THIS IS US
April 19, 2019
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
Gracious God, be with us as we ponder the extremes of love and violence, of compassion and revenge; on this day, that like Auschwitz, defies poetry. Help us not to lament casually… Amen.
Last night, sitting in the Maundy Thursday service, a line from Margaret’s sermon attacked me. It was the simple reminder about the betrayals Jesus knew he would suffer and yet he still washed the feet of everyone, including Judas, and we are called to do the same.
And I teared up because I knew I couldn’t, and the sting of some things from long ago, betrayals in my own life, resurfaced. It was not so much what was done to me, as what I took from it about my own inadequacy as a daughter and then a wife and even as a person.
Of course, I’m over it and have done tons of work but sometimes feelings, memories, can be reactivated in a heartbeat, as quickly as new pain pierces our skin, and church is a place where that it often happens because our defenses are down.
My point is that all emotions are acceptable today; there is no hierarchy of feelings. All are acceptable tonight; all will be overturned by love, which .+-is why my favorite part of the entire Bible is the story of the Prodigal Son. It is this story of unconditional love that I need to see on the Cross today.
There is no place to hide today, from the half-clad body nailed to a cross; from the cries of pain and the spilled blood; from the impossibly-bleak setting at a garbage dump on the outskirts of a troubled city; no place to hide from the violence, the disappointment, even from the questionable theology that Jesus “died for our sins” – that is, paid a price demanded by a blood-thirsty Creator.
You can’t domesticate Good Friday, tame it, clean it up and bring it home. You can’t force yourself to feel sadder than you really do; grieve more than you really can, or connect with the story in a way that eludes you.
God knows we’ve tried to sell it — commercialize the Cross– from cheap dangling earrings for sale on Etsy to the bejeweled antique pendant worn by Orthodox clergy on holy days. And of course, Easter has assumed gigantic commercial proportions with bunnies and baskets; chicks and candy; eggs – real and Cadbury Cream.
Holy Week is easily ignored by most Christians; Good Friday is one of the least-populated services of the church year. Is it because it’s too confusing? Too sad? Too intimate, as we are asked to sit at the bedside of a dying man? It’s easy to skip from the Palm Parade to the party tomorrow night and the lilies and alleluias of Easter morning.
Yet we are here, perhaps as “proof” of our desire to draw nearer somehow to God. Any proof needed that this is real is the yearning we feel in our hearts this minute.
This is us, today.
I’ve been thinking about what people expect from Christianity, what they want from it, and then what they think they often get, especially today. Speaking for myself, I want vindication; I want beauty; I want meaning. At first glance, none of these are major themes today, but having the courage to draw closer is what today is about.
First, I want to win.; I want vindication.
In 21st-century American terms, I am tired of having my values and deepest beliefs smashed in the public sphere; I am embarrassed by the lack of civility and grace displayed at the highest levels; I am heartbroken that words are no longer used to inspire but to ridicule, to mock rather than empathize, to avoid rather than clarify. I am appalled that science and research are ignored as the environment is poisoned; I am sickened by weaklings who think only of “their base” and not of the common good.
Most of all, I am scared, scared of those who think so differently from me, and of my inability to understand them. Right now I want a political savior to come with eloquence and common sense and power to change things.
Many first-century Jews wanted the same thing. They were exhausted by years of Roman rule, of being taxed beyond their limit and the resulting poverty, hunger and injustice at the hands of Roman oppressors. Their appointed “representatives” or intermediaries with the Empire were greedy, sadistic, insecure men such as Herod and Pilate. Jews who knew the Hebrew Scriptures believed they were promised a messiah, a savior who would take on Rome and win.
What they got was Jesus, called “a scandal to the Jews,” an itinerant rabbi who preached love and justice but threatened the Roman leadership enough to take him out. Politically, nothing really changed for the next thirty years when the Jews finally rebelled and the Romans destroyed their Temple in Jerusalem and soon murdered or enslaved what remained of the Jewish population. It was a decades-long massacre. Hardly a victory. Yet here we are, 2000 years later, still listening to his story.
On Good Friday, there is no winning, no vindication. Instead of a short- term political victory, what we get today is acceptance of how hard we try, how much we love, how often we feel we fall short. During this Holy Week, we receive divine validation of every single thing we have suffered. God in Jesus tells us that there is:
no wound so shameful,
no betrayal so scathing,
no pain so searing,
no loneliness so enduring,
no exhaustion so total,
no regret so bitter,
no sadness so unending,
no fear so terrifying,
no anxiety so crippling,
no cross so high,
no grave so deep,
that He will not have been there before us
to mark the way back. (1)
Beauty also is important to many of us. We are deeply fed by symmetry, color, design, the arts and the language of the heart. On Good Friday, there is no visual beauty. The setting is a garbage dump, an above-ground cemetery where bodies are dumped after crucifixion, a hideous place of death and suffering. There is no compensating greenery, no relief for the eye from the horror. At first glance….
