Monday, May 11, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "But I Shall Be Crucified"

Mark 15:6-15

During the festival, Pilate released one prisoner to them, whomever they requested. 7 A man named Barabbas was locked up with the rebels who had committed murder during an uprising. 8 The crowd pushed forward and asked Pilate to release someone, as he regularly did. 9 Pilate answered them, “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” 10 He knew that the chief priests had handed him over because of jealousy.

11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas to them instead. 12 Pilate replied, “Then what do you want me to do with the one you call king of the Jews?” 13 They shouted back, “Crucify him!” 14 Pilate said to them, “Why? What wrong has he done?” They shouted even louder, “Crucify him!” 15 Pilate wanted to satisfy the crowd, so he released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus whipped, then handed him over to be crucified.  (Common English Bible)

“The Son of Man: When Poetry Testifies to Christ,” Week Four

“Teach them how to avoid our destructive footsteps.  Teach them to strive for higher education.  Teach them to promote peace and teach them to focus on rebuilding the neighborhoods that you, others, and I helped to destroy.”

These were Stanley Tookie Williams’s final words before his execution at midnight on December 13, 2005, and I still remember that night when he was executed.  I was sitting in my college chapel, thinking and praying about this man who founded one of the most notorious and violent street gangs in the country—the Crips—and who after his conviction and incarceration for murder became an anti-gang activist and author, penning memoirs and children’s books to encourage them to avoid joining gangs, all the way up until, quite literally, the last words he would ever speak.

Because on the one hand, do you execute someone who has been reformed while in prison?  Or have their previous choices made them completely irredeemable?

And as I recalled that night of praying in the chapel now, I began to think more and more of a character in the Gospels: Barabbas, and how our choice to forever follow his way, rather than the way and truth and life of Jesus Christ, has likewise condemned us, even as we, to this day, seek our own redemption.

This is now not as much a new sermon series for us, to go with the reality that Easter really isn’t a new season: we’re now four weeks removed from Easter.  Just like Christmas and its 12 days, Easter is much more than Easter Sunday itself, and it lasts for much longer: fifty days, in fact.  That’s fifty days of hearing, bearing, and proclaiming the good news of the resurrection, long after the Easter Bunny has come and gone and the egg dye has been put back into the pantry for another year.

As a part of my own work and ministry in proclaiming to the world a risen Savior, this sermon series will take a new tack for me: talking with all of you about Jesus as He is revealed in poetry, of all things.  If you’ll recall my sermon series from a couple of years ago that I centered around several of the writings of C.S. Lewis, well, this series will be structured fairly similarly, except instead of C.S. Lewis’s books, it will be around Khalil Gibran’s poetry about Jesus Christ, of which there is a great amount, in the volume Jesus: Son of Man, from which this series derives its name.  Gibran was a Lebanese poet during the early 20th century who was raised Christian but was also influenced by Sufi mysticism, and that mysticism, much like that of many other Christian mystics, comes through in his poetry about Jesus.  Jesus: Son of Man tells the stories of the gospels, but in Gibran’s soaring words, through the eyes of various supporting characters: the disciples, the female followers of Jesus, even some of Jesus’s opponents (although Gibran reserves his best poetry entirely for Jesus’s adherents).

We begin this series, then, two weeks ago with Gibran’s retelling of the Sermon on the Mount made famous in Matthew’s Gospel, and of how Gibran tells the story of Jesus teaching His disciples how to pray.  After skipping a week, we read from Gibran’s version of the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8, which Gibran assigned to the voice of the apostle Andrew, and last week, we arrived at Jerusalem itself, as Jesus preached and Gibran, through the voice of Joseph of Arimathea, transcribed.  This week, we are at the crucifixion itself, as Gibran, through the voice of Barabbas, the terrorist chosen for freedom by the crowd, narrates:

They released me and chose Him.  Then He rose and I fell down.

And they held Him a victim and a sacrifice for the Passover.

I was freed from my chains, and walking with the throng behind Him, but I was a living man going to my own grave.

I should have fled to the desert where shame is burned out by the sun.

Yet I walked with those who had chosen Him to bear my crime.

When they nailed Him on His cross I stood there.

I saw and heard but I seemed outside my body…I know that those who slew Him in my stead achieved my endless torment.

His crucifixion endured but for an hour.

But I shall be crucified unto the end of my years.

