Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday Homily

St. John's Episcopal Church, Asheville, NC , 04/02/10

I cannot even begin to tell you how many times I have hiked to some beautiful, remote waterfall where the last part of the hike turned out to be the most difficult ground to cover. I could hear the waterfall, but I could not yet see it. The roar indicated that I was almost there. However,it seems like there’s always just one last ridge to climb and it’s a doozy. Why are they always at the end of the journey instead of the beginning?

We are almost at the end our Lenten journey together. Easter and the alleluias are just around the bend, but first we have to climb Golgotha with Jesus. As it turns out with so many of my hikes, Good Friday is the steepest, hardest part of the journey. It is difficult terrain.

What could possibly be “good” about Good Friday? What could possibly be good, godly or holy about a day on which some of the Gospel writers record the crucified Jesus using those words from the Psalm that we just read, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

One of my favorite children’s books is titled, “Alexander and The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” I have often thought that by itself, Good Friday should really be called “Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Friday.”

Of course, we are Easter people. We are about Eternal Life and Resurrection so we can look back on this day with the hindsight of Easter and call it Good Friday or God’s Friday. Easter transforms the hopelessness and despair of Good Friday into hope and joy…but not yet.

Before the victory trumpets of Easter, the Gospel is a funeral dirge and we are left to sit, just like his disciples, in the darkness, confusion and sadness of the reality of a brutal death. Justice, compassion and hope are shredded and left hanging on a tree like the lifeless body of Jesus. Good Friday means that we do not rush to Easter to get the answers that come with the Resurrection. Good Friday is the day where we pause to wrestle with the questions.

With all of the vast theological significance that the rest of the New Testament unpacks about the death of Jesus, it is easy to forget that Good Friday was a day when a good human who taught love and non-violence was betrayed, tortured. An innocent person was arrested and executed by a government official named Pontius Pilate who favored political expediency over justice. A violent revolutionary named Barabbas who taught and practiced hate and murder was set free so that Jesus could be killed. Everything is upside down. It would seem to be the epitome of the old cliché that “nice guys finish last.”

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That ancient line was in the hymnbook of the Hebrew ancestors of Jesus long before he quoted it on Good Friday. Psalm 22 shows us that Jesus stood in succession to a long line of his people who looked around at seeming triumphs of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous and had to ask, “God where are you? How could this happen in your world?” That long line did not end with Jesus.

No doubt, it is the question on the minds of his followers as they scatter in fear and go into hiding on Good Friday. It is a question that has haunted many good people over the centuries when those people suffered for doing the right thing.

The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann once said, “Good Friday is the center of the world.” If you watch the news or go online then you already know that Good Friday is the messy territory where we spend a great deal of our human lives.

According to Amnesty International, in places all over the world today, there are political prisoners of conscience who will wake up in awful conditions of abuse and torture simply because they spoke the truth or chose to do the right thing. Like Jesus, close friends betrayed some of them. Like Pilate, spineless people in power did nothing and chose to save their own careers at the price of another innocent life. Like Barabbas, people who commit unspeakable acts of violence go free while the innocent are punished because they ended up not on the wrong side of justice, but on the wrong side of power. “My God, how could such a thing happen? Where are you? How could you forsake us?”

I know a man who is dying of cancer. He’s good man who has given money to many good causes. He returned from spending time at a cancer treatment center where he encountered terminally ill children and their families and he was devastated by the absurdity of it all. His question to me was, “Where is God? How could God allow such things to happen?” That is an honest Good Friday question.

If we are honest, we have all probably wrestled with such Good Friday questions at one time or another. The world we live in lends itself to such questions.

It does not mean we are evil or unfaithful to wrestle with such questions. It means that we are honest and that we are human and that’s precisely the point. It means we are like Jesus or rather Jesus was like us. We are in good company with such questions. We are in company with Jesus and the author of the 22nd Psalm and virtually everyone who has ever struggled with what seemed like the abandonment of God.

Good Friday means that Jesus is not simply a beautiful icon locked away in the pristine pages of Sacred Scripture. Good Friday places him in our zip code. Good Friday means that Jesus enters into the raw, unfair, difficult places that perplex us and strain our faith. On Good Friday Jesus stands shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with every person who has suffered tragic loss, unfair treatment, betrayal, sorrow and pain.

Jurgen Moltmann, the German theologian I mentioned earlier said, “My God, where are you?” was the first prayer that he ever uttered. As a 17-year-old soldier in Nazi Germany on July 1943 he barely survived the Allied bombing raid on the city of Hamburg called “Operation Gomorrah.” 40, 000 people, including the person standing next to him, were killed. He cried out in the firestorm, “My God, where are you?”

A couple of years later he found himself in a POW camp in Scotland at the end of WWII. The Allies showed the POWS video footage of the liberated concentration camps and holocaust that Nazis had perpetrated. His fellow prisoners were perplexed to discover the depravity hidden behind the idealism of the “great cause” they had been fighting for. Many of the POWs became bitter and disillusioned. The carnage that Moltmann had witnessed and endured as a teenager all seemed to have been in vain. Some of his fellow POWs committed suicide. His world fell apart.

