Cross of Grace

A community of grace sharing God's love with no strings attached.

Summer Sunday Worship:
8:30 am & 10 am

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

Filtering by Tag: death

Good Friday Message & Prayers of Lament

We are gathered here this evening to acknowledge that God has died. 

It is a strange practice liturgical Christians have – to carve out a time each year to live in the midst of this truth. It is so strange that most Christians do not observe Good Friday at all. “Why pretend that God is dead?” they say. “God had defeated death. Even when we die it will be a blessing because we’ll spend forever with God” they say. They paraphrase scripture, saying, “Death has lost its sting.” 

Would you really say “death has lost its sting” to the man who is no longer a spouse but a widow. Tell that to a mother who still occasionally refers to her deceased child in the present tense. Tell that to the person who just received a stage four terminal diagnosis of cancer. 

People don’t like Good Friday because it’s about death. They are content to gloss it over, deny its pain, and refuse to dip their toes into its dark abyss. This approach to death is incredibly destructive. More destructive than death itself. 

Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist, wrote one of the most provocative and eloquent stories about death in his work, The Death of Ivan Ilych. In this story, a well-to-do man in middle age is suddenly and reluctantly forced to acknowledge the reality of his impending death. The prospect sends him reeling and initiates two struggles: 1) an inner struggle about what his life meant and regret for how he wasted it pursuing worldly accolades; and 2) an external struggle with the people in his life who refuse to acknowledge that he is, in fact, dying. As Ivan Ilych moves from denial of death towards acknowledging its inevitability, he begins to resent those around him who carry on in complete denial of both death’s presence as well as Ivan’s emotional peril. These people are incapable of comforting or caring for Ivan. It is, however, in his death that Ivan’s life is brought into focus; and these important lessons are available to us in Tolstoy’s writing.  

The Death of Ivan Ilych is a cautionary tale warning us not to end up like the obtuse friends and relatives the dying Ivan Ilych resented. Gathering to worship on Good Friday is an opportunity for us to stop running around pretending like death isn’t real. On Good Friday we refuse to gloss over God’s death, we refuse to jump ahead to the resurrection. Good Friday is a day to pause and look upon the cross not as a symbol of victory, but an instrument of torture and destruction upon which God was put to death. We remember loved ones who have died and even contemplate our own death. All of this leads us to two immutable truths, 1) we will die; and 2) God has experienced this also.

This day is called Good Friday because in admitting both that we will die and that God has died, we are brought to the truth that God has gone before us and will be with us in our death. God teaches us how to die and be present with those who are dying. When the time comes for our own death there will be some who refuse to acknowledge its truth. But God will be present with us in our pain, terror, and sadness because God has experienced this firsthand.

I remember the first time I contemplated death. I was around ten years old and was on vacation visiting family in Arizona. One morning I scooted to the backseat of my grandpa’s minivan in preparation for a day trip and out of the blue I had the thought, “One day I’ll be dead.” I imagined total darkness. No thoughts, no emotions, no other people, just nothingness. I was devastated not only on account of the sheer terror of contemplating mortality for the first time, but I was also devastated because I thought that as a Christian I was forbidden to have such thoughts and fears since I was going to be in heaven with Jesus forever. So, there I was on a family vacation through the desert and I was oscillating between horror and shame. 

It is a travesty that my religious upbringing overtly and covertly taught me that death is a shameful topic to wrestle with. At its best, religion uncovers the reality that exists under the layers of crap culture piles up around us. But at its worst, religion embraces the crap and makes people feel ashamed when they dare to question whether there is something even more true and beautiful underneath it all. Questioning and fearing death is one of the common threads that binds humanity together. We don’t need answers, rather, we need safe spaces where we can come together and ask the questions we’re too afraid to ask on our own.

Our culture does an incredible job of using every tool at its disposal to cover up the reality of death. Products are sold promising to make us live longer. Doctors are under significant pressure to offer treatment for terminal diseases even when such treatments compromise quality of life. Morticians literally use tools to cover up the reality of death by painting layers of makeup on dead bodies. And religious people of all stripes use the false certainty of religion to view death as a jumping-off point for eternal glorious life. This frees religious people to blow themselves up and kill others in order to enter heaven, or, just as damaging, go around either telling others (or just secretly thinking) that everyone who doesn’t believe like they do is bound for eternal damnation. Also just as damaging are those well-meaning platitudes of, “She’s in a better place” or “God just needed another angel” or other similar sentiments we employ which circumvent the grieving process and ignore the pain and grief that surrounds death.

