Us and Them: sermon by Laura, 11.20.16

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  It’s a Good Friday question from a haunting old spiritual. But it is also a question we are asked today, on Christ the King Sunday. Instead of throne room splendor, Luke’s Gospel presents the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion. It is not an easy or comforting scene to enter in your imagination, and you may resist allowing yourself to go there.

But I invite you to close your eyes as I read the scripture, to see all the figures arrayed around the crosses at Golgotha, and to listen to the Holy Spirit within you, answering the question: Were you there—and with whom were you standing in that place?

Read Luke 33-43.

Abruptly we arrive at the place called The Skull. Telling us what happens next, the text uses a simple pronoun: “They.” “They” crucified Jesus and two criminals, one on his right and one on his left. “They” cast lots to divide his clothing.

It’s a vague word, broad and nonspecific. We are not given names or characteristics to pinpoint exactly who “they” are. And from our vantage point, far off in history and location, we might feel it gives us permission to answer the question: Were you there when they crucified my Lord?—No, of course not. It was not us, but them.

Luke sketches this scene with quick, blunt strokes. He could have been more descriptive. He could have shown us a vivid picture of the horrific suffering involved in crucifixion—as the movie “The Passion of the Christ” did.

But let’s not forget what crucifixion was about. It was a means by which one group of people controlled another. One scholar notes, “Crucifixion was more than a means of death. It was a weapon of terror, exactingly designed by the Romans to produce…a slow and degrading death …Luke spares us these details…”[1]

Luke’s original audience would have been all too familiar with crucifixion; but even so, I think Luke spares details here in order focus us elsewhere. He wants us to clearly see all those present at the foot of the cross, all those encompassed by that vague pronoun “they.”

First, there are the crucifiers, the people whose job it is to actually carry out ‘the mechanics” of execution, people “just following orders.”[2] Then there are the “leaders.” Perhaps Luke is pointing here to the chief priests and religious authorities, people who saw Jesus as a threat to their power in the present status quo. Maybe Luke is also pointing to Pilate, the Roman procurator, who authorized this politically expedient execution, despite his awareness of Jesus’ innocence. Likely Pilate himself was not actually present,but there’s no doubt it is his power moving the hands which hammer in the nails.

Then there is the crowd. Luke says they “stood by and watched.” Earlier, Luke mentions women, wailing in mourning for Jesus on his walk of pain. Maybe some of them are in that crowd. Maybe others are disciples who fled and abandoned Jesus to the authorities. And maybe still others are people who’d shouted words which freed Barabbas, a violent revolutionary, and condemned Jesus; people who were caught up in mob emotions, who shouted things at a rally, they would never have said elsewhere, people who didn’t realize what the full consequences of their vote might be; people who now find themselves complicit in a grave injustice.

Then three voices sound out with challenges to Jesus’ identity and worthiness, mirroring the tests he faced in the desert. The leaders scoff: “If he is the Messiah, let him save himself.” The soldiers bellow, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” The criminal next to Jesus sneers: “If you are the Messiah, save yourself and us!”

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Of course we weren’t there…but then Luke shows us, in those faces and in those voices, a world we know all too well. An ugly, broken world of shame and fear-driven violence, a world which sets “us” up against “them” in bankrupt comparisons to decide who is worthy and who is not, who is deserving and who is dispensable.

We were there…because we are here.

For while Jesus’ crucifixion may be ancient history, not so long ago in the United States of America, people not so different from us, dressed in Sunday best stood by and watched fellow human beings get lynched. Not so long ago, here in the Pacific Northwest, people not so different from us stood and watched as Japanese neighbors were sent off to internment camps. And in these days after a difficult election some people have used it as permission to degrade and hurt other people in the name of “making America great again.”

The scene of Jesus’ crucifixion is nothing special, just the business as usual of an “us” or “them” world, in which a calculus of comparison fuels our most inhumane behavior. It’s there in “if…then” logic of those who jeer at Jesus, kicking a man already down to push themselves up. It’s the base language of a culture which proclaims, “You get what you deserve.” Clearly, if you can’t save yourself, you don’t deserve to live.

How many of us are bound up in this mindset, focused on saving ourselves? If I just work harder, if I earn more money, if I diet and exercise or take the right meds, If I please everyone around me and fulfill all their needs, If I stay out of trouble and don’t rock the boat…Then I’ll deserve to live.

This mindset keeps us focused on ourselves—how hard I work, how much I’ve earned, what I deserve, what I am owed. Even worse, in this mindset our identity, our dignity, and our worthiness is set up over and against other human beings in a zero-sum game in which the winner takes all and the loser is left with less than nothing.

This self-centered, self-serving attitude cannot fathom the possibility that a powerful leader might refuse to use his power to save his own life or share it with others. [3]

But then, against this bleak tapestry of inhumanity, a thread of royal gold shines out. The scoffers and the silent watchers cannot tempt Jesus to despair. He knows who he is; he knows what it means to be the Messiah, the king of kings, the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. He does not pit himself against those sheep; he does not pit the sheep against one another.

Lifted up into kingship in this dire hour, he brings healing, reconciliation, and forgiveness. Even as he suffers the shameful abuse of the cross, Jesus speaks words of costly grace: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

There is that pronoun again: “them.” Thankfully, the way Jesus uses it, it is broad, vague, non-specific. We don’t want to distance ourselves from this one. Still, we must ask, who are the “thems” for whom Jesus asks the Father’s forgiveness? Who is included in the suffering King’s compassion and mercy?[4]

Who are those who “do not know what they are doing,” who are those, throughout history, who have pushed themselves or another down attempting to save their lives? Pilate, the leaders, the scoffers, the soldiers? Yes. The criminal on the right? Yes. And the criminal on the left, too? Yes, yes, yes.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Friends, the good news for us all is that, wherever we recognize ourselves in relation to Jesus’ crucifixion, wherever we recognize ourselves in relation to the crucifixions of our world, Jesus’ forgiveness extends to us.

