March 5, 2017 – 1st Sunday in Lent
Since January we’ve been jumping around a bit in the gospel of Matthew. We heard the story of Jesus’ baptism and how he called people to follow him. Then for several weeks we heard part of Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount. Now we drop back to the story that comes immediately after Jesus’ baptism and before he begins to call disciples to join him in ministry.
You remember, Jesus goes out to the wilderness to meet his cousin John who is at the Jordan River calling people to repent and be baptized. Jesus is baptized and as when he emerges from the river, a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It’s a declaration for everyone to hear. It’s an announcement of Jesus’ identity.
In the very next verse, which is chapter 4, verse 1, the Spirit leads Jesus to be tested. Where Jesus’ baptism was a declaration of his identity, this story is one of testing Jesus’ identity. In the wilderness, Jesus meets up with the devil, which the NRSV also describes as “the tempter” or Satan. Now, lest you start conjuring up a guy with red horns and a long tail, “Satan” in the New Testament represents all that opposes the will of God. Satan is not necessarily a specific being but “all those who obstruct and resist what God intends for human life.”[i] In Greek, the word we translate “devil” is from a word that describes one who “attacks, misleads, deceives, diverts, discredits, or slanders.”[ii] It is clear the devil wants to “mislead Jesus about the meaning” of being the beloved Son of God and seeks to distract Jesus from the “purposes of God.”[iii]
One scholar says the overarching temptation Jesus faces in this story is to go for power.[iv] The self-serving aggrandizing kind of power that wants to crush everything in its way. The kind of power that wants to be something it is not. Another person writing about this story says the primary temptation is “to be someone other than who God calls us to be.”[v]
This Lent we are inviting everyone to read James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree to accompany our journey through this season as we get ready to enter the mystery of Easter. There is still time to sign up for a small group to talk about the book with others. You can find the meeting dates and locations in the bulletin plus a sign up sheet.
Robert Michael Franklin, former President of Morehouse College wrote, “This book will upset your equilibrium in all the best ways, inviting you to think, challenging you to act.”
In the introduction to the book, James Cone says, “I write [this book] in order to start a conversation so we can explore the many ways to heal the deep wounds lynching has inflicted upon us…I offer my reflections because I believe that the cross placed alongside the lynching tree can help us to see Jesus in America in a new light, and thereby empower people who claim to follow him to take a stand against white supremacy and every kind of injustice.”[vi]
As I was reading about where the word we translate “devil” comes from—that it means one who “attacks, misleads, deceives, diverts, discredits, or slanders”[vii] I thought about how lynching and the culture that supported lynching, including Christian culture, is of the devil. It misleads, attacks, slanders, and lies about the belovedness of African Americans and about the purposes of God.
Just like history has downplayed the brutality and torture of slavery and ignored the financial exploitation of black bodies that drove the economic engine of our country, we have also minimized the terror of lynching. I think because it is so horrific. For white people, how can we face ourselves as descendants of this legacy? James Cone writes, “Black people know something about terror [and terrorism—connecting with our collective current fear of terrorism—] because we have been dealing with legal and extralegal white terror for several centuries. Nothing was more terrifying than the lynching tree.”[viii]
One of the connections James Cone makes between the lynching tree and the cross is that in the first century, “crucifixion was the particular form of execution reserved by the Roman Empire for insurrectionists and rebels.” It was used by the Empire to keep people in their place. “It was a public spectacle accompanied by torture and shame—one of the most humiliating and painful deaths ever devised by human beings.”[ix] Just like lynching.
For many Black Christians, “just knowing that Jesus went through an experience of suffering in a manner similar to theirs gave them faith that God was with them, even in suffering on lynching trees, just as God was present with Jesus in suffering on the cross.”[x] Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, says the spiritual. Nobody knows my sorrow but Jesus.
Many of us—especially mainline Protestants—are a little bit queasy talking about Jesus’ death on the cross. We prefer to talk about the life of Jesus rather than his death. But for people who are experiencing, or have experienced great suffering, there can be a deep solace in knowing that Jesus experienced suffering too—and that God was with Jesus in his suffering and so too is God with those who suffer.
Now suffering is complicated in the Christian tradition. Throughout our history, people have been told to stay in their suffering because God will reward them, or that suffering is a spiritual practice. People have sometimes viewed the suffering of others as what God intends or what they deserve. And all of that has led only to more suffering. Suffering for the sake of suffering is not a good thing and I don’t believe it is what God intends. But the hard reality is that life comes with suffering. The experience of being human includes suffering. It doesn’t come equally; some get more of it than others. Some suffering is random—like cancer or a miscarriage—and some suffering arises because of the brokenness and sin of people—like racism and bullying.
When Mark, Katherine, Phillip and I were talking about our Lent preaching series and James Cone’s book, Phillip noted that in our current Presbyterian hymnal there is no section for the cross in the topical index. In the African American Heritage hymnal there are three sections of hymns about the cross in the topical index: the cross of Jesus, the cross of the believer, and the cross and salvation. Now the Glory to God hymnal does have hymns about the cross but they’re not categorized in the same way as in the African American Heritage hymnal. That doesn’t prove anything but it does perhaps recognize that the cross has different meanings and significance to different communities of people depending on our experiences of the world.
James Cone, in a conversation with Bill Moyers, said, “The cross is victory out of defeat…And the lynching tree is transcendent of defeat. And that’s why the cross and the lynching tree belong together…Christians can’t understand what’s going on at the cross until they see it through the image of a lynching tree.”[xi]
I know that doesn’t wrap it up or explain it all. It probably leaves you with more questions—and even some anxiety and discomfort. There’s more to say about this and we have more weeks in Lent to ponder the cross through the image of the lynching tree—and we have more weeks in Lent to open ourselves to be changed to become more of the people God has created us—all of us—to be and to continuing aligning our lives with the purposes of God.
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[i] Thomas G. Long, Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 37.
[ii] Robert A. Bryant, “Exegetical Perspective: Matthew 4.1-11,” Feasting on the Word, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), Year A, Vol 2, 47.
[iv] Douglas John Hall, “Theological Perspective: Matthew 4.1-11,” Feasting on the Word, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), Year A, Vol 2, 44.
[v] Long, 37.
[vi] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011, xix.
[vii] Robert A. Bryant, “Exegetical Perspective: Matthew 4.1-11,” Feasting on the Word, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010) Year A, Vol 2, 47.
[viii] Cone, xix.
[ix] Ibid., 1-2.
[x] Ibid., 22.
accessed 4 March 2017.