For more than a month now—almost all of this Lenten season—I have been praying for Trayvon Martin’s family. Every day. I am a parent with two sons, ages 21 and 17. I know that if they were walking in the part of town where when you hit a red light you don’t stop, and if they were wearing a hoodie, and if they ended up dead with nothing on them but an ice tea and some skittles that I would not only be devastated and hurt, but angry. I’d want answers. I’d want the shooter locked up. And I’d be impatient with how slowly the wheels of justice seem to turn.
Even so, I know that when I try to put myself into the shoes of Trayvon Martin’s parents, there are limits to what I can comprehend. While I can identify with their pain as parents, I can never fully grasp the racial aspects and the old wounds that have once again been opened up here. I am a white middle-class cleric who serves as a volunteer chaplain to the Holden Police Department. I have never been falsely accused of a crime I didn’t commit, nor have I ever been the victim of a violent crime. All of that influences both what I can see and what I cannot see.
Some of you may have seen The Rev. Dr. Barry Black on the news a week or so ago. He, too is a cleric; a retired and decorated Navy Admiral who now serves as Chaplain to the United States Senate. He is also an African American who joined in a rally organized by congressional staffers to draw attention to the death of Trayvon Martin. I was mesmerized, but not surprised, when he shared the story of how he had been out walking near his home 25 years ago, after moving to San Diego as a young Naval Commander, when he abruptly found himself thrown on the hood of a car by the police. The police officer informed him…
…that they had received three phone calls that a suspicious person was walking through the neighborhood and they thought maybe he might be casing homes.
Every black male I know has a similar story to tell, although usually you have to pry it out of them. It’s as if they feel embarrassed by it. Chaplain Black said he didn’t even tell his wife when this happened; he just tried to forget it.
I have also been praying for George Zimmerman and his family. I confess that was harder to do in the first week or so, when I got sucked into the media frenzy and presumed his guilt. For a while I played judge and jury, even though I had no firsthand evidence of what transpired that night. It may yet prove to be the case that George Zimmerman should be arrested and tried in a court of law. But the point is that he has a right to such a trial. He has a right for all of the evidence to be heard and to present his case and a right to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise in a court of law. That’s how it works in this country, or at least how it’s supposed to work.
When I try to put myself into George Zimmerman’s shoes, the task is in many ways more challenging for me. I don’t live in a neighborhood where I feel unsafe. I imagine that if I did, I’d want to be part of a neighborhood watch program and I’d want to feel safe in my own home or walking to the grocery store. I imagine I’d be afraid a lot of the time and that gets pretty tiresome. In praying for George Zimmerman and for those who love him, I have found that I can identify with some of his pain too.
The truth is that life is complicated. We mostly tend to want to simplify things, and even to oversimplify them because we think that helps us to understand. We want things to make sense and so we reduce complexities to simpler narratives. Our tendency is to want to think fast and our twenty-four hour news cycle makes that tendency even more manic.
So in this case that has captured our attention as a nation it initially seemed to the Sanford police to be a simple case of a good guy standing his ground against a hooded bad guy in self-defense, as he tried to protect his neighborhood. That’s a plausible narrative. It happens...
And then outside of Sanford that story line changed rather dramatically and it quickly seemed crystal clear that this was a straightforward example of a hate crime: the killing of an innocent black teen by a white man. And sadly, that narrative also seemed all too plausible.
Yet as time has gone on, it now appears to be more complicated than that. There are witnesses and they don’t all agree in their testimony. There is physical evidence that needs to be further examined. There is some suggestion (and perhaps evidence) that Martin was in trouble at school and may have been using, and even dealing, drugs. Does that matter? Which one was yelling for help? Does that matter? On most of the evidence we just will need to wait, but of course by the time that all comes out we’ll have moved on to something else. Our cultural A.D.D. keeps us from delving deeper, and from asking the kind of questions that might bring about real social change and true justice.
