Friday, March 25, 2016

You Can’t Kill Compassion: Sermon for Good Friday 2016

It had come to this.

The chief priests said to Pilate "Do not write: 'The King of the Jews.' Write: 'This man said, I am King of the Jews.'" This was not a king they claimed. His was not a reign they recognized. They wanted nothing to do with the Good News he and his followers proclaimed – wanted no part of the kingdom he kept saying was “in their midst.”

And what were his greatest crimes? Knowing their tradition as well as they did. Insisting that “a house of prayer for all the peoples” meant ALL the peoples … not just the ritually clean, not just the ones with enough wealth to purchase the doves necessary for the temple sacrifice – all the peoples.

His crimes were challenging the religious authorities by offering God’s healing grace to those at the margins – to the lepers and the outcasts, to the women and the children, to the Roman centurion and the Syro-Phonecian woman; And challenging the civil authorities by offering a glimpse of God’s dream of a world without domination, exploitation or violence.

And so they sought to kill him. And by the end of this day we now call Good Friday they thought they had succeeded. By the end of the day all that remained of the rabbi from Nazareth was a broken body and the broken dreams of his scattered followers. The Kingdom he proclaimed had not come. The powerful remained powerful: the oppressed remain oppressed – and where there had been hope there was only despair.

And we are here today – over 2000 years later – because we know that was not the end of the story.

We are here today because you can’t kill compassion.

Oh, you can try. Our human history is tragically full of examples of just how hard those with the power to oppress have used it to perpetrate what Walter Wink called the “Myth of Redemptive Violence” – the myth of the victory of order over chaos by means of violence.

It is, according to Wink, the ideology of conquest, the original religion of the status quo and it goes like this:
The gods favor those who conquer. Conversely, whoever conquers must have the favor of the gods. The common people exist to perpetuate the advantage that the gods have conferred upon the patriarchy and religion exists to legitimate power and privilege.

Life is combat. Ours is neither a perfect nor perfectible world; it is theatre of perpetual conflict in which the prize goes to the strong. Peace through war, security through strength: these are the core convictions that arise from this ancient historical religion, and they form the solid bedrock on which the Domination System is founded in every society.
And anyone who thinks that Domination System is not alive and well listening to the rhetoric on the election campaign trail or watching the evening news with its onslaught of violence begetting violence, in thought, word and deed. In terrorist bombs in Belgium, Turkey and Nigeria and in gun violence in the streets of Pasadena; in policies that endanger our planet and incarcerate our youth; in state sponsored discrimination against LGBT people and in court decisions that strip communities of color of their voting rights. I could go on and on.

This violence – in thought, word and deed -- is the Domination System Jesus came to dismantle -- and the truth we face is that two thousand years later the same Domination System which conspired to kill Jesus on Good Friday is still conspiring to co-opt the Christian narrative intended to overcome it.

I love how Alaskan pastor “Lutheran Julia” framed it in her online reflection earlier this week:
Good Friday is the depth of human depravity. God did not have a thing to do with it, except to grieve our inability to perceive the Holy. Jesus did not have a thing to do with it, except to forgive whom he could as long as he had breath. The Spirit did not have a thing to do with it, except to shake the earth, rip the curtain, and generally raise a ruckus in frustration at human cruelty. We have been gaslighted into believing that there was goodness in the death penalty being applied to the Word Incarnate - another brown man, with a shoddy trial, accused of being an enemy to the state and the establishment.

When we believe this about Good Friday, we completely miss the point of Easter: downgrading the extravagant, holy, uncontrollable power of grace that brings life where breath and hope were gone.
In other words: We buy into the Myth of Redemptive Violence.

As I read her words, I remembered this quote I have turned to on so many Good Fridays past. It is from Episcopal Bishop Robert Shahan – who famously said: "Faith is what you are willing to die for. Dogma is what you are willing to kill for."

Jesus didn’t come to give us dogma to kill for – he came with a willingness to die for the sake of the message that the Kingdom of God is at hand: the Reign of God is about to be realized. It is here. It is now.

