March 25, 2016, Good Friday
1. Father forgive them for they know not what they do.
2. Today you will be with me in Paradise.
3. Woman, behold your son.
4. My God my God, why has thou forsaken me?
5. I thirst.
6. It is finished.
7. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.
- Father forgive them for they know not what they do.
Ellen Freiler, Trinity Home Board Member
The writer Norman Cousins once said, “Life is an adventure in forgiveness.”
When I first started working on this homily, I had it going in a very different direction – opening with lyrics from the Don Henley song “Heart of the Matter,” in which he sings about forgiveness.
It’s difficult, however, to use words from a popular song to talk about forgiveness in a world where that very concept is tested over and over again, day after day, by rampant and destructive ignorance, and senseless violence. We find ourselves struggling mightily with the idea of forgiving.
The word “forgive” appears in the New Testament 33 times, much of the time coming from Jesus. Here are just a few of his teachings on forgiveness:
From the Gospel according to Mark: “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
From the Gospel according to Matthew: “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
And from the prayer which Jesus gave us in the Gospel according to Luke: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
As you can see, forgiveness was a frequent theme with Jesus; he knew it was a challenging concept, one that the average person found difficult to understand and even more difficult to carry out.
“Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”
In his last moments on earth, Jesus was still reaching out to God on behalf of those he had been teaching and guiding for months. He had spent most every moment of his ministry advocating for others – and now, as he hung on the cross, he asked God to pardon those who had put him there for their ignorance.
He asked for them to be forgiven. His concern was not for himself, at that point, but for those who were killing him. They do not know what they are doing, he explained to God, and people who don’t know what they are doing should not be held accountable. Jesus wanted God to know that he had no case against them. Jesus wanted all charges dropped. But how do we, as children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ, discover this capacity to forgive for ourselves? I don’t know about you, but every time I hear about someone being killed by a drunk driver, or an innocent bystander being gunned down in a shooting, I find myself thinking “How do you forgive THAT?? Where do you even begin to figure out what forgiveness is for something like that? We learn to forgive by taking a lesson from Jesus. As he was nailed to the cross and lifted above the crowd, his request of God was simple: forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing. Forgive them their ignorance. He wasn’t saying, “Forgive them for nailing me to a piece of wood, causing me great physical pain, which will ultimately lead to my death” – no. He said, “forgive them for what they don’t know.” While I was working on this homily, it became clear to me that there are varying levels of forgiveness, depending on the circumstances.
There are the minor transgressions, like being late for an event or not returning a phone call or email – these are well within our power to forgive. We can forgive simple negligence, inconvenience, or unintended omission. But then there is the shocking evil that we seem to encounter day after day – the mass shootings, the suicide bombings, the deliberate acts of hatred and violence. We need to let God handle those who act out of hate. It is not up to us to forgive evil – that’s God’s job, it’s what He does. Through Jesus, God provides us with the ultimate in redemption. Through the sacrifice of his only son, we are given complete forgiveness – full and permanent pardon from our sins, known and unknown, no matter what. We can build the practice of forgiveness into our lives by learning to forgive the small things, by pardoning the transgressions that affect us personally. And when we live our lives with a spirit of forgiveness, we will more readily find ourselves forgiven as well. Father, forgive them. Father, forgive us…
- Today you will be with me in Paradise.
Murray Harrison, Trinity SC Region Representative
“Believing is seeing….”
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” [Luke 23:39-43]
The men being crucified on either side of Jesus embody for us the very challenge of faith: the struggle between authentic belief and cynical unbelief; from recognition of sin versus its abject denial; between those without understanding that are blind to the realities of faith and those who are empowered by and through their faith to seek and yearn for God’s Kingdom.
Acknowledging his criminality, one thief recognizes and believes Jesus for who he claims to be; he asks that he might be remembered when Jesus comes into His Glory, and he receives the blessed assurance that he shall, indeed – that very day – reside with Jesus in Paradise.
The other thief embodies and amplifies the attitude of the jeering crowd below: manipulated…yearning for deliverance from a host of miseries and yet bereft of any true understanding of their situation; unwilling to admit guilt. If we listen carefully, their jeers are a disguised plea that we perhaps harbor as well: “Come down off that cross…save yourself and US…. from even having to acknowledge we are lost, condemned sinners…make all our troubles go away – THEN (perhaps) – we will believe .…If you truly are the Son of God…come down off that cross and ‘…turn these stones into bread!’” [Matthew 4:3]
Like the crowd – kneeling or standing – we are ALL at the foot of the cross – and we also yearn for Deliverance – from all that grieves and afflicts….. I will share an uncomfortable truth about myself – despite what I may claim and tell myself I believe, I am so much more readily disposed to spend my income in the pursuit of various temporal pleasures rather than release it into the work of God’s Kingdom; and to use my leisure hours engaged in frivolous pursuits, as contrasted with prayer and study!
