This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, is based on the readings for the Proper 17 in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.
You can find those readings here.
This text is a transcription of the recording made at the 9:30 Celebration of the Eucharist. I have made a few adjustments in the transcription, mostly where my proclivity for compound run on sentences began to border on the absurd. There is a link at the end of the text to the article by Charles Hefling that is quoted in the sermon.
Here is the recorded version:
This is a big weekend here in Madison just like it is in college towns all over this country. Students are returning for their second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth year of school. First time students are arriving on campus, finding their roommate assignments, making their way through the dorms, learning the layout of campus and where the dining hall is. It’s a tremendously exciting and terrifying and important moment in the life of any young person. I think it’s a very similar; it doesn’t matter where you’re going to school; it doesn’t matter who you are; there’s a lot that’s shared in this moment. But I think there’s something very different about college today than there was when I started in 1978. That year at Juniata College, a small private liberal arts school in central Pennsylvania, room board intuition for a whole year cost a whopping sum of $4800. I don’t know that you could even get a meal plan for a year for that much money today! We had gone to great lengths to plan for a college education, to research, to find the right place to go, and then over the four years that I was there cost of that tuition tripled. It was almost $15,000 the year that I graduated. Sometime during my senior year I was home and we were having a conversation at the dinner table and someone said something that caught my ear and I asked for clarification and my father said “uh… no. I sold the sailboat.” Really? So why did you do that? He looked very uncomfortable for second and then he said, “Well tuition has gone up quite a bit since you started school.” I felt all the breath rush out of me. I thought uh oh, now is to be mad at me. Now I’m going to find out what this really costs. I was stunned that he just went on… changed the subject. He almost looked embarrassed that it had come up at all. And I was flabbergasted by that. I really didn’t understand how that could have been; that this thing that was so precious to him was gone and he never even mentioned it; wouldn’t have mentioned it unless it had come up in this conversation.
I think I started to have some understanding of how all of that worked for him about 15 years later when our son Daniel was born. When we were expecting Daniel I went to church and I told all of these older men there at the parish that we were expecting a baby and there was almost a universal response from them. They would come up and put their arm around my shoulder and they’d go, “Oh man… Your life is about to change…” And I’d say “Yeah! I know! We’ve been trying for a long time to have a baby! We’ve planned for this and were prepared and I know what’s coming and I’m glad of it.” The Sunday after Daniel was born I went back to church and went back to the same guys and I said, “Oh man my life has changed! Why didn’t you tell me?”
Here I was with this defenseless infant who couldn’t feed himself, couldn’t clean himself, couldn’t clothe himself, or protect himself… I was responsible for him, and for all of the things that he needed. And so suddenly things that I thought were mine, rightfully mine, had to get set aside. You know my sense that I deserved eight hours of sleep a night, the idea that I would get to choose when I slept, that I would get to choose when I ate… All sorts of things that I thought were under my control and mine to decide suddenly became his to decide. I had to give up things that I thought were important to me, that I thought made me who I was, in order to be a father to this child.
I think that my dad was doing much the same thing only on a different scale and at a different point in my life when he sold his boat. He was helping to launch me from college into the real world.
So Jesus in the gospel today tells us that if we want to save our lives we have to lose them. I think that as we consider the ways that we change, the ways that we give of ourselves for the people we love, we have some sense of what he’s talking about here. In order to be in relationship with those who are close to us we make concessions. We allow ourselves to be vulnerable and to change. We give up pieces of ourselves that we thought were crucial to our identity and who we are, and in doing so we find something much greater. We find a gift of life in the light that we couldn’t have expected or experienced until we were willing to make ourselves vulnerable and give up something in that way.
Now, I think that’s an easy thing to picture and this is a great metaphor to understand all this but it’s kind of limited because it’s easy to give of our life in this way for our children, our parents, our siblings, our family, our tribe, our community. It’s a little more difficult when it’s a stranger for whom we have to give. It’s a little more difficult when we are asked to change or to give up something for someone we’ve never met and may never meet again. We all know on some level how difficult this is and you see evidence of that in the way that we honor those stories and those moments. I can sit in the evening at 5:30 at night and watch 25 minutes of terrible horrible news from all over the world. But you get the last five minutes and the news anchor is going to show you something to lift your heart, and make you smile, and show you someone in the world who has reached out and done something spectacularly generous in giving for a stranger. Those moments we treasure and we value. They give us an insight into something that we claim and proclaim that is awfully difficult to do.
All right so take it another step and we see the limitations of this metaphor in describing what Jesus is talking about. It’s easy for your family its more difficult for a stranger. But what about for someone you don’t really like that much to begin with; someone who rubs you the wrong way; someone who you find to be challenging and difficult; or even someone who has hurt you; someone who you believe owes you the gift and not you them. That’s where the story gets really difficult and that’s where we find ourselves finally able to circle back to the beginning of today’s gospel passage.
Jesus says if you want to save your life you must lose it but that’s buried pretty deep in today’s reading. The reading today starts out with Jesus telling his disciples that he must be crucified, die, and rise again. Jesus is talking about losing his own life and in the shock and dismay that the disciples express after that moment, after Peter likens himself to Satan and says “No Lord this can never happen to you!” Jesus tells us that we have to follow him and be willing to lose our life in order to find it. So I think at this moment we need to dig in just a little bit to see what it is that Jesus is losing.
