sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Curate
Good Friday, March 25, 2016
Imagine a scene with me, if you will. It is the spring of 1976. The United States is in the grip of bicentennial fever, with all sorts of scheduled events to commemorate the magic number 200. Everywhere we go, we hear about freedom, a freedom that so many fought and died for, the honor and pride of living in a free country.
Somewhere in this country is a three-year-old boy whose family has been taking him to church every week. Easter has just arrived, and the boy is present in church and listening. He may color in a coloring book, or just sit with his blankie and suck on two fingers. But he has been paying attention.
At home after church, the mother is working in her office when the little boy comes in with a question. “Mommy,” he asks, “Does freedom make God die?”
The mother is shocked. She has no idea what could have planted this question in her son’s head. But she turns to her son and answers, simply, “Yes.”
Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus)
Freedom does make God die. Hey, freedom makes any parent die at least a little bit. To bestow a measure of freedom on a small, imperfect creature is to invite a whole world of hurt, not just for the child, but also for the parent. It’s the death of innocence, the smashing of unfettered possibility. It means potty accidents and crayoned walls, and sleepovers and science fairs, and a cell phone and a driver’s license, and experimentation with sex and drugs, and surprising successes and stunning failures, and convictions that are different from ours, and the stretching of the rubber band of protectiveness so far that it threatens to break. It’s just what happens as kids grow up. And woe to the parent who keeps trying to control the process well into the child’s adulthood. To let go is to die. But to cling is to kill.
We have just heard of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. We have recited the anguished Psalm 22, we have heard the theology of Christ’s priesthood in the letter the Hebrews, and we have witnessed the entire Passion Narrative. But I want to set one more story alongside these many: the story of Cain and Abel. After Adam and Eve choose freedom are cast out from the garden into a much larger world, the first thing that happens is that Eve bears two sons. And then, one day, the older brother kills the younger. Why?
I think Cain kills Abel because life isn’t fair and offers no apology. God favors Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s for reasons not even provided in the story. Feelings are hurt, grudges are nursed, and jealousy and insecurity lead to murder. Cain and Abel’s story is an etiology: a story that imagines a possible past in order to teach us why things are they way they are now. It comes right on the heels of etiologies about the creation of the world, the first human beings, and the choosing of freedom, which leads us to fall into a state of perceived separation from God.
The story of Cain and Abel is the story of all humanity. This week in Brussels, and then also in Ivory Coast, there were groups of people who felt compelled to kill, and they did. Perhaps they, too, were upset that life isn’t fair. Not to mention, this month in Yemen, two drone strikes have killed over 200 people. This is our world, and though we might want to call these killing actions insane, nothing about this is insane—it’s merely human. Human beings cause death to try to make life more fair. Kill the killers. Can’t find the killers? Blame everybody who looks like them, and then take away their freedom so they can’t kill, either. Clamp down on their lives so hard that they have no agency to kill. And when killing somehow happens anyway, clamp down even harder. Send in the drones. Go for their families, too. Make the sand glow.
Long ago and far away, there was another man who was killed. Why? Had he killed somebody? No, but there was reasonable cause to think he might. Why? What did he say? He said to love your enemies, and to pray for those who persecute you. And was this reasonable cause for a death sentence? Well, he was threatening our way of life. And what is that way of life? If you have a problem, you can always just kill it. You’d better kill it, actually, before it kills you.
Since so much freedom has led to so much killing, I guess it makes sense to assume that less freedom might lead to less killing. Our justice system relies on this assumption. But, funny thing about humans: we are made to be free. It may be that our very humanity depends on our freedom. And when we can’t be free, either we lash out and destroy others, or we withdraw into self-destruction.
God knew this. God gave us a garden of earthly delights, a place designed for its creatures to enjoy freely. And then God let us decide whether we really wanted that freedom. God could have clung to us, made us robots, caused us to serve only God and never ourselves. But instead, God chose to let go. To let go is to die … but to cling is to kill.
So God loved without clinging. God waited patiently, and then God invited a specific group of us into a mutually beneficial contract: Listen to me and trust me, and love me and one another, and I will be your God, and you will be my people. This will make you a blessing to all the people of the entire world. But in our freedom, we kept killing, and persecuting, and oppressing, and being careless with each other’s lives, and so we broke the contract—multiple times. So God sent especially insightful people called prophets to show us where we had gone wrong, to call us back to a life of trust in God and love for one another. And so often, we killed them, too.
The law and the prophets showed us how sinful we were, but it turns out that it’s hard to be in relationship with a Creator you can’t see. And so God became seen as Jesus, living among us, calling, teaching, healing. And how did we receive this gift of Jesus, God-among-us? We killed him.
We keep killing because, ever since Cain, we think it will solve our problems. But killing has never solved any problem. The best it can do is kick the can down the road. And so we keep kicking, and killing, and kicking …
But here’s the thing. How does God respond to all our sin, all this killing? Does God solve problems by killing them? No. God’s solution to the problem of sin is simply to forgive it. All of it. Right in the middle of our act of killing him, Jesus forgives us. He lets it all go, and he dies. Jesus had warned us that those who try to save their life will lose it. This applied to him as well, as he shows us so clearly. We exercised our freedom by killing our Creator, and our freedom made God die. God let go, and we killed God.
When this happened, the evil forces at work among us were unmasked, and death lost all its power. God wouldn’t stay dead, and God came back to us not with words of hate and revenge, but with words of forgiveness and peace. And after all this, God allows us to retain our complete freedom: freedom to choose to love, or to choose to kill. Freedom to help, or freedom to ignore. Freedom to care, or freedom to numb. Ultimate forgiveness, and ultimate freedom.
We are free creatures, and every day we pay the price. We are perpetrators of freedom, and we are victims of freedom. But we can also be the beneficiaries of freedom … when we love and when others love us in return. We are the beneficiaries of freedom when we somehow find it in us to forgive, and short of actual forgiveness, at least to say the words of forgiveness so that we can begin its long, painful process. We are the beneficiaries of freedom when we rediscover our own dignity, the dignity granted to us in our very creation, the dignity that is not damaged even by execution on a cross, the dignity that belongs to each and every creature, that no human can remove, and that even God will never take away, no matter what horrors we feel free to inflict on others. We treat our freedom responsibly when we recognize that Christ is present in every other person who has ever existed, and act accordingly.
You, here today at St. Paul’s: you are forgiven. You are forgiven for everything. Jesus took care of that 2000 years ago, and you don’t have to worry about it ever again, though it is natural to worry and to need to be reminded time and time again. Your sins are no more. And you, here today at St. Paul’s: God loves you so much that God has made you free. You can choose your path, and God will love you no matter what decisions you make, be they great decisions or terrible decisions. There is no distance from God short of the distance we insist on maintaining.
Now then: What are we going to do with all of this forgiveness, and all of this freedom? There’s too much of it to carry. Where will we put it? Whatever we choose, we must remember this: Yes, children, freedom does make God die. And freedom makes us die. To let go is to die. But to cling is to kill. Which we will choose?