Yet according to the Scriptures, Jesus has declared in no uncertain terms that those who will not deny themselves and pick up their cross to follow after Him cannot truly be His disciples, and much as we would desperately prefer not to believe this, He has given clear warning about the reality and permanency of Hell as a destination for the vast majority of humankind who will not avail and yield themselves to Him:
“…Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. “It is better for you”, Jesus says, “… to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into HELL, where THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED….” [Mark 9:47-48]
And if this were not sufficiently alarming, Jesus cautions that, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but (they) who do the will of My Father…. do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the… (people) who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” [Matthew 7:21; Luke 13:4]
So exactly HOW and from WHAT do you and I need to repent, so that we don’t “perish in our sins”? I strive to be a “good person” and I am privileged to know a great many “good persons” far superior to myself. A few months ago, by God’s grace I turned 63; I find the time seems to be going by faster, as if I am being dragged along by some hidden current toward oncoming rapids, and I am increasingly ever so much more aware of and distressed by the myriad, nearly imperceptible ways that I am so deeply flawed. I am beginning to “get it” – my heart is corrupted and deceitfully wicked – on my own, in my own effort, I am not nor ever will be fit or able to stand before the Judgment Seat of a Holy God!
Jesus said that one must be “born again” to see and enter the Kingdom, and I cannot truthfully say that I have and I am; all I need to do is stand in a shopping line for “a little too long” on Sunday or drive to church and come up on someone who I think is going “too slow” to suit me, and I feel the annoyance flare up – and frankly, I don’t think that’s pleasing to Jesus – that’s the same old “sinner Murray” I’ve known for far too long, and so how can I tell anyone about Jesus? I fear that I don’t truly KNOW Him; I fear that I only “know” ABOUT Him! I fear that my spiritual profile more aligns with those St. Paul warns about, who have the “form of religion…but not the power thereof….”! [2 Timothy 3:5]
More broadly still, what about our nation? “We the people…”: How and for what are we accountable? What collective and individual responsibility do you and I bear in this “Age of ISIS” / post-911 terror, for allowing the imposition of an increasingly intrusive “homeland security” apparatus and the evisceration of Constitutional protections; for the increase of “wars and rumors of wars” and for the conduct of torture as chosen instrument of national policy; for ominous, ever-looming threats of political, social, economic and environmental chaos; for the marked increase of disturbing public rancor and uncivil political discourse, cultivated through incendiary media manipulation; for pervasive greed and immorality…the rise of corporatism, “downsizing” and the overseas off-shoring of jobs and tax-havens under the banner of “free trade”; for “geo-engineering” chemtrails, the proliferation of human trafficking and manifold addictions; for mass incarceration, FEMA camps, militarized police and expanding police brutality; for the increase of homelessness, with Lazarus embodied in our brothers and sisters, who – just outside the doors of this very sanctuary – languish on the Green and in the greater New Haven region; and certainly not least, for the mysterious, pervasively sinister influence in our nation’s affairs of the secretive, Yale-affiliated Society of Skull and Bones, situated behind our altar just two blocks away?
Where is the hope for us to be truly “saved”, both now and for Eternity? Throughout the course of his ministry, Jesus has manifested the power and presence of His Father’s Kingdom – while en-route toward Jerusalem and the Cross, he resurrected his friend, Lazarus. Jesus’ poignant words to Martha (and by implication, to us) are resplendent with promise: “Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” [John 11:40]
Belief and unbelief…..it is our cynical refusal to believe that indicts and afflicts us in the NOW and threatens us eternally….Like the crowd at the cross, we can choose to turn away from Truth we find disturbing, or we can instead open ourselves to hear and embrace the Word that is alive:
“Behold….I stand at the door and knock….if my people, who are called by my name, shall humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, THEN will I hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” [Rev.3:20; 2 Chronicles 7:14]
Today – in THIS very hour – in this and every moment, as those gathered at the foot of the cross, we are also given the choice: Shall we persist in our demand – ever so quietly whispered in the deep, secret places of our hearts – that God conform Himself to our own predispositions and eclectic understandings… or shall we instead risk and abandon all – so that we may truly believe – and indeed thereby see and be saved, both now and for Eternity? The Kingdom is ours for the asking and believing! Which pronouncement of the Lord shall it be for us?:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how oft would I have gathered you under my wings…but you would not….now your house is left unto you desolate.” [Luke 13:34-5]
“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the power of God….”
