View print-optimized version | View pdf of bulletin

Sunday, October 5, 2008 | 8:00 a.m.
World Communion Sunday

The Dagger and the Cross

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 19:7–14
Exodus 20:1–6
Matthew 21:33–44

Come to the table not because you are strong,
but because you understand something of your own weakness.
Come to the table not because you feel worthy,
but because you have a sense of your own unworthiness;
come not because you love God a lot,
but because you love God a little
and want to learn to love God more.

from the Church of Scotland

I was not quite six years old when I discovered the world to be a place where violence and death could occur. Around the corner of the street in Brooklyn, New York, where I lived at the time, was the neighborhood candy store and ice cream parlor, presided over by its owner, Ida Schwartz, a kind, grandmotherly woman in her sixties, known by all of us youngsters for giving us extra candy or a scoop of ice cream whenever we were lucky enough to cajole from our parents a few pennies or an occasional nickel or dime. I had just rounded the corner when I saw Ida, who was crossing the street, struck by a speeding delivery truck. She was thrown into the air and landed with a thud on the street at the exact moment that the right front wheel of the truck ran over her head, crushing it into a bloody pulp. In a heartbeat, in a literal New York minute, her life was snuffed out, as I stood horrified and paralyzed with terror. I have never forgotten that awful and awesome scene.

That we live in a world saturated with violence is evident. It was a mere thirteen years after I witnessed the violent death of Ida Schwartz that I once again stood transfixed in horror before the boxcars laden with the corpses of her Jewish compatriots who had been gunned down by the Nazi guards at the concentration camp in Dachau, Germany, in 1945, just before we liberated it.

Violence has many faces and forms. There is the violence of neglect, of abuse, of hunger and poverty, of torture, of exploitation, of exclusion, of murder, of language, of accident, of natural disaster, of capital punishment (the Holocaust was capital punishment writ large), and the violence of war. Indeed, the benign description of how creation began that is found in the first two chapters of Genesis is in sharp contrast to the violent birth of the universe described by the Big Bang theory of creation. Moreover, no one acquainted with church history can rightfully ignore the church’s complicity in violence in the world over time. Radically militant extremists in some of the world’s religions, who think destroying human life and property is a divine mandate and a political responsibility, are part of the reason given by the likes of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher, and others for their verbally violent and mocking attacks upon religion in general and Christianity in particular. Furthermore, one cannot read the Bible without being struck by the many references to violence and images of violence contained in scripture and, in some instances, attributed to God by scripture.

Which brings me to the Gospel of Matthew and the parable Jesus told that is recorded in the twenty-first chapter. It’s a pretty straightforward tale told by Jesus in the context of his authority being questioned by the religious leaders in Jerusalem. The landowner of a vineyard leases it to tenants to tend while he leaves town. (Absentee landlords have never been too popular.) At harvest time, the landlord twice sends his slaves to collect the produce from the tenants. The tenants beat them up, resulting in at least one death. Finally, the landowner sends his son, thinking that the tenants would not dare do him any harm. But he is wrong: the tenants kill the son also. Jesus then poses the question as to what the landowner will do to the tenants when he himself arrives on the scene. His hearers take the bait and conclude that the landowner would put the wicked tenants to a miserable death and turn the vineyard over to new tenants, who would do the right thing.

This was the second of two parables Jesus told that constitute a stinging rebuke of the religious leaders of the day. In the first one, Jesus denounces those who make a pretense of faith but never translate or transform their profession of faith into deeds of moral obedience to God’s law of justice and peace. In this parable, Jesus warns that such pretense and hypocrisy will result in the blessing being taken away from them and conferred upon those who receive the one God has sent embodying the blessing of God’s love and grace. In a word, Jesus was stating that God’s claim upon our lives is total.

The message of this story, told against the backdrop of the anticipated death of Jesus by one of the most violent forms of execution known then—or now, for that matter—poses a harsh reality. It reminds us that our decisions have consequences and that when we decide to act out of violence, violence will in some way inevitably be the consequence. This parable and Jesus’ commentary on it are full of references to violence. Consider their language and the several words that reflect or allude to violence: seized, beat, kill, stone, put to a miserable death, broken to pieces, crush. Interestingly, none of the several biblical commentaries I consulted took note of the language of violence in the story Jesus told or in his commentary on the story. There seems to be a disconnect between these references to violence and the notion, in this case, that God so loved the world that God sent the Son to the world to redeem it. It is this contradiction between the language of violence in the service of love and the language of love itself that confuses us, even as we are bewildered, if we take the time to notice, of the contradictions within ourselves created by the presence within us at the same time of feelings of both love and hate, faith and fear, fear and courage, trust and doubt, hope and despair, joy and sorrow. It was my experiences in World War II, and particularly what I saw and felt at Dachau, that began to make me aware that there is often a very thin line between the beast in us and the beast in other people. Hitler, you may recall, apparently had a strong fondness for pets and little children, though he seemed to have no qualms of conscience or little trouble seeing to the slaughter of millions of people.

