Sermon for March 18, 2018
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Based on Zechariah 11:7-17 and Matthew 26:1-16
There’s so much in the two readings for today that I could go on for an hour and still have things to tell you. But I’ll focus instead on just one small piece of what these Scriptures have for us.
A working title for this sermon was “The Price Is Right.” I remember watching that show on a black and white TV late on weekday mornings over 50 years ago. It was hosted by Bill Cullen. I haven’t seen the updated Drew Carey-hosted version. I imagine it’s probably a little flashier than it used to be, but the premise must be the same. The contestants win if they guess the price of the merchandise without guessing too high.
So when I read the story of Judas going to see how much he could get for turning on Jesus, that old game show came to mind. I imagined Judas as a contestant. “So Judas, for a weekend in Rome, what’s the price for selling out Jesus?” And Judas thinks out loud, as contestants are wont to do, saying, “Let’s see. Twenty pieces of silver – no, too low. Fifty? No, that’s way too high. I’m going to say thirty.” “Thirty pieces of silver? Is that your final answer? The Price is Right! Jesus is worth thirty pieces of silver to us and you’re on your way to a romantic weekend in Rome.”
It’s probably no coincidence that Zechariah has a story with the same price tag. There’s nothing in Matthew to indicate that Judas went back to the other disciples and told them, “Hey, I picked up a quick thirty today just by tipping off the guys who wanted to lock up Jesus.” So it’s likely that Matthew borrowed some of the details from Zechariah, although Matthew mistakenly refers to Jeremiah. However it happened, here’s what Judas sold along with Jesus – his self-respect. Thirty pieces of silver was the price of his self-respect. Thirty pieces of silver, enough to accept and then throw away in disgust, like Zechariah before him. The price seemed right at the time, but then, times do change, don’t they?
Well, we know how things turned out for Judas. According to Matthew, when Judas saw that Jesus was condemned to death, he tried to return the money. When he was told it was too late, he threw it in the Temple and left to hang himself. Seller’s remorse, I guess you could call it. Things change.
Of course, things change for lots of people. What seemed like a good idea at the time looks different when something comes along that’s better or more important or more attractive in some way. That reminds me of another TV phrase – the Fickle Finger of Fate award that would be presented on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In back in the late ‘60’s. It often went to politicians for their claim to be making things perfectly clear when they were in fact trying to keep something hidden. Some things never do change, I guess. It’s amazing that people can start out as public servants, serious about bringing in change for the good, only to have to hear themselves down the line saying, “I am not a crook.” There must be something about the constant need to compromise that makes people lose sight entirely of the difference between right and wrong.
Ah, but fickleness is part of being human, isn’t it? We make all our commitments with the highest of hopes and the best of intentions. Then, one day, as the Dwight Yoakam song goes, baby, things change.
Church – at least the way we do church in our Congregational tradition – is all about making and keeping commitments. We covenant with God, who makes covenants with human beings. We covenant with each other. Poems and prayers and promises, that’s what the whole thing is built upon. If we can’t keep our commitments to God and to each other, well, that says what we really think about God and about each other, doesn’t it?
On the other side, of course, we have this God who keeps coming back for more, this Christ who thinks we’re worth any sacrifice, this Spirit who keeps waiting to be invited in. Last week, the choir sang an arrangement of “Amazing Grace.” It’s a song about hitting bottom, about losing all hope except the hope that God will come through. It’s a song about acknowledging that the singer just doesn’t have what it takes to make things right. Only another chance from God is going to make that possible. And it’s about how God heard that prayer. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see. Once God comes through, the rest is up to you. You make promises to God and to each other when you’re desperate, but it’s when you’re on your feet again that it’s time to keep those promises.
Zechariah lived out God’s message to the people of his time and place. When God saw that mercy and unity had been replaced by profit and convenience, God’s message was pretty clear – the covenant is broken. Through Zechariah, God’s message was something like, “I’ll say it formally, but your choices brought us to this point. Our covenant is broken.” It was not a happy time for God’s people.
And Jesus? He lived out what it is to be betrayed. The good news is that he made us a promise. Whether we are the betrayer or the betrayed, we can rise above it. He did. And we can, too. It does take some active response on our part. I think of the kids trying to redeem the betrayal of no gun control and another school shooting by walking out of class and being vocal and stubborn about pushing for changed laws. How else can they rise above the pain?
I think of an ICE agent quitting after being told to separate a mother from her daughters to implement a deportation order. How else can we respond to injustice if we don’t say, no way?
I think of a dad I met at the transgender Day of Remembrance service, trying to raise awareness of the impossible situation trans kids face, the pressure that led his own child to suicide. How else can he make his child’s death mean something but by trying to get the word out and give support to other kids and their families?
Here in our own church, when we join and when we gather for communion, we make and we renew a covenant with God and with each other. We’ll show up. We’ll be here for each other. We’ll make the sacrifices it takes to keep this place afloat financially. We’ll offer time and talent and treasure that God can use to help God’s will be done on this little corner of the earth just as it’s done in heaven. It’s not an afterthought, or an “unless something better comes up” kind of a commitment. It’s a “to the best of our abilities” priority. In the end, it’s because our response to the God who blesses us is to go forward into the world to be a blessing to others in turn. So – rather than break covenant, with all the pain that brings into our relationships and our world, let’s go out with a blessing: May your life be rich in good deeds and acts of kindness, and may you be a source of blessing to your family, to the world, and to all humanity. Let it be. Amen.