Friday, April 14, 2006

Jesus is dead.

Jesus is dead.

The life - the promise - the light that shone so brightly has been extinguished. All that remains of the rabbi from Nazareth is a broken body and the broken dreams of his scattered followers. The Kingdom he proclaimed has not come. The powerful remain powerful: the oppressed remain oppressed -- and where there had been hope there is only despair. This is the stark truth of this day we call "Good Friday."

What is there in that message for us today?

Let's be honest: we already know that this is not the end of the story. We gather for our Good Friday services with the Easter dress hanging in our closet; the flowers ordered; the brunch planned and the candy ready to go in the baskets.

We've peeked at the last chapter to see how the book comes out. We've seen this movie before and know that there's a happy ending.

One question is: Can we be present in the reality of Good Friday, knowing that Easter happens?

Another question: Why bother? Couldn't we just skip Good Friday? Clearly that's an option. Look around you: I think I'm safe in saying that there'll be a few more folks in church on Sunday morning than there are today. Folks who go straight from Palm Sunday to Easter Day without the Holy Week stuff. Couldn't we just skip this part -- why dwell on it? We just heard the story of the crucifixion on Palm Sunday: just like we've heard it every year. Can we hear it again in a way that isn't just "the same old thing"?

When my children were tiny, I sang in the choir at St. Paul's in Ventura. Since their father attended church sporadically, it fell to my friends Bruce and Lori to "pew sit", and so my boys joined their two girls, Kimmie & Alex during many a service. I remember one such occasion when from the choir loft, during the reading of the passion, I looked down and saw all four of them -- intently coloring on the back of their bulletins – seeming oblivious to the liturgy surrounding them. All of a sudden, Kimmie, who was about four, stopped coloring and began to listen to the unfolding story.

She'd been in church since before she was born – an embryonic Episcopalian: which is one better than a "Cradle Episcopalian." So she'd heard this story many times, even for such a little one. She could sing "There is a Green Hill Far Away" from memory. She had filled up her "He is Risen" coloring book. But on this particular day, she was listening like she'd never heard the story before.

When the gospel got to the words, "because he was already dead", she suddenly stood up and said (in a loud, horror-filled voice) "Jesus is DEAD? They KILLED JESUS????" And she started to cry in a way that made it very clear: this story she'd heard over and over again she had just heard, in some very profound way, for the first time.

At four years old, she entered into the pain and suffering of the crucifixion event -- and in experiencing that pain herself, was changed by it. And, as she was carried out of church, inconsolable on her daddy's shoulder, so were we.

I am baffled by how we can hear these stories of Lent and Holy Week and not be changed by them. Don't we get it? Who was it that was upset by Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead? Who was repelled by the teachings of Jesus? Who felt that Jesus was teaching false doctrine? Who wanted this man to "go away"?

It was the righteous; the orthodox; the people who knew how to do it correctly. It was the keepers of the Law. It was the people who knew the rules: and knew how to make sure everyone else kept them. How can we hear this message - this story - and not be confronted by that? By the sin of self-righteousness in the voices who cried "Hosanna" and turned so quickly to the crowd which cried "Crucify Him". And crucify him they did. The crowd got what they asked for.

I don't want to be part of that crowd. I don't want you to be part of that crowd. I don't want the church to be part of that crowd. But that's the risk we run if we skip Good Friday. If we fast-forward to Easter, we avoid confronting in ourselves our own self-righteousness, our own certainties, our own fears. We also avoid being transformed by them.

Robert Shahan, the Bishop of Arizona, once said, "Faith is what you are willing to die for. Dogma is what you are willing to kill for."

Jesus is dead.

He came with a willingness to die for the sake of the message that the Kingdom of God is at hand. It is here. It is now. He came with a message of inclusiveness and compassion.
Compassion is what Kimmie experienced on that Good Friday: compassion in the truest sense of the word. The Latin word for passion means "suffering": the combined form of "compassion" means "with suffering." It is an invitation to join, to be a part of something requiring sacrifice and often pain. For us, this evening, it is an invitation to join and be part of the crucifixion story.

Not a very inviting invitation, is it? Not a message that sells any better in Pasadena than it did in Jerusalem. Like the disciples who fled from the Garden of Gethsemane, we don't want a dead rabbi: we want a Risen Lord.

The paradox is that it's precisely because we have already experienced the Resurrection that we can enter into the crucifixion: not just on Good Friday, but wherever and whenever we face the choice between self-righteousness and compassion.

