Good Friday: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10:16-25; John 18:1-19:42
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, Alabama
Friday, March 30, 2018
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
Though today the clergy read the Passion Narrative, many of you, like me, may remember a time when a narrator would read the story from the Lectern and then various members of the congregation would act out the roles of Jesus, Pilate, Peter, and other lesser characters who might have speaking parts. And every year, at the appropriate time during the trial of Jesus when Pilate would say, “Here is the man!” The whole congregation would shout, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
As a little girl, I thought my participation in this part of the drama to be exciting. I would wait with anticipation for that opportunity to shout in church. It was more of a game than a rendition of the saddest story ever told. As the years went by, I came to realize what those words meant and what my participation in saying them meant as well. I went from youthful exuberance at the opportunity to shout in church to a sort of morose and remorseful participation. For as many times as I had shouted those words, I had heard the sermons that connected me with my responsibility for Jesus’ death upon a cross and I shouldered that responsibility in all the guilt-laden ways I was meant too.
That was what I came to understand Good Friday to be about—it was not simply that the Jews or even the Roman authority killed Jesus, it was that I had killed Jesus and for one week out of the year I was to shoulder that responsibility and accept the burden of my guilt and be crushed under the weight of it. That’s not really too much to ask when you think about it—we can all use a little guilt, guilt is good for us. It makes us a little more empathetic. It encourages us to embrace some humility. It offers us a chance to remember that “but for the grace of God, go I.” And really, we only bare this burden for a short while—its all over by the Easter Vigil tomorrow night when Jesus has been released from the tomb and resurrected.
One week out of the year, from Palm Sunday to Good Friday, we are encouraged to take a good look at ourselves and recognize our failure when it comes to Jesus. And even then, at least if you’ve been coming to St. John’s, we’ve softened that for you, set the bar pretty low, given you more focus on God than yourself. And the other 51 weeks out of the year, we tell you what good people you are, maybe chide you a little, but we certainly don’t play the guilt card—at least not on purpose.
But that’s the beauty of Good Friday, in all its oxy-moronic moroseness, we get to make you feel bad—heck, somebody once told me that they didn’t count Good Friday as a good church service unless the preacher made them feel bad. That was there sole purpose for coming to church on Good Friday in the first place. So, for all of you who are figuratively self-flagellating, this one’s for you.
We should feel guilty this week. We do nail Jesus to that cross, collectively and individually. We are responsible for Jesus’ death and not just two thousand years ago in the place called Golgotha. Nor is our responsibility simply limited to this one day, Good Friday. We are responsible for the death of Jesus every day and in every place we might be—work, school, home, community—in all those places in which our own hardness of heart drives or influences our decision making and the way in which we engage or don’t engage with the world and those in it.
I have the honor and privilege of sitting on the Citizen’s Advisory Council. This is a council under the direction of the District Attorney’s office that offers recommendations on those persons who have committed a crime and meet the requirements for pre-trial diversion. Pre-trial diversion is a program in which participants meet with a case manager, participate in group counseling, perform a certain number of community service hours, and pay restitution and fees in a prescribed time frame. Those who successfully complete the program can then petition the court to have their record expunged. Those who are not approved for the program or who fail to meet the standards of the program and are dismissed from it must then go back before the judge who can do as he or she sees fit in pronouncing sentence. For many this is simply parole and payment of restitution with the threat of jail time looming over them if they do not comply. For all those who do not get in the program it means that they do not get the rehabilitative work that might offer them a different approach to life and decrease their chance of breaking the law again.
When the Council met this past month, one of the cases we reviewed was that of a young woman who had been turned down by the Council a year ago. She was appealing her case and asking us to reconsider her placement in pre-trial diversion. One of the things the Council listens for in the interview with each defendant is their willingness to accept personal responsibility for their actions. We start that process by asking the person to tell us about their crime. When the young woman was asked to tell us what she had done, she simply said she had knowingly opened a fraudulent account at her past place of employment. When asked to further elaborate, she was silent and physically could not speak. There was a long silence and, in those moments, I began to think about Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate and the quote from Isaiah, “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so did he not open his mouth.” So, I took pity on this young woman and began to ask her leading questions so she could describe the events more fully.
