Monday, April 27, 2009

From Jerusalem

SJF • Easter 3b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

You have to be careful sometimes what you read on the subway or an airplane. People will look over your shoulder, and often feel free to offer a comment on what you are reading. I studied Hebrew when I was in seminary, and one day on the subway I was reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, when an Orthodox Jewish man sat next to me. After a few moments, he leaned over and asked, with some astonishment, “Do you understand what you are reading?” I resisted the temptation to say, “Why, that’s just what Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch when he saw him reading Isaiah in his carriage.” Instead I explained I was studying Hebrew in seminary. We went on to have a good conversation about Christians and Jews and their points of agreement and difference. I didn’t get much studying done, but this may have been a blessed opportunity for something more important!

In a similar fashion, one stormy night, an evangelist was flying to Philadelphia, when the man sitting next to him discovered he was a Christian — the evangelist was reading his Bible, and not just because it was a bumpy flight. After learning that the evangelist was a minister, the other man immediately launched into a recitation about how he didn’t feel the need for organized religion. (I guess he liked disorganized religion — which just goes to show he hadn’t checked out many churches, as I think if fair to say we get along being about as disorganized as anybody!)

Anyway, he was one of those who took this life easy, and thought the life to come would be easy too. He wasn’t an atheist, he just didn’t have use for any particular religion, and took the view that there were any number of ways to salvation.

As the plane bumped along its stormy course, the man expounded on this comfortable theology. “Anyone who lives a good life here and now will have a good life in the world to come.” He said, “There are many ways into heaven. I mean, here we are traveling to Philadelphia by plane. But we could have taken the train or bus, or driven if we’d felt like it. I think it is the same way with heaven.” The evangelist listened to all of this patiently.

Then the voice of the pilot announced the final approach to Philadelphia. Because of the severe weather the landing would be delayed, and the pilot asked people to be patient and endure the bumpy ride. Naturally people were nervous, including the minister and the man in the seat next to him. As the pilot concluded his message, the preacher turned to his seat-mate and said with a smile, “I’m glad the pilot doesn’t share your theology!” “What do you mean,” the other asked.

“Well, right now the pilot is getting precise instructions from the control tower in Philadelphia. They are sending out a radio beacon to guide us to the landing strip. If he departs from the beacon by even a single degree, we’ll miss the landing strip. I’m sure glad the pilot isn’t saying, ‘There are many ways to get to Philadelphia; I can take any approach I like. I can turn the radio off if I want to.’ I’m glad the pilot is saying, ‘There is only one way I can land this plane safely, one radio beacon to follow, and I’m going to stick with it!’”

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Today’s readings turn our attention not to Philadelphia, but to Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of two thousand years ago, and to particular events that happened in that certain time and place, events which we believe have a bearing on all times and all places. For it was in Jerusalem that Jesus was crucified; it was in Jerusalem he was raised from the dead; and it was from Jerusalem that the word began to go forth, proclaimed by Peter and the other disciples, teaching and preaching that there is salvation in no one else than Jesus; that there is no other name given among mortals by which we must be saved. Through the storm and the night, there is one sure and certain means to salvation, just as through that stormy late-night flight, there was only one beacon to guide to a safe landing.

This is what theologians call the “scandal of particularity.” Many people think it harsh to say that there is one way to salvation, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who rules over heaven and earth, one incarnate Lord who died and was raised to life again. But the Christian faiths responds, That’s the way it is. Or rather, That’s Who the Way is!

If you think about it in terms of your own life you will see that particularity is not so strange after all. Each of us is particular; each of us is unique. There are many, many people in the world, but there is only one me, only one of each of you. There may be people who look like me, or have the same name as me, but they are not in fact me. There other Tobias Hallers out there — both “Tobias” and “Haller” are common names in Germany, where my father’s family came from generations back. I know, through the courtesy of Google, of at least two German Tobias Hallers: an ethnobiologist and a rock-climber. Believe me, we have very little in common but our names! And speaking of family history, generations back, in Frederick Maryland where my ancestors lived, two sons of my many-times-great-grandfather both had their own sons about the same time, and perhaps through a lack of communication, each gave their son the name Tobias. So it was in that one small town there were two Tobias Hallers running around, two cousins, who in later years. to tell them apart, people always referred to them by their trades: Hat-maker Haller and Mason Haller. I’m descended from the mason, by the way, not the hatter — which may explain my interest in restoring our buildings! But apart from that interest, which I share with my ancestor, and the name I share with all of them, this handful of Tobias Hallers than our shared name, and in one case a bit of our genes, some of our DNA. Each of them is or was him, and I am me, each of us totally unique people. And we’ve got the name tags to prove it! I’ll say more about that at announcement-time; but they’re downstairs waiting for everybody.

