A sermon offered in the service of Morning Prayer on April 5, 2020. The scriptures are Matthew 21:1-11, Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, and Matthew 27:11-54.
You can watch the sermon HERE.
Last Monday, in the little video I did, I mentioned the St. Francis Cross, the cross from the Church of San Damiano in Assisi. It’s the cross from which St. Francis received a deeper calling to “go and repair the Church.” If you know that cross, or if you should look it up, you’ll see that it’s filled with people. Mary and John are there. Various disciples are there. Other followers and friends of Jesus. It’s a crowded cross and one that seems to invite us to find our place alongside Jesus, alongside others who suffer, or who await new hope or new life of any kind.
Well, that crowded, people-filled San Damiano cross is very different from the cross we encounter in St. Matthew’s Passion, the version of Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion that we have just read, and some of you have read at home. Like St. Mark’s version of the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus, Matthew’s account shows us a Jesus who is centered on doing God’s will, but then, from the cross, Jesus is honest enough to wonder if God has left him. Luke’s Jesus forgives from the cross. John’s Jesus is still very much in charge from the cross. But Mark and Matthew give us a bleaker, lonelier version, with Jesus quoting Psalm 22, “Why have you forsaken me?”
Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus quoted Psalm 22 from the cross, I think, to remind us of the humanity of Christ, to remind us that even Jesus wondered at God’s distance. I think the Gospel writers keep those anguished words because they wanted us to be able to connect with Jesus for deeply. Life sometimes feels like God is might be “otherwise engaged.” Maybe we think God has others to attend do, or others’ concerns are more important than our own, or that God is somehow limited in being able to respond. We can feel this way because of our own difficulties or just the state of our world.
During the Covid coronavirus pandemic, there’s a prayer that’s been making the rounds in social media and elsewhere. The prayer includes petitions such as
May we who are merely inconvenienced remember those whose lives are at stake.
May we who have no risk factors remember those most vulnerable.
May we who have the luxury of working from home remember those
who must choose between preserving their health and making their rent.
I get the intention of the prayer, which I think is aiming for humility and gratitude for the blessings many of us enjoy. But there’s a real danger to prayers that almost imply a spectrum of suffering than can be seen and understood from the outside.
I mean, I don’t really know the extent to which my neighbor may be suffering. I don’t know exactly how you may be doing. How many of us carry illness, suffering, and sometimes almost unbearable pain on the inside, and yet, someone looking at us on the outside sees a well-adjusted, put-together, faithful person? I’m not crazy about that prayer I mentioned because it can move us away from remembering that God’s loving presence comes to ANY AND ALLwho are suffering, no matter the degree or circumstance of that suffering.
Someone listening to this service may be fighting the coronavirus. Certainly, there are those listening to this service who have lost loved ones, or know people who are struggling. Others wrestle with more familiar demons of loneliness, depression, addiction, or anxiety. Many— too many, today know the kind of loneliness expressed by Jesus from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Why have you left me? Why don’t you show up? Why . . . ?
The complete answer will only be known on the other side of this life, but I think the answer has to do with this: The story isn’t over yet.
A while back there was a campaign to try to help young people who were victims and close to giving up. It was meant to give them encouragement to live another day, grab hold of a little hope and reminded them, simply: “It gets better.”
And at the risk of sounding simplistic, that’s a part of the message from the cross. What I’m feeling today is not going to last. My economic situation, my physical condition, my emotional condition—all are going to change. We may not see the light for all the clouds. The combined losses of work, health, security, friendships, community…. all might make us wonder. Our hearts and heads may be so filled with news or information or internal noise that we don’t hear the word of encouragement or kindness when it comes. And we may not believe that God is concerned or even cares. But the power of the cross of Christ is to remind us that God does care. God cares more than we can possibly imagine.
Jesus on the cross is not a random victim pulled from a crowd. He is God. God who has come for us. God who was born for us. God who is like us and for us—this is God who becomes a victim. But God nails that status of “victim” to the cross, and there, victimhood dies. God shows the power of love to re-shape, to re-new, to re-invigorate, and to re-birth.
Palm Sunday does not end on a high note. It appears to end in defeat, in loneliness, and in death. But that’s not where it really ends. And that’s not where life ends for us, either—this day or any day.
It’s tempting to race through any kind of painful time. It’s tempting to fill the lonely places with something, anything, anyone. But if we’re able to pause, even in the painful places, something else entirely can happen. The poet Christopher Morley has written that “April prepares her green traffic light and the world thinks Go.” And it does feel that way some times. But the virus pandemic has put a red light in the middle of all our “goes.” Holy Week also invites us to stop.
Holy Week invites us to pause by the Cross (whether it is the cross we endure, or the cross carried by someone else, the cross of Christ, or a mixture) and to ponder what it means that God chose death on a cross to unleash the power of resurrection. What word of hope is there for those who suffer today? What word of hope might there be for us.
We are asked to watch, to wait, to pray, to adore, that we might claim the power of our baptism, that we have died with Christ, and that through him, we are raised to new life.
May this Holy Week bring the blessing of God’s deep and abiding presence. And in that presence, may we find the hope of eternal life.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.