Palms and Passion 20 March 2016 – “Embrace the Embrace” *
Life, too, is about winning and losing and it can be just as competitive. But losing a game is quite different from losing a job or a home. Even these material loses do not compare with losing a partner or spouse, a child, a relative or friend. We also fear losing honor and pride, memories and dreams. Not many of us are prepared to deal with such losses.
Today we commemorate a loss of life. The family, followers and friends of Jesus lost a leader. Jesus lost big time when you think about what he started out to do. He believed there was evil in the world and that he was called to save Israel from oppression. In the end Jesus had no choice but to give up. His disciples and even his God abandoned him. It was over.
Is there anything in today’s bittersweet biblical texts that can help us handle losing something we cherish or someone we love? The first reading from the prophet Isaiah – a servant song – is read today because of its references, for Christians, to the life and death of Jesus.
Tired of the empty promises of liberty the Israelites protested. Isaiah, although persecuted, was just as stubborn as his opponents. He wanted to win them over, to let go of their selfish ambitions and to trust more in the presence of God.
Today, too, we are upset with empty promises. People are using strident strategies to state their opinions, to demonstrate their passions. The ideologies behind the rallies vary. Some people in this nation are perturbed by what they have lost because of big government, foreigners, unemployment, income inequity.
This fear of loss has triggered a divisive atmosphere that has the potential to weaken if not destroy the foundations of this republic. We are witnessing unfortunate dissensions within political parties and even within religious groups. For us, fundamental Christian values are at stake. Why are so many humans so ready to crucify other humans because they are different in race, creed, nationality and class?
What did those who grieved over the loss of Jesus do? What did they fear most in his absence? His disciples took the loss so badly they denied knowing him and fled the region afraid that they too would lose their lives. It was mostly women who stood by the man they embraced as a son, a lover, a brother, a friend.
These loyal and intimate companions were in denial. They could not understand how such a merciful king, so welcomed with open arms into the City of David, could suffer such an ignominious and humiliating death. How could God abandon him? The usual answer — Jesus had to die so we could be saved — is not sufficient.
Rather than think of Jesus only as a savior who died to redeem us from sin, this day, in the midst of so much national and global chaos, we can also remember him as a model for living. Jesus was a vulnerable and humble man willing to forego praise and glory, power and wealth, and to win by losing — by dying on a cross. Remember he was killed because people called him “King” of the Jews, a title he would not have given to himself.
As baptized Christians we are called to embrace that cross not merely to remember Jesus’ heinous crucifixion but as a gesture that we too are willing to pick it up and follow him. Our Christian calling may not make us less afraid of the evils in the world. Jesus himself was scared to death. The embrace of what is wrong in our world, however, may help to clarify our place in society, and give us the means to confront evil together.
On Holy Thursday we will share a family meal and a ritual meal — the eucharist. We will give thanks for the way Jesus taught us to live, for calling us to minister to one another. On Good Friday before we venerate this cross, some will take turns carrying it throughout our church.
We took this cross off that wall and planted it right here in the center of us so we would not forget how much Jesus embraced saints and sinners, allies and enemies. When we “embrace that embrace” * we don’t give up, we press on with our values, we live as if against all odds.
* Deacon Paul Kisselback uttered this challenging phrase in a 2008 class on worship & sacraments in the St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry. Thanks, Paul.