Deborah Sokolove: Setting Our Faces Like Flint

A Sermon for Seekers Church
on Palm/Passion Sunday, 1997
by Deborah Sokolove

Setting Our Faces Like Flint

The readings this week begin with a triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It’s a parade, a celebration. People shout and cheer as Jesus rides a borrowed donkey, spreading their cloaks in the roadway so that even the donkey’s feet should not have to touch the earth, and waving palm branches as we might wave flags on the Fourth of July or team pennants at a football game. A crowd has turned out to see the celebrated teacher, the one who is reputed to have turned water into wine, given blind beggars their sight, healed the centurion’s daughter, and raised Lazarus from the dead. Surely, they thought, this miracle worker is the promised one, the messiah, the charismatic leader who will fulfill the prophecies and overthrow the oppressive Roman government, leading the Jewish people back to their former glory.

But the palms of this Sunday are a premature celebration. Too quickly we go from Hosannas to Isaiah’s description of one who is tormented, but who knows that God is with him. The Psalmist, too, cries out:

Pity me, Lord,
I hurt all over;
My eyes are swollen,
my heart and body ache.
Grief consumes my life,
sighs fill my days;
guilt saps my strength,
my bones dissolve.
Enemies mock me,
make me the butt of jokes.
Neighbors scorn me,
strangers avoid me.
Forgotten like the dead,
I am a shattered jar.
I hear the crowd whisper,
"Attack on every side!"
as they scheme to take my life.
But I trust in you, Lord,
I say, "You are my God,
My life is in your hands."
Snatch me from the enemy,
ruthless in their chase.
Look on me with love,
save your servant.
I call on you;
save me from shame.

In the gospel readings for this Lenten season, Jesus has been preparing his followers for something more like this than for earthly triumph. After his baptism by John in the Jordan, at which the heavenly voice named him as the Beloved, Jesus rejected civil power, wealth, and even supernatural assistance as he fasted and prayed in the desert before beginning his public ministry. As the authorities became more and more troubled by his teachings, he saw that they might kill him, but the disciples didn’t want to hear that. They didn’t want to hear him say "those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life … for the sake of the good news, will save it." They didn’t want to understand what he meant when he said that he must be lifted up, as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. They couldn’t see how his saying about grains of wheat falling into the earth and dying and bearing fruit applied either to him or to themselves. What could it mean that "those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life"?

And so we move from Palm Sunday to Passion Sunday. Those who have been following the lectionary have been reading the story of the Passion this week, beginning with the dinner at the house of Simon the leper in Bethany, at which a woman with an alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume poured it out on the head of Jesus. What an extraordinary, extravagant act! Jesus simultaneously blesses this costly act of beauty, and uses the moment, once again, to note that he is about to die. Jesus then eats the Passover meal with the disciples, and is betrayed into the hands of the authorities. Afterwards, he goes with them to a garden, where he prays to be spared, yet comes to accept God’s will despite his understandable reluctance to go through the pain and suffering. Even Jesus, as the story is told, seems to think that his death will simply be the end.

So, Jesus is tried, and crucified. Just before his death, as he hangs in agony, he cries out in the words of the Psalmist, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? And if Jesus — who had always been so aware of God’s loving, immediate presence — felt forsaken, abandoned by God, how much more so did those who had been able to experience God’s love only through the life of the one they called Master and Teacher? When they watched as the was stone rolled in place, to keep the lifeless body from the depredations of wild animals or grave robbers, they must have felt that their lives, too, were over. What more was there to live for? Of course, as Christians living nearly 2000 years after the event, we know that this was not the end of the story. We know the story of the resurrection, of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples in Jerusalem, on the road to Emmaus, and in Galilee. And it is because we know the rest of the story, and believe that something special did happen then and there, and in many times and places since, that we gather as the Body of Christ to pray and to praise God. It matters to me that I was baptized on Palm/Passion Sunday. At the time, seven years ago, I had no idea of the true significance, either of the timing or of what I was getting myself into. I only knew that it was important that I be baptized before Easter, so that on that day I could participate fully in the Risen Christ. Like the catechumens in the early church, I spent the weeks of Lent preparing. I met several times with Sonya, and tried to understand enough of the tradition and the ritual to make sensible decisions. I remember feeling overwhelmed, not just with the decision I had made, but with all that I was learning. We had just come to Seekers; and Glen and I were taking a class on Seekers history and practice, led by Peter, with David Lloyd, Juanita, Mollie, and Jane Engle also participating. Peter asked a lot of hard questions, and I remember that I cried a lot, knowing that I was about to make an indelible change in my life. I was about to die to my old self, and begin to live a life in Christ.

