Friday, 26 March 2010 18:31

March 21, 2010 Sermon

“Trials and Tribulation”
Luke 23:6-12
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
March 21, 2010
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Baptist Theologian Walter Rauschenbusch wrote almost a hundred years ago that the greatest sin of the world is selfishness.  Rita Nakashima Brock in her book Saving Paradise wrote of his work: “He rejected the common Christian teaching that sin was rooted in rebellion against God’s will.  Rauschenbusch observed that we seldom rebel.  Instead, we dodge and evade.  We kneel in lowly submission and kick our duty under the bed while God is not looking.”  (p.400) He saw the focus on individual spirituality and individual salvation in revivalistic Christianity as the ultimate form of selfishness.  In fact, he said that focusing on selfish ends, people will do great evil and call it holy. And the church is too often complicit.  So, he wrote that we need to pay attention to our own sin of selfishness.  The work of the church is to bring about the reign of God on earth.  God is much more interested in how we treat each other than how often or in what form we worship God.  As Rita Brock notes, “Rauschenbusch insisted that the death of Jesus did not redeem humanity from its sins.  Rather, it revealed the character of transpersonal evil—collective sins that continue to put earth and its peoples at risk if crucifixion.” (Saving Paradise p. 400)

He saw six forms of corporate evil that collectively conspired to kill Jesus and that continue to kill hope for a redemptive society.  We are looking at one of these each Sunday in Lent.  We have already examined, corruption and political domination, religious bigotry, militarism, class contempt and class divisions.  Next week, we will look at mob spirit and mob action.  This week, our focus is on a corrupt legal system.

Jesus had as many as six trials in the last couple of days of his life—each one trumping up charges and changing the rules in mid-stream.    Each Gospel tells of the trials differently, but if we look at a composite of all the trials, this is what we see.

Trial One

First Jesus had a private trial with the high priest Annas (John 18:12-24).  He was interrogated and told to reveal his secret teachings.  Jesus said that he did not have secret teachings and that everything had been done in the open.  Jesus asked for testimony from witnesses, but was denied this right.  An officer struck Jesus on the hand for insolence.  When Jesus called him on his lack of due process and the first of many escalating beatings, his case when to an even higher priest Ciaphas.  Jesus was tied up for good measure and imprisoned.

Trial Two

The next trial (Luke 22:66-71) was before the chief priests, the scribes and their council.  Mark 14:55-57 said, “Now the chief priests and the whole council sought testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none.  For many bore false witness against him, and their witnesses did not agree.”  Again, no witnesses for the defense.  They asked Jesus if he was the Messiah.  In Matthew and Luke’s version Jesus evaded the question and they took that as him admitting guilt.  In Mark’s version, Jesus said, “I am”.  They got really upset when he called himself  the son of God.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.”  Inasmuch as we do the work of peacemaking, we could all call ourselves the sons and daughters of God.  Blasphemy was the charge.  The whole council condemned him to death with questionable evidence.  Then they tortured him.  But, it was unlawful for Jews to kill someone.  They needed to have the secular courts do it for them.  

Trial Three

The third next trial was before Pilate (Luke 23:1-6).  According to John’s Gospel, Pilate said, “settle this yourselves”.  In Luke’s version, the religious elders changed their tune for Pilate’s sensibilities.  Pilate was the brutal Roman governor who presided over 1000+ crucifixions.  They said, “We found this man perverting our nation, and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.”  Pilate asks him if he’s king of the Jews, and Jesus answers, “if you say so.”  Pilate finds no crime.  But the Chief Priests say that he stirs people up.  You know we can’t have that.

Trial Four

So then comes the fourth trial, the one in today’s scripture.  Pilate realizes that he’s a Galilean, so he can slough him off to Herod, the so-called ruler of the area of Galilee.  This is Herod Antipas, the one who imprisoned John the Baptist and eventually had him executed on a whim.  Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great who ordered the killing of all male babies under two when Jesus was born so as to rid himself of any threat to his throne.   By the way, Herod Antipas called himself the King of the Jews, even though he had not a drop of Jewish blood in him.  Herod wanted Jesus to perform some kind of miracle for him—as entertainment?  Herod interrogated him, while the chief priests and scribes accused him.  Jesus remained silent.  So Herod and his soldiers ridiculed him, dressed him up like a king and sent him back to Pilate.  Pilate and Herod became friends after this.  Hold that thought, we’ll get back to it in a minute.

