Good Friday 2016
St. James’s Episcopal Church
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. Please be seated.
Last night we began a three day long liturgy. On Maundy Thursday we remember the events that led up to Jesus’ arrest and trial. Jesus exhorted his disciples to love one another as he loved them. He demonstrated this love by the humble act of washing their feet, a powerful and symbolic act an act that expressed humility, service and love. Jesus’ also gathered his friends for a meal, their last meal together. On Maundy Thursday, we remember Jesus last night as a free man and we reflect on Jesus love for his friends and for the world. The unfolding drama of this three day long liturgy a story that brings us, this afternoon, from Jerusalem to Golgotha, from the last supper to the foot of the cross.
I didn’t grow up in a particularly religious family but I did grow up with Good Friday, the story, the violence, the tragedy. I didn’t appreciate the liturgical significance but I appreciated the drama, I knew it was a serious day. I didn’t learn about this drama in Church, I learned about it from my Jewish father. My father grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950’s in the Bensonhurst neighborhood. At the time Bensonhurst was like many urban neighborhoods, it was gritty and it was poor, it was full of European immigrants, many of whom had had fled their homelands to come to the United States after the second World War for safety and a better life. These immigrant communities co-existed for the most part. They attended the same schools and played on the same sports teams. But there was tension, tension over jobs, inter-marriage, language barriers and religion. Good Friday was a day when some of these tensions, some of these social demons would become manifest. To my father and his brothers, Good Friday didn’t mean the beginning of the Tridium or a day to abstain from meat or sugar or even the last Friday before Easter. Good Friday meant violence. It was a day when groups of kids from other neighborhoods would come to Bensonhurst, and to other Jewish neighborhoods, to beat up Jews. I remember hearing my father tell a story about one particular Good Friday when he was caught in a ball field without his brothers where he met the wrath of a group of young men wielding athletic socks filled with rocks. The young men came to exact justice on my father for his role or maybe our ancestors’ role in the death of Jesus or so they said. This tale was part of that other Good Friday story, the Good Friday story that looks for sin in the other, that looks to blame and accuse – the blameless, this is the Good Friday story of anti-Semitism, and unfortunately for many outside the church – this is what the Crucifixion symbolizes. Blame, anger, displaced acts of aggression, this is a Good Friday story that captures the Church at its worst.
When I was a kid my Father’s stories seemed mythical, like clichés from a bygone era, full of old world bigotry, carried out by street barbarians who were filled with ignorance and hate. But this was the Good Friday narrative I grew up with, and this is the main reason why Good Friday always made me anxious. It made me anxious because it evoked painful memories that haunted my father and for some not entirely rational reason it made me feel unsafe. Thinking back on those stories now, with a bit more Christian context for Good Friday, I feel even more puzzled. How was it that for so long Christians felt justified in this type of misdirected vitriol, this type of religious vigilantism? Is this what Holy Week teaches us? We left Maundy Thursday last night, having washed one another’s feet, how could a message like this, a message of humility and service be perverted into a message of hate and violence?
Unfortunately, my Father’s Good Friday story is still unfolding. Just this past week, there was an incident during a basketball game at Newton North High School, where a group of students from a Catholic High School, during the typical high school athletic cheering and jeering, broke into a chant of “you killed Jesus,” directed toward the Newton North students who have a large Jewish population. This sentiment, even if it was intended to be received with sarcasm and irony, still exists and it is repulsive. This is clearly anathema to Jesus example of love and service; it makes my head spin to imagine how channeling this type of religious language ever occurs to the Christian mind. In the wake of the Newton North incident, Suzanna Heschel, daughter of Abraham Joshua Heschel, commented that this type of language was unfortunate; it was in bad taste, it was anti-Semitic, but most troubling it was un-Christian. Heschel, an Orthodox Jew, a professor at Dartmouth of Judaic Studies, recognizes the core issue here, that this type of narrow, cutting attitude, manifest in an overt act of antisemitism, is not Christian, and it’s not of God. The drama of Good Friday connects us to Jesus last hours, 2000 years ago and it connects us to the legacy of our own moral and ethical failures, as we have failed to love one another as Christ loved us.
The Anglican priest and poet George Herbert Wrote this about Good Friday in his poem the Agonie:
Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sinne and Love.
These last three words offer us a breviary on Good Friday, “Sin and Love.” On Good Friday we are confronted with the cross the manifestation of the cost of human greed, bigotry and sin. In the cross we are confronted with our own transgressions and those of our community. But Good Friday, also brings us love, a love that is both divine and human, a love that challenges human self-interest and dares us to love our neighbor and welcome the stranger. Jesus suffered the most carnal of human deaths, a gruesome and violent death, at the hands of his own people, even one of his own disciples. In the cross, God has absorbed all of our errors, all of our mis-deeds all of our betrayals. These transgressions were put to death with Jesus on the cross, the cross is a constant reminder that sin leads to death, the death of our earthly lives, the death of our dreams, the death of prosperity and justice for our neighbors and the stranger. God through Jesus has taken all of our sins and given us the grace and freedom to live our lives for others, to love as Jesus loved.
Good Friday still makes me anxious, the fraught Gospel reading from John, the history of Judeo-Christian tension over the circumstances of Jesus death, my father’s stories and many others like them and the reality that without the gifts of love and grace in my life I too am prone to turn my back on Jesus, choosing to blame and accuse instead of choosing to serve, welcome and love. Good Friday is a day of introspection, a day for self-examination, a day to think about our sins, personal and communal. Fortunately, Good Friday is also about the love of God, a love and peace that surpasses all of our understanding. A love that offers us new life…but we aren’t quite ready for the resurrection yet, we are still mourning and reflecting, thinking about the cross and that day at Golgotha when Jesus was hung on a tree. But we don’t mourn without hope, because as severe an image as the cross is, the cross is also an enduring image of God’s love. Amen.