“Were You There?”

Dr. Ralph Blair’s Keynote


June 3, 2017

Were you there when this question and response was heard each week across America?  “What sort of day was it?  A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times – and you, were there.”  Were you, there?

Those words were spoken in the mid-1950s – so, as a more familiar voice echoes in your ears, “So, you couldn’t have been there, could you.”  You couldn’t have been there? Really?!

I was there.  As the only one here from The Silent Generation, I speak up to say: “I was there.”  Each week in my mid-teens, I heard those sonorous words – there in Youngstown, Ohio, in front of our 21” black-and-white Capehart television set in our living room. Walter Cronkite spoke those words at the end of every episode of You Are There.  It was his CBS series of reenactments and film clips of great historical events.

Watching them, we did have a sense that, yeah, we were there! Of course, that generation was reared to “be there” through radiosound filtered through imagination. Now, we “were there” through sound and sight, so, less was left to imagination and we were there! As it were!

Cronkite’s sign-off made a big impression on me.  His sound and inflections, even his cadence, echoes in my long-term memory.  And, he made good sense!  We all, throughout history, have, as it’s said today, “been there, done that”. Every day is, “a day like all days”, filled with experiences and opportunities that, if used wisely, can be illuminating and life altering.  Live and learn!  But, often, we don’t.

Even facing what we haven’t experienced personally, we should remind ourselves that others, with less experience, less advantage, have “been there, done that”, and have managed fairly well.  As Terence, the ancient playwright who’d also been a slave, learned: “I’m human, so nothing human is alien to me.”

Today is yet another day like all days when, again, we get to live and learn, if we know well enough, and will enough, to do so.  And we may do that from all the hard-won wisdom still available to us.

Throughout the ups and downs of human history, the wise have been wise to the fact that every day is, indeed, a day like all days.  At our recent weekly Bible studies and at our most recent Bible Study Weekend, we’ve seen evidence of this in the timeless truths from the old Hebrew wisdom literature.  As Kohelet said: “There’s nothing new under the sun.” (Eccl 1:9)  Of course, if we don’t know what they knew and we don’t bother to learn from what they passed on for us, none of it is of any use to us.

Yet now, in our turn, we have opportunity to learn what they learned (or didn’t), if we pay attention to their wisdom and folly.

But, to the extent that we’re naïve, historically ignorant, poorly prepared in critical thinking, if we’re in psychological denial or we insist that all must go our way as we foolishly buy into our own blundering arguments from confirmation bias and wishful thinking that we foolishly call, “being positive”, we’ll be unable, as well as unwilling, to grasp what’s stood the tests of time.  If, in our turn, we’re “wise” only in our eyes, “wise guys” without wisdom, we’ll miss how it is, and fail to be wise in our lives. We’ll be the first to suffer from our folly, but others, too, will suffer from our folly.

We’re all so easily entrapped in cul-de-sacs of self-centeredness, squatting in narcissistic navel gazing that we mistake for self-awareness.  Unless we turnaround and escape the miasma of myopic monologues, we won’t gain the necessary perspective.  Unless we admit that our pretense at virtue-signaling a “cutting edge” or “progressive” persona is self-flattery and doesn’t prove we’re any better or any brighter than any prior generation, we’ll fail as stupidly as they. Our self-delusion was theirs, now postured in the idiosyncrasy of our day.

George Orwell, the insightful author of Nineteen Eighty-Four, keenly observed that “each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.”  That’s how self-centered, self-serving and historically oblivious each generation is!

But, we can’t prevent our slipping through the cracks of these arbitrarily delineated generations, so we might get a clue that we also straddle generations.  Maybe then, we’d have reason to be less disdainful of them, in futile efforts to feel good about us.  Contrary to our pious posturing, we’re there, with every prior generation and we’re there, with all future generations.  So, get used to it!

You missed the old ‘60s “New Left” protests for “Free Speech”. But you see their spin in protests that shut down free speech today.Is this confusing – Leftist rioting to express free speech then, and Leftist rioting to repress free speech now?  It’s all the same thing. It’s all from the guru of the ‘60s, Herbert Marcuse. Repressive Toleration was the title of his Marxist manifesto.  His ivory tower followers, still revere it today.  He pushed repression of speech that refused to conform to his party line.  “Wrong” views have no rights and must be suppressed in the name of “progress” as defined by Marxists, anarchists, and both fascists and “Antifa” today. Not in power, riot for free speech; in power, riot to repress free speech.

Dictatorial scheming is essential to all totalitarianism, be it on the political Left or political Right, religious “Fundamentalism” or religious Secularism. Psychologically, it’s always all about one’s desperation and the predictable tyranny of unresolved insecurity.

