Only Questions: A Good Friday Sermon

This sermon was preached on Good Friday, April 19, 2019, at Christ Episcopal Church in Alameda, CA. 

Shortly before condemning Jesus to death, Pilate asks him–and thus unknowingly asks God–a bitter, heartbreaking , fundamental question, one that humanity has likely been asking from the very beginning: “what is truth?”

He receives no answer.

There is no answer to give that could be encapsulated into words. Truth, the very embodiment of Truth, is a bruised and battered face staring back into his own face, and it is beyond articulation.

Like Pilate and everyone else who participates in the crucifixion of God Incarnate, we are deep in a mystery now, a place where words are largely inadequate, where answers are few, where only questions prevail. We must tread carefully, for this is terrifying holy ground we stand upon today, Good Friday, and we should not profane it with endless speculation.

We are at the foot of the Cross, gazing up at Jesus, who in turn gazes back at us, blood and tears streaming down his face—and in this place, tidy, insightful observations about the nature of God and clever turns of phrase about sin and forgiveness and sacrifice all dry up like chaff and blow away in the wind.

The Cross rejects every attempt to understand it fully. It is not a place for self-assured theologizing or domesticated spiritualizing. It is a raw, awful, unspeakable place in which we find ourselves.

Last night, on Maundy Thursday, Jesus told us to love one another, and we did so. We washed one another’s feet and broke bread together with the best of intentions. We perceived that this was the proper way to live, to care, to be present in God’s kingdom. And on Easter we will no doubt come back together as a people renewed and forgiven for all the times we have failed to love, returning to our senses after this day of desperation and horror, and we will recommit ourselves to the fullness of life that God offers freely in the light of resurrection.

But today we are no-place. Today we have murdered the very best of our intentions to love. We have traveled to the Place of the Skull, the place where confidence is shattered like bone. Today we stand at the farthest point from comfort, the place where Jesus, God-With-Us, He who was the smiling babe in the manger, the youth in the temple, the wise teacher on the mountain, the Holy One, cries out to the Father for some sign of presence and receives…nothing. No answer. No words.

And in that silence we know what it is to forsake and to be forsaken.

Yes, we are deep in a mystery, one so strange and terrible that any attempt to sort it out, to prod at its depths, to explain it, results in cheap, brittle platitudes.

Think about of all the things that you should never, ever say when someone has experienced a great loss in their life: things like

“It’s all part of God’s plan.”

“Everythinghappens for a reason.”

“When one door closes, another one opens.”

These are things we say to each other that are usually more about soothing our own sense of confusion and fear rather than simply being present, deeply present, to the pain of another.

And yet these trite, hollow, inadvertently callous attempts at comfort are exactly what we so often apply to our encounter with Jesus on the Cross. We want to justify this awful thing, to make sense of it, to assure ourselves that God knew what God was doing the whole time. We approach Golgotha and see the crucified Christ writhing in agony and fear, and we say, to Him, as we do to others: “everything happens for a reason! Your suffering is part of God’s plan!”

And these words are like yet more nails, hammered and stammered into the endless void of His suffering.

The Church has done this since the beginning, in various ways. It’s only human, perhaps. We don’t like sitting with questions, and we rely too much on explanations.

Some of us want to reason the Cross away as God’s clever, elegant, brutal plan to atone for our sins, to make proper restitution for our brokenness, as if the cosmos were constructed like an accounting system or a court of law.

Or, equally tempting for some of us and yet equally limiting: we confine the Cross to the realm of  human political drama, as if Jesus was nothing more than an enlightened social justice prophet murdered by “conservative” religious authorities and imperial forces—those bad, unenlightened others that of course look nothing like us. As if the Cross was merely an unfortunate byproduct of a backwards political system rather than what it actually is: the fundamental, unanswerable question at the core of all the pain which we experience and inflict upon each other.

Every time we try to reconstruct the Cross in a way that suits us, in a way that provides easy answers, in a way that excuses us from the narrative, we are simply building another instrument of torture to re-crucify that which we cannot understand.

