Shuck and Jive

Sunday, March 28, 2010

No More Crosses: A Sermon

No More Crosses
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Palm/Passion Sunday
March 28th, 2010

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Luke 23:1-49

Religion is like sausage. The trick we learn early is just to enjoy it and don't ask too many questions about how it was made.

I admit I do spend a lot of time analyzing religion's entrails and I am not sure if doing so whets my appetite. Here is a for instance. Do you ever wonder why the execution of Jesus became such an important story?

In my office I have a collection of sermons and writings of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I also have a biography about him. The biography includes a chapter about his assassination in Memphis on March 29th, 1968, 42 years ago tomorrow. But it is only one chapter. He was assassinated. And there certainly has been a great deal of mystery and intrigue surrounding his death.

He was relatively young, not quite 40 when he was killed. Even with all of the accusations of government conspiracy and so forth, no one would say that the most interesting or important thing about his life was his assassination. It deserves mention. It gets a chapter, but it isn't the focus of who he was and what he accomplished.

Think of others who were killed in the line of duty. Soldiers, firefighters, police officers, politicians, heretics, even political prisoners. In none of those cases do we say that their deaths were more important than their lives.

An exception might be the masses of people who were killed in the Holocaust or those killed in the September 11th attacks. History may not remember them except for their names on memorials if even that.

But even then, each person killed would have a story even if we don't have record of it. Each person was an individual with some sort of history. No one would say that their lives only were meaningful because they died.

Yet much of Christian theology, you might call it default Christianity has said that about Jesus. A few years ago a poster advertising Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion, featured an image of Christ wearing a crown of thorns. The caption read:
Dying was his reason for living.
The movie itself was about his supposed last hours cobbled together from the various fictional accounts in the gospels.

The four gospels that made it into the canon of holy scripture all contain a version of Jesus' trial and execution. In fact over half the gospel material has to do with his death.

Why are we so obsessed with this man's death?
Dying was his reason for living.
Really? The belief that Jesus died for us or died for our sins or died to save us has been Christianity's theological centerpiece. His death and resurrection are two parts of this mythology.

That mythology has little to do with the historical person of Jesus.

Details about the trial and crucifixion are literary memes taken from other sources. It isn't that the gospel writers observed what happened and wrote it down. It is what we would call, for lack of a more sophisticated word, fiction.

For example, Jesus is reported to have said from the cross:
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
That is a direct quote from Psalm 22. Before we think that Jesus was quoting the psalm, we have other problems. That same psalm also says,
All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
8‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’
Here is the text from Mark:
Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ 31In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself.'
Also from Psalm 22:
They stare and gloat over me;
18they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
Here is the text from Mark:
And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.
It is clear that those who were writing the account of his crucifixion were not observing an event. They were going back to their sources, their scriptures, to find language with which to create the story of Jesus' execution.

Now virtually every scholar would say that it is an historical fact that Jesus was executed. There is not a lot to know about Jesus, but that is fairly definite. The story, the how it happened and the why, comes from the imaginations of the various authors.

Fairly early on those who decided that his death and resurrection was of chief importance took control of the stories about him. It didn't have to go that way. The Gospel of Thomas that did not make it into the Bible contains only sayings of Jesus. It has no story of his death or resurrection.

Jesus had a life before he died. The things he did and the things he said were provocative enough to put him on the wrong side of the authorities. From the things people remembered that he did and said, he was critical of the authorities. He was critical of the religious authorities and of the political authorities. That is what got him killed.

He challenged systems of authority that took advantage of widows, of the poor, and of the outcast. He created a movement. And it was threatening enough that those in power felt the need to stop him. Perhaps to make of him an example. That is what got him killed.

There were many people tortured and killed on Roman crosses. Jesus was one of many.

It appears from the evidence that we have in the gospels, and the history of that time period, that Jesus crossed paths with those who could do him harm. It is very possible that he was on the side of people who were executed and tortured by the government. He was on the side of people who lost their land to pay for Herod's palaces and projects. He shared his contempt quite openly for the religious leaders:
But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. 15Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell* as yourselves.
If you keep saying stuff like that you know you are eventually going to anger some folks.

