The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday, September 8, 2019.  It was a three part sermon where I preached part 1 and 2  and my colleague Jamie Howison preached part 2.


Part 1:

Last Sunday we waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna.” Last night we ate with Jesus and he washed our feet, and then we fell asleep while he prayed in the garden.  Today we gather together at the foot of his cross. [1]

Welcome to Good Friday.

Today’s gospel begins with a scene in which Jesus is handed over to Pilate.

I really wasn’t sure what I was going to say about this story. I was feeling really stuck actually, and then yesterday, someone yelled at me.

Now don’t look around, he’s not here and he’s not connected to this church.

But when I say he yelled at me, I mean it. His voice was raised, his body shook with anger, and ugly words poured out of his mouth.

And then the room got really small and eerily quiet and everyone turned to stare at me.  I could feel all of their eyes on me and knew they were all wondering how I was going to respond and I knew they were all asking essentially the same question, “Is she going to make this situation more uncomfortable for us or less uncomfortable?”

Only they can really say which one it was.  The meeting ended, and then I went home to write this sermon.

And even though I tried to put my experience in a box on the shelf and focus on this passage, I kept coming back again and again to the same observation.

This gospel scene is full of really angry people. In fact, still vibrating from my own experience, it was all I could see.

The chief priests, the elders, the scribes, and the whole council are so angry at Jesus that they bind him up and hand him over to Pilate.

I suspect that Pilate was already annoyed when they showed up with Jesus and their demands. On a list of ways Pilate wanted to spend that day, this was surely near the bottom, and rather than help him out of this difficult situation, Jesus is refusing to be a team player. Jesus has the power to make this situation more uncomfortable or less uncomfortable for Pilate and he chooses less comfortable. If I was Pilate, that would probably make me angry.

Scripture tells us that “the chief priests accused Jesus of many things.” So many, that Pilate asks him in amazement, “Have you no answers? See how many charges they bring against you.”   Say something, Pilate seems to be saying, anything, that can help me, help you.

But Jesus doesn’t help Pilate help him. No parables, no well crafted arguments, no evidence of his innocence.  Not even a politically crafty answer to help Pilate out, to help Pilate to be able to declare that Jesus is innocent of the charges and does not need to be punished.

All of this made more work, deeply unpleasant work, politically dangerous work for Pilate.

I’m sure Pilate was angry.

The crowds who shout that Jesus should be crucified, they’re angry too.

Everywhere I look in this story, I see angry faces and bodies shaking with rage. Some people are actually angry at Jesus. Some are angry and looking for an outlet, any outlet, for their own rage. So many angry faces.

Everywhere I look in this story, I know there are also people who are bearing witness to that anger.  Some people, are shrinking back with fear and discomfort into the shadows and others are allowing themselves to be swept along with the angry crowd to avoid the possibility that that anger will also be turned on them. They’re scared, and they have every reason to be.

I don’t think that anger is an inherently bad thing and you can ask me more about that at some other time, but I also know that anger is something that tends to make people uncomfortable. I really didn’t want to make anger the focus of this sermon.

So I took a break from writing this sermon by scrolling Facebook and you know what I saw? A whole lot of anger and a whole range of responses to anger. I saw parallels between this scene in the life of Jesus and our modern day reality. I saw some things that inspired me and gave me hope, and others that scared me, and others that made me angry too.

And it reminded me that I could so very easily have been one of the chief priests, or Pilate, or a woman in that crowd shouting “Crucify him!”

In a stunning sermon from a few years ago, Sara Miles said that, “I’d like to pretend that Good Friday, the murder of God by the people of God, is a one-time historical event. That it took place far away, in another country, safely in the past. That someone very different from me – a Jew, most probably, or some crazy rogue solider – was responsible for the crucifixion… and Good Friday just means another day in a church with beautiful music.

Crucifixion is always an act of terror, meant to carry a message to the entire population that the rulers of the world are all-powerful, and can crush anyone they choose. In Jesus’ time, the cross meant not just punishment for criminals and troublemakers, but shame for their families, who were marked forever by the scandal… The mere threat of death on the empire’s cross led people to betray each other; it kept them in their places, separated and afraid to offer solidarity.

