Wednesday, July 1, 2020

What can we say February 28? Lent 2

    Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 lacks the psychological drama of chapter 18’s fleshing out of the impossible promise. I love it that Abraham was 99. Almost 100! But not quite. God’s counsel, “Walk before me,” is good, but then the addition “Be blameless” confounds all of us. Easy for a Christian to say our blamelessness isn’t our own purity but being cleansed by the shed blood of Christ – but still. I think God meant “Be blameless.” Not surprisingly, Abraham “fell on his face,” reminding us of the disciples at the Transfiguration (which weirdly is an alternate Gospel text for this day – but we were just there 2 weeks ago!). I do want more sermons that try to achieve just this: no big moral, no go-thou-and-do-likewise lesson, but just leaving our people in awe, “lost in wonder, love and praise.”

  On this text, Jonathan Sacks provides an eloquent summation: “Faith is the ability to live with delay without losing trust in the promise; to experience disappointment without losing hope, to know that the road between the real and the ideal is long and yet be willing to undertake the journey. That was Abraham’s and Sarah’s faith.”

  Romans 4:13-25 is like an early Christian sermon on the Genesis text, coopting Abraham for the Christians. We strive to avoid supersessionist readings, or anything that would demean our Jewish neighbors. Sometimes, if I’m fretting about his, I’ll call a rabbi friend, tell her what I’m thinking, and see how she feels about it. Without a hint of anti-Semitism, there is plenty of preaching fodder in “Hoping against hope,” this origami of contradictory notions! C.E.B. Cranfield gets to the heart of things: “Abraham believed God at a time when it was no longer a human possibility for him to go on hoping. Human hope’s utmost limit had already been reached and passed.” And in a somewhat obscure hymn, Charles Wesley expressed something similar: “In hope, against all human hope, Self-desperate, I believe… Faith, mighty faith, the promise sees, and looks to that alone; laughs at impossibilities, and cries: It shall be done!”

   I wonder if there’s a sermon in “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body” (verse 19). What does the culture say to us about our bodies? Some sleek, fit, curvy ideal? Too fat? Too skinny? Too feeble? Fatigued? Ill? Paul presents us with a counter-cultural, hopeful vision of the body as “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). The preacher can invite people to look down, like right now, at their bodies. Not much? How fantastic: when you consider your own body, your faith can and should be strengthened!

   If your setting allows it, you could reflect on what our society has done to black bodies. Or to women’s bodies. Secular culture might blaze the path for us. Rachel Hollis, TV personality and author of Girl, Wash Your Face, posted an Instagram photo of herself that went viral – with this caption: “I have stretch marks and I wear a bikini because I’m proud of this body and every mark on it… They aren’t scars, ladies, they’re stripes and you’ve earned them.” Our Gospel story ultimately is about a broken, wounded, scarred body, as we see in our Gospel.

   Mark 8:31-38. In the Synoptics, the turning point in the plot comes at Caesarea Philippi, far to the north, on the border, amidst a warren of temples honoring the fake god, Caesar. It is here that Jesus turns his face to Jerusalem. He’s been a powerful, impressive character, striding across the stage of history up to this point. From now on, he is passive, acted upon, handed over, walking meekly into the teeth of danger to be acted upon. W.H. Vanstone, in his lovely book, The Stature of Waiting, suggests that this matches the plot of our lives. We work, we are productive, but then we increasingly are acted upon, handed over to nursing homes or family or the seeming bondage of feeble older age. Jesus’ glory comes in the 2nd half of his story, and therefore he renders our seemingly bad years as our glory. And, we realize Jesus' mission wasn't to impress, heal everybody, and attract a big zealous following with divine razzle-dazzle. He came to save, to love, to lay down his life, to suffer for and with us and redeem us and all creation.