Since I didn’t really know what I was getting into, I didn’t have the good sense to be terrified. It certainly didn’t occur to me, then, that I would find myself going to seminary, and immersing myself so deeply into the life of both the Church Universal and this local expression of Christ’s Body. I know that, at that time, I didn’t envision that I would feel God’s claim on my life so strongly that I today I would be ready to risk what little security I have obtained in order to follow that call. In The Interior Castle, Teresa of Avila likens the experience of spiritual awakening to that of a silkworm. Preparing for the unforeseeable not-yet, the soul weaves for itself a protective cocoon by leaving behind self-love, self-will, and attachments to the world; and, deep in prayer, it becomes dead to its accustomed world, only to emerge as a white butterfly.

Now I have had what might be called an "interesting" life. I have had many opportunities to let go of a particular image of myself, to let go of self-love, self-will, and attachment to my accustomed world. I have gone through, more than once, what some psychological theories might call "ego-death", and–after a suitable period of disorientation, anger, and grief–found myself still alive, but somehow transformed. Through these experiences, I have come to know, at a very deep level, that resurrection really does follow death.

But when I became a Christian, and for quite some time thereafter, I didn’t know to call it that. I thought resurrection was only something that happens after physical death, and had something to do with a kind of heaven I couldn’t believe in. Now, I realize that resurrection has more to do with how we live, than with what might happen to us after our bodies die.

Friday evening, at dinner with the Banksons and the Amosses, someone asked if I was going to preach on "the space issue." I said that I didn’t think so, that recently when I have preached I have felt called to talk about something — anything — else, because I get so tired of hearing about it, Sunday after Sunday. But today, I find that I can’t avoid it.

For the last several years, and especially in the last few weeks, we have been looking, as a community, not at our own personal deaths, but at the potential of the death of our community, or at least the death of our image of ourselves. It seems to me, especially after last Tuesday’s congregational meeting, that we are facing the same kind of ego-death that necessarily precedes spiritual rebirth in individuals. We are — at least, some of us, some of the time — afraid that we actually will die, that we will cease to exist as a community, that we won’t survive the move. And some of us, some of the time, seem to imagine that we can simply transport ourselves intact to some other location, changing nothing else in the process. Our vision of who we are is so attached to the ways that we are accustomed to living in this building, that we can’t imagine any other way of us being church together. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are dying to our old ways of being. Although I know of several people, myself included, who felt frustrated and disappointed that we reached no decision at last Tuesday’s congregational meeting, what we did there was valuable and important. We reached a deeper level of truth-telling than we have ever reached before on this issue, and people who thought themselves on opposing sides found that they had more in common than they had supposed. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we are healing some of the old scars left from the New Lands period of twenty years ago, and the more recent wounds of the New New Lands, by being willing to hear one another into speech, by being willing to go on listening until everyone feels heard. We know that the old ways are dying, but we seem like we don’t really believe that our death — and our resurrection — is in Christ. We are like the disciples gathered around Jesus, basking in his love, doing what we understand to be God’s will in the given moment, but refusing to believe that communities, like individuals, "who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life … for the sake of the good news, will save it." We don’t want to be that grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies, because we don’t really believe that we will spring up to new life, and bear fruit. Although many of us know it in our individual lives, we resist knowing it collectively. We love our life in this world, this building, so much that we are afraid to lose it for the sake of eternal life.

When we resist acknowledging that we must change, we act like we don’t believe that, in Christ, we will be resurrected. Or, believing naively, we want an assurance that everything will be exactly as it was before. But the resurrection body will not be like the previous body. When Jesus appeared to the frightened disciples in the locked, upper room, they thought he was a ghost. When he appeared to the two on the road to Emmaus, they didn’t recognize him until the breaking of the bread. Our resurrection body will be not be exactly like this body, but will be somehow different, sometimes recognizable, and sometimes not. In a new place, we many not recognize ourselves, until we see our own communion cups, and hear someone say "Friends, all persons who sincerely turn away from sin, and desire to live a new life of loving and doing God’s will, are welcome to receive this sacrament in faith." Then, we will recognize ourselves as the Body of Christ, in the breaking of the bread. Today, although it is spring, and the daffodils and the robins and the warmth of the sun tell us otherwise, we are heading into Holy Week, the darkest days of the Christian calendar. We walk with Jesus and the disciples into the unknown, preparing for the not-yet. Like Jesus, as he turned toward the final days in Jerusalem, we are setting our faces like flint, wishing that this cup would pass from us, and knowing that it will not. But, unlike Jesus, we are not being crucified. Our dying to our old selves is neither sudden nor violent. We have been given the grace of time to prepare ourselves, to say what needs to be said, to do what needs to be done. Gradually, we are letting go of that part of our self-image that is tied to this building, this geography, and this space. Gradually, we are beginning to find out what new work God in doing in us and through us. We know that God will not forsake us nor abandon us. As we are faithful to God’s Word, we are assured of resurrection, as members of the Body of Christ.

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