He came with a message of inclusiveness and compassion: compassion in the root sense of the word: the Latin word for passion means "suffering" leading to the combined form of "compassion" means "with suffering."

It is an invitation to enter INTO the world’s suffering – not to create an institution to exacerbate the world’s suffering by preaching exclusion and proclaiming a narrow sectarianism based on dogmas it has too often been too ready to kill for.

Bottom line (to paraphrase our friend Richard Rohr):

Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about us; Jesus came to change our mind about God.

Jesus came to show us that God loved us enough to become one of us. Jesus was so aligned – so "at-one-ment" – with God’s values of love, justice and compassion that he showed us not only how we could live our lives by the life he lived but showed us as well that the worst the world can do cannot kill the love of God.

And that – for the first 1000 years – was the narrative the church told about the cross. It was not “Jesus died for our sins,” but “Jesus died to destroy the power of death” -- and therefore -- because of Jesus’ death and resurrection -- humankind 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.

It was a theology of Redemptive Compassion rather than a theology of Redemptive Violence.

That came later in the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. And when it did 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 the Good Friday story we were supposed to get in line behind was outlined by a colleague as: "Jesus died on the cross for your sins, and he's going to come down and send you to the Lake of Fire if you don't pay him back."

This narrative – understandably a stumbling block for so many -- 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. And it was definitely a "him." And on it goes.

For just as Pilate and the chief priests argued at the foot of the cross over who got to "spin the story" of Jesus' life on that first Good Friday there are still arguments in this Good Friday across the church over who gets to "spin the story" of Jesus' death.

There are those who insist that there is only one way – their way – the Myth of Redemptive Violence way – of defining what is good about Good Friday.

The result is a domination narrative that crucifies the King of Compassion over and over and over again.

We can do better than that. We have to do better than that.

On this Good Friday 2016 these 1981 words of William Sloan Coffin have never rung more true: “The world is too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love.”

And the truth is in order for compassion to triumph over domination we must be willing to hear this Good Friday story we’ve heard so many times as if we’ve never heard it before.

And to illustrate that, I’m going to close with a story some of you have heard before.

When I was a young mother I sang in the choir and so my two small boys would sit in church with their friends Alex and Kimmie and their parents. I remember looking down one Good Friday from the choir loft at the four of them intently coloring on the back of their bulletins during the reading of the passion – seeming oblivious to the liturgy surrounding them.

All of a sudden, Kimmie, who was about four, stopped coloring and began to listen to the unfolding story.

Now Kimmie had been in church since before she was born – an embryonic Episcopalian: which is one better than a "Cradle Episcopalian." So she'd heard this story many times, even for such a little one. She could sing "There is a Green Hill Far Away" from memory. She had filled up her "He is Risen" coloring book.

But on this particular day, she was listening like she'd never heard the story before.

When the gospel got to the words, "because he was already dead," she suddenly stood up and said (in a loud, horror-filled voice)

"Jesus is DEAD? They KILLED JESUS????"

And she started to cry in a way that made it very clear: this story she'd heard over and over again she had just heard, in some very profound way, for the first time.

At four years old, she entered into the pain and suffering of the crucifixion event … and in experiencing that pain herself, was changed by it. And, as she was carried out of church, inconsolable on her daddy's shoulder, so were we.

Compassion is what Kimmie experienced on that Good Friday: compassion in the truest sense of the word: "with suffering."

The invitation to compassion is the invitation to be with -- to be a part of something requiring sacrifice and often pain.

And for us, today, it is an invitation to join and be part of the crucifixion story.

A story that is not about suffering for suffering’s sake. A story that is not about a God who causes suffering in order to test us. To try us. To punish us. To “make us pay.”

Rather a story about a God whose quality is always to have compassion – to always be present in the suffering that is – and who is calling us to be present in it in order to transform it.


In order to bring to earth the kingdom come as it is in heaven – a kingdom of love and justice, of healing and hope, of inclusion and embrace for absolutely every member of the human family. Amen.

1 comment:

danielj said...

preach it!!! I really needed to hear this day that compassion cant be killed