Archives for March 2012

Our hearts are broken but not destroyed, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2012

April 6, 2012

Isaiah 52:13-53:12Psalm 22Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9John 18:1-19:42

[Note to the reader: This sermon is intended as a meditation to be read after the Passion Gospel. It should be read with pauses for reflection where indicated.]

For some this is just another Friday. Fifty years ago in much of the country banks were closed from noon to three o’clock; and many businesses also closed. Now, except for a nod from the Stock Exchange, which is closed, and most public school systems, which begin a long Easter weekend, everything else goes on as usual.

Was it that different the day Christ was crucified? In the city, were there not bargains to be made, tasks to be done before the Jewish Sabbath? Other than a rag-tag group of people following a man with a cross, escorted by a Roman cohort, there was little to call attention to what was happening. No one outside of Jerusalem would have known anything about the day’s events.

So, those of us who have come to ponder the crucifixion and its meaning for us are always a very few. And that is how God seems to work in the world. Oh, there are places where whole villages and towns observe this day with great solemnity, but not in the places where most of us live.

Whether you are in a major city or a rural area, you will see this today – life going on, seemingly without people taking time to notice. As the first chapter of Lamentations asks, “Is it nothing to you who pass by?” [pause]

For those of us who have come to the foot of the cross today, it is something. There is a depth to this day, a profound power in its quiet solemnity. There is strong emotion, a sense of meaning difficult to capture in words. It is a profound power found in the weakness of suffering. It is a contradiction, a scandal, and yet …

When our immortal souls meet the Risen Lord, we will know him because of this day. We will know him because of his suffering the worst of pain and shame we can imagine. We will know him because we too sit with those who suffer, we give a cup of cold water to stranger, or feed someone who is hungry. That is what is “good” about Good Friday.

Today we will stand at the cross for others who cannot be here. We will stand here for those who cannot begin to fathom this day, for those whose own pain keeps them from being here. We will stand at the cross for those who do not know Jesus, and those who openly scorn him. We will stand at the cross for those who have been exploited by others and for their exploiters.

We will stand at the cross for those who think life is an opportunity to get all one can. We stand at the cross for those who are in prison for their crimes, for those who fight on the field of battle, for those who are tormented by memories of war and terror. We will stand at the cross for those who are dying at this moment.

We will stand at the cross for those who cannot pray, for those who no longer believe, and for those who have lost all hope of salvation.

We will kneel at the cross for ourselves and for the sins of the whole world. And as it says in the Book of Common Prayer, we will pray that Jesus will indeed set his passion, cross, and death between his judgment and our souls.

In the silence of this day we will feel the emptiness of God dying, and we will experience something of what it is like to be without God in our lives – the light gone out, and the encroaching darkness coming to replace it. [pause]

The Liturgy of Good Friday takes us to this place. The image of the suffering servant, the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” at the beginning of Psalm 22, and the reading of the Passion according to John – these things strip our minds of any trivialities. They are stark in their portrayal of a suffering God, and sparse yet full of meaning in their depictions.

Every year in the small town of Lindsborg, Kansas, the Bethany College Oratorio Society performs Handel’s “The Messiah” on Palm Sunday and Easter. On Good Friday evening they perform J.S. Bach’s “St Matthew Passion.” Many of the singers in the chorus and musicians in the orchestra are veterans of dozens of performances. Usually performances of “The Messiah” are sold out, but there is a consistently large audience for Good Friday as well. One long-time singer stepped down from the risers to a new string player after the Bach was finished and said, “You’re new this year, so you’re probably like me when I started singing years ago. You love the Handel and puzzle over the Bach. But after thirty-five years I can say it’s the ‘Passion’ that moves me the most.”

Christ’s Passion, his suffering and death, move us as well. Our hearts are broken but not destroyed; our sins are purged by this day, our business set aside, relegated to non-important. There is no need to transact business because hallowing this day is our business. It leaves us profoundly silent. And as the liturgy concludes and we return to our homes, or our work, our lives are deeply transformed. We know now that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son … that all should have eternal life.” [pause]

On this day we take time to meet at the foot of the cross. There are no words that can describe our hearts, there are no sorrows that can embrace Jesus’ sorrows. The shadows, the darkness of that day are what embrace us. On the day God dies for us, we die to self, and there is room in our broken and contrite hearts for the crucified God to enter them and heal them. Now that we have died with Christ, let the healing begin. O Savior of the world, who by thy cross and precious blood hast redeemed us: Save us and help us, we humbly beseech thee. Amen.

