Friday, April 30, 2010

"The Old Rugged War Memorial"

A flurry of court cases and well crafted articles on religion and popular culture.

In a recent article of her thoughtful Faith & Reason blog in USA Today, Cathy Lynn Grossman has written an excellent summary on the latest court ruing involving a five-foot cross perched on a desert outcropping high over a federal preserve.

The full article is called The Supreme Court's New Hymn: 'The Old Rugged War Memorial'

In a clever play on the old hymn "The Old Rugged Cross" (lyrics by George Bernard), Grossman suggests that interpreting the cross as a universal war memorial symbol (or as a symbol of some other "high honor") is not something that Christians should want any more than non-Christians.

Grossman writes:

What's so interesting here are the arguments about the cross. I looked back to Joan Biskupic's story for USA TODAY last fall when the case was argued.

One of the most heated exchanges came when an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer emphasized the power of the cross -- erected to honor U.S. soldiers killed in World War I -- as a symbol of Christianity. Justice Antonin Scalia challenged him on the implication that the cross was not honoring all the war dead.

"I have been to Jewish cemeteries," attorney Peter Eliasberg said. "There is never a cross on the tombstone of a Jew."

"I don't think you can jump from that to the conclusion that the only war dead the cross honors are the Christian war dead," Scalia shot back angrily. "I think that is an outrageous conclusion."

This makes me wonder whether Scalia has been to Arlington National Cemetery or any other cemetery where our government honors the war dead from here to Normandy where Jewish veterans are honored with Jewish stars amid the crosses of their Christian companions.

Now that the decision is in, however, it turns out to be Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion that busts the cross into a mere symbol of high honor (as if it could turn up next as a championship sports trophy) while the liberal lion, retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, stands up for the cross of the old song -- you know, the one that recalls Jesus' ultimate sacrifice for the sins of humanity.

Kennedy wrote that:
Here, one Latin cross in the desert evokes far more than religion. It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies are compounded if the fallen are forgotten."

While Stevens countered:
The cross is not a universal symbol of sacrifice. It is the symbol of one particular sacrifice, and that sacrifice carries deeply significant meaning for those who adhere to the Christian faith.

This is a fascinating and rather critical argument that shows again why Church and State separation is a really good thing: protecting both someone who doesn't want the government placing a religious symbol on them, as well as the turning a religious symbol into a national symbol: and in the process legislating the "meaning" of the symbol (which would change, restrict, or water down the meaning, depending upon one's understanding).

This has lots of applications. The so called "War on Christmas" arguments would likely disappear. Imagine how different our arguments over marriage would be if the government focused on protecting a couple's rights, and religious communities focused on how to recognize and celebrate God's presence in a relationship and the community's commitment to the married couple.

Being sensitive to keeping Religion and State separate does not mean that we have to lose the sense of the sacred within the secular (as I suggested in an earlier post Invocations: Declaring the Secular "Sacred"). But arguing to slap a Christian symbol onto everything is in nobody's best interest: including God's.

Ruling on the "National Day of Prayer"

Solid article by Jon Meachem in Newsweek: "Religious Case for Separation of Church and State."

The background for this is the "National Day of Prayer" scheduled for May 6th that was just ruled to be unconstitutional by a federal judge in Wisconsin.

There have been a number of voices that have objected from this...religious and political voices...and the current administration has announced plans to challenge the ruling. Meachem suggests that there's wisdom...and correct be found in the judge's decision.

Meachem writes:

Religious liberty—the freedom to worship as one chooses, or not to worship—is a central element of the American creed. Yes, many of the Founders were believing, observant Christians. But to think of them as apostles in knee breeches or as passionate evangelicals is a profound misreading of the past. In many ways their most wondrous legacy was creating the foundations of a culture of religious diversity in which the secular and the religious could live in harmony, giving faith a role in the life of the nation in which it could shape us without strangling us. On the day George Washington left Philadelphia to take command of the Continental Army, the Rev. William Smith preached a sermon at the city's Christ Church, saying: "Religion and liberty must flourish or fall together in America. We pray that both may be perpetual."

