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What Am I Doing? A Year-End Reflection & Confession

The Last Sunday after Pentecost (RCL, Year C, Proper 29)

November 21, 2010

The Reverend Paul Roberts Abernathy, Rector

On this last Sunday of the Pentecost season, the Sunday before the commencement of Advent and a new church year, we celebrate the Kingship or, more inclusively, the kin_dom[1] leadership of Jesus. A position of honor granted by his followers who for two millennia have understood that Jesus does not lead by force of violence, but through the influence of service. This explains why today we read from one of the accounts of his death; in its apparent weakness of submission, actually an expression of strength of one being true to his mission of love and justice, being willing “to march into hell for a heavenly cause.”

             In reflecting on this scripture, I was drawn particularly to those strange words of Jesus, who by a friend, was betrayed, by another, denied, on false charges, arrested, at a fixed trial, convicted, and then crucified. Words of prayer spoken, according to the Greek, continuously, on behalf of those who were killing him: “Father, forgive them.”[2]

             A part of me is inspired. Jesus, throughout his ministry, as I read his story, embodied compassion. Forgiveness seemed to be his very nature, even, it is not impossible for me to imagine, in his dying; the utter agony of it summoning, demanding out his depths the most intensely real expression of who he was. And as Jesus is my image of God and authentic humanness, I pray that, in the last conscious moment of my living, I, like Jesus, may utter words of mercy, so to depart in peace.

 Another part of me is puzzled, troubled by these words. How could Jesus forgive his murderers? I confess to great difficulty forgiving those who hurt me, none of whom as yet has sought to kill me. So, Jesus’ absolution of his tormentors feels too facile and too far above my human experience.

 Still another part of me can see both sides, indeed, can be in both places: inspired and troubled.

 All that said and aside, the strangest words are these: “They do not know what they are doing”?

 How could they – the disciples who betrayed, denied, and deserted Jesus, the religious and political authorities who conspired to kill Jesus, the crowd that scorned Jesus, the soldiers who crucified Jesus – not know what they were doing?

 Putting myself in a merciful mood, I can try to make a sympathetic case…

 The disciples, fearing capture, ran away, taking flight on the wings of self-preservation. Perhaps Jesus miraculously would escape or, making a strong case for his innocence, would be released. It didn’t happen. But how could the disciples have known?

 The authorities, convinced that Jesus was a threat to the status quo (and he was!), did the responsible thing, fulfilling their obligation to preserve the social order. Jesus, in proclaiming the nearness of God, practiced justice and compassion, values at the heart of all social order. Did the authorities misunderstand him and, in ignorance, act? If so, then they didn’t know.

The crowd, overcome by a mob-mentality, a tsunami wave of energy and emotion, all capacity for individual thought and action lost, thus, no longer rational, didn't know.

 The soldiers, following orders, did their job; perhaps, having officiated over countless crucifixions, inured to suffering, especially of criminals, like Jesus. The authorities said so. That’s all that the soldiers needed to know.

 However, at a deeper level of human being, none of this answers my question: How could they not know what they were doing?

 The disciples knew that Jesus was in trouble; the kind that leads to death. The authorities couldn’t all have been of one mind about the danger Jesus posed. Even if we presume that a form of “group-think” prevailed, surely some of them questioned his guilt. At least one person in the crowd had to be unaffected, uninfected by the venom aimed at Jesus. At least one soldier had to have had second thoughts, doubts about the legitimacy of the death sentence. Or so I’d like to believe. And if so, then they, at least, some of them, did know!

 But this, too, at a still deeper level of human being, doesn’t answer my question: How could they not know? This is true given that demonstrable human reality: I do not and can never know fully what I’m doing.

 I think and feel, speak and act always in a given moment, the consequences of which always follow and all of which, in any given moment, I cannot know.

 Even more, I think and feel, speak and act always within larger contexts, most of which, most of the time are outside of my control. My cultural context, vast and complex. My relational contexts, involving others, you who have hearts, minds, and wills of your own. My institutional contexts, both secular and sacred, where, generally, others have established the rules and regulations, the rites and rituals. Hence, even when I know what I want to do, indeed, should do (as in doing “the right thing”) I may not be able to do it. And, even when I, with intention, resources, and opportunity, am able to do “it”, it may not be at all clear what “it” is. Hence, I always am aware of that deeply discomfiting, disturbing sense that I honestly don’t know what I’m doing.

 Maybe that’s the point. None of us, neither them (the disciples, the authorities, the crowd, the soldiers) nor us, knows what we are doing. Therefore, we all need forgiveness. All of the time. If that’s true, then forgiveness must come from a deep place, an eternal reservoir. Hence, Jesus prays, Father, forgive them.” The enormity of the need demands an appeal to something, anything bigger than we are. This was true, apparently, even for Jesus. Jesus, in the most wretched place imaginable, that state of being conscious of his innocent suffering and dying, needed to call on something bigger than himself to grant forgiveness to the guilty perpetrators of his senseless murder. Not even Jesus had it in him to do it alone. So, he cried out, Abba (Father), forgive them.”

 If this was true for Jesus, then, on this Sunday marking the close of one church year and the commencement of the next, it is the heart of the gospel, the good news. We do not know what we are doing. Therefore, we know that we need forgiveness, ours for others and others for us. We also know of limits of our mercy. Therefore, we know that we need power greater than our own. As Jesus prayed, so let us pray that faithfully, frequently calling, indeed, crying out to that power – most days, most times – will be enough.

“Kin_dom”, being less monarchical and hierarchical and more relational and inclusive, is my chosen substitute for “kingdom”.

[2] The gospel passage appointed for the day is Luke 23.33-43.

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