John Doe, Judas, and a Secure Promise: Potter’s Field

Sermon on Judas’s Great Legacy

Text: Gospel of Matthew 27:3-8

Then Judas the traitor, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, repented and took the thirty silver pieces to the chief priests and elders of the people. “I have sinned by betraying an innocent man!” he said. But they replied, “How does that concern us? That is your affair.” Throwing down the silver pieces toward the Most Holy Place, he withdrew and went away and hanged himself. Picking up the silver pieces, the chief priests said, “It is unlawful to put this into the treasury, for it is blood money.” Therefore, after coming to an agreement about it, they used the money to buy Potter’s Field as a burying place for foreigners, and to this day that field is known as “The Field of Blood.” – Matthew 27:3-8, Anchor Bible translation by W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann

I have always felt that Judas got a bum rap.

The tradition has not treated him well, even according to its own standards. Yes, he bore responsibility for betraying his Lord with a kiss in exchange for 30 pieces of silver. And, yes, he committed suicide. But little or no attention has been paid to the small detail of Judas’ repentance or the depth of the sorrow that led to his suicide.

Matthew’s Judas is repentant. Listen:

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death; and they bound him and led him away and delivered him to Pilate the governor.

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, Judas repented…and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver toward The Holy Place, Judas departed; and he went out and hanged himself. (Matthew 27:1-5)

Judas’ suicide, like most if not all suicides, issues from an irrecoverable despair.
He had changed his mind and had tried to turn back, but the dice had already been thrown, as they would be thrown again by the soldiers, rolling the dice over who would get to keep Jesus’ clothing. Not even throwing down the silver pieces at the feet of the religious authorities could change the course of events his betrayal had set in motion.

Some believe the deal Judas cut with the ruling religious authorities was a craps shoot. He had gambled that leading Jesus’s opponents to the secret place where Jesus gathered with his apostles would force Jesus to be the kind of violent revolutionary king he had wrongly supposed he would become. By arranging a face-to-face confrontation between Jesus and the Temple police, he imagined he could force Jesus’s hand toward a violent insurrection, and it appears he was not alone in that expectation. For, after Judas had led the temple police to him, Peter had drawn his dagger and cut off an ear of the high priest’s slave, only to hear Jesus rebuke the way of violence with an order to put away the sword. As a result, says Matthew, “all the disciples abandoned him and fled.” No one remained to stand with him as the witness to a different course than the way violence and terror. Jesus alone is innocent of the way of blood-taking.

By the time we see Judas throwing down the silver coins at the feet of the temple authorities his head was spinning. His expectation of a grand seizure of power – a kind of coup d’état that would overthrow the Roman colonizers and replace their temple collaborators – had crashed. What does one do when one’s great dream dies? What does one do when a grandiose scheme crumbles?

Either you revise the dream or you fall hopelessly into despair. We might wonder whether perhaps Judas’ biggest mistake was not the betrayal so much as it was not subsequently trusting a divine providence greater than his sin and more powerful than his ability to thwart it. Awash in guilt and sorrow, he threw down what Matthew calls “the blood money” toward the Most Holy Place – that is, the Holy of Holies, regarded as the most sacred of all places in the universe – and took his life.

The “blood money” never went back into the sacred treasury. It was dirty. So instead, the chief priests and the elders, not wanting to be sacrilegious, took the money that had secured Judas’s cooperation in the plot against Jesus – the “blood money” that purchased Jesus’s crucifixion – to buy “the potter’s field, to bury strangers in.” What is called the “Field of Blood “is also called “the Potter’s Field.” Why?

Why the Potter’s Field?

Matthew does a strange thing. He quotes a text found in the Book of  Zechariah (Zech. 10:12-13) but attributes its source to Jeremiah. Although the Book of Zechariah speaks of the Field of Blood which is also called the Potter’s Field, the text there never explains why it is called a potter’s field.

What would a potter’s field be? A potter uses clay to make pottery. The site referred to in Matthew is known traditionally as Akeldama, in the valley of Hinnom, which was a source of potters’ clay. It’s where the potter, the sculpting artist, gets the clay.  It’s an artist’s field. Jeremiah compares God to a potter and of us as the potter’s clay. So perhaps it is called Potter’s Field as a witness to the truth that the John and Mary Doe’s who eventually will land in the pauper’s cemetery belong to the Potter every bit as much as those society regards as worthy of burial in a more distinguished cemetery, a sacred place, if you will.