No more of this, I ask you. No more. Lay down your easy theories of atonement that taste of sour wine; stop casting lots for your competing theologies of the Cross. For one day, let us stop trying to figure it out. Look into the face of Christ crucified and let Him be all that He is, uncertain and frightening and heart-rending, the face of Truth.

And let that wordless recognition of Truth, terrible as it may be, let it be enough today, because it is all we are given. Just as with Pilate, Jesus has no further answers for us.

It is called Good Friday because it is God’s Friday—the day in which God presents us with a mystery, a deep mystery, a Man who is on a cross for reasons so strange and intimate that they are as distant as an all-consuming black hole, and yet as close as our own breath.

And yes, we know in our hearts that there is more to the story, and that perhaps soon, very soon, we will fumble our way toward the answer of the empty tomb and the radiant joy of something entirely new. But not now. Not yet.

What is truth, we ask? Look at the Cross. It is staring us in the face, wordless and unutterable. Approach it cautiously, without certainty. Touch it if you dare; look into the void and see God staring back at you. Today, this is all we have.

 

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Sermon: A Tale of Two Liturgies

I preached this sermon today, November 27th, at All Saints Chapel, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, CA. It was given as my senior-year sermon for the Master of Divinity program. Lectionary texts are Revelation 14:14-20 and Luke 21:5-9.

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” (Luke 21:9)

This morning, in the midst of these apocalyptic readings from Revelation and the Gospel of Luke, I felt called to share a word…about liturgy. If my time at CDSP has taught me anything, it’s that there is nothing—absolutely nothing—more essential for us to talk about than liturgy.

But I’m not being glib or preciously High-Church when I say this, nor am I just giving a shout-out to Dr. Meyers. Liturgies—understood broadly as those ongoing structures of relational action in which we participate—are what define us. The daily liturgies of our lives shape our reality and determine the parameters of our hope.

And so, in light of today’s Gospel passage, I would ask that we sit here a moment with Jesus, gazing up at the finely ornamented temple of 21st century life in this country, and I would ask us to consider the “wars and insurrections” of our time, and how they form a twisted, macabre liturgy of their own. A liturgy of Death.

In this liturgy, the hymns are composed with the staccato of gunshots, and incense rises up in clouds of tear gas. In this liturgy, the Gloria is sung to acclaim the power of whiteness and the prayers of the people read like a shopping list. In this liturgy the prophets preach the commodification of well-being and the anesthetic of endless, consumable content. This Death liturgy is the shiny, shambling procession toward the void of human possibility: the howling emptiness we sometimes call sin, and we perceive its highly effective “missional outreach” whenever we read the daily news headlines.

But this liturgy is not the exclusive possession of our age. Our compulsion for death, both physical and spiritual, has always been with us. The blood in the ground cries out to bear witness through the generations. And this is why Jesus tells us, “these things must happen.” Because we are enthralled by sin. Wars and insurrections and toppling temples must happen, not because God needs them or delights in them, but because they are the perverse oblation of the liturgy of Death, the destructive “work of the people” that inevitably occurs in the absence of God’s grace.

It is this liturgy of destruction that is attested, also, in the book of Revelation, where the harvest of the earth is crushed by God’s winepress. But lest we misread the text, we must remember: the blood that flows from the winepress is not that of the wicked in the hands of a vengeful deity, but the blood of the martyrs. We kill the martyrs. Like Christ before them, they are trampled by Death’s liturgical procession and their lives are poured out over the earth.

We see this already, every day. In the liturgy of Death, the innocent are slain on the altars of nationalism, economic exploitation, homophobia, misogyny…and the list goes on. And in our complicity, in the things we have done and left undone, we bow at the altar of death and drink the blood of our victims. It is a bitter cup, and in those last days it will taste like wrath to those who drink it. This is the liturgy to which we are bound.

Except…

We are here, now, because we have encountered and been reborn into a different liturgy. The liturgy of God’s love. The liturgy of Life with a capital L. This is what Christ offers us in his resurrected body: the promise of Life, and the absolute rebuke of humanity’s penchant for death and destruction. His empty tomb destroys the lie that Death’s liturgy leads to our final resting place, or that God’s ultimate posture is one of destruction. God is revealed in the resurrection of Jesus as God has always been—permanently creative, eternally life-giving, infinitely merciful.

