sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Good Friday, March 30, 2018
We are all born with a survival instinct: we want to prolong our lives. We know that our end will come, but that doesn’t typically alter our urge to keep on living. The survival instinct is a real gift in some ways, just like pain and fear are gifts. If we know what we might lose, we will work harder to keep what we have.
But in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest, Jesus looked his own survival instinct squarely in the eye and said, “No. There are things far more important than staying alive.” As Christians, we trust that in some mysterious way Jesus’ death accomplished something unique: salvation for all of us, and that it planted a seed that would eventually sprout, grow, and reconcile the entire world to its Creator. But Jesus’ rejection of his survival instinct is a tool for justice that has served many others since.
Next Wednesday will be the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On the day before his death by bullet, Dr. King said:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will … I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
Last Saturday was the anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Days before his death by bullet, the bishop asserted, “As a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will be reborn in the Salvadoran people.”
The message can be found even in our children’s fiction. Dumbledore says to Voldemort: “Your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness.”
Many people throughout history have figured it out: salvation trumps survival. Survival is great for keeping us alive. But salvation infuses us with eternal meaning. And it manifests itself specifically in giving our lives for those who are powerless and in danger.
So imagine, if you will, a conversation in the human mind between salvation and survival.
Survival screams: “They’re all after you, and they want to take everything away from you. Fight fire with fire.”
Salvation concedes: “You’re probably right; just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you. But I will not defeat the enemy by becoming the enemy.”
Survival asserts: “You can’t love these other people; they hate you. Don’t you see where they come from, what they’ve done, who they’ve voted for, the labels they wear?”
Salvation replies: “You will try to separate us, but we will come together. We will fight for justice in ways you don’t even recognize as fighting, because we will not use violence.”
Survival rages: “Why do you refuse to defend yourself?”
Salvation responds: “I choose to defend others instead. It may look to you like I’m just standing here in silence and crying. But my tears are defeating death.”
Survival seduces: “You don’t know anything. You’re just being brainwashed by people with an agenda.”
Salvation speaks firmly: “I know my pain, and I trust my scars to guide me.”
Survival whispers: “I always have a plan. Why don’t you have one?”
Salvation’s voice trembles: “I don’t know the solution yet, but I do know that I would rather lose for the sake of love than to win for any unjust purpose. So I stand with love—whatever the cost—now and always.”
I have been dropping references here to some young people I want to honor today for their sacrifices. When fifth-grader Naomi Wadler speaks eloquently on behalf of children of color whose murders by bullet don’t make the headlines, we’d better listen. When teenagers like Emma González, Sam Fuentes, and David Hogg march for their lives, we’d better show up and act to help them. When Malala Yousafzai returns to Pakistan for the first time since a bullet nearly ended her life, she brings with her a strength that transcends her mere survival.
|Emma González (Source: Mother Jones)|
These young people could just put their heads down and keep muddling through school, nursing their indelible traumas. Instead they are placing themselves in harm’s way. They are being ridiculed and trolled and slandered and subjected to ad hominem attacks by powerful adults, because they dare to speak out for those who are being “wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities.” Our children are placing crucifixion in front of our faces, and in so doing they are unmasking evil forces. The indelible image of Emma González standing in front of the camera in complete silence, tears streaming down her face, is an image of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, standing in the place of sorrow and bearing the brunt of evil. How will we respond? If we want change, we have to be willing to sacrifice.
In every service of Holy Eucharist, we make our own “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” It doesn’t sound like much at first. But in baptism, we vow to come to church, and do ministry, and give away our money—hopefully even ten percent—for the sake of that ministry. The church serves an unbelieving world, and the baptized are those who join in that work.
So “a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” means so much more than dragging ourselves out of bed on a Sunday. It means dedicating ourselves to the practice of resurrection. This is the kind of sacrifice God wants: not innocent bloodshed, the system Jesus put to death in his death, but rather, living blood dedicating itself to love. For most Christians, that practice begins in church and then spills out into society.
Cornel West said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Reinhold Niebuhr said, “Justice is an approximation of brotherhood under conditions of sin.” And so we engage in the world of politics: the imperfect, day-to-day compromises and sacrifices of our common life together. The church must never be partisan, since no political party can come close to what love demands of our souls. But the church must always be political, tugging our society in the direction of justice and thus our best approximation of love.
Jesus stands boldly before Pilate, and the voice of salvation proclaims, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” That happens even among people who’ve never heard of Jesus, and people who have heard of him but misunderstand him, and people who have been clobbered with his name and want nothing to do with it. These people, too, hear the voice of Jesus when they demonstrate that they belong to the truth, when they make clear that salvation trumps survival.
Now, I know that many of you here today are busy dealing with unspeakable pain of your own: the sudden death of a loved one … the ongoing grind of caring for someone in failing health … the seeming void of a life that was once so full of optimism … the diagnosis that wakes you up to worry … the knowledge that you have hurt someone so deeply that they may never recover. You may be jobless, or friendless, or foodless, or addicted, or you may fear that nobody will ever truly understand or forgive you. Redemption is yours, but you’re not yet experiencing it, and so we pray with you and stand with you. And we will love you through this by making sacrifices.
Sacrifice comes in all types and sizes, and without it we cannot love. Good parents sacrifice sleep. Good executives sacrifice big paychecks and luxury jets. Conscientious people voluntarily sacrifice some of their God-given freedoms so that those with less power may become free.
I want to close with a story: a conversation I have been given permission to share, overheard at coffee hour this past Sunday.
Parishioner 1: “I’ve been so depressed lately. I used to be on medication for it, but it’s been awhile. I actually have a new prescription from my doctor, but I’m scared to go back on it because of the potential side effects.”
Parishioner 2: “I’ve just recently gone back on my anti-depressant; I also delayed doing so because of the same fears. Tell you what. If you go back on yours too, we can compare quirky side effects. Sound good?”
Parishioner 1: “OK! Let’s shake on it.”
This kind of sacrifice isn’t huge, but it’s far more than nothing. It’s not the passive lip service of “thoughts and prayers.” It’s not even the sincere but noncommittal “if you need anything,” which isn’t bad, which is sometimes all we have to offer, but which still isn’t much. Rather, what I witnessed is direct loving action, and it demonstrates and strengthens our salvation. And it’s something you can do, too.
I was struck by this incident because this resurrection work doesn’t come naturally to me. I miss chances all the time to do something very much like what this parishioner did: to dedicate a part of herself to another in an ongoing way. But God is growing me. And so I watch and learn, and then I seek opportunities to practice. The survival instinct prods, “Don’t get involved; it’s too much work, and you’ll be less free.” But salvation insists, “This is what I was born to do, and it will free me in ways I can’t yet imagine.”
We are Easter people, the ones for whom Jesus was willing to be betrayed and murdered. We belong to the truth, and so we practice resurrection. So this Easter—tomorrow evening!—“let us approach [the risen Christ] with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water … Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Amen.