We are disoriented tonight. We orient ourselves in this room with liturgical symbols: bread, cup, font, table, pulpit, book. Anything we could move got stripped last night. The stuff here is undecorated and not used. Even the symbolic person in charge is not wearing his usual vestments. All that is left is the Lectionary. This throws us off. In his book Holy Ground, Gordon Lathrop compares our use of symbols in liturgy to the use of landmarks while traveling. Just as you can find your position with a map, a compass, and two points of reference, you can discern what God is calling you to do here and now via liturgical points of reference. Well, tonight, we’re short on points of reference. We’re uncertain. The texts, about the only regular points of reference, produce their own sense of uncertainty.
The First Reading, captivating and classic, reveals a struggle with something dreadful. It is a part of Isaiah often referred to as Second Isaiah. The author of most of this section live in exile in Babylon. This is the guy who prophesied that God would free Israel from exile, who sang a song of Cyrus come unwittingly to save Israel by destroying Babylon, then sang a song of frustration that Cyrus hadn’t worked out. Consensus is that the verses we read tonight are about him. Apparently, the guy took ill. It was common in those days to assume your sins caused your illness, and that seems to be what happened at first. But then, for reasons unknown, he wound up on the receiving end of a gruesome punishment—a spectacle of torture and execution—because of a “perversion of justice.” Somewhere along the line, his friends and followers discerned that what was happening to him made no sense. They could not reasonably assume that what was happening to him was his fault. This was completely out of proportion with anything he could have done. Some other sin, some other evil, had fallen upon him. Over the course of the poem, we see the prophet’s followers realize that their sins have been heaped on this one guy.
Now, I need to interrupt my train of thought. I can see this going someplace awful. This is not simple scapegoating going on, though it echoes the ritual of putting all the people’s sins on one unlucky goat. Nor did the community take this in a pessimistic, deterministic manner, arguing that God punishes random people for everyone’s problems so we should be grateful that this happens and then go about our business. Rather, they saw that their dead friend lived on in them. His words and teachings would persist in them. His deeds would persist in them. God was calling them to give of themselves just as their friend had. Moreover, God was calling Israel to give of itself. Ultimately, Jewish interpreters would read the Suffering Servant as Israel, who was privileged to bear the sins of everyone. Privileged, because the sins are systemic—they involve all peoples and nations—and because Israel understands that they are sins. Israel is in a unique position to call sin by its name, to stand with its victims, and also to proclaim its forgiveness.
In a similar manner, the disciples in John are disoriented. What started as a Passover trip turned into Jesus getting the palm-carpet reception and then quickly getting seized by a mob and killed by the state in a manner reserved for violent rebels. It’s a “perversion of justice,” as Second Isaiah’s friends call it. It’s an actual scapegoating. Caiaphas had said it was better to have one man die for all. He said this after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. The Sanhedrin met and were afraid that if Jesus kept it up the whole system might go. The guy turns water into wine, feeds the hungry, heals the sick, raises the dead. We can’t have that. We need scarcity and death! The trial in the wee hours of Friday morning is a desperate attempt to hang onto scarcity and death! And Jesus proves to be a formidable defendant. His comments to Caiaphas suggest he is demanding a trial with witnesses. Later Jewish law forbade having someone convict himself, and that may have been in force in Jesus’ day. Even if it wasn’t, this is clearly not a formal trial. Jesus wants a public, legal showdown. For demanding his rights he gets slapped in the face. He demands them again, and the mob ignores him, marching him off to Pilate instead.
All the points of reference are gone. The priests and authorities, who are supposed to uphold the truth, have made up a story about our teacher; Pilate, whose job it is to determine the truth, laughs it off when Jesus mentions it. The state has killed our teacher as though he were a terrorist bomber. All that’s left to us is a cross. That’ll hit home in a few minutes when the rough-hewn cross gets hauled in, and it’s just us and this torture device.
And yet God calls to us, disoriented as we are. God calls, “If all that is left is the cross on which I hung, orient yourselves around that.” So we do. The same caveats I mentioned with Isaiah apply here. Jesus is not our scapegoat, bearing God’s wrath so we can go about our business. Rather, the cross cries out to the Church, “Look at how the world reacts when offered water turned to wine. Look at how the world reacts when you heal the sick. Look at how the world reacts when you give power to the powerless. Look at how the world reacts when you give free food to the hungry. Look at how the world reacts when God does the impossible, when God gives sight, when God gives life. The world snuffs it out. And you know what that means for us followers of Jesus: we get to do exactly as he did. Because God just keeps giving life. God keeps giving sight. God keeps accomplishing what we say is impossible. God keeps feeding the hungry. God keeps giving power to the powerless. God keeps healing the sick. God keeps making good where everything seems dull and drab.”
As Isaiah’s friends oriented their life to Isaiah’s once all seemed lost, so we, when left with nothing but the cross, orient ourselves to it and to Christ our friend. This is why the Church acts in the world. We are no longer able to go about our business, but instead we orient ourselves to Christ our friend. We are privileged to bear the sins of the world. Privileged, because God makes us able to name the systems of evil as sin, and because God makes us able to work for forgiveness and reconciliation.
It’s why last Friday a little group of pastors, priests, nuns, rabbis, imams, and other people of faith rallied at Gary/Chicago International Airport. Our airport is used by ICE to deport people to Latin America. Most of us probably don’t know that, or didn’t before it ran in the news earlier this year. For over eight years, ICE raids the Chicago area, holds trials that convict undocumented people of looking for jobs and paying taxes, then holds the convicted in shackles in Kankakee, IL until Friday, when windowless buses carry them to Gary, and the people are quietly put on planes away from jobs, homes, and families, and sent into dangerous places. We, the rallied people of faith, were there because we are privileged to bear the sins of the world. The Cross opens our eyes to the sin that this whole immigration system embodies. It is a mark of sin that we label people “illegal.” It is a mark of sin that our world is set up so that for me to feel secure in my job and my earning power I need to chase off the weak and vulnerable. They are marks of a sinful world that clings to scarcity and death. And I think we know it. The nondescript, windowless buses coming to hidden drop-offs at an out-of-the-way airport scream that we don’t want anyone to notice what we’re doing because we’re ashamed of it.
As people oriented to our friend Christ on his cross, we are able to work for forgiveness and reconciliation. That’s what we want. We don’t want someone else to suffer in retribution for things we don’t like. We’re trying to bring in the kingdom of God. We want a world where we aren’t at each other’s throats. We want a world where our livelihoods are not dependent on the suffering of the weaker or more vulnerable, or, better yet, where there is no such thing as weaker or more vulnerable, because we’re all just together in Christ. It may seem an impossible goal to set, but we represent the God who fed five thousand people with a kid’s sack lunch and then strolled on the Sea of Galilee to walk off the carbs. This is kind of our thing.
And in the meantime we will set some easier goals, like housing Valparaiso’s homeless men every Monday night for six months, or collecting tuna fish and Kleenex for hungry people with spring allergies, or flying our little rainbow flags to let Valparaiso’s LGBT community know this is a safe place for them, or simply looking out for each other’s spiritual, emotional, and physical health. We are disoriented, tonight, but we are also reoriented on Christ our friend, and on his cross which we are privileged to bear.