In 2011 a young man in New York City named Gabriel went to a party. While there, he drank some of the alcoholic punch being served. Unknown to the young man, the punch had been spiked with a drug called Gamma-Hydroxybutyric Acid, commonly called GHB. Prescribed as Xyrem and also called by a variety of “street names,” it is known as a “date rape” or rave drug. It comes as a liquid or as a white powder that is dissolved in water, juice, or alcohol. In most people it produces euphoria, drowsiness, decreased anxiety, excited behavior, and occasionally hallucinations. For Gabriel, however, who suffered from medication-controlled epilepsy, it caused a seizure. Apparently interacting with his regularly prescribed medication, the GHB he had unknowingly consumed caused a fatal convulsion.
Every year, for as long as any of us can remember, on the Second Sunday of Easter the church has told the story of Thomas, Thomas the Doubter, “Doubting Thomas” who wouldn’t believe that Jesus had risen, the poster child for those who are uncertain. But, believe me, Thomas gets a bad rap! He was no worse a doubter or disbeliever than any of the others, including Peter!
Consider this from the end of Mark’s Gospel:
Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.
Sometimes I find myself at a loss for words. It doesn’t happen often, but once in a while I simply don’t know what to say about a person or an event or a spiritual feeling. On Good Friday, is one of the times when this happens. I don’t know what I want to say about Jesus or his crucifixion or the salvation we enjoy because of his death and resurrection.
When these speechless times happen, I find that turning to poets helps. I find that others have expressed that with which I am having such difficulty. So, today, I want to share three poems with you, actually part of an epic poem, a hymn, and a complete short poem. These aren’t specifically about Good Friday, but they give us some insight into this event, the Passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and what it might mean for us.
Across the Kidron valley from Jerusalem, at the foot of the Mount of Olives, is a small grove of olive trees. In the midst of it is a church called “The Church of All Nations” and in the center of that church, surrounded by a low wrought iron fence sculpted to resemble brambles and thorns, is a large, rough, flat rock. It is called “the stone of agony” and tradition tells us it is the place where Jesus prayed on the night before he died.
Our gospel lesson for this evening, for Maundy Thursday, does not mention that olive grove, that stone, or Jesus’ prayers. Our gospel lesson on this day is always the same from year to year. We rehearse John’s story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. John’s Jesus is self-assured and in control. He “knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.” He knew “that the Father had given all things into his hands.” “He knew who was to betray him.” He gives his friends a “new commandment” (which, as a colleague of mine noted in our on-line bible study, isn’t really all that new): “Love one another.”
Today we are commemorating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of the week that would culminate in his death on the cross of Calvary. Somewhat contrary to common sense, this has come to be called the “triumphal entry.” I don’t know who first applied this term to Jesus making his way from Bethany and Bethphage, through the Kidron Valley, also known as the valley of Jehosophat or the valley of decision, into the holy city. I’ve often thought that whoever it was must surely have been a master of irony, or perhaps of sarcasm, for the procession was anything but a triumph!
Two scholars, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, have suggested that much more than a fulfillment of the Zecharian prophecy that the messiah, the king would come gently bringing salvation, riding on a donkey’s colt, Jesus’ parade was a mockery of the Roman tradition of military parades, particularly the sort Pontius Pilate might have used to enforce imperial domination.
To appreciate their suggestion, it’s necessary for us to understand the nature of these parades. We have a word in English, triumph, the adjectival form of which we apply to Jesus’ parade, which we use and understand as a synonym to the word victory. But it derives from the name of a particular sort of military parade practiced by the Romans, the triumphus. In Roman tradition, the triumph happened after a victory was won, but only in Rome, only after certain victories and only for certain victors. It has been said that the triumph was “one of the most dazzling examples of the theme of spectacle in Roman culture,” imbued with “theatricality” and designed primarily to persuade its audience of the greatness of the conquering general and of Rome itself.
