For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”
A week and a half ago, a troubled man stabbed a local rabbi named Schlomo Noginski eight times. This occurred in front of a Jewish synagogue in Brighton, where a day camp with dozens of children was underway. But for the quick evasive actions of this rabbi, and a fast response from others, many more could have been hurt, and Rabbi Schlomo could have been killed. The prosecution is just beginning, but early signs are that this was a hate crime, targeted against a Jewish clergy member and his community.
Last Friday, I stood on the lawn in Brighton Center in gentle rain with a few hundred others at a rally held the day after the stabbing. I try to show up to my friends in Boston’s interfaith community in these moments. Any attack on humanity is an affront to God. And an attack based on race, religion, creed, gender, sexual orientation – is an attack on love, and an attack on the dignity of humanity and the joy of human diversity, all of us made in God’s image. So often too people with my identities – white, male, Christian, minister, have been the perpetrators of violent hate crimes or have supported ideologies that fueled them or overlooked them. So I get a reverend collar out to show up in grief and prayer and solidarity when I can.
The vigil went kind of how I expected, in that I heard respected Jewish leaders call for justice and respect, I saw Boston’s political and law enforcement leaders show up in support, and said hi to friends and acquaintances of various walks of life who were there as well. But what I didn’t expect was how much love and light I’d encounter, and how much the words and actions of local Jewish leaders would encourage my life and faith, and specifically how much these events would illuminate and magnify my understanding of some of what God’s presence in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ means to me.
And that’s what I’d like to share today.
This summer, I’m preaching my way through the Apostles Creed, a short, 4th century statement of the Christian faith. Line by line, we’re appreciating the ways this creed helps anchor faith, hope, and love for today’s follower of Jesus. But we’re also noticing ways the language has not entirely been serving the liberating, life-giving purposes of God. And we’re talking about how people have reinterpreted these words in light of what God is doing among us today. Because this is how religion in general, and faith in Jesus, in particular works. It remains rooted in its original historical events and sources, while it also evolves as people and culture do, with the Spirit of God accompanying us in an ever-changing world.
Let me review the lines of the creed we’ve looked at the past four weeks, and read this weeks’ line as well.
I believe in God the father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
Who Was Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was Crucified, Dead and Buried. He descended into hell.
This week we examine these words about Jesus: Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was Crucified, Dead and Buried. He descended into hell.
There are a lot of directions to go in with this line. We could talk about some of the big theological, spiritual meanings of what happened in the death of Christ on the cross. But we’ll get another chance to do that in August, when I preach on the line “forgiveness of sins” and talk about the cross and our needs for forgiveness and forgiving-ness – the various ways Jesus’ death empowers liberation, healing, justice, and wholeness.
We could also talk about questions of the afterlife, what some think it means that Jesus descended into hell upon his death, like reaching out to dead people, as a fellow dead person, offering the love and grace of God, even beyond the grave. Along with many other Christians, I think God still does this in Christ – that God keeps loving and luring people’s minds or consciousness, even after we die, because I hope our consciousness continues past death, and I hope to be in relationship with a loving and beautiful God for eternity, and I hope that for everyone too, as I believe God does.
But, I feel led to go in a different direction today. To ask how as people who fear, as people who get sick, as people who live in communities in violence, as people who face loss and death and grief, how Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion, death, burial, and descent into hell speaks to us.
I have four powerful, practical benefits I would like to share with you. Here they are:
Practical Benefit #1
Jesus embraced shame and losing, so we’d change how we see and experience shame or losing.
I live in part of Greater Boston where Rabbi Schlomo and many other very Orthodox Jews live. They stand out still in their dress, their customs. They uphold centuries of tradition that have included misunderstanding and persecution, and sometimes violence. But not only do they scorn they shame they face but they defy it, and joyfully so. Joyful defiance seems to characterize Rabbi Schlomo and what I saw of his community last week – a refusal to back down, an insistence on the safety and respect they deserve, and a refusal to be less visibly and devotedly Jewish, no matter what happens. They are willing to ignore the shame heaped upon them by some, for the sake of the joy of their faith and tradition.
