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wild flowers inside old work boots, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of others

Sermon by Rev. Joel Crouse

Good Friday

March 29, 2024

Psalm 22

John19: 1-42

This year, a German movie, called Zone of Interest won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. If you have seen it, perhaps, like me, you remain haunted by it. If you have not watched it, I encourage you to brace yourself and do so. If any movie speaks to the theme and events of Good Friday, it is this one. 

At one point, in the movie, the mother of the family, Hedwig, makes this observation: “We’re living how we dreamed we would, with everything on our doorstep.” And yet, both she and we are complicit is what lies on her doorstep: her husband is the celebrated commander of Auschwitz, and Hedwig is raising her children in a fine home with a grand garden, where the air is filled with the screams of the living and the ashes of the dead. 

Listen to the pretty bird, the father says to his son, while the terror of the concentration camp plays on. His young son plays in a pool with a shower head that looks like it may be an extra from the gas chambers; his eldest plays with stones like teeth he picked from the garden; a gardener – a prisoner – puts ashes on a flower bed. Don’t look too closely. Don’t focus your hearing too intently. Don’t let your mind drift.  

When her husband is posted to another location, Hedwig is enraged; “You will have to drag me out of here,” she says, while trainloads of people are being dragged to there. Where is there? We never see. The horror of the movie is that human life is ending on an unimaginable scale, and we are trapped with this family who is complicit in these murders, in this genocide, and refuses to see, refuses to act. We catch a hint at the end that the father feels something: that, as the actor who played him put it, his body tells the truth of what his mind cannot face. But he carries on and returns to his family and his garden and his favourite horse on the edge of nightmare. 

As a German Lutheran, I can tell you, it was not easy for me to watch this movie. And the memory of it lingers with me uneasily still.

But then, this is not a day to feel easy. This is a day when we must acknowledge our guilt. It is a day when we must force ourselves to hear the most tragic and horrifying story of our faith lives – and know that while it happened, while Jesus stumbled to his death, while his hands and feet were hammered into the cross, and while he hung, dying, people did nothing. They were smiling with everything taking place on their doorstep. 

We can ease our own guilt by saying – we were not there, that was before our time. We make ourselves feel better by saying – we would have acted differently. And we can comfort ourselves by quoting the prophecy, by making this God’s plan – that one day a Saviour would come, and die on a cross, that it had to happen this way. 

But that is not the posture of how we should face Good Friday. And, in any event, none of those statements are really true. The fact of Good Friday is this: On the cross, Jesus said: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” But Jesus was simply being kind to us: they knew – and we know – exactly what they were doing. Willful blindness is not the same as being truly blind.

We may not have been there physically, but we were part of it, as surely as we are part of the human race that has committed one act of willful blindness after another, while others died, and injustice was allowed to have its way. Certainly, the soldiers wishing Happy Birthday to their commander could argue willful blindness: Auschwitz was roughly 40 square kilometres and divided into three camps – the first, was the offices; the second part, called Birkenau, contained the gas chamber and crematorium; and the third housed the labour camp. A soldier or a female office worker might say they didn’t know what was happening: but we wouldn’t believe them, would we? After all, where did they think all those people were going? What did they think the smoke was from? Why did Auschwitz exist at all?

And what of the willful blindness when Jesus went to the cross? We lay our blame at the feet of the Pharisees, and Pilate, and the mob – but what of everyone else who was there in Jerusalem in those days? Are we to believe they didn’t know what was happening? That they could have been somehow ignorant of the fact that the most famous man in the city – an innocent man – was walking to his death? Of course, they knew. And they chose, for reasons that probably made sense at the time, to look the other way.

That is the Good Friday story. It is what so often haunts people who live through great wrongdoing: how could I have done nothing? Why did I allow myself to be blind? It is no coincidence, by the way, that the story of Auschwitz fits so well with the story of Good Friday: since the latter was used, so tragically, in part, to justify the former.  The truth is we don’t need to look very hard for examples of humanity’s being blind to tragedy: we allowed women to go their deaths for being witches, we have permitted famines to ravage entire countries, we have allowed religious wars to wipe out families. If there is a human failing that has done more damage than any other, it is not the evildoers themselves. It is those of us who knew better and did nothing.

