Sermon preached March 29, 2015
Texts: Mark 11:1-11; Mark 15:21-32
There is no music to begin today’s sermon. I had considered calling the sermon “Helter Skelter” and playing The Beatles song of that name, but decided against it for two reasons. The song is pretty loud with a very edgy guitar. More importantly, for those of us who have been around for a while, we may recall that Charles Manson used the song and phrase, “Helter Skelter” to justify, in some weird way, killings carried about by his followers. Who wants to be reminded of that?
So there is no song, but the sermon title may need some explaining. I was going to go with “Helter Skelter” because it is an amusement park ride. That’s what The Beatles song was about, an amusement park ride, a slide that has some features of a roller coaster. When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide/Where I stop and I turn and I go for a ride/Till I get to the bottom and I see you again. So I went with another roller coaster name for the sermon – “Judge Roy Scream.” This is a wooden roller coaster at Six Flags over Texas in Arlington. I was a youth pastor in Dallas for seven years, and I had more than one opportunity to ride the Judge Roy Scream.
So that is a memory for me, and I would like to invite you into some remembering time, into a couple of thought experiments.
Imagine a very good moment in your life. It does not have to be the best moment ever, that’s too much pressure. When was it? Where were you? Were you alone or who was with you? What do visualize? What do you remember hearing – voices, a breeze, water? Try to let that feeling come back – do you feel it, at least a bit? Enjoy. Do you have a sense of the presence of God in that moment?
Imagine a difficult time in your life, a time that has been among the most challenging. It does not have to be the worst moment in your life, that’s too much pressure. When was it? Where were you? Were you alone or who was with you? What do you visualize? What do you remember hearing? What were you feeling – sadness, guilt, abandonment, loss? Touch it, but not too deeply. Do you have a sense of the presence of God in that moment?
Throughout Lent, we have been exploring questions about the presence of God. Where is God when? How is God with us? What does God see? Today we are stepping back to look more broadly – where is God, how is God when life is a roller coaster, when Helter Skelter or Judge Roy Scream describes just how we are experiencing life?
At the heart of Christian faith is the trust that God is always present, even when life is a roller coaster, and that’s good, because that’s life. It’s life as we see it in our Scripture readings which frame this coming week in the life of the church. The week begins with a joyous celebration, a parade. It is likely that on the other side of Jerusalem, Pilate is entering in imperial grandeur, reinforcing the power of Rome. Jesus’ parade speaks of a different way, of a world that is more just, less violent, more inclusive, more caring, more giving. The kingdom Jesus proclaimed is a dream of a world of compassion, justice, reconciliation and love. With this parade, there is great expectancy. Things turn, however, and you had a sense that Jesus knew they would turn. By week’s end, all the joy and laughter have died as Jesus is executed. The week goes from parade to a parody of justice. What a roller coaster.
A few weeks ago, I shared on my blog this quote from the American philosopher, George Santayana: The world in not respectable; it is mortal, tormented, confused, deluded for ever; but it is shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter; and in these the spirit blooms timidly, and struggles to light among the thorns. (The Philosophy of Santayana, 468-469) It is a much more elegant way of saying that life is a little “Judge Roy Scream.”
This week Anne Lamott posted a thoughtful essay on Facebook about the roller coaster of life. Life is impossible…. Life is so lifey…. Life falls so far short of our hopes. Lamott illustrates her point. Two Sundays ago in her youth group, two boys out of three have had brain cancer. One still has it and the other is blind in one eye. She goes on to write: I always teach them that they are loved and chosen, no matter what…. I came out of the classroom really moved by what beautiful young people all three of the kids are; but also mad about what they have endured, and the challenges that still lie ahead. Then a woman flagged me down, with ten envelopes addressed to me. And they were from you - - - from readers of my Facebook and Twitter posts, who were donating to help our church stay afloat. Two checks of over $500, eight others. The woman started to cry. God is just such a show-off that it can be embarrassing. Anne Lamott concludes her essay with these words: So Life. It’s the whole deal. Mixed grille all the way, gorgeous and sad things all mixed up. Us at our best and worst, in it together; life death rebirth, and life again.
