Children of our Time

Known as “Spy Wednesday” in some traditions, the Wednesday of Holy Week is observed in a variety of ways. Holy Wednesday, for instance, is the traditional night for Tenebrae, an ancient monastic tradition of meditating on Christ’s Passion in darkness. It also happens to be the culmination of a slightly less ancient tradition known as “Lent Madness.”

Lent Madness is the brainchild of an Episcopal priest who noticed that the Christian season of penitence and renewal usually coincides with the NCAA Basketball Tournament (known colloquially as “March Madness”). Seeing an opportunity to educate people about the Christian faith, this creative cleric applied March Madness’ tournament bracket to the lives of the saints. The idea behind Lent Madness is pretty straightforward: 32 saints go head to head in a single elimination tournament bracket in which people vote for their favorite saint. The tournament continues (through the “Saintly Sixteen,” “Elate Eight,” and “Faithful Four”) until two remain to compete for the “Golden Halo.” It’s good fun, and is a wonderful way to learn about the lives of the saints: those who lived their lives knowing that they had been transformed by the grace of God.

imgresThis year’s matchup for the Golden Halo is a clash of the titans: Julian of Norwich vs. Dietrich Boenhoffer. Julian was a 14th century Christian mystic. Though she lived at a time when women were barred from positions of authority in the Church, she was regarded as a spiritual leader in her community. In spite of the fact that she lived in a tumultuous and uncertain time, her theological vision was characterized by a profound and abiding sense of God’s faithfulness and providence. This is encapsulated beautifully by what is perhaps her most famous statement: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

imgresDietrich Boenhoffer lived in a similarly tumultuous time. A founding member of the Confessing Church in Germany, Boenhoffer was a theologian, pastor, and dissident who, unlike many other clergy in the 1930s, actively resisted the Nazi regime. He was executed by the Nazis in 1945. Boenhoffer implicitly understood that the Christian life is fraught with peril and sometimes brings us face to face with the evil powers of this world:

There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security… Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God.


Though it was an accident of voting, the fact that these two saints are competing for the Golden Halo is almost providentially appropriate for our world today. Every day, we hear of violence throughout the world: from Brussels to Anakara to Yemen to Istanbul to Baghdad. Every day, we hear of people risking their lives to seek refuge from terrorism, only to be turned away because of fear and prejudice. Every day, we hear political rhetoric that is an affront to human decency. The fabric of our humanity seems to be fraying.

In the midst of this tumult, the clarion voices of Dietrich Boenhoffer and Julian of Norwich call out in the words of the psalmist: “Put your trust in God.” During Holy Week, we remember that God experienced the absolute depths of human frailty and sin, that God witnessed us renounce our very humanity. At the same time, we also affirm that God redeemed even our inhumanity. The cross reveals a fundamental truth that animated the lives of both Dietrich Boenhoffer and Julian of Norwich: even when everything appears to have fallen apart, everything still belongs to God.

I won’t be voting for the Golden Halo this year. I can’t choose between two people who speak so prophetically to the Church and the world today. I will, however, give Julian the last word, and invite you to remember it as you meditate on the mystery of Christ’s Passion: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

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Saving our Lives

Sermon on Mark 8:27-38 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

In 1954, producers Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster had an enviable problem. Put simply, their movies were too successful. Hecht-Lancaster Productions made so much money 1954 that the studio was concerned about the size of its tax bill come April 15th. They came up with an admittedly creative solution to this predicament. They decided toproduce a movie that was guaranteed to flop, so that the production costs could be written off as a capital loss. In theory, the plan was airtight: Hecht hired a relatively unknown writer to adapt his failed TV script into a full length feature, and Lancaster cast what he described as “two ugly people” in the lead roles. The producers were so confident that the movie would fail that the studio had an accountant on the set specifically charged with ensuring that the production lost enough money. When Marty was released, Hecht and Lancaster were sure that they had accurately understood the moviegoing public, that no one would be interested in watching two ordinary people fall in love.

marty-posterAs you probably know (or have at least guessed), the studio could not have been more wrong. Indeed, Marty was adored by both critics and the public. Not only was it a smash hit, it earned an Academy Award for Best Picture and became only the second American film to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Marty established Paddy Chayevsky, that unknown screenwriter, as one of the most talented screenwriters in Hollywood and made Ernest Borgnine, one of those two ugly actors, a household name. As it turns out, audiences found Borgnine and his co-star Betsy Blair far more relatable than typical Hollywood stars. Moreover, they were compelled by the film’s ultimate message: true love really is for anyone. Even though the producers thought they understood the public, their expectations were confounded. Even though their plan was, to their minds, foolproof, things turned out precisely the opposite way they anticipated.

