Posted by: dacalu | 15 April 2020

The Empty Cup

Here is a sermon I recorded for Passion Sunday/Palm Sunday at St. Stephen’s, Seattle. The whole service can be found here. (The sermon begins at 32:30.)

The Prayer for Passion Sunday

Almighty and ever living God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings

Matthew 21:1-11 (‘The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”‘)

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 (‘Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures forever.’)

Isaiah 50:49a (‘It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?’)

Psalm 31:9-16 (‘I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind; I am as useless as a broken pot.’)

Philippians 2:5-11 (‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’)

Matthew 26:14-27:66 (The Passion Story)

Sermon:

Lord, grant me the tongue of a teacher, that I may sustain the weary with a word.

A friend of mine joked this week

            that this is the Lentiest Lent she has Lented.

It is a time of fasting and discipline, isolation and reflection

            that will last more than forty days.

            while we wait for better tests,

better treatment, and an end to Covid-19.

We celebrate Easter in a week,

            but we also look forward to ending our fast

                        in another way

            later in the year

                        at a time we do not yet know.

This is a time of emptiness and uncertainty.

It is “passiontide,” a time of passion

            from a Latin word meaning

            “to endure, undergo, experience.”

And so, we endure coronavirus and all the challenges that come with it.

We suffer, but we do not suffer alone.

            God is with us in the emptiness.

            And, in the emptiness, God is revealed.

Today, the church melds two observances into one:  

            Palm Sunday and Passiontide.

Palm Sunday recalls Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem,

            amidst waving palms and shouts of “Hosanna.”

Passiontide originally included the last two weeks of Lent,

            as a special time to meditate on Jesus suffering

            leading up to the Crucifixion.

In the Anglican Communion, that has been condensed

            into “The Sunday of the Passion” and Holy Week services.

And thus, we have two gospel readings:

Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem

            and the public scorn of his crucifixion.

Most years, I preach on how the two gospels stand in opposition:

            Community and isolation, praise and blame, hope and despair.

This year, they struck me differently.

Today, they seem two parts of the same story:

            our prayer for mercy

            and God showing mercy

                        as only God can,

                        with genuine listening and true humility.

Jesus eats with Judas and does not resist

            when the soldiers come to take him.

He stands silent before Pilate and Caiaphas.

He would not argue for his innocence.

He had nothing to say,

but the same things he said every day.

            Nothing was hidden.

This is the atonement we have been given,

            Jesus accepting God’s will – and ours

our at-one-ment with God.

It is neither subjugation – God defeating us –

            nor negligence – God ignoring what we do.

It is God fully present in our brokenness,

            inviting us forward without pulling away,

            strengthening without judging,

            showing mercy.

Jesus did not resist the power of the priests and politicians,

            nor the power of the people,

            but his position was always clear –

his love and his honesty.

Paul speaks of Jesus emptying himself,

            becoming a servant, obedient to the point of death,

                        even death on a cross.

And, for this emptying, he was exalted.

This is the mystery of Jesus’ passion:

            God with us in our emptiness and uncertainty,

            Subject to our suffering and our will,

            at one with us in our brokenness.

This is the miracle of Christ, empty:

            Jesus in the desert, on the Cross, in the Tomb.

We take no joy in God’s suffering, Jesus’ passion.

            Emptiness of this kind is never to be sought and never to be praised.

            The Crucifixion was not a necessary sacrifice.

                        It was a choice.

            God chose humility, silence, and mortality,

                        to save us from our fear and violence.

We do not celebrate what was done on that day,

            we celebrate what was revealed.

God was not pretending.

            God did not play at humility, openness, and passion.

            God became flesh.

            God became human.

            God joined us, here.

We remember God’s sacrifice.

            We remember the cup emptied for our sake,

                        and we remember that we tested God –

                        even unto death –

                        and found him faithful.

We called out, Hosanna, God come to us and save us.

            God came and would not depart.

            God came with a love more powerful than death.

That love will save us.

            That love made God return in flesh.

            That love has outlasted empires.

            That love has shown us the way forward.

That love and that life arrived on Easter,

            but a door was opened in Christ’s passion.

            His emptiness gave us an opening,

                        a breach in the wall we built around our selves.

            His emptiness became a window,

                        through which we see the glory of God.

So, let me repeat:

We do not celebrate what was done on that day,

            we celebrate what was revealed:

            God’s mercy.

God’s love is eternal.

God has always been merciful,

            and God will always be fully present,

            no matter how we respond.

We face old and powerful enemies: Sickness, Famine, War, and Death.

Be not afraid.

God is stronger than these,

            and God is with us.

He took on humanity so that humans could take up divinity

            and overcome all enemies.

We will not defeat them through subjugation or negligence.

            We have better tools than that.

            We will defeat them with the humility and mercy of Jesus,

                        a willingness to be open and empty

                        in the face of hardship,

                        to listen, to care, to serve,

                        knowing that our emptiness is

                                    only a window to a greater light.

When we have been emptied out,

God will be revealed in us.

Our very essence is the image and likeness of God,

            to be human is to hold this promise.

I pray we will not be called to sacrifice as Jesus sacrificed,

but if we are called, we will not be found wanting.

The good news of passiontide

can be found at the bottom of the vessel,

when all power has gone,

when hope seems lost,

it is not.

God’s love is stamped on the bottom of the cup.

            When all else has been drained away,

                        you will find that you are beloved of the Most High,

                        you are a child of God.

“Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers,

nor things present, nor things to come,

nor powers, nor height, nor depth,

nor anything else in all creation,

will be able to separate us from the love of God

in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

Throughout the crisis,

            you will be tempted with “if only.”

            If only I can be strong enough,

                        fast enough,

                        prepared enough,

                        productive enough…

            If only I can accumulate

                        enough knowledge,

                        enough skill,

                        enough power…

            I can overcome suffering and death

                        either defeat or ignore them.

            I need never be empty.

But that is not the way.

This emptiness need not be sought,

            but neither should it be feared.

Be strong, fast, prepared and productive … when you can.

Accumulate knowledge, skill, and power.

Fill your cup,

            but never forget the promise of emptiness,

            the value of the window,

            and the ultimate reality.

Rest in the knowledge

            that emptiness reveals the glory of God.

Underneath all of our striving

            is a simple truth:

            God is with us, eternally.     

There at the bottom of the well,

            we find that faith, hope, and love endure,

            that our connections to God and neighbor remain.

At the bottom of the well,

            we find that our greatest emptiness is also an amazing fullness.

All other grace is grace on top of that.

All other fullness rests on that foundation.

We are the beloved children of God.

As the crisis continues, I invite you to observe a holy fast.

Be silent when it seems impossible.

            Be still and know God.

            Listen as one who is taught.

            Learn to hear what silence has to say,

                        what can only be said,

                        when space is opened up.

Be patient when it seems impossible.

            The Lord is full of mercy.

            Respect the emptiness and uncertainty of your neighbors.

            They, too, are waiting to see what will be revealed.

            Learn to hold them in their brokenness,

                        and to be held by them.

Be not afraid.

            Death shall have no dominion.

Confidence is not resignation,

            it is a beginning.

            It is a rock to stand on.

An empty space can be useful:

            a cup to fill, a window to see through,

            a shelter from the storm.

And even in emptiness, we are comforted,

for we know what it reveals.


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