Last Sunday we gathered in worship for a passion play. A number of actors enacted the drama leading up to Jesus’ death. Unlike the story we have from the gospels, this passion play focused on the characters of Herod, Pilate, Caiaphas, and Judas and the way their individual ambitions led to the decision to execute Jesus. Watching a familiar story unfold this way called attention the House of Cards drama around Jesus. And seeing it by this perspective made the horror and tragedy even more apparent.
In the background of the play stood these sculptures by Bilhenry Walker. Like the passion play, these sculptures call us to look at something familiar in a new way.
The sculptures depict the executions of journalists by ISIS this last year: James Foley, Steve Sotloff, and David Haines. In the simplicity of drawn lines we see the expression of emotions they might have felt: resistance, grief, and resignation. We see these sculptures knowing what happens next, their moment of death.
Arranged as a group these sculptures remind us of the crosses on Calvary, of Jesus and the two executed beside him. But - because we know how they died - these sculptures assault us with a graphic rawness the cross has largely lost. We wear crosses of gold, but few would wear an image of James Foley just before his beheading. It’s too painful an image. And yet, that’s what the cross looked like to the earliest Christians. The Romans used crucifixion just as ISIS uses beheadings: as a gruesome means to terrify the living as much as to kill the executed.
Could we imagine what it would be like to go from hearing news reports of beheadings and then to come to church to worship under one of these sculptures? And yet our visceral response to that idea gives us a sense of what it was like for early Christians to gather by the rugged cross.
The word religion comes from an old Latin word which means “to bind.” Now I know it’s fallen out of fashion to be religious; we’re spiritual now. And it’s easy to mock religion as people tied up in rules and regulations. But this week the old meaning of the word religious, to bind, came back to me as I spent time with these sculptures.
Of course, each of these men were bound. But more significantly, by presenting them together, Bilhenry calls our attention to the ways their lives were bound together - their gruesome ends bound them together with each other.
But not just with each other. Arranged as an image of Calvary, we see their fates bound with that of Jesus and those who died with him. Seeing these figures, we can see an invisible thread binding together the tragedy of their deaths with the tragedy of his death. Looking at them, we see the truth of what was written in the Letter to the Hebrews, “They are crucifying again the Son of God” (Hebrews 6: 6).
Of course, it’s not just Jesus and these three men who are bound together. One of the most poignant songs of the last century was Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” The song echoes with the centuries of pain endured by African-Americans. At a time when few could speak of the violence and murder committed by white supremacists, she sang about the horror of lynching:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees
The invisible thread which binds together Jesus and James Foley includes all the victims Billie Holiday sang about.
Abel Meeropol, a Jew from New York, wrote the song in the late 1930’s. One imagines the issue of lynching in America resonated with him in part because of the prejudicial violence being meted out on Jews in Germany at the same time.
To be religious is to see the thread connecting the story of Jesus to the story of these men, to see the way their lives are bound together. And not just them, but all those who suffer, those lynched in America, those suffering around the world, from the far away past to the present day. To be religious is to know God’s heart broke at Calvary, broke when James Foley died, and breaks at all the senseless deaths in-between. To be religious is to bind ourselves to these stories, to know that our hearts break too.
And yet, we would not sing beneath the cross of Jesus I make my stand if it were just a symbol of solidarity amid the pervasiveness of human tragedy. From the very beginning, Christians saw hope in the awfulness of the cross. James Cone explained it, saying, “One needs a powerful imagination to see both tragedy and beauty, futility and redemption in the cross.”
So we look at the cross with wide-eyed imagination. To the earliest Christians the cross meant that our worst moment, our greatest pain, our deepest grief would not be the final meaning of our lives. We hold the same truth: our lives are more than any one tragedy. It comes out in all sorts of contexts. This week when a pilot downed a plane, killing hundreds, it was important to not just tell the story of this tragic end but also the stories of who these people were. Similarly with James Foley: we tell of his execution, yes, but also the courage of his life and his commitment to help the world understand the plight of people caught in the midst of war. We do this because of the larger truth to which the cross points.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The cross stands as the eternal expression of the length to which God will go in order to restore broken community.” God’s heart does more than break at violent injustice; God makes a covenant to save, that a life will mean more than a death. It’s the hope, the confidence, that though James Foley, Steve Sotloff, and David Haines were gruesomely killed, there is an aspect of their lives which violence can never cut off.