Dynamics of honor and shame dominated most ancient cultures, as they dominate many cultures still. Historians and Bible scholars such as our own Dr. James Jumper have written extensively about this. Were someone to be seen naked publicly for instance, it would be the shame of that that would sting more than the loss of privacy. The same with loss, punishment, condemnation – whatever harm these might do on their own, the shame accrued to a person and a community who suffered these was the worst.
Roman rulers really got, which is why they adopted crucifixions to punish enemies of the state – the victims were stripped naked, tortured, hung up publicly to die not only to make them suffer, but to shame them publicly – to mark them as outcasts – as humiliated, losing, victims.
When we look for this in the New Testament, we see this as part of Jesus’ experience of crucifixion and death. For instance, in the letter to the Hebrews, where it says:
Hebrews 12:1-2 (Common English Bible)
1 So then, with endurance, let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up,
2 and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.
Jesus – in being stripped, mocked, beaten, tortured, and killed before his mother, his friends, his students, the public – didn’t just suffer and die, he was shamed, he was branded a criminal and a loser. Jesus endured this willingly, for the sake of the joy of what he was showing us of God, how he was loving us, and what he hoped would come.
Bible scholar Pete Enns says that of everything that the New Testament has to say, of every thing in the record of the life of Jesus, this is far and away the most unique – that Jesus and his followers don’t in any way try to reduce or hide the enormity of Jesus’ shame and loss. They center the whole story on this. They take a kind of pride in just how much Jesus was shamed and suffered. The creed centers this line.
There are only three names in the creed – Jesus, his mother Mary, and the Roman governor Pilate who executed Jesus. It tells us that in Jesus, God suffered in history. A corrupt, colonizing politician takes pride is sticking it to a shamed, losing victim, whose name is Jesus.
What’s happening here is that Jesus and his followers and the faith we inherit today is upending honor/shame dynamics. It’s reversing what we have always been taught about winners and losers.
This matters historically. We’ve always heard that history is written by the winners, and so it is. But in Jesus we see a God who loses, and ever since, we’ve begun to see a change in historical attitude toward the scapegoated, the attacked, the shamed, and those who lose.
When we side with victims, we do so because of Christ. When we root for underdogs, we’re shaped by the legacy of Jesus in history. And when we follow the great Black theologian James Cone in seeing that Black Christianity has been the most faithful Christian expression in this country’s history, we side with Jesus, who hung – as Cone says – on a Roman lynching tree.
This matters morally and in terms of dignity and human rights. Jurgen Moltmann, author of the powerful book The Crucified God, wrote
“There is no ‘outside the gate’ with God, if God himself is the one who died outside the gate on Golgatha for those who are outside.”
When we or people like us have been scapegoated, shamed and shunned, we can know Jesus sides with us. There is no outside the gate with God. And when we or people like us have been the scapegoaters, the shamers, and the shunners, Jesus calls us to shame in our supposed honor, and calls us to repent for our offense to God.
And this reversal of honor and shame dynamics matters relationally, in our own hearts and esteems and lives. Perhaps like me you are raising teenagers or preteens, or perhaps you are a teen or preteen or remember those years, and how defined they can be by shame and losing, or honor and winning. Which dates you did or didn’t get, how liked you are on instagram or in person, whether you’re the teaser or the teased, where you stand in the so-very-visible pecking order of life.
Perhaps you’re a grown up, where these things are a little more subtle, but still – our weight, our height, our appearance, our education, our income, our abilities or disabilities… there is still so much winning and losing in so many ways. Jesus’ shame tells those of us who face shame and who lose that God is not judgeting us alongside the shamers or the winners. God is with us, enduring this shame and loss, telling us that God sees differently.
Practical Benefit #2
God invites us to join Jesus in embracing – not denying – our feelings.
My Jewish therapist and I quote Jesus a lot. We’re always talking about how the truth will set you free. And usually, we’re not talking about the truth of facts, but the truth of our experience, the courage to notice and feel and name our emotions, whatever they are. And by our emotions, I mean my emotions, which I grew up to not notice or feel, but to avoid and judge.
It’s so powerful to stop doing this. Liberating things happen when I notice my feelings – when I admit that I’m sad or angry or afraid or resentful, even when I wish I wasn’t. This isn’t surprising, or it shouldn’t be. Psychologist Carl Rogers famously said
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I change.”
The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I change.