What we have to offer is a faith to die for: not a dogma to kill for. What we have to proclaim is a Gospel of that can truly enter into those places of darkness and suffering where compassion is the only gift we have to give. It is ours to give, as the Body of Christ, because our Lord went there first. It is ours to give when we reach out to the oppressed and the persecuted. It is ours to give whether we proclaim the Gospel to those who have never heard it before: or to those who have never before heard that the Good News of God in Christ includes them.

We are at crucial point in the symphony that is Holy Week. Palm Sunday was our overture: touching on all the themes to be played throughout the week and leading us into the subsequent movements. And now we've arrived at Good Friday: in some ways the "adagio" of the piece. In the hours between now and the "allegro" of Easter, we sit in the silence and contemplate the power of this story that is ours.
Jesus is dead.

May God give us the grace to enter with compassion into the death of Our Lord -- even as we prepare with Joy to Celebrate His Resurrection. Amen.


Catherine said...

Thank you Susan, your message resonates with my priest's message today. The Rev Anne Bartlett and the Rev Tom Murphy instilled in us today that without this piece of the "symphony" how can we truly know the joy of Easter morning; well, we really can't and understand it as well as feel it in our very bones. May God in Her wisdom continue to give us shepherds like you and, Anne, and Tom. Amen.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Susan for a very inspiring and thought-provoking message.
Rev'd Peter Weeks,
Uniting Church in Australia

Anonymous said...

AFter the candles on the chancel had been extingiushed at All Saints Tenebrae service last night, I waited in silence, knowing that this is the part in the liturgy where someone brings back the lit candle, yet I found myself praying, "bring back the Light, bring back the Light.." Its arrival brought me to tears and the reminder that yes, there is darkness, grief, evil in the world that I cannot close my eyes to, but God has provided hope, comfort, strength and joy for the journey because "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

africantrekker said...

I remember hearing this last year from you and thinking she's on to something. So as I read this, I knew that I needed to post.

At the Good Friday, overnight vigil in a nearly empty church , I started thinking about the drama of Holy Week and how so many just come at the beginning and the end of this drama without being witness to the "in between" moments.

Skipping Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Holy Week is akin to starting at Step One in AA and then skipping straight to Step 12 without all the painfully hard work in between the beginning and the end. We want to be sober and to have a great life but we're not willing to do all the work to get where we want to go. Yes, we get to step 12 quicker by skipping steps 2 through 11 but the resurrection and transformation isn't as amazing as if we had really trudged the road.

These uncomfortable and soul searching "in between" moments bring us closer to the God who loves us beyond infinity, to Jesus who walked with us and to who we are really called to be.

Thanks for jogging my memory.

Chip Webb said...

Rev. Susan,

Much of this sermon is truly wonderful. It's well-written and the stories are moving.

But -- and I'm sure you can guess where I'm going already -- the whole bit regarding orthodoxy is the biggest problem. It ignores several facts:

*The Pharisees were known not for adhering to the letter of the law, but actually for having constructed rules that went beyond what Scripture said.

*Jesus himself sometimes explicated the law more stringently than the Pharisees would: do not just avoid committing the act of adultery, but keep yourself from committing adultery through lust; do not only love your enemies, but love them at great sacrifice to your own comfort; etc.

*The disciples were certainly thoroughly orthodox in their beliefs, not just the crowd crying "Hosanna."

So you cannot just dismiss the orthodox so quickly. Being orthodox is not necessarily synonymous with being unloving. In fact, it rarely is. The very one who indeed ate with tax collectors and sinners also proclaimed himself to be the way, the truth, and the life.

Peace of Christ,

Chip Webb said...

One more thought, Rev. Susan: the traditional Christian understanding is that we ALL are responsible for the Lord Jesus Christ's death on the cross. It was the sins for which every human being who ever has or will live commits that provided the reason for which he went to the cross. (Think of "Ah, Holy Jesus.") As Bono once wrote:"I was there when they crucified my Lord/I held the scabbard as the soldier drew his sword/I was there when they pierced his side/But I've seen love conquer the great divide" (from "When Love Comes to Town").

Talk about inclusion? We're all responsible for sending the Son of God to the cross.

Chip Webb said...

Sorry, my memory had failed me in the last post: The exact lyric was "I rolled the dice when they pierced his side."

Peace of Christ,