Finally, the sermon that many of you helped me write in encouraging the use of “appropriate” humor even on the darkest day of the church calendar. Today’s Good Friday service at Mount Zion A.M.E. will be a series of meditations on the perspectives of the women who appear throughout the Passion narrative- Pilate’s wife, Claudia, being one of them. Enjoy! May you walk away having laughed and having asked yourself a question that is not just for Pilate’s wife but for all of us in our God-forsaken places.
While [Pilate] was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” -Matthew 27:19
Pilate’s wife- or, Claudia, as subsequent church tradition has named her- knows about dreams that don’t come true.
Her whole life up until now, I suspect, has been one, big miscarriage of best-laid hopes.
Because if I had to guess, I would imagine that Claudia once dreamt of a whole lot more than what her life has amounted to. She was, after all, an aristocrat, the cream of the crop in imperial Rome. The most eligible, maybe, of bachelorettes. Wealthy, beautiful and educated (or at least as educated as the women of her time could be). She probably had the world at her finger tips.
Claudia’s marriage to Pilate? I suspect at one time she had hoped that tying the knot would bring her access to an exciting life in the limelight and at the epicenter of luxury and power in the world’s greatest city of Rome.
Instead, she finds herself stuck in the dry, dusty, remote colony of Judea, on the outskirts of the empire, with only a spineless middle manager for a husband, whose job is merely to keep the peace. Life here is one long, drawn-out reminder of unfulfilled dreams, like credits in a movie that keep running forever.
And, if Claudia once dreamt of access to the emperor’s inner circle, if she once spun visions of a future life in the corridors of the imperial government, now she has resigned herself to smaller, more trivial ambitions. Now she fills her days by doing her nails while watching morning talk shows. By speculating on when the next caravan of luxury goods will roll into town so she can switch out the drapes. By wondering how many ways she can wear her hair to impress the young man with the nice calves and the six pack who drives her chariot.
Boredom, triviality, and resignation have become the furniture of Claudia’s life now- so much so that she barely even notices their presence.
And the day when Jesus comes to town in handcuffs is like any other day, really, in Claudia’s small world of aspirating dreams. It’s like any other day except that today she’s been dozing on the couch, listening to the local news, when a picture of Jesus flashes across the screen with the headlines of his arrest. Something about some cockamamie trial and angry crowds that want him crucified for nothing in particular. Just because. For blood sport- and because the sky is blue and it’s a Friday.
And suddenly there and then the smallness of this woman’s inner chamber opens up onto a vast stage on which the course of human history is playing out in this backwater city of Jerusalem. There and then she perceives- if only fleetingly- that maybe her part isn’t so small after all, because she in some way is related to this mysterious stranger named Jesus, and their fates are unavoidably linked in some great, cosmic scheme. In that moment, she apprehends that her mid-level-bureaucrat-of-a-husband with Jello for a spine is not presiding over just another petty dispute. He is in some way changing the course of human history.
And this reality, as it sets in, scares and even torments her.
But Claudia for so long now has been used to dreaming dreams that don’t come true. So when she scribbles out this message to her husband, she is giving voice to her own desperate sense of powerlessness, a kind of complacency with the status quo.
“Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man,” she writes. And in that moment it’s the best she can hope for, for her and her husband- that Pontius Pilate would just wash his hands of the matter. No high hopes for justice here. No declarations of Jesus’ divinity or wrestling with what that might mean just yet. No suggestions that Claudia or her husband have any power whatsoever to change a quickly deteriorating situation. Only the desperate plea that her husband have nothing to do with Jesus.
It’s a small-minded request, really. It apprehends something true about Jesus even as it avoids the implications. And maybe this is because Claudia has learned with the years not to ask too much of life or expect too much of herself or others. She has become so good at accepting the triviality and pettiness of her little, self-absorbed world that she can’t even imagine what it would be like for things to change, for God to come along and make a way out of all those dead ends.
You and I have been there, too. Maybe we’re there right now. Because all sorts of things in this world can collude to make our dreams shrink and our lives devolve into little more than just going through the motions, forgetting who we really are and who we were made to be.