There is a great irony here in Matthew’s telling of the story: Judas returns the soiled holy money taken from the temple treasury, throws it back at the inner sanctum where only Oz was allowed to enter, the Holy of Holies from which the chief priests pulled the levers intended to keep Judas and Dorothy and every other mystified traveler in line with fear – and that soiled not-so-sacred money buys the Field of Blood for the less than holy, also known as “the Potter’s Field”.

Potter’s Field in New York City

In the City of New York there is a cemetery called Potter’s Field. It’s the place where the indigent are buried. It’s the place where the homeless and the unidentified, the John Doe’s and the Jane Doe’s , are buried by the City of New York. One might call it Pauper’s Cemetery, an act of charity for those who, at the end, like the Son of Man, had nowhere to lay their heads.

Potter’s Field has been moved four times since it was founded early the 19th century.
Today Potter’s Field is managed by the City of New York Department of Corrections. The Department’s website describes its history.

The City of New York has undertaken the responsibility of laying to rest the bodies of those in the City who died indigent or un-befriended, since the early part of the 19th century, when they were interred at Washington Square in Greenwich Village. In 1823, these remains were removed to Fifth Avenue and 40 – 42 Streets, Manhattan. When this site was selected for a reservoir, the remains were again removed to Fourth Avenue and 50th Street, this ground being later granted to the Women’s Hospital. In 1857, the remains of 100,000 paupers and strangers were transferred to Ward’s Island, 75 acres of which were allocated for this purpose.

Today Potter’s Field, the latest place for the internment of the un-befriended poor is on Hart’s Island where it has been since n 1869, next to a prison.

Thirty inmates from the N.Y.C. Reception and Classification Center for Men… are charged with burial and upkeep of the entire cemetery at present. They are carefully interviewed to ascertain that they can perform these services without becoming emotionally upset.

In 1948 the inmates of the prison next door to Potter’s Field on Hart Island, many of whom were without friends and families, appealed to the Warden and offered to build a monument to the un-befriended dead. In cooperation with the custodial staff, they erected a 30-foot high monument in the center of the burial site. On one side is engraved a simple cross, on the other is the word ‘Peace.'”

In my mind’s eye Judas is buried there – on the ground sanctified for the outcasts for whom Christ lived and died. He’s buried in some Potter’s Field where the Potter in mercy welcomes the broken pieces of the pottery He has made, gathers up the shards of broken schemes and grandiose schemes, and takes whatever is left to make something altogether beautiful.

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord:  ‘Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’  So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel.  The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me:  Can I not do with you . . . just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand . . . . [Jeremiah 18:1-6].

Christ’s words – “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” – are a plea to the Father, the Potter, for his beloved, betraying friend, Judas, and for every other Judas to come down the pike through all the centuries since. By God’s strange providence alone the 30 silver pieces of “blood money” that Judas threw back down toward the Most Holy Place became the unwitting source of the witness to God’s unconditional love and mercy, “Potter’s Field.”

Judas made two mistaken bets. The first ended in Jesus’s execution, the end of a grandiose dream. The second was concluding too early that despair and guilt have the final word – that there was no mercy strong enough to re-claim him.

The learning for us latter-day Judases? Perhaps it is that, although life is full of risk-taking and tragedy, its meaning and destiny are more than a craps-shoot. The destiny of every broken dream and every broken soul is not determined by our gambling or our failures. It’s determined by a secure promise that now and at the end we are in the hands of the Potter Who owns all the clay of Potter’s Field.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 11, 2017

Life begins on the other side of despair

It was Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist novelist, philosopher, and playwright, who declined the Nobel Peace Price for Literature in 1964, who said it. “Life begins on the other side of despair.”

Sartre’s statement resonates with those who have stood at the edge of the abyss of the loss of life’s meaning. Some don’t make it to the other side. Some move to the other side of the abyss with no faith but faith in themselves to create meaning they once ascribed to God or some objective moral order. Others arrive on the other side with their inherited faith not only deconstructed, but re-constructed. I am one of the latter.

