Live This Way

Third Sunday in Lent

Exodus 20:1-17; Ps 19; 1 Cor 1:18-25; John 2: 13-22

The Rev’d Dr. Deborah Meister, ODM

This week, a devastating scene unfolded in Gaza — one of so many others.  As conditions approached mass starvation, a large convoy of food trucks entered Gaza City. It was actually the second convoy; the first came and distributed food and left, without incident. But before the arrival of the second convoy, contractors from Gaza posted advance notice on Facebook, probably to give their neighbors information and hope. And when the convoy entered the city, desperate people swarmed the convoy, running beside the trucks and trying to grab the food to feed their families. In the stampede, the trucks began to crush the very people they were trying to help, and then a few Israeli troops opened fire. We don’t yet know why — the investigation has barely begun — but they don’t seem to have been warning shots. In end, 100 people died, and 700 were injured.

Do you believe that matters? Do you believe their lives matter? Do you think that, even two months ago, any of the people involved in that tragedy could have imagined their part in it?

Today’s readings present us with some verses which may be challenging to liberal or progressive Christians. Conservative people of all traditions are almost too comfortable claiming the power of their beliefs. They can be only too happy to assert that they have The Truth — the holy truth, the divine truth, the truth you must believe to be saved. Progressive believers seem to find that more difficult. We are more likely to err on the side of respect for all the major spiritual traditions, to say that there is truth in each and that God, who loves us supremely, will guide us by whatever path we can find into God’s compassion and love. It is a generous position, well-meaning and kind, and it builds on the earliest traditions of the Church, which taught that Christ was the full revelation of God, but that other, pre-Christian religions did have the capacity to impart some of God’s truth. And yet, it is all too easy to slip from this spacious, accommodating viewpoint to a sense that what we believe doesn’t matter much, that God will love us all anyway, no matter what. But what’s enfolding around us in the world today — in Ukraine, in Gaza, in South Sudan, in the melting Arctic — should serve as a wake-up call. What we believe matters. It matters supremely, not only to us, but to our neighbors and to the well-being of the world itself.

St. Paul writes, “The message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” (I For 1:18) The cross, of course, is the sign of our redemption — the ultimate sign of God’s love. But it is more than that: a cross — any cross — was originally an instrument of torture. It was a death reserved for the most despised of criminals, a form of death which was painful and slow. It speaks volumes about God’s goodness that God would choose such a place to die, such a means to redeem humanity and the world. For God to go to the cross means that there is no place beyond redemption, no person so broken that he, she, or they are beyond God’s love. It’s a paradox: the cross may raise its victims on high, but that height is so devoid of humanity that any which way is up.

But because the cross was also a human sign, it shows us facets of ourselves that we may not want to see. It reveals a state — the Roman Empire — in which public peace was purchased at the cost of cruelty, and in which people were just fine with that. It shows us the capacity of the powerful to shape a narrative in which their enemies are evil — even if all the so-called “enemy” has done is heal some people who were suffering; teach that God loves us; and raise a few people from the dead. And none of us is foolish enough to try to pretend that those forces were part only of the ancient past, and are not in play right now.

The theologian John Sobrino, who worked in Latin America, writes about the “crucified peoples” — the peoples who are perishing, who are kept in poverty and ignorance in order to facilitate the comfortable lives we enjoy here in the First World.  But Sobrino does not write to condemn us; he highlights the full, subversive effect of the cross. It’s not just that God comes in solidarity with those we break. It’s that the very people who are crucified daily have the capacity to touch the life of God. I say, “have the capacity” because it’s a choice. Suffering does not automatically ennoble us. Sometimes the harm we do to one another just breaks people. But often, by God’s grace, it does not. The very conditions of poverty can break down the illusion of self-sufficiency and the pursuit of earthly success, and usher in a different set of values. Sobrino writes, “the poor [can] …offer community against individualism, co-operation against selfishness, simplicity against opulence, and openness to transcendence” rather than a belief that the material world and and this life are all. (The Principle of Mercy, 54.)

Just as Jesus’ zeal for his beliefs led him to challenge the religious authorities of his time, turning over tables in the Temple and calling out for them to live the truths they taught, so a radical commitment to Christ’s compassion leads us to challenge the destructive myths told by power — or, at least, to disbelieve them.  Zeal, it turns out, is not only the deforming characteristic of hard-nosed zealots. It’s also the inner fire which compels us to work for the world we long to see: a world in which brutality is neither the price of peace nor the sickening, everyday accompaniment of war. That’s the supreme foolishness of God: to rely on the foolhardy courage and frail integrity of people like us. People who dare to weep when the innocent die; people who advocate for peace; people who hunger and thirst for righteousness enough to put ourselves on the line for it.

What I’m trying to say is this: our faith is not a “good idea,” like a Martha Stewart technique to roast the perfect chicken. It is not a psychological crutch that helps us get through life. The cross is the truth of the world: the sign in which the world as it is meets the contradiction of God’s love.

How we live it, whether we live it, has consequences. Maybe not the consequences we’re used to hearing about — an eternity in fire and brimstone — but the devastating consequences of living in a world which is terribly broken. God may be merciful, but humanity, by and large, is not. At least, those who hold power among us are often not. Physics is not. Ecology is not. Each morning and each evening, in my time of prayer, I pray, “Lord have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” — but it’s not God who needs to learn mercy. It’s us.

And God’s mercy is not an unlimited Get Out of Jail Free card. It was revealed as a way of life. In a complex world populated with messed-up people, God gave us the Commandments and showed us how to live. Not like a tyrant, demanding obedience, but like a loving teacher who wants her students to thrive. Live this way, God says, and you will flourish. Live this way, and the land will be fertile and your granaries full. Live this way, and your families will be places of honor, respect, and love. Live this way, and you will have neighbors you can enjoy, rather than rivals who prey on you. Live this way, and your heart will be open and your life will be full.

To have an open heart in a world like ours is also to live a crucified life. Our hearts open us to joy and beauty — lilies and birds and friendships and laughter and the blessings of community and hope. But they also open us to pain; they invite to share even in the suffering of people we will never know. Hard as that is, it is also a gift: the gift of being alive, rather than numb; of being compassionate, rather than indifferent. The gift of approaching the place where Jesus still stands, offering us his love with pierced hands and shining eyes.

That difficult love purifies us, calls us out of our complacencies and trade-offs into the life-giving challenge of Gospel living. It is the lens through which we see the world, strong medicine to heal and guard our soul. It protects us from becoming people who participate in acts we would shudder to imagine. So much of our culture is designed to numb us out: from the excesses of consumerism, which teach us that stuff is everything; to the vapid programs which are streamed over Netflix or Amazon; to the easy availability of alcohol and drugs — everywhere we look, we are being trained to check out, tempted not to care. And yet, the truth of God is mercy, and God’s mercy does not leave us in indifference.

Without our willingness to bear that grief, to see the humanity of those who suffer, the corruption of the world corrupts us, too. No matter how futile our tears may seem, no matter how powerless we may be to alter realities which break our hearts and rob us even of words — still, our tears matter in ways we cannot name or understand.  They call us to keep going even when we cannot see a way, to trust in redemption even when it seems to be a lie. They call us to believe that  “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. …that God cho[oses] what is weak in the world…;[and will] bring to nothing [the heartbreaking] things that are.” (I Cor 1:25, 27-28) The way of the Cross is a dark and hidden way, but it is the way of hope.  Walking it, we “take hold of the life that really is life.” (I Timothy 6:19) So then, let us live.

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