Friday, March 21, 2008

Let us overcome the darkness that is within us

[The following homily was preached at St Mary's Anglican Church in Vancouver BC on Good Friday, 21 March 2008.]

+ My friends in Christ, I speak to you in the name of God the Weaver, who through the shuttle of the Holy Spirit weaves us into the pattern of the Word made flesh. Amen.

On this Good Friday we gather to remember the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth and ponder the implications of his voluntary suffering and death for us and for the whole of creation. Let me begin with three stories.

The first story: The Gentiles tried to kill us but they failed.

Last night, while we were commemorating the last meal that Jesus had with his friends and stripping the sanctuary in anticipation of his passion, our Jewish brothers and sisters were celebrating the feast of Purim, a story told in the book of Esther. It is rare that Purim and Holy Week coincide.

The story of Purim takes place during the reign of the great Persian king Xerxes who counts a young Jewish woman, Esther, among his wives. One of Xerxes’ advisors, Haman, takes a keen dislike for Mordecai, a Jewish elder, and he hatches a plot to exterminate the Jews in the Persian empire.

Mordecai learns of the plot and advises Esther, his niece, to take action. She is at first reluctant, but when Mordecai reminds her that she shall not escape the fate planned by Haman, she agrees to act. Since Xerxes has not summoned her, she must risk his wrath and possible death by appearing unbidden in the audience chamber and then asking to speak with him. She succeeds and eventually foils Haman’s plot. Haman is executed and the Jews are permitted to defend themselves against Haman’s henchmen who have already launched their attacks. The Jews win and Xerxes extends imperial protection to the Jewish community.

Here we were last night, beginning our sombre journey to the Cross, while our Jewish friends were celebrating a great victory. Imagine how some of our Christian ancestors might have reacted: Christians in mourning, Jews in celebration.

The second story: The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God.

The ancient city of Alexandria was a cosmopolitan metropolis of several million people: Egyptians, Greeks, peoples from all around the Mediterranean, peoples from Asia and Africa and one of the largest Jewish communities outside of Palestine. There had always been particular tensions between the Jewish, Greek and Egyptian communities in the city. After the Roman conquest of the city during the reign of Augustus Caesar, Greeks and Jews were given certain rights and tax exemptions not given to the native Egyptian population. The Greeks despised the Jews for various reasons and denied Jews access to the public places where business and politics were conducted.

These tensions reached their height in the year 38. In the past the Jewish community had sent a traditional declaration of loyalty to the emperor on the occasion of his accession. But in the year 38 the Roman governor had failed to send this declaration of loyalty to the new emperor, Gaius Caligula, whether intentionally or not is still not clear. This political lapse was complicated later that year during the visit of Herod Agrippa, the titular Jewish king, who had been sent to Alexandria on a mission from Caligula. Herod had never been popular with the Jewish people and it appears that the Jews of Alexandria insulted him in some fashion. When the governor failed to take action, the Greek and Egyptian population rose up to take direct action against the Jewish community.

Jews were forced to abandon their homes in four of the five districts of the city and were forced into what we now call a ‘ghetto’. Jewish businesses were destroyed and thousands of Jews were killed on the streets, in the amphitheatre and by extra-judicial executions. Statues and pictures of Caligula were forcibly placed in Jewish synagogues causing the Jews to rise up to resist the desecration of their places for prayer and teaching. Eventually the riots came to an end, but the damage done to the Jewish community lasted until the year 117. In that year the emperor Trajan annihilated the Jewish community in Alexandria as part of the Roman effort to quell yet another Jewish rebellion in Palestine.

Sometime during these troubles, a member of the Jewish community in Alexandria took pen in hand and wrote what we now call the book of Wisdom or the Wisdom of Solomon. A portion of this book is frequently read at funerals particularly because of its simple yet hopeful beginning: “But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.”[1]

  • The earlier optimism of the Alexandrian Jewish community for a rapprochement with the Greeks and for social and cultural acceptance by them had been replaced by a mounting sense of disillusionment and disappointment.
  • The author addresses his fellow Jews in an effort to encourage them to take pride in their traditional faith. By presenting Judaism in intellectually respectable terms, he seeks to shore up the faith against hostile anti-Jewish attacks from without and gnawing doubts from within.

