Killing Jesus

 

Rev. Timothy B. Tutt, Senior Minister
Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ
Bethesda, Maryland

 Palm Sunday
March 29, 2015
10:00 AM

 “Killing Jesus”

 Dear Mother, the soldier wrote…

Dear Mother, I am writing because today I really miss you. It’s hard to be so far from home. And it’s funny the things I miss.  I miss the tomato plants that grow outside the door to our house.  I miss the sauce you made out of the tomatoes.  I miss the bread you bake and the way you would spread the tomato sauce on the bread.  I’ve been gone from home for two years, and I can still taste the bread if I close my eyes and think about it. I miss the song you sang to my brother and me when we were little. I miss the way my brothers picked on me.  I would cry, and they would laugh and call me a baby.  Maybe I joined the Army to prove that I was tough.  Maybe I joined the Army to bring glory to the nation.  Maybe I joined the Army to leave home and see the world.  But I miss home.  Being a soldier is not easy.  There is no easy way to say this, Mother.  Today I killed man.  Three men actually.  Prisoners. I was just responsible for one of them.  He was some kind of religious leader, I think. They said he was a terrorist, an enemy of the state.  He was almost dead when they brought him to us.  My job was to tie him to a pole, then to nail his hands and feet to it.  Then I had to stand guard.  I don’t know what the guy did wrong. Maybe nothing, for all I know.  I just did my job.  And I killed him.  It takes a while for a person to die of crucifixion.  I stood there all afternoon, just watching him die.  It was hot.  A small crowd gathered around. Some of his friends, I guess, mainly women. I’m pretty sure that one of the women was his mother.  And she just stood there and cried.  At one point I heard her singing, and I swear, it sounded just like the song you sang to us when we were little.  I couldn’t help myself, I started to cry.  I could hear you singing, and I could smell your bread baking and taste the tomato sauce.  And I cried, just like the baby my brothers said I was. I pretended it was sweat in my eyes.  But I think the man on the cross saw me crying.  This sounds crazy, but I think he told me that it would be okay.  I don’t even speak his language and it was like he was forgiving me.  Later in the day, my sergeant told me to stick my spear in the man’s side to make sure he was dead. He was.  The man’s friends took his body down.  I watched for a while.  Then I went over behind a little hill and threw up.  I vomited my guts up.  I miss home, mother. I miss you and my brothers and the tomatoes from our garden and the bread you baked.  I miss you.  Until we meet again, Your Son.

And the young soldier folded up his letter, sealed it, made his way to the quartermaster who oversaw the mail for the legion stationed in Jerusalem, and asked that the letter be sent to his family who lived in a little village not far from Rome.

And then, the young soldier who had been ordered to kill Jesus of Nazareth went out and hanged himself from a tree.

I don’t know that that is exactly how the story happened, but it could be. 

This is Holy Week. The stories and traditions of our faith say that on this day, Palm Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  The crowds cheered him, using the words from an old psalm. “Hosannah,” they sang.  “Hosannah,” means, “Save us.”

The next day, according to some versions of the story, Jesus went to the Temple in Jerusalem.  He saw powerful religious and political leaders charging money to worship God.  He saw poor people being extorted, used, and oppressed.  So, the story says, he turned over the tables with the cash boxes.  “This Temple, this system cannot stand,” Jesus said.

And the authorities branded him a troublemaker.  They plotted to kill him.

On Thursday of this week, as he was eating the traditional Passover meal with disciples, they sent troops to arrest him, to toss him into jail.

And the in dark of the night, as Thursday turned to Friday, the religious leaders held a hasty trial, convened a kangaroo court, declared Jesus guilty of blasphemy and decided he should be put to death.

On Friday morning of this week, they sent Jesus to the Roman governor.  The accusers followed to say that Jesus was stirring up the people, perverting the nation.  And the governor reluctantly agreed that he should be put to death.  They turned him over to the Roman Army.

That is where our soldier enters the story.  The truth is we don’t know the soldier’s name.  We don’t know that he came from a small village outside Rome.  We don’t know that he missed his mother’s home-baked bread or her lullabies.  But the scriptures of our faith do tell us that someone, some soldier in the army of Rome, crucified Jesus. 

From what we can imagine of Roman occupation and crucifixion, we can say that some soldier, far from home, following the orders of an empire that proclaimed it itself to be the bringer of peace, killed Jesus.

And we know that right now there are 1,429,000 men and women serving in the United States military, many of who are asked, at this very moment, to live in places far from home.

