Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Message that Cost Jesus His life


It’s Palm Sunday today--or Passion/Palm Sunday as it came to be called in some traditions several years ago. Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, what would be his final entry into the Holy, Jewish City, when a handful of easily excited fellow Passover pilgrims got all up in the air about the possibility that he was their long-awaited Messiah. In their excitement, they threw plant cuttings of some sort across the pathway on which his little borrowed donkey colt carried him into the Holy City to celebrate with as many Jews as could come to and squeeze into Jerusalem how their forebears had been led out of cruel slavery into a long wilderness sojourn and ultimately to freedom in a land they called “the Promised Land” because they said God had promised it to them and provided it for them in exchange for their faithfulness to God. Perhaps as the details of the theo-historical events were remembered by the Hebrew storytellers, everything came across a little more dramatic than it actually had been. For example, the whole lot of them hadn’t always been paragons of piety though many of them had suffered greatly to make it all forty years from escape out of Egypt to entry into the Promised Land; many of them, though, if they even made it all the way, were mostly angry with God during the forty years of walking in circles and repeating the same hopeful routes over and over again--naturally, without success. If a route doesn’t get you where you’re going the first time, it’s not going to get you there the second time or the twentieth time.

When the construction of the interstate system in Knoxville, Tennessee, the largest “big city” near Halls Crossroads, which was my home town, had just been finished, we had to go pick up Dad from work late one night because he worked overtime and therefore wasn’t able to leave with his carpool. By “we” I mean Mom, my sister Kim, and myself; my brother Greg would come along for several more years. Dad worked in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for the Atomic Energy Commission, but the city of Oak Ridge is more frequently remembered by American historians as the home town of Martha Ellen Ralls, the gutsy lady whom WE today call “Martha Brown.”

There were no shortcuts between Halls and Oak Ridge in those days; these days some segments have been shorted a bit by new road construction. Anyway, Dad called Mom to tell her we needed to come to pick him up and that she could shave off about ten minutes of her drive if she’d get on the new interstate near Fountain City and take the first exit she came to, so that’s what Mom tried to do. This story probably goes back 50 years as I was about 7 when it happened, maybe a little younger, and I’m now 57.

Mother did everything Dad had told her to do regarding navigation, but for some reason every time she took the exit it looped her right back up onto the interstate. It wasn’t clear how one was supposed to merge out of the far right lane into another lane that would take one to the road she or he presumably wanted to get to. Lots of passengers in cars pay very little attention to what’s going on outside the car, leaving that to the driver, but after a long while of everything looking exactly the same every time I looked up, I said to Mom, “Things really do look exactly the same out there,” and Mom started laughing almost uncontrollably. She said, “They sure do, and that’s because we’ve been driving around in circles for half an hour. I can’t get off this crazy interstate. Your Daddy is going to kill us when we finally get out there.” There were cell phones, no service station that she could figure out how to get to, and practically no other drivers to think about waving down for help.

I have no recollection at all as to how she finally got herself out of that repetitive mess, but once she did she announced that she’d never drive on the interstate again. Only rarely has she broken that vow. For your information, Dad wasn’t the least bit amused by Mom’s story when we finally arrived at the X-10 plant where he worked. He kept asking, “How in the world could you just keep going around in circles for more than thirty minutes?” She had no suitable explanation for him, but when she tried to say something, she repeatedly laughed so hard there were no clear words.

So the ancient Hebrews had the same kinds of experiences over and over again during their forty years in the desert; no matter how many times they walked the same pathways they saw no sign of civilization and ended up right back where they’d begun.

The cultural storytellers who remembered and told these stories to subsequent generations forgot about wasted steps and wrong turns. The further removed they were from the actual events, the more determined, resolute, and pious all the Hebrews getting out of Egypt were. It wasn’t so; several of my Mother’s spiritual forebears were out in that Sinai dessert laughing their fannies off at the fact that Moses who loved a lot about being the big boss kept taking them over the same wrong pathways over and over again.

Laughter aside, there was a powerfully sobering side to the Jewish feast of the Passover. They did, in fact, escape the Pharaoh’s cruel slavery, but their lives were at risk.

