Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
April 5, 2009
I was once very familiar with a church that had within it a group of people who hated the United Church of Christ. They were convinced that the UCC, through the World Council of Churches, supported Communism. This small group within this one church organized an effort to withdraw all financial support for the denomination unless the UCC would disavow any relationship with the World Council of Churches. They carried their message to their association, their conference and eventually to the General Synod at a national meeting. Former United Church of Christ president Avery Post, while he was still president, flew to visit the church to meet with the angry parishioners in an open conversation. I’ve listened to tape recordings of the meeting. Years later, Avery told me it was one of the most disturbing evenings he had ever spent. He described the group of Christians gathered in that fellowship room that night as “pre-violent”. He felt as if the time they spent together bordered on dangerous. That’s quite a thing to say about a group of UCC folk meeting with the president of the denomination, isn’t it? But, having listened to the recording of the meeting, and having recognized the voices of some of the people who spoke, I can attest that Avery’s description was absolutely accurate. It was pre-violent. It was a dangerous evening.
I think of that congregation from time-to-time and wonder about the emotions expended that night. When I was a conference minister, I was occasionally invited to facilitate meetings that were tension-filled. I remember feeling as if one or two of those meetings were dangerous, even pre-violent. How did a group of people, life-long church members, come to such rage, such extreme emotion? Thinking of them puts me in mind of the Pharisees, guardians of right religious rituals that had been so oppressive to so many of Jesus’ followers. These were the pious who were being confronted by one of their own, a rabbi who knew Scripture, who commanded personal authority, whose mysticism was compelling to so many. The Pharisees had made an uneasy truce with Rome in Jerusalem – the Holy City. If they didn’t draw too much attention to themselves, if they paid taxes, generally assimilated, the Romans allowed them to continue to worship in their temple. It was as if the Romans told the Jews, “make it easy for us to ignore you and we will ignore you.” But Jesus was not easy to ignore. Jesus and his followers threatened that below-the-radar balance. They embarrassed the Pharisees. Jesus exposed their superficial peace with the enemy. He drew attention to their hypocrisy. Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem revealed both the duplicity of the priests and the oppressive powers of Rome. And though he was not himself violent, violence soon surrounded him.
It has been an achingly violent week in our nation – even more than usual, if that can be said. Recent indiscriminate shootings in Binghamton and Pittsburgh remind us what a thin line there is between rage and restraint. Already, interpreters of events are linking the violence with the recession. Maybe that is accurate, though the loss of money, by itself, is not the reason for violence so much as it is an excuse for it. In either case, persons who were mentally fragile took up arms and killed people, tipping from pre-violent to violent in a heartbeat. How does that happen? It reminds us of other massive shootings doesn’t it? - a nursing home in North Carolina, high schoolers at Columbine, students at Virginia Tech, a prayer service in Fort Worth, Texas, an Amish school house in Pennsylvania, a shopping mall in Omaha – seemingly random acts of violence everywhere, anywhere.
Hubris is defined as excessive pride and ambition. In classical tragedy, it usually leads to the downfall of the hero. Hubris has a demonic edge to it. Hubris is the blend of pride and ego and certainty that is dangerous, pre-violent. Hubris is pride surrounded by conviction. It is not a word ever used to describe Jesus, but, ironically, it is a word that could be accurately used to describe many of Jesus’ present-day followers. Why is that, I wonder?
There was a tenacious theme throughout Jesus’ ministry that surfaced with every disenfranchised person he met, every miracle he performed, every confrontation, every teaching moment, every word he spoke. The weak will be made strong, the powerful will be brought low, the rich will be cast from their thrones, the silent will speak, the weary will find rest, the hopeless hope. Incredibly, miraculously some might say, it survived the parade into Jerusalem, the confrontations in the temple, the betrayal, the trial, the cross, the tomb. Jesus was hope itself for those who had lost all hope, strength for the weak, rest for the exhausted, peace for the disturbed, vindication for the victimized. Jesus was, himself, salvation. Why is it then, that so many of us who follow him, seek salvation in ways that harm, that are dangerous, that are pre-violent? How is it that just these few days of Holy Week can turn us from shouting “Hosanna” today to “Crucify Him” by Friday?
Just some questions on my mind as we begin the walk to Calvary, hoping against hope that though the way to the tomb is littered with bullet-riddled bodies, it will still be empty when we get there. Amen.