Saturday, April 24, 2010

"Mercy trumps Mockery"

Dear friends,

The following is my first attempt to style a sermon in a way that I believe will teach the Bible. It may be a tad different than the sermons you usually hear or preach yourself, but I hope you will give it a chance. This is the first piece of writing I've poured my heart and soul into in about 2 years. I owe the credit to Debbie Blue, author of Sensual Orthodoxy and From Stone to Living Word: Letting the Bible Live Again. If I can exhort you to do one thing, I would exhort you to read these books. Many thanks also to Christopher Wurpts for loaning me his copy of Sensual Orthodoxy, which I have yet to return.

I invite your critique,


[My text is Matthew 27:27-56; please read first.]

It is hard to begin a sermon on the Passion with some whimsical, lighthearted tale. I so badly wanted to. I wanted you to smile wryly while I crafted a story in which I established myself as a successful and adorable protagonist who outwitted those who dared mock me and turned the shame upon them by the means of my rhetorical skills and quick thinking. Or perhaps I could have preserved my kindhearted image and fashioned a story in which I evaded my mockers with my simple words and down-home charm. However, as I read Matthew’s Passion narrative, in which Jesus is mocked, beaten, and berated by character after character, I realized that my desire to ease you into this painful story with a playful anecdote was unfair both to you and to the text. I was seeking to domesticate my own truly painful experiences of being mocked and of hurling my own biting words which would leave scars on my victim for years, even though I had perhaps delivered them while wearing a ribbon in my hair and a slight smile. But even worse, I was domesticating the text by trying to make the sequences of mocking, stripping, striking, spitting upon, and crucifying Jesus somehow less serious, simply because we can all identify with this treatment in some tiny way. In reality, the fact that we can imagine ourselves as the attackers or as the one being attacked makes this scene all the more painful. We could be those soldiers. Many days, in fact, we are those soldiers.

I think that the soldiers were probably friends. Friends who elbowed one another after making a “that’s what she said” joke[1] and friends who looked forward to grabbing some frozen yogurt together once the crucifixion they were presiding over was finished. Were they bloodthirsty murderers who went to unnecessary lengths to punish and mock their victims? Kind of. But they were also real people who just wanted to go home after a long day’s work so that they could have a beer and lounge on their patios. During the day, sure, they spat upon Jesus, jammed a crown of thorns atop his head, hit him with a reed, and just overall made a mockery of his kingship. But perhaps before they had reported for duty that morning, they had paused to kiss their wives or to admire the curl in their daughters’ hair. Then they headed to work, greeted one another with a grunt, scratched themselves, and began to carry out their duties for the day.

Interestingly, Matthew is not very interested in telling us much about Jesus in this narrative. It’s as if the whole scene is some kind of elementary school play, but the kid who was supposed to play Jesus got sick, and so they had to give all the good lines to the overly-aggressive kids who had botched their auditions and who were just supposed to be quiet, unruly bystanders. Matthew, the school’s play director who frankly just wants this dumb play to be over with so he can start attending his bowling league again, makes do with what he has and hands the Jesus outfit to the shy understudy and tells him not to worry, he’s reworked some things, and “you’ll only have one line. Granted, it’s in Aramaic, but you’ll do fine, kid.” Then he gathers everyone else: “Listen up, everyone; Johnny is sick so I’m going to need you all to step it up a notch. You, you’re a soldier. And you, you’re a bandit. And where’s Big Mike? Big Mike, you’re going to be Simon from Cyrene. You get to carry Jesus’ cross.” And all of a sudden the play was about Jesus, but Jesus frankly wasn’t the star anymore. The unruly bystanders took charge of the scene, and all of a sudden the children began to enact a drama that was both very real and very disturbing.

