Sunday of the Passion/Installation of Pr. Karen Young Trenne
April 17, 2011
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
This past Tuesday Civil War buffs converged on Charleston, SC to re-enact the attack on Ft. Sumter that marked the start of the War Between the States, 150 years ago on April 12, 1861. No doubt we’ll be learning more during this sesquicentennial year about this tragic chapter in our nation’s history—a civil war that claimed over 1 million lives, including over 600,000 soldiers on both sides.
From our perspective a century-and-a-half later, it all seems like such a terrible waste of life and resources…but in 1861, the brave soldiers who enlisted thought they were making a noble sacrifice—offering up their very lives for a cause they believed in.
You and I enjoy the life that is ours because countless others have made sacrifices on our behalf….in wars, in the hard work that built this nation, in the costly investments that others have made, in the multitude of ways our forebears denied themselves so that we might enjoy a life that is full, free, and rich.
Indeed, you and I live every day off the sacrifices of others.
So, it’s interesting—is it not?--that as beneficiaries of such sacrifices, we find it so hard to make sacrifices of our own.
Right now, in our state capital and in Washington, DC, there’s a political donnybrook going on over what sorts of sacrifices folks will need to make in order for us to continue to enjoy the lifestyle we’ve become accustomed to. All of us in America agree that sacrifices need to be made….but our strong preference is that someone else should make these sacrifices.
I like benefiting from the sacrifices of others. I don’t like making sacrifices for the sake of others…..which is just another way of saying that I’m a sinner. I am sinner—and you are too! We are curved in upon ourselves, utterly preoccupied with ourselves—our wants, our needs, our comfort, our security. We may admire the language of “shared sacrifice,” but we’d just as soon see others do the sharing and the sacrificing.
When we’re asked: “Who will step forward to share their wealth, to put themselves at risk?” we stare at our feet, in the hope that someone else will pipe up and say: “I will. I will sacrifice for the sake of my neighbors.”
On this Sunday of the Passion, we embark upon the holiest week of the year. We focus our eyes on Jesus--betrayed, handed over to thugs, convicted in a crooked trial, executed like a common criminal, his lifeless body tossed into a borrowed grave.
This is the week when we recall how Jesus stepped up to say: “I will. I’ll go. I’ll make a sacrifice—indeed, I will BE a sacrifice for the sake of my beloved ones. I will go where no one else wants to go—where no one really CAN go.”
Matthew’s passion story which we just heard is summarized masterfully in our Second Lesson from Philippians chapter 2. Here St Paul quotes a hymn that was already well known by the time he wrote his epistle to the Philippians just after the middle of the first century. Paul starkly, strikingly puts the spotlight on Jesus and his uncanny willingness to do what comes so hard for us: to sacrifice himself, to let go of everything that was rightfully his, so that we might have a second chance at a life we would never deserve.
This astonishing passage depicts, as it were, a scene in the heavenly courts in which God the Father asks the whole company of heaven: “Who will go for us? Who will travel down there and rescue these creatures made in our image? Who will descend from heaven to clean up the mess they’ve made of things?”
In the silence of that celestial gathering, a lone voice speaks up: “I will go,” replies the only beloved Son of the Father. “I will relinquish all that I have, set aside what is by rights mine, empty myself out into the womb of a human mother. I will be born in the usual way, occupy the lowest rung on their social ladder, and hand myself over to death—even death on a cross. Whatever it takes to win their trust, I will do it. I will sacrifice myself for them, because I can’t stop loving them, and I can’t rest until they love me just as freely and just as passionately.”
This amazing descent from heaven, undertaken by the only Son of the Father, for us and our salvation—this is what Holy Week is all about.
And come to think of it, it’s what our whole life of faith is about, as well.
We’re born into a world that simply assumes life is about getting ahead, pulling our own strings, pursuing upward mobility—whatever it takes.
But our Lord Jesus comes along and cuts against the grain, embracing his own wild brand of “downward mobility,” willingly going down for us, down from heaven, down to earth, down to “get” us and make us his own forever.
And when we come under Jesus’ spell, when we find ourselves in Jesus’ power, we start to “reverse course,” and we begin to realize that Jesus’ downward mobility is really what it’s all about.
Jesus invites us to join him in letting go of all the things we thought we had to have.
Jesus draws us into emptying ourselves, divesting ourselves of what we thought we couldn’t live without.
Jesus even woos us into seeing his accursed cross as the royal way, the sovereign means, whereby God has communicated to us, compellingly and convincingly: “I love you with an everlasting, undefeatable love. I love you—and there’s nothing you can do about it!”
Jesus calls us to be people who go down, down to this good earth, down to our neighbors—especially the lowliest and the least, down to our daily vocations—the callings we embrace in service to others, not because we have to, but because we get to.
Jesus calls us, even as he invites our congregations also, to live like that—a life of total abandon and bracing trust. Here, we thought we needed to hang on for dear life, to cling to what we’ve been given, to secure our lives as best we can.
But Jesus has another idea—Jesus has a better future for us, one in which we live by letting go, we survive by emptying ourselves out for this good world. We come out ahead—by giving it all up, for the sake of our neighbors.
God sees the world, still in terrible shape, and God asks: “Who will go for us?” And before we even know it’s happening, we find ourselves saying—with our Lord Jesus: “We’ll go. We’ll sacrifice ourselves as Jesus did for us. We’ll empty ourselves, giving away what we’ve been given, trusting that just as God raised up the crucified Jesus, he will raise us up as well. So really, now, there is nothing to fear.
In the words of the great church historian, the late Jaroslav Pelikan: If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. If Christ is not risen—nothing else matters.
And that, my dear friends, is what we believe to be true. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. End of story!
That’s what forms our lives of faith, gives our congregations compelling purpose, and transforms how we conceive of the all the work God has called us to do.
Downward mobility—that’s the Jesus-way, the way of the cross, the only way to the only life worth living.
Downward mobility—may that also define the faithful, fruitful partnership in God’s service that formally begins for you, Pastor Karen, and the people of this congregation today. Live in the embrace of Jesus’ way, the downward path of humble service to one another and to all whom God places in your paths.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.