Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. (Luke 23)
The night the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, I was up late working on a project when the news flashed across my computer screen. I found myself saying, “So just like that, Europe is at war again! How can that be?”
After all the horrors of the 20th century, you would think we would have learned. But no, history always has a tendency to repeat itself. Especially where violence is concerned. And so here we are once again.
Violence, it seems to me, is the real heart of the human predicament. Every other problem flows from it, in one way or another. In the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve eating of the forbidden apple is described as the original fault. But that act pales in comparison with what it unleashes: the murder in the very next generation of Abel by his brother Cain in a fit of filial jealousy. As so it was that violence took root in the human heart.
But violence is more than just an aggressive act of physical force. At the root of violence is the degradation of the dignity of another human being. Violence can thus be verbal, or psychological, or economic. But one thing that all forms of violence have in common, is that the perpetrator must first dehumanize another human being, before feeling empowered to make an attack upon them. That’s why prejudice and bias and privilege are all so pernicious: at root they are what enables violence.
And as we’ve just heard in the reading of the Passion, it was just like that for Jesus, too. Before crucifying him, his accusers had to mock him, spit on him, humiliate him, make him something other than they were themselves, before they could do away with him. And so, in the current moment, the Passion of Christ becomes the very emblem of the dehumanizing violence in Ukraine upon which we have all looked with such revulsion this past week. We have seen signs of crucifixion everywhere: I don’t need to evoke the horror of it for you to know what I mean …
Now, this is a bit of an aside, but it is ironic, that on this day–Palm Sunday–the rubrics of the Prayer Book themselves ask that the recitation of the creed be omitted, without explanation. It is as if the creed’s recitation of rather abstract ideas we are to believe about Jesus (such as his consubstantiality with the Father), just doesn’t hold up to the urgency of our demand to know how we are to live in Jesus, face to face with the reality of human violence. Rather than what to think, we need and want to know what to do. The absence in the creed of such guiding words as compassion, or peace, or justice—or even love—is just too glaring when we are confronted by atrocities such as those we’ve seen in the past week. We need something more.
Now, they say that all preachers really have only one sermon, and that they simply preach a version of it over and over. I plead guilty. The one sermon I have is that because of our creation in God’s image, every human being is endowed with a dignity that cannot be violated, without also violating God. That’s why in Jesus, God gives us the model of how we are to live peaceably, to make possible the recognition of our mutual dignity. And the simple fact that Jesus teaches this way of peaceableness dictates every aspect of how we are to live, and how we are to treat one another. If you think about it, it’s what lies behind this parish’s longtime commitment to LGBTQ rights. It what lies behind our reception and care for immigrants and refugees. It’s what lies behind our ministries to the hungry, and to those who live without housing. The God-given dignity of each and every human being is a fact that puts each of us on the line daily as people of faith.
So I’ve got today, and then next Sunday, to restate for a final time this one sermon.
But I find that in trying to do so in times as troubled and violent as these, the challenge becomes, where are we to find the will and perseverance to defend human dignity, when we feel so overwhelmed and helpless by what we have seen just this week? How do we not just give up and retreat into ourselves?
Almost providentially, it seems, we were also given another story this week, beyond the violence of war: the story of an African American woman confirmed to serve as a justice of the United States Supreme Court. Speaking on the South Lawn of the White House at a celebration of her confirmation, Judy Ketanji Brown Jackson observed that for her family, it took one generation to go from enduring segregation to her appointment to the court. But for the country, she noted, it has taken much longer: “It has taken 232 years and 115 prior appointments.” Recognizing the significance of her achievement, she paraphrased from Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” to underscore the implications of her new position: “I do so now while bringing the gifts my ancestors gave. I am the dream and the hope of the slave.”
Her story holds up for us that the only real response we can have to violence such as slavery or segregation or war or abuse or whatever form it takes—is never to give in, or to give up, because to do so, is already to have lost. No, perseverance is the only real option for resistance, however difficult and exhausting it may be. (And incidentally, lest you think that such things no longer exist, you should know that one of our guests in The Landing this week was an escaped slave from Mauritania. Slavery is still very much with us.)
So the lesson we might take from Holy Week is this: God does not give up on us. Seeing in us the divine likeness, God cannot help but love us, and to love us whatever the cost. That is the crux of the crucifixion. And if God does not give up on us, then we can take hope that neither should we give up on one another. That’s what affirming human dignity means: the struggle of forgiving, loving, living with other human beings, just as Jesus did for us.
At the end of this week, we will of course celebrate Easter, the Feast of the Resurrection. Framed in the terms I have been using here, the resurrection might be described as God’s manner of restoring human dignity, after all the violence and ignominy of the crucifixion. But now I’m starting to get ahead of myself, so let’s just stop there and take this up again next week, and let this be part one of a final repetition of what really is, my one and only sermon. Amen.