(A sermon for Lent 5B–March 25, 2012–John 12:20-33)
Picture a young Baptist girl, Southern flavor, sitting at her piano, looking for a hymn she sang in church, then playing it over and over and singing along.
“Living for Jesus, a life that is true, striving to please him, in all that I do…”
It’s the one she chose for the Sunday of her Baptism, the one she thinks expresses everything she feels about Jesus. It’s a picture of the perfection she feels she owes him, a picture of the demands she believes she must meet to be acceptable, to be worthy, her own self, of the death he suffered on the cross. She had a long way to go to begin to understand that no one is worthy, that it’s not about our worth or our piety or our attempts at perfection. She had a long way to go to begin to understand that nothing we do wrong is beyond the power of God’s forgiveness.
She would have hated hearing that. Somehow thinking some sins were really not forgivable gave her a sense of order in the universe as she sat and played that hymn, and the other ones she loved, reflecting on her unworthiness.
Clearly, she thought, the important thing was to be as nice a girl as possible, to go to church, to read the Bible more, to sing in the choir, to stay away from kids who drank and smoked, to never have sex until marriage—these were the things that clearly mattered. Now, any religion that keeps young people out of trouble may have something to recommend it, but in this case the trouble was on the inside, creating a person who had to live by the rules as she understood them, a false set of rules that prioritized personal piety over
faithful action in the world, a false set of rules built on behavior instead of the intentions behind the behavior.
Her life was so privileged; she didn’t have to think about much more than her fairly morbid love of Jesus.
She didn’t know how privileged she was, living under a roof that did not leak, with parents who could pay the bills and put food on the table and take her on interesting and educational vacations.
She didn’t know how privileged she was to be smart and going to very good schools.
She didn’t know how privileged she was to be able to walk to the 7-11 for a Slurpee without worrying.
She didn’t know how privileged she was to be white.
She was too busy singing weepy, sentimental hymns about Jesus to see how the world worked.
Well, I was too busy…
Nearly everything I think about the world, 35 years later, is different, but I still love those hymns, mostly. They take us right to the cross, to its pain and shame and humiliation and horror. They take us right to the moment of death, to the ironic “enthroning” of the one we ought to have recognized and worshiped instead of killing. They take us back to the chaos of the last week Jesus spent in his fully human form, to his arrest and his trial and his execution.
There’s nothing sentimental about it, but it ought to make us weep.
The religious leaders in Jerusalem are out after Jesus from Chapter 2 of John’s gospel, from the moment he challenges them and turns over the tables. He calls their leadership into question. He calls their faith practices into question. He makes it clear that God expects something different from them, that God wants them to understand the intention underlying the Law instead of using the letter of the Law to place themselves above others.
They want to go along the way they’ve gone along, comfortably. Admit it, so do we, most of the time.
We want to go along the way we’ve always gone, comfortably. And the cross is not comfortable.
To teen-aged me the cross was a gruesomely romantic idea, made more so by a movie we watched in youth group intended to teach young people the reality of crucifixion as a form of execution. It was there I learned that it wasn’t the nails and the bleeding that killed the crucified. It was there I learned that the victims suffocate.
It horrified me, but in a strange way it pleased me, too, because the emphasis of the teaching I received was that Jesus was willing to suffer that way for me. And the further understanding being taught, though I did not grasp it fully at the time, was that God the Father allowed his son to suffer that way as a ransom for our sins, to pay the price for what we have done wrong.
There’s a line in the hymn, we’re going to sing it after the sermon: “Oh Jesus, Lord and Savior, I give myself to thee, for thou in thy atonement, didst give thyself for me.” How many times I sang that! And not once did I know what “atonement” meant. It’s a way of understanding the cross that says God only forgives us because Jesus was willing to die that way.
Here’s what I think about it now. It’s a way of letting humanity off the hook for what happened that day in Jerusalem.
To the leaders in Jerusalem, the religious leaders and the profit-taking collaborators and the occupying Romans and anyone else with a stake in maintaining the status quo, the cross was a fantastically humiliating end for an attention-seeking revolutionary who somehow rated a voice from heaven.
The cross is the place where goodness died at the hands of power, the nail-driving, gun-shooting, slur-spewing forces of all that is evil.
The cross is the place where they lifted him up, his throne of shame.
But it’s so much more than that.
The cross is the place where Jesus claimed his identity as one of us, mortal and breakable.
The cross is any place where the worst we can do tries to destroy the best God can do.
“I own no other master, my heart shall be thy throne.” I sang that line, too. Really, I particularly loved that one, because unlike atonement, the words “master” and “throne” actually meant something to me. But all it meant for my actions was what I told you before, to strive to be a nice girl, a sweet girl, a well-behaved and acceptable girl.
And I had that wrong, just like the Pharisees. Making my heart his throne meant making my heart the cross, the place where I cannot deny the evil of this world and our persistent human obsession with power over others.
Making our hearts his throne, the place where Christ is truly honored, is a rigorous commitment and a righteous act. It requires allying ourselves with those who are treated unjustly, as he was. It requires finding courage to speak and act his truth.
I grew up in a Southern city where half of the population had to stay on the other side of the color line. Now I minister with you in a very white town, although most of us know that three beloved grandchildren of this church are biracial. They could be easily perceived as out of place in the fancier neighborhoods of the school district. Wouldn’t we cry outrage if something happened to one of them?
I think we feel safe, tell ourselves that what happened to Trayvon Martin would never happen here. Our kids are safe, and anyone can wear a hoodie, and we can tell the difference between Arizona Iced Tea and a weapon, because we are not idiots.
But I’m telling you, it does happen, in conversations young people have with each other, in the way they taunt each other in cafeterias and in text messages and on Facebook. I want to think the world has changed, but we can see it has not. Jesus was a threat to the power structure in his time, and we have to guard against our human tendency to ally with what we perceive as powerful. We have to work hard to recognize how false the powers and principalities of humankind are to the divine understanding, from the Pharisees’ abuse of the intentions of God’s Law to George Zimmerman’s abuse of the intentions of Neighborhood Watch.
I was a white girl, and I went to the 7-11 and got my Slurpee with my friends, and no one bothered me. I can send my daughter to the 7-11 around the corner from our house in Portland, and I don’t worry about her. It would be easy to say “I can’t imagine what it’s like” to be a person of color and threatened just because of how I look.
But if my heart is going to be his throne, I had better try to do more than fail to imagine it. I had better get all the way there and feel the righteous anger of Trayvon’s bereaved parents and be moved to speak out against racism and against injustice in all its forms.
Because if God’s own self could live a human life in order to understand our experience and our hearts more directly, if God’s own self could give in to our murderous lack of comprehension, if God’s own self could do all that and still forgive us, then we are called to stretch ourselves to a faith that is a lot more than singing weepy songs that make us feel pious. We are called to live God’s love in real time. We must say “No” to evil. We must stop crucifying each other.
The cross is any place where the worst we can do tries to destroy the best God can do.
But the cross is not the end of Jesus. It is one chamber in the heart of ultimate love. It is one chapter in the story of God’s grace and forgiveness, offered freely to us. May we make our hearts God’s throne, in the name of the Creator and the Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen.