March 5, 2017
Sometimes I wonder if we in this
congregation should be allowed to have nice things. Maybe they only lead to
Let me tell you what I mean.
Everyone loves the new carpet and the
newly painted walls in Rockwood Hall. People are delighted with the lighter,
brighter look that makes our church hall seem larger, even with the crowds on
Sunday morning. So, yes, a big word of thanks goes to the Trustees for
coordinating this effort. And a big word of thanks also goes to everyone who
continues to give so generously to support the ministry and mission of this
congregation. It means that our building is a place of welcome not only for
church members but also for people attending our adult literacy program or one
of the many other events held here.
But here’s where the problem comes in.
Before worship a couple weeks after the
carpet was installed, a member came up to me and confided, “Well, I just
spilled coffee on the new carpet.” Notice I’m not even saying if the member was
a man or a woman—we need to protect the guilty.
I’ve heard from those who were here at
the time when the previous carpet was installed that samples were first tested
by pouring coffee on them to see which colors were more “forgiving.” I don’t
know. The new carpet might show our foibles and failings a little more, but
that’s OK. It reminds us of our common humanity and encourages us to grow as
people who love and forgive others as well as ourselves.
When I’m feeling positive, I think that
we should just enjoy the carpet. And if we see crumbs dropped by children (or
adults!) or coffee stains, give thanks that the room is filled with people just
like you, prone to spilling, loved by one another, and embraced by God.
Of course, you know me, and I’m not
always feeling positive. Last Sunday morning, we came into Rockwood Hall, only
to discover mud on the carpet—mud! We started to wonder if it would come out. And
even more, we started to wonder, in the words of the old B-52’s song, “Who’s to
blame?” We started thinking about who had used the hall recently and asked
aloud: “Could it be them? Or what
about that group?
Actually, I’m kind of glad that all of
this happened and that it happened so soon after we installed the new carpet.
Sooner or later (and usually it’s
sooner) we all spill some coffee. Or punch. Or we drop the roast beef onto the
floor. Or we track in mud. Or we otherwise make a mess of things large and
small. Paul once described this as falling short of the glory of God.
The good news is that the coffee stains
and the mud were both cleaned up with a certain amount of ease. Everything is
like new once again—more or less. Wasn’t it the prophet Isaiah who imagined God
saying to the people: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like
We worry, don’t we? In Rockwood Hall, in
the world, in our own lives we worry that the stain won’t go away. We worry
that everyone will see the mud.
All of this seems to be a kind of
contemporary parable—and like all parables, this one is open to many
interpretations. And this parable of the carpet seems appropriate this morning
when we hear the story of temptation and fall and the story of Jesus facing his
own temptations in the wilderness.
Both scripture lessons remind us that we
are separated from God and one another and even the best in ourselves—a
separation that we call “sin.” And the lessons remind us that out of that
separation we have a strong tendency toward blaming others: When asked by God just what was going on, “The
man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree and I ate.’ . . . The woman said, ‘The
serpent beguiled me, and I ate.’”
What the snake’s excuse was, we’re not told. But the human response seems
to be: “Don't look at me!”
Who spilled the coffee? Who tracked in the mud?
We give control of our lives over to someone else—or to a snake—or
something else and then start seeking out someone to blame.
What we see in the story of the temptation of Jesus is not so much a
man wrestling with Satan as with himself. The tempting path was to create a
kingdom in the world that would be established by works of wonder and
ultimately works of violence against the Roman Empire. The tempting path was to
give control of his life over to what would bring acclaim and adoration and
power. Those options were real. What made Jesus appealing to so many people in
his own time—and what continues to make him appealing in our time as well—is
that could have chosen another path but did not.
He chose a path of non-violence even when it would lead to his own
He chose a path of personal
responsibility in the face of those who would take his very life.
Let me be clear. The outcome of that
testing was not predetermined. Jesus was not simply going through the motions.
He could have chosen otherwise—but he did not.
Jesus could have chosen otherwise—but
his decision in the time of trial and temptation was to remain true to his
authentic self and to his vision of God’s realm of peace.
The followers of Jesus, however, took
Roman authorities sentenced and executed
Jesus. As Jesus told his followers, he would be handed over to the Gentiles and
they would kill him. His crucifixion resulted in the threat of persecution and
death for all who followed him.
