Friday, April 03, 2015
Good Friday 2015: Here We Are in Church Again
Good Friday sermon preached on April 3, 2015 at All Saints Church in Pasadena. Giving thanks for inspiration from a great cloud of witnesses, including the Trinity of Malcolm Boyd, Verna Dozier and Marcus Borg.
Here we are in church again.
We know where this familiar Good Friday story leads – know where we will leave it when we conclude this three hour service of prayer and reflection; of story and song.
We know that Jesus dies: that the life -- the promise -- the light that shone so brightly will be extinguished. All that will remain of the radical rabbi from Nazareth will be a broken body and the broken dreams of his scattered followers.The Kingdom he proclaimed has not come. The powerful remain powerful: the oppressed remain oppressed – where there had been hope there is only despair – and -- for Peter -- there is denial.
Me? I’m not one of them.
Don’t know him. Never met him.
No idea what you’re talking about.
Must have me confused with somebody else.
At that moment the cock crowed.
And at that moment – as I imagine it – a flood of memories of sharing the work and witness of Jesus must have poured into Peter’s paralyzed mind and broken heart. The teachings, the healings and the miracles. The miles walked, the meals shared, the message proclaimed.The moments of transfiguration and the times of trial. “You are the rock upon whom I will build my church” and “Get behind me Satan.”
Peter denied it all in this seminal moment in the Good Friday story.
And here we are in church again – to hear that story again. The story we know leads to the good news of resurrection, Easter lilies and Peeps After we get through the bad news of betrayal, denial and trauma.
Which begs the question: Why couldn’t we just skip this part? Clearly that's an option lots of people exercise. Look around you: I think I'm safe in saying that there'll be a few more folks with us on Sunday morning – folks who will show up for the good news of resurrection, Easter lilies and Peeps without sitting through the bad news of betrayal, denial and trauma.
Garrison Keillor tells the story of his uncle who, at annual family gatherings during Holy Week, always read the story of the passion and death of Jesus. And each year he would burst into tears. The family would sit awkwardly until he was able to continue the reading. “My uncle took the death of his Lord so personally,” said Keillor – pausing to add: "The rest of the church had gotten over that years ago."
Indeed -- over the centuries the church has gone to great lengths to present two options for “getting over” taking Good Friday personally.
One option is to ritualize and sanitize the story so that it remains at a safe, historical distance: The Institutionalization of the Crucifixion.
The other extreme is to so focus on the agony of the cross that the glory of the resurrection becomes practically incidental: to make how Jesus died more important than the life Jesus came to show us how to live.
And neither option enables us – empowers us – inspires us -- to do what we have been called to do as members of this thing we call the Body of Christ: to take both the death AND life of Jesus “personally” – to hear these stories of Lent and Holy Week and to take them personally enough to be changed by them.
Malcolm Boyd took them personally. He took them personally enough to be changed by them.
And then he used the experience of that change to help change the church. His “Are You Running With Me Jesus” – was published in 1965 feeding the hunger of a generation of people who had given up on the church or anyone connected with it having anything relevant to say.
Feeding it with poetry like this:
Here I am in church again, Jesus. I love it here, but, as you know, for some of the wrong reasons. I sometimes lose myself completely in the church service and forget the people outside whom you love. I sometimes withdraw far, far inside myself when I am inside church, but people looking at me can see only my pious expression and imagine I am loving you instead of myself.
Help us, Lord, who claim to be your special people. Don’t let us feel privileged and selfish because you have called us to you. Teach us our responsibilities to you, our community, and to all the people out there. Save us from the sin of loving religion instead of you.
Loving religion instead of Jesus has been one of the ways the church has denied Jesus over and over and over again as surely as Peter denied Jesus in the courtyard of the high priest as the cock crowed the third time.
To love religion instead of Jesus – to worship Jesus instead of following him – is to choose institutionalization over mobilization – to opt for the safety of becoming an institution rather than risk the invitation to be part of God’s movement.