Reading of the shooting suicide of a 27-year-old Iraq War veteran philosophy student in the library at Mankato State University takes me back to Sartre’s statement about life and despair. Timothy Lee Anderson was an honorably discharged U.S. Army gunner in Iraq. His picture in The Daily Mail shows him in an Iraqi combat zone with his weapon. In the background of the photo, Iraqi women in traditional Muslim dress appear to be crossing the street. How, I ask, does a guy who served as a gunner in the Iraq War choose philosophy as his major when he comes home to the U.S.A.?

Philosophy is not a popular choice these days. Unlike computer science, it’s not job- related. The word ‘philosophy’ derives from two Greek words meaning love (‘philo‘) of wisdom (‘sophia‘). Philosophy is the love of, and the search for, wisdom.

Wisdom is born of experience, not inheritance. It’s not hard to imagine the dashed, unexamined, inherited convictions of a young Army recruit: a world dependent on American goodness and might; an America with a manifest destiny in the global order; an exceptional nation privileged and responsible, whether by religious or political creed, to bring its blessings to the rest of an ignorant, unenlightened, uncivilized, and sometimes terroristic and defiant world.

Nor is it hard to imagine a soldier’s despair upon return, reflecting on his experience in search for greater wisdom among the philosophers. The early reports of Timothy Lee Anderson’s life experience point to a less than comfortable homecoming with arrests for marijuana and violation of an order for protection. The gun shot he fired at himself on the second floor of the Mankato State University library was a shot of despair, whatever the immediate reasons or circumstances.

The great sorrow is a life that ended too early on the despair side of the yawning abyss of collapsed meaning. It remains to the survivors and the rest of us who look with sadness on Timothy’s tragic departure to learn that claims to religious-national exceptionalism and wisdom go together about as well as bombs and day-care, guns and libraries.

– Gordon C. Stewart, February 3, 2015.

 

 

Sermon – Robin Williams and the Loving God

This sermon from last Sunday addressed the suicide of Robin Williams through sacred scripture – “The call of God is irrevocable” – and Robin Williams’ dear friend Anne Lamott’s reflection on their journeys with depression, mental illness, addiction, faith, and help. FYI, the title was chosen earlier in the week. By Sunday morning I had discovered Anne Lamott’s lovely reflection following Robin’s death.

 

 

My bias: Scenes along the way.

The gun lobby won in the U.S. Senate because Senators either fear 1) they will be defeated by pro-Second Amendment constituents, 2) they will lose a major source of campaign financing, or 3) they genuinely stand with the NRA and gun-manufacturers.

“You’re biased.”

I am. Every one of us is biased. Our experiences shape how we feel and how we think about these matters. My limited experience with guns influences how and what I see in the national discussion of gun control. I share these real life “scenes” In the interest of furthering honest discussion.

Scene 1

I am in Junior High School in Broomall, PA, a small town west of Philadelphia where my father is a pastor. The upstairs phone is in my bedroom. The phone rings in the middle of the night. I answer the phone. A police officer is asking for my father. Dad comes to the phone. “Reverend Stewart, we have a situation here. We need your help. Mrs. Smith (not her real name) is holed up at her home on Darby Lane. Her son called us. She’s threatening to kill him and herself. She has a gun. Can you help us?”

My father gets dressed, goes to the home. Mrs. Smith lets him in. He sits down with her. She finally agrees to give the gun to my father, her pastor.

Scene 2

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas. Initial reports point to the Grassy Knoll. The Warren Commission concludes all the shots came from a single rifle from a window in the Book Depository Building.

Scene 3

I am a graduate student at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL. A senior project on allegations of police violence on Chicago’s North Side involves spending the night with a police officer in a police squad ride-along.

A little after 3:00 A.M. a Plymouth Valiant makes an illegal turn on a major street. The officer decides to warn the driver. “I’m just going to make sure he knows that he made an illegal turn. There’s no traffic. I won’t give him a ticket. Just want to be sure he knows not to do it next time.”

As the squad car makes the right turn to follow the Valiant, the Valiant takes off. An APB comes over the police radio. There’s been a break-in at a store three blocks from our location. “He’s hot!” says the Officer. He draws his pistol.