Jesus was always emotionally available, to others and to himself. The shortest verse in the Bible:
John 11:35 (New Revised Standard Version)
35 Jesus began to weep.
A lot of translations give it two words: Jesus wept. I like this newer translation that nuances the verb tense – began to wept. Because it makes it seem like Jesus still weeps, at least some times. It mirrors God’s ongoing emotional life, God
“the great companion, the co-sufferer, the one who understands.”
God feels what God feels, freely.
God feels what you and I feel too, gladly.
And God wants us to feel our own feelings too. When I say: the truth will set you free, my therapist is fond of quoting Gloria Steinem’s addendum to that, saying:
yeah, but first it will piss you off!
That’s true too. It’s hard to be present to our feelings, but God wants to help us with that, because God accepts us as we are, and God knows that we accept how we are too, we’re more free, and where we need it, we’re more likely to have power to change as well.
Practical Benefit #3
Jesus dares us to act, and to act in love when we’re most afraid.
Have you been afraid this year? Who hasn’t been? Some of us have suffered personally during pandemic. All of us have had body counts in the backdrop of our lives, as sickness numbers and death counts have filled the news. It’s not the first time that’s happened. Me, I was born in 1973, when they were just wrapping up doing that around American deaths in Vietnam.
We all know that whether it’s from COVID-22 or -23 or the next pandemic or war, we’ll face this again at some point.
But we’re not made for habitual, long-term fear. Fear’s a great alert, an activator for our caution and preparedness, but over time, our fight or flight or freeze instincts become habit.
And fear starts to become demonic. It lies to us. It exaggerates. It numbs us. It gets us stuck in reactive paralysis or cycles of panic and anger we just can’t sustain and that eat away from our lives – figuratively and literally.
At the vigil last week, one of Rabbi Schlomo’s colleagues spoke. He reported on Rabbi Schlomo’s wellness and recovery, how despite eight stab wounds, his life was spared and his health prognosis was great.
And then he reminded us all what the scriptures teach, Christian to be sure, but also Jewish – that love overcomes evil, that light drives out darkness. And he exhorted us all that for each of the rabbi’s eight wounds, we should all endeavor to do eight deeds of great kindness. His community has also determined this year to welcome eight students into the rabbinate as well, one new rabbi for each wound.
It’s beautiful. I was moved. To call for justice, strength, and love in the wake of tragedy. It’s what our country should have done 20 years ago in the wake of 9/11. We were hell bent on vengeance instead, and 20 years later, many thousands of lost lives and billions of lost dollars later, we’re finally leaving Afghanistan, having got some vengeance, but no real justice, strength, or healing.
This is path Jesus has for people and communities of all sizes as much as nations, though – to act, and to act in love when we’re most afraid. It’s what Jesus did – pressing forward toward a loving mission in the face of fear and shame. And it’s how the letter to the Hebrews calls us to imitate Jesus as well.
Moltmann in The Crucified God wrote way back in 1973 that at its worst, Christian religion has an identity that is anxious, inward-looking, and has fearful rigidity. It’s gotten so much worse since then.
But at its best, when we identify with suffering Jesus of the cross, God can spur
“creative love for (even) what is considered different, alien, and ugly.”
In this the world finds its healing, and in this we find our personal and collective liberation.
Friends, what does your pandemic liberation look like? How will your life no longer be dominated by fear, but by action, and specifically, by creating action in love, no matter what the future holds?
Whatever answer we have to this question, it will lead us toward redemption and freedom, my friends.
Lastly, the fourth point I have no time for today:
Practical Benefit #4
Jesus dares us to look for God where we think God is not.
Faith the God revealed in Christ is faith in a God who has known forsakenness, who has in that sense descended into the hell of lonely, abandoned suffering and death. That means that in every hell on earth, God is no longer absent, but Jesus is there, inside the hell, with the forsaken.
There is no hell, no abyss, no rock bottom beyond God’s power to accompany and save. Our rock bottom is actually a really great place to find God and our path toward healing.
Jesus said once:
Matthew 25:35-36 (Common English Bible)
35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
It’s not just a metaphor. Jesus dares us to look for God where we think God is not. Because that’s actually where God is most likely to be.
In every forsaken place – yours and others – look for the helpers, as Mr. Rogers told us. God is there. Look for the possibility of change and redemption. God is shaping that space. Look for the love and presence and possibility of God. God is most assuredly there.