I want to tell you story today.
It is a story of Jesus’ last day before his death.
But in order to do that, I have to tell of Jesus’ last week before his death.
But in order to do that, I really have to tell of all of Jesus’ days and all of his weeks that he spent on this earth.
Actually, not even that is enough. I want to tell you the story of the entirety of humanity – from our earliest moments until this very second.
“The Tale of God and Humanity: A Love Story”
First, God creates. In hope that we might live lives of love and justice and community, out of the Eternal Community that is the Trinity, God creates in hope that we might live as such a beloved community. It is the first moment of “God with us.”
We Make our Own Rules. We choose sin, choosing selfishness instead of love and justice and community. Adam and Eve. Cain and Abel. Babel. Noah. We didn’t start out well. So…
God covenants. In hope that we might live lives of love and justice, God chooses a family (Sarai and Abram), builds a nation (Israel), and sends the Torah (teachings). The 10 Commandments are a clear description of what a life of love and justice and community look like, which is and has always been the goal of “God with us.”
We Make our Own Rules. We choose sin, choosing to disobey the 10 Commandments, the Torah. The priests of God create a system of sacrifice, in order to appease God when we mess up. It is a shortcut to the life of love and justice and community that God wanted in the first place. Offering sacrifices don’t fix our lack of love, or justice, or community. And we cannot pull the wool over God’s eyes. So….
God sends the prophets. The prophets explain that the system of sacrifice cannot be a replacement for love and justice and community. “Don’t bother with your rivers of oil and your tens of thousands of rams. What I am after is to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Sound familiar? Through the railing of the prophets, again, God is with us.
We Make our Own Rules. We choose to do it our own way, again. “Our neighbors have kings, so we should have kings!” We trusted in human power and authority instead of God. Instead of God’s command to live by love, justice, and community, we put people in power that insist on exactly the opposite.
Again and again, we choose to use these failed systems, instead of the living the life that God wants us to live! The way I set it up looks pretty linear, but the reality is that this is a circular pattern that continued generation after generation. Selfishness, shortcuts, human power and authority. Again and again.
Until God decides to just show up. God models. Incarnation. Teachers know that sometimes the best way to instruct and transform a mind is to show someone how to do it. So, after trying to make it clear the kind of life we should lead, God just comes on down to show us what this life is supposed to look like. The life of Jesus is the most perfect revelation of the life that God wants us to live: God with us. But it runs counter to each of these different attempts to Make our Own Rules. And the last week of the life of Christ is the exclamation point:
E.P. Sanders suggests that Jesus offers three symbolic actions over the course of his last week on earth. Three ways that he deconstructs humanity’s attempts to live by its rules and instead point us to live lives of love, justice, and community.
First, on Palm Sunday, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. I think this is a powerful example of Jesus rejecting the power and authority of humanity. Instead of on a war horse, surrounded by chariots and the war machine, he enters on a symbol of peace, surrounded by the motley crew of disciples, and the lame, blind, and poor that have been following him.
Jesus rejects the way that humanity worships at the throne of authority. Veronice Miles reminds us that when God’s people reject human authority in favor of God’s authority, the abundant life of Jesus is shown. The Underground Railroad, where God’s people chose to see slaves as humans and not property, even when it meant resisting and opposing the authorities, even at great risk to their lives. The Confessing Church in Germany, which stood against Hitler and the Nazis even when it cost many of them everything. The South Africans who stood with Nelson Mandela against apartheid. In each case, the authorities were in the wrong and the people of God stood for love and justice and community. And they were judged by history to be champions of the abundant life. She asks if we would march with Jesus into Jerusalem, willing to take a stand against those who would authorize death over life.
Second, immediately in Matthew, he goes into the Temple and turns over the tables of the money-changers. “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” he roars, as he turns over the tables. Jesus rejects the shortcut of humanity.
Again, this is a powerful symbolic action against not just individuals, but an entire system. Jesus is challenging the Temple system of sacrifice and the ways that the money-changers take advantage of the poorest of the poor. Jesus quotes Isaiah, who espoused a radical welcome to all: “my house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.” Are we willing to do the hard work of justice, or would we rather take the shortcut of expediency? I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., who in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail took to task the white churches who were expediently and exceedingly quiet. Instead of building community and working for justice, they waited it out. They refused to speak out for justice when given the chance. His question haunts us, as well. Who do we fail to speak for? How do we choose the easy way out? Is our church a house of prayer for all people?
