April 14, 2022
Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
In the name of Jesus, the face of God turned in our direction.
“Why is this night different from all other nights?”
The youngest child asks this question at the seder dinner, during the Jewish Passover, which begins tomorrow. The answer is about history that on this night God sent the angel of death to kill the firstborn sons of the Egyptians (who had enslaved the Jews), but the Israelites were told to sacrifice a lamb and smear the blood on the door of their houses so that the angel would know to "pass over" their homes.
If Christianity may appropriate this question for a minute and ask, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” I would answer, “It really isn’t.”
The Scriptural witness is the bedrock of our faith, but I suggest that tonight and the next three days are not about history as much as they are about our own lives, our own worlds, our own understanding of justice and love. We may have trouble tonight feeling feelings that are hard to access on demand — grief, fear, anger. We may struggle to “believe,” we may wonder what it means that “Jesus died for my sins.” Yet much of these three days is familiar.
To begin, I offer you a meditation on words and on places because the events of tonight and the next three days are present on the pages of the newspaper, on the evening news, on the words on the screen, and in life as we know it.
“Warning,” as Lester Holt says at the beginning of NBC News, “Some of these images may be hard to see,” and to hear.
According to Scripture, Jesus spoke seven last words or phrases during his three hours on the cross. The spirit of these words echoes through our own time…
From the Cross, Jesus said: “I thirst…”
In crucifixion, the body weight is supported by the hands, making it nearly impossible to raise yourself up to get a breath. Victims frequently suffocate.
Pinned to the ground by police officers in New York City, losing consciousness and dying from suffocation, Eric Garner’s
last words: “I can’t breathe.”
From the Cross, Jesus said: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
“Taser! Taser! Taser!” were the last words heard by Daunte Wright, a black motorist shot in Minneapolis during a traffic stop. The police officer testified she didn’t mean to shoot him.
From the Cross, to his mother Mary and the “disciple whom he loved,” Jesus said: “Woman, behold your son… Son, behold your mother.”
Dying under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis, George Floyd: “Mama! Mama! Mama!”
From the Cross, Jesus said: “It is finished.”
Shot and killed for “suspicious behavior” by George Zimmerman, who was later acquitted of all charges, the last words of Trevon Martin: “Okay, you got me…..okay, you got me.”
From the Cross, to the thief who hung next to him, Jesus said: “Today you will be with me in paradise…”
Four police officers in the Bronx, looking for a rapist, interrogated Amadou Diallo and ordered him to show his hands. He reached into his pocket to show his wallet and, assuming he was drawing a gun, the four officers fired 41 shots with semi-automatic pistols, continuing to shoot even after he fell. Minutes earlier, Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant, had left a voice mail: “Mom, I’m going to college!”
From the Cross, Jesus said: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
George Floyd, Minneapolis, “I’m dying, I’m dying”
From the Cross, Jesus said: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, his body left under the unrelenting summer sun for four hours, Michael Brown’s last words: “Hands up! Don’t shoot!”
As Philip Yancy writes, “The spirit, the main point of the seven words from the Cross echo through our own time, in our own country.”
It was John Lennon wrote, “There are places we remember all our
lives, though some have changed…” The place of Jesus’ crucifixion is
not unfamiliar…. Permit me some relevant comparisons, however
Golgotha (“Calvary” in Latin) A word that means “skull,” a hill
outside of Jerusalem; a garbage dump where the Romans carried out crucifixions of political prisoners. A place of death, deliberately inflicted.
Mariupol, Ukraine: Russian air strikes bomb a maternity hospital and babies, children, pregnant women, and those already suffering from illness and disease, as well as health workers die. A theater where people were sheltering is flattened and 17 people wounded. Places of suffering and death, deliberately inflicted.
Golgotha — Located on a road probably near the Damascus Gate; travelers passing by jeer and throw things at those hanging on crosses, Frederick Buechner says that the most accurate way to understand the sarcasm of the sign “The King of the Jews” is if it said (in our parlance,
Kyiv, Ukraine, where roads (“humanitarian corridors”) are set up to let civilians flee but they fail to materialize because of continued fighting. Many were found shot with hands tied behind their backs.
This is a night of contrasts, immediacy and also an intimacy that may make us uncomfortable, coming off two years of Covid: washing feet, an anguished and unanswered prayer in Gethsemane, the beauty and peace of the garden with a row of lighted torches snaking up the hill put in place by the raw betrayal of Judas. Tonight we consider our own suffered betrayals: by friends, by relatives, by our bodies, our leaders, our expectations, even our dreams. In the past two years — because of misunderstandings in person or via email, I have lost a friend and also a relative; both simply refuse to respond to me. And since the passive person usually wins, it feels like deep betrayal and tonight it continues to hurt.
Especially this week we struggle to understand what it means that “Jesus died for our sins.” I think that Jesus died because of the sinfulness of the world and the threat that goodness and justice can bring to its leaders. The Roman leaders feared the popularity of Jesus and what he taught, so they killed him. It’s not an unfamiliar scenario, but the scholar Dominic Crossan asks what kind of portrait of the Creator is painted if we believe he demanded a terrible blood sacrifice to let the world off the hook — that is if we “believe.” Believe what — that it happened? That Jesus is the only face of God in the universe? How much belief gets you into heaven? How much doubt keeps you out?
It is this perverse calculus that nearly took me out of the church forever, and I had to battle and pray my way through it. People are often asking me what I believe. And it is this: I believe that love is the most powerful force in the universe and love is the bottom line of Christian faith, that Jesus is the very face of God turned in my direction. It’s my story. Maybe it’s yours, too. We come here to church to grapple with these ideas, to be open to the Spirit that leads us and surrounds us.
The motivation for much of this sermon stems from something that happened to me three weeks ago right here. I was sitting in the pew next to a near a lovely Black woman with a fine young son about twelve and a five or six-month-old baby boy. I had never met them or seen them before, but the baby kept smiling at me so I took off my mask for a minute and waved and smiled at him. After a while his mother said, “Would you like to hold him?”
Holding that beautiful baby close to me opened the floodgates of memory, but also great fear of what it would be like to raise a Black boy now: having “the talk” about what to do to stay safe, the terror if he’s late coming home, the pride, the protectiveness, the indescribable love.
Later I learned that this beautiful child — this gift to me for these few minutes — will be baptized here at the Easter Vigil. His mother recently wrote me that after two recent, pailful losses of her mother and her mother-in-law, “He is our special baby who came to take away our pain.” Amidst the past and the present, the Scripture and the newspaper, the terror and the wonder, hope lives, undefeated.