Good Friday Dialouge Sermon w/ Dr. Betty Pugh Mills

On Good Friday at a “community worship gathering” I was honored to preached a dialouge sermon with Dr. Betty Pugh Mills, the gifted pastor of Grace Baptist Church.  Below you will find our two inital homilies, followed by a dialouge.  In keeping with the tradition of Good Friday, it is not heavy on the praise and makes little reference to resurrection.   THAT COMES EASTER SUNDAY

My remarks are in BOLD print, while Dr. Mills comments are italicized

Epic Fail – John 18:25-40

Dr. Bill Nieporte


When my 21 year old daughter comes home from college, she and our 16 year old son have some very interesting conversations.  Frankly, most of the time, neither my wife nor I have any idea what they are talking about.

We listen, usually from the front seat of the car, as they chat about movies, comic books, or the most recent video game to hit the market.  Occasionally one of them will reference something that did not turn out as they would have liked or expected, and other will respond with a simple two-word critique:

“Epic Fail.”

I know what the word “fail” means, so I think I am same in assuming that an “epic fail” is much worse.  Still, not wanting to take anything for granted, I once asked, “What does “epic fail” mean?”

“Look it up on Google!” was the reply.

Fortunately I am not from a place so far back in the dark ages that I am unfamiliar with “Google.” So one day I typed the phrase “Epic Fail” into the “Google” search engine and was taken to the “urban dictionary” which offered me several definitions.

“Epic fail” means…

…the highest form of failure known to humanity.

OR…a mistake of such monumental proportions that it requires its own term in order to successfully point out the unfathomable shortcomings of an individual or group.

OR…the complete and total failure when success should have been reasonably easy to attain.

“Epic fail!”  I thought about these words again as I began preparing my portion of today’s homily.

The events of Good Friday were an “Epic fail.”  You might bristle at the thought.  You may think I am being sacrilegious.  You may be tempted to corner me after the service and challenge the whole idea of what I am saying, but I am going to stick with my point.

Good Friday was “epic fail.”

Think about how the story of Jesus all started.  Let’s just focus on the words of the Fourth Gospel.

The author writes about the work of the Christ.

“In the beginning was the WORD, and the WORD was with God, and the WORD was God.”

“As many as received him, to them he gave the power to become sons and daughters of God.”

“The WORD became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

These words describe aim of Christ’s mission.  Then the Four Gospel illustrates Christ’s work with some pretty incredible narratives.  There is…

…the Miracle as Cana;

…the Cleansing of the Temple;

…the Story about Nicodemus and the New Birth;

…Jesus Crossing Borders to Bless Samaritans.

As we continue our reading we hear all about…

… the Healing Miracles;

…the feeding of the Thousands;

…the Teaching and Preaching of Jesus;

…the Offering of Grace and Mercy to Sinners;

…Jesus Identification as the Good Shepherd.

I could go on and on, but you get the point.  On every level and at every turn there is such hope, such potential, such promise.  We can’t help but expect that something stupendous, astonishing, and fantastic is about to happen.

Then we turn the page to the reading for today and all we can say is: “Epic Fail.”  Look at what happens in the few vignettes that we have read thus far in worship today.

Judas Betrays Jesus

The Roman Cohort Takes Jesus Into Custody

Jesus Is Questioned By The Top Religious Officials.

His Friend Peter Rejects Knowing Anything About Jesus

Jesus Taken Before Pilate

Jesus Is Beaten And Abused

When you consider that we are just getting started with the story of Jesus’ passion, you can’t help but bow you head in sorrow and think:  “Epic Fail.”

In our lives there is a great deal of failure and futility.  We understand what that is all about.  But this is NOT you and I, this is the “Word become flesh.” This is Jesus, the Christ, the light of the world, the Lamb of God, the Savior and Messiah.  When failure happens to this one, it is failure at a whole different level.

It becomes: “Epic Fail.”

We can try to rationalize it; make excuses for it; or pretend it is not really what it is.  We can try to read it all in the light of events yet to come, but none of that will quite do the trick, will it?

All twelve hung their heads in shame.  It was the last game of the season for my son’s “little league” baseball team.  He was about eight years old.

These boys had experienced a losing season – they had not won a single game.  In this final game of the year they had got closer than ever before.  Everyone played to their highest ability.  For the first time in my son’s little league career, he had a base hit and scored a run.  Everyone on the team played well – but it wasn’t enough.

