a Good Friday faith

a sermon, based on John 18.1-19.37, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Good Friday, April 14, 2017

Jesus, according to John the evangelist, was not a prophet, preacher, healer, rabbi, even miracle worker. Jesus was the divine logos, the divine word. The creative, animating power of the universe. The cosmic intelligent designer incarnate. Jesus was the human enfleshment of all that is holy; all that is greater, other than everything else. Jesus was God’s son, verily, God.[1]

Words fail us, as they failed John, in attempting to articulate this mystery (not a riddle to resolve by reason, but a reality beyond the reach of fullest comprehension) of a God who creates, who is life and who dies a death that we, this Good Friday, gather to contemplate.

Crucifixion (1880), Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins (1844-1916)

I wonder. As Jesus was God’s Son (if he was only a prophet, preacher, healer, rabbi, or miracle worker, I wouldn’t wonder!), why did he have to die?

Why didn’t legions of angels come and rescue him? Satan, during the wilderness temptations, posed the possibility; suggesting to Jesus that God’s angels wouldn’t allow any harm to come to him, thereby proving he was God’s Son.[2] Jesus refused to put God to the test.[3]

So, if not that, why didn’t Jesus supernaturally, triumphantly dislodge the nails in his hands and feet and come down from the cross; astounding the soldiers, electrifying the crowds, gladdening the hearts of his mother and disciples? If Jesus, with a cosmic flourish, had leapt from the cross that would have been a story worth remembering and retelling, rivaling the church’s two millennia-old proclamation of Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection!

Imagine! What if that had happened? What if, in response to the contemptuous catcalls of the crowd (“He saved others, but he can’t save himself. Let him come down from the cross, so we may see and believe”[4]), he had come down? There would be no ambiguity or uncertainty, no doubt about his identity. Therefore, no need for faith.

Ah, that’s precisely the point. The need, our need for faith.

Jesus’ death was an act of faith. His faith in God expressed, enfleshed in his life and ministry of seeking the outcast and oppressed, siding with the least and last as first in the heart of God. His faith that inevitably led him into conflict with secular and religious authorities, whose insatiable political appetites for the mutual appeasement of quid pro quo and the maintenance of the status quo could not tolerate Jesus’ radically revolutionary message. His faith that compelled him to follow the course of his chosen destiny all the way to the end: Death. No half steps, back steps, or side steps. No cheap, even spectacular theatrics like coming down from the cross. No. Death. Only death.

On this Good Friday, as we contemplate Jesus’ death, let us read his story as our own. As Jesus needed faith, so do we. There is much in life beyond our control. We need faith. There is much around life’s proverbial corner, in the next day, hour, moment that we don’t, can’t see. We need faith. There is much about ourselves we don’t, can’t know. We, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, “look into a mirror dimly.”[5] We cannot always, perhaps ever be sure of who it is we see. We need faith in something, Someone greater than we.

Still, we do know that we are creatures with a consciousness of our mortality. Like Jesus, our lives, our journeys to Jerusalem, include a Golgotha – that moment of our dying. Thus, though we gather this day to reflect on the death of Jesus, let us contemplate our own. For our awareness of the inevitability of death means that dying always is present in our living. As such, what difference can, does that make in how we live?

If our consciousness of our dying can be more than an occasional haunting reflection, more than a sudden, unbidden and unwanted flash of recognition, more than a momentary reminder that life in this world is an inherently terminal reality…

If our awareness that each passing moment brings us nearer to our dying is a sign of our acceptance that we share in the universal experience of all humankind…

Then perhaps we can live with greater, more faithful purpose. Like Jesus. Less selfishly and more selflessly. Less for ourselves and more for others. Then we can reach our life’s end like Jesus, saying, “It is finished.”[6]

If that is so, then I believe that our “Fridays”, our dying days, will be good.

 

Illustration: Crucifixion (1880), Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins (1844-1916)

Footnotes:

[1] See John 1.1-5, 10-14, 16-18: 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 came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 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…He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

[2] Matthew 4.6; Luke 4.9-11

[3] Matthew 4.7; Luke 4.12

[4] Mark 15.31-32

[5] 1 Corinthians 13.12

[6] John 19.30

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 39, Good Friday, April 14, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On Good Friday: O Jesus, through Your life and ministry, especially with the disenfranchised and dispossessed, the least and the last, all whom You claimed as first in the sight of Your Abba, Father, You confronted and convicted the status quo of power and privilege held in the hands of the few and lorded over the many.

For this, You, Love and Justice incarnate, by fear and hatred were condemned and crucified.

