A Sermon for Good Friday

Welcome to St. James and to this Good Friday service. A special welcome if you’ve not been here before. We’ve been observing this day for a long time--many years--in this very space.

Our liturgy today is not what we’re used to. One of the things I find most profound about it is how disjointed it is, very unlike the average Episcopal liturgy that is always so conscientious of flow, and cadence, transitions and timing. This one always seems to me a bit choppy, as if at a loss for how to go from one section to the next. I think it mirrors grief.

We made a few small changes to this service this year b/c they were recommended by the Interfaith and Ecumenical Commission of our diocese. Other churches in our Communion, like the Anglican Church of Canada and the Church of England had already made these changes. They address two issues, one more recently brought to the church’s attention, and one very old.

In our prayers that we’ll say in a moment, rather than praying for “the hungry, the homeless, the sick and the destitute,” we’ll instead pray for “those who are hungry, those who are homeless, those who are sick, those who are destitute.” It’s so small a change, about not identifying somebody with their illness or the hard circumstances in which they happen to find themselves. We aren’t defined by the worst of what we’re experiencing. Someone ill with cancer is a full and complete child of God. Who also has cancer. Someone who happens to be without a home, also a child of God, fully, completely. We are not what we’re going through. The only label we give to ourselves, and others, is beloved of God.

The other changes in our service reflect our attempts over many decades to reverse what the Good Friday service unfortunately sometimes was--an excuse for Christians to persecute Jews for the death of Christ and, worse, to inflict violence. 

It’s been a long time since we removed prayers on this day asking for the conversion of Jews, and I’m relieved to tell you that prayer was never part of the Episcopal Church’s tradition. Still, it’s part of our legacy as Christians. Our ancestors said it, passed it down generation to generation, perhaps even participated (likely participated) in the hateful behavior that resulted from such prayers in services like this.

We’ve long omitted the worst of these. Now we’re down to subtler, but still very important, changes. I printed an insert containing an alternative Gospel translation that, instead of “the Jews,” calls them “Judeans.” This is to highlight the fact that our Gospels were set in a time and place with regional conflicts that were confined to that time and place. It’s not right to take the actions of a few people then in very particular circumstances and impose them on a whole race and religion for ever and all time. It makes no sense, yet that’s exactly what had been done.  

More constructively, we’ve now added prayers--also in the church of Canada and Church of England--for our Jewish neighbors, acknowledging and giving thanks for their long standing and unique covenant with God. 

About three months ago, a neighbor called me. She had introduced me to Hearts and Homes for Refugees, which her synagogue, Scarsdale Synagogue, has been involved with. Even though she was a new acquaintance, she also supported me emotionally during the hardest months of my daughter’s chemo. 

One Sunday after Easter, last year, I was delighted to look up and see her in the pews here. I came down to read the Gospel as we always do on Sunday, and then my heart sank. It was that post-Easter Day reading where it says that the disciples locked themselves in the Upper Room “for fear of the Jews.”  I froze. When I got to that line, even though it was very obviously printed right there, I skipped it. 

Months passed, and it was only recently, as I said, three months ago, that she called me to talk about that. She wondered why it was there, how I justified skipping over it, and What in the world do we even teach here? 

This matters. We can always do better. On this day that historically has highlighted the problematic relationship between Christians and Jews, we must do better. We are all children of God. And that goes for our friends of other faiths, too.

Today is a day of humility taken to an extreme. Jesus said we must die to self, and he meant it. And did it. Good Friday should always have been a day of reconciliation, of self-effacing love for the other. One of history’s biggest ironies is that it became a day to assert one group’s superiority over another’s, a day to inflame hatred, rather than to observe and then reject what hate does to people--it kills. 

Every day, every moment of every day, presents us with the choice of rejecting our ego and sense of entitlement. Societal and global catastrophes, like the hatred we harbor for other faiths, start with the individual, and with each decision we make in our daily lives. The ego is at work constantly, worming its way if it can into every thought, response, reaction we have, and today we’re reminded that the consequences of that are grave. 

As we proceed in the service to the Solemn Prayers (or Collects), take every word in them to heart. As you move throughout your day, do an ego assessment. It’s humbling. And always remember that the God we worship did what he did on this day, so that we might all take a good look at ourselves, and not let things like this happen ever, again.