Witness the Suffering God—Palm/Passion Sunday, Apr. 14, 2019

Luke 23: 1-56
James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2017).

Sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Perkasie, PA

As the youth have proclaimed today: Jesus didn’t avoid death. Jesus confronted and experienced pain, suffering and death. God faced it head on in order to blaze a path through it. God loves and yearns for all of God’s creation—starting from the bottom. And the cross of Christ symbolizes this truth most fully, that God has shared our pain. God knows our suffering.

A Roman Catholic priest from Peru named Gustavo Gutierrez—who spent his whole life working for justice for the poor in Latin America—writes this,

I hope my life tries to give testimony to the message of the Gospel, above all that God loves the world and loves those who are poorest within it.

And a phrase emerged from his work and from many others in the late 1960s that says, “God has a preferential option for the poor.” Maybe a statement like this could offend us who are not poor? Does this mean God doesn’t love us?

It’s actually the opposite. When we who are not poor confess that God loves the vulnerable what we are saying is this: because God loves the poor, because God is with all the suffering, this reveals that God is with—and loves—absolutely everyone.

The hymn we will soon sing dramatizes the ongoing hope the cross gives to those who suffer. It is a powerful and bitter-sweet song. It asks: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Maybe it seems a very silly question to us. Of course I wasn’t there. But if God is with the poorest—if God suffers with the suffering—then our answer is different… “Were you there” asks you to open your eyes to human cruelty in all times—to be a witness.

Now, this hymn of course is a traditional African American song. And it’s obvious that among many Black American Christians this question, “Were you there?” has deep resonances. The cross of our Christ is not so different from the lynching tree. And the lynching tree is not so very old.

From 1882 to 1901 in America there was an average of 150 lynching deaths a year. Black men and boys brutally killed, by mobs set on twisting justice, just like our Jesus was, as recently as even the 1980s.

So, as a reflection on the passion story, I just want to share with you a portion of a book by James Cone—a Black American theologian who died last year. He writes:

During my childhood, I heard a lot about the cross at Macedonia A.M.E. Church, were faith in Jesus was defined and celebrated. We sang about “Calvary,” and asked, “Were you there?”, “down at the cross,”…

The spirituals, gospel songs, and hymns focused on how Jesus achieved salvation for the least through his solidarity with them even unto death. There were more songs, sermons, prayers, and testimonies about the cross than any other theme. The cross was the foundation on which their faith was built.

In the mystery of God’s revelation, black Christians believed that 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.

Cone continues:

The more black people struggled against white supremacy, the more they found in the cross the spiritual power to resist the violence they so often suffered. They came to know…”at the deepest level… what it was like to be crucified… And more: that there were some things in this world that are worth being crucified for.” Just as Jesus did not deserve to suffer, they knew they did not deserve it; yet faith was the one thing white people could not control or take away. “In our collective outpourings of song and prayer, the fluid emotions of others make us feel the strength in ourselves…” They shouted, danced, clapped their hands and stomped their feet as they bore witness to the power of Jesus’ cross which had given them an identity far more meaningful than the harm that white supremacy could do them.

No matter whose songs they sang or what church they belonged to, they infused them with their own experience of suffering and transformed what they received into their own. [H]ymns [about the cross] did not sound or feel the same when blacks and whites sang them because their life experiences were so different. When black people were challenged by white supremacy, with the lynching tree staring down at them, where else would they turn for hope that their resistance would ultimately succeed?

Penniless, landless, jobless, and with no political and social power in society, what could black people do except to fight with cultural and religious power, and pray that God would support them in their struggle for freedom? Black people “stretched their hands to God,” because they had no where else to turn. Because of their experience of arbitrary violence, the cross was, and is, a redeeming and comforting image for many black Christians. If the God of Jesus’ cross is found among the least, the crucified people of the world, then God is also found among those lynched in American history.

This is a pretty bitter pill I’ve asked you to swallow.

Just as bitter as the violence done to Jesus. And yet, surprisingly and somehow, I tell you it’s also good news: because the cross is an image of God’s absolute inclusion. The people and the pain that we don’t really want to look upon—whether it’s systemic racism or our own personal pain and grief—it is all considered by God.

In the cross of Christ God reveals not only that we are forgiven, but that the heart of God suffers with us, has gone before us into death, and will open before us, too, a path of new and unimaginable life.