A crown of thorns


Matthew 27

File:Couronne d'épine de l'église Saint-Michel de Dijon.jpg29and 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!”

We saw pictures of this from Abu Ghraib. And it is not even that the Roman soldiers were particularly brutal – though it was a brutal time. This same thing happened with Stanford students in Philip Zimbardo’s famous 1971 experiment. Students were randomly divided into guards and prisoners and things devolved so quickly the experiment had to be stopped. Something dark happens when people are given such power and authority over others.

It’s disturbing how brutal we can be, how far we have fallen from the possibility that Eden represents. How does a “modern society” systematically gas and murder 11 million to purify their race? How can Hutus rise up against Tutsis with machetes? How are neighbors turned against neighbors in Bosnia? How is it possible that soldiers slaughter women and children at Sand Creek? How does any man rape? There is plenty of evidence that we can be a brutal species.

How do three men chain another to their pickup truck and drag him three miles down an asphalt road? Or beat a young man senseless and leave him to die, tied to a Wyoming fencepost? We who were made in the image of God?

Why do we tolerate poverty? Why do we tolerate ignorance? Why do we enjoy watching ritualized violence like the world wrestling federation or the NFL? What is the power of violent video games? Humans are capable of such supreme works of beauty and such terrible ugliness. We can build architectural wonders and death camps. We are capable of great generosity and stunning selfishness. We can fall on a grenade for our buddies – and toss the grenade in the first place.

We are such strange creatures. Noble and ignoble. Kind and cruel. Tender and brutal. Compassionate and callous. Able to weep with those who weep, but to laugh while tormenting others.   A crown of thorns.

Jesus doesn’t just say, “Try harder.” God doesn’t ask us to “do better.” The cross of Jesus is like Matthew Shepard’s fencepost. It makes us see. See not just the violence of which we are capable, or how far we have fallen from our true humanity, but where God chooses to stand. Among the crucified.

The cross makes us see. See what we don’t want to see. See ourselves. See God. And, seeing, we are carried out of the darkness into the light.


Sunday Evening

John 3

File:Mexican oil paint on copper retablo, 17th century, El Paso Museum of Art.JPG

Anonymous, Mexican oil paint on copper retablo, 17th century, El Paso Museum of Art.

14Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.

I’m glad I am accustomed to leading the service without robes from our worship in the summer or I would have felt very strange today.

I was stunned into wakefulness at 5:00 this morning with the realization that my nose was bleeding again.  I tried desperately to keep the blood from flowing onto the sheets, but as I came back from the bathroom holding a wad of toilet paper up against my left nostril I saw that I had not been at all successful.  With one hand I pulled off the pillowcases, the fitted sheet, and fumbled with the buttons on the duvet cover trying to get all this, plus my shirt and a towel into cold water in the bathtub before the blood set.  It’s hard to do with one hand.  I’m at the Laundromat now, waiting to see if I was successful in rescuing my sheets.

I eventually got the bleeding to stop, but I didn’t want to risk bleeding onto my vestments this morning.  I suppose I could use a new white alb, but the purple chasuble was a gift from a friend who died of AIDs and it is not replaceable to me.  (And just so you know, I also did the prayers over the bread and wine standing well back from the altar linens; I wasn’t thinking only about me.)

Still, it is odd for me to stand unvested in Lent.  This rich, wonderful, season deserves the vivid image the chasuble provides.  The purple robe evokes the robe thrown around Jesus as the soldiers beat, tortured and humiliated this helpless “king” with a crown of thorns, a mock scepter, and this ‘royal’ robe.  I know that there are other historical associations with this ancient form of dress.  I know it once represented street clothes.  But it does so no longer.  Now it is a visible reminder that the taunted one is the host of the meal, a proclamation that the crucified is risen and even now stands in our midst as earth’s true king.  Though I say the prayers – it is Christ who serves us.

But I didn’t want to bleed on that purple robe – even though that would have been even more poetic, for surely the robe Jesus wore was stained with blood.  But it was not my blood.  It was not my suffering.  It was not my sorrow.  It was not my faithfulness and mercy in the face of hatred and violence.  I only stand in his place, speaking his words, acknowledging his mercy, his sacrifice, his incomprehensible love – and declaring it to you.  “This is the body of Christ, broken for you.”  “This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.”

For you.  And for me.  And for those who are jogging past the church on Sunday morning oblivious to the sacrifice.  And for those dying in Syria who know it first hand.  And for those perishing from hunger in the Sudan, caught in violence in Venezuela, victimized by trafficking, and seduced by holy war.  For all those unseen by us, unseen by the media, unseen by all but God.  For all the world that God loved in this way in order that they may not perish but see and trust and enter into that eternal life of the world to come when swords are finally beaten into plowshares and every tear is swiped away.

PS  It looks like the stains have been lifted – but that’s a message for another day.

“As though you”


Hebrews 13


Prison…♪♫ (Photo credit: кiт-кaтн Halкeтт)

3Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

Do we need to say more?

Yes, the author of Hebrews probably had in mind those members of the Christian community who were in prison.  Yes, those who were being tortured – the standard form of questioning used on the non-elite members of society – were likely affiliated with the believers.  Yes this evokes all that Paul says about the Christian community using the metaphor of a body: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”  It’s not just your toe that suffers when you smack it against a chair, nor your lips only that are thrilled at the first kiss.

But if God meant for us to care only about our own, the Torah would not have provided for the poor or protected the powerless and the stranger; Ruth, the Moabite, would not have been remembered as the grandmother of David; Jonah would not have been compelled to go to Nineveh; and Jesus would not have taken the commandment to love your neighbor and made it clear it applied to everyone.

3Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

What is true of the body of Christ is true also of the body politic.  We are connected not only in Christ our redeemer; we are connected in God our creator.  All people are created in the image of God.  All are recipients of God’s providential care.  All are beneficiaries of Christ’s saving work.  All are invited into the reality of God’s grace and life.  “For God so loved the world…”

We are connected.  All of us.

  “As though you were in prison with them… as though you yourselves were being tortured.”

Compassion, “to suffer with,” is the fundamental character of the righteous: to sense the cold of the unsheltered, to recognize the loneliness of the isolated, to appreciate the sorrow of the grieving,  to feel the hunger of the hungry (it’s why we fast, why fasting is a tool of spiritual formation).  And compassion means not only to share the burdens of the troubled, but to “rejoice with those who rejoice,” to celebrate all that is good in life wherever and to whomever it happens.

Compassion is the fundamental character of the righteous, because compassion is the fundamental character of God, the God of creation and incarnation, the God who walks with us, the God who loves his world.  All of it.