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)

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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.

"Half Truths: God Said It; I Believe It; That Settles It"

Matthew 22:34-40

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”


Grace, peace and mercy to you from God our Father, from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit who unites us in faith. Amen.

This time of year the game of basketball is a popular topic throughout our nation, so I thought I’d jump into our discussion about another Half Truth of Christian scripture with a basketball-related story.

One year when I was in high school all the athletes attended an assembly by a sports psychologist. His message was about the power of positive thinking. He told us the story of how he had worked with another high school’s basketball team. This team was having a terrible time at the free-throw line. So he told the team to stand at the stripe and picture the ball going into a giant jar of spaghetti sauce. Not just any spaghetti sauce, mind you, but Prego sauce. Watch this commercial and see if you can make the connection…

Prego, “It’s in there.” Get it? Got it? Good.

The idea was for anyone shooting a free throw to focus on this image and three-word phrase, “It’s in there,” in order to block out all negative thoughts. The sports psychologist said that the high school team ended up winning the state title that year due in part to their incredible free-throw percentage. 

I remember going home that night, grabbing my basketball, shooting free-throw after free-throw in my driveway, each time picturing the giant jar of spaghetti sauce, each time saying aloud, “Prego, it’s in there.” And I tell you what…very few went in. Truth be told, I was at that assembly because I was on the tennis team; I’d never been a part of a basketball team, nor been taught correct basketball-shooting form. No matter how confident and positive I was when I shot the ball, my confidence and positivity could not make up for my lack of training and skill. 

I tell you that story because it highlights the need for education and humility – two things our world and our religion is in desperate need of right now.

Here’s an image that gets right to the heart of the matter.

PeanutsTheology.jpeg

This comic strip was my computer wallpaper during seminary. Many of my seminary classmates made it seem as though they were there in order to defend their faith against any new knowledge, insight, or questions posed by the professors. I was amazed at how often seminary students would argue against the professors, without having allowed themselves to contemplate the new insight. It was a very different approach than I had experienced as an undergraduate student, where vigorous debate took place after we had a chance to reflect on the new ideas.

These students would have loved this Peanuts comic strip because they interpreted it as something they would say to a self-righteous professor who was threatening their faith - an accusatory, “You’re wrong. I’m right.”

I, on the other hand, had already endured the painful process of having my adolescent faith transformed as a result of asking tough questions and allowing doubt to ferment my faith. I loved this Peanuts comic strip because it reminded me of the attitude I needed to have in order to continue to learn and grow in my faith. Admitting that I could very well be wrong about a great many things opened me up the entirety of a high-quality seminary experience. And to this day this idea serves as my framework of faith - a faith guided by the pursuit of knowledge born out of a spirit of humility. 

In other words, I read this comic and see the complete opposite of the Half Truth, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” 

Too often we mistakenly think of faith as believing the right things and having the right answers (or if we don’t have the answers, not even bothering to ask the questions). However, throughout Christian scriptures, history, and liturgy, a great many references are made to the life of faith as a journey or pilgrimage.

In Acts 22, the apostle Paul refers to his past experience persecuting “the Way.” There are other references to early Christ-followers as “People of the Way.” The very reference to “Christ-followers” implies movement. The very notion of repentance has at its root the Hebrew practice of Teshuvah - a joyful return to the path in which God is leading you. 

Yes, there are times when we settle in God-ordained places for a while (metaphorically speaking), but God always uproots the settlers and sends them on their way once more. One of the most powerful images of this taking place is the image of Jacob wrestling with the angel and walking away limping. Authentic encounters with God change everything, particularly the direction or way in which we continue on the journey.

I came across this brief film interview with Greg Boyd, a pastor in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In this film, Greg rather succinctly explores implications of raising one’s certainty above one’s capacity to question, doubt, and wrestle with God. I wanted to share this clip with you and I hope it speaks to your heart.

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