“Jesus did not blame them, nor does he blame us.”

“Jesus did not blame them,
nor does he blame us.”

A sermon for Good Friday
preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania

Friday, April 19, 2019

Celebrant      We glory in your cross, O Lord,
People          and praise and glorify your holy resurrection; for by virtue of
                      your cross joy has come to the whole world.

Black veiled cross

When I was a graduate student in early modern European history at Fordham, I recall with surprise a comment from one of my professors: “The kind of history we write all depends on what kind of eye glasses we wear when doing the research.” Until that moment, I had a kind of “naïf” view of history. I thought that it was just a matter of doing honest research, allowing all the “facts” to be uncovered and then trying to weave the information together in some interesting way.

It had not occurred to me that the “axis of analysis,” as I came to learn the “eye glasses” for historians is called, determines which “facts” we “see” when we do research. For instance, we were told that “good history” would always include an analysis of at least gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, power structures, and faith. And, there are ways to find those things—one must learn how to “look for” what is not visible at first glance. An analogy, which I came to treasure, is that of the diamond. It has many facets. To tell the “true” story of the diamond, each of those facets have to be taken into account.

Later, I came to realize that the same tools which are useful in history are also useful in theology-and in faith in general. This evening, I would like to ask you to join me in a new exploration of the “good news” of Good Friday.

The call and response which I chose to use at the beginning of the sermon this evening—from the revised version of our Book of Occasional Services—is a paradoxical one. The same conflicting ideas are born out in the very language which we use to describe this day. “Good Friday.” One might well be tempted to ask, “What is good about it?” And what about this day would lead us to adore and bless the very one crucified?

One of the dangers of fundamentalism is that in making the Crucifixion the exclusive focus of faith, everything else becomes distorted. For instance, if Holy Week had ended with this Good Friday, there would not be much reason for hope. It would be a day full of only sadness, fear and distress. It would be a day of escalating tragedy in which events just horribly spun out of control and kept getting worse and worse. It would be a day of disappointment, abandonment, torture and humiliation. It would be a day in which evil, injustice and oppression had triumphed. What a sad day, indeed. And yet, as our scriptures remind us, that is precisely the kind of day which those who “have no hope” experience daily. That is very sad!

In our tradition, though, we celebrate the Sacred Tridiuum—three days in which the mystery of the Passion, death, and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ form a single reality. So, as important as this day is, we do not stop here. We march on in faith and in hope towards the Resurrection. It is the Resurrection—and not just the events of Good Friday which is the cornerstone on which our faith rests. It is the Resurrection which is the ultimate Good News.

At the same time, it is essential that we experience each of these days fully. Today is Good Friday and not Easter Sunday. So, we are challenged to enter into the reality of this day. Previously, I shared with you an invitation to allow each of these days to unfold in our own lives—as they did in the lives of Our Lord and his friends. To take us by surprise. That is what I would like for us to reflect on this night.

We often fail to really “see” what is going on at the Crucifixion. There is so much action, so many things happening that it all becomes a kind of blur to us. There are so many details that we can easily lose focus on what is most important. There is, though, another danger. If we allow pre-conceived notions to blind us, we may not be able to notice what is really happening. To put it bluntly, we have spent so much time looking for someone to blame that we have failed to really “see” what took place.

As you are no doubt aware, tonight is also the First night of Passover. It was a feast of freedom and hope which Jesus, his family, and friends would have celebrated each year. Sadly, it has become a day which was marred over many centuries by acts of cruelty and violence by Christians against our Jewish Sisters and Brothers. That is a fact which we must acknowledge—to our regret and shame. Although there are many causes for this bizarre behavior, one of the primary reasons seems to have been that Christians in earlier times blamed all Jews for the death of Jesus. They left Church on Good Friday and attacked the Jewish ghetto crying out for death to the “Christ-killers.” This was among the very darkest moments in Christian history. That claim of “blood libel” and “deicide” against those of the Jewish faith led to horrible atrocities and may well be at the root of the persistent evil and sin of anti-Semitism in Western Christianity.

In short, the propaganda suggested that the Crucifixion of Jesus was the worst thing which had ever happened in human history! The Son of God was humiliated, tortured and abused. He died alone, abandoned and forgotten on a cross outside of Jerusalem. It was an unforgivable sin, and someone—whoever it was that was responsible—must pay the ultimate price for this horror.