Coach Scott told the boys how proud he was of their effort.  He told them they had played hard, grown as a team, learned a lot, and improved every game.  He was giving them the proverbial “moral victory” speech.

Then he asked them a question that had been rhetorical all season long.  He asked, “Now what’s the most important thing when we come out to play baseball?”  All season it have been a rhetorical question he answered himself.

“What the most important thing when playing baseball?” he would ask.

“To have fun!” he would say, in response to his own question.

On this day the question was not rhetorical.  He waited for the team to respond – and that was a big mistake.

“What is the most important thing when we come out here to play baseball?” he asked.

They were silent, waiting for the mantra to be completed.

“Come on, fellows,” he said.  “You’ve heard this question before.  What is the most important thing when we come out here to play baseball?”

This time several of them, including his son, replied.

“What is the most important thing when we come out here to play baseball?”

“Winning!” they said.

The moral victory argument does not trump “Epic fail.”

Vince Lombardi once said, “Show me a guy who really believes all that stuff about failure not really being failure and I will show you someone who has played too long without a helmet.”

“Epic Fail!”

I remember visiting a man in my last church shortly after his wife had died.  She’d had along, drawn out battle with cancer.  He met me at the door and said, “Pastor, please do not tell me how she is no longer suffering.  Do not tell me she is in a better place. Today all I know is that she is gone and I will never see her again.”

No religious mumbo-jumbo could take away the pain.  His wife was gone and this was the only reality he could accept – and it wasn’t in his mind a good thing.

My wife can tell you how that feels.  Her sister was her best friend in the world.  A car crash took her life tragically – an error in driving that was easily avoidable if the man in the truck had not been so careless…so reckless.

At the family visitation, somebody said:  “We don’t know why God does the things He does!”

My wife replied, “It wasn’t God.  It was the (expletive deleted) who was driving that truck.”

We can’t gloss over “epic fail” can we?  No amount of pretend can make it any less than what it is.  No pabulum of pious rhetoric can make a tragedy any less of a tragedy.

It is “Epic Fail!”

That’s what it was.

We come to this day expecting more.  We come believing that success should have been reasonably easy to attain.  Yet what we have is complete and total failure.  Every step leads us further and further down the path into what can only be described as “Epic fail”…

… the highest form of failure known to men and women.

What makes this day GOOD is that it shows us that God understands and experiences even the darkest moments of our human experience.  It helps us appreciate the fact that God understands and knows what it means to experience brokenness, pain, sorrow and suffering.

But that doesn’t make us feel better.

We are approaching Golgotha, the place of the skull, where a cross is waiting for the man we call Jesus.

He is the one we and the angels have sung songs about…songs of hope, majesty, and joy.

He is the one determine to deliver the world from the ravages of war.

He is the one who promise to establish justice and mercy.

He is the one the prophets said would teach us how to turned swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

But now we come up to the cross and all we can do is hang our head in sorrow and shame, saying:  “Epic Fail.”

It would be a mockery to say anything that sound like “moral victory.” It would be a charade to try and sooth the shock and awe of the by speaking about it with any sort of talk that diminishes what it really is.

This is defeat and despair.

This is darkness and death.

This is “Epic Fail.”

William Willimon once said, “Who would blame God if now, at last, in this death, if God should desert us and leave us to our own devices?  Who would accuse God, if at this (EPIC) failure, God should go?”

Writing Checks and Dividing Furniture – John 19:1-25a

Dr. Betty Pugh Mills

A few months after my separation, I was in N. Virginia at a football game where my brother was coaching. I had met a group of his loyal fans, some guys that he had known since childhood, they are like a set of groupies that followed him around, and loyalty was definitely part of their relationship to my brother. We gathered at the entry gate and then moved to sit up in the stadium, or rather the bleachers as we were the visiting team.  As we sat and watched, I wondered how many of them knew that my husband and I had separated. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that they all knew, giving me those common looks of sorrow, embarrassment, and then condolences. I was prepared for the looks, but not the conversation that I ended up having with one of them.  One of my brother’s friends, who was sitting to my left said that he was sorry that this was happening to me.  I nodded and slightly smiled, as I sensed his words being of sincerity and concern. Here I was at 36 years of age and he had known me since I was a child, so it was okay for him to be so forthright. But then he said, you know, Betty, sometimes it’s just about writing checks and dividing up furniture, nothing more. I looked at him, and said, ‘Yeah, I guess on one level that is true.” And I sat for the rest of the game wondering if I would ever be able to think about my failed marriage as the mere writing of checks and dividing of furniture. I actually yearned for the day when it would feel like just the writing of checks and the dividing up furniture.


