Sunday, March 29, 2015

Praise or Rage

Praise or Rage
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 29, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 5: 15-20
2 Samuel 6: 1-5
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. 16 Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. 17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” 18 For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.
19 Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. 20 The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished.[1]

Palm Sunday is full of options, so I had a lot of choices to make this week. The typical decision you have to make is, do you focus on the Palm Sunday story, the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the Hosannas, the palms, the crowds, the noise, that even the stones couldn't stay silent? or do you focus on the rest of Holy Week? On one hand you have the palms, you've got some great hymns like All Glory Laud and Honor, and Hosanna, Loud Hosanna, and you hate to miss a great opportunity to celebrate such a joyous and wondrous occasion, but on the other hand so much happens between Palm Sunday and Easter that really shouldn't just be missed. There is great danger in skipping the temple being turned over, and the last supper, and the prediction of Peter's denial, and Judas' betrayal, and the prayer in Gethsemene, and the trial with Pilate, the audience with Herod, the crowd choosing Barabbas, the flogging, carrying the cross, Simon the Cyrene offering assistance, the Cock crowing three times, the crown of thorns, the Cross, Calvary, Golgotha, the two criminals, the spear, the vinegar, the sign that read "King of the Jews", Father forgive them, they know not what they do. . . This day you will be with me in paradise. . . Woman, behold your son; son behold your mother. . . My God, my God, why have you forsaken me. . . I thirst. . . It is accomplished. . . and, Father into thy hands I commend my spirit. . .there is so much that is missed when you go straight from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday in just a week. . . which is why we'll continue the journey Thursday evening and Friday midday. . . because there is just so much to the journey to the empty tomb, and that helps a little bit with telling and experiencing the story. . . and that is what those services are about, experience. . . the experience of communion on Thursday night, and then seeking to experience aspects of the supreme sacrifice that Jesus makes on Friday at noon, but there is still more to ponder and consider. The other choice that I was faced with, was whether I would jump forward to the Palm Sunday and Easter texts, in the Gospel of John, or even one of the other Gospels, for this week and next week, or do I continue along with the Gospel where we left off. I decided finally not to decide, but rather to do a little bit of everything, and so I put the John, Palm Sunday text in your bulletin as the prayer of preparation, so we have that at easy access, and decided to preach from chapter 5, where we were, because providentially speaking, John 5 fits with Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter. It has all of the drama of celebration, condemnation, and resurrection --- Save us now, Jesus must die, the stone is rolled away -- Hosanna, Crucify Him, Hallelujah, He is Risen. It is almost as if John the evangelist, in his gospel which is a preaching gospel, rather than a consistent narrative gospel, that maybe he was taught to preach like I was, that every sermon should include our need, include the cross, and include the empty tomb. John seems to include all three in each chapter. For look, here in chapter 5, Jesus heals a man who had been crippled for 38 years, they celebrate in the temple, the Jews talk about needing to kill Jesus, and then Jesus talks about the will of the Father, and the power of raising the dead to life.  Celebration, Condemnation, Resurrection, It's all there.
The aspect of the Palm Sunday story that has always stood out for me, is how fast the crowds go from waving palms and praising Jesus, to changing their tune and wanting him crucified. In the other gospels there are some mutterings throughout about Jesus running afowl with the Pharisees, and them trying to snare him into traps of saying the wrong thing, in front of the wrong people, like the ever present occupying Romans, but in Matthew, Luke, and Mark it seems like the big issue that drives the people against him is Jesus going into the temple in Jerusalem and shaking things up, turning over the tables, and sending out the money changers. . . but John's gospel is much more intense, and he places the turning of the temple all the way back in chapter 2, and here we are in chapter 5, and the powers that be in the Jewish community aren't just muttering and trying to snare Jesus, but are already "seeking all the more to kill him," as it says in verse 18, just for healing on the Sabbath, and claiming to be God's son, what they see as a blasphemous claim of authority, and of course Jesus doesn't back down, instead he doubled down with the blasphemous claim. He pushes and pushes, never ever backing down or taking the easier political sidestep. I've said before that my mentor Dr. Bob had always asked us when we were passionate about something, and asking his advice over whether we should really go forward with it, he would say, "Is that a hill you want to be crucified on?" Because if it was his answer would have been go for it. . . but "want" is an interesting word there, no one really wants to be crucified on a hill, but sometimes that is exactly where we are called to go, and Jesus certainly ends there, he knows it, and is not willing to alter his identity, or hide his identity, just to settle down his critics to buy himself some more time. So Jesus wasn't backing down, but why such rage from the people? Why the hate? Why the change from cheers to jeers?
Public opinion is such a fickle thing. It is amazing how quickly something can turn it. With the NCAA basketball  tournament going on this week, and the great success of Kentucky, it has put some past tournament great teams into my mind. When I first started watching the tournament was 1991, and I was 12, I remember the 1989 one too, I remember it being on, I remember the name Danny Ferry, but I also remember being bored by it, and choosing to play instead, but that next year it all changed and I was hooked. Dad took me to go to the first round games at Cole Fieldhouse at the University of Maryland. . . it is one of the most vivid memories of my life, I can remember everything, the angle of our seats, seeing the players, all of it, I got a red tanktop that had the NCAA tournament logo. . . such a great day. . . four games in one day. We saw Temple, and Purdue, and Oklahoma State, and N.C. State, old fire and ice, man they went wild scoring 114 points. . . but then the last game of the night was Syracuse and Richmond, and it didn't start till like 9:00, 15th seed vs. #2, at that time no 15th seed had ever beaten a 2. I remember dad telling me that if it was a blowout we'd go home at half time, since it was a school night afterall. . . it wasn't a blow out. . . in fact Richmond won 73-69, it was crazy. . . awesome I was hooked, but what also remember from that tournament, and maybe it was in my mind because of the documentary that aired a couple weeks ago, but in that tournament, one of the greatest teams ever assembled, UNLV, they had won the last tournament, hadn't lost a game all season, had stomped Duke into the ground by 30 in the championship game, but this year they were meeting again, and Duke won. But the reason I'm telling you this story is that the hero of that game, and that Duke team, was Christian Laettner, and I was a huge fan, I loved him, and I remember most people were routing for them too against UNLV because they were underdogs, but as soon as they won, the next year, Laettner's senior year he was hated. How quickly you can go from underdog hero, to everyone hating you when are on top. Duke and Laettner repeated as champions and he was hated forever, I mean the 30 for 30 documentary that I was talking about was called "I hate Christian Laettner" how fast it is. But Jesus doesn't win a basketball championship. . . but he does suffer that same fate, the love and then rage from a fickle crowd.
The Documentary said that 5 things led to the hate of Laettner. . . They said "privilege," "being white," "being a bully," "his greatness", and his "good looks". All of these things seemed to scream that what it is all about is envy. . . but I don't think that is what it is for Jesus. Do we ever envy Jesus? That is an interesting question. . .but no, what I think causes the rage and hate to Jesus is that his actions, his presence, his claims, his power, his love, demand us to be different, they hold up a mirror before our face, they challenge the surface, outside, visible only aspects of our religious life, and sees through it straight to our hearts, he challenges everything we thought we knew about life, and God, and the world, and our place in it. . . and we just don't like it. I watched a minute of Ghandhi yesterday because it was on, and there is that great scene early in Ghandhi's career, when he has begun to make a name for himself, and the British folks don't quite really know how to take them. Amazed, awed, but uncomfortable, because it is a real challenge to their comfortable positions. There is that great scene in the church, and the Christian, Anglican priest is obviously moved by Ghandhi and sees Christ in him, and preaches to that notion to the church, and people walk out. . . I thought, how true. . . how fragile our religiosity sits with us when we are faced with real selfless sacrificial love, that is calm, gentle, but unbending, unflinching, it makes you look inside, and all to often we do not like what we see.
I saw this week an interesting question. Of course they were making a political statement about Conservative Christianity and Conservative politics, but I think the same holds true for Liberals and Progressives, too, but they asked, do you think that Jesus would be accepted if he spoke at some Christian Colleges. . . would the message fit, or would it cause people to walk out. The same question fits for our churches as well, and it may be good for us to think about it on this day where we are all waving our palms. How do we honestly respond to the Jesus message?

