Good Friday 2017: Who, What, and When but not Why

  • Post author:
  • Post category:Sermons

Good Friday.

There is little about today that is good,
at least not in terms we usually think of as good.

Today is not an occasion for a eulogy.
Today is not an occasion to wrap things up
in a nice, neat package.
Today is not an opportunity for easy euphemisms.
Today is not a lucky break
when we get to let ourselves off the hook
with quick fixes and tidy answers.

Today I am raising more questions than answers.
In fact, on Good Friday, I have no answers –
many, many questions but no answers.

It is not unlike those moments of extreme grief
when through gritted teeth
we groan and grimmace,
“Why God?”
but get no answers.

As I said last Sunday,this story about the last week in the life of Jesus is not history.
It is not factual in any measurable way.
It is a not biographical documentary.

Instead, this story of betrayal,
and execution
is the echo of an even more ancient poem.
It was cut from the pattern of that poem
we read alongside the The Passion,
written five hundred years before Jesus
by the prophet Isaiah.

Surely we can see and hear Isaiah 52
embedded in the plot of the story as told by John.

Now by pointing that out,
some might think I am undermining
the authority or importance of The Passion.

By saying The Passion is not history,
and saying it is not factual
in the ways we think of fact
in a world filtered through science,
some might think I am denying
that the whole thing ever happened.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Jesus died on a cross and that is history.
Cut away everything else from this Passion play
and at the heart of it
there is a dead man on a cross –
a real dead man
on a real cross.

Those are two things we know to be absolutely true:
Jesus was sentenced to death
for the crime of insurrection, and,
Jesus died on a cross.

What John (Mark, Matthew and Luke)
have subsequently supplied to us
in their gospel stories,
is HOW, WHAT, and WHERE.

By saying their accounts
are not meticulously verbatim
recordings with absolute accuracy
about what actually happened step by step,
I do not mean they are lying to us.

They are not politicians who will say anything
to get our vote.

They are not Spin Doctors –
marketing agents who will say anything
to manipulate our opinions.

They are not corporation hucksters –
commercial pimps
who will say anything to get us to buy their product.

What John, Luke, Mark and Matthew
are instead, are storytellers –
chroniclers of communal memory.

They place into narrative accounts
snippets of stories
told two to three generations after
Jesus died on that cross.

There was no media to fact check the details
and all the witnesses were dead.

There was no one to confirm
the specific context of a particular saying
that had come down to them in isolation.

There was no one to even ask the question,
“Did it really happen that way”
because that is a modern question.

Those ancients had different questions from ours.
We want to know
if something really really happened that way;
and we want to know
how it felt;
and we want to know
if it can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.
One little leak or gap in the evidence
in any scenario in our world,
and it becomes a grand conspiracy to fool the public.

The ancients didn’t have our questions
and they did not have our expectations.
What the ancients had
was story.

Espeically those ancients
who were not well educated
and who were the primary audience
of the story we heard today.

They had story,
and story held memories
and held wisdom
and held truth
whether or not they were told with facts.

They had never heard of a documentary.
They had never heard of a history textbook.
They had never heard of history.
They had story
and story asks different questions than we ask.

Story asks, what does it mean?
Story asks, who or what was behind those events?
Story asks, who is this really about?
Story asks, how am I connected to these events and characters?

Those ancients did not ask
whether something was factual or not;
that is a modern question.
Instead, they asked is it true or not.
Maybe even more than that they asked,
what is the truth this story tells?
They understood that truth and facts are not the same.

So at the heart of this story
is Jesus
dead on a cross
executed by the power and might of Rome.

That is the core of the story
to which answers to the questions
that ancient’s     asked
have been applied.

Their answers may not be our answers,
and that would be okay.

From the time that Jesus was arrested
to the time his body was thrown away
to be claimed by whoever might want it,
it is unlikely there were any supportive witnesses.
The best his friends could do,
if they dared,
was watch him die from a distance.

Jesus was taken away
behind the veil of administrative power
and his followers would have no access there.
So in none of these four versions of The Passion,
do we have cold, hard facts
about who, what or how.

Besides, the story-tellers
already knew who, what and how
because thousands and thousands of others before Jesus
had been arrested,
and executed.

