Monday, March 23, 2015

His Passion Is for Us

Scripture for the 5th Sunday in Lent includes Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

I want to dispel two rumors. One is that I have given up preaching for Lent. But I will tell you how much I have enjoyed doing what you do on Sundays, listening attentively to someone other than myself, someone who has already listened attentively to what the Spirit is saying to the Church. I have enjoyed lying fallow these past two Sundays. I have gratefully received the gift of first Ben’s, then Steve’s preaching. I could get used to this. But, on the other hand, as St. Paul put it, “Woe is me if I preach not the Gospel.” And I know what he means.

The second rumor I’m here to dispel is that I have asked the Vestry for a 65-million- dollar jet to fulfill my responsibilities as a pastor. It’s tempting, but I’m not sure Harriman Airport is ready for that; and to overshoot that runway in takeoff would indeed put me right at the doors of several parishioners, but not constructively.

Pastor Creflo Dollar—and isn’t truth stranger than fiction, for the man is well named—complains that his current jet has been in and out of the shop for repairs over the past thirty years. I can relate to that. If I had accumulated the dollars I’ve spent fixing the cars I’ve driven over the past three decades, it would be a tidy sum. Though there have been unexpected secondary gains: I would never have met the fascinating array of mechanics who have displayed their own brand of pastoral care (including the mother of two of them, whose coffee and biscotti can’t be beat), nor would I have ever finished reading “High Tide in Tucson” or any of the other waiting room books I’ve kept handy for such vigils.

Speaking of reading, I’ve had an experience in the week just past, assigning parts to sixteen parishioners who have volunteered to help read the Palm Sunday Gospel in Many Voices. That’s eight readers per service. The approach we’ve used has been to provide a sign-up sheet with the number of spaces that correspond to the number of parts to be filled. That has seemed wiser than listing the parts; who’s in a rush, after all, to fill the role of Judas Iscariot, and, for that matter, how many takers do we expect for the key part, Jesus? Wiser, it seems, to find out who’s up for the adventure in general, then get specific. Whether this approach is fairer isn’t so obvious. One might sign up, hoping for a plum part, only to be cast as a heavy. Such, I suppose, is show business. It is, for sure, how church business gets done via servant ministry, the first being last and the last first.

Having this task on my to-do list has given me the opportunity to reconsider who these people in the Passion Gospel are, and what they’re expressing. It is the Church’s task to hear what the Spirit is saying through this passionate story that fills the crucible of Palm Sunday and Holy Week, year after year, unaltered except for how it is read and who it is who reads it. The words, the actions, remain the same over nearly two thousand years of hearing.

And I hasten to add actions, not only words, because no sooner had I matched parts with readers, relishing the completion of that task, than it dawned on me that there was one more part to fill: at the 10:00 service, our custom calls for a nearly life-sized cross to be brought up the aisle to the altar. I had almost succumbed to a basic temptation: imagining the Passion of Christ without his cross, expressing the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus, at a discount, discounting the hard news of Good Friday, when the incomprehensible love of God comprehends all loss.

So we will have this story full, action as well as words. And the fullest part, at least in terms of air time, is the Evangelist, the Gospel writer St. Mark, who narrates the action, setting the stage for each of the readers in turn.

The first whose voice we will hear is Jesus. Instantly, we are drawn in, literally inward, to our Lord’s interior experience of all that is happening to him, through him, in the vortex of outward actions penning him in like a sheep in the shearing pen. First, we hear him pray. Moments later, he shakes Peter out of sleep. Temptation is at work all around. Peter, James, and John have escaped into sleep, avoidance, denial.

Our Lenten journey began with the signing of the cross on our foreheads, calling us to pay attention to reality and to give obedience to God. Jesus’s Lenten journey began in the desert, where he mastered those arts of attention and obedience.

But no sooner is the inner core of disciples discovered sleeping, than Judas actively betrays his master. Insidiously, his kiss signals which man it is to be seized in this dark garden. Could there be a greater perversion of justice, that a sign of love should abuse the One who embodies perfectly the love of God? Notice that history does not judge only that ragtag police force in the garden of Gethsemane for the violence they inflict wrongfully: History judges also the Church for falling asleep at the switch, neglecting the requirements of justice, allowing the perfidy of Judas. Judas, disappointed by the kind of Messiah Jesus is, tired of the servanthood message, itching to advance his own political zeal; Judas, the undoer of Jesus, comes undone by the same temptations his master resists.

A high priest is heard next, filling the role of Jesus’s Grand Inquisitor. Here is where every member of the clergy ought to tremble, from Fr. Elvin to Pastor Dollar to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Each a kept person, tempted not to rock the boat or bite the hand that feeds. The laity who profess and practice faith are no less accountable for how they represent God in the world. Nor are they less susceptible to the temptation not to disturb the status quo of whatever it is that keeps them, their career, their social set, their family, their country— whatever we defend, right or wrong, unthinking, uncritically.

A servant-girl will be heard. She identifies Peter as a disciple of Jesus. A more mature post-resurrection Peter would know how to welcome such a moment as this. But in the build-up to Good Friday, temptation is all about yielding to fear, and he does.

But the voice of the servant girl is thought to be the voice of social prejudice. Peter’s accent gives him away as a Galilean, and her dark role is to profile him based on appearances. How ancient is this temptation, to judge someone’s otherness, assume him blameworthy, diminish his humanity, expose him to ethnic cleansing.

And all of this is about to happen full-bore to Jesus, who now appears before Pontius Pilate, Governor of Judea. But the title neither impresses nor intimidates Jesus, who refuses to answer Pilate’s questions.

After witnessing this encounter, we will stand for the final third of this story, which keeps escalating in intensity. Over and again, we hear voices punctuate the narrative, catapulting heavy boulders of harsh judgment against Jesus— and they’re our voices! It’s as if we’re rehearsing yielding to the temptation to project onto the innocent one all the spleen and blame that fuels scape-goating, all our swallowed rage at a lousy economy, failed leadership, the scourge of brutality, corruption in high places. Wholesale helplessness.

One more voice will be heard, the last word, a word of truth and sanity from a least likely fellow, a Roman centurion, the officer in charge of this public execution. In one sense, he assesses the loss the world has just experienced in this unjustifiable punishment. But to the ears of those hearing what the Spirit is saying, the centurion ‘s verdict is the seed from which the green blade rises: “Truly this man was God’s Son.”

And is, his people respond. Though that response will not appear in the script,the very action, the annual rendition of the Passion Gospel in Many Voices, recognizes that his story addresses our temptations, trains us to pay attention to our own reality, calls us to give our hearts’ obedience to the One whose passion is for us, for the world and its salvation.