Sermon, April 5, 2020

A Sermon
The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ
April 5, 2020
Stop Pointing Fingers

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.”  Matthew 27:24i

In these days of Corona-virus, the shouts of “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Mark 11:10 NRSV) echo in our ears as a hopeful affirmation of the power of God. How we long for the justice and peace that the reign of God would bring. No more deception, our greed checked by our sense of Divine justice, our destruction of the earth on which we live gone as a distant memory. When Jesus came into the city of Jerusalem, hope ran high.

The conquering generals of His day would ride into the city on a war horse. The people would lay their garments along the path lest the general walked on dirt. They would shout Hosanna “…an expression of adoration, praise or joy.”

Jesus could have walked into Jerusalem. Instead, He is mounted not on a grand steed of war, but a donkey. Jesus could have incited a riot when the first thing He did in Jerusalem is overturn the table of the money changers. Jesus could have led a rebellion. The city was waiting, hoping. How they shouted that day, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

I suppose we could spend our time focusing on the adoration, the praise, the expectant joy. But the shouts of “Hosanna” are disingenuous, empty of the joy they are meant to convey. The people will have their hopes dashed. There will be no renewed kingdom of David, no restoration of independence, no violence ordered by Jesus. Jesus, in their eyes, fails to deliver the promise they had hoped for.

So, I do not intend to dwell on cheers that are transformed in a few days from “Hosanna” to “Crucify Him.” For it is not Palm Sunday that brings us to Easter’s joy, but the sordid mess of Friday. But there is more to be done than a change in direction. We are called by God to find those places within the Biblical text that speak to our condition, that can become transforming, and unless there is such an intersection of God’s Word with our world, religion is nothing more than empty prattle. Jesus did not come to entertain us, but to transform us. So we turn now to look for that place of transformation.

Finding that place requires our soul’s to be honest without our hearts being crushed by guilt. The honesty that is required is found in our admitting that on Thursday, when Jesus says to them, Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” 22 And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” (Matthew 26:21b & 22 NRSV) that, my friends is the question we, too, must face. It is so very strange that our openness to addressing this question and accepting the consequences makes Easter all the more joyous, yet, but essential for our salvation. I don’t need a savior if I have nothing to be saved from or nothing to be forgiven for. “Surely not I, Lord?”

I do not need to go through a laundry list of our vices. All one need do is cite, what for me, is one of the most troubling passages in scripture. I believe it speaks to us all; for we are constantly told that consumption is patriotic.

Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ (Matthew 25:37b-39 NRSV) 

I see Jesus every day of my life. He stands before me and I walk away. “Surely not I, Lord?” and Jesus says to me, as he said to Judas, “You have said so.”

Perhaps these words do not speak to you. You hear them and are content with your response. If so, forgive me for bringing my angst into your life, but I hear these words of Matthew 25 and know that I, too, am one who stands in constant need of God’s mercy and help. Like Pilate, I may wish to wash my hands of the guilt I bear, but there is too little water, too little soap. The stain remains.

But how does one move from guilt to joyous hope? Is it possible to sin and be saved? I can never be saved by perfection or righteousness. They lie beyond my reach. I cannot grasp them and hold on. So I listen to the sordid mess of holy Week. The treachery, fear, betrayal, denial — they are there for us to see, for Jesus to endure. When Friday came long ago and the cross was raised to the sky, how all who had followed in the Way of Jesus must have felt crushed, lost, indeed, damned. Their feeling of guilt, their sense of their own duplicitous delight when they entered Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna,” it is not far from where I am today. I like them, could become a victim given over to defeat and depression.

So I come into Holy Week with a burning need to be lifted up, to be held in the arms of God, to be forgiven for my own duplicitous actions, my refusal to perpetually follow in the Way of Christ. I come, not standing, but on my knees, and I ready myself for Easter’s dawn because without it, I am lost. For the truth of the matter is this. The Upper Room question is one I must ask everyday, “Surely not I, Lord?” And you? Let us pray….

i Matthew 27:11-54

11Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” 12But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. 13Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” 14But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. 15Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. 16At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. 17So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. 19While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.”20Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 21The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” 23Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” 24So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” 25Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”

26So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. 27Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. 28They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 30They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. 32As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross.

33And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; 36then they sat down there and kept watch over him. 37Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”38Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads 40and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, 42“He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. 43He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” 44The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way. 45From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” 48At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.”

50Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.53After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”