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He was killed by those representing the state. He was killed publicly. He was executed. Onlookers stood by helplessly. The method of execution was asphyxiation. “I can’t breathe.” Finally, he breathed his last.
It’s been said that history is written by the victors. What this means is that often the stories that are told and the way they are told are determined by those who come out on top in the conflicts of history. These stories become normative - an explanation for the way things are or even the only way things should be.
We are called to remember. What about those who die on the underside of history? Those who die before their time? Those who die in the teeth of injustice? 20th-century philosopher Herbert Marcuse came up with the idea of “dangerous memory.” These are subversive memories – memories that are meant to overturn unjust systems. It’s the system to which they are a danger. It’s why you see signs in the protests going on that say “Say their names” or “Remember their names”. George Floyd. Eric Garner. Breona Taylor. Their memories are kept alive and their stories are retold by those who struggle against injustice. They are subversive or dangerous because such memories keep alive the possibility that reality – societies, institutions – could be different than it is. They are dangerous, telling the stories or bringing them to mind is dangerous to the status quo that says things like “Well that’s just the way things are” or “What do you expect when you are known to police” or “Why can’t they just get over it?” or “Yes but what was he doing before the recording started?” Dangerous memories keep alive the possibility that things could be different… better somehow.
We are called to remember. We remember the name of George Floyd. We remember the name of Daniel Davis, the young man murdered on the grounds of Flemington Public School on July 19th, 2012. Not just a statistic. Not just another young black man killed on the street. A 27-year-old with a six-month-old daughter who’s around 9 now. We remember and name him.
“Do this to remember me,” said our Lord Christ Jesus. In Jesus, the idea of dangerous memory is given a whole new dimension. The death of Jesus not only opens up the possibility that something might change but is the act in history that changed everything. Let’s ask for God’s help as we remember this morning.
Jesus as a dangerous memory. Challenging the way things are. Providing not only a vision for how things might be but a means of how things will be. “In this way, you will remember the Lord’s death until he comes,” this is the mandate which we’re fulfilling this morning. Paul wrote to the people of the city of Corinth and said that when he came among them, he determined to know nothing but Christ and him crucified. Why is it this way? Why didn’t Paul say “I determined to know nothing among you but Christ risen or victorious.”? We’re not used to this sort of thing. We’ve heard accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Is it not all a bit macabre or even ghoulish, talking about death and blood?
We do this, we come to the cross, to signal the thing toward which we orient our lives. We do this because in doing so we are admitting that we are in need of something beyond ourselves. We are in need of something we could not and cannot do for ourselves. We will come to the table later and we will hear the invitation “Come not because any righteousness of your own gives you the right to come but because you need mercy and help.”
On the cross, mercy, and help comes our way.
On the cross, Jesus died for our sins. We sang “Amazing love how can it be, that you my King would die for me?” That’s right and good. Of course, it doesn’t start with our sins, or even us, as much as we so often like to make it all about us.
It starts with God’s great love for us. It starts with God’s goodness to us. Goodness which meant that God would insert Himself into our situation. God would effect a rescue mission.
God would suffer. God would die a shameful death. This is what this death was – shameful. Stripped of clothing. Dehumanised. Do you know that’s a classic interrogation technique? To strip a prisoner of their clothing? Why did it have to be the way? There’s no way to fully answer that or to fully know when we only know in part. We can know though that in suffering in this way Christ showed that there is no suffering from which God is absent. It is to know that God has not abandoned anyone to humiliation and final defeat. We are not called to turn our faces away from suffering, to pass by and keep our eyes averted. We face the cross and are reminded and are amazed and wonder that Christ would suffer in this way and we are reminded that there is no suffering from which God is absent and there is no suffering from which God cannot bring life. Even death.
Because on that day everything changed. The hinge of history. The day that changed everything.
It had been pointed to of course. The laws were given to the ancient Israelites about finding forgiveness through the shedding of blood (Lev 4). About a goat that would carry the sins of the people away into the wilderness (Lev 16). About a perfect lamb whose blood would ensure life.
Forgiveness and the way to life. Life eternal. Knowing God. Because we need forgiveness. Unless we don’t of course. We may think that we’re doing our best or not committing any crimes or trying to be kind or whatever it is that we tell ourselves.
