Friday, April 19, 2019

Ecce homo: behold the man

I have such a hard time with this. 

For much of my life, I kind of glossed over the events of Good Friday. Crucified, died and buried, that all goes together quickly as a memorized and oft-repeated phrase, and then we get to the real good part: the Resurrection, God’s action in history to raise Jesus from the dead, to overcome death and the grave, to open the way for us to eternal life, to show that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Yes, yes, all of that yes. Resurrection will come.

But today, I cannot gloss over the crucified and died part. Jesus’s death was not poetic or lovely, it was not like Beth in Little Women, who just faded away gently and sweetly. It was not like Sampson, who brought down the Philistines and himself as a last act of power and vengeance, an angry self-immolation. It was not beautiful and it was not about brute strength. 

It was the result of blindness, fear, scorn, and hate, a willingness - maybe even an eagerness - to draw a line and challenge anyone who crosses it, to say both to certain individuals and to whole groups, You don’t belong on my side of this line. 

In the late 19th and early 20th century, there were thousands of deaths of this sort. Mobs clamored for the death of men (and a few women) who dared to ignore the color line, mobs capturing these men and advertising the upcoming public hanging (and accompanying degradations) so that people could come and watch other people being lynched. People, black people, hung on trees, maybe after being tortured, while other people, white people, stood around, watching as if this is just what happens some days. Sometimes folks posed for pictures at these spectacles, and photographers made and sold postcards of men and women and even children standing, smiling, next to the black dangling feet or maybe the mostly or partly whole but dead bodies of people killed in a show of power and control and its attendant sentiments: fear and hatred. This is what we can do, the powerful said, and we’re not at all unwilling to do it if you get out of line, if you cross our boundaries. You will pay. Look. See?

Crown of thorns. Purple robe. Bruised and bloody face. Ecce homo: behold the man.

What is power, what is life, what is death? How is it that this unspeakably cruel scene is supposed to draw us all together? How are these arms stretched out upon the cross able to gather us into a saving embrace when there are nails and blood and jeers and spitting and mocking in the way?

As far as I can tell, when the Scriptures say that Jesus through the cross would draw us all unto himself, it is in the same manner as a train wreck. We gather in fear, dread, and bewilderment. We look and cannot look away. We watch, mesmerized and yet repelled, with focused attention, the smashup. 

And still clearly Good Friday was not the end of the wrongful conviction of innocents, the end of mocking, the end of spitting, the end of hateful violence, the end of deadly power plays, violent seizures, the end of the powerful saying to the powerless, we can kill you if we want to.

So what is truth? as Pilate asked Jesus. What is the truth of this day, of this life? I am the Way, Jesus said, and the truth and the life. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. 

Jesus is God made flesh. And Jesus, God made flesh, would not come out to battle evil with swords and clubs, would not use humiliation and violence as means to an end. That is the truth that stood in front of Pilate. Jesus showed us another way of being, of living, that is about divine, abundant life for everyone in the midst of a world that is more at home with stories about scarcity and the fight for power and control by a few. 

Jesus came to show us God, and the world did not like the way he broke down the walls that the world puts up, the way he crossed the lines and not only crossed them but erased them. And there are consequences for this kind of life, of crossing and erasing boundaries. 

Ecce homo, behold the man.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The heart of the matter

Detail from a painting by Marc Chagall

Palm Sunday is unique in all the church year. We begin the day by singing joyfully and blessing palms - but they are the same palms that will be burned next winter to make the ashes we will smudge on our foreheads, reminding us that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We continue by observing as Jesus is betrayed in the garden by his friend and taken away to be tried. Finally we watch from a distance as Jesus is beaten, mocked, and crucified, put to death for the crime of sedition - speech or conduct to incite rebellion against the government - the songs and palms long since cast aside and forgotten. The joy of the morning is cast aside and forgotten, too. 

And now we have come to the deepest, darkest night in the heart of Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem is where we go to uncover and confront the arrangement we’ve made with life,” said The Reverend Tom Smith one time from this pulpit. “It’s where we go to get to the heart of the matter but also where we don’t want to go because we fear both the intimacy and the enlightenment it can bring. Jerusalem is the last place in the world I want to go. But life, until I go there, is forever an evasion, a dodge, an avoidance, a denial.”

Jesus knew what would happen to him in Jerusalem. But he went there anyway. He went there because he believed that God would bring something beautiful out of the death-dealing ugliness he was going to experience. He believed that he would be the vessel through which that beauty would shine. He believed true life and freedom would show through because he was willing to be obedient to God, the God of love, the God of abundance, the God of peace and eternal life. He would not dodge the consequences of a life lived among sinners and outcasts, the poor and needy, the ones who were sick and the ones who were out of their minds, and even the ones who were dead, to heal them, to restore their inherent dignity, to bring them back into life. He would not avoid the consequences of being willing to leave the ninety-nine together in the wilderness in order to rescue the one that was unlucky or stupid enough to have gotten itself lost. He was not really surprised when the ninety-nine ended up turning against him.

Since this is the heart of the matter, I invite you not to simply jump ahead to next Sunday, to Easter, but to spend awhile with this holy and intimate time, to come closer during this Holy Week as we revisit the last days of Jesus’ life on earth: to hear his commandment to love on Maundy Thursday; to keep vigil with him that night; to witness on Friday his vulnerability before the dark side, his willingness to die rather than to resort to violence and revenge. 

During Holy Week we will see the best and the worst of life. We will see overflowing love and we will see disfiguring hate. We will see faithfulness and we will see abandonment. We will see displays of power and we will see utter degradation. But most of all, at the heart of the matter, we will see truth. 

So we are standing at the gate of Jerusalem. But do not be afraid, we will go in together.


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