Christianity, at its best, observes Good Friday and invites people to contemplate the reality of our own death as well as God’s death.

Brian Zahnd, in his excellent book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, writes, 

“Who is this tortured man, nailed to a tree, suffering a violent death? Incredibly, Christians say this is God! The crucified God. If we don’t find this scandalously shocking, we have grown far too familiar with the crucifixion of Jesus. The crucifixion of Good Friday isn’t an economic transaction; it is the torture and murder of God. This isn’t a business deal to balance the celestial books; it is a crime of cosmic proportions. Before the cross is anything else, it is a catastrophe. It is the murder of pure life and blameless love!” (Zahnd, 83).

When we look at the cross we see who God is. And who is God? God is dead. How shocking. How embarrassing. In Jesus’ death, the temple curtain is torn, revealing that the inner sanctum of the temple – the holy of holies – is completely empty. 

If Jesus had just kept his head down and played the role assigned to him by the powers and principalities, this fate could have been avoided. All Jesus had to do was give his blessing on the world’s power schemes, propensity towards violence, and distrust of the other. All Jesus had to do was avoid helping people who didn’t deserve to be helped. He could have let people starve and hung out with the powerful players rather than the undesirables and outcasts. Had he done that he could have lived a long life, and with the blessing of the religious and political powers of his day, perhaps he even cold have made some money and enjoyed himself. But Jesus chose the path that led to death. And he had the audacity to invite us on the same journey.

Our usual practice at Cross of Grace is to have you come up later in the service and place something on or near the cross. Often it is a sign of our sinfulness; something that we feel is separating us from God’s love and presence - something we trust is forgiven in some way by Jesus’ death on this cross. This evening, however, you have nothing to confess. Instead, you are invited to come to the cross and lament that God is dead. Bring your anger, fear, and disappointment. All sorts of promises were attributed to God; promises about justice, power over our enemies, health, and long life in a land of milk and honey; but God has not lived up to God’s end of the bargain. God could have snapped divine fingers and removed all pain, suffering, injustice and death from this world. But we look around and know that there is pain, suffering, injustice and death in this world that God does nothing about. And for such things we are bold to pray…

God who died,
The disparity among nations around the globe makes your promise of justice and equity ring hollow. The 12% of the world’s population that lives in North America and Western Europe accounts for 60 percent of private consumption spending. Meanwhile, other nations are being ravaged by civil war, famine, and genocide. Your privileged disciples are unsure how to affect change and secretly content with the imbalance. Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

God who died,
As much as we’d like to believe your Spirit guides the church and makes it holy, it is always in the hands of imperfect leaders whose insecurities and anxieties infect the systems. Most bishops and pastors are more concerned about pension plans than standing up against the destructive powers and principalities. Every year more and more people see the church as an obstacle to discipleship rather than an asset. Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

God who died,
You promise your presence and forgiveness in the sacraments of baptism and communion. But it doesn’t seem like baptism makes much of a difference in people’s lives. Sometimes we eat the bread and drink the wine of communion and you still feel as dead as you were on the cross. Are you really there? Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

God who died,
Everywhere we look we see division. The church is certainly no exception. Every week we pray for unity within the church and unity with other religions, but the gap only seems to increase. Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

God who died,
You are the creator of a universe whose immensity and sheer unknowability is frightening to think about. It makes us feel unimportant. Are we unimportant? Are you even aware that we exist? Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

God who died,
You are the divine physician and great healer. So why do some suffer horrendous deaths even while your name is on their lips? Do you choose to save some people and not others?  Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

God who died,
You are the champion of the poor and oppressed. That’s what got you killed. Your death exposed the empty threats of the powers and principalities; and yet they continue to reign today. Help us see them as mere illusions of power so that we are better able to serve those in need. Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

Into your hands, O Lord, we commend all for whom we pray, even though we are not always sure you are listening. Amen.

Simeon's Song

Luke 2:22-40

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

"Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
 light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."

And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too."

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.


“Pastor,” I was asked. “How often do you talk about death in your congregation?”

I was puzzled. “Death? Like metaphorical death, or actual death death.”