I had originally planned to end my sermon here, but I wanted to share one more specific example, this one a poem from my book, that challenges us from Jesus' perspective. I wrote it, while thinking about Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" and in reference to "A Night's Welcome" which was a mission program in Hampton where churches opened up their doors to the homeless for a week in the winter. . . and some of the challenges we faced in doing so.

Good fences make good neighbors,
And locked doors make them great,
But on the inside what does that make?
Safe inside away from the world,
We protect our things from them.
What do we have that they should take?
Who is my neighbor? I must ask—
What is my charge to them, my task?
Who am I to love? Who is us? Who is them?
The walls I build do good neighbors build,
Is that enough love from me, bettering them?
I protect them from stealing from me,
Did I not save them from their sin?
Of course I did, but that is not love,
For I never knew the face of them I saved.
I never once cared for the needs of them,
Only saved them in my way not theirs.
What is their way? What is their need?
It is surely captivated by sin and greed.
If they were us, they’d be saved like us,
Christ at work within their lives, instead
Of wallowing through life half dead,
Stealing from me, who tried to help
Those two weeks we served doors unlocked.
We graciously open our doors to them—
Is that the thanks we get for our act?
What is the problem? How is it made right?
Where do I look for Your answers, my God?
The book of your Word the Words of Your Son,
Love Your neighbor as yourself—can it be?
But my neighbor is none like myself at all.
My neighbor steals. My neighbor lies.
My neighbor must be locked outside.
How can I love my neighbor, like I do me?
“I did,” it said so simply through deeds.
“I did, though my world was heaven.
I did, though Your world was not
Open to what my actions say and do,
That there is no you or I, no us and them.
I the bridge where a fence once stood
Unlocked the doors to you and them.”
Us is all that is left when fences come down.

and the anthem for today: "Old Rugged Cross"

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 5:15-20). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.