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I was raised on the kind and warm Jesus portrayed in Unitarian Sunday schools that loved and welcomed birds and little children. The Jesus I knew as a kid cared for living things taught us to care for our friends and performed some really neat tricks with bread, fish and wine. As a teenager I went to the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” and I can remember when King Herod taunted Jesus “show me you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool.” Later I satirized Jesus with the country song, “Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz, all my friends have Porsches I must make amends.” As a young adult, finished now with at least the drugs and rock and roll, I wandered into a Pentecostal Church and I can remember the preacher railing on about the economics of sin, in short St. Paul’s theory that Jesus was sent down to buy back the sins of humanity and invite all of us only to believe in Him and be saved. The preacher leaned across the pulpit and spoke with guttural condemnation “And we didn’t buy in”. Thus, Jesus died without nearly the number of subscribers his boss wanted him to bring back. But there was good news for us all, Jesus was willing to forgive and take us back any way. Well, I didn’t buy in then, and I don’t buy it now.
Why? Because I really don’t believe that Jesus died for our sins, so that his Father, God, would forgive us of our sins. I believe that Jesus was bringing a more universal kind of forgiveness the forgiveness of simply living in a world beset by struggles and inequities. Jesus was an apocalyptic he believed in a coming new world in which the last would be first and the first would be last. He might have been a zealot, a revolutionary, bent as Reza Aslan makes clear on the overthrow of the Roman Empire (see his book Zealot). As such, Jesus was far from forgiving in the conventional sense except for those who were already suffering. And we can forgive Jesus for being hijacked by religion ever since. Can’t we?
I believe that one of the reasons that the story and message of Jesus has survived for so long has it has is not just that he was charismatic, nor even that he represented forgiveness. I believe that what has held Jesus before us is that he was committed to an entirely new path of understanding God. Not a God of retribution that kept the powerful in power, but a God of compassion and revolution wherein the last shall be freed, those most marginalized such as those convicts, especially people of color, have lost all rights to re-enter society. The path Jesus represents is a path away for walls, and doors, towards a liberation from walls all together. Our work on the Clean Slate legislation, expunging the record of convicts so they can get a job, is just what our Jesus had in mind. As it is written in Acts 16:26 “Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose.” Can you hear me?
This is the path of Jesus, beyond retribution, beyond power, beyond even this wretched pandemic, we are called to follow, to fling open the prison doors and set the marginalized free, to set the poor free, to set each one of us who is suffering today free. There is no bargaining here with the life of Jesus, there is only the power of God, the Spirit of Life, to call us onward beyond the prison and walk the dusty path to freedom.
Today is Palm Sunday. That day in the Christian calendar when Jesus was said to have come to Jerusalem on a suicide mission. Convinced that the end of the world was at hand he came to cleanse the temple and make it ready for the coming of God. The Jews, weary under Roman domination, hailed him as the messiah, a quasi-political figure who would lead them in revolution. They laid palm fronds in his path as he rode into the city on a donkey. The disconnect between the people’s desire for him to be a savior and his own impending doom must have been painful for him to bear. But he came to revolutionize the cosmos: the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
It is unlikely that he came to win justice for the marginal alone. His was an apocalyptic vision of the world’s end. But there is nothing stopping us from seeing his life and message as a call to justice. Our work on Clean Slate and Anti-racism is just such a path.
Most of us are blessed by the grace of the circumstances of our birth. We often see the Jesus we want to see as it is reflected in our own eyes. For some it is a Jesus that grants prosperity, for others it’s a Jesus that wins wars, for others it is a Jesus that takes up our suffering, for some it’s a Jesus that finds us a parking spot. Mike Angell in his blog writes that “Jesus was a Galilean …. He came south as an immigrant into Jerusalem. Our modern conception of nation states did not exist at the time of Jesus, so neither our modern conception of “immigrants.” However, Jesus and his followers are remarked upon throughout the Gospels as “Galileans” and have an outsider status in Jerusalem because they are from client kingdom in the North. This was not a positive association for the residents of Jerusalem. Jesus was thought of in Jerusalem similarly to how Mexican and other Latin American immigrants are thought of in the U.S. based upon “outsider” geo-political status.” (Mike Angell “A Different Kind of Christian”, wordpress.blog.com) Is it so hard to see the parallel? Jesus was driven from his own home by need and opportunity. Perhaps not economic, but certainly a hunger for a better world. It is, put simply, a human need.
But Jesus’ path to Jerusalem is also symbolic of our hunger to feed our souls. All of us are immigrants, ultimately of course, few of our ancestors are native. But deeper than that is the wandering all of us do in search of solace, love and a connection to that which is greater than all yet present in each.
Jesus would not stand by idly as people are amassed at our Southern Border, desperate to find a safe haven. Jesus would have railed against children in cages, who have since been set free. There but for the grace of our birth circumstance go we. Wouldn’t we feel lost, like immigrants in our land, if our loved ones were suddenly swept up and hauled away?
