Gracious God, in this time of worship and prayer, may we take notice of your abiding presence and peace; may we listen for your word and wisdom; and may we be open to transformation as we learn to trust. Amen.
All throughout this Lenten season, we have explored various aspects of how to maintain our integrity in the midst of conflict. We have explored dealing with disappointment (our own and others’), standing up for and with people who are being put down, and how to care for ourselves when we become the target.
And today, we continue with this final theme as we consider those times when maintaining our integrity means that we come to the conclusion that we have done all we can do and have done our best in whatever situation we have faced and must leave the rest up to God.
We have used the Gospel of John’s telling of the story of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem as our guide. We have journeyed along this final, difficult road with Jesus and now we have come to the place of the cross. And it may feel kind of jarring to us. Just moments ago we were waving palms and singing hosanna and now how quickly the tide has turned. This is part of the paradox of this Palm/Passion Sunday and this Holy Week. We start with joyful praise and then move into the tough stuff.
Each of the gospel writers portrays the story of the crucifixion in their own way. The accounts share some things in common, of course, but there are also unique features in each. John’s story, for example, is the only one that contains the words of instruction from Jesus to his mother and his beloved disciple: “Woman, here is your son.” “Here is your mother.” Jesus can no longer be the one to ensure that Mary will be taken care of, so he finds her a new family. Even in his dying moments, Jesus looks out for the future wellbeing of those he loves.
In John’s account of the moment of Jesus’ death, he says, “it is finished” and bows his head, surrendering his spirit into God’s care. For John, this moment of death is not a moment of defeat; it is a moment of completion… completion of Jesus’ earthly life; completion of that life’s work to show God’s love to a world in need. And it is a moment of willing surrender… surrender to death itself; surrender to God’s eternal embrace; and surrender to the mystery and possibility of what lies beyond.
In both of these moments upon the cross, John’s story illustrates that Jesus did maintain his integrity to the end, even as he endured this brutal and torturous experience. Jesus acted out of love, even in the midst of such hate. Jesus acted with peace and non-violence, even when the world enacted violence upon him. Jesus exhibited dignity even though he was treated in such an undignified, disparaging way. Throughout his life and ministry, Jesus stayed the course and continued to reveal God’s love time after time to a sometimes-hostile world even though this path would finally take him all the way to the cross.
And there came a moment when Jesus had to say, “I’ve done all I can do. And I’ve done it as well as I could. God, you take it from here.” He could do nothing more. It wasfinished. He haddone his best. And now he had to let go and let God do the rest. And John was right; it wasn’t a defeat. It wasn’t an act of giving up, but rather an act of giving overto God.
There comes a time when we all must surrender to death. That is part of this human journey. And no, it sure isn’t easy to face up to our own mortality. But, in doing so, we might consider how not to let fear get the best of us, and instead cultivate an openness to wonder and trust in God. Truthfully, I think this is a life long practice.
A couple of weeks ago, Franciscan Friar and author, Richard Rohr, offered a series of daily meditations on the topic of “dying before you die” in which he pondered not only how we face our own physical death, but also how we deal with grief, illness, uncertainty, changes in relationships, our work, ways of life, and so on. In some ways, life is full of many deaths we must journey through (some literal, some metaphorical, some large, some small).
Sooner or later, if you are on any classic “spiritual schedule,” some event, person, death, idea, or relationship will enter your life with which you simply cannot cope using your present skill set, acquired knowledge, or willpower. Spiritually speaking, you will be led to the edge of your own private resources. At that point, you will stumble over a necessary “stumbling stone.” You must “lose” at something, and then you begin to develop the art of losing. This is the only way that Life/Fate/God/Grace/Mystery can get you to change, let go of your egocentric preoccupations, and go on the further and larger journey.
We must stumble and fall, I am sorry to say. We must be out of the driver’s seat for a while, or we will never learn how to give up control to the Real Guide. It is the necessary pattern. Until we are led to the limits of our present game plan and find it to be insufficient, we will not search out or find our real Source.
We must learn the art of losing, the art of stumbling and falling. It may seem counterintuitive and it is definitely countercultural to our world that puts so much emphasis on winning and succeeding, and climbing the social ladder. But sometimes it is only when we fall that we learn how to get back on our feet again.
