“Who Do You Say That I Am?
Week #2: Abandoned
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
February 25, 2018: Lent 2
Last Sunday I introduced us to the topic that will help us to mark the season of Lent. Our topic is actually a question: Who do you say that I am? In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus put this question to the disciples just before he turned towards Jerusalem and the horrible events of Holy Week and Good Friday. Jesus did not ask the disciples this question in order to test their Biblical or theological knowledge; it wasn’t an ego thing for Jesus, either. Jesus asked, because when the disciples confessed that Jesus was the Son of the God, they were immediately swept up into God’s divine and eternal life. Being caught up in the life of God brought comfort and peace to the disciples, because within God’s life, there is no thing and no person other than God who could claim them. Jesus asks each one of us the same question, and the same comfort and peace is available to us. When we confess who Christ is, we promised that we too will be swept up into the life of God.
It is difficult, though, to put just one name, one descriptor onto Jesus. Yes, he is the Son of the living God—that is the Biblical, gold-ribbon-in-Sunday-school answer. But there is more if we dig into the story of Jesus’ life. From the Gospel of Mark today we see a very meaningful and compelling image of Jesus at a very critical moment in his life. This is an image of our Lord that can and does speak a lot of good news into our times.
The evening began nicely enough, with Jesus and the disciples gathered around a table. He said at the start of the meal, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me,” but none of the disciples were really paying attention. One or two said confidently that they would never betray Jesus. The mood was a happy and festive one since it was Passover. While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.’ After dinner, as was their custom, the group sang a hymn together and took a walk to the Mount of Olives.
It is there, on the Mount of Olives in a place called the Garden of Gethsemane that things start to go wrong. Earlier in the evening Judas had met with the chiefs priests and elders and conspired with them to betray Jesus for a bag of silver coins. Now, while Jesus is praying in the garden, Judas emerges from the darkness with a crowd in tow. It wasn’t a peaceful crowd that came with Judas, either; they were armed to the teeth as if Jesus was leading a violent revolution. When Judas got close enough, he kissed Jesus and the soldiers of the chief priests and elders laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Someone—maybe it was the valiant Peter who said he would never betray Jesus—drew a sword and lopped off the ear of the high priest’s slave. As Jesus pleads with everyone to put their weapons down, Mark comments that, “All of them deserted him and fled.”
All of them deserted him and fled. Let that sink in. Every friend and companion who sat around the table with Jesus hours earlier was gone. Even the ones who said, “Lord, I’ll stick with you even if I have to die”—they were the first to run. The scene doesn’t end there, either. There is one other detail, and it is probably the saddest of them all. Mark says that there was a young man following Jesus, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. We don’t know if the young man was a follower, a disciple, of Jesus or if he was simply walking with Jesus in the garden. Either way, the young man had some contact with Jesus. In the fight to arrest Jesus, someone tried to grab the young man. But he slipped away from them by wiggling out his clothes. In this young man’s mind, it was better to run away completely exposed to the crowd than to stick by Jesus. Abandoned—Jesus has been utterly abandoned and is entirely alone.
This is one of many moments in the life of Jesus where the full weight of God’s love for humanity bears down on our shoulders. This is one of those moment where Jesus could have called down a whole legion of angels and been delivered from his persecutors. This is one of those moments when Jesus could have just disappeared as he was known to do when the authorities were out for him. Instead, this turns into one of those moments where we know that God knows—what its like to be human, what it is like to be lonely, what it is like to be abandoned. God’s love for us is so high and deep and wide that God was willing, in Jesus, to enter into this painful human experience, an experience that we have all had at one time or another. God knows what it is like when your friends have your back one moment, then turn and run the very next. God knows what it is like to be betrayed for a bag of coins or whatever is being offered. God knows what it is like to be so repulsive that some are willing to run away completely naked instead of sticking by and standing up. God knows. And what we see happening at this painful moment for Jesus is God being present for every person who has ever felt the same pain. Friends might run, the crowds might come with clubs and knives and handcuffs, others will wiggle away even it means being exposed. But God knows and God is there. For Jesus. For you and me. And for every person in every time and place that has been abandoned and left completely alone.
That is tremendously good news. When you hear Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” and answer with ‘abandoned,’ you are claiming the truth that God has dug deeply into our human existence and does not shy away from the difficult and painful. When you say that Jesus was abandoned, you claim the truth that God will not be pushed away, not even by the worst that the world can offer. When you say that Jesus was abandoned, you claim the truth that when you feel the most lonely, when the shades of death are darkening the valley, when you bed is soaked with tears and you are wallowing in the very pit of hell, God is there to draw you up and out. When we say that Jesus was abandoned, we are speaking about ourselves and each other in an unvarnished, unpolished way, admitting before God and one another that we’ve had those times, not because we are weak, but because we are human. And when we say that Jesus was abandoned, we are making a commitment to live in an entirely new way so that no person again endures the pain Jesus endured that night in the garden.
Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston and she wrote a book in 2017 called Braving The Wilderness where she brings together he life-long study of courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy, and introduces a new focus: loneliness. She writes that a study in 1980 found that approximately 20% of Americans reported feeling lonely. By 2010, AARP researchers found that that figure had more than doubled. Loneliness is “perceived social isolation,” which basically means that we experience loneliness when we feel disconnected. We experience loneliness, Brown writes, when we have been pushed to the outside of a group that we value, abandoned, or lack a sense of true belonging. At the heart of loneliness is an absence of meaningful social interaction. We are members of a social species and we derive strength not from our rugged individualism, Brown says, but from our collective ability to plan, communicate, and work together.
Brown marvels at the fact that we live in a more connected world than ever before, but it is a world where the number of lonely people is increasing every minute. We have access now to more than we could have imagined 5, 10, or 15 years ago; we can literally video call someone who lives on the other side of the globe. But research shows over and over again that in the past 10 years there has been an astronomical rise in the prescribing of antidepressants, there has been a steep rise in the number of suicides in the US, and mental health experts have noted a significant rise in the number of patients who use ‘disconnected’ as a way to describe themselves. Disconnected in such a connected world? How can that be?
Brené Brown attributes this rise in disconnection and loneliness to the fact that we as a species have returned to a tribal way of life that was a necessity for our prehistoric ancestors. Tribalism, relying on one another, is how primitive folks survived before the advent of technology and sophisticated weaponry. But our current tribalism isn’t based on the common need to survive; Brown writes that our current practice of tribalism is built on fear—fear of the religious other, fear of the political other, fear of anything that is other than who we are. This fear makes us flee into what Brown calls ‘ideological bunkers,’ where we can pretend to be safe behind thick walls of ideology or theology or politics or just a common hatred of something. There are other folks in these bunkers with us for sure—they make up our tribe—but instead of finding meaningful social interactions with our tribes in these bunkers, they actually plunge us further into loneliness and disconnection. The truth is, no matter how connected we are, no matter how many people are in our tribe, meaningful connection and relationships can never be built between people if the foundation of that connection or relationship is hatred or fear. Our tribes today, plain and simple, are built on hatred and fear.
As I look around the sanctuary this morning, I can say for certain that there is a much better and much different way to live. I am in awe of how very different we are from each other. I marvel at how God has brought us together to be a unique part of Christ’s body, and by the power of the Holy Spirit has shown us how to live peacefully together. In the pews today are people who grew up Presbyterian, Baptist, Episcopalian, and some who didn’t grow up in a Christian tradition at all. In the pews today are people who served in the Army, or the Air Force, or the Navy. In the pews today are people who voted for Donald Trump and some who voted for Hilary Clinton and still others who voted for Bernie Sanders or didn’t vote at all. In the pews today are some who want the vision of Isaiah to come true where every weapon is beaten into a gardening tool and there are some here today who want armed guards at the church doors, the school doors, and the grocery store doors. In the pews today are some who read the Bible literally and some who read it metaphorically and some who do not read it all. In the pews today are people who think Jesus was all about changing the political order or things and some who don’t think he was about that at all. In the pews today are people who want Jesus to fire them up to take on the man and others who just need a good word for the journey.
And it is beautiful. And it is OK and the ceiling isn’t falling in on us and fire isn’t raining down from heaven and you won’t catch liberalism or conservatism by shaking someone’s hand and there isn’t anything to be afraid of.
Look around you—really, look around you. This is the kingdom of God, this is the tribe of Jesus. The tribe of Jesus does not retreat into bunkers. The tribe of Jesus does not take on a position of fear. The tribe of Jesus does not abandon the Lord or one another. Instead, the tribe of Jesus comes to worship and serve God and love the Lord and their neighbors as themselves because in the end, those are the only things that really matter. If we really believe everything we say about God in worship, and everything we read about God in the Scriptures, all that other stuff will be worked out in the end. Our task is to never turn our backs on one another, because that is the greatest sin of all; when we turn our backs on each other, we are turning our backs on God. We serve a God of life and love, and we have been called to make these things come to life in this beautiful and broken world. To do otherwise—to hide away, to retreat, to walk away from one another—is to deny the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus and the very presence of God in the world today.
I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating: the world doesn’t need more worship services, more Bible studies, or more prayer retreats; the world doesn’t need mass baptisms or mass conversions, either. What this world needs most at this point in history is people of God who stick around, who hold tightly to one another and to their neighbors. So I have a challenge for you: sometime between now and the next time we gather for worship, reach out to someone you know who is lonely, who is isolated in fear, who has been abandoned. Reach out to someone who sits on the opposite side of everything you know and believe in. Reach out to someone you’ve gone toe-to-toe with before. Reach out to someone who is outside of your social network. Do not be shackled by fear, but be liberated by love. Reach out and tell them how much they are loved by God, and how much you love them because they are created in God’s image. Don’t just confess that Jesus was abandoned—do something about it. And, my friends, when we live in this unique and peculiar way, everything we do and say by the power of God will transform even the darkest Good Friday into the brightest Easter Sunday. That’s why we are here. That’s the good news and call of the Gospel. That is how you and me and this world will be saved. May it be so. Amen.