There’s more that lacks any possibility for humor. The very name of the Jewish feast commemorated to this day as a necessary part of remembrance for them is bone-chilling and tragic. As a part of the lore of how Passover came to be, there were memories of how the Pharaoh refused to let his Hebrew slaves go free. According to the ancient Hebrews there was a whole series of plagues that God Godself sent on the Egyptians to force open the Pharaoh’s ironclad clutch on the Hebrews. None until the last one worked. The final of these plagues was the most blood curdling. All the Hebrews in Egypt knew to splash the blood of a sacrificial animal above the entrance to their homes; this blood-sign protected them from the angel of death who came throughout all of Egypt at God’s command, they said, and killed all the first-born sons in homes lacking the splash of blood over their entranceways. You know who lost big time, don’t you? The Egyptians, of course, because, as the story was told, the Hebrews were God’s people, and God warned them to protect themselves with the splash of blood. None of the Egyptians knew so the angel of death killed firstborn Egyptian son after firstborn Egyptian son. The angel of death “passed over” (thus, “Passover”) all the Hebrew homes with animal blood splashed on the fronts of their dwellings.

I’m so grateful that we live in a time where we are able to look at a story like that and see it as a part of culture’s lore rather than an historic account that describes the nature of an angry god who works through, among other sources, natural acts such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and famines to communicate a divine point or as a way of stomping the divine feet to punish those who fail to live up to the divine standards and rules.

In any case, as the story went the Hebrews ate their last meal on the way out of Egypt in a hurry because they knew they had to go the very second Moses said so. Even in their grief, though a bit slow, the Egyptians could relatively quickly marshall forces to attempt to capture the escaping Hebrews. The Hebrews had to strike while the grief was hot, you could say.

I call the food the Hebrews ate while hurrying out of Egypt on their way to a place where they could be their own people “freedom food,” and we’ll be eating modern freedom foods at our Maundy Thursday meal this coming Thursday, a dish from each of several countries and cultures in the world struggling right now for a way to freedom.

This is what Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to celebrate with his sister- and brother-Jews as he rode into Jerusalem on the donkey colt. It was an annual event that they believed they dared not forget. Even if some of the details of the ancient story were tampered with and dramatized to try to make them more memorable if not more cliffhanging, the core is almost certainly true. The ancient Hebrews were enslaved, and they had to put their lives on the line in order to try to reclaim their freedom.

As Jesus rode the little donkey into Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, he didn’t enter as a free man; to the contrary. He and his sister- and brother-Jews were under the thumb of the mighty Roman Empire who gave them some religious freedom, but hardly a complete religious freedom; and certainly not widespread, full-fledged freedom. For Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries, freedom was more an ancestral memory and a hope than, for them, a present reality.


Many of us Silversiders celebrate today with our sister- and brother-Delawareans who saw a brighter relational future for themselves signed into law this past Thursday when the Delaware House approved a law already given thumbs up by the State Senate that will allow same gender couples the rights of Civil Union. It’s not an approval of same gender marriage, but it is the younger sibling of same gender marriage.

The First State became the eighth state plus the District of Columbia to take a stand on relational freedom for lesbian and gay persons. Throughout its 150 year history, Silverside Church has always celebrated and rejoiced the realization of any and every act of justice. Gay and lesbian Delawareans are freer today than they were at breakfast on Thursday morning. They will be freer still when Governor Markell, who openly supports the move, signs it into law. And they will be freer still come January when all authorized marriage officiants in the state--clerks of the peace, clergypersons, ship captains, and judges--will be able to seal a Civil Union when both individuals are of the same gender. I very much look forward to that day.

Coming this far has been a long and arduous journey for many same-gender couples in our state. I have a very fine therapist with whom I consult when life begins to feel a little too heavy at times. She is very good at her job. Her name is Frann Anderson; she is a clinical social worker. She is a lesbian, and she and her partner have been together for a quarter of a century. The two of them have been working for full civil rights for Delaware lesbian and gay persons for sixteen years. She called me on Friday and said, “It’s a great day to be gay in Delaware.” Of course, she was responding to what happened Thursday in Dover.