Life is so lifey, mixed grille all the way, Judge Roy Scream to the max – and God is with us in it all, and not just when the checks roll in, but even when they don’t.
If we trust God is with us, perhaps we should ask “How?” God is with us always influencing us and the world toward the good, toward redemption. The story of this week in the church is very grim in places, but we will end up at Easter. God will take a brutal execution, a miscarriage of justice, and turn it around in such a way that the world will never be quite the same again. Not everything is fixed, but there will be new vision, new creativity, new energy, new hope.
I appreciate the reflections of my acquaintance, theologian Marjorie Suchocki. She has been finding her way into my sermons in recent weeks. God works with the world as it is in order to lead it toward what it can be (In God’s Presence, 57). God is always working with a roller coaster world to make it better, more loving, caring compassionate, and kind. My friend Marjorie has just published a book about movies, Through a Lens Darkly: tracing redemption in film. She likes faith and film, too. She watches movies to see how the directors consider “our human plight and possibilities for redress” (117) – another way of speaking of redemption. She ends her book with these words: Surely there is some glimmer of hope that as we continue to probe our problems, we might not only do the right thing, but by doing so might even contribute some small goodness to the magnificence in which we are embedded (117). That’s redemption – increasing the good, contributing some small goodness to the magnificence of God, to the beauty of God’s dream for the world. God is always inviting us to grow, to develop, to do the right thing, to work with God in the direction of redemption in whatever form that can take in a roller coaster world.
Anne Lamott wrote about that in her Facebook post, too. I always teach them that they are loved and chosen, no matter what; that God’s got it, no matter how hard and unfair things seems; that all we have to do is take care of the poor, the hungry and thirsty, including ourselves, and give thanks for the tender mercies of our lives.
God is with us, and God is with us to comfort and care for us, and to give us the courage to pursue redemption.
And God sees it all. God sees us honestly and sees the world truthfully. God sees the beauty and care and tenderness that we are capable of. God sees the richness of our thought and feeling. God sees how we misuse our creativity to devise better means of hurting others, how we use our capacity to create wealth to also shut people out, how we use our minds to decide that some humans are less than. God sees, and God never gives up on us. God watches the parades celebrating new life, a new dream, a new kingdom, and God sees how some of the same people cheering for something new jeered at the Jesus who was trying to bring it into being. And God takes it all, and turns it toward redemption. God never gives up.
God is with us, always with us. God marches in our parades. God celebrates our joys and triumphs. Redemption is not only taking what is difficult, or painful, and turning it around somehow, it is also building on beauty and joy, increasing them and increasing the number of people who share in them. I think we sometimes have trouble thinking about God when things are going really well, but our joy is God’s joy. Try to picture God at that special moment you remembered earlier. Try to picture God at all your special moments.
God is with us, always with us. God is there in our moments of struggle, which may also include moments of tender care. Thursday of this week, we will remember the struggle of Jesus facing death, but in the midst of that, there is tenderness – food shared, feet washed. God is with us in struggle. God is with us to increase tenderness.
God is with us, always with us, and that includes walking with us in the most difficult moments of life. That’s what Friday of this week is about. Sometimes it is at such moments, again, that we have trouble seeing God. God never leaves us nor forsakes us.
Life is a roller coaster. Life is so lifey, mixed grille all the way, Judge Roy Scream to the max. God is with us, always with us working for good, working for redemption. The world in not respectable; it is mortal, tormented, confused, deluded for ever; but it is shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter; and in these the spirit blooms timidly, and struggles to light among the thorns. God is at work always helping the spirit bloom, helping it come to light among the thorns, increasing beauty, love, courage and laughter. Trust that. Amen.