This sermon is based on the readings and the collect for Good Friday in the Revised Common Lectionary.
You can listen to an audio recording of the sermon by clicking the player below.
Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen (The Collect for Good Friday BCP p. 276).
It was just five days ago, at about 10:15 in the morning, as we were preparing to go downstairs for The Liturgy of the Palms, that one of our most engaged and involved parishioners asked me a very good question. “Why do we process outside and carry palms on this day?” I explained to him that during this season Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey and that the people gathered and cried,
“The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’” (Matthew 21: 9)
Then this person asked me a great question. “I know that” he said. “But why do ‘we’ process outside and carry palm branches?” Now just for the record, this involved and engaged parishioner was Ray Hutchinson, who is five and three quarters years old… but this was a great question. Why do “we” participate in this way?
I explained to him, standing right here in his space, that we participate in the story this was because this is not a story about people who lived two thousand years ago and who were engaged in a series of events that is distanced from us by both geography and time. I explained that this is a story that describes and defines “us,” that these stories that we read and participate in during Holy Week are “our” stories. We claim them as our own and we proclaim them as the stories of our very lives and being, the stories of identity as a community. We participate in them to make the real, present, here and now, for us, today here in this world.
Now I’m not sure… I think maybe he was a little grumpy about having to go outside into the cold… so I’m not sure that my explanation gave him cause to be excited about participating. But I’m sure that by the time we finished our parade and had come into the church he was enjoying his participation in the story and was appreciating my rather lengthy explanation to his very short question….
I think that if he had been here on Wednesday as we read the story of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas and Jesus’ commitment to remain faithful to his mission and to us by sending Judas on his way, Ray would have appreciated his participation in that story too. I am sure that when he was here last night he appreciated our participation in the act of washing feet, of receiving Jesus’ unconditional love, offered to us despite our warts and unwashed feet. And I am sure that he appreciated our ability and willingness to share that love with others.
I am sure that he and all of us, having heard the reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, the story of the institution of the Eucharist, came to this table with a greater sense of appreciation,as we participated with all of our hearts, and souls and being.
Today, however, that participation takes on a different cast. Today our participation in the stories of Holy Week includes our coming to the garden to arrest Jesus. Our participation in this story today includes our choosing a bandit over the one who just five days ago we declared to be our Lord and King. Our participation in this story today has us crying, “Crucify him! Crucify him! Away with him! We have no king but Caesar!” Our participation in this story is a little more difficult for us to sit with, to experience, and to claim and proclaim.
Now just to be clear, our participation in all of these stories doesn’t create something new. It is our claiming of a truth that has always been, is now, and will be forever. We are claiming and proclaiming and participating in a story that transcends this moment and these details. And which transcends us as individuals and as a body. So this special way that we recollect and participate in these stories isn’t imposing anything upon us. It is in fact describing our experience, our perception and understanding of the truth, of reality, of the way life is. If we think about that statement for just a moment we will recognize its truth even in the face of our uncomfortable and painful participation in the story today.
When we fail to love one another, to love out neighbor as ourselves as we have been loved; when we objectify one another and see God’s children as a means to an end, to the advancement of our own agendas, to the meeting of our own needs; when we fail to work for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being… we are participating in Jesus’ crucifixion. We are denying the vision and dream that God holds for all of creation and the way of being one in Christ that God longs for each and every one of us to recollect, claim, and proclaim.
Our participation in this difficult, ugly, and violent story of betrayal is not something that is being imposed upon us but is something that we are realizing, recognizing, and holding very carefully about who we are, who it is that we have been, and who it is that, without the grace of God’s help, we will continue to be.
There is another change in the story today that is worth pointing out and recognizing. The collect that we heard at the beginning of today’s liturgy, and which I read again just a few minutes ago, has for this entire week been the prayer that we use at the conclusion of our Holy Week liturgies. So having gathered as a community of faith, having participated in these powerful and formative stories, and having shared in the Eucharist, we have knelt just before going out into the world to continue this journey through Holy Week, and we have heard these words.
“Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen” (Holy Week Prayer Over the People Book of Occasional Service p. 26).
In the context of a closing prayer, in the context of a journey that is ongoing, these words sound and feel like a plea for help, for strength, for companionship along the way. O God, we are on the road to Golgotha. We are on the path and this journey is a difficult one. We ask you graciously… graciously to behold us, to apprehend us, to see. This is a prayer for God’s presence and favor on the journey. Oh, and God, just in case you have forgotten who is asking… we are your family, the ones for whom Jesus was willing to go to the cross. So we are not making this request out of the blue. We are yours and you are ours… So please be with us.
Today we shift that prayer from the end of our liturgy to the very beginning and it feels very different. Knowing why we are here, knowing where the story is going, and knowing how this will end… we have the temerity to pray, “Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family? “
We hear these words differently now… for whom our Lord Jesus Christ is “about” to be betrayed, and “about” to be given into the hands of sinners, and “about to suffer death upon the cross…
And just in case you have forgotten who it is that is asking… it is we who are about to do these things to Him, who are asking you to behold us in this moment.
That seems very counter intuitive. That seems like a strange request to be making, knowing what it is that is about to happen. What is going on here? I think that there is an important piece here that we need to recognize and grapple with.
I used to see this in my own children. They would behave in ways with Suzanne and me that we wouldn’t see from them in any other setting or context. They are our family. And I believe that they were, as families are wont to do, testing us. “Yeah you say that you love us but what if we do this? What if we push this buttons right here…” There is a fabulous children’s book by Barbara M. Joosse and Barbara Lavallee called Momma, Do You Love Me? in which a young Inuit girl describes all sorts of ingenious and outrageous tests for her mother in an attempt to see if she is truly loved… What if I put fish in your mukluks? What if I put holes in our canoe? Momma, would you still love me?
Last night we participated in a great act of intimacy and love; joining our Lord and Master by following his example and allowing another to see our naked feet; allowing them to hold them, to wash them, to caress them. And then we turned and offered that same love to another. We claimed and proclaimed the truth; that God loves us unconditionally despite out warts, despite out bunions, our ingrown toenails, our hammertoes, and those strange little pinkie toes that turn on their side and don’t have a nail… Last night we claimed and proclaimed that God loves us despite all of that.
But you know… our feet are only a small part of who we are. Today God has experienced us at our absolute and very worst. There is nothing more that we could do to prove the depths to which we can sink, the awful deeds of which we are capable. And so here in this moment, with Jesus having died in our presence on the cross, and having been laid in a tomb, having manifested the worst that is in us… we hold out our hands and ask God to behold us, God’s family. We pray that God will do so, will behold us graciously, that the truth that we claimed and proclaimed last night will in fact turn out to be the Truth.
Our worst and ugliest warts are now on display.
And so we wait.
And we watch.
And we hope.
And we pray.