   No passive spectators allowed here. From the sidelines, we’ll just admire Jesus for suffering “in our place”? Jesus says “Take up your cross and follow me.” Not watch, but make the walk to death row and suffering with me. This “taking up your cross” might sound like bearing your burdens, but that’s not it at all. In the Roman world, if you picked up your cross, you were on death row, you were walking that “green mile” toward your execution. Joel Marcus, in his commentary on Mark, wisely refers us to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s thoughts on the gulag: “From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you. At the very threshold, you must say to yourself. ‘My life is over, a little early to be sure, but there's nothing to be done about it. I shall never return to freedom. . . I no longer have any property whatsoever. . . Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious and important to me.’ Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogation will tremble. Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory.”

   The logic of the Gospel is illogical to the world, always paradox. Deny yourself to find yourself. Lose your life to save it. Clearly Jesus is utterly uninterested in our niceness, our goodness, our political ideologies or our smug judgments of others. We put our cozy life behind. My property isn’t mine. It’s not what I want to do, and not even what I want to do for God, but what God wants me to do. The preacher errs by saying It might be costly. No, it will be costly – because we follow in a world that is terribly out of sync with Jesus, a culture that does not love the Lord Jesus. The preacher urges this with a soft, plaintive voice and maybe even some tears, never wagging a finger or stridently insisting. We dream that they might actually follow, at least with a few baby steps, to discover that the only thing that is more grievous than the cost of discipleship is the cost of non-discipleship.

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  Check out my book on preaching - not a how-to preach book, but how we continue preaching. The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge and Wonder of Preaching.

What can we say March 7? Lent 3

   I love that Exodus 20:1-17 is paired with Psalm 19, which reminds us of the beauty and value of God’s law, correcting our foolish lunge toward ideas that the Law is oppressive, or has been tossed in the waste bin by Jesus – especially during Lent! I think of the fabulous moment in Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses:

   “Moses lifted the freshly chiseled tablets of stone in his hands and gazed down the mountain to where Israel waited. He knew a great exultation. Now men could be free. They had something of the essence of divinity expressed. They had the chart and compass of behavior. They need not stumble into blind ways and injure themselves. This was bigger than Israel. It comprehended the world.  Israel could be a heaven for all men forever, by these sacred stones. With flakes of light still clinging to his face, Moses turned to where Joshua waited for him. “Joshua, I have laws! Israel is going to know peace and justice.”

  Martin Luther noticed grace and a promise in each commandment. What better sermon could you preach that to narrate the way God in mercy relieves us of our burdens by declaring “You don’t ?commander of the commandments? And where were they? These aren’t chiseled rules to be used in judging others or keeping our nation in good order. God has just delivered Israel from bondage – and now God explains what will be required in order to stay free. There is such a thing as holiness, as a deep desire to fulfill God’s will. Brevard Childs: "The intent of the commandments is to engender love of God and love of neighbor.”

   The preacher could pick one command and zero in – or you could do what I plan to do, just a quick, breezy touching on each one with an explanatory note or two. No other gods? Luther clarified that our god is whatever motivates us, changes your mood, embodies the good life… so who is your God? No images of God? We are made in God’s image, and Jesus is the flawless image of God – so other creature-like images (the Egyptian or the Wall Street golden bull, you name it…) mislead. Remember the Sabbath? Can we switch off our gadgets and actually rest?

   Don’t kill? Jesus went deep, explaining that anger is an interior kind of murder (and in our rancorous culture, where anger management is a big thing, aren’t we rabid killers?). No adultery (in a culture where sex as impulse, pleasure and self-fulfillment is all over the media)? Jesus said if you harbor lust in your heart, you are an adulterer. No condemnation there; just as in that moment in John’s Gospel, Jesus encounters an adulterer in order to set her free. No coveting? Coveting is the engine of capitalism! But God would liberate us from the stranglehold of always wanting more – or really, wanting what is new and different. I don’t want more iPhones. I want the latest iPhone…

  1 Corinthians 1:18-25 focuses us squarely within the movement that is the season of Lent. As a preacher, I worry that when I preach on “the Word of the Cross is folly,” it will turn out that my words about the Cross will be folly. The gravest risk for preachers who’ve grown up in our thin, vaguely revivalistic environment, is that we will minimize, individualize, trivialize and thus confuse and empty the Cross of its richer meaning. N.T. Wright: “When Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, something happened as a result of which the world is a different place…  The death of Jesus was the moment when the great gate of human history, bolted with iron bars and overgrown with toxic weeds, burst open so that the Creator’s project of reconciliation between heaven and earth could at last be set in powerful motion… Christian mission means implementing the victory that Jesus won on the cross.” 