To put this into the context of our readings, in a more geographical sense, there are many cities in the world; there is even another Philadelphia — at least it went by that name in the days of the apostles — now Amman in Jordan. But even if there are other cities that bear the name, there is only one ancient Jerusalem.

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The special position of Jerusalem was announced long ago by the prophets. Jerusalem, a particular city built on a particular hill, would one day become the center of the world. And this is where we begin to turn from the scandal of particularity to the gift of universality. This is where we begin to see that the uniqueness of Jerusalem, and of Jesus Christ, is what makes the them accessible to all, what makes the kingdom of heaven accessible to all.

The prophet Micah said that one day the mountain of the Lord’s house would be raised up above all the other hills, and that peoples would stream to it. He foretold that many nations would come to it and would turn to the God of Jacob, to learn to walk in his paths. Isaiah and the other prophets echoed this message: all the world would come to Jerusalem.

And in Jesus Christ the prophecy came true, as he promised that everything written about him in the law of Moses, and in the prophets and in the psalms would be fulfilled. Through one person salvation was made available to all people. As Paul would say, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” Instruction did go forth from Jerusalem, carried by the voices of the apostles, teaching that Jesus was risen from the dead, and that in him new life and salvation lay, available to all. Those who were witness to the resurrection would carry that word to the ends of the world, beginning from Jerusalem. The word would be preached to all people everywhere, starting from a tiny group or people somewhere, from the particular to the universal, from the unique center to the infinite multiplicity of points on the edge of the circle, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth — which though it has many places on its surface, but only one and exactly one center.

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So it is, my brothers and sisters in Christ, that the word of salvation has come to us. There is one signal being broadcast, but many can tune into it. There were, that stormy night in Philadelphia, no doubt many planes that landed safely, all guided by that signal from the single control tower, that radio beacon. There is one key to the door that leads to salvation, but once the door is opened anyone can enter through who chooses to. As Saint John the Divine wrote at the dictation of a voice like a trumpet, to the ancient church in that other Philadelphia: “I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.” That door stands open still — one door through which many may enter. And that is only bad news to those who seek another way, or ignore the invitation.

There is one center to a circle, but an infinite number of points on its edge, each and every one of them exactly the same distance away from the center. There is one savior, Jesus Christ; his salvation is available to all who turn to him, to all who place their trust in him; he is equally close to all who seek him who is the firm center to anchor our compass.

As we continue our journey through the storm, through the night of our earthly life, may we remain attentive to the beacon, the shining light to keep us on course, the center point that will keep our circle true. That signal was first sent out, beginning from Jerusalem, from the little hill called Golgotha, outside the city walls, and then proclaimed more fervently from the heights of Jerusalem itself, proclaimed to its people to bring them to repentance, and then from holy Zion instruction went forth, out into the ends of the world, to the nations who dwelt in darkness; and the beacon is beaming brightly still, as Zion continues to publish glad tidings. All who tune their receivers to it can hear it, all who turn their hearts to the one who speaks through the ages and in all ages, can have their hearts warmed and spirits strengthened at the sound of his voice.

As we are buffeted by the winds of temptation, or tossed by the storms of sin and grief, when the darkness appears and the night draws near, and the day is past and gone, may we keep our hearts fixed on the one true signal of salvation that is beamed towards us from the heart of Jesus Christ our Lord, to bring us safely home.+

The story about the evangelist is freely adapted from an account by Tony Campolo.


Monday, April 20, 2009

WIthout a Doubt

SJF • Easter 2b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”+

There are all sorts of little sayings you hear in the church, little sayings that are said so often that people come to accept them as if they were Holy Writ. The problem is that many of these little sayings aren’t in the Bible, and worse than that they aren’t even true. One of them is, “Jesus said, ‘Love the sinner but hate the sin.’” Whenever I hear that one I always ask for chapter and verse; for, of course, Jesus said no such thing, at least as far as the Scriptures record. But that’s for another sermon.

