God With Him | God With Us
Sermon preached at St. John’s Diocesan Center
Palm Sunday | Passion Sunday | April 5, 2020
The Rev. Andrew F. Kline
Isaiah 50:4-9a | Psalm 31:9-16 | Philippians 2:5-11
“Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee…. Finally, when it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus.”
Standing at distance…. some women…. A little later, drawing a little closer, a man…. These women, at a distance had been with him since the beginning (how interesting that Matthew refers to Jesus’ mother in this remote, almost impersonal way!). That man? Most likely, scholars say, he was member of the high priest’s family. No doubt he had just signed up and was keeping it a secret.
It is so apt that the story grinds to a halt just here, pointing to a question: Were you there?
And if you were there, how close did you get?
What were you up to?
Did you rise to your feet, threatening to violently resist? Were you slinking off to the side? Checking out? Falling away? Betraying? Denying? Did your instincts leverage the power of religion and state to stand up for the old truths, stamp out rebellion and blasphemy, and make Israel great again? Or did you use the power of the religion and state to quash the truth, scapegoat the innocent, and make sure the machinery of the status quo would keep collecting its taxes and rent?
Were you there? Come as close as you dare. We are taught to keep our distance from things contagious. Like sin? Like passions? Like the darkness that befalls not just the itinerant teacher from Galilee? Like chaos itself! Like the earthquake that is our lives at just this moment. In the beginning of the story, the truth is hidden. In the end revealed. Here, finally, in the stillness after the sacrifice, is it possible to stumble upon the question we need to ask today?
Were you there? We never actually ask that question innocently. Because usually we weren’t there! What we mean is: Where were you there when…. JFK was shot? Where were you when we invaded Iraq? Where were you when the planes crashed on 9/11. When did you realize you had to be somewhere – like staying at home! – in March of 2020 when the “outbreak” came to consciousness, and you realized you were fight “contagion” itself.
“Were you there” really means “What do you make of it?” What do you think it means?” “How did it affect you?” “Did it have an impact on you?” “Did it change you?”
What is our question today?
What’s going on here? Who’s in charge?
God? Are you there? Are you in charge? Where is God in this?
Or…. Will we make it through? Whose got my back? Can I make it through?
After this, the world is going to be different. But how? What is on the other side of this?
I invite you to come as close as you can. Keep that proper social distance, befitting your personal and spiritual condition, and discover what your questions are. Then see how this haunting suffering servant from Galilee gives answer, responding from an unlikely, dangerous and difficult place, not known for giving up its answers.
Do you see that this whole week beings with something like a practical joke? Stage left, over here at the East gate: King Herod’s annual parade, his pompous entry into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, replete with dressed troops, resplendent marching bands, paid up crowds.
Stage right, over at the West Gate! – King Jesus’ carnival. The itinerant preacher from the North waltzes wildly into the great city on a donkey, adored by hundreds, maybe thousands — of nobodies! Shouting Hail! Hail! Heil! Heil! Hosanna! Hosanna! Heal us! Save us!
Do you see how the practical joke just really gets under everyone’s skin? It could be that Herod complained about it to Pilate. Certainly, the High Priests were outraged. As Jesus forces more and more to take him seriously, he causes more and more problems for those who must be in charge of things, who must keep the machinery of religion, the state and the economy running.
Do you see how all this could have been avoided, if the small group around Jesus had just hung together, had just trusted his message and mission? How familiar. When the bonds of a family, a fraternity, a group, a friendship, fracture, in just the slightest ways, given the right conditions, everything falls apart and comes to a grinding halt.
Do you see that none of this is clear cut? It is not hard to whip up a list of Jesus’ crimes and misdemeanors. He did not observe the Sabbath. He hung out with the least, the lost, the marginalized and all those unclean foreigners. He deconstructed human laws and taught people to think for themselves. At one time or another, he certainly OFFENDED almost everybody.