The ‘60s “Free Speech” activist, Jerry Rubin, popularized the rationalization: “Don’t trust anyone over 30!”  Then, he turned 30.  Did he stop trusting himself? Of course not!  But, he did modify his Marxist mindset enough to become a hippie capitalist as an early investor in Apple Computer.  He became a multimillionaire.  Then he pushed an overly controlling, selfishly trendy cult of so-called “self-transformation” called EST.  It went defunct in 1984, the year that’s synonymous with all totalitarianisms.  Just ten years later, as he jaywalked across six lanes of traffic in front of his Wilshire Boulevard penthouse apartment building in fashionable Westwood, a car hit him and he died.

Whether, instead of being here, we wish to have been there, somewhere in the past, or we wish to be out there, somewhere in the future, such a frivolous wish refutes itself.  Our dissatisfaction in our present reveals that, were we to be there, in the past or there, in the future, we’d be just as dissatisfied, holding ourselves hostage to otherwise scenarios. Griping about being here and now, where and when we do have opportunity to adjust our thinking and thus, feel better, why in this mixed-bag world do we think that we’d do anything any differently in an actual mixed-bag past or in an actual mixed-bag future? It’s nonsense!

Trickeries of nostalgia and daydreaming mislead us into irrational and counterproductive thinking and behaviors that drag us into unintended but quite predictable consequences, including unwanted feelings.  So, can’t we see that we were there then and we’d be there, wherever and whenever, for we’re there – now!

So, where is fulfillment to be found?  If we fall for fluff, we’ll remain unfulfilled.  Distracting ourselves with self-obsessions, we fail to make any real progress toward the truth that we all need to learn – about ourselves, about this world and of the amazingly deeper and wider Reality of God.  If we miss the best News ever, we miss being there, where Truth and Reality are to be found.

Navigating wisely around the everyday mistakes of the past and the present, we discover what the wise, the teachable, those “with ears to hear”, “eyes to see” and “minds to remember”, as Jesus put it, heard, saw and found to be true and passed that truth on to us.

We then can realize that we, of course, were there, with them – both with those with whom we want to identify and those with whom we don’t want to identify, but, if we’re honest, we do see ourselves in them and must identify if we’re to grow up and out of our ignorance, our irrationality, our misbehavior, our troubling emotions and be there where we need to be, to be there for others.  Recognizing that we’ve “been there, done that”, in and with them all, that we “are there”, we “do that”, permits us to “be there” with all whom we’re called to love.

Learning from the wisdom as well as from the folly of folks in the past, is much like the advantage we have in group therapy over individual therapy.  In group therapy, one is freed to afford to see, and then to identify with, fellow group members’ irrationalities that one’s not been so ready to recognize and admit in one’s self.  But, in companionship with another’s irrationality and another’s consequent trouble, all so similar to one’s own, we get why the other person gets into trouble and we get that, that’s how we, too, get into the same sort of trouble.  Being able to afford to identify with the source of another’s trouble, we can see it’s the source of our trouble, too.  Seeing the irrationality that we have in common, we can learn to challenge it, change it, and solve our problem.

So, you’d thought that little girl was right, that “You couldn’t have been there, could you” – not back there in the ‘50s when I watched You Are There.  Yet, isn’t it strange, you have thought that you were there, over a decade before the ‘50s?  That was when that same little girl spoke these words: “But it wasn’t a dream.  It was a place!  … And you, and you, and you, and you were there!  But you couldn’t have been, could you? …  I remember some of it wasn’t very nice, but most of it was beautiful – but just the same, all I kept saying to everybody was, ‘I want to go home’.  … Home!  … Oh, Auntie Em!  There’s no place like home!”

How could you not have been there, in Oz, and then there at Dorothy’s bedside – even decades after 1939!  All the “Friends of Dorothy” have experienced a disturbing sense of being out-of-place, of not fitting in, of not being there – where it’s at – even when they finally managed to get to “there”, allegedly “where it’s at!” There was always some identification with Dorothy.

So, in order to find one’s way home, to belong, to be part of a family, an otherwise disparate assortment of people, rejected by friends and families of origin and by much of society, fabricated a fallback family in the ‘60s.  But, even from the start, it was merely a makeshift shelter from insecurity.  It was inhabited by ego-driven dissenters and deceivers and by divisiveness that, though familiar enough in families from which these refugees came, betrayed the fantasy that they’d conceived in their contrived confidence called “Pride” with a capital “P”.  And, as in all pride as it’s been rightly understood since even before the days of the wisdom of Proverbs – “Pride precedes destruction” (Prov 16:18)

But before the predictable exposure of pride as a fraud, posturers are anxiously aware that their pride is a cover-up for a sense of not measuring up.  Pride is insecurity writ large and loud. And one cannot help but sense that fact and fear exposure.  One tends then to boast all the more desperately and, alas, all the more fearfully.  After all, who needs to posture and propagandize pride in identity with which one has no problem?

