Sermon 190519 Cradle, Table, Cross, and Grave

“Cradle, Table, Cross, and Grave” Dumbarton Church, Georgetown, Washington D.C.

This is a sermon I have been called to preach for a long time. It is a sermon that the worship cluster has been encouraging me to preach. And it is a sermon that requires me to muster up courage to preach because I know that there are Christians who will not agree with me, maybe even in this congregation. Now granted, I do never expect everyone to agree with me, and I always invite you to consider and reflect on what I share.

Compare it to what you have heard in the past. Examine the church language, the church phrases that we have heard for so many years and think what they really mean. Simply because words are familiar does not mean the words are helpful or even insightful. How many times did I hear growing up “Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you.” Familiar words and words that support a harmful way of being in the world. Words can hurt, words can cause harm. Words may also heal and help shape lives for good. Words are powerful. and therefore, it is important to think through the implications and ramifications about what we say and how we say it — even old familiar church words and theories.

I’m going to speak about crucifixion of Jesus and where that fits in to my understanding of our faith. But first, I need to begin with sharing two equally important foundational understandings from which all the rest of my theology flows. First: God is love. Second: The way God is at work in the world is through the natural laws and natural order of the world. In other words, God does not work supernaturally in the world. In my working out what I believe and understand about God, Jesus, Spirit, theology, church — all things must flow from those two foundational principles — God is love, God does not work supernaturally — if anything contradicts one of those principles then I continue wrestling with the theological concept or look for fresh ways of understanding. I believe that God never wanted, never wants, and never will want human sacrifice.

This was established early in our ancestors' faith lives. Way back to the time of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac. Abraham takes Isaac to a holy place in the mountains where Abraham is prepared to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. Before Abraham can accomplish such a horrific act, God intervenes sending a ram that becomes the sacrifice — from the earliest days of Judeo-Christian faith God said NO to human sacrifice. The prophets declare that what God really wants is for people to live together in compassion and justice — which we hear so clearly in today’s reading from Micah. It was not sacrifices that God wants, rather God wants our lives transformed — God longs for people to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves — the commitment we make at our baptism and confirmation. From the time of creation,

God has been working with humanity, helping us evolve to as communities and societies of ever greater justice, harmony, and compassion. An early step was the rejection of human sacrifice. Then with the Exodus stories, we find God working to establish a covenant based in law and respect. The 10 Commandments are basic ground rules for how people may live together peaceably.

People still struggled with matters of justice and compassion. So God sent prophets to remind people of how they were to live with one another and in relationship with God. Then in Jesus of Nazareth we find God choosing to be incarnate in a human life in order to more fully teach us how we are to live and love how we are to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength; how we are to love our neighbor as ourself — Jesus in embodying God’s love, revealed that God cares for, God loves ALL people — those on the margins, the poor, the widowed, the despised, the ridiculed, the questioners. Jesus came to love us one and all, Jesus came to teach us how to love one and all. Jesus attracted quite the following — a ragtag band of disciples who formed a community as they traveled around Galilee and to Jerusalem.

Time and again in the gospel accounts of Jesus’s life, we find that he gathers people around for a meal — whether it was feeding several thousand people who came eager to hear his message of mercy and love, or gathered with his faithful 12 for a meal. The Biblical accounts say that it was following a meal with his disciples that Jesus was arrested and the following day executed, crucified. It is the crucifixion of Jesus and what it means, that haunts the church. How are we church? How do we follow Jesus who was crucified? Many over the centuries have claimed that it is the crucifixion of Jesus that saves us.

There is a wide swath of Christianity which is all about saving people — saving people from their sin, convincing people that they can only be saved by believing that Jesus died on the cross in order to save them. There are long held, orthodox teachings of the church that say just that. Now maybe blame it on my engineer father, or my own need to know how and why something is or how or why something works but the oft proclaimed theological statement “Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins” is one that I have wrestled with, probed its meaning, struggled with for a long time. Why is this so? How is this so? To accept this teaching at face value, what does that say about who God is? About how we are to be in the world? Many, many theologians and preachers proclaim that Jesus died on the cross to save us in order to reconcile the world to God.

Some claim that God’s perfection demands a perfect sacrifice in order for humanity to be acceptable to God. And yet we have already seen that God rejected human sacrifice. Some claim that Satan held the world hostage until he was placated by the perfect sacrifice of Jesus. But that makes evil more powerful than God. Some say that Jesus chose to be crucified to prove how much he loved us. Really? That does not make a lot of sense. Hey, I love you folks, but I’m going to annoy Rome and the Pharisees so much that they kill me then you will see how much I love you????? Love is about sticking around through the difficult times. How are any of these explanations love??? What do these explanations imply about God’s love??? about who God is???? I go back to my theological foundations — God is love.

If an explanation of who God is or what God does is contrary to love — then the explanation is not valid for me. God requiring the violent death of anyone is not love. God expecting someone to be crucified to prove a point is not love. For me, the crucifixion has absolutely nothing to do with God and everything to do with humanity. The crucifixion stands as prime example of how cruel and violent humanity can be. God did not demand the crucifixion of Jesus. Rather Jesus’ teachings of how to live and love were collecting a following, were empowering people to challenge the status quo, were disrupting the traditional religious practices, were leading people to claim their freedom. And this made Jesus a threat to the existing power structure and power players.

