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May 13, 2018

The Whole Story

The Whole Story

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Series: May 2018

Category: Faith

Audio of 2nd scripture reading, Acts 1:15-26, followed by sermon can be found beginning at 26:46.

Acts 1: 15-26

15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred and twenty people) and said, 16‘Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— 17for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.’ 18(Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20‘For it is written in the book of Psalms,

“Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it”; and “Let another take his position of overseer.”

21So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.’ 23So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.24Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ 26And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.  THE WORD OF THE LORD. THANKS BE TO GOD.

 The Whole Story

Wow, I go away for a week of vacation followed by a weeklong preaching seminar, and I return to a passage about Judas, the one who famously betrayed Jesus with a kiss.  So much for easing back into things!

Why the gory details of the Judas story? It doesn’t seem suitable for church, and so we cover our eyes when we picture this scene. The lectionary—the three-year cycle of Biblical readings used to guide worship—has the apparent good sense to omit verses 18-20, the part about Judas’ entrails spilling out. My apologies if you had Mother’s Day brunch plans. As I’ve told you before, whenever the lectionary cuts something out, my eyes go immediately there. To be fair, the lectionary treats each Sunday as a mini Easter, celebratory in tone. It assumes we are reading Scripture all week long and encountering the more difficult passages then.  Still, I think this omission has more to do with discomfort with the truth than anything else.

The truth is an interesting topic.  When someone swears to tell the truth in this country, they swear, among other things, to tell the whole truth.  That is much harder than simply not lying. The whole truth can reveal painful realities. Many years ago, a friend of mine was in her first year of teaching elementary school and was preparing a lesson plan in advance of Columbus Day.  As she described the crafts and activities she was putting together, it was clear what she was going to teach was more the celebratory, but factually inaccurate, version of that story. In this telling, Columbus is nothing short of a hero. Omitted was the fact Columbus never set foot on what would become the United states, and even if he had people he wouldn’t be “discovering” anything because people had lived there for many generations. Where he did land, what would become the Bahamas, he enslaved and mutilated people. By Columbus’ time it was already widely known that the world was round. In the end, Columbus was arrested by Spain.[1]  My friend essentially said, when I challenged her as gently as I could, that they could learn the truth later. Sure, we should teach in a way that is age-appropriate; that doesn’t mean teaching what has to be untaught later. I don’t mean to pile on to a young teacher. Her story reveals to us how hard it is to struggle to correct an age-old celebrated story.

It’s deep in us, this tendency to tell only part of the story or a version of the story we like. Before long, we we’ve woven, and woven into the fabric of our identity, an entirely new story altogether.  What gets cut out, however, is really important. We’ve been doing a bi-weekly Bible Study on the Gospel of Mark (every 1st and 3rd Tuesday at 6:00 pm in the library by the way). The other night, we explored a disputed word which, coincidentally, as in the Judas passage, refers to the entrails, the bowels, though thankfully not in a spilling out sense. In the ancient world, the seat of emotion was not the heart, but the gut. In some manuscripts, and likely in your English translations, the word that word we were discussing appears as “compassion.” Upon encountering a leper, Jesus is moved with compassion. Other manuscripts, however, read, “anger.” Jesus was moved with anger.

In biblical studies, one method used to determine which translation is the original is to privilege the more difficult version, though that, of course is subjective (more on that in a moment). The logic is simple—the church had incentive to make Jesus more, not less, palatable, by changing words, softening the story. In doing so, we become so committed to a sort of passive “nice” Jesus that we choose to accept an altered Jesus over the actual one. Not only do we confuse our values with gospel ones, we miss the beauty in we’ve decided prematurely is ugly. Take anger. We largely regard that as unbecoming of a spiritual leader. Yet, as we were talking at my preachers’ gathering last week, anger can be righteous, justified, even downright divine. Anger doesn’t always have to be anger against; sometimes anger is anger with. If I were a leper, I might be heartened by a Jesus who was angry with me at the tragedy my condition and even more at the societal treatment I received as the result of my condition. Lepers were ostracized, isolated. They were the walking dead.