He was on the side of people who were oppressed by the economic policies of the temple. That is what got him killed. He was on the side of people considered unclean and sinners by the religious.

He is remembered for telling parables and stories that upset people. He used a phrase "kingdom of God." That phrase means little to us because we have tamed it. Most folks thanks to the theologians think it is another phrase for heaven, a place the true believers go when they die.

It is likely that it was a political statement. As opposed to the kingdom of Caesar, this is what the kingdom of God is like. It wasn't just a fantasy, a story. It was a movement. This the kingdom to live for, to work for, perhaps even to die for. It is a kingdom of justice and compassion. In this kingdom, in this political economy the hungry are filled with good things. Now let's make it so.

Jesus was about making changes in this world. That is what got him killed.

He talked about compassion. He talked about moving beyond ethnic boundaries and divisions. He talked about forgiveness. Not something you go to the priest for or even to God for, but your neighbor. That is the one we hurt. That is the one from whom we need forgiveness. We get it as we give it. He worked to bring people together: Samaritan and Jew, Greek and Roman. He practiced an open table, rich and poor, male and female. He challenged unjust boundaries and rules. That is what got him killed.

Dying was not his reason for living.

Living was his reason for dying.

For life, he died. For integrity, he died. For compassion, he died. For justice, he died. For change, he died.

He was in the way. He was in the way of progress. He was in the way of Rome. He was in the way of the religious authorities who had sold out their people to Rome. He was killed as were many just like him.

The only difference is that while those others are unknown to us, we know some of Jesus' story. We know about what he lived for.

I think it is a sham and a shame that the religious establishment distorted his story. They took his story and turned into a caricature. Here is the theological story that is as common as dirt. You all know it. Here is the basic plot.

Once upon a time, God created Heaven and Earth. God is good, just, and perfect. He created Adam and Eve and put them in a garden. Well we know that is fiction as we know that human beings are the product of evolution that has taken billions of years. But OK.

Adam and Eve sinned by disobeying. A talking snake convinced the "bad" woman to eat some fruit from a tree from which they weren't supposed to eat. The logic of this is that because of Eve and Adam everyone on the planet therefore deserves eternal punishment in hell.

I know. It is kind of a leap for me, too.

God's honor has been damaged by Adam and Eve's sin. So God sent Jesus the God/Man to be sacrificed (like a goat) to satisfy God's honor and to pay the penalty that we deserve, in fact you deserve, even though you didn't eat the fruit. But you did all kinds of other bad things and had bad thoughts (usually having to do with sex) so it all washes.

But if you believe in that story you will go to heaven and not hell.

That story is supposedly better than what really happened?

And the crazy thing is that we just take it. We accept it.

Hardly anyone raises an objection. No one says,
"Wait a second! Jesus had to die this bloody torturous death because I am so bad? Even though I wasn't even born when he died?"
It is actually rather sick. Seriously. It is pathological theology. We simply take it.

In fact, I can sense right now people squirming in their pews because they think I am being blasphemous by being so frivolous with this story. Why is that? Why so scared? Because the holy weight of theological double-talk has been crushing our spirits for centuries.

It has served to make people feel guilt and shame about themselves and fear about their future (eternal hell) that they never needed to feel. And they never need to feel.

It is all shrouded with holy hocus pocus and theological slipperiness. It is a matter of faith and mystery we are told. Don't look too closely. Just believe.

I personally think we should look closely. We should examine how this sausage is being made. Our spiritual health depends upon it. Perhaps the health of America which is becoming a revivalist nation before our eyes, depends on it.

