Tag Archives: Suffering

Crucifixion of Our Lord (Good Friday) – March 25, 2016

Friday’s Reading:
Mark 15:16-39

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
     I groan in prayer, but help seems far away.
My God, I cry out during the day, but you do not answer,
     and during the night my prayers do not let up.
You are holy; you sit as king
     receiving the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
     they trusted in you and you rescued them.
To you they cried out, and they were saved;
     in you they trusted and they were not disappointed.
But I am a worm, not a man;
     people insult me and despise me.
All who see me taunt me;
     they mock me and shake their heads.
They say, “Commit yourself to the Lord! Let the Lord rescue him!
     Let the Lord deliver him, for he delights in him.”
Yes, you are the one who brought me out from the womb
     and made me feel secure on my mother’s breasts.
10 I have been dependent on you since birth;
     from the time I came out of my mother’s womb you have been my God.
11 Do not remain far away from me,
     for trouble is near and I have no one to help me.
12 Many bulls surround me;
     powerful bulls of Bashan hem me in.
13 They open their mouths to devour me
     like a roaring lion that rips its prey.
14 My strength drains away like water;
     all my bones are dislocated;
my heart is like wax;
     it melts away inside me.
15 The roof of my mouth is as dry as a piece of pottery;
     my tongue sticks to my gums.
     You set me in the dust of death.
16 Yes, wild dogs surround me—
     a gang of evil men crowd around me;
     like a lion they pin my hands and feet.
17 I can count all my bones;
     my enemies are gloating over me in triumph.
18 They are dividing up my clothes among themselves;
     they are rolling dice for my garments.
19 But you, O Lord, do not remain far away!
     You are my source of strength! Hurry and help me!
20 Deliver me from the sword!
     Save my life from the claws of the wild dogs!
21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lion,
     and from the horns of the wild oxen!
(Psalm 22:1-21, NRSV)

When I was growing up, it happened like clockwork. Every year on Good Friday, we gathered in a dimly lit church that seemed to get darker by the minute, and at some point during the service we read these words. I’d been around enough to know why we read the first verse of Psalm 22 – that was Jesus talking from the cross, as Mark records in this evening’s gospel reading – but why the rest of this? To be honest, as much as I have always loved Holy Week Psalm 22 was by far my least favorite part of any service. My blood ran cold at the agony in those words, at the pain I knew was behind them, and, as I always heard them in my mind coming from the mouth of Jesus, they always made me sad. I think my parents knew – or maybe they felt it too. The silence that shrouded the end of that service always lasted until we got back home, until we could get out of our Sunday best – and, at least in my mind – strip away the guilt that came from imagining Jesus’ suffering.

It occurs to me now that we were missing a big part of the picture whenever we recited this Psalm, because we always stopped at verse 21. I didn’t realize that at the time, even when I’d read ahead a bit on my own until the jarring change of tone stopped me in my tracks and sent me scurrying back to the uncomfortable but familiar language of those first verses. As much as I disliked it, this was how Good Friday was supposed to be. Melancholy, sadness, and guilt were the order of the day.

There’s a place for those emotions to be sure, but I’ve come to realize that there’s room for a wider range of emotions than just these. Yes, there is sorrow on this night when we remember how Christ suffered for our sake and for the sake of our world. But there is also comfort in the knowledge that his suffering and death were not meaningless. The abandonment and pain experienced by Christ is a mirror for all the grief and loss that you and I and the rest of humanity have experienced, are experiencing now, and will continue to experience. Because Christ suffered, God knows what it means to suffer. Because Christ was lonely, God knows the pain of loneliness. Because Christ died, death is no longer foreign to God. Perhaps most importantly, the cross of Christ does not represent the end of God’s life with us, but the beginning of our life in God. That’s why Psalm 22 doesn’t end in verse 21, but continues:

You have answered me!
     22 I will declare your name to my countrymen!
     In the middle of the assembly I will praise you!
23 You loyal followers of the Lord, praise him!
     All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
     All you descendants of Israel, stand in awe of him!
24 For he did not despise or detest the suffering of the oppressed;
     he did not ignore him;
     when he cried out to him, he responded.
25 You are the reason I offer praise in the great assembly;
     I will fulfill my promises before the Lord’s loyal followers.
26 Let the oppressed eat and be filled!
     Let those who seek his help praise the Lord!
     May you live forever!
27 Let all the people of the earth acknowledge the Lord and turn to him!
     Let all the nations worship you!
28 For the Lord is king and rules over the nations.
29 All of the thriving people of the earth will join the celebration and worship;
     all those who are descending into the grave will bow before him,
including those who cannot preserve their lives.
30 A whole generation will serve him;
     they will tell the next generation about the sovereign Lord.
31 They will come and tell about his saving deeds;
     they will tell a future generation what he has accomplished.
(Psalm 22:22-31, NRSV)

This is the good news of Good Friday, brothers and sisters: that in Christ’s suffering our suffering is known to God, that because of Christ’s faithfulness the news of God’s faithfulness will be spread abroad, that through Christ’s dying and rising all things will be brought from death to life. And so, brothers and sisters, even as we call to mind the sorrow and suffering of our Lord, we can sing of the glorious battle that Christ has fought and won, and look with longing to the day of resurrection that is dawning on the horizon. May it be so among us. Amen.

*Note: We are currently experiencing problems with our audio recording equipment; as a result, we are unable to post sermon audio at this time. Please bear with us as we work to resolve these problems. Thank you for your patience.*

Transfiguration of Our Lord – February 7, 2016 (NL Week 22)

Sunday’s Reading:
Mark 8:27-9:8

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

Jesus and his disciples came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. Jesus took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when Jesus had put saliva on the man’s eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” The man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on the man’s eyes again, and the man looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then Jesus sent the man away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.”

