I want you to imagine a scene with me. Let’s say this is an ancient scene, a primal scene. A small clan of people, living together, doing the basic things of life in order to survive. Over the course of time small disputes develop in the group. One person hoards an unfair portion of food. Another person refuses to do their share of work. Little rivalries for power and possessions escalate into heated conflicts. Soon it seems that every person is pitted against every other person, and the group is bordering on chaos. At this point something unexpected happens. Instead of destroying each other in an all against all battle, the tension within the group begins to refocus itself. In order to preserve themselves and the group, the members begin to center all of their bitterness on one person, who happens to be the oddball member, somebody on the fringes.
He’s the reason this plague of chaos has come on the group. Yes, everyone begins to agree. He’s been polluting us all this time. If we could eliminate him we will be saved.
So, all of the tension in the group gets directed toward this individual. And everyone agrees he must be killed for this evil he has done. So they gather together around him, cast their stones, and bury his corpse under the pile of rocks. And they discover, to their amazement, that their chaos has been transformed into unity. All against all has become all against one. All of their ill-feelings and hatred toward one another seem to be gone, buried under that pile of stones. This man must have been guilty because the group has been healed. And the group resumes its life together, delivered from all its ills, amazed at this gift of unity that the gods have given.
I would like to offer three different images this morning. The first image is contained within this story. It’s a group of people standing in a circle, gathered around a victim in the middle. The group has a certain kind of unity that holds them together. They are all pointing an accusing finger toward the person in the center, ready to expel or destroy the one they are accusing.
This image shows up over and over again in our world. Sometime early on we discovered that we can keep all of our conflicts and rivalries in check if we continually create scapegoats. Our ability to be together with one another so often depends on this all-against-one frame of reference, defining ourselves over and against another group or person. As long as we have had someone to blame, someone to expel, someone to gather around and point accusing fingers at, we have been able to restore and maintain a certain kind of unity.
We can create scapegoats in any set of relationships.
If only she hadn’t been born into this family, we’d all be much better off.
If only we could get the illegals out of the country we could have a healthy economy. We must eliminate the Jews in order to realize our national destiny. It’s the blacks, it’s the homosexuals, it’s the communists, it’s all Mom’s fault it’s always Mom’s fault, if we could kick him off the team we would start winning some games. You may see circles like this form in your place of work, in your friendships, or within your own family. The greater the crisis, the more united we stand around the perceived threat. The target of our scapegoating is always changing, but the underlying mechanism remains the same, its all the same shape. Unity based on all against one. Unity that requires the lynching of someone.
There is a certain kind of blindness at work here. Those in the circle actually believe they are eliminating evil from their midst when they accuse and expel the scapegoat. They always think it will be an end to their problems, that this one is truly the one to blame. There is an inability or lack of effort to see that the group is stuck in this accusing pose, this rigid circle that will always need a new victim in the center to keep everything held together.
The second image is this one right in front of us, this beautiful candle holder. It also involves people gathered around in a circle, only this time there is no scapegoat in the middle to accuse. The central focus of this group that binds them together is the heart of God that burns with love. The accusing fingers pointed toward the center have been dropped, and each person is actually touching their neighbor, whoever that neighbor may be. This group bases its unity not on a common hatred of enemies, but a common love of enemies. This group is willing to call blessed those everyone else has called cursed. The poor are called blessed, those who are hungry, those who mourn, the peacemakers are called blessed. Those who normally find themselves in the center of other circles, with all accusing fingers pointed at them, are welcomed in this circle, around this burning flame. This a circle made up of those who have learned how to welcome children, as our text from today talks about, a place where the most vulnerable are free from the fear of blame and expulsion.