One of the best commentaries on the crucifixion is by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Nickle and Dimed. She writes about attending a tent revival at a Deliverance Church. At the revival she heard the usual kind of preaching about the Bible as the only book God ever wrote and the importance of accepting Jesus who died on the cross for your sins. She writes:
The preaching goes on, interrupted with dutiful "amens." It would be nice if someone would read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage. But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth. I would like to stay around for the speaking in tongues, should it occur, but the mosquitoes, worked into a frenzy by all this talk of His blood, are launching a full-scale attack. I get up to leave, timing my exit for when the preacher's metronomic head movements have him looking the other way, and walk out to search for my car, half-expecting to find Jesus out there in the dark, gagged and tethered to a tent pole. Pp. 68-9

We need more people like her to tell the truth about Christian sausage-making.

The Christian religion, especially its damaging mythologies that are used to induce guilt and fear and promote everything from creationism to gay-bashing, no longer deserves a free pass.

Religion is in need of an overhaul. We are in the midst of a new reformation. This congregation right here in the mountains of East Tennessee is a leader in this reformation and it has been for a long time both in this community and in this denomination.

I titled the sermon 'no more crosses.'

There was and is nothing sacred and holy about the execution and torture of Jesus or of anyone. "Holy Week" is a misnomer as is "Good Friday." If anything, remembering the death of Jesus should summon us to honor life not death. It should give us the courage and commitment to speak out and not remain silent in the face of torture, execution, violence, injustice, and needless suffering around the world.

Jesus' life was fast. Like Martin Luther King, they both died before reaching forty. But their lives burned with passion and fire. They burned out for compassion and justice.

Apparently, they believed that it is better to have burned out than never to have burned at all.

Whenever any of us stands up for those who are abused or put down or who suffer injustice from bullies big and small, we practice true religion.

No need for a lot of theological hocus pocus.

Do justice.
Love kindness.
Walk humbly.



  1. Thanks for another sermon that makes sense. At least it does to me.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. You mentioned a "slow point" at which we might look up the Psalms 22/Mark 15 parallel...the slow point didn't materialize. Great sermon.

  4. Hey John!

    Although not really pertinent to your sermon, I found myself leaving a comment at another blog today. The topic was on the relationship between the history of the development of science and it's necessary(?) relationship to Christianity. At any rate I concluded my comment with,

    "Finally, for what it is worth, I do not describe myself as an atheist or a theist. I do ally myself with a particular Presbyterian Church and minister (John Shuck), although in the not so distant past we both would have found ourselves sizzling on a burning stake for our heresy.

    Thankfully, things change..."

    Hithertofore I would not have been able to claim any type of an association with, or affinity to, any church or minister. Thanks to you, now I can.

    Just thought you might like to know.

  5. My theology professor likes to point out that the use of the cross for the symbol of Jesus is a later phenomenon. During the early years of persecution, the cross was not used as a symbol. Personally, I think our symbol should be the "open tomb." Think of the song "Roll away the Stone." by Mott the Hoople. Anyway great sermon. The key phrase we use in theology class is "the life, death and resurrection of Jesus."

    Great sermon.

  6. Whooo!!! Wish I could have heard it -- but even the printed words smoke.

    I'm working through a reclamation of Holy Week. It occurs to me (and has occurred to scholars more famous than me) that the highlight of Holy Week is not Jesus's death, but the opportunity we have on Thursday to re-dedicate ourselves to walking with whomever we need to walk with through the valley of shadows into justice. That's where the power lies. Not in the people who nail us to crosses (or more likely fire us) but in our solidarity.

    I'll send you an advance copy of the Thursday blog, in case you want to radicalize Maundy Thursday. Might as well.

  7. @Steve I believe there are more and more folks who think like you and I crawling out of the woodwork!

    @gord Or a tree of life or a cornucopia or scales of justice. Frankly, the symbol of our emerging religion should be a satellite photo of Earth--our home. Thanks for the comments!

    @Searaven I am going to do a post in the very near future about your excellent commentary you have been putting together at Gaia Rising. Good, good stuff! Don't know how radical we'll be for Maundy Thursday. It's a kids' production. But I am closing with communion so what you have may be just the ticket...

  8. Start 'em young, John. Next we can work on Sunday School curriculum!!

  9. That looks terrific. I have not paid much attention to children in all this, except to notice that they have generally been left out of the picture, and taught the usual stuff -- presumably with the expectation that they can "choose" something else when they get older, or must be "indoctrinated" into the correct belief.

