Let Your Idols Fall, Good Friday (A) – April 14, 2017

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

This is really not a day for words. When we grieve, all words are too much.

It is much better for us to take in the facts about how Jesus was treated: the injustice, the spiritual blindness, the narrow thinking, the positioning for power. It is better that we just sit with that grief and blackness, make a space inside of ourselves for the death of Jesus; and just abide in it.

We must abide with Good Friday, not because it leads quickly to the empty tomb, but because Jesus did die. It is better that we not fill it with too many words and instead marvel at this death and consider our part in it.

In this lengthy Passion narrative from the gospel of John we are not spared any detail. There is a great deal here but the scene when Pilate asks the chief priests if he shall crucify their king is very interesting. The priests answer, “We have no king but the emperor.”

Here we see that the powers-that-be have no compunction with violating their very identities to get what they want. Two things are happening here and both have to do with idolatry.

The first thing that is happening is that the priests are telling the Empire, manifest in Pilate, that their only king is the emperor. This is in direct violation of God’s explicit dislike of kings. Hundreds of years prior to this scene the people of Israel had asked God for kings so that they can be like the other people in the region.

God warned them then that kings would take their sons for soldiers, tax them to death, and all the other things that come with human kings. God’s desire was that he would be their king; that is what would have distinguished them from the other people in the region. But when the people persisted God allowed kings to rise among the Israelites, provided they carried God’s anointing.

God, it seems, is in the habit of taking a bad situation and improvising some good out of it. But today, in this passage from John, these priests are denying God’s choice for a king and they are putting their faith in the Roman Emperor so that they can make the political alliance necessary for the assassination of their enemy Jesus.

Along with this political posturing is the fact that since the chief priests have allied themselves with the Emperor for their peace and security, they have replaced God with the Emperor. This is idolatry. Idolatry is when a created thing is put in place of the uncreated source of life and love. Idolatry is when we find our security, power, identity in anything other than God. The priests have committed the sin of idolatry.

Idolatry is the most pervasive and insidious of sins. If Good Friday teaches us anything it is that our notions of what God is and can do need to be cast down like the idols they are.

In the life of the spirit the casting down of personal idols usually follows a pattern. The first idol that needs casting down is the idol of things: thinking that the things that surround you make you a worthy person. You are not your things, our things do not give us worth. Only God gives us worth. That’s why God is worshipped and things are not.

The next idol that needs casting down is the ego. You are not that great. You are also not all that bad either. Self-deprecation, too, is an activity of the ego. The ego: not the healthy bit that makes you a person, but the ego that manipulates people, things, and facts for your own purposes. This idol must come down.

In the life of the spirit these idols have been well within the bounds of good advice and general spirituality.

The next idols that need destruction are within the particular purview of the Abrahamic faiths, and, I think, are especially Christian.

The first of these idols is the idolatry of faith. The idolatry of faith is when we begin to use the story and beliefs of God to judge and separate others. This is when we carve in stone the stories of our tradition as reality to such a level that we lose sight that they are a chronicle of people’s encounters with the God of love and turn the activity of faith into the judgement seat of faith, separating those who are in and those who are out. The idolatry of faith is broken by true faith, which is trust, trust the stories and traditions about God, they are not God themselves, but instead urge us into truth faith, pointing to God.

The next idol does not have a hold on everyone, but it is still a powerful idol.

This is the idol of doubt. This idol tells us that only doubt and suspicion of the stories of God can bring us closer to the true God. It is an idol that says, “If you would simply think like I think about God, then you will perceive the truth.” None of us possess the full knowledge of the unknowable God, and some beliefs should be doubted, but when doubt becomes the enemy of faith instead of its steward, then it has become an idol.

The final idol that needs to come down is the hardest one of all, but it is the one that Good Friday most explicitly addresses: the idolatry of God. The idolatry of God means that we have set ideas of exactly what God is and can do. If I were to use an everyday word for the idolatry of God I suppose it would be expectation: high expectations, low expectations, horrible expectations, impossible expectations, immature expectations.

When we destroy the idol of God we truly live by faith; living fully, as one moment unfolds from the last, trusting that God is with us in love, come what may.

In Good Friday we see our image of God literally killed. Good Friday, with the death of Jesus is an enactment of the death of all idols, including, most explicitly the idol of God.

God does not die. Messiahs do not die. Yet, Jesus does die, and in the death of Jesus the final idol is destroyed and in this death we are released from all idols and left with the present moment in Christ, redeemed and free.

This freedom is jarring, and it is appropriate that we commemorate the death of idols as we do today. Grieve for the loss of your idols.

Abide in stillness over the death of your graspings for anything other than God. Let your idols fall at the foot of the cross and sit awhile in death and grief, and wait.

Wait, because God has a surprise in store.

Amen.

Written by The Rev. Josh Bowron, who serves as the rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, NC. Bowron holds an M.Div. from The School of Theology at the University of the South and is also currently working on a Masters of Sacred Theology there, with a particular interest in modern Anglican theologians. He enjoys a zesty life with his wife Brittany and their three children.

Download the sermon for Good Friday (A).

