Giving Up

I don’t have to tell you that we have a hard time giving things up. It’s human nature. And it’s everywhere in the story of Christ’s death.

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Sunday of the Passion / Palm Sunday B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Isaiah 50:4-9
Psalm 31:9-18
Philippians 2:1-11
Mark 14:1–15:47

Every so often I see a question asked on Facebook that goes something like this: “Would you live in this cabin out in the woods for 30 days and receive $1 million, BUT, you have to give up watching football?” Or “Would you spend a week in this beautiful island oasis, BUT, you get no internet and no cell phone reception?” Ever see those? Would you? Would you accept $1 million if it meant you didn’t get to watch the Packers (for my Wisconsin congregation) for a whole season?

Essentially, these sorts of scenarios are asking this question: what are you willing to give up for something perceived to be better? Where do our priorities lie?

Years ago, I came across a song by TobyMac, a contemporary Christian songwriter and artist. I usually don’t listen to contemporary Christian music, but this song caught my attention, specifically because of it’s music video. The song is called “Lose My Soul”, and I recommend looking it up when you get home today.

In the video, TobyMac plays the owner of a pawn shop, and throughout the video different people in to the shop to do business. One woman comes in and sells her wedding and engagement rings, and by the look on her face, you can deduce that her marriage has ended in some way or another and she no longer needs them. Another man comes in with a bag of old cell phones, cameras, and iPods (that’s when they were still a thing), trying to pawn them off. A few come in with less than honorable intentions, some acting as distractions while another slips a laptop under his shirt and sneaks out of the store. One, at the urging of his friends, buys a handgun, and the three leave together.

In each instance, someone was giving up something—their relationship, their junk, their innocence. And in each case, it’s not easy. It’s not easy to give something up.

I don’t have to tell you that we have a hard time giving things up. It’s human nature. And it’s everywhere in the story of Christ’s death.

The people of Jerusalem were not ready to give up their image of who Jesus was, a political king who was going to rescue them from the oppression of the Romans.

Those present at Simon the Leper’s house were not ready to give up their snide judgment of the woman that anointed Jesus’s feet with oil.

Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, was not ready to give up what he thought Jesus could and should be; and he betrayed him because of it.

The other disciples were not ready to give up their self-righteous images of themselves as noble and brave disciples, and were not ready to face the reality that as soon as trouble came, they’d abandon Jesus—especially Peter, Jesus’s favorite.

Peter, James, and John were not ready to give up their complacency in prayer, falling asleep when Jesus asked them to stay awake. They failed at that three times.

The disciple who cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest with a sword was not ready to give up his idea that more violence and more weapons was always the answer.

The Sanhedrin was not ready to give up their need to kill Jesus, even though there was no evidence they could use against him.

Peter was not ready to give up the safety of anonymity, knowing that identifying himself with Jesus would mean he, too, could be arrested, beaten, and killed.

With just a little bit of bribery, the crowd was not ready to give up their trust in an armed revolution to overthrow the government as the only thing that could save them.

Pilate was not ready to give up what little peace and order he had in order to release an innocent man.

And because they weren’t willing to give anything up—because they weren’t willing to make admittedly hard and difficult choices—Jesus died. There was always some hope that maybe Jesus wouldn’t have to. He begged for another way to accomplish God’s purpose. Maybe Judas wouldn’t betray him. Maybe Peter wouldn’t let him down. Maybe the Sanhedrin or Pilate could see reason. Maybe the crowd could put aside humanity’s obsession with violence and killing.

But it wasn’t to be. Because they weren’t ready to give up anything, Christ died. And yet, they weren’t the only ones not willing to give some things up. Christ wasn’t ready to give up, either.

Christ wasn’t ready to give up loving human beings, even and especially the really bad, really awful ones.

Christ wasn’t ready to give up on the work of redemption, freeing all of creation from the power of sin and death.

Christ wasn’t ready to give up showing love to the very end instead of showing hate.

What Christ was ready to give up was his life, and to give it for ours. He was willing to give up violence, to become a victim of it, to reveal God’s intention for life in this world.