Our reading from Mark’s gospel this morning reminds us that ours is a God who confounds expectations. While Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah is an important moment in all the gospels, it is of particular significance in Mark. This is the pivot point of Mark’s gospel: not only is this the moment that the disciples finally recognize Jesus for who he is, it is also the moment that the narrative begins its inexorable progression toward Jesus’ passion and death in Jerusalem. It’s clear that this is not at all what Peter or any of the other disciples expect. When Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter sounds supremely confident: “You are the Messiah.” There’s no hesitancy, there’s no equivocation. Peter is sure that Jesus is the anointed successor of David. So it’s no surprise that Peter bristles when Jesus tells the disciples that the Messiah “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.” Mark tells us that Peter rebukes Jesus, presumably saying something to the effect of, “No no no Jesus; you have it all wrong. The Messiah isn’t supposed to die! What’s the matter with you?” Peter cannot imagine that the redemption of God’s people could come through rejection and death. Peter cannot conceive of a God who would reveal himself on a Roman cross. Peter, in other words, cannot fathom the paradox at the heart of the Christian faith: that an instrument of shameful death has become for us the means of life.

Needless to say, Peter is not the only one who has had difficulty understanding this paradox. Indeed, Christians have wondered for centuries how Jesus’ identity as the Messiah is related to his passion and death. Jesus begins to illuminate this relationship when he says to the crowd, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Now traditionally, this text is read as a call to martyrdom, a proclamation that Christians must be willing to lay down their lives for the gospel. Those who embrace this reading are continually on the lookout for a cross to bear, a burden that they can ascribe to their discipleship. But this interpretation ignores the fact that Jesus Christ is the one who bears the cross for our sake and for the sake of the world, that he has accomplished something that no one else can. Jesus explains what this is in the very next sentence: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” More than calling his disciples to die for their faith, Jesus is affirming that the more we try to control our lives, the more out of control they will feel. The more we try to maintain our conception of what our life ought to be, the more unable we are to live the life that we have. This statement of Jesus recognizes that when we strive to preserve the life we have at all costs, things will turn out precisely the opposite way we anticipate. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ have liberated us to appreciate that life is not a commodity to be hoarded, but a gift to be fully experienced.

imgresThis is more than a metaphor. Last year, Atul Gawande, a surgeon and bestselling author, published a book called Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Gawande’s simple, yet powerful thesis is that over the last century, medicine, for all its advances, has failed to prepare people for the reality of death. Too many have ended their lives in agony, undergoing treatments that offer only a sliver’s chance of benefit. In many cases, focusing on survival leads people to forfeit the life they have remaining. To illustrate his point, he cites one study of patients with terminal cancer in which those who went on hospice tended to live longer than those who continued to receive treatment. As he puts it, “the lesson seems almost Zen: you live longer only when you stop trying to live longer.” We might put it another way: “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

This gospel is profoundly countercultural. We live in an age and in a culture in which acquisition is of paramount importance. Our culture demands that we accumulate in the name of security, that we always think about what to acquire next, that we see everything in our life as a commodity to be collected. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ call us to recognize that when we live our lives this way, things will turn out precisely the opposite way we anticipate. Rather than preserving our life, our preoccupation with acquisition leads us to squander what is truly important. We are called to let go of those attachments that draw us away from the love of God and live gospel-centered lives. One of the best ways to do this is to be disciplined about focusing on what matters most by making a rule of life that allows us to experience life as a gift. Rules of life can be simple or complex, but they all have the same purpose: to help us stop the endless and ultimately fruitless cycle of striving for whatever comes next. Intentionally making room for God and for what matters most allows us to live our lives more fully than we ever thought possible.

