It it tempting to move through it quickly. We already know the story. And it happened long ago - once for all, right?
But God has something to say to us here, not just about then but also about now. And so today we must look again.
These are the details: Jesus has been arrested by a cohort of both imperial soldiers and Temple security police. The religious leadership questions him about his friends and his teachings. They take his answers to be smart remarks. He has not bowed to their authority. They want him silenced.
So a brutal power show begins. A guard hits him in the face. Peter, himself afraid of the authorities, denies him. Jesus is taken by the Temple guard to Pilate, the local Roman governor. Pilate and his soldiers dress Jesus in a crown of thorns and a purple robe to mock him. And then they beat him up, and they bring him out and show him to the people to humiliate him.
And the religious leaders and the police and soldiers see how he is humiliated and see his face all black and blue and they despise him. They shout out their demand that Jesus be crucified. And the people also clamor for his death. They hate what they see, this man who seems weak and powerless against them all.
All this scares Pilate. The people are showing their strength as a mob. They are not docile or obedient after Pilate and his soldiers have flexed their muscles by exhibiting the humiliation of a bloody and bruised man. This “moderate” show of violence should have done the trick. A reminder that the imperial government has the power, and this is what they can do with it.
But the people are agitated, perhaps by the smell of blood, the smell of fear, perhaps most of all the public display of something shameful. It is going to take more than this.
Pilate is nervous. He goes back to Jesus and demands to know where he is from. Jesus, who has just been beaten up by this man’s soldiers stands silently in the face of this demand. An incredulous Pilate says to him, “Don’t you know that I’ve got all the power here? What are you thinking that you refuse to answer my question?”
So Jesus does answer Pilate by stating that God is the one who has the power. Which puts Pilate between a rock and a hard place. Jesus has made what sounds like a subtle threat to him on the one side, and the people are overtly threatening him on the other.
Then the people play their trump card. They shout that they will expose Pilate to the Emperor, the most powerful of the powers that be, at least in Pilate’s mind, if he does not do away with Jesus.
So Pilate stages an even more elaborate show. He brings Jesus back out — Jesus with the bloody face and the pretend king outfit. “Shall I crucify your king?” he shouts sarcastically. He goads them, he pumps them up. Pilate shows the people - this is what else we can do: not only can we beat you up, but we can kill you.
And the religious leaders answer, Jesus is not our king. The Emperor is the power WE respect.
Ah yes, this is the correct answer. This is what Pilate needs to hear. The religious leaders respect his power, and the people support his power to put troublemakers to death. This is the answer all his sickening, posturing show was meant to bring about.
And so he handed Jesus over to be crucified, Pilate and the leaders together, with the people jumping in to have their say. They all share in the power that the use of violence seems to give.
And everybody else stands there and watches.
And at the end of the day, when the Sabbath is about to begin, the soldiers go with clubs and break the legs of the men still alive on their crosses so that they will die more quickly. Since Jesus is already dead, they cut him open with a spear.
Because this is a weekday activity, this beating and mocking and killing. Not something we want to see on the Sabbath, especially around a big religious holiday. We all need to get home to our religious observances. Or, you know, brunch.
This is the world of Pilate. Appealing to our basest emotions. Urging us to be afraid so that we will allow someone to have power over us. Wanting us act from our fears, to despise the one who is weak, to blame the victim, to shut down the one who goes against the grain, and to fight our uneasy sense of vulnerability by supporting the one who claims the most power, using violence - physical, verbal, emotional, social - if necessary.
Or approving the use of violence by those who run the show. Or at least accepting that violence is just something out there that we can’t do anything about.
This story may have taken place 2000 years ago, but it also describes our world, where we live with worries about vulnerability brought home again with every act of terror and every story about public violence, where fear and hate still hold sway and where someone who does not play the game by the rules of those who claim power will suffer the consequences.
We despise weakness and look down on vulnerability and cheer on the powerful even if - or perhaps because - they spew vitriol and disdain for pretty much everyone besides themselves, who revel in - indeed are proud of - humiliating others because deep down inside we are afraid.
We are all caught up in this in one way or another. Some of us are implicated as perpetrators. Some of us have been victims, and we may hear this story and feel our own humiliation and pain. Some of us are just standing by in our own bewildered grief trying to hold onto some kind of hope.
On this day, we look on Jesus bearing the brunt of the world’s anger and frustration and its fear; we see Jesus betrayed by a man whose feet he washed, and deserted by those with whom he ate his last meal.
And yet, amazingly enough - and here is the good news -this is the world that God wants to save. Our world that worships power and justifies violence, that thinks the work of the world is for business days and that religious matters are only for talking about on religious days.
This is the world to which God sent angels over and over to tell God’s people to fear not! Don’t be afraid! Because fear is what gets us every time; it’s what makes us think in terms of us and them, winners and losers, powerful and powerless.
And it seems to me, as we look on this heartbreaking convergence of hate and fear, violence and brokenness— this is the way Jesus draws us all to himself: gathering us all together the way a crash, a spectacular smash up, so powerfully draws the gaze and attention of us all - perpetrator, victim, and by-stander alike to say “Look. This is what the world does.But this is not what I intend for you.”
And so we are called to stand together today, as painful as it is, and look upon this wreckage and finally, finally see the web in which we are all caught up and realize that the world’s ways are not God’s ways.
Today, we have seen again the world’s ways. But on the third day, we will see God’s.
