18 March 2013

Christians in Process Sermon for The Fifth Sunday in Lent

If you just read it, you wont get to hear me butcher Chichester.  
  20130317102315 from Jacqueline Thureson on Vimeo.

Christians in Process
Fifth Sunday in Lent 17.March.2013
Passion Sunday and St.Patrick’s Day
Isaiah 43:16-21 & Luke 12:49-53
text: “…until it is completed” (Luke 12:50)
Judson Memorial Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN
The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell

            I know some of you scratch your head and wonder where in the world do I get these hymns we sing sometimes on Sunday mornings.  Some are hymns I grew up singing, others are ones I’ve learned along the way, and some are ones I hear on the BBC Choral Evensong program online.  Each week a different cathedral choir is featured.  I’ve never traveled overseas so I enjoy researching the cathedrals, Chichester (one of two cathedrals still visible at sea), Durham Cathedral described as the best cathedral on earth and the site for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, or Truro Cathedral where each year the Queen distributes Maundy Money on Maundy Thursday.  But even more fascinating is to read about the cathedrals architectural history, they are hardly ever finished and the ones that are finished are constantly in need of repair and restoration.  However firm and final we imagine a cathedral they are constantly in flux and in process.  And so are the pilgrims who worship in them, constantly in flux, constantly changing, evolving, unfolding, and in process. 

            Let us pray,
Living God,
as we pause
for sustenance and succor
for strength and solace
for comfort and challenge
for care and courage
be with us as we seek to fill the brokenness of our hearts with Thy light and love.  Amen.

                        We know that there are roughly 18 lost years of Jesus’ life.  We have no idea what he did from the time he was 12 to his appearance in the wilderness to be baptized by John.  We all have ideas but they are only conjectures.  Aint it amazing, 18 lost years…  On the one hand this saddens me but on the other hand this uplifts me in two ways.  For on a playful level maybe the lost years were extremely boring and uninteresting.  And on an exhaling level it shows that even Jesus was in process, evolving into the person we discover in the gospels, a picture which reveals a continual unfolding of how he discerned God’s passion for creation. 

            At first glance the passage about familial division seems harsh, overbearing and yes, extreme.  But that is only if you read it with the grain.  As with most gospel passages I find a truer sensation emerges once we read against the grain. 
            When I read the gospels and perhaps you sense it too, the buildup of frustration in Jesus’ voice.  He knows more than anyone how to live the best life, but his words have a heck of a time taking root in the lives of those who hear them.  In our passage this morning Jesus is past being frustrated he has blown a gasket.  Which crescendos with his rhetorical and sarcastic question:

Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth? 
No, I tell you, but rather division! 

            Edward Gibbon in the late 18th century painted in our minds the ultimate picture in our minds for the rule of Rome when he described the period of the first century as the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome. Perhaps it was “peaceful” if you were a ruling elite with a villa on the banks of the Tiber, but if you were a peasant in first century Palestine life was anything but peaceful. Pax Romana it was not; Infernos Romae, the Hell of Rome, it was.

            When Rome invaded, occupied, and governed Palestine all of traditional life was turned upside down and largely erased.  Every day was a struggle and fight for existence and integrity.  Howard Thurman in his 1949 seminal work Jesus and the Disinherited, described the experience of people on the backside of the Pax Romana as people who lived with their backs against the wall. 

            Jesus had enough of the Pax Romana, the world was ready for something new.  The Peace of God, Pax Dei.  And the only way that kind of peace will inhabit this earth is with fire & water & division. 

            Since the beginning of time, humanity has employed the narrative of cleansing violence as the only way forward, a reset of creation.  Think Noah and the flood.  We do not have to stretch our minds very far to see that idea at work in this text – humanity is so corrupt the only way they could reform the first century was by creating divisions, with a kindled fire and a baptism. 

            This idea has been at work in thought of great people ever since.  Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inauguration took approximately seven minutes to deliver.  In the next to last paragraph he laid out the mission ahead for the nation in grand, some would say biblical terms.  He interpreted the Civil War as God’s way of using violence as punishment for our national sin of slavery.  Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

But is this line of thinking in line with Jesus?  Is redemption through violence the passion and pathos of God? 

Jesus offered his first century audience a choice: you want “peace”, you want the Pax Romana then have it?  For the truth of the matter there was already division, father against son, son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother.  When we read the stories that Jesus told we can sense the pick up on the division already at hand, the story of the Prodigal son, which was retold and beautifully offered last week by Pam Joern, the dishonest manager, the great banquet, the rich man and Lazarus and so on.  They all reveal a society torn asunder by the “peace of Rome.” 

Jesus knew full well that the peasants of Palestine could not match up to Rome man & woman to man.  Rome would easily crush any kind of military revolt, which they did in the year 70 CE.  Instead he offered a new thing in their midst and many did not perceive it.  But to those who did, life was never the same…

Years ago the fifth Sunday of Lent marked the time when Lent kind of ended.  Although technically it was still Lent the following two weeks were called Passiontide, culminating with Good Friday.  When we think of God’s passion in Jesus we automatically assume or imagine it means Jesus’ suffering and death.  Although I do think it partly means that, what about the rest of Jesus’ life?  Could it be that God’s passion was represented more in Jesus’ life than in his death?

            In 1956 H. Richard Niebuhr wrote The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry.  He concluded that the ultimate purpose of God, or God’s passion, through the church was the increase among men (and women) the love God and the love of neighbor. 

With this ultimate passion and love supreme in our minds, rather than redemptive or cleansing violence we can hear Jesus’ words anew.  If the first century audiences of Jesus were to break the cycle of violence they would have to start anew but not with more violence instead with a return to the ancient ways of life. 

When we take up, live this life and open ourselves to the continual unfolding of God’s passion our lives will be rearranged and there may even be some division at first as we reorient ourselves away from violence to love.  We have entire networks of relationship built on violence that need reoriented and redeemed. 

 Perhaps the greatest religious sham ever offered is the promise of instantaneous redemption.  I wish it were true.  That today, if you follow the ways of Jesus you will be instantly cured of your violent ways, that if you pray this prayer instantly your heart will be healed and expanded.  But we all know full well that change, reorientation takes precious time.  Most of the time we have no idea how are lives are centered around violence.  We are not finished Christians, we are Christians in process constantly learning, constantly failing (not my sister, not my brother but it’s me O Lord, standing in the need of prayer).  We are Christians in process still learning the ways of Jesus.

Jesus didn’t die for our sins. 
He lived for our hearts. 
He lived to reveal the divine pathos. 

Today is the festival of the Saint Patrick, and although it is the grand day of the Irish, I view it more as a pan-Celtic holiday.  One of the things I love about Celtic Christianity is the incorporation of their pre-Christian rituals, practices and symbols.  One of those is the circle.  Which was eventually incorporated onto the cross. 

Now I have no desire, as I am sure most of you do not either, to end my life as Jesus did, as a martyr.  But I hold onto the image of the cross and circle as the symbols for God’s pathos for us.  The cross is not a symbol of Jesus’ death it is a symbol of his life and passion. 
Rome crucified him for his life,
his teachings,
his challenge to their authority.
The life Rome ended continues in an unending circle as the continual unfolding of God’s pathos for creation, for our brothers and sisters, and for ourselves. 

We are not looking for Jesus’ death, we are looking for Jesus’ life, for God’s passion and pathos for humanity and creation.  Let us live as Jesus did, with a passion for life,
a life on fire
for justice,
and love. 

Let God complete the passionate work started in you. 
Amen and Amen. 

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