A sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015
Crucifixion is hard to take.
And not just for Jesus. It is painful to hear, to attend to the details, to speak the words in the account of the Passion. We can’t stay with it very long, the pain is too much. We have to look away.
So we do look away. In the height of our devotion, like Peter, we may say or think, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” And we believe that. We are faithful and we won’t desert Jesus. And the problem is, we believe that. We believe that and we try to explain to ourselves how we don’t desert Jesus. And we look on the crucifixion story, and say to ourselves, how could people do that to such a good man, blameless and loving at all times? We cannot conceive how we might ever participate in such a thing. What’s wrong with those people? No one today would do such a thing, at least not any good, law-abiding, religious people.
We feel that, but we know that it is not true. There are examples of people who thought or think of themselves as good, law-abiding, and even religious people, people who call on the name of Jesus, and weep at the story of his crucifixion, who have hurt and killed other human beings, simply because of fear and anxiety about the loss of control and privilege. A few years ago I listened to a lecture at the General Theological Seminary by a theologian named James Hal Cone. He was a guest lecturer in a distinguished lecture series, and his thoughts were later incorporated into his book, entitled The Cross and the Lynching Tree. It was a long and deep reflection, which incorporated description and reflection on Billie Holiday’s rendition of the song, “Strange Fruit.”
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
Dr. Cone says this:
Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on the cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree, relatively few people, apart from the black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artists, have explored the symbolic connections. Yet, I believe this is the challenge we must face. What is at stake is the credibility and the promise of the Christian gospel and the hope that we may heal the wounds of racial violence that continue to divide our churches and our society.
Dr. Cone speaks with much more authority and experience about the wounds of racial violence than I do. But it is clear, that if lynching, per se is not as fashionable as it once was, violence against people, and even killing, purely based on race persists in our country. Short of physical violence, discrimination, distrust, and the violation of the dignity of people persists and even increases today. Christians must clearly and continually see and know this passion of Christ that is so hard to look at. We cannot afford to stand by and let injustice happen to anyone at all.
It is incumbent on every person to take responsibility for cherishing life. It is our responsibility to follow Jesus, and to stay with him on his way to the Cross. This stuff with Peter makes it clear that being religious, or even being Jesus’ best friend, does not give us a free pass. It is a great temptation to assume that our religiousness or good-will make us more aware, or more merciful, and that we don’t need to worry about the consequences of our actions or our attitudes. St. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
Let us pray:
Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility. Mercifully grant that we may walk in this way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.