Unbalanced

Sermon on John 3:14-21 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be found here

Astrophysicists tell us that after the Big Bang, the universe was a primeval soup made of light.  From this soup emerged particles of matter, the substance of everything that exists.  Because of a physical law known as the law of conservation of charge, equal amounts of something called antimatter were also produced.  Antimatter is measurably the same as matter, except for one important distinction: it has an opposite charge.  As a result, when matter and antimatter come in contact with each other, they are annihilated.  Now, you can probably see how this is a problem.  If there is an equal number of matter particles and antimatter particles, then the universe cannot exist.  But here’s the astonishing thing that physicists can’t quite explain: for every billion particles of antimatter, there are a billion and one particles of matter.  This infinitesimal bias toward matter is the reason we are all here right now.  To put it another way, the universe as we know it would not exist without this fundamental imbalance.

452a93d93e5e881b45afb170badc4de3This morning, we heard what is almost certainly the most well-known passage of the New Testament. John 3:16 is virtually ubiquitous in our culture. It can be seen on signs at sporting events and on fast food packaging. Many Christians consider it “the gospel in a nutshell,” a shorthand for the saving work of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, the singular popularity of John 3:16 has caused us to forget that it comes from a much larger narrative.  And because this verse has been divorced from its context, it has also been robbed of its power.

Last week, we heard the story of Jesus turning over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple and insisting that the house of God was not a marketplace. In this action, Jesus challenged one of the deeply held assumptions of the Jewish Law: the belief that the reconciliation of God to his people required the restoration of balance. The reason that there was a marketplace in the Temple was so that sinners could purchase the sacrificial animals and other materials necessary for them to pay the debts incurred by their sin and be blameless under the Law.  The entire Temple system was predicated on this specific understanding of judgment: the idea that sin upsets a delicate balance that must be restored through sacrifice and acts of contrition.  By disrupting the Temple economy, Jesus challenged this fundamental assumption about the nature of God.

In the passage we heard this morning, Jesus is speaking with someone who is thoroughly steeped in the worldview represented by the Temple system.  It’s no accident that the interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus the Pharisee appears where it does in John’s narrative.  Immediately after Jesus challenges the Temple economy of balance, one of the representatives of that system comes to Jesus in order to discern the nature of his mission.  What Jesus tells him is nothing short of astonishing: “God did not send the Son into the world in order to condemn the world.”  The word our version translates as “condemn” can more accurately be rendered “judge.”  In other words, Jesus affirms that God did not come into the world for the purpose of judgment.  While this statement may not seem radical to us, it represents an entirely new way of understanding the nature of God. Judgment was central to the Jewish Law, because the Law was all about maintaining the delicate balance between sin and righteousness. The Law was essentially about maintaining equilibrium; it prescribed specific acts of contrition for particular violations. Judgment was the underlying rationale for the Temple system, for the religious establishment, and for the way that people related to God. In this conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus rejects this understanding of God and insists that his mission is not about restoring balance or somehow providing an antidote to unrighteousness.  God’s purpose in the incarnation was not to restore the balance between sin and righteousness or good and evil; it was to transcend these categories altogether.

It is here that we can begin to grasp the true power of John 3:16.  According to this famous verse, Jesus Christ’s mission is to manifest the love of God.  Love transcends the very idea of balance.  Judgment assumes symmetry, that the scale will be level.  Love, however, is asymmetrical, wasteful, unconcerned with the idea of balance. There is no counterweight to love.  brsnake1This is part of why Jesus appropriates the story of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness.  In the passage from Numbers, the instrument of punishment and the instrument of redemption are one and the same.  There is no “anti-serpent” that will restore balance by negating the effects of the poison.  John uses this example to articulate that the cross, an instrument of shameful death and punishment, will also become the means of redemption. Jesus does not try to bring balance by combating or providing a counterweight to the evil powers of this world. Rather, Jesus overwhelms and transcends these powers by willingly subjecting himself to death on the cross. The cross is the ultimate expression of God’s love because it is fundamentally unbalanced. This asymmetry invites us into a new way of being.