And then, concocting an identity group, whose members are told and believe that they’re unwanted and don’t measure up, magnifies and reinforces the notion that theirs is a group of “misfits” who don’t fit into the fantasy of where they want to fit in.  Such defensiveness then gets turned into a capitalizing on the misfit identity and gets paraded as “Queer!”

Besides, have you never noticed that, you don’t really identify with many in your “identity group”.  You think: “Some of them ‘weren’t very nice’, but some were ‘beautiful’ – yet, so far out of my reach”.  (That’s how it is with fantasies.)

So, one way or another, one’s still left out, left in loneliness, wishing after fantasies, “somewhere over the rainbow [where] bluebirds fly, [so] why then, oh why, can’t I?”  Because you’re not a Hollywood lyricist’s imaginary bird!  To your Creator, you’re worth far more than a whole flock of birds, yet He’s mindful of even every sparrow’s hop, skip and jump.  (Matt 10:31)

Dorothy Gale is fiction projected on a screen.  Yet, many project their hopes into her.  But behind all the make-believe and under all the make-up, there was an insecure 16-year-old actress, dominated by her ambitious stage mother who was no “Auntie Em”, and by MGM’s heads without hearts who sexually abused her, pumped her full of barbiturates and amphetamines, and pushed her into chain smoking to suppress her appetite so that they could make more money on a petite little girl.

Merely thirty years later, she died of what the London coroner listed as an “incautious self-overdose of barbiturates”. The New York Times said that her “personal life often seemed a fruitless search for happiness promised in ‘Over the Rainbow’.”  And she herself often said, “I tried my damnedest to believe in that rainbow that I tried to get over, and I couldn’t.  I just couldn’t.”

Some 22,000 of her fans stood in slowly moving lines for two days to mourn their dead idol at Frank Campbell’s Funeral Chapel in Manhattan.  Two days later, down in Greenwich Village, the Stonewall riots erupted and gay activists pinned their hopes on recycled rainbows, hardly aware, if at all, of the truth that, after the hunt, as it were, God hung His bow up in the sky as a sign of His promise of salvation to all creation. (Gen 9:14-16)

Her father, vaudevillian Frank Gumm, could never afford to “come out of the closet” in the homophobic 1920s.  Thus, later gay men were given their idol, “Judy Garland”.  Frank died when Frances was just 13.  She’d often recall: “My father’s death was the most terrible thing that happened to me in my life.  I was always lonesome.”  And that loneliness was never really relieved, even as she heard her cheering fans’ ritual shout-outs at all of her concerts: “We love you, Judy!  We love you!”

If we, here, “have ears to hear” God’s word, if we, here, have “eyes to see” God’s rainbow and minds to remember God’s promises, there’s clarification to be had of Dorothy’s longing to come home to Kansas and of Judy’s longing for her long lost father and for what she’d hopelessly hoped to find “over the rainbow” or in the fanatical and the desperately misplaced adulation of her stage presence.  Are you, there?

God’s gift of the deepest longing of the human heart is to find our way Home.  Home!  But Home can’t be found in this fallen world, or in a fantasyland or in fairyland.  And it’s not to be found in the LGBTQICXYZ community or in the “Ex”-LGBTQICXYZ community.  For far, far deeper than all superficial daydreams of fictional worlds, even in Technicolor, deeper than any self-serving systems of simplistic solutions, Christian realists are rooted in divine revelation and relate to radical release and radial relief from this world’s ever-rotating storms, whether literary or literal.

For centuries, elite Western society assumed that truth was but a matter of convention.  Postmodern sophistry simplistically assumes that truth is merely a social construct.  We’re bombarded with the blunder that there’s only subjectivity, that our feelings are all that count.  That misstep trips us up over thoughts that plunge us into unwanted feelings, foolish behavior and unintended consequences.  That’s where we land, unless we get rid of our unwarranted assumptions and irrational thoughts.  Held hostage down all those blind alleys, we fail even to see, let alone inspect, the assumptions that block our access out of there.  So we stay there, sitting ducks and stupid suckers for all the latest hucksters of hope.

Dorothy brooded: “You couldn’t have been there, could you.”  Oh yes, you could! Oh yes, we can! For she insisted that, “it wasn’t a dream, it was a place!” Yes, there’s always a place where all dreams begin.  There’s a starting place from which all flights of fantasy take off.  And that place is presupposition.