Finally, on Thursday, Jesus rejects the selfishness of humanity. He took off his cloak, knelt by the disciples, and washed their feet. This is the third of Sanders’s three symbolic actions. For Jesus to serve a meal, to invite them to remember, to wash their feet and command them to repeat that action to one another, deconstructs the life of selfishness, and demonstrates a life of selflessness. Are we willing to live such a life of service? Or do we write our own rules? Jesus preached a radically different, counter-cultural message. And it got him killed. And his blood is on our hands, every time we choose to make our own rules.
But I refuse to believe that this is a story about the blue arrows. I refuse to believe that the beginning and end of the story is the way that we participate in the brokenness and imperfection of this world. The good news of the last week of Jesus’s life is not that Jesus had to expose all of our failed attempts to make our own rules. It isn’t about the blue arrows. It’s about the orange ones! The good news is that regardless of our sins, our failed attempts to make our own rules, God is always choosing to be “God with us.” From the very beginning, until this moment, the story is the same: God is with us. Beckoning. Inviting. Commanding. Proclaiming. Living. Dying…to be with us.
From the beginning until now, the tale of God and humanity is a love story. One that was written generation after generation from Adam to Jesus. And one that writes itself again every single day. God is with us.
So, now that we have begun with the story of humanity, and the whole of the life of Christ, and his last week on earth, now we end with his final day. He had taught and modeled and demonstrated for three years what love and justice and community were supposed to look like. He had spent the last week of his life railing, teaching, begging people to understand what love and justice and community look like. He spoke and spoke and spoke until his voice was hoarse.
And now, he is silent. It is his final lesson. His final way to show us the life that God would have us live. In the entire, rather long, passage that I read this morning, Jesus speaks only six words:
First, in response to Pilate: “You say so.” Two words in Aramaic. Words of refusal to defend himself. That Jesus refuses to fight back, refuses to even speak, refuses to defend himself astounds Pilate. He has never seen anything like it. Everyone in Pilate’s life had insisted on looking good for others, in lording power over others, in defending self in the face of others. He simply has no concept of someone who was silent in the face of attack.
Christ would speak no more. He has said enough.
Until his final words on the cross: “Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani.” My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? In the entire story of “God with us,” there has never been a more powerful and poignant statement of “God absent from us.” Those words from the cross are echoed throughout the depths of the history of the human soul. Every grieving widow, every cancer victim, every parent who has lost a child, every father and mother who have worked their tails off and still can’t find a way to make the paycheck stretch to the end of the month, every person who has found themselves threatened or abused or discriminated against because of their gender or their orientation or the color of their skin, every person who has sat in the rubble of their war-torn home, every person dealing with the pain and destruction of a sinful world… For a moment, or a season, or the remainder of a lifetime, each of them has cried out, as Christ did on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I have spoken those words myself. And I have and encouraged countless others to speak them, as well. I have validated these words, spoken them on behalf of those who could not do it themselves, and invited them to speak or scream them aloud. I have counseled many times over that these are not words of failed faith or disobedience or distrust.
They are a prayer.
A prayer of faith. A prayer of fierce faith that comes from a place that believes that even though in this moment I am hurting, and angry, and afraid, and even though deep down I think you should fix it all for me, God, I still cry out to you.
Failed faith is a shrugging of the shoulders because you don’t think anyone is listening.
Fierce faith is yelling from the depth of your heart to the top of your lungs at God because you know someone is listening.
Fierce faith is a prayer that comes from a deep and profound place that believes “God is with us.” Even when all you can whisper is “Where are you?”
Fierce faith is whispering in the dark.
These words are a prayer. They are a faithful prayer. And they were Jesus’ final prayer to God. It’s as if Jesus was saying to God in these four words: “I trust you. I trust you enough to say this aloud to you. Even in my undeserved pain, and shredded body, I trust that this huge story of ‘God with us’ is not over yet. I trust that just like you have every time humans have tried to make our own rules, you will listen and be about the work of transformation of this world. I trust that you are listening, and that you hear my honest prayer: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”
And then he breathed his last.
Thus endeth the lesson.
But not the story.
No, you see, the story is not over yet.
To be continued.