 

Sermons for the remainder of Holy Week can be found here:

 

Great Vigil of Easter

The blues moan in the gospel shout, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2015

April 3, 2015

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

Take up your cross, the Savior said, if you would my disciple be.

Well, today we see what that really means. Today, we kneel to venerate the wood of the cross on which hung the Savior of the world. And we recognize that we are completely incapable of following his commandment and carrying the wooden weight of the burden he took on for our sake.

In many ways, realizing that has been our entire Lenten project.

The ash crosses we marked ourselves with 40 long days ago were our white flags of surrender. Our cries of “uncle.” Our declaration that we can’t. That we know, deep down, exactly what God expects of us: to act with justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with God. To love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. To take up our cross and to lay down our lives for our friends.

But we can’t. For we are but dust, and to dust we shall return. And we know that if we were fully living into our baptismal commitments, we would be up there – tortured, bleeding, hanging from a tree. Because the world does not exactly reward those who act with justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.

And so we don’t. We do what’s comfortable. We do what’s safe. We do what’s nice. We love our comfortable, safe, nice lives, and do not want to lose them – even for Christ’s sake.

Recently, a group of teens were being introduced to the Book of Common Prayer in their Sunday-school class, and when they got to the section on Proper Liturgies for Special Days, one of them asked, “Why do we call it Good Friday?”

It is such a predictable question that it’s easy for us to try to answer it without thinking, without listening to what is really being asked. This particular teenager wasn’t just asking why we call it “Good Friday” when it is the day that Jesus died. He was asking why – if we call it Good Friday, if it is Good News that Jesus died for us on the cross – our worship, then, is so solemn, so somber, so filled with genuflections and prostrations. If, as we proclaim, it is a “Good Friday,” why do we not shout joyfully and sing as the Israelites did at the shore of the Red Sea? Why do we not praise God with the trumpet, and lyre, and harp? Why, today of all days, are all our songs of glory in a minor key?

The answer lies in this truth: Today is a day for gratitude, but it is also a day of sorrow.

While we glory in Christ’s cross, we also mourn the fact that our sin made his sacrifice necessary. And we sorely grieve that, as the prophet Isaiah says in our reading today:

“By a perversion of justice he was taken away. … For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.”

Christ’s death is the means of our salvation. And it is right to give God our thanks and praise, for by virtue of his cross, joy has come to the whole world.

But we also mourn that an innocent man had to suffer and die because of our actions. And we mourn that the innocent continue to suffer, because we are unwilling and incapable of making the sacrifices to our comfortable, safe, nice lives to ease their suffering.

The great preacher Otis Moss, III, once said, “They could not distinguish between the gospel shout and the blues moan.” He was preaching on a passage from the Old Testament, from the third chapter of the Book of Ezra, about those returning from exile who laid the foundation for the new Temple:

“And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.”

The Rev. Moss uses this text to declare to us that we have a blues-note gospel – a gospel of great joy at the mighty power of our saving God, written in a minor key. A gospel in which our great joy at God’s power and mercy is often indistinguishable from our mourning at the need for that power and mercy; at our inability to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves – still less, as much as God loves them.

And so, on Good Friday, even as we kneel in awe before the King of the Universe, hanging on a cross for our sake, we also kneel in the sure and certain knowledge that we are not following in his footsteps on the Via Dolorosa. That we are not even denying him as we warm our hands by the fire. We are in the crowd, calling for his crucifixion.

And so our gospel shout that today is a “good” day – the best of all days – is indistinguishable from the blues moan that today is a day that is needed. A day that will still be needed, even as our praise at the empty tomb resolves the minor chords into major ones.

Good Friday reminds us that we have a blues-note gospel. That Christ’s death and resurrection may have saved us from sin and death, but we still sin and we still die. As we kneel at the foot of the cross, mourning our sin and the evil that we witness around us, we are forced to reckon with these facts – facts we would much rather forget.

As Easter dawn approaches and we ratchet up our gospel shouts and prepare to say that word we use during worship that has been buried for the last 40 days, we must not forget that our gospel shout contains those blues moans, those minor keys.

As the Rev. Moss reminds us, the blues moan is indistinguishable from the gospel shout.

Because while we mourn the necessity of Christ’s one oblation of himself once offered, we give thanks that it is a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. And that in him, God has delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before him.

And as our gospel shouts echo through the empty tomb, may we remember the profound and never-failing mercy of God, the mercy that holds fast even when we do not – that holds fast precisely because we will not – and be thankful.

 

The Rev. Jordan Haynie Ware is parochial associate for Youth and Young Adult Ministry at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Fort Worth, Texas.

God’s Passion, our passion, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2014

April 18, 2014

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

Each year, year after year after year, Christians gather on Good Friday to rehearse this story – what we call the Passion Narrative. On Palm Sunday we read versions from Matthew, Mark and Luke. On Good Friday it has always been from John. Each gospel offers a slightly different view of what happened on that day nearly 2,000 years ago. It is like looking at a diamond from different angles – one sees different facets, different sparkles, different ways the light plays off the gem stone.

For John, Jesus is Light – and His Light is the Life of the world. We call it Good Friday, even though it looks as if the light is extinguished. But for people of faith, we know that is just not the case. We know the rest of the story. We know that the darkness has not overcome the light.

