How Did We Get Here?

Isaiah 50:4-9a | Psalm 31:9-16 | Philippians 2:5-11 | Matthew 27:11-54

Jeremy Richards

And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?[1]

How did I get here? This question from the Talking Heads is an important one. Many a book and movie finds its premise in this question. Many stories begin with a protagonist in an unexpected place, not knowing how they got there, and the point of the story is to uncover their journey. Because they don’t know who they are if they don’t know how they got there.

The movie Memento tells the story of Leonard, played by Guy Pearce, a man who has suffered a brain injury due to trauma. He can no longer form new memories and suffers from short term memory loss. The last thing he remembers is his wife being killed. In order to avenge her death, he takes hundreds of polaroid pictures and tattoos clues on his body to help him “remember” what he discovers each day. Every day he discovers more about what happened, but his investigation is into the past. Each day that goes forward he moves further back in time, in order to discover how he got to where he is, to discover who he is.

When he wakes up each morning, he doesn’t know who he is, and he must review his tattoos and his polaroids to re-establish his identity. The question: how did I get here? Is paramount. He doesn’t know who he is without knowing how he got there.

Much of Christianity, when it comes to the crucifixion, has unfortunately failed to realize what Leonard has. We have stopped asking the question: how did we get here? We treat the cross like it’s an isolated event that stands on its own.

A few weeks ago we read an excerpt from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book The Preaching Life, in which she tells the story of two young college girls who burst into her dorm room and ask her if she’s “been saved.” When they discover that she hasn’t, they quickly draw her a diagram with her on one side of a dark chasm and God on the other, then ask her how she will get to God. They then draw a cross that bridges the gap to explain that the cross is the bridge, the cross is what reconciles us to God, but there’s no context for the cross in their story. The cross stands on its own, apart from the life and ministry of Jesus. The one who hung on the cross fades from the picture, and the cross is pushed to the fore.

This is a dangerous narrative. It’s dangerous because when we pull the cross from its context we might begin to think that the cross saves. We might think that the very instrument of death and torture, the cross, evil’s attempt to kill the life of God is saving.

So let me be clear: the cross does not save. The one who hung on the cross saves.

Death does not save. The One who is “the resurrection and the life” saves.   

Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly, but in bringing the abundant life to all people, even those people who were considered unclean and forsaken, Jesus challenged the very systems of domination and coercion that governed his world, that continue to govern our world today. The kind of systems that rely on chemical warfare and the deaths of innocent children to establish power through fear, for example.

At the beginning of Lent Jesus said NO to Satan when he was tempted in the wilderness and in doing so he sets himself against all that Satan represents – coercion, domination, and death – for the entirety of his ministry. The new life Jesus brings to those who are victims of domination and death: the disabled blind beggar, the Samaritan woman, the demon possessed and the leprous, is an affront to “the powers and principalities” – the systems of death – that victimize people, then and now. The powers and principalities that value some life over others, that rely on violence to maintain “order,” that say some must die in order for others to live. But Jesus refuses to resort to violence.

The crowd that comes to arrest Jesus comes with clubs and swords, but Jesus tells his disciples to put their swords away.

Jesus’ ministry is life in all it’s fullness. When he met with Nicodemus he spoke of being “born again” into a new way of life. He offered the woman at the well “living water.” At the grave of Lazarus Jesus said clearly “I am the resurrection and the life,” and then literally raised Lazarus from death to life.

Jesus is the bringer of life, Jesus is life, and death is the negation of life. It’s the antithesis of God, it is the anti-Christ.

But to bring life to others is to invite death upon yourself. To embody life is to invite death.

Let’s use our story of Lazarus from last week as an example. When Lazarus dies, Jesus has a choice. Will he bring resurrection to Bethany, or will he stay where he is? To travel back to Judea is essentially to sign his own death warrant. His disciples know this. When he decides to go they ask, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” And Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” To bring life into places of death is to risk our own death.

And the disciples fears were not unfounded. According to the book of John, the resurrection of Lazarus is the catalyst that sets the plot against Jesus in motion. John 11:53 says, “from [the day that he raised Lazarus] on they planned to put him to death.”

