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.

 

Love, Named Twice: A Sermon

This sermon was preached today, March 17, 2019, the feast of St. Patrick, at Christ Church, Alameda, CA. The lectionary text cited is Luke 13:31-35.

How many of you have either read or seen Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet?

I would guess that the most famous scene in the entire play is the balcony scene, when Juliet, just having met and fallen instantly in love with Romeo, the son of her family’s mortal enemies, leans out into the night and sighs, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

In that single line, a whole universe of emotion is encapsulated: the thrill of new love, deep desire for the beloved, and a sense of resignation that the fruition of this love will face some serious obstacles. And for Juliet and Romeo, most of us know how tragic those obstacles will prove.

Romeo…Romeo. A name said twice, softly. So simple, this repetition, and yet so full of significance. To call out a name just once is utilitarian and authoritative: PHIL! That might be an identification, an invitation, or a command. But to say a name twice is to linger on it, to express attachment, investment, yearning. It is not the pronouncement of a ruler, but the call of a lover.

And so there is Jesus, the consummate Lover of creation, calling out in today’s Gospel: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem!” In these two words, in the name of that beloved and holy and imperfect city, uttered twice, is contained the entire pathos, the entire sweet misery of God.

Jerusalem is the city that embodies God’s chosen people Israel, and yet it is the city that kills God’s chosen prophets. It is the city of promises kept and the city of hope abandoned. And just as Juliet intuits in her bones when she sighs into the darkness for Romeo, so Jesus knows in his bones that his love for this radiant, wretched city is both the fulfillment of his life and the assurance of his death.  “Jerusalem…Jerusalem.” It is the longing of God uttered on the human lips of God.

If we look back through Scripture, God often names twice the ones who are beloved:

“Abraham! Abraham! Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son”

“Jacob! Jacob! Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt”

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

In each of these instances, just as in Jesus’ calling out to Jerusalem, God is offering us, at the same moment, both an assurance and a question. The assurance is that from the foundation of the world, God has loved us, and called us by name. God will never stop calling us name.  The question is this: can you find it in your heart to return that love? Can you return the cry and say “Lord, Lord, here I am?”

This, I think, gets to the heart of what we are doing in Lent. We are slowing down a bit; we are getting rid of some distractions; getting quiet, and asking ourselves: who is the person, what is the place, what is the thing that our heart is reaching for? To where or to whom is our deepest love and longing directed? If we were to stand with Jesus, looking out over the landscape of our lives, to whom would we call out, twice?

Because if we can figure that out, if we can name it, we will get a clue about what God needs us to do next.

I am reminded of St. Patrick, whose life we are commemorating today. Surprisingly, Patrick was actually not from Ireland, but likely from what is now northeastern England. As a teenager, around the year 406, he was kidnapped by bandits and taken away to Ireland as a slave, where he was in bondage for six years. Eventually he escaped and made his way back to his family in England for what might have been a simple, happy ending to his hardships. But that was not the end of the story.

Church tradition tells us that in the middle of the night, Patrick started having dreams and visions of the people back in Ireland, the people who had been his captors, and he heard their voices from across the sea calling out to him, asking him to return: “we beseech thee, holy youth, to come and walk among us once more.” I would like to imagine that perhaps he heard his own name whispered in the dark. Patrick…Patrick.

And so he went. With a small group of companions, without any protection, he returned to the land of his enslavement to preach the gospel. He ventured willingly, like Jesus, back to the place of his greatest despair, back to his own version of Jerusalem, back to what was, for him, the “city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it,” back to the place that he feared and yet, the place that his longing led him. And in doing so, he fulfilled his calling as a bearer of the gospel, as the apostle to Ireland, and as one of the saints we cherish most dearly…with green sweatter, and big parades and green beer. And prayer, of course!

As Jesus knew, gazing down at Jerusalem, and as Patrick discovered, returning to the shores of Ireland, when we attend to the deepest longings of our hearts, we are attending to God’s longing that we will become everything we were meant to be. By listening and responding to that longing, we are taking a step into the fullness of life that God offers us, the fullness of life lived in and for Christ.

If the news of the past few days tells us nothing else–the murder of our brothers and sisters in New Zealand, the senseless destruction and scandal that we see at home and around the world–if they tell us nothing else, then these things tell us we don’t have the luxury of ignoring the longing of God that calls out to us. We have to follow it, now, as seekers of truth and reconciliation. We must respond.

And so I ask you: what is your deepest longing? Name it to yourself, twice.

It could be the person with whom you need to reconcile. Name them, twice.

It could be a cause of justice or service toward which you are drawn, especially one that scares you a little bit. Name it, twice.

It could be a new place, or a new vocation, or a new relationship, or a new practice that will bring healing to yourself and others. Name it, twice.

And just as Jesus cried out “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” and as Juliet sighed “Romeo, Romeo,” find within your own heart that mix of love and generosity and hope and trepidation and name it. Follow it into a place of service. Follow it into a place of risk and holiness. Follow it into the city, follow it to the farthest shore of your imagination. Follow it with reverence and joy. Because this is the task for which we are created. This is the longing of God enacted through us.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem. Two words, containing in the space between them all the weight and glory and possibility of life. All the weight and glory and possibility of the love of Christ.

Jerusalem.

Jerusalem.