Arguments about the connection between religion and politics, church and state, have surely been perpetual. The civil and legal cases against religious coercion are well known: human freedom extends to one's conscience, and by abolishing religious tests for office or mandated observances, Americans have successfully created a climate—a free market, if you will—in which religion can take its stand in the culture and in the country without particular help or harm from the government. (my emphasis)

Meachem also correctly points out that this protects the people as well from those in government using religion to justify their actions in office:

There is a religious case against state involvement with matters of faith, too. Long before Thomas Jefferson, Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, called for a "hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world," believing, with the Psalmist, that human beings were not to put their trust in princes. The principalities and powers of a fallen world represented and still represent a corrupting threat to religion: too many rulers have used faith to justify and excuse all manner of evil....

...A Christian nation, then, is a theological impossibility, and faith coerced is no faith at all, only tyranny. If God himself gave human beings free will—the choice to love him or not, to obey him or not—then no believer should try to force another to confess a faith.

The Founders understood this. Washington said we should give "to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance"; according to the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, ratified by the Senate and signed by John Adams, "the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." Jefferson said that his statute for religious freedom in Virginia was "meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammedan, the Hindoo (Kurt note: archaic spelling of Hindu) and Infidel of every denomination."

Meachem's conclusion is powerful:

There are many precedents for the National Day of Prayer, but serious believers, given the choice between a government-sanctioned religious moment and the perpetuation of a culture in which religion can take its own stand, free from the corruptions of the world, should always choose the garden of the church over the wilderness of the world. It is, after all, what Jesus did.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Just returned from seeing family in Texas. New posts coming soon. K

Monday, April 19, 2010

Putting John's 21st chapter in it's place...

(A sermon on the John 21:1-19 preached at All Saints' Church, 4/18/2010)

Perhaps the best way to describe this morning's Gospel text is this: this story is really, really, weird.

The disciples have gathered in Galilee. Despite having seen the risen Christ, and given the Holy Spirit, they apparently have nothing to do or talk about.

“I’m going fishing!” grumbles Peter, and everyone agrees to go with him.

They get in a boat, fish all night, and catch nothing.

Day breaks, and Jesus is on the beach, but the disciples don’t recognize him. The “stranger” tells them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat to find some fish, and suddenly their nets are bursting. John, also known as the disciple whom Jesus loves, who also happens to be for whom this Gospel account is named, says to Peter, “It’s the Lord!”

Peter, who, by the way, happens to be naked (???!!!), puts on his clothes, only to jump into the sea to swim to shore. The other disciples come by conventional boat, dragging the net full of fish.

When they all get to shore, Jesus has already lit the charcoal for a Bar-B-Que, and tells them to bring some, of the EXACTLY 153 large fish, over to the grill. They eat fish and bread for breakfast, which is weird to me, but might be normal for them.

Jesus then asks Peter three times if he loves him, Peter responds positively three times, and Jesus tells him to:
a) Feed my Lambs
b) Tend my sheep, and
c) Feed my sheep
…along with some strange stuff about fastening belts and going places to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God, before finally telling Peter to “Follow Me.”

It’s the kind of Gospel that invites the preacher to take a closer look at the other readings…

So, here’s what I’m going to do: to protect my sanity and peace of mind, I am going to, for the moment, conveniently forget that the 21st chapter of John exists.

As far as I'm concerned, the Gospel of John concludes with its 20th chapter and its three Easter accounts. Mary Magdalene first meets the risen Jesus. Jesus tells her that he is “ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

Next, Jesus meets behind closed doors with the disciples and tells them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus breathes on them, and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit.