   We have pretty crosses adorning our churches, not to mention jewelry, posters, clothing… The cross in the first centuries was horrific, from which you would avert your gaze. Consider the first instance of a cross – in that laughable graffiti found near the Palatine Hill in Rome – depicting a man bowing down before a crucified figure with a donkey’s head, with the inscription, “Alexamenos worships his God,” clearly ridiculing a late second century convert to Christianity.

   We speak of “apologetics,” the intellectual defense of the faith.  Paul surrenders before beginning, making zero apologies for the absurd, unexpected and not prophesied idea that the Messiah would not crush his foes but be crushed by them; the Scriptures themselves indicated that being killed on a tree was an offense.  How can the preacher resuscitate the disgust, the offense, except just to name it?   Or maybe we show horrific images, maybe von Grünewald's Christ, pierced hundreds of times, or maybe that startling bronze crucifixion by Floriano Bodini… This is God? Looks entirely God-forsaken – which was God’s point. As Rick Lischer put it in his memoir about his son's death (Stations of the Heart), when battling the cancer, they looked into a church and saw a crucifix - prompting them to know this was the place for them, for such a church, and such a God, "is not freaked out by death."

   Before turning to the Gospel, I think it is worth passing along a word of encouragement to preachers from Michael Knowles, and reminds me that we preachers need encouragement more than we need material: “The vast majority of preachers throughout the entire history of the Christian church have conducted their ministries in either relative or absolute obscurity.  And they, by virtue of such obscurity, best exemplify cruciform preaching as Paul intends it.  Wherever preachers stand before their congregations conscious of the folly of the Christian message, the weakness of their efforts, and the apparent impossibility of the entire exercise… there, Paul’s homiletic of cross and resurrection is at work.  The one resource that genuinely faithful preachers of the gospel have in abundance is a parade of daily reminders as to their own inadequacy, unworthiness and – dare we admit it? – lack of faithfulness.  Yet these are the preconditions for grace, the foundations for preaching that relies on God ‘who raises the dead.’”

   John 2:13-22 poses a chronological challenge. The Synoptics locate the cleansing of the temple early in Holy Week, while John sticks it in when Jesus is just getting started, shortly after attending a wedding with his mother. Jesus waltzed right into the temple, and in a rage that startled onlookers, drove the moneychangers out of the temple. Was he issuing a dramatic memo against Church fundraisers? Hardly. Like the wine at Cana, this was a sign. He was acting out, symbolically, God's judgment on the temple. The well-heeled priests, Annas and Caiaphas, had sold out to the Romans. Herod had expanded the temple into one of the wonders of the world - but he pledged his allegiance to Rome by placing a large golden eagle, symbol of Roman power, over its gate.

   The people were no better:  a superficial religiosity masqueraded as the real thing.  Within a generation of Jesus’ ministry, that seemingly indestructible temple was nothing but rubble. Tell your listeners about the massive Herodian stones in this wonder of the ancient world. Help them imagine the sights, sounds and smells of the moment. I once set up a bunch of little tables with coins on them and proceeded to turn them over as my sermon began. I’m not sure anybody heard anything after that, but you never know…..

  If we ask, Why did Jesus die? many might answer, For our sins.  But then ask, Why did they kill him?  Look no further than this moment: Jesus shut down operations in the temple and forecast its destruction.  No wonder the authorities wanted to kill Jesus!  In a way, Jesus would himself become a kind of substitute temple.  The temple was the place, the focal point of humanity's access to God.  Jesus, like the temple itself, was destroyed, killed - and his death, and then his resurrection on Easter Sunday, became our access to God. And Fred Craddock has helped us discern the connection to the wedding at Cana.  Both are on the “third day,” both are polemic against religion centered on ceremony.  But the difference: “In Galilee is the wedding; in Judea is the funeral.” 