Most of the world’s religious and quasi religious traditions assume that the delicate balance of the universe has been upset and needs to be restored.  Good needs to be balanced by evil, righteousness needs to be balanced by sin, light needs to be balanced by dark.  All of these antitheses are a way of grappling with the great human dilemma: the harsh and unavoidable reality that life seems to balanced by death.  The problem with this balanced perspective is that it automatically leads us to think about the world in terms of categories.  We spend our time and energy discerning who or what is in or out, what side of the scale they represent.  The Christian witness, however, points to a very different understanding of the world. As Christians, we affirm that God’s asymmetrical love both transcends and encompasses all binary categories. There is no condition that is unaffected by God’s abundant and unbalanced love: not darkness, not sin, not even death.  This is the ultimate power of John 3:16: it is an everlasting pledge that there is nothing that can alienate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

This week, our community has grieved the tragic death of Cayman Naib.  In many ways, our response has been predictable: we have tried to figure out why Cayman took his own life and we have asked questions about the pressure we put on our children.  These responses have their place, but they are ultimately rooted in a worldview predicated on balance. These questions assume that if we do everything right, we can restore balance and prevent this from happening again.  As Christians, however, we are called to view Cayman’s death not as a problem to be solved but as a tragedy to be mourned. More importantly, we are called to entrust Cayman to the God whose love transcends both life and death. In our grief, we are called to reaffirm our trust in the words of our burial liturgy: “whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” We are called, in other words, to cling to the fundamental truth of the gospel, that there is nothing that has the power to separate us from God’s abundant and unbalanced love.

Unlike the Ones I Used to Know

Sermon on Luke 2:1-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA on Christmas Eve, 2014.  Audio for this sermon may be found here.

images“It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”  So ends A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’ story about Ebenezer Scrooge and his overnight conversion from grumpy malcontent to jolly humanitarian.  When Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, it is unlikely that he could have imagined how ubiquitous his little parable and its protagonist would become.  Scrooge’s story has become an indelible part of our culture: ensembles as diverse as the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Muppets have presented adaptations of this “ghost story of Christmas.”

In spite of its omnipresence, there is something very curious about the way we remember the Dickens classic.  Though it ends with Scrooge amending his ways by making a generous donation to charity, reconciling with his nephew, and giving Bob Cratchit a raise, we remember Scrooge as the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” that Dickens introduces at the beginning of the story.  We ignore Scrooge’s Christmas Eve conversion and focus instead on his previous identity as a misanthropic miser.  Why else would “Scrooge” be the near-universal epithet for anyone who does not enjoy the Christmas season?

Our failure to remember Scrooge’s conversion is a symptom of a larger reality: as human beings, we have a hard time believing that anyone can change.  If we encountered Ebenezer Scrooge after his transformation, I suspect that most of us would cynically wonder what his angle was.  We tend to live our lives according to maxims like “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” or “a leopard doesn’t change its spots” or “there’s nothing new under the sun.”  This inherent suspicion is a form of self-preservation; if we refuse to trust that anyone or anything can change, then we can never be hurt.  If we refuse to acknowledge that new things are possible, then we can continue to live our lives in the same way we always have.

Tonight, however, we hear an angelic announcement that something new has happened, that our world has changed, that life will no longer be the same.  It’s easy to be preoccupied by the familiarity of Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, to be distracted by the images of swaddling clothes and heavenly hosts, and to listen nostalgically for the dulcet tones of Linus Van Pelt of the Charlie Brown Christmas instead of the “good news” at the heart of this story.  When the angel of the Lord says, “behold, I bring you good news of a great joy,” one might think that he is merely providing information, that this is the first century equivalent of “breaking news.”  But the word that we translate as “good news” refers to much more than new information; it is the same word that was used to announce the birth of a new emperor.  Luke implies that Christ’s birth represents a fundamental change in the political reality of the world.

