John 12:20-33, Lent 5B, Sermons

My Heart Shall Be Thy Throne

(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.

Abortion, Adoption, Lent 5B, Personal History, Psalm 51, Sex, The Inner Landscape

Twenty Years Later

I was 30, married, the mom of two little boys, 14 months and almost 6. It was Christmas, and I had bronchitis, and the doctor prescribed antibiotics, and they made me sick to my stomach, but even after ten days had gone by, I still felt sick.

You’d think I would have known by then, after two children and two first trimester miscarriages in between.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. (Psalm 51:1, NRSV)

You’d think.

But it didn’t seem real, quite, until yet another week went by and I still felt nauseated.

This is the year it’s been twenty years since then, and in some ways it feels like it all never happened, and in others it feels like five minutes ago.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. (Ps 51:2-3)

I was a funny bird in those days. I had lived a very clean, straight life. Really, I was a professional good girl. I put being good ahead of most everything else. I had two or three college stories about drinking a little too much, had only smelled pot from a distance and had absolutely no sexual history outside of marriage, which believe me was unusual for someone who graduated from college in 1982, all of it, even among “nice” and “Christian” young people.

Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. (Ps 51:4)

I worked hard at being good to compensate for feeling I was bad in every way.

It’s possible we can blame Calvinism for this, or Southern Baptists, or Southern culture and its emphasis on feminine purity, or my mom, or just my innate personality. I’m not sure where the fault actually lies; I only know I was conditioned or wired to take the responsibility on myself, whatever befell.

Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. (Ps 51:5)

Ah, well there’s the key, perhaps. I had two mothers, the one who conceived me, and the one who raised me, and that’s where it gets complicated, which is to say, right from the beginning. Because the mother who raised me never seemed to be able to forgive me for coming from somewhere else, from someone else, from a mysterious past that could not be controlled or known. I went into my teenage years terrified of repeating what my birth mother had done, even though I had no idea of her circumstances, the underlying understanding being that if she couldn’t keep me she must have been some kind of a slut, and that wasn’t what I was going to be, even if and maybe especially because the mother who raised me was so afraid I would.

I realize this is a charged word, especially now, but it is the word I had in my mind then, and it shows the kind of world in which I lived, full of judgment of women and their sexual behavior in particular. It’s different in my mind now, but the world hasn’t changed as much as one might hope.

I was determined to overcome that expectation. I had to overcome it. It seemed like the only chance I had to live the life my mother taught me I ought to want: to achieve the successful marriage, which was the only validation any woman needed to have.

(Brutal. It was brutal. I hope no one taught you these lessons. I do everything I can to teach my daughter something different.)

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. (Ps 51:6)


I was in high school and started college in the 1970s. Young people were having sex, lots of it, in those days before we knew about AIDS, and girls were getting pregnant. Nice girls, Christian girls, all sorts of young women were having sex and getting pregnant. In my neighborhood outside Williamsburg, Virginia, we whispered about the family that paid for three abortions in the same year: one for their daughter and two for girls their son had gotten pregnant. I took the unsurprising attitude for an adoptee that this had to be a bad thing. After all, would I even be here if abortion had been so readily available in the year I was born?

I took that attitude, but when my friend, S, needed a ride to the clinic in college, I took her. She was afraid a pregnancy would crush her parents, who were already having a tough year because her father had been laid off.

And when my friend, P, who was if anything a good-er good girl than I, more pious — she even became a charismatic at college!! — when she told me about her multiple abortions, which she had because she never planned to have sex and therefore never had protection available, she told me her mother said to think of it as making a blood sacrifice.

Some mothers will tell us anything to get the story to turn out the way they want it.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (Ps 51:6-7)

Wash me clean.

Well, if you don’t get dirty, you won’t need to be washed clean. That seemed to make more sense. If I could only be good enough, truly good, more good than P or S or the family down the street in the upscale suburb, no one would have to talk me into anything.

But in 1992, no matter how good a wife and mother I tried to be, nothing about the pregnancy felt real to me, except that something felt wrong. We couldn’t figure out when the baby was conceived; the predicted due date was a shock. Then prenatal tests pointed to a problem and more tests confirmed a genetic abnormality. I didn’t expect to be talking to my trusted doctor and hearing him say I had a choice about whether to carry to term.

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. (Ps 51:8-9)

I believe we made the best choice at the time. That does not mean I felt good about it, or that I regarded the life lost casually, as some people think women who terminate pregnancies must.

Most everyone close to me (parents, in-laws, spouse) felt ready to move on, relieved that the procedure was safe and legal, that it could take place in a fine hospital in my own city, that I received high-quality medical care.

