Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Called to misery

I direct the 5th through 8th grade choirs at a Lutheran grade school. Last week we rehearsed music for Passion Sunday, including Psalm 31, the Psalm appointed for the day. Instead of having all the children muddle through the verses together, verses that contained some pretty big words for fifth graders, I decided to assign three of the four choir verses to soloists—to eighth graders with strong voices and good vocabularies.

So there we were, in junior high choir, rehearsing the antiphon that would precede the psalm and the psalm itself. I called out names as we sang the psalm, asking first one student, then another to sing by themselves. At verse 11, I called on Forrest.

Forrest is the backbone of my junior high baritone section—a half-dozen twelve, thirteen, and fourteen-year-old boys with changed and changing voices. Forrest is a talented vocalist and a good musician. He’s also got, well, rather a lively personality. I don’t think he can walk the length of the upstairs hall without doing something goofy—especially if his friends are watching.

The part of Psalm 31 that we sing on Palm Sunday is all about misery. Another more serious member of the choir sang:

Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am in trouble;
my eye is consumed with sorrow, and also my throat and my belly.

The choir chanted the congregational verse together, then Forrest sang:

I have become a reproach to all my enemies and even to my neighbors,
a dismay to those of my acquaintance;
when they see me in the street they avoid me.

He finished, and the room went up for grabs—laughter, hoots, jeers. Maybe you’re a little too far removed from junior high and adolescence to appreciate why, so let me explain.

It was as if Forrest had been tricked into saying some pretty awful things about himself—using words from the Bible. It was an uncomfortable shock—more for his classmates, I think, than for him. Forrest was focused on getting through the long phrases. His peers heard him—and the psalmist—give voice to an adolescent’s worst nightmare. If you were to paraphrase the verse for them it might go something likes this.

I have become the person that nobody likes, not my friends, not my enemies.
I am a miserable human being, so unattractive that nobody will be my friend.
When people see me on the street, they cross to the other side.

The junior high students laughed at Forrest, because of his surprise humiliation and exposure to ridicule, but they also laughed because they recognized their own fears and insecurities. When you’re fourteen and don’t have a lot of self-control, that shock of recognition may bring laughter. If they had been singing those words as a group, they probably would not have taken them so personally. But put the words of pain and embarrassment in the mouth of one representative class member—one who usually finds it hard to be serious—and the shame that the psalmist was describing was laid plain before them, right there in the room.

Last Sunday, we understood the words of Psalm 31 as a description of Jesus’s shame and humiliation, which was described more explicitly in this morning’s reading.

“Are you the King of the Jews?” asks Pilate. “You say so,” says Jesus, and he says no more. He does not defend himself. He does not explain that he is king of all things everywhere, yet different from any king ever seen on earth. Pilate offers the crowd a choice between releasing Jesus Barabbas—literally, Jesus, son of the father—and Jesus of Nazareth, and the crowd calls for Barabbas to be let go and the Messiah, son of God, to be crucified. Jesus is flogged. The soldiers of the guard put a royal robe on him and a makeshift crown of thorns. They mock this king, as he faces his own death. They parade him through the streets of Jerusalem, nail him to the cross, and at the foot of the cross, they throw dice to see who gets his clothes.

What was Jesus, our brother, thinking during all of this? What kind of thought bubble do we picture floating over Jesus’ head?

“If only they knew I’m doing this all for them.”


“We’ll see whose mocking who when I burst out of the tomb on Sunday morning.”

Sometimes we think about Jesus’ Passion that way. We focus on the divine Christ on the cross, on God having a plan that was much bigger than that of the chief priests and the Roman governor. We like to be in the know about Christ’s triumph over death. This gives us a certain confidence in the unsettling painful, embarrassing moments of Holy Week—like teens taking refuge in their pop culture coolness.

But when Jesus stood before Pilate, he was human, and suffered as a human. He did not – could not?—defend himself before Pilate. He was too weak or too shaky to carry his own cross. He was rejected by his own people, deserted by his disciples, and forsaken, it seemed, by God himself. What was he thinking? From Psalm 31:

I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind
I am as useless as a broken pot.

Who wants to identify with someone in that miserable state? Who wants to be him?

Yet shame and humiliation and suffering come to all of us, because that’s the way life is, and because we are so good at taking what’s bad in our lives and making it into something worse. We are in that miserable state, and Jesus has come to share it with us.

Recognizing that can make us uncomfortable. We may not laugh with the shock, the way the junior high students laughed at Forrest, but we may try to look the other way, try to distance ourselves from such misery.

But if we keep our eyes on that suffering and dying servant, we see a new kingdom coming into being, a kingdom in which the meek inherit the earth and the last are first, a kingdom in which caring for the least of his brothers and sisters is caring for Jesus.

He calls us to his misery, to take up that cross and follow.

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