Sermon; Good Friday 2019
We are in the thick of this drama. Last night we shared a meal, washed feet, shared a last meal, betrayed, denied, and pushed Jesus out of our lives. Today we watch as he dies a torturous death and his body is laid in a tomb. We are not just watching this drama unfold, we are participating in it.
The Passion story is a sweeping drama. It includes betrayal, denial, and faithfulness. It includes violence and retribution. It includes the use and abuse of power. It includes the abdication of authority. It pits the world against God. And it probably leaves us with more questions than answers. There is a lot going on in this story, so much so that any preacher would be wise to avoid tackling the whole thing.
I don't think I've ever been mistaken for wise. But instead of taking on the text from the inside – that is, examining various characters, actions, results, and trying to ascribe meaning to them – I want to look at this text from a broader perspective. You might call this the balcony view, or the view from 30,000 feet.
The Passion story is a tragedy. That is, it is the story of a man's destruction at the hands of an unyielding society. But just because it is a tragedy does not make this event meaningless. It is precisely because this event is a tragedy that it is filled with so much meaning and has so much to teach us. This is why it will be helpful to view the Passion as a tragedy.
What sparked this line of thought was a book review I happened to read just before Holy Week began. It was a review of The Tragic Imagination, by Rowan Williams, and written by Joel C. Daniels. That, plus another thing I read recently that said something like, “The crucifixion was not the act of a vengeful God against humanity, but the act of a vengeful humanity against a loving God” got me thinking about the Passion as tragedy. In other words, the Passion is the story of the destruction of Jesus at the hands of an unyielding society.
There were two quotes in that book review that particularly stood out to me. The first is this: “Tragedy is a way of acknowledging that the world is such that there is suffering in it, and that human persons are both complicit in it and victims of it.”
The world in which we live was created good. But this world also has pain and suffering. Why that is, why bad things happen, are deep topics for another time. But the fact is that we live in a world of pain and suffering, a world of tragedy, in which we both aid in that suffering and are victims of it.
In the scope of the Passion, this means that we, on the one hand, shout, “Crucify him!” while on the other hand are called to pick up our cross daily. Aiding in tragedy and suffering from tragedy. And this goes beyond the Passion.
How often do our actions – mean-spirited or otherwise – cause tragedy for others and then come back to cause tragedy for ourselves. A dependence on oil without a care for the environment that will take its toll on all of us. Denigrating low-income people while not noticing that more jobs are moving to part-time, minimum wage. Or the case of the truck driver in Canada who ran a stop sign, killing and injuring many members of the Humboldt hockey team, while himself getting a prison sentence. And on and on.
The Passion reminds us that we are both perpetrators and victims.
The second quote is this: “For a community that can narrate its own complicity with injustice is one that has not been paralyzed by that complicity, but matured.”
I spent some time pondering over this quote and I finally was able to come up with two contrasting examples of it in action. The first is the U.S.
Our country, for all of its proclaimed and avowed ideals, has not only fallen short of reaching those lofty ideals but has also been actively complicit in perpetrating injustices. The scar of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation. Our treatment and mistreatment of Native Americans. Our incarceration of innocent Americans of Japanese descent. The caging of children. And the list goes on.
We, as a country, don't want to deal with these ugly and shameful episodes. We wish they would just go away. But by not owning our complicity in these injustices, by not coming to terms with them, we allow these to fester, grow, and raise their ugly heads at a later date in the form of white supremacy, nativism, and the abuse of minorities. We become paralyzed by our complicity with injustice and don't know how to make it better.
The second and contrasting example is the Church. Especially the Church at this time of year. Every year we narrate the Passion. Every year we narrate our complicity in the crucifixion of Christ. This event was an injustice as we put an innocent man to death.
But because we narrate this injustice and recognize our complicity in it, we are also able, eventually, to move beyond it. The cross and Christ's death are not the last word. I think it is our ability to narrate and participate in that injustice that allows us to move forward. The final word will come a few days from now.
For now, let us sit with the knowledge that our actions helped crucify Christ. For now, let us acknowledge our complicity in an injustice. For now let us remember the truthfulness of the words from the old Holy Week hymn: Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee. I crucified thee.
The Passion is indeed a tragedy in which we are all complicit. It is the story of the destruction of a man by us, an unyielding society. But this event is not meaningless; and in the scope of these next three days, it has much to teach us.
The question we all must ponder is this: Are we willing to learn?