Good morning, my name is Lydia. I’m one of the pastors here and it’s my honor to share the Word with you today. Let me read for us the Scripture text, pray, and get us started. The reading today comes from John 12:12-13 and John 19: 1-6 and 14-16.
12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Blessed is the king of Israel!”
John 19: 1-6, 14-16
Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. 2 The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe 3 and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face.
4 Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews gathered there, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” 5 When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”
6 As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!”
But Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.”
14b“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.
15 But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”
“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.
“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.
16 Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.
Loving God, Our crucified Lord, We pray that we may have the eyes to see and the ears to hear your Word this morning. Spirit of God descend here now. And would you reveal yourself to us, your deep sacrificial love for us, that we may see and experience your comfort and compassion in our lives today, we pray, in Jesus Name Amen.
So, I was driving around Oakland, CA one day. I stopped to get some gas, and while I was filling up, this beautiful car pulls up, a fixed up low rider, shiny with the pastel purple coat of paint, rims and all, and the license plate read, “The Reverend”. The driver comes out of the car, dressed real nice, sharp sunday best, and I said, “Nice ride Reverend!” I had just gotten ordained so I’m like, yeah, pastors, so I walked over and said, “So you’re a pastor?” And he said, “Yup” and named the church nearby. And I said, “I’m a pastor too. Man, I wish my church was cool with me having a nice car like that. Korean churches especially, (I knew this because I was raised as a pastor’s kid in Korean immigrant churches), they love to see a pastor suffer for the Lord. I feel like black churches have some respect for their pastor, you know?” And he laughed and said, “Oh you know folks, they will glorify you, and then, they will crucify you. Like they did to our Lord.” They’ll glorify you and they’ll crucify you. That is what folks do. The human mob mentality. And this is the case yes, for Jesus and his time on this earth.
We’ve been journeying through the season of Lent with the theme of Wild Places, wilderness places of doubt, exile, and uncertain in between spaces. Places where God might surprisingly show up and meet us in the wilderness. We’re reaching the last few weeks of the season, today being Palm Sunday with Jesus’ Triumphant Entry to Jerusalem, and it takes us to the rest of the Holy Week to Good Friday, to the Crucifixion and to Easter Resurrection. So these last few days, there’s a lots packed in here. And today, Palm Sunday starts out with Hosanna! And Glory! But it is the beginning of the end. Jesus’ last few stretches, as he journeys into his own wilderness, where he begins to pray to God to take this cup away from him if possible, a place where he cries out to God, Why have you foresaken me, from a place of skulls called Golgotha. Palm Sunday begins with glory glory, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord and it ends with the crowd calling out, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Jesus too faced the Wild Place. Why? If he’s God, why does he make his way toward that wildest place of all, death?
I went to hang out with the wonderful Youth Group of our church a few weeks ago. To prepare I spoke with Tory the lovely youth director and she gave me a few things that the kids have asked about in the past that maybe I could speak to. So, I’m like sure, I’m game, what they got? And she says, “If God is good and almighty, why is there suffering in the world?” Oh cool, let’s just get right to the hardest question to wrestle with and bang that out on my one time visit with the kids. And when I sat with them, they, did you know that we have teens in our church that are quite amazing? They are smart and KIND, and keen, and curious, and critical thinkers. Because that questions is the correct response to this God we get to know through Christianity. God is good. Okay, then, Why is there suffering. In fact, why did Jesus allowed himself to experience suffering himself and be crucified. I told them, that is a very good question! Let’s break down the question, first of all, the adjective we’ve attached to God, good and almighty, is getting at a descriptor of God and also not fully. Because yes, God is good, and God is almighty, but also, how we define these words can’t capture the truth at all times. For example, when Jesus died on the cross, was that an almighty thing, or an omnipotent thing? It might be seen as a weak thing. So, like, is God weak?
We talked about how any names, or metaphor, symbols for God is that and much more than that. I asked them what are some names or metaphors for God. They called out, Father, Lord, Shepherd. I said, so God is like a Shepherd, caring, nurturing, taking care of us and feeding us. But God is not totally like a Shepherd and we’re not literally sheep. They were like bahhh baaaah and giggled. They thought that was funny. Cuties. They seem to have got what I was trying to say, that talking about God is bigger than what we might say about God with metaphors or adjectives. And I ended with, the BEST metaphor that I love, that is the most all-encompassing descriptor is that God is love. Love is big enough to hold all that is God.
I share this with you because I’m going to offer us some metaphors of God that might explain who God is today, but I want us to remember that God is like that, and also not that, far more than that. When we talk about God, we’re trying to get at it with adjectives, names and words, but words fail and God is so much more complex. And to you as well I say, consider each metaphor with the lense that ultimately God is Love. I’ll give a personally meaningful one, a light hearted one, and a metaphor not from my own tradition but from the African American experience.
