A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
March 13, 2016: The Fifth Sunday of Lent
Isaiah 1:1-4 & 12-20, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, John 19:1-16
The stories make headlines with dismaying regularity, yet no matter how many times we hear them or read them, they always bother us. We have a hard time dealing with injustice. It has been argued that from very early in life all people operate with some sense of justice: what is right, what is wrong, and what is fair. Children seem to know intuitively when something is not fair and it seriously irritates them, especially when they are dealt the injustice. This intuition sharpens and grows as children grow into adults, though by contrast adults are more keen to injustices done to them personally than they are to injustices done to someone else. Still, we know when something is not fair. It is worrisome that someone may be wrongly accused and made to pay a price for something they did not do. How do you make restitution for years of unjust imprisonment, or how do you account for a mistaken execution? What can be done about a reputation that is decimated because of a false accusation or ruling of guilt? And on the other side, what can be said or done when someone skates through the legal process because of a technicality or an insider connection? Injustice is outrageous, out-raging, enraging, whether it is the circumstance of the accused, the accuser, or the community at large!
Injustice is something that makes the story of Good Friday so troubling. The whole sad story is nothing but a series of gross injustices. It is hopelessly and profoundly unfair—and on more levels than we may realize. One of the face of it, the injustice really began when Judas betrayed Jesus and Peter denied him in the courtyard. We’ve already considered both of those sad events, but it’s worth noting that each displays injustice as well. In light of what Jesus had done for them, neither disciple did what was fair or right. Their actions were unjust towards a man who loved them and called them friends. Their unjust acts were of a familial kind, between members of a family, friends in a group, perhaps the most painful injustice of all.
The legal injustice continues when Jesus is hauled into court in Jerusalem. He first faces the Sanhedrin, the city council of Jerusalem, 23 or 24 Jewish men appointed by the Roman authorities. They had strict rules that had to be followed in any criminal trial, and they kept some of them. They tried to get a quorum together. They tried to wait until daylight to pass a death sentence, as was the law. They tried to keep everything decent and in order in the court room. But in spite of the pretense, the whole thing was a sham. There was an agenda at work that was not centered on justice. Jesus was a problem to be eliminated. The plan was simple: convict him of some false teaching or blasphemy. But that proved to be harder than they expected—the Sanhedrin could not find the required two witnesses needed to corroborate each other’s story. So they focused in on Jesus’ claim that he was divine, of the same stuff as God. This was blasphemy according to the religious and civil laws of the land so Jesus was sentenced to death.
Jesus was not guilty of any crime, much less a crime deserving death. He was not guilty of any false teaching. He was not guilty of blasphemy. He was not guilty of anything other than being a direct challenge to the powers that be. Yet he was condemned. That is injustice.
The miscarriage of justice gets worse with Pilate. The Roman governor got dragged into the mess because the occupying power of Rome liked to remind the locals who actually held the power. While the Sanhedrin was given wide latitude to rule and enforce law, they could not practice capital punishment, so the chief priests and elders of Israel needed Pilate to sign off on their sentence. However, Pilate was not ignorant to the power-hungry religious establishment: as least twice, Pilate tried to set Jesus free. Pilate went out before the crowd twice and told them that he found no fault in Jesus—Pilate even spoke privately with Jesus, trying to convince him to save his own life. Pilate knew that Jesus was absolutely innocent, and justice demanded that Jesus be released.
But there were many power games being played those days in Jerusalem, and Pilate had to do his best to keep the Sanhedrin happy. But that was not easy, an almost impossible task. On one hand, Pilate was responsible for making sure that Lady Justice ruled supreme, blind and even-handed in all things; on the other hand, Pilate was responsible for order and peace, a very delicate balance that could be thrown into chaos if the Sanhedrin called the people to arms. In the end, Pilate caved. He caved to the desire of keeping order instead of being just. The Sanhedrin had an agenda that day, and they would not be denied: Jesus needed to be dealt with…he had to die. Pilate knew what was right, and he chose did not do it. He chose appeasement over what was right, injustice over justice. In spite of his training, and his role as a critical cog in the legendary machine of Rome, he failed.
With the Sanhedrin, those men of supposed religious knowledge and holiness, it is easy to understand their willingness to put an innocent man to death. Jesus and his extraordinary teaching were a threat to the status quo.
The delicate power and religious sharing that kept Jerusalem in balance was rattled by this man who told the crowds, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and its righteousness.” And I’m sure there was some element of jealousy woven into their thinking; a commoner from Nazareth was siphoning their followers away at an alarming rate. The Sanhedrin claimed to be the embodiment of God on earth, given the power to build up or tear down, and Jesus was a direct challenge to everything they claimed to be. Their desires are the desires of every man and woman in history who has worked to destroy a person or system that they perceived to be a threat.
But Pilate is not as easy to understand. Since we are never told, we can only guess at his reasons for allowing and endorsing an execution that was horribly unjust. Maybe he was trying to save his own neck and was driven by the desire to not get on the wrong side of the religious establishment. Or maybe he was being a good Roman officer and exercising ruthless pragmatism. With a riot brewing, and a volatile situation heavy in the air, it was efficient and even smart to let one man die instead of hundreds if fighting broke out in the city. Maybe he had good reasons, maybe he didn’t. It doesn’t matter on this side of things, because the result was injustice. And we are right to be angry at Pilate and condemn his for his utter failure.
It is odd—or perhaps ironic—that the men who were scheming to break Jesus with their sham trial and execution ended up being the ones who were broken.