Truly, in Matthew’s passion narrative, the focus seems to be on everyone but Jesus. A whole host of characters parade in and out of the scene: soldiers, Simon of Cyrene, bandits, passersby, chief priests, scribes, and elders. The women who had provided for Jesus during his ministry are there, faithfully standing by, and some people even wonder aloud if Elijah will show up. However, as the various characters react to Jesus, we see that Jesus really does stand central in this story, but he is central in that the prominent characters gain their story line through their relations with him, as they participate in his crucifixion. He is central in that as this horrific drama begins to unfold, he stands in the midst of a swarm of people who plan on killing him—who will kill him—and he displays no resistance. There is no heavy shoving as he yells at his contenders to “bugger off, mates.” There is no dramatic scene as he pretends to take a deep gulp of the wine mixed with gall only to rear back and spit it into the soldiers’ eyes. There is none of this. We want there to be, but there is not. We want Jesus to throw some well-placed uppercuts, calmly walk away from Golgotha while his contenders writhe in the dirt, and go back up the mountain and give that nice speech again. But Jesus does not do any of this; rather, he bears the brunt of their mocking without a word, and the parents in the school auditorium begin to wonder if this is all starting to get a little too real.

The soldiers—those friendly, frozen yogurt eating soldiers—begin to mock this so-called “King of the Jews” by adorning him with the garb of a king. Around Jesus’ freshly flogged shoulders, they drape a scarlet robe that is just like their own standard issue Roman soldier capes.[2] In Mark’s telling of this same scene, the soldiers clothe Jesus in a purple cloak like that of an emperor, but here Matthew changes it so that Jesus appears just like one of the many soldiers. For just a moment, we might think that they are extending a subtle recognition that Jesus is an equal among them, but then just as quickly, they thrust a reed in his hand as a mock scepter and kneel before him in mock homage, while raising their voices in a mock chorus of praise: “Hail, King of the Jews!” Then there’s the spitting and the stripping and no one has gotten sick of the mocking yet—they’re giving one another sloppy high-fives and slapping one another on the back because what they are doing to Jesus is just so funny. But it’s not funny. Because that soldier who just used the reed to backhand Jesus has a curly-haired daughter at home. And maybe a swing set in his backyard. He is not a monster but a human being. They all are not monsters, but human beings. And yet, as they continue to dehumanize Jesus, they are effectively dehumanizing themselves. The men who had gathered that morning in the break room to punch their timecards now find themselves in a blurred crowd of inhumanity. Their jeers do not stop, though. Caught up in this drama of mockery, they are unable to recognize the depth of their own evil.

The soldiers head out now and happen upon Simon of Cyrene, who takes the cross from Jesus upon himself. A nice gesture, for sure, but the soldiers had compelled Simon to do so. He had not pushed himself to the front of the crowd so that he could somehow redeem the previous actions of his fellow men with a valiant display of effort and concern. For bearing one’s cross was an activity that seemed best avoided. Jesus had told his own disciples not too long ago: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (16:24). The disciples had wanted to be Jesus’ followers, but they hadn’t wanted to take up their cross, and so they had fled. Now, Simon of Cyrene has been picked to bear Jesus’ cross while the other Simon—the Simon who had gone on a camping trip with Jesus and who had offered to pitch a couple tents when things got weird and Moses and Elijah had showed up—is now noticeably absent. This new Simon is coming to Jesus’ aid now, to be sure, but he honestly is doing it because the soldiers had pointed their night sticks in his face while yelling brutishly, and thus his forced act of assistance furthers the drama of mockery against Jesus.

Things are really just getting worse. The bandits who have been suffering the same treatment on Jesus’ right and left perceive that they have a distinct opportunity to divert the attention of the few soldiers who are still paying attention to them if they just join in and berate the most despised among them. It’s one of those awful scenes where three nerdy schoolchildren are best friends and walk home from school together every day and help one another stand strong against their bullies. But then one day, one of the nerds does something cool at school, and all of a sudden he has an in with the popular kids. That day, on the way home from school, the bullies start heavily taunting the nerdiest of the nerds, and the now-kind-of-cool-nerd must decide whether to stay loyal to his best friend or whether to join in the taunting and remain kind-of-cool. Of course, he seizes the opportunity to elevate his status, and he hangs his friend out to dry. Similarly, the bandits do not join in solidarity with Jesus as all three hang there in agony. Instead, for their own sakes, the mocked bandits now become mockers as well as they echo the words of the chief priests: “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son” (Mt. 27: 43). The whole drama has escalated to such a tenor that the soldiers will not recant the story of the day to their wives when they go home. The parents in the auditorium know they will have to have a careful chat with their children about this Jesus play of theirs. It may even be necessary to send a strongly-worded letter to the school administrators concerning the terrible scenes that had been performed.

