March 29, 2020, Scripture Readings and Sermon
Isaiah 50:4-9 NIV
The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue,
to know the word that sustains the weary.
He wakens me morning by morning,
wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.
The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears;
I have not been rebellious,
I have not turned away.
I offered my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard;
I did not hide my face
from mocking and spitting.
Because the Sovereign Lord helps me,
I will not be disgraced.
Therefore have I set my face like flint,
and I know I will not be put to shame.
He who vindicates me is near.
Who then will bring charges against me?
Let us face each other!
Who is my accuser?
Let him confront me!
It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me.
Who will condemn me?
Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am in trouble; my eye is consumed with sorrow,
and also my throat and my belly.
For my life is wasted with grief,
and my years with sighing; my strength fails me because of affliction,
and my bones are consumed.
I have become a reproach to all my enemies and even to my neighbors,
a dismay to those of my acquaintance; when they see me in the street they avoid me.
I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind; I am as useless as a broken pot.
For I have heard the whispering of the crowd;
fear is all around; they put their heads together against me;
they plot to take my life.
But as for me, I have trusted in you, O Lord. I have said, "You are my God.
My times are in your hand; rescue me from the hand of my enemies,
and from those who persecute me.
Make your face to shine upon your servant, and in your loving-kindness save me."
Matthew 27:11-54 NIV
Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
“You have said so,” Jesus replied.
When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor.
Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.
While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”
But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.
“Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor.
“Barabbas,” they answered.
“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.
They all answered, “Crucify him!”
“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”
Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. They came to a place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it. When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. And sitting down, they kept watch over him there. Above his head they placed the written charge against him: this is jesus, the king of the jews.
Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.
From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”
Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”
And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”
Sermon: Standing with Joseph
STANDING WITH JOSEPH
How quickly we forget. How swiftly we are blinded. How soon our ignorance returns like a thief in the night. Just a moment ago, the Gospels tell us that we were a “multitude of the disciples”, praising God “joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power” which we had seen, shouting “Hosanna!”, reveling in the fulfillment of hopes and dreams, “Ride on, ride on, in majesty!” Now we are swallowed up in an unruly mob, consumed by the passions of the rabble, infused with the chaotic spirit of the pulsing mass, participants in a rather ghastly spectacle.
For Jesus is dead, and we have assured it. Jesus is crucified, and we have demanded it. Jesus is gone, and we have hastened it. Not once, but three times Pilate asks the crowd and the elders -- asks of us -- to reconsider: “why, what evil has he done?” Three times Pilate offers an opportunity for the freedom of Jesus. Three times a choice is set before us. Three times we too deny Jesus as we hear that rooster crow in our own hearts, don’t we? We know the story well, all too well, because the story is ours. And in each instance our voice grows louder: “But they were insistent and said, ‘He stirs up the people...”; “Then they all shouted out together ‘Away with this fellow! Release Barrabas for us!”; “They kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified.” And it is we, you and I, our brothers and sisters; it is we who echo the terrible refrain: “Crucify, crucify him!” And so we do, and so it is, and so is set in motion by the most unwitting and clueless and arrogant multitude that one can imagine, the very redemption of all humankind. And so is set in motion that course of human and holy events into which we journey today. And so is set in motion hope, in the very instance and the insane moment when all hope seems drained from the world around us by virtue of our very blindness and hard-heartedness.
Many years ago now, in a faraway congregation, and in the days before email existed, a devoted parishioner wrote me a very long letter during Holy Week. And in that handwritten letter this friend spent considerable and genuine spiritual energy trying to assure and convince me that he alone, if no one else, for sure, would not have been part of that multitude; that he alone, for sure, would never have shouted for the crucifixion of Jesus. That he alone, would indeed, have stood alone. He meant to affirm his present faith and deep belief by somehow rewriting his role in the unruly script, by somehow reshaping history to his own personal ends, suggesting both boldly and wistfully that he was certain he would have stepped forward, in that awful hour, to accept Pilate’s offer for the release of Jesus. His was a deep and heartfelt and poignant spiritual struggle that I have obviously never forgotten.
But when I met with him soon after Easter that same year, I gently urged him to reread the Gospel accounts, and to prayerfully reconsider all of our various complicities and uncertainties among those events that we now call The Passion. He faithfully did so, with deep and authentic engagement, and, soon enough, he wrote me another one of his very long letters (I got a lot of them that year….). But this time the enormity of our human imperfections, the depth of our human ambiguity and pain and searching and wondering, had struck him. This time the tension and the conflict and the anxiety and the apprehension within the human heart had been made all too real. And this time he saw and felt that, indeed, it was almost essential to be a part of that mob so as to truly understand the precious value of salvation and the promise that somehow emerged from those awful days. He had reexamined his mind and his heart, he had reopened himself yet again to the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit, and he had experienced a genuine personal transformation of the kind we often long for and pray about.
Now, he wrote, he felt much closer to Joseph of Arimathea than to some enlightened hero amongst the crowd. For my searching friend, it was only in the aftermath, only when the crowds were “beating their breasts” and heading home after the “spectacle”, only from that sad and poignant distance alongside the women on a hillside, only on that “green hill far away”, only here and then that the true understanding of Jesus the Christ -- Jesus the Messiah -- began to take shape. He felt that whatever his inadequacies and his longings, he could imagine himself caring for the body and tending to the burial all the same, offering some dignity and closure amid the madness and the dust. Some waiting and some watching. My friend had found his place.
The old Gospel hymn asks us, as it always does, “were you there when they crucified my Lord?” And indeed we were, and our voices are hoarse and they are dry from hastening the moment. The question we must now ask, in the aftermath of this terrible instance, is the same question my friend once asked of me, in a way: “are you still there now, like Joseph and the women, prepared to step forward in the aftermath, prepared to do something, whatever that ‘something’ may be?” Are you prepared to continue this lonely pilgrim journey, now that the crowd has dispersed and life is apparently finished? Are you prepared to “wait expectantly for the Kingdom of God”, without a clue as to when it might appear or what it might actually look like, and to follow through the uncertain days and months and years and maybe even generations which might very well lie ahead? For if a dying criminal or a Roman centurion can see with all his heart that Jesus is the Messiah, and if a dying criminal or a Roman soldier can imagine that a glorious Kingdom might now rise out of the ashes of death, and if a crucified thief can receive assurance of a place in Paradise alongside this Savior, how can we not do the same?
And so I urge you, as we prepare to walk on the most complex, sacred, and potentially life-altering passage of our earthly lives, give yourselves over. Give it all up except for the hope of God. Repent and return to the Lord, in whatever way you might understand or feel that. Remember that you and I really are dust, and it really is to dust that we shall return. Remember that you and I helped put Jesus up onto that cross. But also remember that in time, in our own ways, with our own gifts and with our own talents and with our own compassions and with our own dreams, each of us will also help to take him down.
Most of all, whatever you do in these next 7 days, please remember this: God’s plan for us, and ours for God, is deliverance and it is hope. Even amidst distress, confusion, and chaos. We have been liberated once from Egypt and we must not countenance returning there again. Yes, some will choose to stay behind, but as a whole, we must not. Yes, some may prefer a Pharaoh who makes the chariots run on time, but we must live with open spirits and courageous hearts, ripe to the new possibilities which are emerging all around us and which are being set free from deep within us.
And this deliverance is really, in the end, pure grace. Unconditional. Free. Set before us. The gift which keeps on giving. Eternal life itself. With such high stakes and life-changing possibilities utterly in our midst, can you and I “not keep awake one hour”…. or maybe even longer?