Wild places are places of suffering, agony, and pain often. And what is God’s response to the suffering of human kind? Chocolate. No I’m kidding, it’s not chocolate, the answer the one that Sunday School champs know best, is Jesus. God’s response to human suffering is to suffer the human destiny of death himself through Jesus. In Jesus, God decided to leave the divine realm and enter into the realities of our suffering. Jesus’ journey into the wild was to become co-sufferers with us.
To suffer with, next to, someone is a one of the most intimate things you can do. I experienced a stranger leaning into my suffering and accompanying me in such a sacrificial way during my delivery. Nurses. I have so much respect for nurses. Any of you nurses out there? So much props to you. I gave birth to my little girl Sophia 5 months ago and I was so impressed and grateful for the nurses that took care of me. One moment, just as I was starting to feel contractions, I was getting ready to get the epidural, and you have to get in this weird position for them to stick like a wire looking thing into your spine, and the nurse said, “lean on me, I’ll hold you.” and they got me at the edge of the hospital bed and she embraced me as I put all my aching weight on her. I was in pain and afraid of what was happening, and she held my body saying, “breathe, you’re doing great, just a little bit longer, almost done.” They checked in on me at every discomfort I had, and changed the buckets that were filled with my, um, output. The co-suffering God is like a nurse during labor, a midwife to a mother in delivery. One who’ll stay in the room while you scream. One holds your hand and roots for you.
To stoop and become one of us reveals devotion and care. Have you heard of a show called Undercover Boss? Oh it’s great, super cheezy but kind of entertaining, seeing a CEO or the President of a large company, go out to the field. They pose as a regular new employee, get trained, and see what it’s like actually working the franchise site. There’s one where the CEO of Domino’s Pizza gives up his lamborghini for the day to shadow the delivery expert. It’s great seeing these guys in suits gear up in the store uniforms and hat, working the kitchen and the cashier. And then there’s always that scene at the end, when they unveil the cover of the CEO to the employees. People are usually a mix of shocked, embarrassed, and impressed that the CEO would do such thing as working alongside them in the store. And the CEO, having experienced and seen the work on the ground, is touched by the stories of the workers lives, their dedication to pay for college or support their disabled dad. With the newfound empathy and compassion, the Domino’s CEO offers the delivery expert, an immigrant from India who gave up his job as an engineer to move here for his kids, an opportunity to submit his special recipe to make it to the Domino’s menu and a check for $1500. He gives him box tickets to a local game and The delivery expert is beyond himself and cries at the offer, thanking him profusely. It’s an heartfelt show because it crosses boundaries and the experience breaks open both the bosses and the employees to a sense of camaraderie and unity. Hey, a CEO leaving his office to work the pizza line is very much a journey into the wilderness, they always capture the boss getting overwhelmed with the backed up orders, making mistakes and sweating bullets by the ovens. God is like the Undercover Boss, who becomes one of us, taking on the humanity uniform, working the line, feeling the pressure of life on this earth.
Through Jesus, God decided to move into the human experience. Life that is both filled with joys and delights, but also with toil and wanderings, of pain and suffering. God is not afraid of the human condition and moves towards the wild places that we experience. These wild places we face, of work and vocation, the daily grind, of trying to make ends meet and survive, of trying to get through tough times and life pressures. There was a song from a few decades ago, by Joan Osborne, What if God is one of us? Just a slob like one of us, Just a stranger on a bus. If God has a name, his name might be John, who works at Dominos by day and cleans office buildings by night. If God was one of us, she’s be overworked nurse working crazy hours sustaining her two kids as a single mom. If God was one of us, they’d be the one moving about with trauma in their bodies trying to get through an interview without having an anxiety attack. If God was one of us, he’d be the wrongly accused, misunderstood, praise by some but rejected and imprisoned and punished for no good reason, that is what Jesus faced on this earth.
When we talk about who God is, and how we come to know God, there’s a helpful methodology that can inform our theology. Attributed to John Wesley, known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, it says that we know God through 4 sources, Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience. And that all four of these contribute to our understanding and formation of our thinking and knowing about God. Maybe one or more of these have been a part of your knowledge of God. Scripture, include stories of God interacting with God’s people, from which we can read and learn about God’s character and their relationships with God. Reason, allows us to use logic, science, to draw conclusions about our understanding of God. Tradition includes all those who have come before us and their experiences, through which we gain a wider scope of God with many cultures and times throughout history. And experience, personal and individual experience shape many of our faiths, for this is a way to know through one’s own life.