I said earlier that religion means ‘to bind.’ And so the religious imagination see the deaths of Jesus and these journalists and countless others as bound together. But with our religious imagination we also see that these victims are bound not only in tragedy but to the hope of meaning beyond their deaths. Linked to the heart of God by tragedy, they are bound to the grace of God eternally.
The hope of the cross can be hard to imagine. And yet I think even in the Palm Sunday readings we find Jesus stretching our imagination about the possible. This Sunday we read beyond the usual story of Jesus entering Jerusalem to hear a more confusing tale of his curse against a fig tree and then disruptions in the Temple. These stories make a contrast between the imagination of Jesus and reasonable practicality
I’m particularly interested by the fig tree story. Jesus walked back into the city again the next day, but this time without acclaim. Along the way he saw a fig tree. In what must have seemed like a bizarre moment, Jesus went to the fig tree to look for fresh figs. The disciples thought to themselves, “This is not the season for figs.” In fact, figs would not be in season for another 5 months. Frustrated, Jesus cursed the fig tree.
What are we to make of this bizarre behavior. On the one hand, why would Jesus expect fresh figs so out of season? On the other, why could a man who fed thousands with just a few loaves not just make his own figs?
It was all a bit of drama: Jesus was looking past the fig tree to see the Temple rising in the distance. He knew figs were not in season; afterall, this was hardly special information. But he wanted the disciples to imagine what seemed impossible.
The real point of it was the Temple, where Jesus went next - famously overturning the tables of the money changers, condemning corruption in how it was run, and shouting, “This was to be a house of prayer for all people but you have turned it into a den of robbers!” The Temple authorities ran it according to all the practical and reasonable expectations. During the season of Roman power, they collaborated with the Romans. During the festival time, they ensured merchants could make their money. In every season, they did what was prudent and expected and reasonable.
Jesus charged in with impossible demands; an end to collaboration with the Romans, a Temple which didn’t defraud the poor. It isn’t the season for figs, the disciples told him. It isn’t the time to resist the Romans, the authorities counseled. But still, Jesus thought as one out of season, hungry for things at all the wrong times because his faith in God lead him to imagine the impossible.
Jesus pursuing the impossible out of season reminded me of an interview Martin Luther King, Jr. once gave. A reporter asked King why he couldn’t be more patient, saying, “the passage of time - perhaps generations - will bring about sweeping changes … in traditional attitudes and customs.” King said then as elsewhere, “The time is always right to do what is right.” And then he went on, reflecting on the U.S. Supreme Court decision to desegregate schools. The Brown decision came down with the caveat that it should happen with all deliberate speed. Ten years later, when King sat down for his interview, the deliberate speed had became a reason to delay, as school districts said it was not yet the season for integration. After calling attention to such delays, he added, “I wonder at men who dare to feel that they have some paternalistic right to set the timetable for another man’s liberation.” King, like Jesus, didn’t want to wait for the right season.
The cross not only binds us to people who suffer, it makes us imagine the impossible regardless of the season, to celebrate the fullness of life even when it ends tragically, to know death will lose its sting. The cross binds us to impossible hopes and commits us to make those hopes come to life.
Years ago, during the Civil Rights Movement, white supremacists set off a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four young girls were killed and another seriously wounded in the terrorist attack. The girls had been studying Matthew 5, a lesson about “the Love that Forgives.” The bombing damaged much of the building, including a stained-glass window of Jesus. The force of the blast blew out his face.
Later James Baldwin would reflect on the window. He said, “It sums up the crisis we’re living through. If Christ has no face, then perhaps it is time that we … give him a face.”
How can we see hope in tragedy? And yet Baldwin’s words turned prophetic - for the bombing marked a turning point in the movement for equality, a moment when more and more people came forward to be the missing face of Jesus, when an act of terror empowered the movement for justice, the impossible finally coming real regardless of the season.
This Sunday, may we be religious. May we be bound. Bound in solidarity to all who suffer. Bound by a hope which imagines the impossible. Bound by a commitment in our lives to make the impossible come true by being the face of Jesus.