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Today I want to look at the little saying that goes, “Doubt is the prelude to faith.” At least that’s one form of it. Alfred Lord Tennyson put it more poetically (which is fitting for a poet), “There is more Faith in honest doubt than in all the creeds.” Well, as someone who says the creed every day and twice on Sundays, I want to challenge that little saying, and on the contrary assert that doubt is the enemy of faith, something to be overcome; not an essential prerequisite or prelude to faith, but a poison that can infect or destroy faith.

Of course I acknowledge that doubt exists, but I affirm that faith survives and triumphs because it overcomes doubt. Many great Christians have had moments of doubt, moments in which they felt they’d made a terrible mistake, dark nights of the soul when they’ve felt so abandoned by God they began to doubt God’s providence, maybe even God’s existence. However, they survived those doubts; they regained their faith. We should hardly have heard of them if they had remained doubtful, certainly not as great Christians! In the same way people can survive deadly diseases: but that doesn’t make disease a beneficial stage towards a healthy life! Health comes with the end of the disease. And while it may be true that a healed broken bone is stronger than one that has never been broken, that is hardly a recommendation to go out and have all your bones broken!

No, I’m afraid that doubt remains a detriment to faith. It is something to be overcome, not embraced. Jesus puts it plainly when he faces the doubter Thomas, in five sharply pointed words: Do not doubt but believe. You can’t do them both at the same time!

As for Tennyson and all the others who have sung doubt’s praises, to be fair to them, what they’re talking about probably isn’t doubt at all, but ignorance. And those are two different things. Doubt is the enemy of faith, as much as suspicion is the enemy of trust. You can’t really trust them if you are suspecting them at the same time. The doubting skeptic will deny, until he is given reason to affirm. He tries to subsist in the world of “wait and see” — and “show me the money” — and since there are many things one never can or will see or be shown, things which must betaken on faith or the testimony of others, the doubter may spend an eternity waiting. Doubt, then, is thinking that something is false until proven otherwise; it demands first hand evidence.

Ignorance, on the other hand, keeps an open if not an empty mind: ignorance is simply not knowing — and given our human limitations, ignorance is a major part of our human condition: there are many things we do not know of a certainty, yet in which we have faith. To put it another way, Ignorance can be informed, but doubt must be convinced.

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Let’s look at our lessons for today, because they can help us see the difference. Peter addresses the people of Jerusalem, those responsible for the death of Jesus, in a moving speech that shows just how far God will go to forgive. He tells the people that they rejected Jesus; they chose to have a murderer go free, and killed the Author of Life. But he goes on to call them “friends,” and tell them that they “acted in ignorance.” As Jesus himself had said, “they know not what they do.” This ignorance, this clouding of the mind as Paul would later say, was necessary in order for God to fulfill what had been foretold through the prophets, that the Messiah must suffer. And Peter calls on them to repent and accept the truth of which they had been ignorant.

Peter is an eyewitness to the resurrection, there to testify and convert their ignorance into knowledge and bring them thence to faith, from unbelief to belief. And many of them accept his testimony.

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In comparison, consider doubting Thomas. For years those who want to cherish their own doubts have tried to exonerate Thomas. They want it to be okay for him to have doubted the reality of Christ’s resurrection, to have doubted the witness of the other disciples, and swear he had to see with his own eyes and feel with his own hands before he’d believe their testimony. After all, once he would see, their testimony would be superfluous. And although skeptical Thomas went on to do great things — tradition tells us he went as far as India, the apostle to bring the gospel into Asia — he couldn’t have done that if he had remained Doubting Thomas. Had he remained Doubting Thomas there would have been no gospel for him to preach, only his empty doubts.

Thomas’ doubts were not okay. They were something to be gotten rid of, to overcome. They would have killed his faith were it not for our Lord’s extraordinary willingness to put up with this disbelieving apostle, this disbelieving skeptic, and pay an additional visit to that upper room.

Jesus had shown his wounded hands and side to the other disciples, but he invites Thomas to go further. He invites the skeptic to poke and prod, to touch the risen flesh, delivered from death by the power of God. And he says to him, Do not doubt but believe.

There are paintings of this famous Gospel scene that show Thomas sticking his finger in the Lord’s wounded side. Personally I find that very hard to believe, nor does the Scripture tell us that Thomas accepted the invitation to handle Jesus so roughly. No, the text simply tells us that Thomas answered his Lord’s invitation with, “My Lord and my God.” And I picture him shocked and hardly daring even to look up, let alone to poke at Jesus’ wounds.

