How did we get here? How do we arrive at this point year after year?
After the year we’ve had, we are thankful to come to this moment at all, overcoming insurrection, persevering in a worldwide pandemic (that is still ongoing), and surviving thus far all the risks and chances we face in life. As people so lucky, mightn’t we rather be celebrating? Rather than come to church when we know the grief we carry and the grief we enter into with the Passion, why would we submit ourselves to such torment and sadness?
We can’t even celebrate that there was a moment in time when the political authorities and the religious leaders agreed on something because the thing they agreed on was killing Jesus. If Jesus died, the rebellion would end with the people subdued. With Jesus dead, the priestly power prevails and the questioning of authority subsides. Everyone can resume cruise control, maintain the status quo, and stay in line . . . or this could happen to you.
We read through the drama and trauma of the Passion wondering, “Why can’t they see that Jesus is innocent?” We call for the release of Barabbas instead and shout with the crowd, “Crucify him!” while thinking that surely we would never be on that side of history.
And yet. Here we are. Again and again we find ourselves here. If we have taken up the challenge to draw near to Jesus, even and especially through the suffering, to the cross, and to his last breath, we are more than a little uncomfortable.
The gift that is Easter awaits us, a safety net for the absence of Jesus that the disciples, friends, and his mother did not have. Can we stand beside and with them in their grief? Can we bear witness to the tragedy, like so many even this week who have to share testimony to watching a man be tortured and killed? Hopeless. Yelling into a void. Recording the moment that will be seared into their memories long after their phone becomes obsolete.
While the balance of what is good and evil teeters in the stillness of a moment, life for some carries on without noticing. Others watch the scales with bated breath or carry on bearing the burdens as they do, wondering, waiting, maybe even daring to hope.
Maybe we find ourselves at the cross more often than we realize, feeling an absence of God, of Truth, of Justice, of Goodness, in the world. Fear and grief and isolation and hatred can make it feel like it is finished, that there is nothing at all in the world to hope for. If Jesus had lived a long life and died naturally, we might have regarded him as a Saint or Prophet–the light and love he shared being contained to his lifetime. But he was killed. He couldn’t breathe. He breathed his last at the hand of his executioner, at the hand of violence, an extension of justice armed with fear and oppression ready to strike again to all who resisted.
As the sun eclipsed and the veil of the Temple ripped apart, God spoke when others couldn’t. Now can we see clearly? The Light of the world was extinguished by the cruelty of humanity that has the incredible gift of free will, even to self-destruct. But the presence of God will not be contained, not in one place, nor in one time.
But sit in the darkness. Don’t look away from shortcomings and failures, doubts and despair. Sit in the stillness and silence with all of who we are. What have we done?
But don’t stop there. What, then, do we do next?
“He who has promised is faithful.” What all have we been promised? What all have we been commanded? Drowning in grief and sorrow, we can’t handle any tests or lists. Like the children we are, we need it spelled out simply, outstretched before us so it is as clear as possible. What is all this about? What is the purpose of everything?
Good Friday is “good” because of Love, God’s love. We come to Good Friday year after year because we forget how to love, how to show love, how to be loved, and we lose our way. Maundy Thursday we’re reminded of the Eucharist and of the command to love one another. Good Friday we’re reminded of our failure to live in obedience to the command to love, and we’re invited to sit in the darkness because there, too, God’s Love prevails.
I wonder, because time has taught us / That it is not uncommon / For a peaceful protest / To start or end / With an unjust death.
~ Rev. Sarah Are
We begin today’s worship recalling Jesus’s triumphant entry in Jerusalem–a “procession” we call it in our orderly, liturgical fashion. We immerse in the actions and the holy Word of the Passion, and by the time I stand before you, Jesus is dead. His mother is numb, along with others, and yet there are others who sigh in relief and satisfaction. It is done. The instigator, the threat, the leader is dead.
How about we not try to tidy up the scene or the situation? How about we put on our old clothes and muck boots and wade into the messiness of the foundations of our tradition, the history of who we are? Gird up your loins; summon your courage; take a friend’s hand; and let us be real with one another to experience a glimpse of the story of us.
My great-grandma Maggie, the one who would let us take all the bobby-pins out of her bun so we could comb her long gray hair, pinch the skin of her hand, and sway the loose flesh below her arm, would tell us stories while my brother and I stood close, connected to her body. In the safety of her presence, we would listen intently to this woman born before 1900.