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  Check out my book on preaching - not a how-to preach book, but how we continue preaching. The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge and Wonder of Preaching.

What can we say March 14? Lent 4

   Great texts! How to choose? Or do you dare touch on two or more of them? That never goes well for me. I’ll start this blog with Ephesians (having completed a churchwide series on Ephesians back in the Fall), then turn to Numbers and John.

   Ephesians 2:1-10. Check out my sermon on this back in September (when we broke from the lectionary for a series on Ephesians). The preacher would be wise to re-read and re-ponder chapter 1, which elevates chapter 2 beyond mere individualism. Paul rambles eloquently through a 202 word sentence, then another lasting 99 words – clearly getting carried away talking about the unfathomable yet precious and knowable mystery of the lavish grandeur that is the mind and heart of God. Paul wants our minds to be blown, for us to be “lost in wonder, love and praise” before turning to his thoughts in death and being saved by grace.

   Walker Percy wrote often in his novels of “living death." His parents died when he was very young, and he barely survived tuberculosis. In The Moviegoer, the unforgettable character Dr Tom More lives in “Paradise Estates,” but it’s a living Hell. People “have it all” but they are hollow. Even the meek priest confesses “I am surrounded by the corpses of souls. We live in a city of the dead.” In The Second Coming: “It astonished him that as farcical as people’s lives were, they generally gave no sign of it. How did they manage to work as usual, play golf, tell jokes? Was he crazy? Or was it rather that other people went to any length to disguise from themselves the fact that their lives were farcical?” – pulse, but no meaningful life.

   Paul speaks of radical transformation: “You he made alive, when you were dead.” The preacher’s challenge is to portray how startling and transformative grace really is. We don’t get how lost we are, and so we miss the transformation, thinking grace is God letting bygones be bygones, or making me feel 23% better. It’s “immeasurable.” The Greek is literally “hyperbolic.” A hyperbola (google it if you don’t recall from high school!) is a curve on a cone that gradually grows larger, encircling the fixed center.

   Walker Percy-style death, and sin (which Paul only refers to in the singular, so not discrete booboos but a nettling condition!) are the fix we’re in. Mid-stream describing it, Paul blurts out verse 5 (and should have prefaced it with “Spoiler Alert!”): “By grace you have been saved through faith.” Returning to this in verse 8, he adds “this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” What though is the antecedent of “this” and “it”? In the Greek it’s clearly not just “grace” but also “faith,” and “saved.” The whole process is God’s gift. Faith isn’t my clever choice of God! Charles Wesley taught us to sing “End of faith as its beginning.” God’s love and grace create faith itself.

   Most Protestants stop reading at verse 8, but then we live as if we read on and ignore verse 8! As soon as Paul has said “not by works” he continues: “created for good works.” The works don’t save us. It’s not a meritocracy. But once you’re saved you don’t go do as you wish. You were made to work zealously for God – and notice Paul’s mystical wisdom that God thought up our works before even Creation itself! Holy smoke. I’d urge you to check out this video of a conversation I had with Billy Graham’s daughter, and then a layman I know talking about grace and how it issues in works. A fabulous testimony – from lay people!

   I love the way N.T. Wright puts it: “What you do in the present – painting, singing, sewing, praying, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor – will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making present life a little less beastly. They are part of building for God’s kingdom. Every act of love, gratitude and kindness; every work of art or music; every minute spent teaching a child; every act of care and nurture, for one’s fellow human beings or for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; every prayer, every deed that builds up the church, or embraces holiness – all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.” Wow. Grace is better than we’d imagined.