While surely Jesus must of known the risk he was in — the Biblical accounts do not show a complacency or embrace of the consequences. In this morning’s gospel lesson, we find Jesus praying fervently for some way out, for a way to avoid arrest and whatever might happen from that arrest. In wrestling with the crucifixion some folks will say, well Jesus knew he would die, he chose to die. But this conflates two very different things. It is one thing to act with integrity even knowing that there will likely by consequences — Jesus acted, lived, preached with integrity. The decisions of the High Priests, the Pharisees, the governor, to arrest Jesus are a very different thing.

Jesus bears responsibility for his teachings, for his example. Jesus does NOT bear responsibility for his execution. That responsibility falls on the religious leaders, on Pilot, on the crowd that cried for Barrabas to be released and Jesus to be crucified. They did not have to crucify Jesus, but they chose to do so, the unjust system worked effectively to eliminate the perceived threat of Jesus. And to this day, humanity still crucifies God’s love incarnate, to this day humanity will time and again choose a violent response to love. The cross is not so much a symbol of our salvation as it is of our condemnation — a stark reminder of the horrific things humanity can do. So many theologians have taken the most dramatic part of Jesus’ story and tried to make it the most important part of Jesus’ story. I believe that ultimately this is misguided.

Certainly there is drama and intensity and hold your breath for what is next moments in the accounts of Jesus final hours — the meal with the disciples, the foot washing, the going to Gethsemane to pray, the arrest, the beatings, the “trial”, the betrayals, the crucifixion, the rushed burial, the empty tomb 3 days later. Drama, yes. The most important aspect of who Jesus was? No, I don’t think so. When we think about, talk about, read about Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King, Jr. we do not emphasize their assassinations as the most important part of their stories. Instead we look to their words, to how they lived their lives, to their values, their commitments. While Romero and King were not Jesus, the same concepts are applicable and even documented. Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker in their book “Saving Paradise” carefully delineate how the very earliest Christians - those living the first 3 centuries following Jesus — did not focus on the crucifixion. Brock and Parker trace early art and early writings about Jesus showing how the earliest Christians were far more focused on Jesus’s life and his teachings rather than on his death.

In fact, it is only when Augustine begins to theologize does Jesus’s death take center stage. Our salvation lies in the steadfast abiding presence of God’s love. God loves us through the worst that we can do. God loves us no matter what. The empty tomb points to this as a reminder that the worst thing is not the last thing, that we keep living even when things are at their worst. The resurrection appearances serve as a reminder of what is important to Jesus — they often happen around the table — the folks on the road to Emmaus recognize Jesus in the stranger when they have supper together; the disciples find Jesus again on the shores of their old fishing waters, where they share a campfire breakfast, the disciples find Jesus when they are gathered in the upper room — God is love, God works through the natural laws of the universe.

These resurrection appearances must have been such that they were within the realm of what is possible. Many folks will speak of seeing loved ones who have died. A friend of mine, her father died this winter. She told me the other day that her father was visiting her in her dreams. The power of the resurrection appearances is in how they reminded Jesus’s followers what was important about his life, how those same followers were then able to keep alive the values and stories of Jesus so that they became to sacred texts of Christianity, so that 2000 years later, Jesus continues to inspire us and guide us to live and love as Jesus did. As difficult as it may be for some who are most comfortable with the traditional atonement theories that center on the crucifixion, I believe that it is imperative for Christianity to move away from theories that make the crucifixion the center of our faith — alternatives have been around all along, alternatives are found in scripture itself, and through the use of tradition, reason, and experience.

As long as the crucifixion is the center of our faith, then we are predisposed to accept violence as just the way the world is. It seems that the humanity is on the cusp of a major social evolution — from violence to non-violence — we have the early forerunners for this evolutionary step in the likes of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace led by Leymah Gbowee. Our theology needs to keep up. My heart breaks for the ongoing mass shootings that happen in this country. Less than two weeks ago, there was another mass school shooting in Denver at Highlands Ranch School. Eight people were shot, and one was killed, Kendrick Castillo who tackled one of the shooters. Kendrick is being hailed as a hero.

I appreciate what Bishop Easterling posted on Face Book in response to this most recent shooting, she stated, “I don’t support the notion of the child hero. A child who dies saving their classmates is a victim. Let’s not encourage children to jump in front of bullets. Let’s encourage adults to pass gun control measures.” I believe we also need to examine how our theology supports the notion of a child hero by the way we center our faith around the violent death of Jesus. Our faith takes a different emphasis when it is centered around the communion table, when we understand how Jesus’s commitment to justice and compassion were grounded in his Jewish faith and shaped by scriptures of his faith, what we call the Old Testament. Our faith becomes more life-giving when we center it in continuing the work of building the kin-dom of God. We are saved because God loves us. The nature of our salvation is God’s enduring love for us in spite of all the ways we harm each other and God’s creation.

Our salvation is experienced through the means of grace — holy communion, worship, holy conversation, reading of scripture, baptism, acts of mercy and kindness. Recognizing that we are loved by God, just as we are, makes us more deeply aware of the value of our lives and the meaningfulness of our lives. Jesus teaches us so much about God’s love. Jesus incarnates God’s love more powerfully and more consistently than anyone else. Jesus made God’s love so clearly manifest that his followers began a faith tradition that is the roots for our faith all these years later. For me, God’s love is revealed most clearly in Jesus through incarnation and teachings. Centering these aspects of our faith, provides a solid underpinning for non-violence. The core of our faith really does come back to what many of us learned as children, what is taught to many children even today: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so…” Yes, Jesus loves you. Yes, Jesus loves me. Thanks be. Rev. Dr. Mary Kay Totty May 19, 2019


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