One day a Scottish minister gave him a Bible. His upbringing had been so secular that he had never read the Bible before. In it he discovered the words of Psalm 22 and found them again on the lips of Jesus on the cross. This was the beginning of his journey of faith. He discovered in the Jesus of Good Friday someone who understood the pain and disillusionment that he felt. He would later about write about Good Friday:

"I knew with certainty: this is someone who understands you, the Divine brother in distress, who takes the prisoners with him on the way to resurrection. I began to summon up the courage to live again, seized by a great hope…This early fellowship with Jesus, the brother in suffering and the redeemer from guilt, has never left me since."

Easter is about victory. However, the only people who seem to win on Good Friday are the ones who should NOT win. Good Friday sounds like defeat. Good Friday resembles us in our weakest moments of loss.

On Good Friday, we are not given answers. Instead we are given a very real, human, suffering Jesus who stands in company with the very real human suffering that afflicts this world and touches all of us. Today we venerate the cross and keep vigil with Jesus. Because of this day, we know that he can keep vigil with us. Today we behold his cross and in doing so we can be sure that he knows ours.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Come, Holy Spirit: Reflections on my ordination.

When love comes to town, I’m gonna jump that train.
When love comes to town, I’m gonna catch that flame.
---B.B. King and Bono

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Where charity and love are, God is there.

What happens when the Holy Spirit shows up? Technically, we are taught that the Spirit of God does not have to show up. We “live, move and have our being” in the very presence of God, (Acts 17:28) even when we are strolling down the aisle of the grocery store trying to find those coupons that we stuck somewhere. The issue is never about whether or not God is present to us, but really more about how present we can be to God in any given moment. However, there are moments when we invite a special sense of God’s presence. What happens then? That kind of question seemed academic until Saturday.

Saturday was the day of my ordination. I spent the afternoon of the day before ordination with the other ordinand and our Bishop. The Bishop sure had a lot to say about the Holy Spirit showing up on Saturday. That made me a bit nervous. What would happen? Would I end up experiencing something akin to a white-collar version of the wild antics on those late night televised religious broadcasts? Would I be suddenly possessed, or feel something unusual? Or worse, would I end up suddenly asking everyone for a love offering?

There are two things that Jesus taught about the Divine Spirit that would almost seem to be in tension with each other. The first is that the Spirit of God is as mysterious and unpredictable as the wild desert wind that whips up fierce sandstorms out of nothing and then disappears into the calm. In fact, the very words employed in the Scriptures to name the Spirit, both in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament, are words that are related to the wind. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) We cannot tame or predict the Spirit of God. We cannot manipulate or bend the presence of God to our will. The life-giving Spirit can no more be tamed than the primeval gale forces blowing across the face of the deep in the Hebrew creation narrative. (Gen. 1:2) On the other hand, once we come to understand that we cannot tame or direct the force of the Spirit, we hear the words of Jesus, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13) We cannot make the Spirit show up any more that we can create a hurricane, but all we have to do is ask. The Spirit is not manufactured, purchased or in any way earned. The Spirit is gift and grace, just like everything else with our exuberantly generous God! All we can do is ask, and ask we did.

We belted out a sung invitation, “Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire, and lighten with celestial fire.” I felt my knees lock up and my eyes widen as I looked around, half expecting to see something materialize the way people it did in the transporter room of the classic Star Trek. Everyone was dressed up in red (which every liturgical Christian knows is the Holy Spirit’s favorite color) and everyone was singing. When I knelt down for the Bishop to place his hands on me, I took a deep breath…

I wish I could tell you that I felt an electric shock go down my spine or a heated light glowing around my head as a tongue of flame danced above me. I did not. Instead, what I experienced was much deeper and warmer. Instead of focusing the attention on me, she focused my attention on everyone else.

I can only describe my experience as being overwhelmed with a profound sense of deep gratitude and warmth for everyone who had walked along the way with me to that point---those who were in the Cathedral and those who were not; those who are still alive and those who have passed. They were all with me, or rather I should say, I was present to them at that point and I loved them.

That sense of connected gratitude and love only grew during the Holy Eucharist. People from my past, present and future began to come forward to share in the sacred feast that Jesus said was intimately connected to his body. St. Paul declared, “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27) The Bible teaches that Jesus is raised from the dead and has become a living people. We eat the bread and have a share in that body. We drink the wine and his very lifeblood connects us and flows through us and makes us alive to God. We are the incarnation, sent into the world to become his hands and feet on the same mission that he had: to give away the extravagant love of God and touch the outcast and heal the broken. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:21b-22)

One by one they came forward and one by one I began to see the vast connected network of the body of Christ. I loved them, every one, and that was the moment that I realized the Holy Spirit had shown up. The fruit of the Holy Spirit begins with love. (Galatians 5:22) St. Paul taught that without love all other manifestations of the Spirit are meaningless (1.Corinthians 13:1-3) because “God is love”, inseparably. (1 John 4:8) It is the very DNA of the incarnation. Love is the animating Spirit that moves the living body of Christ. I came to understand that the Holy Spirit’s presence was not about me, but about getting me to turn outward toward everyone else. My ordination and Holy Orders ---none of it was simply for me. A warm wind of love showed up at my ordination, and all we had to do was ask. All we have to do is ask.