Monday, March 10, 2008

The Abundance of Holy Week

This sermon refers to John 11:1-45

Yes, another long Lenten Gospel. This time, I’m not so sure it’s about a person low on the totem pole of social and economic influence. Not, this week, a blind beggar regaining his sight at Jesus’s hand, nor a Samaritan woman having her thirst for love slaked by the Lord of love. This time, we’re told a story that shows Jesus at work in the middle class.

When we meet them at another famous moment, Mary and Martha are running their own household and appear to have some means. In that story (you’ll recall that Martha was banging pots in the kitchen, Mary taking note of every word Jesus was saying in the front parlor), Lazarus isn’t mentioned. Perhaps by then he was dead for real, as tradition reports that after he emerged from his tomb, Lazarus proved such an influential witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ that he had to be rubbed out by one or another of several powers-that-be, threatened by too much moving and shaking.

Here’s just the right story for crossing over to Holy Week. When Jesus enters the capital city of Jerusalem next Sunday—when he pulls up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House—he won’t be arriving by limousine as Queen Elizabeth would. He’ll be seated on a donkey, while around him will be his ragtag team of disciples. As usual, they’ll looking lost and unsure about what he’s up to now.

What isn’t hard to imagine is made clear by all these long Lenten Gospels: he was known throughout Galilee and Judea for what he did, healing the sick and the blind, restoring the alienated and loveless to their place at the table of God, even turning the tables on death itself. Now Jerusalem gets to meet him, and everyone turns out because everyone has heard of this fearless healer and teacher—could he be the Messiah promised of old?

The guardians of religion and the pillars of civil government have also heard of this Jesus. To their eyes, his parade on Palm Sunday is a subversive entry into Jerusalem, a city packed with pilgrims at Passover. The high and the mighty have heard that he subverts all normal standards of decency, eating with sinners, breaking the blue laws, daring to arouse hope among the poor. Here he comes to grandstand and set the city in commotion.

Well, no. He has come to keep Passover with his disciples, his chosen family. He has come to keep Passover with us. Maundy Thursday will take us there to that upper room where he must subvert his own friends’ standards of power and authority, for right at the time he most needs their understanding and openness to the complex suffering that awaits them all, they neurotically compete for his Most Valuable Player award, arguing among themselves who is greatest. Until he shows them greatness, stripping down to his wet gear and washing their feet to reach their hearts and their imagination. Enough, at least, that it wasn’t lost on them (and on us) forever, when he took common bread and table wine and made them perfect expressions of his love for the human race.

This year, Laurie and her helpers (Adrienne, Sam, Diana) have created in our window ledges 14 imaginative Stations of the Cross, speaking to us in 2008 the story of Jesus’s way of the cross, from his condemnation to his crucifixion. My favorite one is number six, the legend that St. Veronica wiped our Lord’s face with her veil, leaving on it the imprint of his likeness. And there, in a bowl of water that seems suspended in air, the exact likeness of the window above (the one that tells its own story of The Pilgrim’s Progress) is reflected. That’s a sight that exactly expresses the story it means to communicate. That’s success. That’s sacrament. And that’s symbol.

It’s what Holy Week is so good at: sights and sounds that show well what the love of God is in Jesus Christ, what the hope is that we have through this victory of Spirit over force, what courage and passion amount to when gotten hold of by a Messiah who will weep but not kill, will empty the tomb of his friend by filling it himself.

This year, in addition to our noon to 3:00 p.m. Preaching of the Passion, a joint service with our Methodist neighbors, and a later-evening liturgy, we’ll also offer an early-evening Stations of the Cross for children. What holds true for Worship Outside the Box on Sundays will apply also to this Good Friday service: it will be brief, and it will welcome not just children but all who want fresh ways of seeing and hearing this greatest story ever told.

In our Foundations course last Monday, Jim led a discussion of stewardship. We were reminded how, with God, life is experienced as abundance. The arithmetic of grace is not about our earning the love of God, but about our receiving, undeserved, not just the fullness of biological life but also the intense movement of spiritual life and, through them both, deeper than them both, the transformation that we call eternal life.

With a religion like this, we should wonder that Holy Week is such an embarrassment of riches? That Easter begins, not with sunrise Sunday but with sundown Saturday, because Easter requires darkness for the Christ light to penetrate and illumine, showing wordlessly in perfect expression what happens when the astonishingly generous love of God meets openness in us. And then Word is heard, ancient stories (like Ezekiel’s today, but you haven’t heard the Valley of Dry Bones until, on Easter Eve, you hear those bones rattle and watch inert bodies lying in this aisle rise as the breath of God blows over them) helping us see how the love that reaches us in Jesus has been reaching for us right from the beginning of time. And Word becomes flesh, as this Easter Eve young Will is to be baptized into the Body of Christ.

Somehow, this rich legacy of Holy Week isn’t yet, after 2000 years, as familiar or as popular as the bling of Easter Day, when every seat will be taken. In the early centuries of our religion, there was no Easter Day without Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Eve. It was all one seamless veil bearing the imprint of his likeness. Why not see if you can experience Holy Week that way, this year? Why not know for sure why you’ll be in church on Easter Day—and not at home watching one empire or another rise or fall?