Even then, Jesus doesn’t let him off so lightly, he doesn’t let the beam of his severe attention drop. Okay, so Thomas now believes because he has seen. His ignorance, which should have been informed and dispelled by the witness of the other disciples, had hardened into doubt, had calcified into skepticism and it took a personal appearance from Jesus to wipe that doubt away: that first hand evidence, as Canon West used to say, of a hand with a hole in it.

And so Jesus goes on to say, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Blessed are those for whom the news of the gospel, lightening their ignorance, is enough. Blessed are those who only need to hear the good news, to gain the knowledge of God’s saving mission to humanity. Blessed are those whose faith rests not on the foundation of a ruined doubt, but on the solid rock of plain honest ignorance enlightened by the testimony of the Gospel.

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The evangelist John wants us so much to understand this. That’s why he wrote the Gospel, after all: to tell those who would come after what had happened. Doubt is not good. It can kill faith as much as jealousy can kill love; as much as suspicion can murder trust. Ignorance, on the other hand, is not our problem; it is our condition. The evangelist John, to make this point, steps forward for a moment at the end of the reading we heard, he steps forward as the author of the gospel to remind us, his readers, that there are many other signs Jesus performed “which are not written in this book.” He repeats this author’s note in the very last verse of his gospel, when he states that if everything Jesus had said and done were written down the whole world could not contain all the books it would take to tell it. In short, John is saying, I don’t have space or time to tell you everything. You are still ignorant in part. But you don’t need to know everything. What I have told you is enough. It is sufficient. The Scripture you hold in your hands, the Scripture you hear with your ears, is enough so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you might have life in him — and blessed are you who have come to believe.

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This is our condition, my sisters and brothers in Christ. We don’t know everything about Jesus. We don’t know how tall he was, what his voice was like. We have probably lost any number of his teachings and sayings along the way, things he did or said that no one ever wrote down. We are in partial ignorance; as Saint Paul said, “we know in part.” But, as Saint John reminds us, we know enough — and are blessed in that sufficient knowledge: like the daily bread that is enough for each day; we have enough.

We do not need to poke at the nail holes and the spear wound. We do not need even to see our Risen Lord as did his disciples in that upper room. We are among those blessed with limited knowledge, but also blessed with abundant faith, blessèd ones who though we have not seen, yet we have believed through the words of John and the other witnesses. For though we now can touch the Lord’s body only through the outward forms of bread and wine; though we now can serve the Lord only through our ministry to each other, and to the downtrodden and the needy, yet in our faith, our faith that thrives in the knowledge and the love of God, in our faith we are strengthened to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and believing in him, to have life in his name; and in his name we pray.+

Monday, April 13, 2009

Already Rolled Away

SJF • Easter B 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome ... had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.+

One spring morning nearly two thousand years ago, three women headed to the tomb of a beloved friend to pay their last respects. He was one who had been judged a criminal by the state courts, rejected by the religious authorities, executed, and then buried in haste and without ceremony. So three women who had followed him in life came to the tomb to do the proper thing, to anoint his body and see to it that their dear friend might have at least and at last that final dignity.

But on the way to the tomb, something they’d forgotten came suddenly to mind. Perhaps in their urgency, perhaps in their sadness and grief, they had forgotten that a large stone had been rolled in place to seal the tomb. Now, on the way to the tomb to carry out their merciful task, they suddenly remembered, and said to one another, Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?

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That question echoes down the corridors of time. Who will roll away the stone? That stone was and is the symbol of death and finality, the seals and shuts away the dead, out of sight if not out of mind. The burial place is the end of the line, the terminal point towards which all life tends.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s no coincidence that if you take the subway that runs northward just outside the doors of our church, you end up at Woodlawn! End of the line; last stop; everybody out. I was not entirely surprised some years ago to see a law firm’s office in one of those small buildings huddled under the elevated station at the last station stop on the Jerome Avenue line, up there at Woodlawn. The name of the law firm is Lazarus and Lazarus — I can only say they’ve chosen an excellent location.

We are, all of us, on a train the ends at one Woodlawn or another. With April 15 looming, it might be wise to remember the old saying, “The only things certain in life are death and taxes!” You may get a tax cut or an economic stimulus once in a while — but death awaits us all. It is one journey we all must make, some day, that journey to the grave.