This is a very human way of thinking—and a way which does not represent the best of humanity. In it there is a need for someone to be hurt, to suffer, to experience­—in retribution—all the things that Jesus did. It is the logical progression of “lex talonis,” or “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” It cries out for someone to blame—to be punished. This irrational thinking has nothing to with the Faith of Israel or with the Faith of Jesus!

  • There are, of course so many people who could have been blamed:
  • The riled-up mob, which cried for Jesus’ death. Jesus did not blame them.
  • Annas and Caiaphas—the spiritual leaders in Jerusalem. Jesus did not blame them.
  • The Sanhedrin. Jesus did not blame them.
  • King Herod. Jesus did not blame him.
  • The Apostles who got scared and ran away. Jesus did not blame them.
  • Peter, who denied Jesus three times. Jesus did not blame him.
  • Judas Iscariot who conspired against Jesus and caused his arrest. Jesus did not blame him.
  • Pontius Pilate—the only one with the power of life and death. Jesus did not blame him.
  • God, who could have stopped the Passion at any moment. Jesus did not blame God.

In fact, Jesus did not blame anyone! Jesus forgave everyone! What beautiful and compassionate words, “Father forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” Jesus was not about playing the blame game. And, even, in his pain and sorrow and agony, he chose to love, to forgive, to heal and to reconcile. He chose love over hate and forgiveness over claims for justice or retribution. Now that is good news!

Why then was Jesus crucified? I suspect that this is one of those questions which everyone will have to answer for herself or himself. After long prayer and reflection, I have come to this understanding. God did not cause, intend or want Jesus’ death. Jesus was more than some sacrificial lamb who had to die to atone for the mistakes of Adam and Eve. Jesus’ death was not necessary to appease an offended God or to pay the price for the sins of fallen humanity.

A reflection on Facebook by a “Southern Pastor’ recently phrased this well:

  • Jesus died on the cross because he offended those in power.
  • Jesus died on a cross because he challenged the status quo.
  • Jesus died on a cross because love would not sit silently by as those who had little were being stepped on, used, and abused by those who had so very much.
  • “Why did Jesus die on a cross?”
  • Jesus died on a cross to show us what love looks like in action.

The answer that I find in the story of Jesus’ passion, is that we humans nailed Jesus to the Cross—all of us. Why?

  • Because we were afraid of the message that Jesus proclaimed.
  • Because Jesus threatened our safe and secure faith.
  • Because Jesus said that we must love the poor and needy.
  • Because Jesus said that we could have no part in violence, racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and blaming and still be his followers.
  • Because Jesus said that we had to love and care for everyone.
  • Because Jesus said that we would have to change and grow to fully enter into God’s realm—in a word, conversion.
  • Because Jesus refused to exclude, shame, or condemn anyone.
  • Because Jesus taught that true leadership is found in loving service.
  • Because Jesus put his words into action and modeled what he preached—showing us that it is possible to live the life he spoke of.
  • For all these reasons and a million more, we nailed Jesus to the tree.
  • Because we did not understand Jesus and because we did not know what we were doing!

 Now here is the miracle! Jesus’ loving Abba did not strike us dead, or curse us, or punish us for what we had done to God’s beloved child! God accepted our sacrifice and transformed it. He raised Jesus from the death which we imposed on him. And, he offered us—as he had already done so many, many times in the past—the possibility of a new beginning. God offers us the fullness of life: physical, mental, and spiritual—now and always. God’s unconditional love will not be limited by human frailty, fear and sin. God does not blame us. Just the opposite—God loves us and wants only what is good for us. Now that is good news!

At our recent Bicentennial Quiet Day, Mother Barbara Crafton shared a powerful insight. “It is not that Jesus’ death was worse than the death of anyone else. The important thing is that Jesus’ death was our death.” It is true that there are even worse forms of death than Crucifixion. But what is also true is that God knows what it means to live fully—and totally—as one of us. God also knows what it means to suffer our death. As St. Paul tells us, “in Baptism, we have died with Christ—we also rise with him to newness of life.” We gave death; God gives life!

It is also important to remember that Jesus was not abandoned or alone in his Passion. His mother, the Beloved disciple, and some other women were present to him and ministered to him when he was most vulnerable and afraid. Not everyone ran away! A few loved Jesus so much that no power on earth would have kept them away from him. The arms that held him as a baby in that manger in Bethlehem now held his lifeless body as it was taken down from the cross. As that beautiful hymn, Stabat Mater Dolorosa reminds us, “She beheld her tender Child, saw Him hang in desolation, till His spirit forth He sent.”

