reflections for Good Friday 2020

Reflection 1 (Nick, plus Dietrich)

Where’s the good news in this?

That remains to me the essential question, the reason we turn to church, what we desperately need, and sometimes the only place we can wring out the blood from a turnip. That’s perhaps a poor expression, to focus on blood when there’s spitting and flogging and worse in the story. And when our news is wall-to-wall with ICUs and Personal Protective Equipment. Again, when we’ve got too much death in daily life, it might seem like we don’t need more from an old story. Maybe it would be better for us to wring healthy turnip juice from the turnip and leave blood out of it.

But to skip to the ending, if blood from a turnip seems unlikely, it’s even more unusual where rocks are ringing out. Out of death, they turn up praising. This ending is a peculiar detail to Matthew’s telling of the story, and I find it fascinating and beautiful.

Luke’s version has a line back on Palm Sunday. The authorities try to tell Jesus he should make his followers shut up and stop singing Hosanna. He says that if they were silent, the stones would shout.

In Matthew’s Good Friday version, all of creation is responding to Jesus: the sun darkens, the curtain of the temple is torn, rocks split open, dead bodies even respond. Maybe it’s in grief. Maybe anticipation. Maybe it’s simply to highlight it for us. After all the cosmic phenomena, an unlikely human character finally gets it, still slow to catch on, given all those huge signs. A Roman soldier says, “Truly this man was God’s son.” And the women stay, wait, watch, pray.

On Sunday, the rocks will ring out again, another earthquake rolling the rock away. These are telling us, as if they are followers of Jesus, that God is here, in crucifixion and resurrection; in death, and beyond death.

Maybe we take that rare Roman soldier both in his reality and at his word. Slow to catch on, we’d like some bigger signs, to know where God is working. We hunch at trees budding and duck eggs, flowers and sunshine. We might proclaim God’s presence in the busy hospitals, though the danger of the wild guessing is that where I’d say God is for life, some self-satisfied folks say God sent the virus as a punishment to harm life.

So it would be nice if God would show up with a shout, to answer for the suffering and to proclaim goodness. It would be nice to have not just vague signs but an unambiguous answer.

But I suggest we do. In that Luke passage, Jesus said the stones would cry if we were silent. Well, we aren’t. We don’t need to wring an answer out of the rocks because we have a Roman soldier who tells us this is God’s Son. We have Matthew telling us this is God dealing with death and bringing something radically new, refusing to be undone or overcome. We have songs to proclaim it with our own lips. Today we’ll hear from others, voices that proclaim our suffering is not apart from God. We are not forsaken. There is good news in this.

You’ll hear more through the service, but here’s a snippet to start with surprise, not wringing blood from a turnip or lemonade from lemons, but faithfully and honestly meeting sad and desperate moments like today with God’s presence. It’s from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazis 75 years ago yesterday, a man acquainted with sorrow, but still hopeful:

 

God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross; God is impotent and weak in the world and yet specifically and only so that God is with us and helps us.

Suffering and God are no contradiction, but much more a necessary unity: for me that idea that God himself suffered was always one of the most convincing teachings of Christianity. I think that God is closer to suffering than to happiness, and to find God in this manner gives peace and rest, and a strong and courageous heart.

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Mystery of Easter, p10)

May God find you with peace, rest, and courage.

 

Reflection 2 (Paul)

As we heard Peter lamenting his denial and Judas repenting of his betrayal of Jesus, with bleak separation and maybe despondency, it made me think of this passage of Paul I happened through in my daily Bible reading this week. They seemed like good words for this time of coronavirus, as we’re in it together, and our sorrows lend compassion and the ability to console each other and we’re trying so hard to help as caring community, and we’d say that primarily is grounded in God’s consolation and compassion.

It also reminds me we aren’t stuck in our worst moments; Good Friday is about God coming to find us wherever we are suffering, including in not having done the right thing. This day isn’t just about afflictions, but about consolation that abounds through Jesus.

 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation.

We were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.

(2 Corinthians 1:3-7, 8b-9)

May you be consoled by and rely on God who raises the dead.

 

Reflection 3 (Charlotte Brontë)

I mentioned there are peculiar details that only Matthew tells. That includes a few with Pontius Pilate. Another unlikely character to confess about Jesus is Pilate’s wife. From the brief mention of her dream, this poem envisions more, like how she personally despises the vile political leader as much as the masses. More, it shares our own feeling futile in failing to make a difference. She knows our sense of wishing we could do something more. Here are excerpts from the poem.