“I am the Resurrection and the Life, the one who believes in me…shall never die….” [John 11:25-26]
“NOW is the acceptable time….TODAY is the Day of Salvation!” [2 Corinthians 6:2]
“TODAY – thou shall be with ME in Paradise!”
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
When Rowena asked me to do this reflection… I thought, yes…as long as it is not that mother…the “here is your son” one.
Because that’s the one.
That’s the one that breaks my heart
“Mother, this is your son.”
My mother lost a son
I remember the call
My legs giving way beneath me like melted wax
In an hour or so, the Boys Choir will sing the Stabat Mater
Standing mother weeping:
“Christ above in torment hangs,
she beneath beholds the pangs
of her dying glorious Son.”
You will hear this sung in our son’s voices.
These glorious son’s voices.
Mother – this, this, too is your son.
It isn’t that her God is dying. It’s her son. And she can’t help him.
I know the call I don’t want to get
Never never ever
The calls others have gotten
The guttural sounds we utter, as the floor of our lives gives way
And yet, maybe it’s exactly because of that moment
that this Good Friday service first allowed me to truly believe.
I saw the depths in Christianity, depths I hadn’t realized were there
When all I knew about, when all I was practicing, was “Easter.”
When all I knew was “the Good News,” Christianity felt flat.
Not like something that could actually rise up and save someone
“Good News” like that, good news without bad news
Doesn’t reflect the world we live in
Where people hurt so much, and do such horrible painful things
and have to bear so much loss
So much which seems, and maybe is, totally meaningless.
This sacred room dark and silent, the crosses covered
The news so bad
The altar so empty
This was where faith found me
A faith I needed and wanted to live within.
Because this good news was big enough to admit the bad news, my bad news
All of it.
And I could bring it and lay it down right here,
at the foot of His cross,
or stand there like Mary, and listen, brokenhearted, to the glorious voices…
I just had to be willing to show up and to look
To not look away.
Christianity isn’t just a fairy tale or history lesson, or a highway to heaven for the faithful or an unpopular way to spend a Sunday morning. It isn’t even the world’s best charity organization or supporter of democratic values or force for social justice. And it sure isn’t just getting dressed up and pretending you are a better person once a week.
It’s a “Word” that might just jump down from the cross,
sit down next to you in a darkened pew and speak your name.
It’s a body we all share; your hands, my feet, his neck
We’re like relentlessly squabbling kids, crammed into the same earthcar
Refusing to get along, pulling ourselves limb from limb…
“He’s squishing me!! He’s a liar! His lunch smells funny!”
Until someone suggests we build a wall.
And then Someone else comes down and points out that we are ALL already in the same body
And we look and see its true
His hands His feet His side
And the food has already been provided
And the is water is turning into wine
And the story says we’re all in the same family, whether we like it or not
And absolutely everybody matters and nobody gets a pass and sometimes it is going to hurt like hell.
If that’s “a metaphor,” it’s a metaphor for the only thing in the world that isn’t a metaphor.
Today is the day that acknowledges
not only the death of what is divinely precious and beyond us,
but also the deaths of the divinely precious who are standing right in front of us.
With outstretched arms
A shattered subway station…a child shot by police…too many black men shot by police…the sudden death of a lifelong partner, cancer’s relentless greed, an office Christmas party blown to pieces
This was the year when deaths from traffic accidents, America’s number one killer, was finally equaled by the same number of deaths from gun violence:
It makes me furious,
violence that robs the world of sense.
These are the events in the world around us
that we may want to look away from
that we may have to look away from, because we cannot bear it
We can’t see any more photos of surprised people on the floor
Staring blankly at where their limbs were, a moment before
Mother, this is your son.
Oh, Mother, this is your son.
Mother, this, this too, this one too is your son.
And in pain beyond words, we see Jesus’s unimaginable self possession
At the last moments, nails through his hands and feet, a spear in his side
Still expressing love for his mother, and for his friend
It seems so impossible to imagine
He must have been God, to have spoken that way.
I couldn’t have mustered it.
And if I were his mother, I might have wailed, tearing the hair from my head
“I don’t want the beloved disciple. I’m not living with John. I want you.”
But Jesus is there and Jesus is here
leading his mother and his friend to each other,
leading us to each other,
two thousand years later.
Saying “your family” is bigger than you think
“Your family” isn’t only what you think, it isn’t only who you think
Mother, behold your son:
A small black boy shot to death in Florida,…in Michigan,…in New Haven.