The last metaphor I will share comes from the African American faith and church tradition and through the specific experience of blacks people in America. It’s not my own tradition but it has profoundly impacted and unveiled actually my own experiences and understanding of God. So, let me share, with your grace and mercy, as I attempt talk about an experience that is not my own, of a very tragic history in America. It’s a powerful metaphor and raw in its imagery, so just a heads up of a possible trigger warning. It comes from the notable black Liberation theologian named, James Cone, who keys in in the understanding of Jesus through the lived, visceral, embodied experience of African Americans, in a book title, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Yes, he says to understand the cross, the crucifixion of Jesus, its purpose and meaning, that there is a more modern form of parallel tool of public humiliation and punishment, often used to send a message to the whole society, a display of power, one that is so similar in their form execution, that you can’t help but make the connection to the history of lynching of blacks in America. Because that is what the cross was back then, a lynching tree.
Here’s what he says,
“During my childhood, I heard a lot about the cross at Macedonia A.M.E Church, where faith in Jesus was defined and celebrated. We sang about “Calvary,” and asked, “Were you there?”, “down at the cross,” “when they crucified my Lord.” “Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.” The spirituals, gospel songs, and hymns focused on how Jesus achieved salvation for the least through his solidarity with them even unto death. There were more songs, sermons, prayers, and testimonies about the cross than any other theme. The cross was the foundation on which their faith was built.
In the mystery of God’s revelation, black Christians believed that just knowing that Jesus went through an experience of suffering in a manner similar to theirs gave them faith that God was with them, even in suffering on lynching trees, just as God was present with Jesus in suffering on the cross.”
Many hymns and spirituals spoke to this:
Poor little Jesus boy, made him be born in a manger.
World treated him so mean,
treats me mean too…
Dey whippped Him up an’dey whipped Him down,
Dey whipped dat man all ovah town.
Look-a how how they done muh Lawd.
I was there when they nailed him to the cross,
Oh! How it makes me sadder, sadder,
When I think how they nailed him to the cross.
I was there when they took him down…
Oh! How it makes my spirit tremble,
When I recalls how they took him down.
For black churches, and the African American experience, no wonder the message of the gospel pierced straight through their very lives that the Good News was desperately longed for, Christ’s saving power, clung to, suffering felt in their bones, in their voices, in their shoulders, and hope that better have been true if this is the life they faced, there better have been a greater hope than anything they knew. They identified with Jesus, because Jesus identified with them. Whipped, flogged, slapped in the face, crucified, hung.
The book is rich, because the experience is horrendous, and the metaphor is powerful. Cone goes on to the depth of the tragic history of lynching, what spectacle it was, what it did to the mental emotional state of the blacks, how music and art spoke to realities too dark to put into words. And how real the cross was to them. How it spoke to their wild place they faced. I read it with anxiety and sadness in my heart, praying with grief and lament. It’s a provocative metaphor, because that is what the gospel is, provocative. How so? I don’t know, sometimes, you can’t explain except to just experience it and know it deep in your bones.
Jesus delved deep into the human condition. Deep. To the wildest places. To the most vulnerable places. To the most tragic moments. In our most horrible unimaginable places of pain and suffering, God placed Godself in it, God is our co-suffering God. A crucified God. A wild and crazy reckless God that jumps in right into the middle of our greatest agony. That is the kind of God this Jesus reveals today. That is the God we worship. Hosanna Hosanna in the highest. Which is very peculiar phrase of praise and joyful exclamation because it means, save us. A cry of help. A cry. Help! Help! How could such word be joyful? I don’t know.
And I’m going to end my sermon with an I don’t know. Because that’s where this Lenten season leaves us today and rest of this week. And I don’t want to skip ahead. But Easter is coming, and I don’t know sometimes how all this makes sense. But for now, Let us linger here. A world where we cry out, help, Jesus, help. Hosanna, Hosanna. Save us! Save us! Believing, or trying to believe, that God hears it and moves towards those who cry out in their wildest places.
Let us try staying there this week. Before the Easter bunnies and chocolates comes out. That’s my invitation to you this week, try staying in the wild a little longer. Try moving towards other’s wilderness.
Try the role of co-suffering with someone. When the opportunity arises. If someone is sharing their deep pain with you. Try not interjecting, advising, or even fixing, but just being with. Just feel the discomfort of their pain. Hold that sacred space of their wilderness with your presence.
A Spiritual Discipline Practice: Adapted From This Week’s Bible Guide (available through print outs in the Lobby and Podcast online)
Consider for a moment a great fear of yours [Or consider for a moment a great fear of someone else, imagine what they might face in their lives and experiences that you may not] – a failure, a loss, or trouble you might face, perhaps even your own death. Ask Jesus to assure you that Jesus will be with you should you face this fear. Ask Jesus: how will you be with me in compassion and strength? After a few moments of imaginative prayer, welcoming Jesus’ presence with you, close by praying this short excerpt from the ancient prayer, The Breastplate of Saint Patrick:
Let me close us with that prayer
I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism,
Through the strength of Christ’s healing with his laughter,
Through the strength of Christ’s teaching with his feasting,
Through the strength of Christ’s crucifixion with his burial,
Through the strength of Christ’s resurrection with his ascension,
Through the strength of Christ’s descent for the judgment of doom.