Friday, April 18, 2014

Stewards of the Story

[A Good Friday homily based on the Gospels of John, Steven Charleston, Jane Goodall and Debby Boone]

“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

These words of wisdom are words I have come to think of as the Gospel According to Jane Goodall. They have continued to echo in my head and in my heart since the moment I heard Dr. Goodall say them in the Rector’s Forum the week before last.

And they also resonate at a deep soul place with these words we have heard many times in this parish and from this pulpit – words from Rabbi Abraham Heschel: “In every moment something sacred is at stake.”

In this moment – Good Friday 2014 at All Saints Church in Pasadena – we stand once again at the foot of the cross. We stand with the women and the disciple who stood on that hill called Golgotha knowing that the end was near.

They knew that the life – the promise – the light that shone so brightly in the Jesus they knew as son, teacher, leader and friend was about to be extinguished.

All that would remain of the rabbi from Nazareth was a broken body and the broken dreams of his scattered followers. Only the women and the beloved disciple remained.

The Kingdom he proclaimed had not come. The powerful remained powerful: the oppressed remain oppressed – and where there had been hope there is only despair.

And yet, we call this day Good Friday.

And like all the generations of Christians who have stood where we stand on Good Fridays down through the ages, a “something sacred at stake is this moment” is our decision about what kind of difference we want to make as stewards of this Good Friday story we inherit.

Steven Charleston – bishop in the Episcopal Church and elder in the Choctaw nation – sums up both the power and privilege of being stewards of the story – the Gospel story and our own stories – as we claim our history and live into our future as people of God.

Tradition [he writes] is wisdom collected.
Wisdom is experience gathered.
Experience is life encountered.
We are all scholars of our own story
and of other stories we learn through love.
When we share what we know, what we value,
we spin a force of the Spirit
that reaches back to ancient campfires
and out to a tomorrow
we cannot yet imagine.

On this Good Friday, that Spirit reaches back to the ancient hill called Golgotha and links us to the pain and despair of those who stood at the cross not knowing what we know about the rest of the story.

Because, let’s be honest about it: we stand at the foot of the cross knowing the Easter lilies are lined up back there in the hallway and the Easter dress is home in the same closet where the Peeps and Cadbury eggs are hidden until the bunny comes.

We are stewards of the story that does not end at the cross but continues on to the empty tomb, the resurrected Jesus, the road to Emmaus and beyond.

Even on Good Friday we are Easter people – and yet today, in this moment – in this sacred moment – we stand at the foot of the cross and we look with the women and the disciple at the worst the world can do to the one who loved us enough to become one of us in order to show us how to love one another.

And if we struggle to make meaning out of the horror of it all, we are not alone.

It is, in fact, a struggle in which the church has been engaged from the very beginning.

The VERY beginning.

The Gospel of John tells us Jesus wasn't even dead yet and they were arguing about the meaning of the Good Friday story.

At the foot of the cross where he hung in agony, they argued about what the sign above his head should say. "Do not write, 'The King of the Jews,' said the chief priests – write 'This man said, I am King of the Jews" and Pilate replied "What I have written I have written."

It wasn't very long before others stepped in where Pilate and the chief priests had left off and began to "spin the story" to preserve the power of a developing institutional church rather than to empower the propagation of incarnational love. A vestige of that "spinning the story" can be found in the creeds we inherit … creeds that emerged from the early church councils having reduced Jesus' life and witness to a footnote: creeds that skip from "born of the Virgin Mary" to "suffered under Pontius Pilate" leaving an awful lot of walking in love as Christ loved us on the cutting room floor!

And we ended up with a story about Good Friday that went something like this:

God was very angry with us for our sins, and because he is a just God, our sin had to be punished. But instead of punishing us he sent his Son, Jesus, as a substitute to suffer and die in our place. The blood of Jesus paid the price of our sins, and because of him God stopped being angry with us. In other words, Jesus took the rap, and we got forgiven, provided we said we believed in him.

A familiar Good Friday story. A Good Friday story many of us grew up with never knowing that it was not the only story.

And yet, for the first 1,000 years of the church’s life a different way of telling the story dominated Christian theology.

And that story goes like this:

When Jesus talked about his death he used this parable: Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. For those first thousand years of the church’s life, Jesus’ death and resurrection were primarily about death, not about sin. Jesus died and then rose victorious from the grave.