The brain scientists tell us that our fast thinking is reactive, not reflective. And so if we mean to do the right thing then it is imperative that we learn to step back and breathe: that we slow down, wait, and reflect until new and better questions emerge. What lessons are to be learned here? Is “Stand Your Ground” a good piece of legislation or is some of the blood on the hands of a legislature that passed a bad law? How do we deal with the root challenges of poverty and racism in this country, especially in neighborhoods that feel so hopeless? What might a sane policy around handguns look like that respects the second amendment and yet reduces violence in America? None of those questions can be answered by slogans that can fit on a bumper sticker. But as a society we don’t seem to have time for that. So we resort to rhetoric and simple story lines. We divide into camps and we shout at each other.
I suppose I’m in danger of moving from preaching to meddling, if I have not already crossed that line. But I have been trying to sort through it all this Lenten Season and I know some of you have too As we come once more to familiar words from the fifteenth chapter of Mark’s Passion Narrative, I am struck at how quickly we tend to simplify this narrative too. Underneath all of the betrayal and denial and running there is raw fear as the violence escalates and the mob gets louder and more hostile. Here too is a complicated story that has people divided up into camps and shouting at each other. It all happens so fast, including the speedy trial that it is my task to reflect with you on this afternoon. And in the end, an innocent man is going to end up dead.
You know that is how it ends, right? I would be very surprised if there is anyone in this church today who is so new to the faith that she has never before heard the story. We come here—and this is especially true among the clergy types—with our settled atonement theologies and our Easter sermons mostly written already. We are ready to be on with that part; no need to linger over the death, right? We think we know the story. But we tend to hear it—all of us—through the structures of our preexisting narratives; through what we are certain we already know. And yet so much of what we assume we know would come as a big surprise to Mark—or for that matter Luke or Matthew or John or Paul as well.
Some will say this was the whole plan all along, from Genesis 1: God sends his Son to die for the sins of the world, because of the Sin of Adam. But if we aren’t careful, that simple narrative can sound like God is a child abuser. Others will play the blame game and say that the Jews killed Jesus. But that narrative scapegoats and demonizes God’s chosen people and makes it sound like God hasn’t kept his promise to the children of Abraham. It also forgets that the man on the cross is a Jew, born to Jewish parents, and that his friends were all in that Upper Room in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, not Easter.
It seems to me that our presumed theologies about what makes this Friday good can keep us from entering into the raw drama of the story itself, which is complex. Every year someone in my congregation will say, I just don’t get it. And my response is always the same: “Good! When you think you do, that is the time when I’ll start worrying! In the meantime try to live more fully into the questions.” So what might happen when we step back and breathe: when we slow down and wait and reflect until new and better questions emerge?
This day asks us to focus our attention on the Cross—not on our theologies about the Cross. It asks of us that we come and simply stand at the foot of the cross to gaze upon this dying man. And in so doing, to see ourselves and one another in a new light. We gather together on this day at the foot of the Cross, and that is something: young and old, male and female, evangelicals and progressives, gay and straight. In our differences we will no doubt see it all unfold from different angles and perspectives.
We do well to remember that none of us as individuals and none of us as separate congregations possess the whole truth about the meaning of this day. Do we dare to open ourselves up to God and each other—to be that vulnerable as we walk through the streets of this community and find our way into different houses of worship? Do we dare to let this complex story to take hold in our lives—this Jesus on this Cross who in some ways will always remain a mystery to us. Will we allow the Story itself to transform us and help us to write new, more authentic (and yes!) more complex narratives?
It is much easier, of course, to simplify the narrative so that it neatly fits into our Episcopal or Baptist or Lutheran or Roman Catholic or we-don’t-have-a-middle-name presumptions. But if we seek a larger purpose on this day, if we really do mean to be one in Christ at least for a few hours, then what would it take for us to hear this story in new ways, through a fresh set of ears, and to see what we may not have seen before through new eyes? How are we changed simply by hearing it in the presence of one another?
One of the things I am truly grateful for in this day is the slower pace and the quite time and the space that gives us to ponder such things in our hearts. Because it is in slowing down that we may gain new insights and perspectives on a familiar storyline. I like it that we stand in strange pulpits and sit in different pews. The de-centering can be a good thing, especially if it gives us eyes to see and ears to hear.
As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.
It all unfolds so fast, doesn’t it? According to Mark, Jesus never says a mumblin’ word. Why is that? Why doesn’t he set the record straight and tell Pilate that he’s only talking about something spiritual, that he is no threat the rulers of this world because he’s only interested in heaven?
