Confronting evil

Text: John 12:1-8 (Jesus is anointed for burial)

Are you ready for Good Friday? Lent is a season in which we metaphorically journey with Jesus to Jerusalem and prepare for the passion of Good Friday. This morning on the fifth of six Sundays in Lent, we are almost there. The journey has taken Jesus all the way from his home in Galilee to Bethany on the outskirts of the capital city. It is six days before Passover; so, today’s reading is set on the day before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Jesus needs just one more thing to be ready for his fate in Jerusalem; and Mary supplies it. She anoints Jesus for burial with some expensive perfume.

This extravagant action upsets Judas and the other disciples. They still haven’t absorbed the idea that Jesus is going to be arrested and killed in Jerusalem despite the number of times Jesus has told them this.

Perhaps Mary is an exception. By anointing Jesus for burial, she seems to understand that their journey has been towards death. By anointing him, she helps prepare Jesus for the work of Good Friday, which is death, and the work of Easter, which is resurrection.

So, in today’s story, Jesus is made ready for Good Friday and Easter.

But are we ready? Have we understood the journey of Lent as taking up our own cross to follow Jesus to his fate? Do we understand that we are journeying to death? Have we too been anointed for burial?

Anointing with oil is not something we do very often at Mill Woods United.

Happily, I consider the two sacraments that we do practice regularly– baptism and communion – as akin to anointment for healing, burial, and resurrection. In baptism, we are symbolically buried with Jesus and we symbolically rise from the baptismal waters to live a new life in Christ. And at the communion table, we remind ourselves of death – both Jesus’ death and our own – in a symbolic meal of bread and wine, and in which we celebrate new life in Christ.

Next Sunday, we will participate in both baptism and communion. So, if we don’t feel ready for Good Friday today, perhaps next Sunday will do the trick!

The whole of life’s spiritual path can be seen as a preparation for death and rebirth – one’s physical death and reunion with Source, but also the death of our illusions, which helps create the space in which new life can arise.

The arc of Lent and Easter describes the reality of our lives. Whether we want to experience Good Friday or not, it comes to us unbidden in moments of failure, loss, or disillusionment; and whether we feel ready for new life at Easter or not, resurrection is always available to us in moments of change, crisis and hope.

Rituals like anointing with oil, baptism, and communion symbolize this reality. But they are not necessary for death and rebirth. Nothing is necessary for death and resurrection since they form the warp and woof of life. Grace will come to us regardless of what we believe, do, or profess.

This is not to say that death and resurrection are always welcomed. Far from it. Judas speaks for many when he objects to Mary’s extravagance. Judas and the other disciples are hoping for worldly success. Jesus’ friends want an end to Roman occupation and oppression. They want power. They want freedom.

But instead of these things, they get the mob violence of Good Friday. Their leader is crucified and their hopes are dashed.

On Good Friday, Jesus and his disciples run into a level of evil that can seem hard to comprehend. Why do the religious and imperial rulers react with such savagery to Jesus and his movement of Love? Why do the crowds so readily turn on Jesus and bray for his death just five days after they had shouted hosanna on Palm Sunday?

The incomprehensibility of evil is something with which many of us struggle. Today offers a terrible example. Today, we remember a moment of racist insanity, the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, which began 25 years ago today. Over 100 days, more than 500,000 people were killed simply because they were from one ethnic group – the Tutsi – and not another – the Hutu.

This remains a high water mark of horror in human history and a cautionary tale as to how fear and racism can lead to depravity and death.

But is this genocide so incomprehensible? Today, nationalist leaders in Europe and the U.S. are gaining power by promoting fear and racism. Of course, their evil has not yet risen to the level of hundreds of thousands of people being butchered. But the closing of their borders has led to the drowning of thousands of refugees in the Mediterranean and the deaths of hundreds of refugees in the deserts along the U.S.-Mexican Border. The closing of their borders has also condemned millions more to slavery and terror in refugee camps in North Africa and the Middle East and to a fearful life marked by murder, rape, and government corruption in Central America.

When I was a child, I could not comprehend the success of the Nazi Party in Germany in the 1930s. Why did millions of Germans – a privileged country that has given the world such luminous figures as Beethoven and Einstein – flock to the supposed charisma of Adolf Hitler. To me, Hitler seemed ugly, stupid, and mentally ill. How could this racist brute inspire mass adulation?

But now we have the example of the United States. While the level of state violence in the U.S. is still tiny compared to Hitler’s Germany, I find it as hard to understand the enthusiastic support that Donald Trump commands today as I do Hitler’s popular support in 1930s Germany. Not only do I disagree with most of Trump’s positions, I find him to be a singularly unappealing figure. He appears to me to be a racist and sexist brute who is mentally ill, incompetent, and ignorant. And yet he continues to be supported by 40% or more of Americans and to receive the enthusiastic support of the religious mis-leaders of most of America’s white evangelical churches.

Support for racist politicians in Europe and the USA has not yet led to genocide. But the willingness of so many ordinary people to put nation ahead of humanity and ahead of sacred values of compassion and love might help us understand why the stories of the crucifixion of Jesus continue to resonate and why disasters like the Rwandan genocide might not be so hard to comprehend after all.

