Do Not Be Afraid sermon series – Fear of the Other

SCRIPTURE – Mark 15:33-39 – 33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” 36 And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

Do Not Be Afraid sermon series
#5 – Fear of the Other
Mark 15:33-39
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? That’s the question the song asks us as we approach Holy Week and the events leading up to Jesus’ death. I wonder what it would have been like to be there. Can you imagine the sights – the streaks of blood on Jesus’ face, the splintering wood of the cross beam? Can you imagine the sounds – the pounding of the hammer on the nails, the wailing of the women? Can you imagine the raw emotions – anger, grief, shock. Could we have understood the magnitude of what was happening? For the eyewitnesses of the crucifixion, it must have been a heart-wrenching, devastating experience.

Well, except for one guy. For the centurion, it wasn’t the death of the Messiah; it was just another day of punishing criminals and dealing with traitors to the Roman Empire. It wasn’t a Good Friday. It wasn’t a bad Friday. It was just Friday. This crucifixion didn’t bother him in the least; it was simply the execution of three more bad guys. Hanging Jesus probably affected him as much as hanging a picture in his living room. Jesus was no one of importance; he was a Jew, a criminal, not worthy of a second look, certainly not worthy of the fuss being made over him. And yet, Mark tells us, “When he saw how Jesus died…”

Today we conclude our Lenten sermon series called, “Do Not Be Afraid.” We’ve been looking at some of the fears we deal with in our lives – the fear of what other people think, the fear of failure – and spending time with some of the people around Jesus who overcame those fears in order to be closer to him. Their courage allowed them to grow in faith as they walked with Jesus to his death and beyond, and can serve as an example for us as we face our own fears.

Today, our character is the centurion at the foot of the cross. He isn’t dealing so much with an outright fear as he is with a general feeling of disdain or dismissal. He doesn’t fail to understand Jesus because he’s afraid of him; he misses Jesus because he doesn’t even see him. To the centurion, Jesus isn’t a person; he’s a task, something to check off the to-do list. And yet, when he saw how Jesus died…

The centurion was a ranking officer in the Roman army, in command of a group of 100 men. He would have been a career soldier, well-paid and well-regarded within the Roman Empire. He had probably fought in many battles, seen many men die, most likely killed a bunch by his own hand. So this day was no different. This wasn’t murder; this was work, and not particularly desirable work at that. He didn’t care about Jesus. Maybe didn’t even know who he was. What did he know? This man was a Jew. This man was a criminal. This man was going to die. That’s all that mattered. Jesus the person didn’t matter.

I have very vivid memories growing up of the racist attitudes of some of my extended family. At family gatherings there would always be a number of racist jokes being told, and the N-word was used frequently. I remember a great-aunt telling about the Klan rally she had recently attended. I didn’t know any better, so I listened to her story and repeated those jokes to my friends. I just assumed that if my family thought this way about black people, it must be true.

Then I met Demetrius. Demetrius lived in the apartments near my grandparents, which my family called by a racist name. I just assumed anyone who lived there fit the negative portrait my family had drawn for me about black people. I don’t remember how Demetrius and I met, but I do remember two things: (1) he was the first black person I’d ever spoken with, and (2) he was nothing like what my family said about black people. Demetrius and I became great friends, meeting after school each day to play Wiffle ball on a vacant lot in the apartments. After we became friends, I stopped repeating those jokes. To paraphrase an author I read recently, Demetrius interrupted by assumptions about black people.

Vijay Singh was the first Indian person I ever knew. He was one of my professors in college. He was extremely intelligent and very funny. Leigh and I took him to his first horse race at Churchill Downs. We had epic arguments over games of Scattegories that still cause Leigh to roll her eyes at me. I didn’t know any Indian people before Vijay, but I had assumptions based on what other people had told me about their clothes and their food and their religion. Vijay interrupted those assumptions.

Greg was a fellow student with me during college at IU Southeast. We had several classes together and worked on student activities. Greg was a lot of fun to be around and had a passion for serving others. He ended up working in the Career Center at IUS, helping students find their first job out of college. He was also the first openly gay person I ever knew. Believe me, I had drawn a lot of conclusions about what gay people were like, but Greg didn’t fit any of them. He interrupted the assumptions I had made about homosexuals.