For this, You, Who welcomed all, were deceived by one of Your own with a betraying kiss from bitter lips, despised by those into whose hands You were led, denied and deserted by Your followers and, as You, from the Cross of Your suffering and dying, dared to cry out, by God.[1]

Crucifixion (1894), Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge (1831-1894)

As the prophesied sword of anguish pierced the soul of the watching, weeping Blessed Mary, Your mother,[2] by the power of Your Spirit, erect and establish Your cross at the heart of my living, that I, dying to my selfish-self, never abandon You in the disenfranchised and dispossessed, the last and the least, the still constantly crucified of this world. Amen.

Pieta (c.1560), Luis de Morales (1512-1586)

 

Illustrations:

Crucifixion (1894), Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge (1831-1894)

Pieta (c.1560), Luis de Morales (1512-1586)

Footnotes:

[1] See Matthew 27.46 and Mark 15.34: And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Amidst his sorrow, sensing his abandonment by God, I take great heart that Jesus did not abandon, forsake, or otherwise forswear God. For Jesus, relying on scripture (Psalm 22.1; my emphasis), cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His abiding address to God as “my” I interpret as his bounden belief in and continued call upon the One in whom he placed his ultimate trust.

[2] See Luke 2.25-35 (especially verses 34-35, my emphasis): There was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed, and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

“My God, why?”

a sermon, based on Matthew 26.14-27.66, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017

“Ēli, Ēli, lema sabachthani?”[1]

Of all the words of Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” ring in undeniable harmony with the human cry of sorrow and shame provoked by the experience of betrayal and abandonment.

Jesus was betrayed by Judas with a kiss.[2]

Kiss of Judas (1304–06), Giotto (1266-1337), Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

I wonder. What kind of kiss was it? An apologetic, ambivalent brush against the cheek; Judas, for the sake of his own survival, with the opposition against Jesus growing fiercer by the day, turned him in, but now had second thoughts? Or a bruising, resentful crush of lips on lips; Judas, disappointed, angry that Jesus wasn’t as he had hoped, a mighty militant Messiah who would run the Romans out of Palestine? Or a mercenary, eyes-wide-open peck on the forehead; Judas, for purely material gain, selling Jesus out for thirty pieces of silver?

Whatever. It really doesn’t matter. Judas betrayed Jesus with an act of familiarity, even fealty.

Anything like this ever happen to us? Anything like this ever been done by us? Severing a relationship with a loving gesture; a kiss or a seemingly tender word, for example, the now-proverbial, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Jesus was abandoned by Peter, the chief disciple.

The Denial of Saint Peter (1610), Caravaggio (1571-1610)

Peter declared his loyalty to Jesus. “I’ll never desert you!”[3] Then, under the pressure of self-preservation, his confidence overcome by cowardice, he blurted out his betrayal, “I do not know the man!”[4]

Anything like this ever happen to us or been done by us? Standing apart from another, even a former dear friend. Ignoring phone calls and email. Averting the eyes to evade a needy look. Avoiding past meeting places and potentially awkward encounters. Perhaps, in fairness to ourselves, under the pressure of changing circumstance, not knowing what to say or do, nevertheless, acting as if the other didn’t exist.

Jesus was betrayed by Pilate, the Roman governor.

Pilate Washing His Hands (c. 1655-1660), Luca Giordano (1634-1705)

Pilate believed Jesus was innocent. Yet, bowing to mob-rule, he symbolically washed his hands;[5] for the sake of political expediency, abdicating his responsibility to do the admittedly risky, but right thing and free Jesus.

Anything like this ever happen to us or been done by us? Having the authority, the ability to act to benefit another, yet, in response to our preference or prejudice or fear, choosing not; thus, leaving the other to face loss or to lose face.

My point? Jesus’ experience reflects, is our experience. People fail us. We fail people. We know the experience of Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial, and Pilate’s dismissal in receiving and giving. It never feels good, never is good when it happens, whether to us or by us.

Yet more…most devastating, Jesus was abandoned by God.

Crucifixion (c. 1618-1620), Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

“My God, why have you forsaken me?” This is the prayer of one who believed he was following, fulfilling his life’s calling, yet found himself plunged into a bottomless pit of lonely Godforsaken suffering. “My God” (I do not question your existence, but) “why have you forsaken me?” (I do question your silence!).

Anything like this ever happen to us? Believing, trusting in God, then, at a time of crisis, at a critical, crucial, crucifying moment our calls, our cries for help answered by silence; feeling abandoned and the absolute absence of any sense or solution. We pray it doesn’t happen often, for it’s the sort of thing from which we don’t, can’t recover soon or at all.

Jesus cried, “My God, why?” I wonder. What did Jesus think, feel when the divine response was a deafening silence. Matthew doesn’t speculate, telling us only that “Jesus cried again…and breathed his last.”[6]

Perhaps this is the lesson of the cry of Jesus, the lesson of the cross, the lesson of any crucifixion. To yield to the experience. To surrender in the fight to find sense amid nonsense. Metaphorically, but no less truly, to breathe one’s last. For only then, if there is to be a resurrection, can it come.