Son, behold your mother:
A woman killed by cancer, an accident on 95, a drive-by shooting
Her son shows us that life and love will go on, must go on
Even after the worst happens,
Even when we don’t want them to,
Even when meaning has been blown away.
When we are hollowed out inside,
our altars empty
And we exhale out over ribs filled with cut glass
So that in three days…
or three months
or three years,
we’ll finally realize
that we can breathe in again.
This is the day, this one…that allowed me to first believe.
It wasn’t “Easter”
I wasn’t ready
But together, together
Your hands, my feet, his heart, her face
No matter how torn asunder
We are joined together as one body
One body in the Body of Christ
And Easter is coming
we know that it will come
I am thrilled to be speaking after we have just heard about the Garden of Gethsemane. See, the Garden of Gethsemane is my favorite reading in the Bible. If I am looking for something to meditate or pray on, that is the reading I go to. One of my favorite bands, NeedToBreathe, sings a song called “In the Garden” about this beautiful passage in scripture. I would like to share the words with you but I can’t keep them in my head if I don’t sing them. So I ask you to bear with me for a moment.
In this hour of dark I see
That who I am is not just me
So give me strength to tithe myself
So love can live to tell the tale
Let the songs I sing bring joy to you
Let the words I say confess my love
Let the notes I choose be your favorite, too
And father let my heart beat after you
I love that song and the scripture reading because we get to see Jesus as fully human. When Jesus is teaching or healing I can’t find a way to make him feel like someone I could be like. He feels larger than life and I can’t wrap my mind around it. In the Garden, though, I find a Jesus in his most human state. He is scared. He doesn’t want to go through with the actions laid out in front of him. He doesn’t want to die. But he will go through it because that other part of him, the God part, asks it of him.
The repercussion of seeing Jesus this human is to see Jesus as human again, after he has followed out the actions of God. Being forsaken. This is not a word many people use to explain their feelings on a daily basis. And why is that? To be forsaken is not something that can happen to you by yourself. In order to be forsaken, there first has to be a relationship. A strong, important, life giving relationship that means a great deal to all involved. Then, one party in the relationship turns away, leaving the other alone, stranded, bereft, confused. To feel forsaken is to feel cut off and abandoned by the one you trusted. What happened to make this happen? Was it me? Was it them? Why must I suffer through this utter abandonment when I once felt known and loved?
Jesus, having a human will and God’s will, has known complete acceptance. There are two parts of him through his whole life that have dwelt together, worked together, and cared for each other. In the moment of the crucifixion, though, where the pain is unimaginable and unbearable, the human man Jesus can not find that part of him that has always been his companion. Where is the part that is God? Why am I alone in this pain? Why? Why? Why?
I am not sure if God really left the human man of Jesus at that moment. He may have or the pain that was being inflicted on him was so strong that nothing else could be felt. That moment of confusion where pain and loss feel unbounded and overwhelming is like fumes: choking, blinding, and burning. Jesus, in that moment, was forsaken. I believe in a Christ that took on all of human emotions and feelings, even the ones I would not wish upon another human being. He did this so that when we feel forsaken, he can be there with us in that pain, holding and nurturing us back to wholeness. What a gift we have been given.
This passage in the gospel of John is a pivotal moment in Jesus’ ministry. It signifies the completion of Jesus mission here on earth. When I read this passage, I try to visualize this scene where Jesus is dying, all the while surrounded by people, watching him be “defeated by death.” What they may not realize, however, is that Jesus has the last word.
When I read this passage, I want to tell him, “It’s not really finished! You defeat death in just a few days!” But I mishear him – I hear him say, “I am finished.” But that’s not what he said. He said IT is finished. This stage of God’s plan is finished, but Jesus is just getting started.
When Jesus asked for something to drink, they gave him vinegar. If you drink vinegar, it will tighten your vocal chords so that you can barely speak. It was as if these people were trying to silence Jesus.
Have you ever had someone try to silence you? When God plants a seed in you – whether it be a passion, an idea, or an opportunity – you are so excited. You want to shout it from the rooftops! You want to share this news with everyone. But, some people will respond with condescending words of discouragement. “You can’t do that,” “Are you sure you’re up for the task?” “It will be too hard for you,” “It isn’t challenging enough,” “You aren’t experienced,” “You’re too experienced,” “You’re too young,” “You’re too old.”
Now, that original call from God is starting to lose its flame – you are starting to feel discouraged, beaten down, defeated. But Jesus shows us what to do – he takes that bitterness of the bystander’s vinegar and speaks. As soon as he receives the vinegar, he speaks. He has the final word – it is God who has the final say in your destiny here on earth.