On the flight to this preachers’ gathering, I watched a documentary called Mr. Rogers and Me, about that public television children’s program star, in anticipation of a new documentary coming out in June. In it, a story is told about the young Fred Rogers, 8 years old at the time. Seeing himself as fat and shy, and one day Rogers was followed home by bullies. As he sped up, they sped up. When he later shared his distress with trusted adults, they told him: “Just act like it doesn’t bother you and they will go away.” Even at that age, Rogers knew this was deeply wrong. The person telling the story said that was the day “Mr.” Rogers was born because it was the moment he became clear that peoples’ feelings needed to be expressed, and he himself learned to speak nonviolently about his own anger, and he gave countless others the space and tools to do the same.

It’s tempting to exclude the gore of the Judas story, but we mustn’t.  Betrayal and its consequences are gruesome. Judas was a trusted follower of Jesus, so much so he was put in charge of the money. Betrayal is by definition an inside job, making Jesus’ crucifixion all the more painful. If much of the Jesus story is beautiful, this episode is terribly ugly, and yet only when we refrain from looking away do we see what people are capable of doing. Only when people recognize what they are capable of can they fully realize what else they are capable of too.

A new memorial has opened recently. It’s not the kind that celebrates some glorious victory or standing achievement. It’s a memorial in Alabama that deals with lynching. This is heavy stuff. You may have seen images.  There’s an indoor display in which huge steel beams are suspended from a tall ceiling. Rectangular and rusting, these uniform beams struck me as powerfully symbolic, bearing no distinction or features of a human. They just hang there, just as so many African Americans, without identity or rightful place in our collective memory, hanged from trees up until more recently than any of us would like to think.  Do you know when the last lynching was in the U.S.? 1981.[2] They used to sell postcards that pictured lynchings. I read a story just a month ago about an American high school that had only recently painted over a mural in its gym that featured lynching scenes.

          It turns out my interpretation of the hanging beams of steel was only partially right.  They do not represent individuals; they represent counties, and each is engraved with a list of names of those known to have been lynched there.  It’s overwhelming, yet its function is not only to hang that over our heads; it’s to lift our eyes and our consciousness to the truth, the whole truth.

Incidentally, there are other displays elsewhere on the property actual statues and these are all too real, very human in their features and their expressions.  It’s incredibly painful and it bears vivid witness to that pain, pain of people who did have faces, names, stories, and they have a rightful place in our larger story.

In a less dramatic example, the other week I found myself offering a defense of sorts of our Book of Confessions, a set of documents many probably don’t even know we have. I recognize the resistance to a collection of creeds. I share some of the discomfort it conjures in folks who don’t want to be told what to believe. And yet, one of the things I appreciate about our Book of Confessions is that it catalogs the evolution of the church’s thinking over time, without erasing unseemly episodes. For all that can be criticized about the church, it doesn’t simply erase or replace its old thoughts, its old confessions. The church as embodied in the Book of Confessions adds new statements, new voices, to the collection, sometimes corrective ones, hopefully telling more and more of the story.

The treasure of the Judas story, even in its gore, is that it forces us to look, to take note, and hopefully to learn.

If this all sounds depressing, too much for a day such as this, I want you to remember something. With whom did Jesus gather on the night he was betrayed? Not 11 disciples, all 12. Scripture says Jesus knew what was coming and yet he had Judas there because on some level he knew he needed to commune with that side of humanity. Even if on a time table beyond what we can comprehend, Jesus does not seem to give up easily on the possibility of redemption. As followers of Jesus we are called to remember that too. The Jesus movement that remained, as Acts recounts, also knows when it is time to move on. They do appoint a replacement for Judas. Both working for redemption and moving on are faithful responses to this episode, and both require seeing as fully as possible.  

Sometimes we avoid wanting to see the whole picture because we fear we might have to change our minds. We live in a culture where the stakes are so high of admitting we were wrong, or saw in a way that was incomplete, that we narrow our vision or cover our eyes altogether. But, there is another way, a way that says to see more fully is always better, in fact it is how we see the hidden one, God herself. Meister Eckhart, the great Christian mystic of the Middle Ages, writes this:

A man

born blind can easily

deny the magnificence of a vast landscape.

He can easily deny all the wonders that he cannot touch, smell, taste, or hear.

But one day the wind will show its kindness

and remove the tiny patches that

cover your eyes,

and you will see God more clearly

than you have ever seen

Yourself.[3]

 What could be more suitable for church than seeing God more clearly, even if it means looking through the gut of Judas?

Amen.

[1] https://www.biography.com/news/christopher-columbus-day-facts

[2] https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95672737

[3] Meister Eckhart, The Wind Will Show its Kindness

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