“Forgive them, father,” Jesus said, “for they know not what they do.” Except, we did know. If this were a Hollywood tale, a brave team of heroes would have organized a rescue party, tackled those Roman soldiers, and saved Jesus from the cross. But this is not Hollywood; and most of the time, in real life, we walk on by – we don’t want to get involved, we don’t want to risk ourselves or our own families. We choose to be blind. It is why we so celebrate the hero who chooses to see– why we love those Hollywood action movies – because we know how rare that is. That is why a movie like Zone of Interest is so hard to watch and stays with us so long. It tells the story of real life. More often than not, no hero saves the day. More often than not, the villain lies within. 

And what of the prophecy? Can we not comfort ourselves by saying Jesus was destined for the cross? Let’s consider that: for I believe that the prophecy was more about us than we like to own up to. The prophecy assumed that we would give in to our baser human weaknesses – that our leaders would be greedy, and Pilate would be duplicitous, the disciples would be cowardly, and the rest of the mob would be weak and allow Jesus to be sacrificed. And then, of all those people in Jerusalem , not one would do anything to stop it. “Forgive them, [God],” Jesus said, “for they know, not what they do.” Except we did know – and God, who has a better understanding of our own human failings than we do ourselves, knew we would not be strong enough to stop it from happening. That is what we must own up to on Good Friday: the most tragic human weakness of willful blindness.

So what, then, does God do? God opens our eyes. God urges us to look at ourselves, to see our weakness, and to accept it. And then God says, I forgive you. Follow me to the cross, and I will heal you. Take my hand and I will show you the truth of the world so that you can make it right. That is the prophecy, the gift of Good Friday: that God opens our eyes, so that we might see Jesus do what we are so often too fearful to do – sacrifice himself for others. And God’s hope is that we will keep those eyes open and turn our guilt and grief into something worthy of the price that was paid.

For humanity also knows that path as well. For every German soldier sunbathing outside the grounds of Auschwitz, there were German citizens who hid their neighbors, and helped them reach safety. For every Westerner who pretended there was no famine and no war in Africa, there were others who went to deliver medicine, who wore the uniform of peace. For every 10 people who drive by a homeless person, there is always someone eventually who will stop.

 “Forgive them, [God], for they know not what they do,” Jesus said. Except we did know. And we do know. If Good Friday, was the day when we did nothing, let it not also be the day that is Good for Nothing. Let us learn the lesson of today: if someone must open their eyes so that salvation is possible and justice is delivered, then may our eyes be open.


Sermon by Rev. Joel Crouse

Maundy Thursday

March 28, 2024

John 13: 1-17, 31b-35

587 years before the birth of Christ, the Babylonian army converged upon Jerusalem and utterly destroyed the city. One eye witness to this dreadful event set down his feelings and reflections in a poem. In what we now call the Old Testament book of Lamentations, he not only expresses the pain of defeat and destruction, but also the hurt of the indifference of the people who passed by the smoldering ruins of that once great holy city. He laments the apathy of those who travel by without the slightest effort to offer a hand to help.

Jump ahead some 600 years. The scene is again Jerusalem, just outside the city wall. A man in his early 30s is cruelly nailed to a cross. With every swing of the hammer, the nails puncture his hands and feet. His body is wracked with pain. A crown of thorns cuts into his skull. The full weight of his body yanks at his wounds. Instead of water to quench his thirst, they trick him with vinegar. Instead of comfort, they cry in derision. Instead of walking by in holy awe, they strut by doing nothing.

Now jump ahead 30 more years. The scene is again Jerusalem and Emperor Nero has declared that every Christ-follower will die. Some are used as toys for the emperor’s amusement and torn apart by wild animals. Others are burned alive and used as human torches to light the streets and remind the people what happens to Christians under Roman rule. Some passed by at a distance, no doubt to avoid the sight and smell of the burning human flesh. Others forced themselves to tolerate the sight so that they were not suspected as followers.

