Good Friday Sermon
The Rev. Margaret Anne Trezevant
All Saints’ Episcopal Church, 29 March 2013
Diana Butler Bass reminds us that in the year 1373 Julian of Norwich, the great English mystic, lay dying from the plague. Well, it turns out she didn’t die after all, but as she lay delirious on her sickbed she had a series of visions, which she later put into a book “Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love”. Her eighth revelation concerned the Passion and the Cross, and it was here that she had her great insight: “Here saw I a great ONEING betwixt Christ and us: for when He was in pain, we were in pain.” This theological insight changes the perspective from one who died FOR us to one who suffers WITH us. The implications of this are profound. The implications of what it means for us as witnesses to Christ’s suffering and death and how we are to be in the world are profound. How we proceed in life, carrying the cross that Jesus carried, can never be the same once we see the cross in this light.
I was beginning to have glimpses into this truth when I was taking Anglican ethics and my professor, John Kater, pointed out the language we use in our prayer book, when we pray for the poor, the suffering, the sick, the lonely. “What do you notice?” he said. We all looked, we scratched our heads, we came up empty. Taking pity, because he is a patient and kind man, he said, “We’re always praying for someone else. We aren’t in the equation, as if we aren’t poor, we aren’t suffering, we aren’t sick, or lonely.” Duh! There it was, right in front of us! Out of our largesse, I guess, we offer our prayers, but we stay tidily out of the mix.
Traditionally I think we, at least I know I was, taught to think about Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross as something he did FOR us. It was transactional. We messed up, he paid the price for us forever, and now we will be grateful by doing good things for others. And being good. But way back in 1373, Julian lay on her sickbed and realized that wasn’t it. God was with us. God was with us in the mess then and is with us in the mess now.
I don’t know if any of you are following “Lent Madness” on Facebook. It’s a tongue-in-cheek riff on the basketball March Madness where different saints are pitted against one another until finally one is left standing to receive the “golden halo”. Every day two saints are pitted against one another and we all vote. Sometimes the votes are quite wrenching, like pitting Martin Luther King Jr. against Martin Luther…I mean, come on! Or Damien of Molokai against Frances Perkins, the first woman Secretary of Labor under FDR, a good Episcopalian woman who brought us the 40 hour work week, the minimum wage, Social Security and worker safety regulations, to name just a few. What I found particularly noteworthy was the number of martyrs, both modern and ancient. We don’t call them saints for nothing.
These saints took up their crosses and followed Jesus, yes, but when you look closely you realize that they followed Jesus right into the stuff of life. Damien of Molokai—now there’s a saint for you. When leprosy swept through the Hawaiian islands in the mid-nineteenth century, and the lepers were isolated on the island of Molokai with no one to help them, Damien, like Isaiah before him, said “Send me”. What could he do, really? There was no cure, he had nothing to offer them but his presence. Like Jesus, he suffered with them, until he himself died of leprosy at a fairly young age.
We read about, and voted on, people like Jonathan Daniels, the young Episcopal seminarian who felt himself called to work with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma. He marched with, and was jailed with the protesters. When he was unexpectedly released from jail, he and some of his companions walked to a small store when a man with a gun appeared, cursing them. The man aimed his gun at 16-year old Ruby Sales. Jonathan Daniels pushed her aside and shielded her, and instead, he was shot and killed. Then there is Janani Luwum, Archbishop of Uganda during the regime of Idi Amin, speaking truth to power for his people, knowing that it was very likely that he would be killed, which he was. Or Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, appointed by the Vatican because they thought he could be counted on to be conservative and not rock too many boats. But once he was appointed, he took up his cross and followed Jesus. He lived in a hospice rather than the fancier digs he was entitled to as an Archbishop. It kind of reminds me of Pope Francis doing the same thing in Argentina, and taking the bus to work. Romero couldn’t be silent about the suffering of the poor in his country. He appealed to the church, he appealed to the U.S. What he got instead was shot while he was celebrating Mass. He said at one point that he knew he was going to die, but he was OK with that. He said he “believed in resurrection, and he would live on in the Salvadoran people”.
