Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
Good Friday – March 29, 2013
Several years ago, I read a reflection by a priest who wrote about a Good Friday service she attended when she was a teenager. When the large cross was brought into the church and placed in its stand, the officiant invited everyone to gather around it and write their names on small slips of paper. He then brought out a hammer and nails, and one by one, they each nailed their own name to the cross.
It was a powerful reminder that Jesus hung there for each and every one of us. But more than that, it was a reminder that, from time to time, each of us may be asked to climb on to it—or, sadly, may have helped to put someone there.
The cross and the unspeakable events that led up to it is what we’re asked to consider tonight. Judas betrays. Peter denies. Pilate caves in to pressure. Jesus suffers condemnation and torture. He is scourged, humiliated, mocked and crowned with thorns. John and the women alone bear witness. The rest of the disciples scatter and hide in fear. We know this story well. Unlike the liturgy tomorrow night and on Easter morning, people do not flock to a Good Friday service because of the story they will hear.
It is certainly easier to consider it as it describes something that happened more than two thousand years. It is not so easy to listen if we acknowledge that we still live in a world where Good Friday happens somewhere every day.
Last evening we acknowledged that feet are holy objects. We washed them to recall the servanthood example of Jesus and to better understand God’s call and mundatum—God’s command–is to a ministry of service. There is a scene from an old black-and-white movie that relates the importance of feet to the meaning of the cross. At first, all you see on the television screen are feet—old feet, middle aged feet, children’s feet—feet caked with mud and marked by oozing sores from a long forced march.
There are other feet in the scene—the barefoot feet of people standing on the sidelines, as if they are watching the spectacle of this pitiful parade passing before them. For several minutes all you see on the screen are feet. Pounding rain adds to the misery of the scene and the whole image is as stark and emotionally charged as only a glum black-and-white film can be.
In a few minutes the, scene changes and the identity of these people is revealed. They are five Franciscan friars and 20 other men, women, and children. It is their feet we see struggling through the mud and rain. They are carrying crossbeams—much too heavy for an adult to carry for several miles, let alone a child.
They are being force-marched as an example to the people who watch along the sidelines of the Japanese countryside. They are on their way to a field where they will all be crucified. The year is 1597 and they will be among the first people martyred in Japan for refusing to renounce their faith in Jesus Christ.
It’s somehow a less disturbing phenomenon when we keep the cross, and all it symbolizes, way, way in the past—on a hill in first century Jerusalem or even in mud holes of 1597 Japan. It’s not so easy to look at it when we are forced to understand it as our twenty-first century life. But the Passion Story is no fairy tale. Nor is it just a memory of the past. The cross is still raised. God’s people are still nailed to it. The bodies and spirits of God’s daughters and son are still broken; their blood still shed in any number of tragic ways everyday. The dark and terrible barrenness of Good Friday testifies to the inundation of the world by evil, not at its vilest, crudest, and most obvious degree of perversity, but in its “righteousness” and respectability.
What is an astonishing detail about the decision to kill Jesus is that neither madmen or barbarians put Jesus of Nazareth to death. It was the religious and the educated, the law-abiding, the moral majority, the sane, the well-to-do leaders who represented the brightest and best. It was not the riffraff and the prostitutes, but the God-fearing and the devout who yelled “Crucify him!” It was not the weak and the lame, but the established and esteemed.
Where were the godless in this drama? The notorious sinners? The tax collectors and harlots? The beggars and the despised? The shocking conclusion is that it was people at their best, not at their worst, who put Jesus on that cross.
When a woman who works in a sweatshop in Indonesia, earning a pittance in an overheated, un-ventilated factory, dies in a fire in the factory because there weren’t adequate exits, there is the cross. When a little girl in Chicago dies because of malnutrition, poverty, cold and the flu, there is the crucified.
When twenty-six people are massacred in a Newtown school because a mentally unstable man had access to assault weapons there is the cross right in our face. When a teen boy is set on fire at a birthday party in England because he is gay, there is the crucified One. And when any institution, including the church, fails to condemn such actions loudly and forcefully, or even worse, in some way enables them, the passion story comes alive once again. The world is still crucifying Jesus, who told us that whatever we do to the least of his brethren, we do to him.
When we leave tonight, and hear the carillon toll mournfully, we need not ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for all of the crucified—for Jesus, for you, for me, for every innocent being condemned to suffering and injustice and oppression and death and for the countless times when the world nails goodness to some cross or another.