Verna Dozier in her wonderful book "The Dream of God" describes it thus: "The people of the resurrection made the incomprehensible gift of grace into a structure. [Rejecting] the frighteningly free gift of God go be a new thing in the world – a witness that all of life could be different for everybody – this gift was harnessed by an institution that established a hierarchy of those who "know" above the great mass of those who must be told."
And so -- for generations – those of us who "must be told" were told all kinds of things about what Jesus' life and death and resurrection meant. And a great many of them bore little or no resemblance to the actual life and witness of the one the church claims to follow – of the Jesus … • who put table fellowship at the center of his life, • who ate with outcasts, • who welcomed sinners, • who proclaimed the year of the Lord's favor, • who was so centered in God's abundant love that he was willing to speak truth to power from that first sermon that almost got him thrown off the cliff by his irate Nazarene homies to his last cross-examination by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea.
Instead we were given doctrines we were supposed to digest and not delve into, creeds we were supposed to recite and not question, scriptures we were supposed to memorize and not contextualize.
And then they wondered why the church was increasingly perceived as irrelevant!
The truth is that the witness we have to offer the world – the witness we call turning the human race into the human family – has nothing whatsoever to do with swallowing morally indefensible theories of an atoning sacrifice to appease an angry God and everything to do with living morally accountable lives of service and self-offering in alignment with God’s values of love, justice and compassion.
To live those values is to walk what Marcus Borg called “the way of Jesus” a way that is not a set of beliefs about Jesus … [but] the way of death and resurrection – the path of transition and transformation from an old way of being to a new way of being.”
It has to do with being the Body of Christ in the world – it has to do with these words we sing as we bring the offerings of our lives and labor to the table on Sunday mornings:
A world in need now summons us
To labor, love and give;
To make our life an offering
To all that all may live.
The church of Christ is calling us
To make the dream come true;
A world redeemed by Christ-like love
All life in Christ made new.
All life made new. is the Easter promise we claim even as we stand at this moment at the foot of the Good Friday cross.
For the first thousand years of Christian faith the predominant story the church told about the cross was not “Jesus died for our sins,” but “Jesus died to destroy the power of death.” Therefore, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, humankind could live healed from the fear of death.
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. So 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.
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.
Robert Shahan, a former Episcopal Bishop of Arizona famously said: "Faith is what you are willing to die for. Dogma is what you are willing to kill for."
In an online exchange this week over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act controversy in Indiana, an attorney colleague wrote: “When the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed in 1993 to protect religious minorities, who could have imagined state-law RFRAs enacted to protect the "religious liberty" of bigoted business owners to discriminate against members of any minority groups they disapprove of.”
Inspiring this response: “When Jesus said to his disciples “Behold, I give you a new commandment – that you love one another as I have loved you” who could have imagined that that dictate of love would be twisted into dogmas of discrimination against other beloved members of God’s human family.”
We gather today – at the foot of the cross – as people of faith; not as people of dogma. We gather in the shadow of religion being used and misused as a weapon of mass discrimination in our nation and as a weapon of mass destruction around the world. Being used and misused to inflict trauma rather than to heal trauma. Being used and misused for oppression rather than for liberation.
And every time we let that use and misuse go unchallenged we deny Jesus just as surely as Peter did.
And so my prayer for us – for all of us – the “us” gathered here at 132 North Euclid Avenue and the “us” who make us the Body of Christ gathered in prayer and contemplation throughout the church on this Good Friday is that we – like Malcolm Boyd – might be given the grace to take both the death AND life of Jesus “personally” – to take them personally enough to be changed by them – and then to change the world.
Let us pray.
Here we are in church again, Jesus. We love it here, but, as you know, for some of the wrong reasons. We sometimes lose ourselves completely in the church service and forget the people outside whom you love. We sometimes withdraw far, far inside ourselves when we are inside church, but people looking at us can see only our pious expression and imagine we are loving you instead of ourselves.
Help us, Lord, who claim to be your special people. Don’t let us feel privileged and selfish because you have called us to you. Teach us our responsibilities to you, our community, and to all the people out there. Save us from the sin of loving religion instead of you. Amen