But we do know a few things about darkness in today’s world. We see it from far off, we see it up close and personal. From the tragedy at the World Trade Towers, the tragedies of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we see it in friends and family members who suffer from ailments like cancer and Alzheimer’s, we see it in young men whose lives are so broken they go on senseless shooting sprees in schools, movie theaters, churches and shopping malls.

There is darkness for those who have lost their jobs, for the child born of a mother addicted to crack cocaine, for the homeless, the hungry, the destitute and those without jobs here and around the world. For those who live under oppressive military dictatorships, for those mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers who sit on death row, for those who live with HIV/AIDS. We know something about darkness.

Darkness for John is evil – specifically the evil of living under the military yoke of Rome. Even more so, John and his community hold the memory of Jesus standing up to evil, to the imperial powers and the ruling religious authorities, to say that a lot of people, most people, are not getting the kind of care and support they need to survive – the kind of care and support our God commands us to provide as individuals and as a community.

This month, on April 4, we celebrated the life and death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the church we observe the date of the martyr’s death, not his birthday like the rest of the country does in January. The night before he was assassinated, he had been in Memphis, Tennessee, to support the sanitation workers, garbage men, who were striking for a living wage. In his last days he was also an outspoken critic of our country’s involvement in Southeast Asia, against the war in Viet Nam. Some years before that, Dr. King was incarcerated in the Birmingham, Alabama, jail, from which he wrote a series of letters urging white Christians to join his movement to end racial discrimination – segregation, what amounted to apartheid in America.

In one of these letters, Dr. King quotes one of the 20th century’s most renowned theologians, Reinhold Neibuhr. Quoting from Neibuhr’s book, “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” Dr. King reminds the white clergy of Birmingham that “groups are more immoral than individuals.” It has been observed that individuals rarely act immorally or practice bad ethics on their own. Such behavior patterns usually emerge in the actions and attitudes of a group – however large or small. It is the group mentality, or to quote the sociologist Erik Fromm, the “herd mentality” that drives greater hatred than the individual. Think of the Holocaust, the Ku Klux Klan, Rawanda, Pol Pot, the Inquisition, the Expulsion by the Church of the Jews from Spain, the Crusades and numerous other similar movements throughout history.

This theory suggests that evil always needs help. Evil needs companions! Evil, the devil, does not and cannot act on its own in order to achieve its intended goal. By comparison, “goodness” or “godliness” can always stand and act on its own merits.

This is what is going on in this story about Jesus. Evil had just enough companions to crucify him on that Friday, the Day of Preparation for the Passover, which, that year, was to be on the Sabbath. The collusion and collaboration between the Roman soldiers, politicians, religious authorities already on the payroll of Rome, and the usual crowd of “rubberneckers” always looking for a gory site to behold, was just enough to put him on a cross and let him hang there for all to see what the consequences may be for those who dare to act out of goodness and godliness to speak truth to power.

It is the Day of Preparation before the Passover. Jesus has been arrested. People all over Jerusalem are preparing for the Passover feast. Lambs are slaughtered for the Passover feast. Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” Pilate cannot understand that Jesus is Truth. No one seems to understand, even to this day, that God’s new revelation and God’s Good News is not a doctrine or an idea, but a person – a person like any one of us. “A person,” writes Evelyn Underhill in her book “The School of Charity”:

 “whose story and statements, in every point and detail, give us some deep truth about the life and will of God who creates and sustains us, and about the power and vocation of a soul which is transformed in Him, and pays ungrudgingly the price of generous love.”

John’s passion has numerous unique details: Jesus sends Judas out from the Last Supper; Jesus is not identified by Judas’ kiss but steps forward announcing, “I am he”; Jesus is not silent before Pilate, but speaks to him; Jesus carries his own cross and does not stumble or fall. But is there any more tender and yet powerful moment than when Jesus, already nailed to the cross, as his last act of divine charity gives up his spirit – or, as we used to say, handed over his spirit?

It is that “giving up” that compels us to pay attention to this story year in and year out. In both Hebrew and in Greek there is just one word that means “spirit,” “breath” and “wind.” All three are understood to come from God. God’s breath is our breath, God’s spirit is what sustains our life, and God’s wind fills our sails and directs us and sends us places we would never imagine going ourselves to do things we could never imagine doing. Here in his final act of charity toward humankind, Jesus gives up his spirit – he hands over, he offers us His Spirit: the Spirit of God.

Jesus does not give in to the herd mentality. He does not give in to group evil. He remains steadfast in speaking truth to power, just like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ghandhi, Pauli Murray, Pete Seeger, Rosa Parks, Martin King, just like so many other individuals throughout human history who have made a difference.

This story we read together today is drenched with meaning. Today let us focus on the fact that the choice is ours. The choice is always ours. Evil is always looking for companions. Evil is always looking for help. And the choice to side with evil is often attractive. There always appears to be something in it for us, even if it is just the cheap thrill of watching someone else suffer.

The other choice, of course, is to stand up to evil. To stand our ground. Not to give in to the group. To speak truth to power. Or to simply walk away and say we will not participate.