Did the disciples, in the presence of Jesus, listen intently enough? Did they stay close enough to him? In all the acts that Jesus did, the healings he completed, did they not notice how they ran contrary to the injustices happening in the empire? Did they not realize that while Jesus enters Jerusalem on the donkey that the military regime was entering at another gate on the opposite side, complete with all the tools of war? Time and again he foretold of his suffering, death, and resurrection, but they didn’t want to hear it. He took with him Peter, James, and John in the garden, when he is “distressed and agitated,” and he asks them to stay with him. When he finds that they’ve fallen asleep (not only once but three times!), he’s disappointed and aggravated with them and the weakness of human flesh which he, too, has.
Jesus goes on to be betrayed by Judas, the priests and chief priests, the elders, scribes, and even Peter. As we cried out in the reading, the crowd, soldiers, and bystanders also forsook him. We betray him.
Leading up to the very hour he is crucified, what does everyone do? They fall away. They distance themselves from the point of the greatest suffering. I cannot even fathom the point of the embodiment of the suffering of the world. I wouldn’t want to be there, either.
But if you’ve ever been close to suffering or death, there’s an immense clarity there, a falling away of every pretense, a real-ness that’s undeniable. And in the recognition of the suffering, there can be a deep peace. That peace comes not from being alone: it comes from being recognized. It comes from being loved.
If we dare, we can recognize this whole Holy Week as the peaceful protest it is, of God loving us all, come what may. We’ve had millenia to practice experiencing God’s unconditional love, but maybe now is the time to see it for what it is. For a protest is “a statement or action expressing disapproval of or objection to something,” and Holy Week if anything, protests the oppression and injustice of the children of God because it runs counter to God’s love.
Three years ago was the March for Our Lives at the Square downtown and across the country. Students had organized these events to proclaim loudly that they’d had enough of the gun violence, of the tragic end to their classmates’ lives. They were outraged by the senseless violence, the unjust deaths met by ineffective thoughts and prayers. In the poem for this week’s meditation, Rev. Sarah Are writes, “…it is not uncommon/For a peaceful protest/To start or end/With an unjust death.” Nationwide, after so many unjust deaths from gun violence, the students led the peaceful protests to proclaim “ENOUGH!” and “NOT ONE MORE!”
And yet, the unjust deaths continue. God’s children murdered.
George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbury, and so many others fuel the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests. Not all have been peaceful, so strong the outrage, so great the injustice. Last year was marked by protest after protest, and not just BLM but political protests, too. Injustice abounds, viewed from every angle–so much so that we seem to have lost our compass. We don’t know which gate we’re entering from–are we following “the one who comes in the name of the Lord” or the one who defies the primacy of God?
This past week, legislation landed on our governor’s desk, legislation intentionally directed to adversely affect our LBTQ+ community, especially our trans siblings. I signed some petitions, but not all. I didn’t call, and I didn’t show up at the Capitol for the peaceful protest that was held. Before the governor signed the last two bills into law, however, I did write an email to him, commending the great commandments to him–that we love God first and foremost and that we love our neighbors as ourselves. I also mentioned that we have the responsibility not to legislate hate in our state. Throughout the pandemic, Gov. Hutchinson has voiced that Arkansans will do the right thing to wear masks and take precautions; couldn’t he then count on Arkansans to use their good judgement when it comes to school and health policies? Couldn’t he listen to those who are directly affected and hear the fear and discrimination being projected onto them?
I expressed to the governor that one consolation I have is that Jesus is always where the marginalized are, where the oppressed congregate, and that I remain committed to loving our neighbors, especially those who are particularly vulnerable.
I haven’t heard back.
Several joined those gathered Friday evening, the beautiful night that it was, outside the Momentary for the #stopAsianhate vigil. We recited Langston Hughes together, we heard the names of those who died in Atlanta along with a glimpse of who they were, and we sang together–distanced, masked, and outdoors, of course. It was called a vigil, but it really was a peaceful protest. The vigil was an expression against hate crimes, particularly those focused toward the AAPI (Asian American/Pacific Islander) community. Even among the broken voices and tearful eyes, there was peace and affirmation, hope and community.
This Holy Week, we may think there’s no peace to be found, that the suffering and violence is too great, too much. We may feel like we can’t do much to stand against the powers that be, that our voice doesn’t matter, that we’re too weak, too insignificant, too tired. But I wonder whose expectations we’re focusing on, whose judgment we’re considering. Because God asks of us to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. We don’t have to save the world, we just have to love with every step.
