Good Friday, 2017
April 14, 2017
May the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts, and the actions of our lives be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
This is the second time I’m preaching today.The first was at Memorial Church at Stanford – today at their noontime interdenominational Good Friday service. When I preach at Memorial Church (known to the students as Mem Chu) I find that my diaconal voice is tested! Stanford is of course a very secular place, and I find myself thinking hard about how to translate fundamental faith perspectives into words that students and faculty might be able to hear. It challenges me and it hones my thoughts and – I think – my faith.
I thought I would share with you the same sermon I preached today at noon, because we are all translators of our faith. We do this in many ways – and you, the people of St. Aidan’s know that more clearly that many church communities I know.
So – in hearing this sermon prepared for Stanford you can do so from your perspective here and now as a person of faith at St. Aidan’s, or you can think back to your college days and where you might have been in your journey then, or you can listen in empathy with stressed out Stanford students in skinny jeans. You can decide. Here goes.
I’m going to begin our Good Friday time together by asking you all a question that you might not expect to hear today, in this place. I’m going to ask you why you are here. I’ll ask you to take just a few seconds (it’s going to feel like a long time, but I promise – it will only be about 15 seconds) to be in silence with your thoughts about why you are here at Memorial Church on this day.
Thank you for bearing with me on this short time of silence and this question. I expect that if we were to “share out” why we are here (which we, by the way, are not going to do) we would hear about as many different answers as there are individuals in this church. For my part, I’m here because Dean Shaw asked me if I would preach today and I like to say yes when Dean Shaw asks me something! And if I think back to my past as a child growing up in the Episcopal Church, I’m pretty sure that I was in church on Good Friday because my parents required it. That said, Good Friday was not a big emphasis for me growing up. By this time in the church year I can remember feeling relieved that Lent was over (because Lent was all about giving up the things I liked, like chocolate) and feeling very ready for Easter. Easter was all about bunnies and candy and Easter outfits complete with straw hats and white gloves! (Does anyone here remember white gloves?)
Well, times have changed.
Those of us who are in church now are here for many reasons but one of the things we share is that we are worshipping together at a time in which not that many people go to church. Just think about us today. We’re here on a busy Friday at Stanford in a week that most of our colleagues would not remember or realize is Holy Week. So the fact that we are here matters. It matters a lot. We’re here for a reason - each of us has a reason - and it’s a blessing and a gift that we are together. So I’d like to spend a little time thinking with you about what this day means to us.
On Good Friday, we hear the long, bitterly sad and painful story of Jesus’ death on the cross. We hear it in the old testament reading from Isaiah, in Psalm 22, and in the Gospel from John. It’s hard to listen to. It’s a story we know – and yet, hearing it all at once, in these long readings, is wrenching and it hurts our hearts. When the only mercy seems to be that the soldiers decide not to break Jesus’ legs, we know that we are in the depths of despair.
And yet – at the same time, we know (because we have heard this story before) – that it culminates, eventually, in hope and resurrection. And so this day is both about the sadness and aloneness and doubt of Good Friday – and it is also about the promise and hope and love of Easter which is not here yet, but is somewhere – somehow - nearby. Our reading from Hebrews talks about this hope and love part. “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering” the Holy Spirit says and “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” That’s pretty clear.
The Good Friday message is about what we feel and do and reach for when we are at the very hardest moments in our lives. It’s a message about how we experience sadness and joy, darkness and light, evil and love. It’s about how we look for the resurrection that is next – around the corner - somewhere. Today, we hear this message in community, together, here in Memorial Church. Our challenge, I think, in our secular world full of divisions and separations and fear – is to hold onto this Good Friday message in the day to dayness of our lives. Our challenge is to figure out how to make this message our own, how to find – and keep in our hearts and our minds – the traditions and practices and habits of life that bring us hope when we need it the most.
I’d like to share with you a short story about just that.
I had the privilege of being with my dearest friend Carol during one of the very saddest times in her family’s life together – a Good Friday moment if you will. Carol’s brother Rick had died of cancer (far too young) and Carol asked me to lead his memorial service. I had known Rick well – he was beloved uncle to Carol’s children Noah and Tessa, who had grown up with my two sons. The four kids – now young adults - were fast friends from the time that they were four years old, and they all adored Rick.
Carol and I worked out a service that we thought Rick would have liked, and that would be meaningful and comfortable for the family, particularly for Noah and Tessa. Neither Rick nor the family were particularly religious. Just before the service, as we were waiting to go to the cemetery, grief-striken Noah – the young man I had known since he was a little boy of four years old - turned to me and said “I don’t know why we are doing this, Margaret. It’s just too hard.”
We drove to the cemetery and began the memorial with deep breaths, a poem or two, and remembrances of Rick. It was a crisp, clear New Hampshire day and we were in a lovely setting with trees all around us. We cried and we laughed and we sang. Family and friends shared their love of Rick. We placed tulips on Rick’s simple pine coffin. There was only one prayer and it was at the very end, a Lutheran funeral prayer that Carol had remembered from childhood and asked me to add. The time we spent together at Rick’s grave was beautiful and it was wrenching.
When we were back at Carol’s house, long past dinner and an evening that was winding down after much sharing and companionship and lots of stories about Rick, Noah quietly approached me. “Now I know why we do this” he said.
I tell you this story because I think it’s a story about a family figuring out how to get through a time of great sadness in their own way and with traditions that made sense to them. I think it’s a story about facing a sadness that will never go away. I think it’s a story about being together in the hardest moments of life. I don’t know if Noah experienced his response to Rick’s service as one of hope, but I sure did. To this day, every time I am a part of a memorial service or a funeral, I remember Noah’s words – and I say to myself “Now I know why we do this.” Noah’s realization reminds me to cherish the fact that I am part of a faith community that gives me the grounding to cope with the darkest of times. And in that remembering, I feel the presence and love of God that is the foundation of our faith.
In this big and confusing and frightening and secular world of ours, I think we’re going to be called upon to create the faith traditions that work for us and that bring us hope and peace. For some of us, like many of us here today, that will unfold to us as members of faith communities. For others, those of us who might be searching and seeking and not quite resonating with institutional religion, we’ll need to find other ways. We might find hope and peace in a long walk, or in nature, or in meditation, or in a range of quiet (or loud) moments. The theologian Richard Rohr wrote “Every generation has to be converted anew, and the Gospel has to always be preached in new contexts and cultures in ways that bring good news to that time and people…” He adds “No one can do this homework for you.”
So it’s on us. We are called to make our faith our own.
And - there’s one more thing – I also think that we are called, as people of faith and as people who are searching – to reach out to others in our world to share whatever messages and actions of peace and love and faith that we can muster. Our world needs belief and hope and empathy – now more than ever. The words we use will vary, the religions we follow – or don’t - will differ, the actions we take will probably be all over the place. But we are called to try to bring healing to our broken world. A retired public school teacher who was also an amazing theologian, a woman named Verna Dozier, put it this way; she wrote that we are called “…to be the new thing in the world” and she termed our work in the world “the dream of God.” The dream of God.
So, as we pray in the darkness of Good Friday, we ask ourselves hard questions and we grieve the death of Jesus, knowing that the hope and light of Easter is nearby. We are suspended, in a way, deeply in the darkness but aware that hope is possible and that there is a loving God watching over us.
In this suspended sort of time, I’ll come back to the question that I asked at the beginning of this sermon – “Why are you here?” because I think it’s an important question to keep asking ourselves. And as you continue to ponder about that, I’m going to leave you with a two-part question in closing – “And what will you do to bring hope and light to your world?” “How will you make real the dream of God?” Amen.