April 9, 2017                                                                    John 19: 14-42

 

Prayer: Dear Lord, Go with us into this Holy Week, a time when we contemplate the ugly places your earthly life took you. Help us to be the people you have called us to be. In the name you wore on the cross, we pray. Amen.  

 

                                         

 

                                                     Orange is the New Station of the Cross

 

          Ndume Olatushani  spent 27 years in a Tennessee prison for a murder he didn’t commit. I tried to reword that sentence because those words have become so clichéd.

 

          Imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit.

 

          How amazing that false imprisonment has occurred so often, the phrase has become a cliché.

 

         Of those 27 years in prison, Olatushani spent 20 on Death Row. He was in a 4-x-9-foot cage for 23 hours a day.

 

        The walls were so close, he said, he could hardly stretch his arms full length.

 

        What saved him? He found art. He taught himself to paint.

 

        And so when he was exonerated and released five years ago, our friends in the United Methodist Church found him. They invited him to create a sculpture for Lent that would sit on the lawn of their United Methodist building in Washington, DC. That lawn just happens to face the Supreme Court.

 

           The artist’s piece depicts an iron cage, with a figure in an orange jumpsuit kneeling inside, praying. Three more jump-suited figures stand behind him.

 

          It’s called Disrupting the Cradle to Prison Pipeline.

 

          Disrupting the Cradle to Prison Pipeline.

 

       Olatushani  said he is trying to reach children with his sculpture, to tell them that while they’re running around playing, there are people looking at their reading and test scores to predict how many prison beds our nation will need.

 

          That’s the very definition of pessimism, isn’t it? To address children’s poor test scores by building prison beds for later.

 

         But the sculpture of men in orange jumpsuits – like Ken Christy’s fabric art beside our pulpit this morning -- is also a cry against that very pessimism. An in-your-face demand that this nation can do better than incarcerate two million of its citizens.

 

          Residents and visitors to Washington are starting their Walk to the Cross with Olatushani’s sculpture. It is the first Station of the Cross for the city’s Holy Week.

 

         Here in Greenville, on Wednesday, we will start our Walk to the Cross on the steps of our sister church, Buncombe Street. We’ll follow a robed man with a cross on his back to six churches, including Triune, stopping to read from the gospels. There will be 14 readings in all, what are called the 14 Stations of the Cross.

 

        Each station depicts an event from Jesus’s trial to his crucifixion to his burial.

 

         You may have grown up in a church that had metal plates along the sanctuary walls or stained glass windows or some other kind of art that portrayed these 14 stations. Catholic schoolchildren had entire Lenten lessons built around them.

 

        Growing up Protestant, I don’t think I ever heard of the Stations of the Cross until I was an adult.

 

         But they are a wonderful way to trod through Holy Week, to recall the terrible events of the last days and hours of Jesus’s life.

 

      This year the folks in Washington have gone far, far beyond traditional readings. Organizers identified 14 places around the city to see art or architecture that represents the journey that Jesus made.

 

            Some are traditional religious paintings or the architecture of glorious chapels. But many are modern art pieces that cry out against modern injustices.

 

        Station 10 is Timothy’s Schmalz’s Homeless Jesus asleep on a park bench, his blanket riding up to reveal nail-scarred feet.

 

         Station 12 is a portrait of a blindfolded and tortured detainee in an Iraqi prison.

 

           And Station 1 is Disrupting the Cradle to Prison Pipeline. As the first station, it is a comment on the moment when Jesus was condemned to death by Pilate. His silence indicted the Roman system that sentenced  him.

 

         The silent orange figures similarly indict our American system – a system that includes racial disparities, for-profit prisons, mass incarceration and wrongful conviction – being imprisoned for a murder you didn’t commit.

 

           “Knowledge,” said the artist, “makes us responsible. Once you know something, you have no excuse.”

 

             Once you know something, you have no excuse.

 

          Today is the day in the church year that we call Passion Sunday. That’s simply another name for Jesus’ trial, crucifixion and burial. Another way to talk about the Stations of the Cross.

 

           We’ve talked in here before about how the different gospel writers tell their stories of Jesus slightly differently, to reflect the points they thought were most important. In this last week of Jesus’ life, John makes some significant detours from what the Synoptics report.  

 

        Rather than Jesus being crucified after the Passover meal, as Mark, Matthew and Luke write, John says he was crucified on Preparation Day before the Passover. And rather than Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus’s cross, John has Jesus himself carry it.

 

           These changes seem to reflect John’s theology of a Jesus fully in control of his destiny. A Jesus willingly stepping out as the Passover lamb. A Jesus carrying the very cross on which he will hang.

 

            Let’s read John’s version of these long and terrible final hours. John 19: 14-42:

 

14    Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. (Pilate) said to the Jews, ‘Here is your King!’

 

     15 They cried out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’ 16 Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.

 

      So they took Jesus; 17 and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. 18 There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.

 

 19 Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ 20 Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek.

