“At Eye Level”
Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Scripture Reference: Mark 15: 21-32
They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.
It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.
“Were you there? Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they nailed him to a tree? Were you there when they pierced his side? Were you there when they laid in the tomb?”
When you study the themes and images of the African American spirituals what you will find is how they often take a biblical story and recast it into the experience of slavery. “Go down, Moses and tell Pharaoh, let my people go” is not only the story told in the Book of Exodus about Egypt, it is also the plea and cry of slaves in Mississippi.
Another key is to see how often the image of home is expressed. “Steal away, steal away home. Swing low sweet chariot comin’ for to carry me home. Sometimes I feel like a motherless chile, far, far away from home, a long ways from home.”
You need to read in the experience of modern slavery in the South and the aching desire to be at home so to make sense of what is changed in the spirituals. Often, the spirituals are inconsistent with the biblical story. He never said a mumblin’ word is a powerful image, but it’s not true. Jesus cried out the words of Psalm 22 in Matthew and Mark; he forgave his executioners and made a promise of paradise in Luke; and in John he offers his mother a new son, and his beloved a new mother.
So it’s not true that he never said a mumblin’ word on the cross. He spoke.
It could be that the composers of the spirituals just didn’t know, or were denied access to a bible. Yet, this is highly unlikely. A better way of hearing the hymns we are singing today, Were you There? And He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word, a better way to hear them and sing them is to view hymns as a recasting, a conjoining, a merging of the experience and the reality of being away, far from home.
Were you there? And He Never Said a Mumblin’ word are seen as a couplet, a pair, a call and response, a question and an answer. Try to hear it this way. I have heard my son has died in Alabama; he is so far from home. Were you there? Were you there? Were you there? The questions of the first hymn were written to embody the heartbreak of having children sold and taken away, the pain of not knowing? Were you there when killed my son?
The second hymn is an answer. The answer is true to Jesus. He didn’t curse; he didn’t condemn; he didn’t cast blame or insult; he didn’t plead for his life. In that way, he didn’t say a mumblin’ word. In the context of southern slavery, he didn’t say a mumblin’ word is a declaration of dignity. They broke his body, but not his spirit. She died with courage and faith. She never said a mumblin’ word.
Try to imagine what these spirituals meant in the 1830s and ‘40s of South Carolina. Were you there? is, “Have you seen my son? Have you been with my daughter? Do you know if they are alive?” This is the song of the distraught parent of the heartbroken sister. Were you there? This is a plea to see and know and touch the one who is not at home, who is far from home.
He Never Said a Mumblin’ word is not only an answer, it is also a deep well of hope. He’s strong; she’s alright. The Lord has gathered her across the river. And I will see her on that great gittin’ up morning.
The first time I preached through the passion of Jesus, the stories from Palm Sunday to Easter, I was not sure I could do it. There are 42 pericopes or pieces of scripture from Palm Sunday to Easter in Matthew. I usually preach between 42-45 times a year, so a year of preaching. I didn’t know if I could do it. A year in the passion, in the heartbreak? Sounded dark and depressing. We read this part of the gospels each year in Holy Week. Seven days of darkness is doable. A year? I didn’t know.
I had the same thought when I came here in November. Mark is shorter, 35 pericopes or sermons for his passion. We didn’t really know each other all that well a year ago. Would there be a deep confusion or frustration that I was preaching through the last week of Jesus’ life and I was taking nearly a year to do it? Would that be a good way to start our ministry together, preaching sermons about betrayal and torture and death? Why so glum chum?
Maybe I have done this too long, or maybe I am not aware of discord, but I want to say we have navigated the passion together with hope and courage and joy. That is what I found with preaching Matthew and Luke. The passages are sometimes very harsh, but they create such beauty. Even though the stories of Jesus’s betrayal, rejection, and crucifixion are not happy go lucky, they have a power, an ability to reach deep within our hearts and find the place where real joy begins.
The power of our passage today eluded me for quite some time. Oh, I understood the words, and the images were clear enough. And I knew the theology of sacrifice and the cross and redemption and atonement. I knew the theology, but I didn’t understand the experience. Like the spiritual Go Down Moses, I could never author those words as a slave’s prayer, let my people go. I understand it; it’s just not my life.
A tour guide in Israel opened up the cross for me. He said, “the Roman’s crucified people at eye level. Your hymns and your images are of a man high up, on a hill far away, ten feet in the air. No. No,” he said. “He was at eye level.”
Jesus was crucified near the Damascus Gate. He was crucified with two criminals, one to his right and one to his left. Imagine you are walking into a city, approaching a city gate and to your right, at eye level are three men dying. The Romans did this as a warning. “This is what happens to trouble makers in Jerusalem. Behave!”
