The Com-passion Gospel

Sermon for Sunday, April 10, 2022 || Palm/Passion Sunday C || Luke 22:39 – 23:49

Today we begin Holy Week, our first one on-site here at St. Mark’s since 2019. The last two years we’ve had video presentations of the Passion Gospel, but this year we will hear it read live at the end of the service. The Passion Gospel tells the harrowing tale of Jesus’ arrest in the garden, his sham trial before the council and the Roman authorities, his enduring of the whipping and mocking, his slow walk to the site of his own execution, and finally, his death upon the cross. We call this story the Passion because the ‘passion’ comes from the word ‘suffering.’ We could just as easily call it the Compassion Gospel because in it Jesus does not just suffer in a vacuum; he suffers with and for the people he came to serve. I have to be clear here, though. Jesus’ suffering did not happen in order to fulfill the whims of a bloodthirsty God. His suffering happened because he would not abandon his people when his mission of love and justice ran into the fist of an oppressive empire.

At the end of today’s service we will share this harrowing story. We will walk with Jesus in his suffering of solidarity. We will stand with the women of his group as they lament his painful death. We will say with the thief, “Jesus, remember me.” We will hear Jesus speak words of astounding forgiveness from the cross. He will echo the words of Psalm 31: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” And then he will die.

The story ends there for today. We all know how it continues next Sunday morning on Easter, but I invite you not to jump ahead. Today’s service will end with Jesus’ death on the cross. We will then leave the church in silence. I suspect such an ending might unsettle you, and that’s sort of the point. The crucifixion of Jesus on the cross because he would not back down against the power of evil and death – is – unsettling.

We all have faced so much death, so much evil, in recent months and days. The horrific reality of war continues to rage each day in Ukraine, and last week we were confronted by the ugliest part of it in the atrocities committed against civilians in Bucha. And Ukraine is the site of only one of many armed conflicts happening across the world. While we cautiously emerge from our pandemic shells we remain wary of the virus’s ability to flare up again as new variants catch hold. Two Palm Sundays ago, almost a million Americans and 6 million humans around the world had yet to die of Covid-19. Now they are gone, and we’re still here, and none of us is untouched by the disease.

These two realities, among so many other tragic circumstances that compound each other, affect all of us. We are not okay right now. And yet, when someone asks me, “How are you?” what do I say? “I’m fine. Just fine.”

We all know “How are you” is used mostly as a greeting. It’s not meant to delve too deep. But what if we ignored social convention and answered the question truthfully? “How are you?” Not too good, actually, we might say. I’m horrified by the war crimes being committed in Ukraine and terrified that the war will escalate because we’re dealing with a madman with nukes. I’m glad to be seeing friends in person, but honestly it still freaks me out a little to be so close to people without a mask on. On top of that, we’re still destroying at an alarming rate the only known habitable planet, and no one in power seems to be able or willing to do anything about it. Plus, we’re waiting to hear back about a cancer scare in the family, and another family member is being priced out of their housing market, and another is seeking help for depression, and I’m stressed out all the time, and at some point soon I’m just going to break.

And we cover all of that with, “I’m fine.”

But the Passion Gospel compels us to dwell for a time in the reality that “I’m fine” papers over. We all suffer – in big ways, in little ways – for suffering happens in the space between how life is and how life should be. The Passion Gospel makes us stare directly into the stark reality of how life is. We see the oppressive society torturing an innocent person. We see betrayal and deception and corrupted power. We see delight in inflicting pain. We see mockery and cowardice. We see the worst of humanity on display.

And do you know what else we see? Right there, in the middle of all that muck, we see God Incarnate walking, carrying the weight of a broken world on his back. We see God Incarnate walking in the person of Jesus the Christ, forever unwilling to break the promise to be with us always. We see God Incarnate walking, leaving footsteps for us to follow.

So we come back to the question, “How are you?” And in walking with Jesus, we discover a whole new way of answering the question. “How are you?” How? How am I here? How do I exist? I am because God is. I am because God keeps breathing life into me. I am because God is not through with me yet, and I believe God never will be through with me. I am because I commend my spirit into God’s loving hands.

Both ways of answering the question, “How are you?” live within us right now. But the reality beneath the “I’m fine” answer changes daily. Only the second answer remains true for all time, only “I am because God is” stays true.

As we sit unsettled this week with the Passion Gospel and the state of the world, I pray that the second answer to “How are you” might bubble up from the deep place within you. Embracing such truth will not magically make the muck disappear. That’s mere wishful thinking. What we need is not wishful thinking, but faithful hoping. And faithful hoping looks like trusting in the God who walks through the muck with us; the God of Compassion, who suffers with us; the God of love, who holds us no matter what in the palm of God’s hand.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

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