Year B, Wednesday in Holy Week March 28, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.”
I love it. Lent. Don’t you? Lent. Holy Week. The religious volume being turned up. And not just the universal clerical excuse we get, “It’s Holy Week, I’m busy,” but the actual being busy with all of this stuff part. This is the season of the year that we have full, cultural permission to relax into the role of being truly religious people. Not just church people, but religious people. We have the weight of the church, our tradition behind us. We can let some of our reasonableness go and embrace a bit more mystery than polite company, those cultured despisers, usually tolerate. That stands for all of Lent, and now at Holy Week, doubly so. Our fasts are peaking and we can smell the barn. Our disciplines are nearly habit and we’re wondering what we’ll keep up with come April 2. We have run with perseverance the race that was set before us, and that just feels good. The fruits of spiritual rigor are pleasing, as pleasing as they are hard, and in direct proportion!
That is all great. I do love it, all the extra bowing and scraping we get to do this time of year “Bow down before the Lord!”, but what I think I love the most is the opportunity, the invitation, maybe even the demand to address our darker bits, the less edifying fragments of our human character. I preached on Satan on Lent 1. Last week, I preached on the doctrine of Atonement! I’ve never heard a sermon on that in an Episcopal church. (It was better received than I was expecting). For all of Lent, we can (and probably should) really drill down into the lesser angels of our nature, because 1. Goodness do they exist, and 2. Folks in our churches really don’t want to hear about it very often, so Lent give us some cover.
That’s true, isn’t it? I’m not talking utter depravity and sinners in the hands of an angry God, but Episcopalians don’t like to hear about sin, our sinfulness. It is not as bad as when I was with the Unitarians. I was once, this actually happened, in a teeny-tiny little church in Western Massachusetts and we were singing “Amazing Grace.” One of the six little old ladies there (that was the entire congregation) actually stopped the music, declaring, “Wait, wait, wait! I am not a wretch!” “Clearly, madam.” I must say, there is an asterisk in the UU hymnal at wretch that offers “soul” as an alternative.
Now that has never happened at Resurrection (can you imagine?) but I do always get a few comments if I use the word sin too frequently, or fail to give a kinder, gentler unfolding of the doctrine of sin as distance from God rather than the truth of manifold wickedness, our own and the structures put in place by the principalities and powers of this world. We don’t like sin in these parts, or even hearing about it.
Of course the word “Sin” has been abused, people have been abused by it, horribly. Mostly by sinful clergy people! Sinful clergy taking it out on sinful people because they have more power in a system. You all have stories of theological negligence or abuse that you or your folks have suffered. I had as un-traumatic a religious upbringing as could be, a nice UCC Congregational Church north of Boston, with its white clap-boards and steeple, sitting on the town common for 325 years. Not very inspiring, but not hurtful, but the stories some people have. Sinners! Backsliders! Dirty! You are not Worthy! Be scared! Terrible. And… AND we are all sinners living in a sin-sick world. We are all broken, and as broken people we can’t help but make bad, sinful choices, do bad, sinful things, collaborate with bad, sinful systems. And sometimes we can help ourselves, but we just don’t, don’t bother, don’t make the effort, or we straight-up willfully refuse, “I will not let it go. I will not forgive him. I don’t care. I will have another drink/hit/pill (whatever your special poison is).” We’re all there more of the time than we should be or want to admit, not caring, not trying, being comfortable on the path of least resistance, but we are, I know I am, and I, we need to be reminded of that sometimes. That we are sinners. That we’ve got some repenting to do. Just because the weatherman is a jerk doesn’t mean that her forecasts are wrong.
Which brings us to today, Wednesday in Holy Week, or Spy Wednesday for Judas’ presence among the 12. Today is the day we commemorate, memorialize, remember failed discipleship. We remember betrayal. Today is the day where we pause and look into the face of Judas Iscariot as Satan enters his heart, and the fatal course to the Cross was set. **
There are good lessons for us in pondering failed discipleship, Judas’ or the rest of the 12, in the end they all fail, big time. There are good reasons for everyone to ponder the betrayal of Jesus Christ and our continued human failure to follow Him properly, but particularly for us, men and women ordained in God’s church on a day we recall and renew our vows of ordination.