One last jump to the present day. The scene is the roof of the Christian holy site known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. From it you can see the sacred Wailing Wall of the Jewish people and the Dome of the Rock so precious to the people of Islam. All three sites are inside the old city walls of Jerusalem. In the not-so-far distance you can see the smoke rising from the war in Gaza, the desolation of homes and gardens, the devastation of families, the brokenness of place never at peace with its mutual existence. Over 1,400 Israelis murdered. More than 30,000 Palestinians wiped out. Almost 100 journalists, and 150 aid workers killed. The world stands by while things are getting worse, not better.

The cries of indifference and apathy are heard not only in Jerusalem. We hear the cries, too. From the people of countless other nations where unrest grows into chaos. From the people living on our streets, crowding our prisons, weeping at grave sides in our cemeteries. The sights and sounds of human suffering surround us at every corner in our life. And the victims cry out and we stand by.

Our very gathering this night is deeply embedded in history. It is the night of the Passover meal remembering God’s mighty act of the deliverance of God’s people from being enslaved by the Egyptians. The history of the Jewish people means something to us. It is part of our story. But of much more importance to us is the second scene from Jerusalem. We gather to wash feet, break bread, and pour out wine in remembrance of the One who served, suffered, and died upon the cross. It is something for us because we know when and where we too have been bystanders. On this night we are forced to stop in this upper room. We cannot simply pass by the cross because we know what it really means. While others will be opening up the cottage, going to hockey games and doing Spring cleaning this weekend, we might want to stand in judgement. That is not what Jesus asks us to do. Jesus asks only that we look at our own lives. May God give us the grace to look upon the sacred Head now wounded and rejoice in calling Christ ours. Christ is not just some nice guy. Christ is among us as one who serves.

And if the thorn-crowned Christ is among us as one who serves, then the modern-day scene from Jerusalem and all the scenes of human pain and suffering have to mean something to us. We will never stop all the suffering in the world. But we can tell people living in the middle of it, that there is hope. That God is raising Jesus from the dead, and this is not a one-time event. God continues to do this each and every day through those people who have the courage to believe it. That is what Jesus tried to teach those first followers on this very night long ago, with the act of washing their feet and sharing a meal. We are invited to meet suffering and pain with the hand of comfort and help and hope.

The cries of indifference and apathy do mean something to us. The destruction of Jerusalem, the crucifixion of Jesus outside the city wall, the persecution of Christians, and the pain and suffering in the world around us remind us to love one another as Christ has loved us.


wild flowers inside old work boots, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of others

Sermon by Rev. Joel Crouse

Sunday of the Passion

Palm Sunday

March 24, 2024

Isaiah 50: 4-9a

Philippians 2: 5-11

Mark 11: 1-11

And so, here we have arrived, on the last day of sun before the storm. Palm Sunday is like the part in the disaster movie where life is still normal, people are still singing “Happy Birthday,” celebrating at restaurants, making vacation plans. And yet, we the viewer, know that the weird newsclip on the TV isn’t just a blip, or the guy coughing next to them isn’t just sick, or the fighter jet flying overhead isn’t on a training mission. We’ve been there – remember four years ago, when we heard about a virus in Wuhan, when we thought it was just another cough? We’ve been those people. But this time, on Palm Sunday, if we transported back to stand among that jubilation, we would know. We would know what’s coming.

That’s why we can never truly bask in the celebration of Palm Sunday. But we should try. Imagine being those people in Jerusalem who have been hearing about a travelling preacher and teacher who heals the sick and soothes the stranger. Some people say he is not just a preacher but a king. Some people whisper he has come to free the poor and oppressed. And finally, he has arrived at the gates of the city.

And what does he do? He asks for a colt, not a stallion, to carry him into the city. The people are jubilant. Could this humble guy really be the Messiah everyone is talking about? When they listen to his word, they hear him speak against tyranny and for justice. He travels with friends from many places. They are in awe. They put palms on his path and cheer his journey into the heart of the city. Who doesn’t love a party for a good cause?