Psalm 51 is normally associated with Ash Wednesday. But this setting of the Psalm, written in the 1630's during the time of Pope Urgan VIII by Gregorio Allegri, was composed for use in the Sistine Chapel during the Holy Week (some sources say for Tenebrae on Wednesday; others say Wednesday and Friday; still others Thursday, Friday and Saturday).
The score was kept secret for more than a hundred years until Mozart, aged 14, showed up to hear it. He loved it and went home and wrote it all out from memory. This was apparently forbidden, but hey, he was 14 and you know how 14-year olds are. And after that, the score was out in the world. Thank God.
This from a BBC recording of the choral group The Sixteen, from Manchester, England.
Recently, I read a book called “Bridging,” which is really a journal, by a woman named Penny Reid. It chronicles her experience learning another language in midlife by going to live in another culture for a month. Penny came to St. Stephen’s to read from her book yesterday.
Given the way our news is dominated by stories of political polarization and division among people both here and in other countries, as people confront the issues of the day by confronting one another, I began to think seriously, as Penny was reading, about the idea of a person as a bridge. And others did too; someone in the audience asked her to say more about that very idea: What is it like for a person to be a bridge?
Penny said that the title of the book came after the experience - is not what she intended when she went to Nicaragua - but she thought to help someone make a connection is what it means to be a bridge. It’s about being willing to really experience what others experience. And it only works if you know that you don’t know everything. You have to be curious and open.
You go into a new place, Penny continued, expecting to learn, or maybe expecting to teach. But to be a bridge, to be the person who stands between two things trying to experience both - two people, two cultures, two worlds - actually takes letting go of expectations. A person who is a bridge must have a very high tolerance for not knowing, too.
Penny described the feeling of being utterly in the dark as people around her were talking faster than she could understand. What are they saying? What am I supposed to be doing? She had to let go of her need to be in control and just let others be a bridge to her, to pull her out of her confusion into a place of at least basic understanding, so that she could be in the circle of the people with whom she was living and whom she had come to love.
Having them be bridges to her helped her become a bridge herself, so that, for instance, now, in her work at home with young children in Head Start, she can converse with Hispanic families in their own language about navigating the sometimes confusing details of their children’s education. She can understand their worries even as she can explain to them the system. She doesn't just know the words. She understands their experience. She can bring them together.
I continued to ponder this as the day went on. What we need, I thought, is more people to be bridges, willing to cross the divides between political parties, between races, between the powerful and the powerless. Bridges that allow for experiencing what others experience and bringing that experience back home, even if - or maybe especially if - that experience is suffering.
I thought about Jesus being the bridge between us and God, between earth and heaven, between this life and the life to come. The earliest Christian theologians said that Jesus brought the divine to earth when he was born and after he died he took our humanity back into heaven, that he became human so that we might become divine. He shared our human nature (or more to the point, he suffered as we suffer) and he also showed us what it is like to be holy. And in the end he gathered up our brokenness and carried it back to God so that we all might be made one with God again.
And so on the day we watch Jesus ride into Jerusalem to experience hate and violence without resorting to hate and violence in return, I wonder how and where it is that I am called to be a bridge, what divides I need to cross, where it is that I might see suffering and not be afraid to experience it, instead of standing on one side and wringing my hands.
So that I can come back to tell about it, in the name of understanding, in the name of love and peace, and in the hope of reconciliation.
This is another song from Anais Mitchell's folk opera Hadestown. Here is a song about the marriage of Orpheus and Eurydice in which she wants to know just how this wedding is going to happen, times being what they are.
We don't traditionally do weddings in Lent, but I love this song.
Here's Mitchell singing both parts, with harmonies by Jefferson Hamer, live at Joe's Pub in New York City a few years ago.
This is my favorite Irish traditional music band, Altan. I have most of their records. I saw them in Atlanta once and also was in a pub in Donegal where two of the members were sitting in on a session (and they played the first song on this video). They're not as flashy as Lunasa (another favorite group) or as "commercial" as The Chieftans - just great, professional musicians immersed in traditional music who play so well together.
Here's a slow song and a dance tune:
This band was one of the great bands from the 1970s - Planxty. Here are three reels from them:
And the great, influential Bothy Band playing "The Laurel Tree" from 1977:
This is the official video of Sara Watkins' Take Up Your Spade, a song she wrote about starting over. I heard her play this in concert a couple of weeks ago. Bonus cameo in the video of Jackson Browne.
It's a beautiful day here in Richmond, with spring springing forth for real. Enjoy your weekend!
Anais Mitchell is a quirky singer/songwriter who I saw in concert with Sara Watkins and Patty Griffin last week. I had not heard her before, but it turns out that some years ago she wrote a folk opera called Hadestown, which is based on the story of Orpheus. She sang this song, Why We Build the Wall, during the concert and I couldn't stop thinking about it.
There are a number of good videos of her singing this piece, some with harmonies (which is how I heard it at the concert), but this one captures both Mitchell's personality and you can clearly hear the words of the song. It may be a conversation between Hades and Cerberus, but it has a much broader application.
Food for thought for this Friday in the Third Week in Lent.
A new goose at the duck pond at the University of Richmond where I walk these days. I think it may be a Pilgrim goose or possibly a hybrid Pilgrim/Chinese goose. At any rate, it's an elegant bird. Happy Thursday!
Yesterday, astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth after 340 days orbiting in space. He didn't actually splash down in the ocean like they did in the old days - rather, Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikail Kornienk , along with a Russian crew member flew in a Soyuz capsule which parachuted onto the steppe of Kazakhstan.
Nonetheless, I imagine Kelly might enjoy splashing around in a city park after his year in space.
Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States (or of this community) in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.