   For Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-22, I’d refer you to my blog from last time around, which I can’t really improve upon today, except to add this from N.T. Wright’s astonishingly good book, The Day the Revolution Began, including this (where we see him capturing God “sending” his Son for more than just getting you into heaven): “When Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, something happened as a result of which the world is a different place. The death of Jesus was the moment when the great gate of human history, bolted with iron bars and overgrown with toxic weeds, burst open so that the Creator’s project of reconciliation between heaven and earth could at last be set in powerful motion… Christian mission means implementing the victory that Jesus won on the cross.”

What can we say March 21? 5th of Lent

   Jeremiah 31:31-34. Jeremiah, the man, moves and inspires me, but then I shudder, as his burden to speak God’s truth left him isolated, ridiculed, suffering much. I try not to get confused and think any time I’m abused in ministry that it’s because I was such a holy truth-teller. The question is always how to speak truth but in love, engaging, conversing not thundering, inviting not judging.

   Most of Jeremiah is a long diatribe, like a street preacher voicing judgment. Here he is tenderly hopeful. John Goldingay suggests that the true prophet “knows what time it is.” Is it time for judgment, a call to repentance? Or for hope? I get it wrong sometimes because I’m annoyed with my people or frustrated in ministry. How to be attentive to God’s timing?

   Jeremiah’s “new covenant” seems crucial right now. So many want to “go back,” whether it’s to “Make America great again,” (this bit of nostalgia forgetting what was ugly back then), or we want church to “go back.” We are being called by God right now to go forward into something new! And Jeremiah’s promise feels way beyond any visible horizon; maybe it’s even in eternity – but can’t we begin now to become people for whom the law, God’s way, isn’t something external we try to learn and embody, but it’s actually written on our hearts. It’s natural. It’s just who we are.

   President Eisenhower heard Martin Luther King preach in the late 1950’s. Exiting the church, Eisenhower said to King, “You can’t legislate morality.” King replied, “The law can’t make a man love me, but it can keep a man from lynching me.” Laws, rules, conventions, guidelines and policies get us started – but the goal is in the heart, like muscle memory. We love, we forgive, we reconcile, we have mercy, we exhibit the Spirit’s Fruit – not recalling and implementing a rule but because our hearts have been shaped, over a long time, after much practice, booboos, restarts and fumblings. This is the purpose of preaching, over time, isn’t it?

   I might preach Psalm 51. The imposed context, in the wake of the sordid David – Bathsheba liaison, intrigues. I’m also dumbfounded by the way “original sin,” so despised by modern people, has manifest itself in new, unanticipated ways in the wake of the 2016 election. Baffled by Trump’s popularity, explainers stepped forward – noting how most of our political ideology emerges from some subterranean cavern within, which grew before the days we can even recall. Witness Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and many others: our supposed reasoning is actually the wagging tail of the dog that’s all intuition. People firmly believe they have made such a wise decision, becoming Republican or Democrat. But it’s deep gut stuff that attaches itself to the ideology – just as the Christian doctrine of original sin exposes us not so much as wicked choosers but as people simply stuck in sin.

   I won’t preach Hebrews 5:5-10 – but how fascinating. At Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, he was appointed (anointed!) high priest! No one noticed at the time, of course. “Priest” in Latin is pontifex, bridge-builder. The bridge Jesus built for us was his own self – and how he was his own self: “In the days of his flesh” (reminding us of the Word become Flesh!), “he offered prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears.” We think Gethsemane. But I’m positive Jesus cried aloud in his prayers quite often, and the disciples overheard, and were moved, or puzzled. “What wondrous love is this?”

   John 12:20-33. I heard a whole sermon once that simply played on what these guys said to Philip: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Your whole life is wishing to see Jesus. Even when you think you’re searching for something else. We help our listeners to clarify that wish, as we get glimpses of the Jesus of our wishful thinking, the fake Jesus recreated in our own image.

   Philip doesn’t just point the way, or say He’s over that hill somewhere. He tells Andrew, and the two of them together find Jesus. Something about community – and making the journey with the seeker in this. The detail of Bethsaida matters. Jesus and the disciples start to look like pastel characters in some wispy distance – but they lived in a real place, it’s been excavated, they found fishing hooks on the floors of houses.

