13 Mar 2016
“‘Neither do I condemn you.’” (John 8:11) In the name …
We’ve entered Passiontide. The last two weeks of Lent. The images of Jesus and the saints are covered by purple shrouds today. This reminds us that prior to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday that He had gone into a tactical retreat. He hid away with His disciples in one last attempt to prepare them for the unthinkable that was about to unfold. In other words, in Jesus, God had entered into our world, but the world preferred life without Him. The stark barrenness of this morning’s Sanctuary offers us a visible expression of this unfortunate reality that too often the world prefers to not be bothered by Jesus, and if the world has no time for Jesus we shouldn’t be surprised if it has no time for church. But let’s not forget that Jesus’ was a tactical retreat; it was not surrender. Jesus would emerge and charge forward, and even though it may have looked like defeat on Good Friday, there was more to come, so much more. In the same way, the church can’t accept defeat either. Just like Jesus we have to find our path to charge back into the world.
I was not always a fan of Downton Abbey whose final episode was last Sunday, but I have to admit that eventually I was drawn in. What made for good drama was that the story was set in a time of transition, the old ways were being replaced by the new, and no one really knew what that implied. Nostalgia is understandable, but it’s not going to stop change and hopefully progress. Servants may have been worried that there were fewer and fewer positions available to them at those old, grand English estates, but that then freed them to go looking for work elsewhere, and that led to a better life.
That story may seem quaint, but our country is going through much the same process today. Some pundits are saying that this uncertainty of change is what is behind the often times embarrassing spectacle of this year’s Presidential campaign. And then there is the President of Hampshire College who was quoted as saying that 70% of today’s college graduates will be working at jobs that don’t even exist right now. That’s O.K. for someone who is 20-something and has a chance at an education, but it can be unnerving for those who aren’t in that category. This change in society is leading to greater and greater economic disparity. When I was 10 years old, 70% of us were in the middle class. Now that I’m in my mid-50’s that number has dropped to 43%. Both the rich and the poor have doubled in number over that same period. When the middle class was a large majority, there was a mixture of people interacting. Now, more often than not, there are rich communities and impoverished ones. The rich and the poor have been pulled apart and neither one understands the other. We’re becoming a separated people.
And this separation is also part of the reason why Jesus is disappearing. The University of Michigan surveyed high school seniors recently. They’ve discovered that church attendance is dropping twice as fast for the poorest third of Americans as for the richest third. I wonder if that has anything to do with a sense of futility and maybe even hopelessness. In the same article where I was reading about this survey, there was an interview with a woman who works as a housekeeper in a posh downtown hotel. She sees wealth every day and knows she has no chance at it, and maybe even her children don’t. In her words: “I try to play the lottery here and there. You’ve got to try something.” (https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2016/03/05/segregation/NiQBy000TZsGgLnAT0tHsL/story.html )
Jesus was always there for the most desperate. Jesus was always a source of their hope. What if that’s beginning to change? What if the very people that Jesus most came to serve and save no longer feel a connection to Him? That’s a question we have to ask on Passion Sunday when we remember that even 2,000 years ago the world preferred to forget about Jesus.
There was another time when the world wanted nothing to do with Jesus. During World War II, the Nazis tried to either erase or tame the Christian church. It’s hard to glorify hatred and killing when you hear sermons about Jesus’ life and gospel. But some in the church fought back. One of the heroes of this religious resistance was a Lutheran pastor named Bonhoeffer. He would not let the Nazi’s win, and for this he was imprisoned, and on Hitler’s orders he was executed just two weeks before the Americans liberated his concentration camp in 1945. Even in the blackness of a Nazi prison, Bonhoeffer saw Christ. From his prison cell, he once smuggled out this note to a friend: “I always have the feeling we are merely fearfully trying to save room for God. I would rather speak of God at the center than at the limits …The church is found not where human capacity fails at the limits, but rather in the middle of the village.” ( Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Mediations on the Cross; ed. Manfred Weber; trans. Douglas Stott, Westminster John Knox Press, Louiseville, KY, 1996, p. 28)
I wonder if this has anything to do with the diminishing importance of Christ and church. I wonder if we’ve settled for a Jesus and a church locked into only any leftover time or space in our lives. If we keep pushing Jesus farther and farther toward the edge, then it’s easier for Jesus and church to fall over the edge without much notice.
But like I’ve said, Jesus’ departure from the world was a tactical retreat that allowed Him to come charging back. We’re His church; we’re His presence in the world. We can’t settle for this. The image of this Sanctuary should disturb us, and not only to the point of ringing our hands and admitting that this course is inevitable. We are Jesus’ church. We need to bring Him back to “the middle of the village,” as Bonhoeffer said. The world still needs to hear the Jesus of today’s Gospel. The religious authorities come dragging a powerless woman to Jesus and they want Him to join in their condemnation of her. Isn’t that an often too common image of the church even today? Don’t too many people think of the church as mainly complaining about people’s faults, failures and sins, and not really doing enough to understand that life is tough and complicated, and that sometimes we fall? We need to bring back to “the middle of the village” Jesus’ words of empathy and forgiveness that are the exact opposite: “‘Neither do I condemn you.’” This is the Jesus that we need to preach and to exemplify. A Jesus who is here to replace the rush of human judgment with the merciful love of God. This is the Jesus that the church needs to be. This is the Jesus that has the power and the message to come charging back into the world and to find its place and purpose. May we pray this Passion Sunday that we may believe strongly enough in this Jesus that we can begin to bring Him back to “the middle of the village,” and for this we pray in His most holy of names. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo