Worship 3/14/21

Call to Worship/Psalm 46 (NRSV)

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore, we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.

God is in the midst of the city which shall not be moved; God will help it at the dawn of the day.

The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; God’s voice resounds, the earth melts.

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord; who has wrought desolations in the earth; who makes wars cease to the end of the earth; breaks the bow, shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire!

“Be still, and know that I am God!

I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Opening Prayer

Lord Jesus, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross, that all people might come within the reach of your saving embrace. Clothe us in your Spirit, that we, stretching out our hands in loving service for others, may bring those who do not know you to an awareness and love of you; who with the Father and the Holy Spirit live and reign, One God now and forever.  Amen.

Scripture Lesson/John 19:31-37 (NRSV)

31Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity.  So, they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed.  32Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him.  33But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.  34Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.  35(He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe.  His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.)  36These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.”  37And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”

Message/The Spear

There were many witnesses to the events which took place on that hill outside Jerusalem two-thousand years ago.  An angry crowd gathered to be certain that their verdict of “guilty” be carried out in the sentence of death by crucifixion.  A small group of the condemned man’s followers milled about the crowd; still in shock over the injustice being meted out, many of them kept their identity secret to protect themselves from a similar fate.  And some had to be there—those responsible for tending to the necessary tasks which went along with an execution.

But there were other “witnesses” as well, ones we don’t usually think about, although they were even closer to the events than the crowd.  In fact, they actually participated in those events in unique ways.  They are the Silent Witnesses.  If only these things could speak!  What might they tell us about the events from their viewpoint?  Today, we will hear from The Spear.

Did you hear the one about the guy who ordered a bunch of spears from Amazon and they arrived without their heads?  I guess you could say he got shafted.  He contacted customer service but found it pointless.  And what do Legionaries from France fight with?  Brittany spears!  How about the soldier who took his spear and threw it to the other side of a river?  It wasn’t very productive, but at least he got his point across.  Loosen them up with a joke, they said.  Warm them up with a little laughter, they said.  The indignity…

You realize that I don’t have to be here!  As an official representative of the government, still in active service, I don’t have to tell you my story.  I just thought it would be better if you knew this upfront.  I am still an authorized weapon of the government in power, and that mine is a position of both responsibility and authority—in the right hands, that is.  I have fought in fierce battles with enemies of superior numbers and force.  I’ve seen men die fighting for the honor of their country and their king.  I have brought enemies to both their knees and their graves—in honor of my country and my emperor.  I have been held at attention when the governor or general or official of importance passed by.  I have held off angry crowds at the gates of the palace and have pierced the flesh of would-be anarchists.  I’ve even saved the life of my ruler on more than one occasion.  I have been used by skilled soldiers and by cowards in uniform.  But that’s all in the past now.  I’m here because of what I witnessed and what I witnessed needs to be told accurately.

I’ve never been shattered.  Generally, those who used me in battle took good care of me because they knew that in a fight, I would take care of them.  My point has been kept polished and sharpened, ready to go at a moment’s notice.  My handle rubbed with the finest oils to keep it from cracking under the stress of battle.  Whenever I was nicked, care was taken hone me to a razor-sharp edge again.  Power is what I project, fear is what I provoke, and death is the fulfilment of my purpose.

Currently, I’m on guard duty.  I like to think of it more as a semi-retirement rather than a duty.  I’ve been assigned to “crucifixion crowd control.”  I’m not always sure whether that means trying to keep the criminals from escaping, the crowd from killing the criminals before the government can, or if I’m supposed to protect the officials from the crowd and the criminals.  Perhaps it’s a bit of each of those.  Whatever I’m supposed to be doing, I always do it the best that I can.  That’s what being in the military is all about.  In fact, we are one of the oldest types of weapons ever used by humankind.  We have a long history from simply being a sharpened stick to a finely engineered piece of weaponry made with the latest metal alloys to have ever come from the forge.

Perhaps the best place to start is in the courtyard.  That’s where I first came into contact with the accused man.  He was on trial for both heresy and treason—now that’s a heavy accusation.  They said he was a threat to the government because he called himself “king.”  The way I heard it, everyone else—including those who were trying him—called him a king.  All he said was that if that’s the way they saw it, so be it.  He didn’t say he was but didn’t say he wasn’t either.  His answer seemed rather coy.  Doesn’t he want to defend himself?  Doesn’t he desire to passionately speak of his innocence before the governor and the crowd that had gathered there?  I mean, if I were on trial for treason and heresy, you can be sure that I would do everything in my power to convince them otherwise.  From his demeanor, he wasn’t much of a threat.  Even at my age, I could have handled him or any of his followers; they weren’t even armed! 