The world is still a dangerous place. There is no limit, however, to how much goodness and godliness even one person can give to the world. If there is one moment to remember from this Passion Narrative of John’s, it is that final moment, when Jesus bows his head and gives up his spirit – that moment when God’s Passion becomes our Passion.

He gives it to us. He is still giving it to us. The man who healed people, helped people, fed people, gave outsiders dignity, and welcomed all to sit at his table and share a meal, gives his spirit to us. The question that resides deep within the rites and rituals of Good Friday, however, is, will we accept his spirit?

Will we take God’s Spirit and make it our own? Will we set our sails to capture God’s divine wind, breath and spirit and allow it to direct us and take us to places we have never been to do things we have never done?

The world needs His Spirit. The world needs your spirit. The church needs your spirit. You can accept His Spirit, which he gives away, which is given for the world, not just for Christians, not just for believers, but for the whole world, and you can do something beautiful with your life and bear much fruit.

The World needs you. The church needs you. God needs you. We all need one another.

Our choice must be to accept that spirit of goodness and godliness, the spirit of God’s divine charity, and make it our own. We must allow God’s Passion to become our Passion. When we do, what looks like a tragic story becomes good – a very good story. This is why we call it Good Friday!

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek has served as rector and assistant in a broad variety of parishes over the past 28 years. He is currently chaplain and teaches at St. Timothy’s School for girls, the Diocese of Maryland girls’ boarding school, where he teaches World Religions and American History. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com.

‘It is finished’, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2013

March 29, 2013

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

“It is finished.”

Many said words like those that day. Pilate pushed himself up from the judgment bench and sighed, “Jesus is finished, another political troublemaker out of the way.”

The religious leaders looked at one another and said in hushed tones, “Jesus is finished. No more offense from him.”

The soldiers as they turned their backs and walked away: “Finished. It is over, our unpleasant but necessary work for the day.”

The crowds as they watched Jesus breathe his last and his head slump down, lifeless: “Finished. The spectacle is over.”

All comments on the moment, comments on the day, comments made by those with limited vision.

Not so with Jesus’ final word, tetelestai, which is Greek for “It is finished.” This is a word of cosmic import, a word of timeless importance, of universal significance. It is finished. Jesus’ last word. It’s just one word in the language of the Bible.

“It is finished” – his concluding declaration, his last word, the final punctuation on a sentence begun before the beginning. With this word of completion, finality – “finished” – we are reminded how all began: in John’s gospel:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. From his fullness, we have all received grace upon grace.”

And so Jesus’ word, word of Word incarnate, this one word, which we translate as “it is finished,” is the final punctuation on a sentence begun before all that is, before we were knit together in our mothers’ wombs, before the first light, first life, first spark, first dream, first bursting forth of creation.

The final punctuation on a sentence spoken in love, spoken across space, time, through ages, prophets, patriarchs, matriarchs, sages, and in these last days, spoken to us by a son: Jesus.

The final punctuation on a sentence spoken, lived in love; spoken, sung, breathed, in words such as “And I, when I am lifted up, I will draw all to myself.” Words such as “Love one another as I have loved you.” Love, spoken in actions: touched and touching, taught and teaching, love reaching out, healing, embracing, lifting; calling “beloved” those called wrong, weak, small, outcast, other, sinner.

The Word incarnate spoke love in words, in deeds, spoke love in handing himself over, giving himself up, pouring himself out, until there is nothing left, nothing more needed, just one last breath, one last word. God’s sentence of love spoken across time, space, boundaries, on the cross – spoke its final syllables, in gasps, in an agonized whisper, in pain, yes, but with precision, point and power. This is no giving up, this is declaration: “It is finished.” Period.

Jesus’ word brings forth our words of prayer:

O Jesus, to you, now lifted up, with your arms of love stretched out on the hard wood of the cross, in your loving and giving until all is completed, to you in your finishing, we bring all our incompleteness, all our unfinishedness, all those things done and left undone: our fractional loving, our fragmentary living, our unrealized intentions, our unfulfilled potential, our unarticulated praise, our unprayed prayers, our underachieved service, our ungiven forgiveness, our conditional charity, our inadequate hope, our wanting faith, unfinished us, unfinished me. And you say, drawing each of us and our incompleteness all to you, “It is finished.” Period.

 

The Rev. Dr. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.

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.

What makes death oddly beautiful, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2011

April 22, 2011

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

Holy dying. There is a truth about the phrase “holy dying,” which seems to come from the title of Jeremy Taylor’s work, The Exercises of Holy Living and Holy Dying, written in the 1600s. The truth is this: dying is often holy – from time to time, when dying becomes beautiful, when it is astonishingly a part of life, when the person dying is unsure, but also unafraid, when the family does not hide from death.

When dying is holy, it is a bright light, the color spectrum fully present.

Sue Pilert’s death was holy. Sue had five daughters, and innumerable grandchildren. All were musical, playing various instruments well, even the youngest.

As Sue closed in on her last breath, Steve, her husband, and this wonderful and large family turned her living room into the bedroom. They placed the hospital bed in the middle of the ruby Karastan Oriental rug, and they kept vigil. As is the way with death, the space between each breath grew, Sue’s strength ebbing with each exhale, time becoming irrelevant.