 

All black—one great cloud, drawn from east to west,
Conceals the heavens, but there are lights below;
Torches burn in Jerusalem, and cast
On yonder stony mount a lurid glow.
I see men station’d there, and gleaming spears;
A sound, too, from afar, invades my ears.

I see it all—I know the dusky sign—
A cross on Calvary, which Jews uprear
While Romans watch; and when the dawn shall shine
Pilate, to judge the victim, will appear—
Pass sentence—yield Him up to crucify;
And on that cross the spotless Christ must die.

Dreams, then, are true—for thus my vision ran;
Surely some oracle has been with me,
The gods have chosen me to reveal their plan,
To warn an unjust judge of destiny:
I, slumbering, heard and saw; awake I know,
Christ’s coming death, and Pilate’s life of woe.

I do not weep for Pilate—who could prove
Regret for him whose cold and crushing sway
No prayer can soften, no appeal can move:
Who tramples hearts as others trample clay,
Yet with a faltering, an uncertain tread,
That might stir up reprisal in the dead.

Forced to sit by his side and be his wife—
Forced to behold that visage, hour by hour,
He has no more from me Than any wretch[ed] life ;
A triple lust of gold, and blood, and power;
A soul whom motives fierce, yet abject, urge—
Rome’s servile slave, and Judah’s tyrant scourge.

And now, the envious Jewish priests have brought
Jesus—whom they in mock’ry call their king—
To have, by this grim power, their vengeance wrought;
By this mean reptile, innocence to sting.
Oh! could I but the purposed doom avert,
And shield the blameless head from cruel hurt!

What is this Hebrew Christ? to me unknown
His lineage—doctrine—mission; yet how clear
Is God-like goodness in his actions shown,
How straight and stainless is his life’s career!
The ray of God rests on him; but will his faith
Survive the terrors of to-morrow’s death ?

This day, Time travails with a mighty birth;
This day, Truth stoops from heaven and visits earth;
Ere night descends I shall more surely know
What guide to follow, in what path to go;
I wait in hope—I wait in solemn fear,
The oracle of God—the sole—true God—to hear.

https://poets.org/poem/pilates-wifes-dream

Even if unable to avert doom or woe, may you wait in hope to know more of what comes to birth.

 

Reflection 4 (Oscar Romero)

With this final spoken reflection, before you get a moment to reflect yourself where all of this takes you and what goodness you wring out of it, this last bit was spoken on Good Friday by Saint Oscar Romero, killed just over 40 years ago during a church service in El Salvador. Maybe singing in concert with Bonhoeffer, Archbishop Romero holds the hard words of forsakenness, wondering where God is when it feels like we’d want so much more or something else. Is God responding? That’s maybe down to the central difficulty of this day, of our current desperate moment, of how in the world God is present on a cross and here.

 

God is not failing us when we don’t feel [a] presence. Let’s not say: God doesn’t do what I pray for so much, and therefore I don’t pray anymore.

God exists, and God exists even more, the farther [away] you feel. When you feel the anguished desire for God to come near because you don’t feel God present, then God is very close to your anguish.

When are we going to understand that God not only gives happiness but also [encourages] our faithfulness in moments of affliction? It is then that prayer and religion have most merit: when one is faithful in spite of not feeling the Lord’s presence.

Let us learn from that cry of Christ that God is always our Father and never forsakes us, and that we are closer to God than we think.

(Violence of Love, p131)

May you know God is close and will not fail you.

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Lynne Schultzwis167399-1_20170418

23 February 1968 + 17 April 2017

Psalm23; Romans8:31-39; John14:1-6

 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen

I bring, first, apologies: I had been eager to be with you for the visitation, but instead spent an hour driving the wrong way out of Madison for some reason.

From Madison, I also bring greetings from sisters and brothers of Advent Lutheran and Madison Christian Community, from many who have loved and prayed for Lynne, including my colleague, Pastor Sonja Ingebritsen.