The centurion had dealt with a lot of Jews in his day. Because he was stationed in Jerusalem, he probably had the assignment of keeping the Jews in check so that they didn’t cause too much of a ruckus for the local Roman rulers. He had probably whipped them, locked them in jail, and even crucified them. He had heard their taunts, watched them spit on him, felt their hatred. Oh yeah, he knew what the Jews were like. And yet, when he saw how Jesus died…

What did he see? He had probably been with Jesus all day, so he would have seen him beaten, mocked, disrobed, weighed down with a crown of thorns. And yet, Jesus didn’t retaliate. The centurion watched Jesus make his way through the streets of Jerusalem to Golgotha, heard the pounding the nails through flesh and bone, saw the blood and sweat on Jesus’ face. But he also heard Jesus say, “Forgive them, Father, for they don’t know what they are doing.” He prays for his killers? He heard him bring together his mother and the disciple John, making sure they looked out for each other. He looked into Jesus’ face when Jesus said, “It is finished,” and let out a loud cry. When he saw how Jesus died…

I believe Jesus interrupted the assumptions the Centurion had about the Jews. For the first time in his life, the centurion wasn’t dealing with a faceless group of people; he was dealing with Jesus. And when he saw him for who he was, not for what others said about him, he saw something there that led him to say, “Truly this man was God’s son!” one of the greatest statements of faith in the Bible. From that moment forward, his understanding of Jesus and of the Jews in general was changed. They were no longer the Other; they were human beings.

In our world today, we are encouraged to see those who are not like us as Others. If they don’t look like us, if they don’t believe like us, if they don’t live where we do, then they are the Other. And we’re told that the Other should be feared, because the Other wants to do us harm, because we are the Other to them. And if we can get them before they get us, then there will be no more Other to fear.

Who is an Other to you? For many folks, it’s Syrian refugees or Mexican immigrants. Maybe your Other is a Muslim or a Hindu. For some people, the Other is a Republican; for others, it’s a Democrat. Could your Other be a young African-American male in a hoodie? Could it be an out-of-touch senior citizen? A troubled child in your classroom or a neighbor who speaks a different language? Maybe it’s a homeless person you see in downtown Lexington. Can we admit that we all have an Other in our lives that causes us discomfort, even fear?

We’re told we should fear our Other because they want to hurt us, to do us harm, to take over our country. We’re conditioned to cross the street to avoid them, to not waste time helping them. But I don’t think that’s the real source of our fear. I think our real fear is that if we decide to actually engage our Other, we’ll learn they’re a lot like us. I believe our real fear is that we’re afraid to have our assumptions interrupted. Because if they are, then we have two choices: (1) ignore what we learn and continue living in fear, or (2) change our assumptions.

And there are consequences to changing our assumptions. For the centurion, who had pledged his allegiance to serving Rome, the only son of God was the emperor. For him to call Jesus a son of God was treason, punishable by the same death he was used to doling out to others. We don’t know what happens to him after the crucifixion. Does he renounce his allegiance to Caesar and follow Jesus? Or does he ignore what he experienced at the foot of the cross and continue his service to Rome? You know, the second choice is easier. It’s safer to continuing living out his prejudices. He stands to lose so much by changing his perspective.

What do we stand to lose? If are willing to come face-to-face with our Other, to see them as a human being, to hear their stories and how they overlap with ours, to discover those commonalities and connections, then we have a choice. Either we change our perspective on them, stop demonizing them, stop fearing them. Or we hold onto our prejudices, because that’s easier. If we do that, we wouldn’t lose our friends. We won’t alienate our family. We won’t have to admit we were wrong about them all along.

Christian singer Chris Rice sings about this dilemma in his song, “Face of Christ.” He sings, “After sixteen years in a cold, gray prison yard, somehow his heart is soft, but keeping simple faith is hard. He lays his Bible open on the table next to me, and as I hear his humble prayer, I feel his longing to be free. How did I find myself in a better place? I can’t look down on the frown on the other guy’s face. Cause when I stoop down low and look him square in the eye, I get a funny feeling, I just might be dealing with the face of Christ.”

Every single day we face the choice of fearing the Other or moving past our fears. We have the opportunity to look into the face of our Other, to enter into a conversation that might interrupt our assumptions and change our perspectives. Who could you invite to coffee? Who might you stop on the street to talk with? What group of people have you made judgments about without really knowing anyone in that group? “Yeah, there just another one of those people.” I wonder what would happen if we took the time to get to know someone we’ve been told to fear. Instead of crucifying them in the media, on Facebook, in our own minds, I wonder what would happen if we heard their stories, walked their journeys, looked them square in the eye? This week is an opportunity for you to change your perspective on someone, to move from fear to understanding, to talk with them instead of about them. What will happen if you look them in the eye?. Who knows who you might see in them.

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