|Published by Josh Hosler on Fri, Apr 10, 2020 10:30 PM|
Were you hoping today for a reassuring sermon? Words that will make sense of Jesus’ crucifixion, and while we’re at it, the COVID-19 pandemic and human suffering in general? Words that will point out some bright silver lining on this unprecedented storm cloud?
I’m afraid you’re not going to get it. Not today.
See, the world is all wrong. There’s no quick fix for this. And the church isn’t here to give you one.
It would be easy enough to offer a quick fix, a tidy theological solution. People would line up around the block for it, wearing masks, standing six feet apart. But this would be manipulative and dishonest.
The Cross is the reality of the world. Human life is necessarily a tragedy. It always ends in death, and so often, that death is early, unjust, and violent. As hard as we might try, Christians have never been able to make sense of the Cross, to tame it, to tie it up with a ribbon, to make it attractive. Not when we’re being open and honest. Suffering is a puzzle that cannot be solved. The proper response to suffering is not logical postulates, but grief. And when we try to skim over grief, we just prolong it. Grief is not to be erased, but endured.
A few moments ago we prayed Psalm 22 together, that psalm of suffering that we, as Christians, are well conditioned to associate with Jesus. But this psalm predates Jesus by centuries. Perhaps King David wrote it—who knows? Perhaps David uttered these words when his own son Absalom launched a coup that took his kingdom from him: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Perhaps Elijah, pursued into the wilderness by Jezebel’s soldiers and hiding in a cave, cried out loud: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Perhaps Jeremiah, watching Jerusalem fall to the Babylonians and the Temple burning to the ground, sang out through his tears: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Long before Jesus came along, people everywhere in the world endured the feeling that God had abandoned them. And ever since, as well. Jesus didn’t come to stop this grief, or to prevent this grief, but to endure it, just as we all do.
Let’s listen again to Psalm 22. It’s a long psalm, so I’ll paraphrase it. Listen:
Why have you abandoned me, God?
Why aren’t you fixing this?
When I was growing up, all my teachers told me
That fixing our pain is what you can be counted on to do.
But I’m in worse shape now
Than I’ve ever been in my life.
People are mocking me for trusting in you
Because they see that it isn’t helping.
Even so, I see that I couldn’t exist without you.
So please, at least come near me in my helplessness.
I am in mortal danger right now!
Please, come and save me.
Because I know my teachers were right—
I know this even now.
And I will become a teacher, too,
So that everyone will know, forever and always, that you come and save us.
That’s my brief paraphrase. Did you hear the shift? I can’t really account for it. How does the psalmist go so quickly from total hopelessness to total confidence?
It’s not clear. Not at all. But there’s something going on here under the surface, and I think it’s trust—a disarming, vulnerable, almost childlike trust that’s been nurtured over the course of a lifetime, such that the psalmist can draw on that trust even in the midst of extreme suffering. Through the bare words of the psalm, you and I can’t see how the singer holds these emotional extremes together. But maybe we don’t have to. Maybe it’s enough for us just to know that it’s possible—that in a holy paradox, hope can surprise us by showing up even when all hope is lost.
Well. Of all the words Jesus could have cried out from the cross, could there be any better ones? These words call us beyond themselves into song, into feelings, into shared, lived experience. As Jesus surrendered any notion of fighting back, of gaining the upper hand, of protecting his friends, of leading a revolt, of fighting fire with fire … as Jesus gave up all these options and simply died, he gave back to us this familiar song, a song all his people knew, a song of hopelessness and trust walking hand in hand like lovers on the beach.
This Lent, a small group of us has prayed our way through Walter Brueggemann’s fine book of daily reflections called A Way Other than Our Own. At one point in the book Brueggemann writes this:
The cross is not simply a one-time deal in the life of Jesus or of God. Rather the cross is the clue about how to live an alternative life in the world, an alternative life that is marked by risky innocence that has the power to heal, to create caring neighborhoods in the face of rapacious markets, to evoke new possibilities in the face of despair, to enact new forms of liberation in the face of endless locks of oppression. The clue, of course, is that none of this happens, unless there is a risk of self, so that the enhancement of the neighborhood requires the expenditure of self. (77)
OK then, so the Cross is our clue for how to live. Let’s apply the clue of the Cross to the situation our entire world now finds itself in. We don’t know yet how this crisis will change us in the long run. But what can we do in this moment? Walter Brueggeman suggests “risky innocence.”
What does risky innocence look like for us?
First, it means telling the truth. We will not settle for starry-eyed notions that the world keeps becoming a better place. We will not just assume that everything happens for a reason, or that whatever happens is God’s will, or that thinking positive will save us. None of that is right. Most death is senseless, whether we’re talking about a stillborn child, or a teenager in a drunk driving accident, or a young parent from cancer, or an elder from COVID-19, or a brutal dictator dying comfortably in bed of old age. Fairness is not a factor in death, and it never has been. We must not gloss over this reality.
But we don’t need to stop there and despair. At our best, we Christians allow ourselves to witness the fullness of evil in the world, and then not let it control us. We live our lives as if all were not tragic, because we believe that somehow, in the very mind of God, there’s something bigger going on. And so, in an innocence born of trust, we begin to take risks.
Not the risk of going out in public—that is ego-driven performance that puts others in danger as much as ourselves. The churches that are still holding services in person this week are being reckless and irresponsible with human lives. The degree of your faith will not protect you from catching a deadly virus. The world doesn’t work this way, and it never has.
No, risky innocence must mean something different. Today, the simplest expression of it is to love one another by self-isolating—by sharing together the burden of not being in one another’s presence. We might feel like victims of the situation, but we can reframe it and redeem it. We are risking the inconvenience that comes from cancelling everything, throwing all our routines out the window—and accepting the situation.
There’s a riskier innocence, too. We can make time to be in touch with our own feelings and then share those feelings with someone else: with our family, our friends, our colleagues, our mentors. I had a moment last week when I just needed to curl up on the couch in fetal position and be sad. That’s it—just be sad. Allowing the grief in for a little while did not destroy me; it was honest. Then, when I’d had enough, I got up and mowed the lawn! And now I’m sharing this with all of you, because sharing our feelings is one way to keep depression at bay.
There’s yet another risky innocence we can engage in from our homes. During this time when so many people find themselves victims of this pandemic—whether through illness or financial hardship—we can work for justice. We have telephones and computers. We can urge our elected officials to ensure the continued well-being of those who will not be able to eat if they stay home from work. We can patronize small businesses to whatever degree we are able.
And we can share resources we’re not using. We have offered the Good Shepherd buildings to King County to use as necessary until such time as we can meet in person again. Maybe they’ll take us up on that. The vestry has voted not to seek federal assistance for now because we’re in such good financial shape, and because people are paying their pledges. As individuals, if we receive a government stimulus check that we don’t need, we can donate that, too, and I encourage you to do so if you can, not socking money away just in case, but helping people today. Finally, tonight we’re taking up our traditional Good Friday offering for the Anglican Church in the Holy Land, and the link to give is in your leaflet at the end of the service.
As Christians, we see the tragedy and injustice in the world, but we don’t roll over for it. We stand up to it in risky innocence. “Dear world: I’d like some justice here, please. Here’s how I will help.” And when we’ve exhausted our actions among other people, we bring our concerns to God: “Dear maker of mine, this is all wrong!”
Today, the world is all wrong. Let’s just admit it. Nothing about this situation is OK. Let’s help each other hold that reality now, and let’s sing in lamentation. God has come to the world God created and become victim to the worst the world has to offer. God gave us Jesus, and we killed him. That’s as far as our story goes tonight. It is true … and that truth is enough. Amen.