A Sermon by Greg Ledbetter |March 1, 2009 | First Sunday of Lent
Scripture: Matthew 25:31-46
Two names: Jazzmin Davis … and Kyle R.
Among thousands of others like Jazzmin and Kyle, we know these two names because they were local and because their circumstances were bizarre and tragic.
Jazzmin and Kyle are only two among thousands of children and youth in the United States who are physically, sexually and emotionally abused. Probably most of this abuse goes unreported, mostly unnoticed, mostly unaddressed.
We know 15 year old Jazzmin Davis’ full name because she did not survive her abuse. We only know 16 year old Kyle’s first name because he escaped his abusers before their abuse reached a deadly conclusion. But we can be fairly certain that Kyle’s abuse is like a deeply planted cancerous seed that will continue to suffocate his soul and will be nearly impossible to eradicate.
We are asking the question in these weeks of our Lenten Journey: “Who hangs on a cross today? The Cross as a Symbol of the Victims and Oppressed of our Time.” We are asking the question because Jesus was a victim and Jesus’ own cross was a cross of oppression and violence. Before early Catholic theologians made the cross the centerpiece of their salvation doctrine and dogma, the cross was simply a cruel and cynical tool of Rome for terrorizing unruly populations. And Jesus, seen to be a rabble rouser and a potential revolutionary, was one of its victims.
So when we ask the question: “Who hangs on a cross today”, we are asking … who else has been a victim of the oppression of their culture, of the principalities and powers, of the cruel attention and abuse of others? And we seek to bring that question into this very moment. “Where ‘out there’, right now, are people being victimized and oppressed, abused and imprisoned, deprived of their rights and their humanity and their very lives?”
In part, we take as our lead what we heard in recent weeks, when we were reminded of the call of Moses in the book of Exodus. Out of the burning bush, God said to Moses: “I have heard the cry of my people. I have seen their suffering.”
This is a major part of this year’s journey within the season of Lent … to hear the cry of God’s people—to see their suffering. It’s a relatively simple task and journey to describe. But it can be a “whole ‘nother thing” to try to follow the path.
I’ve spoken before of my journey to India in my 21st year. I was between the ages of my two sons now. My liberal arts and religious education in college had given rise to something new in me. It had made me aware of the larger world in which I lived. It had brought to my attention things I’d never known before. In particular, I became aware of places in the world that, at that time, we referred to as being a part of “the third world”. It was a world so different than the one in which I lived that it was like a world apart. The day to day reality of living in the third world was a horrific, grinding poverty which led invariably to hunger and malnutrition and disease and early death. As an idealistic young man who felt compassion for these people, I determined to go among them … to experience and to “understand” their suffering, their pain. It felt to me to be an important journey to take as I became more fully a responsible Christian citizen on this planet that yet contained several “worlds”.
Ultimately I did take my trip. I did hear the cry of God’s people. I did see their suffering. It wasn’t the worst of what I could have found on this tortured planet, but it was enough to shake me very deeply. And it has been very clear to me in the years since that youthfully naive journey that I was quite unprepared emotionally to handle what I saw and felt and experienced. I was quite overwhelmed by my experience.
If we take this Lenten Journey to the feet of these modern crosses on which victims hang today, we should be prepared—as I was NOT, so long ago—we should be prepared to be shaken by the experience, to be troubled down to the core, to be filled with horror and dread by what we see that we might once have passed by with little notice or concern.
Let’s remember that the Bible is so very often with seeing and perceiving and awareness and noticing. Some of the harshest Biblical condemnations come upon those who have allowed scales to grow over their eyes and thick callouses over their hearts.
Do you remember, at the end of Matthew 25, the common question of those being judged? It’s the judgment time at the end of time when the sheep are being winnowed out from the goats—but both the blessed and the cursed ask the same question: “Lord, when was it that we saw you …?” Even those who ultimately receive praise are not fully aware of the importance of seeing and perceiving and noticing.
I don’t suggest that for this Lenten Journey we be filled with a paralyzing dread at the thought of some far-off day of judgment. And no one is well-served by obsessing over our deficiencies and failings. But we should be aware that every passing by, every failure to notice, every time of reluctance to name oppression for what it is … makes more distant the day when that oppression will cease.
“Lord, when was it that we saw you …?”
It is fair to ask: How many neighbors and friends and classmates and teachers and social workers … passed by … or failed to notice … or felt reluctant to name the oppression being suffered by Jazzmin Davis or Ryan K.? Might not the pausing … the noticing … the willingness to name what was suspected have led to a different outcome to each tragic story?
Many of us have come to know the name “Darfur”. Here, too, is a tragic, tragic story. Here, too, is a story that continues into this very day, this very moment. It is a tragic story that has received a minimum of attention from the international community because it is not as big a story as Iraq and Afghanistan and the Middle East and Katrina and all the other attention grabbers. More to the point, perhaps, is that Darfur has been neglected because the poor nomads of Western Sudan do not live over oil deposits. We only know of Darfur because Christian missionaries in the region and agencies like Amnesty International have “heard the cry of these people and seen their suffering” and believe it to be a grievous wound against the very heart of God’s being to ignore such suffering, to pass by.
Bearing witness: I remember several years ago when the gang and drug violence of Oakland reached epidemic proportions. The leaders of Oakland’s faith communities realized two things: one is that they felt nearly helpless to stem the flow of their children’s blood on the streets. The other was that they couldn’t simply stand by while their young people killed each other—they had to bear witness to what was going on. And so they began to bear witness to the violence of their streets. Each time a murder happened on the streets of Oakland, they would spontaneously gather at the place of the murder and stand in a silent vigil, a mute paroxysm of the community’s pain and grief. In so doing, it was as it they were saying: “We will not let our young die unnoticed. We will not let this tragic violence go unremarked. We will not pass by.”
The social and familial and cultural dynamics that lead to children killing children in drug and turf wars is unspeakably complex. And easy for comfortable suburbanites to dismiss, pass by and ignore. But the challenge of this Journey of Lent, this invitation to ask: “Who Hangs on a Cross Today” is to overcome the tendency to make “someone else’s problem … someone else’s problem.” Don’t you remember that that was Pilate’s solution to the problem of Jesus. That Jesus ended up on a cross was in no small part a result of Pilate’s refusal to seriously consider the injustice of the situation and his willingness to let the system do what the system will do.
If we’re not a part of the solution … then we’re a part of the problem.
Wearing the cross should lead to bearing a cross.
In the Lenten Journey that is ahead, let’s remember Mohandas Gandhi's admonition:
"Recall the face of the poorest and most helpless person you have seen and ask yourself if the next step you contemplate is going to be of any use to that person."
“Lord, when was it that we saw you …?”