You may remember the film in which a man has a terrifying recurring dream: a hearse drives up to him, and the driver leans out and says, in a cheerful voice, “Room for one more, sir!” And then one day, he’s about to get on a crowded bus, the bus driver looks at him and says, “Room for one more, sir!” — and it’s the man from his dream! He is so startled he steps back and doesn’t get on the bus, and then watches in horror as the bus pulls away and crashes in a terrible accident.

Well, the fact is, as far as each of us goes, there is always room for one more, room for each of us in death’s carriage. How does the Scripture put it? All flesh is grass, its beauty like the flower of the field; the grass withers, the flower fades. And who will roll away the stone?

And it isn’t only literal death, you know. There are those little deaths that come before the final death; those little deaths that wither and fade the dignity of God’s children, seemingly without help or deliverance. Despair, prejudice, racism, hatred and fanaticism roll stones of obstruction into the lives of men and women and children every day. And some are impeded, and others are crushed.

Who will roll away the stone of anger and diminishment that leads people to despair — such despair, despair so bleak they feel that they have nothing to do but buy a couple of guns and kill as many people as they can before they end their own despairing lives in death. What can you do when anyone you see may be ready to lash out? Who will roll away the stone?

Who will roll away the stone of fanaticism, when people are so sure that they alone have the truth that they actually imagine it to be an honor to blow themselves up if only they can take with them as many of unbelievers as they can? Who will roll away the stone?

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Who will roll away the stone? The women asked themselves that as they came to the tomb that Easter morning. It is the question we each ask many times in our lives, not only in response to death, but as we see or experience despair, injustice, prejudice and hatred. Who will roll away the stone?

But beloved sisters and brothers, note this: Saint Mark tells us that when the women reached the tomb the stone was already rolled away! The one who was buried in the tomb wasn’t there any more. Christ was already risen from the dead!

That was good news, brothers and sisters. And that is good news. Not only was Christ risen, but Christ is risen! Who will roll away the stone? What do you mean? The stone is already rolled away!

Who will roll away the stone of injustice? The stone is already rolled away by the one unjustly executed. The one who suffered injustice has triumphed over injustice; he has given us hands and hearts to roll away any stone of injustice we may encounter. Injustice may flourish for a time, but it will not triumph in the end. The stone has been rolled away. The one imprisoned through injustice is imprisoned no more. He is not there.

Who will roll away the stone of prejudice and hatred and ideology and fanaticism? The stone is already rolled away by the one mocked and spat upon and nailed to a cross by the power of hate and envy and fanaticism, but raised from the grave by the power of God. He is not there!

And we who are in Christ, are with him where he is — not where he isn’t — not in the tomb, not in the grave, not sealed shut: but alive and active and able and equipped and empowered to do his will.

In our baptismal covenant — which we will reaffirm as we welcome some new members into the body of Christ — we will promise to honor the dignity of every human being. In fulfilling that promise, we the people of God can do all in our strength to roll away the stones of hatred and prejudice that still block the light, that still imprison, that still cause the little ones to stumble and the weak to despair. Prejudice and hatred still wield some failing power to captivate and crush in this world; and yet they cannot and will not triumph in the end. The stone has been rolled away. The tomb is empty — he is not there.

Who then will roll away the stone of death? That stone has already been rolled away by one who died and was raised from death. We who have not yet died, yet are day by day approaching it, recall, as Saint Paul said, “dying, but behold, we live.” We know that the journey does not end at the tomb at Woodlawn or anywhere else — the tomb is only a stop-over on our true journey.

Emily Dickinson once wrote:

Because I could not stop for death,
he kindly stopped for me,
the carriage held but him and me
— and Immortality.

That third passenger, Immortality, is made real and complete in Jesus Christ, and that makes all the difference. Death may drop us off at Woodlawn, but Christ will raise us from the dead. After all, he’s the one who can truly say, “Been there; done that!” The stone was rolled away and the tomb was emptied, emptied once and for all — once, for him; and in him for all of us. We who have died with Christ in baptism, we who have been raised with him, who seek the things that are above where he sits at God’s right hand, know of a certainty that we will one day rejoice with him at the heavenly banquet. The stone has been rolled away. The tomb is empty. And Christ is alive. Though Woodlawn looks like the end of the line, though death invite us into his carriage, we have a better hope, and a better promise, for Christ is with us on that journey, which does not end at the grave, but goes on into the risen life of our Risen Lord.

