Good Friday, Year B, 2015

Good Friday is a day that exposes us.

The rest of the calendar year we can imagine that we are one of the disciples, lovingly following Jesus, doing our best to live as God wants us to live.

But on Good Friday we remember.

We remember that before human beings could be united to Jesus, first we had to be exposed.

We had to be exposed as traitors, like Judas.  We had to be exposed as cowards, like Pilate.  We had to be exposed as fair weather friends, like Peter.  We had to be exposed as murderous and gullible, like the crowds.

We had to be exposed as people who would sacrifice their own God in order to ease their anxiety.

On Good Friday we think about Jesus on the cross, and we shudder because we aren’t so sure we’d be one of the faithful women who stays by his side even through death.  We are afraid we’d be a member of the crowd.  If Jesus were killed today, we might just be one of the internet commenters sure that if he had just followed the rules, just done what he was supposed to do he wouldn’t have been killed. We would shake our head, and found a way to blame him for his own death.

Good Friday exposes us as complicated people.  We love God, but are too broken to follow him perfectly.  We are Christian, but we are also sinners.  We are redeemed by God, but we are still anxious, judgmental, addicted, selfish, controlling and out of control.

You would think Jesus would wash his hands of us.  Any rational God would roll his eyes and walk away from humanity as a lost cause.

But Jesus does not walk away.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus calmly walks toward his own death.  Jesus never loses control.  Jesus knows he will be betrayed by these disciples who loved him, even Peter who swore up and down that he would be loyal to the end.  Jesus knows the crowd will betray him.  Yet, calmly and in confidence he continues to follow his Father’s will and stays connected to humanity, even at the cost of his life.

God sees all of us.  Everything about us is exposed to God.  He knows every nook and cranny of our hearts and minds.

The miracle is that God sees all the worst parts of us and still treats us with unlimited love and affection.  He remains loyal to us, even though we are disloyal to him.

God looks right at us, full on, and asks us to follow him–just as we are, broken and all.

If you go back and look at Jesus’ speech to his disciples before his death, he does not spend the speech berating them for their sinful natures.  No, his speech is full of encouragement.  He doesn’t blame the disciples for his impending death. He tells his disciples when he goes to be with the Father he will prepare a place for them.  He assures them that they will never be alone, because he will send the Holy Spirit as an advocate for them.  He reminds them that their job is to love one another.

Even when he encounters them after his resurrection, Jesus does not seek recrimination for his death.  He says, “Peace be with you.” and then he sends them forth into the world.

Good Friday exposes us, but God calls us his own and wishes us peace.  He liberates us from our sin, he offers us freedom from the broken parts of our souls that hold us back.

This Good Friday, as you sit exposed before God, may you experience God’s peace and love.  Amen.


Good Friday, Year A, 2011

Beware of crowds.

Crowds are dangerous and fickle.  Crowds don’t use logic and reasoned explanations.  Crowds are easily manipulated.

Even crowds with virtuous intent can suddenly turn, the collective energy turning to violence.  We saw that in Egypt, where parts of the crowd of peaceful protesters turned into a group that attacked Lara Logan, a western journalist.

We’ve seen how easily crowds can be manipulated.  Three years ago our national crowds were yelling for the heads of bankers.  Suddenly this year, with a few nudges here and there, the same crowds were yelling for the heads of teachers and public employees.  All we need is someone to point to an enemy and our collective imagination will paint the rest of the picture.  We love a scape goat.

There is a reason police are called out any time a large crowd gathers—something about being in a crowd makes us anonymous, makes us feel like we lose our identity, that we have become a part of something larger.  That something larger can be a thing of beauty—as we all gather to hear a piece of music together or witness a new beginning like an inauguration.  But that something larger can also be our collective discontent, which can fester and overflow leading us to say and do things we would never do on our own.  Suddenly we’re helping the Nazis round up Jews or murdering thousands of Tutsis in Rwanda or Muslims in Bosnia.  Suddenly, we have become a vehicle for death.