And God’s liturgy is so beautiful, so poetic, because it takes the very instruments of Death’s liturgy and transforms them into signs of hope. The cross, an instrument of torture, becomes the banner of victory. The innocent blood poured out becomes the cup of life, the cup of forgiveness. And thus the winepress of the wrath of God is revealed for what it truly is: the beating, bleeding heart of Christ, spilling out, flooding the earth, inundating the liturgy of death, drowning it with life.

This is our choice then: which liturgy will we inhabit today? Will we orient our hearts toward the altar of Death, or that of Life?

We are here, at CDSP and in the Church, because no matter how loudly Death processes in the streets, we choose the liturgy of Life, over and over again. We have been given the gift of spending time here in this community, exploring the contours of God’s love, finding words to describe it and to share with those whom we will serve elsewhere. We are here to embody that Life-giving liturgy with one another, and to let it shape us. We are here, too, because we have seen the liturgy of Death, each in our own personal way. We have peered into the void, and we have heard God’s NO:

NO to death’s proclamation of expendability,

NO to its mockery of the life which God has declared good,

NO to its glittering idols of self-interest.

We have heard the NO to Death and we are saying Amen, Amen, Amen, come, Lord Jesus, come and give us Life once more.

When we choose to be swept up in the liturgy of Life, when we perceive its unconquerable movement, we come to understand Jesus’ words a bit better: these wars and insurrections must take place, this temple will fall, this river of blood must flow, but you, child of God, you do not have to be terrified, because you know that the Lord is not guiding us toward destruction, but is reshaping us, guiding us back into our proper relationship with Life. Death itself is the only thing that will be destroyed.

This is the Good News that our liturgy tells us. May we be ever mindful of its power, and ever grateful for its promise.

Half-Finished Life

On the coast of Scotland in the town of Oban, there is a church—a cathedral, in fact. It’s the most unusually constructed building I’ve ever seen. It started as a simple little brick structure, and then some years later the leaders had a grand vision of expanding it into a massive stone edifice. They had more vision than they had money, though, and when funds ran out, they’d only partially begun the addition.

Today, when you walk in, you can clearly see where the old building and the new were awkwardly joined—there are huge steel girders holding up the new section, and while these beams were probably meant to be temporary, they’re now just part of the interior. So far the whole thing has held together. You can see what it looks like in the photo attached to this post.

I feel a bit like that church building, and maybe you have have, too, at various points in your life. I want to be polished and put together, I don’t want the ugly interior structures showing. I want to be all incense and candles and beautiful music. Instead most days I feel like a half-finished project cobbled together from bits of false starts and broken dreams.

But you know what? God is still present.

God is still present in that half-finished cathedral, and in my half-finished life, and in yours. God doesn’t care about smooth walls and cohesive aesthetics. God isn’t worried if all you can put together is a misshapen hovel, as long as it’s built with love.

This might be self-evident to you, but goodness is it hard for me to accept. I have sought love and validation in every place where it cannot be found. I have spent years trying to be a Grand Cathedral sort of person–perfect, alluringly ornamented, trying to stand out, trying to earn the approval of teachers and lovers and friends. Not because they demanded it, but because I was convinced of the ancient lie: you will be complete when…When you know more. When you create more. When you look better. When you are more sophisticated. When you are admired.

God doesn’t care about any of it. Christ didn’t live, die and rise again so that I could achieve social respectability or admiring glances. So why, oh why, do I keep wanting it? I am weak, Lord. Help me be happy in the permanent construction zone that is life.

These months at Mirfield, and the events of my life therein, have definitely stripped me down to the steel girders. But I’ve learned about the dignity of silence. I’ve witnessed the beauty of consistency, in both prayer and work. Yes, I’ve felt the sting of loneliness and rejection, which is a small death, but also the warmth of kindness, which is a bit of resurrection.

These are good things. Necessary things. I wish them for you, too, to the extent that they draw you closer to the God Who loves you regardless of how well put-together you are.