There is a graphic artist named Brian Andreas whose work I can’t really describe to you. He uses a lot of primary colors, representational but non-realistic images, and words to create prints called StoryPeople. In one of them that I saw recently is this quotation (I don’t know if it’s original to Mr. Andreas or quoted from someone else):
I had no idea that when I invited life to take over that it actually would and now I’m somewhere miles away from any place I know and life keeps waving its arms and grinning like a crazy person saying “This. Is. So. Great.”
I thought of that when I encountered, again, what may be the most famous verse from the Gospel of John in today’s lesson: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
The past couple of days, Friday evening and most of the day on Saturday, the vestry and I were on our annual retreat. Our retreat leader was the Rev. Percy Grant, who is on the diocesan staff as the bishop’s canon for ministry. Percy’s been on the diocesan staff for about ten years in basically the same job, but she’s had three job titles.
Initially she was the “deployment officer.” Deployment is a word the church used to use to describe the process of placing clergy in congregations and our deployment officers assisted our bishops in that process. But we realized a few years ago that there was a lot more to the process that simply placing clergy. Congregations had to prepared to go through it. Parish had to be coached in how to end one relationship and prepare for and begin another; pastoral care, liturgy, and parish administration are on-going and have to be overseen after one priest leaves but before another comes. And after the new priest is in position, both she or he and the congregation need support and assistance. The entire process came to be seen as a time of transition, and so our deployment officers became “transitions officers.”
I’m a great fan of Sesame Street. The generation after mine in the Funston family, my niece Saskia, my nephew York, and my own children, Patrick and Caitlin, grew up with that show and it taught them a lot of good things. The show taught my kids literacy, counting, simple logic, and social skills. It did so using a rapid-fire mix of puppetry, animation, and short films. Created in 1969, “it was designed to deliberately mimic the fast pace and style of TV advertising in order to ‘sell’ learning to kids: An Aesop-friendly story featuring the recurring characters on the Street would be intercut with rapid-fire ‘commercials’ for that day’s ‘sponsors’ (‘Sesame Street has been brought to you today by the letters A and S, and the number 7…’).”
Always, it was sponsored by two letters and a number. I thought about starting this sermon that way: “Today’s sermon is brought to you by the letters A and R, and the number 15.” But if I did that, you’d think I was going to, again, preach about guns and mass murder and the killing of children.
Well, you wouldn’t be wrong . . . but you wouldn’t be right, either.
So we once again find ourselves at the beginning of Lent, this Day of Ashes on which we are marked with a sign of death, grief, and penance, and encouraged to enter into a time of fasting, a time of “giving up.” What are you giving up for Lent? We have all heard that question; we have probably asked it of others.
Noting the coincidence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day (something that apparently hasn’t happened for more than 70 years), Episcopal priest and cartoonist Jay Sidebotham recently offered some combined greeting cards for the day. Making light of the “giving up” aspect of Lent, one of Sidebotham’s mock cards reads:
Roses are red;
Violets are blue;
Lent is beginning;
No chocolate for you!
Listen to the word that God has spoken;
Listen to the One who is close at hand;
Listen to the voice that began creation;
Listen even if you don’t understand.
At the winter convocation this weekend our music keynoter, Ana Hernandez, taught us those words as a tract to chant before the reading of the Gospel. As we chanted them, I could not help but remember the first words of our lesson from the prophet Isaiah this morning, the pleading questions:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is easy to read those questions, asked (says the Prophet) by God of God’s people, in what I call “the voice of parental frustration.” All of us who are parents have used that voice; all of us who are children have heard that voice. The people of God have heard that voice for centuries; it is the voice of what G.K. Chesterton called “the furious love of God.” It is the voice of what the often-maligned conservative Christian author Eric Metaxas once called “a love that pursues even when the pursued is hurling insults at the pursuer.” I suspect that a lot of parents have known that feeling, the feeling of being insulted by the one we love unconditionally.