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.

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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.

Continue reading

Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis by Denise Levertov: Poetry for Good Friday

Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis 

by Denise Levertov

Maybe He looked indeed
much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
in those small heads that seem in fact
portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
A soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.
That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth
In a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.
The burden of humanness (I begin to see) exacted from Him
That He taste also the humiliation of dread,
cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go,
like any mortal hero out of his depth,
like anyone who has taken herself back.
The painters, even the greatest, don’t show how,
in the midnight Garden,
or staggering uphill under the weight of the Cross,
He went through with even the human longing
to simply cease, to not be.
Not torture of body,
not the hideous betrayals humans commit
nor the faithless weakness of friends, and surely
not the anticipation of death (not then, in agony’s grip)
was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
but this sickened desire to renege,
to step back from what He, Who was God,
had promised Himself, and had entered
time and flesh to enact.
Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, had to have welled
up from those depths where purpose
drifted for mortal moments.

Poetry for Good Friday: The Annunciation and Passion by John Donne

THE ANNUNCIATION AND PASSION.
by John Donne

TAMELY, frail body, abstain to-day ; to-day
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur ; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away ;
She sees Him nothing, twice at once, who’s all ;
She sees a cedar plant itself, and fall ;
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead ;
She sees at once the Virgin Mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha ;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen ;
At once a son is promised her, and gone ;
Gabriell gives Christ to her, He her to John ;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity ;
At once receiver and the legacy.
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
Th’ abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one—
As in plain maps, the furthest west is east—
Of th’ angels Ave, and Consummatum est.
How well the Church, God’s Court of Faculties,
Deals, in sometimes, and seldom joining these.
As by the self-fix’d Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where th’other is, and which we say
—Because it strays not far—doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to him, we know,
And stand firm, if we by her motion go.
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar, doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud ; to one end both.
This Church by letting those days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one ;
Or ’twas in Him the same humility,
That He would be a man, and leave to be ;
Or as creation He hath made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating spouse would join in one
Manhood’s extremes ; He shall come, He is gone ;
Or as though one blood drop, which thence did fall,
Accepted, would have served, He yet shed all,
So though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords.
This treasure then, in gross, my soul, uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.

Upon the Annunciation and
Passion Falling upon One Day.
1608

Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came and went away;
She sees Him nothing twice at once, who’s all;
She sees a Cedar plant itself and fall,
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive yet dead;
She sees at once the virgin mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty and at scarce fifteen;
At once a Son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriel gives Christ to her, He her to John;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity,
At once receiver and the legacy;
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
The abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one
(As in plain maps, the furthest west is east)
Of the Angels’ Ave and Consummatum est.
How well the Church, God’s court of faculties,
Deals in some times and seldom joining these!
As by the self-fixed Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where the other is and which we say
(Because it strays not far) doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to Him, we know
And stand firm, if we by her motion go;
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud, to one end both.
This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one:
Or ‘twas in Him the same humility
That He would be a man and leave to be:
Or as creation He had made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating Spouse would join in one
Manhood’s extremes: He shall come, He is gone:
Or as though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords;
This treasure then, in gross, my soul uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.

– John Donne


Passion Falling upon One Day.
1608

Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came and went away;
She sees Him nothing twice at once, who’s all;
She sees a Cedar plant itself and fall,
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive yet dead;
She sees at once the virgin mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty and at scarce fifteen;
At once a Son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriel gives Christ to her, He her to John;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity,
At once receiver and the legacy;
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
The abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one
(As in plain maps, the furthest west is east)
Of the Angels’ Ave and Consummatum est.
How well the Church, God’s court of faculties,
Deals in some times and seldom joining these!
As by the self-fixed Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where the other is and which we say
(Because it strays not far) doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to Him, we know
And stand firm, if we by her motion go;
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud, to one end both.
This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one:
Or ‘twas in Him the same humility
That He would be a man and leave to be:
Or as creation He had made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating Spouse would join in one
Manhood’s extremes: He shall come, He is gone:
Or as though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords;
This treasure then, in gross, my soul uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.

– John Donne