There is so much more to say, but not now. For now I’m looking at those unsightly cathedral girders and reminding myself that what is humble is often what is strongest.

Home in just over six weeks. Pray for me, as I am for you.

Both Shepherd and Sheep: A Sermon

There is so much I could say and need to say about the experiences of the past few weeks, but I just don’t have the words at the moment. In the mean time, here is a sermon I offered yesterday, April 23rd, at my placement churches: St. Mary’s Mirfield and St. John’s Upper Hopton. The text is John 10:11-18, wherein Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd. 

As many of you know, I have been given the privilege of living and studying in the UK for the past few months as part of an exchange program between my seminary in California and the College of the Resurrection here in Mirfield. Getting to know the people and the landscapes of West Yorkshire has been a joy, but when we were given a break after Easter, I was eager to go a bit further afield.  And so I boarded a train to Scotland, determined to see as much as I could in a week.  And sightsee I did—I saw medieval cityscapes, glorious cathedrals and museums, Highland lochs, the holy island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides….and sheep.  Lots and lots of sheep.

Scottish sheep really have it made, as far as I’m concerned.  They are free to roam across those dramatic Highland landscapes, munching on wild grasses and heather, disturbed only occasionally by the odd passing tourist gawking out of a train window.  And while I was gawking at them, I noticed something interesting, which perhaps you have seen, too: the sheep are all marked.  They have splashes of color painted onto their fleece, some green, some blue, some red. I looked this up later, and I learned that these colors all have a practical purpose—they are called “Smit Marks”, and they are used by the sheep farmers to keep track of which sheep belong to them.  Since the countryside is open, and the sheep can roam wherever they like, these markings are a quick means of identification when it’s time for them to be gathered back in for shearing, etc.

The Scottish sheep, with their vibrant Smit Marks, were lingering in my mind’s eye as I pondered this week’s Gospel passage from John, in which Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd caring for his flock. It’s such an evocative image, isn’t it? One that is deeply ingrained in our idea of relationship with God—through the recitation of the beloved 23rd Psalm, in church art and in hymnody. It is an image of protection and guidance and self-giving love: the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. For us.

And we are marked, too, are we not?  Not with a streak of color on our backs, of course, but we have our own Smit Marks, indicating to whom we belong—they were placed on us in the water of baptism and the oil of anointing.  As it says in my favorite line in the service for Holy Baptism that we use in the Episcopal Church, we are “sealed by the Holy Spirit…and marked as Christ’s own forever.” No matter where we wander, no matter how far we stray into shadowy valleys or foreboding wilderness, we bear the mark that tells us who we are, and by Whom we are guided—Christ, the Good Shepherd, who stands on the brow of the hill at dusk and calls us home. It can be hard to see and the path is often rocky, but His lantern is lit for us to follow—it burns in the sanctuary of every church where his Eucharistic presence is encountered, and it illuminates every place where we, the people of God, pray and minister in His name.

It’s remarkable what you can discern from looking at a field of sheep!

There’s a catch, of course. If we were to simply bask in the image of Christ as the loving Shepherd and ourselves as his beloved flock, we’d only be getting part of the picture. Because Jesus is more than a model of a capable guardian and overseer; in fact our faith depends on the fact that he is much more than this.  As Saint Augustine asked, “What sayest Thou, O Lord, Thou good Shepherd? For You are the good Shepherd, who art also the good Lamb; at once Pastor and Pasturage, at once Lamb and Lion.” In the mystery of his death and resurrection, which we continue to marvel at this Easter season, we cannot forget that Jesus the Shepherd is also, paradoxically, the paschal lamb who was slain, who was given, if you’ll allow me to stretch the metaphor, his own Smit Mark by the Father to fulfill the plan of human salvation, and who was called home through the valley of the shadow of death in his glorious rising to new life.

This is the One whom we encounter in sacrament and prayer and service. The Shepherd who is the Lamb. The Lamb who is the Shepherd. Whose death was, in the light of the Resurrection, not a demonstration of God’s failure to care, but proof that God will do anything to gather us close into a merciful embrace.