Said Archimedes, the ancient Greek geometer, in discussing the lever: “Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth and all else!”  He meant that one’s foundation is of utmost importance.  So it is in philosophy, religion and in any other endeavor or inquiry.  Christian philosophers recognize that, underneath every notion on truth there are assumptions, presuppositions of faith.  And, what’s crucial is whether or not that faith rests on the solid rock of Christ.

So, we all were there however we were there, in rebellion and in rationalization and self-justification against divine truth, all through human history.  Through conscience – we were there, even if we permitted no more than a ping of our pangs of conscience to ever enter our worldview.  We were there with them, in whatever their limitations, they were ours, too.  We were there with them all, even though we, as well, had been given generous intimations of something more than they and we were willing to see.  We were there with them, resisting with them what they and we willed to ignore.  We were there, whether we’ve ever realized it quite so clearly before, whether or not we can see it now more clearly.  We were there, we are there, and we need to know it and admit it and get the hell out of there. We need to find the way Home.

Whether it was a significant day in world history or in the history of our private worlds, it was a day like all days, and we were there.  Whether we admit that, “some of it wasn’t very nice” or we nostalgically say some of “it was beautiful”, our fantasies left us with much to be desired, much in which to be disappointed and much that led us, perhaps, even into depression, maybe despair.

   We need to rethink what we’ve thought and revise our reactions according to what we can learn to see so much better, and believe.

You’ve known, or suspected, maybe for a long time now, that there is something more, that something’s missing. And, far more than, quite other than, whatever you’ve ever thought is missing, whatever you think may yet be missing – something’s missing!

This morning we’ll visit some of the most significant events in all of human history.  They’re recorded for us to consider and to find ourselves there.  They’re found in the New Testament.  They concern the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

There are, of course, things about those days that are unlike all other days, for God was there in the flesh.  Still, those he came to seek and to save, with whom he interacted back then, with whom we need to identify, are all members, with us, of the same fallen family.  So, if we can admit it, we’ll meet ourselves back there.

They lived some two thousand years before us, some six thousand miles from here.  Still, we find ourselves there with them, back then.   Their experience and ours goes far deeper than any superficiality that separates us as cultural detail. Those differences are minor compared to what we have in common: our fallen human nature and our common need for Jesus.  That’s what so many don’t seem to get and don’t want to get.  But, if we’re honest, we can identify with them in their needs as fellow creations of God, in their self-centeredness and rebellion, their fears, doubts, awareness of guilt and denial of guilt, and all their misplaced faith and foolish efforts at self-righteousness.

If we’ve missed something significant in a supposed familiarity with memorized Bible verses, may we look more frankly into what we tend to overlook. We’re there! And by God’s grace, we can afford to see ourselves in them, back there.

Sadly, when it comes to the Bible, too many contemporaries are completely clueless.  They opine in their ignorance that the biblical accounts are fables and legends.  Ludicrously, they assume the first Christians were such local yokels that they fell for the fraud that a dead Jew didn’t stay dead.  Today’s self-congratulating cynics are the real local yokels, isolated in the boonies of their uninformed pseudosophistication and oblivious to, e.g., Thomas’ refusal to trust his fellow disciples’ testimony of Jesus’ resurrection until he had touched the risen body of Jesus.  They fail to grasp that faked news of resurrection would not have been reported as being based on the testimony of women. Yet the first followers of Jesus chose to be killed rather than to recant their witness to that resurrection.

Skeptics don’t know, or don’t want to know, that the biblical record on Jesus is historically very reliable.  Over 5,700 ancient manuscripts of all, or part, of the New Testament, are available, by which over 99 percent of what were the original texts can be quite confidently reconstructed.  This material was all written down within sixty to seventy years of Jesus’ death and was rooted in eyewitness testimony and oral history that was shared from the very beginning by those who knew Jesus personally and, in their ancient culture, were quite skilled at oral transmission.

Sixty or seventy years may seem a long time to some of you, but just wait, the older you get, sixty years ago will not seem very long ago.  Some of what I shared here at our February weekend went back to my college days, sixty years ago.  Some went back to grade school days, seventy years ago.  If the sound of Cronkite’s words still ring in my ears, as do random comments from my parents while I was in Kindergarten, how much more would Jesus’ words ring in the ears of disciples who then gave their lives to live and die for him!  How many were the reasons to witness for him, with his resurrection appearances resounding in their living memories!

We have their accounts in spite of the priestly and pagan power structures bent on combating, refuting and destroying them.  By comparison, manuscript evidence of ancient secular history, such as portrayed in Cronkite’s series, frequently dates from many centuries after the recounted events.  Yet, it’s assumed today, that we have sufficiently reliable accounts of those secular events.

God’s coming into history in the person of Jesus – that most significant intervening variable in all of human history – was a singularity.  And because of that, those days were not, in all respects, like all days.

