Sermon given by Rev. Neil Elliott for Good Friday in 2018 to St. John’s Episcopal Church, St. Paul, Minnesota. Reproduced here by permission of Rev. Elliott.
We Christians can be so vain, we probably think the prophets are about us.
That’s what it sounds like, at least, in First Peter: Whatever Israel’s prophets said, they were speaking not to their own time, but to ours. The early church was eager to prove that Christ had “died according to the scriptures” that they mined Israel’s scriptures for any reference to suffering—Isaiah 52 and 53; Psalm 22; even the book of Lamentations—and turned those into predictions of Jesus.
It continues today: think of Mel Gibson’s gory Passion of the Christ. Jesus’ agony was supreme, surpassing all other suffering; no other suffering counts.
We might instead understand that Jesus took part in the immiseration of the powerless in our world: that he suffered the injustice, cruelty, violence that so many others have known as well, for countless generations.
It might change the way we experience Good Friday. Instead of that constant effort to screw up our imaginations to travel back in time—“Were you there . . .?” We might ask instead, “Are we here?”
There are young people massing in the streets to demand an end to our national worship of gun rights, to which they have been made an endless and unwilling sacrifice. There are African Americans massing in the streets and city squares demanding an end to our hypervigilant, militarized, and yes, racist police culture. There are men, women, and children from El Salvador and Syria and Somalia and Yemen, fleeing famine, terror, warfare, risking their lives for what they pray will be safety and a future with us, even as a majority party poses them as our enemy. Are we here, are we present to them?
This year, Good Friday occurs almost exactly between two other auspicious dates. Thirty-eight years ago last week, Oscar Romero, the archbishop of El Salvador, was shot to death as he celebrated the Eucharist. He had openly challenged the U.S.-funded military to “stop the repression” of the Salvadoran people. As thousands gathered in the capital for his funeral, men in plainclothes fired automatic rifles and threw hand grenades and killed dozens more. The Salvadoran government and the U.S. government both said the culprits were probably Communist subversives; we now know those were lies. Some people knew it then; after all, some eighty thousand Salvadorans, many of them church leaders, were killed by national security forces in a decade-long war of repression.
Fifty years ago next week, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death on a hotel balcony. He and his colleagues in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were in Memphis to support a labor strike, but they were also mobilizing a gathering of thousands of people for a Poor People’s March on Washington that would have riveted the nation’s attention not just to racial prejudice but to the profound inequalities and injustices that we still live with. When we say in the Creed that we believe in the Spirit, who has spoken through the prophets, I don’t think we mean “the prophets long ago who predicted the death of Jesus, then fell silent”; we mean, God’s word is spoken against injustice and cruelty in every generation.
One of our themes this year is “sharing our stories”: with your indulgence, I would like to share one of mine. The fall of 2001 was a somber, anxious time nationally, and a peculiar time for me to go back to seminary at Seabury, in Evanston, for a year of Anglican studies. I took classes on Anglican liturgy and sacramental theology and kept the routines of Morning and Evening Prayer and Compline, in a chapel pretty much like our chancel. On this particular Wednesday in November, some of us gathered for the Eucharist. The prayer ended, and we began that hymn taken from the ancient Didache:
As grain, once scattered on the hillsides,
was in this broken bread made one, —
—and then it was time to go up to the railing. I looked down to watch my step from the choir stall down to the floor of the chancel.
But I couldn’t see the floor. I was standing on a rocky surface—-there were rocks all around me, nothing but a steep hillside of rocks that stretched down into a valley below me, with some kind of settlement at the bottom. The sky was a heavy, ominous gray, and a chilling wind was blowing sleet into my face.
I saw two children coming up the hillside toward me, a boy and a girl. He moved like he was eight or nine, but he was scrawny, almost hidden in a dirty ragged sweater many times too big for him. The girl was six inches taller and was giving him direction, like an older sister.
But they weren’t coming to me; they hadn’t seen me. They were moving deliberately, poking at the rocks, obviously searching intently for something.
I knew in an instant where I was and what they were looking for—it had been in the news. The United States had begun intensive bombing of this mountainous region of Afghanistan in pursuit of the Taliban. The United Nations and aid organizations protested that after a terrible drought, perhaps as many as seven million Afghans, stranded in refugee camps, would die without aid convoys traveling on the very highways being bombed. The U.S. responded by sending planes to drop 200,000 MREs—meals ready to eat—onto the hillsides; a ridiculous, cynical gesture, given such desperate need.
These children, I knew, were looking for those little yellow packets of food.
But I also knew that Oxfam and Bread for the World had raised a protest. Little yellow plastic objects were more likely to be explosive components from U.S. cluster bombs; they had already killed or maimed dozens of children.
I knew I had to warn the children but—how? I didn’t speak—what was their language? I felt helpless.
And then, suddenly, I was back in the chapel in Evanston. I sat down heavily in another choir stall to let others go up to the rail.
I knew, somehow, that the helplessness I’d just felt was somehow connected to the words of Jesus we had just heard from the Gospel of John:
“The bread I give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
I felt convinced I’d been transported to a place where bread and life were sorely needed.
And I have been convinced ever since that the “real presence” of Christ isn’t something we concoct or manage with our liturgy: that Christ is most present where the need, the hunger, the fear, the desperation in our world is most profound. —That doesn’t mean Christ is absent or distant from us—unless we distance ourselves from the suffering of others.
Oscar Romero—and after him, Salvadoran theologian Ignácio Ellacuría, who was shot to death by another U.S.-sponsored death squad almost a decade later—spoke often of the pueblo crucificado: of Christ being “crucified” anew in the suffering people in our world us today. The question of this day perhaps is not so much how we can imagine ourselves back to Calvary, not so much how Christ is present to us as we gather here in prayer, as it is, how we are present, truly present to the ongoing suffering of Christ in our day.
May God give us grace not to draw back from him out of fear.