Monday, March 01, 2010

Powerless to save

From the base of the altar of a small chapel, called Dominus Flevit, outside Jerusalem on the western slope of the Mount of Olives. Dominus Flevit is Latin for "the Lord wept".

Psalm 27; Luke 13: 31-35
******** United Church of Christ
February 28, 2010

(I had posted this poem not long after I had written it. I use it here again because it perfectly introduced the theme of powerlessness and the rest of the sermon flows from it.)

--written for my father, a UCC pastor, who died at the age of 46.

We had settled into
our nighttime TV ritual
Magnum P.I. and Nero Wolfe
our favorites.
I was on the couch,
you in your well-worn recliner,
feet up to help keep
fluid out since the pneumonia.
During a commercial
you casually asked me
if I would get you
a pack of cigarettes
out of the kitchen.

I huffed, gave you
one of my looks,
well-honed in sixteen years,
the one I reserve for when
I don’t know what to say.
When I came back into the room
I hurled the heart-attack-in-a-pack
at you, thudded back
onto the couch, arms
crossed, leg over knee.
Now I know what to say.

Next time you want
a pack of cigarettes
get them yourself.

You looked at me, then
at your wife as though
I had unearthed
a hidden truth,
taken off whatever lenses
through which you didn’t see me.

You once took my
little girl rage against
your palms, raised open
like a sparring coach,
small fists slamming
implacable flesh,
the sting of your wedding ring.

If I thought it would save
what life was left
I would have thrown
dozens of them at you,
my love sealed up
in plastic-wrapped paper,
smokes that would
never hasten your grave,
inscribed with that warning
not nearly fierce enough
but just as helpless.

Most of us know what it is like to want to help someone, to save someone from themselves but we are powerless to do so. And many of us know what it is like to want to save ourselves but try as we might, we feel inadequate and out of control. As I have heard it quoted in a movie, “Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don't know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us.”

In this morning’s gospel lesson, it is Jerusalem that eludes Jesus. In Luke Jesus has a special kinship with Jerusalem, which in Hebrew, depending on the transliteration, can mean “teaching of peace” or “abode of peace” or “whole and complete instruction” and in Arabic, “the Holy”. Luke’s gospel begins in Jerusalem with the priest Zechariah foretelling the birth of John the Baptist and ends in Jerusalem with the risen Christ instructing the disciples to wait for power, for the Holy Spirit. It is where Jesus is brought eight days after his birth, where he is found with the priests asking questions, where the devil brought him to the pinnacle of the temple to tempt him for the third time, where he shares the Passover with his disciples for the last time. There are 90 references to Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel while the other three combined mention the city only 49 times.

Though John and the Essenes had rejected Jerusalem and the temple authorities they believed to be corrupt, Jesus could not give up the city to that fox, Herod and the empire he served. In Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem we can hear the ache, the sorrow of powerlessness in his voice: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Christ Laments Over Jerusalem, Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, 1846.

But wait a minute, we say. Jesus? Powerless? He can change water into wine, feed thousands with a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread, cast out demons, calm storms, heal people of their diseases and infirmities, even raise the dead! How can Jesus be powerless?

What Jesus cannot do is turn hard hearts into softer ones, compel human beings to love one another and to live in peace. The blind may see but are our eyes truly open? The deaf may hear but do we really listen? The lame may walk but in what direction are we headed? Our sins are forgiven but what have we done with that grace?

It is this reason, among others, that the vocal and prominent atheists of the 21st century decry anyone who claims to believe in God yet also declare that God is not all powerful. If God is not all powerful, these atheists claim, then God is not God. Archibald MacLeish, in his adaptation of the book of Job, wrote “If God is God, He is not good. If God is good, He is not God.” How can God be God while so much evil exists in the world? If God is good and loving and just, then this God is not in control.

I would bet that this notion of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God is a leftover from the Greco-Roman empire, when the Church was joined to empire. It was Caesar and his empire that was all-knowing, all-powerful, and present everywhere. That’s what it means to be an empire. (Hmm…surveillance cameras, wire taps, military bases in nearly every country, thousands of nuclear warheads…sound familiar?) Caesar promised peace but through victory in war. Caesar and empire are indeed powerful to save.

The God of the Hebrew tradition, from whom peace comes through justice, the tradition from which Jesus came, was the God that gave humankind free will, the ability to choose whether we will follow and love. In my opinion, God cannot be in control and love without condition at the same time. Yes, we were given commandments but that was part of the covenant, the agreement that was made between God and human beings, that we would be joined as one. That covenant has been renewed again and again because human beings have chosen to go against God and God’s will of love, peace and justice. And that is what sin is.

Jesus promised to save us from sin, but as blogger Stan Wilson writes, where did we ever get the idea that Jesus would save us from suffering? Jesus could not save Jerusalem. He didn’t heal everyone or feed everyone or solve all the world’s problems. What he did do was show us how to love and how to love well, freely, willingly, even so far as to spread his wings over us wayward chicks and dying on a cross. And it is through that love that we are saved.

The church (that means you) isn’t meant to spread its wings so far as to save everyone from disaster. The church is not a social service agency, a psychotherapeutic group, or the Red Cross, or as Karl Barth put it, an ambulance on the battlefield of life. We are powerless to save. But we aren’t powerless to love. The rest of that movie quote: “[We] can still love—we can love completely without complete understanding.” We may not understand the motives or intentions or choices or actions of others. All of these may cause us pain. But by following Jesus we have chosen to give ourselves over to love—a love which may or may not save another but if we give ourselves over to it entirely, this love will save us from ourselves.

Here again we have the first three of the twelve steps: we are powerless to save ourselves or another; we acknowledge that a power, a love greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity; and we surrender our lives into the care of this power, this love that our lives would be changed. Jesus himself learns this surrender in the garden the night before his execution: not his will but God’s will be done. And on the cross, even though he could not save his beloved Jerusalem, Jesus said “It is finished.” His mission to love, to forgive, and by his actions, to bring humankind to the awareness of an intimate, compassionate God—this he accomplished more than amply. But we are still coming to this awareness, each generation learning what it means to surrender to the teaching of peace, to the holy.

Where in your own life do you feel powerless? What about the life of this church confronts your sense of powerlessness? What about yourself or a loved one or this church is it that eludes you? What experiences have led you and this church to surrender to the power of God, which is love? How has your relationship with Christ and with this church saved you? How might this church be a part of bringing to others the awareness of an intimate, compassionate God?

Jerusalem of Hope, Avraham Binder, 1998.

During this Lenten season ask yourselves how might you, how might this church love completely without complete understanding and how would the teachings of Jesus help you do this. Take the first step. Trust and believe that you shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord! (Psalm 27: 13-14) Amen.


The movie quote is from A River Runs Through It (Rev. Maclean), 1992.

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