The Valiant leads us down a number of side streets and narrow alleys, making hair-pin turns on two wheels. Making the hard right turn, the Officer’s revolver flies out of his hand onto the floor on the passenger’s side in front of me.

”Get the gun! Get the gun! Just hold it until I tell you.”

I’m holding a deadly weapon in a life or death high speed chase. The chase ends with six squad cars blocking an alley. They throw the driver – a father with a baby at home one block away from home – onto the hood of the car – and make the arrest. We return to the police station.

Scene 4

Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated in Memphis. I am Assistant Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Decatur, Illinois where I am responsible for “Teen Town” a program for youth from the public housing projects.

The kids learn that Dr. King has been shot. The room is hot. We quickly gather up 12 tape recorders, divide the kids into 12 groups, and tell each group that this is their time to talk. Their time to speak about what they’re feeling. What they say needs to be heard. We, the adult leaders, will see that city and school officials hear what they have to say. The evening ends peacefully.

Scene 5Bobby Kennedy, Presidential candidate, brother of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, is assassinated.

Scene 6

A despondent professor at the college and member of the college church I serve goes into his basement, calls his 15 year-old son downstairs, puts a pistol in his own mouth and pulls the trigger.

It falls to me to minister to the son and his wife. I do the memorial service and spend endless hours with a traumatized family. All I can do is stand with them. The horror will never leave the son’s memory. The college and congregation are also in shock.

Scene 7

Five years later a woman calls the church office. Her boyfriend is at home by himself. He has a gun. She has left because she’s afraid he would kill her and himself. Would I go to the house?

I go to the house. I know him well. He trusts me. He lets me in. As my father did when I was a teenager, I stay calm. I listen as he paces the room, waving the pistol, ranting and raving and crying about how meaningless life is and about how he’ll never get his life in order.

After an hour, he calms down. He gives me the gun and asks me to take it away.

I have no idea what to do with it. I gave it to Karl, a church member and friend who has a gun collection. I tell Karl I can’t tell him where it comes from. “Just get rid of it.”

Scene 8

On a Monday morning, a 70 year old ex-Marine calls the church office. He’s a big man. What other men might call “a man’s man,” a World War II Marine, 6’2”. 250 lbs, part of the invasion of Saipan in the South Pacific when he was 17.

“My wife’s out of town. Can you come over tonight for a drink?”

I’ve never been to their home. I’m guessing he wants to talk about his marriage.

He takes my coat. We sit down. He pours us each a Scotch.

“You know, your first couple of years here I didn’t come to church much. I didn’t like your preaching. I’m not one of these peace guys. But something made me keep coming back. I started to listen and I kept coming, and all this peace stuff and Jesus stuff started to get to me. It’s been a long time now. That’s why I called you.

“I hate the Japs! I know I’m not supposed to call ‘em ‘Japs’. I hate them! But I can’t hate them anymore.”

He gets up and walks over to the mantel above the huge stone fireplace.

“My wife has no idea what’s in this box. I’ve never told her. I can’t tell her. I don’t want it anymore. I’m asking you to take it. I can’t live with it anymore.”

He takes the box from the mantel, places it on the ottoman in front of me, and opens the locked box with a key. He is shaking now and crying.

“This poor bastard! I killed this [expletive] with my bear hands!”

His whole body shakes as, one by one, he removes the contents from the box:

• the soldier’s helmet;
• a lock of hair;
• two eye teeth;
• his ID, and…
• the soldier’s pistol.

“All these years of hate. And this poor bastard was just doing the same thing I was. He was just doing his duty to his country. How will God ever forgive me? I just want this stuff out of my house. I want it out of my life! How will God ever forgive me? I can’t hate any more. I can’t.”

We stand in the middle of his living room. I hold him like a baby: a grown man – a “man’s man” – sobbing and shaking with guilt, sorrow, and grief.

I take the box and the contents home. I give the gun to Karl. I have no memory of what I did with the box or the artifacts of what remained of the Japanese soldier. Memory is like that. It was too personal. It was too hot.

Scene 9

It’s a Tuesday night in 2013. I am hosting a community dialogue on “Gun Violence in America.” I am the Moderator of the program. 138 people crowd the Chapel. Normal attendance at the Dialogues is 35 to 50. Tonight the overwhelming majority are gun owners, many of whom have come in response to partisan emails from Second Amendment gun-rights advocates.

