The story of Jesus' passion and death has stirred my imagination since I was a child. In an act of profound mystery, Jesus walks towards the conflict swirling around him. Jesus accepts his arrest and does not raise his voice. His willingness to embrace the consequences of truth telling leaves him silent in the face of his accusers. His judges repeatedly say they can find no fault in this man, but the people want more. They want someone to blame.
It makes me think of the fear and anger roiling in our nation and capitalized on by some of our presidential candidates. Who can we blame? Who can I direct my anger towards? Many holler to deport those who are different. Many demand that the stranger at a rally be expelled. Many people with white skin fear those who have a darker pigment. And those with a darker pigment fear what will happen to them when white fear runs rampant. Fear and hate cause people to demand that those who are different be crucified so that those who are yelling will feel less uncomfortable in our complex society.
But this is the deeper truth: Hate and fear have no place in the Gospel. Jesus welcomes everyone, including Pilate, Herod, Simon of Cyrene and the women of Jerusalem. He stands in the midst of conflict with reflection and respect. Facing groundless charges, he doesn't retaliate. He either answers simply or stays silent and lets the scenes play out trusting in the presence of a deeper truth. We are challenged, as a nation, to journey into this deeper truth. This deeper truth is the embodiment of love beyond understanding.
In September 2015 while on our Nuns on the Bus tour in advance of Pope Francis' visit to the United States, I met women who I think of as Jesus in the story of the passion. They are in the grip of suffering for their children, yet they do not cry out or retaliate. I met Amy, an African American mom in St. Louis, Missouri who worries every day about the safety of her two sons one in tenth grade and the other in eighth grade. She quizzes them regularly about what to do when stopped by the police. She tells them that they need to keep their hands out of their pockets and their arms away from their body. They need to say "yes sir" "no, sir" and don't demonstrate any teenage attitude. She showers her boys with worry and advice so that they might be safe. Her eighth grader asked her, "Mommy, how long is this going to go on?" Amy in her love told him the current truth when she said, "The rest of your life."
This is the worry of moms in a society where young African American teens can be seen too quickly as a threat. It is her worry which is quite like the worry of the women of Jerusalem. On his way to Calvary, Jesus says to them, "Do not weep for me. Weep for yourselves and your children." Jesus in his love knows that it is not about him, but the struggles of our families and our destructive tendencies. It is the toxicity of racism that is crucifying our young men in the streets of our cities. We need to weep so that we may act differently.
Also on the bus trip, in Missouri we met the two mothers who started Just Moms STL. They live near the superfund clean-up site known as West Lake Landfill. This buried toxic heap was created by the waste from the creation of the atomic bomb in World War II. This nuclear waste was buried, but has been emitting radiation for over 70 years. Now these mothers have come together because their children have been diagnosed with brain cancer. They discovered that there is a 300% increase in the level of childhood brain cancer for those living near this site. Not only that, but we were told that the waste itself has caught fire underground and is gradually smoldering its way towards the Missouri River. And yet, no one is cleaning of the mess. Rather, the corporations are arguing about who should pay for it. They are doing this while children suffer and our land cries out to be rid of the toxicity of human making.
This is the road to Calvary. How do we become Simons of Cyrene to help with these crosses? Are we willing to let our hearts be broken open by the anguish and struggle of our time so that we might find some form of conversion and change?
Jesus walked step by step toward those who condemned him. He revealed the truth either in accepting the title he was given (King of the Jews), or his concern for the women of Jerusalem. In the midst of his anguish, he felt another's pain. This is the gift of love that is not preoccupied with itself, but rather sees the needs of others. Dare we love enough to move beyond our nation's endemic racism and embrace Amy and her sons so that their story might have a different ending? Do we love enough to move toward helping the moms trying to save their children from the toxicity that is consuming our planet?
Some presidential candidates breed fear and hate becoming like the mob in Jesus time demanding someone's life. They nourish the toxicity rife in our society. We as Christians are challenged by Jesus to live differently. We are challenged to stand up for Amy and her sons and the mothers at the West Lake Landfill. Do I act to change the future of our nation or do I too call for blood? The question for me is: Was I there when they crucified my Lord?
Bible Study Questions:
1. There are those of us who are not victims of racism - indeed we benefit from racism through unearned societal privilege. Being an ally is a conscious decision. How do we become Simons of Cyrene to help our brothers and sisters who are being marginalized and persecuted?
2. Sometimes we can get overwhelmed by the anger in the air, especially during an election year. It is tempting to become a part of the brawl and lash out at those with whom we disagree. Being an advocate is a conscious decision: Do I act to change the future of our nation or do I too call for blood?
