Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Our Cross Is Green

Scripture for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

From the files of campus security at Williams College: "Friday, September 12, 2014,4:22 p.m. St. John’s Church: Officers received a report that students were climbing the exterior of the church. A Williamstown Police Department officer also responded. Officers identified four students who had already packed up their pads and climbing equipment and were about to leave. They admitted to climbing the church. Officers explained that for safety and liability reasons, as well as private property rules, they are not allowed to climb the church.”

There was a collision of authorities. “By what authority are you climbing this church?” ask the officers of the law. “By what authority are you telling us we cannot?” might have been a cheeky reply. We know what we’re doing. We’re good at it. And climbing the church is a whole lot more exciting and challenging than the climbing wall at the Field House…”

Who knows, maybe one of those students tried that confrontational approach, hence the listing of reasons—three of them—mentioned in the blotter.

I don’t know. I wasn’t at this end of our buildings that day at that hour. I was diligently at my workstation, attempting to work out with fear and trembling my sermon for that weekend. Darn it all! I missed all the action!

There’s a confrontation of authorities going on in Matthew’s Gospel today. Jesus has carried his itinerant ministry into the sacred precincts of the temple in Jerusalem. The clergy and Vestry are not pleased. They’re used to calling the shots. Nobody climbs their walls without permission. And this Jesus is, in their eyes, a nobody.

“Who gave you authority to heal the sick, feed the hungry, illuminate the blind, speak publicly to women and poor people and tax collectors and sinners? Huh? Who?”

Cheeky Jesus replies, “I will also ask you a question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

Ooh. That’s hitting the ecclesiastical authorities right where it hurts. Though the Gospel writers do not blame the religious leaders for John’s imprisonment and beheading—the political powers and principalities of Herod’s household get the blame for those perversions of justice—nonetheless, the grassroots spiritual, religious, and ethical movement that John blazed across Judea was every bit as threatening to the temple as the Jesus movement had become. Now Jesus, who held John dear and willingly submitted to his kind of baptism, Jesus now makes the righteous squirm.

Because the city is watching, listening. The walls of that temple have ears and eyes, as countless ordinary people come and go, climbing the rules of temple sacrifice, enriching the coffers of organized religion, in its collaboration with the Roman imperial forces of occupation. These same common people had flocked to the frontiers where John conducted his open-air preaching and baptizing, and here now Jesus is pressing the authorities to admit their choice to collude with the enemy rather than welcome a prophet from God.

The weak-kneed spokesmen for security at all cost answer, “Well, we’ll never know, will we?” Such proper Anglicans, these fellows. I can imagine a longer version of this story, one Matthew decided not to waste ink or vellum on, where the Archdeacon clears his throat and says, “On the one hand…” And the Canon Theologian interjects, “While on the other hand…”

So… if he can’t get a straight answer from the establishment, whom do you imagine Jesus addressing when he asks, “What do you think? What do YOU think?" Had he turned away from the quislings and now spoke into the great stairway filled with pilgrims in from the countryside, as he pitches to them his little parable?

About a man with two sons, whom he asks to go and work in the vineyard. “No way,” answers the first. “Sure, Dad,” answers the second. Then the parable does a pirouette, and the first son reconsiders his refusal, changes into his work clothes, and off to the vineyard he goes. At the same time, the glib promiser gets wrapped up in a video game and pretty soon it’s suppertime.

“Which of these two did the will of their father?” asks Jesus. I think it’s from the stairwell that we hear, “the first one!” Then I imagine Jesus turning back towards the champions of security to deliver this stinging message: “The truth is, people of the street are closer to the kingdom of God than you fearful souls afraid to think new thoughts lest the whole house of cards come tumbling down.”

Ouch. Just as this parable is aimed at us all, so is this warning that would have us avoid the closing of our minds.