Trial Five

The fifth trial is before Pilate again.  (Luke 23:13-25) Maybe this was an appeal because Pilate said the charges didn’t hold up.  They called for the release of the insurrectionist Barabbas.  Pilate paraded Jesus in front of the people ridiculing him, and watching as people took pot shots at him.  He beat him for good measure.

Trial Six

The sixth trial was Jesus’ last stand (John 19:6-16).  Pilate tried one last time to set Jesus free but the mob rule was out of control.  Fearing for his own life and the security of the town, Pilate decided that one death might hold off a riot and even though he found him innocent he finally acquiesced and sentenced Jesus to death.

Now, I’m not sure if it actually happened that way.  The Gospel writers had a bone to pick with the Jewish authorities who look really brutal while brutal Pilate comes off smelling like a rose.  But these are the stories we have and it certainly shows a systematic miscarriage of justice leading up to his crucifixion.

Rauschenbusch writes:  “As soon as Jesus was arrested, he became a victim of the courts.  His followers were not present and we have no report of eye-witnesses.  It may be that he never made the claim that he would come as the apocalyptic Messiah, and that it was concocted in order to have a political charge to present in the Roman court.  The priestly court condemned him on a priestly charge; he was a heretic and a blasphemer.

In the Roman court the pull of the upper classes and the pressure of mob clamor were allowed to influence judicial procedure.  It was Pilate’s high privilege to protect a man whom he felt to be innocent; he had the military power of Rome to back his verdict.  He yielded to pressure because his own career, as we know from secular history, was corrupt; the Jews threatened to “get him,” and they knew they could.  So he took some water and demonstratively washed his hands of what he yet consented to do.  Pilate’s wash-bowl deserves to be a mystic symbol, the counter-part of the Holy Grail.” (A Theology of the Social Gospel, 1917: 253,4)

But this is ancient news.  It doesn’t happen these days, does it?  I mean lawyers are always good people, who have the rule of law on their side.  We have a supposedly impartial judicial system that protects the rights of the minorities.  Heck they’ll even provide legal council if you can’t afford it.  You may have to wait years for a trial and you may not ever be able to afford to be away from work and family while the slow chains of justice creak on, but it’s a fair system nonetheless, right?

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”

Our form of government depends upon an impartial judicial system.  When the judiciary is partial or if people cannot trust the branch of government that is supposed to hold tight not only law but the spirit of the law, then we have organized evil that conspires to create a climate of injustice.

Our Supreme Court not only blocked the recounting of the 2000 presidential election, but it also recently ruled that corporations are now people, with all of the free speech protections that individuals have.  In other words, corporations can now spend unlimited amounts of money to get their candidates elected.  We can only imagine what this will mean for one person one vote, let alone what happens when corporations can fund judicial candidates who will write laws or rule on their behalf.

Let’s not forget the people at Guantanamo Prison/holding facility.  Do they get rights or not?  In today’s Star Tribune Katherine Kersten wrote that giving detainees lawyers is supporting terrorism.

Walter Rauschenbusch warned that the justice system is skewed toward the rich and well off.  They can better afford to hire the best legal counsel and can often afford to wait out their poorer opponent.  “Injustice between man and man is inevitable and bad enough.  
But it is far worse when the social institution set up in the name of justice gives its support to injustice.  What nation can claim to be free from this?”(A Theology of the Social Gospel, 1917: 252)

Nowhere is this organized evil more evident than in the case of Immigration Law.      I’m thankful to John Guttermann, an organizer for Faith Based Immigration Reform.  He will be our forum speaker in a month or so.  He told me that Immigration law is effectively a second tier justice system made worse by a decision 1996 to effect mandatory detention and restrict the discretion of immigration judges.  It is a system without rights to an attorney, where one can be held for unlimited periods of time, and where the right to bail is restricted or made so expensive that it is unaffordable.

Consider this case:

Victor Guijarro, a Minneapolis resident made the mistake of traveling through Ohio on his way to the east coast to visit family on his birthday.  He was detained after a routine traffic stop lead to questions regarding his immigration status. The Border Patrol made various attempts at obtaining information from him, without having an attorney present. Upon asserting their Miranda rights, passengers of the vehicle he was driving were told by local law enforcement, “You have no rights, only citizens have rights.” Victor, his wife, an infant son, mother and spouse were detained.   His wife has since been released, but he remains slated for deportation.

