Sermon transcript for March 28, 2013 - Maundy Thursday
March 28, 2013
Pam Hawkins, preaching
Sermon transcript for March 24, 2013
Holy Week—Keeping Our Distance
March 24, 2013—Palm Sunday
Belmont UMC--Ken Edwards, preaching
Audio - MP3
We have been on a meaningful journey through Lent and the journey has brought us here today and to the beginning of Holy Week. How do we prepare ourselves for the week ahead of us? I suspect that many of us approach this week with a bit of reluctance and that would be understandable. The story of Holy Week is a story that is difficult to hear. We make it prettier with our worship settings, but that doesn’t change the harsh reality of it. Somewhere in her writing Annie Dillard notes that people who go to church should wear crash helmets. Holy Week may be a crash helmet kind of week.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes that we approach the story of Holy Week, especially the story of Good Friday like we approach a wreck on the highway. We see the flashing lights of emergency vehicles, we slow down, we gaze from the safety of our cars, we may offer a prayer for the victims, and we move on. She writes, “Today the wreck is right here, and we have all decided to pull over. For a little while or a long while, each of us had decided to put aside whatever it was we were supposed to be doing in order to see what has happened here.” (Home By Another Way, “The Voice of Love” p. 83)
The story of Holy Week is the story of the human condition. It is a story of things like corrupted power, betrayal, denial, abandonment, systemic evil, oppressive governments, hatred, senseless violence, deep grief and fear. On Thursday we will gather here for a beautiful and meaningful worship service. We will wash feet, light candles and share the sacrament together and we’ll be tempted to forget how horribly frightening that night was for Jesus and the Jesus followers.
Holy Week reminds us of the ethical dilemma of capital punishment. (United Methodists do not support capital punishment.) I once invited our friend Harmon Wray to lead a combined Sunday School Class on the issue of capital punishment. He offered a list of reasons why we should oppose it and one those reasons was that people are sometimes wrongly convicted. One of my church folks challenged him, saying, “You people always say that, but you never give us any examples to prove it. Name one person who was put to death wrongly.” Harmon was quick with his response, “The first name that comes to mind is Jesus, The Christ.” The discussion ended.
Holy Week is a time for the disciples to come to terms with who Jesus really is and what discipleship means. On the way to Jerusalem James and John asked Jesus for a place of prominence in his coming kingdom. They did not know the irony of their request. Jesus answered them with a question, “Can you drink from the cup I am going to drink?” He was speaking of his death. They wanted power, prestige and influence but Jesus was offering servanthood, sacrifice and suffering. The disciples were not fully prepared for the harsh reality that awaited them in Jerusalem and neither are we.
We want to follow you, Jesus, but we do not want to drink from that cup. We will stand back here, keeping our distance, back behind the yellow tape that separates the onlookers from the reality.
In the readings for the passion narrative, Luke tells us that “women stood at a distance, watching things.’ The Greek word, makron, literally means “not too close.” Watching what was happening, any rational person would keep her distance.
Luke tells us that Peter, who vowed to follow Jesus no matter what, “followed Jesus at a distance” after Jesus’ arrest. He stood by a fire and warmed himself and cowered as he watched Jesus being taken away. Three times he denied knowing Jesus. Peter was afraid but some of the other disciples had fled in fear.
I sometimes see myself standing there by the fire with Peter, keeping my distance, not getting too close to the events of Holy Week. We keep our distance when the call of discipleship is too demanding. We keep our distance when we have to take a difficult stand because of our faith. We keep our distance when we are called to do the uncomfortable work of caring for the poor and marginalized. We keep our distance when asked to welcome strangers and those who are not welcomed anywhere else.
We keep our distance but God does not!
That is the good news. On this Palm Sunday we celebrate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and we are celebrating the God who does not keep us at a distance, but enters completely into our human world with all of its ugliness and reality.
We think of Christmas as the time of celebrating the incarnation, when God came to live among us in Jesus Christ, in the flesh, but Holy Week seems to be the fullest expression of what incarnation means. Holy Week is not only about violence, fear, and grief, but it is about great hope for the world. And the hope of Holy Week is found in this God who enters fully into our lives, into our suffering, our troubles, into our human reality, event when that reality is an ugly reality. In the garden the night of his arrest, Jesus prays for guidance, and what Jesus hears is that God wants him to fulfill the work of the incarnation and walk, all in, into our human world. He does this knowing the consequences.
And in this God we see the model for our work in the world. As we gather here in the comfort and safety of this space, among our friends in faith, we know that God is calling us to do continue the work of taking the love of God out into the world that awaits us. We cannot confine God inside these walls.
Bishop McAlilly was with us last week. He asked the members of our Administrative Board, “If your church disappeared, who would miss it?” He wasn’t talking about us here in this place, but who, in the community and the world, would miss Belmont? The answer to that question has everything to do with how we understand this work of taking God’s love into our world, even when that world troubling, even when we risk our comfort and safety to do it.
Bishop Joe Pennel was the pastor here for ten years but he served in Memphis before coming to Belmont UMC. He was a pastor in Memphis when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The morning after the shooting The Commercial Appeal urgently called the clergy of the city to a meeting.
Joe wrote of this experience, “Pastors representing every racial, cultural, and educational level in the city gathered for a mass meeting. . . . Reverend James Lawson, a friend of Dr. King’s and an effective pastor in South Memphis, read the Old Testament lesson. The local Greek Orthodox priest read from the New Testament and symbolically kissed the feet of Reverend Lawson. Reverend Frank McRae, a courageous leader in the United Methodist Church, spoke about hope in the midst of despair.”
“After a session of Bible study, prayer and speaking the clergy decided to march en masse to the office of the mayor, as a symbol of love and reconciliation. We wanted the Mayor to reconsider his opposition to the striking sanitation workers as a symbol of repentance and love.”
“After leaving the sanctuary, we formed ourselves in lines two abreast and started walking toward the city hall. Just before we completed one block of our march, a young deacon from St. Mary’s ran back into the church brought out the processional cross which was commonly used on Sunday morning for the worship service. With humility and yet boldness, he put himself at the head of the processional now aimed at the city’s seat of power. As we walked, television cameras descended upon us. . . .
“When our journey was about half completed, an older woman started yelling from a second floor apartment window. . . . As I drew closer to her flowerboxed window, I could hear the anger in her shrill voice: “The cross belongs in the church! The cross belongs in the church! I am a member of St. Mary’s. Take the cross back to the church where it belongs!” (The Whisper of Christmas, pp. 113-114)
If we learn anything from Holy Week, it must be this: the cross cannot be kept in the church. “For God so loved the world, that God gave God’s only son.” He didn’t say, “For God so loved the Methodists, the Belmonters.”
I first read the following words of George Macleod, founder of the Iona Community, when I was 18 years old and they spoke to me of what my call to ministry must look like. I’ve shared them before and they are words that will be familiar to many of you.
I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the marketplace, as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a high cross between two thieves: on a town garbage heap; at a crossroad so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew, in Latin and in Greek. . . . At the kind of place where sinners talk smut, and thieves curse and soldiers gamble. Because that is where he died and that is what he died about. And that is where church (people) ought to be and what church (people) ought to be about.”
Reflection: Now I invite you to a time of silent reflection. Allow your imagination to take you somewhere outside these walls. See the places where the message of God’s love is needed. Where do you hear God calling you?