Scandal and Glory: A Sermon for Good Friday, 2019

We have heard again the dramatic, heart-breaking story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution as recorded in the Gospel of John. For those of us who know it well, it is a story that grips us with gut-wrenching power. It also may repel us because of the ways it has been interpreted, the ways we’ve internalized the story and meaning of the crucifixion, and in John’s case the unrelenting, offensive anti-Judaism that jumps out at us. Continue reading

W. H. Auden imagining himself in Jerusalem on the first Good Friday

“Just as we were all, potentially, in Adam when he fell, so we were all, potentially, in Jerusalem on that first Good Friday before there was an Easter, a Pentecost, a Christian, or a Church. It seems to me worth while asking ourselves who we should have been and what we should have been doing. None of us, I’m certain, will imagine himself as one of the Disciples, cowering in an agony of spiritual despair and physical terror. Very few of us are big wheels enough to see ourselves as Pilate, or good churchmen enough to see ourselves as a member of the Sanhedrin. In my most optimistic mood I see myself as a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria visiting an intellectual friend. We are walking along, engaged in philosophical argument. Our path takes us past the base of Golgotha. Looking up, we see an all-too-familiar sight — three crosses surrounded by a jeering crowd. Frowning with prim distaste, I say, “It’s disgusting the way the mob enjoy such things. Why can’t the authorities execute criminals humanely and in private by giving them hemlock to drink, as they did with Socrates?” Then, averting my eyes from the disagreeable spectacle, I resume our fascinating discussion about the nature of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.” W. H. Auden, in A Certain World: A Commonplace Book

Source: Alan Jacobs

Drawing all people to himself: A Sermon for Good Friday, 2018

It is finished. We have heard again the familiar, haunting story of Jesus’ passion as recorded by the gospel of John. We have heard of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, his trial, and his execution. We have watched as Joseph and Nicodemus took his body down from the cross and buried it in a tomb. We have listened as the world fell silent, our hearts broken.

It is finished. Those are the last words Jesus speaks in John’s gospel. Last night, at our Maundy Thursday service, our gospel reading began with the words, “And having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” The words translated here as “finished” and there as “end” derive from the same Greek word “telos.” So we could just as easily, just as accurately translate Jesus’ words from the cross, “It is complete.”

It is finished. With these words we see not only the end of Jesus’ life, the finality of his suffering and death, we may also begin to meditate on its meaning and purpose. That which he had come to us, to earth, to do, is brought to fruition.

But this story of suffering and death, as familiar as it is, confronts us with questions. Even as human suffering, the evil people do to each other every day, the horrific suffering our world has seen, and continues to see—all this confronts us, challenges our faith, even our very humanity. We want it to make sense. We want the suffering of the world to make sense, to have meaning. We want the suffering of Christ to make sense, to have meaning. And too often, the answers we give, or the answers that are given us, ring hollow, empty, leaving us in despair.

This year, as I have sat with scripture in Lent and Holy Week, while the lectionary has focused our attention on Mark, I have also been deeply moved by the Gospel of John. Reading both of those gospels, as familiar as they are, has brought me deeper into the mystery that we ponder today. I have, as I said last night, and to use one of those words so beloved in John, I have been abiding in John’s gospel, abiding with Jesus and with John.

And words, verses, have been in my mind and on my heart throughout Lent and now Holy Week, verses like one we heard last night from chapter 13, “and having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” And from chapter 3, as Jesus (or the gospel writer) reflects on his encounter with Nicodemus, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

But the verse that has burrowed into my heart and soul this year is one we heard on the 5th Sunday in Lent, and again on Tuesday in Holy Week, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

In the cross, in his crucifixion, in that symbol of Roman empire, its power, ruthlessness, and oppression, in the cross, that stumbling to Jews and folly to Gentiles, in the cross, Jesus is drawing all people to himself.

In the cross, we see the love of God, drawing us, grabbing us and not letting go. In the cross, we see God’s love offered for us, offered to us, offered to God. In the cross, on the cross, we said God, utterly vulnerable, utterly powerless. Yet even then, we see God’s love, drawing us to Godself. On the cross we see the vulnerable, invincible, irresistible power of God’s love.

Today, our hearts are broken. They are broken by the anguish we feel as we hear again the story of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial, and death. Our hearts are broken by all the ways we have acted like those around Jesus, betraying and denying him, abandoning him. Our hearts are broken by all the ways Jesus continues to suffer among us, with those who are caught up in the criminal justice system, the homeless and the hungry, immigrants who fear for their lives and livelihoods, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community who are marginalized and prevented from leading lives that flourish and reach their full potential.

Our hearts are broken as we hear about families torn apart, children separated from their mothers by ICE, the scourge of gun violence that includes mass shootings, senseless suicides, and accidental deaths. Our hearts break as we hear about the opioid epidemic that rages in communities beset by hopelessness and despair.

In all that suffering, we should also see the suffering of Christ.

In the cross, we see the full power of the Roman Empire brought to bear on a rabbi on the edge of empire who dared to teach an alternative the domination, oppression, and violence of Rome, who preached peace, and cast a vision of a new reality coming into being where the first would be last and the last first, where tax collectors, sinners, and the outcast would have a place, would be welcomed and embraced. For his challenge to the religious establishment and Roman power, Jesus was crushed by Roman power.

