The Day of Preparation

Sermon for Good Friday, April 14, 2017 || The Passion according to John

The story of Jesus’ Passion, which I just read, overwhelms me. Truly. After reading it aloud, I feel like I’ve hiked a mountain. The beauty and grief of the Passion takes my breath away. Because the Passion overwhelms me, I find that when I sit down to write sermons about it, I must focus on a single moment in it: one detail that can help tell the story as a whole. They say the devil is in the details, but when it comes to the Gospel, the divine is in the details instead.

The detail that caught my eye this year comes at the very end of the narrative directly after Jesus bows his head and gives up his spirit. The detail is a simple marker of time: “Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity.” Continue reading “The Day of Preparation”

The Guest Star

Sermon for Sunday, March 12, 2017 || Lent 2A || John 3:1-17; 7:45-52; 19:38-42

The Pharisee Nicodemus is not a member of the main cast of the Gospel according to John. In the parlance of television, he would be known as a recurring character. If each chapter of John’s Gospel were an episode of a TV series, it would fill one standard network season, and Nicodemus would guest star in episodes 3, 7, and 19. We meet him at the beginning, middle, and end of Jesus’ ministry, and each time we drop in on him, Nicodemus is somewhere new in his own journey towards an active faith in Christ.

The Gospel writer makes clear that the intention of the Gospel is to help the reader believe by telling the story of Jesus in a certain way. The writer uses Nicodemus’s three-part journey as a stand-in for our own, as we, too, journey towards more active faith in Christ. The world of Nicodemus and our own world share some striking similarities. Nicodemus lived in a world that had yet to be steeped in Christian tradition; people around him were either confused by the message of Jesus, hostile to it, or ignorant of it. Today’s world is similar; the Christian worldview no longer permeates Western culture, while confusion, hostility, and ignorance to the message of Jesus are in long supply. Today, we’re going to go on the journey of our guest star Nicodemus to see what his participation in the story of Jesus has to tell us about our own. Continue reading “The Guest Star”

The New Version of Me

A Good Friday Meditation; John 19:31-42


2015goodfriImagine with me the thoughts of the Pharisee Nicodemus on his way home from helping Joseph of Arimathea bury the body of Jesus. Nicodemus appears at the end of the Passion Gospel reading, as well as two other places in the Gospel according to John, both of which are referenced in what follows.

Two years ago, I knocked on a door. I waited until nighttime and wrapped myself in a traveling cloak with a deep hood so no one would recognize me. Was I afraid to be seen with Jesus, who my colleagues branded as a dangerous radical? Yes, but fear was not the main reason for my caution. I was ashamed. I was ashamed to admit that I didn’t have all the answers, ashamed that someone else’s words could make me feel so infantile, like a newborn baby. So I hid myself in darkness, not to protect against prying eyes, but to conceal me from myself. I hid from myself. I hid from the version of me that Jesus was beckoning to emerge from some long forgotten exile.

I used to relish my position on the council, my authority as an arbiter. I took pleasure in the blank looks of acceptance on the faces of my litigants. They invested me with the power to judge, and I failed to notice when that power mutated into self-assured complacency. Predictability became my idol. There was never a new problem to be solved, never something I couldn’t explain or interpret or analyze. Over the years, I forgot how to ask questions because I was always the person with the answers.

Until that night. Until my vestigial curiosity awoke that night. When I first opened my mouth, my council voice came out, and I made a grand statement about knowing who comes from God. I could tell immediately that Jesus was not one to be cowed by my position or impressed by my stature. “I tell you the truth,” he said, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

I didn’t know what to say. I remember opening and closing my mouth several times. I remember Jesus smiling at me – patient, eager. Then my breath forced an “H” sound from my throat, and I was surprised when the word “how” came to my lips. I was asking a question. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” The floodgates opened, and for the rest of the conversation, all I did was ask questions: “Can one enter into the mother’s womb a second time and be born? How can these things be?”

Ever since that night, I have heard his words carried on the wind. Since the wind blows where it chooses, my idolatrous reliance on predictability has vanished. Since I don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes, my fantasy that I have all the answers has disappeared, as well. On my way to see Jesus, I was hiding from a new version of me. But everyday, I felt Jesus’ words drawing that new version out of me.

