Sunday, October 28, 2001

"The Transformation of a Sneer"
Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, October 28, 2001
Text: Matthew 27:32-44

His eyes welled up with tears and, in nine years of having known this man, I had never seen him cry. In fact, his sobbing was so great and so deep and so emotional that I and my friends around him did not know how to console or comfort him. Such was the nature of his pain that every time we even mentioned the city of New York he began to wail uncontrollably. We put our arms around him. We tried to give him a word of comfort; but still the tears rolled down his cheeks.

The man in question was the Reverend Dr. Daniel Meaker, a man who preached here about three summers ago. The tears were shed this past Monday night as he gathered with some of his closest friends at what we affectionately call the Bob's Lake Retreat.

Daniel was particularly emotional that day, for he had driven in the night before from New York City, where on the Sunday morning he had preached for a call at the old First Reform Church in Brooklyn. That night, the consistory had appointed him as their new minister.

It was particularly painful for Daniel, however, because on the Saturday he went to Ground Zero for the first time. Daniel was born in New Jersey. His previous church was in Hoboken and he said that every morning he used to get up and look out his manse window onto the skyline of the great New York City that he had known since birth. He said it was as if a huge part of his soul was missing when he saw that the World Trade Center no longer stood.

One of my friends likened it to looking at a man who had lost both his front teeth. There was a huge and gaping hole.

Daniel had gone on the Saturday, in a sense, to prepare himself for the sermon that was to come the next morning. He said he was struck by four things when he was there. One of them was the pungent smell of burning things. The second was the heat. He said the heat is overwhelming in places. Some of the beams are still 500° in temperature. He said there was the dust. He said you can still taste it when you walk by. Above all, he said, he realized that he was in the presence of a Sacred Ground in some ways; that this was the final resting place for nearly five thousand people.

Every time he shed a tear over his beloved New York, he said: "I have stared into the fires of Hell, but in it I have seen the cross."

After an emotional two days with our friend, I came home only to open a letter from Michael Cassidy, who for many years has led the Africa Enterprise Organization, an outreach to people of all types on the continent of Africa.

In it, Michael wrote about the effects of the events of the last few weeks on his beloved continent. There was one little gem in the midst of his letter. He said: "There is one thing that Christians must always remember and that is that the cross of Jesus Christ started out as a negative, but was crossed out and became a positive, a plus sign; that in moments of uncertainty, in moments of fear, in moments of war, in moments of the engagement and the clash of peoples, we must always keep our eyes of the transforming power of the cross of Jesus Christ."

I couldn't help, my friends, but put together those words from Michael and the sentiments of my friend Dan. Ironically, I had already prepared my sermon for this Sunday. It was entitled The Transformation of a Sneer. How Jesus Christ, even through his own persecution and suffering, was able to deliver good news and a message that was positive for humanity, a message of hope, a message of resurrection, a message of peace and of reconciliation.

So I have taken this morning three perikopes, three moments in the life of Jesus' ministry where he took a sneer and he transformed it into a message of hope; where he took jeers and he turned them into a message of wisdom; and where he took rejection and death and transformed it into a message of light and of hope.

The first of these was a sneer against his very humanity. Some of the leaders came up to him and they said to him: "But where on earth do you get all your wisdom? You are a carpenter. Is not your mother Mary? Do your brothers and sisters not live here? Is not Joseph the carpenter your father? Who are you in your humanness to be doing such great and wonderful things?"

You see, the leaders who pointed their fingers at Jesus recognized that through his healings, through his teachings, through the way in which the crowds were following him, Jesus was doing something mighty and wise. And Matthew tells us this story to show in a sense the very humanity of Jesus; that Jesus was doing these things as a carpenter. And I thought, this Artisans' Sunday, what could be more fitting than to affirm that the Incarnation was in an artisan, in someone who cut wood, who made things, who had hands that would blister and bleed, who would live a normal, corporeal, human existence; that God would use an ordinary person in an ordinary setting where everyone had known him and where he received little or no honour, but nevertheless it was the great affirmation of God at work in the midst of humanity, even at its most ordinary and its most basic.

