Friday, March 29, 2024

The Great Earthquake & the Cross


John 18:1-19:42

Good Friday / Year B

An ecumenical chapel sits on top of a hill overlooking a small town nestled around an ocean bay.  On its grounds there is a cross which stands at least 75 feet tall.  From this vantage point in can be seen for miles and miles.  To enter the chapel you must pass a baptismal font carved out of a stone wall.  Water flows from an unseen source into font which, based on its location, conveys the truth baptism is admission into the Church.  From there the water cascades down another series of rocks to fill a shallow pool in a crypt beneath the chapel.  Here the living and the dead are connected by baptismal waters.  The water then meanders in a stream running throughout the chapel grounds, slowly making its way to its journey’s end at the base of the tall cross. 

All of this provides very striking imagery.  We are on a journey through life and death.  We are connected with those around us in mysterious ways.  Together and individually, we are all moving toward the cross.  The final gathering space for the water speaks of the cross’ ability to receive all without ever reaching a limit or being filled up.  I visited this chapel and grounds only once years ago and remember it still as being a peaceful place, as it should be.

The cross is the most prominent and powerful symbol of the Christian faith.  That what Cicero called “the cruelest and most repulsive form of the death penalty” has become such a revered image is a testimony to the Resurrection’s ability to transform all things.  Gustaf Aulen, a Swedish bishop, said, “The eyes of faith are irresistibly drawn to the cross.  The reason for this is that the cross gathers up and summarizes the totality of life.”

Among the many things it stands for the cross represents the experience of crisis.  It speaks to the times and places when our faith is shaken to the core.  It literally is this for Jesus.  Months before his arrest, the gospels tell us Jesus points his face toward Jerusalem because he knows where and how he will die.  The night in the garden, waiting for Judas, he agonizes over his impending fate.  The cross represents this.  It represents all the uncertainty and all the fear.  It stands for every crisis which we know not if we will survive.  And, in the light of the Resurrection, it represents God’s faithfulness and power to bring us through all things.

Every one of us has faced times when we have been rocked to the core, when we have been tested to the limit; a time when we were refined by fire and our lives were changed forever.  These moments of terrible crisis can cause us to question the faith we have taken on as to its very validity.  Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian, speaks of such an inevitable event as being the “Great Earthquake” in one’s life.  He speaks of the “terrible revolution which suddenly forces upon us a new and infallible law of interpretation of the facts.” 

The earthquake comes in different ways to each of us, but it comes.  For one person it may be a divorce, for another vocational troubles.  Some know this moment when health issues raise questions of mortality while others know it at the loss of a loved one.  One thing is sure, our lives will be rocked by earthquakes and we will not know if our faith can pull us through, or if it should.

For Jess Trotter, former dean of Virginia Theological Seminary, the earthquake came when his 22-year-old son committed suicide.  The experience taught him classroom ideas about God are fragile things.  He wrote about falling through them and falling not into nothingness, but into God as God truly is.  Dean Trotter called this “firm ground” on which we can stand.  It is the place where we recognize God is indescribable, yet clearly present.  In his last sermon at the seminary chapel, Trotter said these memorable words, “I have been to the depth, and God has brought me back.”  This is what the cross is all about.  It is the earthquake of Christ’s life.  It is a symbol of the depths and God’s power to bring us back.

On this day we watch and we wait gathered like the chapel water at the hilltop foot of the cross.  We watch and we wait.  We offer what Margaret Hebblethwaite calls prayers of simple regard, prayers of just watching.  She writes,

The extraordinary fact about the people gathered around the cross, who abandon all their duties for the day simply to be with Jesus, looking at him, is they are changed by the experience.  Just seeing, doing nothing, turns out to be for them a revolutionary experience, so that afterwards they see things differently and, no doubt, will act differently.  They have not wasted their time doing nothing, but they have allowed themselves to be changed.