imgresThough Luke describes the birth of Jesus with a word typically associated with social upheaval, the political situation in the world doesn’t seem to have changed all that much.  After all, Luke reminds us that Augustus is the emperor of Rome and that Quirinius is the governor of Syria.  There’s no indication that either leader is on his way out or that the time is ripe for the arrival of a new king.  In fact, Augustus reigned for more than twenty years prior to the birth of Jesus and would rule for twenty years more.  If anything, Luke implies that Jesus is born during a time of great political stability.  It was a time a time when Rome’s power was largely unchallenged at home and completely unrivaled abroad.  It was a time when the Emperor was so feared that he could arbitrarily order people to the towns of their birth in order to conduct a mostly meaningless census.  It was a time when the Jewish people were aware and reminded frequently that their tenuous right to worship one God could be revoked without any warning.  All of this makes one wonder how the birth of Jesus could possibly be “good news.”  A tiny child born in a backwater province couldn’t possibly challenge the most powerful empire the world had ever known.  By worldly standards, the birth of Jesus would change nothing: tyrants would persist in forcing their will on the weak and the world would continue as it always had.

But this assumes that Jesus was a typical king. Luke goes out of his way to illustrate that Jesus was not a typical king.  While most worldly rulers are heralded by military parades and housed in magnificent palaces, the king we welcome tonight was heralded by a humble donkey and housed in a stable.  While most worldly rulers spend their time among the elite in the centers of commerce and culture, the king we welcome tonight was first announced to downtrodden shepherds on a Judean hillside.  While most worldly rulers demonstrate their power through cruelty and violence, the king we welcome tonight reveals his power in compassion and love.  And while most worldly rulers would do anything to stay in power and preserve their lives, the king we welcome tonight gave himself up for us on a Roman cross.  Tonight, we affirm the deep logic of the Christian faith: in the Incarnation, God became one of us and empowered us to live lives of freedom and grace even in the midst of a world dominated by oppression and fear.  Jesus Christ invites us to let go of our belief that everything always stays the same and enter into a new way of being.

Christmas is often a time for nostalgia.  We bring ancient decorations out of storage, sing songs that we have sung year after year, and return to traditions that have been part of our lives for as long as we can remember.  It is a time that we remember Scrooge before his transformation, when we dream of Christmases “just like the ones we used to know.”  Christmas, however, is about more than mere remembrance; it is about recognizing the way in which the good news of the Incarnation is, in fact, news.  This has been a year of incredible turmoil.  From the rumblings of war in Europe to the specter of terrorism in the Middle East to the proliferation of violence on the streets of this country, this year has been a potent reminder that our world is often dominated by oppression and fear.  We might be tempted to despair, to assume that bad news like this is simply the way of the world.  Tonight, however, we are called to remember the “good news” of Christ’s birth and embrace the new way of being that God has inaugurated in the arrival of this holy child.  On Christmas, we are called to focus not on the way things have always been, but on the way things can be when we live our lives shaped by the Incarnation.  Christmas calls us to hear and be transformed by the good news that God entered this broken world and is making all things new.

Faithfulness

As I was driving home from our Good Friday services this afternoon, I caught the tail end of a sports radio talk show that I listen to on a regular basis.  The hosts had apparently exhausted their sports-related talking points and were discussing their plans for the weekend.  One mentioned that in honor of Easter, he had planned to do some community service, but, finding the process of signing up for a project too daunting, had abandoned those plans.  Oddly, his partner praised him for his generosity, even though he was no longer planning to do anything.  At first, I could not understand this exchange.  I didn’t understand why the one host talked about his failed community service plans or why the other host thought that his willingness even to think about doing community service was praiseworthy.  As I thought about it a little more, however, I realized that most people listening to the program probably identified completely with the conversation.  As a rule, human beings are full of good intentions, and as a rule, we like to be praised for our good intentions.  Whether it is going to the gym or giving money to public radio or volunteering for a local service organization or calling our parents on a regular basis or telling our spouse we love them every day, we always say that we are going to do good, that we are going to put the effort into making a difference in our community.  But, invariably, life gets in the way.  We run out of time because we have to work late.  We run out of money because we have to bring the car into the shop.  We run out of patience because we are in a bad mood.  Inevitably, our plans crumble around us and we fail to do what we said we would do.  This is one of the undeniable realities of the human experience: try as we might, it very difficult for us to be faithful to our good intentions.