The early church had a struggle on its hands. After the gospels were written, one of the great challenges was not so much to preserve the divinity of Jesus - there were all kinds of groups and theorists who were going around and advocating that - as to understand the mystery of God incarnate in an ordinary human being, his full humanity. And whether it was the Council of Antioch or the Council of Alexandria that debated all the nuances of how Jesus could be human, the fact of the matter is that this great mystery permeated the early church. It permeates the gospels themselves. The amazing thing is that it is a carpenter that God chose to do his work - a carpenter.

My friend Daniel was recounting the story of a fireman who he met in the new church where he is going to be ministering. The fireman had served in Brooklyn for many years. During coffee afterwards, Daniel entered into a very intense conversation with this fireman. The fireman talked to him about the fact that he had gone over on the night of September 11th to help put out the fires. Firemen came from all over New York and surrounding areas. He said the most amazing thing was that he found ordinary men with whom he worked every day and, indeed, complete strangers knowingly (listen to this), knowingly giving their lives, knowingly enter this very furnace with the hope of being able to save others.

He said: "You know, what struck me was the very power of that sacrifice. These were not supermen who go into a booth and put on a cape and come charging out. These were men who put on their helmets as they have done every day and go into a burning furnace in the hope, even the vain hope, of trying to save the life of another human being."

Michael Cassidy, in his letter to me, described one of the great things that he is finding in southern Africa right now, particularly in Zimbabwe where he had recently visited, where there are normal, young men and women who are coming in from colleges and universities and who are working amongst the dying AIDS patients. And even though the chances of infection are in some cases great because of the lack of cleanliness and sanitation, nevertheless these young people from universities, many of them belonging to Christian organizations, are going in there and are trying to help wherever they can. Because the world has often forgotten about this problem, they are unheralded and unheard of, but ordinary students, giving of themselves for the sake of other human beings. That is the power of human sacrifice. That is the power of self-giving love. That is the power of ordinary, human beings doing amazing things for others, but doing it because they are committed and they are concerned.

When they sneered at Jesus, they sneered at his humanity: "Who are you to do these great things, Jesus? You are nothing more than a carpenter."

The message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is: The good must become incarnate. The good must relate to human beings and that in following Jesus Christ, that kind of incarnate self-giving is the very call of Jesus Christ on our behalf.

Some years ago, I was privileged to attend a Russian Orthodox church in Ottawa. When I went to this church, I was overwhelmed by the glory of the sanctuary, the beautiful icons and the magnificent, stained-glass windows and that smell that is always in an Orthodox church. The moment you move in, the aroma strikes you. It's magnificent.

After I had toured the sanctuary, I spoke to one of the priests because there was something that struck me: Against one of the walls there was a cross unlike any other cross I had ever seen. It didn't just have the horizontal and the vertical lines. It had two others, two other horizontal lines across the top and the bottom of the cross. I asked him what these were for.

He said: "The first one is because that is where they slighted Jesus - This is the King of the Jews. But at the bottom," he explained to me (and I did not know this) "when people were crucified they put their feet on a bar so they would not slide too quickly and therefore die too soon, so they would suffer a little longer."

But this particular bar was an angle. He said: "That is angled that we remember Christ pressing hard on the bar because of the pain. And because of that pain we now believe, every time we look at the cross, that wherever there is human suffering in this world, Jesus, the Crucified One, is in the middle of it. Not as a super hero, not as a super ego, but as a crucified carpenter bearing our sorrow."

The second sneer was really nasty: It was about the company Jesus kept.

One of them came up to him and said: "You are a glutton and a drunkard. You are a friend of tax collectors and of sinners."

You see, there was one thing some could not stand: It was the fact that Jesus of Nazareth associated with those with whom one normally should not associate; that Jesus was there to befriend the sinner and the outcast, the leper and the publican.

There is a wonderful line in the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

It would be different if there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them, but the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.

You see, there was something that Jesus recognized. It was what Solzhenitsyn recognized: that there were no categories of sinners; that we are all sinners. As Paul says: "All have fallen short of the glory of God."