I thought it odd that he was convicted.  If this hadn’t been happening in the governor’s courtyard, I would think I was watching a circus.  The witnesses kept telling differing stories, contradicting themselves and each other.  All of their testimony was based on emotion rather than facts, which never were brought to light.  None of them spoke with any credibility.  Pilate listened and sent him to Herod, and Herod sent him back to Pilate because neither of them wanted to deal with this political hot potato.  When Pilate went to wash his hands from the guilt of giving up this innocent man to death, things started getting out of control.  The mob was in a frenzy.  I felt the hand of my soldier tighten his grip.  I have witnessed many trials so I can testify that this Jesus got a raw deal.  When the sentence of guilty was handed down, it was time to start the long walk through the city gates and up the hill.  I’ve been there a number of times.  Usually, a person only makes the trip once, if you get what I mean.

But this time, the journey up the hill was itself an ordeal.  Some of the time I was used to hold back the crowd lining the streets—some crying out for his death, and others declaring his innocence.  Some pushed toward him saying that they just wanted to touch him to be healed of an illness.  This wasn’t your usual crucifixion crowd.

And yet…something made it clear that this wasn’t the usual kind of person on his way to be executed.  A couple of times, I was used to rap him on the back of the legs to keep him going.  He wasn’t in much shape to be carrying that heavy crossbar.  He’d already been scourged.  You think spears are dangerous, but the Roman scourge is a particularly nasty piece of weaponry.  Also called the “flagrum” or “flagellum,” the scourge was a short whip made of two or three ox-hide thongs connected to a handle.  Those thongs were knotted with a number of small, sharp pieces of metal, usually zinc and iron, attached at various intervals and designed to do as much damage to human flesh as possible.  By the time we started our procession to the crucifixion site, the man looked half dead.  Every couple of steps, he stumbled—each time taking a little longer to get back on his feet, until he finally fell, exhausted.  Frustrated and impatient, the guard commander grabbed a strong-looking guy from the crowd and forced him at spearpoint to take up the crossbar, allowing the convicted man to continue the journey unencumbered.

The yelling and cursing from the crowd continued as we lagged along.  Each time the man fell, there was jeering laughter.  I’ve never seen such disrespect in all my life.  But every so often you’d see somebody on their knees, their tear-streaked faces looking up into the sky and praying aloud for him.  As I said, this was an entirely different experience…

I know it all sounds a bit confusing; but that’s probably the best description of the events of that day—it was total confusion, and for me, typically wielded by the hands of trained, disciplined, and experienced soldiers who fought side-by-side, shield-to-shield, shoulder-to-shoulder, rank upon rank, confusion is not something I was used to.  I prefer order to improvisation. 

Finally, we crested the hill.  Under normal circumstances, I expected to find myself held at a full 90-degree angle, perpendicular to the ground—the soldier sweating under his helmet but standing dutifully at attention.  The guard carrying me, however, got into an argument with a few of the other soldiers about who would get to keep the condemned man’s clothes.  Roman soldiers were notorious souvenir hunters.  It was all about collecting the spoils of war.  Winners keepers, losers weepers.  It’s not like they were arguing over a piece of gold jewelry or a prized gem.  It was a simple, seamless garment that they decided not to divide into four parts.  Instead, they decided to roll dice to see who would get the garment.  Thusly, I was unceremoniously cast on the ground, laying in the dirt beneath the cross.  Throughout this whole ordeal, I had tried to keep my head held high, but to be discarded like a cheap pair of sandals for a game of dice for a condemned man’s clothes was downright humiliating.  But I guess what I was going through didn’t begin to come close to what the condemned had to endure.

The morning sun was getting more and more intense as I lay still in the dirt.  I could feel my staff drying out and my head getting hot enough to scorch anyone who would carelessly pick me up.  As time pressed on, I found myself in the shadow of the cross and the man dying above me, offering me some relief from the heat.  It’s odd that I would be thankful for an innocent man hanging on a cross, but selfishly I was.  As I lay there, I could see is face.  His thorn-crowned head hanging down in an expression of someone who was deeply hurt.  I don’t mean hurt like the physical pain one would feel from the whippings and puncture wounds he had suffered, but rather the kind of hurt when you’ve been betrayed.  Back in the courtyard, I had heard mention that one of his so-called friends had betrayed him to the temple guard with a kiss, that another close friend had denied even knowing the man, and that the rest had all runaway, just when he could have used their supportive presence.  He seemed to have the weight of all the betrayals in the world on his sagging shoulders, but his eyes, I couldn’t help but notice the emotion he expressed with his eyes.  The Cicero said that the eyes are mirrors of one’s soul, he was right.  Within them I could see a clarity of purpose, even warmth.  Believe it or not, I felt some degree of compassion emanating from him as if he were forgiving me for being present there that day, for being a part of Rome’s arsenal of fear and intimidation and terror.

And his words, were far beyond anything you would expect to be heard from a person whose life was slowly seeping out of his or her body.  I mean, if I were a human being and was treated like that, you’d certainly not hear words of forgiveness and love coming from my mouth—things like “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Only an incredibly special person could say and really mean that at a time like this.  The light of kindness somehow broke through the darkness of his suffering like the way dawn takes over from the night.  When he spoke those words of forgiveness, the pain on his face turned to relief as though he knew his request was being granted.  He was no criminal!  He was no threat to the government.  What the world needed was more people like him.  Can you imagine what the world would look like if this kind of love could be found in more people?  I’d be out of a job!