The main story line (for the first 1000 of Christian faith) was not “Jesus died for our sins,” but “Jesus died to destroy the power of death.” After Jesus’ death and resurrection, humankind could live as if death were not. They could live healed from the fear of death.

There was no angry God; no atoning sacrifice. Instead there was the paradigmatic example of the One who loved us enough to become one of us not only to show us how to love one another but who loved us enough to die in order to rise again to heal us of our amnesia about the love of God so great that it transcends death.

Even death on a cross.

In this Good Friday story Jesus saves, to be sure. But he doesn’t save us from an angry God. He saves us from our fear.

In penetrating the boundary between life and death Jesus assures us that the crossing over at the end of this earthly life is to something very real. With that assurance, Jesus saves us from the fear of death that is such an existential fear that it can paralyze us into trying to control the bits of life we can wrap our hands around rather than letting go to receive the abundance of life God would have us receive.

His resurrection tells us that we need not live our life in fear of that crossing over and sets us free. Jesus saves us from worrying so much about getting to heaven that we’re too paralyzed by fear to participate in bringing heaven to earth.

We are stewards of this story which is quite literally the truth that will set us free.

And that brings me to the Gospel According to Debby Boone.

As you know, Holy Week is a busy time at All Saints Church. We have 24 services between 7:30 a.m. Palm Sunday and 1:00 p.m. Easter Day – and even with a boatload of brilliant colleagues it is pedal to the church metal time and there is no time to waste.

So of course, faced with the looming writing deadline for this Good Friday sermon, I was on Facebook -- scrolling through pictures of kittens and puppies, pictures of what folks had for lunch, updates from clergy friends about how busy they were and past dozens of "must-see" videos.

But since I didn't have time to watch a video, I kept scrolling past the one with the picture of Debby Boone – of “you light up my life and daughter of Pat Boone fame” – and lots of comments like "must see" and "Brava." But I didn't have time to watch a video – even one that was only a minute sixteen seconds long.

I had a sermon to write and it wasn't going write itself!

And then I watched it anyway. I'm not sure what finally convinced me to click on it but I did. And what I heard an interview with Debby Boone about how she had come to change her mind about the story she had been raised with about gay and lesbian people and become a strong supporter of LGBT equality.

“I am one of the people who made the transition from an old way of thinking to a new one, and so for me it's not about good and bad people,” she said.

“It's about continuing to tell the truth -- and the truth will do the work."

Bam! And all of a sudden all of the reading I'd done and the notes I'd jotted down and the various bits and pieces of sermon prep process fell into place around the good news of the "Gospel According to Debby Boone:"

For me on this Good Friday that good news is that it really IS about continuing to tell the truth – and it is about trusting that the truth will do the work.

It is about weaving the tradition of wisdom collected from experience gathered in life encountered into the shared story of the God who loves us beyond our wildest imaginings – who loved us enough to become one of us in order to show us how to love one another – and whose love was stronger even than death.

And then it’s about being stewards of that story. It’s about deciding to make a difference by sharing that story with those in desperate need of the good news it has to offer.

And then – in my email inbox – appeared this case in point on a silver platter: in this comment on the Huffington Post

I have struggled my entire life with Good Friday. I have been stuck with a vocabulary of substitutionary atonement, even though I find that explanation of the Cross to be wrongheaded and terrible. I have worked to find new language to talk about the meaning that I feel in the story of Jesus' suffering and death. I will be thinking this week about truth doing its work, and "the gospel according to Debby Boone."

Thank you! Lou -- in the heart of Silicon Valley

For Lou and for so many others the stumbling block of Good Friday has nothing to do with the good news of God in Christ Jesus and everything to do with the disconnect between the stories Jesus told of a loving God calling the whole human family into relationship with God and with each other and the story the church was telling of an angry God demanding blood sacrifice as the price of relationship with him.

The Good News this Good Friday is we stand at the foot of the cross knowing that the way of the cross part of the journey – not the destination.

Without the cross, the resurrection couldn’t have happened. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

But because it did – because of the Good News of this Good Friday – we are freed to be fully alive by the power of the resurrection – healed, whole and liberated in this life and the next.

Liberated to tell the truth and to trust that the truth will do the work as we work together to turn the human race into the human family.

Liberated to decide what kind of difference we want to make as we put our faith into action in the world each and every day.

Liberated to live every moment as if something sacred is at stake.
Because it is.

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