The third account ends with last week’s gospel account, where Thomas sees the risen Jesus for himself and states his belief, to which Jesus replies: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

John’s unique and mystical story of Jesus has now been told: a story of inspiration and belief, that Jesus was actually one with both God and with God’s people. It has been constructed so that people who have not seen with their own eyes can still hear and experience the impact of Jesus’ life and ministry.

Our storyteller sums up and concludes with these two lines: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

The account is complete. If this was a movie, the credits would now be appearing and most of the theater would be getting up out of their seats and going home.

Perhaps, however, your one of those people who stay and watch the movie credits. Perhaps you want to hear the music. Perhaps you’re looking for the answer to a particular question: was that really so and so, in a cameo, or perhaps you’re wondering where the movie was really filmed?

Sometimes, the patient viewer is rewarded with some extra material: perhaps some outtakes from the making of the movie where something funny happened. (This is especially rewarding if it’s a Pixar animated movie, where the “outtakes” are, of course, not mistakes, but are created, often ingenious material.)

Sometimes, the movie provides an epilogue during the credits. Usually, this epilogue material is a look into the future of the characters: showing the good things that happen as the result of the movie story. Other times, the movie epilogue shows the antagonist of the story, and suggests that everything continues to go wrong for them. (Think Mr. Rooney, the principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.) It is the last attempt to answer some of the questions that the main story was unable to address.

The 21st Chapter of John, our weird reading for this morning, is the epilogue of the Gospel of John: rewarding those who were waiting around for more. Sometime after the original story was completed, someone chose to revisit the Gospel and add one more resurrection account. Perhaps it was the original writer. Perhaps it was the writer’s student, or an admirer, or a member of the same community. Whoever it was, the writer of the 21st chapter wrote an additional account in the spirit of John’s story in order to address issues that had come up in response to the original story.

With limited space, and time for only a single setting, the 21st chapter is crammed full of symbolic details, and moves quickly from the barely believable to the outright far-fetched. With this technique, however, the author touches on a great many things.

The epilogue supposes that the disciples go back to Galilee, back to their homes, and at least in part, back to their lives before they met Jesus. “I’m going fishing” is a statement of frustration and defeat, suggesting that the disciples struggled with how to carry out Jesus’ ministry without him. Belief and faith, the crux of the Gospel of John, did not initially translate to mission and ministry in the world. This epilogue, as a whole, points to a change.

Jesus’ encountering the disciples fishing parallels the account found in Luke, which we heard earlier this year. In Luke’s account, it is the story where Jesus first meets Peter, James, and John. The story, despite being at a completely different place in the story, is in essence the same. Jesus is calling the disciples into mission, and it draws special attention to Peter.

The nakedness is odd, but it makes me think of the young man following the arrested Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. He is wearing nothing but a linen cloth, and when he is seized by soldiers, the young man escapes, leaving the linen cloth and running away naked. For Peter, the reverse happens. He starts out naked, stripped by his denials, and puts on his clothes in order to move towards Jesus. Peter is so heartened by the opportunity to interact with Jesus that he can’t restrain himself. He jumps into the water to swim to shore, for the fishing boat will not get him to Jesus quickly enough!

Upon everyone arriving at shore, we learn of the specifics of the catch: 153 large fish. This number was the number of known species of fish at the time. This neatly ties in the “fishers of people” idea found in Luke’s version of the story of the catch, with the idea being that all the people of the world are part of the mission.

While grilled fish and bread may not sound like an appetizing breakfast, the symbolic message of sharing a meal with Jesus reflects not only that this risen Jesus is flesh and blood, but also recalls the shared meals found throughout Jesus’ ministry. Jesus already has fish and bread on the grill, but he has the disciples contribute some of their catch to the meal. It becomes a potluck, with everyone bringing something to share. Easting together continues to be the shared experience of the Christian community. Shared meals reflect the belief of Christ’s continued presence, and gives strength and encouragement for life beyond physical nourishment.