Sue was a person of faith. She trusted, but not completely. Her trust was at times like that of Mother Theresa: unsure, unsteady, but she exercised her faith nonetheless – by prayer, and God for his part had poked and prodded and challenged her over the years. God hadn’t made it easy for Sue.

So although Sue trusted, she did not always believe – not the way we tend to think of belief, anyway. She died with questions unanswered, but in the person and beauty of God she still trusted. When all was said and done, she trusted.

As she was dying, Sue’s family kept vigil, like many churches do overnight between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday – the vigil of the dying. Some would read to her, some would pray with her, some would hold her hand.

Steve, who didn’t know what he would do without her, kissed her gently. Steve, who didn’t understand her, didn’t get her faith, who was sometimes angry with Sue – Steve, who would be completely lost without her, kissed her gently.

And to a person, this family offered Sue music. Several of the children together played classical pieces, sang, or even played hymns. The piano, the flute, the guitar. They played music to ease Sue along.

All of this gift made for beautiful dying – but her dying was made holy by embrace.

Life embraced Sue as she died. The energy of life, and the Holy was invited into the moment. The respect for life was established firmly in the process of dying.

In her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, the writer Zora Neale Hurston describes the death of a woman: “Just then, Death finished his prowling through the house on his padded feet and entered the room. He bowed to Mama in his way, and she made her manners and left us to act out our ceremonies over unimportant things.”

Death personified, death as a person, inviting, pulling, taking.

And so Sue died. After Sue died, her five daughters bathed her body themselves. They dressed her – they didn’t want strangers to do this. They put on the simple dress that most reflected her.

Death is intimate. It is the most intimate act, the most intimate time. It is intimate for the person dying, and for the family. Completely vulnerable, and embarrassingly honest. There is no falsehood in death. No props – not one’s fame nor success, one’s wealth nor superior intellect, none of this – strengthen one in death. None, that is, save faith. Perhaps faith is the only element that divides rich from poor in death – rich in spirit from poor in spirit. Besides faith, there is nothing to ease the transition from this life to the next.

And so it is: death renders its victim completely honest, absolutely vulnerable, and without protection.

A priest’s job is to perform ritual: baptisms, marriages, and funerals. Each of these three rituals is attended at some level by untruth, even lying. Priests marry people who intentionally hide drinking issues or cheating. They baptize babies whose parents promise to raise their children in faith – knowing they won’t. Priests conduct funerals in which the heroics of the deceased exceed truth.

But at the moment of death, at the sacrament of death, there is raw humanity. A person is rendered completely helpless, like a baby at birth, dependent on forces outside of herself. God, the process of dying, the universe – often for the first time in decades, the person and family are dependent upon forces outside of the self. That is what makes death oddly beautiful.

Dean Karnazas is an endurance runner. A few years ago, the guy ran 300 miles – straight. No sleep between. He also decided to run 50 marathons in 50 states on 50 consecutive days. When asked about it all, Karnazas said this: “A great run definitely involves suffering. I think any adventure athlete will tell you that there’s honesty in suffering. … There’s magic in misery. I talk to God out there.”

Closer to death by running to death, one experiences the failure of the body, after all, and the nearness of it all to God. Instead of relying on his strength at this point, the athlete becomes vulnerable, and honest – honest, or at least as much as one can be.

Consider the scene of Jesus’ arrest, and his early morning trial before Annas and Caiphas, the high priest, and the former high priest. Peter had warmed himself and then run off in despair. Jesus is now before Pilate, and the scene seems ethereal and monochromatic.

Black and white, observed through some blue lens – surreal, and perhaps that is the curse of unholy death – there is no truth in the moment, no honesty. Death is present with hooded robe and sickle, and completely devoid of hope or life.

There is chaos in this scene. No one seems in charge, people are lying, and the scene is tainted with evil – evil men yielding to evil impulses. And the scene is monochromatic.

In this story, of Jesus before Pilate, Pilate utters what at first appears to be an innocuous, throw-away line: “Truth, what is truth?” For indeed, there is no truth here, in this scene, at this moment.

But later, by the time Jesus carries us as the cross to Golgotha, the scene becomes honest – raw honesty supplants monochromatic chaos – for Jesus is dying, and his death is holy.

At first, evil as death appears to be winning, its trump card played. There is instantly order; chaos does not reign, for Jesus’ life has not been taken from him, he has given it voluntarily. Jesus has given himself away, spent himself by choice.

Jesus as Christ, and God on the Cross, and in that moment of death there is complete vulnerability by God – naked, bloody, exhausted, complete truth.

Complete truth – for here at the intimate cross is a man in whom there is no falsehood, and God exists completely. And even in this scene, one intuits somehow that life itself emanates from death, and is the reason for the cross. Life you can access.

Which is the irony: God becomes completely vulnerable to evil and death. Truth has been placed on trial, convicted, and sentenced; but truth cannot be killed, can never be killed, and life radiates from the scene and moment of death. Not just because you know Easter is two days away, but because a new reality emerges from the horrific and violent scene. That new reality is this: death is a portal, not an end. The cross is a doorway, and not a wall. Not something of which to be afraid, but an object of embrace.