Jesus had a choice. In the words of the Clash, “should I stay or should I go?” He could choose to follow God’s will, which was to bring life, healing, and liberation to the dead and dying, the sick, and the oppressed, or he could deny God’s call.

Jesus knew that to embody God’s life-giving presence to the world would inevitably lead to his own death, while staying away from Judea would keep him safe and secure. But his safety and security would mean that Lazarus would stay in the tomb. Jesus’ safety would come at the expense of Lazarus’ life.

We are asked the same question. Will we follow God’s call for us, as the people of God, and proclaim life in the face of death? Or will we remain silent to maintain our own safety. Will we live a life of risk?

This is not an easy question to answer, and the path of discipleship is even harder. Jesus knew all that obedience to God would require, and he didn’t take it lightly. In fact, at times he hesitated.

In the Garden of Gethsemane he prayed, “My Father if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matt. 26:39).

When we read this verse, it’s important to return to our opening question: How did we get here? What is this cup Jesus speaks of? And what does God want?

When we take the cross out of context, and apply this verse to it, we may think that God wants Jesus’ death. But when we place this verse in the midst of the life and ministry of Jesus, we see that “the cup” is not a new cup, but the one Jesus has carried all along. The cup is the life he’s been living, but now, in the garden he sees the inevitable result of the lif he’s been living. He sees Golgotha looming on the horizon. He admits that he wants to escape death.

A few verses later, when confronted by the crowd with their clubs and swords, he says, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” But to call on angels is to cop out of the human experience Jesus has committed to, the one he felt so fully at the tomb of Lazarus last week. So he stays the course. He doesn’t call the angels.

Our reading from Philippians clarifies just what God wants, and it isn’t death. Philippians 2 says that Jesus, “being found in human form, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”

The question is: did God demands Jesus’ death? Or did God ask Jesus to live the kind of life – a life of obedience – that was so contrary to the ways of death and violence, that death and violence would inevitably see him as the enemy, and do everything they could to cut that life of obedience short? Philippians puts the emphasis on Christ’s obedience, not his death.

But sometimes obedience leads to death. Doing the right thing comes at great cost.

Let’s look at a more recent example to see how affirming life can lead us into places of death, places where our own life is put at risk for the sake of others.

James Reeb's calling emerged slowly, but steadily. He had grown up in Casper, Wyoming, where he met and married his wife Marie….While in seminary, he [converted from Presbyterianism] to Unitarianism. He became a Unitarian minister and was called to serve the All Souls Congregation in a racially mixed neighborhood in Washington, DC. There, Rev. Reeb organized programs and projects to help the poor.

In July, 1964, he left All Souls to accept a position with the American Friends Service Committee. He and his family, which now included four children, moved to Dorchester, Massachusetts and began working to better living conditions in largely black, economically depressed neighborhoods of Boston. He came to understand that the suffering he witnessed resulted from fundamental inequalities in society and [the] government's treatment of people according to the color of their skin—systemic racism.

Reeb was a member of the Unitarian Arlington Street Church in Boston, but he frequently preached as a guest minister in nearby suburban congregations. He used these opportunities to urge people in largely white congregations and communities to pay attention to and work to change racial injustice. He spoke against the racial disparities enforced by laws in the South and by economic and social segregation in the North.

In 1965, while Rev. James Reeb worked in Boston, events were moving in the civil rights movement in the state of Alabama.

Alabama's Jim Crow laws, like [those] enacted throughout the South, codified a "separate but equal" system that was anything but equal. The right to vote, a fundamental right of citizenship in a democratic society, was routinely denied African Americans. The system of discrimination and oppression ruled nearly every aspect of life, reinforced by violence not only by lawless citizens, but also by elected officials, police, and others charged with enforcing the law. Beatings, destructive vandalism, and even murder awaited anyone who did anything to challenge the system…

…Six hundred Civil Rights activists gathered in Selma to join a planned march to Montgomery, the State capital. The march began on March 7, 1965, a day now known as Bloody Sunday. On the outskirts of Selma, on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, marchers encountered a line of police, three deep, carrying billy clubs, guns, and gas masks. Police charged into the marchers, clubs swinging, and followed up the clubbing with tear gas. National television carried it all—to Dorchester, Massachusetts, where James and Marie Reeb watched.

