Sunday, March 25, 2012

"Help Our Unbelief" - Sunday Sermon, March 25, 2012

Chaplain Mel Baars
March 25, 2012
John 12:20-33

“Help our Unbelief”

Summer days throughout my childhood were often spent with my eleven cousins, under the less than watchful eyes of my grandparents. These visits were a perfect blend of thrill and fear. Let’s just say my grandparents did not practice the same kind of vigilance as my mother. The older boy cousins, barely teens, not even sporting learner’s permits, had free reign at the helms of my grandfather’s speedboats, on the open waters of Florida’s intercostal waterway. As soon as the sun appeared, the “fun” began. It shouldn’t take much imagination to picture one of my 13 year old cousins, revving the boat throttle, ready to take us little girls on the ride of our lives. Just for the record, I, personally, NEVER thought these rides were a good idea. Peer pressure was alive and well amongst our cousin crew, and I refused to be the one to damper the “fun.” However, I named myself Officer-in-Charge of “life preservers,” for the younger, obedient cousins, and ensured, at the very least, when we wrecked, we would have a fighting chance.

I will never forget one morning, lying on the bow of the boat with one of my cousins. She was seven, and I was eight. As we hung on for dear life, and as I begged our driver to slow down, my little voice disappearing into the wind before ever hitting his ears, she looked at me and said, “Why are you so afraid? If we die, we get to go to heaven. I am ready. Aren’t you?” This was tricky. I knew I was supposed to say, “Yes.” I didn’t want to disappoint my very religious cousin, or God, for that matter, with how I really felt. As much as I had been taught that heaven was where I should want to go, it didn’t mean that I wanted to go there that morning. I wasn’t ready. I liked being alive, playing with my dolls, bossing around my little brother, being a teacher’s pet, and sneaking candy from my mom’s hardly veiled stash behind the plastic wrap in the pantry. The thought of dying was far from appealing. When asked the question, “Are you ready?” I am sure I agreed out loud to pacify the situation but then proceeded to hold on even tighter.

Perhaps I should have put a warning label on the bulletin this morning, some kind of caution that in our movement toward the cross, things may get a little bit bumpy. We have spent the past four Sundays in the wilderness. It has been dark and difficult at moments, but still the cross has been just a distant reality. Yet, with Good Friday lurking, barely over the horizon, it is no longer possible to avoid it. After all, the cross is what we are here for, even when we don’t always want to face all of its implications. Some don’t mind throwing around Easter words of triumph, victory, and salvation, but most of us side step-around the harder words, words of defeat and death. But, the cross encapsulates all of these things, none of them without the others.

All week, I have been regretting my decision to preach on our gospel. Its meaning is unclear or, as some might say, is as clear as mud. It contain parables which are not entirely pleasing to hear. Those who love their lives lose them and those who hate life in this world get to keep life forever. This is jarring talk, yet not the only instance of it. In Matthew, Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother or son or daughter, more than me, is not worthy of me, or whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy either. Those who find their lives will lose them, and those who lose their life for my sake, will find it.”[1]

Does this mean that we should all want to martyr ourselves in Jesus’ name or that we must endeavor to hate all life on earth, in order to have life with God forever? Some have taken these kinds of injunctions so literally that they have taken measures “to hate” this world by destroying it as much as possible, by purposefully polluting the environment, figuring even that worse violence might somehow more quickly bring the fate of this world to its fiery end. But, this doesn’t seem right, either. What about stewardship of creation or honoring our father and mother? What about all the times when Jesus shows us how to restore broken relationships? What about love? How easily we hear a part of the message and forget to wait for the rest of it.

So what does all of this mean? Contrary to some Christian rhetoric, the author of this gospel is hardly concerned with individuals and atoning for their sins. Jesus’ death on the cross, at least in John’s gospel, is, instead, about changing the fate of the whole world. It is about judging the fallen part of God’s creation which manifests itself in institutions and governments and power structures which harmfully and deceptively hold humanity captive. In this system of “the world,” violence rules with an iron fist. The myth perpetuated in this system, that violence can quell violence, that brute force can strong-arm evil into something good, is so strong that most of us can’t imagine any alternatives to it, even when we see again and again that it doesn’t work. The system of this “world” is so imbedded in how we think and subsequently, how we act, that is takes Jesus crucified on a cross to expose its ugly truth.

When we are told to die to this world, to hate life in this world, what we are being told is not to reject life itself, but instead, to refuse to live our lives in captivity. The life that Jesus refers to is the kind of life that isn’t truly free. It is a life ruled by standards set by “the world” instead of by God. It is a life where money is prioritized over generosity. It is a life where power is valued before people. It is a life where violence is the immediate response to those who do harm, where retribution is seen as the only way to teach a meaningful lesson.

In our country’s history, the best example of hating “this world” was embodied by Martin Luther King, Jr. and those who sought to fight racism using nonviolent resistance in the Civil Rights struggle. As a part of this kind of resistance, marches ended in the massacre of hundreds of African American sons and daughters on lonely roads in the South and countless people were beaten, sometimes fatally, for simply sitting in a diner, waiting to be served a ham sandwich or riding on a bus and refusing to sit in the “right” section. Yet, when the horror of these images were exposed to the public, the tide began to shift. King said, “Let them get their dogs, and let them get the hose, and we will leave them standing before their God and the world spattered with blood and reeking with the stench of their Negro brothers.”[2] By the standards of “this world,” nonviolent resistance was impractical, at best. It cost many their lives, but it also worked. It woke people up. It made them stop going along with a system that diminished some human life for no good reason.

This is also what we discover at the foot of the cross-- horrific violence not warded off with more violence but instead an event that brought to their knees all those who witnessed it and all those who have heard about it ever since. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[3] This is Jesus’ action on the cross. It is an act of love. Death was the only way to set us all free.

Just a few weeks ago, we were marked with ashes, and we were reminded that we are all dust and to dust we are returning. It was not necessarily what I wanted to hear on Ash Wednesday. In fact, I would rather not remember, especially not here, where stories are told about soldiers being blown to bits just picking up their mail in the mail room or riding down a road they have ridden down hundreds of times before, not at home where there are people who I love dearly getting older or sicker, not anywhere, because facing this truth, that we are all dying, is not easy for any of us, at any point in our lives.

It wasn’t easy for Jesus, either, which is why, divine and all, he still struggled, saying, “Now my soul is troubled. And, what should I say? Father, save me from this hour!”[4] There is a part of him, a very human part, which, like the rest of us, just isn’t ready. I stand by my eight year old self, still hanging on for dear life, refusing to let go. I can bet, years from now, or whenever the hour presents itself, I will feel the same way. There will be a part of me still wanting to live, wanting to hold on, not realizing that letting go isn’t surrender to the end but instead freedom toward the beginning.

This is what we profess about death and resurrection, about Good Friday and Easter, about death and life. We don’t get to have one without the other. Jesus shows us this. Death is unavoidable, even for God. We cannot maneuver away from it. Like Jesus, we come to “this hour” for a reason; we also trust that God will be a part of it, whenever and wherever it takes place.

As we face the cross, O Lord, we believe; help our unbelief.[5] Amen.

[1] Matt. 10:37-39
[2] Richard Lischer, The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr and the Word that Moved America (New York: Oxford University Press; 1995), 226.
[3] John 15:13
[4] John 12:27a
[5] Mark 9:24

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