What would we see with our knowledge, standing in that crowd? A crowd to make a memory in a city the size of Jerusalem would have to be large and diverse and noisy. All through Jesus’s journey, he had been attracting people from all walks of life,; of course they filled the streets of Jerusalem. That is the point, and the gift, of Palm Sunday: no one in the parade looks the same or tells the same story. We have all come to our faith and our beliefs with different backgrounds and by different routes. And yet, in this moment, on this day, standing in the crowd, all we see is unity.

There would be people craning their necks to get a look. Others squeezing through to reach out to Jesus as he passed. People breaking out in chants and songs. A glorious, noisy, happy crowd honouring a man well-deserving of being honoured.

But, what else do we see, with our knowing eyes? We see the frowning man in the crowd with his arms crossed, who refuses to sing; he leans down and says something scornfully to his neighbor beside him. We see the woman who cracks an unkind joke about the dirty sandals on this supposed king’s feet, and the shabby colt upon which he rides. We see the spy for the religious leaders, watching closely, yet not participating, then scurrying away.

We see what we so often see in our own world, on our own Facebook and Instagram feeds -- how quickly a sneer or an insult can suddenly shift the whole tone of the conversation, how easily a question lobbed to cause confusion and spread misinformation can spark conspiracy.

We see how quickly that happens in our own day and age - humans have not changed that much - for all our education and ability to search facts, the vehicle for misinformation has become even more effective. Consider the current conspiracy thinking around Kate Middleton, which seems on its surface to be frivolous entertainment on Twitter. Most likely, she is recovering from surgery, as had been said, and will appear next week for Easter service. But there have been manipulated pictures and questionable videos and a lack of disclosure about her medical issues - as is her right - that have made even people who don't care about what the royals are up to, jump on the conspiracy bandwagon. That's a larger issue for us: what is real and what is not? How do we properly fact-check? How can we be discerning? What happens when significant pictures are manipulated - for instance in the Middle East or Ukraine? (My journalist partner would point out here that it was the professional media who first identified the royal picture as having been altered and told newspapers not to run it; The Globe and Mail also has a detailed process for checking photoshopping and AI in photographs.)

Imagine if Jesus appeared today in the crowd, what conspiracies might spread about him - even faster than they did among the crowd in Jerusalem. The gospel doesn't just guide us to be loving and kind, it coaches us to be discerning. We are called to question the source of information, to think critically about what people say, "must be, or has always been," to frame our response against what the gospel would say is right. If Jesus is our guide through this, he set the example over and over again of questioning authority, debating assumed truths, searching for clear answers. That is as much the journey of faith as any other path.

And so, standing in the crowd in Jerusalem, we might listen closely, and think for ourselves. "Who is this Jesus guy anyway?" you hear someone ask. Well, who do we know him to be? "Maybe the religious leaders are right about him?" someone else asks. Yet we know, all along his journey to Jerusalem he has engaged with leaders; what do we understand about these exchanges? When we know context, when we search our own beliefs and reasoning, instead of being swept up in the mob, in any mob, the answers almost always become clearer.

But back in Jerusalem, we don't see that happening. The happy, noisy crowd is beginning its journey to an angry, judging mob.

We see Judas, scowling in back of those disciples travelling with Jesus. And we know how a rash choice made of greed and selfishness can wreak terrible harm. We know that harm can come from the inside as much as from the outside.

We know what is coming. Yet what does the knowledge grant us? The power to stop what is to come? Can we change the mind of the scornful man with a good argument? Can we help the woman see the rich world that Jesus is describing? Can we turn the spy? Can we stop Judas? We can try. Maybe they will listen. But the mob will turn. We will be a voice of love in a hateful wilderness.

And that, we would realize, is our job. Standing in the crowd, watching Jesus pass by, knowing all that he has been, all that he has done, and the lessons he has taught, we understand that this is the reason for the gospel: to be the voice of love when the world needs it. So yes, it falls to us, standing in this crowd on Palm Sunday, and in every crowd, to shake hands with the scornful, show generosity to the petty, and offer forgiveness to the selfish.

That is what we learn standing in the crowd on Palm Sunday, watching it become a mob. If we are not the voice of love, then what chance do we have? And so, Jesus will ride past, the colt plodding on the palms thrown before it, and the world will cheer. And we will know. And our actions are to be a response to that knowledge, each and every day.


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