17 April 2014

God is Dead: A Homily for Good Friday, Year A

Reading: The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to St. John

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

It's all gone wrong, hasn't it? Somewhere over the course of the week, things have gone astray. Sunday, we were cheering a triumphant Christ, and today, we're mourning a dead criminal hung on a gallows. Even by the end of worship last week, the shouts of, “Hosanna,” and, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” faded away and the words “Crucify him,” echoed deep in our hearts. The palm branches are already starting to turn to ash.

Things certainly started out on a promising note. A protest, rich in messianic imagery, carved its way through the City of David. The King, it seemed, had returned at last. And as the Passover approached, expectation was high that God would once again deliver captive Israel. The entire Gospel, it seemed, had been leading up to this week – so much so that St. John devotes nearly half of his Gospel to the events in Jerusalem. We were finally at the crescendo and something exciting was about to happened – the world was about to turn. And then... suddenly...it didn't. Things fell apart.

The one who healed the sick and even raised the dead now lies in a tomb. The Rabbi now suffers a fool's fate. The one who came to fulfill the Law has been executed as a criminal.

Make no mistake. While we like to talk about the glory of Christ's Passion and death, this was not a death valued by any one. We venerate the Cross, but to those who frequently saw crucified bandits littering the highway, they knew exactly what the Cross represented: oppression and shame. To be hung on a cross was not a noble, good, or beautiful death, if there can ever be such a thing. For the Romans, it was the death of a traitor, a rebel – a death deemed to barbaric for a citizen of the Empire. To the Jewish people, anyone who died in such a manner, hanging from a tree, was under God's curse. It was a death carried out not according to the Law of Moses but the tyranny of Caesar and his governor. It wasn't the death of a good man – one earned in old age. It wasn't a death for a greater cause. No, this is the death of a heretic. For the Romans, it was a crucifixion of one who claimed the divine authority and kingship reserved for the Caesars. For the Jewish audience, it was a curse reserved for one who blasphemed against the one true God.

And this we call “Good”? Today is a good day? The story that leads up to this is called “good” news? It's doubtful that any of the witnesses would have agreed.

* * *

Throughout the great cathedrals of Europe, master craftsmen would include skulls and dancing skeletons – a reminder to all who entered of their own mortality. These images – called memento mori –which were always dark, could at times become downright sinister. The macabre is never far away. Skeletons dance across stone and canvas, a taunting reminder of the certainty of death. The lesson is for all: king and serf, teacher and fool, bishop and beggar. We. Will. All. Die. And it is in this spirit that we began this past season. As the world began to bloom again, as life overtook the barren lands of winter, Christians across the Church knelt and received ashen crosses, with the reminder that we came from dust and to dust we shall return. We will all surely pass on to corruption.

The grand irony is that such an ugly, painful process spurs us on to some of our most beautiful pieces of art – the grand requiems of classical music, elaborately sculpted tombs from Renaissance Italy, and the beautiful paintings that show the suffering of martyrs. Chief among the horrendous topics that artists have tried to express in beautiful ways is the Passion. In fact, when one looks at the development of art, one of the greatest leaps forward is the depiction of suffering – that the Christ on the Cross ceases to be passive and begins to show frailty and pain. Jesus begins to look very human. We need think no further than Michelangelo's Pieta that sits in Rome. The limp, lifeless Jesus may be the Son of God, but he is also all too human. His mother holds him, weeping. And yet, there is a serenity to the sculpture. There is something about the inevitability of Death that speaks to the very core of our human nature. Something is calling us to search for creativity in destruction, to find beauty in the hideous – in short, to find order in chaos. Something, deep within the very heart of who we are tells us that today, of all days, might possibly be Good.

It is in his death that we see Christ at his most fragile, and consequently, his most human. The Divine Healer hangs, broken. The One who brings living water is thirsty. The Only Begotten Son of the Father expresses concern for his mother. The person we see crucified seems very far removed from the transfigured Christ we met before the beginning of Lent. Instead, we see a human, Jesus of Nazareth, in all of his earthly frailty. And it is in this humanity that we find goodness. It is in his death that the full weight of the Incarnation comes to bear. God became human not just in form, but in very essence, sharing even in the most horrible parts of our being. It's precisely this humanity that makes the story so vital. God became incarnate in the very fullest sense, living but also dying. In his death, Jesus, the embodied Son of God, shows the fullness of his humanity. In Christ's death, we see just what it means that God became human – we see the extreme depth of that love. In Christ, God joins humanity, even in the tomb. Amen.