   John echoes Paul – or did Paul echo John? – on the grain of wheat falling into the ground, “dying,” then rising up. God works in the dark, in what seems unlikely, while you’re sleeping, slowly but surely. He wasn’t about self-protection or security, and if we follow him closely we aren’t about our self-protection or security either. The voice from heaven echoes the Synoptics at Jesus’ Baptism. Funny these linkages across Scripture! The crowd, unaccustomed as we are to hearing God’s voice from heaven, thought it had thundered. Is it just too much to suggest to people, as we think of Noah’s ark when we see a rainbow, that if you hear thunder, you might detect God’s voice loving on Jesus and calling us to the glory that is suffering?

   “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.” Of course, when Jesus was lifted up, on the cross, people fled; even his closest friends abandoned him. And yet, embracing and living into (dying into!) that abandonment, Jesus began to draw the world. Do you know the medieval poem, The Dream of the Rood? "I was a sapling by the edge of the woods. One day men cut me down, staked me up, and brought the young hero, nailing him to my branches. I trembled under his weight; his sweat and blood soaked into me. Later, they threw me into a pit. But then others found me, and adorned me with gold and jewels. Now people look up to me seeking healing and hope."

What can we say March 28? Palm Sunday

   We’ve made Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday cute, admirable, joyous – missing how laughable and even ridiculous it had to have been. A king on a little donkey, not a war stallion like Bucephalus (Alexander the Great’s mount) – a borrowed donkey at that. Those following weren’t armed or rich or influential. Dreamers. William Placher mused that recently healed Bartimaeus was probably in the crowd. Martin Luther noticed Jesus road on “an animal of peace fit only for burden and labor. He indicates by this that he comes not to frighten anyone, nor to drive or crush anyone, but to help him and carry his burdens.”

  Pretty courageous, especially since Pilate had just marched his legions from Caesarea on the coast to Jerusalem to intimidate, to secure the city overcrowded at Passover. His stomping regiments, with arms clattering and banners waving high, heading east into the city could not have found a greater contrast that Jesus, donkey hooves clomping on the stone, children holding leafy branches in the air, heading west into the city. The perpetual clash of good and evil coming to its climax.

   They shout “Hosanna!” which isn’t cheering in church, but a prayer, a cry for help meaning “Save us now!” Mark alludes to the obscure Zechariah – who had given up on human rulers and prophesied that “On that day the Lord God will save them… Lo your king comes humble and riding on a donkey.” What foolish person would draw attention in such a meek, easily-mocked way? There is some mystery afoot here. And we begin to understand that Jesus never protects his own dignity, but is ready to fling it aside to love anybody.

  Imitating Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi strode directly into the jaws of danger. Joining the Crusaders in the battle of Damietta in 1219, he walked across No Man’s Land between the heavily armed Christians and the saber-rattling Muslims – unarmed, barefooted. He was so pitiful that, instead of butchering him, the soldiers hauled him to the sultan, Malik al-Kamil. Francis spent three days with him, befriending him, and bought peace in that region. Well, for a brief time.

   What is the homiletical takeaway? Go thou and so likewise? Hardly. We simply find ourselves in the crowd, excited yet with the hunch that a week of agony for this holy one is beginning. Just before Lent we observed the Transfiguration. No takeaway there. The disciples fell on their faces in awe. I dream of the sermon that has no moral, no lesson, but simply causes all of us to say Wow, Jesus is amazing, so courageous, so humble, so loving, so bold, so holy, so divine. That’s really enough, isn’t it?

What can we say Maundy Thursday?

   How quirky, Maundy Thursday falling on April Fools’ Day! The disciples must have had moments of feeling foolish. Their teacher insists on washing their feet. Students were eager to serve their masters in this way, but Jesus is always reversing things, going lower than we can imagine.

