Sermon: April 14 (Good Friday)

A sermon for Good Friday.

Audio link here.

Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-8
John 18 & 19

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. — The Epistle to the Hebrews, the fifth chapter, the seventh verse.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

He cried out to God. God was able to save him from death. And didn’t.

In other words, we have a high priest who in every respect has been tested as we are. Jesus is, in his passion, perfectly ordinary; in God’s refusal to intervene, perfectly like the rest of us.

The risk that Christians run is that we fetishise the passion of the Christ. Having forgotten, as we are wont to do, that Jesus of Nazareth is a human being just like us, we forget also that suffering and dying in divine silence is the lot of most, if not all, human beings.

[Some of you were here earlier, when a man stormed in, drunk and angry, railing against the state and capitalism and the church, shouting that God did not exist. And he’s not wrong. For so many—for him, for Christ himself in the garden—God doesn’t. They suffer alone.]

This is just what humans do. We suffer, and we die; alone, even if surrounded by living, breathing bodies, who keep on their living and breathing long after they’ve left the hospital room, in it our rapidly cooling corpse. Jesus suffers and dies because he is human. He suffers and dies of his humanity.

Not all humans are murdered, of course, except in the sense that all death is murder, all death is imposed upon us, if not by malicious intent, then by cancers and viruses, by poverty and pollution, by forces beyond our control, whether economic or evolutionary. Even to die of old age is a misnomer; it is just to die because our bodies can no longer withstand the corrosive effects of living in a world of genetic copying errors, carcinogens, and constant assaults on our immune systems.

All the same, not all humans are murdered. Not all of us are are wrongfully accused by our own people and tried in kangaroo courts and tortured with the blessing of the state and executed for political convenience. Then again, maybe more of us are than we think, and not just the tens of thousands of forgotten others that the Roman Empire subjected to crucifixion. Our instruments of death are more subtle now, in any case. Murder is easier when we don’t have to smell rust and blood; when we don’t even have to whisper crucify, crucify.

Consumer choices cost lives when commodities are traded on the backs of anonymous others working to death in fields and factories hidden from our flatscreen televisions. Or, not working at all; replaced by the efficiency of automation.

Political decisions cost lives when funding is cut from efforts to reduce poverty and homelessness and to provide mental health services, and when the Church has not stepped up enough, not nearly enough. When boys and girls we have never met are armed and dropped across borders far from ours. The minimum age to sign up in this country is 16; the average age, 20. When we wring our hands about taking in refugees. 207,000 civilians have been killed by the Syrian regime; 24,00 of them children. When the ice is melting and the sea is rising and some people subsist near low-lying coasts: a cool 22 million in Vietnam; 50 million in China; entire islands in the Pacific. All just numbers, and people.

The Sanhedrin conspire in boardrooms and parliament houses now. The innocent are crucified by trade deals and the realpolitik of mutually assured destruction and proportional responses and preemptive strikes. We kid ourselves if we don’t think that our ballots and wallets are weapons.

And, of course, we murder ourselves in exactly the same ways. Our hunger for national security and our thirst for retribution damns us into suicidal cycles of paranoid violence. Our obsession for mass extraction and production brings poison to our breath, to the water and soil that feed our bellies. In killing each other, we kill ourselves. And we do so unthinkingly, unknowingly, sleepwalking.

This is just what humans do. We die, and we rob other humans of their agency and of their lives, when it is expedient for us so to do, except that it ends up killing us as well. And so we killed him because what else would we do to someone whose humanity reveals our own inhumanity. And he is killed because that is the cost of wholly nonviolent resistance against inhumanity, resistance that even heals those who seek to kill.

+++

Behold, therefore, the man; the man who drinks of the cup that we all drink, that we hand to him to drink, the vinegar of our own making, poisoned with all the things that compromise our humanity, which may well boil down to our clawing desire to escape our mortality.

Behold, therefore, the man who would rather die than live lives like we do, in our petty insecurities expressed in acts of violence both great and small, unto others and upon ourselves. His acceptance of death is the opposite of our thoughtless suicide, as it is not fear that brings him to the cross, but love. It is, unlike our own so-called living, not for him self-expression or self-assertion or self-enhancement that gets him up in the morning, but the flourishing of the other.

Behold the man whose death is offered, even to us, we who are complicit in the evil wrought upon him, even by our apathy and inaction to keep a false peace. Behold him, but not only. We are invited to so much more. Kiss him also, and be fed by him at his table, his tomb; that his unquenchable life consumes your lust for death and mine. Behold him thus, and see the God who saves us by suffering our worst and nevertheless, well, that’s a story for another day.

 

 

Sermon: April 14 (Pontius Pilate)

This sermon was delivered as part of a Good Friday Three Hours’ Devotion service. It is a meditation on Pontius Pilate.

Audio link here.

Matthew 5:7
Matthew 27:11-26

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. — The gospel according to Matthew, the fifth chapter, the seventh verse.

I wash my hands;
I wash my hands of this;
I am innocent of this man’s blood.

You killed him. You wanted him dead, because it is better for one man to die than for a whole nation to perish.