On Good Friday, the Church has always emphasized the centrality of the cross to the Christian faith.  Few texts embody the Church’s understanding of the cross better than this verse from Venantius Fortunatus’ “Sing my tongue, the glorious battle”:

Faithful cross among all others: the one noble tree.  Its branches offer nothing in foliage, fruit, or blossom.  Yet sweet wood and sweet iron sustain sweet weight.

crucifixion_iconThe first adjective used to describe the cross, and by extension the one who was crucified on the cross, is “faithful.”  Perhaps the most important thing we affirm about Jesus’ experience of his Passion is his faithfulness, his obedience even to death on a cross, his willingness to do what he said he was going to do.  Jesus Christ did not succumb to the very human tendency to look for excuses or be derailed by doubt.  In spite of the abandonment of his disciples, in spite of his betrayal, in spite of his own self-doubt, Jesus marched inexorably toward the cross, because that is what he said he was going to do.  Through Christ’s example, we can trust that we can be faithful to God and one another even in the most challenging and overwhelming circumstances of our lives.  We can be faithful because in his death on Calvary, Jesus Christ revealed that God will be faithful to us.  More than anything else, the “goodness” of this Friday is intimately tied to the faithfulness of a God who is with us even when we come face to face with death.

Certainties

Today is Tax Day.

imgresThough I generally take a moment in this paragraph to explain the provenance of what I have mentioned in the first sentence, I suspect the vast majority of those reading know exactly what I’m talking about.  April 15, the day that US Tax Returns are due, has the quality of Judgment Day.  For accountants, it is the finish line after a long marathon.  For the self-employed, it is the day that we have to send an inappropriately large check to Uncle Sam.  And for the procrastinators among us, it is a day of panic, stress, and promises that we will not wait this long next year.  Tax Day touches everyone in some way because taxes touch everyone in some way.  The ubiquity of sending money to the government supposedly led Benjamin Franklin to quip that the only certainties in life are death and taxes.

With Franklin’s words in mind, it occurs to me that Tax Day is appropriate way to wrap up our Lenten experience.  After all, we began this season of penitence and renewal with a reminder of our mortality.  Part of the purpose of Ash Wednesday is to remind us about the certainty of death.  And here in the waning days of Lent, the IRS reminds us that taxes are also inevitable.  This year, our Lenten journey is bracketed by Benjamin Franklin’s two certainties.

It’s easy to read this quotation in a fatalistic way: we are going to die, and we are going to pay taxes.  That’s all we can count on; everything else is ephemeral, like dust blowing in the wind.  But I think that these words about life’s inevitabilities are actually hopeful.  The only true certainties are death and taxes, but the rest of our lives are full of possibility.  We are not hamstrung by fate or destiny; we have the power to make choices and forge our own way in the world.

In certain strands of Christianity, one often hears people say things like “God has a plan for my life.”  This has always fascinated me, since so much of Christian theology is predicated on the notion that human beings have free will, that there is not a plan that we must follow slavishly, that we are responsible and accountable for our actions.  In fact, the story of Christ’s Passion indicates that Jesus himself exercised free will on his journey to the cross.  He had the choice to turn back, he had the choice to utter recriminations, he had the choice to reject his disciples, and yet he faithfully made the decision that would reconcile the world to God.  Jesus Christ was not subject to some plan that was beyond his control; he made the choice to walk to Calvary, trusting that God would be with him.  In the same way, we are called to recognize that we are not slaves to our circumstances; we can walk through our lives, make the best of our situations, and trust that God will be with us even when we feel like we are losing control.  While death and taxes may be inevitable, we are called to trust in the God of boundless possibility.

The Crucifixion Game

As I listened to Matthew’s account of the Passion yesterday, I was once again struck not only by the fact that the trial of Jesus seems to take place in a kangaroo court, but also that so many of the characters abdicate responsibility for the events surrounding the death of Jesus.  Pilate washes his hands of the matter, the chief priests refuse to entertain Judas’ act of contrition, and even the crowds use the passive voice when they urge Jesus’ condemnation.  Below is a short scene I wrote a few years ago that explores the absurd nature of the trial of Jesus and also the theme of culpability in Matthew’s account of the Passion of our Lord.  

