Good Friday 2019
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
We’ve all been watching the sad news from Paris this week of the fire that destroyed much of Notre Dame de Paris. The beautiful and ancient Cathedral “Our Lady” of Paris is named after the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is world famous, beloved and full of priceless artifacts. There was much sadness and bitterness among those of us who feel so strongly for this sacred space that has housed prayer and worship for nearly a millennia. We are grieving its demise. Others were critical that those of us who cried for Notre Dame were acting wrongly in some way, that we loved “just a building” and were wasting our tears on materialism when we could be using that energy to raise funds and do good works for the poor and disenfranchised.
I don’t know.
I had the great opportunity to spend my summers in college traveling around the Methodist Conference in this part of the world with other college students working with local parishes’ youth programs. There were five of us and we each developed two workshops. One of mine was called “Worship With Wow!” Pretty corny, I know. But youth would flock to this workshop in which I would challenge them to learn about the architecture and symbols inside a sanctuary. Do you know what the means? Do you know what this symbol stands for? Do you know why we do that during the prayers or songs or why we have pews? That sort of thing. These young people were eager to learn more about their church building.
Then, after I had them talking about all of the stuff in here and why we love it I would ask them what they would do if their church sanctuary was gutted by a fire or a tornado or some other disaster like that. What if all of this was taken away and all we had left was an empty room? Could we still gather and pray here? Would our prayers be the same? Our songs? Our faith?
I always got a resounding “yes!” from those young people.
What would we do here at Grace if we lost even part of this historic structure that we love so much? Would we still pray? Would we still have faith?
I think so.
I went through a house fire once and lost almost everything I owned. It was awful. But, a year later I had replaced it all with insurance money and life went on. I was still me.
In the end, all is temporary. All buildings come down eventually. All our work comes to pass too. So it is worth asking ourselves, especially during Lent what we put our faith in, our hope and our joy too.
I told the lectionary group on Wednesday that if you were to attend all of the services this week you would hear somewhere between 20 and 40 scripture readings. (That larger number is possible in part if we were to read all 12 of the readings on Saturday night but I’ve trimmed that down a bit to save time.)
One of the Holy Week scriptures that has been ringing in my mind all through this past week was not even read this year. Again, to save time, because we had a baptism on Palm Sunday, I chose for us to skip the Liturgy of the Palms. In that liturgy, we read a short reading from Luke and there is a blessing of the palms and then the tradition is to join in a processional around the block and show off our ways to the Lutherans and Presbyterians and anyone else who might be awake, I guess.
But, we didn’t do that this year. So we missed a passage of St. Luke’s version of that part of the story about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey and it keeps ringing in my ears. It goes like this:
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop." (They were talking about all those folks shouting Hosannas.) He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:40)
The stones themselves would shout out. Or, as the line is phrased in Jesus Christ Superstar, “The rocks and stones themselves would start to sing!”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about shouting and keeping silent. There are times when we strive to keep silent in order to listen. If we can shut up enough we can listen to each other better, but also, if we can quiet our minds we can listen to God better..
But I’ve also been thinking about all those voices in our world which are silenced by threat or violence or isolation or starvation. The innocent, the children, the elderly, the refugees, those who need advocacy for one reason or another. Those who need to be heard. Those whose voices have been silenced.
Last night we read the story of the washing of feet from John’s gospel when Jesus commanded his disciples, and us, to love one another. It was the last thing he said before his arrest. And as we have just heard, he didn’t say much after that until, his seven last words on the cross.
So this last commandment went like this:
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
A new commandment. To love. They will know we are Christians by our love.
But then, in the middle of this passion narrative from John which we have just heard read, Jesus said, in answer to a direct question from Pilate about whether or not Jesus is the King of the Jews:
“You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
We, the believers, we “listen to his voice.”