Even in death, Jesus is still in control of his thoughts and actions. He knows that it is always God’s Will. Our task is to model Jesus in this moment. When we feel that we are near death – near being defeated – we must stay in faith and remember that God is in control of the entire universe, and therefore in control of your destiny. Your bystanders do not have control over your thoughts – just like Jesus, you must stay aligned with God and God’s mission, because God has the ultimate last word.
Now, this is all very important to remember, but I have to remind myself to again visualize this scene, and remember that in order to defeat death, he must in fact die. His blood was shed for us. For me, the worst part about his death is the innocence and helplessness of Jesus. I often ask myself, “What makes me so special that he would want to die for me? Why am I worthy?” Jesus’ mission on earth ends with the finishing of his life, for us. While we may not feel worthy, he still loves us so much that he is willing to take on our burdens, our baggage.
I want us to sit in the sadness of his death, so we can truly recognize the sacrifice being made for us. This scene of Jesus speaking and then bowing his head is so silent, and so holy, yet is so powerful – Jesus, not the bystanders, not the soldiers, not the enemy, but Jesus, has the last word.
As Jesus bows his head, we see a physical sign of obedience to God – even at the moment of death. Jesus shows us that it is not over until God says that it’s over. On this day of sorrow, remind yourself to never let the vinegar of your lives silence you – you have been created by God to complete the mission that God has in store for you. You determine your destiny established by God, not your bystanders. Let us model Christ and allow God to have the final word in our lives.
In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritus meum
(This is the Latin version of Jesus’ last word)
Some of you may be familiar with the last monastic service of the day, called Compline, during which excerpts from Psalm 31 are intoned. This phrase, “Into your hands I commit my spirit,” is an old and very familiar prayer for the Jews. It comes from Psalm 31 and it was something like a prayer before going to sleep, similar to “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray my Lord my soul to keep.” I am quite sure that Mary sang or recited parts of Psalm 31 to baby Jesus.
Most Jews, Jesus included, knew their scriptures very well, particularly the Psalms. I wonder what was going through Jesus’ mind when he finally at the end of his suffering uttered the familiar words “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Was Jesus remembering his mother singing this evening prayer? Or was it: Father, I’m giving you my spirit. Do with it what you will. Or, Father I am done, I am coming home to you. I am sure there are many interpretations.
I would like to explore the following thought. Throughout his public life of teaching Jesus explained over and over again that he was one with the Father, at least according to the gospel of John. He also taught that he was one with us, and consequently we, too, are one with the Father through Christ. In the Book of Genesis we read that God created us in the image and likeness of God. The mystic Julian of Norwich says that we are not only created by God, we are made of God. We have God’s DNA in us. We are divine. From the moment we are created we share in God’s divinity. There is nothing we can do to change that. Sadly, we are not always aware of this fact. Jesus models for us a life of intimacy and trust with God whom he calls the Father. This is not a relationship that only Jesus can have, it is available to all of us to enjoy too.
I believe that when Jesus commits his spirit to the Father he is also entrusting his spirit to us, through that communal relationship between God, Christ and us, as a beautiful parting gift to us because he loves us so much. This is not a gift to be put away in the closet for safekeeping. As in the parable of the talents we are to use this gift. Through his spirit Jesus wants to help us become true human beings. That is our purpose on this earth. To become fully human. We are already divine, but becoming fully human is a much more difficult task. Just look around us and the world at large, the wars, the violence, the injustice, the hatred. These are not traits that characterize true humanity. An individual who is fully human is filled with love, compassion, mercy and forgiveness for all other beings, it is someone who exercises humility, courage, patience, someone who speaks truth and is aware of the presence of God in all creation. Jesus is our supreme example of such a true human being. In leaving his spirit in our hands Jesus makes sure we are never alone, never without his guidance.
It takes St. Paul a few decades before this idea sinks in and he is able to write in his letter to the Philippians that we are to put on the same mind that was in Christ; as if this were a most precious garment which, when we use it often enough, will eventually become part of us. From this gift of the spirit of Christ we can again and again draw new strength for the road, to experience love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and joy of life until we, too, are able to enjoy the fullness of humanity.
How can we ever thank Jesus for this wonderful gift of his everlasting spirit? By never giving up on trying on this precious garment and living into it. In J.S. Bach’s oratorio on the Passion according to St. Matthew there is a wonderful aria that, roughly translated, goes like this:
Lord, to you I want to give my heart,
May you, my Savior sink into it and dwell in me.
Though this world may appear too small for you,
For me you are more than heaven and earth can ever be.
Gentle Jesus, thank you for committing your spirit to us. Amen.