And we know that there are something like 200,000 people serving in the various units that make up the armed forces of ISIS.

And we know that there are 6,900,000 people serving in the Chinese army.   And over a million in India, and 760,000 in Russia.

And we know that there are terrible stories of pain and tragedy and grief due to that military service.

And I worry that the church has its head stuck in the sand.  I worry that many men and women of the armed forces of this nation and of other nations are suffering terribly and the church is not paying attention.

Brite Divinity School at TCU is a very fine school of theology doing creative work in many areas.  One of the programs they have started at Brite is the Soul Repair Center.  This Center is devoted to understanding moral injury.  Moral injury is defined as “a complex wound of the soul.”  Moral injury is when a person reflects on the choices he or she has made in a life-threatening situations, choices that pose ethical quandaries -- especially, for example, in war.  And the person feels that or she failed or made the wrong choice.  A soldier who may have killed another person or violated the rules of engagement.  A soldier who witnessed death or failed to prevent harm or feels guilty about surviving.  Unresolved trauma, unmanageable grief, or feeling betrayed by persons in authority can cause moral injury.

I don’t know that the soldier who killed Jesus felt morally injured.  I don’t know that the soldier who killed Jesus went out and committed suicide.  But I do know that when given a safe place to speak, many of the women and men of today’s armed forces are expressing tremendous pain.  And I know that the suicide rates of today’s armed forces are staggering: Veterans account for only 7% of the U.S. population, yet they account for 20% of all suicides in the United States. Veterans are surviving in war, then coming home and taking their own lives in terrible numbers.  A CNN story said that in 2013, the average number of veteran suicides was twenty two per day.

The stories of our faith say that the crowd on that first Palm Sunday cried, “Hosannah.” As I said, the word, “Hosannah means, “Save us.” 

That needs to be our cry on this Palm Sunday as well, “Save us.”

Our focus during Lent has been on war and peace, a small effort for us to engage the world around us with a faithful Christian witness.  Next month is the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. 

In the 150 years since the end of the Civil War, the United States has been at war or has been occupying another nation for 106 years.  For 106 of the last 150 years we have been at war with or occupying another nation – the Comanche Nation, the Cheyenne, the Phillipines, twenty year of occupation in Haiti, the world wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, all the way to airstrike in Tiqrit, Iraq, this past week.

What does that to the soul of a nation?  Not even counting the number of people dead, what does that do the souls of those who live when they are asked to kill others?

One of my favorite people in the world is retired Air Force colonel who lives in Texas.  He is kind and gentle and open-minded and brave and stubborn and accepting.  And he was fighter pilot. He flew missions in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. 

Sitting on folding chairs in a church fellowship hall, when I was quite young and he was far ahead in years, he told me this story:  During World War II, he flew missions over Germany.  His assignment was to keep a certain roadway clear of German troop transports.  His job was to shoot military vehicles on that road.  One day he was flying, doing his job, when, down on the road, he saw a bus of some sort.  As he swooped down toward the road, the bus driver saw him in plane, and the driver tried to pull the bus under a bridge.  In the kind of split-second decision-making that war demanded of him, my friend, the pilot, opened fire on that bus. That is what he was told to do. He was a good shot.  He hit the bus.  He was flying low enough to see the bus.  And just as he was about to roar past it, he thought he saw the bus was not full of soldiers, but full of school children.

The truth is, he will never know.  Flying at 350 miles per hour, who know what he saw?

But sitting in that church fellowship hall sixty years after that terrible day, he had tears in his eyes as he considered what might have been.  Several times, during the years of conversation I had with him, he would come back to that story and to the terrible questions, to the moral injury of that moment.  Had he opened fire on a bus full of schoolchildren?  Could God forgive him if he had?

I am a pacifist.  I do not believe there is ever a reason to kill another human. 

I am father and a husband.  I do not want anyone to kill anyone else’s children and spouse, because I do not want anyone to kill my children and spouse.

I am a voting participant in a democracy.  I do not believe it is right to ask another person to kill another person in my name.  The weight of death is too heavy.  The moral injury is too grave.

I am a citizen and a neighbor.  I want my neighbors who serve in the military to live in stability and health.  I want them to find ways of serving their country that are life-giving.

I am a pastor. It pains me to sit on folding chairs in social halls and see a wise, old man with tears of grief in his eyes.

I am a Christian.  I do not think the stories of Palm Sunday and Holy Week are mythological moments from ancient history. I think the cry of Palm Sunday is very current and very real: “Hosannah.” God save us. 

God save us all.  Amen.