Theologian Marcus Borg (see Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time) calls the Pre-Easter Jesus, the man, the one who proclaimed the golden rule and the one who spoke of the end of time, imploring us to do right unto others. I have firmly rejected the post Easter Jesus of Paul, the one who died for our sins. And I say, with no offense intended, I find excusing his death on the cross as some kind of deal as well, kind of sick. I love the resurrection story for its hope, but I accept and understand that it is a story like so many others.
His essential message, that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, including the immigrants, may not be what we want to hear, but the lessons he taught us hold tremendous treasure. It is in those lessons I find the power of the man.
Jesus was an immigrant like we are all ultimately immigrants. He was and remains a “spirit person”, a demi-god like figure like the Greek God Dionysus and the Egyptian God, Osiris who came to earth to bring completion and wholeness to humanity. The so- called Gnostics believed that the end of the world Jesus spoke of was only a death unto the suffering of life, believed that Jesus was part of a complicated myth of redemption. Once we find our way home, once we stop our wandering we will cast aside our immigrant status and become whole. Jesus claimed that he was sent by “Abba” (Jesus’ Aramaic word for God which means “Daddy”) sent as an immigrant to be a spiritual bridegroom to resurrect the marriage between the Goddess earth and the God father sky in the guise of love for humanity. The cross references to language of the gospels with the imagery of Greek, Egyptian and Near Eastern religions is startling. Some of the symbols such as the chalice, used for the Last Supper come right out of the goddess cults of Canaanite Mesopotamia two thousand years before Jesus was born. The essential message of this myth is that Jesus was himself a Jewish version of the mythological “savior” which pagan religions had recognized for thousands of years and that he came to symbolize the initiation and transformation of the sinful into a cult of love. A myth which claims that Jesus never really died, because he never really lived. And that his relationships to the immigrants – to the marginal in his society and to women – was meant to deepen the spiritual understandings of patriarchal Judaism.
There was man named Jesus who had tremendous charisma and power, who wandered in search of the lost and lonely, those seeking refuge to find a new home where they could be fed. I really don’t care if he lived or died or even if he ate his Wheaties each morning. What I care about is what he means to me and to you and to millions of others who are looking for a hero, a symbol to give their life meaning.
When Jesus came to Jerusalem on a donkey and not a great white horse he was committed to a different path then the one his many followers might have thought he was. He did not come as a warrior, or even a Zealot as some of his followers certainly was. He did come ready for armed combat because he knew that such combat, which the Jews would certainly have lost to the powerful Roman Empire, would only leave the people further disinherited from their humanity. Howard Thurman rightly points out that the path Jesus was on was deeper, newer, indeed Cosmic. The power he came to uphold was a power no Empire on Earth can withstand, the power of the Holy Spirit within each of us that chooses how to respond. As martyrs have always shown, it is the non-violent response that makes God real; Joan of Arc, MLK, our own Michael Servetus and Jon Hus. Victor Frankel learned this truth as a survivor in the Nazi death camps, your captors can do anything they like but make you choose how you respond.
Still, the New Path we are committed to as a congregation, requires more than just faith, it requires action. Here, perhaps we depart from Jesus: it’s not enough to turn over the tables of the money changers and await a new day. We must hasten that day. Our lunches, our work on Racial Justice, all racial justice, Asian American too, our work in education, police accountability, and addictions, and battling loneliness through our care networks. This is the path you are on.
In many ways I think we are moving towards a Newer Deal. Recalling throughout this month the power of women such Frances Perkins, the daughter of a stationary salesman, who after witnessing women and the poor die in the Triangle Shirt Factory Fire in NYC, gave her life to living the life of Jesus. First in NY State and then as FDRs first female Labor Secretary, Perkins, was largely responsible for social security, unemployment insurance, workman’s compensation insurance, the end of child labor, the minimum wage and the eight-hour work day. Frances Perkins was a devout Episcopalian who took the mandate Jesus proclaimed as her life mission. We can do.
I hope that many of you have already pledged your commitment to giving to us in the next church year which starts July 1. We cannot complete our mission unless everyone makes a pledge. Go on line and do it now. The average pledge in our congregation is around $1600 some much higher, many much less. The amount is up to you but I am asking you directly for your help.
We are on a new and bright path. We are emerging from the pandemic with new ministries and new hope. We are not here to overthrow the world, but to nudge it ever slightly towards the light. As Howard Thurman wrote,
“I will sing a new song. As difficult as it is,
I must learn the new song for the new needs.
I must fashion new words born of all the new growth
of my life – of my mind – of my spirit.
I must prepare for new melodies that have never been mine before,
that all that is within me may lift my voice unto God.
Therefore, I shall rejoice with each new day
and delight my spirit in each fresh unfolding.
I will sing, this day, a new song unto the Lord.”
May this season of rebirth, move us all. Amen.