Since last Tuesday I’ve been thinking a lot about Barack Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race. Actually, I’ve been thinking less about the speech itself than about the reaction to it. While most people who heard it have spoken about it in grateful and even glowing terms, a fair number of responders have remained angry that Obama failed to renounce his relationship with his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.
As I understand their argument, they find Wright’s preaching offensive because it makes a forceful critique of white America’s treatment of African Americans—both historically and in the present day. According to Wright’s critics, his preaching continues to mention painful and oppressive realities in our national history: slavery, racism, discrimination, and tacit governmental policies which penalize drug use in radically different ways for blacks and whites. Clearly, Wright offends many of his white critics because he continues to talk about painful things they would just as soon forget or ignore. Wherever one stands in the American political spectrum, it is clear that few of us like regularly to be reminded of human pain, suffering, and loss. Witness how quickly we forget our history. Witness how even our situation comedies—even when they take on a painful subject at all—usually resolve it with the sharing of some lessons learned and a group hug.
Our culture does not know what to do with suffering. When the Declaration of Independence said that we humans were entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, it set in motion a culture which would increasingly organize itself around happiness as a definable and worthwhile life goal. But the other side of “happiness” is the stigmatization of those whom we define as “unhappy”. If you live in a neighborhood like this one, you will never see a really poor person unless you seek one out. And over the course of the last hundred or so years we have relegated the aging and the sick and the dead to ever more marginal zones of our collective consciousness.
You and I live in what one of my seminary professors used to call an “eighteenth century museum,” by which he meant the United States of America. A national culture which combines Enlightenment optimism with two hundred years of slavery, gun violence, consumer capitalism, and stigmatization of the poor, produces a culture which comes to define the good as that which maximizes my experience, the bad as that which delimits it. “If I’ve only got one life to live, let me live it as a blonde.” “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” As a result, we live in a culture which only knows how to process pleasure and does not know what to do with suffering. And when radical preachers remind us that, whether we acknowledge it or not, suffering persists and might even be on the increase in our country and around the world, something in us wishes that they would shut up about all that, or at least that their more famous parishioners would disown them.
It’s as denizens of this eighteenth century museum, citizens of this happiness culture, that you and I approach the cross this afternoon. Because, like the preaching of Jeremiah Wright, what happens here makes absolutely no sense if our definition of the good life is centered on an idea of happiness as that life’s goal. Jesus goes to the cross, not as someone intent on maximizing his own experience of life. Jesus goes to the cross because his life is organized around some other ideas. And it is those other ideas I would like to think with you about for the next few minutes.
Listen again to the Epistle from Palm Sunday’s lectionary, the famous hymn from the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God,did not regard equality with Godas something to be exploited,but emptied himself,taking the form of a slave,being born in human likeness.And being found in human form,he humbled himselfand became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross.—Philippians 2.5-8
As opposed to a life organized around an idea of happiness, Jesus’s life was organized around another principle—one of “self emptying” or kenosis as the theologians call it. Jesus “emptied himself”, as Paul says, he “humbled himself”, becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Jesus could do that because he understood that the point of his life had little or nothing to do with happiness as you and I would define it. Jesus’s life was one lived in solidarity with the very people our culture would seek to ignore—the ones we would call the sufferers, the ones our society always attempts to marginalize. When Jesus sat down at a table, he did so with the poor, the sick, the ritually unclean, those considered disreputable. Jesus organized his life around the idea of solidarity with all human beings and particularly with those whom the so-called “happy would” want to exclude from their line of vision. And in going to the cross, he identified himself even with those who are seen by the state and the religious establishment as its enemies.
We can understand the theological meaning of Jesus’s death on the cross in many different ways. But central to all of them is the idea of Jesus’s self-emptying, his willingness—“contentedness” as the old Prayer Book had it—to be counted among even the most despised and rejected of human beings. Jesus died as a crucified enemy of the state, a threat to the social order. And because of the ignominy of that death, we have tried to spiritualize it, to rationalize it, to make it beautiful or sentimental or understandable. But it isn’t any of those things. It’s as beautiful and sentimental and understandable as the electric chair, the gallows, the gas chamber, the lethal injection. And if we are going to seek to understand Jesus and his God at all, we are going to have to get our heads around the discomforting truth that the One we call Lord and the One he calls his Father understood how desperately important it was and is for God to be seen as at one with those whom the world and its structures have disavowed. God is on the cross with those whom the happiness culture will not look at and cannot understand. God is on the cross with us when we stand with those others. God is on the cross with us when we are those others ourselves.
Near the close of our liturgy today, we will say a prayer which has always meant a lot to me, and which always hovers somewhere around the edges of my consciousness at a time of death and during a funeral and its aftermath. Because if I am at all honest with myself, the reason I come to Good Friday has less to do with its place in the Easter drama than it does in my own quest to understand what significance this self-emptying of Jesus to death on a cross could have for me. And what always helps me make sense of it is this prayer which says, in its old-fashioned yet eloquent way, that some kind of transaction occurs at the cross which has life-changing consequences for you and for me. Because Jesus was willing to empty himself and stand with those who have no one else to stand with them, God now sees not only him and them but you and me in a new way. When God looks at us now, God sees not only the fallen, failed, sinful human beings we know ourselves to be. When God looks at us in the light of Jesus’s self-emptying journey to the cross, God now sees what we look like in the light of Jesus and his faithfulness. That’s what this prayer says, and here is how it says it:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray you to setyour passion, cross, and death between your judgment andour souls, now and in the hour of our death. Give mercy andgrace to the living; pardon and rest to the dead; to your holyChurch peace and concord; and to us sinners everlasting lifeand glory; for with the Father and the Holy Spirit you liveand reign, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
As I read this prayer, it says that God will not disown us now nor in the hour of our death. God will not do that because God sets Jesus’s “passion, cross, and death” between God’s judgment and our souls. God, in other words, is not afraid of our suffering and will not seek to ignore or disown us because of our failure or finitude or frailty. God knows what to do with suffering. So did Jesus. So should we. May we take from that knowledge grace and strength to acknowledge our own suffering and to stand with those who have no one else to stand with them, except of course Jesus, whose love and faithfulness and self-emptying we give thanks for today. Amen.