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 Unfair Fight

(Sermon for Sunday, April 1, 2012 || Palm Sunday Year B || Mark 11:1-11; Philippians 2:5-11 (NOTE: At my church, we read the Passion Gospel at the end of the service, so this sermon moves from Palms to Passion.))

I’ve always been struck by the incongruity of the scene. A crowd lines the dusty road leading up to the gate of Jerusalem. They are there to see a parade, but the spectacle is just a fellow riding a baby donkey. People spread their cloaks on the ground as a sign of respect. But Jesus isn’t stepping on the cloaks: the donkey is.

The crowd shouts aloud, “Hosanna! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” Now when David entered Jerusalem, he did so at the front of a grand procession – “all the house of Israel,” II Samuel tells us. They were carrying the Ark of the Covenant. There were shouts and the sound of the trumpet and the sacrifice of an ox and a fatling. And “David danced before the Lord with all his might.” David had just defeated the Philistines and his dynasty was assured. His triumphant march into the city was a victory march.

But when Jesus rides to Jerusalem, he rides alone. No army. No conquering legions. The people in the crowd shout for the return of the kingdom of David, but all they see is a lone man atop a baby donkey. As I said, I’ve always been struck by the incongruity of this scene.

Sensing something to be incongruous – to be out-of-place – means that there are expectations that are not being met. If you go to a job interview at State Street in a t-shirt and jeans, there’s a better than average chance that the interviewer will take one look at you and send you home. The interviewer has the expectation that you will enter the room in your best suit, and the incongruity of your casual clothes will trigger discomfort and then disapproval in the interviewer. But say that you wear your t-shirt and jeans to the park to throw a Frisbee with the guys. No incongruity there. The expectations match the scenario.

When Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the back of the baby donkey, he is actively challenging the expectations of the crowd that is shouting “Hosannas.” They praise him while he rides in humility. They celebrate his arrival in the capital city while he knows the outcome of his arrival will be bloody. They show him the respect due to royalty. And all the while Jesus is boldly defying the people who have no respect for him, the chief priests and their lackeys, who have until now hoped he would keep a lower profile.

And in the greatest incongruity of all, the crowd shouts for the return of David’s kingdom; that is, a kingdom marked by a sovereign Israel, an Israel with no Roman occupiers. But Jesus frustrates this expectation, as well. In this case, the crowd is thinking too small. They have only their own country on their minds. But Jesus isn’t concerned with the Romans. They’re small potatoes. When Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the back of that baby donkey, he sets in motion events that will drive out, not the Romans, but the power of death, the grip of evil, all the forces of darkness. No wonder no one was expecting that.

Jesus hovers above the crowd, sitting atop the donkey as the beast shambles ahead. He remains above the crowd not for the glory of the exalted position, but in order that the powers of death, evil, and darkness might get a clear view of their target. And in seeing this small, humble human being, those powers underestimate their foe.

The powers of darkness do not realize that this Jesus riding on the donkey is someone they’ve met before, albeit in a more glorious form. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul tells us why the powers don’t recognize Jesus. Paul says, “Though [Christ] was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross.”

The powers of darkness have their expectations too. The incongruity of Christ’s humanity throws them. They have no idea who they’re dealing with because Jesus acts in ways they never expect. While the powers of darkness would always seek to exploit, Christ empties. While they would always seek self-aggrandizement, Christ humbles. While they would always seek to get their own way, Christ becomes obedient to the point of death.

How could the powers of darkness possibly think they could win if they completely underestimate their opponent? And all the while, Christ is here on earth, learning all about the darkness, participating in the brokenness of people’s lives, bringing wholeness, bringing hope, bringing light.

And yet, the darkness sees the little man on the back of the baby donkey and wishes for a more impressive opponent, if only so the fight would be more interesting. But what the darkness fails to realize is that this is the most unfair fight of all time.

The powers of darkness bring all of their standard weapons to the ring: fear, mistrust, the desire to dominate. They expect Jesus to bring the same. But Jesus brings no weapons at all. Instead, he brings the willingness to sacrifice. He brings the love that gives him the courage to lay down his life. He brings the peace that passes all understanding.

They are David and Goliath, and David left his sling at home. Normal expectations would ask how Jesus could possibly win this fight. But we know the incongruity of God’s love. We know that God loves us even though we don’t deserve such an amazing gift. We know that God loves this broken, messed-up world so much that God sent God’s only Son to save the world. We know that God rejoices in letting us in on the secret that our expectations are always too small. God let slip this secret when the women went to the tomb on Easter morning.

But we’ll get there with them next week. First, the powers of darkness marshal. First, Jesus rides humbly into the teeth of the storm. First, the battle.

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?