Were We There? Was I?


It is the day, the Saturday, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  Dead Saturday.  No, the church does not call it by that name.  It is part of Triduum, the three days of Jesus’ passion.  For him, it would have been Shabbat, but he was not there to observe it. He was dead.  In our society, it is mostly just a Saturday, notable perhaps because the kids are home from college and the supermarkets more jammed than usual because of Easter’s festivities.  There may be dyed eggs to hide and baskets to fill with candy.  For some it is another holiday emptied of inspiration but filled again with the duty of gathering with the family to endure the smiling criticisms and stinging comparisons with more successful offspring of the clan. For others, it is another weekend day alone because others are busy with family things.

This morning with coffee I went back to Maundy Thursday 2009 to read what follows, what I had written and preached for that evening.  Sometimes it helps me to look back and listen.

Were We There?  Was I?

Was I there when Jesus was crucified? The most obvious, unreflective answer is, of course, “No.” Jesus of Nazareth was crucified almost two thousand years ago. But the literal is not always the truest.

Sacramentally, I have been there many times and will be there again with you this evening. In my hands I will hold the symbolic elements of his humiliation, suffering, and death, and by taking those symbols of his broken body into my own living body, I will confess both that Jesus did it for me and, also, that he “had to” do it because of me. He did not “have to” do it, of course, except that he was compelled by his faithfulness to the unyielding love of God for this world and its people. By eating the bread and drinking from the cup, I will admit that I am the reason for his crucifixion in both senses: he did it for me, because God loves me, and he did it because of me, because of my alienation from God and from other people. I am both the beneficiary and the cause of his pain.

This evening, I am there, there in the flesh, as one loved by God and, at the same time, one alienated from God, still divided from other people, and still a long way from being the person God created me to become. So, here I am again, hoping and trusting that this simple ritual somehow brings me into closer contact with Jesus in his passion, somehow takes hold of me and brings home to me that terrible event on which my life, my hope, and my salvation depend.

But the sacramental is not enough. To be there with him, I need to find him crucified in my real world and not just in the peace and calm of the sanctuary, in the familiar words and actions of the sacrament. A crucifixion was very much an event of the flesh. It was torture and humiliation, very bodily. If God’s love and presence were incarnated (made flesh) for us in the birth of the baby Jesus, how much more so in the breaking of the man’s body? His crucifixion is the supreme incarnation of God’s love and presence. Humanity did not just get to see, hear, and touch him; we got to mock, torture, and kill him. We made the incarnation of God’s love suffer and die.

How can we go beyond the sacramental in being there when and where Jesus is crucified? I think we can start by realizing that Jesus suffered not only for this world but also with it. On the cross he represented God fully to us, in is own dying human body, and he also represented us to God, as the human put to shame and suffering in an unjust, often seemingly Godless world. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus of Nazareth dies with – in unity with – all the countless God-forsaken people in our world.

The sacramental is good, helpful, and sustaining, but it is not enough. We need to find him crucified in the real, everyday world around us. Once we understand, once our eyes have been opened and our ears unplugged, he is not hard to find. He’s there, every day, all around us in what theologians call the cruciform. What is the cruciform? Literally, it is anything in the shape or form of a cross, but in theology it refers to the many experiences of life people find themselves forced to share with the crucified Jesus, whether or not they realize they are sharing in his experience and he in theirs. Life is harsh and often most unfair by any reasonable standard of judgment, and people can be cruel. Sometimes people are quite actively and brutally cruel; at other times, they are more casual, even offhand, about their cruelties – dismissive of those made to suffer, of those cheated, of those left out.

The cruelties, brutal or polite, have this in common: they proceed by dehumanizing their victims. Did you notice as I read from the Gospel of Mark how much emphasis the passion narrative puts on the shaming of Jesus? Despite Mel Gibson’s bloody depiction, the gospels have far more to say about Jesus’ humiliation than about his physical pain. Crucifixion was designed as public shaming, to make an example of the rebel and so attach shame to anyone who would consider rebellion against the empire that people would turn away from following him. The would-be leader of the rebellion was to die screaming, cursing, and begging while being mocked and taunted the whole while, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days. Notice that Pilate is surprised Jesus has died so soon. For the person crucified, death is the savior that never comes soon enough.

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” That song comes from a human experience that is, indeed, cruciform because it was so dehumanizing and humiliating. To be a slave is to be, twenty-four hours every day, less than a person. We even debated the fraction of a person by which a slave should be counted so the slave states could get more voting power without having to admit the unthinkable, that slaves were people.

We are people and for the most part acknowledged as such, though not always. Go and stand with the unpopular, and you may find your status suddenly reduced to the level of theirs. There it is, the link that takes us beyond the sacramental. Empathy that comes from standing with and among as one of them the people regarded as shameful, as less than valid human beings, unites us with Jesus crucified. Empathy speaks of suffering shared not just pitied. We can indulge in pity from a safe distance, but true empathy requires interaction, dialogue, and identification. Jesus branded himself a sinner by hanging around with sinners, treating them with respect, and sharing the scorn they received from the commendable people.