This is what happened as Reuters reported it:

Delaware governor Jack Markell is expected to sign into law a bill that will make the state the eighth to recognize civil unions for same-sex couples, his office said on Friday. The Delaware House of Representatives passed the previously approved state Senate bill 26-15 on Thursday. The legislation amends the present code on civil unions to include two individuals of the same sex. It stops short of extending the definition of marriage to include same-sex unions, nor does it require religious institutions to conduct ceremonies for same-sex couples. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, California, Oregon, Washington, Maine, Hawaii, Nevada, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia recognize at least some of the legal rights of domestic partnerships.

Silverside Church has always, always, been on the side of justice; equal rights for all people including relational rights for all consenting adults are justice issues. I’m delighted that our church welcomes lesbian and gay as well as straight participants. Wanting and helping people to be free is at the core of what we’re about. I would not serve as pastor of a church that refused to welcome homosexual persons into full participation in every aspect of the church’s life, just as many of you--straight or gay--wouldn’t participate in a church that discriminated in any way against gay and lesbian persons. As we celebrate this just act, let us not imagine that homophobia died in our state on Thursday.

I was giving last minute pointers to my basic speech students who are preparing their final speeches of the term; the final speeches happen to be persuasive speeches. I was showing the class how Dr. King introduced his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which public speaking professionals routinely classify as the greatest speech delivered in any venue in the United States during the twentieth century. The speech is truly a work of rhetorical art.

As we came across his reference, in his introduction, to that massive gathering in Washington, DC, in 1963, Dr. King called it the event that would go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom for all people in American history. This class met Friday morning, and the events of Thursday were fresh in my mind. I spoke of the approval of Civil Unions for lesbian and gay persons as an act of freedom for one group in our society running behind persons of color in terms of full freedom. At that point one of my students who is rather gifted as a speaker and who happens to be African American said in a way that sounded mocking and condescending of gay and lesbian persons, “Well, there sure are a lot of them around here.” The professor and the other students froze. I didn’t know what to say at first, and when I thought of what I wanted to say, it would have been the wrong thing. What I thought to myself, though, was, “Young lady, just a few, few years ago you wouldn’t be allowed admission into hardly any institution of higher learning, and when that opportunity would come to you you’d be sitting in a classroom with all your classmates and your professor being African American only because you would not be thought of as someone who had the same value as a white student. I wonder when rights for persons of color began to be fought for seriously in this country, if some racist in the deep south, in my home town for example, didn’t say in response to any legal victory for African Americans, “Well, there sure are a lot of them around here.”

Freedom is something to celebrate. Justice is something to turn backflips about. They are never possibilities or realities to sneer at and only affirm when their realization benefits you personally. “There sure are a lot of them around here.” How rude!

True enough, though. Not everyone in Delaware or around the country began celebrating Thursday.

The Emancipation Proclamation was a Freedom Document, but it didn’t stop slavery in its tracks. It started a domino-like process that took a long, long time to get around to every state in the union; even then, with slavery made illegal, the Caucasian majority limited the rights of persons of color for years and years and years. Still, even now with full civil rights for persons of color both guaranteed and protected by the laws of the land, racism is far from being an ancient relic displayed behind thick glass as a museum piece to go and have a look at what once was. Slavery is no more in this country, but racism is as ripe as the apple you savored the other day.

James Weldon Johnson was an amazing American who happened to be a person of color. Talent and intelligence seeped from him whether or not he was trying to demonstrate or use them or not. He wrote a poem about the long, hard struggle for full freedom people of color in this country had to endure, and it was written long before the Civil Rights Movement.

The poem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” was first presented publicly in 1900 when 500 students of color at a segregated school where Johnson happened to be the principal recited his poem to celebrate President Lincoln’s birthday and to welcome a distinguished guest to their school, Booker T. Washington. James Weldon Johnson’s brother, Joe, set the stirring poem to music in 1905, and in 1919 the NAACP named it the “Negro National Anthem.” I love the the music and the words; it’s in our hymnal, but I always feel uneasy when we sing it because most of us Caucasians know nothing really of the struggle of people of color; and I think we white folk might do better to listen only to this one. Or maybe the song could be adapted in focus with Professor Johnson’s blessing, were he still living in this realm, for any group of people who ever had to fight for a freedom that was withheld from them because of a fact of their birth that couldn’t be changed: ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical or mental limitation--anything that would allow a power group to rob someone of her or his full freedom because of something over which she or he could have absolutely no control.