In times of economic stress, technological disruption, and radical social change, many of us are vulnerable to immoral leaders who offer crucifixion, ethnic cleansing, and genocide as solutions. In this sense, Good Friday is not just a commemoration of an irrational and tragic murder 2,000 years ago. It is also something that happened in Germany 80 years ago, in Rwanda 25 years ago, and which continues to happen in the Mediterranean and along the U.S.-Mexican border today.

Many of us prefer to skip over Good Friday and go straight to Easter; and I can understand this. Healing and salvation are as much a part of the human condition as are fragility and mortality. Easter eventually comes to everyone, I believe, whether we mark Good Friday or not.

But I also appreciate the discipline of spending time in Lent reflecting on the shadow side of human history and of our own hearts. I appreciate how the stories of Good Friday remind us of how political division and religious zealotry can lead to violence; and I appreciate how the dark shadows of Good Friday throw the light of Easter into greater relief.

For most of us, a lot of pain must be endured before our illusions die and we enter a deeper reality in which we are reunited with one another and with our common Source, the God who is Love.

I don’t perceive the illusions of Hutu people in Rwanda 25 years ago as all that different from the racist poison that pollutes the hearts of so many of us in the West today. Unfortunately, in 1994 many Hutu people resonated with the evil lies of their leaders who said that the Tutsi were an abomination who had to be wiped out for the Hutu people to be safe. Unfortunately, many people in the U.S. and Europe today resonate with the evil lies of their leaders who say refugees are the enemy and that support for national purity is more important than climate change, human rights, or pursuing beauty, truth and love.

Stories of crowds braying “crucify” 2,000 years ago, of genocide in Rwanda 25 years ago, and of genocide in Germany 80 years ago might strike us as incomprehensible. But then we see today’s politicians gaining political power through fear and bigotry. We hear leaders arguing that the nation is the highest value. When fear and racism are on the rise as they are today, the evils of genocide and of Good Friday begin to appear less incomprehensible.

Racist violence is one of the Good Friday realities with which we live today. Unfortunately, this is a world in which the cry “crucify” forms on too many lips.

But then a new dawn appears. Easter comes again. And people who once were stuck in nationalist illusions find themselves gathering in grief and joy with diverse people from all nations and cultural backgrounds. We find ourselves remembering that life is not about us as individuals or as a nation. It is about all of humanity. It is about all of life. And it is about Love above all.

My prayer today is that as we continue to walk toward Good Friday, the quiet but joyful truths of Easter will lead us onward. Today, there may be too much fear, racism, and violence. But there is also the promise of healing. There is also the possibility of unity in diversity. And there is the ever-present reality of Love.

This year, Good Friday may resonate with current realities more than we wish. But arising from the death it symbolizes, I pray that we may resonate even more with our common Source of Love and with the eternal light of Easter and its promise of new life.

May it be so. Amen.

My preamble to worship on April 7

Friends, sometimes I find writing sermons to be a risky business. When I sit down on Friday or Saturday to craft a message based upon an idea that had occurred to me on Monday, I never know what the end product will be.

Last Monday, I imagined that my reflection on today’s Gospel story in which Mary anoints Jesus for burial on the eve of his entry into Jerusalem would include a story about a car crash I endured six years ago. I also wondered if I might write about our fears of natural disasters like an eruption of the Yellowstone super volcano.

But when it came to actually writing yesterday, I found myself instead captured by an anniversary that many in the world are marking with sadness today. Today is the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the genocide in the small southern African country of Rwanda in which more than 500,000 Tutsi people were murdered just because of their ethnicity.

I was reminded of this anniversary last month when people from four different United Churches gathered here for an evening called “Stewardship Buzz.” It was organized by General Council staff person Kathryn Hofley from Winnipeg, and I was glad that Mill Woods United could provide a venue.

I recognized three people from St. Andrew’s United Church who came to the meeting . Jennifer and I had met them in 2016 when we conducted a Pastoral Oversight visit at St. Andrew’s for Edmonton Presbytery. As I chatted with one of these three — a woman named Joy — she reminded me that she was a refugee from Rwanda. She told me that she had arrived in Edmonton just a few weeks before the genocide began on April 7, 1994, and she mentioned some events that are happening here this week to mark today’s sad anniversary.

So yesterday, as I reflected on the Gospel reading, I found myself making connections between the horror of Jesus’ death on Good Friday, the horror of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, and the rise of fear and racism here and around the world. This was aided by a podcast of today’s Sunday Edition from CBC Radio. I usually listen to The Sunday Edition on Saturday, since the CBC loads the files onto its server before broadcast; and the centerpiece of today’s episode is an interview with the Canadian General Romeo Dallaire who was the leader of a UN Peacekeeping force in Rwanda 25 years ago as the genocide unfolded.

I hope that the connections I make today between Good Friday, the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, and the damnable success of fear-based racism will remind us that Lent is a season in which we reflect on state violence and popular support for such violence. I found it to be a difficult reflection to write. But I pray that it might help us get ready for Good Friday; and that the light of Easter with its hope and joy still shines through it. Please let me know what you think after the service.

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