Jesus is taunted. You saved others, save yourself. Come down off the cross. Don’t think of this as someone shouting up to Jesus; think of it as someone leaning in, coming close so they could whisper, “saved others, save yourself.” And, don’t imagine the derision and taunting as one or two people. This is a busy gate. It says they all taunted him, even the soldiers.
Don’t imagine the ground as six feet below his feet; imagine it six inches away. It was just one step down, salvation that is. The religious leaders taunted him, step down and we will believe.
Before we keep going here, we should ask why? Why would we imagine any of this? What is the point? Jesus suffered a terrible death. Enough said. Can’t we just skip to Easter? Let’s keep to the Apostle’s Creed: suffered, crucified, dead and buried. Enough said. Why dwell on the height of the cross or the taunts of the crowd or the cruelty of crucifixion? Why do that? There is enough bad in our world already.
We should always ask this sort of question in the gospels. We should because if we find the answer, we found the power. And this story has the power to change us, to remake us.
The story of Jesus’ death is not only the events and details of his last days, it is also a story of violence, our violence. The death of Jesus is in our gospels in great detail, harsh images so to make clear our anger, our vengeance. This is here so we can look in the mirror and understand we are not the crucified here, we are the crucifiers. This is what Peter will preach in short order: Jesus, whom you put to death, he rose from the dead. You put him to death.
Mark describes the death of Jesus so we can find our own image here. The propensity to hate, the easy path of derision and disgust; the delight we take when someone gets what they deserve; the pleasure of an enemy’s fall. He is painting a picture not only of Jesus but also of us. They all taunted him.
I can’t imagine a point that is more easily made today than this. We are not immersed, we are engulfed with taunts and derision and disdain. It is as if we are walking into the Damascus Gate each and every day. We can easily see this. And we may lament this hail of verbal abuse, we may long for a more civil time, but we still have a great temptation. Somehow this abuse will work. If we can expose or shame or match insult for insult, if somehow, we come up with the words to put the one we hate in her place. We are not yet ready to sing, “He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word.”
Kathy and I were 19 and we had an appointment to meet Rev. Paul Pulliam to discuss our upcoming wedding. This was First Presbyterian of San Diego, big church. Rev. Pulliam was a distinguished pastor near the end of his career. Big moment, big person, big church.
How were we going to be seen being so young, so unlikely? For me I can remember feeling so unworthy. In the moment before we walked in the door to his office there was a deep sense of dread, pending judgment and then, in a matter of seconds, it all went away; it was all lifted. Rev. Pulliam treated us as if we were the best people who had ever come into his office. He was delighted we were getting married, just so happy to talk to us.
Three years later, as we were getting ready to head for Princeton, I was being examined by the session of First Presbyterian. It was a real grilling, went on for an hour. Question after question. It was very intense. And then, Rev. Pulliam waived his hand and quieted the room. He said, “I’ll tell you what, Fred will do fine. He doesn’t have a foot on the ground, but he is married to Kathy. All will be well.”
Five years later, now a pastor in our first church, I will never forget how after worship one Sunday he took my hand in his and put the other on my shoulder. He leaned in and all he said was, “always take care of your family.”
Each time his words were a great gift, his kindness a treasure. It was as if he could see the good in me much more than I could. He died last week in his ‘90s. A few years ago, I was able to write him and express my gratitude for what he did for us. I was glad to know that he remembered Kathy and I after so many years. Yet, I have all confidence his acts of kindness were not marked or kept in his mind. He was simply living his faith.
We need to see our violence. We need to follow Mark as he leads us to the mirror of our disdain. We need to look at Jesus in the eyes and know we are just as likely to taunt and deride as the ones who entered the city through the Damascus Gate that day almost 2000 years ago. The same people who hurled the shame are alive and just as ready today.
We need to see this story, but we cannot stop here. We need to recast it, like the spirituals. We need to imagine the taunting with remorse, true; but we also must read the story through the truth of the soul reborn. We must reckon with our shame, but then we must look to a life lived beyond it.
What I took from those moments with Rev. Pulliam was an image to live. I already knew the parts of my life that were broken; in such simple ways he showed me how to treat others with compassion and delight. He wasn’t blind to two teenagers in his office, a would-be seminarian, or a young pastor, he wasn’t blind, he chose to treat us with love and dignity.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word. What powerful hymns born of great suffering. They emerge from the brokenness of slavery and the shame of centuries upon centuries of violence, our violence. This is true. We have to hear them, sing them, as such. Yet, my hope is that we will hear new hymns too. Hymns that tell of the great compassion; hymns that ask were you there when the church lived without judgment; were there when the church was a living image of the world as one; were you there when the outcast was welcomed home, the prisoner freed?
I want to live to sing the response: we spoke words of mercy, we offered arms of embrace, we lived as one. I was there. I saw it. I was there when we climbed Jacob’s ladder, brothers and sisters all. Amen.
- Mark 8:31 - 37
- Mark 15:21 - 32