Swords, Death, and Empires

Based on a Good Friday sermon from The Rev. Tim Heflin
Preached @ St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Ramallah, Palestine
April 29, 2016

If clergy are honest many would admit, if ever so slightly, that Good Friday is not an easy day to preach.  What more do you say about the death of Jesus that has not been told and repeated for 2,000 years? What can you add?

In other words, let the events speak for themselves and get out of the way.  This is often good practice when preaching.

But a few things we must say, no matter the difficulty, for preachers live by the text and story. Preaching keeps the story alive, in some respect, so it is always good to keep telling the story. Preaching is a way to say that God’s story, even ancient ones, intersect with our own lives and give us life.

I am well acquainted with death. I witnessed a shooting and murder just yards from me. I have been shot at, though I am not sure how close bullets came near me because it was at night. But I have been shot at. I witnessed two people dying unexpected, violent deaths at my feet. All of this happened by the time I turned twenty-five.

A minister, and friend, remarked at the time to pay attention, that death would be with me for a time. This sounded quite weird and presumptuous. Who would say something like this, that death would be a friend?

Turns out that minister was correct. You see, in a life before ordained ministry I worked for ten years in various hospice programs across the country.  I sat at the bedside with those who were actively dying, and spent more time with their family members, helping with conversations about life and death, end of life choices, and what it means to mourn and grieve. I never counted how many people I sat with; I know only that I have sat with death more times than I can count.

Hospice caregivers and volunteers talk about helping someone “have a good death.” This sounds strange to the average person, I understand, but in hospice everyone acknowledges, to some varying degree, that death is near. Being comfortable with death, having a good death, allows you to make peace with your life, to talk with family, friends, and loved ones about death, and to minimize any pain or suffering. This is what a “good death” means. But this sort of death means you know death is coming.

As Palestinians, you know all too well about death, mourning, and grieving. And you know death strikes before you expect it.

Three days ago two young people were killed at the Qalandia checkpoint, unexpectedly and unintentionally on their part – at least according to eyewitnesses. A pregnant woman, 24, and the mother of two children, was shot and killed alongside her younger brother, 16, as the two approached the checkpoint.

According to eyewitnesses, soldiers were yelling at the two in Hebrew, a language neither understood. It seems the two were in the wrong line. Israel claims the woman wielded a knife, though no other eyewitnesses could corroborate that claim. The woman’s brother was shot as he tried to drag her shot body away from the checkpoint and soldiers. It was her first day to ever pass through a checkpoint, as she had just been granted an ID card. Soldiers shot a total of 15 rounds into her and 7 more rounds into her brother as they lay on the ground.  Soldiers prevented medics from attending to them.

We talk about death on Good Friday and preaching in Ramallah on Good Friday is hard for me because I don’t live under the daily reality of an occupying army. I am not told when and where to drive. I don’t have my every movement scrutinized.  I am not yelled at in a language I don’t understand. I don’t hear the derisive ethnic, racial, or religious slurs. I am not told that I am a second-class citizen.

I don’t live with the empire’s occupation force. Jesus did.

Jesus roamed Palestine as a rabbi, a devoted Jew of the Torah yet a rabbi devoted to the real world needs of those with whom he came in contact. The first charges against Jesus were that he hung out with unsavory folk, the kind of folk that would make us nervous when they showed up at our church doors. Jesus roamed the countryside proclaiming that life is found in another empire, and one not of this world. He made enemies as he continued to preach about this other empire, and the empire Jesus had in mind was not the empire of Rome that scrutinized movement and speech, much less human rights in first century Palestine.

Jesus knew what the empire of Rome would do, at least I think he did, the more he talked about another empire, one in which people were treated more fairly. There were at least two warrants put out for his death that we know of and I cannot help but think Jesus knew the stakes in the game. I cannot help but think that Jesus knew the stakes in life.

I find it odd that the stereotypical Jesus narrative, even told by the church, is one in which Jesus seems to be a passive character in a play. It goes something like this: he is born in Bethlehem in a miraculous way, he becomes a rabbi, draws disciples to him and teaches about God’s empire, he gets into trouble with the empire when he refuses to abide by the empire, is tortured and executed, and then is raised from the dead. This pretty much sums it up and yet, I wonder to what degree we make Jesus this passive, goes-along-with-the script sort that we don’t actually hear him in the garden asking God if this could be changed a bit. Might there be another way, Jesus asks?

Jesus realizes there is no other way, no plan B or other option. He has staked his life on God’s empire and asked others to do the same. This is not the time to go back. Jesus was not simply reading from the lines. He was not just reading a part for which a stand-in could do just as well. Jesus was not an actor playing the part and reading from the lines. He made a choice. Jesus willingly drinks from the cup.

Jesus called his disciples to an empire not of this world. I wonder how much of the time we prefer the empire of this world, the empire that promises eternal security, freedom, life and meaning? Does this empire – our empire – really deliver life, and life abundant?

The occupying army comes for Jesus among the olive trees and in the middle of the night, as occupying armies do. Their raid is complete and, thanks to an insider, they have their guy. The empire is now well on its way for trial, sentencing, and execution.

When Jesus and the disciples are faced with the empire the writer of John’s gospel recounts a couple of curious details. I say they are curious because they are generally left out of passion plays or the church’s recollection of that night Jesus was arrested.

What do the disciples do at that fateful moment in the garden, with tensions running high, faced between Jesus and the empire?  They do what empires do and what we usually do: they reach for the sword. Peter says “give us the word and we will draw our swords.”[1]

All the years roaming the countryside with Jesus hearing about God’s empire, the time together, hearing about a new vision, and Jesus gets this: “Lord, we will act like the empire when you tell us.” Jesus says no, tells the disciples to put away their swords, tells them this is not what he wants.

And then this: the disciples slip quickly away, and they will never speak to Jesus before his crucifixion. Think about this. For all the years spent with Jesus, the criticism from others, the joy in being together, the question and answer time, the energy Jesus gave for this motley group, his love, for all their relationship it now comes down to this: Jesus is arrested, the disciples slip away, and they never to speak to him before he is executed.

The empire always strikes with the sword in the end. That’s what empires do. It’s what they are good at.

In that garden of all gardens, that night of all nights, in that fateful moment between empires Peter asks Jesus “is it time to grab our swords?”


[1] Credit to William Willimon for this careful read of empire and Peter’s wish to draw the sword and to behave like the empire.