Life and love and grace and goodness have triumphed behind the cross, and in all locations of the cross – at Auschwitz, Sudan, San Quentin; but not just in the obvious locations, in the little places, too – your places, the location of despair and agony in the soul itself. Through these windows and doorways you find life.

Acknowledging this, death becomes holy.

There can be holiness in dying; not for the beauty of the death itself – it is never for the beauty of death, for death itself is not beautiful, nor to be glorified – but for the emergent life, the bud, the seedling rising.

And so it is – the cross of Christ becomes your cross. And God in this Christ has not abandoned you – or anyone – to the cross.

We have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer we who live, but Christ lives in us.

 

— The Rev. Rob Gieselmann is the interim rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, California. Originally from the Diocese of East Tennessee (serving at St. Luke’s, Cleveland), he also served in the Diocese of Easton (St. Paul’s Church, Chestertown). Before entering the ministry, Rob practiced law for ten years. Rob is the author of The Episcopal Call to Love (Apocryphile Press, 2008), and is the father of two wonderful children.

Waiting with the women at the tomb, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2010

April 2, 2010

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

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 

Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

Good Friday comes every year with its unique burden of grief. We know the story, we have heard it, felt it, wept over it. But every year it comes to us with renewed regret and sorrow, even though, for the Christian, the outcome of the story does not remain in tragedy but emerges in triumph. Yet the pain of it never diminishes. When we hear the words of John, so simple and so utterly heartbreaking, we allow our hearts to be wounded anew.

What strikes the listener and participant in this drama is the injustice of it all – the actions that bring the prophecy of Isaiah to its startling reality: the one who lived in total obedience to God is being made an object of scorn. The one who loved so thoroughly and so completely is being left alone, spat upon, and rejected – a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Despite all the affliction and suffering Jesus, willingly, without resistance, “poured out himself to death”; he who was without sin “was numbered with transgressors,” as it says in Isaiah, “bore the sins of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

We know that all this came to pass. Sometimes we watch, and like many passersby on the Via Dolorosa, feel only curiosity: in a violent world like ours, meeting death without responding in revenge is so odd that we cannot comprehend it. At other times we feel the terrible injustice of that Friday and are angry. But anger is not allowed: Jesus tells the angry Peter, “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” Something else is happening here, as alien to our world as it was to the Roman and Hebrew authorities in the first century. We still don’t comprehend this kind of total obedience to the divine will. We don’t understand what he is telling Pilate any more than that unfortunate procurator understood him.

Pilate is trying to buy time. Filled with fear of what the emperor would say if he made another serious mistake with the Jews (for Pilate had a history of bad mistakes with the religiosity of the Jews), he is trying to find a way out of this dilemma so he will not be demoted by Tiberius once again. Fascinated by this silent prisoner who has the bearing of a king because of his innate peace and authority, Pilate asks him, “Are you a king?” Jesus had spent his short years of ministry proclaiming a new kingdom, something so removed from Pilate’s understanding of power that Jesus does not really answer that question; he knows that Pilate will not understand. But he gives to Pilate, and to all of us, something much more important to think about:

“I came to testify to the truth,” he declares, and adds something so utterly surprising that if Pilate and all the people around that drama had listened, they might have died in hope, when their time came. Jesus adds, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Can you imagine what it means to belong to the truth? It implies a state of being. Truth is no longer an abstract concept but a concrete reality. The only way for us to understand truth, as used by Jesus here, is to grasp that Truth is God. It is in the nature of God, it emanates from God, we can belong to it. When we belong to Truth, we belong to God, and we are able to hear Jesus’ voice.

What a wonderfully comforting statement this is. Not just for us who have heard the good news, who have believed in God as revealed in Jesus, but also for the whole world – for all who seek the truth, as our Book of Common Prayer says. Once again on this Good Friday we feel the universal embrace of God’s love, we hear the universal call to all whom God has created. He who poured out himself to death for us assures us on this night that all who belong to the Truth hear his voice. Instead of separating us Jesus, in his death, brings us together.

May we wait for resurrection in the same spirit of love. After weeping bitterly with Peter for all that is past, let us wait with the women at the tomb, ready to serve the one who poured out himself for us.

 

— Katerina Whitley is the author of Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross (Morehouse, 2003).

Death confronts us on this night, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2009

April 10, 2009

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

The readings for this sad day and night should stand alone, without the need of a sermon. So it is with trepidation that one approaches this sacred time, aware that the sermon writer cannot add to the tragic story, only make a feeble effort at an interpretation that may sound more personal than universal.

Written in stark prose, the gospel story tears at the heart. Writing in incomparable, grave poetry, Isaiah and the psalmist inspire, terrify, even confuse. How can a Christian read the Second Isaiah passage and the opening words of the Psalm of Dereliction without making the connection with John’s telling of the last hours of the beloved Jesus? It is impossible to separate the two; no wonder the early church saw the Suffering Servant of Second Isaiah as the prophetic precursor of Jesus of Nazareth. Many of the images of Isaiah find flesh in the hours of the Passion.

Listen again to the words of the prophet: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth.”

The gospel writer speaks of a baffled Pilate who goes in and out of his headquarters in confusion over this prisoner. Pilate asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer.

