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Lovingly Resist

Writing this evening’s sermon was hard in ways I didn’t expect. You can ask my wife Robin—when I really started sitting down with it this past Tuesday night, there were a lot of heavy sighs and “Oh my God’s” coming from the couch. For one thing, I realized I had never written a Good Friday sermon. Between the fact that most of my seminary training happened during Covid and the preaching schedules of the last few years, the opportunity just hadn’t come up.


It was more than just not having done this before, though. Reading through the Passion, as you just heard, isn’t easy. It’s heartbreaking. I find myself choking up every time I read it aloud. John’s version, in particular, seems especially poignant and hard to finish. When you read it twice in a week, once on Palm Sunday, and again tonight, it doesn’t get any easier.  


Another reason writing this sermon was hard is because it reminded me of all of those questions that many of us have about the death of Jesus on the cross, or about suffering in general. Something happens when you tell people you’re becoming a priest — especially if you’re called late in life, especially if those people have known you as something else for a long time. At least, this happened to me: People assumed that because I was becoming a priest, and going to seminary, I would know the answers to questions they always had. If they grew up in a particular tradition, they had lots of answers about the Creeds, and the Trinity, or the existence of heaven of hell. And those were the softball questions.


Other friends would ask, “If God so loved his only Son, why would he sacrifice him? And why would he sacrifice him in such a brutal and torturous way? That sounds like an abusive Father, not a loving Father.” Depending on their religious upbringing, they might ask, “If the death of Jesus vanquished evil, why is there still so much evil in the world?” It’s a good question. Tomorrow night, at the Easter Vigil, there will be a line in the Exultet that says, Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth, bright with a glorious splendor, for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King. “Has it been vanquished,” my friends might ask?    

The problem is, going through the process of becoming a priest, or even going to seminary, doesn’t make it any easier to answer those questions. In fact, once you’ve heard and read everything everyone has to say on the subject of evil and darkness, you’re more uncertain than ever. That’s one of the reasons I appreciate our Anglican/Episcopal tradition: We are encouraged to embrace a wide range of views and theologies about the death of Jesus and salvation under the big tent of our denomination. But none of that makes it any easier when we come back to this solemn assembly of Good Friday, and we recount the terrible evil which is the crucifixion, the terrible evil which is the murder of Jesus by the Roman state.


The last thing that made writing this sermon hard was that was haunted by a movie Robin and I recently watched, a movie that just won the Oscar for Best International Feature Film. The movie is called The Zone of Interest, and it’s the story of a German officer and his family in WWII who live in a house with a sprawling garden on the other side of a wall directly next to Auschwitz. It’s based on a true story, that house is still standing there today. The movie is about the banal, everyday life of this German officer’s family, many days of which are spent by the wife strolling though that sprawling garden and playing with her children. The fact that the house is located next to Auschwitz is chilling enough, but even more disturbing for us, the viewers, is that in every scene we hear, along with the family, the low, steady, churning thrum of the furnaces on the other side of that wall. The low, steady, churning thrum of evil, of darkness.


As I sat with the Passion for the last couple of weeks, and was haunted by The Zone of Interest, I came to wonder a little more about the nature of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, and all those questions my friends asked me, and which I still get asked when I visit our local county jail. And as a side note, if there’s anyone interested in knowing the nature of evil, it’s those who are caught up in the evil of our system of incarceration. What if, I wondered, the sacrifice of the innocent Son of God wasn’t so much about vanquishing the evil in the world as it was to expose and condemn it? What if it wasn’t the violence of a cruel Father God that sacrificed Jesus, but the violence of a cruel humanity that sacrificed him? What if that’s what we mean when we say in the Creed he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and not under God? Michael Marsh writes, Jesus spoke truth to power – the truth of love, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, justice, hospitality – and he was taken out by that power.” What if Jesus died to help us hear better the low, steady, churning thrum of that power, that power of evil and darkness, so we could speak our truth to it?


That sprawling garden in The Zone of Interest made me think of another garden, the Garden of Gethsemane. John’s version of the Passion story just calls it the garden, and John says Jesus met with his disciples there often. For some of us of a certain age, our vision of that garden is colored by one of my grandmother’s favorite hymns: I come to the garden alone, While the dew is still on the roses; And the voice I hear, falling on my ear, The Son of God discloses.


There’s something important about that vision of that garden, and we’ll get back to it shortly. And . . . if that’s our only vision of that garden, we might forget that on this night of Good Friday, it became, as Tim Sandoval writes, “the scene of a military and police action, and of violent resistance.” From tonight’s reading of John: “Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees and they came there [to the garden] with lanterns and torches and weapons.” This garden, friends, is not on the other side of a wall where we only hear the low, steady, churning thrum of the forces of darkness in the background. It’s a garden where Jesus meets those forces head on, where he meets the threat of violence with the greatest act of non-violent resistance the world has ever seen.


Beloveds, I believe that is our Good News on this Good Friday. If the death of Jesus helps us to hear better that low, steady, churning thrum of evil and darkness, that same Jesus, the Jesus in the garden gives us the strength to speak truth to that evil and darkness. I’ve heard people criticize that hymn for being overly sentimental, that with its focus on a personal encounter with Jesus, we may forget the wide work of God’s justice we’re called to. But I believe this encounter with Jesus, this coming to the Garden alone can open us to an experience with the resurrected Jesus where we stand with Jesus often, who helps us often, and models for us the loving resistance we may not be to work up to on our own.


What that loving resistance looks like will be different for all of us. Some of us may be called to peacefully demonstrate, to speak truth to power in the public square, maybe to our governmental institutions, or even our institutionalized church. Some of us may be called to organize and reform. And some of us might be called to lovingly resist through the Christ-like acts of our everyday lives. In The Zone of Interest, there is a young, Polish servant of the German officer’s family, Aleksandra Kołodziejczyk, another real historical figure, who sneaks out from the compound every night, takes fruit from the compound’s garden, and hides it in the mud in work sites around Auschwitz, where the prisoners can find them. In return, the prisoners leave messages that she can transport to the outside world. In the face of that low, steady, churning thrum of evil and darkness, Aleksandra Kołodziejczyk lovingly resists.


My friends, on this most solemn night, we remember the shocking and awful crucifixion of Jesus. We remember that it was humanity, not God, who sacrificed Jesus for bringing a message of love they it was prepared to hear. We also remember that Jesus meets us often, resurrected, in the Garden, where we stand with him and learn to lovingly resist the forces of darkness in this world. Let us listen for how we are called to resist and let us turn to Jesus for the strength to do so.


In the name of the crucified and resurrected Jesus, Amen.

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