When horrible things happen, maybe we are part of them happening, maybe we are innocent bystanders, maybe we are a little of both, finding a place to move to that takes away the rawness and tender underbelly of our human experience can be a challenge. When we see ourselves at our worst, or we see others and we can’t believe that people can actually do this kind of thing to one another, we want to find a way to understand it, for some neutrality, for the emotions and the feelings that are flailing around to be caught and tamed and controlled so that we can look like we are making sense of the horrible randomness of the world.


Some of us hate the randomness so much so that we even need to put all the horrible, hateful things that people do to one another at the feet of God and say, “Surely, God has a plan in this.” Most definitely Jesus knew that on the third day everything would work out for the best, that the pain and humiliation, the betrayal and denial, that his closest, dearest friends and companions evidenced over and over again, would somehow all make sense, because it was a part of God’s master plan. And all we need to do when things get really bad, when the pain becomes unbearable, when defeat is greater than we ever imagined, with right is not going to win, when hate is greater than love, is just believe that God has a plan, there is a purpose in all of this, and we need to believe in it. Isn’t that the nature of faith, to trust in the truth and reality of that which we cannot see?


I’ve always wanted to have that kind of faith, that could look at a 20 car pile up on the interstate, a child born with leukemia, a woman beaten by her own husband over years of marriage, the nameless, faceless, victims of tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods around the globe, and in all of this, they had the kind of faith that could see the hand of God, they had the kind of faith that could say, “God has a plan, we just can’t see it right now, it is all going to work out for the best.” And they are not being publicly pious, they really do believe it, even with everything they see, they really do believe that God is in control, that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world, or will at least be right one day. I don’t doubt their sincerity one bit, as I said, I wish I could be like this, like them. For I would worry less, I’d sleep better, I’d trust the world more, I’d have less fear, I would just be a better, more faithful person, people would admire me more if I could believe. I wish I could see God’s hand moving all the time, in every situation, small and large. I wish I could have no doubt that God was calling the shots and that even when things look their darkest, that it really is darkest before the dawn. I wish all the clichés worked for me and that I could just move to a place of peace and trust even in the face of the worst of human free will, the deliberate, thoughtful, planned and executed moments where Satan rubs his little grubby hands together and thinks to himself, “I have another one.” Yes, the one who yelled, “crucified him,” and the one who put the nails through his flesh and the one who mocked him and the one who took his clothes and said, hey, “its just a moment for writing checks and dividing furniture, casting lots and taking your half.”

But Satan also has me, for I am not sure that anything good can come out of Nazareth this day. I am not sure of anything, most of all, that the master plan of God is being executed as Jesus dies the death of a capital crime criminal. How can this much human evil and suffering be part of the design of a loving, compassionate God? I need to move from this place of darkness, the deep questions that confound me. I want to believe because I cannot bear to not believe in something good coming out of all of this. I wonder if this is how all those people, all those people that I want to be like, all those people who find the faith to believe in God’s plan, in God’s goodness, in God. I wonder if this is how it works?


Epic Fail Dialogue Mix[/highlight]


One of the young children in my church had a conversation with my daughter a few weeks ago.  He asked her if I (as pastor) was the owner of our church.  My daughter said, “No, the church belongs to God.  My dad is the preacher at the church.”  He responded, “What does a preacher do?  Does he KILL people?”

It might seem like an odd question, but I think I know why he asked it.  I have conducted 15 funerals in the last several months.  In addition, my father-in-law died in that time frame.  So death has been an ongoing topic of conversation in our congregation over the last several months.

But, that’s our job. People die all the time. It’s the vow we take to bury them. To be there, even if no one else is there except you or me, the deceased, and the funeral director. It’s the calling of our profession.

Death is the backdrop of this day.   The Friday of Holy Week is about death.

But Jesus’ death was different. Jesus’ death was special, pre-ordained, part of the master’s plan. The person of faith is even comforted by Jesus’ death as it was with purpose and meaning for the entire world, so we don’t need to be so sad and morose. Jesus’ death was salvific!