And that’s why we need the muck boots, because it will take us into the mess. But there’s no reason why we can’t wear our best every day, no reason why we can’t be the donkey in the procession, going into the peaceful protest doing all that we were created to do, bearing the burden of our Savior, placing one foot in front of the other wherever we need to go, even and especially to the foot of the Cross.
There is such freedom there, my friends. The greatest protest we can participate in is the one that defies cultural expectation. WE are enough. WE are beloved children of God. We participate in the great peaceful protest by proclaiming the Good News with our whole being, by sharing in the mind of Christ, by emptying our being of our ego, by loving ourselves and others because our love of and from God is so great.
It’s not easy, but if we can stay close to Jesus especially this week, drawing nearer to him in our readings of the scriptures, we might experience this Holy Week differently than others. We can rely on one another to keep watch this week and work together to keep awake and proclaim the Good News to everyone we meet and participate in the ongoing peaceful protest of radical love that will lead us right into Easter hope and maybe even joy itself.
This service, unlike others in so many ways, captures as much of our Christian story as it can, which is why it is longer and why I’ll keep this brief. We move from creation to the empty tomb in one fell swoop, and what do we do with that? Do we leave this place like we’re clicking the remote, getting up from our seats saying, “Well, that was nice”? I dare say that if you are fully engaged throughout this service, for at least a moment, your heart and soul are stirred. For if anything is true about what research claims about cellular memory, these stories are written in our hearts, so to speak, or at least in our cells. So the story of our ancestors, of the Hebrews, of the women, of the apostles, of Jesus are all part of our story, very much a part of who we are. This story of ours isn’t meant to be kept in the dark.
We know for ourselves what is real, what is true. Like I shared last night, I’m as skeptical as anyone when laying claim to what is really real, but when something grabs hold of us and speaks to us like nothing else we’ve ever known, we pay attention. As our Christian Education lecture series says through Prof. Bart Ehrman, what happened in the past might not be counted as history, as what can be proven with evidence and supported with scholarship. The exodus and Passover are taken as history, the raising of the dry bones not so much. The person of Jesus of Nazareth, even his crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, are history, but his resurrection leaves historians in a quandary. Perhaps it has you in one, too. What exactly are we celebrating this Easter? Jesus’ houdini-an act of rising from death and fleeing the tomb?
What we celebrate this Easter Vigil is the light of life coming from even the darkest of times. It’s why we start from creation, for the ultimate void to the generation of life. It’s why we remember the Exodus, the liberation from oppression and despair. It’s why we aren’t afraid to talk about death, a most natural part of the life cycle. It’s why as Christians we remember our baptism, because it is one way that we die to ourselves, giving ourselves over to life in Christ. We are given new life, new birth. It’s not a coincidence we celebrate this in spring, when everywhere we look, new life is rising from the darkness of the earth or from branches that looked all but dead.
Maybe like the disciples, you think this resurrection hope is an idle tale, an opiate for the masses, giving false hope to make people feel better about the nightmare of life in this broken world. Chances are if you’re here, that’s not your perspective, but we all have days when we’re not our most optimistic. I have days, too, when I wonder if all that I work for and strive for is worth it.
But even in death, there are things we do, making arrangements, preparations. A few take care of this, like the women going to the tomb; it’s usually the few who were closest. And we can close that chapter of our lives, or we can reflect on what it means for us that one we loved so much has taught us things we’ll spend the rest of our lives processing. But what if we were the women at the tomb, and what we expected to see wasn’t what we faced? What if what we thought was the end of the story, the death of our Teacher and Lord, wasn’t so? What if we then remembered, after being prompted by another, that Jesus had actually told us this would happen, that he would rise again? Wouldn’t we tell others?
And wouldn’t they in their despair question us, write us off as crazy or making up idle tales?
But love is a strong thing. Even after death, don’t we hope for a sign from our beloveds that they aren’t truly gone from us, even if it’s in our dreams? It’s blessed Peter, isn’t it, who acts first and thinks about it later. Peter, who had denied Jesus three times and regretted it deeply. He gets up and runs to the tomb. Now, according to this gospel, he doesn’t immediately go back and credit the women, apologizing for not trusting them at their word. But he goes to his home, his place of safety, and we end with him in amazement today. When we think we know how the story ends, we can tune out or fall into our habits and routine.
But this story doesn’t end. It goes on. The devotion of the women, the discerning of the disciples, the searching for themselves for the truth, the questioning, wondering, and amazement: all this is ours, too. All this is fuel for our hope that life triumphs over death, that light prevails in the darkest of times.