Amid that congregation, I’ve been stunned recalling that it was just over a year ago that I met Lynne in the hospital, as her new pastor. Though I knew her less than most of you and journeyed through health struggles more briefly than you who had been part of the long, long haul, I’ve felt so connected to her. Some of that was her openness in sharing, including her knowledge, that she was proud to be her own advocate and could understand and explain these strange procedures she was having to face. Her gratitude for care and support—both from professionals and family and friends—also exemplified her personality.

Most notable, though, was almost certainly Lynne’s exuberance and great big laugh. In the ups and downs of illness, they were great moments of relief when her laugh returned. In places of sickness, she was the infectious one. An unfortunate upside was that nurses, doctors, and more also came to love Lynne and delight in her and could enjoy being in her room for those few minutes.

Though she was stuck in hospital rooms so often and focused on her healing, she wasn’t confined there. I got glimpses of Lynne’s vibrancy as she eagerly talked about connections with friends and what was going on in their lives, as well as current political frustrations and life on the other side of the world in Palestine and books she was reading and music and new ideas for spirituality groups and—boy!—did she like to talk about the garden at church and what was growing and how she wanted to be back getting her fingers dirty among friends.

That also leads to some of my larger point, not about church so specifically, but about what Lynne was yearning for and wanting and how that fit into the shape of her life, including right up to this moment now.

See, amid each setback that Lynne faced, or as she continued to strive forward with each medical possibility, in struggling to be well, Lynne thought about what the next steps would be. I came into the scene not too long before she got the LVAD heart pump, which was already far along in the discernment and decisions of the process. And from there it was dealing with bleeds and the thought of bypass to get her closer toward the transplant list and on and on. In all of this, Lynne realized what the next steps were, what it would take to proceed and get back to the life she wanted to have. Typically for somebody with Lynne’s upbeat personality, we’d label this sort of focus on future possibilities as “optimism.”

But I don’t want to use that term for Lynne, because optimism tends to be a cheeriness with rose-colored glasses that ignores harder details. That wouldn’t fit Lynne. What Lynne was was hopeful, which is also important to say for us here now.

The week after I met Lynne, I referenced her in my Good Friday sermon. She said her experiences gave her a deeper understanding of Holy Week, of Jesus on the cross, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That may seem the opposite of hopeful, but in Lynne it wasn’t. Even then, she was longing, knowing, and trusting that God’s presence should and would be with her. Indeed, the forsaken feeling of God abandoning her directly paired with God’s presence for her, with a sense of reassurance, that every word of prayer was heard and embraced and responded to by God. Her Good Friday feeling was at a cross-section with the joy and delight of Easter, that separation was not the end.

Hope means even amid our Good Friday moments we’re not separated from God. That’s why Lynne cherished receiving Jesus’ presence in communion at those times. It’s also in a song she shared not long ago, a gospel song by Iris Dement. It’s a lovely, gentle song about Jesus confronting illness and suffering and need. The refrain goes like this: “Well he reached down, he reached down. He got right there on the ground. He reached down, he reached down And he touched the pain.”

That pairs well with an old hymn Lynne kept around on songsheets after a visit from Pastor Sonja. This one you might know to join in: “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry ev’rything to God in prayer! Oh, what peace we often forfeit; oh, what needless pain we bear—all because we do not carry ev’rything to God in prayer.” That’s not wishy-washy optimism that things are turning out hunky-dory. It knows there are pains and panics, that we bear grief and our sin. But God reached down and Jesus bears it with us and for us.

So the word of hope isn’t that things get easier, but that God will bring us through it. That pairs with our Bible readings, that neither hardship nor distress nor death separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That is hope. As in the 23rd Psalm, God’s presence is with us in pleasant and refreshing times of abundant contentment, but also in valleys, when it’s so dark we can’t see a glimmer of light and feel so utterly alone. Even there, the Good Shepherd abides with you, bringing you through that to dwell in his house forever.

That word of being brought out of death to Easter life could certainly be sufficient today. You walked with Lynne deep in darkness through Holy Week last week, had to confront death you should not have had to, the cross, the suffering and loss in the story of Jesus and also in your reality with her. And beyond that, she leads you in hope into the promise of new life, of resurrection, of being reunited at a feast into the grand heavenly chorus.

