April 17, 2011 6th Sunday in Lent: Palm Sunday/ Good Friday
Isaiah 42:1–9 Hebrews 9:11–14 Matthew 21:1–11/John 17: 19
(Two versions of this sermon were preached. One for Palm Sunday and one for Good Friday. This year I was invited on Good Friday to give the sermon at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Cold Spring during the noon eccumenical service. and it seemed that the theme of this sermon fit both services. I therefore modified and expanded on the Palm Sunday theme for Good Friday. Originally I was going to publish both but I actually feel that the Good Friday sermon is the better one. Enjoy.)
Good Friday has always been the paradoxical holiday of the Christian calendar. Conflicting realities exist together and yet work together as a whole truth. Today we mourn the death of a human being, who was at the same time the son of God. We tell the story of the trial and the execution of a person who died as a criminal of the state, brought up on the charge that he claimed to be the King of the Jews and set himself against Caesar, when actually he did no such thing.
Even the responsibility for Jesus’ death is muddy. Jesus was passed round and round between three authorities: Pilate, the Sanhedrin, and Herod. Personally I think that they were all in cahoots. This prophetic movement was really getting out of hand and something had to be done. The buck keeps getting passed and then finally Pilate washes his hands, but Christ was crucified as an enemy of the state with a sign on top of his Cross that said “King of the Jews”. If you claimed to be king, you were committing treason against the Emperor. So who is responsible for this guy’s death? Three groups point fingers at each other; no-one is.
And then, during the season of Passover, when sacrifices were made to atone for the sins of the year, we proclaim, with a mix of joy and sadness, that Christ ended that cycle of sacrifices, by sacrificing himself for us. We say that Christ died for our sins. Not just because of our sins but FOR our sins. That he was a willing participant in the drama.
How many of us really believe that? How many of us really believe that we are sinners? How many of us want to go there in our brains and think about the concept of SIN?
Well, today is the perfect day to talk about sin, because that is what this whole crucifixion is about. Today I want to get down with the very sticky concept of Sin.
We don’t like the word SIN in our modern post-Freudian society. Today we do not have SIN, we have ISSUES. We do not commit sins, we make mistakes, some more serious than others. And Sin has become a term and a topic that is usually avoided by thinking preachers. And I do not blame us because for centuries it was used as a stamp of condemnation. Sin has been the most exploited word and concept in the Christian political canon. It has been applied to everything from children chewing gum, to women wearing trousers and riding bicycles, to justifying slavery and oppression of people who aren’t of the dominant race because we are saving them from their “sinful natures.” Even today, for some politicians, if a person doesn’t agree with their agenda get out the sin stamp, and BAM, label the forehead of your opponent with it. And that defines and disposes of the problem once and for all.
I would like to offer you a definition of sin that might help you to come to grips with what it actually is. It is not complete—but it is a starting point to understanding it, avoiding it and countering. Think of it this way: S-I-N: SERIAL INFLICTION OF NEGATIVITY. Serial: over and over and over again. A pattern that repeats itself and doesn’t let up. Infliction: the act of imposing something painful or horrible on someone. Negativity: The opposite of something positive and generative; Depleting rather than growing.
Now negativity is a part of life. We cannot help making mistakes. We misread our environment all the time, and we say and do things that hurt people or affect situations negatively. But we have two choices in our reactions to our mistakes. We can forgive ourselves or others and try to fix the mistake to make things positive, or we can continually berate ourselves, and tell ourselves that we are worthless and unworthy of love.
When we put ourselves into that zone of unworthiness, we get stuck in a negative downward spiral. And when we are in that spiral we believe that we will never be good or right. And that our world will never be good or right.
Let’s say that I am a child of an alcoholic parent; a parent who drinks because they believe that they are a bad person. I hear words of abuse and degradation, telling me that I am worthless. I go out and make a mistake. I break a window while I am playing baseball, or I get a bad grade on my math test, and instead of forgiveness and maybe a gentle correction, I am told that I am a bad worthless child. I want to be loved. A part of me looks around and knows that I am really not that bad but I keep making these dumb mistakes so I must be bad.
I begin to believe that I am a person who is worthless and cannot make things right. Since I can’t make things right, then I am even more worthless. So why, since I am so unworthy, should I even try to do something right? I am just going to mess it up anyway. I always mess thing up, and that proves that I am a bad person. Well, if that’s the case, I am not going to even try to be a good person. I’m just going to slide through life hoping that somehow I don’t do too much damage. Or maybe even that is way too good for me. Why shouldn’t I be committing major felonies because that is the kind of person that I am.
This is serial infliction of negativity. When we get into this mode thinking, we put ourselves down in a pit that grips us and doesn’t let us out. Then we do it to other people, and pull them down into the pit. Serial infliction of negativity is the mechanism of sin. Anyone who is in that pit would like a chance to start over. They would like a chance to not be incompetent and worthless.
Christ died for our sins. Christ came to break those bonds of serial inflection of negativity. Christ’s message was God’s love. The creator of the universe loves each and every one of his children, each and every fiber of our being, no matter how far down in that pit we are. Christ preached the forgiveness of God. Christ healed with the forgiveness of God. Christ proved to us that God forgives us for our sins. We do not have to be down in that pit because God forgives us for our sins. We do not have to keep sacrificing ourselves, we do not have to keep sacrificing our family, we do not have to be sacrificing those around us, with our Serial Inflection of Negativity.
On the Cross – the greatest symbol of our serial infliction of negativity—Christ forgave us, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” With that breath and pronouncement we are freed from our sins because the debt has been paid and we do not need to keep on paying it with our lives, and souls, and psyches.
Love and forgive yourself because God loves and forgives you for your mistakes. Love and forgive your neighbor, because God loves and forgives your neighbor. Love God by following the example of Christ who came on this earth to love us and to show us how it is done, and gave us proof of God’s love to us. God and Christ are in your lives and are going to work with you to make things right.
That is the new covenant. A new beginning, where things will be well because there is freedom from sin, the serial infliction of negativity, which keeps us oppressed and fearful. Don’t we want God’s love to come into our lives so that we can climb out of that pit? When we look at this cross and remember the death of Jesus, the terror of the attempt to destroy God’s love, remember that it is the symbol of God’s magnificent triumph over sin through love and forgiveness for all the horrors that we do. Remember that God’s forgiveness, God’s hope, God’s love, is yours now and forever, world without end, Amen.