Sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s United Church of Christ, Perkasie, PA
I have entered a new, awkward age in my life: I’m in between generations. Old enough that all the teenagers and young adults I am pastoring often seem surprisingly and sometimes even distantly young to me. Yet, everyone else at my church, I’m pretty sure, still really wants to call me “kiddo” as they shake my hand after services on Sunday—to them I am very young. So it goes, I guess, being in your thirties: too old for some, still shockingly young for others.
This is all a preamble to say that in the late 1990s I was a teenager. And during those years there was one movie that seemed to be constantly playing on TV. It was on so often that I’ve almost learned it by heart.
And that film was Shawshank Redemption. It’s a pretty powerful film, maybe you know it, with Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. It’s based on a book by Stephen King, which was—fun fact—based, actually, on a novella by Leo Tolstoy.
It’s about a man wrongfully imprisoned for a murder he did not commit. And while this man is unjustly incarcerated for many years he, of course, undergoes great suffering. And his tough and grim mantra in the film is this: “You better get busy living or get busy dying.”
Get busy living, or get busy dying.
I believe that many Protestant denominations and churches have taken this motto as their own. As a church we say to ourselves: “We better get busy living or get busy dying.” Churches, just like our lives, can be so gosh-durned busy!
With dozens of committees and events and benevolences—with new families and old families, Christian Education dilemmas and scheduling, and pre-schools and service projects, fundraisers, youth events, small groups—on and on and on—we’re busy trying live, that’s for sure!
And other churches—even some of the same churches, at the same time—feel we are dying, and we have gotten very busy about it. Busy worrying about declining numbers, busy trying to revamp or remove or do something to Sunday School, busy getting our praise-bands together, busy repairing buildings, busy trying to raise membership and giving and pledges. And busy, too, grieving for lost traditions.
So many swirling whirlpools of busy-ness out on the fringes, on the borders, of our faith communities. But the question is why? What are we doing it all for?
Talking with Pastor Hutchinson and Bannister, we both seemed to have a sense, with all these things at the periphery of our communities of faith—we have lost touch with our center.
You, of course, will say that the obvious reply to this is that “God” is our center—you’re right.
But as Christian communities of faith we confess that much more than just this is at our center. Our God took on flesh, was born to a woman, put in a manger, a feedbox, grew to become a traveling preacher and healer, and today we have heard the moving and mournful and frustrating story of Jesus’ trial and death.
Jesus was not the revolutionary they all perhaps thought he was. He was no violent insurrectionist like Barabbas, who fought for vengeance against the brutal Roman occupiers of Judea. Nor was Jesus was the magical healer they thought he was either. No flashing lights blinded the soldiers as they mocked him and punched him in the face. No angels stayed the hammers as the nails bit through his skin and muscle and bone. Nor did elegant words of Jesus convince or convict the priests or Herod or Pilate or the crowd of their error.
But Jesus was the Christ. The anointed one, who came to redeem all of creation, who came and looked at death squarely. And Christ passed through it with great pain to emerge deathless and transformed.
This is our God. This is our center.
Now, the Gospel of John has an important detail about Jesus’s death. After Jesus has cried out—as Isaiah predicts it—after Jesus has gasped and panted his last, after he shouts like a woman in labor, then the soldiers stab his side and both water and blood flow down.
As the image on your bulletin illustrates, the Medieval church were very attentive readers of Scripture. They were also very imaginative and subtle interpreters of Scripture too.
This wound of Jesus’ was more than a death-blow. As Paul writes in Romans, Jesus’ healings, his teachings, his miracles, his ministry—all these were a preamble, an introduction, like a baby in the womb coming to term, like contractions coming closer and closer. Until this moment on the cross, Paul writes, the whole of creation had been waiting too. Creation was waiting for a new song, waiting for the darkness to be turned to light, waiting for the shackles of decay to break.
Jesus the Christ on the cross is not only our center—The Christ on the cross is our Mother.
There—in God’s great act of forgiveness; of solidarity and of mercy—there is the birth of our Faith, of the Church. The cross is our beginning, the side-wound of Christ is our spiritual source. There flows the water of baptism, the water of wisdom and knowledge of the Lord, and the blood of Eucharist, the blood that washed us of our sin—in this we find our identity, our center.
My odd 90s childhood, apparently spent in front of a TV on Saturday afternoons, watching the same movie over and over about an innocent man escaping from prison: it begs a question about our Jesus.
There on the cross, with the weight of the universe bearing down on him, Christ, in the pains of labor: was he busy living or busy dying? This, I propose to you: Jesus was busy giving birth.