Shouting at the Sky

Warwick Memorial United Methodist Church

16 September 2001

Luke 23:13-34

On September 11, 2001, I was serving as the associate pastor of my first pastoral appointment. Tracy was pregnant with our first child Ellen, but we were not telling people yet. The day before, on September 10, our church’s beloved lay leader J.T. Johnson had died suddenly. I had already been scheduled to preach, and the Rev. Larry Adams, our senior pastor, graciously allowed me to preach. What follows is what I said that Sunday.

We have all lived through one of those days where we will always remember where we were and what we were doing. We will always remember how old we were and to whom we were talking and what we were going to do when we heard the news. We will live the remainder of our days remembering how when we heard the news we quickly scanned our mental Rolodexes, trying to remember which loved ones were where. Did anyone have a reason to fly today? Was anyone in Manhattan or in northern Virginia? Maybe I should call, just to be sure.

We have lived through a day that in an instant drastically changed the world in which we live, in which our children, born and unborn will live. In an instant, we have found ourselves living in a new nation; one different in many ways from the nation in which lived less than a week ago. 

Everything has been reexamined this week by every one of us. Our faith in God, our faith in those around us and around the world, our love for our loved ones, our feelings about the future. This has been a week of taking stock, counting blessings, coming to terms, and feeling a wide variety of feelings that seemed to change each moment: fear, anger, shock, sadness, and rage. 

Before I go any further, let me make a couple of things clear. First, the role in which the preacher often finds himself or herself in a service of worship is the role of prophet, that is, one who speaks for God. It is a daunting role and one not to be taken lightly. In the role of preaching, one must, guided by Scripture and the Holy Spirit, proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, and point one’s listeners toward the Kingdom of God. That is what I will try to do this morning. 

Some of what I have to say may be of comfort to you. Some of what I say may be hard to hear. It was hard to write and it will be hard to preach. However, it is not my vocation to stand before you and say what I am feeling right now in my own heart or to simply acknowledge what is in yours. It is, instead, to talk about what God has to say about all this, and to point us all towards a future that belongs to God so that we can all begin the process of moving in the direction of God’s will and God’s Kingdom. We may not be there yet, but we are to be moving in a Christ’s direction. In this regard, I am preaching to myself as much as I am to all of you.

There is no question that we have a right to the rage that is in our hearts today. However, as the community of the baptized, the issue for us as we attempt to formulate an appropriate Christian response to the horrors of this week in not what we have a right to do but what Christ would have us to do. The right to be angry, like the right to free speech, does not mean that every way in which that right can be employed is proper or even a good idea. For example, I have a constitutional right to use profanity from this pulpit, although doing so would not be a good idea or even appropriate. Likewise, I have a right to be full of rage about these events of this week but that right does not give me, as a Christian, permission to react in any way I see fit. Our challenge then, as followers of Jesus Christ, is to discover and live in a Christ-like way in response to this injustice that has been perpetrated against us.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached in a sermon entitled “The Most Durable Power.” In it he said

Always be sure that you struggle with Christian methods and Christian weapons. Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.[1]

            I tell you sisters and brothers, that this is this Christian generation’s greatest challenge: to not succumb to hate in the wake of this great injustice that has been cast upon this land. We are challenged with saying no to hate, challenged with saying no ignorant prejudice, saying no to becoming the same butchers as our enemies. Our challenge is to not treat our faith as something that needs to be placed aside on a shelf to gather dust until an easier time comes when we can use it again. 

The Christian faith is not about believing in Christ when things are easy. It is about being faithful people when it seems all is lost. The Christian faith is not irrelevant during times when hatred and rage are so easy to rationalize. We are a people born of persecution and injustice, for whom suffering was considered a normal, if not essential part of faith. And today, the same baptism of suffering they knew belongs to us, and Christ is in the very center of it.

Zan Holmes told a story in a sermon at Annual Conference this year. It was a story about the lynching of a young and innocent African-American man during the bloodiest years of the civil rights movement. His body was being kept in the jail in the center of town and everyone, including his family, was afraid to go into town and claim it. They persuaded the preacher of their church to go and claim the body and he was so afraid that he wore his pulpit robe as he drove into town to the jail and walked inside. He asked about the body of the young man and was told to walk down a corridor to where the body lay and as he turned, the sheriff spit a wad of tobacco juice on the back of his neck that ran down onto his robe and into his clothes.

The preacher placed the body of this young man in the back of his car and began to drive home and after a few miles, he could no longer stand it. He pulled over, walked into a field and shouted at the sky, “I am one of your servants. How could you let that man treat me that way?” 