At the end of the TobyMac video for “Lose My Soul”, the young man who bought the handgun returns to the pawn shop. He walks up to the counter, draws the gun from his belt, and points it straight at the owner. And then, he slowly sets the gun down on the counter; and even though there’s a sign behind the counter saying “All Sales Final”, the owner gratefully accepts the gun back that this young man gave up.

When Christ marched into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, he marched to his own death. He was ready to give up his own life, to do whatever it took to let us know that God was not ready to give up on us. He marched for our lives.

What are you ready to give up?

Featured Image taken by the author at the March for Our Lives in Minocqua, WI.

The Price of Defiance

Sometimes, there may be a price to pay for disregarding the script placed in front of us that demands perfect obedience and perfect order.

Sunday of the Passion C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI as a Holy Week reflection.

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 22:14–23:56

Óscar Romero was born on August 15, 1917 in El Salvador and baptized a part of the Roman Catholic Church the following May. He attended school from grades 1-3 (the only grades offered at his local school) and then under a tutor until he was 13 years old. His father taught him the carpentry trade, at which he did quite well, but Romero felt a different calling. He entered minor seminary, a secondary boarding school for boys interested in becoming priests, and then the national seminary. He finished his studies in Rome itself, where he was ordained to the priesthood in 1942 at the age of 25.

On his way home from Rome, which took him through Spain and Cuba, he was detained and spent some time in a concentration camp in Cuba before being released and returning to El Salvador.

He worked for 20 years in San Miguel before being appointed an auxiliary bishop, then a bishop, then finally the Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977. In this position, Romero began to strongly speak out against social injustice, the plight of the poor, and an epidemic of torture and assassinations occurring in his country. Two years later, in 1979, a revolution occurred in El Salvador that saw a new government come to power, a government rife with human rights abuses that freely utilized torture, assassinations, and terror to achieve its goals; one wholeheartedly supported by the United States government. Romero spoke out more strongly than ever about the evils being committed by both his government and various guerrilla warfare groups.

On March 24, 1980, Romero was celebrating Mass in a small chapel in a hospital called “La Divina Providencia”. As he finished his sermon and moved to stand in front of the altar, Archbishop Óscar Romero was fatally shot, assassinated as he began to celebrate the Eucharist. To this day, no one has been arrested or prosecuted for the assassination.

The time it takes for someone we love and adore to go from there to being someone we hate and revile enough to kill is no time at all. We human beings will utterly abandon someone without hesitation when they fail to live up to our expectations.

I’ve spent all of Lent talking about the script of life that dictates how we are supposed to live, to work, to play, to eat, to be good citizens, to be good church-goers as defined by the world around us. I’ve spent all of Lent talking about how difficult it is to go against that script, to live our lives according to God’s calling instead of human calling. I’ve said that sometimes, there may be a price to pay for disregarding the script placed in front of us that demands perfect obedience and perfect order.

Well now we know the price, don’t we? Now we know what can happen when we fail to follow the script, when we choose a different set of guidelines to follow. People can die.

But today, on the Sunday of the Passion, there’s an even harsher look at that reality. We know what the world can do to us for deviating from the script. The scary part is that we can do it to each other.

Judas betrayed Jesus and handed him over to be arrested, tortured, and executed. Peter, in the time of Jesus’s greatest need, denied knowing him and didn’t stand up for him. The other disciples fled from him and abandoned him. And then his own people had him killed.

Within one week, Jesus goes from the being the most hailed, the greatest, the most loved person in Jerusalem to the most hated and the most reviled. He went from being a celebrity to a criminal being executed. All because he wouldn’t follow the script.

They wanted a king who would kill their enemies, and he told them to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them.

They wanted someone to reestablish their earthly kingdom, and he told them his kingdom was not of this world.

They wanted someone to exact vengeance on their behalf, and he offered forgiveness instead.

It’s dangerous to deviate from the script. The world says we must act in one way, and God offers a different, better way full of grace and forgiveness and care for the poor and oppressed. We are called to proclaim this new and better way as loudly as we can as often as we can.

There can be a price to such deviation from the script. Archbishop Óscar Romero knew what that price could be, and he paid it. Jesus did too.

Will we be called to pay such a price, if necessary? Or worse, will we be the ones demanding to be paid?