If that were the end of the story, we wouldn’t be here. If that were the end of the story, Jesus’ death would have no more meaning, make no more sense than any other death, –the death of someone from capital punishment, or teen-aged victims of mass shootings, or an African-American man killed by law enforcement officers in Sacramento, or Ferguson, or Madison, or any other of millions of deaths, victims of wars or violence, or deaths of homeless people, or victims of disease or natural disaster.

But the cross is not meaningless. When Jesus said, “It is finished” he was saying that the work he had come to earth for, the life he had lived had been accomplished. We know that the resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus’ life and death, that the resurrection gives meaning to Jesus’ death, but in the cross we something else, Christ’s love outpoured for us, to us. And more, in Jesus, we see the love of God come to us, come for us. So that it all becomes one current, one flow—God’s gift to us of love in Christ, Christ’s gift to God and to us, himself and his love.

We can’t understand that love, we can’t comprehend it. We can’t explain it. But it is love we can know, love that is ours to become and to be, ours to share. We experience that love of Christ, as we are embraced by his arms outstretched on the hard wood of the cross; as we are drawn by him, drawn to him. As he is lifted up, he draws us to him, lifts us up to him, he bears our sorrows and our sins. In his love, in his gift, we see the possibility of new life and a world remade in, by, and for, love.

May our knowledge of this love, our experience of his love, remake us in his image and help us become and be that love in the world.

Were you there? A Sermon for Good Friday, 2017

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The old, familiar spiritual that we will sing again in a few minutes has taken on new meaning for me in this season. A few weeks ago, as I was preparing for one of the sessions in our Lenten Study on the meaning of the cross in the twenty-first century, I came across a movie of lynching postcards compiled and narrated by James Allen. By themselves, the images are haunting and horrific. They depict the gaunt, celebratory faces of white people surrounding black bodies hanging from trees. Continue reading

Good Friday in the Shadow of the Lynching Tree

To understand what the cross means in America we need to take a look at the lynching tree in this nation’s history–that “strange and bitter crop” that Billie Holiday would not let us forget. The lynched black victim experienced the same fate as the crucified Christ and thus became the most potent symbol for understanding the true meaning of the salvation achieved through “God on the Cross.” Nietzsche was right: Christianity is a religion of slaves. God became a slave in Jesus and thereby liberated slaves from being determined by their condition.

The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst. Faith that emerged out of the scandal of the cross is not a faith of intellectuals or elites of any sort. This is the faith of abused and scandalized people—the losers and the down and out. It was this faith that gave blacks the strength and courage to hope, “to keep on keeping on,” …. The cross and the lynching tree interpret each other. Both were public spectacles, shameful events, instruments of punishment reserved for the most despised people in society. Any genuine theology and any genuine preaching of the Christian gospel must be measured against the test of the scandal of the cross and the lynching tree…..

As I see it, the lynching tree frees the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians. When we see the crucifixion as a first-century lynching, we are confronted by the re-enactment of Christ’s suffering in the blood-soaked history of African Americans.

Thus the lynching tree reveals the true religious meaning of the cross for American Christians today. The cross needs the lynching tree to remind Americans of the reality of suffering-to keep the cross from becoming a symbol of abstract, sentimental piety. Before the spectacle of the cross we are faced with a clear challenge: as Latin American liberation theologian Jon Sobrino has put it, “to take the crucified down from the cross.”

Yet the lynching tree also needs the cross, without which it becomes simply an abomination. It is the cross that points in the direction of hope, the confidence that there is a dimension to life beyond the reach of the oppressor….

Though the pain of Jesus’ cross was real, there was also joy and beauty in his cross. This is the great theological paradox that makes the cross impossible to embrace unless one is standing in solidarity with those who are powerless. God’s loving solidarity can transform ugliness–whether Jesus on the cross or a lynched black victim–into beauty, into God’s liberating presence.

—James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward by John Donne

GOOD-FRIDAY, 1613, RIDING WESTWARD.
by John Donne

LET man’s soul be a sphere, and then, in this,
Th’ intelligence that moves, devotion is ;
And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motion, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey ;
Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirl’d by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the west,
This day, when my soul’s form bends to the East.
There I should see a Sun by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget.
But that Christ on His cross did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees Gods face, that is self-life, must die ;
What a death were it then to see God die ?
It made His own lieutenant, Nature, shrink,
It made His footstool crack, and the sun wink.
Could I behold those hands, which span the poles
And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes ?
Could I behold that endless height, which is
Zenith to us and our antipodes,
Humbled below us ? or that blood, which is
The seat of all our soul’s, if not of His,
Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn
By God for His apparel, ragg’d and torn ?
If on these things I durst not look, durst I
On His distressed Mother cast mine eye,
Who was God’s partner here, and furnish’d thus
Half of that sacrifice which ransom’d us ?
Though these things as I ride be from mine eye,
They’re present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them ; and Thou look’st towards me,
O Saviour, as Thou hang’st upon the tree.
I turn my back to thee but to receive
Corrections till Thy mercies bid Thee leave.
O think me worth Thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rust, and my deformity ;
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I’ll turn my face.

Vulnerable Bodies, Vulnerable Love: A Homily for Good Friday, 2016

 

A photo from the aftermath of Tuesday’s bombings in Brussels moved me deeply. Two women were sitting on the ground, their backs leaning against a building. One woman was on her cellphone. The other was dazed, her legs splayed, her clothes in tatters. She seemed to be in shock, robbed of her dignity and humanity, utterly vulnerable. In her body, weak, frightened, vulnerable, I was reminded of Christ’s body, stretched out on the cross.

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