The story of Good Friday is troubling because of the facts: an innocent man, a crowd hell-bent on death, leaders who wanted to save their own hides, an unjust execution. It is also and particularly troubling for us to hear today because it is a familiar story in our modern world, just with different characters. Injustice is not simply a matter relegated to the pages of the Bible or history; injustice, of the legal or religious or familial kind, is something we know deeply now, today. We know that broken justice is a part of every-day life.
A lot of examples of broken justice in the world come to mind today, but there is one in particular that has been gnawing and nagging at my mind, and that is the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. And even now it is coming to light that Flint is not unique: there are towns in New York, the Dakotas, and even in Oklahoma, who face the same deadly and unjust circumstances. It is simply beyond comprehension that there are people in our advanced and developed country who live in justified fear of what will happen to them if they drink the tap water in their homes. There is a commercial being run right now by a large beer company encouraging us to by their product and their special beer glass because it will provide five years of clean water for someone in a third-world country—that is a worthy and noble cause, but my blood pressure increases every time I see that commercial because clean water is a concern not only half way across the world, but right here where we live.
For a moment, think about what has happened in Flint in light of what happened on Good Friday. First, there are children and families in that Michigan town who expect certain things from the power structures that are in place, things like safe neighborhoods and clean water. This is not unlike what Jesus, as a citizen of Jerusalem, expected from the religious and civil structure. Both desire to live in peace and security, placing their trust in the system. Second, the families in Flint turned to their elected officials, the people with power, to maintain a way of life that was good for all, looking to them to use their power for good and not evil. I think Jesus had the same expectation, at least that the Sanhedrin and Pilate would land on the side of justice even if there was a wrongful accusation. Both trusted that justice would prevail. Third, for the people of Flint and for Jesus, I believe there was a hope that agendas and power-grabbing and the gymnastics of saving face would not prevent justice from being restored.
But those three things—agendas, power-grabbing, and trying to save face—deprived Jesus of his life, and the people of Flint are in the same boat. It is not just in Michigan, either. We need only look in our own community and neighborhoods to see a countless number of God’s people being trampled by injustice. It is in the legal system, but it is also in public safety, in the educational system, in how we acquire and distribute food, and even within the walls of the Church. And it all comes back to a common source: people with certain agendas, interested in their own influence and power, doing their best to appear right and good and noble. It is worth repeating: injustice is not only Biblical or historical…injustice is right here, right now, today.
Yet I believe it is within this recognition, if we are bold enough to do so, that the good news of God has something to say. I believe that the story of Good Friday is asking us to do some challenging and difficult stuff so that God can get in there and do something, anything, to make it right. The story of Good Friday is asking us, for as long as we can stand it, to sit with the injustice of a man wrongly executed so that the outrage has enough time and space to percolate within us. Then, the story of Good Friday is asking us channel that rage, that anger, that disbelief, into a pair of glasses of sorts, through which we look out into the world we live in. It is asking us to see injustice as not just something that happened to Jesus, but as something that happens to each of us and to people all around each day. Finally, the story of Good Friday is asking us not just to look and wonder, but be ignited with hope because injustice was not a period for Jesus at the end of a long sentence: it was the prelude, just the start, of what turned out to be resurrection. To call it out, to see it happening all around, and to confront it with hope, that is where God is working and speaking. To call it out, to see it happening all around, and to confront it with hope, that is how we can and will work together with God to rid the world of injustice, where we live and in places we may never see.
This whole season of Lent we have been coming to terms with the fact that the world is broken, that we are broken: this has not been easy to confess. At the same time, though, we have also made the confession that there is nothing outside the restoration of God, injustice included. For as horrible and upsetting as the events of Good Friday were, God is way bigger and way more powerful than even the greatest of human failure. For as horrible and upsetting as the events of our lives can be at times, God is way bigger and more powerful than it all. This is the source of our hope, even when we are the guilty. If God had allowed Jesus to stand a fake trial, endure a horrible death, and be buried, never to be seen or heard from again, our conversation today would be going in a very different direction. But God did not end the story with the burial of Jesus; God ended the story with Jesus rising from the grave, not to be held down by injustice or a heavy stone door or the worst that humanity could offer. God raised Jesus from the dead, vindicated his sinless and innocent life, and made it very clear to the powers that be that injustice will not be tolerated. It is shocking and unexplainable and irrational, but it is the foundation and truth of our Christian faith: God will not be overcome by sin or by death or by brokenness or by injustice.
The calling to us today is clear: be bold. Be bold and do not be satisfied with a Good Friday world…look and seek and work for a world that is Easter Sunday. Do not be silent when your loved ones or friends or those unknown to you are crying out for help. Do not acquiesce to the powers that be simply because they have a title, but peacefully engage them and develop relationships of mutuality that work together for the good of all things. Seek justice right where you are: in your home, at your place of business, with your family members and with your coworkers—remember, a gigantic bush grows from the tiny mustard seed. Confess the ways that you have contributed to injustice or turned a blind eye to it; confess and remember the special pardon and grace that God offers to a sincere heart. Seek forgiveness and give it out as abundantly as it has been given to you by God. And have hope.
Have hope. Have hope because God has not abandoned us. Have hope because God has not abandoned this messy and beautiful world that we live in. God is here, and God is the God of Easter, of resurrection, of full and complete restoration, for you, for me, and for the whole world. This is the will of God--may God’s will be done, now and forever. Amen.