Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Sunday Sermon (Palm Sunday)

April 17, 2011

Palm Sunday

Judas is our brother. Indeed, Judas is our middle name. Can you receive God’s gift of forgiveness?
As part of a study, a group of researchers from Harvard contacted an elementary school teacher at the beginning of a school year. They told the teacher that they had designed a test that would correctly predict which students were going to grow intellectually during the coming school year. Someone called it "The Harvard Test of Intellectual Spurts" because he said it told which students were going to 'spurt' that year. The researchers promised it would indicate the right students. The test was said to be very, very accurate.

The researchers then administered, unbeknownst to the teacher, an obsolete IQ test. When the students had finished, the researchers threw the tests away. Then they picked five names at random from the roll-book and told the teacher, "These are the students who are going to have a very good year. Watch these kids. The first one of them is Rachel Smith."

"Rachel Smith?" the teacher replied incredulously. "She couldn't 'spurt' if you shot her from a cannon. I have had two of her brothers and each one of the Smiths is dumber than the last. “But the researchers maintained that the test was hardly ever wrong in its findings.

You can imagine what happened that semester. However, I bet you would be wrong. Rachel never had a chance to be her same old self. Under a barrage of "Rachel, would you write this on the board this morning?" or "Rachel will lead the line to the lunch room today?" or "Is that a new dress, Rachel? It sure is pretty" or "Thank you, Rachel, that was very good," Rachel "spurted" all over that school. And so did every name they put on that list.

According to the apostle Paul, every one of our names belongs on a list like that. We are all "God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved." A little boy in elementary school said, "My teacher thought I was smarter than I wuz. So I wuz!" All of us need to believe we are smarter and better and more gifted than we have ever dared to think we are. This is one of the ways that each of us will begin to hear the calling voice of God.

Throughout the dark night of his soul in the Gethsamene Garden, Jesus begged his disciples to stay up with him, comfort him, pray with him, and support him. But they couldn't do it. On the night that Jesus was arrested, all of his disciples abandoned him. And two of them actively betrayed him.

Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus only once, almost immediately regretted his action. He boldly marched back before the powerful, corrupt officials and proclaimed Jesus' innocence to their faces, throwing their bribe money back at their feet for good measure. Peter, the other fallen disciple, betrayed Jesus on three separate occasions. He hid out of fear of the officials and then ran off seeking anonymity and seclusion. Yet that first disciple, Judas, has been named throughout history as the prime example of all that is contemptible, corrupt and deceitful in human nature. That second disciple, Peter, is honored as the father of the church and is designated a "saint.” How did such a disparity of interpretation occur? What distinguishes Judas' action so starkly from Peter's?

Perhaps the simplest way to understand is to look at their motives. Judas' treachery, we declare, was premeditated, calculated, even paid for. Peter's act of betrayal, on the other hand, was a cowardly, spontaneous burst of emotion that profited him nothing. But there remains the unpleasant fact that Matthew tells of Judas returning the blood money, defending Jesus' innocence before the tribunal and realizing his mistake - and all while Jesus was still alive. In contrast, Peter only sneaked back to the disciple's fold as a mourner after the crucifixion frenzy had passed and the tomb was sealed.

The only real difference between these two betrayers - Judas and Peter - was their perception of how Jesus must see them. Judas was overcome with guilt. Although "he repented", Judas could only envision a wrathful, Judgmental Jesus declaring him cursed according to Deuteronomic law. In his despair, Judas blocked out Jesus' forgiving gesture in the garden. Hearing only condemnation ringing in his ears, Judas cut himself off from the healing capabilities of God's grace and, in an agonizing fit of self-Judgment, hanged himself.

Peter heard other voices. Undoubtedly he replayed his own three pitiful denials of Jesus over and over again. After leaving the courtyard Matthew says Peter "wept bitterly". Surely Peter also heard himself as before promising Jesus he would never deny him, even if it meant facing death. But there were other crucial conversations Peter had stored in his memory that gave him hope on that dark night.

Peter was the disciple who had come to Jesus to ask specifically about the act of forgiveness. How many times should we forgive? Peter asked. Jesus declared "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven". Would Jesus do any less for Peter now than his own proclamation of when and how to forgive? Even more importantly, Jesus had singled Peter out when asking, "Who do you say that I am?" Peter could recall he had once boldly confessed, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God".

Even more comforting and hopeful must have been Peter's recollection of Jesus' response to that confession: "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!" And then came Jesus' statement, "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it". What a life-time lifeline this memory must have been for Peter - and what a life-vest that very night for Peter's sinking heart. Jesus had believed in him. Jesus had designated him to be something special in the life of the church. Whatever Peter had done in his past, Jesus had assured him he had a future.

Judas did not do anything that every single one of the disciples and that every one of us have not done. But Judas forgot one thing, and this one thing was the difference between life and death. Judas forgot that he was only one in a long, established, distinguished tradition of God's failed faithful. Moses, Aaron, David, Thomas, and Paul all committed grievous acts of betrayal against God. But each one found their way back to God's side through the back door of grace.

Judas died, stigmatized by his own heart as a betrayer. Why? Because he never even tried the door. Judas didn't want a gift of grace. He wanted to be in control of his situation. With those 30 pieces of silver, Judas thought he could buy his way into God's presence - as if by forcing Jesus' hand through the arrest, Judas thought the messianic age could be hurried.

Faced with the consequences of his monumental mistake, Judas then sought to buy his way out of his betrayal by throwing that same silver back at the feet of the chief priests. But Judas could not control the tidal wave of events his actions had unleashed. In panic, Judas' final controlling act was to take his own life. He never dared to check that back door of grace that God always leaves unlocked - and even pushes open for us. It was, after all, his destiny to betray Jesus as part of God’s plan for redemption of us all.

The message of the gospel is that God's grace is available to all, that the back door to God's loving presence is always open. Judas is the middle name of each one of us. And Judas becomes our first name not when we betray and deny Christ himself, but when we deny the redemptive power of God's grace that Christ offers every one of us.

God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.