(Richard Rohr, Stumble and Fall, https://cac.org/stumble-and-fall-2019-03-31/)
As part of this series, Richard Rohr also lifted up the work of author Philip Simmons who, after being diagnosed with ALS, and having to face the reality of where this illness would take him, wrote: living at the edge is not so extraordinary as it may sound. We all have within us this capacity for wonder, this ability to break the bonds of ordinary awareness and sense that though our lives are fleeting and transitory, we are part of something larger, eternal and unchanging.
(Philip Simmons, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, Bantam Books: 2000, 152)
I admire Simmons’ faith in the face of his own illness. Sometimes life takes us to places (usually where we don’t want to go) where we are broken open and sometimes in that place we become aware of our own grit, our capacity to endure, our capacity to be open to wonder, in spite of uncertainty, our capacity to trust in God’s bigger vision. And, in that experience, we learn what it truly means to have faith.
Jesus exemplified this awareness and faithfulness. Surely he experienced fear and doubt at times, but he carried on anyway. He knew the depth of human suffering, but he endured it with trust in God anyway. Long before he even got to the cross, Jesus let his faith in God’s deep love guide his way – not fear, not ego, not even that most basic human instinct of self-preservation – but trust in God’s love and God’s bigger vision.
Contrast this with Pontius Pilate. Pilate, like many others who have been in power over the centuries, placed his trust in his own Roman Empire. He placed his trust in its power, wealth, military might, and ability to control. He believed that the peace could only be kept if those in power ruled with an iron fist. Surrender was not in his vocabulary.
But trust in God’s love gave Jesus the courage to offer a very different message that a just peace is possible when we treat each other well, when we truly love our neighbors and build up communities. But such a world cannot be brought about by domination and violence.
Jesus showed us what profound faith and trust in God looks like. And I think when we follow him and try to live the way he taught us to live, we begin to learn that this trust in God gives us courage too.
And yes, sometimes the courage we need (especially in the face of a difficult situation) is the courage to say, “I’ve done what I can do to the best of my ability; now God, it’s up to you.” It’s that courage not to give up, but to give overto God.
We humans tend to like to be in control and tend to think we have more control over all sorts of things than we really do (see Game of Thronesand/or much of human history for an illustration). But as Richard Rohr pointed out, sometimes it is when we recognize that we are not in control, that we learn the most about faith.
I deeply respect and admire people who have navigated a journey of recovery from addiction. And I think we all have something to learn from twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and others.
For one, folks in AA will tell you that the recovery process never ends. Even after many years of sobriety, recovery is an ongoing journey. And second, folks in AA talk about the importance of surrendering control to a higher power.
Both of these truths teach us about the life of faith, especially how to carry on in those tough times when we feel the most challenged and tested. There are times when it feels like fear, suffering, pain, illness, grief, a difficult relationship, whatever it is, has gotten the best of us. And we wonder how we’ll endure.
And sometimes, in that moment, we come to conclusion that in order to keep going, we have to surrender control to God. There is nothing else we can do. Perhaps we recognize that we have to let go of the particular outcome we had hoped for. Perhaps we have to surrender to the reality of uncertainty and admit that we don’t know what the outcome will be.
This is really hard to do sometimes. But it all comes down to choosing to place our trust in God.
And here’s the thing about trust in God… if we can move beyond a place of fear to trust, then the courage that brings also can bring great freedom – including the freedom to love more deeply and live more fully… the freedom to embrace each moment with gratitude… the freedom to live today to its fullest and not worry about tomorrow. I’ve experienced it. And I’ve seen it happen for others. I bet you have too.
We see this in Jesus. We see this in the lives and work of those who followed him and kept his movement alive for generation after generation. And now it’s our turn, of course.
And we’re still faced with a choice of where to place our trust on a daily basis. Will we be like Pilate and place our trust in human powers and principalities? Or will we be like Jesus and place our trust in a higherpower, in the One who created us and loves us fiercely?
Rome may have had the power to crucify. But God is still the one with the power to resurrect.
And so, even at the foot of the cross, in trust, we wait. In hope, we wait. Even when it’s hard and it seems like all is lost, we wait…
And in the waiting, in the letting go and letting God, we grow in faith. And it just may be the case that other seeds of new life will take root and also begin to grow. And who knows what wonders might blossom and what glory we might behold in due time.
And so, we wait…