Sermon, 3/29/24

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Good Friday

Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.  Luke 23:34

In the classroom, I was known to begin each seminar with the following two questions: Where do we stand on understanding the author’s argument?  Does the author present us with any evidence to substantiate his/her point of view?  So it is, that I pose the same two questions, as we, on this holiest of Days, reflect on Christ’s first word from the Cross.  I present three scenarios which may guide our thinking.  “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Vignette One: You have been standing in line for 45 minutes in order to gain entrance to a free concert, whose tickets are issued on a first come, first served basis, and tickets are limited.  Then, just as you are only several individuals away from the ticket window, a stranger walks up and inserts himself ahead of you.  You yell at the interloper and instruct him to get in line like everyone else.  He ignores you.  You hope he has a flat tire on his way home.

Vignette Two: A driver, impatient with the slow westbound traffic on I-90, spies a space, the length of an automobile which you are maintaining for safety’s sake ahead of you, swerves into that space, causing you to brake suddenly.  In addition to applying your brakes, you respond by pushing firmly on your horn, blinking your lights, and raising your right fist.  

Vignette Three: As invited or instructed on the invoice for payment, you make a telephone call.  An automated voice informs you of three things: that you have reached firm XYZ—which you knew already, having read it from the bill in front of you; that the call is being recorded for educational purposes; and that, if you know your party’s extension, you may dial it at any time.  The automated voice invites you to state why you are calling, and informs you that you are a valued customer and that it will connect you to a customer service representative.  After being connected, you are then informed by another automated voice that all customer service representatives are assisting other customers, that your call will be answered in order received.  When the voice informs you that the expected wait time is 10 minutes, you terminate the call, threaten to terminate your account with firm XYZ, whose motto is “We value your account with us.”   You ask yourself, out of frustration and anger, what definition of “valuable” the company uses.   

What do these scenarios have in common?  In each instance, a personal affront has occurred.  Someone or something has devalued the personal dignity, social status, or endangered the physical safety.  An initial human response is to glower at the offender and wish for immediate retribution.  I was reminded just three weeks ago of this all too human reaction by a cartoon in the New Yorker magazine. 

The cartoon depicted a counselling session.  A client, with her hands raised above her, lay on a couch.  At her head and to the right in the cartoon sat the counselor, also a female figure.  The subscription read: “I am genuinely full of empathy and compassion until I see how other people drive.”

While the cartoon may cause us to chortle, it does not surprise us, the reader, because this cartoon describes us, you and me, perfectly.  Why, then, are we astonished, no matter how many times we hear the words uttered by Christ from the Cross, that Jesus, suffering an unthinkable, degrading, unjustified death, should pray: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The answer to that question, like the engraved information on the reverse mirror on the passenger side of our automobiles, is closer than we think.  Let me introduce you again to the individual who uttered these words.  Hear the words from St. John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men…The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world was made through him… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth… glory as of the only Son from the Father.” (John 1:1 – 14)

It is from the cross, a method of death reserved in that era for individuals of ignoble birth, not for royalty, that Jesus utters his prayer “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  I suggest to you that this simple prayer is not offered from a weakness or absence of royal birth, or because Christ attempted to cover up a mistake on his part.  On the contrary, as a permanent member of that glorious and eternal Trinity, the Jesus who asks forgiveness is aware from the beginning of creation of the depth and width of God’s mercy if John’s gospel is to be believed. 

He is aware of the innumerable times that the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, forgave the people whom he had chosen to be an example of how God wished (and wishes still) that humankind, made in God’s image, would not forfeit their birthright.  The Hebrew Bible lays before us a compilation of the words of prophets, both major and minor, not to mention the psalmist, words that assure us even unto this day that God has not given up on the Creation, that God wants to be involved in our lives.

Evidence of God’s love of the Creation and God’s readiness to forgive and to underwrite a new covenant is not slighted in the New Testament.  To use the vernacular, to forgive is not a one-off thing for Jesus.  Knowing what God requires of us, as the prophet Micah (6:8f) has declared to the people of God “God has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”—knowing this, when his disciple Peter approaches Jesus and asks: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?   As many as seven times?”  Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matt. 18:21 – 22) 

Jesus tells the tale of father who forgives his errant son who requests and receives prematurely his inheritance, which he then uses to underwrite his profligate living, but when destitute, returns home to beg forgiveness, which is given him, and with much fanfare.  Jesus associates with society’s low-life and with tax collectors, one of whom, upon hearing over dinner with Jesus the Good News of God’s love for all humankind, repents his behavior and gains forgiveness.  The tax collector, previously loathed by all, returns 4-fold to those whom he has overtaxed.  Forgiveness sought – forgiveness given.

Do we forget on this holiest of days, that the Jesus, who begs from the cross for forgiveness for his tormentors, is the same Jesus who spoke to us about forgiveness in the parable of the master who forgives his servant his debt, or at least granted him an extension of time for repayment, but who himself then maltreats his fellow servant.  Instead of showing empathy, an essential attribute of forgiveness, the servant forfeits his own unearned forgiveness.   

Does Jesus not set for us an example in the prayer which Christians all recognize as The Lord’s Prayer.  (Matt. 6:9 – 13)   What Jesus taught his disciples, as well as us, is the foundation on which his words from the cross rest: 1) Recognize, above all, that God is the beginning and end.  Know that God, the source of our being, wants for us a fulfillment of the covenant established at creation.  2) We should seek that which is necessary for our daily existence.  An overabundance tempts us onto another path.  3) If we are to be right with God, so must we be right with our fellows.  In other words, how can we say we love God, whom we have not seen, and hate our brother whom we see?  And 4) Ask God, who is always ready to help and to forgive, for strength of mind, body and soul to deal with those difficulties that life may present.   

As people of faith, you and I have chosen to walk in The Way established by God’s Messiah.  We hear today not condemnation, but the Good News of God’s intervention in the world that God has made.  We kneel in humility and plead forgiveness on this holiest of days, because we, in our generation, have neglected assisting the man who for years was not able on his own to get to the healing pool.  We did not intentionally ignore him, but perhaps due to our social standing and preoccupation with other matters did not even see him, as we walked or drove by.  We kneel in humility and plead forgiveness for upholding the rubric that allows the owner of the cow that falls into a ditch on the Sabbath an exemption to religious laws, but prohibits those who bring empathy and care to the less fortunate in our society.    

As people of faith, if we listen even more closely to Christ’s prayer from the Cross, we hear something extremely positive, something of immeasurable value.  Whereas Moses encountered a god, whose displeasure with humankind’s actions, threatened “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation,” (Exodus 34:7 ), Jesus has, in everything he did during his earthly pilgrimage and his crucifixion, has assured us that we stand individually accountable and that he stands with us as our solicitor before “a God who “is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” (Exodus 34:6 – 7)

So, hear again those awesome words spoken from the Cross: ”Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  Those words speak to you and to me of redemption and promise, if we would but heed them and accept the gift that has been offered us, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  AMEN

[Delivered at Church of the Advent, Boston]