Friday, March 21, 2008

The Paradox of the Cross

Good Friday

Sermon preached March 21, 2008

[Editor's note: this isn't a great sermon. The ideas are okay but "it doesn't preach" that well. It might work better as a reading experience but if you want to see an actual sermon look at the previous day's "Scandal of Footwashing" sermon.]

Today we are being led into the great mystery of our religion; one that has at its heart a living paradox, a paradox captured in the name itself: Good Friday.

We’re talking about the paradox of a religion that would have, as its symbol for hope and new life, an instrument of execution. Under different historical circumstances, we could just as easily have a guillotine around our necks; or a gallows; or an electric chair.

This is our symbol for hope.

It is in this symbol of death that we find a reason to live.

This is not a religion for people looking for easy answers. The answer is found in paradox.

And today, we come to the revelation that it is by means of our failures – to use an old fashioned and poorly understood word, our sinfulness -- that we find our greatest joy.

So we ask this question: How have you failed Jesus lately?

One of the wonderful things about our religion is that it is built on the fact that we have all failed Jesus.

This makes us different from a lot of religions these days – especially some of the more recent inventions – the religions of success. There are a lot of religions of success blooming in our world; hundreds of, yes, successful churches that preach nothing but how to be successful: successful in love, in money, in your career, in whatever you desire.

There’s a best-selling book called The Secret that is all about this idea that you can have whatever you want; that your future success is only as limited as your imagination. This book is not just being read by millions of people; it is being followed; it is being breathlessly quoted; it is the object of reading groups and sharing circles and thousand-dollar workshops designed to help you learn the esoteric secret of getting whatever you desire.

But our religion is not about that. It’s not about magically bending the space-time continuum so that you might be successful. Our religion is really about failure. And it all begins here. It begins with the simple fact of our God -- our Lord and Master -- hanging on a cross and dying ...because we failed him.

Some years ago, Ted Turner was vilified in the press because he said Christianity was for losers. Well, he was right. Losers like Jesus . They mocked him on the cross. He was a joke. A failure. That’s our God.

And then there’s Peter, the favored disciple, the rock upon which the church is founded, who in the moment of truth betrayed Jesus.

What does that say about this religion? It says that it’s okay to talk about failure here.

So how have you failed Jesus lately?

Does that question make you uneasy? Do you feel a little resistance bubbling up inside? Is it difficult to look at how you’ve failed?

It’s okay. The beautiful thing about our religion is that we don’t have to get defensive around our failings. We don’t have to pretend. We don’t have to walk around like we’re perfect, like we’re without sin, that we’re oh so successful and we’ve got it oh so together.

We begin with this fact – that we have failed Jesus. We all have. Every one of us.

Our dirty little secret has been revealed; our cover is blown; there is no hiding the fact. We have betrayed him. We have failed.

How have you failed Jesus lately?

Now for a lot of people this is why they are not Christians. Who wants to walk around feeling like a failure all the time? It sounds too much like the old time religion, where the preacher is constantly scolding his congregation and making them feel bad about themselves. Who wants that?

And of course, if the preacher is doing nothing but scolding and pointing fingers, it’s time to find a new preacher. That would be like going to an AA meeting and having the moderator of the meeting say, “I’m the only one in here who isn’t an alcoholic! What’s wrong with you people!?”

No, the point is that we’re all in this boat together. All of our heroes are in this boat. Every one of the saints; every apostle; every guru and yogi and Master – we’re all in this together. It’s called the human condition.

We live in a confused, angry, and violent world. A world that desperately needs to come to terms with its failures. We are armed to the teeth; we are on the brink of global shortages in food and water and oil and we are armed to the teeth.

And when I say these things it’s not because I want you to feel guilty. It’s only because our guilt has been taken away on the cross; it’s only because Christ, on the cross, pronounced his forgiveness, that we are able to remove guilt from the equation. We are forgiven -- get over it! It isn’t about feeling guilty! And if that’s true, we can look at the world with open eyes: we can begin to see the world with compassion instead of debilitating guilt and all its unredeemed attendants: blame; shame; anxiety; the anxious need to change people; the anxious need to fix things -- anything, but ourselves.

It’s only in an unredeemed world that blame gets thrown around.

But in this redeemed world, we can see with eyes of love instead of blame, or guilt, or anger, or self-recrimination.

God is on the cross; all he asks of us is that we regard him.

In the unredeemed world, it’s all up to us; we feel so responsible for it all. Since our only hope is success; since our only moment of self-love is in accomplishment; since every measure of our worth is in terms of what we have done lately; since we can’t accept failure because we equate failure with death -- we have to fix it – all of it. We feel so responsible for everything; so guilty for it all, and so the only way we can get through our day is to put on these enormous opaque blinders to convince us that we are not failing.

We block out the victims of warfare and gun violence ; we block out the starvation caused by drought and global warming; we block out the genocide in Darfur; we block out the presence of homeless men and women and children living right outside these walls. We put on all of these blinders that reduce the world to the narrowest little thread of what we can bear – forgetting that God is bearing it for us; God is on the cross, not us. God is the one saving the world – not us.

In the redeemed world, we come to realize that we cannot fix one another. Only God can fix us. I can love you; I can listen to you; I can spend time with you and care about you. But I cannot fix you. As soon as I start trying I start playing God; I start put my compassion down and pick up my tools so that I can work on you. In the process I forget the most important thing: that it's only by means of a loving relationship that we are transformed and healed. The only hope for changing someone is to stop trying to change him and simply start loving him. God takes care of the rest.

Jesus did not seek to change us by establishing a new form of military rule. He did not seek to change us by fixing us. Instead, He taught us how to fail. And he taught us how to love.

This is the beautiful paradox – that if we want to fix the world, we have to give up on our fixing skills, and let God do the fixing. Anyone who has had tried to fix an alcoholic knows what I'm talking about. The more we try to fix the alcoholic's problem, the worse it gets. If the alcoholic is not ready to be fixed, there's not a lot we can do, except stop enabling. If our efforts are successful at all, it's only when they finally get interpreted as loving rather than fixing.

Only by allowing God to save the world do we stand a chance of making a difference ourselves. In the unredeemed world we are so busy running around trying to change everyone but ourselves; in our desperate need to fix things we run from place to place with our agendas in hand; we join in the blame game; we give voice to our anger; we lob missiles at countries in our desperate efforts to change them; we bombard the world with our success-driven fears and plans and schemes; and somewhere along the line we stop listening; we stop seeing the hurt and the pain; we forget what it means to have simple compassion.

Whether we’re talking about your relationship to your children or your neighbor, or our country’s relationship to the Middle East or Africa, the same principles apply.

Pray, this day, that we might all finally learn the beautiful paradox of failure; pray that we might finally learn the truth of the cross; which is that love trumps success; failure leads to love; and that we are all blessed -- perfectly blessed -- not in our success, but in our brokenness, not in our proximity to God, but in our full humanity; not in our strength but in our weakness. In other words, we are fully blessed -- in our love. It is through God the son that all these things are made possible; a God who is broken on the cross; for love's sake. This we pray; may it be so, in the name of Jesus.


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