04.09.2017 Preaching Text: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2:5)
Every year I start out telling you the same thing. Though today is commonly known as Palm Sunday, in recent years it has also come to be known as Passion Sunday. This shift of emphasis has taken place to ensure that we consider the events of Holy Week, that we might experience the radical joy and juxtaposition of Easter’s improbable resurrection.
The idea is that if we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem but pass over (no pun intended!) Jesus’ suffering and death, we move fecklessly from joy to joy, all but missing the impossible reversal of fortune born of Easter, the reversal of suffering and death unto resurrection life.
Perhaps the authors of the lectionary (whoever they are) had us Congregationalists in mind. I’ve joked in the past about how we tend to avoid the themes of Lent like the plague, themes of suffering and soul-searching, because it seems to us so utterly pointless.
Why feel bad? Hasn’t Christ defeated sin and given us new life? What’s the point of looking at the “negative” aspects of our lives? Why not just focus on the good, the positive?
We are, in a certain sense, devotees of the unofficial religion of America – “positive thinking.” Aware or not, we tend to view Norman Vincent Peale as our patron saint, he of the 1952 best-seller The Power of Positive Thinking fame.
His thesis is simple: we should forget the negative and imagine in our minds a positive outcome for whatever life-situation or problem we face. Within this scheme of things, it is our negative thoughts that prevent a positive outcome. Think good thoughts and it’ll all come true.
As I’ve said, when I was about 10, my family and I attended a service at New York’s Marble Collegiate Church to hear Dr. Peale preach. I’d never heard anything like it. For a kid normally bored by church, I hung on his every word. He was that good a speaker.
I met him afterward and he could not have been nicer. He was gentle, kind, and very gracious. An added bonus was that he had known my grandfather who had served the Hamilton Grange Collegiate Church in Harlem.
Yet it was, of all people, Adlai Stevenson, who famously said, tongue-in-cheek, “I find the Apostle Paul appealing and the Apostle Peale appalling.”
The answer, for me, is that there’s a fine line distinction between “positive thinking” and denial. For, in the final analysis, it all comes down to what it is we’re being positive about!
Simply put, if we’re positive about the things of God, that’s good. But if we’re positive about things that go against God’s will, that’s not so good.
Denial, thus, is the refusal to recognize thoughts, words, and deeds that go against God, the acknowledgement of which is deemed too unpleasant. Denial attempts to be positive about things that are otherwise bad.
Denial, for instance, is one of the basic themes of alcoholism. The alcoholic refuses to accept that she is addicted and persists in thinking positively about that which is harming her. “I don’t have a problem” is a common phrase offered by active drinkers.
The unwelcome fact, however, is that only by accepting the “negative” news that one is indeed an alcoholic is one able to begin to address the problem. As a case in point, at every AA meeting speakers begin their testimonies by saying, “I am so-and-so, and I’m an alcoholic.” By admitting this right off the bat, they announce they’re no longer in denial and are willing to be healed.
Another unwelcome fact is that along with admitting the not-so-positive aspects of ourselves comes suffering. As I’ve been saying over the last few weeks, suffering is an unavoidable consequence of giving up unhealthy or maladaptive aspects of the self. To give up drinking is hard. It involves suffering. But its goal is to know a better, healthier, and more joy-filled life.
The reason the church now commemorates Passion and Palm Sunday together is that it knows we tend to be positive thinkers. It knows that if our task during Lent is to aspire to a newer and better life, we will need to use this time for introspection and change, which very well may involve suffering.
Yet suffering is not, of course, Christianity’s endgame. For what makes Easter so glorious, paradoxically, is that it comes about in the very midst of our deepest and darkest sufferings. As Jesus goes to the cross, all hope is lost. His suffering is unrelieved. Yet the wholly unanticipated resurrection is God’s ultimate and decisive response.
Thus Easter’s most profound message is that humanity’s greatest enemy, death, has been defeated altogether unexpectedly. This fact cannot be overestimated.
Time and again in scripture we are confronted with situations for which there is no human solution, no human hope. Yet, the underlying message is clear: what is humanly impossible is not impossible with God.
Weeks ago the lectionary presented us with the call of Abraham. As we discussed, this is the beginning of what modern-day scholars refer to as “salvation history.”
After the chaos that ushers forth from the fall of Adam and Eve and their subsequent expulsion from the Garden of Eden, God takes a decisive step to save or reclaim all of life, all of history, back unto its Creator.
In calling Abraham, God makes a promise: that through Abraham and his progeny a great nation shall arise and serve as the mechanism by which this reconciliation between God and all creation shall be effected.
All throughout both the Old and New testaments, this theme of God’s “Promise” serves as the subtext, the controlling device. Time and again, human beings depart from God’s ways and bring disaster upon themselves. In each of these situations, there exists no possible human remedy.
Only God can bring new life out of death and destruction. That’s the message. Even the Bible’s seemingly nonsensical obsession with genealogies speaks to this point. The reason genealogies are taken so seriously is that “the Promise” was to be effected from the line of Abraham, up through to David, and, ultimately, Jesus.
Paul tells us, by quoting an early Christian hymn in Philippians, that we should strive to have the same mind that was in Jesus Christ. What he means is that we too should strive to suffer humbly, and not to avoid it. For no matter how profound that suffering, God’s promise is true and real, that God will deliver us, even from and beyond death!
Thus there is no room in God’s economy for denial, pretense, or mere “positive thinking.” We are not called to avoid our problems, but to hand them over to God, knowing that only God can solve them, in God’s way and in God’s time. Amen.