But, in fellow members of our fallen race back then, we were there. We’ll recognize ourselves in them, if we’re willing to do so.  In some cases it’ll be painful.  In other cases, it’ll be pleasant.  May God give us the grace to see ourselves in all of them!

Jesus’ earliest followers recalled and preserved what we know as Jesus’ Beatitudes.  (Matt 5:1-11)  Yet, many folks today mistake these beatitudes for just a “Jesus” version of what, say, Buddhists teach, or the gist of the “Social Gospel” of old-time Modernism.  Jesus’ promises of good fortune get distorted out of their deep context in what was his earthshaking Good News of God’s reign having arrived in him, in his vicarious life and in his vicarious death and, then, in God’s raising him from the dead, proof of the accomplished fulfillment.

We can, of course, detect some cross-cultural denominators that indicate a universal need to worship, a universal sense of guilt and universal attempts at self-justification, as well as our common longing for justice and peace, at least, for us, and our kind.

That’s evidence of our having been created in the image of God and having fallen into rebellion against God and hostility toward each other.  Though God’s image in us isn’t obliterated, there’s stubborn resistance against awareness of our being creatures of God and of our being called to look after one another.

Jesus revealed that his coming fulfilled the prophets’ promises and that his Beatitudes heralded “the good news of God’s reign”.

We were there to hear Jesus pronounce his encouraging promises of God’s Reign of good fortune, of “blessed assurances”.  Each of his beatitudes is a note of congratulations, a mazel tov.

What was your response, there in that Sunday school class when someone repeated what Jesus said back then or, when you read it for yourself?  What did you think then? That’s when you were back there with his hearers in the 1st century.  What do you think now, as you hear Jesus’ words spoken again, here, today – in plain English – for you wouldn’t have understood his Aramaic?

“Fortunate are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  You were there that day you first heard this good news.  You were there when you heard it again some years later.  You’re hearing it again, here, today.  What do you think?  Then, how do you feel?  “Mourners are fortunate!”  How so? Relating to the misfortune of others, you’ll be comforted!  Don’t you think that those who heard Jesus’ promise to mourners and, within a year or two of hearing that, learned of his resurrection, could put that promise and that outcome together, and rejoice?  Did you? Do you?

Jesus says, how fortunate you are if you can be merciful?  Isn’t it by God’s mercy shown to us, that we can afford to be merciful?  Are you grateful for mercy’s peace, prompting you to pass God’s mercy and peace to others?  Our mercy rests in God’s peace.

Jesus says: “It’s an honor if people ridicule, persecute and tell lies about you for my sake.  Rejoice, God’s compensation is great.”

Do you get ridiculed for Jesus’ sake? If you don’t, is it because nobody knows that you’re with Jesus, so they have no reason to ridicule you for Jesus’ sake.  Maybe they ridicule you for you’re ridiculous pomposity.  But that’s not for Jesus’ sake.  Does your witness for Jesus elicit even a “raised eyebrow”, let alone, a jihadist’s sword?  Do we turn personalized “persecution” into self-pity parties, self-righteously retaliated gossip or even a lawsuit?

Now, lest we ascribe persecution of Christians to Christians’ being obnoxious, let’s realize that obnoxiousness is always its own penalty.  But our obnoxiousness fails to stir up anyone’s sense of guilt, so where’s the defensiveness that would act out in acts of persecution? Suffering for being a jerk is not suffering for Jesus.  Christian jerks are no threat to Christ’s opponents.  In fact, our obnoxiousness can be quite comforting to them.  Still, anyone’s real faith in Christ can and very often will trigger another’s sense of guilt that then gets acted out in self-righteous hostility.

Global research reports that, each year, nearly 100,000 of Jesus’ disciples are martyred for their faith.  One in 12 face “high, very high or extreme levels of persecution”.  With Jesus’ first disciples, 11 out of 12 were killed for their faith and John was sent into exile.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has been criticized for welcoming so many poorly vetted Muslim refugees, yet even she agrees that it’s not Islam, but Christianity, that’s what she calls, “the most persecuted religion in the world”.  This fails to register at the Southern Poverty Law Center where the motto is “fighting hate, teaching tolerance, seeking justice”.  This activist organization is, in effect, anti-Christian in that it never mentions Christianophobia, but obsesses over Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, et al.

But it’s Christians who shouldn’t be shocked over either the persecution or the persecutors refusal to pay attention to it.  Jesus foretold it all.

