This sermon was prepared for St. John’s United Church, Marathon on April 10th. Based on John 18:1-19:42 for Good Friday, Year A.
The Passion story is many things: it’s violent, it’s heartbreaking, it’s human and messy, it’s significant, but it’s not pretty.
And, it can be hard to hold our face up to those things in our world that are ugly. Things we’d rather not see.
I don’t know about you, but I wish this chapter in the Easter story went differently. And, that’s something I struggle with every year. Both because Jesus’ condemnation, torture and execution happened – a series of an unjust and violent acts – and because of the theologies I’ve come across where people have tried to explain away any discomfort we might have on Good Friday.
But, I truly believe we are not called to be comfortable with Jesus’ crucifixion. The Passion narrative, much like the Lenten season we’ve just passed through, is there to unsettle our souls and to confront us with the sin in our world. To confront us with the accumulation of “habitual and systemic forms / of injustice, violence, and hatred”,[i] the compounding of wrong-ness in our world.
Jesus’ death is the gut-wrenching North Star in our faith tradition that helps us point to the world and say: This is not the world God wanted for us at the time of creation, this is not the direction of God’s kin-dom!
And so, from Good Friday we pivot away from corruption, greed, violence and domination towards Easter Sunday; we move aching degrees on the dial of our compass towards New Life and a different dream for our world.
Each of us holds an image of that dream inside of us, just as we carry the image of God.
The dream I’ve witnessed this past month, inspired by the unsettling reality of the cross, has been a movement to decarcerate our siblings from a broken correctional system.
Our own government knows that how we punish and imprison our neighbours doesn’t work; our judicial system is not in the business of “rehabilitation” as much as it is in the business of domination.
The Office of the Correctional Investigator has released reports[ii] that tell us about the unjust treatment of racialized inmates, especially Indigenous prisoners, and how our prisons are being used as nursing and palliative homes for inmates who are aging and dying.
We’ve heard stories in the news recently of how our prisons are responding inadequately to the pandemic, and using things like solitary confinement – considered to be a human rights offense – as a “medical” response. This past week reporter Justin Ling brought forward the voices of Canadian inmates for us to hear, in their own words, the fears and concerns that keep them up at night. And it was heartbreaking.
“They’re not giving us hand sanitizer because they’re worried about alcohol,” Michael [whose current in federal prison] said. […] “We’ve got one bar of soap—the same bar of soap that we get every other week.” […]
Lawyer Allison Craig, who has clients in several provincial institutions in Ontario, reported it’s even worse than that. “They all tell me that the guards have hand sanitizer but that the inmates aren’t allowed to use it, […] They don’t have soap to wash their hands with, and they’re told to use the shampoo that they buy themselves from the canteen.” Shampoo and extra soap costs four or five times what it would in the outside world. “Many inmates don’t have canteen money to spend in the first place,” Craig said. “It’s horrifying.”[iii]
If we know anything about this pandemic it’s that large institutions are not safe places right now. If we know anything about this pandemic, it’s that access to adequate hygiene supplies and medical care is so important. The reality is that our neighbours, our family and friends, who are serving time right now are not safe, and we have done very little about it.
There is a call to release non-violent offenders and those near the end of their sentences. To release refugee claimants being kept in crowded detention centers as they await a chance to be heard – the United States is not the only place in North American that detainees asylum seekers, including children.
In the states a similar call has been made under this cry: Free Them All and Decarcerate Christ.
Jesus was unfairly charged and punished under his judicial system.
Jesus was beaten, tortured, and humiliated under his judicial system.
Jesus was killed in an incredibly brutal fashion, among hundreds of others, by his judicial system.
Now much has changed in two-thousand years, but much has stayed the same. And Jesus, even before his long walk to the Place of the Skull, urged his followers to think of and care for our fellow human beings who are incarcerated.
In Matthew 25, when Jesus tells those listening that they cared for him, the listeners asks, “when was it that we saw you?” Jesus replies: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”[iv]
He told his followers that he was called by God to do the work outlined in the scroll of the prophet Isaiah: “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners”.[v]
Yet, I think ministry to those our society has deemed worthy of corporate punishment is a tough subject for us. It’s something we don’t want to look at too closely. It’s ugly.
But, just like the Good Friday story, at its core are the people, they are in pain, they are scared, they are suffering and it is an injustice. And, it’s a story that effects all of us in some way, directly and indirectly, as members of this human family.
And, as an Easter people we’re called to confront the dark corners of our community and our own hearts, to ask questions of our judgements and fears, and invite God into to those places of discomfort.
In a song of faith our church sings these words: “We can accept our mortality and finitude, not as a curse, / but as a challenge to make our lives and choices matter.”
Good Friday is a reminder of our own humanity, but it is the pivot point, the moment we are offered by Jesus’ story, to turn towards something better for ourselves and our whole human family.
Jesus has urged us, and has shown us, what the scales of injustice look like, what God’s justice looks like. At Easter we turn to God to renew our strength, to accept that challenge to make our lives and choices matter, not just for us but for our neighbours as well.
So as you move into our time of vigil, as we wait for the daybreak of Easter morning, sit with those uncomfortable feelings. Question them. Hold them up to the light of God’s love and justice. And ask yourself: How is God challenging me, in this moment, to make my life and choices matter?
For reports on the state of Canadian prisons visit the Office of the Correction Investigator (www.oci-bec.gc.ca), or read some of the following artices from Canadian media.
The CSC is censoring whistleblower complaints about COVID-19 in federal prisons, The National Post, April 8, 2020
- Prison watchdog annual report raises concerns of ‘culture of impunity’ in Edmonton jail, Global News, February 18, 2020
- Indigenous inmates make up 45 per cent of all people in Alberta’s federal prisons, Edmonton Journal, January 21, 2020
- Prison watchdog decries ‘Indigenization’ of Canada’s correctional system, CTV News, January 21, 2020
[i] A Song of Faith, The United Church of Canada, [ii] Annual Report 2018-2019, The Office of the Corrections Investigator, Government of Canada, [iii] “Canada’s Prisons Are a Coronavirus Time Bomb, Say Guards and Inmates” by Justin Ling, VICE, March 27, 2020, [iv] Matt. 25:35-36 NRSV, [v] Isaiah 61:1 NRSV