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May your eyes be open

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.


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