Perhaps Jesus’ best known saying, recorded by his first disciples, is called, “The Golden Rule”.  He summed up the whole Law and Prophets in one sentence: “Treat others as you want others to treat you.”  (Matt 7:12)  Recently, the bulletin board on the outside wall of an Upper East Side Reform synagogue featured a paraphrase of Jesus’ words:  “Tweet others as you want others to tweet you.”  Of course, that itself, may have been their violation of this command, made to make a political point against the President.

But, in total contrast to all the legalistic loopholes and the trivial traditions of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, there’s absolutely no wiggle room in Jesus’ stark summary of the entire Torah and all the preaching of the Hebrew prophets.  He cut right through all the religious rationalizations of self-serving behavior in our excusing our bad behavior toward others.  To know how to treat others on the basis of how we want to be treated is not complicated.  It’s a no-brainer.

It would be easier to take this seriously if we’d recall that Jesus based his summation of the Law and Prophets in gratitude.  It’s gratitude that galvanizes his Golden Rule.

Taken ungratefully, his rule might seem to be a reduction of responsibility like the loophole-litter in legalism.  But in contrast to all the negative forms of the rule of reciprocity in, e.g., ancient Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Confucianism, Jesus’ lesson was put in positive terms, actually expanding personal responsibility.  The others addressed only sins of commission; Jesus addresses sins of commission and omission.

In Jesus’ rule, besides our gratitude, the basis for knowing what’s right is to know yourself and what you want and then to behave on that basis toward others. To do right doesn’t require maneuvering through a ton of law books.  All it takes is thankful honesty of our own needs.  And all of us have awareness of that, down pat.

Moreover, our needs include this need to identify and relate to others in order to bring us together for mutual benefit instead of tearing each other apart in self-focused interest that unavoidably, predictably, sets us up for retaliation instead of reconciliation, for isolation rather than inclusion.  Are we there?

Jesus’ Rule is the opposite of defensively self-centered “identity groups” that try to make “safe spaces” for themselves by excluding the “other”.  Ironically, they only reinforce isolation and all of the consequent suspicions and they provoke the predictable backlash.  Is that where we are?

Today, maybe Jesus’ most popular saying gets misquoted to fend off what triggers a guilty conscience in the one who lashes back with: “Judge not, lest ye be judged!”  (Matt 7:1)  Of course, if one doesn’t buy into the criticism, he doesn’t get defensive and doesn’t lash out.  Such a lashing out is actually an unwitting “Amen!” to the criticism.  Amen?

Jesus wasn’t forbidding wise discernment or caring counsel.  We can’t, not discern!  His word, krino, means, “condemn”. Don’t condemn people to hell. We’re not to usurp God’s final declaration of judgment.

And, by the way, did we hear Jesus when he said that in order to share discernment, we’d need to get the log out of our own eye before trying to see well enough to remove a speck from another’s eye?  (Matt 7:3)  Once rid of the logjam in our own eye, maybe we’ll no longer detect the speck we claimed to see in the other’s eye.  It may all have been but projection in our own self-defensiveness.

Have we been there on the receiving end of this misused Bible verse?  Have we been there, in misusing this verse against others?

During Jesus ministry, Pharisees and their scribes repeatedly and condescendingly confronted him, trying to entrap him.  In one of these encounters, they reprimanded him on the basis of their oral traditions, devised in obsession over ritual purity.  They demanded, in their façade of a question: “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders by not washing their hands when they eat.” (Matt 15:1) We hear this and think of hygiene.  Pharisees didn’t.  Their obsession was on multiplied regulations of ritual cleanliness.

Jesus undermined their self-serving attack by going straight to the heart of the matter: “And why do you transgress God’s commandment with your tradition? God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ ”, but, you say that what might be used to take care of one’s elderly parents can be withheld by designating it for the temple’s use. “You hypocrites!  You cancel God’s word with your tradition!

As we were there just now, watching this tense confrontation between religious leaders and Jesus, did we recognize ourselves there, in the Pharisees’ greed, in the greed of the elderly parents’ son, in the need of the parents?  Do we see how self-serving greed and guile gets dressed up in pious guise that can’t get rid of guilt but only makes it worse by sanctimonious robbery?  Are we there?

Jesus then turned to the plain folk and spoke of the nit-picking of the Pharisees: “Listen, it’s not what goes into a person that defiles him.  It’s what comes out of him that defiles him.”  Evil comes from within.  Evil is never superficial.  Evil inside will spill out.  But in Jesus’ days, as in our days, everyday do’s and don’ts of this world’s calculating of “right and wrong” are superficial.  They so unfailingly fail to see how very deep-seated our evil really is.

No wonder that, in Mark’s account of Jesus’ healing a man with a shriveled hand, Jesus is reported to have fixed his eyes on these self-righteous enemies, synagogue leaders, and, as his steady look penetrated into the heart of this evil, he felt his anger of disgust at justice denied and his grief of compassion for the unjust.  (Mk 3:5)

Having already challenged them on the Torah and whether it’s right, on the Sabbath, to do good or do ill, to save life or to kill (Deut 30:15ff), Jesus turned to a poor man with a shriveled hand.

