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Jesus is Dead

by San Pedro Susan Russell

John 18:1-19:42

Jesus is dead.

The life - the promise - the light that shone so brightly has been extinguished. All that remains of the rabbi from Nazareth is a broken body and the broken dreams of his scattered followers. The Kingdom he proclaimed has not come. The powerful remain powerful: the oppressed remain oppressed -- and where there had been hope there is only despair. This is the stark truth of this day we call "Good Friday."

What is there in that message for us tonight?

Let's be honest: we already know that this is not the end of the story. We gather tonight for the Liturgy of Good Friday with the Easter dress hanging in our closet; the flowers ordered; the brunch planned and the candy ready to go in the baskets. We've peeked at the last chapter to see how the book comes out. We've seen this movie before and know that there's a happy ending.

One question is: Can we be present in the reality of Good Friday, knowing that Easter happens?

Another question: Why bother? Couldn't we just skip Good Friday? Clearly that's an option. Look around you: I think I'm safe in saying that there'll be a few more folks with us on Sunday morning. Folks who go straight from Palm Sunday to Easter Day without the Holy Week stuff. Couldn't we just skip this part -- why dwell on it?

We just heard the story of the crucifixion on Palm Sunday: just like we've heard it every year. Can we hear it tonight in a way that isn't just "the same old thing"?

When my children were tiny, I sang in the choir at St. Paul's in Ventura. Since their father attended church sporadically, it fell to my friends Bruce and Lori to "pew sit", and so my boys joined their two girls, Kimmie & Alex during many a service. I remember one such occasion when from the choir loft, during the reading of the passion, I looked down and saw all four of them -- intently coloring on the back of their bulletins -- seeming oblivious to the liturgy surrounding them.

All of a sudden, Kimmie, who was about four, stopped coloring and began to listen to the unfolding story. She'd been in church since before she was born -- an embryonic Episcopalian -- and so she'd heard this story many times, even for such a little one. She could sing "There is a Green Hill Far Away" from memory. She had filled up her "He is Risen" coloring book. But on this particular day, she was listening like she'd never heard the story before.

When the gospel got to the words, "because he was already dead", she suddenly stood up and said (in a loud, horror-filled voice) "Jesus is DEAD? They KILLED JESUS????" And she started to cry in a way that made it very clear: this story she'd heard over and over again she had just heard, in some very profound way, for the first time.

At four years old, she entered into the pain and suffering of the crucifixion event -- and in experiencing that pain herself, was changed by it. And, as she was carried out of church, inconsolable on her daddy's shoulder, so were we.

I am baffled by how we can hear these stories of Lent and Holy Week and not be changed by them. Don't we get it? Who was it that was upset by the Lazarus story? Who was repelled by the teachings of Jesus? Who felt that Jesus was teaching false doctrine? Who wanted this man to "go away"?

It was the righteous; the orthodox; the people who knew how to do it correctly. It was the keepers of the Law. It was the people who knew the rules: and knew how to make sure everyone else kept them. How can we hear this message - this story - and not be confronted by that? By the sin of self-righteousness in the voices who cried "Hosanna" and turned so quickly to the crowd which cried "Crucify Him". And crucify him they did. The crowd got what they asked for.

I don't want to be part of that crowd. I don't want you to be part of that crowd. I don't want the church to be part of that crowd. But that’s the risk we run if we skip Good Friday. If we fast forward to Easter, we avoid confronting in ourselves our own self-righteousness, our own certainties, our own fears. We also avoid being transformed by them.

Robert Shahan, the Bishop of Arizona, addressed precisely these issues in his Palm Sunday sermon. He said, "I read a line this week in a piece talking about faith and taking stands. The sentence that stopped me cold was this:

"Faith is what you are willing to die for. Dogma is what you are willing to kill for."

Jesus is dead.

He came with a willingness to die for the sake of the message that the Kingdom of God is at hand. It is here. It is now. He came with a message of inclusiveness and compassion.

Compassion is what Kimmie experienced on that Good Friday: compassion in the truest sense of the word. The Latin word for passion means "suffering": the combined form of "compassion" means "with suffering." It is an invitation to join, to be a part of something requiring sacrifice and often pain. For us, this evening, it is an invitation to join and be part of the crucifixion story.

Not a very inviting invitation, is it? Not a message that sells any better in San Pedro than it did in Jerusalem. Like the disciples who fled from the Garden of Gethsemane, we don't want a dead rabbi: we want a Risen Lord.

The paradox is that it's precisely because we have already experienced the Resurrection that we can enter into the crucifixion: not just on Good Friday, but wherever and whenever we face the choice between self-righteousness and compassion.

What we have to offer is a faith to die for: not a dogma to kill for. What we have to proclaim is a Gospel of that can truly enter into those places of darkness and suffering where compassion is the only gift we have to give. It is ours to give, as the Body of Christ, because our Lord went there first. It is ours to give to the Matthew Shepards, Billy Jack Gaithers and James Byrds of the world. For when we stand with them, we stand again with Jesus.

It is ours to give when we reach out to the oppressed and the persecuted -- and I am thinking tonight especially of the horror of the situation in Kosovo. There will be ways to reach out in the coming days and I know we will respond to them ... our Presiding Bishop’s Fund does an awesome job of providing humanitarian aid and for that we give thanks. But it seems so little, doesn’t it, in the face of such terror and devastation? And yet, when we stand with them, we stand with Jesus.

We are at crucial point in the symphony that is Holy Week. Palm Sunday was our overture: touching on all the themes to be played throughout the week and leading us into the subsequent movements. And now we’ve arrived at Good Friday: in some ways the “adagio” of the piece. In the hours between now and the “allegro” of Easter, we sit in the silence and contemplate the power of this story that is ours.

Jesus is dead.

May God give us the grace to enter with compassion into the death of Our Lord -- even as we prepare with Joy to Celebrate His Resurrection. Amen.