Jesus dies on the cross at our hands. Now if someone were to harm us, to wrong us in some way, it would be normal, I’ll say natural for lack of a better word, expected for us to expect compensation. Justice would say that we are owed retribution, compensation, even revenge. And so punitive justice, retributive justice would say that we respond to that evil with evil because punishment is by its definition depriving someone of something they value: liberty, possessions, time, acquaintances, even their life. Retributive justice, the justice that the world, in which the world deals, says that we repay evil with evil and we only repay good with good.
Jesus on the other hand places himself in our hands and allows us to nail him to a tree, to crucify him, to kill him. He experiences the very worst that we have to offer and instead of repaying that evil with evil he comes back and loves us anyway.
Now the Gospels tell us, Jesus has said himself, he could if he wanted summon 12 legions of angels who would fight for him and save him from this fate. He could have fled. He fact in came over the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem to face this conflict, to find himself in this moment. He didn’t flee, he didn’t fight, he didn’t summon a legion of Angels to rescue him. He repaid the evil that was done to him with good and broke the cycle of violence; violence to repay violence, to repay violence, to repay violence by showing us something different.
I think that this is so difficult for us because we want to be compensated. We want to find recompense. When someone wrongs us of justice calls for us to be repaid and it’s very difficult to forgo that compensation or retribution in order to find something different.
I’ve quoted from this article before and I’ll post a link to it when I post the sermon this afternoon. Charles Hefling in the Christian Century, March 20 of last year, has an article called “Why the Cross?” and he says,
“punishment by definition takes away from an offender something valuable – liberty, property, physical well-being, companionship, possessions. Forgiveness would mean the remission or cancellation or cessation of deserved punishment. It comes down to taking away the taking away.”
He goes on to say that,
“If you choose to retaliate you perpetuate the evil by causing new injury” and he says “If instead you choose to hold a grudge, to brood on your injury and cultivate your dudgeon, you will still perpetuate the evil, internally, by diminishing yourself, souring your character and becoming your own victim as well as mine”
the decision to forgive to forgo the righteous revenge, resentment, self vindication, righteous indignation is to rise above that retributive justice that perpetuates the cycle of evil and to participate in the justice of God which is restorative. Hefling tells us,
“If you choose to forgive, you are choosing to absorb the infection, as it were; to contain its self-diffusion, to forgo the gratifications of revenge, resentment, self vindication, and righteous indignation.”
This is what Jesus did on our behalf in coming back and repaying evil with good, loving us anyway; breaking that cycle of violence and showing us a different way; something that will build community, break down barriers and walls, and draw us one to another in a community that realizes God’s vision and dream for all of us. But it is an incredibly difficult crucified place to stand.
Now I just have to offer one caveat in all of this because I know that this passage has been used to cause great harm and I hear people say, “it’s my cross to bear in life.” I don’t believe that God inflicts suffering on us and I don’t believe that God wants us to suffer. God is asking us to be willing to give our lives in order that community might grow, that light and love might grow, that people will all be restored to light and life. But God is not asking us to sacrifice ourselves in order that someone may continue their abusive behavior, or that someone might continue down a dark path that doesn’t lead to life but leads to death. Jesus didn’t allow the crowds to throw him off the cliff when he returned to Galilee, to Nazareth and began to preach to them that, in him, the kingdom of God was fulfilled. He chose his moment in a way that would restore light and life to the world. He did not cast his pearls before swine and allow himself to be trampled into the dust.
Jesus does not call us to be doormats. Jesus does not call us to remain in abusive and life demeaning situations. But he does call us to be prepared to give up our own agenda, to sacrifice our own sense that we are central to this universe and to the world in order that other people might find themselves uplifted, might have what they need, and that we might ourselves break the cycle of violence that drags us all into the depths.
I had a conversation with Ken Stancer (our Music Director) this week. This was the day after an in-service for all teachers in the Madison public school system and he was very excited to tell me about a new program that is designed around restorative behaviors in the classroom. I thought this was a stunning statistic that he told me, and I’ll get this number wrong because I didn’t write it down, but there were somewhere in the area of 4,470 days of suspensions and expulsions in the Madison school system K through 12 last year. He told me that the graph that they showed the teachers said that 68% percent of those days were served by African-American males and that the remaining 32% were divided up equally between all of the other ethnicities and genders present in the school system. The school system is working to balance the need to maintain order in the classroom with the need to restore people to community and to attack the roots of those problems. So if you pull a child out of class, if you send them from the room, you have to balance that act of justice with another act of justice that is designed to restore them to the community and to resolve the issues that resulted in their being suspended or expelled.
I want to applaud the Madison school system for this effort I want to commend this kind of thinking to all of us. We are called save our lives by losing our lives, by being willing to give to and for one another, to change and be changed by our interactions with one another much the same that we are willing to be changed by our interactions with the people that we love who are closest to us. We are called to this behavior because it has the potential to break that cycle of violence, to become a lamp shining on the hill, and to help create and bring to fruition God’s vision and dream for all of us.
Jesus tells us that he must be crucified and die and rise from the dead, and he tells us that we must walk in his footsteps and be willing to lose our lives in order to find true life. Thanks be to God that we don’t have to hang on that same cross. But we need to be ready and willing to follow him, to recognize others’ needs and rightful demands, we need to be willing to take ourselves out of the center of our own spinning universe and to stand side-by-side with our brothers and sisters in this community and beyond, to call for an end to the violence, to pray for and demand peace, and to bring all of God’s creatures into the light where we ourselves long to stand.
This sermon is indebted to Charles Hefling and his article “Why the Cross” published March 20, 2013 in the Christian Century. You can read his article here.
I also made extensive use of Hefling’s article in my sermon for Good Friday 2013.