If we follow this train of thought, though, there is one missing piece. Because if Christ is both the Good Shepherd AND the Lamb of God, then we, as people who share in his life, also share in this dual identity. We cannot merely see ourselves as sheep to be protected. As much as I envied those Scottish sheep in their pastoral idyll, I knew I had to continue on my journey, that I could not linger in the field. There was much to see, and much yet to be done. So it is for all of us. If we believe, as St. Paul claims, that it is not we who live but Christ who lives in us, then the Good Shepherd is the One who lives within us. The One Who must guide, and seek out, and yes, even lay down their life at the feet of those whom they serve. He is the one who animates our very beings. In the same moment that we are the beloved flock, you and I are also the brave, good shepherds of God’s mission. We were marked as such on the day of our baptism, when we were knit into Christ’s body, and it is an indelible mark. It cannot be undone. It is our vocation, each and every one of us.

So as we approach the table to take part in the banquet feast of the Lamb who was slain for us, let us remember the deep bond that has drawn us here, the bond of a Good Shepherd calling his flock back to him for rest and renewal. But let us remember, too, that by taking Him into ourselves, we have been transfigured by His abiding presence into shepherds. And so we, too, must seek the flock. We too must measure the worth of our lives by the amount of love we are willing to risk pouring out. We, too, must walk the landscape, lighting the way to guide others into safety.

The world is vast, more vast even than those Highland valleys, and there are many who are seeking home. Let us take up our staffs, light our lanterns, and call out. And may the Good Shepherd within each of us provide the words to pierce the silent gloom, to bring near those who wander towards the light.

Pausing in the Ruins

Holy Week began tonight with the first evensong of Palm Sunday, and Mirfield is a buzz of activity as visitors arrive to participate in the Community’s extensive schedule of observances. Over the next seven days we will have upwards of 50(!) worship services, plus communal meals and public lectures. It is, according to everyone who has experienced it before, a singularly transformative experience.

I will admit, though, that the excitement of Easter’s impending arrival (and the two-week break that follows!) also feels bittersweet, like a valedictory. This time of Lent, now entering its final stretch, has been rich with challenge and insight, and I’ve taken much time and space throughout these 40 days for an unflinching look at my life. Some of it has been consoling, and some of it has been jarring. This penitential season has a way of stripping you down to the skin, revealing your fears and flaws, leaving you shivering and raw and somehow even more alive as a result.

That’s how it felt last week when I took a trip by myself to the seaside to visit the ruins of Whitby Abbey.  The site stands on a headland overlooking the North Sea, and on the day of my visit the weather was so inclement that there wasn’t a single other person around. The wind blew so forcefully that it almost knocked me over as I traversed the wide grassy field, and when I sought shelter beneath the crumbling Gothic arches, the rain whipped through the intricately carved stone window openings that once held stained glass, stinging my eyes with tears. It was miserable and beautiful all at the same time and I thought: this is Lent, in all its luminous, wondrous fury. We spend a season alone, praying and crying amid the majestic ruins of our regret, as the cold wind of God blasts through, shocking us back into reverence and life.

Now, though, back in the community at Mirfield, it’s time to come in from the cold and embark on a different type of journey: into Jerusalem with Christ for a final week of tribulation and revelation. On Palm Sunday we join the throng and enter the holy city, waving our palms as an assemblage of lost souls who still seek salvation on our own terms: power, success, admiration. And as we move through the days and the liturgies, there is still so much yet to be faced and relinquished—our false hopes, our jealousies and our idleness, our tendency to betray the love that is offered to us, bargained away for a few coins and an empty kiss.

But just like my rain-soaked excursion to Whitby, it’s a journey we can’t help but make, because it is often from the depths of pain and isolation that we begin to recognize the miracle of new life that comes on Easter day. I have been wrestling with so much these past few months, and I feel ready to step into the redemptive light of whatever lies ahead. For just a few days more, though, I will sit and be attentive to the yearning and the questioning that have been my gentle companions for this season.

Wherever you are this Holy Week, and whatever you might be going through, I pray that you will find courage in facing what you must face, and solace in knowing that everything good awaits us on the other side of the Cross.

Peace, my friends.