The man hadn’t asked to be healed.  His case was no emergency.  He’d probably lived with his paralysis for some time.  Still, Jesus motioned for him to come forward and the man did.  No doubt the religionists were more certain than that man, about what Jesus had in mind for him.  And they couldn’t stand it.

On that historic Sabbath, the self-righteous religionists reacted by plotting, with even their politically connected rivals, to kill Jesus.  So much for pious concern to keep the Sabbath holy!

Were you there with the “traditionalist” religious legalists or the “progressive” religious sycophants of the pagan state?  No matter, they were all united in their deadly opposition to Jesus.

It’s no stretch for us to see ourselves in those that, for our self-serving agendas, we posture distaste to try to cope with our own self-righteousness. But it does take some stretching to admit that we see ourselves in these self-righteous enemies of Jesus.

Do you identify with the villager who, though he’d not asked for healing, was graciously singled out and healed?  Yet, in this very act of mercy, Jesus willingly turned the political tide against himself.  And these schemers, alleged representatives of God, began their plot to destroy him?  Do you see Jesus’ priorities here?

Their plot was the default to denial of guilt that the guilty felt when Jesus locked his look on them with disgust and compassion.  And even their defensive sense of guilt was God’s gift of grace to them, lest they continue to destroy themselves.

Sensing that something’s wrong – and everyone senses it – it’s no good pretending that nothing’s wrong.  It’s no good pretending that what’s wrong can be handled on one’s own with but a bit of positive thinking or a self-help guru or some street drugs or some drunkenness, more sex, more fame, more financial security, more political promises, more rights, more regulations, more entitlement schemas … whatever.  How feeble and unfortunate!  For what’s really wrong is deadly!

Jesus’ words were intended for his listeners that day. And, they were recorded for us, his listeners today. Are we paying attention? Are we grateful to have them? What will our response be today? Will it be more whining over all the everyday inconveniences of our mortal life that’s lived under far, far better conditions than all the world’s peoples have ever enjoyed? Will it be our foolish resentment that’s held hostage to fantasies or will it be a faithful reception that’s in awe of the amazing grace of God?

Do you remember that day when we were there when Jesus came into the synagogue at Nazareth?  We’re there right now.  Jesus is handed an Isaiah scroll (Isa 61).  He unrolls it and reads aloud: “The Spirit of the LORD is on me. He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for all oppressed and release from darkness”, and he reads more. “Then he rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant and he sits down to teach.  All eyes are fastened on him, awaiting his commentary. And the very first thing he says is this: “Today, in your hearing, this scripture is fulfilled.” (Mt 5:2-12)

You heard it, today. It’s fulfilled, today. Do you identify as one of the poor and oppressed, spiritually or otherwise, one of the brokenhearted, one in deep need? Do you fix your eyes on Jesus, ready for his every word?

One day, Jesus asked his disciples if they recalled what he’d told them about “a slave’s not being greater than the master”. He was about to give them a difficult wake-up call. He said: “Since they persecuted me, of course they’ll persecute you. And if they had listened to me, they’d listen to you.” (John 15:20) They were there that day that he reminded them of this unwelcome news and they’d, no doubt, tried to suppress their memory since they’d seen up close how nasty his opponents could be and, while they’d seen him withstand the attacks, they’d feared they’d not be able to handle such attacks by themselves.

You and I were there when we first heard his warning that we’d be persecuted for his sake. Maybe we preferred to believe that, that was then and this is now. How naïve! What was then has always been and that is what is now.

My repeatedly asking you, “Were you there?” and my repeatedly saying, “You were there!” probably has reminded you of that old African-American spiritual, “Were You There when they Crucified My Lord?” First published in 1899, in a volume called, Old Plantation Hymns, it calls us to return to that awful day that’s now, rightly called, “Good Friday”.

We’ve all heard this haunting spiritual, but now, might we take the question more personally than we may have done?  Were you there when they crucified your Lord?  Were we there when they crucified our Lord?  Was I there when they crucified my Lord?

And what’s this about “they”?  “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  Did we have nothing to do with it then? Do we have nothing to do with it now?

We all were there, one way or another.  We all were there! How were we there?  Were we there with the mockers?  Were we there with the callously curious with nothing better to do than to be entertained by the obscene?  Were we there with the soldiers who were ordered to be there to carry out another execution as a warning to these odd outlanders, that they’d better not try to come against the Roman government’s authority?  Were we there with religious leaders to see to it that our vested interests would be kept safe with the blasphemer’s demise?  Were we there with the “people of the land” who’d gained hope in this man’s compassion but now were confused and sad?  Were we there with his disciples, now afraid to come near, anxiously hiding lest we be the next to be arrested and executed?  Were we there grieving with his mother and beloved disciple?