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Some years ago a Sunday School teacher gave the children in her class an assignment for Easter. Each was given a plastic egg — you know the ones, from L’eggs panty hose, collected by the women of the church over the preceding months. The children were given the assignment to find something that represented Easter, put it in the egg and bring to class on Easter Day. The day came, and the teacher gathered all the eggs and then opened them one by one. “Oh, what a lovely flower! Who brought the flower?” And a little girl stood to take credit, saying how the flower reminded her of the new life that comes in the spring. The teacher opened another egg, and found a pebble. Another child rose to say it was like the stone that was rolled away from the tomb. The teacher opened a third egg, but there was nothing inside. “Oh,” she apologized, “I must have mixed this in from the ones I hadn’t given out,” and reached for another egg.

But one of the younger children shouted out — in that unselfconscious way that children can — “That’s my egg!” The teacher thought the child hadn’t understood — he was very young, the youngest in the class — and said, “But dear, it’s empty.” And the child nodded vigorously and answered, “Yes, just like the tomb. Jesus isn’t dead any more.”

What’s the old saying, Out of the mouths of babes?

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Three women went to a solitary tomb two thousand years ago, and then recalled it was sealed with a stone. When they got there, they saw the stone had been rolled away. The one they sought was not there — the tomb was empty, except for the angelic messenger — for Jesus had been raised from the dead. What was true then is true now: The stone is already rolled away, and Jesus isn’t dead any more.

Being raised from the dead continues to happen in a million ways, big and small. Even in the midst of suffering and injustice and prejudice and hatred, we can find the stone is already rolled away and new life has begun, that we too aren’t dead any more.

And even in the midst of death, even in the midst of the fear that the stone has rolled over us and is ready to crush us, and even when we finally do — as do we must — face that final journey, we will soon after discover that the stone has been rolled away, that Christ is alive, and that we are alive in him, victorious over death, our tombs as empty as his. Which is why, brothers and sisters, even at the edge of the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.+

Monday, April 06, 2009

Down from the Cross

SJF • Palm Sunday 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The crowd said, He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.

With Palm Sunday, we begin the observance of Holy Week, the church’s annual recollection of the events that took place in Jerusalem about nineteen-hundred and seventy-five years ago. It is a week that begins in triumph, or what seems to be triumph, and ends in defeat — or what seems to be defeat. It is, in short, a week of surprises and turnabouts, of contrasts of light and shadow, of joy and pain, of light and darkness and then light again.

God willing we are beginning to see a different kind of light — that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel — concerning the war in Iraq. But I would like to remind you of something that happened near the start of that conflict, something that bears an odd similarity to what happened long ago in Jerusalem.

American troops entered the city of Najaf, one of the holiest cities for followers of the Shi’ite sect of Islam. Welcoming crowds greeted the Americans, shouting their joy at being liberated from the domination of Saddam Hussein, who supported the predominantly Sunni population that had oppressed the Shi’ites. For a change there was some fulfillment of the promise that Americans would be greeted as the liberators.

Unfortunately, the cheering didn’t last. The next day, because of confusion or malice, word falsely got around that the American troops were going to occupy the shrine of Imam Ali in the great mosque of Najaf, one of Shi’a Islam’s most sacred sites. As the rumor spread, the same crowds that the day before had greeted the American troops with open arms and shouts of welcome, stood with their arms stretched out, their fists in the air, chanting curses upon the infidels.

Does this sound familiar? Something like the contrast between the Palm Gospel and the Passion Gospel ? As poet Samuel Crossman wrote,

Sometime they strew his way,
and his strong praises sing,
resounding all the day hosannas to their King.
Then “Crucify!” is all their breath,
and for his death they thirst and cry.

As I recall the crowds in Najaf turning from cheering to cursing, I cannot help but think of the same turn made by the crowds in Jerusalem. Even stranger, the next stage of the story continues to hold its mirror up to the events of Holy Week. Both Jesus in Jerusalem and the American troops in Najaf made the same response to the crowds. Jesus, the lamb who opened not his mouth, submitted meekly to the assaults of those who cursed him. And the American troops, at the direction of their commander, chose an extremely unusual response for a military outfit, to show the people that they were there in good faith as liberators, not conquerors. Those American soldiers each went down on one knee, and lowered their weapons to the ground.

And this is where the difference between the two stories come in. The crowds in Najaf, when they saw the Americans’ response, quieted their protests. And when the soldiers stood and began to back out of the town, to back away and back down, peace was restored.