The charcoal fire Jesus has going parallels the charcoal fire that the police had going on the night Jesus was arrested. Peter finds himself at both places, warming himself. On the night Jesus was arrested, Peter is asked three times if he knows Jesus, and each time he denies knowing him. While warming himself by the morning fire, Jesus asks him three times if he loves him, and each time Peter responds, “You know that I love you.” In one sense, the threefold asking is to reopen the wound, the damage that Peter did to himself on that painful night, so that the guilt can bleed out and he can truly be healed. The deeper message is the active ministry that Jesus is now calling Peter to. Faith and belief is the understanding of one’s personal relationship with God through Jesus. Now Jesus adds something else, the call to ministry: Feed my lambs, tend my sheep. Care for people just like I did. Love one another as I have loved you, and do so publicly, without fear.

“When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and go where you wanted to go.” In other words, Peter went and did what was comfortable, what was familiar, and what was safe.

But now, Jesus says, when you are old, stretch out your hands, let someone else fasten a belt and take you where you do not wish to go. In other words, start risking! Stretch yourself and live your faith! Reach out towards the uncomfortable and the unknown, and then you will be living the love that you profess.

Jesus says, “Follow me.”

This makes for a weird story, but a worthy epilogue to the Gospel of John.


Monday, April 12, 2010

More Episcopal Priest Barbie

The feedback from my first post, a skeptical view of Episcopal Priest Barbie, has been overwhelmingly pro-EP Barbie. (From blog comments and Facebook).

I have no problem with EP Barbie as a source of fun. I still wanted to know if there is more to this.

I decided to go to the source, since I know Rev. Julie Blake Fisher (EP Barbie's creator) from when I was Canon of Congregational Life at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, OH.

My Facebook email exchange with Julie:

Kurt C. Wiesner April 11 at 1:15pm
Hey Julie! It's Kurt (formally of Trinity Cathedral) Congrats on EP Barbie's success! I hope you had fun Friday with MSNBC. I can't say that I'm on board yet (see my blog post), but I really admire your creativity, and I'm open to being "swayed." Hope all is going well! Kurt Wiesner

Julie Blake Fisher April 11 at 8:24pm
Hi Kurt! I was thrilled to see you sent me a message and delighted to read your thoughtful response to her. Here's my take. Barbie acts as an emotional proxy for girls and women, and so reflects their hopes, dreams and anxieties. My sense (based on reading every one of the comments on her FB page) that a huge number of women (and lots and lots of men too) see Episcopal Priest Barbie as a big "win" for women and girls. Barbie can be a priest too! And as a priest she has every right to wear the traditional signs and signifiers of priesthood - including those of the wing of the church most traditionally associated with excluding women. And at the same time, she is a woman too and still Barbie - so why not a red silk swing coat with her clericals? Barbie is self confident and joyful in her priesthood. She is obviously having a blast being the Rector of St. Barbara's-by-the-Sea. I think people really enjoy watching her have so much fun and makes them feel encouraged about women in ministry - whether they are Episcopalians affirming our inclusion of women or Roman Catholics hoping for change in their own church.

I think Julie's response is wonderful, and I buy the rational. In fact, I think I'll expand on it:

Barbie's past...a questionable role model for girls (obsession with body image, material leisure, and girl stereotypes) not the door closer for a calling to priesthood in the church. People are called to ministry based on their gifts to share with the church and the world, and then are called to be themselves in the serving. The priesthood door that was once closed (because she was a woman) has been opened, and Barbie has not only been called to transformation, but she has been called to share her story and gifts for the glory of God.

(yes, I know...she's a doll...but use your imagination here about the conversations potentially stirred up.)

So: I joined EP Barbie's Facebook page. I'm a lukewarm fan at best, but I can see the potential for people to begin to see the priesthood differently thanks to a doll. I'd rather be part of that conversation (6,138 fans as of this evening), then grumbling alone about my personal hang-ups with Barbie.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Episcopal Priest Barbie

I'm not sure about this one...

Certainly, it must be mentioned on "Religion and Popular Culture." After all, the Facebook fan site has over 4600 members already.

