“Beyond Blame”

March 5, 2017


Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-13

Matthew 4:1-11


Sometimes I wonder if we in this congregation should be allowed to have nice things. Maybe they only lead to trouble.

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 snow”?

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 suffering.

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 another path.

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 inhumanity.”

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.”

But 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 against themselves.

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 days.

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.

[ii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/under-trumps-command-the-skies-become-decidedly-less-friendly/2017/03/01/7a1d9126-fed3-11e6-99b4-9e613afeb09f_story.html?hpid=hp_no-name_opinion-card-d%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.d7a03a0c96ab