If those of us here tonight have to be reminded of the hope of our story, how many others who aren’t here could us a few words to remind them that they are part of our story, too? For the love of God that couldn’t be held in a tomb certainly isn’t just for us but is open for all the world. Our story is nothing less than a love story, radiant with the light of Christ, written upon our hearts.
Every Friday in Morning Prayer, the Collect for the day was written by William Reed Huntington, an Episcopal priest who died in 1909.
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.
Especially on Good Friday, we are ever mindful of walking in the way of the cross, and we likely focus on the suffering, pain, and crucifixion more so than the joy and glory to come. It’s hard to see the way of the cross this day as the way of life and peace.
I want to wish that Christ didn’t have to suffer and die, but in our human experiences, this is our way. All that we know comes from learning the hard way, unless we’re one of the few who actually heed the advice of others who have learned on their own the “hard knocks” of life. All the hardships I’ve gone through and the suffering I’ve known give me some of my greatest lessons, shaping who I am by how I shape myself in response to these adversities. At our best even when we’ve gone through the worst, our suffering humbles us to reach out for help, to strengthen our network of support. When we feel weak is when we’re most likely to call on divine intervention, maybe like the psalmist to cry out why God has forsaken us and maybe also in our cry for help to call out praise for the only one who fully knows our hearts, the one to whom we’ve been entrusted since before we were born and has been with us ever since. And in our humility, we’re more likely to show compassion for others in their times of trial. If we haven’t been through what they’re going through, we know there’s nothing that exempts us from such suffering. It could easily be us brought to our knees, crying out for help, begging with outstretched hand, weeping silently in the night. We know the sufferings we’ve endured. So does God.
Of my time in Israel last spring, there were two places that spoke to me most deeply: Magdala and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City, downtown Jerusalem. Because tourism is a major industry in Israel, there are many efforts to preserve ancient history and prevent building contemporary structures. But over 2,000 years, much has been built, shrines built even over a thousand years ago draw many pilgrims and lay claim to ancient stories. Our tour guide pointed out to me one such stone around which a few pilgrims were listening intently to their guide. Father Kamal advised me how important it is to know the scripture and the scholarship so as not to be fooled. He needn’t worry; I’m naturally a skeptic when people claim something is “real.”
But the walls in the Old City drew me in. We went through the building surrounding the sepulchre, scrutinized a crack in one of the 1st century stonesin the wall that could affirm a quake of some sort, and made our way to the entrance of the sepulchre. It’s a stone stairway that curves upward alongside a wall. You have to crouch or bow a bit to make it through the low and narrow entry and continue to ascend the small stone steps. Like many places we visited, I again felt like we were cattle being corralled and pushed through to arrive at a place.
It’s a darkened place, illuminated by light and many candles, filled with incense and the smell of crowded bodies–at least when we were there. Honestly, I felt it was cluttered, crammed with all the things of devotion. It was so much to take in when we were being ushered along by those anxious pilgrims behind us.
Reflecting on it now, I don’t think I’ve ever had the experience before of being someplace and knowing that all the stuff didn’t matter. The place itself was holy. We came to see the place of the Skull, Golgotha, where Jesus had been crucified. We came to see how our ancestors had built around it to mark this sacred place and preserve it.
Being there, it wasn’t what I saw but what I felt. Stepping closer to the place where others bowed and kissed the ground, my chest constricted, my capacity to breathe felt blocked. I could barely speak. I grabbed the arm of a friend as an anchor, unsure of where this feeling was taking me. I remember him asking if I wanted to move closer, and I remember shaking my head, heart full and tight at the same time and saying, “This is it; this is the place.” I remember thinking, this stuff isn’t what I’m here to see.
I’m here to feel the presence of Christ in his suffering. I’m here to feel the presence of his mother and disciples and friends who witnessed his crucifixion. I’m here to know that all my suffering for love and against God’s love are known, even as my heart is fully known. And I couldn’t stay in that place. It was so crowded, and people were pushing in. I still felt like I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t stand the feeling of suffering. It was too much.
But I wanted to go back. I still want to go back because I wasn’t able to while we were there. Because I wonder if it was the suffering I couldn’t stand or the incredible love shown, the kind of heart-breaking love that is so broken open that it draws everything and everyone into its embrace. God laid claim on my heart, and I wanted to turn away. I realize, though, that it’s that knowing that I yearn for, that nothing else comes close to fulfilling. On the other side of that suffering is joy. On the other side of the crucifixion is glory. The way of the cross leads to eternal life because the way of the cross is the way of Jesus is the way of love. That love may hurt us and break us, but if we are truly following that way of love, we have nothing to fear and everything to gain.