Make no mistake about it: we were all there on that historic day at Golgotha – that third day of April in what would evermore be known as the “Year of our Lord, Anno Domini, AD 33”!

It was a day like all days and yet it was something so very much more.  We were there, though we didn’t know it then.  Do we know it now? Today, do you realize that you were there that day?  Do you know where, we were there?

We were there, on Jesus’ cross.  But we were oblivious to what was happening.  Physically unscathed, we were untouched by the terrible agony that Jesus was enduring for us in those unspeakably torturous hours of crucifixion as he absorbed into himself, all the dregs of all our sin and all the devastation of death we deserved.  He was there for us.

And we were there, on his mind and in his heart and in each bloody wound, each agonized breath, as Jesus willingly laid down his life of obedience on our behalf, as he paid the price of our sin through his own undeserved death, to accomplish there for us, what we, on our own, could never do for ourselves.

We were there, but unaware.  Jesus was there, and very much aware of a deeply forsaken sense that he’d never known before.  Yet, his response was a faithful wail of a prayer when he called out in agony: Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, “My God, My God, Why have You forsaken me?”

To those first heart-wrenching words from Psalm 22, he uttered, as his last words, that Psalm’s final affirmation of God’s vindication, expressed in the divine passive voice of God’s action: “It’s done!” “It’s finished!

Nineteen hundred and fifty-nine years after Golgotha, some of us were there with EC on the Upper West Side, on another April evening, in 1992.  We were at one of the last concerts of the Black Gospel singer, Marion Williams.  She sang, most movingly, “Were You There when they crucified My Lord?”  She managed to get through just the first of that spiritual’s three shuddered “trembles”, and interrupted herself.  In deeply agonizing reflection, she muttered, almost inaudibly, “I can’t stand too much of this song”.  Then she pressed on, shuddering over the other two  “trembles”.  “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”  Does Jesus’ crucifixion cause us to tremble – even sometimes?

Back there in April, AD 33, about dawn on that first day of the week, there at the borrowed tomb where Jesus’ body was buried, the earth shook and the stone at the entrance to the tomb rolled away and the tomb was empty! We’re told that guards were posted to see to it that nobody came to steal the body to make it look like his prediction of rising from the dead had come true.  But when it appeared to the guards that it was, indeed, all coming true in spite of them, and all on its own, they were overcome with dread and collapsed.

Then, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” approached the tomb, bringing spices to anoint his dead body.  They encountered a heavenly messenger arrayed in gleaming white there inside the empty tomb, and they were informed that Jesus was risen!  They ran, as instructed, to tell the disciples what they’d seen and heard.  On their way, Jesus risen, appeared and they clasped onto him and were filled with joy.  He told them to go, tell the brothers that he’d meet them in Galilee, and he especially noted, poor, guilt-ridden Peter.

And, indeed, the disciples met their risen Lord in Galilee.  After giving them his commission to share the Good News with all the world, he promised he’d be with them every day, until the end of the age. (Matt 28:20)  Every day with Jesus is “a day like all days with Jesus”, another day with our Savior and Lord.

It was on this very day in June, in 1930, that missionary linguist, Frank Laubach, wrote to his father: “As we grow older, all our paths diverge and in all the world I suppose I could find nobody who could wholly understand me, excepting God.”

Laubach was right.  In the end, no one else, no parent, no friend, no identity group, surely not ourselves, can wholly understand us.  But Jesus does.  God does.  And, as Paul, who’d persecuted Jesus, put it after he’d met the risen Jesus: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, not counting our trespasses against us and has

committed to us the word of reconciliation.” (II Cor 5:19)

Will we be there with Jesus, at the end of this age and at the manifestation of God’s everlasting reign?  Here’s the revelation to John in exile: “Then I saw a Lamb, as if it had been slain, standing at the center of God’s throne. … I looked and I heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne … and in a loud voice they were saying: ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!’ Then, I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the seas and all that is in them, saying: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb, be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Rev 5)

John sees the conscience-stricken call for the mountains to fall on them and hide them from “the wrath of the Lamb”. (Rev 6) Then, John tells of a “multitude that no one can count … from all tribes … robed in white … crying out: ‘Salvation belongs to our God … and to the Lamb’ … Praise, glory, wisdom, thanks, honor and power be to our God forever and ever. Amen”. (Rev 7)

Will you be there with the Lamb? By the sacrificial love of the Lamb, you will!

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