I think we tend to overlook Barabbas, just as we tend to overlook many of our most notorious criminals once they have been processed into our justice system.  Once Dzhokar Tsarnaev is sentenced, he will almost certainly fade into the background for years at a time, as have terrorists like Terry Nichols, Eric Rudolph, and Zacharias Moussaoui.  And ordinarily, that is the way it should be.  We can dwell on the evil and destruction that define their lives, or we can plunge forward in the continued quest to create and fashion a new world out of and in spite of their destructiveness.

But Barabbas the murderer is different.  Mark tells us of his crime, at least in part: murder that took place during an uprising.  But that doesn’t likely tell the whole story.  Why would Barabbas be killing someone during an uprising?  Because he was a part of the uprising himself.  And who would he be uprising against?  The empire that had placed itself as the (unholy, in Israel’s mind) ruler of the Holy Land: Rome.  And who is trying Barabbas and Jesus Christ?  Pontius Pilate, a Roman governor.

Barabbas isn’t likely even this murderer’s real name, once we break it down.  “Bar” is the part of an ancient Israelite’s surname, it means “son of.”  For instance, Jesus, speaking strictly in earthly terms, would be known as Jesus bar Joseph of Nazareth.  And “abbas” is akin to the Aramaic “abba,” which we know from earlier in Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus uses the term in His prayer at Gethsemane, means “dad.”  Not the more formal “father,” but the more intimate “dad” or “pop.”

So what Barabbas’s name means, literally, is either “Son of a Father” or “Son of THE Father.”  Barabbas could have given himself this alias for one of two reasons: in the former case, it would be to achieve anonymity…after all, every man is biologically the son of a father, some father, somewhere.  Or, he could be claiming the exact same mantle of Messiah-dom as Jesus is, claiming to be the Son of God.

And what if Barabbas was claiming to be the Son of God?  He certainly would be neither the first nor the last violent claimant to that throne.  But he is the claimant who is held up—unintentionally in terms of its larger meaning, I am sure—by Pilate as the choice the crowd—and we—must make.

For the way of Barabbas is the way of more and continued violence, death, and destruction.  The way of Jesus, in contrast, is the way of new life, renewed love, and eternal salvation.  But the crowd, handpicked by the temple leaders and almost certainly not representative of the crowd that welcomed Jesus with obvious admiration and reverence on Palm Sunday, chooses Barabbas, and his way, over Jesus and His way.

We are that crowd, even today, whenever we too call for the way of Barabbas, the way of violence and destruction, instead of the peacemaking way of Jesus.  As I was putting this sermon to bed this weekend, I read in the news about the two police officers shot and killed during an otherwise routine traffic stop in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, which, on top of Officer Brian Moore of the NYPD, makes three more officers killed in the line of duty this month.

And this is to say nothing of the ones who have come before them, officer and (often African-American) civilian alike.  The names of the dead are almost endless, and they are dead precisely because we choose, time and time and time again, the way of Barabbas rather than the way of Jesus Christ.

Indeed, if the execution a decade ago of Stanley Tookie Williams teaches us anything, it is that even choices to follow the way of Barabbas made many, many decades ago can still lead down the way to death today, because we too choose the way of Barabbas in the face of someone who has been reformed and rehabilitated and redeemed.

Such destructiveness, such unadulterated death, doesn’t come from Barabbas himself: he is but a symbol of this way.  He is, in the end, nothing more than a token, a human face to a plague that comes from the devil working through us--after all, just look at Pilate.  Right after releasing Barabbas, Pilate hands Jesus over to be crucified.  He frees a man, and then follows that man's way by handing another over to suffer and die, even as he (in Matthew's Gospel) washes his hands of the blood that comes from his having followed the way of Barabbas.

But rather than examine ourselves, we crucify Barabbas.  Maybe not on that day during the Passover in New Testament Jerusalem, but for the rest of his life, and the rest of ours, we crucify Barabbas even as we ignore the reality that we are treading upon his already well-trod path ourselves.

Which makes our choice to cross over towards the path of Jesus Christ all the more crucial: in all honesty, His is by far the less-worn path, and believe me, it isn’t for a lack of people making a profession of faith in Him; after all, Christianity is still the largest religion in the world.

It is because even after making that profession of faith in Christ, we still walk on Barabbas’s way, not Christ’s.

Maybe, just maybe, we can stop walking that way today.

It is a hope I have.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 10, 2015

No comments:

Post a Comment