April 2- sermon- Hamilton Throckmorton

Sermon Text...


April 2, 2023, Palm/Passion Sunday            Hamilton Coe Throckmorton

Matthew 27:11-54                                         The Federated Church, UCC


     Let’s say a six-year-old comes up to you and looks you in the eye and asks plaintively, “Why did Jesus have to die?” The six-year-old is plainly, and understandably, entranced by what will come shortly after, and especially by the prospect of finding Easter eggs and diving into their chocolate bunny. And the death of Jesus just doesn’t fit into that picture. So who can blame them for wondering why Jesus had to die? It’s not something any of us would choose, to have a Savior who is exterminated.


     And if you’re like me, you might swallow hard and ask for a moment to think about it. Because it’s really the most difficult question to answer about this faith we proclaim. Jesus, who is clearly a source of light, one who heals and teaches and hugs children, one who is acknowledged by billions to be the one who most vividly conveys who God is, is the very same one who is executed for being precisely who he is created and called by God to be. And we may well wonder: what’s up with that? Like that six-year-old, we may be flummoxed in our attempts to provide a satisfactory answer: why, indeed, did Jesus have to die?


     I have lived with the fact of Jesus’ death my whole life, and yet it is still something from which I recoil, and that makes me scratch my head somewhat mystified. When I was a child, I, too, loved searching all over the yard for Easter eggs—underneath a flower, at the base of the drainpipe, behind the baseball left out in the grass. And you won’t be the slightest bit surprised to learn that I couldn’t wait to remove the thin foil covering and devour my delectable chocolate bunny, savoring each morsel. What could be better than that? So the question may well haunt us: why not just skip right over that ugly death and get to the good stuff? Why not go directly from the thrill of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the elation of finding the tomb empty on Easter morning? Death is such an ugly chapter in an otherwise beautiful story. Let’s just erase it entirely.


     But you’re here today, on this Palm Sunday that’s also Passion Sunday, and so am I. And that ignominious death stands out like a sore thumb, crying out for us to pay attention. And when I get past my instinctive revulsion, here’s where I can begin to appreciate why that death ends up as the center of the story: I wonder what a faith would be like that didn’t acknowledge death, that papered it over and talked exclusively about rainbows and butterflies. I wonder how realistic and compelling a faith would be if it simply skipped over this most basic of human experiences. I don’t like death any more than you do—Jesus’ or mine—but it’s the one fact in my life that I can’t escape, no matter how hard I might try.


     The sobering truth is that I’m going to die. Mary is going to die. Our children, Taylor, Alex, and Cynthia, are going to die. Our grandchildren, Allie and Riley, are going to die. And you’re going to die. And this runs headlong into the denial of death that is so prevalent in our world. When I was hospitalized six years ago with a bleeding episode, I spent several days in the intensive care unit. One day, Mary was talking to the head of the ICU, and the two of them were ruminating about how this culture sees death. And this doctor told Mary that he had recently run across a British physician who said, “In Britain, we know we’re going to die. In the U.S., they’re not so sure.”


     So when Jesus dies, it forces us to look that truth square in the face. And it’s one of the things that ties him most closely to you and me. When he dies, he’s one of us. He knows what it is both to have life and to lose it. And just to make sure we get how fully human this experience of Jesus’ is, we’re let in on his desperation. One of the very few things he says in this whole excruciating tale is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). It’s as though Matthew’s story is letting us know that Jesus isn’t just some pretend person. He’s a real, flesh-and-blood human being, who suffers and fears and feels acutely God’s absence. There’s an agony in these words that is not unlike the agony many of us have felt, as well.


     If we really hear those agonized words of Jesus, they’re an echo of cries that are being uttered by countless people the world over. And this bereft lament is an invitation to us to hear those cries in those around us. People in Central and South America, in Africa, and in our own cities and towns are buried in poverty and hunger and yearn for relief and tangible hope: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The parents and relatives and friends of the six people killed by a shooter in Nashville yearn to have their loved ones back and long for an end to the absurdity of this culture’s gun violence: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Women who are taken advantage of sexually long for a sense of safety: “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”


     The cris de coeur, the cries of the heart, of countless suffering people beg us to pay attention, and to be God’s presence right there in that agony. Those cries invite us to be in solidarity with people whose lives are broken, whose hearts are shattered, whose worlds have fallen apart. Those cries beckon us to sit with people who have been widowed, to stand with those who are shunted to the side, to accompany those whose skin color is different from ours, whose sexual identity and expression may be new to us, whose social standing may be leagues from what we’re used to or comfortable with. Huge swaths of people feel forsaken—they’re dying a thousand deaths before their physical death—and God is working within us to be the presence and the hope that others crave. The death of Jesus has a way of nudging us to be present in all the thousand deaths that assault the world every day.


     The stunning truth, though, is that God is present not just in the deaths of others, but in our own deaths, as well. For us, who are generally comfortable and well-off, it may be relatively easy for us to take on what seems to be the kind of “hero” role—to go out and do what needs to be done in caring for others. What may be a tad more difficult for us is to be in the receptive mode, in which we take in the love God has for us in all our many little and big deaths. The cross invites us, I suspect, to pause, and to breathe, and to receive. Jesus isn’t walking simply with everybody else out there who’s dying in their many ways. Jesus is walking, as well, with you and me. Take that in. Jesus knows what your failing and your aging and your sorrow and your shame are like. Jesus has been through death—actual, physical death—for God’s sake. So whatever you and I are going through, or have gone through, or will go through, there’s a sense of God’s deep accompaniment of us in it all. Wherever you may be bereft or in agony, just pause, and breathe, and take that in: God is with you in it.


     James Finley is a contemporary mystic and poet. In writing recently about the 12-step program for those who are addicted, he said that all we can do when something is dying in us is look to a Higher Power, what we call God, and even when we can’t conceive of who this God is, and even when we can’t understand why this death on a cross was necessary, and even when we can’t fathom why our own deaths and the deaths of those we love have to be part of this strange and magnificent existence—even when we’re in a spiritual fog, maybe we can say at least this to the mysterious and elusive Grace that never lets us go: “I don’t know who you are, but I do know who you are: you’re the one who saved my life. And I don’t know who I am, either; but I do: I’m the one you saved” (Daily Meditation, Center for Action and Contemplation, March 29, 2023).


     It’s that God who loves us life and in death. And it’s that God who offers a simple and radiant beauty, whether we live or whether we die. And you and I can receive that love, and offer that love, even, and maybe especially, when death is what will take us all.


     In my last church, there was a man, now long dead, named Duke Faubert. When I visited him several months after his wife died, he showed me the framed photo of her that he kept on his bedside table. And he told me that every night, before he got in bed, he kissed that photo and told her how much he loved her. Even after her death, he knew her as alive in him, as an inseparable part of him.


     When the six-year-old asks us why Jesus had to die, maybe this is the answer: in life and in death, God is the One who stands with us, the One who holds us close, the One who never lets us go. It’s that sublime love that lets us breathe and lets us live our own lives to the fullest. It’s also what lets us stand with others in their pain, and even, and maybe especially, in their deaths. For difficult as it undeniably is, there is also nothing richer, nothing more fulfilling, nothing more deeply holy than to support and care for each other in all the joy and sorrow of life. Death on a cross? we say to the six-year-old. That’s the sign of God’s unfathomable love. It’s God’s unsurpassed gift to you and me. And it’s God’s radiant mission for our lives: love received, and love offered, in life, and in death.