Lift every voice and sing,

'Til earth and heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise

High as the listening skies,

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march on 'til victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,

Bitter the chast'ning rod,

Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;

Yet with a steady beat,

Have not our weary feet

Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,

We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,

Out from the gloomy past,

'Til now we stand at last

Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,

God of our silent tears,

Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;

Thou who has by Thy might

Led us into the light,

Keep us forever in the path, we pray.



Jesus didn’t have to die to win God’s favor on behalf of the rest of humanity, those who came before him or those who would come after him. The fact is, Jesus didn’t have to die at all, from God’s point of view. God did not will Jesus’ death.

The fact is, Jesus didn’t have to die at all until he reached the end of his body’s ability to sustain necessary biological functions. In other words, he should have lived to a ripe old age.

Jesus’ death was a repulsive, unjust execution by a half-competent bureaucrat with deeply ingrained prejudices against all Jews. Pilate, the Roman-appointed governor over the Jews who lived and visited in Jerusalem, was in Jerusalem at Passover time because his job required it of him. The Emperor, Tiberius Caesar, required it of him. To him, Jesus was one more worthless Jew; they were all the same to him, seriously.

Jesus didn’t die to save us from our sins; what a horrible, ghastly, sickening notion. Jesus died because Pilate became convinced that Jesus had the ability to instigate a Jewish uprising against Rome while so many Jews were gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.

Jesus preached a message of freedom to a people who were not free people, and in order for them ever to become free they would have to take on Rome militarily speaking; or, at least, that’s the only way Pilate could imagine it could happen. He knew for a fact that Rome wasn’t going to give the Jews their freedom as a gift for good behavior. Honestly, the more rabble rousers he could be rid of, the better for the Roman Empire, and maybe the Emperor gave him perks for doing away with the trouble makers.

Jesus wasn’t your average troublemaker, though. He was more like a persistent thorn in the side of people and an institution that wanted to sustain and justify that absence of justice robbed from the Jewish people, though they did give the Jews some limited freedoms as long as they didn’t interfere with or interrupt anything beloved or protected by Rome. Therefore, Jesus didn’t really disturb the Romans until he began preaching the possibility of freedom to a people who weren’t free.

Jesus was in a long line of such bold and brash risk takers and dreamers.

How dare you, Moses! How dare you tell the Hebrews that they didn’t have to be slaves to the Egyptians any more.

How dare you, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs! How dare you tell your sister- and brother-Germans and through them the rest of the world that same-gender love is normative for some in the human family years before anyone had ever penned the word “homosexual”! How dare you tell them that the world doesn’t have to be a world in which gay and lesbian persons must be second class citizens and the butts of crude jokes and hidden in the shadows to be kept away from respectable heterosexuals! How dare you cause them to believe that there are societies where their freedoms can be full and complete, not limited and compromised!

How dare you, Harriet Tubman! How dare you tell slaves, legally owned by White and Black Americans, that they could be free!

How dare you, Jocelyn Andersen! How dare you tell fundamentalist Christian women that they are not bound by God or by scripture to submit to or return to physically and emotionally abusive husbands!

How dare you, Demi Lovato! How dare you tell kids who don’t fit in where they are that they don’t have to tolerate bullying ever again. You’re just a kid yourself with problems of your own; go away and take care of those. Don’t you dare make these misfit kids and teens believe that they have the same rights all kids have!

How dare you, Mohammed ElBaradei! How dare you tell modern Egyptians that President Mubarak’s freedoms are being dolled out to the few and not to the masses! How dare you tell the masses that they, too, can be fully free!

How dare you, Jesus! How dare you make your contemporary Jewish sisters and brothers believe that they would not forever be bound by Rome and that the love of God, yeah the Empire of God, would be one day overtake Rome and call all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, to be fully free--spiritually, politically, and in every other way. How dare you!