Your cost-benefit analysis killed him, as it so often does. It is better for Muslims to be bullied, than for you to feel unsafe. It is better for women and children to suffer in poverty, than for you to pay more for your gadgets and garments. It is better for ecosystems to collapse, than for you to give up your favourite meals. It is better for one man to die, as long as it’s not you. That is a price you are willing to pay.

I gave you a choice, and you chose Barabbas. You chose this brigand, this murderer. You chose violence, as you so often do. I don’t blame you. God knows I would’ve done the same. It is a dog-eat-dog, eat-or-be-eaten kind of world, red in whip and dagger. No one makes it in this world without some ruthlessness, not least Roman governors. We’re not so different: you and me.

See to it yourselves, then. Let his blood be upon your hands. And if you like, let it be on your children too. No sense letting the welfare of future generations get in the way of our immediate gratification.

I wash my hands;
I wash my hands of this;
I am innocent of this man’s blood.

Yet here’s a spot. The smell of blood still.

+++

Are you their king?
Dear God, say no.
Just say what you’re meant to, the politically expedient: there is no king but Caesar.

You have to help me to help you. I need a reason to pardon you; an excuse for mercy. That’s how it works, in such a world as ours. There is a price for everything. There is one for your head, and if you don’t pay it, someone else will have to, and it sure isn’t going to be me.

Do you not hear? They accuse you of blasphemy, which I don’t care about. Why should I? Your god seems no more real than mine. They don’t do me any good; and, you, well, let’s just say I’d have switched allegiances a long time ago. And they accuse you of treason, which I must care about. Perils of the job. Let’s be frank: we have no god but Caesar, but power, but steel. Say you are a god, if you want: there are pills for that kind of thing. But, by Jove, don’t claim to be king. Don’t you dare dabble in politics. Separation of Church and State, and all that. Keep your moral theology in kitchens and bedrooms, or better still, in good intentions, never to be expressed in the real world. Leave that to the grown ups: government and law and war and money.

My wife, she had a dream about you. She thinks you are a righteous man. And maybe you are, but what has that gained you? Nothing. It doesn’t pay to be righteous. Not here, anyway. Just look at where it’s landed you. Mocked and beaten, spat upon, dressed up in blood and bruises. And worse, you’ve managed to upset my wife.

Maybe it’s your own fault, then, this mess you have gotten yourself into. Why did you come into the city? There are bad people here. You should’ve known better. And if they manage to ensnare you, maybe you deserve it. Were you drunk when you made that decision? You have a reputation for that kind of thing, you know? And why did you arouse these men’s fury? What did you expect would happen? You were asking for it. Don’t look to me for mercy. You should’ve taken the proper precautions. You should’ve known your place, and stayed there. Don’t look to me. Heal yourself.

+++

Then what shall I do with this so-called Christ? On one hand, I could let him go. I could find him not guilty by reason of insanity, seeing as he thinks he’s the Son of God. So does Caesar, I suppose, but Jesus is not nearly rich and powerful enough for it just to seem like an affectation.

Or I could just give him back to you lot, and you can stone him to death, or whatever it is that you do to your unfashionable prophets these days. But you want him crucified. And the customer is always right. The people have spoken, and their word is crucify.

But why? What evil has he done? What is the crime whose just deserts is death upon the cross? I like to think I am a just man, fair in my expressions of imperial might, my meting out of punishment and, less frequently, reward. Not kind, by any stretch of the imagination, but just. So, give me a crime. And don’t just scream treason. I need proof, and he has said nothing about being king of anyone. Clearly, he’s not as dumb as he looks.

But OK, OK: crucify, crucify. And for good measure, a flogging. And for even better measure, a mocking: enter a reed for a sceptre and a crown of thorns. Exit clothing, and dignity. A panto macabre, if you will and for your viewing pleasure. You can’t say I withheld anything from you. Vox populi; and your wish is my command. Not kind—certainly not to him—but generous, in a twisted sort of way. Remember now, next election, how I capitulated to your bloodlust. Don’t forget to sign up to my newsletter; and consider buying some branded merchandise while you’re there. I would like a promotion. Legate of Syria, would be a nice step up.

But remember also:
I wash my hands;
I wash my hands of this;
I am innocent of this man’s blood.

+++

I have taken a life, and it feels like nothing. This isn’t my first rodeo, and won’t be my last. Jesus of Nazareth is a statistic, to be forgotten just like the others. I’m not even the worst offender. Some people say that when Varus was in charge of Syria, he crucified two thousand Jews at a go. Pesky rebels, after Great Herod died. Varus: what a mensch.

People are killed all the time, and none of us so much as pause to pray for their souls. These men I lead—boys, really—only their mothers know them from Eve. Here they are, fighting for freedom or glory or security or whatever it is that we’re putting on the ads these days. Most of them won’t make it home for anymore Christmasses. And the men they kill? Who cares what their names are? Frankly, I don’t want to know. It’s too upsetting.

And then there’s the slaves. I haven’t the faintest where they’re from. I suppose I could find out. There are probably records. I bet I could even make their lives a little easier, and not just the ones in my residence: even those poor cretins out in the fields and mines. I could fight for a living wage for them: a jubilee, even. I could reunite them with their families. I could, but I probably won’t. Who has the time?