And it still does, evoking our deepest fears of being cast out, mocked, hurt or violently erased, stigmatized by association with the wrong people. Today’s forms of crucifixion – Sara said – leave me afraid to care for the imprisoned, afraid to challenge the violent, too busy or guilty or helpless to even stand next to the families of the dead and weep.”[2]

Easter will come, but today is Good Friday, and today we live into this place, this deeply uncomfortable place that says that we can’t pretend that we would have done differently than the chief priests, or the crowd, or Pilate. This place that reminds us that we so often out of fear, and our own wounds, and our wish to “satisfy the crowd” prepare a cross for our Saviour.  Amen.


Part 3:


Where you there when they crucified my Lord?

The gospel writers tell us that Jesus was not alone when he was crucified. In addition to the various people responsible to ensure the crucifixion was properly carried out like the Centurion, there were other people who came to see what was happening.

Mark names some of these people – Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James and Joses and Salome. He tells us that there were also “many other women,” who stayed to bear witness to Jesus’ suffering.

I imagine that at least some of the bystanders were there out of morbid curiosity or as simply a way to pass the time. We know that at least some of them thought that perhaps Elijah would come and remove Jesus from the cross.  I suppose that if you had nothing else to do in a culture where public executions are the norm, the possibility of seeing Elijah would be worth sticking around for.

We know that no one was there to try and stop the crucifixion. That impulse that had led Peter to pull out a sword in the garden doesn’t seem to be anywhere in sight at the foot of the cross.

Which means that, the people who are present are resigned to the fact that unless supernatural forces intervene, Jesus is going to suffer and die, and they have chosen to be there when that happens.

Suffering is a difficult and mysterious thing. Many preachers and theologians and artists and mystics and ordinary people have spent a lot of time reflecting on Jesus’ suffering.

But today, I wanted to spend some time thinking about what it means to bear witness to another person’s suffering. What does it mean to sit at the foot of the cross watching someone you love who is in pain, knowing that you cannot take that pain away?

This year on Ash Wednesday, there was a school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Four days later, students who survived that shooting announced that they were planning a march in Washington, a march they called the “March for our Lives.” That march, and over 800 sibling marches took place last weekend, on the eve of Holy Week.

At the march one of the young women who survived the Parkland school shooting gave a particularly powerful speech.  Placing a timer on the podium, Emma Gonzalez spoke about her friends and fellow students who had died and the things they would never again be able to do and then she stood in silence.

She was not stoic. She vibrated with pain. Tears fell from her eyes.  The microphone picked up the sound of her breathing and she only spoke again when the timer beeped, letting everyone know that the length of the speech was the length of time it had taken for one boy with one gun to kill 17 people, wound 15 more, and change countless other lives, forever.

It was a powerful speech and it was incredibly difficult to watch.

If you watch the footage you’ll notice that people really don’t know what to do with that silence, with that pain. At various points in time people begin cheering or try to start up chants.  You hear pockets of awkward laughter. An organizer comes up and whispers in her ear. People are doing anything they can to break the discomfort they are feeling by seeing a person so openly and vulnerably asking them to bear witness to her pain.

And the silence wins. The chants die out, the organizer walks away, and the crowd becomes quiet. Some looking awkwardly at the ground or their phones. But many people also looked directly at Emma’s tear stained face. Some raise their hands curled into fists or into peace signs and look straight at her. Many people refuse to turn away from her pain.

Anyone who has ever experience pain knows that this is exactly what we need people to do. We don’t need people who will fix or rationalize or explain away or silence our pain, we need people who will sit with us in it.

Many of us have been reading Kate Bowler’s book “Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved” and I think this is at the heart of her story as well.  When everything comes apart and we are in pain, we need people who are willing to stay with us in that pain and say what Kate has taught us to say, “Oh, sweetie, this is just so hard.”

This is what the named women and other bystanders are doing for Jesus, sitting with him in his pain. Bearing witness.  You will notice in the scripture and in the music for this service that words like “watch” and “see” and “behold” are prevalent.  This is no accident.

On this day we claim the truth that this is all we can do, and all we are called to do in this moment. To stay at the foot of the cross and bear witness to Christ’s pain.

And I hope, that on this day, and on all the Good Friday type days we will experience in our own lives and bear witness to in the lives of those we love, that we will learn to embrace our discomfort and hold back the temptation to make ourselves feel better by fixing or blaming or muting another person’s pain.

It’s hard work, but there is healing power in correctly naming the terrible things as terrible things.

There is healing power in sitting at the foot of the cross when someone you love is suffering and refusing to look away.