Whether we have consciously participated in diminishing another human being for our own gain, or whether we have just come awake, shocked, to an awareness of our unwitting complicity in injustice, Jesus forgives.

In the mystery of the cross, all of us were there—and so all of us receive the grace Jesus extends at the center-point of history. We are all “them.”    “They” are us.

Ohhhh…Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble…

My friends, the grace of Jesus’ forgiveness is not cheap.Jesus bears the cost in his own body. But notice, there are no strings attached. Jesus offers it to those who don’t repent or ask for it, who don’t even know they need it. “Today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus tells the man who asks to be remembered. There is no test to see that he truly deserves it! Nor does Jesus turn to the scoffing thief thereafter and say, “But you—you deserve to die!” There is no calculus of “deserving” applied to Jesus’ grace.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Yes, I was there, gratefully forgiven. And yes, I will be there. I will not look away when, in our “us or them” world, I come across those who think they must push others down to lift themselves up, or cut off others’ lives to save their own. I will face the ugliness of our world with courage, and whenever I can, I will not just stand by and watch. I will stand with and watch out for those who have less power or regard than me; I will also stand with and watch out for those who, like me, are all too often caught up unwittingly in the competition and division which seeks to dignify some people at the expense of others.

For the One raised up and crowned on a cross is my Lord and my King. I choose to follow his lead and act in his power, his power shared generously, his suffering borne willingly, his forgiveness offered lavishly, his life poured out freely, that others—all God’s children—might live abundantly.

And what about you? Were you there? Where are you now, and where will you be?

May Christ’s Kingdom come in the reconciliation of all God’s children and the whole creation beginning today, beginning with us.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

 

 

 

 

[1] Craig T. Kocher, Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Volume 2.  Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 326.

[2] Edward A. McLeod Jr. Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Volume 2.  Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 328.

[3] http://gluthermonson.blogspot.com/2016/11/not-saving-self-whats-with-that.html

[4] McLeod, 330.

[5] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/at-the-brink-of-times/

 

With God in the Valley of Tears: Meditation for Good Friday by Laura, 3.29.13

Text:  Psalm 22

Some years ago,a man named Eddie Fogarty was riding his tractor in County Tipperary, Ireland, out to cut some peat to be used for fuel. When he noticed something sticking up out of the peat bog, he got down to see what it might be. Apparently, peat bogs are an environment which slows decomposition, and all sorts of things have been found well-preserved in them. At first, Eddie thought he’d found a purse or satchel, but it turned out to be a book, one of the oldest ever found, a 1200-year-old Christian psalter. When they pulled it out of the mud, the book fell open, and Latin words were visible: “in the valley of tears.”

In the valley of tears. Those words are not in the psalm we just read, but they could have been. Psalm 22 certainly voices the experience of walking such a valley: the anguish of pain in body and soul and the suffering of abandonment. Surrounded by enemies and mockers, at the edge of death, the psalmist cries out to God day and night, yet there seems to be no answer and no rest. On Good Friday, we are particularly mindful how Jesus the Christ also walked the valley of tears, and how, in his final hour on the cross, he prayed Psalm 22’s opening words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

These words were already ancient when Jesus spoke them. Growing up as a faithful Jew, Jesus probably studied and memorized them, sung them in worship and recited them at synagogue. Now, dying in pain, mocked by enemies and strangers, abandoned by all his friends, these ancient words voice for Jesus the affliction of his own body and soul. For us, more than 2000 years later, hearing Jesus speak this Psalm makes clear the depths of Jesus’ humanity. That Jesus knew how it felt to be brought as low as a worm, that Jesus experienced true despair when even he wondered “Where are you, God?”

Because Jesus went to the cross, there is a mysterious and hard grace for us, for now, whenever we go through affliction, we have one answer that it seems he did not.  We can point to the cross and say, “There is God, with us, right here in the valley of tears.” Because Jesus went to the cross, no matter what we must endure, we are never truly alone.

But there’s more. For while he is with us in that awful valley, Jesus is also showing us the way through. For, even as he spoke the opening words of Psalm 22, he must also have known how it ends.  Even as the psalmist questions the seeming absence of God, he does not let go of hope. The psalmist remembers ancestors who trusted in God for deliverance and were not put to shame. The psalmist remembers God’s personal care for him since the day of his birth. Remembering and praying for rescue, the Psalmist is transformed, somehow moving from lament to praise. God did not despise his affliction, God did not hide God’s face; God heard his cry.

And so, when we hear Jesus pray Psalm 22 on the cross, in the hour of his death, we know he did not give up hope. Jesus trusted his prayer would be heard that suffering and death would not be the final word of his story. We know that even when God seemed most distant, Jesus trusted he was never truly alone.

When singer-songwriter Garrison Doles heard the story of the Faddan More Psalter with which I began today, he imagined the ancient monk who first carried that book. poring over its hand-copied pages, taking solace and courage from the still-more-ancient words it contained. And then he imagined Eddie, the modern-day peat-bogger who unearthed it, standing with the monk, one on either side of the psalter, holding it open. “In the mind of God,” Doles writes, “that 1200 years that stands between them, is nothing at all.”

I love that image, and I want us to hold onto it this day, comforted by the treasure of that psalter, the ancient language of prayer which even our Lord and Savior used in his greatest hour of need, which gave him words to voice his faith in God against the pressing darkness. May we also unearth again this treasure from the mud in the valley of tears, and join again the company of all the faithful who have gone before us, including the fully human, fully divine One, who went to the cross and beyond. Praying these very words, may we know as fully as Christ Jesus knew,that we never walk alone. Amen.