Mercy is always the good that is left undone.

And so it remains, ever and always: slaves, soldiers, men on death row. All just statistics to be forgotten, conveniently abstract and anonymous.

+++

Just give them the body. It is the very least I can do. An act of mercy, even kindness, at the last, in this morass of unjust violence I have perpetuated. It is too little, too late, of course, after so long a career in this bloody business. Too little, too late: the man is dead, and I have killed him. There are not two ways about it. I tried to wash, but even all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten these guilty hands.

This is what I would like to be remembered for, actually, this final act. I could have had his corpse thrown into a pit, an unmarked grave like the fate of so many in his station. But I didn’t. They asked for the body, and instead of turning them away or worse, I let them have what they wanted. I let them bury their king, their friend. Too little, too late, I know, but it’s not nothing.

I know my place in history is sealed. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, people will say. I will not be remembered as a good man, but as the hegemon who, by cruelty or cowardice or both, murdered God. It seems silly now to complain that history so often so unforgivingly lacks nuance, but it does. It paints people into heroes and villains, and I know which side of the ledger I occupy. Were it that I had listened to my wife; thus saith countless men like me.

+++

I don’t know if I would have remembered you. There were so many rebels, so many sages. There was always religious squabbling that may also have been political squabbling; these things always gets so tangled up. Strange places, these backwaters of the empire. Maybe there should have been cultural sensitivity training at the military academy, or something. Yours was not a typical case, to be sure, not in my experience, anyway: if you were meant to be like the other messiahs, you did a spectacularly poor job at it. All the same, I can’t say that I would’ve remembered you for sure. There were so many of you. I cared so little.

I can’t imagine that you’ll forget me, though. The man who could have set you free, but didn’t, who instead gave into the shrieks of the mob, and sent you to your death. And I don’t know if I want you to forget, as terrible as the memory must be. It is more terrible to be forgotten. No: remember me, you tragic and holy fool. Remember me, even in your prayers. Pray for me, you king of the Jews, friend of sinners, sinners like me. Forgive me. Have mercy.

Sermon: Good Friday 2015 (April 3 2015)

Good Friday

Death is an outrage. We try and reassure ourselves with assertions that it is just a natural part of life, but this is nonsense. Death is nothing less than the end and destruction and absence of a life, not a proper part of it. And so what if it is natural? Lots of things are natural, and they are no less awful for being so. Death is an outrage, and so are feeble-minded attempts to deny or sugar-coat the stark and awful fact that, one day, we will all die, and—worse still—chances are that some of the people we love most will die before we do, but the world will just carry on until the universe itself eventually peters out into the cold stagnation of maximum entropy. It is almost enough to make a person wish the world away, to curse the God who gives and takes away, as if the giving were some kind of cruel joke.

+++

I do not pretend to know how his mother felt about this whole sordid business, but this I do know: that parents should never have to survive their children. They so frequently do—it is a story tragically often told: the story of young death by disease or desperation or deprivation or destructive violence—but it shouldn’t be so. It is a story often told, too often told. 40 out of every 1,000 babies born die before they turn one; suicide is among the top three causes of death among adolescents in most Western democracies; and nobody really knows how many thousands of young men and women perish in areas of armed conflict every year. And so, always and everywhere, mothers and fathers weep and gnash their teeth, and ask why?

There is, theological casuistry aside, no why, no good reason for the kinds of suffering that go on and keep going on. It is almost enough to make a person wish the world away.

+++

There is no good reason for the kinds of suffering her son went through. There are causes, to be sure, and political historians and psychologists can and do tell about how it came to pass that in such a time and place, a would-be messiah was abandoned by his own people, scared and insecure, and executed by imperial forces, a political criminal on trumped up charges. But to think that there are reasons, that it somehow makes sense for a young man to be mocked and beaten and hung up and killed even for the sake and salvation of the whole world is to commit to a perverse economic logic in which means justify ends. The answer to the question, “Why did Jesus have to die?” must be, if we have souls left to save, that there is no answer. It is a damned thing, what happened to him. It is a damned thing, what happens in the world everywhere and every day, to the innocent and the guilty alike, at the fickle mercy or cruelty or indifference of physics and politics and personal human action and apathy, yours and mine, in our own ways whispering, “Crucify! Crucify!”.

+++

Who knows what solace she took from believing, if indeed she believed, that her boy was in a better place now? Who knows what solace anybody takes from talk of heaven? Who knows what comfort is provided by our pious assertion that her son, who is gone, is yet strangely present when we gather to break bread and eat in his name? But this conviction is what we have, is what we have been given. The Christian faith and gospel provide no quick solutions to grief and loss and death. Instead, our affirmation is that he who conquered death by dying himself is himself living and present in our sharing of the symbols of sustenance that are our sources of salvation. We have no conjuring tricks up our sleeves, no pastoral platitudes to offer. What we do have are these mysteries: the sacrament of the broken body that calls us to die to the sorts of sinful desires that perpetuate the suffering of others, and instead to share life with others, which—as we remember this and every Good Friday—is the only way to conquer death.