My senses stood on edge at the first foot-washing I experienced in a church (St. Paul’s, Fayetteville). I had never done it before but trusted the clergy in their invitation to the holy days leading up to Easter, to participate fully in all that was offered. I looked around at others who seemed so calm, as if what we were about to do was normal. In the church, Baptism and Eucharist are normal; even in the church of my youth I had at least had one Communion. Jesus told us that we were to be baptized as he had been and that we were to take the bread and cup in remembrance of him; this is standard issue. So what do we make of this where, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus plainly says, “I have set an example, that you should do as I have done to you”? What Jesus has obviously done is kneel before his disciples and wash their feet in an overwhelming act of love.
On Sunday I encouraged us all to pay attention to Jesus’ acts of love throughout Holy Week, and in his act of washing his disciples’ feet, we witness a great and powerful act of love. In this act of love, Jesus says many things, verbally and non-verbally. What Jesus knows is that the time is coming for him to die, and he is resolved to love his friends and followers through to the end. How is he able to do this? He has the assurance of his place in God, his confidence that he not only comes from God but is going to God; he is not bound by this world. With this assurance, he gets up and washes the feet of those gathered with him, even arguing with Peter, telling them that he knows they can’t fully understand this now, but they will, later. Later they will understand the paradox of their Teacher and Lord serving them and the significance of the servant not being greater than the master, nor the messengers greater than the one who sends them.
Jesus washing the feet of his disciples wasn’t just about role-reversals on that one night long ago. In one exemplary act, Jesus encourages a letting-go of expectation, puts those who think we understand in the uncomfortable position of not knowing and in a position of vulnerability. If letting go of a sense of order and control wasn’t uncomfortable enough, giving your feet over to the one whom you regard as your Teacher and Lord certainly is. Jesus, in his tenderness and love and assurance in God, created a safe space that night to plant a seed for new understanding. In a place of safety and security grounded in God’s love, Jesus offered a moment of transformation, illustrated in Peter’s move from not wanting Jesus to wash his feet to wanting to be washed head to toe in the waters his Lord offered. Like Peter, we still have much to learn, much to understand.
Accepting our own lack of understanding of all that Jesus stands for and all that he offered and showed to us, letting go of a sense of control and of vice-grips on what we deem acceptable, let alone taking off our socks and shoes to let an acquaintance pour water over our feet at the end of the day, all of this puts us in a position of vulnerability, and our culture equates vulnerability with weakness. Our culture equates love with weakness. But we know that being vulnerable means being open. Being vulnerable means we have the opportunity to take a risk, to be brave, to be courageous. We know that being vulnerable means that we have the capacity to be in relationship with another, which means that only by being vulnerable can we experience and understand true love. And we know that true love is powerful.
The bonds of love defy reason and even time and space, which may be why Jesus wants us to do this, too, this act of love. I wash your feet. You wash mine. We share this act of love in the name of Jesus, for love of God, and we live our lives together in assurance that whatever may come, we are God’s, we are beloved. Though we may be afraid, we have nothing to fear. For Christians, this act of love is normal. We practice showing our love for one another in the church so that outside these walls we remember that we are God’s servants and messengers on the same level with all other children of God, many of whom have forgotten what it is to love and be loved. As important as it is that we be baptized and share in Holy Communion, it is equally and especially important that we show genuine love for one another as often as we can.
The skies are gray this morning, but the weather forecast says the rain doesn’t come until tonight. That rain promises to come with storms. The darkening of the skies calms me somehow, encouraging me to retreat a minute, get myself in order, and focus on the holy moments at hand.
This morning the scriptures recall how some people thought the voice of God was thunder, while others clearly heard words. Tonight at our Agapé meal we’ll hear Jesus send Judas out to do that which he must do. We know with Jesus that Judas sets out to betray him, but others think he’s going out for supplies for the coming festival. So much of what we understand–or think we understand–is left to our perspective and interpretation. It might be how we understand written words or how we perceive the present moment, and what we experience is true for us. Simply because we see something as true doesn’t mean it is True, though.