The time has come for Jesus’ solitary line. He has not said a word since the trial proceedings. He has been mocked and beaten, and yet he hasn’t said anything in such a long time. Now, though, he cries out: “‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (27:46). Those who are close to Jesus—the women standing by—are absolutely speechless. “What? What, Jesus? Really, Jesus? You’ve got it all wrong. Look around you! Look at the face of the man who flogged you. Take a second glance at the man who nailed you to the cross. It is they who are to blame. Cast the blame at them, Jesus, but leave God out of this.” But it’s not as if Jesus doesn’t know this. After all, he is the one who has endured blow after blow from these people. And yet it is not them whom he cries against; rather, he directs his address to God. “Eli, my God.” And although this God has supposedly forsaken him, God is still his God. Jesus claims continued allegiance with this God by the means of a possessive pronominal suffix. But his cry is loud, and it is despairing, and it is enough to jolt one of the bystanders out of the drama of mockery within which everyone else is still entrenched. It is as if this individual has been slapped by a good friend, and all of a sudden he or she is able to see how debased it all is. He or she runs to give Jesus a drink of sour wine. This sour, “vinegar” wine may not seem too appealing, but it was actually a popular drink in hot countries for refreshment and quenching of thirst.[3] The others, though, are unaffected. The soldiers take the opportunity to make a sarcastic comment about how maybe Elijah will come to save him. And they’re just so clever, and the whole crowd of them is like one big, hilarious boy’s club. But aside from them, someone has finally stepped out of the whole horrible scene to help Jesus, who cries out again and breathes his last.

The death of Jesus, though, is not going to be enough to enough to break this crowd out of their cycle of cruelty. It is going to take something earth-shattering to break through their thick-headed skulls. Appropriately, God sends an earthquake. The massive curtain is torn cleanly in two, the rocks are split, the tombs open, and the bodies of saints rise. It is in this scene that Matthew has spent his entire year’s theatre budget. There is a smoke machine, and they had installed these new flashy lights, and even hired a composer to provide the perfect musical backdrop. The kids run chaotically across the stage. In Golgotha, it is dark, and the terrain is now rutted and uneven, and the soldiers are terrified. The centurion and those with him hunker together as if they’re all in on some secret that not a one of them has said aloud. This is no longer the environment of a boy’s club and terrified still, they cry out: “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

The spell has been broken. The centurion and those with him begin to comprehend the gravity of what they have done; they have killed the Son of God. The children in the auditorium have done so as well. Some walk away that evening, muttering words like “macabre” and phrases like “fire that beast of a director” and “psychological counseling.” They have not been changed, and they will go on to crucify Jesus over and over again. As for the others, this death of the man Jesus has changed them. The soldiers begin to trudge home, confused. They sit on their swing sets until their wives call them in for dinner, just trying to make sense of it all in their heads. The schoolchildren are somber as well as they climb into their parents’ minivan for the ride home. Both the soldiers and the children ponder their loss of control in their dramas. They had been the main characters; they had mocked and abused Jesus until he died that day on the cross. The real question that lingered, though, is how they could have killed the Son of God and walked away, unharmed, to tell their story.

Truly, when we humanize these soldiers and the chief priests and the bandits, we are able to see that they are not monsters, but they are like us. They mocked God just as we mock God. They exploited the weak just as we exploit the weak. We understand. Although we would never tell our friends that we understand this, we do. We may substitute their standard issue Roman soldier capes for our own standard issue clothing of corporate America, but at the end of the day, how have we made a mockery of God and how have we made a mockery of the weak among us?

There is good news in this passion narrative, though. Although we don’t usually think along these lines, there is cause for much rejoicing found in this story as well. Ironically, as they hang Jesus on a cross and put a charge atop his head that reads, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews,” the soldiers enact God’s truth. Jesus is the King of the Jews. He is the King of the Gentiles as well. They have ironically enacted God’s divine drama, in which God turns this irony on its head by the means of God’s mercy. The soldiers’ actions of killing Jesus serve to secure the mercy that is then paradoxically extended to them. Mercy has trumped mockery. The soldiers are not in charge; God is in charge. When they kill the Son of God, they are not struck down by the spiraling heat of God’s wrath; rather, they walk away. God has extended mercy to them. The apostle Paul echoes this kind of scenario when he writes in 1 Timothy 1:13: “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Jesus Christ.” Both the soldiers and the apostle Paul were confused and they were grateful and they could only walk away to live in that mercy that had been extended to them. Let us, then, as a deplorable lot that is mired in our own ignorance and unbelief most of the time, be confused and grateful, and let us go now to live in that mercy that is offered to us as well. Amen.

