Tuesday, March 26: A Miscarriage of Justice

Written by Matt Benton, Pastor, Bethel United Methodist Church, Woodbridge, VA

Trees with light coming through. A Voice in the Wilderness

Isaiah 52:13-15 (NRSV)

See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals— so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him;for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.

A few weeks ago my phone buzzed with a news alert. It was a story about the execution of Kenneth Smith. Perhaps you remember reading or hearing about this story in late January. And for a short while I read about his trial, the manner of his execution, what he did that landed him on death row a lifetime ago, and all the appeals that happened trying to change his fate.

Kenneth’s story is wild! He was accused of being a hitman, paid by a pastor to kill the pastor’s wife. It turns out while in the midst of an affair, the pastor found himself in financial troubles. So he took out a large life insurance policy on his wife and then hired Kenneth to kill her, a crime for which he was convicted. A jury of his peers sentenced him to life in prison, but at sentencing the trial judge overruled the jury and sentenced him to death (the provision of state law that afforded the judge that power has since been revoked and ruled unconstitutional). A flurry of appeals followed the trial to no avail. And 11th hour calls for someone, anyone, to provide a stay of execution fell on deaf ears.

Every Holy Week we recall another wild trial. A peasant rabbi from a backwoods map dot was accused of attempting to overthrow the greatest Empire the world had ever known to that point. Jesus of Nazareth was brought before the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate for the crime of inciting an insurrection.

Pilate attempts to get to the bottom of it. He can see the witnesses brought to testify against Jesus have been heavily coached; the trial is rigged. The problem is that the defendant doesn’t offer much of a defense. Pilate realizes the defendant is innocent and seeks to dismiss the case. But a stacked jury of Jesus’ peers, the assembled crowd, overrules the trial judge. Crucify him, that shout. Execute this criminal. Send him to death row, you can skip his last meal.

After I’d gone on my deep dive of Kenneth Smith’s story, I read a draft sermon a colleague sent me. He said he, too, had come upon Kenneth Smith’s story that week and that it had moved him to tears of sorrow and lament. But then he said he saw a vision: Kenneth Smith alive and whole in his Savior’s arms. Kenneth Smith reconciled to and with his victims. Kenneth Smith unbound, unshackled, reveling in God’s love and grace.

All made possible by a miscarriage of justice.

No, God’s mercy for a sinner is not a miscarriage of justice. But the death of God’s Son is an unjust travesty. The image of God had become so marred within us that we could no longer recognize the fullness of God dwelling in Jesus; rather we mistook him for a common criminal. The powers and principalities achieved death’s goal: they snuffed out the light of the world; they killed the one in whom was life for all humankind.

And yet the promise of God remains true.  God’s servant, Jesus the Christ, was exalted! He was raised up!  The powers and principalities, the rulers of this world, can try as hard as they might to do death’s bidding; our God does and shall always have the last word.

Kenneth Smith was executed by means of nitrogen hypoxia. Essentially he was forced to breathe in nitrogen through a gas mask until he suffocated, his body completely depleted of life-giving oxygen. Once again the powers and principalities colluded with death to literally suck the breath of life out of another of God’s children.

And yet the promise of God remains true. For all of God’s children. All who share Christ’s flesh shall be lifted up, shall be exalted. We shall all be reconciled to our enemies, we shall all be embraced with our Savior, we shall all revel unbound and unshackled in God’s love and God’s grace.

This week we remember the great miscarriage of justice at Golgotha and we repent of our sin that led to Christ’s death. But we are reminded of the ultimate verdict given to Christ and to us by the only Judge whose words matter: we are innocent. We are free. We are alive.

A Voice in the Wilderness: Lent 2024

Find all entries from A Voice in the Wilderness online here: haymarketchurch.org/lent24