Last year, I reminded my colleagues to obey their own rules. No one on the council had discovered my secret meeting with Jesus, so my position was safe. The two versions of me occupied the same body, and, at that time, the familiar one dominated still. But I had begun to question and look past the veneer of institutional banality.

Jesus had shown up at the festival of booths and caused quite a stir. The chief priests had sent the temple police to arrest him, but they came back empty handed saying: “Never has anyone spoken like this!” I suppressed a smile. He escaped again. The rest of the Pharisees were outraged. One of them shouted: “Surely you have not been deceived, too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him?”

A small voice inside me murmured: “I do.” Then a louder voice: “Careful. Careful.” When I spoke, I tried to defend Jesus without giving myself away. “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” But they were implacable. That’s when I noticed something I would never have seen had Jesus not awakened my curiosity. These colleagues of mine, the keepers of tradition, the self-proclaimed protectors of the Law, were breaking their own rules. I could no longer be party to such bankrupt ideals and blind action. That day, the small voice grew louder, the voice attached to the new version of me.

Today, I buried my Lord. Two years ago, I went to see him at night to cloak my own shame. But today, the sun shines down, unaware that its brightness mocks the darkness in my soul. The sun shines down, and I walk out under its beams so the world can see where my allegiance lies. When first we met, Jesus said to me, “Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” It took two years, but here I am. Here I am in the light.

See, all you who pass by: I am one of his. I am not the person you knew. I am a new version of me, the version Jesus called out of me. See, all you who pass by: I am not ashamed any more. I feel the wind on my face, and I know his words are true. See, all you who pass by: is there any sorrow like my sorrow. My Lord is dead. It took his death for the old version of me to die. But will my new version survive with him gone? Will I have another chance to walk in the light? Has the darkness won? When will the light return?

Updated from a piece I wrote for Good Friday, 2009.
Art: Detail from The Descent from the Cross by Rembrandt, 1634

Too Close

Homily for Good Friday || April 18, 2014 || The Passion According to John

goodfriday2014‘When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.’

“It is finished.” The clock has run out. The game is over. The final whistle has blown. It is finished. The end. Jesus releases the last ragged gasp of hard-fought breath. His mother and his beloved friend look up in time to see his body sag. A moment ago his spent muscles had been holding him up, keeping him from suffocating, but now…the nails keep his body pinned in place, another victim of Rome’s desire to turn execution into demonstration.

Imagine yourself standing with his mother and friend. The horror of witnessing his torture has already cleared the contents of your stomach. You’ve retched multiple times since, but with only bile as a result. You bit back bile of a different sort when the soldiers divided his clothes between them. You wanted to let them have it, to excoriate them for their cold-hearted avarice, but they have swords and spears, and all you have is your ragged faith in a dying man. You hear his last words: “It is finished.” And in that moment, those are the only words in existence. Nothing he said before enters your mind – certainly nothing about rising again on the third day. In that moment, “It is finished,” are the final words anyone will ever speak. They truly are the end.

After all, how could they mean anything else? He said he was “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” But his way led him to this horrible destination. His words of truth were suffocated out of him. His life ended. As we dwell here at the foot of the cross on this Good Friday, we hear those words, we hear the finality in them. “It is finished.” Full stop.

If you touch him now, you know his body will be unnaturally cold. Death is too close.

Even though it’s midday, thick clouds blot out the sun. Darkness is too close.

As his breath fled him, any last bastion of hope fled you. Despair is too close.

Fear. Shame. Domination. All of them, too close.

And as the weight of all the powers of evil and separation come careening toward Golgotha, as they bear down on you, as they crush you like they crushed him, those three words mutate in your mind, become gangrenous. It is finished. We lost.

And yet. The faintest ember of hope glimmers beneath the ash of your extinguished fire.

What if? The sun is still there behind the clouds, still warming the earth with its light, whether or not you can see it.

And yet what if all of this was a trap? What if Jesus, unwilling to risk anyone else, offered himself as the bait? What if Jesus positioned himself high on that cross so the powers of death and darkness and despair and fear and shame and domination could get a good view of him? Could not resist such a juicy target. What if Jesus knew what he was doing all along? Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Was his sacrifice a way to draw his enemies out, to draw them to him, to nail them to the cross with him? If so, no wonder they’re too close. No wonder you feel the crushing weight of the powers of evil careening toward Golgotha.

The words kindle again within you. It is finished.