This is the creation of The Rev. Julie Blake Fisher, priest in Kent, Ohio. Articles on Religion News Service and The Huffington Post (cleverly called "What would Rev. Barbie do?") tell the story behind Barbie's "second career." (A reality for the majority of current Episcopal clergy.)

Jim Lichtman writes in the Huffington Post article:
The Reverend Julie Blake Fisher, an Episcopal priest in Kent, Ohio, created Episcopal Priest Barbie High Church Edition for a friend, the Rev. Dena Cleaver-Bartholomew, when she got her first pulpit assignment in Manlius, New York. However, stories about Fisher's creation in conjunction with Newsweek's cover story - What Would Mary Do? - How Women Can Save the Catholic Church From its Sins -is a timely reminder of an issue that's spent far too long on the backburner - the role of women in leadership positions in the church.

He concludes:
While on the surface Reverend Barbie may be a joke to some, it might motivate others to begin a purposeful reexamination of the critical needs of the Catholic Church: more respect, accountability and compassion; qualities women can and do bring, not only to the secular table, but the spiritual table as well.

This is an interesting view from a Roman Catholic perspective (although I don't know Lichtman is actually RC). Rev. Blake Fisher was being interviewed this morning on MSNBC, and I'm all for positive Episcopal PR, and lifting up women in the leadership of the church.

But I do wonder two things:

1) I wonder if people will wrongly assume that women clergy means that the priesthood is now more about fashion and "dressing up." That view's completely inaccurate from my experiences with working with many women clergy. (You can make a historical case that it's the men that have always been about the vestments, but I would be digressing.)

2) Barbie? Really? Perhaps it's just me, but I've never cared much for Barbie and her unrealistic measurements: something that I've always considered not helpful to girls. To be fair, she is, after all, a doll. She was also redesigned in 1997 with a wider, slightly more realistic waist.

Perhaps I'm thinking too much (ok, probably). But for now, I'm waiting for more perspectives from others before I become her fan on Facebook...

NOTE: Please don't hear any of this as criticism of Rev. Blake Fisher's generous and creative gift for her friend...

4/11 Addition: More EP Barbie story comes from the special April 1st addition of Episcopal Cafe.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


(Easter sermon, Luke 24:1-12, preached at All Saints Episcopal Church on 4/4/2010)

The women came rushing in, full of energy and wonder.

They had went to the tomb this morning, but they did not find a body.

Instead, two men, in dazzling clothes.

The women were terrified…

The two men said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

“He is not here, but has risen.”

Jesus disciples…the men, that not believe them. They’re still in hiding.

Except for Peter…

Peter has really been suffering these past few days. Miserable and guilt stricken, he’s given up all hope. There’s no way to go back and undo what he’s done.

He’s ashamed of himself…and he can tell others are disappointed with him.

He’ll carry this with him forever, and the burden feels so great that he doesn’t know how to go on…how can he live with this?

He listens to the women…and a spark of hope flickers.

Could this be?

He rushes to the tomb. Afraid, he stoops and looks in.

Peter’s first encounter with Jesus came on his boat. Jesus used it to teach the crowds, and afterwards told them to let down their nets for a catch, which was bursting with fish.

Peter fell down on his knees: they were all amazed. (Luke 5:1-10)

He started following Jesus that day.

A few days later, they encountered a paralyzed man. A group of men carried him on a bed , bringing him before Jesus. “Friend, your sins are forgiven you,” Jesus had said. The scribes and Pharisees were upset. “Who is this speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

Jesus looked at them. “Why raise such questions in your hearts. Fine, I’ll give you something to talk about.”

He turned to the paralyzed man and said: “I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.”

And he did, glorifying God all the way.

Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, ‘We have seen strange things today. (Luke 5:18-26)

One day they got into a boat, and Jesus said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ So they put out, and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A gale swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. They went to him and woke him up, shouting, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’ (Luke 8:22-25)

Peter followed Jesus throughout his ministry. He saw all the encounters, he heard the stories. He saw Jesus moved with compassion, angered by hardened hearts, frustrated by peoples’ lack of understanding, and faithful to God in everything that he did.

At times Peter grew frustrated as well. Jesus confused him. The confrontations with the temple leaders scared him. And, despite everything Jesus said, Peter remained unsure about himself, and his worthiness to be there.

One thing, however, remained constant.

Every step of the way, Peter was amazed.


Every Easter morning, we are all prodigal sons and daughters: welcomed back, no matter the past. Celebrated and embraced by God, we are gently challenged…almost dared…to live in a way that reflects the love that God has for us all.

We can not help but be amazed.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

“He is not here, but has risen.”

Peter listens to the women…and a spark of hope flickers.

Could this be?

He rushes to the tomb. Afraid, he stoops and looks in.

He saw the linen cloths by themselves.

Peter smiles…he is amazed.

Thanks be to God.


Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday: This man was Innocent

(Sermon preached at the Ecumenical Good Friday service at First Congregational Church, UCC, Littleton, NH 4/2/2010, using Luke 23)

Christians learn the story of Jesus’ death though four Gospels accounts. Each Gospel tells the account of Jesus’ execution by the Romans differently, sharing some things in common, adding other details, and in some cases, remembering dialogue differently.

We of course don’t remember his trial and execution as four separate stories in our heads. We combine the accounts together, and create an overall narrative about what happened to Jesus.

That’s also true for our liturgies, like the Last Seven Words of Christ, or Stations of the Cross, as well as other mediums like movies, plays and books.

Here's an example. The four Gospels report three different sets of Jesus' final words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is found in both Mark & Matthew, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” is what we just heard, Luke’s Gospel. “It is finished” is the final words of Jesus from the Gospel of John.

Most of us have all of these phrases in our memories of the crucifixion, and that’s a good thing. No one cares if one really came last: we care only that they are all powerful, authentic phrases attributed to Jesus. They all fit into the Gospel memory, and they all are worthy of reflection and study. “Forsaken” points to the truth that at times, we all feel that God is absent, and even Jesus had that feeling. “Commend my spirit” points to Jesus’ faithfulness to God, even in his death, and “Finished” points to Jesus’ own understanding that he remained true to his ministry, and accomplished what he set out to do.

There are, however, a few times where the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion have what I will call “memory contradiction.” For example, the Gospels of Mark and Matthew tell us that the criminals crucified with him mocked him. Luke, however, tells us that one of the criminals defends Jesus, and then asks to be remembered. It’s a “memory contradiction" in that, when we tell the story to someone, or think about it in our heads, we have to remember it one way or the other. People tend to “remember” Luke’s version, because the interplay between Jesus and the criminal tends to be a more powerful image. That’s not something to worry about, but it’s worth remembering when we study the texts in depth.

Here’s another example that may have jumped out at you when it was read: The centurion said “Certainly this man was innocent.” That’s not the version we tend to remember. I’m certain that most of you remember the centurion’s words as “truly this was God’s son.” Mark’s and Matthew’s version gets priority in our heads, because it is considered to be the more powerful statement. That's very understandable.

However, since it is Luke’s text that we have before us today, I wish to consider Luke’s version of the centurion’s words.

First, a few words of biblical scholarship: most biblical scholars believe that Mark was the first Gospel written. Mark, the shortest account, has an unmistakable sense of urgency to it. This is due, in part, to the desire to get Jesus’ ministry down on paper in case there is no one left to orally tell the story. Considering the Roman persecution of the time, this makes a great deal of sense.

Most biblical scholars then believe that Luke and Matthew wrote their Gospel’s with Mark’s “in hand.” They used Mark as a source. However, Matthew and Luke have things in common which are not found in Mark. We call this common source “Q”, the unknown source of Jesus accounts and sayings.