The psalmist writes:

“All who see me laugh me to scorn;
“They curl their lips and wag their heads, saying,
“He trusted in the LORD, let him deliver him.”

The gospel writer recalls:

“And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, ‘Hail King of the Jews!’ and striking him on the face.”

After the night-long mock trial, the dragging of the innocent Jesus from Annas to Caiphas to Pilate, the story reaches its climax. Here the writing is at its simplest, allowing us to imagine the horror, to enter into the suffering without any commentary: “So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him.”

Death confronts us on this night. The death of One who is well loved. The death of One who is condemned unjustly. The death of One who is young and who dies horribly. How many of us have faced such pain? How many parents the world over can identify with the sorrow of his mother because they too have lost a child? How many mothers and fathers have seen a son or daughter destroyed because of war? And how many of us have lost beloved friends? On this night let us confront the reality of death and let us think of all those who are suffering because of the death of a loved one, because of the death of an innocent. This night we remember, we pay attention, we grieve.

God gave us the capacity to grieve. We are allowed to shed tears and to cry out in supplication. Listen to the testimony of the epistle to the Hebrews writer: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”

It doesn’t say that he was saved from death; but it does reassure us that he was heard. For those of us who grieve over the world’s suffering, this teaches us not to expect miracles but to be reassured that we have a God who hears our cry and understands our pain.

This, after all, is the Christian message of the Cross – that God entered our human experience fully, even unto death. A God who hears us is a God who shares in our suffering. Once more the epistle to the Hebrews testifies: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize without weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

Isaiah had written: “By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future?”

We are his future. How well have we continued his ministry? On this night of remembered death, let us also remember to grieve and to cry out to a God who hears us.

 

Katerina Whitley is a lecturer at Appalachian State University and the writer of Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross (Morehouse, 2003) and other books of Biblical storytelling.

Standing beneath the cross, the mother, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2007

April 6, 2007

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

“Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to his disciple, “Here is your mother.”

Jesus hangs on the cross. Crowds of people stand around watching the spectacle – some watching in horror, others with indifference, still others with a sense of triumph. “That annoying and dangerous prophet is in the last throes of death, thank God,” they may be thinking. There had been cries of “Crucify!” and “Give us Barabbas!” There was the disgraceful set-up of a trial – lies, sarcasm, physical and emotional abuse, and a question, “What is truth?”

Connected to Jesus all the time by the strong bonds of love and finally standing beneath the cross is the mother. It must have been an absolutely sickening sight. Human beings nailed or tied to cross-beams like animal carcasses. Blood, gore, sweat, the bodies twitching in agony – life being torn out of bodies that shouldn’t have been dying. Jesus and the two thieves weren’t sick. Jesus at least we know was still young. Human beings were deliberately ripping life out of other human beings, and for what? The other two are called “thieves.” They must have stolen something – we don’t know what. But Jesus? Jesus was only a troublemaker. Jesus dared to challenge God’s people about their lack of faith – their carelessness about living Torah. Jesus cared about the poor. He healed the sick, preached, taught, ate with the marginalized, forgave sinners. Does that deserve this kind of death? Did the thieves deserve death? Who ever deserves to have life deliberately taken away?

Mary stands at the foot of the cross. The disciple John stands with her. Can you imagine what these two are thinking? Can you imagine the crushing pain of a mother watching her son die? Die – not because he had done anything wrong, die because he loved so much. That’s the puzzlement of this whole scene. Jesus loved everyone. He paid attention even to people who tried to trick him with their unanswerable questions – or so they thought. He took them on every time, but never in a cruel or imperious way. He was always to the point, but thoughtful and kind, even when challenging. He was a teacher who had one basic lesson: love. So, for this he’s on the cross and his mother stands and watches him die.

This is a terribly quiet day. It’s embarrassing to hear the crowd yell, “Crucify him!” It wouldn’t be if this were just a story in history. It’s embarrassing because today brings us face to face with our own sin, and we might wonder how we still crucify other human beings. Once again, we don’t seem to have learned the lesson Jesus worked so hard to teach. The embarrassment makes us want to blame someone else. “The Jews killed Jesus, or maybe the Romans, but certainly not me.” But saying that creates another problem. People who have bought into that thinking have reacted throughout history with things like the Inquisition, the Crusades, Nazism, and intolerance of many different types.

And so we’re quiet. Our liturgy has a sense of stillness, and yet there is movement. On Holy Thursday, we moved from the upper room, where Jesus washed the disciples’ feet before sharing the bread and wine, into the garden. Today we retell the story of the arrest, trial, suffering, and death of Jesus. We venerate the cross in word, action, and hymn. We see the mother stand beneath the cross and picture her receiving his dead body into her arms. No mother should have to see her child die. We want to turn our eyes away, but we can’t. If we don’t look at the cross and understand that Jesus is dead, his life taken cruelly and yet given freely out of love, if we don’t see ourselves in the heart of his mother willing to be there with him even if it’s dangerous, then we might not really understand the true power of the resurrection.

God gives all so that we might begin – just begin – to understand unconditional love. Once we understand, we realize we’re asked to do the same in many different and varied ways, some easier than others – some, like this death on a cross, a total gift of self for others.