What Christians mean, when they say Jesus was tempted yet did not sin, actually takes this difficulty head on. It is breathtaking to remember that Jesus was the one who taught: “settle up with your accuser before they drag you in front of the judge, because if not, your freedom and your life will be taken from you?!” Is it a sin to do things to intentionally get yourself killed?
Do we really appreciate, the depth of the sorrow and pity, the failure and forsakenness, that Jesus knew at just this moment?
Now…. do you see the oddest thing of all? Do you see that the outcome of the story, its meaning depends upon your relationship to HIM. You have to decide what you think about his response.
And this is what I see. Jesus still in the midst of the storm. He takes the brunt of it, the weight of it, and simply carries it. He calmly, compassionately, mysteriously faces everything that comes at him, confronting every obstacle, yet without a complaint. He faces his reality.
If he seems to act out of self-interested, he doesn’t apologize. What drives him, his motive – is simply the will of his Heavenly Father. He always speaks the truth from that place.
The truth of this story is not clothed merely in words. As body, soul and spirit is bent and disfigured, Jesus takes on more. Shame and dishonor. Check. Suffering and Reproach. Check. Betrayal and Blame. Check. Offense and outrage and bitter revenge, paying the price for them all. Check. As they are all lifted up with him, on that cross, he redefines what is good and true and beautiful and worthy and strong and finally lasting.
Most other stories we can leave or take, take or leave. We can only get so close to this thing. Do we see that “something”, that gift, that only this man Jesus can do, can accomplish, or to use a more wonderful word, deliver?
After so many questions, also always this one. “So what?!” Reflecting some decades later, at the graceful distance, the Apostle Paul was able to put it this way:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Coronavirus or no Coronavirus. Jesus is Lord. God is at work in the world, reconciling us to himself, canceling all our debts, healing all our wounds, lifting us up with him, so that we can finally understand that he is here with us here – in this thing, working in it and through it to bring the world through to a new place.
I was hoping to end the sermon just there. Just right there. But as I was writing those last words, I got a text from my college roommate. So, this message has a coda. Some breaking news. A word for somebody listening right now.
My college roommate, we call him Brownie, texted me yesterday. Brownie grew up in Detroit. This newsflash is from a Dr. friend of his in Detroit, who himself has children on the front lines in New York City, Cincinnati, Ann Arbor and Baltimore. Indeed, we are going to pray in just a minute for Greg, MaryBeth, Megan in NYC, Brandon married to Christina in Cincinnati, and their youngest son Sean at John Hopkins – as we are going to pray for all those working right now on the front line, shepherding lives through this.
Here’s what happened. A man in his 50’s was just hospitalized for several months following his bone marrow transplant this past year. He was finally healthy to go home to his wife two weeks ago. One day later she gets sick (Covid-19). She ends up hospitalized and dies.
He then gets sick with Covid-19 last week and ends up in the hospital. His respiratory status deteriorates, and he needs to go on a ventilator. He finds out how short the hospital is on ventilators and tells my colleague: “I want to be with my wife. Save the ventilator for someone who needs it to live.” He died one hour later, peacefully. In peace.
“Let the same mind be in us.”
May we all be as courageous, and loving. Living fearlessly. Answering the question of what comes next in a life-giving way. As one husband did in communion with his wife. As another child of God will receive an answer in the gift of a ventilator.
“Let the same mind be in us.”
Jesus faced his trial. Can we face our trial? And following that, can we face what is coming at us? Every Christian’s trial is shaped by the cross, embracing the height, depth, length and width of what we will go through as individuals and a society.
“Let the same mind be in you.”
Leaving self behind, claiming the absolving and cleansing power of speaking only the truth, like Jesus, give our all. And being so delivered, share with others the knowledge of how salvation is accomplished and renewed in Jesus.
“Let the same mind be in you.”
Whether you find yourself outside the walls of Jerusalem, or inside a hospital in Detroit: Get as close as you can. Humbly present yourself. His arms are outstretched to embrace you. Call upon him. Call upon his name. Call him Lord! This is what matters now.