Four Horrible Words

Text of the sermon preached on Palm Sunday (April 9, 2017) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius’ Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.

Matthew 26:14-27:66

Usually the sermon follows the reading of the Gospel, but on this particular day – The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday – I prefer to preach first in order to help us orient ourselves towards the lengthy and powerful story we are about to hear. And because I think anything I would add after reading the Passion Gospel would serve only to lessen its impact. Also, this sermon will be unusually short since today’s service has a lot of extra parts, and so I’m going to limit myself to talking about two words. Only two words out of the 1,837 that make up today’s Passion Gospel. Those are your words. Three of us will be standing up here reading the rest of the characters, but you have a part to play as well. Yours is the part of the crowd. Your part has one line spoken twice. “Let him be crucified!”

I know many people who are so uncomfortable about saying this that they decline to join in, and I respect that. But I also think it invites further examination. When we shout, “Let him be crucified,” we place ourselves amongst Jesus’ opponents. We are given this opportunity – within the context of the liturgy – to join the crowd clamoring for Jesus’ death. This serves two purposes.

First, it serves as a corrective measure against the millennia old fallacy that “the Jews killed Jesus.” This mistaken outlook has led to ferocious atrocities perpetuated against Jews by Christians over the course of history and it is unconscionable. That this malicious viewpoint still exists today among some Christians shows the worst side our religion is capable of. The Jews only killed Jesus in so far as everyone in the story besides Pilate and his soldiers is Jewish – including Jesus. Jesus was not the first Christian, and it was a couple generations before Jewish followers of Jesus stopped identifying themselves as Jewish. By putting ourselves in the group that shouts, “Let him be crucified,” we acknowledge that we, too, are part of the legacy of those people swept up in the bloodlust of the chief instigators of Jesus’ arrest. And by standing in that group, we liturgically atone for the sins of past Christians who persecuted Jewish people for “killing Jesus.”

The second purpose is this: by shouting, “Let him be crucified,” we give voice – if only for a moment – to the worst pieces of ourselves that want to have nothing to do with Jesus. If they wanted something to do with him, they wouldn’t be our worst pieces. Each of us has within us – hidden or not so hidden – these worst pieces. Pride. Envy. Hypocrisy. The desire to dominate. Separate. Isolate. And our fate hangs on our ability to recognize these shadowy pieces. To acknowledge them. To allow voice to the worst of what makes us, us. And once we’ve acknowledged them, we can confront them. Jesus is on his way to the cross, where he confronts the worst of the worst of the human condition. When we shout those four painful, horrible words – “Let him be crucified!” – the worst of the worst bubbles to the surface. And once on the surface, we can skim it off, like a layer of fat from a broth. With the fat skimmed off, we give it to Jesus. Jesus takes it to the cross. And there it is nailed with him. And there it dies with him.

I hope you will speak those four words today, despite how painful they are to voice aloud. Saying, “Let him be crucified,” is another way we make our confession. It is another way we acknowledge that sometimes we stand on the wrong side. And it is another way for us to realize the depths of love Christ has for us. Even though we ignore him and deny him and abandon him and crucify him, he does not stop loving us back into right relationship with God. He does not stop sweeping away the worst of our pieces and reconstructing us only using the good parts. So today, when you say those four painful words, “Let him be crucified,” remember that you have already been forgiven. And remember that next week, you’ll have the opportunity to replace these four ugly, horrible words with shouts of joy.

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