“Woman, behold your son.” Then he said to his disciple, “Here is your mother.”

We are in the hearts of both mother and disciple. We’re given to each other by God to care for each other, to give support and love without reserve, to be willing to give our lives.

We leave this place in silence. We’ve heard our story once again. We’ve looked at the cross and imagined what it means to us. And now we wait.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.

These are details, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2006

April 14, 2006

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

And now the sorrowful fellowship of Thursday evening turns into terror with the arrest of their beloved teacher; it is the longest night of their lives. But when Friday dawns, instead of light dispelling darkness, as is the nature of things, it is darkness that falls on them all. Everything that was good seems to end forever and forever. Life as they had known it has ended.

“My God, my God, why have
you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from
helping me, from the
words of my groaning?”

The desperate psalm is echoed by the two chapters we heard read from John’s gospel; they are all the more devastating because of their starkness and simplicity. There is a kind of macabre game being played out by Pilate, who represents the alien occupying force and by the Jewish religious authorities, who represent the government. And the Logos of God, the Son of Man, the Son of God, is the pawn in this deadly game. The mind can’t take it in. This is why the most fitting and moving depiction of this terrible day is not as effective in words as it is in music and paintings. The senses must absorb the tragedy when words fail us.

A mournful bell tolls in the mind. Those who were born in other countries, or who have visited the lands where theater is more important than sermons, remember the tolling of the bells throughout “Great Friday,” as “Good Friday” is called in the Eastern church. Slowly, mournfully the bells toll while people walk around and go about their business. When night comes, the Epitaphios will pass through the village streets to end in the village square. This is the bier of the dead Christ, festooned with flowers as a casket is, with priests and laity following behind. Everyone holds a candle. The senses are allowed to take in the experience and then turn it into meaning. It is necessary for the participants, because the awareness of sorrow and the reenactment of mourning will make the resurrection at midnight, on Saturday, all the more palpable.

Protestants and even Episcopalians who are more focused on the solemn quiet of reading the story, of listening to it and then meditating in silence and in celebrating the Holy Eucharist, find such theater incongruous at times, reminiscent of pagan rituals. It is, however, worth noting and understanding that the various branches within Christianity remember this day and this night in a way that touches the hearts of their people in the particular way that makes sense to them – some do it with words, others with images, smells, and sounds that bless or even assault the senses. What this reveals to us is that the drama needs to be remembered, not for the sake of the one who died on that Friday outside Jerusalem, but for our sake. Memory and ritual have value, they provide catharsis and offer healing.

In St. John’s story, despite the simplicity of the telling, the lack of adjectives, or any kind of embellishment, it is the details that capture our attention and make us hold our breath.

– A maid is tending a gate and two of Jesus’ friends need to enter the courtyard. One friend is known to the high priest, the other is not; so the one who is able pulls strings to get Peter inside the gate.
– A woman looks at Peter and asks a question that he answers with a lie.
– A fire is lit and cold men, who think they bear no guilt because they are simply following orders, are warming themselves. Again a question is asked and denied.
– A policeman strikes the Son of God.
– A disciple who loves him denies knowing him for the third time.
– Somewhere in the yard, a rooster crows.

These are details that on reading may be missed but that in knowing cut us through the heart.

These details are followed by one of the most ironic sentences in all history: “They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover.”  Did even one of them wonder what it is that really defiles us – coming in contact with those we consider pagans, the obvious sinners, or the murderous desires of our hearts? Did any of them remember the words of Jesus on what it is that defiles us? The writer doesn’t tell us. But for them, the participants, it is enough that they could pretend their hands were clean so that they could eat their sacred meal.

Later they are going to argue about another detail – the inscription put on the cross, the one that read: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” No, no, they argue, write that “he said, ‘I am king of the Jews.’” But what is written, is written. It remains as it was written, throughout eternity.

The writer of the gospel continues with the details that give such authenticity to the story – the next one deals with something as ordinary as a tunic. To us who buy clothes so easily these days, off the rack, without a thought of how a garment was put together, this is remarkable. In those days every piece of cloth had to be woven by hand. Jesus’ tunic was seamless. It had been woven in one piece from the top with openings for the head and arms. Someone who loved him must have woven that necessary piece of clothing. And the soldiers noticed it and tossed the dice for it. A mundane detail, poignant only for the woman who wove that tunic for the one she loved.

But it is the last detail that breaks the heart of everyone born of a woman. Jesus did not forget his mother. Right before breath left his body he asked his dearest friend to look after the heart-broken woman who had given him birth.

And finally the great cry of “It is finished!”  For those who heard it that day it was the end of hope, the end of everything that was good. As we all know when a loved one dies, anything reminding us of ordinary life after that death seems like an insult. This is the end. It is impossible that the sun will rise again. For those who had lived with him, who had heard his words, who had seen his signs, this was the end. For those of us who know the continuation of the story, the words have a different meaning. Tomorrow light will break forth once again. Yes, but for this hour, we honor the darkness.

— Katerina K. Whitley is the author of Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross (Morehouse, 2004) and Seeing for Ourselves: Biblical Women Who Met Jesus (Morehouse, 2001).