The religion of Jesus Christ is not shy about the Ouch factor. He who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” teaches us to “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

As we look to the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, we see him high above the altar nailed to a cross, and the cross has about it the most astonishing characteristic. Do you see what I mean? It’s green. Why doesn’t that make us stop in our tracks and refuse to budge until we deal with it? His cross is green. It is the tree of life. It is God’s Yes to the world’s defeatist No. It is the color of hope. It is the band in the rainbow that binds our Ouch to the great Passion of God in Jesus. While you and I must deal with the pain of working out our own salvation with fear and trembling, that green is God at work in us, the grace enabling us “both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”

Whatever authority we find attractive and trustworthy—the authority of a political leader, the authority of a movement, the authority of a scientist, the authority of the Bible, the authority of our own experience—the grace of Christ’s green cross rises above them all. And the only answer from us that God finds authoritative (according to our parable today) is not what we say or what we think, but what we do, when we let our action be shaped by the grace of God already at work in us. And when our obedience resembles the obedience of Jesus Christ, should we be surprised if there is an Ouch factor? No. Nor should we be afraid of it.

A famous moment of conflict appears in our reading from Exodus, reinforcing the same message. No water. The Hebrew refugees, rescued from their bondage, are trekking across the desert and have run out of water. “Give us water to drink,” they chant in the direction of Moses. Or else.

“What shall I do with these people?” prays Moses to God, as those many tens of thousands (some scholars say three or four hundred thousand) voice their complaint. God instructs Moses to go on ahead of his people, take a few elders along, take in hand his walking stick, and demonstrate leadership.

Detailed instructions of exactly how are apparently not as important in the great scheme of things as is trust. We aren ‘t told whether it’s sooner or later, but this little scouting party reaches Horeb, where there is a wadi, an Arab name for a rocky watercourse, a wet riverbed in rainy season, dry as dust at other times—and perhaps this was a time soon enough after rainy season that there was water to be had by digging down around that rock.

This was not magic. This was work. This was working out their salvation in fear and trembling. This is the work of leadership. Some of the rabbis insisted that this rock at Horeb followed the Hebrew people on their journey until they crossed the Jordan and found the Promised Land. St. Paul, in one of his letters, gives a gloss on that story by announcing his belief that the rock at Horeb was Christ. Christ, the one who enables the holy digging of salvation. Christ, who is with us, always and everywhere, persuading us to not fear challenges and conflicts, even the global-scale challenges that confront us now, for he is already there, at work in the crisis, calling us to discern his work and join him in it.

Last Sunday, countless congregations and communities sent leaders on ahead of the rest of us, to the Peoples’ Climate March in New York. Two members of our parish community, Robin and Margie, were among the 300,000-400,000 marchers who gathered along Central Park West. At Steering Committee last week, Robin described how well organized this was, with marshals in green shirts directing marchers to drinking water and bathrooms. Funny, isn’t it, how meeting the needs of Water In and Water Out are so central to human security?

Robin told us how she marched with people from Bangladesh, where the rising ocean level threatens the very existence of that nation. The Ouch Factor of climate change in the poorer oceanic countries is truly one of sheer survival. St. Paul’s admonition to look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others was brought home as the World Summit at the U.N. revealed the fear and trembling of developing nations, and exposed basic questions such as what constitutes security in the face of climate change and how do nations help one another respond to insecurity?

As marchers made their way through those city streets, at an appointed moment the marchers stopped—an impressive accomplishment for 300,000-400,000 people (Moses would have been impressed)—and for two minutes of silence marchers raised their hands in the ancient posture of prayer, wordless, “as if the whole city went silent,” Robin said, ended by the tolling of church bells.

To what end? And by what authority will human change rise to meet the challenge of climate change? By the authority of action that is shaped by grace, that throbbing green in the cross of Christ. And if such action trains people to a finer care for the earth and all its life-forms—more room for grace, less room for greed—if such action transforms our understanding of security and insecurity, then we will become freer, better at hearing God’s Yes.