There is not one of us then (and this is the good news) for whom Jesus is not then a friend. If Jesus is the friend of the tax collectors and the sinners, he is the impartial friend of all of us. He is God's word to all of us, that every one of us, without exception, is worthy in His eyes.
Now, this has a profound effect on how we look at the future of the church. If we think of the success of the church as simply counting numbers, or having success, or having growth, or moving ahead, then we have missed the whole point of the incarnation and the cross of Christ.

I was sent something recently about a minister who, when he first went into his congregation, had a sign on his desk that said: Win the Whole World for Christ. After he had been there for three years, he changed the sign to say: Win Two or Three for Christ. And after he'd been there for nine years, it said: Try not to lose too many more.

So you see, my friends, if we try and base the future of the church simply on numbers or on growth we have missed the whole point of why Christ came. Christ came not that we be successful, but that we be faithful; that those who in their own lives feel that they are somehow sinners, unworthy of God's care or love, might indeed hear through the ministry of the church that through the cross of Jesus Christ their acceptance into the Council of God is assured.

I was reading recently in the Globe and Mail a statistic about how people are feeling in our society at the moment. One of the staggering statistics for me is that since September 11th, 35 per cent of our people are not sleeping well; that 58 per cent feel somewhat insecure; and 20-odd per cent feel extremely insecure in the current climate. When I'm talking to ordinary people in ordinary places, I am hearing this over and over again. There is a degree of almost unrealistic fear and paranoia in many people's hearts and minds. Not in everyone, but in many.

I can't help but think that there are people who feel that they are somehow not quite religious enough, not quite acceptable enough to be able to come into our church and to pray; to come and worship and hear the word of God; to be lifted up in fellowship. I think the message for people who are feeling that fear is that if Jesus Christ was the friend of sinners, if he was the friend of tax collectors and the outcast, then there is no partiality in the heart of Christ. All he says is: "Come and follow me."

There was one final sneer and it was the nastiest sneer of all. Jesus was hanging on the cross and someone cried out: "He can save others, but he can't save himself."

You see, I believe that there is no one single group responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus: no one group, no one empire, no one race. In that sense, there is a universality to the sneers at Jesus. Some of the religious leaders sneered at him when he was condemned. The Romans sneered at him when he was sentenced and the crowd and the passers-by sneered at him as he hung defenceless on the cross.

In fact, Matthew tells us (and there is a wonderful little line) that as the people walked by, they wagged their heads - a sign of oriental disdain. Then they said to him: "He saved others, but he hasn't saved himself." The ultimate sneer.

But, in that ultimate sneer we find a transformation, because they are actually recognizing that he had saved others; that through the very cross, Jesus Christ has indeed purchased our salvation. But, what they didn't realize was that as he hung on the cross, he held his greatest weapon.

The greatest weapon that Jesus had was to give himself. The greatest weapon that he had was to call people to repentance. The greatest weapon that he possessed was to forgive his enemies. The greatest weapon that he had was not to come down and to smite the enemy and ride off into the distance as some great conqueror of the east, but that out of words of love and self-giving he could show the world exactly the power of God; that the power of God is not in a weapon in our hands, but is the weapon of our hearts that give of themselves.

And so I think back to the ashes in New York City and I ask myself: "Then where is the cross in the midst of those burning, smouldering things?"

For Daniel, it was very evident that the cross was there amongst the ordinary people who had lost their lives; that ordinary people count; that human life is important; that human existence is meaningful and when we lose a life, Christ is in the midst of it, holding it in his arms. Amongst the wreckage and burning beams there were those who went in and gave their own lives to try and save others, again an incarnate presence of a self-giving sacrifice. And the Christ is there, even with the dead, because there is one thing about the cross and that is that while it is a powerful word, it was not the final word.

The final word was that, after the jeers, Jesus rose from the dead and transformed death into an eternal life. That is the power of the cross and how even a sneer can be transformed. Amen.

This is a verbatim transcription of the original sermon.