One of the places where we form this circle is in our worship gathering. Here we put aside petty differences and open ourselves to the unifying, transcendent heart of God. God becomes our center, love becomes our guide that illuminates our eyes. I know another way I have experienced this type of circle has been in different service opportunities. In St. Louis when I was a part of the city’s Habitat for Humanity work there would be literal circles of people around different houses raising walls, putting on siding, hanging drywall. I would say that this also is worship, and that the loving heart of God was in the center of our work. In our better moments, this is how my family has functioned as well. We get together around a common love that we have inherited and just sort of enjoy each other. This is the kind of family Abbie and I hope to build in our own home. This circle is the kind of human unity that we all long to see in our world.
There is a third image for us. Again, a circle — with people from every nation gathered together around the bread and the wine of the communion table. This third circle contains certain elements of the previous two. The first image was a rather dark and bloody one, based on violence. The second was free of all that, illuminating us with light. The communion table is our remembrance of the body and blood of Jesus somehow bringing us out of the circle of violence into the circle of light.
Jesus lived in the midst of the violent story but was able to see right through all of the lies and misunderstandings that developed from the very beginning. He knew that the victim in the middle is not guilty of all the group’s sins. He knew that this unity against the scapegoat, this all against one unity, has nothing to do with a gift from God. He saw this endless cycle of exclusion and violence and victim making. He wasn’t blind like the rest of us.
At a certain point in Jesus’ ministry he had stirred enough anger among the religious and political leaders that he could feel all the tension of his own people beginning to shift onto him. He knew that he himself was soon to be the next scapegoat. The religious authorities, the Roman governors, and the impoverished crowds would all come together to form this circle of accusation. And instead of running away from it, he decided to walk right into it, because this is why he was sent, to save us from our scapegoating – to free all his sisters and brothers from their slavery to violence, and to free us from our belief that God requires this violence from us in order to give us our unity. Instead of just teaching about being free from scapegoating, he chose to allow his body to be an eternal metaphor for the suffering that scapegoating causes. It’s kind of a risky move. Become the scapegoat in order to free the world from its scapegoating. In the reading today he begins to teach his followers what is about to happen:
Read Mark 9:30-32
“They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Human One is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
It is clear in the gospels that Jesus was aware of what was about to happen to him. He makes it a point to tell his disciples multiple times. And then he made it a point to give us the bread and the wine to represent his body and blood in order for us to remember. We are to remember Jesus as the one in the center of the first circle, a picture of our own violence, raised up for all the world to see. Our scapegoating and murdering finally revealed for what it is. We are violent people and we have been slaves to the same forces that killed Jesus. It’s a unity based on death, and has nothing to do with the living God. Remember Jesus given over for us.
And then remember that we are forgiven for being a part of that unity. We are released from having to be that kind of human being. Jesus’ death is a death to end all deaths, to set us free to walk out of the rigid old circle of scapegoating and to prepare this new place for us to live as a human family around the loving heart of God.
I find this all to be very good news. I find this something I’m interested in sharing with others. I want to live out this circle that Jesus has offered us. I want to be a part of this new humanity that Jesus instituted. I want to be saved from my involvement with death and live in the resurrection life where death no longer has any power.
This is World Communion Sunday. All over the world those who call themselves Christians are sharing communion together today. Comm-union means union with. This unifying circle around the bread and the wine is what helps us move out of the circle that lives on the death mechanism of scapegoating and into the circle that lives in the resurrection life. We move out of a unity that always demands more victims in order to survive, and we come into a unity that refuses to create any more victims. Jesus has demanded that he be the last scapegoat, and that we receive forgiveness for our participation in the violence of the circle that crucified him. So, as Jesus said on the cross, it is finished. It is accomplished. There’s no more need for victims. There’s no more need to define ourselves over and against anyone. We are free to begin acting much more like children resting in a mother’s arms. Children who are welcomed to live within an embrace that excludes no one. We can have our unity as pure gift, as pure love between one another that doesn’t need someone to hate; mercy and compassion flowing out of the heart of God.
This is the table that we join around now. Thanks be to God for this immeasurable gift.
Let’s pray together as we prepare our hearts for what is being offered here and then I’ll invite you to come up and receive the meal.