Make no mistake. Jesus died and was buried. We do not have to be afraid and run away anymore. Fear is useless. What is needed is trust!

Even on that altar of the cross, Jesus blessed us with healing, forgiving, and reconciling love. From his wounded side flowed water and blood. The healing waters of new life—of Baptism. And the blood of his abiding sacramental presence with us: “The blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation. The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.”

What can we take away from this? God loves us totally, completely, and unconditionally. Jesus proved that love in laying down his life at our demand. Just as Jesus gave himself over to our death, he invites us to take up his life.

There is a beautiful hymn by Nancy Honeytree which expresses the promise of Good Friday so well, “Live for Jesus. That’s what matters. And when other houses crumble mine is strong. Live for Jesus. That’s what matters. That you see the light in me and come along.”

Jesus does not blame us! Let us be done with blame and guilt! Let us learn to truly live—in Jesus’ resurrected life—as members of God’s beloved community.

“Let me know you in the now.”

“Let me know you in the now.”

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
Easton, Pennsylvania
April 7, 2019

Almighty and ever living God, in your tender love for the
human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take
upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross,
giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant
that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share
in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.

“Lord, deliver me
Break my heart so I can see
All the ways You dwell in us
That You’re alive in me

Lord I long to see
Your presence in reality
But I don’t know how
Let me know You in the now”
From “Know you in the Now.” By Michael Card

Several weeks ago, Father Andrew preached a very moving sermon. I have reflected on it almost daily in the weeks which have followed. And that, by the way, is a helpful practice which I suggest to you. Each Sunday, try to find one line—or one verse from Scripture to carry with you through the week. He said, “The most radical word that Jesus ever said was “Today.” He went on to share with us how challenging it can be to let go of both the past and of the future so as to fully live in the present.

Many of us, when we honestly look at our lives, come to realize that one of the reasons that we do not accomplish the things which are important to us is that find it difficult to really live in the here and now. We sometimes are so afraid of the past that we can be incapacitated by guilt about past mistakes, failures, and sins. We worry so much about what “might happen,” that we find that today has slipped away without our lives being any different than they were before.

On this last Sunday in Lent, perhaps it is time for us to take an inventory of this Season of Lent. Did we get out of this Lent what we hoped we would? As a result of the things which we either gave up or else took on, are we different people? Have we grown closer to God? Have we grown closer to others? Have we appreciated and valued the gift of God’s creation? I very much hope that the answer to each of these questions will be a resounding yes. But, if not, it is never too late!

In my first year of Seminary, I had a class called “The Mystery of Salvation.” We had it right before lunch and so the seminarians—who are often witty and cynical at the same time–called it “The Misery of Salivation.” Later, I came to realize that they might have been more profound than they realized. Are we invited to be so hungry for God that we literally salivate? I reflected on this the first time that I ever attended the Orthodox Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom and saw that they actually use a kind of “liturgical bib” when receiving Holy Communion. Of course, in their case it makes sense because the leavened bread is dipped in wine and then communicated using a kind of “liturgical spoon.”

In “The Mystery of Salvation,” our professor told us, “There are really only three essential questions: Where do we come from? Where are we going? What are we responsible for along the way?” It seems to me that the last question can give us some insight into how it is that we come to find God in the here and now.”

A word, which I find either used or suggested throughout our readings today is “new.” New things, when we first encounter them, can take us by surprise. They challenge our preconceptions and often cause us to see things in a new way. We do not always like that. It can be easy to think or to say, “But I have always done it that way. The truth is that the way we have always done things has not always worked out so well for us.

The Prophet Isaiah tells us that “God is doing something new.” God certainly took the people of Israel by surprise when, through Moses, he told them that they would be delivered from slavery. I can imagine that message was received with great skepticism. After all, slavery was all that they knew. When we listen to their complaints in the wilderness, afterwards, it seems clear that it was almost impossible for them to really trust that God could provide for their needs in the here and now. Instead of recalling that slavery had been cruel, oppressive and dehumanizing, they occasionally longed to return to what was “safe and dependable” even if it meant eating onions and bitter herbs. Because of that fear, they said “no” to God’s invitation to enter the land of Promise. They had to wander there for forty long years–until every living person who had a “slave mentality” had died. Only then, would it be possible for God to do something new for them, with them, and through them.