[1] My envisioned audience for this sermon is a typical crowd in Goodson Chapel who would understand this not as a vulgar reference, but as a joke shared between friends when a level of comfort has been established.

[2] M. Eugene Boring. “The Gospel of Matthew.” In The New Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. VIII. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 488.

[3] Hans Wolfgang Heidland, “o;xoj.” Pages 288-289 in vol. 5 of Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Edited by G. Kittel and G. Friedrich. Translated by G. Bromiley. 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976).

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

"Lies that are not lies in the first floor bathroom"

Dear friends,

Whenever I use a particular divinity school bathroom, I get accused of something I did not do.

I tend to avoid this 4-stalled bathroom because it is small and thus hard for me pivot smoothly when my 50-pound backpack is extending 5 feet from my body. Also, the doors are swinging, saloon-style doors, and tall people's heads peek out over the top when they are standing. I do not like to see the top of someone's head while she is buttoning her pants.

However, I end up there sometimes. And then someone inevitably questions me of performing an act of which I am innocent. The first time this happened, I was washing my hands when I heard the loudest throwing-up noises I have ever heard in my life. It was clear that these noises were not coming from within the same room where I was, but from the individual bathroom directly adjacent to where I stood. I stood wide-eyed and horrified at first. I mean, these noises were incredible. I can't even imagine what was going on. But then I began to laugh a little. This, my friends, is why I am not called to be a pastor. I probably should have launched into "omg-someone-needs-my-help-and-I-am-going-to-find-him-or-her-and-administer-care" mode. Instead, I grinned widely and thought about how I must tell my friend who thinks watching people throw up is very funny.

However, while I stood there, being a huge jerk and drying my hands, someone else had apparently launched to "I-will-care-for-the-sick-because-I-am-kind" mode. She burst into the bathroom where I was and gasped: "ARE YOU OKAY?" (The sounds had stopped by this point). I said, "Oh, uhhh, that wasn't me. I am fine." She looked at me skeptically. She knew that I was lying because I was embarrassed, and she was going to prove it. "But I heard someone getting sick." "Oh yes," I said, "I heard that as well. I think it was someone next door." Her facial expression did not change. "Please stop accusing me of raucous vomiting," I thought. At this point, she apparently decided that I was not going to confess to my crime, and she departed, perhaps still on a search for the person in need, and I made a quick escape.

However, Having only had this one incident, I returned to this bathroom several weeks later. There was quite a commotion going on by the sinks while I was yet in the stall. Unnecessarily loud words were being exchanged by ladies with those ghastly backpacks that look like over sized purses. Then one of the loud ladies called out: "Oh no! I knocked over someone's coffee! Whoever you are, I'm sorry! I bumped it with my unnecessarily large purse!" I thought to myself, "Did I put my coffee mug on the counter by the sinks? No. No, I did not." Then, the girl in the stall next to me said, rather untheatrically, "oh no [giggle]." I then stepped out of the stall and made my way to the sinks. The woman at fault looked at me and said: "Oh gosh, I'm sorry for spilling your coffee!" Wanting to reassure her and provide a rationale for why I was not helping her mop up the spilled coffee, I said: "Oh don't worry, it wasn't my coffee." I continued to unresponsively wash my hands. As she kept mopping frantically with a large wad of nonabsorbent paper towels, she asked: "Can I pay you for the coffee?" "Hmm," I thought, "I thought I had thrown her off the trail when I told her that the coffee was not mine. Apparently not." "Oh, that was not my coffee," I said, a bit more forcefully. She did not seem convinced, so I fled the scene. Now, I have been walking around since the incident yesterday, feeling badly that I did not reassure her that it was no big deal and not to worry about it, I'd just go get a refill. But I did not respond in this appropriate way because it was not my situation to respond to. And yet I feel badly.

How silly.

I'm never going into that bathroom again.