    The Unitarian Universalists do a very good job with their "religious education." Directors of Religious Education are staff positions that make good salaries, and are trained and certified.

    I'll pass along the Westar link to our DRE. They do "units" on Christianity as they do with Buddhism, Native American spirituality, etc., but like Christian denominations, there is not a lot that is based on the latest scholarship.

    In fact, the last full-time settled minister we had (who resigned) once said in a "children's moment" that the gospels were written by Jesus's disciples, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I nearly jumped out of my chair (no pews in this church) to scream NOOOOO!!! but restrained myself.

  10. John, in keeping with your heresies theme, I've had this one rolling around my head, and it seems to fit...
    I was talking to my cousin, telling her about our church and our coverage of the "Living the Questions2" series, and how we didn't really buy into the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. She looked at me curiously (we both grew up in the same conservative, small town, deep South Christian church) so I added, "We don't think Jesus died for our sins."
    "Well," she said, "Why did he die?"
    Just at that moment the kids came bursting through the door, making a big ruckus, and that was the end of the conversation. But the question hung in my mind for a while. I finally came to the realization that he died because he was executed, killed for the very reasons you state in your sermon. He challenged the power structure, empowered the disenfranchised, made the poor rich in spirit, and called for social justice. For these reasons, the powers that were killed him. Those powers that were are with us today as our powers that be.

    I think it's more accurate to say that rather than dying for our sins, Jesus died on account of our sins. If he came again today, we'd try to kill him again. We hate anything that upsets our system, challenges our values or dinks with our precious status quo. Just look how we've reacted to healthcare reform. The same anger that boils out of our present-day ripple in the power structure is the anger that killed Jesus. The power structure and the sense of entitlement that accompanies it has never gone away, it merely and changes hands.

  11. Thanks David,

    I think that is perhaps the timeless quality of the story, why we say "our sins" is that we see the connection between then and now.

  12. I say "spot on" too. It's time to have a conversation about what "sin" really means. The problem is that once we start realizing the depth of our corporate "sin" -- mainly, our total involvement with the normalcy of usual civilized life -- then in order to avoid despair and find the hope that does come with Easter we have to talk about exactly what that is
    (and I'm not talking about a resuscitated corpse, I'm talking about joining the Great Work -- (participatory eschatology).

    Next thing you know, we might -- just might -- overturn the paradigm and . . . transform the world? In the twinkling of an eye? Was Paul onto something?

    Stay tuned.

  13. I see that Viola has linked to my sermon in hopes that a large cat might grab me by the scruff of my neck and put me safely in the bosom of Jesus.

    What is amusing is that Presbyweb rather than link to my sermon, linked to her who in turn linked to me.

    Ah, busybodies.

  14. And.... her obsession continues.

    That didn't take long.

  15. Hey, John, if you go with your analysis, then how do you know that Jesus said things like this:

    "But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. 15Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell* as yourselves."

    Maybe the gospel writers just made that stuff up, too.

    Debbie Berkley

  16. Debbie!

    Now you are thinking like a scholar!

    The Jesus Seminar scholars might agree with you. They gave verse 13 a gray vote and verse 15 a black vote. They thought these rants reflected later disagreements between the synagogues and early Christians placed back on the lips of Jesus.

  17. John--I am a scholar. No surprise to think like one.

    It's inconsistent to use some Bible verses as a basis for your arguments, if you discount others as fiction.

    Debbie Berkley

  18. Well Debbie,

    I think Jesus likely did say something like that. I might have voted pink. Some of it may go back to him, some of it later fiction.

    That is the work that these good folks have been doing for centuries.

  19. John, you "think" that Jesus likely said something like that. It all boils down to that--what you think.

    It's not a basis for any belief system I would care about.

    Debbie Berkley

  20. Debbie,

    Yes, it all does boil down to that. I have been saying that for nearly four years on this blog. In the end, we all make the decisions.