She did so and in the course of her description opened herself for attack from other members of the Council who found discrepancies in her statements and what the police report said. Several of our members moved in to question her about those discrepancies and as she repeated her story again and again, it became clear that either she was lying, or the store or police had made an error in blaming her for the multiple counts of fraud that day. The council Is not privy to all the evidence that is presented in a case but it had been noted in her file that restitution had been reduced by tens of thousands of dollars, a significant amount in a criminal case, that reflected the lack of evidence for multiple counts of fraud being attributed to her.
Most of the members of the Council, including myself, believed she was guilty of the multiple counts of fraud and had been fortunate to find an attorney savvy enough to reduce the charges and thus decrease her restitution. And because we believed this, we spent a good deal of time attempting to get her to ‘fess up to the wrong doing. The point was not so that restitution might be increased, but so that she would take personal responsibility for what she had done. Her actions had cost a lot of innocent people money and trust. Her manager could have lost his job and most likely lost any bonuses or possible promotions at least in the short term. Her team lost their bonuses. And the identities of people used to open the fraudulent accounts were potentially corrupted. The Council and the pre-trial diversion program needed evidence of her willingness to face these consequences and recognize her participation in them and we did not want to allow her to get away with thinking that she did not have to accept this responsibility.
They took Jesus to Pilate’s headquarters but would not enter to avoid being defiled as it was soon to be the Passover. Pilate asked what accusation they brought against Jesus and they replied that he was a criminal. Pilate went inside and asked Jesus if he was the King of the Jews and Jesus tells him that those are Pilate’s words not his and it is for this reason he has been born. Pilate returns to the crowd and declares he has no case against him. In offering to release Jesus, he is shouted down and a bandit is released instead. Jesus is beaten and again, Pilate attempts to release Jesus, but instead the crowd calls for his crucifixion. Their hearts have hardened and their will has been resolved and by the time Pilate asks them if they want him to crucify their king, they answer, “We have no king but the emperor.” It is at this moment that we realize that their hardness of heart was more than a rejection of Jesus, it is a sign of their lack of belief.
No longer do they believe that God can or will liberate them. No longer do they believe in a God who loves them and wants to draw them to himself—to care for them and give them all that he desires for them. No longer do they believe in the God of their ancestors—the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob—the God who has promised that they will number more than the sands of the earth or stars of the sky. Their hardness of heart is their lack of belief in God—the God who stands before them, the God they deny and crucify.
As I sat in the Council chambers hearing the testimony of the young woman and the questions of the Council that challenged her to face the reality of who she was, I knew she would not be approved for pre-trial diversion. The questions had increased in intensity, our hearts were beginning to harden toward her, no longer were they simply about the crime itself, but about the very definition of who she was. She was asked if she thought herself to be a criminal. She admitted to committing a crime but refused to define herself as a criminal. The more she rejected that label, the more rigid both she and the Council became. Her lawyer attempted to sort out the label by excusing a youthful indiscretion and not allowing it to define a person for life. The lawyer’s argument was that being a criminal was a mindset in which one approached the world with criminal intent. Her client had simply committed a crime and though technically could be considered a criminal until her record was expunged, that was not who she was.
After the interview was over, the Council members discussed the case. One of the attorneys who sits on the Council moved for her acceptance, I asked what would happen if we did not accept her. We were told that if she were not accepted into the program, she would probably be sentenced to probation and, of course, would have to pay her restitution. But she would not receive any further counseling or rehabilitative measures to help her understand her personal responsibility in this case. If she did not comply with her probation, she would go to jail where she would add to the already stressed penal system. It seemed as if the only hope for rehabilitating this young woman and helping her to be a better citizen was to bring her into pre-trial diversion. Sure, she might flunk out or she might get through and never change or take full responsibility—but shouldn’t we at least give her the chance? So, I seconded the motion to accept her and it failed—by a five to four vote.
It is our hardness of heart that limits our relationships—less so because we judge others, and more so because in judging others we cannot believe in them. Jesus is judged by the hardness of heart of the chief priests, the Pharisees, the crowd, Pilate, the Romans, even us because we cannot believe in him. The young woman in the pre-trial diversion hearing is judged by the hardness of heart of police, attorneys, citizens, and even a priest because we did not believe in her. We cannot believe in something more than what we already know and see. We cannot believe in what we do not understand or empathize with. We cannot believe in ourselves, how might we believe in others? And every time we find ourselves unable to believe in another, every time our hearts harden and limit the growth and possibility of transformation, we yell “Crucify him!” Maybe not with our mouths, but certainly with our actions. We might not use those words, but we are no less nailing Jesus to a cross every time we refuse to give someone a chance.