Ever since the first time I read that story, I’ve been fascinated by it. On the one hand, it’s a healing story, just like many that appear in the gospels in general and in Mark’s Gospel in particular. On the other hand, of course, it’s not at all like those other ones, because it includes the almost unbelievable detail that Jesus’ healing apparently doesn’t take the first time. In my more irreverent – or, perhaps, more honest – moments, I’ve taken a strange comfort in the knowledge that Jesus seems to mess this one up; the one who was fully God and fully human looks a lot more human than he usually does, after all, in a story where his incredible power doesn’t accomplish Jesus’ goal. At other times, it has just puzzled me: Why the need for a second shot at this healing?

You might be wondering why I’m spending time on a text that isn’t part of what has been appointed for today’s service, especially since there’s plenty in that appointed reading to begin with. Well, as I’ve had occasion to reflect on this week’s text, the story of Peter’s confession, Jesus’ teaching about discipleship, and the incredible scene on the mountaintop where Jesus’ face shines with the glory of God, I’ve become convinced that the story of that healing and the passages that form the basis of today’s service are bound up together. In fact, I think that this curious little story holds the key to understanding the experience of the disciples and the way that we are called to approach the tension between cross and suffering that confronts us on this Transfiguration Sunday.

Jesus asks his disciples a question at turns simple and profound: Who do people say that I am? After rattling off a series of answers, Jesus makes it more personal: But what about you? Who do you say that I am?  The answer from Peter may have stunned the rest of the disciples: You are the Messiah! Jesus doesn’t correct Peter, but he does order him and the others to keep that thought to themselves. Why? Because while Peter may have thought he knew what that meant, the reality is that when he looked at Jesus, he wasn’t seeing clearly yet. If he had understood what Jesus was all about, he wouldn’t have been so quick to rebuke Jesus when he started talking about where his mission was going to take him. When it came down to it, Peter was just like the blind man who said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.”

Six days after Peter’s confession, Jesus takes three of the disciples up a mountain to pray, and suddenly everything is different again. The glory of God shines in the face of Jesus, and the disciples see two of Israel’s greatest figures standing and conversing with their teacher. I’m sure it was an incredible vision, and, on the one hand, it’s hard to fault Peter for his reaction to what was going on in front of them. On the other hand, of course, if Peter had remembered what Jesus had said to him less than a week earlier, he may not have been so quick to suggest that it would be good for them to stay up on the mountain. Once again, Peter was like that blind man, who said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.”

Perhaps I’ve made my point about the text before us. In the story of that two-stage healing, we see a physical enactment of an idea that would be demonstrated by the disciples throughout the rest of the gospel: that the ability to understand Jesus’ mission and ministry is not a one-time gift, but an on-going process of looking again and reckoning with Jesus’ insistence on challenging his followers, pushing them beyond their pre-conceived notions, and causing them to re-evaluate their priorities in light of the Reign of God.

That’s a powerful thing to consider as we prepare to enter the season of Lent later this week. Today, we revel in the confession of Peter that reveals part of the truth about Jesus’ identity as God’s anointed one, and our minds soar at the thought of Jesus’ beauty and majesty revealed on the mountain. That’s a perfectly natural reaction to these passages and the images they conjure in our minds, and yet that reaction cannot be the end, because in the midst of these images is the far less pleasant – though no less important – teaching about the way of the cross. Jesus’ earliest followers would have interpreted this teaching literally, and with good reason; they were much more likely to face the choice between remaining faithful to Christ and compromising that faithfulness for the sake of self-preservation. Tradition tells us, for example, that almost every one of the Twelve Apostles eventually followed Jesus to suffering and death. That we will likely never face such a choice does not make this teaching any less significant for us. What does it mean to deny self and take up the cross in a world in which literal death is probably not on the table? And what does that have to do with people who look like walking trees?

If the way of the cross doesn’t mean physical death, then it must mean something that cuts to the core of who we are and changes us by God’s grace into people who reflect God’s image more clearly. I don’t claim to have a definitive answer, but I’d like to suggest one possibility for how we might think about this. Fr. Richard Rohr, who has taught and lectured for decades on Christian spirituality, has pointed to our human tendency to “create” identities for ourselves. Some of what makes us who we are is given, such as the family we are born into or the places we grow up and have formative experiences. On some level, those things will always be a part of us. Much of our identities, though, stem from our own choices, conscious or unconscious – things like our occupation, the friends we keep, the organizations we belong to, the way we try to present ourselves to other people socially or professionally or otherwise. As you can imagine, all of this is messy, but the overall point is this: that we spend much of our lives creating and defining our own identities. If he’s right about this, then perhaps the way that Jesus’ message about the cross can speak to us is this: If anyone wants to become my disciple, they should deny the self that they have constructed, take up the cross that puts that self to death, and follow Jesus on the path that leads to new life.

The Christian life, then is this: looking at ourselves and letting go of everything that defines us in any way that conflicts with our identity as children of God who bear the name of Christ and the seal of the Spirit and the promise of inheriting the Reign of God. That is the work of Lent, work that intensifies during this season and lasts throughout our whole lives. As we get ready to enter that season, let us pray that we might hold in our minds not only the story of Christ’s transfiguration, but also the story of that blind man who had to take a second look at Jesus to see him clearly. When we do that, perhaps we’ll be aware enough to know when we see people who look like trees walking, so that we can ask God for the second sight that will give us clarity about ourselves and God’s purposes for us. Let it be so among us. Amen.