In our silence and in our waiting, may we too be changed, prepared, and assured; assured as we gather at the cross God will bring back our Pioneer from the depths and we too will follow him in our time.  We too will be shattered.  We will fall… fall to firm, Divine ground.  We will stand, not because of anything we use to prop ourselves up, but because the God who has triumphed at the cross makes it possible.  And Jesus himself will be our guide.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Taking on Our Human Form


Mark 14:1-15:47

The Sunday of the Passion - Palm Sunday / Year B

Most of you know I grew up in another Christian tradition.  There, Palm Sunday was Palm Sunday.  There was no reading of the Passion story, just Jesus, a donkey, and throngs of palm waving people shouting ‘Hosanna.’  I viewed Palm Sunday as a warm up for the big celebration of Easter Day, kind of like stretching before the start of a game.  This memory comes back to me every year as our Episcopal liturgy takes us from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.  And, as distressing as this day is, I could never go back to simply observing Palm Sunday on its own. 

I have been mulling over a notion put forth in the passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi we read a few moments ago, which some scholars posit is actually the text of a hymn sung by the congregation.  It says, in part…

having emptied himself…

  [Christ] took on human form… 

That Christ set aside his divine place at God’s right hand in order to become human tells us many things.  One thing for sure, it affirms the dignity of our humanity and speaks to the worth of every human being.  “For God so loved the world…” Jesus tells Nicodemus in John’s gospel.  The world.  The WHOLE world.  Not just the people I love.  Not just the people I like.  Not just the people who look like me and think like me and act like me and pray like me and vote like me.  God loves the WHOLE world. 

I finished watching a documentary series detailing the history of the Cold War.  While it was not my intention, it is turned out to be a good way to prepare for the power of the Passion Story.  It has been sobering night after night to reflect on the human capacity to be inhumane.  Hitler’s regime exterminated over 6 million Jews, a staggering number which doesn’t even include other ethnic groups and minorities.  Stalin oversaw the execution of up to 20 million members of his own country.  At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, our military officials determined if both sides engaged in all out nuclear war over 600 million people would die just in the initial attack, over ¼ of the world’s population at the time.

Unfortunately, this series is not just a history lesson; a sad tale about something from our distant past.  Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, wrote this in an op-ed article in The Guardian:

We are currently experiencing a moment of profound human suffering globally.  A pandemic of inhumanity has taken hold, from Darfur to Ukraine, from the plight of women and girls in Afghanistan to the seemingly forgotten voices of the Rohingya refugees in Myanmar, and now to the intolerable tragedy that is deepening in Israel and the State of Palestine and threatening to spread wider.  These human rights emergencies are interconnected.  At their heart they are driven by a common crisis: a failure to give value to the lives of all people.

As we listen to the Passion we ask ourselves how could they have done such a barbaric thing to Jesus?  If we look at ourselves we must ask how can we do such barbaric things to one another?

Former President Jimmy Carter made this observation:

In order for us human beings to commit ourselves personally to the inhumanity of war, we find it necessary first to dehumanize our opponents, which is in itself a violation of the beliefs of our religions.  Once we characterize our adversaries as beyond the scope of God’s mercy and grace, their lives lose all value.  

The Soviet Union fell in 1991 in no small part due to the influence Christian churches in Eastern Bloc countries.  They provided places for people to gather for prayer and the singing of hymns prior to going out on the streets and engaging in non-violent resistance.  It was common to see churches packed on a nightly basis as protestors sought spiritual and emotional support prior to engaging armed officials.   The church has been and still is an effective instrument for change because we know our Savior took on our human form and therefore every person is precious, every life is sacred.

Those of you who participated in last week’s Lenten program will recall I concluded the series with a brief quote from the historian Howard Zinn.  Here is a little more of what he said:

…human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.  What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.  If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something.  If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act…  We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic acts to participate in the process of change.  Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.

On this day when we wail and lament the crucifixion of God’s Son let us also wail and lament the execution of any and every child of God.  And as we look forward to celebrating Jesus’ glorious resurrection, let us also be expectant and hopeful for a new day in our world marked by compassion and respect for one another.