   In JesusChrist Superstar, after they’ve had a bit too much to drink, they tipsily sing “Always hoped that I’d be an apostle, knew that I would make it if I tried, then when we retire we can write the Gospels so they’ll all still talk about us when we’ve died.” Clever. More cleverly, Mark reports on the chagrined response of the twelve to learning one would betray. Taking turns, each one asks, “Is it I?” My church put on a terribly corny drama on Maundy Thursday years ago in which each disciple had a monologue concluding with “Is it I?” Each guy mustered his best inflection to ask in a unique way. The constancy of the reply is profound. 


   The Greek particular implies a negative answer is anticipated, like “It isn’t me, is it?” William Placher reminds us that “the asking of the question implies at least a shadow of doubt.” We’re invited into the round of queries, probing our own hearts for shadows of betrayal. Placher points out that in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, “Is it I?” is repeated 11 times, not 12. Judas didn’t need to ask.

   I regret that the lectionary veers away from Mark, through which we’re progressing, and goes with the footwashing in John 13. This feeds into our very American notion that Christianity is about doing, serving, not receiving or being with – and Jesus is hardly showing them merely how to serve humbly. He’s washing them of more than the dirt on their feet.

   On April Fools’ Day, I’ll ponder the Lord’s Supper as a meal, asking How close does God want to get to us? Not just in the vicinity, or even at the same table rubbing elbows or even embracing. God wants to get inside us.

   Candidates for ordination are asked to explicate the theology of the Eucharist. The disciples would have flunked badly. I love Austin Farrer’s thought: “Jesus gave his body and blood to his disciples in bread and wine. Amazed at such a token, and little understanding what they did, Peter, John and the rest reached out their hands and took their master and their God. Whatever else they knew or did not know, they knew they were committed to him… and that they, somehow, should live it out.”

   No morals, no takeaways, no lessons this night. Just invite people to marvel with you, and to find ourselves together at that table, virtually if you will. When we partake, we become marvels, walking shrines, living temples. 

On Ash Wednesday, and at most any Communion service, I recall Martin Sheen’s lovely ramble to Krista Tippett in her “On Being” interview with him: “How can we understand these great mysteries of the church? I don’t have a clue. I just stand in line and say Here I am, I’m with them, the community of faith. This explains the mystery, all the love. Sometimes I’m just overwhelmed, just watching people in line. It’s the most profound thing. You just surrender yourself to it.”

   Or maybe, to switch it up, focus on Act 2 of Maundy Thursday: what unfolded after dinner. Jesus went out into the dark (literally and figuratively) to pray in Gethsemane. Sleepy-headed disciples again flunk Discipleship 101, but Jesus doesn’t thrash them or holler. And he doesn’t defend himself or run. He lets himself be acted upon. He’s “handed over.” He embraces God’s painful will for him, not fatalistically, but with immense courage – and unfathomable love.

   His agony has troubled theologians who prefer a divine Jesus untroubled much by any genuine humanity. The Greek is pretty vivid: he "threw himself" to the ground and writhed loudly, collapsed, not entirely in control. This was light years from the ancient ideal (and ours!) of how a hero (or anybody) faces death, with stoic acceptance. No, Jesus is human, never putting on a face, leaving us room for our emotion, terror, anxiety, inviting us to take all that to our Lord. Karl Barth captured what was at stake beautifully: "He did not let his life go as if it were worthless; he sacrificed it as something precious, from which it was not easy for him to part.”

What can we say on Good Friday?

    My daughter’s birthday falls on Good Friday. When I pointed this out to her, she said Oh, cool! We Howells love Good Friday, from the paradox hidden in the word “good” to the shadows and somber solemnity of our service. 

  I’ll preach on Good Friday, but “preach” is too strong a word. “Homily” is even too grandiose. I meditate, and briefly – or like a docent in a museum, with just a few words I point to the wonder, the horror, the beauty and majesty. I think I’ll linger over the words of “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” from a new book I have coming out; check out this reflection at the end of this blog. But maybe I’ll just sigh, or shudder. That would be a good enough sermon. Maybe the choir will bail me out with Gilbert Martin’s “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” or something else pensive. As I ponder and prepare, I’ll listen to that moving crucifixion moment in Jesus Christ Superstar, and I’ll look carefully to an image or two of the crucifixion. Grünewald? Rouault?