Jesus’ meekness, however, was not met with a corresponding charity. No, his meekness seemed to create in the crowds that cursed him an even greater anger, an even greater hatred, to which he continued to submit himself in meekness. Ultimately, he did not back down — and because he did not back down from the cross, we are here today to testify to him as our Lord and Savior, not simply to honor him as a wise and prudent teacher who got off the hook by careful diplomacy.

We know from the evidence presented by Mark and the other evangelists, their testimony to what happened in Gethsemane, that Jesus did not want to go to the cross; Jesus did not want to die. But he willed to die. He could have backed down from the cross and its pain anytime he chose. But he didn’t. He remained obedient unto death, even death on a cross. He chose to pay the debt of human sin to God, and as God, fully divine yet fully human, though without sin.

Sin is disobedience, and if Christ had given in to his own fears or the devil’s temptations he would not have carried out God’s redeeming work. And the last temptation, the last temptation of all was voiced by the crowds: come down from the cross. The crowds did not want a suffering savior, someone who would die for them to save them from their sins. They did not want someone who would die in meekness. No, they wanted some kind of Superman. They wanted to see Jesus use his superpowers, to rip those nails out of the wood, to break himself free, to come down from the cross in power and might, so that, as they said, they “could see and believe.”

But that didn’t happen. There was no flexing of muscles, no miraculous transformation like the Incredible Hulk, no breaking free from the cross, no explosive leaping down. There was only the stillness of the noonday sunlight, the weeping of the women, the occasional curses and taunts from the crowd, the buzz of flies, the creaking of the wood, and then clouds of darkness over the land for three long, slow and painful hours.

Then finally Jesus broke the silence, as he cried out in a loud voice, a cry of pain and anguish stretching back 1,000 years before his own birth, the cry of his forefather David, a lamentation of abandonment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The crowd, of course, misunderstood. They realized by now that Jesus was not going to do a Superman act. But they thought that maybe he had some friends in high places. And so they took the wait-and-see attitude beloved by skeptics the world over, to wait and see if the prophet Elijah, would come to take Jesus down from the cross.

And so they waited, not so long this time, until Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. Up in the city, beyond the high walls, up on the Temple Mount, people said that the curtain of the Temple had been torn in two. But outside the city walls, on that little hill called Golgotha, something even stranger happened, something most folks didn’t see, but which the Evangelist Mark carefully recorded.

A soldier who stood there facing Jesus almost two thousand years ago did something as strange and unlikely as the American soldiers did in Najaf just a handful of years ago, something as strange and unlikely as the death of God’s own son. In spite of Jesus having failed to reveal himself as a superhero in disguise, in spite of Elijah’s failure to show up to rescue him from the cross, in spite of his death and suffering, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that soldier uttered words of faith that some even of Jesus’ own disciples had not yet dared to utter: “Truly this man was God’s son.”

Truly, he was God’s son, who suffered death upon the cross for our salvation. And so it was that the meekness of Christ was vindicated. The stories turn out to be not dissimilar after all, and in the end meekness and truth triumph over anger and hatred. Just as the submission of those American soldiers in Najaf turned the hearts of those who cursed them, so too in Jesus’ act of submission, he finally did turn one heart, as a soldier saw, perhaps for the first time in his life, that God’s power is made perfect, not in domination, but in obedience. That one man’s heart turned, moved by the power of God in Christ, not to compel, but to welcome; not to order, but to invite. It was only one heart, but it was the beginning, as countless hearts would come to be turned in succeeding weeks and years and centuries; and the word would go forth from that holy city, that holiest of cities, to tell abroad the saving death of Jesus Christ; to spread the welcome and the invitation to join the Meek King at his Banquet.

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I said at the outset that Holy Week begins in triumph, or what seems to be triumph, and ends in defeat — or what seems to be defeat. But the primary lesson of Holy Week is that we must never mistake meekness —— not using one’s power — for weakness: not having any power in the first place. Why did the soldier at the cross recognize Jesus as the Son of God? Not because he had no powers, nor because he exercised his powers, but because he had the confidence in God to lay them aside, to refrain from using the powers at his disposal. For that soldier knew, as perhaps only a soldier knows, that it takes greater courage to lower your weapon than to fire it. The centurion saw and believed, not because Christ came down from the cross, but because he stayed there, even unto death.

May we, when we are tempted to lash out, when we are tempted to save ourselves at whatever cost, when we are tempted to act in our own interests at the expense of others, may we remember Jesus on the cross who chose, on our behalf, to submit himself to the powers of death so that he might bring us eternal life. +