 

Illustrations:

Kiss of Judas (1304–06), Giotto (1266-1337), Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

The Denial of Saint Peter (1610), Caravaggio (1571-1610)

Pilate Washing His Hands (c. 1655-1660), Luca Giordano (1634-1705)

Crucifixion (c. 1618-1620), Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 27.46

[2] Matthew 26.49-50

[3] Matthew 26.33

[4] Matthew 26.72, 74

[5] Matthew 27.24

[6] Matthew 27.50

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 19, Wednesday, March 22, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On (re-)learning to pray: O Jesus, Your disciples bid, “Lord, teach us to pray.”[1] You answered with what, through the ages, is known as Your prayer, The Lord’s Prayer, for thus You spoke; though, surely, You did not mean it to be so-called, for in giving it to us, it is our prayer, The Disciples’ Prayer. And I am ever grateful for this, another of Your sacred offerings of gifts that continue to give. For, doubtless, the times are countless when I, in my life of prayer, have said the words, “Our Father, Who art in heaven…”

Still, O Jesus, numberless, too, are the times I yearn to bid that You, “Teach me to pray.” For oft I call out, I cry out to You with a mouth dry as a discarded potsherd,[2] with a gravelly voice laden with care whose sound I despise uttering feeble words of rote petitions and intercessions;  passionless, lifelessly ghostly orisons without pattern or purpose!

O Jesus, my spirit is willing. Thus, though weak my flesh, I sleep not, but watch with You through many a night,[3] beseeching that You teach me to pray! Teach me that for which and those for whom I am to pray! Teach me how!

O Jesus, by Your Spirit, refresh my mouth, revive my voice, renew my words! Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] Luke 11.1: (Jesus) was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John (the Baptizer) taught his disciples.”

[2] Here, I think of the language and imagery of Psalm 22.15a: My mouth is dried up like a potsherd and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.

[3] My reference to the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane who, accompanying Jesus as He prayed to God, the shadow of the cross of His crucifixion looming over Him, could not fulfill Jesus’ command, “Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial”, leading Him to say, “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26.41, Mark 14.38).

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 13, Wednesday, March 15, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On following, not worshiping Jesus (in the spirit of Verna Josephine Dozier):[1] O Jesus, You came amongst us, a Messiah without a messiah-complex, not to be served, but rather to serve through Your willing sacrifice of Your Self unto death for our sake.[2] In this, You, as my way, my truth, my life,[3] call me to follow You, not to worship You in respectful admiration, even reverent adulation. Thus, when my piety would have me only stand at the foot of Your cross, staring upward at Your broken Body in wondrous appreciation, by Your Spirit, send me away to follow You into the world to give my self away in sacrificial service. Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] Verna Josephine Dozier 2 (c 1995)Dr. Verna Josephine Dozier (1917-2006), a nationally known religious educator, biblical scholar, author, and one of my finest mentors, in her book, The Dream of God, which she described as the creation in harmonious relation between God and humankind, wrote of the distinction between “Worship (as) setting Jesus on a pedestal, distancing him, enshrining…him in liturgies, stained glass windows, biblical translations, medallions, pilgrimages to places where he walked…Following him is doing what he did…Following is discipleship” (The Dream of God: A Call to Return, Cowley Publications, 1991, page 98).

[2] See Matthew 20.28 and Mark 10.45: Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

[3] A reference to John 14.6a: Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”

my crucified Lord, crucify me!

thinking a personal reflection, based on Luke 23.33-43, for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, November 20, 2016.

(Note: Tomorrow, November 16, 2016, I will undergo a long overdue, much needed surgery. I’ll not be up and around on Sunday, November 20, to preach with my dear folk of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC. Oh, how I’ll miss seeing and being with them! Nevertheless, this personal reflection is something akin to what I might have said were I able to be up and about this coming Sunday!)

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The Last Sunday after Pentecost ends the half-year trek from the Day of Pentecost (this year, May 15, 2016); a period set aside to review and reflect more deeply on the Christian story told from Advent through the Easter season that will begin to be retold starting next Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent.

The Last Sunday after Pentecost, also known as Christ the King Sunday, bids the contemplation anew of who Jesus is as Lord, how Jesus reveals his Lordship, and, in that revelation, how to follow him.

a-view-from-the-cross-aka-what-our-lord-saw-from-the-cross-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum-new-york

Jesus, hanging on the cross, said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing”, repeating this word of pardon throughout his dying…

As “the people stood by watching.” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

As “the leaders scoffed at him, ‘He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

As “the soldiers mocked him, offering him sour wine, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

As “one of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

The leaders scoffing, the soldiers mocking, and the criminal deriding, sarcastically address Jesus with honorific titles, “God’s chosen one”, “the King of the Jews”, “the Messiah”, for they, beholding him die and believing the only demonstration or proof of his identity is that he saves himself, doubt him.