In the end, Jesus’ death can be attributed to a fickle crowd.  The crowd greets him at the entry to Jerusalem, cheering their hosannas, but by the time Jesus is in Pilate’s grasp, the cheers have turned to muttering.  In the Gospel of Matthew’s version of the passion, which we heard last Sunday, the chief priests and elders start whispering into the collective ear of the crowd, encouraging it to free Barabbas.  The crowd has stopped thinking independently.  The crowd asks Pilate no questions.  The crowd just simmers and churns and shouts “Barabbas!” not thinking through the consequences of its action.

Tragically, even Jesus’ disciples are not immune.  One by one eleven of the Apostles slink away.  Peter outright denies Jesus, terrified of being outed.  Terrified of someone identifying him as other, as separate from the crowd.

Not everyone slinks away, though.  A few of Jesus followers somehow manage to stick by Jesus, despite the fear, despite the enormous cultural and political pressure to betray him.  Conveniently, in the Gospel of John’s version of events, John appears to stick around, as well as Jesus’ mother, and Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdelene.  For these women, their love for Jesus overrides all things.  They do not fear the authorites, they do not fear the crowd, they are able to remember love in the midst of all the fear.

Strangely, the other two figures who are able to distinguish themselves from the crowd are actually part of the establishment.  Neither Joseph of Arimathea nor Nicodemus were public followers of Jesus.  Joseph, a wealthy man, considered himself a disciple, but was a secret one because he was afraid of the authorities, afraid of the crowd.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee who was intrigued by Jesus, but only would visit Jesus under the cover of night.

For these two figures, the death of Jesus becomes a crystallizing moment.  Suddenly they are able to distinguish themselves from the crowd.  Somehow Jesus’ death helps them to put everything in perspective.  Whether they act out of guilt, out of a newfound faith, out of a sense of responsibility, they step forward and claim Jesus’ body.  They were not able to publically claim Jesus’ teaching or believe in his divinity during Jesus’ lifetime, but now they are ready.  Now they are able to take a stand.  Now, when the violence has been done, when the threat to them is still very real, they are able to faithfully care for Jesus.

Joseph claims Jesus’ body.  Nicodemus brings myrrh and aloe and together they anoint Christ’s body and prepare him for burial.

These men who would not be publically associated with Jesus, now care for his body in the most physical, personal and tender way.  They have gone from being part of the larger crowd to identifying specifically as followers of Jesus.  They are differentiating themselves.  Aligning themselves with Jesus.  Pouring thousands of their own dollars worth of myrrh and aloe over his body.  Giving him the burial Jesus’ own apostles could not.

They are claiming this crucified Christ as their own.  The apostles all come back, of course, but not until the resurrection.  For them, this crucified Christ was too much to bear.

Where do we stand?  Do we stand with the Pharisees, who cannot tolerate Jesus as he claims his own divinity?  Do we stand with the crowd who mocks and betrays Jesus?  Do we stand with the disciples, who run from Jesus’ death, living into fear instead of into faith?

Or do we stand with the Marys, with Joseph and Nicodemus who are willing to stay with Christ, even through his humiliating death.   Who are willing to stand up after the madness of the crowd and quietly align themselves with this broken Jesus.  Who are willing to be publicly known as followers of this mortal God.

Standing with the resurrected Jesus is easy.  Standing amidst hope and joy and a promise of a new life does not challenge us.  But that resurrection comes at a cost.  The resurrection could not have happened without the senseless, brutal death of Jesus at the hands of a fickle, unruly crowd.  Good Friday invites us to remember.  Good Friday invites us to stand with Joseph and Nicodemus as they reject the crowd and choose Jesus.

Good Friday calls us to account for our choices, whether they are made deliberately and privately or in the heat of a moment as a crowd carries us away. Will be stand up for what is right and true?  Will we stand up for love when everyone around us is calling for death and destruction?  Grace will come, but not yet.  Today we are left with just ourselves.  What do we see within?

Good Friday, Year A, 2008

We are a bloodthirsty people.