The turmoil we read about and the arguments we observe or endure arise from people standing their ground for what is true for the individual. At our best we try to understand everyone’s point of view, where they are coming from, trying to imagine being in their shoes even if we completely disagree with them. One might call this how we exercise empathy. I believe empathy exercised with humility helps us better see the fuller picture of what is real, granting us a bit of objectivity and giving us a chance to increase our personal knowledge and understanding.
From this broader perspective, we might hear the voice that also sounds like thunder and marvel with others at the experience of God’s presence. We might see the exchange between Jesus and Judas as meaningful and look back on it later with clarity. We might see our neighbors, be they rich or poor, as people struggling with life or rejoicing in small moments. In all circumstances, even as we make our first impressions and snap judgments, we leave critical judgment alone and focus on the only person over whom we have even the slightest control–our self.
Without this focus and work for and on the individual for the benefit of better relationships with one another, we lose sight of the whole. A recent story I heard said we’re truly at risk of losing empathy and retreating into separate camps, evidenced in our increasing polarity socially, politically, economically, etc. From where I see it, the grace of God has no boundaries except those that we construct ourselves. It truly is up to each of us to discern whether we want to stay in relationship with one another, how best to do that safely and for the benefit of the whole, and how we glorify God in the process or continue to betray God.
Among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say– `Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”
After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.
Yesterday, the world watched the spire fall from Notre Dame Cathedral. My newsfeed was full of friends posting their pictures from their visits to the historic landmark, and people and churches worldwide posted in solidarité. I hoped with all hope the firefighters were safe, and I also worried about the rose window and all the art and treasures within that mark the ages through Christianity this past 900 years.
I remembered a simple post last week from another friend about fires in Louisiana churches, reminded by yet another friend who called out the collective grief for this cathedral when not one but three black churches had been burned in Louisiana.
I punch another whole in my privileged card. While I grieved for a church that represented so much in Western Christianity and also grieved that I might never see the cathedral in its glory, there were churches that burned not accidentally but intentionally not too far from home. From a hate crime.
Oh, how we love to see Jesus in the great and beautiful, which is of course determined and measured by those in power. How we love to come together over a tragedy, so long as it doesn’t make anyone too uncomfortable or call out injustice. How we cower when we don’t understand or think the light is taken away or hides itself from us.
This Holy Week when a great church burns, what does it reveal to us about the other churches that have burned? Aren’t all churches houses for the Body? When a man gets shot in a church, when a mosque gets burned, what are we saying in our most sacred places?
I believe this Holy Week does call us to come together in solidarity to seek Christ in all persons, to remember Jesus’s acts of love that grant us redemption especially when we live into those acts ourselves. But Jesus wasn’t one to turn a blind eye toward injustice or be deceived by grandeur. True Light is something we can’t build, and while it may be concentrated in one area more than another, it doesn’t mean any one light is greater than another.
To me, this illustrates a classic example of “all lives matter,” reminding us why we have to stand up for #blacklivesmatter. If all the houses are on fire, which one gets the most attention? The Light of Christ is present in the people of the three churches in Louisiana. We celebrate their safety, grieve for their losses, and hope for their future, too. Black.Lives.Matter. We see you. We see Christ in you. God be glorified in your perseverance, in your continuing to shine the Light of Christ. Yes, all lives matter, which means we have to work extra hard in assuring that no one goes unnoticed, especially when our attention gets diverted and when there are those who would rather we not notice.
There are GoFundMe campaigns set up for the Louisiana churches here and here.
God be with you. God be with us all as we build and rebuild, moving toward the kingdom of heaven.
Morning Prayer this morning revisits what inspires the procession on Palm Sunday: Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem. The Eucharistic gospel lesson revisits the dinner party where Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with fragrant nard, much to Judas’ annoyance. Reflection offered by Plough points toward Jesus’ overthrowing the moneychangers in the Temple.
All the while, I wonder where I am this Holy Monday.
Interestingly, I find myself in relation to the crowd.
As news of the Game of Thrones premier covers the news/radio this morning, I realize I’m not “in” with that crowd. Going to pick up a sold-out book club book, I realize that there’s the potential to meet a new crowd of folks locally. Marveling with others at the incredible redbuds and all the spring blossoms and sprouts, I am most definitely one among many getting gardening fever, more than ready to dig in the earth and tend to whatever I can get to grow (or at least dream about growing!).
But when it comes to Holy Week, where I am is one among many in a crowd straining to catch a glimpse of Jesus, hoping to witness if not be a recipient of his acts of love.