At the Lord’s Table, I know anew that I am not one of the commendable people, those who live exemplary lives. Jesus made a practice of pointing out to the virtuous that they were not so commendable as they pretended to be. They were playing the role of exemplary people, and so they were actors, role-players, for which the gospels’ term is hypocrite. Here in the sacrament, I know again as I receive the symbols of his humiliation, that Jesus endured it willingly both for me and because of me. There is nothing commendable in my receiving the bread and wine, but there is grace, and there is hope. I believe there is also a challenge and a calling. As the followers of Jesus who put our trust in him, we need to be there, where he is being crucified. We can be there with him when we stop playing the role of exemplary and commendable persons and, instead, enter into the shame and grief of people whose experience of life is cruciform. For where they are, there he is also. Amen.

When God Becomes an Excuse for Not Trying to Prevent Slaughter


Mike Huckabee’s comments on the slaughter of children as well as adults in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut are not helpful.  By blaming the schools and the nation for supposedly banishing God from the classrooms, he’s done little more than make a preemptive strike against anyone who might raise the issue of gun control.  He’s offering an empty and naive argument at best about the fantasized connection between school prayer and lives transformed by faith, but he’s making it in an obnoxious way by implying that we have gotten what we deserve.  None of the families in Newtown deserves to be suffering the grief that has been inflicted upon them, nor do we as a nation deserve such horror because we have followed our Constitution in denying to one religion (mine) the power to impose itself in highly diluted form upon all children through a state institution.

I’m old enough to remember school day opening exercises that included Bible reading and prayer.  They did nothing to teach us faith or compassion, to make us better people more likely to get along with each other, or even to put the fear of God (or of hell) into us.  They were routine.  Some of us tried sometimes to “get something” out of them.  Some of us probably felt quietly estranged by being forced to participate in something that was meant to be meaningful but in which they and their families did not believe.  Sometimes kids made a joke of the whole thing.  Psalm 117 was read often, not because it was meaningful, but because it is the shortest psalm.

I remember from decades ago the bumper sticker I would see around the town in which we lived then: “God, guts, and guns made America great.”  Rah, rah.  Throw down a few more beers, do some chest thumps, and tell me what was great about the Friday of slaughter in Sandy Hook.

If we would look at the actual carnage that persists and seems to be increasing in our nation and if we could adopt a mentality of problem-solving, maybe we could stop reacting to each new tragedy by running to our opposite poles and shouting belligerent nonsense at each other.  Maybe we could take responsibility for trying to make ourselves into a better, safer society.  Maybe we could think and act like grownups.

Meanwhile, let me ask where God was on that Friday of terror and slaughter.  No, God was not punishing us for not imposing Christian cultural dominance upon public school children.  Neither did God need some little angels to perform celestial functions.  What happened in that school makes sense only to insanity, and unless we want to make our faith insane and ungodly, we must not try to make sense of it, to rationalize or justify it.  It was a cruciform event, meaning a horror that tears at the heart of God and should tear at our hearts as well.  For me as a Christian minister, the slaughter of the children is something in which I believe God sees and I must see also the crucifixion of Jesus, whom I believe to be God’s Son.  He suffered torture, humiliation, and execution at the hands of an empire made great by the gods, guts, and swords.

I believe that God has a long memory and that events in our past can be very present to God, which is what we Christians affirm when we share the Lord’s Supper.  On biblical and theological grounds, I believe God cannot separate that terrible Friday long ago when Jesus was crucified on the Hill of the Skull outside Jerusalem from Friday, December 14, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut.  Or from the day three little girls were killed in their church by a bomb, killed because they were black just as Jesus was executed because he was Jewish.  Or from the slaughter in Congo or Darfur or anywhere else on earth.  We have done it again.  From a Christian perspective, by doing it to the children and the adults in the school (God’s children all), we have done it again to him.

But we didn’t do it!  A mentally disturbed young man did it.  An exception to the rule, an outlier from the norm.  Perhaps we should call him a monster so we don’t have to identify ourselves with him.  Not one of us.  He didn’t even own the guns but took them from his mother whom he also murdered.  So it wasn’t a question of society’s putting guns directly into the hands of a mentally ill person.  We didn’t do it!

We aren’t going to take steps together to stop it from being copied and done again, either, are we?  We’re just going to retreat to our separate corners and shout ideological stuff at each other while the carnage is repeated in some other town and another and another and another.

Christians?  “As you have NOT done it for one of the least influential of these, my sister, my brother, you have NOT done it for me.”  Americans.  There is big money in weapons made for mass carnage, weapons designed for no other purpose.  There is also a sickness of mind, heart, and soul that equates having such weapons with being strong and manly.  “They’ll get my gun when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers.”  And a voice answers, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Can we do it?  Can we have a grownup conversation about gun violence?  Without demonizing gun owners or idolizing guns?  Without demanding all or nothing for our side?  Or will we wait for the next slaughter to blame each other again, thereby making sure nothing constructive happens? Or will we just pass the blame to God and our public schools?