The second criminal, in contrast, speaks to his fellow sufferer with the intimacy of his name, “Jesus,” then in his request, an astonishing statement of faith, acknowledges who Jesus is, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answering, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise”, promises salvation in that eternal realm of God’s nearest, dearest presence.

That Jesus’ kingly throne is a cross, that his crucifixion and his dying are his demonstrations, his proofs of his kingly identity, that his last will and testament are words of forgiveness to those who witness and will his death and of salvation to a criminal who confesses that he deserves to die (“I have been condemned justly”), cause me, call me, command me to believe that all receive God’s mercy.[1]

In truth, I do believe that the universality of God’s forgiveness is precisely what Jesus, in his life and ministry, death and resurrection, reveals. Yet I, a self-interested and biased person, am not as unconditionally inclusive as Jesus. Not even close! If I was in Jesus’ place, it would be difficult, no, well-nigh impossible for me to forgive those who were watching me die and willing my death or, more truth to tell, to forgive even an honest criminal or, most truth to tell, to forgive anyone who judges another as unequal and lacking in human dignity based on gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, religion and spirituality, class and ability/disability or anyone who harms another creature or the creation.

In writing this, my soul shudders. For it means nothing more or less than that my will is so unaligned with Jesus, that my way of being and doing is so far removed from his, that he, in his way of being and doing, challenges, confronts how I think and feel, believe and act. This means that had I been there, as that haunting spiritual inquires, “when they crucified my Lord?”, I would have crucified him, too. This means, thanks be to God, that as the people watching, the leaders scoffing, the soldiers mocking and the criminal deriding Jesus, he would have forgiven me, verily, today, in my willful human sinfulness, he does forgive me! This means that what I am given, I am to give to others.

What? To anyone who judges another as unequal and lacking human dignity, who harms another creature or the creation, forgive them? Though, in following Jesus, I believe that I am to live and labor to challenge and confront those who, for any reason or cause, would demean others and destroy the creation, yes, I am to forgive them for they, I also believe, in relation to the way and will of God, know not what they are doing.

Jesus, my crucified Lord, crucify my prejudices that they may die that I may live to be as you are. Amen.

 

Illustration: A view from the cross (aka What Our Lord Saw from the Cross) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum, New York. Note: Many gather at the feet of Jesus, including Mary, his mother, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, John, his disciple, Roman soldiers and a centurion robed in red, and Jewish leaders on horseback. In the background is a tomb where Jesus’ body is to be interred.

Footnote:

[1] Here, I define mercy as God’s compassionate forbearance in withholding the condemnation that sinful humankind deserves; as opposed to grace being God’s unconditional benevolence in granting salvation that sinful humankind does not deserve.

an Advent meditation – through imagination’s eye, going out to see John, concluded

John the baptizer burst onto the scene with fiery temperament and intemperate tongue. With words that inflamed minds and ignited hearts. With urgency that suffered gladly neither the subtlest hypocrisy nor the simplest social nicety.

Why would anyone go out to see John? Perhaps, as I have imagined it, because his message resonated in the soul’s depths. People knew they were broken, dis-eased, in need of healing. In the directness of John’s language – penetrating the darkness of the defenses of our human pretensions through which we declare to the world (and, at times, delude ourselves) that all is well – they “heard” a word of light…

Light, not of happy-ever-after sweetness – which the world didn’t, doesn’t, and never will contain – but of truth…

Truth about repentance; turning around to face afresh one’s God, one’s self, one’s reality – all of it…

Repentance that can lead to new life…

New life that forsakes a flat-line existence that neither leaps in joy for fear that it won’t last nor enters fully the experience of sorrow for fear that it will last…

New life that faces and embraces the highest, most unspeakable joys and the deepest, most unspoken sorrows – love and hatred, trust and betrayal, connection and separation, intimacy and abandonment, life and death…

New life, facing and embracing all that is, in which one may find, paradoxically, peace; an awareness that one won’t, can’t be done in, destroyed by it all, for one is a part of something greater.

According to the biblical narrative, John embodied this truth in the story of his life. Not a happy-ever-after fantasy, but a non-fictional gritty reality. He was imprisoned and beheaded, yet he prepared the way for God’s coming in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. One who proclaimed the nearness of God’s kingdom in an authentic life; fully, unfailingly human, true to himself and true to his creator, who not denying, but facing into death was crucified. A crucifixion that was a prelude to resurrection. A resurrection that was a seed of a 2000-year and counting movement with a message of something greater – a never-ending love that, in the words of Paul, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Why wouldn’t anyone go out to see John?