If we were to stop and examine ourselves closely it might be another matter. We need to be examining ourselves right now for prejudice, for bias, for pre-judgement and preconceptions. Conrad didn’t call his book The Heart of Darkness for nothing. It can’t only be me, can it? When we stop and examine ourselves and see how even our noblest acts may be tinged with self-importance. “People will think so much of me when they see me doing this or hear about me doing this!” The prophet Isaiah spoke honestly of himself and his people when he said “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” It’s not always easy to see. Very often we come to church looking very respectable. I often say that I’m particularly blessed by gathering around the Lord’s table on a Saturday night during the OOTC season. It’s a group of people who tend to wear their need for grace a little more openly. It’s not unknown for someone to approach the table strung out or hungover with an acute awareness of their need for grace. Someone has described our situation like this:
“What does the Lord see when he looks at us? He doesn’t see us the way we try to present ourselves to others. When God looks at us, he does not see titles, bank accounts, club memberships, vacation homes, net worth. He sees a pathetic bunch of sinners trying to pretend that we are powerful and successful and masters of all we survey. He sees us as perpetually trying to divide up the world into good people and bad people, with ourselves on the good side, of course. The typical human being, and maybe especially those of us who go to church, have certain techniques for getting ourselves off the hook. We may agree that we are sinners of a sort, but not really. We think of a dividing line between slightly blemished people and really bad people… We think of ourselves as being on the right side of that dividing line between the moderately bad and the really bad.” Into this speaks the voice of the prophet. All our good deeds are as filthy rags.
We are all of us desperately trying to hold our trousers up. The story is told of a young George Orwell who had gone to Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War. One day he was in a Republican trench facing Nationalist forces in an opposing trench. He saw a man jump up and run along the lip of the opposing trench to deliver a message to an officer. The man was wearing nothing but a pair of trousers that didn’t fit him very well and as he ran along he was holding them up with one hand. This is what Orwell wrote, “I refrained from shooting him… I had come here to shoot at ‘fascists,’ but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a ‘fascist,’ he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting him.”
We are all of us frail and vulnerable, as much as we like to try and convince ourselves otherwise. When God sees us, God sees us for what we are.
And God loves us. God doesn’t leave us to our frailness and vulnerability and inability to extricate ourselves from sin’s hold on us. God gets down into our mess. Jesus experiences everything in life from the joys of childhood to the uncertainty and awkwardness of pre-adolescence to the rigors of adult life. From moments of celebration to moments of pain and shame. We need not face anything on our own.
Jesus faced something so that we would not have to face it. Jesus faced abandonment from God. The cry of dereliction is what the textbooks call it. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We don’t use the word derelict much. A deserted ship is known as derelict. We talk about dereliction of duties. It simply means abandoned. The cry of abandonment. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus who knew no sin became sin for us. This was not something God did to Jesus, it is something our triune God, Father Son, and Holy Spirit does for us. Even in these moments of abandonment, Jesus calls out to “his” God, his Father. Was Jesus really abandoned by God? It seems so. Who can say for sure how that happens in the mystery of the Trinity? Did God need to turn God’s face away as Jesus became sin for us? Quite possibly. How does this work in the wonder of our Triune God? I don’t know. What I will say for sure is that Jesus experienced what it was like to be derelict, abandoned, cut off from God.
He died for our sins so that we would never have to know that it means to be abandoned by God. So that we could know that no place, no person is God forsaken.
While our redemption, our being brought back to God in Christ has an individual meaning and significance, it doesn’t end there. When we look at the cross and remember Christ’s death until he comes we remember that in Christ God was reconciling all things to himself. That Christ’s death is for the renewal of all things, for the healing of the nations. That we who follow him are called not just to remember and not just to look forward to that day when we’ll hear God’s voice saying “Look I am making all things new,” but that we are called to make this known in our deeds and in our words. Someone has said that “God calls a people into discipleship, formation by Jesus, in order to send it out as an apostolic witness with that flame of the Spirit ignited on each head.”
And when things look quite different than this reality to which we bear witness, when it seems that systems and forces at work in our world threaten to overwhelm, we remember at the cross that Christ has disarmed the principalities and powers. They are disarmed but still at large. Unseen forces that work against the purposes of God. They’re inherent in any system. It could be an “ism”. Racism. Obviously working against the purposes of God and humankind being made in God’s image and the command to love God and neighbour. Any system can be subject to such God-opposing forces, even religion. It could be something like money or tradition. To remember Christ’s death and what Christ has done on the cross is to pledge our allegiance to him, to recognize that systems in our fallen world are fallen. That money, while good for facilitating trade and exchange can become devouring. That even something as seemingly benign as tradition – things that are passed on from parents to children which can be so good – can be something that separates and divides us. Christ has disarmed the principalities and powers but they still exist. As we remember his death and look forward to his return, we are called to go out in the meantime and demonstrate and proclaim the kind of Kingdom to which our allegiance is pledged – a Kingdom founded on the self-giving love of Christ. A Kingdom not based on military might or economic might or making sure that we are the victors that get to write history.
Because the victory is in Christ. Let us, particularly in these days, be a people who are possessors and enactors of the dangerous memory of Christ Jesus. May this be true for us all this day, and every day. Amen