We have failed. Again. (A sermon for Good Friday)

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I don’t think I have ever written a sermon preface before. I did not anticipate writing one this year. But here it is.

On Saturday, in my attempt to write a Palm Sunday sermon, I happened to open and reread my Good Friday sermon from 2014, and I was astonished. I was astonished not because it was still relevant - the nature of Good Friday is such that a Good Friday sermon need not be extraordinary to be relevant still three years later. I was taken aback because of the number of times I thought to myself “My God. This is not just history. This is more current now, it cuts deeper now, than three years ago.”

Nothing about this week has changed my mind. I kept thinking I would rework the sermon, use it as a launching pad, weave in new bits about bombs in Afghanistan and anti-Semitic dog-whistling from the White House on the first day of Passover, maybe add particular cautions to make sure we’re all very very clear that “the Jews” did not kill Jesus but did count Jesus as a Jew, that these passages from John’s Gospel especially have been used to justify anti-semitism and we cannot allow that to stand because it is not remotely of God - essentially that I would give it a good general polish and update and turn it into a new sermon.

Instead, something inside just kept saying “no” - preface it, then simply preach it. 

So here we go.


We have failed again.

I woke up April 9, 2014 to a text from my father: my brother had just called to say there had been stabbings at the high school on the same campus as the middle school where my sister-in-law teaches. Bottom line, he said: “Heidi and her school are ok but in lockdown. Perpetrator is in police custody. Jim called in case the story goes national. Happy birthday Heidi!” When I talked to my dad later, he asked “so do you think Heidi will remember her 30th birthday?”

It was a rhetorical question, but of course she will, because we always do. When the world fails us or we fail the world that badly, we remember it.

And I thought about my two cousin and their boyfriends, who were all living in Hoboken and working in Manhattan when the twin towers collapsed, trying to get each other on the phone, trying to get out of the city and back home on foot, trying to let their parents in Ohio know they were shaken, but alive and safe. They, like many, will always remember September 11, 2001.

I thought about my friend Emily’s college friend Jim, who said “no” to helping her close up her last night of work at the bar, the night her coworker kidnapped and killed her after work. He will always remember the night of November 2, 2000.

I remembered running a dance rehearsal after school my senior year when a friend came in and told us that two seniors at Columbine High School in Colorado had brought guns to school and shot all sorts of of people, and how unusual it still felt then for such a thing to happen.  I will always remember the afternoon of April 20, 1999.

I thought about my mother watching the Challenger explode in a shower of fireworks and realizing that this was not just the boost launcher breaking apart - it was the shuttle and its people - and watching the faces of the families. She will always remember the morning of January 28, 1986.

I thought about my father sitting in 7th period French class when the principal came on the PA system with an important announcement, and rolling his 14-year-old eyes in anticipation of more warnings to students to lock their bikes properly, when instead the voice announced that President Kennedy had been shot; and his recollection of seeing his teacher, who was a Turkish Jewish emigrant from Germany, slump into her chair and say “This isn’t supposed to happen here.” He will always remember the afternoon of November 22, 1963.

And I thought: we have failed again, O God; our world, our nation, our church has failed.

And every time this happens, each time I hear about another way we have failed to keep our children safe, to protect our earth, to welcome the stranger, to build up and not tear down, my immediate response is the same: I begin with jaded rationality - what else can we expect? of course it has happened again. 

Then comes the judgement - I blame Congress, when will we have better laws; I blame the President, when will he make this a priority; I blame parents, why couldn’t they teach their kids better; I blame kids, why didn’t they listen to their teachers; I blame technology and tradition and restriction and release and corporations and churches and voters and rulers and Romans and Pilate and Caiaphas and Annas and Peter and Judas - until finally the whole situation is so knotted up and so separate from me that I can see no way to help and I just stop and wait, paralyzed, for someone else to fix it. 

O God, our world has failed; our nation has failed; our church has failed. And I too have failed, O God.

But as we bring all these failures to Jesus’ feet today, we find that somehow he does not condemn us for it; he only asks us to make a choice - a choice that is the same year after year and yet must be newly made each time we face it.  This choice is not between success and failure.  It is a choice of what kind of church, what kind of people, we will be.

We stand today before the cross and we bring with us another year of failed attempts to curb violence in our schools and in our homes; another year of failure to prevent genocide abroad and abuse at home; another year of broken promises and broken hearts. 

But in the shadow of that cross, we are reminded that though we are ultimately ourselves powerless before our failures, God is not. God is able to forgive us, even from the cross; to bend down from on high, to take us by the hand and raise us up. God is able and willing and ready and eager to turn us around and dust us off and wipe away our tears and set us back on the path of righteousness. To help us try again - knowing that we will fail again, no choice about that - so long as we are human beings living in the kingdom of this world, we will continue to mess up.  We will continue to fail each other and ourselves and God - but that it is not therefore hopeless to keep going. Because Jesus has not, does not, will not fail. Despite all appearances, despite the very real fact of Jesus’ death this afternoon, the promise stands: I will not leave you comfortless; I will not leave you orphaned. And so each moment of our lives is one more opportunity to choose which failure *we* will risk - the failure to get it just right, or the failure to try at all? The failure to act with justice, or the failure to be powerful? How will we respond when the world fails *us* - with fists clenched in anger, ready to blame whomever we can find, ready to exact vengeance and separate ourselves from the risk of trying again? Or, in the image offered by theologian Kosuke Koyama, with open hands, pierced through the palm, that can no longer close with such comfortable judgement?

The decision is ours. But we must know as we choose that only one of these ways is blessed by God as the way of life and not death, and the way of life is not the way marked by its comfort or its ease. The way blessed by God, the way of life, is the way of Jesus. It is the way of which Dietrich Bonhoeffer says “It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.” It is the way that pierces us, and this is where it lands us: at the cross. On the path of Jesus we will always find ourselves, sooner or later, faced by the cross. And there is no way around, only through.

And so the cross in turn bids us choose: will we for our part follow the path of least resistance, or the path of Jesus? From the cross where he hangs dying, Jesus calls to us: choose life, that you may live in me.

Elizabeth Scriven