Sermon: Good Friday 2020

Table of Content

I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on Good Friday, April 10, 2020.  The text was the passion of St. Matthew.  (Matthew 27:11-54)


Friends, we turn to the difficult fact of Good Friday. Here, God's beloved dies before the jeering crowd. Betrayal, cruelty and falsehood triumph. Hope burns to ashes, and light and color drain from the world. We are left with questions, grief and silence.

Good Friday so becomes a spiritual challenge. In good times, we might have to specially direct our spirits to be receptive to this horror and grimness; so when the sun shines and the air is warm, it can seem a strange thing to try and be sad. And when times are bad, well, who needs more sadness? That's this year, and I’m sad and anxious enough, and don’t like it. The trope, well-shared in social media, is that this Lent has been far more Lenty than anyone expected, perhaps too much to bear. Nevertheless, Good Friday prepares us for hard times, at least giving us familiar concepts to interpret them.

Perhaps we can identify the losses that come from the COVID-19 pandemic, and try to set them directly in a framework that Good Friday presents. It is a natural thing to do: tying Good Friday to the suffering we're experiencing collectively. There’s a risk, though. It's a collective hardship, but not an even or fair one. It is not a leveler. Those who suffered before, will suffer more — including the loss of health and life, and anxiety and depression, not to mention the economic impact. Millions of people will be pushed beyond breaking, into lasting or deeper poverty and unemployment. Its results will follow us for many years, perhaps for the rest of our life. Most hardships don’t end in redemption.

Instead of comparing the pandemic to the crucifixion directly, I think about what the disciples must have asked themselves that Friday when all their hope died: where do we go from here?

If Easter's resurrection brightness is hard for us to conceptualize now, after centuries of meditation and interpretation, it surely must have been unthinkable for the disciples: not even an option to consider, much less weighing the up pros or cons of its likelihood. But Easter did come, and those who survive this crisis will have to decide what we will do next.

The trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate is remarkable for any number of reasons. We know so little of individuals from that period, and what little we know of Pilate is that he crucified a lot of people. I’m not prone to read him as the antihero, swayed by the mob. (Passages which have been used for centuries to justify violence against Jews, I should add. And this scene from Matthew is less troubling that the one from John.) And another odd thing was the choice of the crowd in letting one condemned man go, a practice that has no independent confirmation. So what follows is not an original thought, but one I picked up in college (I was a religion major) about thirty years ago. Consider that there were not two criminals, one of whom might be set free, but one man with two names, Jesus the Messiah, the anointed one, and Jesus Barabbas, Jesus “son of the Father.” The first tinged with triumph and the power of the governance; the other pointing to mystical connection with God. Which seems backwards, doesn’t it? Because Barabbas is described as a bandit, but well, we know not to take one-sided charges too seriously. After all, the man who died on the cross told us, “they know not what they do.” We know he was innocent.

We might have two names, too. Which will we chose? We must seek the good impulse, and live into it, but that won’t protect us. We may not escape hardship, but might, just maybe, choose what we suffer for. For goodness and for the common good. To defend the helpless, and to overcome domination. To chose life in its fullness, rather than to concede to bitterness.

How will we be known? And will that name be a blessing to those who come after us? Challenged by the experience of the Resurrection, the disciples went out to ends of the world, to share the gospel that the world might not despair, because on the cross we saw that all is not as it seems and that God’s purpose and blessing come to those, however grieved and confused, do what is good, and right and true.

Let us pray:

Eternal God, before the cross we stand in awe and trembling. Comfort and console the mourners this day. Confirm in us that mind and spirit you put within Jesus, our comfort and our strength. And lead us from this place, to go forth with your blessing, and to live without fear, waiting in hope.

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