my miscellany

Good Friday, 2018 — 30 Mar 18

Good Friday, 2018

RCL Good Friday
Isaiah 52:13—53:12, Psalm 22, Hebrews 10:16-25, Saint John 18:1—19:42

Earlier this Holy Week we acknowledged in formal prayer to God that God had by the passion of his blessed Son “made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life.”[1] That prayer continues to ask God to grant us “so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of” Jesus Christ.

When we glory in the cross of Christ, I am sure that we are to glory in it in a certain way. I don’t think that it is helpful to glory in the cross as an instrument of shameful death, dredging up information about the wood and its splinters, about the time it takes for a man to die once nailed to it. That, after all, isn’t glorying in any way we would think helpful. The weird fascination some people have with instruments of execution and torture has no place today. And yet we cannot forget that Jesus suffered and suffered in most every possible way, in ways not just physical. His innocence of any crime deserving death added an additional layer of suffering upon his physical suffering, because he was not a person who could do anything deserving death and thus was not a person suited to such a shameful suffering.

When we glory in the cross, we are to glory in it for what God so clearly intended it to be: the means of life. The cross brings us life. If you ask me how that happens, I am reduced to putting into pitiful, little words the great mystery of life and of our faith: life itself was nailed to it, and the cross could not overcome it. That mystery gives life to those who know it and trust it. And that mystery Saint John tells us with another image at the beginning of his Gospel: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”[2]

The cross gives us life. And it does so at the expense of believing in other things. For our God is a jealous god, requiring us to put nothing before him and nothing before the mystery he chooses to give us life.

Two of the cross’s casualties are two of the noblest pillars of the ancient world: the Roman law and Jewish piety, shown by the cross itself to be wanting, for they together supported the necessity of putting Jesus Christ to death in a manner even for its day was specially loathsome.[3] The cross we glory in stands for life beyond the measure of human comprehension, for the Roman law and Jewish piety stand for the best human beings can be, and yet each for its own different reasons supported the necessity of putting Jesus to death. And so the cross towers not over just the wrecks of time[4] but also over the tragic folly of human beings at their worst and at their best.

The cross gives us life. Jesus needn’t have died. Presumably he could have followed the advice of some of his followers, like Peter, and avoided the otherwise inevitable showdown with the authorities. Instead he chose to die, freely accepting his death, because he believed that he had to if the world was to be saved, if the world was to be given life. And so, again, the cross we glory in stands for the very best that human beings can do for each other as well as the worst that human beings can do to each other.

The cross gives us life. Perhaps the life it gives to us comes with the words of terror and desolation from Jesus just before he dies, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Jesus dies alone and abandoned. In the end, his will perseveres without human or divine succor, without any ordinarily kind help or assistance. The cross we glory in stands for the inevitable and willful neglect and defeat of the best and the worst without partiality: the best being Jesus whose zero deserving nonetheless places him in the company of the worst being those whose ample deserving meets just punishment.

The cross gives us life in yet another way. For those of us who believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead early on a Sunday morning and for those also who believe that he provided food for worms just as the rest of us will, the conclusion is inescapable that he came out somehow the winner. What emerged from the cross in which we glory was a kind of way, a kind of truth, a kind of life, without which the last two thousand years of human history would be even more tragic than they are.

The cross in which we glory gives us life. Among religious symbols it is unique. It is not elegant like a six-pointed star, nor is it sublime like a crescent. The symbol of Christianity never strays from its roots: it is today as it was then, an instrument of shameful death. But to those of us who believe in the Lord and glory in his death, to us the cross is salvation itself; the cross gives us life. Amen.

[1] The Book of Common Prayer, page 220.

[2] Saint John 1:5.

[3] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (Harper: San Francisco and New York, 1993), pages 20-21.

[4] Hymns 441 and 442, Stanza 1.

Maundy Thursday, 2018 — 29 Mar 18

Maundy Thursday, 2018

RCL Holy Thursday
Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 116:1 and 10-17, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, St John 13:1-17 and 31b-35

On Sunday, Palm Sunday, waving our palms and gathered with the children of the parish, we once again chose Barabbas. Even the shorter form of the Passion requires us to make that choice. Saints Matthew, Mark, and Luke, compel us to choose a murderer and an insurrectionist over the Savior and Redeemer of the world. The wisdom of the Gospels stands in stark contrast to how we view ourselves. Will we ever get it right?