Silence of the Lambs was a terrifying movie to me. You may not be familiar with this old movie. It was released 28 years ago. It is the story of FBI agent Clarice Starling who is working on a case searching for a kidnapper and she wants to pick the brain of Hannibal Lecter who is a brilliant Psychiatrist in prison for gruesome murders. A couple of years after it’s release some Italian filmmakers did a parody titled “Silence of the Hams.” As a vegetarian facing Easter feasts, I had to share that one with you. But I digress.
The title of the movie, Silence of the Lambs is revealed in a short story-inside-the-story near the end of the film. It is a personal story Clarice shares with Hannibal in exchange for his knowledge.
Clarice has asked this sociopath from his prison cell for help in understanding the murderer they are trying to find. She needs a profile. Hannibal wants something in return, the chance to play some mind games with her. He asks her to tell him of her deepest fear. Clarice recounts a traumatic childhood incident where she was awakened by the sound of spring lambs being slaughtered on a relative's farm in Montana. She admits that she still sometimes wakes in the night thinking she can hear the lambs screaming.
I suppose the silencing of the lambs is relief from the screaming she heard.
Jesus told Pilate that he was born for this. We assume this means that Jesus was born for the atonement, for his sacrifice of himself to the crucifixion. That he was born to die for our sins. But there is more to the story than just that.
We know that on Sunday we will remember that he was born so that he could be raised from this slaughter. He was born to testify to the truth.
On Wednesday I preached at the noon service about the history of scapegoating and warned those gathered then that I planned to repeat those thoughts for this gathering.
We think of scapegoating as a dynamic that families and groups do to pick on one person. The theory is that all systems need a scapegoat, someone to burden with their negativity. The systems theorists of the 1950s and 1960s who came up with this concept actually used the name of an ancient practice to indicate these human relational dynamics.
There was an annual ritual described in the Bible about this. In Leviticus Chapter 16 when Aaron was the High Priest and he was instructed what to do about the old scapegoat ritual in which the entire community would exile an actual goat.
On the “Day of Atonement” the high priest was instructed to symbolically lay all the sins of the people on one unfortunate goat, and the people would then beat the animal until it fled into the desert where presumably it would die of starvation, dehydration and isolation. It was a vivid symbolic act that helped to unite and free the children of Israel. Instead of owning their faults, this ritual allowed people to export them elsewhere—in this case onto an innocent animal.
The image of the scapegoat powerfully mirrors the universal, but largely unconscious, human need to transfer our guilt onto something or someone else by singling that other person out for unmerited negative treatment.
This pattern is seen in many facets of our society and our private, inner lives - so much so that we might call it “the sin of the world” (note that “sin” is singular in the Gospel of John, particularly John 1:29).
We humans largely hate or blame almost anything else rather than recognize our own weaknesses and negativity. “She made me do it.” “He is guilty.” “He deserves it.” “They are the problem.” “They are evil.” We seldom consciously know that we are scapegoating or projecting. It’s automatic, ingrained, and unconscious. As Jesus said, in one of his seven last words, people literally “do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
The Scriptures call such ignorant hatred “sin,” and Jesus came precisely to “take away” (John 1:29) our capacity to commit this sin. Jesus stood as the fully innocent one who was condemned by the highest authorities of both “church and state” (Jerusalem and Rome), an act that should create healthy suspicion about how wrong even the highest powers can be. ~ Richard Rohr
So we have spent again this year, these forty days of Lent working on ourselves. We spend this time in preparation for Good Friday so that we can purge ourselves of these tendencies we have to project and to scapegoat. Because we all do this. Because we are human. But without our repentance, all of this ritual is pointless and Easter is disempowered and turned into mere bunnies and eggs.
With our repentance, however, we get to see and to hear and to experience the truth.
Jesus doesn’t answer Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” because Pilate is incapable of hearing the truth.
We get to hear the truth.
The very stones will shout it out.
Tall buildings may fall down or burn to the ground.
Waring people may continue to kill each other in the name of God.
Jesus, our paschal lamb, will make this final sacrifice.
The Lamb must go to slaughter.
But he will not be silenced.