The writing from Isiah, though, is written at a later time, a time in which the prophets begin to speak of God doing something truly new—and for those who heard the message this “new thing” was unwelcome—God’s message of hope, love and covenant would be a message for the whole world, and not only for the People of Israel. That was a hard message for them to hear. Even today it is a hard message for us to hear. When the Episcopal Church boldly proclaims that “everyone is welcome,” each of us are challenged to let go of our own prejudices and discomforts. If God calls someone to be part of our community, who are we to say no? And then, we are called to not only tolerate their presence, but to actually learn to love them!

The tone which I hear in the Psalm is a response to that invitation to the new, “What wonderful things God has done.” But I think it could also be “what wonderful things God is doing here and now.” They are wonderful to behold. Let us truly be glad and rejoice in them.

Saint Paul shares with his favorite community, the Church in Phillipi, his own surprising experience of finding God in the new. The contrast which he makes between his “old way of life” and the “new way of living” could not be more pronounced. In this beautiful passage he reflects on the unbelievable way in which his life was transformed. He shares how it came about that his focus shifted. To put it quite simply, in his old life the focus was on him. And in the new life, the focus is on God.

There was a very clever meme on Facebook that said, “Humility is not about thinking less of myself; it is about thinking of myself less often.” When Paul learned to place his focus on God, he discovered God’s presence in the here and now. And that changed everything! It was that realization that God was truly with him in every circumstance of his life that gave him the courage to persevere and to press forward. He learned too, that he did not have to worry about what was coming. His life was one in process. With God’s help he was making daily progress towards his goal. He did not have to worry that he had not yet arrived. If he allowed God to be in control of the journey, it would all work out as God wished—and, in fact, would be better than anything he could have come up with on his own.

In this final Sunday in Lent, we come to a pivotal moment of transition. In just a week we will enter into Holy Week. And at that time, we will begin an amazingly fast-paced journey through the most important moments in the life of Christ and into the mysteries which lie at the very core of our personal and collective faith. In the reality of the passion, death, and resurrection, we will encounter the fullest expression of God’s all-encompassing love. Remember the saying, “Holy Week is not so much about how much Jesus suffered, it is rather about how much Jesus loved.” It will be a week that, if we allow it to do so, could change our lives completely.

How is that possible? One way, I think, it to seize hold of the notion that each day must be fully experienced on its own merit. Let us fully enter into each day—but in doing so, let go of all the others. Let us forget what is coming and allow each day to take us by surprise—as they did to both our Lord and to his friends. On Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday forget that Good Friday is coming. On Good Friday and Holy Saturday morning, forget that there will be a Resurrection. And at the Great Vigil of Easter (which I invite each of you to please attend), be surprised that the Light of Christ has conquered the darkness of sin, death, and hatred. Be astonished at the Easter Proclamation” “Christ is Truly Risen.” What wonderful new news indeed!

The Gospel passage we heard today is one of my all-time favorites. Jesus returns to his home-away-from-home in Bethany. This is a place where he can just “be himself,” It is a place where he can relax and let go of all the problems that he faces. It is a place, as we could say, where he is “family member” and not just a friend. He once again shares a lovely evening with his dear friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha.

With them he shares the unexpected gift of life which has been returned to Lazarus. He feasts on another incredible meal prepared by that five-star-cook, Martha. And, he receives perhaps the most personal and loving gift that he ever received in his entire life. His friend Mary shares with him what might well be her life’s savings. She breaks open a bottle of outrageously expensive perfumed oil and anoints his feet with her hair. The room is filled with the fragrance of that oil. It is such a loving, intimate and personal act of generosity and love there is really no other experience in his life with which it may be compared.

This anointing restores and refreshes the Lord’s tired, worn, and calloused feet. It offers, as oil always does, healing and strength—but this time, for his last journey. Perhaps it is this act of love and generosity which empowers Jesus to enter into that Holy Week, with the knowledge that he is deeply, totally, and unconditionally loved.

In this selfless gift, Mary models what Jesus will do, in turn, when at that Last Supper, which is soon coming, he will share the gift of his abiding presence in the elements of bread and wine. He will show that true leadership is about loving service when he washes the feet of his own disciples.

The aroma of that loving home in Bethany will go with him, through that entire Holy Week which is coming—through his passion and death and into his Resurrection.

Today, and in the coming days of Holy Week, may God break open our hearts with his love so that we truly see—and know that God is with us “in the now.”