Speaking of my job, my guard came and picked me up.  I thought we were done and were going to leave, until I heard the others mention that the bodies of this man and the two other convicted men on either side of him couldn’t be left up on their crosses due to their observance of the Sabbath.  Those bodies had to come down by 6:00 that evening.  So, it was decided to “help” the men die a little faster.  The soldiers were instructed to break the criminal’s legs.  They used a heavy mallet to do that.  Well, the other two were taken care of as directed and then they came to Jesus on the center cross.  They noticed that he didn’t seem to be breathing anymore—so instead of breaking his legs, it was decided to check and make sure he was dead.  That’s where I came in.  I was lifted toward him.  My first thought was that I wanted to get another look at the face of this innocent, forgiving man.  I wanted to be close to his gaze.  But his eyes were closed in death.  At any rate, I did get closer to his heart than I expected.  I was forced into his side with a thrust that felt as though all humankind was pushing me in, not just one lone Roman soldier.

What I found there was a broken heart, a heart that once beat for love and seemed to have been beaten by hate.  But I quickly found out that was only partly true.  As I was pulled from his lifeless side, both blood and water poured over me.  From the tip of my blade to the foot of my staff, I felt somehow forgiven for my role in all of this.  Hate may have killed him, but it certainly hadn’t defeated him.  I realize that this seems paradoxical and, to be honest, I still don’t fully understand it either, but I have a strange feeling inside that this wasn’t the last time I would ever see him.  After seeing and experiencing what was in his heart, I don’t think even death could stop him.

Prayers of the People

Waiting, patient, seeking God—these do not feel like days in which it is easy to sit and be still.  No longer winter, but not yet spring; no longer Christmas, but not yet Easter; no longer searching, but not yet settled, these are in-between days.  And we are not very often good at being in-between people.

Some days it seems as though the chill of winter has left, the time of transitions has passed, the worst has been endured, and the days ahead are certain to bring better things—days when the sun shines, the snow melts, and our imaginations bloom with future possibilities. 

But when we wake the next morning, we see an overcast sky; we see the troubling headlines from around our nation and world.  We see our friends, our relatives, and even our own children, suffering in ways we cannot prevent or mend: enduring grief, anticipating surgeries, waiting for test results, fighting disease, awaiting death, struggling to find their place in the world and to see themselves as your beloved child. 

We see our own lives fractured: relationships on rocky ground, decisions we don’t know how to make, time in short supply, our lives unspooling beneath us.

So much we cannot control … so much pain we cannot take away … so much wrong we cannot right … so many uncertainties we cannot know.

Our citizenship might be in heaven, gracious God, but our minds are firmly stuck on earthly things.

And so, we hurry about, grasping for a sense of control wherever we can—setting unreasonable goals for ourselves, and failing to be satisfied with anything less than perfection.  We work extra hours, draw tighter boundaries around our affections, and guard our hearts because we are already feeling vulnerable and afraid.

For all of our energy and effort, at the end of the day, so often we find that all we have accomplished is our own exhaustion and an increased distance between ourselves and the ones we love.  Our energy is flagging, our composure is faltering, and our faith is fraying.

Forgive us, patient God.  Have mercy on us and continue to gather us up.  As we lift before You this morning prayers for ourselves and for our world, lift also the illusion of control we have placed on our shoulders, that we might lay down our burdens and find rest in you.

We pray for persons around our world.  For the places where violence shatters any sense of security, where peace seems closer to a dream than a reality, where the best that can be hoped for is far from good enough.  Move in those places, persistent God, that your way might yet become clear, and your vision a much closer reality.

And we pray for those in our church and community who need your healing and reassuring care.  We lift to you those who are recovering from surgery and illness, and we ask your blessings upon those who are anticipating procedures and awaiting results.  Surround and uphold all of those who are grieving the loss of someone dear, a friend, a neighbor, and family member.  And we pray for those who are grieving the loss of meaningful employment or who are lamenting the losses that often accompany transitions in life.  You are our shelter in the storm, the consoling shoulder that is sometimes dampened by our tears, and the one who reminds us that in our vulnerability we discover the strongest force in the universe, your love, a love that sustains, comforts, and encourages.  We offer these prayers in the name of the one who descended to the grave and rose again that death might be defeated and that we might ascend to your glory—Jesus the Christ—who offered to us the gift of these words:

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.  Amen.

Blessing/Benediction

May the Christ who walks on wounded feet walk with you on the road.

May the Christ who serves with wounded hands stretch out your hands to serve.

May the Christ who loves with a wounded heart open your heart to love.

May you see the face of Christ in everyone you meet, and may everyone you meet see the face of Christ in you.  Amen.