But I want to conclude in offering one more scriptural metaphor that Lynne had been clinging to in these last months: that of wandering in the wilderness. Like when God’s people were led out of slavery in Egypt and spent 40 years unsure when—or maybe whether—they would arrive at the Promised Land, with delays and doubts and yet also constant miracles and the practice of caring community around them. That was Lynne’s metaphor. Again, this is not of optimism but of hope. As she was encouraging patience and persistence in the long journey for those around her, she began also to grow frustrated at how she wasn’t making steps forward, at least not in the way she’d originally been planning, for life to work out how she wanted. But she did expect to be led out of the wilderness and into God’s promise. It’s just that in recent months she became aware that that path might lead through death and into new life. That wilderness waiting is a terrible place to be, but now we gather together rejoicing in the promise for Lynne, clinging to it yet more dearly for ourselves. Even when our steps are unclear or troubled, we have hope in God’s love that there is a way to life: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

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Good Friday

(Luke 22&23)
Is this the will of God?

That seems to be today’s essential—if hard and to some degree unanswerable—question. We could well declare that this story does not go how we want it to, so it has to raise the issue of willpower, of whether Jesus wanted this to happen. Did he know he was going to get himself killed? It almost fits with the parental critique, that rhetorical question for playing in the street, “Do you want to get run over?!” Jesus must’ve known he was poking the bear, provoking an overpowering reaction. So was it a suicide mission? A pyrrhic victory? Losing the battle to win the war, to misappropriate violent language? We may count this a tragedy of an innocent victim, but others saw Jesus as a threat.

More still: was it a divine purpose? Did God plan on or intend this? We heard Jesus’ petition, “Not my will but yours be done,” a dangerous prayer. Isaiah’s poem of the Suffering Servant is also often paired with this day, in part declaring, “It was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain” (53:10).

Yet if we want to claim this was against the will of God, that God is anti-death, then we have to understand that means God didn’t get God’s way. Pontius Pilate got his way. Today, it would seem his will was more powerful than God’s. The Roman Empire and their violent version of peace, through oppression and extortion—or bread and circuses—were, at best, diversions distracting from the larger freedom and wellbeing of the reign of God. Or perhaps we place blame with the selfish religious authorities getting what they wanted, getting rid of the Messiah figure, the popular hero. In today’s terminology, yet another triumph for the 1%.

That also confronts with us these other passion stories (of Gandhi, Oscar Romero, MLK, Berta Cáceres, Stormi, Bree Newsome, and Larycia Hawkins). If it’s not God’s will for such modern saints to die, to be mocked, to be sacrificed, then what? We needs better than an inspiring educational moment of Jesus showing us to give it our all, to love with everything we’ve got, to stand up for what we believe in to the last. We can never fully say that a death is “worth it,” so Jesus and these others must be more than martyred for the cause. We need the arc of history to bend better. It’s not enough to say that God stands on our side and can be encouraged in following what we’ve discerned to be the will of God.

And what about undeserved death and senseless suffering that isn’t trying to unmask injustice? What about Brussels or Syria? What about mothers who mourn? What about the poem’s dead whales and native trees and emaciated people and all the bodies of this world? Or what about Lynne Schultz in the hospital this week, who said Holy Week has more meaning because of her struggles there, wondering if God had forsaken her. What does this will of God mean for those who have been hurting and excluded or facing death if this isn’t directly addressing the problem to redeem the situation? What about relationships that fall apart? What when we’re simply trying to live our lives how we think we ought and it doesn’t go right? Why are things this way? Why death? Why losses? Why victims? Why persistent injustice? Why not salvation? Why aren’t things better? Why do we still have so much hard work in front of us, so much to lament? Where is God in all of this? Is God silent?

If so, maybe this is the most foolish of times to open my mouth, that the time to speak is Sunday, when our lips are loosed for Alleluias and we get the come-from-behind victory. Yet today, God, too, weeps. God grieves. Too much does not go how God wants it to. Too much is sin. Too much is hatred. Too much interrupts God’s striving for justice, for wellbeing, for life. In addressing it, our God dies.

With all that, it is not just silence, but also a day of hard words, especially from Jesus:

“Father, forgive them”—as if fraudly, immoral incompetence were excusable and, in the end, redeemable.

“Don’t weep for me; weep for yourselves”—as if we’d prefer not even to try engaging these difficult times, would wish to avoid it all and just save ourselves.

And, finally, “your will be done”—a dangerous prayer, because the will of God may lead us to confront death and all its agents, and that will lead us out of death into life.

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