Oh, it pleased my mother!  (I believe she feared her impaired grandchild would survive. This, too, was brutal.)

Meanwhile, my milk came in.

I grieved. 

I felt guilty, though I did not regret the decision, and I wondered, unsurprisingly, why this terrible choice had to be part of my life, why God’s eye had been off the ball when I was clearly such a good, good, good girl and such an unlikely candidate for an abortion.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 
(Ps 51:10-11)

When you’re hoping to go to seminary, and you end up in the hospital to have a pregnancy terminated on Good Friday, it’s a dark place to be.

For me, it remained dark for a long time. I felt cast away from God’s presence, and I hated that. Later I was angry. My pastor assured me that God was big enough to handle my anger, but that made me madder! Surely there had to be a better way for God to run things than to let misery occur and then be receptive to our anger?!?!!

I concluded, eventually (and this is good news for everyone to whom I ever have or ever will be a pastor), that sometimes bad things happen and those bad things are not a judgment on the people who suffer them. And where God is at those moments remains a mystery, although I will say that when I have been at my lowest, God has reliably provided the help that I needed to get from one day to the next until I could do it by myself again.

In 1992, that help took the form of an older friend whose own history contained abortions she didn’t really want to have. She sympathized with the complex nature of my situation, and instead of trying to redirect me to the relief felt by my family, she said, “Why don’t you pray Psalm 51?”

I remember reading it for the first time — well, it probably wasn’t the first time ever, but it felt new — and thinking, “This is not me! I didn’t do anything wrong!” Holding that thought was making it possible to get up and get my boys ready for the day. Holding that thought was crucial.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. (Ps 51:12)

I kept going, barely, but I was still bone-crushingly sad. It really didn’t get better until I was able to hold both the relief and the sorrow together, to know in my marrow that I could feel both at the same time. Then I began to feel restored.

God did not do this thing to me. God did not condemn me for making the best choice I could knowing what I knew then, and although my life has been personally complicated and not even close to what my mother would have deemed successful, I do not feel punished by God.

And I am grateful for and to the friend who knew, from her own hard experiences, how much a psalm could mean, those old words forming a ritual expression intended to bring us back into relationship with the God we blame when the fault is really in the frailty of humankind, in our complicated bodies that don’t always work perfectly, and in our striving minds that don’t always reach the right conclusions, and in our broken and breaking hearts that don’t always give the love we want to receive.

I continue to struggle with taking the blame for, well, almost everything, but twenty years later, I don’t feel I was at fault for what happened in my life that winter and spring, and I willingly take responsibility for the choice I made, and although I still feel sad about it most every Lent, I do not regret it.

And if there are parts of the story for which I needed to be forgiven, rest assured, it has all been asked and answered, long ago.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Jeremiah, Jeremiah 31:31-34, Lent 5B

By Heart

Dear Everyone Who Thinks God Never Changes,

I present to you Jeremiah 31:31-34.

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt–a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Oh, I suppose you could make the argument that God plans it that way all along, so God is unchanging.

But that’s tiresomely stubborn.

This God we worship is so clearly relational. And relationships work on us. Good relationships exalt us and inspire us and give us hope.

Even bad relationships work on us, teaching us to be more careful next time or to amend our ways or even to seek other seas.

And regular relationships, which is to say, the ones we work on because the love is mutual, have moments of both good and bad. And I would like to make the case that our relationship with God is the best kind of regular relationship, one that goes bad on both sides, sometimes, but that always has enough good to keep us coming back and to open us to be fuller, deeper, more loving, more forgiving and more conscious of where we tend to go wrong.

This God of Jeremiah 31 learned that laying down the law was not enough. The law must be learned by heart, become so much a part of us that we don’t have to use our heads to apprehend it.
It sounds so simple, but we have such highly developed shell casings around our hearts, we people. We don’t want to trust love. We are ambitious or anxious. We want to feel powerful. We convince ourselves that safety lies in weapons. We use them on other people, regardless of the law’s opinion.

I’m sick at heart about Trayvon Martin. I am thinking of his parents tonight, and of a better world in which the hard hearts of the fearful and the hateful and the plain ignorant are softened and opened and written on by God. I believe God is willing, has been willing to have that relationship with us. But we are still putting up barriers.

I have barriers of my own. They may not look like an SUV and a 9 millimeter weapon, but I have them. I’m praying they will drop, too, that I will be among those who know God, by heart.

I hope you will be, too.

Faithfully,
Martha