Matthew Gaventa: Best Position Player

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Imagine this story again, if you will, not in words, but in pictures. Luke is every bit the artist, and he paints this moment – this climactic moment – with the finest of brushstrokes; so, linger in front of the portrait just for a minute. Jesus is in the center, on the cross, his body beaten, his clothing gone, taken, and auctioned. On either side the two thieves hang, one on his left, one on his right, and then, in the foreground, the soldiers offering sour wine and mocking looks. The religious leaders, too, are just behind, scoffing at him, pointing fingers, laughing: “If he is the Messiah, let him save himself!” If you look carefully, you can see the fine print, the inscription over his body: “This is the King of the Jews.” And then, if you squint, in the background you can see the people. This crowd of onlookers. This vague congregation. Luke doesn’t waste his paint on the people. Their faces are indistinct. Their expressions are indecipherable. All he tells us is this: “The people stood by, watching.”

“The people stood by, watching.” But just because they’re in the background doesn’t mean they’re not important. In fact, the people have been driving agents in the events that have led to this portrait in the first place. Only days earlier, Luke describes the gathering storm by reminding us that the chief priests and the scribes are trying to kill Jesus precisely because they’re afraid of the people. Ironically then, it’s the people that bring Jesus before Pilate in the first place, and then as you may remember, they’re there in the crowd shouting “crucify him” and they’re the ones voting to save Barabbas instead. So, the tragedy of Luke’s Gospel isn’t that the people are powerless to stop the story; the tragedy is that they have power but they us it for such violent ends, or as is the case today, they just stay in the background. Maybe they feel helpless. Dumbfounded. Paralyzed. Nevertheless, as you can plainly see, they just stand there, watching.

Now, hold that portrait for a moment, and let me paint you a different one.

When I was growing up, I played in the local youth soccer league like everybody did, because we were good suburban kids. We were not, however, good soccer players. At least, I wasn’t a good soccer player. Most of the time I would play in the left midfield, which I think was just the place that coaches put players that they didn’t know what to do with. And my strategy for playing left midfield was kind of like this: I knew that I wasn’t very good, but I didn’t want anybody else to know that I wasn’t very good. So, my objective every time was not so much to help our team win the game but rather to minimize the possibility of exposing that I wasn’t very good. And so, I played as safely as possible. If our defenders passed the ball up into the left midfield, I would try my best to keep it going and pass it up to our forwards. If the other team got the ball going the wrong way, and it came through my territory, I would do my best to run up and kick it as hard as I could back in the right direction. I was the guard of my own immediate patch of grass – you can just picture me standing there while the game flowed around me. I wasn’t a great soccer player, but I could stand my ground.

One year, at the end of the season, our coach decided that we wouldn’t just get trophies, we would get personalized trophies, each one of them engraved with the particular award that the coach had devised just for us. So, of course, somebody got best passer, and somebody got best ball skills, and somebody got best team leader. And we got to me, and I was handed a trophy that said, “Best Position Player.” And I thought, at last, this is my vindication! Maybe I was so much better than I thought. Maybe I had uncovered something about the tactics of soccer that nobody had ever figured out before, and here was my recognition. Maybe there was in fact something secretly ingenious about staying put and waiting for the game to come to you. But of course, that’s not true. The next year I don’t think we won once. To this day, “Best Position Player” is the nicest thing anyone has ever said about my skills on a soccer field. And it wasn’t until years later that I realized I had received something of a backhanded compliment. That I had just won a trophy for standing around and watching.

So, two portraits, not so different from one another, and neither of them so different from us standing here today. After all, we stand here today in a tradition that loves standing for things, from Luke’s crowd standing in the background all the way back through to that famous picture of Martin Luther himself, testifying before papal delegates and exclaiming, “Here I stand; I can do no other!” Standing for things is in the DNA of the church I love. Even today, a church in my lifetime that has taken tough stands, a church that’s been willing to take stands for economic justice, for the work of peacemaking, for the right of people to love who they love. One of my proudest moments as a member of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was several years ago when we took a stand against racism by formally adopting the Belhar Confession out of South Africa as one of our guiding documents. Belhar emerged from the resistance to apartheid and alongside its searing indictment of segregation the confession literally calls the church to “stand where the Lord stands.”

This standing for things is what we do, and frankly, the church has been so good at it, so good at standing for things for as long as I can remember, somebody at some point ought to give us a trophy.

And so, maybe you see the problem. The field is so big. And the game moves so fast. And all of our standing can amount to so much watching. And so now, in 2022, the field is overrun with the brokenness of the world and still, more often than not, we in the church stand and watch. In 2022 the gap between haves and have-nots in this country is wider than at any time in living memory, and still the church stands and watches. In 2022 scientists now project that we will blow irreversibly past every conservative threshold for avoiding catastrophic climate change, and still the church stands and watches. In 2022 we face story after story of abuse and wickedness throughout our national dialog, unlike anything in my lifetime and unlike anything permissible within the boundaries of a moral society, and still more often than not the church stands and watches. We stand, and we watch, hoping I guess that the ball might come to us, but really, I think, terrified that the ball might come to us. Yes, Belhar calls us to stand where the Lord stands, to stand with the poor, to stand with the oppressed, to stand with the forgotten. But there’s a danger in taking this too literally, because sometimes in order to take those stands you have to move.