He is guided by three themes:

  • the certainty that justice will be eventually triumph over injustice,
  • the conviction that a life lived in accordance with God’s wisdom as revealed in Torah is better than any other life and
  • the troubles of the present time are this generation’s exodus, its own experience of costly deliverance from tyranny into freedom.

Even if the present time is fraught with evil and injustice, the author affirms that it is still wiser to act morally and faithfully because moral and faithful actions plant the seeds that will eventually bloom into the harvest of righteousness, peace and justice. Perhaps the writer of Wisdom expected the seeds to sprout in the next generation, but he probably did not live to see this happen.

The third story: It is better that one community die if it serves the state.

Let’s fast forward nineteen hundred years. On the 30th of January 1933 the President of the Weimar Republic appointed Adolf Hitler as Chancellor. On the 10th of March 1933 the Nazi government opened the first concentration camp, Dachau, in an agricultural area just outside of Munich and incarcerated members of the Communist and Social Democratic parties. In 1936 Sachsenhausen, first a concentration camp, later an extermination camp, was opened near Weimar, a city always associated with liberal democracy in German history. In 1937 Buchenwald, also a concentration camp that became an extermination camp, was opened near Berlin. As these camps opened and political realities became more difficult, many Jews attempted to flee Germany. Some attempted to flee to the east into Poland, but the Polish authorities refused to permit the Jews to enter the country.

In a tragic Catch-22, the German authorities would not allow the Jewish refugees back into Germany. They were trapped in the border zone and their situation became increasingly desperate. The world took no action as people languished, unable to leave, unable to return. In Paris the son of a couple trapped in this ‘no-man’s land’ took a gun to the German embassy and shot the third secretary who died a few days later.

Just before midnight on November 9, Gestapo chief Heinrich Műller sent a telegram to all police units informing them that ‘in shortest order, actions against Jews and especially their synagogues will take place in all of Germany. These are not to be interfered with.’ Rather, the police were to arrest the victims. Fire companies stood by synagogues in flames with explicit instructions to let the buildings burn. They were to intervene only if a fire threatened adjacent ‘Aryan’ properties.[2]

  • More than 1,000 synagogues were burned or damaged.
  • 7,500 Jewish businesses were ransacked and looted.
  • 91 Jews were known to have been killed.
  • Jewish hospitals, homes, schools and cemeteries were vandalized.
  • 30,000 Jewish men, aged 16 to 60, were arrested and sent to Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen.

This night, the 9th to the 10th of November, is known as ‘Kristallnacht’, the ‘night of broken glass’. On the 15th of November Jews were banned from public schools. By December Jews were banned from most public places in Germany.

These events mark the beginning of what our Jewish brothers and sisters call ha Shoah, the Holocaust. By 1945 six million Jews had been systematically exterminated as well as millions of Socialists, Communists, gays, lesbians, Jehovah Witnesses, gypsies and prisoners of war. The scope of the Holocaust of European Jewry and the murder of millions of others is difficult to comprehend, so difficult that there are voices today that deny the Holocaust ever took place or assert that the Holocaust was invented by the Jews in order to maintain their secret control of the world’s economy and to bolster support for Israel.

Why do I tell these stories on a day when we gather to remember the death of Jesus?

I tell these stories because of the power of the narrative we have just read. John’s powerful narrative of the events leading to the death of Jesus has been read throughout the Christian world for at least fifteen hundred years. Many of us have been moved by Johann Sebastian Bach’s The St John Passion. We may have uncritically absorbed the message explicit in John’s gospel that the death of Jesus is the responsibility of ‘the Jews’, an entire people, rather than the Jewish and Roman authorities who saw Jesus as a threat to public order and to the stability of the state. He was, to use modern political language, a subversive, whose message, like the Dalai Lama’s, was seen by the political authorities as providing philosophical fuel to terrorist fires.

Throughout western history and into the present day, purveyors of fear, demagogues and dictators have found it useful to make Jews and other minority groups scapegoats for the problems faced by a given society. But purveyors of fear, demagogues and dictators are not the only ones who find scapegoats useful.