And then came the Call to Selma. Now Dr. King called on people of faith—people of all faiths, ministers and others—from across the country to come to Selma and march with him to Montgomery. All over the United States… ministers and lay leaders alike wrestled with the call to come to Selma. Should they march, putting themselves in the midst of the violence they had all seen on television? Should they urge others in their faith communities to do the same? James Reeb thought hard about whether to leave his wife and four young children. He decided he had to help; it was crucial for people of faith to bear witness to what was happening in Alabama. He bade his family good-bye and boarded a plane, joining about 100 ministers from the Boston area.

James Reeb was with thousands who gathered on Tuesday to march but were, again, turned back at the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Reeb and others decided to stay in Selma and try again on Thursday. That night, a group of ministers went out to dinner at a place called Walker's, one of the few racially integrated restaurants in the area. While others departed by car after dinner, Reeb and two other Unitarian Universalist ministers, Orloff Miller and Clark Olsen, left on foot.

The three headed, side by side, to the chapel where Dr. King was to speak. James Reeb walked on the outside, nearest the street. They had not gone far when four or five white men came at them from across the street. Frightened, the three walked faster. They realized one of the men had a stick. When the attackers reached the three ministers, one swung his heavy stick and smashed the side of James Reeb's head. Miller and Olsen were beaten and kicked on the sidewalk. When the attack was over, it was clear that Reeb was seriously hurt…

…On March 11, two days after his arrival in Selma, James Reeb died. His death so shocked the country and the U.S. Congress that President Johnson sent the Voting Rights Act to Congress within days. Dr. King, invited to Washington to support the Voting Rights Act, declined. Instead, he delivered the eulogy at Reeb's funeral, saying:

So in his death, James Reeb says something to each of us…says that we must substitute courage for caution, says to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered him, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy that produced the murder...[2]

“How did I get here?” How did James Reeb get there? How did this man, born in Casper, Wyoming, living most of his adult life – a life of ministry – in cities in the Northeast, end up bloody and dying on the streets of Selma, Alabama?

It wasn’t an isolated incident, just as the cross was not an isolated incident. James Reeb was committed to life in all its fullness, especially the lives deemed most worthless by US society at the time – the lives of African Americans. And his decision to affirm these lives, to do his part to bring about a new way of life, to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream a reality, led him to the place of death, led him to his own Golgotha.

God did not orchestrate or desire James Reeb’s death, just as God did not orchestrate or desire Christ’s death, but God called them both to risk death for the sake of life. God calls us to do the same.

Where do we see death in our world – our city, our neighborhoods, our work, our friend groups, maybe even here in our church? How do we bring life into those broken places? How do we bring life to our community? Are there risks involved? There must be. What are they? Is it worth it to follow God’s call to bring life into those places?

The cross has come to represent our entire faith, but how exactly does it work? What is it’s purpose? The truth is, no one fully knows. Over the past 2,000 years there have been a lot of theories, and none of them fully answers the question of the purpose of the cross. The cross will always be a mystery.

One thing I do know, though: if we remove the cross from its context, we will end up like Leonard in Memento, wondering who we are and how we got here. If our only clue is not a polaroid or a tattoo but the cross by itself, we might come to some very harmful conclusions.  We might think that God uses violence to bring about redemption, as opposed to God’s ability to redeem even something as seemingly unredeemable as the cross, that’s what Easter is all about.

But we’re not to Easter yet. Right now we’re here. At the foot of the cross. Let’s remember how we got here.


[1] The Talking Heads, “Once In A Lifetime” in Remain in Light, 1980. Spotify.

[2] “James Reeb and the Call to Selma,” Unitarian Universalist Association, accessed April 4, 2017,