I welcome everyone, invite people to introduce themselves to each other, and introduce the evening’s two speakers. Chaska Police Chief Scott Knight is an outspoken advocate for increased gun control legislation. Carver County Sheriff Jim Olson takes a more conservative position, arguing instead for enforcement of existing laws. The Chief and the Sheriff engage in respectful exchange. The program then turns, as it always does, to the floor for comments and questions.

I recognize the first of many hands, a woman from the back of the Chapel. She reads from a prepared script. She is angry about government. At one point she says that government has no business telling her whether or not she can have a gun. The Second Amendment guarantees that right to every American citizen.

I do what I have always done over the seven years we’ve been holding these Dialogues: I ask a follow-up question meant to stimulate deeper thought and discussion: “Let me ask a follow-up question to be clear about what you’re saying. Are you saying that anybody should be able to buy a gun anywhere, anytime?”

“I didn’t say that!” She was angry. The room was hot.

I knew then that this would not be a dialogue. The best we could hope for was a series of monologues.

After a series of statements, a participant sites a Facebook posting which had declared that “the second best thing that could happen to Obama would be for him to be impeached.”

The speaker continues, “And we all know what the best thing would be…assassination.”

There is a visceral outcry objecting to painting Second Amendment rights advocates as racists and potential assassins.

Later a woman stands to ask how many people in the room have lost a loved one to gun violence. Three hands go up. Before she can continue, there are shouts from the back of the room. “That has nothing to do with the Second Amendment.” The shouts continue. I address the shouting, reminding the shouters of the rule that one person speaks at a time without interruption. By the time order is restored, the woman has finished the story I could not hear. Her father committed suicide with a gun. The woman is weeping. She sits down.

Ten minutes later a man speaks from the front. He makes the case that the American economy is going to collapse because the federal treasury is dependent on derivatives. He will need his gun, he says, when there’s not enough food and the girl from next door comes over to get the food he’s stored up for just this eventuality. He puts the Chief of Police on the spot. “So, if an order comes down (from the President) to take away our guns, will you obey the order?”

In the social time following the event, four women tell me they were afraid physically. They don’t think they will come back for the second program. The woman who has shouted down says, “I don’t think I can back.” Two first-time attendees to Dialogues seek me out to say they didn’t expect this. “I can get this at home watching television. I expected something more enlightening, not just more of the same,” says one of them.

The gun rights advocates express pleasure with the evening and are looking forward to the announced second program in the series featuring a debate between an NRA representative a pro gun control advocate. There is no indication of dissatisfaction with the evening. “We’ll be back. Thank for doing this.”

One of the visitors identifies himself as a Republican Second Amendment advocate who came because of an email. He thanks me for the evening and for the even-handed moderating.

“But I have to say I’m really disappointed. I’m sad. How can anyone not have compassion for that poor woman who tried to tell her story about her father’s suicide? I don’t understand the response. No matter where you stand your heart has to go out to her, no matter where you stand.”

Scene 10

The church board meets to review the program and to prepare for the next one. We are concerned that the First Tuesday Dialogues’ purpose of “examining critical public issues locally and globally” will be no better served by the second program than it had been at the first. We also know that the night’s capacity crowd will increase for the next program. A hundred gun-rights advocates who were attending a hearing at the legislature in the state capitol the night of the first event will be free to attend the second program. There is no room to accommodate a larger crowd, and the purpose of meaningful conversation diminishes with larger numbers.

We cancel the next program and publish a letter in the local newspaper explaining our decision.

In response to the cancellation, Letters to the Editor and on-line comments declare that the Moderator was biased and that the real reason for cancelling the program is that the Moderator was surprised and disappointed by how many Second Amendment gun-rights advocates attended.

Conclusion

We’re all biased by our personal histories (the Scenes in our lives). No one is objective. Perhaps the place to start is speaking out loud the experiences that prejudice every one of us.
Can the members of a community, a city, a state, a nation, a community of nations, engage in meaningful conversation about their mutual safety and security? Can we begin by sharing our experiences? Might the open expression of our various personal experiences be the narrow door that leads to the other side of suspicion and violence? Or will the NRA and the gun manufacturers call the shots?