Sermons That Work

Is It Nothing to You, All Who Pass By?, Good Friday – 2004

April 09, 2004

A priest has told the story a group of parochial high school students on their way to church to go to confession. As they walked along, they were discussing the Sacrament of Penance, and one among them had very strong views. He considered the notion of confessing one’s sins to be, at best, irrelevant—and, at worst, extortion.

And on this particular day, this young man decided to “do something about it” in a way that only a teenager could. He told his friends that he had concocted a laundry list of sins that was too outrageous to believe and that this would be what he would confess when they got to church. When they went inside, each boy had his private audience with the priest, went forward to the Altar to pray their penances, and waited for the others outside. The one with the bogus list went last, and his conference was no longer than the others. But somehow, it seemed like it was taking forever for him to leave the church.

His friends grew tired of waiting and went back into the church to see what was the matter. They found their friend on his knees in front of the Altar, looking up at the Crucifix and bawling his eyes out. The priest, you see, had given him a most peculiar penance. He had told the young man, “For your penance, I want you to go to the Altar and look up at the Crucifix. And for your prayer, these are the words that I want you to say: ‘Yes, Lord, I see you hanging up there. I know the misery that you suffered. And what it means to me is . . . absolutely NOTHING.’ Now, go in peace. Your sins are forgiven.”

The stuff that made that young man burst into tears is the real hope of Good Friday in today’s world. You see, although his head may have been hard, his heart was still soft enough for God to touch. Without that ability to hurt, there would’ve be no hope for that young man. Without that same ability, there would be no hope for us. Our popular culture has revealed the uncomfortable truth that we have become accustomed to the presence of violence, cruelty, exploitation, poverty, discrimination, and other forms of abuse. If today’s television shows teach us nothing else, they teach us that many people see evil as something to joke about and that still others simply accept it as a part of what we call “the American way.”

In fact, many are the folks who consider it unfashionable to talk about evil at all. We deny that it exists, beyond a grudging admission that “sometimes good people do bad things.” Like the 20th-century Americans whose custom was to picnic in the town square while they were “entertained” by the public lynchings of blacks, we deny the presence of evil, become immune to the suffering that it causes, and allow it to continue so that we can “fit in.”

But like lynchings, the Holocaust, and “ethnic cleansing,” the Crucifixion of our Blessed Lord is a graphic and ongoing witness to the evil of our indifference and its power to destroy. No matter how many times Pontius Pilate washed his hands in innocence, he went along with the crowd that killed an innocent man. So did the bystanders who watched Jesus walk the road to Calvary. So did Peter, who denied even knowing his Lord. And so did all the others who went into hiding. The bad news of today is every bit as true today as it was nearly three centuries ago, when an English philosopher wrote these words: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

But the Good News of this Good Friday is best expressed in the words of the Psalm-writer: “Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” Evil and death may have their day but the Word of God always has the last word. And it’s a Word of light, of life, of power, of strength, and ultimate triumph. As Christians, we live the truth of that old Negro spiritual, “I’m so glad that trouble don’t last always.” We know that Good Friday is the end of the Passion of Christ, but it can never be the end of the Life of Christ, because that Life goes on. Through accusations, lies, beatings, torture, even physical death, the Life goes on. It goes on in the Risen One. It goes on in the lives of the Saints. It goes on in the hearts of Christian believers all over the world. And it goes on in you and in me. It goes on because when all is said and done, God is still God, and God is still forgiving us, still creating new possibilities, still calling us to action for the transformation and healing of this world.

So even when we are in the lowest of our low times, when we’ve truly failed, as the Bible says, to “commend the good that is in us,” we lean on God’s mercy, push ourselves back up out of the muck and press on. Battered, yes. Bruised, yes. Tired, yes. And sad, oh, yes. But in our darkest hour, we dare to trust in the love of a God who will not give up on us, as we take heart from the words of that great hymn-writer:

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish,
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel:
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
Earth has no sorrows that heav’n cannot heal.

Here see the bread of life; see waters flowing
Forth from the throne of God, pure from above:
Come to the feast of love; come ever knowing
Earth has no sorrow but heav’n can remove.

And let all the People of God say AMEN.

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Christopher Sikkema


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