Mark’s revelation that Jesus is God’s son is considered to be the great secret of this Gospel. Jesus never confirms it, and when people say so (that he’s God’s Holy One, or the Christ, or so on) he orders people not to tell others. The reader, however, knows. At the moment of Jesus’ death, the centurion’s words, “Truly this man was God’s Son” is the revealing of the secret to the world. This is often referred to as the Messianic secret of Mark.

There’s no such secret in Luke’s Gospel. Mary and Elizabeth know before Jesus is born that he is the Lord. The angels proclaim it to the shepherds at Jesus’ birth. Simon and Anna proclaim it so at the temple when Jesus is a baby, and some time after his baptism, a voice from heaven comes down for all to hear: “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” And that’s all before Jesus gets started with his ministry.

So, for Luke, the centurion proclaiming Jesus to be God’s Son is not a great revelation.

The centurion’s conclusion that Jesus is innocent, however, is a shock in Luke’s Gospel…not for being true, but shocking because the centurion can see the truth. A centurion is a career officer in the Roman army: he knows nothing of Jesus except for what he’s just witnessed: angry and passionate condemnation, and the judgment of death by those in power. And yet, somehow, he sees the truth: Jesus is innocent.

The centurion is the one who finally says the word “innocent,” but he’s not the only one who knows. Three times, Pilate says that he’s found nothing to find Jesus guilty of. Herod, whose jurisdiction Jesus is under, wants a sign of wonder from Jesus. He returns Jesus to Pilate not because of wrongdoing, but because Jesus is silent. The chief priests and scribes know full well that Jesus hasn’t done anything that they’ve charged him of, and has done nothing to deserve death.

When you add in the followers of Jesus: the women who look on, and the men who are hiding, it becomes clear that everyone knows, in one way or another, that Jesus is innocent.

Everyone knows this to be true, and yet everyone fails to do something about it. It's not just "the bad guys": the chief priests and scribes who are clearly out to get Jesus. Pilate, the only one with the authority to have Jesus executed, gives into fear about his own reputation and standing. Herod wants to be entertained; he is unconcerned with getting to the truth. The women who look on witness and weep, but do nothing more out of fear and a sense that they are powerless. And, of course, there's the spectacular failure of the disciples: Judas' betrayal, the attempt to defend Jesus with the violence of the sword, and Peter's denials.

Even our insightful centurion does nothing to stop the innocent Jesus from being killed.

What Luke seems to be drawing us into is the failure of justice, and we are called to consider why. Why would the innocent Jesus be killed? Why was no one willing to risk themselves to do what is right?

Do you remember what Jesus said at the beginning of his ministry in Luke's gospel? He quoted Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor," and then he said that this scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing. (Luke 4:18-21) This is a bold statement of justice. People are excited: they think "now is our time!" Jesus, however, then goes on to say it's not just for us, but for everyone, and people are so mad that they want to throw him off a cliff.

The people under Roman rule were hoping for the tables to be turned. They were hoping that they would overthrow their Roman oppressors, and then become the ones in charge. Jesus brought an uncomfortable message to his people. He said that God's favor isn't about achieving human power, but about justice, peace, and love. He even then went a step further, and told them that it's not about achieving special status with God. We're not in line to receive a special, unique reward in comparison with someone else. Instead, we are called to proclaim God's love for all, regardless of worthiness. That is the radical hospitality shown to the prodigal son…the staple story of the Gospel of Luke. Someone who doesn't deserve it…and be clear, the prodigal son doesn't deserve it…is given love, peace, and forgiveness. He is celebrated. That is what God is about: reconciliation. Justice, love, and peace for all.

That's a really subversive message. That goes against our human ways. What it means is that our agendas for life…the things we want to accomplish, the things we think we deserve, and even our own self-preservation…are to be secondary to the way we stand up for truth, the way we proclaim love, the way we treat one another, and the way that we embrace justice and peace.

Jesus believed that, and it got him killed.

"Certainly, this man was innocent."