Gardens are incarnations of beauty, and they have a subtle importance today. much of Creation begins in a garden called Eden, and according to John, Jesus is buried in a garden (after spending the night of trial in another garden: Gethsemane). Their beauty bookends the whole story.
The story itself is engulfed in sensory beauty. The writer Cynthia Bouregault observes that Mary Magdalene anoints Jesus twice: “At Bethany she sends him forth to the cross wearing the unction of her love (as she has anointed his feet with perfume.) On Easter morning she brings that same fragrance of love as she arrives at the tomb with spices and perfume, expecting to anoint the body. (2) Also in John we read that Nicodemus came to bury Jesus bringing a mixture of aloes and myrrh.
Jesus has been held in the fragrance of love throughout the entire passage, from Bethany to the tomb.
Vindication, yes, beauty, indeed but I also want meaning in my faith, meaning that is accessible and makes sense. I want to come here without having to check my brain at the door
I have spoken frequently about my inability to get my head around the idea of substitutionary atonement: that Jesus died “for our sins,” thereby wiping our slate clean with God. The Franciscan Richard Rohr says, “Of course, sacrificial imagery is used here, but the language of sacrifice is only one of several different ways that the authors of the New Testament articulate the meaning of Jesus’s execution. They also see it … as the defeat of the powers that rule this world by disclosing their moral bankruptcy, as revelation of the path of transformation [dying and rising], and as disclosure of the depth of God’s love for us. (3)
The Roman Catholic John Dominic Crossan concludes that Jesus died because of our sins – and not for our sins. (4)
There is “evil” in the world, suffering, because we have all been created with free will, and the choices we make and that others make hurt us and hurt the world. Jesus died because of these realities and because his message of love was too much for the world, too threatening, and I think it is still threatening because we, too, can be too self-absorbed to hear it, too tentative to embrace it, too overwhelmed to think we can make any difference, too busy to pay attention.
Today is Passover – a feast dear to Jesus – but the Jewish history of Good Friday is a litany of astounding violence from the Crusades in 1096, to the Inquisition in 1233, from the pogroms launched in Russia in 1881 to World War II when six million Jews were murdered in Europe, all attempts to defend the honor of Jesus by slaughtering his people. (5)
And today is also the 20th anniversary of Columbine; a week ago unspeakable horror at the Mall of America; and till we remember the murders at Mother Emmanuelle, Virginia Tech, and two days ago in Paris, Our Lady – Notre Dame engulfed in flames.
“Father forgive them for they do not now what they are doing,” Jesus says from the Cross. We all mean well, but have no idea of the harm we do with our actions and inaction, how we are hurting the world we have been given by careless choices and a quest for disposability and convenience. Every time I pick up a plastic bottle of water or soda, or a plastic spoon, or a straw, it is the same. I vow change but defer it for the moment. But some things really break through.
Like many of you, I deeply love animals – I always have — and when I heard that a great whale had died as a result of 80 pounds of plastic it had ingested from the ocean’s waters, I am trying to be more intentional in my choices, play fewer games with myself about them.
We are learning how thin the line of difference is separating us from other animals. We marvel at cute dog and cat videos on social media, but I am haunted by the image from New Zealand of a mother bottlenose dolphin carrying her dead calf on her back for days before she could let it go. The local news reported, “She has dropped the calf frequently as she tries to swim, and then circles back to retrieve it. The rest of the dolphin group has separated from the female, leaving her vulnerable.” (6) And last year, an endangered orca, a great whale, spent 17 days keeping her dead calf afloat. How can you not think of Michelangelo’s sculpture of Mary holding the dead body of Jesus? It is called “The Pieta,” an Italian word meaning “pity” and is the only piece of work Michelangelo ever signed. Grief and love transcend all boundaries. We are responsible for the creatures in the world.
Finally, one of my favorite writers, Barbara Brown Taylor, says this: “Today, on the quietest day of the year, we have come to sit in the presence of one who was fully who God created him to be every day of his life—who loved God with all his heart, mind and with all his soul, and with all his strength-and who loved his friends so much that he stepped into the ongoing traffic of death in order to push them out of the way. He furthermore did it with no more than the basic human equipment of a beating heart, two good hands, a holy vision and some companions who could see it too – thereby showing the rest of us humans that such a life is not beyond our reach. That alone is reason to call this Friday ‘good.’” (7)
- “Scars,” a sermon on Good Friday by the Rev. Barbara Mraz, 2018.
- Cynthia Bourgeault, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene.
- Richard Rohr blog, April 19, 2019
- John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week.
- Cited in Barbara Brown Taylor, “Father Forgive Them,’ in explorefaith.org, 2000.
- New Zealand Herald, Feb. 1, 2019.
- Barbara Brown Taylor, “My God, My God…” eplorefaith.org, 2000.