I heard something different in our Good Friday worship today. The story wasn’t different; it was the story of Jesus’ arrest, the mockery of a “trial” which resulted in a sentence to death. That sentence was then carried out. Then Jesus was hastily buried in a donated grave. It is a familiar story that we listen to in full each year, and consider in parts throughout the year. Yet, this year I heard something different- or rather differently.
Our worship service at St. Peter was like a dark, sorrowful version of the joyful service of Lessons and Carols that we have at Christmas: there were readings from the Scriptural account of events, interspersed with the congregation singing verses of hymns that echo and expand upon (and often personalize) the Scripture passages.
This is my first year at St. Peter, so I still have not experienced the full cycle of a year here. This has been my first Lent here and it will be my first Easter here. So maybe that had something to do with me hearing something differently.
But I am strongly inclined to think that the Holy Spirit has been at work, spading up the soil and adding some new seeds to the garden of my heart. They were watered by tears today, and I heard something differently.
You see, over the past year or so, I have been shocked into new awareness, angered and heart-broken, over a number of issues in our world. Sometimes I have cycled rapidly through or been in the grips of all three emotions at once. I know I can never close my eyes again to these issues. The two which have most powerfully shaken my comfortable world are Slavery- the modern day version, and Racism, its inevitable result.
And here is what I heard differently: “By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:8-9, New Revised Standard Version)
“By a perversion of justice”. That’s strong language. I checked another Bible translation, the New International Version. It said, “By oppression and judgment he was taken away”. This is a familiar passage of scripture, read in church every year, as well as when I encounter it on my own, yet this year it became personal. I heard names and saw faces…Travon Martin, Michael Brown, Dontre Hamilton, Tony Robinson. How many of them faced a perversion of justice, and were buried hastily in the equivalent of a borrowed tomb?
I also thought of the daily humiliations, the small deaths endured by people of color in this country. The ingrained, instinctual reactions they face are not about how they are dressed, their level of education, their professional status or lack of it, but are based on the color of their skins. Racism, the inevitable fruit of slavery, runs like deadly vines throughout our culture, seemingly invisible to many of us- yet harming all of us.
I thought of people for whom I know no names, but who have begun disturbing my dreams…the girls stolen by Boka Haram, girls sold into child marriages, Nepalese workers recruited to work and die under brutal conditions while building FIFA infrastructure in Dubai. “Who could have imagined his (their) future(s)” I thought of domestic workers, promised good jobs and wages, with their passports taken away and kept as slaves in rich households in other countries and in the U.S. I thought of girls and women promised good jobs and sold into the sex industry, fishermen trapped on boats to catch fish for me until they die. By oppression and judgement they were taken away…Who could have imagined their futures? How many have been buried like criminals, if they were buried at all? And if they do survive, how do they go about rebuilding lives for themselves and their families?
In my comfortable life, I have never had to imagine myself in the position of the oppressed, facing injustice swooping down into my life. What I heard differently was how completely Jesus put himself in the place of the oppressed, the stolen, the murdered, the enslaved. What I heard more about was how unimaginably far down the love of God, in the person of Jesus Christ, goes. Yes, I do believe Jesus died for my sins and the sins of the world, and in rising from death, brings forgiveness and healing to us all.
But now I understand something about how Jesus also died for our lives- our sometimes difficult or tragic everyday lives. His death connects God with the very worst things that ever happen to us- in a way of understanding, compassion and newness that lives on beyond the horror and the sadness and the pain.
The final hymn of our worship on this Good Friday was “Were You There”, which asks,
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Were you there when they pierced him in the side?
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Each verse also says, “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”
Today I heard this differently. Today I heard, “He was there. He is there. He will be there.” Wherever there is. Incarnation: God taking on flesh, even suffering flesh. God with us. Thanks be to God.
-Janet Blank, Faith Formation Coordinator