All of us have, from time to time, found it self-serving to identify the cause of our problems and challenges with a particular person or party or group. Let me speak in those voices.

  • “I am tired of being told that I bear any responsibility for the present situation of First Nations people. It’s their own fault if they choose to live on their ancestral land rather than get with the programme of the twenty-first century. Let them get over it.”
  • “The church used to be a comforting and peaceful place before women, gays and lesbians began agitating for their so-called ‘rights’ or so-called ‘justice’.”
  • “It’s time for the conservatives to go away. They are all homo-phobic, critical fundamentalists.”
  • “You know, our congregation was wonderful until that crazy rector moved the altar and brought in the BAS.”
  • “You know, we could do great things here if the Prayer Book people would just move away.”

I do not know about you, but I do know myself. I have felt and, in one fashion or another, spoken these words in various times and places.

The problem lies, as Shakespeare says, not in our stars but in ourselves. When we gather here, year after year, to tell the story of the last days of Jesus of Nazareth, we are telling our own story. We are telling the story of how fearful we are of encountering the darkness that exists in each one of us. When God sends us the witness of the prophets and sages, when God sends us the witness of the people of the covenant of Moses and, in the fullness of time, when God sends us the witness of the Word made flesh, we resort to that primeval response to flee. But God, ever faithful, pursues us and finally, like even a cornered rabbit, we fight to the death to protect ourselves from learning the truth.

That truth is that deep within each one of us is the desire to be the centre of the universe. When Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are about to be thrown into the fiery furnace, the king challenges them by saying, “Now let us see whether your God can save you.” But Shadrach responds out of a deep awareness that it is God who is the centre of the universe, mysterious yet purposeful, incomprehensible but ultimately compassionate. He says, “Whether God saves us or not, God is still God. If you are trying to prove a point, you will fail.”

The truth is that deep within each one of us is the desire to be the only beloved of God. When Jonah is furious with God for having dragged him from his home to proclaim a message of judgement on Nineveh and then, because the people heed the message and repent, God decides not to destroy the city, God asks Jonah, in so many words, “Do you think you are the only one I love? Do you think you are the creature whose existence is important to me?”

The truth is that deep within each one of us is the desire to be the final adjudicator of all value and worth. When Peter falls into a deep sleep and has a dream where God bids him eat what is forbidden, he challenges God by declaring he has never eaten unclean things. But God speaks to him, much like God speaks to Moses: “I am the one who will declare what is clean and unclean. If I choose to do a new thing, I will do it. Now go and bring the Gentiles into the covenant!”

But in the end, the desire to be the centre of the universe, the desire to be the only beloved of God and the desire to be the final adjudicator of all value and worth are illusions that can lead to even more dangerous delusions. The truth is found in the Cross of Christ, the ultimate symbol of humanity’s attempts to hide from the Holy One of Israel who constantly seeks to free us from the bondage of fear and death.

At the end of today’s liturgy, as we gaze at the Cross and remember the powerful story told today, let us ponder how we have avoided confronting whatever darkness lurks in our own souls that may lead us to find convenient scapegoats, whether near or far, rather than seek the heart of God that beats within each of us. Let us be conscious of how that story has been used to kill rather than promise life. Let us leave this place with the commitment to do all within our power to prevent the story of the Lord’s death from ever being used for other purposes than proclaiming the bottomless love of God for us and for all of creation.

Let us pray.

We veil our faces before your glory, O Holy and Immortal One, and bow before the cross of your wounded Christ. With angels and archangels, we praise you, our Mercy, and we bless you, our Compassion, for in our brokenness you have not abandoned us. Hear us as we pray though Jesus, our high priest: heal all division, reconcile the estranged, console the suffering, and raise up to new life all that is bound by death. Amen.[3]

[1] Wisdom 3.1-3.

[2] ‘Kristallnacht.’ Encyclopedia Britannica 2007. Retrieved 10 November 2007 from Encyclopedia Britannica Online:

[3] Revised Common Lectionary Prayers, 100.

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