 

— Ben Helmer is a priest in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He and his wife were orchestra musicians with the Bethany Oratorio Society while they lived in Kansas.

I Give You a New Commandment, That You Love One Another, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2012

April 5, 2012

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14Psalm 116:1, 10-171 Corinthians 11:23-26John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Today is Maundy Thursday, the last Thursday of our annual Lenten observance.

The word “Maundy” does not have any meaning in and of itself. It is one of those exotic Episcopal or Anglican terms we sooner or later all become familiar with in our church. Scholars are not even sure of the word’s origin, though most now believe it to be a Middle English corruption of the Latin word mandatum – “commandment” – which appears in an ancient antiphon assigned for this day: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

This antiphon, taken of course from today’s gospel account, is an apt summary of what this day is about. And Jesus’ commandment to love is as much a new commandment today as it was in his own time. The command to love is, after all, always new – as is love itself. And the lesson of this day, Maundy Thursday, applies equally well to last Thursday and next Thursday and to all the Thursdays and other days yet to come. It is a lesson or mandate we, as followers of Christ, dare not forget.

Many Episcopalians today remember Maundy Thursday as the day when clergy and parishioners wash one another’s feet at church, recalling the ritual recounted in today’s gospel narrative when our Lord washes the feet of his disciples as a powerful example of love and servanthood. While contemporary Christians may be a bit squeamish about the rite, their discomfort is nothing compared to that of Peter and perhaps the other disciples as well. “You will never wash my feet,” Peter protests to Jesus.

Masters after all – as Peter well knows – most emphatically do not wash the feet of their disciples. It simply is not done. Yet Jesus surely does it. And eventually even Peter catches on, proclaiming, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” He has learned, in his own larger-than-life way, the lesson of Maundy Thursday, the new commandment of love.

After washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus returns to table and quietly asks his disciples, “Do you know what I have done to you?” He answers his own question. “I have set you an example,” he explains. It is an example of profound respect and caring for the other. And what he does for his disciples, he does for us too. He sets us an example. He shows us how things are to be done among his followers even to this day.

An example is always transformative. It commands our attention and changes us whether we want it to or not. We cannot witness another’s example of compassion and love without ourselves being challenged and changed by it. Our Lord does more than wipe the dust from his disciples’ feet. He alters their perception and awareness of human reality itself. He makes them conscious of others and their needs in a new way, which goes far beyond practical hospitality and kindliness.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

We, along with the disciples, can now no longer be unaware or ignorant of the unmistakable mandate given us to “love one another.” We cannot say we did not understand. We cannot say: If Jesus had only been a little clearer. Our actions – to the extent that they do not conform to Jesus’ example – betray us as surely as Judas’ kiss betrayed our Lord himself. The integrity of our faith is measured not by words alone but by the example of our own deeds.

Jesus gives us another “new” commandment that last night with his disciples before the cross, although it is oddly missing from the Gospel of John. Paul tells us about it in our second reading – a passage from his First Letter to the Corinthians. In what is arguably the earliest extant retelling of the Last Supper story, Paul hands on to us what he himself “received from the Lord.” After offering the disciples the bread and wine transformed to his body and blood, Jesus tells them to “do this in remembrance of me.”

He commands them, in other words, to remember.

The ancient words of the Book of Common Prayer echo our Lord’s words. “Take and eat,” declares priest or Eucharistic minister in our Rite One service, “in remembrance that Christ died for thee.” The Eucharistic bread and wine become for us the food of recollection – the provisions that remind us of Christ’s example and commandment. And Christ’s death on the cross, remembered and experienced in the Eucharist, gives us a share in the life to come – where he has gone but we cannot yet come.

But if, in the meantime, we feed only ourselves, we will never truly be nourished. We will always hunger for more and, ironically, starve to death in the midst of spiritual plenty. This is what the Lord’s example has done to us. The Eucharist itself demands of us not only that we remember, but also that we share and serve.