Over the last two years, Victor Guijarro has served as a key leader in La Asamblea de Derechos Civiles (The Assembly for Civil Rights) a faith-based organization that works for social justice and emancipation.  He has been actively involved in promoting Latino participation in the 2010 Census, working with Latino homeowners to resolve fears of displacement by MnDOT road projects, and organizing various events to promote changes to our immigration laws, including local turnout to today’s march on Washington DC.  Victor is an active member of his congregation at Sagrado Corazon de Jesus in Minneapolis and a respected leader in his community. He remains detained.  The law states that he can be detained indefinitely.  Bail, if it is offered, is never reduced meaning that an innocent person needs to come up with $10,000-$50,000.  This is out of reach for poor people.

But this doesn’t only happen in Ohio.  I recently heard of a woman of Asian descent who was stopped in Minneapolis for a minor traffic violation.  The officer took his sweet time checking her immigration status, even though she was born in the US.  He also checked the status of her toddler in the car seat.  It is now perfectly legal to detain people indefinitely if they appear to be here illegally.  I’m reminded how easy I have it being someone who frequently drives while white.

Verse 12 of today’s scripture says that at the trial, Herod and Pilate became friends.  That sounds ominous.  Herod and Pilate, two despicable rulers united against a common enemy and found ways to manipulate the system to get what they wanted—the punishment of Jesus and hopefully a stop to his movement. They also found a way to use the pesky religious leaders to serve their ends.  It took the religious leaders moving away from justice to make the truly corrupt have an even more powerful united front—a front that eventually destroyed the very Jerusalem they tried to protect.  Rome eventually destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE.

My friends, as religious people these days, we need to never forget those caught in the judicial system.  Sometimes they have done wrong and need to be accountable for their crimes.  At other times, it’s too inconvenient to address their crimes.  So, trials get put off—keeping the accused, in the public eye, guilty until proven innocent.

I read in the paper yesterday about how the State and URS had settled out of court in the 35W bridge collapse.  Neither admitted fault.  Is there justice here?  URS said the gusset plates needed to be reinforced and MnDOT said, we don’t have the money, can you give us a better report?  What happens to the families of the victims?

The third verse of the closing hymn speaks about the victims, like Jesus, who were detained for suspect reasons:

“In Prison cell and dungeon vile our thoughts to them are winging. When Friends by shame are undefiled, how can I keep from singing?”

This is not just an esoteric and symbolic question.

Singing in that song is a form of protest.  
Singing is what happens when we come together.
Singing is how we connect with a power greater than ourselves.  
Singing is a metaphor for us raising our voices against all organized evil.
Singing is how we take to the streets.
Singing is how we proclaim our deepest longings, our hopes, our desires.
Singing is how we make it through the trials and tribulation of this life.
And singing is how we proclaim and claim a different reality that will restore our nation and our sanity.

My friends, Jesus endured trials and tribulation on his way to the cross.  People still suffer similar fates and innocent people are crucified by organized evil, whether it comes by graft and political corruption; religious bigotry; militarism, economic disparities; mob action; or a corrupt legal system.  We follow one who sought to expose all of this organized evil and offer us a better way.  The prophet Isaiah said that as children of God, we ought to be the “repairers of the breech, restorers of streets to live in.”(Isaiah 58:12)

So, we are faced with a choice.  Will we focus only on our own personal sin and try to earn our own place in heaven?  Or will we pay attention to the collective sin that is out there and try to bring that to an end?

Jesus’ crucifixion was the culmination of organized evil—all of that power focused like a laser beam on one man.  The perpetrators of such evil thought it would stop the movement.  But they knew precious little about the power of God.  The power of God is greater than a corrupt legal system.  The power of God is greater than graft and political corruption.  The power of God is greater than militarism, religious bigotry, class distinctions and even mob mentality.  The power of God is that force of good people responding to organized evil with organized good, organized faith; organized community; organized justice; organized mercy; organized compassion; organized hope; organized love.  We call that organized force for good the church of Jesus Christ.  It is this force, with the power of God at our fingertips which is the true hope and the real force for salvation.

Thank God we’re here.  Without the church—the justice-loving church, organized evil has its sway and the crucifixions continue.  The good news is that through all trials and tribulation, we still sing on.  We still press on.  We will not leave victims alone and hopeless.  We will expose the breeches in the social fabric and contracts.  We will work for the reign of God where all people are treated with justice and respect.  And hope is the last word, not tribulation.