Click on the play button above to hear audio of this Sermon.
I had it all planned out, where this sermon was going. You can get a hint of it from the title, “Be True,” another in our Lenten series of Life Practices for Tough Times.
You see, Jesus was nothing if not true, and that is never clearer than in his last deliberate and agonizing week, the one we call holy, the one we begin commemorating today.
As we live through our own challenging times, as we consider what it means in these times to follow Jesus, we know that God is with us. Still, we wonder how we will get through. And so we’ve talked about the need to consciously choose life at every turn, the call to imagine something different and better than what is, the importance of persisting, how to see clearly, and what it takes to rise up and live when we feel worn down and fed up by a steady stream of defeats and outrages.
We like to think of ourselves as free, we want to believe we have the power to act as we wish, but when push comes to shove—that is, when Jesus comes face to face with betrayal, desertion, and death—it is remarkable how many of us become fatalists. Whether it’s because we know how the story ends or because we still carry remnants of the horrible theology that told us torture and execution were God’s plan, we rarely consider that things might have turned out differently for Jesus.
But surely there were any number of times Jesus could have dialed things back, many occasions when he might have kept a lower profile, lots of times when he could have kept his mouth shut, some key moments when he didn’t have to eat with the outcasts or heal on the sabbath, times when he could have sent the poor away hungry and let Lazarus stay dead. Surely he didn’t have to cause so much trouble!
Surely he could have come into Jerusalem in the dark of night and stayed away from the temple.
Can’t you just hear his distraught disciples saying all that and more after he’d been executed, as they hid behind a locked door wondering if they were next? “Did he have to do that?” they might have said. “Did he have to go there?”
And the answer, of course, was No. No, he didn’t have to do any of those things. If he had wanted to live a long life, if he had wanted just to get by, he wouldn’t have done those things.
And the answer, of course, was Yes. Yes, if he was going to be true to his call to love others with all with the radical mercy and extravagant welcome of God; if he was going to usher in a world where the poor were put on top and the despised were given the best seats at the table; if he was going to show us the way to new and abundant life; if he was going to be true to his Creator and divine partner . . . Yes, he would have to love with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. Yes, he would have to empty himself of every privilege he was born to, every claim on life he had. Yes, there would likely be a price to pay.
And so, of course, he would stage the most audacious act of political theater anyone could imagine at the most volatile time of year. While soldiers of the Roman Empire approached Jerusalem from the west riding stallions and chariots and wielding their finest weaponry, Jesus would enter from the east, unarmed and riding a donkey. While the Romans’ show of force would intimidate the Passover crowds, Jesus’ display of resistance would give hope to the poor. While the Romans put on a parade, Jesus staged a protest.
From there he could have called it a day. Instead, he went straight to the temple to confront those who were fleecing the poor in God’s name. And when the religious authorities reproached him for empowering the sick, Jesus confronted them, too.
Even then, Jesus could have gone back to the Galilee for a few days until things calmed down. But he was a Jew, and the Passover was at hand, and he was as true as the North Star. So he stayed in town, teaching and truth-telling, living and loving without fear.
We can hardly help but think of Dr. King, seemingly unable to stop speaking truth to power, taking on poverty, confronting in what turned out to be his last year of life the interrelated evils of “racism, materialism, and militarism.” Fifty years ago last week he declared his opposition to the Vietnam War, saying he had to “be true” to the calling he shared with all people “to be a [child] of the living God.” And that, he said, meant speaking out “for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls “enemy.”
And so it was with Jesus. All through that holy week, he continued to love the poor and threaten the powerful.
Judas, meanwhile, had time enough to sell his soul.
We know what happened next: How, after that last supper with his friends, Jesus went to the garden to pray. So awed are we by the fervor of his prayer, so saddened by his anguish, and dismayed by the sleepy-head disciples, that we sometimes forget he still had choices. He did not want to be tortured and executed, yet he submitted to God’s way of surrender and nonviolence.
Outed by his betrayer, surrounded by opponents carrying weapons, frustrated by the disciple who wounded another with his own sword, Jesus stayed true. He condemned all violence, and then surrendered to the very powers he had been teaching others to resist.
We can almost hear Dr. King say, on the night before he was killed, “I’m not fearing any man.”
There is so much more to say about Jesus and his choices, us and our choices. There is much to say about setting aside our privilege so that we might be true to the God of justice and peace. I wanted to talk also about the new life that is created when the world’s hatred, injustice, and fear are met with a true-blue commitment to let God love all people through us.
But I, too, must be true.
Just as I cannot speak of Jesus without speaking of love, so I cannot speak of him without considering the state of this world that God so loves. Just as Jesus looked out over Jerusalem and wept, saying, “If only you had recognized the things that make for peace,” so we, too, must take a hard look at the violence and injustice of our world and our nation, and let our hearts be broken open.
If the people of Syria are to have any hope of living in peace, we, too, must be true—true to the nonviolent love of Jesus. If we truly care about the people of Syria—some half-million killed, 4.5 million forced to flee, and another 6 million displaced within their country—we must find ways to support them. To paraphrase the Rev. Dr. William Barber, what kind of government “drops bombs to honor the dead while denying help to the living?”
We must be true.
If the refugees of the world are to be given safe harbor, of undocumented immigrants are to acknowledged for their labor, if the homeless are to have a place of their own, we must be true—true to the selfless compassion of Jesus, whose own family had to flee to Egypt for safety. We must prayerfully consider how to protect and support those whose livelihoods, families, and very lives are in danger.
We must be true.
If we are to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God, if we have any intention of accompanying Jesus to the cross this week and out of the tomb next week, we must be true to the Jesus who did not consider privilege (his equality with God) as something to be exploited but instead emptied himself and humbled himself so that we and all people might know life as God intended. We must consider what it means to exploit our privilege on behalf of people of color, LGBTQ folks, the homeless, the poor, those seven men in Arkansas facing Easter week executions, and our Mother Earth.
We must be true to the Creator who gives us responsibility for the well-being of all living things.
If we want to make peace in this violent, fear-filled world, we must be true—true to the Jesus who laid down his life for peace. When the ways of empire and the policies of our government tell us that the world is saved by killing bad guys, we must be true to the Jesus who died to show us a better way: that the world is saved and we, ourselves, are saved, by loving God, our neighbors, and even our enemies.
We must be true. We must have the same mind, the same love that was in Christ Jesus.
As we walk through this horrible and holy week with Jesus, let us stay awake. Let us remember that he had choices, and that we have choices. Faced with oppression, Jesus chose resistance. Faced with institutional injustice, he chose confrontation. Faced with a decision, he chose prayer. Faced with alternatives, he chose submission to God’s way. Faced with violence and death, he chose surrender.
In the face of injustice and hate, resistance is an act of love. In the face of violence and death, surrender is an act of life-affirming freedom.
Jesus chose to be true. Will we?
The hour has come. Get up. Let’s go.