Sunday, March 17, 2013

April Fool?

April Fool?
© 2013 Robert J. Elder     
Luke 23:1-24

Herod questioned him at some length, 
but Jesus gave him no answer.
The chief priests and the scribes stood by, 
vehemently accusing him.
Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt 
and mocked him;
then he put an elegant robe on him, 
and sent him back to Pilate.
That same day Herod and Pilate 
became friends with each other.
The story of Jesus’ trial and execution is, in some ways, a sort of Whodunit. In the end, when all was said and done, who was really responsible for the death of Jesus? If we were the Jerusalem District Attorney, whom would we charge? The candidates for blame in our passage today appear to be Pilate, Herod, the elders, chief priests and scribes of the Temple. But beyond our passage, shouldn’t we include Judas, who betrayed him, the disciples, who abandoned him, and Peter, who denied him? Is this just about the whole list of potential suspects? Should anyone else be on our list?
In his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, Luke reported that the earliest Christian preachers in Jerusalem reminded the people that “you handed over and rejected Jesus in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life...”
This certainly expands the list of suspects dramatically. Was it Pilate, the priests, or Peter? Was it Herod or the disciples? Was it the butler in the study with the candlestick? Was it every living soul in Jerusalem who failed to cry out for justice for an innocent person that day? I can't think of anyone who comes through this narrative looking very good. How do you charge a whole city with murder?
And what about the fact that whenever we fail to claim Jesus in our day, to acknowledge his lordship in our lives, we deny him anew, placing ourselves in the same unsavory company as those who denied him first? Are we, too, guilty of his death?
Lent is such an counter-cultural season. Traditionally, it is a penitential season in which we are meant to ponder our shortcomings with honest hearts -- at least as honest as we can muster. It is a time to meditate upon the supreme sacrifice of Jesus, which would never have been necessary if we had been as good and flawless as we spend most of our lives trying to convince ourselves and others that we are. For its part, our culture turns its back on Lenten themes, on “guilt trips” in general, on anything that might serve as an assault on our blithe search for a boosted self-esteem.
It isn’t easy for any modern preacher to stand before sophisticated people who have, or have had, successful careers, long lists of friends, newer model cars in the parking lot, that you are, in spite of your college degrees and many successes, fallen, sin-filled, and in need of repentance and salvation. (“My goodness,” you may be mumbling to yourself, “I got out of bed and made it to church, surely that counts for something on the good side of the ledger, why must I be subjected to yet another guilt trip from the pulpit? Don’t these preachers ever get tired of this subject?”). Sorry, it’s Lent for me too. The Lenten season of the cross, of betrayal and repentance, always seems out of place among successful people. If the point of the sermon today is to discover “whodunit,” surely everyone here can be marked off the list of suspects at least.
Christine and I were in Oklahoma City last summer for my a high school reunion, which was held a few block away from the site of the old Federal Building. You may recall it was a building which Timothy McVeigh decided would be a good symbol to destroy, killing a host of innocent people in the process, including little children ion the building’s preschool. I recall making our way through Lent back then, as we were treated to interviews with attorneys, legal experts, and authors of books about the trial of Timothy McVeigh for the Oklahoma City bombing. Why? Well, his execution was scheduled around that time, and it was to be the first federal execution in many years. In those weeks leading up to the execution, yet again we saw the video footage showing the ruined carcass of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, where one of my high school friends was killed along with 160-some others on that horrible day. By human standards of justice, if ever anyone deserved to die for a remorseless and brutal crime, it was Timothy McVeigh.
“Drama teachers will tell you that, for us to be engaged by a play, there must be a certain amount of distancing. We often think that the reason we love theater is that a play has characters with whom we can identify. But if we too closely identify with the characters, if from the moment they walk on stage we say, ‘Hey, that’s me,’ we are so busy defending ourselves, we can't get into the drama.”
The sins of other people are always much more interesting to us than our own, and it is precisely because they are not our own that we are free to be fascinated by them. I doubt many of us have stayed up nights making plans to blow up public buildings. The right sort of people, those who gather in this sanctuary this morning, or sit at the computer monitor to read yet another joke about the well-documented failings of famous public figures, seem so often to think of ourselves as somehow innocent of the moral foibles by which we are ready to judge others.
I remember sitting in the family room of a well-to-do couple during my graduate school years, listening to them go on and on about the fact that nobody in America understood a work ethic any more, that people on welfare did nothing but give birth to babies to burden the future of everyone around them, and that the world in general was just going to hell. This from people who already had spent at least 20 years, and proceeded to spend the next 20, benefiting from a social security system from which they received far more than they ever put in. I am also thinking of the rounds of school shootings, where the media seems in such a hurry to portray the shooters as loners and losers, thereby helping us distance ourselves from any feeling of kinship with such people.
"Moral condemnation,” one preacher wrote, “appears to work like binoculars. Look through one end, at somebody else's trespasses, at a safe distance, things are magnified. Look back at yourself, through the other lens, everything is tiny, insignificant, mere peccadilloes.”
We may give ourselves permission for our fascination with heinous crimes and their just desserts because we believe as deep down as we care to go that there is nothing vaguely similar between us and the Timothy McVeighs or the members of Al Qaeda. He was a loner, borderline nut case, apparently absent of conscience for what he had done. We like our evil pure, distilled down to its essence, not discolored with bothersome exceptions and details. It helps us keep our distance.
But evil is messier than that. Our culture demands electric power, and as soon as it looks as though we won't have as much as we want, making us more like the vast majority of the rest of the world, we think nothing of slamming salmon runs, further despoiling our air, and using farmers' irrigation water to get it. We refer to ourselves with the breathtakingly narrow description of “consumers,” as though all there is worth knowing about us is our appetite for ever-more goods and services, and we've built an entire advertising economy around creating, then meeting those consumer appetites, all at a cost to many things that are truly precious. We gladly sentence a thug who smacks a convenience store clerk to a long jail term, but if a multi-million dollar athlete is involved in violence, even murder, that can become their ticket to notoriety and further riches rather than punishment. We've created an entertainment culture that worships shamelessness and graphic violence, then wonder why children carry pistols and semi-automatic weapons to school.
To those who shouted for his execution on that April day in A.D. 33, the April fool appeared to be Jesus, the would-be king, all dressed up in mocking royal robes and crown of thorns, a buffoon who looked about as much like a king as a drunk sitting in a doorway downtown begging for change looks like the Duke of Windsor.
But the fools on that day as on this are the ones who think of evil as something that can be found only in others, never in ourselves. This may be one reason Paul was led to write, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”