Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Dark Power of Secrets

Mark 14:10-21
Maundy Thursday
April 2, 2015
William G. Carter

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.” So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.

When it was evening, he came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. For 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.”

In a counseling course, the professor walked in and shut the door. She waited until everybody was quiet, then she lowered her voice and announced the topic of the class. “Today we are going to talk about secrets,” she said. “Everybody has a secret. Every family has a secret. There is some fact or some knowledge that some people know, but nobody talks about.” The classroom became unusually still, because all of us were reflecting on the secrets we held, and the silences that had shaped us.

Of all the hours spent in a graduate school classroom, that is the one I remember most, because over the course of my ministry, I have found that to be true. There are all kinds of private matters that are held tightly: the miscarriage that nobody talks about, the quick remarriage that failed, or the suspicious illness that has locked the door to the outside world.

Sometimes there a discovery at death, like the daughter who learned her father was addicted to gambling. She said, “That explains why suddenly there had been no money for my prom dress, and my mother went weeping in the bedroom.”

Perhaps it is the child who died too soon or the gay uncle who moved out of town. Or there has been a problem with finances or a run-in with the law. A secret is something that somebody knows but nobody talks about.

Tonight we hear a Bible story about secrets. Judas Iscariot and the religious leaders had a secret. Earlier in this chapter, we learned the religious leaders wanted to arrest and eliminate Jesus. They wanted to do it quietly. For some unknown reason, Judas went to them and said, “I’ll turn him in.” They offered to pay him something, although Mark never says he did it for the money. We can speculate all night long about the reason; all Mark says is Judas was “one of the twelve.”

And Jesus had a secret too. He knew the place where the Passover meal would be held. It sounds like he set it up when nobody was looking. “Go into the city,” he said to two of his disciples. “Look for a man carrying a jug of water.” That’s unusual, since carrying the water was done by the women of that time. “Follow the man, and ask his master the location of the guest room. That’s where we will be.”

Why the cloak and dagger arrangements? At least a couple of scholars claim that Jesus didn’t want Judas to know where they were going until the very last minute.[1]This Passover meal will be too important, too significant, too revealing, so Jesus wanted to keep its location a secret so Judas would not interrupt it by tipping off the authorities.

Judas Iscariot had a secret. Jesus had a secret.

Sometimes the secret is a matter best not known, something potentially embarrassing. So out of fear of exposure, we keep it to ourselves. Just take a look at the news of the day, and whatever the investigative journalists uncover about our public figures. Everybody has a secret. Some secrets are held very tightly.

But quite often the secret is about power: “I know something you don’t know.” How many times has the secret holder said, “People are talking.” Who? “Well, I can’t say.” Why? “Because I would rather know something that you don’t know.” You can’t address that kind of unbalanced power. All you can do is ignore it, as if it is an unsigned hate letter which belongs only in the garbage, or you can expose it and bring it into the light.

Jesus exposes it. “One of you will betray me,” he says, “one of you around this table.” He names the secret. He pulls off the lid. He exposes what has been lurking in the shadows and what wants to hide there. He refuses to keep it hidden any longer.

What’s so amazing is the response. Every one of them says, “It isn’t me, is it?” “You’re not talking about me, are you?” “Jesus, are you looking at me?” Every one of them knows the deep capacity within their souls to betray Jesus. Every one of them! There isn’t a smug, self-satisfied Christian in the room.

Oh no, this is the Gospel of Mark, the gospel where none of the disciples smell very well. Three times in this gospel, Jesus has told them openly he is going to the cross. Three times he tells them, three times they don’t get it. “I am going to the cross,” and Simon Peter says, “No, not you.” A second time, “I am going to the cross,” but they don’t him because they are bickering over which one of them is superior to all the others. A third time he says, “I am going to the cross,” and James and John say, “When you go into glory, can we have good seats?” And the other ten get annoyed with James and John because they got to him first.

This is Mark, the Gospel where the disciples never get it. They never understand. In the end, they all run away in Gethsemane. That is Mark’s way of saying none of us ever live up to the promise of following Jesus completely. And if you think you do, get over yourself. Because there is probably some secret that we don’t want others to know, and we certainly don’t want the Lord to know, so we will expend extraordinary energy to hide whatever we do not want disclosed. In fact, we will expend so much energy hiding a secret that we will make ourselves sick.

Jesus rips off the lid to say, “One of you will betray me. Someone right here. Not out there, in here.”

Fred Craddock once said there is a difference between a disciple and a crusader. The crusader says, “Who is it? Who is it?” Looks behind the door and under the bed. Gets out the searchlight and looks in the shadows. “Who is it? Is it you – or you – or you?” But the disciple asks the question that the crusader never asks. The crusader says, “Who is it?” The disciple says, “Is it I?”

The best antidote for sin is telling the truth. It’s ‘fessing up. God can’t do a thing to heal our secrets if we don’t bring them into the light. Like Adam and Eve, eating the forbidden fruit and then hiding behind the tree, and God says, “Where are you?” And they say, “We’re not here. You can’t see us. It wasn’t us, we didn’t do anything wrong.” Really now. Are you going to speak that way to the One who sees everything? To the One who knows everything? The truth is our medicine and it can make us well.

Tonight is Maundy Thursday. In past generations, church members joined their churches on Maundy Thursday. I believe my mother’s confirmation class joined the church on Maundy Thursday. That always seemed so grim. It is such a dark night, full of shadows and secrets. But the more I think about it, if you can handle betrayal and honest confession, you are ready to be a Christian. After all, our friends will disappoint us. We will disappoint them. All of us are a disappointment to Jesus. And how does he respond? He says, “One of you will betray me,” and while we are fussing about that, he breaks the bread, pours the wine, and offers them to us all.

Sometimes people will say, "I am looking for a perfect church." What they mean is a church where the doctrine is agreeable, the behavior is acceptable, and everything is in line with how they think a church ought to function. As if any one of us is the arbiter of all things ecclesial. “I want a perfect church.” Good luck with that. The only perfect church is the one in heaven, and all the people in that church have been forgiven. There is no such thing as a perfect church on earth. Just a circle of failed disciples around their merciful Savior.

Did you come to church tonight with any secrets?

If you did, I have the desire to pray. It is an old prayer and therefore a good one. So let us pray:

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known,
and from you no secrets are hid:
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name;
through Christ our Lord.[2] Amen.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week (New York: Harper San Francisco, 2006) p. 111
[2] Episcopal Church, 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

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