We, too, live in a world in which dreams often don’t come true. Sure, we may not be whittling away our days in a luxury villa somewhere near the Mediterranean- for many of us, that is a dream!- but we have seen our hopes slowly suffocate in other ways. Our marriages unravel and our dreams of “happily ever after” end with divorce. Our once-healthy bodies get sick, deteriorate and die, often at the most inconvenient of times. Our hopes of financial security fall apart with the loss of a job, or one quick, downward swing of the stock market.
Collectively, our dreams fall apart, too. These days I don’t really hear much talk about the so-called “American dream” – you know, that promise that with hard work and equal opportunity, every American could earn their way to economic prosperity. These days, we talk a lot more about unemployment, about home foreclosures, about a growing divide between the very rich and the rest of us. Somewhere along the way, the American dream went missing, or at least became a whole lot less spacious and inviting. Today the “American dream” for many people is just to keep their head above water- to have enough money to pay the bills and keep food on the table, maybe to win the lottery some day.
And in these spaces, when our dreams come undone at the seams, the best we can hope for can sometimes be clinging to what we have left, clinging to what we know- even if it is small, dreary, or trivial- because it’s what we’ve become accustomed to. In these spaces, it becomes easy to pretend that God really has nothing to do with us, and we nothing to do with God. We grow timid, complacent and afraid to dream big, God-breathed dreams, because our lives and our world have told us that dreams don’t come true…
This week I met a woman who on a day much like this one almost exactly four years ago saw her whole world fall apart. That day she got the news that her husband and twin boys had died suddenly in a freak accident. They had been returning from a fishing trip when their private plane crashed. All the passengers on board had died instantly. She and her remaining son in the wake of unspeakable grief were left to pick up the pieces of their lives and somehow- slowly, painstakingly- put one foot in front of the other.
I asked this woman what it was that had helped her cope in that God-forsaken place of unfathomable loss and grief. She said that prior to the accident she hadn’t really believed God could be concretely involved with her life, but that that all had changed when her world fell apart. When her world fell apart, she was obliged to begin asking God to have everything to do with her life. And she saw how God began to answer her prayers in very real, tangible ways. And with time, God began to help her re-imagine her life put back together again, and along the way to give her new dreams and then enflesh those dreams.
Somehow in the midst of deep, cataclysmic tragedy, God gave this woman the ability to dream again, and to believe that her dreams had everything to do with God. Because God in Jesus is a God of possibilities- a God who makes a way out of no way, a God who takes our dreams and shapes and transforms them and breathes new life into them.
“Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man,” Claudia writes. “Don’t have anything to do with Jesus,” is her appeal.
I wonder if in some subterranean place in her unconscious, Claudia knows that acknowledging the reality that she and Jesus really do have something to do with one another will rock her world. Will overturn her comfortable status quo. Will oblige her both to dream again and dream differently about things that have everything to do with God.
“Don’t have anything to do with Jesus” might just as well form a question then, a question from the writer of Matthew’s Gospel for us- the question being, “Is it possible not to have anything to do with Jesus?”
Matthew’s Gospel would answer “no,” that by virtue of being alive we have something to do with Jesus. Because in what can only be irony, Pilate washes his hands of Jesus’ blood; he follows his wife’s advice, but we, the reader, know the blood is on Pilate’s hands, too, just as it is on the hands of the chief priests and the crowd. Just as it is on the hands of a woman madly scribbling a note from a place inside her where dreams once bloomed.
On this day we’ve come to call “Good Friday,” Jesus goes to the cross to show us that our dreams don’t have to shrivel up and die. He goes to the cross to help us remember who we once were, and who we can be again, because our lives in the end have everything to do with Him. Because apart from Him, we’re all just desperate house wives- aspiring royalty with aspirating dreams and too much time on our hands.
Today Jesus goes to the cross to tell us we’re far more than that, and to ask us to believe in things we thought were impossible. Things we had come to assume were just the stuff of broken dreams, nothing more. Things like forgiveness and community. Things like healing and restoration. Things like concrete answers to prayer. Things like love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness and self-control. Things like new life sprouting miraculously from the ashes of tragedy- new and abundant life that never runs out.
Jesus goes to the cross to help us dream again in all of our God-forsaken places.