All the effort of my seeking contrasts with the sheer presence of Jesus’ being. Aside from the outburst at the Temple, I imagine Jesus steadily moving forward, carried by the will of man yet sustained by the power of God which is determined to reveal something incredible, surpassing all understanding. For all the shouting of the crowd, be it with “Hosanna!”, at a crowded dinner party, or in the general ruckus of a bunch of people, Jesus’s words and even his presence in silence come as a measured and welcome calm however painful it may be.
As part of the crowd, unknowing of God’s ultimate plans, I am reminded to seek those moments of peace and calm, even in the midst of the storms. I am called to follow those distractions that promote a healthy lifestyle and true peace of mind, like taking the dog for a walk, planting a few plants, and making sure we all consume plenty of water. Why? Because ultimately I believe that as Jesus showed us in his life, death, and resurrection, it’s about love, love of the true kind. True love nurtures who we most fully are, which is who God created us to be. So acts of love offered to myself will be life-giving, nurturing. Once I’ve given these loving acts to myself, I might be able to extend them to others.
Those acts might look like sharing in mutual love and affection, like Mary anointing Jesus’ feet or sharing a cup of tea with my kids after school. It might look like calling out systems of injustice and signing a petition or calling on legislators. It might look like being part of a crowd, or it might look like being the outsider, caught in all the emotions of each.
I wonder what a “crowd” of people who are fully and authentically present might look like for a moment before I think of all of us gathered at church. That crowd includes those present, those who wish they could be there, and anyone else willing to come. It’s a humble, vulnerable, loving bunch, with so much hope. It’s the kind of crowd that extends beyond the church, too, and not often in the mainstream but at the margins. It’s a crowd that’s at risk of getting pulled into the mass mentality, but it’s also a crowd willing to repent when it’s gone astray. It’s a crowd that is yearning, straining to see Jesus, and I realize I am where I need to be.
From the invitation into the observance of a holy Lent on Ash Wednesday, we knew that it would culminate in our observance of Holy Week. But what are we observing, exactly? Heretofore, our primary focus has been on ourselves, focusing on our experiences, especially in regard to our sacrifices or additions that bring us to mindful attention to God’s presence in our lives. In Holy Week, given our cultural tendencies, we might place most of our focus on the crucifixion, the betrayal that led to it and the violence of it. But we are given a holy week to take in the story, even if we try to cram as much of it into today as we can in case you don’t come back until next Sunday. When we focus on the holiness of this week, let us turn our attention to the acts of love shown to us by Jesus.
We begin this week with our palms raised high with our cry of “Hosanna!” (“Save us!” or “Savior!”) We look to Jesus as Savior, the one who will save us, deliver us. He willingly goes before us, knowing that we hope but don’t fully understand.
Monday’s gospel lesson revisits the account of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet, which he lets her do and chastizes Judas for chiding her. Love often looks like calling out truth, be it beautiful or painful.
On Tuesday, Jesus’ words almost implore his followers to understand who he is and what is about to happen; he’s trying to prepare his followers, to give them understanding and insight as the time draws near. As frustrated as he may be, Jesus never forces anyone into understanding or submission.
Wednesday night, at the last of our Lent Soup & Study events, we will again have an agapé meal, a simple Eucharist around the table preceding our meal together. For us it’s a way we draw close to the experience of a meal between Jesus and the disciples, a feast rooted in love. In the gospel lesson that night, Judas betrays Jesus, yet Jesus continues to affirm that God has been glorified in the Son of Man. Jesus doesn’t prohibit Judas from doing what he has chosen to do, but many of us know the betrayal of a friend or loved one and how hard it is not to be attached to what they are doing, especially if it is destructive; it’s an extreme act of love.
Maundy Thursday we begin the Triduum by receiving the great commandment from Jesus to love one another, and we practice by washing one another’s feet as Jesus showed us, ending the service with the stripping of the altar. In our timeline, this might be the night Jesus was arrested, neither resisting nor condemning anyone.
Good Friday we observe the crucifixion of Jesus, from which he neither flees nor complains. Some of us will walk the Stations of the Cross to encounter more moments along the way when Jesus interacts with others, silently though it may be. Some may choose to make their confession as we, like Peter, realize that we have denied Jesus in thought, word, or deed. We will gather Friday night for the service that includes the recitation of Psalm 22 — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We will have a cross before us, and we can choose to bow before it in veneration, recognizing that Jesus’ ultimate act of love was his death.
What does it mean for us that we recount Jesus’ acts of love and remember that our redemption comes after a great suffering?