Raising Lazarus: A Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who is calling us out of the grave. Amen.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It's hard not to hear the accusation in these words from Mary and Martha. It's even harder not to find the same tone on our own lips when we turn on the news or get the proverbial late-night phone call. Last week, we have heard the story of Christ healing a man born blind, but it doesn't match up with the world in which we live. Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus making the blind see, the mute speak, the lame walk, and to bring those on the verge of death back to health. But these stories make us wonder – why do we still see so much loss and suffering in the world? We know surely that Death still has us within its firm, cold grip.

Nearly a year ago, I attended a funeral – my first funeral serving as a worship assistant instead of sitting in the pews. The deceased was a parishioner who had finally lost a five year long battle with cancer. She developed a brain tumor, and as a result, she spent her last several years alive unable to care for herself, unable to speak, and plagued by seizures. Even after chemotherapy briefly rid her body of cancerous cells, the symptoms remained. Throughout, her husband remained by her side, caring for her and hoping. Hoping that the doctors were wrong. Hoping that his wife would come back to him.

Hoping that she would be able to speak to him one last time. Hoping that the one who healed the sick would intervene, to save his wife. That the Divine Physician would show up. Hoping, in short, for a miracle.

That miracle unfortunately never arrived. And so, as we stood in our small sanctuary, singing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” I wondered, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this woman from dying?” “Lord, if you had been there.”

It's a familiar story to all of us because we have all felt that sting of loss. To be frank, we have all been angry with God because of Death's sting. Philosophers and theologians call this the “Problem of Evil,” but we know it more personally as tears shed by hospital beds and at grave sides.

We know it as the sting we feel any time a parent has to bury a child. Any time we say farewell to a loved one taken while they're still so young. Any time we watch time ravage the mind and body of a parent. The sting that we feel any time we spend late nights and early mornings in emergency rooms, praying. Any time we spend months and years in the chemotherapy clinic or the Alzheimer's ward, praying. Any time that we are reminded how helpless we are and that hope is so far removed, no matter how much we pray. It's a sting that taunts us and reminds us that no matter how hard we pray and no matter how good our intentions are, evil does exist and Death still has a say in our world. We have been told by some who quote St. Paul that God works all things for good and that surely tragedy is just part of some greater, mysterious plan. But I wonder.

I wonder if, for the sake of our own comfort, we aren't trying to turn God into some sort of chess master who, through a series of cunning – even maniacal – moves arrives at a predetermined end point. Some unknown mystery that requires divine omniscience to understand.

Instead, in today's Gospel lesson, we see Christ not playing a game against Death but flipping over the board at the last moment. We don't see a chess match but a miracle – a divine in-breaking that suddenly defies the very laws of nature itself. Not some secret, but a visible and proclaimed enactment of the Will of God. We see a dramatic reversal. When it comes to the will of God, we don't hope for a calculated strategy played out piece by piece in secret, but a sudden, spectacular, startling shift.

Brothers and sisters, the solution to the Problem of Evil is not to deny that Death is evil or to claim that Death is a secret tool for Good, but to affirm the overwhelming goodness of the Resurrection. To hope for something that is so completely Good that it overpowers all evil. Something that wipes away all tears. We hope for nothing less than a loud voice to echo through the tombs and call us into new life.

We hope for dry bones to rise up in the desert. We hope for the Lord's voice, which called Lazarus out of the grave, to do the same for us. We hope not that Death is secretly a tool for good but that Death might be no more. We hope for empty tombs and a new, everlasting life.

More than that, we hope that the One who is the Resurrection and the Life will bring us into a restored creation. Even when Death seems to have won, we hope. Even when evil seems to triumph, we hope. Even when war, famine, and plague ravage the world, we hope. For a dramatic reversal. A sudden turn. A glorious surprise.

It is, after all, this belief in the power of the Resurrection that defines our faith. The entire season of Lent builds up to one climax, foreshadowed in the story of Lazarus: just when it seems like it is too late – when all is lost – something happens. Something so completely unexpected as to overturn the established order. It's no coincidence that St. John places this narrative just before Christ enters Jerusalem. Everything has been leading up to this point, and just when it seems like all has gone astray, the unexpected happens. The single most certain thing in life, Death itself, is defeated. In the story of Lazarus, we see the prototype of this defeat, and it gives us hope.

And so when we pray, “Deliver us from evil,” this is what we mean: There is a loud voice,and it will call us from Death into everlasting life. Amen.