Last night we rented a movie: Crazy in Alabama. It felt like one of those small budget movies–slightly offbeat and a strong script. The movie is set in the sixties in Alabama. It tells two stories that run parallel to each other: The one of an abused wife who kills her husband; the other the murder of a seventeen-year-old black boy by an officer of the law. The connecting link was a thirteen-year-old boy “P Jo,” whose aunt is the abused wife and who witnesses the murder. He has to decide whose side he is on. Who is right and who is free. And what it will cost him to be on the side of right. It was strong stuff.
Despite what we tell ourselves, and what we would dearly like to believe, life is hard, very hard. It is easier to coast along agreeing with ourselves and finding others who will agree with us. But the reality is that no matter how comfortable we may be on the material scale or how high on the ladder of success life is hard. Things happen we have no power to change or control. It’s a reality we spend a lot of time and money, effort and time running away from. And the hardest thing of all is that at the end of it we die.
It probably isn’t too much to claim that most of civilization has emerged from our defiance, our fear of death. Monuments, empires, governments, human achievement of all kinds are, on one level, a denial of our mortality—kind of “giving God the finger” for things being the way they are. The problem is, it doesn’t seem to make much difference. Loss and hurt, brokenness and fear prevail. Life is still hard and we still die.
We struggle with our loneliness, our fear of failure, our relationships, our children, our colleagues, our hopes, and ambitions. We hold on as tightly to what we have. We reach out for more in the hope it will make things seem less hard and more pleasant. Some of us hide our struggle it beneath alcohol, or drugs, or affairs. Some of us become obsessive golfers or net surfers. I have a neighbor who seems to garden twenty-four hours a day. Some expend their energy reinforcing their bit of the universe by bending others to conform to their views and beliefs. (If you should doubt this, just turn on the television and spend ten minutes focusing on the controversy surrounding Elian Gonzalez) But, if we are honest, it all makes little difference to our deep-set anxieties as we try to go it alone through the universe.
Jesus showed us something different and that is what I want us to think about this morning.
The story of Jesus seems pretty simple, even typical of a religious leader. Born, lives, decides he has a mission from God, is misunderstood by the authorities, is executed despite the fact he is innocent and, after some confusion, his followers make something of his death and turn it into a movement which is still here two thousand years later and involves millions of people. Other than the last part, it has been the fate of almost any human being who has chosen to critique the status quo throughout history. Think of the twentieth century alone. Mahatma Ghandi. Martin Luther King.
So what’s the point?
The point, my friends, is that Jesus wasn’t doing something different from religious leaders of the past. He, like them, chose a dangerous life. He chose a life that stood against the accepted norms of his day. He challenged a greedy, power hungry society by his selfless devotion to the love of God and by his translation of that into absolute love and acceptance of anyone who chose to come his way. And he wasn’t afraid to criticize the establishment for distorting the all-encompassing embrace of divine love that God offers his people. The fact is, any time you choose to expose the weaknesses of the human way of doing things you get fired at. Anyone who has the temerity to reject the mores of the day is going to have a problem.
It was not so much the pattern that Jesus chose for his life, but that the pattern “outed us” for being who we are with such astounding clarity. And, having exposed us in our miserable and narrow pettiness and hates, Jesus responded to that with love—even love that meant death on a cross. Even when he showed us to be the territorial, personal agenda, power hungry, fearful people we are, we are not abandoned by Jesus or by God. We too are to be embraced.
Jesus’ death on the cross, his passion, was an indictment of the political authorities, the religious authorities, and the fickle, media-hungry, sensation- seeking folks of his day—and they look remarkably like us. And having indicted us, he loves us. We continue to be fascinated by that love because it doesn’t look like anything we could expect. We are fascinated by Jesus precisely because, human though he was, he dealt with his life not by holding on but by letting go. It isn’t so much the Jesus of glory who draws us but the Jesus of failure. The sight of an innocent man hanging in agony on a cross he didn’t deserve, asking God to forgive those who had done this to him, and finally feeling abandoned by God himself. Moreover, we are fascinated not by his ability to have followers, to be the leader of a movement—heaven knows we have seen plenty of those! But as you read the gospel, note how he chose to submit to the power of evil. That he defied death not by building empires or armies or governments or even systems of justice but by submitting to its power.
And he was troubled by it. He was frightened by what he faced. I remember standing on the Mount of Olives last October gazing across the Kidron Valley towards Jerusalem and realizing that Jesus made that long harsh walk alone. One man confronting an empire, a nation, and the religious authorities, his own people and family. Alone with the guarantee only of the love of God.
And why is Jesus doing this? He is doing it because he chooses that guarantee. He is choosing the God of life. The God who has power over life and death. The God who is faithful to God’s people. Even on the cross when he believes himself abandoned by the God he believed would not abandon him he submits.
And that is why two thousand years later we still can’t take our eyes off the man Jesus.
“And I, when I am lifted up shall draw all people to me.””
For Jesus, living was so radically different from our living. Jesus’ power and authority so different from our idea of power and authority that it has conquered death for all time if only we will submit too. Jesus has set us free.
Jesus’ dying is our chance for living. Jesus’ dying breaks down the wall of death. Jesus’ dying opens the gate of heaven.
Aelred of Rievaulx, a great Abbott and mystic of the twelfth century in England, came to understand this well. “Your sadness, Lord Jesus, means more to me than all the joys of the world. The tears you shed at the death of a friend are sweeter to me than the fortitude of philosophers who think a wise man ought not to be moved by affection..…How much it means to me to see the Lord of majesty showing himself in physical movements and human feelings, not like the strong but like the weak. How much this strengthens me in my infirmity.”
Here is the key. By the world’s standards Jesus failed. He was weak. And with relief we can embrace the One who knows what it is to be like us. And, in that embracing, we find that we, too, are able to pick up our cross, to embrace the hardships we have been given, and—even as we are pierced through by the agony of them—we discover we are like the seed Jesus spoke of. Breaking, we fall to the ground so that life can break out again. To take up the cross, to follow Jesus, is to know that God is faithful. That we will endure. That God will act on our behalf and there will be life even more abundantly.
At the end of the movie Crazy in Alabama, P Jo tells of all he learned of his Aunt Lucille. “Life and death are only temporary,” he says, “but freedom goes on forever.”