Sunday, April 13, 2014

TEXT: Luke 22: 39-54

Before he came to the cross, Jesus came to a crossroad: a decisive moment, a tipping point, a choice.

Before Jesus hung from a tree, the future of God’s kingdom hung in the balance in a garden of olive trees.

Before he suffered and died at Calvary, Jesus suffered as he prayed in Gethsemane.

Luke’s Gospel tells us that “in his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Luke 22:44).

The bloody crucifixion may seem the hardest test Jesus faced. But maybe what happened in Gethsemane was harder. Certainly it was not Jesus’ first test. Remember his ministry began with Satan’s testing in the wilderness. Don’t forget the relentless testing by scribes and Pharisees wanting to trap him into saying words that would warrant arrest. But Jesus’ final test was in a prayer garden. After that, he was out of options. Jesus was mainly silent during his trial. He endured torture. He met his death. But in Gethsemane he was still playing out possibilities before making a decision, a choice. He prayed, he discerned, he sought God’s will. And that process was agonizing.

We don’t know all the options Jesus agonized over once he realized his arrest was imminent. One option would have been to rouse the crowds for bloody insurrection. But his previous choices had prepared him to choose the path of peace at this critical juncture.

Now some scientists and philosophers may question if humans have real choice, so “programmed” are we by genetic codes and cultural conditioning and environmental influences. They think we may think we’re choosing when we in fact are responding predictably to other influences. But evolution requires the role of chance. This dance between chance and choice, predictable laws and randomness, may mean our lives follow some kind of trajectory, but we’re not confined to a script.

Have you seen the movie The Adjustment Bureau? Matt Damon plays a budding politician who falls in love with a beautiful woman through a chance encounter on a city bus. But their meeting was not meant to happen. Because the “Bureau” that secretly determines all major human decisions on our planet and has been positioning Matt Damon’s character to gain political power—hadn’t mapped out the possibility of love for him. The “Bureau” fears the young woman will distract the aspiring politician from achieving his political potential. So they make course corrections on the young politician’s map which prevent him from seeing her again. “The Bureau” of men in business suits and hats has that kind of power. They literally pull out maps to chart the lives of human beings—mainly with the benign intention of exerting some control over our tendency to blow up the planet. Maybe the “Adjustment Bureau” represents God in a fedora, or fate, or simply the succession of choices that seem like choices but really aren’t. The film calls into question how much choice we really have. But it also suggests that love is always a possibility.

If our choices are more limited than we like to think, it may be because our previous choices have narrowed our current options. As Robert Frost said, “way leads on to way.” We can think of our lives as the sum of our many choices which test our convictions and shape our souls and prepare us for the bigger tests in life. You responded today—to someone else’s comment or to the lure of some habit or to an opportunity to act with kindness—because of earlier responses to life’s tests. You’ll act tomorrow because of some choice you made today. Surgeons and airline pilots and soldiers and astronauts are trained to make life-and-death decisions instantaneously.

You and I make seemingly minor decisions—not the big Gethsemane choices—every day. In doing so, we are wiring our minds and hearts for future actions. Each choice—for steamed broccoli instead of French fries, for kindness rather than criticism—each choice paves the way for the next. And thus a life is made.

Now some tell the Jesus Story as if there were no choices. As if God’s inexorable plan of salvation was to implant in a human child a suicide directive. They believe Jesus’s purpose was to be executed—as if Jesus were an ancient version of the Manchurian Candidate, groomed for leadership and programmed to “self-destruct” in the service of a bigger cause.

I do not believe God mapped out Jesus’s life so that it ended on a cross. As I’ve said, I believe that Jesus, his culture, the authorities, and the crowd made all sorts of choices that resulted in his crucifixion. I do not believe that violence was God’s choice or plan. We may justify our hate or make a tragedy comprehensible by ascribing such events to the will of God. But a god of love does not cause suffering.

