Delivered at Ames UCC on
February 14, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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God, this is a hard time. The focus of Lent is on the journey to pain and suffering of Jesus and our own role in continuing to cause such pain. It feels like a time of gathering darkness. We would rather skip this part and go straight to the radiance of Easter. We would rather ignore suffering and avoid the hard work of true self-examination. Forgive us for wanting this to be bright and painless and easy, when we know that Jesus did not take the easy way, but risked the cross for the sake of justice.
After he was baptized by John and God, Jesus was filled by the Holy Spirit and led by it into the wilderness for 40 days. During Lent’s 40 days (plus Sundays) we emulate that trust in God and that fast and struggle. And as the prayer shows, we name the ways we dodge the hard parts of faith, including the cross and what it brings.
Full disclosure: I have really struggled with, and usually rejected, the cross as a sign of my faith in the redeeming and saving power of God through Jesus Christ.
I’ve often made the familiar analogy that the cross is no different than an electric chair or hypodermic needle or noose—today’s methods of execution. Would we sing songs to and about those gruesome devices? No. So how has the cross become so neutered and even sanitized that we do not cringe on seeing it in our houses of God?
In the earliest years of Christianity, the symbols of faith were loaves and fishes and butterflies. As scholars Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker show so well in their book “Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire,” the cross didn’t become a regularly used symbol until the Roman Empire adopted Christianity.
For a colonial force, the cross was a useful tool for subjugation: “See?,” they could say, “God made Jesus suffer. Suffering is part of a life of God.” And, by extension, the suffering they inflicted was justified.
I had a mentor named Grace Jones Moore, a powerful minister ordained in the early 1970s; one of the women who made my own ordination possible. Reverend Moore became so convinced of the damaging and even false claims of the cross that she removed all of them from her final church. Instead, butterflies filled the space, as they did her home. Transformation, new life, she told me, was the message of God in Christ Jesus, not gory suffering.
I agree. Like Reverend Moore and so many other faithful seekers of Jesus, I reject the notion of God wanting pain and horror. I reject, too, the idea that God planned for such a gruesome end to Jesus’ public ministry. For me, the Good Friday murder was inevitable but not somehow sanctioned by the divine.
Yet I find myself this year really, and quite surprisingly, excited to pay special attention to the cross. Our scripture today is part of the reason.
There is a great deal happening in this passage, on its own and as a Lenten text. Our Bible is so delicious in its layers.
First off, there’s the camel and the needle. It’s a terrifically clear analogy. Many of us would struggle to thread a needle let alone shove a camel through one. But it is only an analogy.
Although a story regularly resurfaces about an actual gate in Jerusalem called the Eye of the Needle, which was narrow and required actually taking packs off of camels, there was no such place. Amy-Jill Levine, who was a Theologian in Residence here in 2005, notes that the Babylonian Talmud, a Jewish scripture commentary written after the time of Jesus, “uses a needle’s eye and an elephant to make the same point.”1 It’s the rabbinic version of “when pigs fly.”
So that’s a historical linguistic layer. But then there is the theological layer, the main course.
The editors of the New Oxford Annotated Bible describe the content and form of the rich young man’s question as unusual. There is an element of almost mocking, or pandering flattery, in the young man’s tone and kneeling before Jesus. His question about eternal life is also distinct. Usually the people who engage with Jesus in Mark “have more concrete concerns.”2
As you remember, after returning from the wilderness, Jesus performs many healing acts and a resurrection. These were immediate, specific, and corporeal miracles. Now, in the afterglow of the transfiguration that our Pr. Hannah preached about last week, this young man turns our attention to this more ethereal and seemingly future tense issue of eternal life. Namely, what it is and how to someday get there.
But, as it turns out, eternal life is also immediate, specific and corporeal. Here is how the story goes:
“How do I gain the glory, good teacher?”
“Well,” Jesus responds, “I’m not the good teacher, God is. And God gave us the commandments: Don’t murder, don’t cheat, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t rip people off, care for your elders.”
“Ok,” says the smart alec, “I’ve done those my whole life. I’m in!”
With great love, Jesus responds, “Not yet, child. You still have to give away all of your wealth to the poor.”
The young man freaks out and leaves.
I can relate. This story is very handy for pointing fingers at other people but I generally feel despair when it is directed at me. By a global standard, I am rich.
But Jesus is not critical of money per se. His critique is of how money is earned.
Jesus assumes that wealth comes only through usury. For Jesus, the only way the young man could be rich is through the abuse of others, be it crummy wages or manipulation of financial systems. (Jesus sneaks “You shall not defraud” in, though that is not in the original commandments.) So, for Jesus, the young man could not have been following God’s commandments his whole life: If he had, he would not be rich.
What gains us eternal life? Care of the poor and care of how we live with each other. Eternal life is in right relationship, right now.
Which is where the cross comes in. What could be more emblematic of wrong relationship than persecution, a rigged trial, and a public execution?
Our prayer on Wednesday concluded:
Teach us the true meaning of repentance, so that we use this Lenten season to humbly seek a return to your vision of the beloved community, with full awareness of your presence in community and the depth of your love.
This Lent, we will, as always, savor the many historical, linguistic, and theological layers of our Bible. To do so, we will stand by, pray by, lean on, reflect on, and prepare to stand under Jesus’ Good Friday cross.
We may feel horror or even shame along the way, as we would if we stood witness to an execution today.
Because that cross stands not for God’s will to suffer but our own experience and perpetuation of suffering through wrong relationship, right now.
And we will do so with the sure hope and knowledge that on the other side of Jesus’ suffering, on the other side of that cross is a majesty and mystery that will never be corrupted by human shortfalls and is ever ready to embrace and redeem us.
1Levine, Amy-Jill. ed. “Jewish Annotated New Testament” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), page 81.
2Coogan, Michael, ed. “The New Oxford Annotated Bible” 3rd Ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), page 76 (NT).