Sunday, March 20, 2016

Stand Under

Stand Under
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 20, 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Philippians 2: 5-11
Isaiah 40: 4-9

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.

I hadn’t looked at the Lectionary for this week yet, last week, when I referred to this reading in my sermon. I did because it is the central root message from which the rest of Paul’s Letter to the Church in Philippi grows. It is a message about humility, which is an important key ingredient in the Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday mix, the week leading to the cross and the empty tomb, somehow the story is caught up completely here, so let us look again. Philippians 2:5-11
5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Palm Sunday is one of the strangest days on the calendar. It is strange because, here we are, one week before Easter, one week before the empty tomb, one week before the real celebration of life in this world, and we are already celebrating. We are celebrating the Earthly entry. Here comes the Savior riding into Jerusalem, fulfilling the words of the Prophets, the King has returned, echoing the triumphant entry of David, dancing before the Ark of the Covenant. It is a familiar story. There are the palms, the people yelling hosannah, the children, the borrowed colt, the uptight Pharisees and Sadducees, saying, hey can’t we shut these people up, this is too loud, this is too much, we can’t afford such a spectacle, what will the Roman’s say, teacher do something about these people, your disciples? And Jesus answering, see these stones, if i were to make the people be quiet, even the stones would cry out. . . it is that kind of explosion of excitement, reverberating through all assembled, all the people, even the rocks on the ground. But it is all strange because between this Sunday and next Sunday, an entire world takes place.
Jesus goes into the temple. . . he turns over the tables, he calls them a brood of vipers, the place a den of thieves, which should instead be a house of prayer. For many this is the last straw. . . Healing on the Sabbath, eating with Sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, breaking all the rules, challenging traditions, arousing the people, disrespecting authority, is one thing, or many things, but messing with the money, messing with the economy, hitting people in their purses, pointing out the hypocrisy of the purse, that is completely something different, it is the straw, and sitting there on the camel’s back, it is too much, way too much. So the plot to kill him intensifies. . . they reach out to one of his own. This Judas, they pay him, he promises to betray him. Why? Who knows? Was it the money? Or did he envision something else for Jesus? Did he think Jesus meant more here, not somewhere on the other side of the rainbow in heaven? Did he want to end the Roman oppression by whatever means necessary? And Jesus just didn’t seem to get it, so Judas sells him out. . . and Jesus knows it. They share the passover meal, on last time, one last supper, breaking bread, drinking wine together. He tells them to remember. He shows them what will happen, the bread, his body, broken, the wine, the cup, his blood poured out, a new covenant, of sins forgiven. . . did they know then, could they see then. . . it didn’t seem so, for they asked, and he told them that one of them, one of the twelve chosen, his most trusted, one of them would betray him, he already knew. . . and they all denied. . . Peter protested the most loudly, how could we, how could I, I could never, and Jesus tells him, Peter, before the cock crows you will already have denied me three times. . . and having eaten they go out into the garden, Jesus prays, and all of the disciples fall asleep. He asks one more time, Father, may this cup pass, is there another way, can this be avoided? But as if he knows the answer already he says, not my will but thine. . . it is in this garden that the other garden will be undone. . .  the lie defeated. . . obedience, humble obedience. . . comes to be.
And then the soldiers show up, led by Judas. . . he comes up to Jesus, betrays him with a kiss. Does Jesus look him in the eye? Does Judas hide his face? Is it here when Judas’ fate is sealed. The soldiers seize Jesus. Peter grabs his sword. And Jesus bids him put it away, if you live by the sword you will die by it. . . no the cup cannot pass. . . the next steps are being led, and they lead to the cross. . . Jesus submits silently. . . to the Jewish leaders, to Pilate, to Herod, back to Pilate. . . He never said a mumblin word, at least not in his own defense. Pilate asks him if he is the King of the Jews, he says, that is who you say I am. . . Herod wants him to prove who he is, wants to see a miracle, again Jesus does not comply. So Pilate leaves it up to the crowd. Barabbas or Jesus. . . the crowd chooses Barabbas, shouting Crucify him for Jesus, Barabbas goes free. Crucify him. . . you see that is what makes today so strange, because Palm Sunday, Hosanna, and just a few days later Crucify him. You could miss it if you blink. You could miss it if you go from Sunday to Sunday. . . and then you miss the cross. For that is what is next. The flogging, the body weighed down, by the sheer weight of the cross, the crown of thorns cutting in, his sweat burning the cuts the thorns make in his head, his body beaten and abused, walking step by step. . . until Simon, a stranger, is drafted to help. They carry the cross to Calvary. . . and nail him to leave him. Between two criminals they hang him. And in the midst of it all he says, Father forgive them they know not what they do. . . He says, I thirst, they give him vinegar to drink, they pierce his side, it is accomplished, and he gives up the ghost. Then they seal him in the tomb. End of story.
So much is encapsulated in this week, so much of the story we could miss if we just waved our palms today, and showed up for the Rising next Sunday. One could ask, is that story important? Or is the celebration, the all? I wrote this poem a number of years ago, it is about the cross, and the need for it, how many like to skip it, but that we do so at our peril, cheapening the cost, cheapening grace. Here is “What Greater Shadow”
What Greater Shadow?
What greater shadow
Is so soon forgotten
Than the cross?
Cast in darkness
By Easter morn’s light,
Mem’ry’s loss.
Can we hope to bear
Such intense pain?
Could we ever care
Outside of gain,
Giving all
Into pain
To sustain
And reclaim
Those lost
Tossed and
Scattered by the wind?
Of course not,
Which is why
Our minds like to
Skip the cross,
Ignore the pain,
The nail marks,
The mocking crown,
The burning vinegar,
The speared side,
For us,
Who drove the nails,
Who crowned the king,
Who offered burning drink,
And pierced the side.
Did we really not know?
Or was it just too much?
Is it still?
The amazing miracle,
God in our midst,
With us,
And for us,
Became us,
Whom we despise,
To raise us.
May we remember the cross,
For the cross of hate,
The height of cruel,
The pinnacle of evil,
The high water mark of sin,
Somehow, somehow,
Is not enough,
To overcome

I  think we need to remember the high water mark of sin, the pinnacle of evil, and the height of cruel. It reminds us what we are capable of, what sin is capable of, and what it all costs. What love costs. . . but more than just the story I want to look at the story in light of all, the whirlwind of the week, and what Christ must have gone through. . . and the humility it would have taken, to willingly take each step, to persevere a worse week than anyone could image, a beyond imaginable fall from celebration to humiliation, from glory to condemnation, from praise to ignominy, from joy to despair. How do you persevere something like that?

I’ve said a couple of times during this year that the Greek equivalent for persevere is the word Hupo-mene. . . which literally means to stand under. How do you as Jesus? Stand under those who whip you, condemn you, sentence you, nail you to the tree? How do you stand under those who spit it at you, hate you, turn on you? How do you stand under? Especially since your are so much more than, so much better than, so much above us, you should be standing over us. . . but you placed yourself below. . . the humble, stands under, placing himself below. . . how interesting it is that to persevere is to stand under, and to be humble is to put yourself below, and for us to comprehend such things we call it, “understanding.” Something there is in this play of words. To humble yourself is to stand under, and by standing under, only, standing under all of it, standing beneath, shouldering the cross, feeling the weight, and standing under it, with standing it, only then when it falls from our shoulders, not because we shrugged, but because it was taken from us, our burden removed, once you can stand under. . . only then can you begin to understand. . . May we take this week to do just that. . .standing together, standing under. . . can we withstand such things. . . I only pray. Amen.