He clarified, “Death death - the end of life.”

“Actual literal death? I can’t say it comes up too often outside of funerals.”

He responded, “Well, I guarantee the folks in your congregation have a lot of questions about it; I’m just curious what you would say.”

At least a dozen times every week I catch myself wishing that someone would rescue me from my lonely office, or from superficial conversation and engage me in a theological discussion - ask me a question about God, or let me ask them a question. Every once in a while someone does just that...and it always catches me off guard. Like with the example I just gave, which came from a conversation I had with a casual friend a few months back.

He asked me what I would say about death. A rather vague question, I thought. I didn’t know exactly how to answer; and so, having learned at least one thing from Jesus, I answered his question with a question (as Jesus always seemed to do). I asked, “Do you think people would appreciate talking about death at church?”

He seemed to think people would find it helpful. He called death the proverbial elephant in the room - something everyone knows is there but no one has the audacity to mention it. He clarified that he wasn’t looking for a hellfire and brimstone and damnation; nor was he looking for generic assurances about heaven and halos and harps. He just wondered why it was never brought up in his church and wondered if his experience was unique or the norm.

I had that conversation tucked back in my mind, reserved for a sermon to be delivered at some later date. Ash Wednesday or Good Friday, perhaps - pretty much the only two days reserved on the church calendar when death would be an appropriate topic.

But then I heard the news that Bill Schwartz died in his sleep on Thursday. This news, combined with the Gospel message for today, led me to understand that my message on this First Sunday in Christmas would be less about snowmen, Santa, and baby Jesus; and more about death.

Here’s the Gospel context: It has been approximately 40 days since Jesus’ birth. Mary and Joseph, following the rules of their faith, bring Jesus to the temple in order to make sacrifices and consecrate their child to the Lord. An old man named Simeon comes out of the crowd comes takes Jesus in his arms. He says something so beautiful it deserves to be put to music: “Now Lord, let your servant go in peace.”

He acknowledges that he is now ready to die. 

Simeon recognizes a beautiful truth when he holds the Christ Child, and he is no longer afraid. Simeon does not ask for death; rather, he accepts it courageously and confidently because he now realizes that God's promise of salvation is true. Only after seeing and holding God's promise in his hands, only after touching and feeling the promise of life which God granted to him through Christ, only then can Simeon bring himself to accept that he will die.

How wonderful it would be to hold the promise of eternal life in our hands; how wonderful it would be to see it with our eyes, to touch it and feel it. If only Christ would have left us something before he died; if only he would have given people today the promise of eternal life in some easily-accessible form. If only we had something to see and hold and touch and feel so that we too could accept death and recognize heaven in our midst.

Alas, we do have something - we have the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper. Elements saturated with the eternal promise and joy of Jesus Christ.

A lot of us have been raised on the erroneous impression that taking communion is something we have to do in order to make it to heaven. As if taking communion, going to church, being baptized, and trying to be a good person are all admission requirements to heaven. 

But Jesus never left us any passwords, keys, secret handshakes, entrance exams or treasure maps, to help us get into heaven. Instead he left reminders throughout the world that heaven is here now and that it is as real as death. Reminders like holding a baby, singing a favorite song, a smile from a stranger, a hug from a friend, an outstretched hand of someone offering help, forgiveness of an enemy...and bread and wine given along with the words of assurance that death is not the end.

On that day over two thousand year ago, an elderly man named Simeon walked into the temple afraid of death. But while in the temple he recognized Christ, he recognized God’s promise of salvation was true; and he sang a joyful song about no longer being afraid of death. 

And now, today, we prepare to receive Christ through the Lord’s Supper. At which time we too recognize that God’s promise of salvation is true. And we will gather to sing a joyful song about no longer being afraid of death.

In conclusion I wish to pass on a Christmas wish from a professor of mine from seminary. 

“My wish for you on this day and in the days to come isn't simply a "merry" Christmas, but also a ‘blessed’ one; a Christmas so infused by God's promise of presence and peace that you can leave worship to go out into the world with confidence, neither denying the harsh realities of this life nor being deterred by them, but rather facing whatever comes your way in the coming week and year with courage. For you are God's beloved child, and it was for your sake that Christ was born!”

Amen.

All Rights Reserved. Background image by Aaron Stamper. © Cross of Grace Lutheran Church.