When I say we, I don’t mean us here at Emmanuel, or even us as Americans, I mean the big “us”, humanity.  For whatever reason, when under the right kind of pressure, and the right circumstances we will kill another person with the same ease with which we might bat an annoying fly out of our eyes.

Last week we killed a few dozen people in Tibet.  The month before that we killed 1000 people in Kenya.  Since the beginning of the war, we’ve killed 3,988 American soldiers and anywhere between 82,000 and 650,000 Iraqi civilians, depending on who is counting.  Since 2003, we’ve killed between 98,000 and 181,000 Sudanese in Darful alone.   In the last fifteen years we killed 937,000 people in Rwanda and 3,800,000 in the Kinshasha Congo.

And that’s just a sampling of political conflict from the last twenty years!  Those figures don’t encompass the 180,000 people who were murdered last year in countries that keep records of that sort of thing.  If you’re interested, the United States has the sixth highest murder rate, behind India, Russia, Columbia, South Africa and Mexico.  Yay us? Only one person got murdered in Iceland, if you’re thinking about moving somewhere a little saner.

We don’t do too well with political figures we admire either.  We killed Benazier Bhutto this year.  We killed Indira Gandhi in the 80s. We killed both Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Junior and Abraham Lincoln.  We tried to kill the last Pope, too.  We’ve killed quite a few up and coming politicians in Iraq and I’d list them, but they are just too many to name.

We also kill people who speak the truth to us.  We killed Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist, and Daniel Pearl, the American one.  We killed Kenji Nagai, the Japanese journalist covering the uprising in Burma.  We killed Alisher Saipov in Uzbekistan and 64 journalists in 2007—half of them in Iraq.

Frankly, Jesus did not stand a chance.  A truth-telling, religious and political upstart who claimed he was God?  Yeah, that was going to end well.

Throughout most of history, Jesus’ death has been understood as the will of God—as an act of atonement so humanity’s relationship with God could be restored.  And maybe that is true.  But it might also be true that we have come to that understanding because Jesus’ death being God’s will is a much more soothing sentiment than Jesus’ death being the result of our uncontrollable, murderous impulses.

In two days, we’ll get to experience God’s redemption of the murder of his Son, but for now we’re left with our own culpability.

We’re left staring at ourselves in the mirror wondering what we would have done.  Would we have tried to fight the powers that be, calm down the crowds and take the many moments of opportunity that presented themselves in order to attempt to free Jesus from his captors?

Would we have sat idly by, watching, but congratulating ourselves that at least we know this execution is distasteful?

Would we have shaken our fists and called out for his blood?

Would we have become terrified and run away?

The odds are we would have had one of those reactions. The women who loved Jesus sat silent vigil.  The men who loved him hid themselves out of fear of being caught.  Pilate, when given the option to follow his conscience and not execute Jesus, did what was easier. The crowd as individuals might have been reasonable people, but when massed together they became a vulgar, violent mob.

In a way, the death of Jesus is terribly ironic. After all, it is just because of our selfish, murderous, detached, lazy, hypocritical natures that we need a savior in the first place.  When God was gracious enough to give us that savior, what do we do?  We kill him.  Of course.

So, where does this leave us?  Are we soulless, moral-less people who are a danger to everyone around us?  Of course not.

But we are capable of such things.  Each of us.  We carry with us the potential for hate, for violence, for betrayal, for deadly inaction.   Thankfully, through the grace of God and events that will unfold over the next two days, we are not stuck in this mire.  Thankfully, we are also capable of forgiveness, grace, understanding, and reconciliation.  We are never stuck where we are–God is always shaping us to be more whole

In light of various events in the last week and a half, I’ve been thinking a lot about the remarks Bobby Kennedy made when he found out Martin Luther King had been shot.  At one point he said,

My favorite poem, my — my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
 falls drop by drop upon the heart,
 until, in our own despair,
 against our will,
 comes wisdom
 through the awful grace of God.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

He went on to say,

And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

“To make gentle the life of this world.”  What a beautiful expression and what difficult work.  However, difficult, it is our work.  For our work is to follow Christ, the rabble rouser and the peacemaker, wherever that may lead us.