The answer, sadly, is No. What we can never get completely right is how to live, how to live so that we do not need a Savior. We will never get that completely right though we have our Savior’s example and we have our Savior’s Sacrament to show us the way and to nourish us along that way. If we follow his example and if we feed on him through his Sacrament, we shall not stray too far. We shall not stray as far, say, as Judas who betrayed him and who took money for his trouble. Even if we don’t stray that far, still we need a Savior. For Christ can show us how to live and feed us along the way, but still we need him, because our ability, our might, simply runs out before we live perfectly and live so that we do not need a Savior. Our humanity runs out before his divinity begins.

And so year after year we choose Barabbas. We choose Barabbas because our humanity simply can’t reach as far as choosing Jesus requires. We might as well try to fly unaided from the Empire State Building to the Eiffel Tower.

So, what are we to do? We keep the Feasts when they roll around, seemingly interminably, as best we can, knowing that God who made us knows us and loves us, loves us while knowing our humanity can only stretch so far. For this reason we follow the Anglican or Episcopal understanding of the glory Christ displays when he institutes the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. We wear white, and we sing the Gloria in excelsis Deo. We sing the best hymn of praise we know to thank God for not letting our shortcomings interfere with his love for us. We keep the color white for the purity and perfection of our Lord whose divinity supplies to us what our humanity can’t reach. We remember the words “in remembrance of me” because they were the words he used when he gave us himself, gave us the Sacrament to help us along, to help the very limitation we have which holds us back from growing up fully like him.

And, finally, we accept his commandment to love one another. We do this, because it’s what he did, and it’s what he told us to do. But also we love each other because that’s what our humanity would do if it could reach his divinity—we would be the servant of each other, for that is the way to keep our communion and our community in tact. We could never have found this out on our own. Having his example and the gift of his Sacrament, can we not get that right? Can we not get it right that our bearing one to another, our being the servant of each other, will keep our community in tact and even cause it to grow? We should be able to get that right. The Savior who dies for us wills us to give ourselves to each other. He was willing to die to set us free to do those things that we need to do to bring others into this community. He was willing to die to set us free to do what we can to keep this community in tact.

The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, 2018 — 25 Mar 18

The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, 2018

RCL Year B Palm Sunday
Saint Mark 11:1-11
Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, Saint Mark 15:1-47

What we have imperfectly enacted just now shows you exactly how it is that human justice contains flaws and fails to match divine justice. False charges, leveled against an innocent man and delivered with guile and malice exceptional for their purity and intensity; a political animal, cornered, taking unto himself the separate and conflicting roles of prosecutor, judge, and jury, and guided by a keenly accurate perception of consensus and the preponderate momentum of twisting and spiraling emotions and anxieties; and, finally, a mob enraged beyond its level of competence by fear and a thirst for blood and suffering, and ignorant of any reasonable idea of fairness or justice. These three flawed and crippled agents combine to secure an outcome so unworthy and so degraded from even their shortsighted understanding of what justice requires that we are forced to face how low the lowest common denominator can really be.

With the chief priests, Pilate, and the mob, a lot is going on. Those goings on are the usual content of Palm Sunday sermons. But, today, think, if you will, about what is going on with the disciples. They are in the background, but they are observers of all that transpires among the chief priests, Pilate, and the mob. Think about how these events dash the hopes of the disciples. They had hoped that Jesus would restore the kingdom of David and, in so doing, remove the Romans and the others holding them back. Never mind that they had heard three times from Jesus’ own lips how he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”[1] Never mind that they wanted not this outcome. And the outcome of suffering and death he predicted thrice is happening before their very eyes. Think how disappointed they must be.

Later in Saint Mark’s Gospel, after the resurrection, when Mary Magdalene tells the disciples while they are mourning and weeping that Jesus had appeared to her, Saint Mark tells us, “they would not believe it.”[2] Stubborn minds are hard to change. The truth, Jesus himself, had stood right in front of them and told them three times that these things must take place. And when the last of those things takes place, and Mary Magdalene tells them of it, still, “they would not believe it.”

The celebration again this year of the Eucharist of the Passion gives us again this year the opportunity to do what the disciples could not do. It gives us the opportunity to believe him, to believe that he is alive, and to believe that he will do in fact what he has told his followers he will do.

On Palm Sunday, when we have the Liturgy of the Palms, the Prayer Book allows us to omit the Nicene Creed and the Confession. And we are going to omit them today. But what we are not permitted to omit at any time are to believe in him and to confess our sins. We are never permitted to omit to do these things, because he will do, like no one else we have ever known, exactly what he said he will do. “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”[3]

[1] Saint Mark 8:31.

[2] Saint Mark 16:11.

[3] BCP, page 359.

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