Text: Mark 14:1-9 (Jesus is anointed at Bethany)
“Jesus Christ Superstar”, the 1970 rock album, which was produced as a musical on Broadway in 1971 and a film in 1973, was a big deal for me and my friends. In 1971, the confirmation class to which I belonged discussed the album; and we probably learned more about Holy Week — that last week of Jesus’ life in and around Jerusalem — from listening to “Superstar” than we ever did in Sunday School.
The title of today’s sermon is taken from the opening song on the album. “Heaven on their minds” contrasts the worldly wisdom of Judas, who warns about imperial violence, and the star-struck followers of Jesus who have come to believe that all the talk of God is true.
Judas sings: “Listen, Jesus, do you care for your race? / Don’t you see we must keep in our place? / We are occupied / have you forgotten how put down we are? / I am frightened by the crowd / For we are getting much too loud. / And they’ll crush us if we go too far / . . . Listen, Jesus, to the warning I give / Please remember that I want us to live / . . . But all your followers are blind / Too much heaven on their minds / It was beautiful, but now it’s sour / Yes, it’s all gone sour.”
Judas understands the violence of the Empire, and he looks for a way forward that won’t get everyone killed.
In contrast, the crowds who hail Jesus on Palm Sunday are oblivious to the danger. They assume that as the Messiah, he will defeat the Romans, install himself as King of the Jews, and inaugurate a reign of healing, peace, and justice.
What neither the crowds nor Judas grasp is the so-called “foolish” wisdom of Jesus, which is a vision that combines both sets of insights. Jesus knows the movement will be crushed. He knows he will be killed; and so, he welcomes the expensive perfume that an unnamed woman pours on his head. He tells the naysayers that she has anointed his body for burial. This is a reminder that their journey to Jerusalem is to the cross.
Jesus doesn’t flinch from danger or death because he sees beyond them to new life, a life that is closer to Love than the old ways.
Those of us who follow Jesus today continue to struggle with this vision. Like Judas, we may find it easy to see the difficulties of life, such as how fleeting it is and how prone to pain we all are. We may find it easy to see the violence that mars social life.
We may also identify with the crowds who follow Jesus. They love his charisma, his ability to teach and heal, and his promise of a new kingdom in which the rich will be overthrown and the poor will find their reward.
The Way of Jesus combines the visions of both Judas and the crowds. Jesus calls us to follow him to new life despite personal fragility and state violence. It is a path on which we rise to love regardless of danger and despite the inevitability of death.
Jesus had a difficult time getting his followers to appreciate the beauty of this path 2,000 years ago. Those inspired by Jesus today continue to grapple with this task. How can we be fearless in a time when the “toddlers” who rule the world foul the news media with blithe boasts of nuclear war? How can we give thanks for the many gifts of life in the face of illness, loss and pain?
Paul named the dilemma in his letter to the church in Corinth. Paul writes: “To those who are perishing, the message of the cross is foolishness. But to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise’ . . . God has made foolish the wisdom of the world . . . We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called, both Jew and Gentile, Christ is the power and wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians: 1).
Paul’s words seem strange and bold, but what can we make of them? Do we simply proclaim, “we’re all going to die” and then shout “Hallelujah!”?
News from the United Church of Canada might offer an illustration. In July, General Council announced the results of the church-wide votes on restructuring our denomination. They flow from a Comprehensive Review process that began in 2012 and which formed the centerpiece of the discussions at the General Council meeting in 2015 in Newfoundland.
All four votes were passed by a large majority of presbyteries and congregations. Mill Woods United Council was one of the those that voted in favour of them.
Last week, General Council released a proposal on to how to implement these changes. If approved by its meeting in Oshawa next August, the structural changes that flow from these votes will be in place by January 2019. They include a new funding formula, changes to Mission and Service, and the elimination of one level of church governance.
At present, there are 88 presbyteries and 13 conferences in the United Church for a total of 101 regional bodies. Mill Woods United is a member of Edmonton Presbytery within Alberta and Northwest Conference. By January 2019, these 101 bodies will be amalgamated into regional councils numbering no more than 15. I am glad that this change is coming even as I imagine it will be a challenge for our us to learn how to work together in this leaner environment.
But unfortunately, I don’t see the restructuring as relevant. The decline of the United Church in numbers and the aging of its members, which inspired the Comprehensive Review, is stark. We have shrunk every year since 1965. The latest figures released in June show that Sunday morning attendance declined by 4% between 2014 and 2015 and the number of confirmation students by 15% in that same year. Today, the United Church has less than 10% of the weight it had in Canadian society sixty years ago. Further, no one argues that the decline in numbers or the aging of our membership will stop.
It is tempting to deny this decline and avoid the grief that accepting it would occasion. But the stories of Jesus remind us that acceptance of mortality is not the end. Instead, it can be the beginning of the most important part of life.
Happily, this congregation seems to be doing relatively well. Local offerings were up in the first half of the year. We are hopeful about a stewardship campaign that will run in this Fall. Bev has exciting plans for church school and a youth group starting in September. The new Council has had two productive meetings. Our three co-chairs have some interesting ideas to engage people in the many facets of our work. Finally, new faces keep showing up on Sunday mornings and at outreach programs like The Bread Run. I am excited about all that is happening here.
But at the denominational level, the United Church is not doing well; and I feel discouraged by our leaders’ inability to face this fact. Yes, by 2019, some changes will be in place. But the ongoing decline of the United Church — as with many other denominations from Anglican to Presbyterian — requires something bolder, I believe.
Perhaps it would help to imagine the demise of our denominations as a cross. No one asked for this decline. Most of our leaders struggle to accept it. But if they did, they would learn what Jesus teaches — that in accepting inevitable demise, we gain new energy for outreach, mission, and spiritual growth. We open ourselves to the joy of the unexpected. We enter God’s eternity and move closer to God’s Love.
Something new is brewing in Canada, which will probably result in communities of faith that will no longer be United or Catholic, Mennonite or Lutheran, Sunni or Shia, Sikh or Hindu. We can’t know what these new faith communities will look like, and getting there won’t be without grief or pain. But by taking up the cross of the end of denominations, we embrace the moment instead of fighting it.
I understand the fears of Judas. He sees the violence of the state, and so he sings, “My mind is clearer now. / At last all too well / I can see where we all soon will be / If you strip away the myth from the man, / You will see where we all soon will be / Jesus! / You’ve started to believe / The things they say of you / You really do believe / This talk of God is true / And all the good you’ve done / Will soon get swept away. / You’ve begun to matter more / Than the things you say.”
I also understand the adoring crowds. The see Jesus as healer, king, and saviour. He is all those things, of course, just not in the way they expect.
Jesus’s vision reaches farther than that of either Judas or the adoring crowds. Jesus looks to the cross and beyond to something brighter, stranger, and closer to love. He accepts the inevitable, and then moves with it to a resurrection that fulfills our hopes and dreams in a way not previously imagined.
In my opinion, the United Church has been denying its cross for years. But this is hardly unusual. The crosses that Jesus teaches us to carry can appear many times before we find the courage to accept them.
Happily, we know with unshakeable confidence that at a certain point of loss and grief, we will embrace our cross and stumble down the road to Jerusalem with Jesus. When we do so, we will taste again the eternal joy of God’s love, which is always available to us whether we feel ready for it or not.
May it be so. Amen.