Remembering this incident reminds us that all types of people are in the church, always have been. It doesn’t take all types to make a church, but it sure attracts them. We have active evil doers in our midst. Predators. Perpetrators of domestic violence, child abuse, every form of crime, they are with us. They are us. And we are all passive doers of great evil. Accepting the protection of our armed forces in their foreign wars, paying our taxes to that end… we are complicit and history’s (if not God’s) judgement on our complicity will be harsh. Controlling vast wealth is a sin, even an egregious sin considering that right here in Lane County we have some of the highest rates of childhood malnutrition in the developed world. Again, judgement will be harsh. “The evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf…” It is all evil.
We need to remember that there is no they when we talk sin with our folks. It is us. It is we. Especially those of us who serve highly educated, well-meaning middle to upper middle liberal folks. People like me. Those of us doing well while doing good, having a fat compensation package and a clear conscious, the liberal brass ring, the “evil done on our behalf” is staggering. The wealth we control, the power we have is phenomenal. Jesus said something about the eye of a needle… “Mea cupla, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”
That’s the structural failure of discipleship we participate in, the banal evil of living in the better half of an empire. And that’s the big money when it comes to sin. That’s where people die. That’s where nations are ruined. Where economies and ecosystems collapse. We can talk socially responsible investing all day long, and we should, it is far better than not talking about it, AND we all have a lot to account for.
And then there is our own personal, day-to-day failures, betrayals of Jesus and our neighbors. We all do and fail to do all manner of things. And there is a particular sting to sin when it comes to the vocation we find ourselves in as ordained leaders of the church. What we are called to do is impossible. We are called to be everything to everyone. (Well not really, but try to explain that to the person left off of your menu of pastoral offerings). For priests, “…a faithful pastor, patient teacher, and a wise counselor.” For all of us, we are to be “…modest and humble, strong and constant, …observ(ant) of the discipline of Christ?” But we signed up for it; no one made us take vows. We promised that to God, GOD! Promising a bishop is hard enough, but we promised God that we would do the impossible. There’s the first great sin of ordained life!
How do we forgive ourselves for being unable to do the impossible, while still knowing that what needs to be done isn’t being done, not for everyone that needs it? That is where I wrestle in the wee hours of the night, declaring that I’ve done the best I could for God and God’s people and knowing that my best is not good enough. And this is not just trying to do it all ourselves, no, this the whole picture of ministry: not sufficiently managing the team, not adequately empowering others, not supervising well enough, not motivating or appreciating volunteers to the degree needed, not supporting or getting support from colleagues. “Mea cupla, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” Don’t you love Lent? It is a spiritual gymnasium, the heavy lifting is invigorating as it makes us stronger.
So where’s the hope? That’s the key preaching question, right? Where’s the hope? Well, maybe it is good for us sometimes is wallow in the hopelessness. To sit with Job in the ash heap. There is that.
On the other hand, we only have a couple of days ‘til the hope filled Easter feast, right? Maybe we should just hang on, help is on the way? No. Holding our breath for the pain of sin and death to pass isn’t an act of Jesus hope, it is an act of human will and endurance and that won’t get us very far.
Maybe the hope is that even Jesus died with only 12 followers, and one of them was a dud. Even the good ones abandoned Him in the end (well, except those stalwart church women). Even I am not doing that badly! But, that’s not hope, either. Settling for the failure and humiliation of our Lord is abdication, it is a failure of will. We’ll be humbled plenty without settling for such a low bar.
Maybe hope on Wednesday in Holy Week, the day that places Judas the betrayer of our Lord at center stage, maybe the hope we are meant to ponder is death. Death in the hope of the Resurrection, of our dying with Christ, daily. For as we live in Christ, we die in Christ also. In our baptism we are brought to life by being buried with Jesus. And as ordained people, we are charged to not only do this as disciples, but to do this with and for others, with and for the church in all her messy humanity. And we try. Failed, sinful critters that we are, we try to serve God and God’s other failed, sinful critters. And sometimes the light shines. Sometimes the Gospel peeks through the dingy gates of hell, and someone, by the grace of God alone is saved and you have the privilege of witnessing that, of accompanying one of the fallen into the light of Jesus Christ Himself in the care of that great cloud of witnesses. And it is moments of hope like that that carry us through the dark nights, the dismal meetings, the disappointed parishioners we have failed, and we do “not grow weary or lose heart.”
“But as for me, I am poor and needy; come to me speedily, O God. You are my helper and my deliverer; O Lord, do not tarry.” We can hope. Bless you each in your ministry this Holy Week. AMEN