This was the message that cost Jesus his life! If you want to know why Jesus died, I’m telling you why right now. There was no other reason. He did not die for your sins or to save you from your sins. He died because he wouldn’t stop preaching the possibility of freedom for all people, including the Jews along with him held captive by Rome.

We have this horrible human trait. It shows up again and again in history, ancient and modern. The free folk want to limit who gets to be free with them. The leaders and the rulers at the top of the heap want to protect all their freedoms and then limit every person or program who might now or in the future interfere with their privileges. If you don’t believe I’m telling you the truth, I want you to read a summary of the budget cuts being proposed by our government leaders over against the programs they will happily let slide if they can at all. I’ve never seen a more self-serving process since Jim and Tammy Faye were begging for money on television so they could live like royalty and even air condition their dog house with money that was promised for the poor. I’m all for animal comfort, and anyone who knows me knows that’s absolutely the case; but their dog or dogs could have lived in their mansion in their own room and never interfered with the high old life the Bakkers were living with the dollars they were raising supposedly to support the needy around the world.

Listen again to what the God of the prophet Hosea said to his errant fellow Hebrews. God wasn’t eternally angry with them and planned no eternal punishment for them. The God of Hosea knew nothing of a hell; that was a concept dreamed up much later by those who didn’t think a painful death was adequate punishment for the despots and the serial killers of the world.

The people to whom Hosea preached, and certainly Hosea himself influenced the preaching of Jesus, were people who would know freedom again despite the circumstances in which they found themselves. The heart of Jesus’ message sounded a lot like much that Hosea said:

I will heal their disloyalty; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them. I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily [which should be translated “iris”], he shall strike root like the forests of Lebanon. His shoots shall spread out; his beauty shall be like the olive tree, and his fragrance like that of Lebanon. They shall again live beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom like the vine, their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon.

This is a beautiful message that says all of God’s people who have ever lost their freedom because of something they did that was clearly their fault or because of forces completely beyond their control will have it restored. Hosea’s God even says, “I will heal their disloyalty, and I will love them freely.” In other words, God will not wait around in a snit for people to fix problems to which they contributed individually or collectively or problems that others created for them. God will fix the problem, even if the problem has been disloyalty to God and will love the culprits as well as the innocent victims freely.

People who know they’re loved can be free; those who believe that are not loved can never be free even though their laws may say they are. Hosea’s God said, the people whom God blesses will be like the dew that falls over the whole nation of Israel. What could be freer than the morning dew, and what could there be more of than dew that covers everything on the ground of a whole nation?

All the images from the prophet Hosea here are of free and joyous people, people who flourish like young olive trees sprouting branches, like wild irises sprouting up all over the place. Ethel Merman’s great-great grandmother is singing, “Everthing’s coming up irises; let’s give thanks for all that is!”

Rome said, “The Jews may never be free. We are eternal, and the Jews may serve our needs eternally. If they are ever free, it is ours to say. This rabble rouser who is preaching a freedom that exceeds what Rome controls should be done away with; any excuse will do, really. A complaint from a few Jewish leaders that Pilate normally would have ignored all together he turned into a charge of insurrection and treason, crimes punishable by death--crucifixion to be precise. There was no theological reason for Jesus’ death; it did not make the world a better place and did not win many more people to God’s causes.

Jesus’ death was a tragedy, not a triumph. God would say that death wouldn’t be the final word about Jesus or about any of us relationally tied to God, but only misguided, however sincere, folk venerate the death of Jesus, his execution by crucifixion, which he suspected he faced soon after he rode his little borrowed donkey into Jerusalem. That did not slow him down, however. He would preach freedom as long he had breath. That’s why he died.

If Jesus’ died with the message of freedom on his lips, though political freedom was denied him throughout his lifetime, should anyone who embraces the principles of Jesus as best we can understand them have to live without freedom? The clear answer is no. Notice that Jesus didn’t put military forces in place to gain anyone’s freedom, including his own. We might learn a lesson from that; there are other ways to win freedom.