 

 21  Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews”, but, “This man said, I am King of the Jews.” ’ 22 Pilate answered, ‘What I have written I have written.’

 

 23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. 24 So they said to one another, ‘Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.’ This was to fulfill what the scripture says,
‘They divided my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.’
25  And that is what the soldiers did.

 

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’

 

27   Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

 

    28   After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’

 

       29  A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30   When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

 

        31 Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed.     32       Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33    But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34   Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.

 

        35    (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.)    

 

     36   These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘None of his bones shall be broken.’ 37   And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.’

 

         38 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave himpermission; so he came and removed his body.

 

         39   Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40     They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.

 

        41      Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42     And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

 

 

 

          In this one passage, John mentions three times the date as Preparation Day, which was the day the Passover lamb was slaughtered for the Passover feast. As we’ve said before, when a writer mentions something three times, he wants us to notice.      

 

          Do you remember what John the Baptist said the first time Jesus walked by: “Behold the lamb of God!” (John 1: 36)  Now at the end of John’s story, Jesus becomes the ultimate Passover lamb.

 

          Passover, of course, was a remembrance of the time that Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt. Now there will be a new exodus, not from bondage in Egypt this time, but from bondage to this world.

 

          And this Passover lamb, unlike the bleating, protesting animal that was usually sacrificed, goes willingly, knowingly. He carries his own cross. He carries the instrument of his death.       

 

          Back when Jesus first began to talk about his death, as he and the disciples were traveling around Galilee, Matthew, Mark and Luke told very similar stories about his words. “If any want to become my followers,” he said, “let them deny themselves and take up their crosses and follow me.” (Mark 8: 34)

 

          So as Jesus walked to his execution, carrying his own cross on his back, he was illustrating what following him may look like for us. True followers of Jesus may face their deaths, too.

 

          Now in Greenville, South Carolina, 2,000 years later, following Jesus is not going to result in physical execution. But it may be a death of our former lives. A death of  “not knowing.” 

 

             For once we know something, we have no excuse.

 

            Liberation theology, with its roots in the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, is built upon the bedrock that God is on the side of oppressed people.

 

         From the poor of South America to African Americans in slavery to native Americans on the Trail of Tears to contemporary refugees, our history teems with oppressed people. And we in the church must decide how to meet whatever form of oppression we witness.

 

           Liberation theology insists – as Scripture insists – that we are to see Jesus in the face of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the prisoner, the stranger. So to honor our convicted Lord, we must fight the injustice that convicted him.

 

           To honor our convicted Lord, we must fight the injustice that convicted him.

 

           I went to both high school and college with Tandy’s brother-in-law, Stuart Taylor. Like Tandy and her husband, David, Stuart is a Presbyterian pastor.

 

         He recently organized a memorial service at a church in Graham, North Carolina, to recognize the 1870 lynching of a black man there by the White Brotherhood. The man’s crime? Organizing to build schools and churches for the black community.

 

            Stuart is hoping to spread the practice of memorial services to cover the 102 lynchings on record in North Carolina. In that first service in February, he asked, Why would we stir up these painful memories? Why revisit this shameful part of our past?
          For the same reason we dare not forget the Holocaust. If we do not learn from our history, we will most certainly repeat it.  

 

        History is past, yes. ButI think we are disingenuous when we do not acknowledge its repetitions in our midst.

 

         So where is the scandalous gospel of the cross, the treachery of Pilate and the chief priests and the Romans, being revealed today?

 

           Stuart – and Ndume Olatushani and the United Methodists in Washington and our own Ken Christy -- believe it’s in our criminal justice system. More than two million people are in our prisons and jails.

 

         This very week two inmates in Kirkland Correctional Institution in Columbia lured four other inmates into their cell and killed them. One of those four was scheduled to be released in seven months.

 

          I know we must have prisons. Having met some of the people I have during my time at Triune, I am the first to admit that some people simply cannot live in society. They are too violent, too damaged, too broken, too lacking in empathy for anyone else to be safe around them. 

 

          But there aren’t two million of them.  

 

          More black men are in prison than are in college.

 

           I can’t help but wonder if building all those prison beds when they were third graders was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 

          In Washington, the 14th and last Station of the Cross is found in Washington National Cathedral. It is the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea.

 

           A chapel mural shows the three crosses, and St. John supporting Mary, whose grief is a sword piercing her heart. Mary Magdalene kneels over the recumbent Christ. And Nicodemus, the Pharisee who once came to Jesus by night, leads the procession into the tomb.

 

        I love this idea of the 14 Stations of the Cross reflecting both the biblical story and the modern challenges of our Christianity.

 

           I love the linking of first century injustice to 21st century injustice.

 

         I love that Washingtonians are addressing prison incarceration and homelessness and war in the midst of our gospel story. 

 

          For we are entering a week in which we contemplate carrying our own crosses, which can represent a death of our former selves.

 

              Because once we know something, we have no excuse.

 

           Amen.       

 

 

 

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