In a book examining Christian pacifism, published in 1950, just five years after the war ended, Culbert G. Rutenber, then professor of the philosophy of religion at Eastern Baptist Seminary in Philadelphia, recounts a story from historian John Addington Symonds’ book Renaissance Period in Italy. It took place in a little country town of Lombardy. Symonds was poking around an antique shop when the proprietor took from the wall a wooden crucifix and handed it to him. It was about twenty inches long, and the body of Christ was roughly carved in the wood with splashes of red paint in the appropriate places on hands, feet, and side. A small steel knob was fixed into the back between the arms, which when pressed released a spring that allowed the upper and lower parts of the crucifix to come apart. Holding the top part, Symonds slowly withdrew a small steel dagger that was concealed in the thickness of the wood behind the body of the crucified Christ. The dagger and the cross; the cross and the dagger: the one an instrument of death and the other a symbol of life, all wrapped up in one package. (The title of Rutenber’s book, of course, was The Dagger and the Cross.)

Yet both were symbols of violence. The one of the violence of retribution and revenge, for even gratuitous violence can be traced to the felt need to get even. And the cross, a symbol of redemptive violence, the violence of self-sacrificial and forgiving love and a reminder that such love is risky business and costly. What psychiatrist Karl Menninger referred to as “the urge to punish” is both powerful and pervasive. It is as if it were part of our DNA as human beings. If in some way I am violated, my initial reaction is to violate in return. I am becoming more and more convinced that the cry for justice is often a thinly veiled cry for retaliation. The justice of which the Bible speaks is the justice of righteousness, of rightness in God’s sight, whereas our demand for justice often is the demand for revenge, for punishment that may have less to do with fairness than it has to do with our own need for violence. Remember my comment about the beast in us and the beast in others.

Which brings me and us finally to the table before us this morning. The Lord’s Table, around which Christians all over the world gather on this World Communion Sunday. We would not be doing this today, or anytime we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, were it not for the presence of violence in the world. Jesus died as a result of an act of violence, terrible and cruel violence. And in Christ God identifies with all who suffer from the violence of others, violence in any form that demeans, dehumanizes, and destroys life. In Christ, God suffers the violence that violates any human being. Though this side of the resurrection of Jesus, it is perhaps understandable that we sanitize the sacrament by covering the table with a white cloth and setting the table with a shiny silver service or even with colorful pottery. But the table itself symbolizes the violence that killed Christ. Marcus Borg reminded a group of us the other night that Jesus was killed because he stood up against the dominance-oriented structure of a society in which the rich, elite, and politically powerful oppressed and exploited and violated the poor and the weak. The table calls us as individuals and as the church, the body of Christ in the world, to distance ourselves from triumphalism, from preoccupation with success, from our drivenness to outdo one another, from our obsession with size and numbers, from our addiction to celebrity greatness, and from our fantasies of power—in a word, from the values of a culture that has so often served as the locus of our identity and obscured our vision of our purpose in life as children of God and of the nature and purpose of the church and her ministry in the world.

If, as we believe, this sacrament is the sacrament of God’s forgiving grace, then it is important for us to realize that grace, as a former colleague of mine observed, is not a blue-eyed blonde. It was then, and sometimes can be now, ugly and costly. It involves suffering for the sake of others, suffering that sometimes takes the form of a body horribly broken, as the bread is broken and chewed (both acts of violence, if you will), and of blood poured out in profusion. Grace, forgiving grace, is not always pretty. But I know of no other alternative to the violence in the world that in the long run could serve as something of an antidote to that violence than that of the alchemy, indeed the violence, of forgiveness. I say violence because to forgive as Jesus taught by his life and by his death is a radically different way of responding to violence and requires a wrenching turnaround from our tendency toward retaliation and revenge, when once we decide no longer to organize our lives around whatever hurt, real or imaginary, we have experienced and our hate about that hurt.

In his book Faith Is the Answer, Norman Vincent Peale, for many years the distinguished pastor of the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, tells of a Dutch sea captain who visited the church on a Sunday morning in May 1940. He had just left the city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands a few days before. The city lay in ruins. His ship was burned at the dock. Many had been killed. All attempts to contact his wife and child had failed. He did not know whether they were alive or dead. Dr. Peale asked him to offer a prayer at dinner after the worship service. This was his prayer:

O God, help me not to hate. Give your guidance in thought, speech, and action to those who rule over the countries in war. God, watch over my wife and boy. Before my wife was mine, she belonged to you, Lord; before my boy came to me, he was yours, Father. They still are. They are in your hands. I trust you. May your will be done.

I pray for Hitler. God, guide Hitler. He has great power over many lives. You can change his heart. God, help me not to hate Hitler. Help me to forgive Hitler. Help me to mean that, O God.

I wonder if we can hear the echo of another man’s words, the one who presides at this table and who, from the cross of violence on which he died, prayed, “Father, forgive them”? Amen.