Killing God for God, Killing Good for Good, Killing Good for Good Friday

A Sermon of Caution

Part One is here.

(Scapegoating) Lk 23:33-34

…. Jesus’ words are blue notes. Jesus is moaning blue notes in the key of E Minor from the cross. These words expose our sin and our blindness, our institutional inhumanity and our pain. His words expose our ability to turn harm into good. His words expose our ability to conceal inhumanity and justify violence for the sake of religious and social status quos. Jesus’ words tell us what Hosea prophesied centuries earlier: “God desires mercy, not sacrifice.” Jesus’ words, “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing,” are a tragic diagnosis. While his words reveal God’s boundless grace and compassion, Jesus’ diagnosis from the cross also reveals how we combine the good, the bad, and the ugly all at the same time: we kill people not because we believe and see ourselves committing evil. No, we kill because we think we are upholding the good.

This tragic truth was put on Jesus’ lips by Luke, but 2 millennia later, we still have trouble finding the ears to hear or eyes to see. Though we believe God is a God of abundant life, the tragedy is that we often believe sacrifice and victimization are what God desires and what “rights” or “saves” a situation. And so our violence and our evil escalates. And here, we are beyond even the category of sin. This first word from the cross reveals to us our inhumanity, our insanity, our lies, our justifications… This word lays bare the injury, death, and absurdity that remains in our world and it scandalously reveals our (un)witting complicity.

Because the God I believe in is all-powerful. He–and he must be literally a “he”–will strike down my enemies. Our God will smolder and consume unbelievers in hellfire; my God who is incapable of weakness; my God who sanctions my hatred… the god of democracy, the god of capitalism, the god of sexism, the god of homophobia, the god of racism, the god of pettiness, the god who blesses our chosen country and despises the others. In the name of this god and for the greater good, I have the right, the divine mandate, the obligation to crucify Jesus and anyone like him.

From the prophets to Jesus, we have been told over and over again that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. But sacrifice is what we do. Mercy is weak. Sacrifice is strong. Let’s find a scapegoat. Our Jewish brothers and sisters have long suffered from Christians perpetually and wrongly scapegoating all Jews for Jesus’ death. What’s tragic is that the cross reveals the horror of sacrificing a scapegoat, but   many Christians routinely continue to perpetuate something that was exposed as sinful and suffered by the very founder and author of our faith.

Father, forgive us for we know not what we do! We think we’re doing the right thing. We believe that scapegoating is the best way to diffuse an explosive situation. We’ve stopped asking the hard questions, questions that could invalidate our position, our status, our churches, our ethics, our economy. And we will silence and invalidate those who ask hard questions by telling them they are blasphemers, insurrectionists, or hopeless cynics.

And keep on talking… You know what’s coming for you.

As I close, I want to make one final observation of this word: Jesus is on a cross, and a crowd of people watches quietly while religious leaders and soldiers mock Jesus. This tragic and ironic scene reminds me of Luke’s parable of Lazarus and Rich Man. Not the content of the parable, but the juxtaposition itself. A Rich and a Poor man. Death and suffering on a cross gazing down at the living and the living gazing at and mocking death and suffering. The contrast is solemn and stark. The juxtaposition discloses the human condition, demonic power, and God’s grace. The ethicist, Arne Vetlesen, argues that all human beings–me and you–face non-optional conditions. These conditions are dependency, vulnerability, mortality, the frailty of interpersonal relationships, and loneliness. These conditions highlight the true and real precariousness of life.

Jesus and Lazarus are like us: they reveal the precariousness of life. Male or female, young or old, rich or poor, gay or straight, white, yellow, black, brown, or red… All of us are dependent, vulnerable, and mortal. All of us have experienced or will experience the frailty of interpersonal relationships and loneliness.

Like the Rich man who saw Lazarus at his gate everyday, there are people at the cross who watch but do nothing; but they, too, are also us. There are moments where we have witnessed someone suffer because of dependency, vulnerability, and mortality. We have seen relationships falter and loneliness set in. And this situation, so scandalous, so real, so shocking… Jesus’ suffering and death, like anyone’s suffering and death, reminds us of what could happen to any of us, and we become paralyzed or incapable mercy; or as Sobrino wrote, we become incapable of taking Jesus down from the cross. We don’t mock Jesus, but we don’t help him either. And that ain’t saying much about us. At least the dogs licked Lazarus’ sores.

The religious leaders and soldiers: they too, are also us. These two groups have power. Religious, militaristic, political, and economic power. These powers, religion included, have the ability to conceal dependency, mortality, and vulnerability. They have the ability to seemingly escape frail interpersonal relationships and loneliness. That is, all of us may feel that if we gain something, that if we wield some sort of power, we will be free of having to rely on someone or something; that we will be saved from the vicissitudes of life; that we may cheat death or at least prolong the inevitable. We may secretly harbor the belief that if we gain enough money or power or religious capital, all will flock to us and we will never be lonely. Or perhaps we feel that our interpersonal relationships will never be frail because we possess the ultimate interpersonal relationship.After all, God is on my side. It is interesting that the religious leaders and soldiers so concerned with saving the status quo mock Jesus lack of salvific power.

Vetlesen writes that evil occurs when we harm or kill each other in order to gain relief from our own vulnerability. This evil becomes demonic when our harming or killing is said to be necessary and for the sake of God or the good or the state/nation. And once institutionalized, this evil becomes endemic to fabric of our social relationships. The tragic irony of Jesus on the cross, the silent majority, the religious leaders, and the soldiers is that we are all of them, victims and victimizers, though some more often than others. And let’s be  very clear about that: everybody didn’t want and didn’t aid in the crucifixion. Injustice is real and differentiating between the crucified, the crowd, the leaders, and the soldiers is the task of all who are called to a life of love, mercy, and Justice. 

Lord, we need your grace and your mercy, there are times we don’t know what we are doing… But you have told us what to do. In the words of Jon Sobrino, we must remember the principle of mercy. With Spirit of the Living God as our ever-present help, we must take the crucified down from the cross.

Faith, Hope, and Love

©2014 M. J. Sales

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