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: questions

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.

Christmas, Huh? – Luke 1:26-38

I’m grateful to look out on such a large gathering of people. I know that there were many other places you could have gone this evening. I’m not just talking about going out for Chinese food for dinner or staying home to watch A Christmas Story five times in a row. You could have gone to many other churches which would have proclaimed the good news of Jesus’ birth. Most of the other churches you could have gone to would have presented a message along these lines: Isn’t it so wonderful that God came to the earth as Jesus so that one day he could grow up and die in order for everyone who believes in him to go to heaven.

You could have heard that message elsewhere. But you chose to come here; and if you’ve ever worshipped with us before, you’ve noticed that Pastor Mark and I like to present the good news in a way that you don’t hear anywhere else. I hope you came here expecting to hear better news than what typically gets labeled as good news. 

It is good news that God came to earth in the form of a human called Jesus. But here’s better news: according to John’s gospel, God has always been present in creation. God existed in every facet of the earth and human existence even before Jesus was born in the stable. Just as incredibly, God is every bit as present in every inch of creation today.

It is good news that our faith in God leads to forgiveness and reconciliation. But here’s better news: forgives and reconciliation is possible only because God has faith in us. 

It is good news that Jesus ushers in the Kingdom of Heaven. But here’s better news: the Kingdom of Heaven is a reality that transcends time and space, meaning we can participate in its reality here and now. 

It is good news that Jesus was miraculously born to a virgin. But here’s better news: still today God miraculously works and miraculously reveals God’s self in and among the outcasts of society; just as God was revealed in two thousand years ago in a pregnant unwed teenage girl, stinky and despised shepherds, backwater unimportant towns, and entire tribes oppressed by ruthless empires. 

In order to proclaim the better news of the gospel, I’d like to take us back a bit in the story, roughly nine months prior to Jesus’ birth.

According to the first chapter of the gospel of Luke: 

“God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. When the angel came to her, he said, ‘Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!’ 

But she was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. The angel said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.’ 

Then Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be since I am a virgin?’

The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. Nothing is impossible for God.

Then Mary said, ‘Here I am, a servant of the Lord. Let it be with me just as you have said.’ Then the angel left her.”

Mary’s three responses to the angel establish a profound pattern of faithfulness – a pattern that show up in our own lives whenever the divine confronts us in powerful and mysterious ways.

When God pronounces favor and blessing on Mary, her response is “Huh?” 

That’s not a common theological word, but I think it’s the best one to get the concept across. God’s word is inherently confusing and discombobulating. Contrary to the Christian hymn, oftentimes, God’s word is less a lamp unto our feet and more like a strobe light whose halting rays of light cause us to question the reality of what exactly we’re seeing.

The first movement of Christmas faith is to receive the word of God and let it disrupt everything you thought you already knew. If you hear a spiritual idea and your response is “Yeah, I already knew that” or “Sure, that makes sense” then you probably need to adjust your spiritual radio dial. God’s word of truth and beauty is always initially unsettling. 

Isn’t that better news? Doesn’t it seem like the solutions to the issues facing our world are yet to be uncovered from unexpected people and places? Doesn’t it make sense that there is truth and beauty beyond everything you already know and have experienced? God’s truth and beauty disrupts because divine truth and beauty cannot be contained within the human heart or mind. Therefore we are called to pursue truth and beauty, in whomever it shows up and wherever leads us.

The second movement of Christmas faith is to ask “How?” 

The divine calls us beyond the self-imposed limits of our body, mind, and soul. The divine leads us to say, “Who, me? I could never do that.” This was Mary’s second response to the angel. The angel countered, “You’re right, YOU can’t do that; but nothing is impossible for God.”

Once you have acknowledged your discomfort at a new idea and sworn that the thing it requires from you is impossible, you are ready for the third movement of Christmas faith: the movement of saying, “Here I am, let’s do this.”

If nothing is impossible for a God who loves all of creation and is a part of all of creation, then our call will be to do the impossible. 

The impossibility of a thing is precisely what makes it a miracle. The Christmas story is a miraculous story about light coming in darkness to people on the outside edges of society with no hope. 

It is a story of people responding to God’s impossible claim of love with the words, “Huh?” “How?” and “Here I am.”

Sermon Slide_7.jpg

It is a story about movement from certainty to confusion; from confusion to questioning; from questioning to trust; from trust to action.

The glory of the Christmas story isn’t just in its historical truth, but in that it is happening right now; in your heart, in this church, in this community, in this nation, and in this world.

For inspiration, some you might need something more artistic than a three point bullet list, so here’s a beautiful poem, “Annunciation” by Denise Levertov. It is a depiction of the moment before Mary’s resounding, “Here I am.”

 

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished, 

almost always a lectern, a book; always

the tall lily.

       Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,

the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,

whom she acknowledges, a guest.

 

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions courage.

       The engendering Spirit

did not enter her without consent.

         God waited.

 

She was free

to accept or to refuse, choice

integral to humanness.

 

She had been a child who played, ate, slept

like any other child–but unlike others,

wept only for pity, laughed

in joy not triumph.

Compassion and intelligence

fused in her, indivisible.

 

Called to a destiny more momentous

than any in all of Time,

she did not quail,

  only asked

a simple, ‘How can this be?’

and gravely, courteously,

took to heart the angel’s reply,

the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb

Infinite weight and lightness; to carry

in hidden, finite inwardness,

nine months of Eternity; to contain

in slender vase of being,

the sum of power–

in narrow flesh,

the sum of light.

 

                     Then bring to birth,

push out into air, a Man-child

needing, like any other,

milk and love–

 

but who was God.

 

This was the moment no one speaks of, when she could still refuse.

 

A breath unbreathed,

                                Spirit,

                                          suspended,

                                                            waiting.

 

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’

Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’

She did not submit with gritted teeth,

                                                       raging, coerced.

Bravest of all humans,

                                  consent illumined her.

 

The room filled with its light,

the lily glowed in it,

                               and the iridescent wings.

Consent,

              courage unparalleled,

opened her utterly.

____________________

My Christmas wish is that you would have courage to utterly open yourself up to God; 

that you would hear divine truth that surpasses all your current wisdom and experiences, leading you to say, “Huh?” 

that you would feel God asking you to do something impossible even though you can’t understand how. 

and that you, as brave as the bravest of all humans, would say, “Here I am, let’s do this.”

Amen. Merry Christmas.

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