Sunday, April 1, 2012

Where are we?

Michael D. Harnois

Passion Sunday B
St. John the Evangelist
1 April 2012

One of my many sinful pleasures is a comic strip called “Coffee with Jesus.” It runs on Facebook, although it can also be seen on the website of its two young creators, who call themselves Radio Free Babylon. It depicts the Jesus of portraits--long hair, beard, mustache, 30-ish--but neatly groomed in a jacket and tie, sharing a polite cup of coffee with one of a rotating group of companions. The strips range from the merely funny to the deeply cynical. One of my recent favorites goes like this:
Soldiers shooting children in Afghanistan, neighborhood watch captains shooting unarmed boys in Florida: what is going on, Jesus?

You've only named the two most talked about stories in the news. I see this stuff everyday. There is tragedy everywhere, all the time.

And yet you just sit there! Why do you allow it? Why don't you intervene?

Bold questions from someone who has plenty of opportunities to alleviate the suffering around her. But I believe you're late for a nail appointment, aren't you?
This Sunday begins with a few moments of welcome relief from the somberness of Lent. We get to party, waving our palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!” And it lasts about fifteen minutes. And then...then we are reminded, not just of what happened to Jesus, but of what happened to his first followers. It is not a pretty sight. The people who come out looking the worst are the men closest to Jesus, the ones who have been right at his side throughout his ministry. They thought that Jesus was about giving them what they wanted. When they realize that their own tails are at risk, they are gone. One even sees a way to make a few bucks in the process. The one who comes out looking the best, in Mark’s account, is an anonymous woman with a jar of expensive perfume. In an account that jars us and leaves us unsettled even today, when the disciples complain that the perfume should have been sold and the money spent on the poor, Jesus says, “No. She has done the right thing by anointing my body for burial. You can give to the poor any time.”

Today is a day to figure out what it means to follow Jesus, and why we do it. One clue is that, if we do not know ourselves to be in need of God’s grace, we probably will not know what it is to receive it. We can only follow Jesus when we understand what he is doing--what he has done--for us. To come face to face with God’s free gift meeting our deepest need is an intensely personal, intimate encounter. One of the most poignant moments in the musical “Godspell” is a duet between an unnamed woman--one who has just been forgiven and told to go and sin no more--and Jesus. She grasps what Jesus has just done for her. She wants to follow. She knows it will be hard. She offers to prove to him that she can do it.

Where are you going? Where are you going? Can you take me with you?
For my hand is cold And needs warmth Where are you going?
Far beyond where the horizon lies Where the horizon lies
And the land sinks into mellow blueness Oh please, take me with you Let me skip the road with you I can dare myself I can dare myself
I'll put a pebble in my shoe And watch me walk (watch me walk)
I can walk I can walk!
I shall call the pebble Dare I shall call the pebble Dare
We will walk, we will talk together We will talk About walking
Dare shall be carried
And when we both have had enough I will take him from my shoe, singing "Meet your new road!”
Then I'll take your hand Finally glad Finally glad
That I am here By your side (By my side) By your side (by my side)
By your side (by my side) By your side (by my side) By your side (by my side)

As the song ends, Judas is offering to betray Jesus.

Jesus died to set us free. He died to free us from our self-centeredness, our self-indulgence, he died to free us from our fear, he died to free us from our worst selves and enable us to be the persons God created us to be. He died that we might follow him to the Realm of God. But although Jesus’ death was once for all, we have to claim that promise over and over again. Joan Chittister writes “We too often fail to realize...that people who say that they want to find God in life have to work every day to bring that Presence into focus, or the Presence will elude them no matter how present it is in theory.” We get scared. We get distracted. We get caught up in the struggles of our lives and we forget. We start thinking it’s all up to us, and we get overwhelmed. Or we get satisfied, even pleased, with what we have and who we are and we don’t want to be challenged. But the challenges never stop.

John Shore, a Christian columnist just a few years younger than me, recently wrote that “Anyone of any age at all during any phase of the civil rights movement knew that a just and more righteous America was finally emerging from its nightmarishly racist past...It was real. It was happening. A new America was being born.” Then he talks about what it was like to be ten years old when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed; and how “forty-five years later here I am, watching yet another senseless racist murder dominate the news for a week or so.” In an experience that is almost surreal, we have passed into a day in America when it is newly acceptable to use Christian faith publicly to defend racism, oppression and violence against women, and an exponentially widening gap between the rich and the poor.

Where are we? Each year, the story of the Passion faces us with that question. Following Jesus is not passive. It is not waiting for Jesus to do something about the problem while we go to our nail appointment. Following is doing. While we can follow Jesus without being partisan, it is hard for me to see how we can do it without being political, because being political is simply being involved in the public square. Being political is how we make a difference in the lives of real people. Riding that donkey into town was an intensely provocative political act. As Cornel West writes, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”

And just as the first disciples could not assume they knew what it was to follow Jesus when they had him in their midst, neither may we--the community of St. John the Evangelist--assume that because we are gathered in this place singing “Hosanna in the highest!” what we are actually doing here together is following Jesus. It will be a sign to us that, the more engaged we are in truly following, the less concerned we will be with our own survival, the more able we will be to make good choices about our future. Right now, to many people, to much of the culture, Christian faith looks like hell. It is up to us to look--publicly, even defiantly--like we are different. What does it mean to follow? Take that question with you as you set forth on the journey of Holy Week. Amen

© Michael D. Harnois