This is the message that I will present for the Sunday Vespers in the Garden series on August 19, 2013 (12th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B) at Grace UMC in Newburgh this evening at 7 pm. The Scriptures used were 2 Samuel 18: 24 – 33, Ephesians 5: 15 – 20, and John 6: 51 – 58 (the Common Lectionary selections for today). We will be dedicating the Children’s Garden Cross this evening and you are invited to be a part of the service (see “A Litany for a Cross Dedication”)
When I was a college sophomore I came across a quote from the Greek Herodotus which essentially said “no one is foolish enough to prefer war over peace; in which, instead of children bury their parents, parents bury their children.”
There are probably very few people who cannot relate to David’s cry upon hearing the death of his son, Absalom. No parent, no child, no sibling wants to know that a loved one has died in war or through some senseless act of violence. We understand that death is a part of life but we want it to be at the end of life, not before its time. Those deaths upset the order of nature.
We can only begin to imagine what Adam and Eve must have felt when they were told that their son Cain had murdered their son Abel. And what must Mary, Jesus’ mother, have felt as she sat at the foot of the Cross on that first Good Friday and watched her son slowly die. How did she feel when Jesus said to John, the beloved disciple, “behold your mother” and to her, “behold your son.” What did she think when she heard others mock her son with “he saved others, let him save himself.”
The people that day saw the cross for what it was, a symbol of Roman power. The people that day saw the cross for it what it was, a sign that this what you can expect when you challenge Roman authority. The cross that day was a cruel reminder that the Pax Romana was established through force and oppression and that resistance or opposition would not be tolerated.
The religious authorities who had conspired with the Roman authorities to place Jesus on that cross must have felt pleased that another of God’s so-called messengers had been taken care of and his disciples and followers would soon disappear back into the Judean and Galilean countryside. In a few more days, their version of heaven, earth, and God’s kingdom would be restored.
But we know that some forty-eight hours later, on that first Easter morning, all of that would change. God’s Kingdom would be re-established, not through oppression and legal maneuvering that upheld tradition but through the power of God over sin and death. The Cross on which Christ died would no longer be a symbol of oppression and tyranny but one of freedom, freedom from the tyranny of sin and death.
Our challenge this evening is to make sure that others, here tonight, in this neighborhood and community, in this town and throughout the state, nation and world, know that the cross, this cross and others like it represents freedom and not oppression, love and not hate, justice and not vengeance.
No longer can we hold onto the views that say this is the way that things are and there is nothing that we can do about it. Paul commanded the people of Ephesus to wake up, climb out of the box of death they had become entrapped in and change their lives. To stand by and live your lives as if nothing can change is to say that you wish to die; but who will cry for you? That is a life lived in darkness.
Paul reminds us that Christ gave us the light that would enable us to see the world, a light which would drive away the evil that can only survive in the darkness. Henri J. M. Nouwen wrote,
Only when we have come in touch with our own life experiences and have learned to listen to our inner cravings for liberation and new life can we realize that Jesus did not just speak, but that he reached out to us in our most personal needs. The Gospel doesn’t just contain ideas worth remembering. It is a message responding to our individual human condition. The Church is not so much an institution forcing us to follow its rules. It is a community of people inviting us to still our hunger and thirst at its tables. Doctrines are not alien formulations which we must adhere to but the documentation of the most profound human experiences which, transcending time and place, are handed over from generation to generation. It is light in our our darkness. (– from Reaching Out by Henri J. M. Nouwen)
That work does not begin tonight; it continues what was begun some five years ago. We remember when we began working on the gardens, first on the prayer garden in the corner and then this garden, the children’s garden that people would steal the statuary and the flowers. Some things have disappeared but not while they were in the garden. There were those who feared for Ann’s safety as she worked in the garden early in the morning but no one has touched her and there have been many offers of help.
I won’t say that these are holy grounds though someone will have to explain why the tomatoes in the vegetable garden weren’t affected by the tomato blight that struck this area a couple of years ago.
This is an area of peace and the people know it. This is the place that people come to find the Holy Spirit, to be refreshed and renewed. People sought out Jesus because He offered them hope, He offered them the promise that there was a possibility to life. He offered the people the Bread of Life, a chance for a better life. That is why these gardens are here.
Eleven years ago, each one of us, directly or through family or friends, cried out as David cried out. There were some who sought to gain revenge, to extract in blood some sense of judgment. To those this cross is a cross of oppression but it is a cross that cannot provide the answers. If we see this cross as such, we will never find the answers because the answers cannot be found in oppression or violence. But if we see this cross for what it truly is, then there is hope, there is promise.
So as this day draws to a close, as darkness begins, let us remember that the light of Christ shines. Let us remember that two thousand years ago, there was a change in life, a change from oppression to freedom.