Well, of course, the truth about the Reign of God that Jesus came to proclaim is far more complicated than that, isn’t it? Jesus never suggests that it is something merely spiritual, nor that it is a merely a place we go after we die. Like the mustard seed, God’s Reign of justice and love is present here and now, even if in small ways that need to be tended to and cultivated. It breaks into our everyday lives, like when a lost son finds himself making his way back home to a father’s embrace. Except that even as the veal piccata is being served to everyone, sibling rivalry rears its head and the so-called good boy, the dutiful son, suddenly experiences the shadow side of forgiveness and mercy. That’s how families are sometimes. Complicated.
Or what do you do when a person you fear and mistrust—a Samaritan—behaves like a neighbor, even as the people who go to your church rush on by and pretend they don’t see you. Such moments have the potential to rock our worlds and throw us into temporary disequilibrium. And yet they also open us up to the possibility of real grace and the new and abundant life that Jesus came to offer. That is the Reign of God. And when it breaks in and takes hold of us it changes our lives, and all things are made new again. It changes the way we live and think and act.
So, in fact, the Way of the Cross is actually a very real threat to Pilate and to all imperial power, and to all simple narratives and to all the forces of evil in this world that would corrupt and destroy the children of God. The Way of the Cross is a very real threat to the rulers of this age who think they are ultimately in charge. Jesus is a threat because he challenges his followers to ask big questions like, “how much of my life belongs to Caesar anyway? And how much of it belongs to God?” The powers-that-be don’t want such questions asked. And so, as we will soon see, they are about to silence the messenger.
My job today is to talk with you about this trial, but here’s the thing: the trial is a sham. There is no evidence. But that doesn’t mean that in the midst of all that false and conflicting testimony people aren’t certain about what needs to happen. I wish I could tell you that was the last time it happened in human history but it was not: an innocent man is going to death row. End of story. Minds are already made up.
Perhaps the nastiest side of human nature is this tendency to blame and scapegoat others. It is one of the ugliest things human beings do, in my opinion. None of us are immune from the temptation, either. In fact we seem to be living in times that have almost “normalized” this—talk radio and cable television seem to be more about shouting and yelling than informing.
And so when tragedy strikes, it must always be the fault of the liberals, or of the conservatives. Someone is to be to blame: Bush or Obama, the godless atheists or the religious fundamentalists. Gay people, who are a threat to the sanctity of marriage; or homophobes, who want to push all gay people back into the closet. Black people, white people, the third world, the first world, the young, the old, the lazy, the greedy, the unemployed, the Wall Street Bankers. Simple narratives, in which it is so clear who is at fault. Crucify them. Crucify them.
Jesus doesn’t say a word to Pilate. He doesn’t blame anyone. Instead, he silently stretches wide his arms of love to embrace the whole world: all of us saints and sinners. No one is exempted from the reach of that saving embrace. Or as another first century theologian put it: "For God so loved the world…”
Those words from the third chapter of John’s Gospel, found on the cover of today’s bulletin, are a truly radical, powerful, witness to the gospel: God so loved the (whole) world. No exceptions. Not just the Catholics or the Episcopalians or the Baptists. Not just the good Christians who come out to Church on Good Friday. Not just Republicans or Democrats, or Americans…but all the little children of the world, and their parents and grandparents too.
God so loved the world. Breathe that in today and if you take nothing else away with you, take that. Jesus dies even for cynical old Pontius Pilate, who plays the whole thing like the brilliant politician he is. God so loved the world that Jesus dies for Barabbas, a murderer who gets a get-out-of-jail free card. God so loved the world that Jesus dies for the crowd that cried out for blood and for the authorities that lied about him under oath. God so loved the world that there is enough love for both George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, both children of God—and for all who love them, and for all who hate them. God so loved the world that Jesus dies for you and for me. No exceptions.
How can we possibly respond to a love so amazing, so divine? It demands nothing less than “our souls, our lives, our all.” It requires of us that we try, with God’s help, to love as we have been loved—as a forgiven and reconciled people. Let us then pray:
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross, that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.