   At our church, we always read the Isaiah 52:13-53:12 early. Haunting. Good Friday isn't the time to explicate this complex text and its background. We trust the words to do their thing. And Psalm 22: Jesus' heart-wrenching cry, himself forsaken, and joining his God-forsakenness forever to ours. I try to ponder the horror, the sorrow Mary felt as she watched her son cry out these words she had taught him as a little boy.

   Then we do the Gospel reading in stages, gradually extinguishing lights and then candles until we are immersed in total darkness. On Good Friday, more than any other day, we are humbled by our inability to say anything – just as Jesus was all but silent as he hung for hours. On this day, more than any other, we realize we do not need to make the Bible relevant, or to illustrate it.  We can and must simply trust the reading to do the work it has done for 2000 years.  

   Here’s the pondering on “O Sacred Head”: Protestants are attached to notions of the “empty cross.” But the Bible and the long tradition of Christian prayerfulness invite us to stop, ponder and be mortified and moved by the crucified Jesus.


   If there were no lyrics at all, the tune of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” itself conjures up something profound, sorrowful, riveting. 

Johann Sebastian Bach was so attached to the tune that, instead of cooking up something new, he kept inserting it here and there, in his St. Matthew Passion, his Christmas oratorio, and “Komm, du süβe Todesstunde.” The melody and harmonies lure us in, evoking passionate grief – but then the beauty and elegance lift the head and imply hope and wonder.


   We might fixate on the grisly piercing of nails through Jesus’ hands (or wrists, actually) and feet, or the spear gutting his side. But his face, his head: there’s the man, the eyes shedding love even as his blood is shed, his mouth thirsty and muttering unforgettable words, the perspiration, eyebrows creased in agony. “O Sacred Head, now wounded.” He is our head, the head of the Church, the head of the Body; yet it is this head, wounded, “with grief and shame weighed down.” He had no cause for shame. The shame is ours, humanity’s, history’s, that such a holy, perfect, loving and beautiful one would be treated so cruelly.


   Jesus’ head was “scornfully surrounded with thorns, thine only crown.” There is a thorny vine that grows to this day in fields and by roadsides in Palestine, called zizyphus spina christi, which has long sharp thorns. I’ve cut a few fronds to bring home, and every time, no matter how careful I am, I get stuck by a spine. It hurts – and the hurts lingers, as the thorn has a toxicity that leaves you itching, inflamed and with pain for two or three days. I try to imagine a few dozen of those prickly, mean thorns pressed into Jesus’ brow. I shudder.


   If we gaze at that sacred head, are we shamed or delighted, stricken or honored? Yes. This ancient hymn envelops all these moods. “What thou my Lord hast suffered was all for sinners’ gain: mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain.” The “mine” gets repeated, maybe to make the meter work out, but then also to remind me that I am confessing and owning doubly that my sin, all our sin, put Jesus there.


   “Look on me with thy favor.” Does Jesus look on me with favor? His eyes in his head looked out and saw with favor his blessed mother, and his beloved disciple whom he charged to care for her. He saw the clueless soldiers, and forgave. He looked at the victim next to him and promised him paradise. He does look on us with a harrowing, surprising, tender favor. No greater favor could be envisioned than this one looking from that head on us with mercy and love.


   “What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend?” At the birth of your child, at the death of your spouse, at any moment that is beautiful or horrific, there just are no words. We might blurt out something, inadequate, or we just sigh. What we need in this hour is a friend, who doesn’t have to say a word but just clutches us in quiet, firm tenderness. Jesus is that friend. Our dearest friend. I love the way in Michelangelo’s Pieta Mary cradles her precious son’s head, just as she had when he was born. We too are invited to hold him, gingerly, hesitantly but then with all the love we can muster to cradle that sacred head, the very mind and heart of God – praying, or just speaking to him: “O make me thine forever… Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to thee.”