Sometimes, in order to take those stands, you have to move.

After all, Jesus is on the move. Check that portrait again, because he’s not there anymore. Jesus doesn’t stay on that cross. Luke paints a snapshot in time, but it’s not the whole story. Jesus is dead, yes, but Christ is risen! The story isn’t over until the stone rolls away, and this is precisely what the resurrection means: it means Jesus has too much work left to do, and he can’t do it standing still.

That’s the magic of the portrait I would have you see today. Like the paintings in some cartoon castle, the picture keeps moving. Linger in front of it, let your eye take in the sight of it, but don’t get too attached, because Jesus is on the move. And even that crowd, standing and watching – linger long enough and even they start moving. Only a few chapters later, that same crowd gathers around the Pentecostal flame and gets overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit and flows into Jerusalem as the newly courageous apostles going into the world. Eventually, even that crowd gets moving. Eventually, all God’s children get moving.

In the northwest suburbs of Washington, D.C., there’s an orthodox Jewish temple named Ohev Shalom. As an orthodox congregation, they observe fairly strict Sabbath laws, including abstaining from access to the Internet during holy days. And so it was a few summers ago, as the congregation emerged late Sunday evening from its worship for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, as they pulled out their phones and checked in with the world, that they finally learned what you and I had known all day, about a horrific mass shooting the night before at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. You may remember this news: 49 dead, 53 wounded.

Now, I remember waking up on the morning of Sunday June 12 and reading about Pulse. I remember carrying that news into our Sunday services at the little country church I was serving. I remember the gasps from folks who had not yet heard the story. I remember lifting those victims to God in prayer. And then I’m sure I did what I would do on any other Sunday: most likely, I went home, I had lunch, and I took a nap. But at Ohev Shalom they were not so content, and when the services ended that Sunday night, as the congregation began to disperse into the street, the rabbi called them back and told them that they weren’t done for the day. Shavuot is a pilgrimage festival, and so they were going to take a pilgrimage, a field trip of solidarity into the city, to a gay bar.

In telling this story, the rabbi writes that he hadn’t been to a bar in twenty years, much less a gay one. Nevertheless, off they went, about twelve members of the congregation in their formal worship attire and yarmulkes, and they found their way to Fireplace, a predominantly African-American gay bar in Dupont Circle. Now, you can imagine that portrait, as they come down the sidewalk – it would be the setup to a joke if it weren’t so bathed in tragedy. Indeed, one man standing outside the club looked at them a little askance. But when they explained what they were doing, he broke down in tears; his cousin had been killed the night before at Pulse. And then they went inside, nobody knowing what to expect. The mood was somber, of course. But it turned out that the two groups had all sorts of things in common. In one case, one of the patron’s stepchildren had been Bar Mitzvahed at their temple. Another asked for a card so he could come visit. After a while the bartender shut off the music, and the rabbi began to offer prayers. They lit candles. They sang songs from the deep parts of the soul. Tears flowed. Barriers collapsed. And then the temple bought a round of drinks for the house. And it’s just one little corner of the world, of course. But still. It’s amazing what the people of God can do when they’re willing to move.

So, here’s the Gospel, friends. We can linger, but let’s not get stuck. Because the world needs a church that moves. The world needs the church, more than it ever has, but specifically the world needs a church that moves. The world needs a church who will see this portrait, a church who will recognize itself in this portrait, standing there, watching, but a church who will refuse to do the same. The world needs a church that moves, just as it always has, from that first Pentecostal morning. This, after all, is the paradox: for a church to be rooted in its deepest traditions, for a church to cling to its oldest stories, for a church to stand fast on the very elemental truths of who and what it is called to be, for a church to stand so firm it must in fact be a church on the move, because it always has been, because those Pentecostal flames are on the move, and they always have been, because Jesus is on the move, and he always has been, and you can’t follow Jesus by standing still.

So, here’s the good news. We will be on the move. You and I, we will be on the move. Whatever congregation we are today, you and I, we will be on the move. Whatever denomination we are today, you and I, will be on the move. The Church of Jesus Christ will be on the move. And when we feel helpless, and when we feel dumbfounded, and when we feel paralyzed, remember that we do not move alone. Remember that we move by the power of Jesus Christ risen from the grave. Remember that we move on the wings of the Holy Spirit that has moved through every time and place. Remember that we move alongside the grace of God that has traveled from everlasting to everlasting.

Thanks be to God, Amen.