If we pay attention to our dreams, some of us have recurring dreams. They might be the exact same dream or some variation on a theme. I’m not trained in Jungian psychology or even in dream work, but the little I have dappled in both, dreams have something to teach us, something that is often nestled deeply in our subconscious. A recurring dream could suggest that we are experiencing a similar situation over again–like stress expressed in a dream of being in high school again and not finding your locker or schedule or being late or unprepared for a test (yes, that’s one of mine). A recurring dream could also indicate an insight that we’re being offered but haven’t given it enough attention to discern what it is that we have to learn.
Holy Week for me–increasingly so since I’ve been ordained–is much like a dream, and this year the words of Paul resonate with me like the voice of the narrator in a dream. Maybe it has something to do with the Bible study, where we’re taking our time reading Romans. (The more time you spend with anyone, the more they can grow on you, right?) Again, Paul is writing from prison, and he sends this letter to the Philippians. Someone described the portion we read today as a love song since it shows some of the characteristics of love songs from the time. There’s union, a union not to be exploited, and an emptying of self, all of which are ideals in a mutually loving relationship.
But this isn’t a romantic love, the love between Jesus and God or Jesus Christ and us. Paul tells the Philippians to be of the same mind as Christ Jesus. If we are of one mind with Jesus, our thoughts, words, and deeds will present in tender love and humility, in an endurance of suffering, and in enduring hope–all characteristics present in Jesus’ acts throughout this week. In all that we do, can we have Christ’s mind about us? Can we be at one with Christ? As Jesus emptied himself to experience fully the human condition even through suffering and death, is there something we need to empty ourselves of so that we can be faithful to God, follow Christ, and be who God created us to be? This kind of faithful obedience underscores the prayer from the Gospel according to Luke where Jesus says, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Giving ourselves to obedience to God and God’s will doesn’t mean we don’t make conscious decisions.
The invitation to a holy Lent and even into Holy Week is just that, an invitation. We could, like many others, not observe a thing, and our lives would continue. But for those of us who have given thought and awareness to the presence of God in our lives, meeting that with the recognition of Jesus’ acts of love might illumine for us how we can further reveal to others the presence of Christ in our lives, in all our suffering and all our hope.
The Triduum–the three days in the church that try to capture the great mystery of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (the Paschal mystery)–will break open our hearts and pry open our eyes if we are strong enough to turn toward God.
These three days come every year. They are part of the church calendar, a cycle predictable enough to be printed like any other desk or pocket calendar. But like the seasons of the year, there can be times of tumult. A perfect storm arises when conditions are just right. Weather fronts collide, funneling chaos onto the land, and I cannot help but feel that this is what happens on these Holy Days.
If we dare, we look toward God and invite the past to reenact itself. As a congregation, we participate in the retelling of the story. We come together to wash each other’s feet and to share a meal. We walk the Stations of the Cross, and we sit in silence . . . and wait.
Simultaneously, we imagine ourselves among the disciples or in the crowd. Maybe even just a fly beside one who is choosing to betray or another struggling to do what should be done . . . or near the One choosing to forgive and breathing his last. Can we steel our strength to be the Mother watching her child be crucified? Can we handle the thunder and the silence?
It is easily too much.
Carrying the Sacrament to the side chapel after the Maundy Thursday service, the glass flagon was heavy and full. The liquid within sloshed with my steps through the darkness. There was enough light to glint from the glass and to illuminate the wine, the blood. My throat caught, and my stomach turned in the briefest of moments. The blood of our Lord and Savior. This was but a drop, and if it spilled, if I were to drop this fragile vessel, I imagined it would spill for miles. But there we were, walking softly, reverently placing the reserves onto the altar. The candlelight hushed the room and twinkled in everyone’s eyes.
Walking home, the nearly full moon was shrouded by clouds. The evening continued normally, marked by the “Open” sign at the coffee shop and the frat boys’ shouts at their houses. So many feet to wash. So many people to love.
Soon we’ll walk along the road of our small town, between a parish and chapel. People will carry a huge and heavy cross, and the fullness of time will push all bounds, trying to break into our consciousness. From Golgotha of the past to Syria of the present to the oppressed and invisible neighbor–all out of sight but very much here and now. All the pain and all the love sucked into one vortex that if we are willing will tap into the conduit of our lives. Nothing more than we can stand but enough to break us open, awake us from our numbness, set us free to love as we are commanded.
On the other side of the suffering and silence, our greatest joy awaits. Only true Love can take us there and back again, year after year, moment after moment.