All is Not What it Seems: A Sermon

All is not what it seems

Rev. Julie Emery

A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church

April 10, 2011

Texts: Matthew 26:47-50, 27:1-10

Matthew 27:1-10

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death.  They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor.

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders.  He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.”  Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself.

But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.”  After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners.  For ths reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day.

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”

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It is a story of dark and light, that great battle between good and evil.  It is at this moment of betrayal that we think all has been lost.  When even his friends betray and desert him, then there is certainly no hope, no promise of salvation, no possibility of survival.

For me, it was at that moment when I first read it, that I could not believe the possibility of his betrayal.  I was aghast, tearful, angry.  Shocked.  It was that moment when I read that Snape betrayed and killed Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts.

If you are not familiar with these names then you have missed what has become one of the most popular series of young adult fiction of our generation: the epic story of Harry Potter.  The last book has been made into a film of which the first part will arrive on DVD this week, and the final installment will appear in theaters this July.  And yes, the movies are spectacular.  But if you want to experience the story in all it’s depth and theological insight, you absolutely must read the books.

The books tell of a young orphan boy named Harry Potter, who discovers on his 11th birthday that he is a wizard, with powers he had not even imagined.  His birthday marks the time when wizards and witches begin to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and so the story follows Harry’s adolescent school years as he comes of age and discovers his own part in the fight between good and evil in the wizarding world.

Harry learns that his parents died protecting him from an evil wizard named Voldemort, and in doing so marked Harry forever as the only one who could possibly and perhaps ultimately defeat Voldemort.  As the story continues there are those who are on the side of Harry, and those who are on the side of Voldemort.  Those who choose the good.  Those who choose the easy and evil.

But there are also many others in between, which is perhaps why I like these stories so much.  There are those who are used, those who are confused or conflicted.  There are those who are ignorant and do evil things, but are maybe not fully evil.  And there are those who seem to be one thing and end up becoming another.  As more than one of Harry’s mentors reminds him, “The world is not made up only of good people or (evil ones).  We all have dark and light within us.  It is our choices that make us who we are.”

As we approach the holy last week of Jesus, we have been living within our own epic story.  The one which frames and grounds every aspect of our faith.  With each nuance and plot twist, the closer we get, the more we see the chiaroscuro of the events at hand.  The shadows fall, the light flickers, and the contrast of good and evil becomes stark.

Judas is known to us as the true villain.  The one who, as the narrators of the skit on youth Sunday claimed, “sold his soul for a little money.”  His infamy has grown throughout Christian history as the one who most epitomizes betrayal, treachery, foul play.  Would that none of us meet a Judas in our lifetimes.  Would that none of us be a Judas…

But Judas was not the only betrayer in those final days of Jesus’ life.  Peter’s denial was in some ways as painful to see unfold.  Each of the disciples themselves scattered in the end – no one but the women were there to see his death on the cross.

The difference, of course, is that Judas was an actor rather than a passive observer.  Whereas all the others fearfully watched events unfold, Judas went out and sought the religious authorities to betray Jesus to them.  He told them where they might find Jesus away from the crowds, he led them to him under the cover of night.  He betrayed him with a kiss.

And yet, one wonders how much of Judas’ actions were really his own.  Jesus foretold his own death many times before, long before Judas found his way to Caiaphas.  Even days before, Jesus tells the disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”  And while the disciples seemed not to understand anything, as we move closer and closer to the final days of his life, we see more clearly that Jesus understands everything.  By the time that Judas finds him in the garden and marks him with a kiss, Jesus affirms the role Judas has in what is to come, “Friend,” he says to Judas, “do what you are here to do.”

It is this strange dichotomy – the way in which Jesus foretells his own path, the way he affirms the inevitability of it all, and yet still struggles against it.  He says, ‘The Son of Man goes as it is written of him – but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!  It would have been better for that one not to have been born.’  He prays in the garden, “My father, let this cup pass from me…”

And yet, as Matthew tells it, when Jesus is arrested and the disciples begin to fight back, he rebukes them saying, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?  But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?”

How then, would the scriptures be fulfilled?

In other gospels, we are led to believe that Judas was always the suspicious one.  As if the writers feel they should have known what was coming.  The descriptions of who he was and why he did what he did are complicated and unclear.  John has Judas as the one who objects to the woman who annoints Jesus with the expensive oil, saying that he was greedy and used to steal from the common purse, Mark on the other hand says he was paid but not how much, seeming almost as an afterthought.  The stories of what happened afterward vary as well.  The author of Luke and Acts tells a story of Judas keeping the money and acquiring the field, and attributes his death to an unfortunate fall on the land bought with blood money.

Only Matthew shows Judas as repentant and filled with remorse.  Only Matthew tells of Judas learning of Jesus’ condemnation and pleading with the chief priests, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.”

Their response only, “What is that to us?”

What could he do but fall into a bottomless pit of despair?

Throughout the Harry Potter story, one figure emerges as an enigma and enemy of Harry’s, a professor at his school by the name of Severus Snape.  Snape knew and disliked Harry’s father and therefore Harry, which becomes evident within the very first book.  Suspicion follows Snape like a storm cloud, and we are never quite sure whether Snape is a good guy or a bad guy.  All signs point to the latter, and yet the school Headmaster and champion of good Albus Dumbledore trusts him, confusing reader and Harry alike.

Towards the end of the story, Snape aligns himself with evil, makes choices that appall and dissapoint, forsaking all hope in his character.  And yet, the reader finds that hope never really dies.  The trust that the Headmaster placed in him becomes justified in the end.  What we learn is that sometimes the reason why someone betrays does, in fact, matter, and while no reason is good enough for betrayal, knowing why can affect understanding and even forgiveness.

In some ways these stories were at work in my own heart when I read in the New York Times this past December that Bernie Madoff’s son Mark committed suicide.  After all the news about the Madoff scandal, of all the stories of people betrayed by his actions; There was this moment when he ceased to be the man who sold his soul for money and became: a father who must’ve worried about his sons and what he left them, a husband who made the wrong choices and then perhaps couldn’t stop the train he had created.  A Grandfather of a now fatherless child, unable to shake a life and legacy he had made for himself, reaping the pain that he has sown.

The truth of the story of Judas is that he was exactly like all of the others who had abandoned Jesus in the end.  He was exactly like each of us.  He perhaps had different ideas of who the Messiah was to be, and acted to correct the mistakes he thought Jesus was making.  He perhaps acted out of fear of what might be rather than hope of what could be.  Perhaps Judas was simply necessary to fulfill God’s ultimate plan.

The fact is that each of us has been or will be a Judas – broken, scared, unseeing of the extravagance of God’s power and work in this world.  The fact is that whatever motivated him, he was likely not entirely evil, but a human who made a terrible choice and reaped the consequences.

The tragedy of Judas is that after he played his part, he had forgotten the words that Jesus spoke around that Passover table – even to him.  Those words that Jesus shared saying, “This is my body, broken for you.  This is the cup of the new covenant poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.”  Had Judas understood that those words included even him, that forgiveness was even for him, that Christ died even for him, perhaps his story might have ended differently.

It is an epic tale – one that is at the very root of our faith and life in Christ.  That the battle for good and evil takes place inside each of us.  That each of us betrays, denies, chooses evil at one point or another.  That all of us sin and fall short of the glory of God.

What we do then, how we seek forgiveness and from whom, whether we believe we can turn again and again toward the good, the light, the forgiveness that is in Christ, this is what propels us forward.  The good news is that we know the end of the story – that beyond the cross is an empty tomb; that beyond the grave is new life; that beyond betrayal is redemption not just for one, but for all.

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