This is my sermon from Good Friday. We are using Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church: Year A. The lectionary for Good Friday was Judges 11:29-40, Psalm 22, Hebrews 12:1-4, Luke 22:14-23:16, 18-56.
Several years ago, shortly before Holy Week, I listened to an interview on NPR with Nick Hughes, a photojournalist who directed and co-produced 100 Days, a feature film about the 1994 Rwandan genocide. There was immense sorrow in Hughes’ story and also a touch of hopefulness about a future in which such things as genocide will cease to be. Perhaps because we were about to enter into Holy Week, this interview touched my heart in a way few others have done.
Hughes talked about how UN soldiers, aid workers, ex-pats, and others who were there on the ground witnessing the horror did little or nothing to help the people. He said “All of them betrayed the Rwandan people.” He talked about how, when push came to shove, these people put themselves and even their dogs first and left the Rwandan people – people with whom they had been living and working – to be slaughtered. It clearly was a story of immense fear in the face of political power and authority willing to sacrifice innocent people to make a point – their point. He talked honestly, with the still raw emotions he carried evident, about his part in doing nothing or little to help the people.
What he did do was his job, which was to capture what was happening on film. His job as a journalist was not to interfere or change history, even a history as horrific as genocide.
He struggled to see how what he did as he attempted to bring to the world the reality of what was happening to millions of people made any difference at all. He agonized over what he didn’t do, which would have been to step outside his job to try to intervene. He conceded there is some hope if, and I quote, “there’s some belief that Rwandans are human beings amongst an international audience.”
In that interview, Nick Hughes was struggling to forgive himself and to believe he is worthy of forgiveness. He acknowledged he could not go back and change what happened. He said, “There is no redemption. You can’t go back. Those people are dead, and it will happen again.”
I was struck by how his story of genocide resonated with the Passion of Christ. As we hear the Passion story and put it in the context of what we know about people then and people now, it seems some things have not changed all that much.
We continue to struggle with how to do what is good, what is right in the face of evil and political power.
We continue to put our own plans or needs first, even when faced with almost unimaginable crisis, even when others are literally dying.
We continue to act or, in some cases, not act in ways that ensure the status quo, from which we benefit, is not overturned.
We let our comfort and our fear inform and shape our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors in ways that are contrary to the Gospel.
And we continue to wrestle with what that means for us as a people.
In today’s Gospel, Judas and Peter – the one who betrayed Jesus and the one who denied him – don’t sound all that different from the UN soldiers, aid workers, ex-pats, and journalists Hughes talked about. Afraid of what it would mean to them and how it would change their lives if they spoke up for what is right, one betrayed the one person who could truly make a difference, and the other denied even knowing him.
And then there’s Pilate. He clearly did not agree with what was happening but kind of threw his hands up in the air as if helpless, rather than stand up to the crowds.
And then there are the crowds. It hardly seems possible that no one felt or thought what was happening to Jesus was wrong, and yet we see that kind of behavior all the time in this country. How many acts of violence against our black and brown-skinned siblings, our LGBTQ+ siblings, or our children sitting in schools must we witness before we do what is necessary to stop the violence, to save a life?
Even Joseph of Arimathea, who stepped in to care for Jesus after the crucifixion, sounds a little bit like Hughes and the others who told the story after millions had been slaughtered. Well-intentioned, perhaps, but in no way did their witness make a difference to the men, women, and children who lost their lives. And yet, the willingness to do these things is not insignificant. It says something profound about how we see ourselves, perhaps who we hope we could be all the time.
Nick Hughes said there is no redemption in the story of the Rwandan genocide. What has been done is done; period, end of story. And that is where the stories of the genocide and the Passion move in such different directions. That’s the difference between how we see and respond to things and how God is and does.
With Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, there is no “period, end of story.” It’s a story that continues for all time. The hope we hold is that we will be able to experience the promise of the love of God, who would willingly sacrifice himself upon the cross so that we might experience that love and God’s presence in our lives in new ways. It is through Jesus’ offering of himself that we are able to better understand the immense love of God for each and every one of us. It is through Jesus’ offering of himself that we are forgiven and redeemed.
So today we remember the crucifixion of Jesus. We sit in the sorrow, the emptiness, the bleakness. In the starkness of the prayers and the depth of the silences, we are mindful, perhaps painfully so, of the choice Jesus made to let himself be crucified. In this we see our worst selves. This can be hard to bear, yet sit with it we must if we are to fully experience Easter and the opportunity to see ourselves as God sees us, worthy of a love beyond our capacity to fully imagine.
In the gift of this striking contrast is the hope that we might all make the choices that would enliven, empower, and embolden us to be people who would actively work to prevent harm from coming to any of God’s people at any time, in any place, for any reason.
And in this gift is the hope that we will all come to know ourselves deserving of forgiveness and redemption. Amen.