Were You There?

Sermon Preached, Good Friday, 2013
St. Mark's Episcopal Church

When someone is diagnosed with lung cancer, one of our first responses is to wonder, “Were they a smoker”?  Beneath that question, beyond our mild curiosity, is a question about blame.  If they were a smoker, then we can understand their current affliction.  Likewise, if someone is out in the sun everyday without sunscreen, we can understand why they might have a diagnosis of skin cancer.  By our nature, we want to attribute blame.  I remember in high school, memorizing the Latin phrase, “post hoc ergo propter hoc” – “after which, therefore, because of which.”  After smoking, therefore, because of smoking, Mrs. Jones has lung cancer.  After sun bathing, therefore, because of sun bathing, Mr. Smith has skin cancer.  Simple cause and effect.  Right?  O.k., how about this one?  Roosters crow prior to sun rise.  Therefore, crowing roosters cause the sun to rise. Simple cause and effect --- it doesn’t work very well in this situation does it?

Many times cause and effect are not so clear.  This is particularly true when an innocent person becomes sick or dies.  A teenager diagnosed with leukemia.  A toddler killed by a drunk driver.  Jesus nailed to a cross.  At times such as these, all cause and effect logic crumbles into nonsense.  And yet, we continue to seek meaning, to seek explanations.

This meaning-making that we do, this attempt to create logical explanations for the illogical places in our lives is part of the human condition.  But, I would suggest it is a part of our humanity that we often use to veil the uncomfortable truth – and that truth is that there are some things of which we have little or no understanding.  And so we create explanations, we create myths.

Harold S. Kushner’s classic, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, was written in response to the author’s son’s early death from a disease that caused him to age prematurely.  Kushner writes, “The facts of life and death are neutral. We, by our responses, give suffering either a positive or a negative meaning.”[1]  When the meaning that we weave, says Kushner, “makes us bitter, jealous, against all religion, and incapable of happiness, we turn the person who died into one of the 'devil's martyrs.'”[2] 

Today we come together to recall the crucifixion of Jesus.  That Jesus’ death defies a simple cause and effect logic or any other type of logic that would place blame on the victim is emphasized by the readings we heard.  The reading from Isaiah is the fourth of four “Suffering Servant” poems written during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century B.C.  While it is unclear if the author of these poems had an individual in mind or was speaking of the Israelites collectively as the suffering servant, it is clear that the poet rejects any explanation that blames the victim for his fate at the hands of an angry mob:[3], [4]    
“Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. . .”[5] 
Let’s hear that again - “We accounted him stricken, struck down by God.”   Surely he did something wrong to be punished in this way by God.  Cause and Effect.  But Isaiah boldly rejects this logic when he declares,
“By a perversion of justice he was taken away . . . although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.”[6] 
Simple cause and effect?  Isaiah says, “try again.”  The suffering servant is a scapegoat, a scapegoat in a society that believed scapegoats (often referred to euphemistically as sacrificial offerings) to appease God for the wrongs of the community.  But the poet writes to reveal the truth – God does not seek scapegoats.  God’s way is the way of love, not violence.  And yet, throughout history – even to the present day - Jews, Muslims, and Christians have ignored and continue to ignore this truth.[7]

As Jesus looks to the Hebrew Scriptures to find models for his own ministry, it is not surprising that these suffering servant poems provide such a wealth of useable materials.  Jesus does not see himself as a necessary sacrifice to appease an angry God.  Jesus is not an unwilling scapegoat chosen by the culture.  No, Jesus goes willingly into the darkness and the emptiness that the human condition offers.  There is a rubric in The Book of Common Prayer that allows the congregation to take the part of the crowd during the reading of the Passion.[8]  When this is done, each of us joins our voice with the voices of that 1st century crowd yelling “Crucify him! Crucify him!”[9] I don’t know about you, but I would much rather take the part of Peter denying any association with Jesus whatsoever than to acknowledge that I have taken a part in sending Jesus to his death.[10]  Surely someone else is to blame for Jesus nailed to the cross – it can’t be my fault.  And yet, as soon as we look for someone else to blame –– whether it is the Pharisees or some other subset of the Jews, the Romans, the cultural milieu, or God – as soon as we point the finger, we too become complicit in this ritual of scapegoating violence and, like those first followers of Jesus, we too miss the connection between what theologian Gil Bailie calls “the cure (the crucifixion and its after effects) and the disease (the structures of scapegoating violence upon which all human arrangements have depended).”[11]  In other words, looking for someone else to blame, we implicate ourselves because “the crucifixion was demanded by those determined to find a culprit to blame . . .”[12]  This understanding of the Good Friday events, have certainly changed my experience of the old spiritual: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”[13]

Jesus’ manner of living and manner of dying demand that we renounce the ritual of scapegoating violence.  That we acknowledge that “the facts of life and death are neutral.”[14]  No gospel does a better job of demonstrating this than the Gospel of John where it is clear from the very beginning that Jesus, not the crowd, is responsible for his own death.  When the chief priests and Pharisees arrive in the garden, the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus “knowing all that was to happen to him” comes forward.[15]  Later, when Pilate is interrogating Jesus, Jesus tells him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.”[16]  “Jesus goes to his death willingly . . . not as a suffering victim, but as the one who remains in control” of the outcome.[17]  By embracing the darkness and emptiness of the human condition, Jesus strips death of its power. 

Harold Kushner wrote, “If suffering and death in someone close to us brings us to explore the limits of our capacity for strength and love and cheerfulness, if it leads us to discover sources of consolation we never knew before, then we make the person into a witness for the affirmation of life rather than its rejection.”[18]  Just so Jesus desired to make something good out of something that was very bad, indeed.  Jesus embraced the uncomfortable places of his life and of his death with strength.  On this Good Friday, I invite us to reflect on those places of darkness and discomfort in our own lives.  Will we allow them to become one of the devil’s martyrs or will we use them to explore our limits and to discover sources of consolation and strength we never knew before? The choice is ours to make.

[1] Kushner, Harold S. When Bad Things Happen to Good People, (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), 138.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Rob Moore, “The Theory of RenĂ© Girard and Its Theological Implications: Part I,” Kyrie, 7 accessed online at http://www.kyrie.com on March 28, 2012.
[4] For a discussion of the identity of the suffering servant see Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 4th edition. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1986), 488-502.
[5] Isaiah 53:4-5a.
[6] Isaiah 53: 8a, 9b.
[7] For a good discussion of cultural scapegoating see Rob Moore, “The Theory of RenĂ© Girard and Its Theological Implications: Part II,” Kyrie, 3-5 accessed online at http://www.kyrie.com on March 28, 2012.
[8] BCP, 277.
[9] John 19:6.
[10] John 18:17; 25.
[11] Bailie, Gil. Violence Unveiled, p. 218 as quoted in Rob Moore, Part I, 8.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Negro Spiritual, “Were You There,” in Lift Every Voice and Sing II: An African American Hymnal, (New York: Church Publishing, Inc., 1993), 37.
[14] Kushner, 138.
[15] John 18:4.
[16] John 19:11.
[17] O’Day, Gail R. “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in Volume IX of The New Interpreter’s ®  Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, edited by Leander E. Keck, Thomas G. Long, et. Al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 799.
[18] Kushner, 138.