Friday, April 2, 2010
Homily: Good Friday [April 2, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook
The cross is where we come to offer up and contemplate the meaning of our suffering. Human life is characterized by goodness, community, and love. It is also marked by aggression, loneliness, and loss. The story of the Garden of Eden is as much an expression of our wish as our memory. We long for an existence without the presence of sin, death, loss, and pain. But our experience of the world tells us otherwise. Human beings bring Jesus—God incarnate, exemplary human being—to the cross. And here we witness the worst kinds of suffering that human beings can inflict on each other.
So far this year we have seen earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, massacres of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, and a continued spate of terrorist bombings in Afghanistan, Iraq, and twice this week in Moscow. Such widespread suffering on such a massive scale always prompts a thoughtful person to ask, “Where is God in all of this?” We human beings are meaning-making creatures, so it is tempting to read disasters as if they were messages from God. Though some preachers seem to be able to interpret catastrophes with confidence, I am never sure about that. Along with the prophet Jeremiah [Lamentations 3.33] I believe that God does not “willingly afflict or grieve anyone.” But I continue to be troubled by God’s persistent silence. We live in a culture where seemingly everyone talks ceaselessly about their own miseries. Is it too much to ask God to join in the conversation?
The writer Amy Bloom was interviewed recently about growing up the granddaughter of Eastern European Jews who had fled the pogroms in Lithuania for the U.S. early in the twentieth century. To the surprise of her interviewer, Bloom explained that her grandparents never talked about their lives in Eastern Europe before coming to America. “How do you explain their reticence?” he asked. She responded,
“They were not part of the Oprah generation. They didn’t feel that if you told everybody how terrible your life had been, somebody would give you a car. They thought that if you told everybody how terrible your life was, they would probably ask you to go back.” [BBC Radio 3 Nightwaves 3/8/10]
Because today is Good Friday, it is not inappropriate for us to think about our problems. Because we are human, we can imagine a life without struggles or trials, persecutions or pains. And because we are human, our experience of life will always necessarily include the unpleasant as well as the good. If the cross means anything, it means that God has taken on and experienced our sufferings and our losses. So if God has experienced human suffering, that suffering must now count for something. God knows what it is like to be you and me. It is OK to acknowledge that life doesn’t always give us what we want from it.
Today is, the day in the church year when we walk with Jesus from arrest and trial to his death on the cross. Like Amy Bloom’s Eastern European Jewish grandparents, Jesus as we meet him in John’s Gospel does not say much about how terrible his life has been. But even seeing it from the outside, as we do, we know that this is not the ending to his story that Jesus had asked for or imagined. But it is one he could have predicted. The choice, for Jesus, was always about keeping faith who he was, to doing what God had appointed him to do. As one who loved and healed and taught and gathered people to his open table, Jesus risked offending the systems that would keep people subjugated and alone. As one who loved life and lived it abundantly, his very exuberance proved a dangerous way to live in an oppressive and fearful climate. But even a cursory reading of the Gospels will convince you that Jesus loved the life that Good Friday demanded he lose.
In the great East window of Christ Church (above the altar, behind me) there is a vignette unlike any I have seen in anywhere in stained glass. It depicts Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying, in the words of Luke’s Gospel, "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done." Up above this scene the window depicts an empty, open hand gesturing down toward Jesus. Why is that hand empty? Is it because God the Father will not intervene? Is it empty because God the Father cannot intervene? The window, like the Bible, poses, but does not answer, those questions.
We talk a lot about power when we talk about God. Our symbol is the cross, itself an instrument of coercive force. The earliest Christians did not use the cross as their symbol. They used the lamb, the emblem of one who is powerless. What we see this day and have seen all this week, is a drama enacted between those who would wield power (the state, the church, the mob) and those who cannot or will not (Jesus and his followers, God.) If we are to understand what happens today, we must look at it against the backdrop of our window’s depiction of God’s empty hand. The Passion and Death of Jesus are not about some divine king sending his beloved son to be tortured and killed. The Passion and Death of Jesus are about God’s refusal to resort to human tactics of aggression and revenge.
When I worked at All Saints, Pasadena in the 1990s, Archbishop Desmond Tutu came several times to preach and talk about his work in South Africa. In one talk he said that there are things worse than death. One person in the group questioned him. “What do you mean, Archbishop, when you say there are things worse than death? What could possibly be worse than death?” Tutu replied: "For me, one of the worst things would be if I woke up one day and said to people, 'I think apartheid is not so bad.' For me, this would be worse than death." Jesus goes to the cross in that spirit. Jesus loves life, but for him there are things worse than death. Breaking faith with his companions would be worse than death. Standing with imperial power against those who are abused by it would be worse than death. Ceasing to care about the poor, the sick, the lonely, the bereaved--all these would be worse for Jesus than death. It is more important for Jesus to stand with all God’s fragile, wounded creatures than it is even to live the abundant life he loves.
As you and I take our place at the cross today, let us keep in mind the image of that empty, open hand in the great East Window of Christ Church Cranbrook. We are taking part in a drama where the ones with power seek to deploy it while the One with real authority refuses to use it. Jesus is given over into the hands of wicked people not because God is cruel but because God stands with those who get run over by life. Yes, in the window, God’s hand is empty; but it is also open. That openness is a gesture of good will. There are no tricks up God’s sleeve, no jokers in the deck. God refuses to wield weapons against us. And God reaches out to us to lead us into a new way of being with each other. A way, in the words of Northrop Frye, “based on trust instead of threats.”
In the crucifixion of Jesus, God has experienced human suffering at its most painful and profound. God has stood with us in the worst kind of human experience. This means two things for us. First, it means that the One we pray to is not some distant powerful cosmic king. The One we pray to is a lonely, dying, man of sorrows and griefs. That One hears us in the way a cosmic king couln’t but a fellow sufferer could. Second, it means that God calls us to stand together with Jesus and with all those who suffer. So, because of the cross, these two things are now true for us. The God we pray to is One who knows what it is to be us, to be weak and fragile and lonely and lost. And that One opens a hand to extend to us as we walk with Jesus to his death and then on to new and risen life.
Here is how Paul puts it in a reading from his letter to the Philippians that we read earlier this week:
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 God
as 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 himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
Jesus went to the cross because he knew that there were things worse than death. It was more important to Jesus to take the form of a one with no power and no status than it was to insist on his own dignity. It was more important to Jesus to stand against the forces that destroy life and belittle human beings than it was to have the titles and symbols of power which Caesar and Pilate and Herod so desperately coveted. Jesus did not want to die. But the freedom and compassion with which he lived gave him no other choice. And it is because he emptied himself to death on a cross that you and I can choose to live differently—a life based on trust instead of threats--too.
It is toward freedom and compassion that God’s empty open hand beckons you and me this Good Friday. We can live as free and compassionate people because Good Friday is not finally tragic. The story does not end today. What comes next is Easter. Here is Paul again:
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. [Philippians 2:5-11]