverty is not a simple accident of history or a flaw in character. The country was freed from French rule by a revolution (1791-1804) and became the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere. Other governments were reluctant to recognize the new status of Haiti, including the government of the young republic of The United States of America. France did not recognize the county until 1825, at which time the French government demanded reparations – 150 million gold francs. Haiti agreed so as to end a crippling embargo being imposed by France, Britain and the United States. Paying this debt required high interest loans and these loans were not finally repaid until 1947!
Are you willing to look at injustice in the world, to look at all the places where the world is not as it should be and in the name and Spirit of Jesus, seek to make a difference in the world? Are you willing to feel some of the pain and suffering of the world and respond in compassion as you can? I dare you.
The story of this week asks us to do inner work and outer work. Both are needed. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist stream of Christianity, believed that a wholistic spiritual life required both acts of piety and acts of mercy, that is, tending to both the inner life and the outer life. It requires inner work like prayer, worship, Scripture reading, contemplation, participation in the sacraments, tending to our hopes, dreams, joys, wounds, hurts. It requires acts of compassion and justice such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, welcoming the stranger, caring for the earth, advocating for justice, working for the common good. Both are needed.
Both are challenging. Inner work and outer work often entail change, and that is never easy. Reflecting on some of the events of this week in the gospel, writer John Sanford remarks: The death and burial of Jesus is part of the general symbolism of mortificato: before anything new can be born, something first must die; out of the death of the old there emerges that which is new…. We found it earlier in the twelfth chapter of John’s Gospel in the image of the grain of wheat that must fall into the earth and die in order that it may then yield a rich harvest. (Mystical Christianity, 320) To grow as people of faith we sometimes need to let go of the old and familiar to let the new emerge. That can feel like a death. This is true for the inner life of the heart, soul, spirit. New ways of seeing and experiencing are often only possible when the old ones are set aside. It is true in our life together as the church. Sometimes the old and familiar must give way to a new way of being the church. It is true in the world. Structures of injustice often have to be dismantled before justice can be achieved. Are you open to walking with Jesus in the way of dying and rising? I dare you.
But this week begins in celebration and that, too is part of the roller coaster ride. There are lessons for our life here. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
That there is this parade, this incredible celebration, as a part of this week is paradox, but as Parker Palmer reminds us, The Spiritual life – whose territory is the nonrational, not the irrational – proceeds with trembling confidence that God’s truth is too large for the simplicity of either-or. It can be apprehended only by the complexity of both-and (The Promise of Paradox, revised edition, 7). The world is out of kilter. Our lives are not always where we would like them to be. Unhelpful patterns hold sway. We react out of our woundedness instead of responding as whole people. We give into fears. We let disappointments discourage us. The world is not God’s dream for it. There is too much violence, too many wars, too much hunger, too much dehumanization. Yet this world is also a place of breath-taking beauty, of grace, of joy, of compassion, of kindness, of generosity, of love. I so appreciate a line from Robert Frost’s poem “Birches.” In that poem, Frost remembers being a swinger of birches, and imagines what it would be like to get away from it all again for awhile by climbing up a tree. Yet he humorously expressed a concern that someone not take his desire for escaping from the world too literally, and grant his wish for escape permanently because “Earth’s the right place for love:/I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”
Earth’s the right place for love, and we need to celebrate that, even when we know hate is not yet finished. Earth’s the right place for joy, even though there remains much to weep for. Earth’s the right place to see beauty, though we know there are ugly realities too. If we do not celebrate our lives are poorer for it. If we do not celebrate, the stones might just cry out. Celebrate. Rejoice. Dance. I dare you.
Do the inner work. Do the outer work. Celebrate, and keep going. That is one of the strongest messages of the week – keeping going. Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength…. Having said this, he breathed his last.
Seamus Heaney is an Irish poet who received the Noble Prize for literature in 1995. Among his poems is one he wrote about and for his brother. The poem begins with a scene of his brother marching around with a kitchen chair, with a whitewash brush at his side as a sporran (purse/pocket) pretending to play a bagpipe, and the laughter this evoked. Through the poem Heaney uses the image of the whitewash brush to recall his relationship with his brother, but also part of the history in which they live, a history that includes the tremendous violence that has plagued Northern Ireland. The poem refers to the shooting death of a part-time reserve soldier. It is a difficult world, Heaney reminds us. Then comes the powerful final stanza.
My dear brother, you have good stamina.
You stay on where it happens. Your big tractor
Pulls up at the Diamond, you wave at people,
You shout and laugh above the revs, you keep
Old roads open by driving on the new ones.
You called the piper’s sporrans whitewash brushes
And then dressed up and marched us through the kitchen,
But you cannot make the dead walk or right wrong.
I see you at the end of your tether sometimes,
In the milking parlour, holding yourself up
Between two cows until your turn goes past,
Then coming to in the smell of dung again
And wondering, is this all? As it was
In the beginning, is now and shall be?
Then rubbing your eyes and seeing our old brush
Up on the byre door, and keeping going.
Will we keep going? Can we keep going? We can because of Jesus who has walked this way before. We can because we know life in a wider horizon, but that is next week’s story. In the meantime I dare you to let this week’s stories be your story. I dare you to do the inner work you need to. I dare you to seek to make a difference in the world. I dare you to keep going. I dare you to dance. In the name and Spirit of the Christ. Amen.