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Choosing the Cross: Overcoming Denial

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Good Friday, 2017

Thank you so much for being here tonight.  During this Holy Week, as we journey from the processions and Hosannas of Palm Sunday, toward the lilies and eggs of Easter, it can be tempting to skip right over the difficult bits.  To go directly from the palms to the bunnies, and not spend much time at the Cross.  And that is entirely understandable:  suffering is hard!  It’s painful, upsetting and even confusing.  It leads to messy, unanswerable questions, like “why”?  Why?

Why is there suffering?  Why do we suffer?  These questions occupy the writer of Isaiah 52, in what is often called the “Suffering Servant” song.  The people of Israel had suffered and struggled while in exile, and as they prepared to return to Jerusalem, they needed to understand the reason for their suffering.  What had they learned?  And how was God’s purpose being fulfilled?

You may have asked yourself these kinds of questions when witnessing world events these past weeks.  Why is there so much violence, and need and unrest in the world?  The “Servant Song” focused on undeserved suffering: when those who are innocent – mothers and babies, little children – are in pain, what possible reason can there be?  And like the suffering servant, those who suffer often have no voices:   Surely he has borne our infirmities. . . he was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth.  How do the innocent in our world still bear the sins of society? And how can we heal, together?

Even Jesus asks “why” in some Gospel accounts of the crucifixion.  In Mark and Matthew, Jesus calls out from the cross the beginning words of the 22nd Psalm:  “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”:  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?   When I was younger, I used to worry about a God who would forsake his own, dear son on the Cross. Lately, I’ve begun to wonder if Jesus was speaking not about himself, but rather, about the state of the world.  That during Jesus’ time of deep suffering, he summoned prayers of deep empathy. In the Passion from Palm Sunday, Jesus told the wailing women, “Do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children”.  I found my voice cracking as I read “Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’”

Psalm 22 continues with such evocative language as:  I am poured out like water; all my bones are out of joint; my heart within me is melting wax.  My mouth is dried out like a pot-sherd; my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth . . Have you ever felt like this?  During an illness or trauma, or at the death of a loved one?  I wonder if these are the feelings of parents in Syria or Egypt or Afghanistan today?

Jesus may not have been able to recite the end of the Psalm as he was dying, but those around him likely knew all of it by heart.  Around the 22nd verse, the language changes, and becomes hopeful:  Praise the Lord, you that fear him; . .. For he does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty; neither does he hide his face from them; but when they cry to him he hears them.

During Jesus’ final moments, he spoke this Psalm not only in empathy, but also to give his followers courage and hope.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.  Jesus comes close to us, reminding us that God is always with us; Jesus suffers with us, and for us, and teaches us to have empathy for one another, and to have hope together.

During our pilgrimage to the Holy Lands, we visited a large, beautiful basilica in the hills just outside of Jerusalem called the Church of Peter in Gallicantu, which means “cock’s crow”.  We believe that this is where Jesus may have been imprisoned, and where Peter denied him three times.  As I remember it today, it leads me to ask:  about what, or whom, are we in “denial”?

It is easier, isn’t it to turn away from sorrow and suffering?  It can be tempting to hide in the comfort of these very walls and to pretend for even an hour each week that poverty, and evil and cruelty and suffering do not exist.  And I know that when I preach words from the Gospel that remind us about those things, it can be disconcerting and upsetting; as it was meant to be.  Because if we choose these walls only for their comfort, for their beauty and safety, we deny the very reason that the Church exists at all.  We come to the Lord’s Table not only for solace, but for strength; not only for pardon, for renewal.   

Beneath that ancient Church near Jerusalem, there is what is called “the pit of darkness”.  It is literally a stone “pit”, with a narrow hole at the top, through which we are told prisoners like Jesus might have been lowered by a harness and would await their trial and punishment.  We pilgrims gathered together in this cold, dark place, and I tried to imagine what it would have been like to wait there all alone, perhaps doubting the reasons, the choices that had lead there.  To wonder if in fact the suffering was worth it and what good could possibly come out of it.

Then we celebrated Mass in that Church, right on top of that pit of despair; a symbol of both the hope of God’s promises, and a reminder that our faith, our prayers, and our work in the world is built atop the need to tend to those who suffer in darkness and loneliness.  Sometimes that is us ourselves, sometimes a neighbor, and sometimes a stranger halfway around the world, who we may even fear for their differences.  Our worship and prayers and stained glass lend us certainty and comfort; and still the cross persists, asking us questions and challenging our denial.  And amidst all of this, Jesus comes before us today and gives to us the tender gift of his presence, his empathy, his tears and sweat.

Jesus chose the way of the Cross for all those who suffer.  Let us accept his gift by not turning away in denial, but by sitting today with these difficult questions, and by daring to hope and to pray for Peace and Resurrection.  AMEN.

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