Attempting to defend themselves and to
gain some standing in a dangerous world, the early Christians often maintained
that Jesus was innocent of any crime against Rome. They explained his
crucifixion as the result of a Roman ruler bowing to pressure from religious
leaders. Pilate, however, was known not for being weak and indecisive but for
what one ancient writer called his “corruption, his cruelty, and his continual
murders of people untried and unconvicted and his never-ending and gratuitous
Who’s to blame? Not Pilate.
Who’s to blame? Even at an early stage,
Christians said “It must be, yes, the Jewish people.”
Julie Galambush says in The Reluctant Parting, her book about
the separation of Christians from their Jewish origins: “As it is read today,
the New Testament is almost unremittingly hostile to the Jews.”
The horrible reality is that when
Christians gained power, they—we—went on the offensive and a twisted and hateful
reading of the Passion story led to the persecution of the Jewish people. This
happened throughout the year, but Lent and Holy Week have been times for some
of the worst acts of anti-Semitism. Both Protestants and Catholics walked on
this path for centuries.
Since the end of the Holocaust during Second
World War there has been what might be called “repentance”—a turning around and
heading in a new direction. Many Christians have been involved work of developing
a new understanding of Jesus as a Jewish person of his time. We have sought to
better understand the Jewish origins of our faith.
It is astonishing, but it still comes as
a surprise to some people that Jesus was Jewish. Yet, as James Carroll reminds
us in his book, Christ Actually:
Twice a day, Jesus pronounced the Shema—“Hear,
O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone”—Every Sabbath, he read the
Torah—or, if he was illiterate, was present for its reading. At least once a
year, at Passover, his attention turned to the Temple in Jerusalem.[i]
In short, Jesus was a real Jew as much
as he was a real human being.
Artists have helped us with this—maybe
even leading the way.
At the Art Institute in Chicago you can
see Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion.
Chagall painted this in 1938 in response to Kristallnacht. It was the first of
a series of compositions that feature the image of Christ as a Jewish martyr.
Chagall stressed the Jewish identity of Jesus in several ways: he replaced his
traditional loincloth with a prayer shawl, his crown of thorns with a head
cloth, and the mourning angels that customarily surround him with three
biblical patriarchs and a matriarch, clad in traditional Jewish garments. At
either side of the cross, Chagall illustrated the devastation of pogroms: On
the left, a village is pillaged and burned…On the right, a synagogue and its
Torah ark go up in flames...The crucified Jewish Jesus is linked to the
persecuted Jews of Europe.
Because of this repentance and
reimagining, our congregation has had a warm relationship with the Agudas Achim
synagogue for decades. The Torah that we keep on our communion table was a gift
from them in celebration of our friendship. So perhaps we are in a good place
to join the work of theologians and biblical scholars and artists and others, for
much still needs to be done.
Last Thursday it
was reported that the number of bomb threats made toward Jewish Community
Centers since the beginning of the year has reached 100. President Trump began
his address on Tuesday evening by telling our nation: “ Recent threats
targeting Jewish Community Centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries remind us
that while we may be a Nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands
united in condemning hate and evil in all its very ugly forms.”
those words came only hours after the president, while “meeting with state
attorneys general, appeared to suggest that the threats and vandalism against
Jewish targets might be false flags. White supremacists such as David Duke have
been claiming for days that the acts were perpetrated by Jews”[ii]—for
millennia Jewish people have been the people who are blamed—even for attacks
During Lent we
are exploring how our encounter with people of other religious faiths deepens
and enriches our own faith. This takes on a special urgency for us in these
We can begin by
recognize the truth that was there all along—a truth that was obscured,
twisted, and blotted out over time: the Jesus whom we seek to follow was Jewish
in every way. Even the meal that he gave to us and that we celebrate this
morning grew out of his celebration of God setting the Jewish people free from
slavery in Egypt at the Passover.
Perhaps then we
might begin to see once more, that, as Julie Galambush puts it: “The New
Testament authors wrote out of a deeply grounded love of the heritage entrusted
to them, the tree of life that was and is Judaism.”
Let us, in these
days, continue the work of repentance and reimagining. Let us take
responsibility for our own lives.
Perhaps even now
we can move beyond blame to strengthen the bonds of friendship and
understanding that we have developed.
[i] James Carroll, Christ Actually, pg. 17.