a sermon for Good Friday, on the text Matthew 27:11-61
or all of the pain and passion of the gospel narrative that we’ve just heard read, we need to be frank. We listen to the story of the crucifixion with our fingers crossed behind our backs. Even in this telling of the story, where Jesus cries out in what seems like utter desolation—‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ or, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’—we know that this isn’t the end of the story. The disciples didn’t know that there was anything more, and the women who stood strong for Jesus thought that the best they could hope for was to see to it that he had a decent burial. But we know that there is another chapter yet to come, and that after that there will be chapter after chapter after chapter, carrying the gospel of Jesus Christ right up to this very day. Whatever sorrow we may feel and whatever emptiness we may let ourselves consider, most of us have come to this day with a knowledge that there is more. And that is a good and right thing.
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For Christians, Good Friday always has to be observed in knowledge of Easter, otherwise what business have we to call it “good?” For Christians, the whole season of Lent is a kind of luxury; I can choose to give up this or that or the other thing for these forty days, knowing full well that in the end I can feast to my heart’s content. What is it this year? No coffee? No dessert? No TV or Facebook or car stereo? But whatever I give up as a spiritual exercise or discipline, I can get back in full on Easter. Maybe I’ll know myself a bit better than I did back on Ash Wednesday, and maybe I’ll even have changed my habits or my diet or whatever else it might have been. Maybe I’ll have grown accustomed to reading my bible or saying evening prayers, and maybe that will become a part of my ongoing daily routine. And all of these things, too, are good and right.
Observing Lent and marking Good Friday are good for the soul. But lets not kid ourselves; on that crucifixion day the disciples knew only that the dream was over. And Jesus? He was tortured and humiliated, and gave voice to his sense of being abandoned and forsaken. As Robert Capon says, on that first Good Friday the crucifixion in and of itself was an unreadable act, written in black ink on black paper. No one’s fingers were crossed behind their backs in hope, least of all those of Jesus. Whatever he knew about his greater mission, on this day there was only death. Not play-acting, and not some sort of an exercise in self-sacrifice. As the Apostles’ Creed has it, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead.” Really and truly dead. It was all over.
Draw your hands from behind your backs for a few moments, uncross your fingers, and consider that. Not going through the motions, not simply asleep or off in some dream-like space called immortality. “He descended to the dead,” which means that his human life was as done and over as that of anyone else who had died before him. With those disciples who had dared to leave everything behind and to follow him out on his strange mission, understand that it is over and done. The teacher is dead, and all there is left to do is to go back to our boats and try to remember how to fish. At least for a few minutes, let yourself be in a world where there is no resurrection, no future, no hope; nothing beyond whatever we can manage to make of it. And whatever we do manage to make of our lives, we still have to confront the truth that all of us will eventually slip into death.
Keep your fingers uncrossed; I have a story to tell you. For a few minutes, you need to sit as if the story we will proclaim on Sunday has never been heard. My story takes place some twenty years ago, when I was working as the chaplain at Marymound, a residential treatment centre for adolescent girls. One of the great delights of that work was leading the Sunday chapel for those girls, as it gave me the rare opportunity to tell the great stories of Jesus to a group of kids who never before had heard them. Imagine, telling the story of the prodigal to a congregation for whom it was brand new; for whom it was at least potentially the greatest news that they’d ever heard in their lives. I loved those kids, and because I wasn’t a social worker or one of their residential care workers it was easy for them to love me. I could bring great stories and I could bring myself. I didn’t write their progress reports and I didn’t have any authority to say what goals they needed to work on or when they could be discharged. I could just be present to them, as the unconditionally loving and forgiving and patient church guy. For those six years, it was a rare and wonderful job.
Of course, not all of them thought that my church-guy stuff was worth all that much, and occasionally I would run right up against serious hostility. There was this one girl in particular, though, who met me with the strangest combination of warmth and sarcasm. Whenever I was around, she would gravitate toward me, all smiles and jokes and what seemed like openness… and then she’d hit me with these caustic remarks about what I did and what she assumed I stood for. She seemed to quite honestly like me, but she was palpably hostile to my faith.
She’d probably been living in the residence for close to six months when I found this note tucked under my office door.
I’m writing to tell you that I’m sorry for being an atheist, or being one in front of you, and for making smart ass remarks about “the old man.” But to tell you the truth on the matter it’s because where I was being hurt by my uncle, there was a picture of Christ on the wall and all I remember thinking “is this what this guy is all about?” And then people say that god is beside you all the time, but he won’t help you unless you help yourself. Well sorry but that’s bullshit, because what the hell is an 8-year-old girl supposed to do to help herself where that’s going on? So all I would have to ask the guy (since he was right beside me) is “Did you enjoy the —-ing show you phonie!!!!” (no offense).
But ever since then he’s never really hit me as anything else besides another character in a Mother Goose storybook. I really hope this doesn’t change our relationship, but now you can, or I hope you can understand why I feel the way I feel.
Are your fingers still uncrossed? Because the reality is that for Heather, there was nothing beyond Friday. No Sunday, no Easter, no resurrection, no hope. There was only a long, dark, and death-dealing Friday. And unless we come to grips with the fact that this is the reality for countless people on our streets and in our neighborhoods and around our world, all of our penitential and reflective words of this day will mean nothing. This day will remain an unreadable act, written in black ink on black paper, just as it was for her.
I’m not sure if the story now gets better or worse. A few month after she’d given me this note—and trust me, we did talk about it—she arrived at the door of the chapel, desperate to talk with me. She’d just come back from a home visit, where she’d been digging around in a box of old photographs in her parents’ basement. She needed to show me two of the pictures she’d discovered there, both taken of her at about age five, nude on a bed and posed provocatively like a centerfold model. “Who the hell took these, and why did they keep them?” she wailed. Never before and never since have I seen rage and sorrow so tightly entwined. She was locked in a kind of stomach-turning agony; “Who the hell took these, and why did they keep them?”
It was only later that night, as I walked home with my own stomach churning, that it occurred to me just how much she trusted me. To show me those photographs and to ask those horrifying questions about her own parents? Maybe in the long run Friday would give way to Sunday. But sometime the long run is very long indeed.
Now, you can cross your fingers again, because we do know and we do believe—sometimes against desperate odds—that the story is bigger than what is told today. But don’t ever forget those who can’t dare to believe with us. Don’t ever forget the Heathers of this world, and if your story is one more freighted with Good Friday than it is with Sunday, don’t hide that away behind a forced smile or caustic anger or deadly silence. For all of us, there is a “long run” story yet to be told, and we have it to tell precisely because we have first told this story of the Passion.
For today, that is enough. Sunday is coming.