The Romans had perfected public humiliation
and had inflicting maximum suffering
on the human body and mind
down to a science.

Everyone knew who, what and how.
But why?
That was the question that begged an answer.
That is always the question that begs an answer.

No one had to ask why a murderer or revolutionary
had to die like that –
it was almost expected.
But a Messiah?
Why had to be addressed when it came to Messiah.

John, Mark, Luke and Matthew
each have a somewhat different answer
to that question,
and so they tell somewhat different stories too.

But that question did not begin with Jesus
and it didn’t stop with Jesus.

We can ask the same question
about Martin Luther King, Jr. or Oscar Romero.

We can ask the same question
about Armenians slaughtered by Turks.

We can ask the same question
about European Jews slaughtered by German Christians.

We can ask the same question
about Cambodians slaughtered by Cambodians.

Rwandans slaughtered by Rwandans.

Syrians slaughtered by Syrians.

We can ask the same question
about those we know personally
who have suffered and died
in spite of who they were
and what they did
to further the reign of God.


Is Jesus’ death
really a bigger why than all the others?
Making Jesus’ death categorically different
from all the other whys
would be anathema
to what Jesus taught.
Remember all those stories he told about God’s love? Remember the claim that God shows no partiality?
That God has no favorites?

Does the weight of Jesus’ death
hang heavier on the Cosmos
than the anonymous person
who spent a lifetime loving and serving
but blending into the fabric of life
so that we never noticed or recognized him or her?

If we say YES to that,
then we have made the messenger
greater than the message.
If we say that Jesus’ death
is worse than all the other victims
of State sponsored violence
then we have raised a troubling question
about the very essence of Jesus’ teaching and wisdom.

There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner
who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons
who need no repentance.
Jesus said that.

And now I am going to make this a little personal,
so I hope you will excuse me
for taking the focus off Jesus for a moment
and offering a personal witness to the reason
the “WHY” of Good Friday is so important.

I got sober because of questions
I could not answer on Good Friday.

As many of you know,
I struggled with an overabundance of substance
which is a nice way of saying it.
I spent seventeen years
developing a bad habit and denying it all along the way –
which is what people have to do
when they are engaged in self-destruction.

The last time I had a hang over
was on Holy Saturday many years ago,
and when I woke up I faced the question, “Why?”
Why on Good Friday of all days,
couldn’t you stay sober just once?

I had just been ordained a priest the month before;
and on my first Good Friday as a priest
I was drunk at a party
at my own house.

I woke up feeling as though I had danced on Jesus’ grave.
And so the question came,
Why? How could you?”

And for the first time I had no answer.
No answer.
Not even the usual denial.
No answer.
Why? Why?
For whatever reason, that time,
that day, I had no answer.

It was the moment of having no answer
that was the moment
that brought resurrection –
that brought freedom.

You see, we use answers
to fend off the impossible questions.
It is not only alcholics that do that,
all human beings do
and we see it repeated over and over again
all throughout history.

We use answers
to stuff the gaps left in our knowledge.

We use answers
to hide from hideous questions
that would otherwise lead us to freedom.

Good Friday, of all days,
is a moment to live without answers.
T.S. Eliot said it most eloquently in his Advent poem:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
for hope would be hope for the wrong thing;
wait without love
for love would be love of the wrong thing;
there is yet faith
but the faith and the love and the hope
are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light,
and the stillness the dancing.” (Four Quartets)

Christianity has been obsessed
with proclaiming answers
and in so doing
we have missed the power
of living the questions,
and allowing those quetstions
instead of our need for answers,
to lead us.

Proclaiming drives us toward answers
but not into wisdom.

Proclaiming herds us into answers
but not into an encounter with the holy.

Proclaiming pushes us into answers
but not into the mystical presence of God
from which we will know a fierce and terrible healing.

That healing will be so much more powerful than any answer
that could ever be uttered from our fragile hearts and our tiny minds.

Good Friday is for allowing the questions
to penetrate our denial
and then lead us
into an encounter with God,
and in that encounter
answers will suddenly pale in comparison.

So on Good Friday,
we are invited to live into the Why
rather than proclaim the answers.

So I invite us to bring our “Whys”
into these special Good Friday prayers we now offer,
and then to light a candle
for the “Whys”
that are burned into your heart.