Now, none of these people died for anyone’s sins. But they all died because of them. They all died because they stood with the suffering, stood in their midst and suffered with them. When Jesus tells us to “take up our crosses and follow him”, I’m not sure he’s talking about our own personal sufferings. Life is hard. We know that. We have crosses too numerous to count and sometimes inconceivably hard to bear. I think we are being called to set foot into the sea of life, to experience life beyond ourselves, to be with our brothers and sisters in their pain and their struggle, just as Jesus is with us.
They said of Jesus, “He eats and drinks with sinners and tax collectors”. Oh my. They seemed quite happy to have him there with them. He was the one everyone wanted at the party. I’m not sure he would have been so welcomed if, every time he showed up he was there to preach, to “offer them salvation”. When was the last time someone rang your doorbell on a Saturday morning, eager to share the “good news” with you? How many of you said “Oh, do come in! And what’s that little magazine you got there? I’ll take 10 of ‘em!”
For our Lenten series this year we were using Jane Shaw’s book “Practical Christianity”. Jane is the Dean of Grace Cathedral. She talked about the four models of church, which I found very interesting. Model 1 is the view that the world is bad, and you have to withdraw from it to not be corrupted by it. She uses as an example the Amish, or the Mennonites. Or I would add, the Desert Fathers of the early church, and maybe, if you look closely, some churches that seem more like well-guarded gated communities rather than a welcoming church community. Our Christian community is not immune to these things. We sometimes gather together in little church ghettoes of people who look and think like us.
Then there is the Model 2 church, which says the world is bad, but we can change it by bringing Christ to everyone. Well, Jane Shaw points out that Christ is already here, thank you, we don’t need to bring him here. This is not a Jesus-model of “being with”. It’s a something else model of “doing to”. A la those people on Saturday morning! I’m sure they’re fine people, but any of us should get a little nervous if we think we have all the answers for other people. We need to be listening for the voice of God in our own lives, and sometimes God might be speaking through those people we are so assiduously trying to convert to our way of thinking! There was a woodblock print at a church I used to go to. It’s a food line, with the jobless and the hungry standing in line for a food handout. In the midst of the line is Jesus. He looks like everyone else, but you can tell its him because he’s the one with the halo. But I love that picture. I wish I had it. We forget that we might meet Jesus in some very unexpected places.
Then there is the Model 3 church, which I admit to liking quite a bit, and have probably had some of that thinking seep into my sermons from time to time. That is the view that the world is bad, but we can change it by “getting our hands dirty” and getting to work to change it. It’s a social justice model, a social gospel model. It has a lot to recommend it. We DO need to advocate for justice. We ARE called to build the kingdom of God here and now, or as the Quakers like to call it, the Commonwealth of God. I like that. That’s how I have always seen our diaconal callings, to be a force for good in the world.
But then there is the Model 4 church, and here is where we get closer to that “ONEING” that Julian of Norwich saw. It’s the God With Us that Butler Bass talks about. In that model, the world is both good and bad, and in living in that tension we can expect to come up against some of the same resistance that Jesus did. We can also expect to meet Jesus in the unholy mix of it all.
Last week at our School for Deacons faculty meeting, Rod Dugliss read an address by Aaron Scott, who is part of a mentorship program called “The Seven”, engaging young people who are discerning a call to the diaconate. Scott said that he had been blessed to be part of a grassroots movement to end poverty, and by “grassroots” he meant a movement led by the poor themselves, the poor fighting for themselves on their own terms. He said that when we experience having to fight for every small thing it gives one a sense of freedom and power, the kind that radically deepens ones sense of accountability to, and togetherness with, the rest of God’s children. He says “For too long, those of us in the church who care about justice have believed and perpetuated the lie that we must become ‘a voice for the voiceless.’ That’s a lie….It’s like Arundhati Roy(who wrote that powerful book “The God of Small Things”) said: “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard”. …Scott goes on to say “In a living, spirit-filled diaconal ministry, you do not get to speak “for” anybody. You get to 1) speak for yourself, and 2) amplify the voices of others in the world whom the powers and principalities seek to silence. Even when the church itself acts as one of those silencers.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “It’s not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world”. If we are truly living in the midst of God’s creation, and not holding ourselves apart, as if this is about “them” and not “us”, we too, will suffer as Jesus did. We might even die for it. But I think almost more important than that, we will find Jesus where we least expect it. Like the travellers on the road to Emmaus, we may find that we have been walking with Jesus all along.