And he said he heard the voice of God say back to him, “Don’t you know, they did it to my Son, did you think they would treat you any better?”

God is not separated from the injustices of humankind. Our God is the God of the oppressed. In this morning’s text, Pontius Pilate, a Roman officer and the governor of Judea said three times that Jesus was an innocent man who did not deserve death. Pilate knew Herod, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, had found Jesus innocent and not deserving of death and Pilate sentenced him to death anyway. God understands injustice. God is deeply affected by injustice. God takes the side of those who suffer injustice. 

However, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God in the flesh, hung on the cross with his back laid open by the soldiers’ whip, the crown of thorns on his head, the mocking words ringing in his ears, and nailed to the cross looked at those who had just put him there as they divided up his one possession, his garment which they had stolen. Jesus had suffered injustice. Jesus was innocent. He had every right and he had the power to come down from that cross and avenge the injustice perpetrated against him and still he prayed Father, forgive them for they know not what they do

Is it easy? Of course not! Is it the first thing that comes to mind for us? No! But when Jesus said “take up your cross, the gate to salvation is narrow and the path is hard, this is what he was talking about. And now Christians in America will have the opportunity to learn how Christians around the world have lived for centuries: as those charged with being people of faith in an often cruel and difficult world where it is so much easier to doubt.  It is one thing to love your enemies when all is well, when life is easy. It is quite another thing to love your enemies when it is you who is hanging on the cross.

This is America’s time on the cross. Our back is laid open by the whip of destruction and our nation wears a thorny crown by those who would mock our position in this world. The freedom we possess seems to be stolen by our tormentors. Yet this is our time to embody the love of Christ to a world so filled with hate. This is our time to, in the words of Paul, to not be overcome by evil but to overcome evil with good. This is our time to be a living witness to our faith, in a very real and meaningful way, that we trust God to avenge the evils of this world, that we believe that nothing on earth is stronger than the love of God in Christ Jesus, for the sake of our children and generations yet unborn.

In 1998, representatives from United Methodist congregations in this area gathered in a church in Suffolk to talk about an upcoming initiative to start new congregations and strengthen existing ones. I don’t remember why, but on the way home that night, Pastor Larry and I began talking about the state of things in the world. I remember clearly that we were driving across the Monitor-Merrimac Bridge-Tunnel when Larry said to me, “You know Doug, someday terrorists will strike this tunnel. Maybe not in my lifetime but in yours. 

“Oh, I would not be one bit surprised,” I said. “When I consider the direction in which this world seems to be moving, I am honestly afraid of what I will live to see.

Riding in the back seat of this car was our Lay Leader at the time, J.T. Johnson, who died on September 10 and who we buried on Friday of this week. He had been silent the entire ride, listening to this conversation between two men of faith representing two generations following his. Without comment, he said, “I was a Marine in World War II. My unit fought in the battle of Iwo Jima. There were 165 of us. I was one of seven who survived that battle. On that battlefield, I would hold those dying Marines in my arms. These were tough guys; they could cuss for a minute straight and never say the same word twice.

“But when they were dying, they were like children. I would hold them in my arms and they would say to me ‘Johnny, I am so scared. I don’t want to die.”

He told us he would hold these dying men in his arms and say to them, “Do you want to believe in Jesus?” and these men would say “Yes” and J.T. would ask them, “Do you want Communion?” They would say yes and he would reach into his pocket and pull out soda crackers and put them in the mouths of these men and say to them, “This is the body of Christ broken for you” He would open his canteen and pour water into their mouths and say to them, “And this is the blood of Christ, shed for you.” He would hold these men in his arms until he felt the life go out of them and he would find another dying man and another and another. 

He did not tell us this so that we would think he was a hero. J.T. did not believe he was a hero. He told us this because there was a time when his generation was afraid and angry about places like Pearl Harbor and yet they learned that God did not abandon them. God was with them through it all. J.T. came out of the horror and agony and injustice of war not bitter, not vengeful, but loving and kind, willing to serve, willing to love, and with a faith in Christ that was powerful and evident and stronger than it ever could have been if he gave in to the evil that was once all around him.  

After he finished telling us about his experience, he was quiet and so were we. Nothing more needed to be said. He reminded us that we are the people of the resurrection. God was our help in ages past and would be our hope for years to come. Not every question was answered, but we knew enough to be faithful and hopeful as we drove on, into the night.

Gloria In Excelsis Deo.

[1] James M. Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope; The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr, San Francisco, Harper Collins, 1986, p. 10.