Change is hard. Psychologists tell us that even positive changes cause stress
in our lives. Changes that we never asked for make us feel – and act - much, much
worse. So, change, how do I hate thee? – let me count the ways: Number one: a
pandemic that has profoundly changed the way we eat, drink, play and interact
with one another. Number two: the invasion of a democratic country by a nuclear
power, triggering feelings of anger, and fear. Number three: the severe polarization
of our nation and world, which, according to the American Psychological
Association, has caused stress levels in America to shoot up in recent years. And,
perhaps most distressing of all, number four: the politicizing of Christianity.
A recent New York Times article suggests that “The Christian right has been
intertwined with American conservatism for decades… and elements of Christian
culture have long been present at political rallies. But worship, a sacred act
showing devotion to God expressed through movement, song, or prayer, was
largely reserved for church. Now, many believers are importing their worship of
God, with all its intensity, emotion and ambitions, to their political life.” Speaking
at a “worship” event that featured remarks by former president Donald Trump, one
presenter told the crowd that, “Christians are the ones that are responsible for
granting you and myself the right and authority over government… [and urged the
crowd] to not believe ‘the lie’ of the separation of church and state.”
To say that such statements are stressful to me is beyond understatement.
Movements like the ones described in this article and those that supported the
January 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol misappropriate and misconstrue the
mission and sacrifice of Jesus Christ for human gain. This is not a matter of
interpretation. We can easily locate what Jesus himself had to say about earthly
power and the use of violence to sustain it. We heard it today in the story of his
passion, when his disciples sought to defend him by using violence to combat
violence, “No more of this! Have you come with swords and clubs as if I were a
bandit? ...but this is your hour and the power of darkness.” And, when they asked
him if he was the king of a specific tribe of people in this world, his answer was
that he would never sit on a throne made by human hands, but at the side of God.
Studies have found that people adjust to stressful change better when it
makes sense to them. Individuals who are able to find meaning in the hard things
that happen to them recover better, 4 regardless of the level of trauma. This is why
so many theologians have suggested that suffering is necessary. I am not talking
about self-flagellation, extreme fasting, and other forms of self-torture that will
allegedly bring us closer to God. I am talking about the things that happen to all of
us simply because we are human – things like disease, desertion, and death. God
does not visit these things upon us to teach us a lesson, but God is present with us
in our troubles so that we can understand, recover, and grow from them.
Our Hebrew scripture reading today is considered one of the songs of the
suffering servant, which many people have viewed as a model for Jesus. It’s no
surprise, then, that this reading shows up on the day in which we remember our
Lord’s willing walk to the cross and his obedience to God’s will. Christians find
meaning and comfort in Jesus’s example because it helps us to deal with our own
suffering and fear. We learn, as the psalmist tells us, that our lives are not our own
because our times are in God’s hand.
It used to be popular to ask, “What would Jesus do,” but this makes little
sense when you consider that Jesus was a divine being, the “son of God.” It is far
better to consider what Jesus DID – and that is what today’s passion story tells us,
in painful, graphic, and sure detail. Jesus rejected the opportunity to use his divine
power to save himself, willingly dying in the most ignominious way.
Our worship today begins with a triumphal procession and ends with the
Passion of our Lord. The people who lined the streets of Jerusalem crying out
Jesus’s name did so because they believe Jesus is going to do something for them.
They thought they would gain earthly power and wealth if they followed him.
When their expected victory did not immediately appear, they turned on him, their
passionate cries of admiration turning to shrieks of rage.
The word “passion” comes from the Greek word “pascho,” which means “to
be done to.” Thus, we refer to the story of Jesus’s suffering as his Passion. By
seeking a visceral understanding of what was done to Jesus, we learn how to
interpret and respond to the suffering we experience in our lives. Jesus died as he
did not to gain power, but in defiance of the political powers that existed in the
world at his time. He emptied himself, writes Paul, and took on the form of a slave,
humbling himself in this life to demonstrate something important about the next:
The glory of God and the hope of the beloved community is in unity and equality.
It does not favor one race, one tribe, one people, or one country. No one who seeks
God can be excluded from it - and in it we are all gratefully and lovingly
responsible for one another. God’s country is defined by what we believe, what we
are for, not what we are against.
That is why it is so very wrong to deliberately cause suffering – to punish
people for who they are, to seek earthly power, and to put our personal freedoms
and desires before those in need. Our job is to try to live in love and act with faith
rather than fear. These are political actions - because they have to do with
citizenship. We must be responsible citizens – not only of this country and of this
world but principally of the Beloved Community of God. As citizens of that
heavenly country, we are bound primarily to its laws. That is why our beliefs
should influence our earthly politics –not by twisting the teachings of Jesus or the
stories of our ancestors to support our own worldly ends – but by directing us to
use our passion in the way Jesus did -with sacrifice, humility, open-mindedness,
and, above all, love. That is what it means to follow our Savior to the cross – and
1 American Psychological Association (APA) (2017), “Stress in America: Coping with Change, Part I,”
2 Elizabeth Dias and Ruth Graham, (4/7/22), “The Growing Religious Fervor in the American Right: ‘This Is a Jesus Movement’ Rituals of Christian worship have become embedded in conservative rallies, as praise music
and prayer blend with political anger over vaccines and the 2020 election,”
3 Chris Richardson and Pamela Atner, (November 2005), “Sense of coherence as a moderator of the effects of stressful life events on health. “ https://jech.bmj.com/content/59/11/979.short
4 Suzanne Thompson (2010), “Finding Positive Meaning in a Stressful Event and Coping,”