Sermons from St Faith's

Maundy Thursday Sermon 2008
Fr Mark Waters

So - we’ve come down into Jerusalem again this week.
Our annual trip to the festival. Why have we come? Well it might sound a bit strange for a nice respectable group of people like us, but we’ve come here this week to take part in a public lynching.

The dictionary says that a lynching is "Any act of violence inflicted by a mob upon the body of another person which results in the death of the person," And during Holy Week we recreate in our liturgy the remembrance of a public lynching.
The word ‘remembrance’ in the bible is ‘anamnesis’ – which means putting back together again – we’re putting back together again all the aspects of a public lynching. We do it in every mass or eucharist. But in Holy Week we do it in detail.

Why should we want to do that? For one reason only. Because it’s the only way to make sure that we do not ourselves get involved in lynching behaviour.

Some years ago there was a famous experiment conducted by social scientists. They put some volunteers in charge of the controls of equipment which they were told gave electric shocks to some other people they could see through a glass screen sitting in electric chairs.

The volunteers were told that they were to give electric shocks to the people in the electric chairs when the leaders of the experiment told them that those people weren’t being cooperative in giving the correct answers to some questions.

What the volunteers did not know was that the people in the electric chairs were actors, and that when the volunteers worked the controls the actors would pretend to be suffering pain.

The scientists were not prepared for the results of their experiment which was that almost all of the volunteers were ready to turn up those controls until the people in the electric chairs were (apparently) screaming with pain. As long as the experiment leaders told them to turn up the controls, the volunteers kept turning up the controls – even though they thought they were giving electric shocks to real human beings and causing great suffering.

We human beings have a frightening tendency to objectify people. If they are not one of us, if they are anonymous, if we think they deserve it, there is little that we would not do to them in certain conditions. Left to ourselves, we human beings get involved in lynchings.

Right from the beginning of our biblical tradition
- Cain killing his brother for the sake of a meal.
- Joseph’s brothers in a jealous rage throwing him in a pit and leaving him for dead
- The killing of all the Old Testament prophets who had an uncomfortable message
- Herod beheading the troublesome Jn the Baptist
- The scribes and Pharisees preparing to stone the woman caught in the act of adultery
And countless examples in between. If you want other examples, just open a newspaper. It’s as if we can’t help ourselves.

A lynching is the most extreme form of excluding behaviour. The permanent form. It’s about permanently getting rid of someone from among us – someone who we feel perhaps dangerously different to us, or eccentric, or who makes us feel uncomfortable, or who challenges us.

You can see the same dynamic working itself out amongst prisoners in our jails.  They’ve clearly done wrong or they wouldn’t be there. They have offended against society’s laws, and there is no way they can deny it. But the murderers, the rapists, the child abusers – well they are something else aren’t they – we ordinary prisoners are not like them. They need some real punishment. They’re going to deserve all that they’re going to get. We have no compunction at all about injuring or killing them. In fact we’ll be doing the world a favour. It will also make us feel better about ourselves – even if we are prisoners – at least for a short time.

Or think of the scenes outside courtrooms when some vile murderer is driven away to prison. The people who scream abuse, and bang their fists on the side of the police van. What would those people do if the van stopped and the guards opened the doors? We know what they would do – they would kill whoever was inside. And they would feel justified in doing it. Remember those scenes when the toddler James Bulger was killed by those two young boys. It was abundantly clear that if the mobs that gathered outside the courtrooms could have their way they would have literally ripped those two children to pieces.

But before we get carried away with examples of other peoples’ behavoiur. Let’s not kid ourselves that we are somehow not like other people. Let’s not ever get to the point where we tell ourselves that we couldn’t do that. Because that’s the most dangerous place to be – thinking that somehow we are better than ‘they’ are – whoever ‘they’ might be.

Because lynching behaviour starts small. It starts maybe with envy of other people or with small feelings of resentment. It gets acted out in gossip, or in malicious joking, which are small ways of collaborating against someone behind their back. Character assassination we call it. The first step in excluding someone.

Then lynching behaviour moves on. It moves on to objectifying groups of people – thinking of them as things, less than human – asylum seekers, muslims, black people, gays or lesbians, evangelicals – anyone – as long as we can find a way of marking them out as different to us.

Finally our patterns of human behaviour move on to mutually destructive conflict – Northern Ireland, Palestine, the Balkans or wherever – we have moved on to elimination now. The final solution.

This evening in our Maundy Thursday liturgy we allow ourselves to remember that God in Jesus allowed himself to be publicly lynched. He opened himself to the mob – to the worst that human beings could do to him. He allowed himself to be taken away from us through violence. And on this night he forever left us a reminder that the context of the eucharist is social violence.

So the mass is not a private thing. It’s not about individual piety. We stand around the altar tonight as semi-penitent participants in the violence of the world. The violence we have done – in ways no matter how small – and the violence done in our name, on our behalf.

The lesson is this - we do not have to sacrifice other people in any way at all, in order to feel good about ourselves, in order to feel powerful, in order to feel forgiven. We do not have to plot or scheme. We do not have to indulge in back stabbing. We do not have to imagine plots against us, or point the finger at anyone.

Jesus is the innocent victim. The innocent victime who through love, and in the resurrection life is given back to us as the forgiving victim. So making us whole, and taking that elemental sin away.

Jesus who died, who was killed, will rise, is risen. It means that we are saved from ourselves – not by some transaction between God and Jesus 2000 years ago - but by the possibility that we too might act without objectifying others, without excluding them, and without trying to eliminate them.

As long as there is injustice in our society, as long as there is hunger in our world, as long as there is prejudice against other people in our hearts, as long as there are obscene inequalities in the sharing of God’s bounty – then you and I are still part of the lynch mob. We should not be under any illusion about that.

But there is hope.

Over the next three days we are invited once more by God to take the journey from death to life. From people who cannot help but to objectify, exclude and eliminate other people, to those who have met the risen Christ, those who have become one with the forgiving victim, and begun to make a difference in their lives and in their communities by living in the Spirit of that forgiving victim.

So we should quietly, gently, with no undue drama,
take our part in this wonderful festival tonight.
The simple washing of one another’s feet,
the mumbling apologies of our confession and prayers,
the simple standing as ordinary human beings,
shriven – we hope, awed – we hope, and humbled before God,
our hands open to receive the the bread of life.

In these simple acts of love lie the meaning of our lives,
which we are so slow and reluctant to learn.

May Christ the forgiving victim renew our lives this Eastertide.

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