Featured Image: “CMG0012.JPG” by Alison McKellar is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Sermon–April 13, 2014–Palm/Passion Sunday A

Palm/Passion Sunday A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Isaiah 50:4-9
Psalm 131:9-19
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14—27:66

As kids, one of my cousins was known for being particularly competitive. I don’t feel bad telling this story, because he admits this himself, and we can all look back on it and laugh. He knows I love him.

His house had all the fun games and toys, and, especially, the video games. He had a Super Nintendo! For us kids, that was a big deal. He played that thing over and over, trying to master as many of the games as he could. He was good. Very good. But he wasn’t perfect.

Every so often, we could beat him. There was no small measure of satisfaction watching his face as the realization dawned on him that he was going to lose. He would get so angry, his face would get all red, he’d get all stiff trying harder and harder to beat us, but eventually, he’d finally admit that he wasn’t going to win.

And then, the strangest thing would happen. He’d throw his controller down, rip the game out of the machine, turn off the TV, and start yelling at the top of his lungs how badly he beat us, and he didn’t lose because the game didn’t end. No amount of logic could convince him that ripping the game out before it was over didn’t mean he didn’t lose.

He hated losing. Still does to an extent, but has since learned how to lose graciously. But not back then. He had to be in total control, and if he wasn’t going to win, no one was going to win.

I like to try and convince myself that the way he acted back then was abnormal, was somehow in the minority. Now that I’m adult, I am sad to report that his behavior was not in the minority—for adults. I’m telling you, go look up the website notalwaysright.com for examples of people placing themselves in a position of delusional absolute power—the “customer”–who then have subsequent meltdowns when their tiniest demands are not met.

We have this curious relationship with control. As long as things are going our way, we are perfectly content to let someone else do all the work and take all the credit. But the moment things are no longer to our liking, well, that’s different. The results can be harmful, even deadly.

The story of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, and his death, is a story of control. On one level, it’s about the control of the crowd. Jesus enters the city on their terms, to their expectations. They are happy to welcome a new king.

Except that Jesus is not the king they expect, nor the king they want anything to do with. So they turn on him, sentencing him to death by state-sanctioned lynching. They lay charges against him so that, through deceit, they can convince the state to carry out their vigilante justice.

But there is more to this story than one crowd sentencing one man to death. On a whole separate, deeper level, this story is the story of humanity. It is our story. It is how we react to control and trying to make things go our way. The pattern goes like this:

We think we have control, and when things go our way, we are content with the illusion. Things start to change, and not in ways we like. We attempt to assert our control and “make things right”, only to find out we have no control at all. We use any means at our disposal to assert some sort of control over the situation.

We do this all the time. There are the customers who throw a fit just so they can get free food when they are unhappy. When political votes don’t go our way, we attempt to replace those who voted with people who agree with us instead. In the church, when things don’t go our way, we threaten to walk out and abandon the community, especially if we think we can use our weekly offering amount as leverage. Or we give our money to a cause, but stipulate exactly how it can be used, refusing to let go of it.

What happens when the other force we run up against is not a restaurant manager, politician, or pastor? What happens when it is God?

Ah, things are a little trickier then. How can we control God? We can’t threaten to take our lives and business elsewhere; this all belongs to God. We can’t refuse to play the game of life, since we don’t have any other game. There is nothing we can withhold from God that God does not already have.

We can yell at God, and we have good examples of that in the Psalms. But other than that, we can’t really touch God. We can’t affect God too much.

Then, there was Jesus Christ. God incarnate! For the first time, we, humanity, could look God in the eyes. We could touch God with our own hands, hear God in words and language we could understand. We could shout praises to God coming through the gate to Jerusalem and know, without a doubt, that God heard us. What a gift, and what an opportunity!

At the same time, we realized that gift could be used to our advantage. Finally, we had some leverage. We had some control, because, for the first time, we could kill God. And that is exactly what we did.

In one day, humanity focused all of its anger, all of its rage, greed, malice, and our desire to be the ones in control. We exerted our will over God, and we won. We killed God.

Palm Sunday is not the end of the story. We have entered into Holy Week, the most sacred week in the church year. The story spans the whole week. If you think you know the ending, let yourself be surprised.

Featured Image: “Palm Fronds” by Kevin Dooley is licensed under CC BY 2.0.