3. Was I there when they crucified my Lord? These lyrics from the beautiful spiritual we hear most often in lent convict each of us. It is important to live the space between Good Friday and Easter to fully comprehend the redemptive work of the cross. Use this time to understand that the face of Jesus is indeed that of people all around us. How will we 'be there' for people struggling in our communities?
For Further Readings
Johnson, Elizabeth, QUEST FOR THE LIVING GOD, Bloomsbury Publishing, New York, NY, 2007.
Wallis, Jim, AMERICA'S ORIGINAL SIN: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, MI, 2016.
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I practiced family law in California for many years. I know the anguish of the breakup of a marriage. Often one spouse would come to me to try to untangle the legal mess of a marital relationship. What I noticed was how much ambivalence went into the process. So many wished that they could salvage the marriage but for a myriad of reasons it was not possible. Sometimes there were situations of domestic violence, impossible economic pressures and a host of other impossible hurdles. And more often than not, my clients felt judged and ostracized from their church and circle of friends. It was a lonely road to try to find a way beyond the harsh judgments.
The Mark 10 text is a challenging gospel in our society that has a high divorce rate. But I have a hunch that there is a deeper truth that Jesus was trying to get at. First the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus so Jesus responds by tweaking the Pharisees. The Pharisees were playing a game of "gotcha" where they could claim the high ground and discredit this revered teacher. Jesus says in that context that marriage is about love and unity, commitment and engagement. The Pharisees want Jesus to draw the clear bright line that all can easily judge. But life is not so simple.
It makes me think of Pope Francis and his recent visit to the United States. Some of our leaders wanted him to scold or chastise those who do not live the exact letter of the law. Some leaders wanted him to be all about the rules, the divides, the right and wrong. They, like the Pharisees, wanted to use law against people. They wanted to claim that they were right, but the "others" were wrong. Pope Francis, like Jesus, did not fall into this trap. It is the next section of today's scripture that shows us the real way forward.
Pope Francis, like Jesus, responds to the children. Pope Francis literally lit up every time he was in proximity to children. One story really touched my heart. I talked with Seanta who was visiting Philadelphia from South Carolina for the meeting on the family. On the parade route, she stood next to a family holding their baby. Much to her surprise, the Pope-mobile stopped by them and a security man asked the parents if he could take their baby to the Pope for a blessing. They quickly said a resounding yes! While they and everyone around them watched Pope Francis embrace this small child they all teared up. The Pope blessed this small baby and by extension blessed them. The security man gave her back to her parents who were in stunned silence. Seanta, in awe, asked if she could hold the baby for a just moment. Holding that small child, Seanta said that she felt that she had been blessed by extension just holding this baby. Don't we all want to be blessed by this innocence and hope? Jesus says that is what the reign of God is like.
During our recent Nuns on the Bus trip around the country, the 6th graders at St. Thomas Aquinas parish school in Indianapolis cooked dinner for us (with the help of their parents). I spoke with George and Sully about their 6th grade views of the needs that exist in their community. They were keenly aware that there are children who do not have enough to eat and are left out of many opportunities in our nation. They were concerned that some neighborhoods did not have a playground as good as theirs nor did they have a chance for science field trips. They told me that they thought our nation should do better by giving all children a chance to thrive. It's to these that the Kingdom of God belongs.
I believe that maybe these two seemingly disparate sections of scripture are put together because the first is about the rules and regulations and the second is about the reign of God that nourishes us all. We can get trapped like the Pharisees in judging others and ourselves. We can become scrupulous about rules and regulations. But these only lead to an accountant like sense of living the Gospel. We then think in comparisons about how much better am I than someone else.
Our lives are not ledgers. We are all called to live beyond the letter of the law. Jesus' challenge is to know that joy and eagerness of children. If we are to live the Gospel then we need to live with exuberance beyond the rules. Gospel living is the rough and tumble eagerness to be close to the vibrant life in our midst. This is what Jesus says is the core of the reign of God.
So let us be less preoccupied with the rigidity of rules and "gotcha" politics. Let us rather live wide eyed with curiosity and joy. Then Jesus can embrace us too and place his hands on us. For such is the kingdom of God.
Bible Study Questions
1. How do rules and child like living intersect in your life and the life of your community?
2. How do you exhibit childlike curiosity about the divine in our midst?
3. When have you felt that feeling of "blessing" that Seanta felt in Philadelphia? When have you dispensed that sort of blessing?
For Further Reading
Campbell, Sr. Simone. A NUN ON THE BUS, How all of us can create Hope Change and Community, Harper Collins (2014) (Chapter 10)
Brueggemann, Walter, THE PROPHETIC IMAGINATION, Fortress Press, Second Edition, Minneapolis, MN, 2001.
Nolan, Albert, JESUS TODAY: A Spirituality of Radical Freedom, Orbis Press, Maryknoll, New York, 2007.
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