Scene: Two stools (or chairs) placed in front of a large sign that reads “LET HIM BE CRUCIFIED” in garish lettering. JOHNNY stands just offstage (left). JESUS sits in the stool on the right; BARABBAS sits in the stool on the left.

Johnny: (in an incredibly affected game show announcer voice a la Rod Roddy of “The Price is Right”) Hey Jerusalem! It’s the Passover and you know what that means? It’s time to play LET HIM BE CRUCIFIED. And now the host of Let Him Be Crucified: Pontius Pilate!

imgresPilate: (entering from stage left) Thanks Johnny. Welcome ladies and gentlemen to Let Him Be Crucified, Jerusalem’s favorite game show! I’m your host, Pontius Pilate; let’s meet our contestants. First we have a young zealot from just outside the city. He’s the boy next store, everybody’s favorite son of a father, Jesus Barabbas! Tell us a little about yourself.

Barabbas: (as jovially as possible) Thanks Pontius, Let me start by saying that I’m really happy to be here. Well, like you said I’m a zealot. I’ve been in prison for a little while because I committed murder during the insurrection…let’s see, in my spare time I enjoy Temple worship, embroidery, and plotting to overthrow the Roman occupiers.

Pilate: That sounds…fun! And what’ll you do if you win our grand prize?

Barabbas: My associates and I will probably get together and plot to overthrow the Roman occupiers.

Pilate: All right then. Let’s move on to our other contestant: Jesus who is called the Messiah (probably not by his mother-in-law. Am I right? Am I right? ANYWAY). Tell us a little about yourself Jesus.

Jesus remains silent and stares directly in front of him.

Pilate: Kind of a strong, silent type huh? And what will you do if you win our grand prize?

Jesus turns his head ever so slightly in Pilate’s direction, regards him briefly, and then turns his eyes to the ground (these motions should take an excruciatingly long time).

Pilate: (shifting nervously and clearing his throat as if to say “let’s change the subject”) All right, let’s play our game. Johnny, why don’t you remind us of the rules?

Johnny: Well Pontius, though each contestant has been charged with a crime that only you are technically able to adjudicate, we’re going to ask our studio audience what they think!

Pilate: Fantastic Johnny! Here we go. May I have a drum roll please? (the crowd obliges) Now…which of these two men do you want me to release for you?

Crowd: BARABBAS!

Pilate: We have a winner! (striding over to Barabbas) So, Barabbas, how does it feel to win?

Barabbas: Well Pontius, I’m really excited; I can’t wait to get back on the street and start causing trouble for the Roman authorities again.

Pilate: Well that’s just great! (laughs perfunctorily) In the meantime, Johnny, tell him what he’s won!

Johnny: Barabbas will be released from prison and forced to live under the tyrannical rule of the Roman proconsul!

Pilate: That sounds like it’ll be just swell. (shaking Barabbas’ hand) Good luck to you, and we’ll see you again real soon (exit stage left). So ladies and gentlemen, you know what time it is! What do we do with our other contestant, Jesus who is called the Messiah?

Crowd: (chanting the title of the show a la “Wheel of Fortune”) LET HIM BE CRUCIFIED!

Pilate: One more time!

Crowd: (in the same vein) LET HIM BE CRUCIFIED!

Pilate: All right, all right…Tough beat, Jesus; have anything to say to the crowd? Jesus turns and stares at Pilate for an extended period of time (at least 15 seconds). Pilate nervously shifts from foot to foot, loosening his tie, etc., but never shifting his gaze from Jesus’. Pilate’s demeanor becomes noticeably more subdued.

Pilate: (still looking at Jesus but slowly backing away) Well everyone, that’s all the time we have. Remember, whatever’s happened here: I’m not to blame. So…yeah. Thanks for joining us on Let Him Be Crucified. I’m Pontius Pilate…goodnight.

Pilate turns and shuffles off stage left, frequently looking at Jesus over his shoulder the entire time. Once Pilate has departed, Jesus slowly stands and walks slowly and purposefully off stage right, staring directly ahead of him.