When my son was about seven years old, we had a conversation after a funeral for a seven year old boy and his father who were killed in a car crash.

“Daddy, am I going to die, too?” he asked.

Now how do you answer a question like that to a seven year boy old without scaring the hell out of him?

Of course, the answer is yes.  My son is going to die.

He just turned sixteen a couple weeks ago and is learning to drive in the City of Richmond.  There are moments when I think his departure may be very close at hand.


But we all will get to go to heaven, so don’t worry and don’t let him worry about this. It’s going to be okay in the end, cause, well, like the song says, “I’ll fly away, Oh glory. I’ll fly away. When I die, Hallelujah, by and by, I’ll fly away!”

But if it is not car crash that takes him – it will be cancer, or heart attack, or earthquake, or tsunami, or maybe, if he is lucky, extreme old age.

Have you been to a nursing home recently? I’m not sure all those folks over there with no one visiting; no one remembering are feeling so lucky. But ours is not to question God, right. There has got to be a plan for all of this in the end.

Here’s the thing:  WE ARE ALL DYING.  From the moment of our conception, we begin a journey toward death.  Even Jesus, the one we call the Son of God, ultimately bleed out and died.  Death is the undeniable, unavoidable reality of our existence.  From the story of our human origins until the reality of this moment, every person who has ever been born HAS or WILL die.

So, what’s the use in living?

Well, that’s not a very faithful way to look at the whole thing, a little morbid if you ask me. We are God’s people, the sheep of his pasture, and it’s going to all work out okay, so quit scaring them. Look, they’ve come to worship this day, not a lot of folk show up on Good Friday, so we’ve gotten tell them what’s good about it.

Cancer is tragic.  So is a heart attack or a car crash.  Even death by extreme old is tragic.

But there are worse ways to die.  There are the deaths that come from injustice, poverty, war, and violence – from our inhumanity toward one another.  These kinds of death could be completely avoided if we treated one another with common decency and kindness.

My grandmother was a Jewish immigrant to the United States who came with her sisters to avoid Nazi oppression.

She and my aunts would tell me these stories.

The Nazi’s would line up Jews and march them into gas chambers or incinerators where they would be exterminated in mass.

What they would do beforehand, however, was insidiously evil.  The Jews would be gathered in waiting areas where a Nazi leader would make announcements:

“We need doctors and nurses.  If you have any experience in the medical profession, please line up here.”

“We need manual laborers to work on the rail system.  Line up here.”

“We need people in food services.  Line up here.”

Pretty soon, everyone was in a line.  Next they would be taken to a room where they were told they could bathe and get a fresh set of clothing.  The Jews followed willingly, given hope by the Nazis that their specific skill set had redeemed their lives.

It was all a despicable ploy – a method of crowd control.  Rather than a place to be cleaned and clothed, they were marched into gas chamber or incinerators.  They were given hope as they were marched to their death.

How can people do that sort of thing to one another?

You see it all the time, but we have to believe that God wins in the end no matter how horrible it looks right now, no matter how horrendous our humanity can be, no matter how horrific our choices. Love is stronger than death, I’m pretty sure that’s in the Bible somewhere. And we’ve got to believe this even when we stare in the face of such evil, over and over and over again. We can’t not believe that God is going to be victorious! How could we sleep at night?

I guess I could go on and on illustrating this problem.  There are so many wars, so much injustice, so much crime and violence, so much rape and abuse, so many expressions of our inhumanity toward one another.

This day is about death – but it is not just about death.  It is about violent and unjustified death.

This is a day that reminds us of the evil things we think about one another and do to one another.

But it’s not just that we lash out at each other through injustice, war, violence, and crime.  On this Friday we are reminded that the human race ever lashed out even at the one called Messiah, Savior, the Son of God.  It makes me wonder why God would want anything to do with us.

It makes we wonder too, but I have to have the faith, and I have to feel that others have the faith, that we all have hope against all hopelessness that God still thinks that we are worth it and that we can know God and be in God and live as God’s people. Even today, when we remember the most perfect storm, when evils of deliberate commission and allowances induced by apathy and the sin of omission converge to remind us what we are all capable of in the end.  I just have to believe that God is not done with us yet. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy. I just have to believe it is true.



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