As we enter Holy Week again, I repeat from this pulpit a statement contrary to what some of us were taught: God’s “plan of salvation” did not require violence. You may believe otherwise. That’s okay. We don’t require theological uniformity among us. But I stress this point because harm can come from the idea that Father God sent his son into the world to die as a sacrifice so that God could finally forgive the sins of the other children. This theology reinforces the pernicious falsehood that violence can end violence. It makes God either cruel or stupid. Did we not hear Jesus shout, “No more of this” to the disciple who pulled his sword in the garden? Have we not known God best through Jesus who died rather than harm another? How could God, creator of the universe’s laws, build into that universe an equation that one man must suffer before forgiveness can be offered to the others? The cross is a consequence of a violent humanity, not the intention of a loving God. If we worship a violent God, then we will justify our own violence. Jesus risked the possibility of his own violent death in order to live fully into the way of nonviolence.

As we enter Holy Week, I imagine Christ continuing to experience agony when we trust in violence rather than love. I imagine that we perpetuate Jesus’ suffering on the cross by worshiping a God who requires a sacrificial death in order to forgive her beloved children.

When Jesus learned Judas had betrayed him, he could have fled or gathered revolutionaries. One of his followers chose the Empire’s way and drew his sword in the garden of prayer. And the sword drew blood. And you can imagine what normally would have happened next. Instead of arresting and executing one man, the temple police would have drawn their swords, and soon the garden where Jesus went to pray would have been a battlefield.

Instead, Jesus practiced what he’d preached. He refused to be drawn into violence. In fact, he did the opposite. He reflexively healed the man his disciple wounded.

If he’d been a fanatical martyr, Jesus would likely have rushed headlong into that death with some ferocity of resolve, some exultation about his mission, some shout of triumph in the name of his God.

Instead, Jesus sounded more like Martin Luther King, Jr., (who sounded a bit like Jesus, of course) both of whom recognized what their witness to God’s love might cost. He/they might have hoped that, if death came, it would serve to illustrate God’s love more powerfully than their sermons about peace ever had. But Jesus truly had a choice. Over and over he had chosen how to live and love, how to seek God’s way rather than the Empire’s way–long before his cruel death exposed the vileness of the Empire in the most decisive contrast between God’s way of love and the Empire’s way of domination.

I have given up the God who requires violence and suffering. But I’ve also given up the God who removes suffering. Because it’s plain to see that suffering still exists. I’ve forsaken the God who uses the suffering of one poor soul for the salvation of another—and the God who intervenes to make sure I won’t ever suffer. I turn instead to the God who suffers with us. Who stands by us if we suffer. As Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, there are some creative ways to return good for evil that do not require our very lives. But when all the creative nonviolent options were gone, Jesus’s choice to die rather than to kill, to feel hurt rather than to wound, is a hopeful choice. To choose to suffer rather than to perpetuate the cycle of violence is a choice that no one has to make a choice—if we all make that choice. Hear that paradox again: If we all choose to suffer from violence rather than commit violence, then no one ever has to suffer from violence again.

Next Sunday we’ll return to another garden setting. Our Hebrew Bible reading will take us to Eden, brimming with first life. Our Gospel reading will take us to the garden where Jesus was raised to new life.

But this evening we have read of a Garden that could have become a battlefield, that did become a testing place, a dark place, but an oddly victorious place where Jesus, despite death threats and darkness, lived into the way of light. Shouting to his followers, he cried, “No more of this violence!” Shouting to those arresting him, he accused: “This is your hour, and the power of darkness!” He exposed the injustice. He named the darkness. He named it. He did not deepen the darkness by adopting their tactics. He diverted from their script.

Jesus had been tested long before the cross. By the time of his arrest, he was clear eyed and focused. He knew who he was and what he must do. His reflex was healing. He would not fight. He would not flee. As the temple police pressed forward, Jesus had to trust the God whose power is love. Without knowing if or how someone might tell the end of his story, he walked to the cross ready to commend his spirit to a loving God.

Before Jesus came to the cross, he came to a crossroad. We will make a thousand choices tomorrow, most of them seemingly insignificant. This is not a call to overthink, to be anxious about minor decisions, to feel overly responsible. This is a call to appreciate that all of life is bound up together—and that love is the direction Jesus always took—to the cross and beyond.

PRAYER: Loving One, in our darkness, call us to the Light. In our quandaries, lead us to peace. In our hurting, stay beside us until Easter dawns.

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