The Usual Suspects (Mark 7:1-23)

By | March 9, 2011

The Event #1
Ash Wednesday


      This year as we begin our Lenten Journey, the inspiration for retelling the story of Jesus crucifixion, death and resurrection came from the advertisements or teasers for the TV series The Event. In those teasers, they showed a cliffhanger kind of clip and then said, “This is NOT the Event” So, in keeping with those teasers, this is NOT The Event. Ash Wednesday is NOT the Event. It is but one of the events leading up to THE Event.

      I love a well told story, especially in a movie that engages you on all levels. In my opinion, one of the best told stories in a movie was told in The Usual Suspects. It is a storytellers dream of intrigue, twists of fate, turns, unforeseen situations, surprises and an ending that left me stunned, mesmerized and then laughing at the sheer audacity when the full impact of the story hit me.

      Tonight I want you imagine a police lineup. In that lineup are Jesus and the Disciples, including of course, Judas. It is the Usual Suspects for any Lenten series. If I told you that there was a thief in the lineup, who would you think I was be talking about?

      Judas of course. He was the betrayer right? So it would only follow that in our Usual Suspects lineup, he would be the thief. If you guessed Judas, then you’d be wrong. Judas was a betrayer but he wasn’t a thief, or rather he wasn’t The Chief Thief.

      My contention tonight is that on the day Jesus was crucified, there was the repentant thief, the unrepentant thief and Jesus, the third thief. That’s right, Jesus was a thief. Have I got your attention?

      Here’s why I say that. When John the baptizer was preaching and baptizing, Jesus walked by one day. John stopped in the middle of his sermon and pointed out Jesus to the crowd.

      Do you remember what John said about his cousin Jesus? “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”

      Jesus was and is God’s designated Sin Stealer. Jesus took on the burden and guilt of our sin without even asking our permission. He took it from us. It is no longer ours. We can claim it’s ours all we want but we’re not getting it back. The Lamb of God took it from us. The Lamb of God is a thief, God’s Thief, theologically speaking.

      I hope you know I don’t mean any disrespect. But the fact that Jesus took our sin is of utmost importance. You see, we think it still belongs to us. It doesn’t. It’s His. He took it and paid for it with His life. And because of that act, we can be different. We can be the people God has always wanted us to be.

      Rev. Michael L. Cobbler tells how this was shown clearly to him one early spring day long ago. His mother had made his favorite lunch for school. It was a small container of chocolate milk, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. He went off to Public School 129. A block and a half away, eager for the morning to pass so he could sink his teeth into one of those delicious cookies, he turned the corner and found himself face to face with Junebug, the bully of the block.

      “Gimmie that lunch, punk!” Junebug said.

      “But, Junebug, that’s my lunch.”

      “You better gimmie that lunch!”

      “But it’s mine. My Mom made it for me, and she made me my favorite–.”

      Junebug’s right uppercut sent him and the lunch to the ground. He picked up the lunch and said, “That’s what you get for not listening to me!” and went off to school. He picked himself up, went off to school with no lunch and lots of anger.

      At home that late afternoon he was very quiet. Mom, knew something was up, said, “What happened at school today?”

      Michael said: “I’m gonna kill him!”

      Shocked, Mom asked, “What?”

      “I’m gonna kill him!” He said.

      “And who do you plan to kill?”

      Michael said, “Junebug. He beat me up, he stole my lunch, and I’m gonna kill him!”

      Mom thought about it for awhile and then said, “Here, have some food. Don’t start your homework right away, there’s something we need to do together, but you must do it as I say.”

      The next morning Michael saw Junebug in front of the school. He pointed to him and said, “There’s that punk who I stole cookies from yesterday!”

      Michael walked up to Junebug, handed him a bag and said, “Junebug, here are some cookies. They’re for you. My Mom and I  made them.”

      “Whatta you mean, punk? Giving me cookies? I can take them from you anytime I want!”

      “I know but we made them for you, take them.”

      “Are they poison?”

      Michael said, “No, they’re okay, take them.”

      Junebug took the bag and handed it to one of his buddies. “Hey, Bootsie, you try them.”

      Bootsie said, “But they might be poison.”

      “Try them anyway, already! They just may be good!”

      After one bite, and Bootsie still standing, Junebug passed out the cookies to his buddies, saying, “The punk has brought me, Junebug, some cookies! Isn’t that great!”

      The next day, Michael saw Junebug during recess. He walked up to him, gave him a bag and said, “Junebug, here are some more cookies. Take them, they’re free.”

      “Are you messing with me, man? Are you messing with me? These are the ones that are poison! Yesterday was just to set me up!”

      Michael said, “Don’t worry, Junebug. They’re just fine.” Junebug took the bag and then backed away from Micahel with a terrified look on his face.

      The following day, Michael saw Junebug in the cafeteria and said, “Junebug, here are some more cookies. Enjoy them!”

      Junebug exploded, “How can I enjoy cookies if you keep on giving them to me! Now cut it out, man! I didn’t even finish yesterday’s cookies! No more cookies! (He took the bag anyway.)

      On the next day, Michael saw Junebug at the end of school. He walked up to him and said, “Junebug, here are….”

      Junebug took one look at that bag of cookies and turned running and screaming all the way down the street.

      Rev. Cobbler writes: “I haven’t even had the notion of taking someone’s life ever since.”

      I’ve been asked a number of times, what does it mean to heap burning coals upon someone’s head as Paul talks about in Romans 12:19-21 (NRSV)
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

      When our hearts and mind are focused on serving God, then like Rev. Cobbler we won’t even have the notion of taking someone’s life. We won’t have the notion of getting even. Why?

       Because Jesus is a sin stealer. Rev. Cobbler’s Mom showed him how an act of love could steal his intention to sin. (1)

      Jesus is a sin stealer. What is it in your life that you need Jesus to steal? What thought? What attitude? What past guilt? What deed you’ve been contemplating?

      Tonight I want you to let Jesus have it.

      As you come to receive the Ashes, leave it at the altar.  And then as a sign of your forgiveness, enjoy the chocolate chip cookies I’ve brought for everyone. Taste and see that the Lord is good. See how sweet forgiveness can be.

1. Adapted from a sermon by Michael L. Cobbler, The Trouble With ‘Sin Stealers’