God does not forget us, his people. As we recall this Maundy Thursday what Christ has done for us, so too the Lord “remembers” forward the kingdom to come – and our heritage in it.

And in that kingdom, the Eucharistic meal we share this day is not the Last Supper but the First.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary, a chaplaincy of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” St. Margaret’s Facebook page at www.anglicanbudapest.com.

Thy will be done, Palm Sunday (B) – 2012

April 1, 2012

By Katerina K. Whitley

(Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47) 

What words can one utter after the reading of this gospel? The most dramatic events in all creation are recounted by Mark in his customary simplicity and minimal use of words, but both the telling and the hearing break the heart. We ask: How can people be so cruel? How could the disciples have been so blind? We cringe at the hypocrisy of the high priests of the time. We are repelled by the fickle crowd. We are shocked, astounded, and then we come to our senses and realize that had we been present we probably would have acted as they did.

Just a moment, you will say. Yes, we are surrounded by hypocrisy and meanness of heart and misery of spirit, but at least we are not dealing with the Son of God. They did not know who he was.

Most of the time, we act as if we don’t know who he is. All the foibles, sins, and vices presented here in such an understated manner persist in our society and plague our lives also.

Friendship and love are gifts of immeasurable value. The pain in Jesus when he speaks the words “one of you will betray me,” cuts us to the core. Betrayal of friendship is bitter and affects both the betrayer and the betrayed. Judas must have had good qualities when Jesus chose him. It was probably the sin of pride that brought him to the horrible act portrayed in this gospel. Even more so, betrayal of love leaves wounds that never quite heal. Poor Peter. How sure he was of his love for his friend and teacher and how bitterly he denied him during the course of this terrible night. After the resurrection, Jesus will spend precious hours teaching Peter about the meaning of love and forgiveness, and Peter will spend the rest of his life proving to himself that indeed his love and loyalty are beyond reproach. Cowardice will no longer be a part of his personality.

In all this heartbreak, the abandonment of the beloved in the hour of his greatest need hurts the most. “Watch and pray with me,” Jesus asks his closest friends. Nothing in the gospels shows as poignantly that Jesus, like each one of us, needs his friends as he walks through the valley of death and agony. We are not meant to go through the dreadful experience of death all alone. A loved one who remains with us to the end, a friend who continues to pray fervently even when all hope is extinguished, a hospice nurse who remains to sustain the family, all these offer a service that Jesus asked of his disciples but did not receive. Again, his full humanity with all its accompanying terror of abandonment is revealed in the loneliness of the Garden of Gethsemane, and before such agony we remain speechless. “Let this cup pass from me,” and the answer is No.

And we who pray for healing, for deliverance, for reprieve from pain, for a miracle even, go back to this painful story and learn from Jesus to say, “Thy will be done.”

Outside the circle of love and friendship, the fickleness of the crowd surprises us. A few days before, they were clamoring for him because he had fed them with both bread and stories, and he had healed their sick. Now they are appalled by his weakness and, together with the mob, cry out for his blood. We like for our leaders to be invincible. Even in the church we have too little patience for any weakness we see in others, especially our clergy. We are too easily swayed and seduced by gossip, innuendo, and all the lies that slip through the airwaves. But we in the church are asked to remain faithful, careful, and not to be judgmental. Let us not be arrogant in thinking that we would have acted with more decorum and loyalty as Palm Sunday ends and the fear slips through.

Palm Sunday, so filled with triumph and hope, is already forgotten. The darkness of the events of Holy Week is beginning to cast its shadow over us all. In remembering the events of this crucial week in the long unfolding of humanity’s history, we are filled with sorrow and then with gratitude. We will not be abandoned to remain in the darkness. The light will break forth again after the fear and the loneliness of that horrible death in Golgotha. We will be pulled out of the abyss. And all because Jesus accepted the will of his Father even unto death and, remembering all of us in the hour of his death, he prayed, “Father, forgive them.”

In this forgiveness we trust as we continue moving toward the light.

 

— Katerina Whitley is the author of Walking the Way of Sorrows (Morehouse, 2003) among other books of Biblical monologues. She lives and writes in Boone, North Carolina.