Could he?

Could he possibly have meant something else?

In those final moments, did he know his plan had worked? Could he feel death and darkness and all the rest scuttling around his cross? Inching closer? Triggering his trap?

It is finished. No. Not the end.

It is accomplished. It is completed. My work is fulfilled. No. Not the end. This is but the middle of the story.

*Art: Detail from “Crucifixion” by Nikolai Ge (1831-94)

The new version of me

(A Meditation for Good Friday; April 10, 2009 || John 19:31-42)

Imagine with me the thoughts of the Pharisee Nicodemus on his way home from helping Joseph of Arimathea bury the body of Jesus.

Two years ago, I knocked on a door. I waited until nighttime and wrapped myself in a traveling cloak with a deep hood so no one would recognize me. Was I afraid to be seen with Jesus, who my colleagues branded as a dangerous radical? Yes, but fear was not the main reason for my caution. I was ashamed. I was ashamed to admit that I didn’t have all the answers, ashamed that someone else’s words could make me feel so infantile, like a newborn baby. So I hid myself in darkness, not to protect against prying eyes, but to conceal me from myself. I hid from myself. I hid from the version of me that Jesus was beckoning to emerge from some long forgotten exile.

I used to relish my position on the council, my authority as an arbiter. I took pleasure in the blank looks of acceptance on the faces of my litigants. They invested me with the power to judge, and I failed to notice when that power mutated into self-assured complacency. Predictability became my idol. There was never a new problem to be solved, never something I couldn’t explain or interpret or analyze. Over the years, I forgot how to ask questions because I was always the person with the answers.

Until that night. Until my vestigial curiosity awoke that night. When I first opened my mouth, my council voice came out, and I made a grand statement about knowing who comes from God. I could tell immediately that Jesus was not one to be cowed by my position or impressed by my stature. “I tell you the truth,” he said, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

I didn’t know what to say. I remember opening and closing my mouth several times. I remember Jesus smiling at me – patient, eager. Then my breath forced an “H” sound from my throat, and I was surprised when the word “how” came from my lips. I was asking a question. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” The floodgates opened, and for the rest of the conversation, all I did was ask questions: “Can one enter into the mother’s womb a second time and be born? How can these things be?”

Ever since that night, I have heard his words carried on the wind. Since the wind blows where it chooses, my idolatrous reliance on predictability has vanished. Since I don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes, my fantasy that I have all the answers has disappeared, as well. On my way to see Jesus, I was hiding from a new version of me. But everyday, I felt Jesus’ words drawing that new version out of me.

Last year, I reminded my colleagues to obey their own rules. No one on the council had discovered my secret meeting with Jesus, so my position was safe. The two versions of me occupied the same body, and, at that time, the familiar one dominated still. But I had begun to question and look past the veneer of institutional banality.

Jesus had shown up at the festival of booths and caused quite a stir. The chief priests had sent the temple police to arrest him, but they came back empty handed saying: “Never has anyone spoken like this!” I suppressed a smile. He escaped again. The rest of the Pharisees were outraged. One of them shouted: “Surely you have not been deceived, too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him?”

A small voice inside me murmured: “I do.” Then a louder voice: “Careful. Careful.” When I spoke, I tried to defend Jesus without giving myself away. “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” But they were implacable. That’s when I noticed something I would never have seen had Jesus not awakened my curiosity. These colleagues of mine, the keepers of tradition, the self-proclaimed protectors of the Law, were breaking their own rules. I could no longer be party to such bankrupt ideals and blind action. That day, the small voice grew louder, the voice attached to the new version of me.

Today, I buried my Lord. Two years ago, I went to see him at night to cloak my own shame. But today, the sun shines down, unaware that its brightness mocks the darkness in my soul. The sun shines down, and I walk out under its beams so the world can see where my allegiance lies. When first we met, Jesus said to me, “Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” It took two years, but here I am. Here I am in the light.

See, all you who pass by: I am one of his. I am not the person you knew. I am a new version of me, the version Jesus called out of me. See, all you who pass by: I am not ashamed any more. I feel the wind on my face, and I know his words are true. See, all you who pass by: is there any sorrow like my sorrow. My Lord is dead. It took his death for my old version to die. But will my new version survive with him gone? Will I have another chance to walk in the light? Has the darkness won? Will the light return?