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Juxtaposition - a Sermon for Good Friday

Updated: Apr 8

Good Friday: Wisdom 2:1, 12-24; Psalm 22:1-21

Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42

The Rev. Cameron Partridge

March 29, 2024

            I have a very specific memory of a moment growing up when I learned a new vocabulary word of the decidedly 50 cent variety: juxtaposition. I remember it vividly because it was the title of a sci fi book a friend was reading. The cover had something fascinatingly monstrous—I don’t now recall what. All I knew was, I needed to know what juxtaposition meant. So I looked it up, learning that it meant the placement of something next to something else. Something that differed from the thing next to it, such that their placement together -- their juxtaposition – brought out an effect.[1] The two or more things placed together could create a new meaning. I never did read that book, but its vocabulary remained intriguing. I love to deploy it in collage, something I did most recently at a retreat in January, thinking about what the church is and how it works – kind of a visual ecclesiology. As I cut and pasted, I was unable to resist this quote from a popular scientific magazine: “they’re damp-loving, spore-sprouting, rainbow-hued marvels, more amoeba-like than mold – and still full of surprises.” It was from an article entitled “Behold the Surreal Magic and Mystery of Slime Molds.”[2] I hadn’t heard of them before, but there was something about their collectivity, their ongoingness, their colorful ingenuity, their unexpected presence emerging in the midst of death, that – juxtaposed with imagery more traditionally associated with church – struck a deep chord with me (and made me chuckle— ask me sometime about my theology of laughter).

I thought about juxtaposition coming into this evening thanks to the work of an Episcopal liturgical theologian, James Farwell, who in his 2005 book on the liturgies of Holy Week used this concept to invite greater insight into what we are doing as we make our way through this holiest of weeks in the Church Year. He notes how scripture itself in all its variety and layers, interprets itself – how more recent biblical stories or utterances often draw upon and make new meaning of older ones. Inspired by this scriptural pattern, Christian ritual does this as well, and through its own juxtapositions invites us more deeply into the mystery at the heart of our faith.[3] As the Lutheran liturgical theologian Gordon Lathrop explains: “All the juxtapositions of the liturgy call us to trust in the biblical pattern, reinterpreting our world from and living out of this: God is the one who brings something out of nothing, life out of death, the new out of the old.”[4] 

Holy Week’s liturgies, juxtaposed, bring us together into the Paschal Mystery itself. They position us in relation to the story of Jesus’ passion, as it unfolds over three successive days. Last night for Maundy Thursday, we observed Jesus’ ministry of service to others, a vulnerable point of strengthened connection as Elaina shared with us in her sermon lifting up the significance of the washing of the feet. We were invited to follow Jesus into that humble act of service by washing one another’s feet. We went from a location as observers to one of imitators, as Farwell terms it, or as active participants in Jesus’ ministry of service.[5] Today’s worship brings us face to face with the horror of what happened to Jesus as the crushing power of imperial Roman authority, having identified his ministry as a threat, sought to squelch it by eliminating him. As part of our liturgical witnessing of this process, we are ushered into the logic used to ambush a stigmatized righteous person through our first reading from the Wisdom of Solomon: “Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions… He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange” (Wisdom 2:12, 14-15). The othered human, one who holds up an unwelcome mirror, becomes expendable by this logic. And not just expendable but in need of erasure, relegation to a shameful death. The Psalm ushers us into the loneliness of that rejection and shame, joining Jesus’ own voice on the cross – in yet another biblical juxtaposition – saying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Psalm 22:1). Ours is not a savior who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, the Letter to the Hebrews emphasizes (Hebrews 4:15). He has experienced a shattering sense of forsakenness, of abandonment. That is not something we in this community are incapable of sympathizing with – I can say, having been entrusted with enough portions of the stories of this community to assert that with deep humility, respect, and care for each of you. The juxtaposition of Good Friday invites us to recognize that. Jesus’ journey is placed alongside ours. And from that placement we are reminded again, in Lathrop’s words, “to trust in the biblical pattern, reinterpreting our world from and living out of” the Good News itself, the abiding promise encompassed by the Paschal Mystery, that “God is the one who brings something out of nothing, life out of death, the new out of the old.”[6]

And then there is the juxtaposition of what are known as the Solemn Collects. These mark a turning point in our Good Friday worship – “a critical hinge point” as Farwell puts it.[7] The collects mark where the solidarity of Christ – his with us and ours with him – actively and prayerfully turn us outward. Building on the shared ministry of service and compassion we ritually enacted last night, the collects this evening point our prayerful energy out into the world, as an extension of Jesus’ ministry. As Farwell writes, the call is for the “the church [to] become Christ for the world, interceding on its behalf in love and compassion.”[8] This is a call to solidarity, that we as members of Christ’s body, which we especially affirm at the Vigil tomorrow evening, are invited always to engage practices of prayer, of assistance, of structural resistance and transformation.

I pray especially this evening for the people of Gaza, under attack by the Israeli army for months now after the Hamas attack in October. I was moved by the multifaith pilgrimage that took place in the East Bay last Saturday, twenty-two miles in length to evoke the distance that the people of Gaza have to walk to reach the Rafah crossing where many are seeking as much safety as can be found under the territory’s continual bombardment.[9] On Good Friday we traditionally pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and so indeed we should. But pray fiercely for the well-being and safeguarding of the Palestinians who are in a humanitarian crisis. Pray for a ceasefire now.[10] Pray for humanitarian aid. For the safe return of all hostages. For compassion, solidarity, strength and courage, for the presence of the Holy One to collaborate with human beings of good will to bring about justice and healing. Pray that God would “bring something out of nothing, life out of death, the new out of the old.”

Our prayer this night, dear friends, will bring us finally to the cross. Or rather, the cross will be brought forward to us, in another act of juxtaposition. After our readings and solemn collects, with singing and flowers, with gestures of love, we will be brought prayerfully face to face with the means of Jesus’ death. The cross will lie before us as a sign of stigma brutally imposed, and of the ministry of service and deep solidarity with the most marginalized of our world that made Jesus so dangerous to Rome in the first place. As we stand or kneel before it, the cross will evoke “the mystery of God’s presence to the world at the very place we most fear, the place of loss, suffering, and death.”[11] We will reverence the cross as a reminder of “the extent to which Jesus would go to live out his life of self-offering to the world… revering the cross, [we] revere the pattern of life of the Crucified.”[12] We offer reverence, and we seek to join in sympathy and love the practice of Christ’s fiercely compassionate solidarity in all facets of our life, from our nearest neighbors and friends, to our family, our city, our country, and the wider world.

And so I invite you tonight to embrace my 50 cent word. Open your hearts, if you will, to the mystery revealed by the juxtapositions of this holiest of weeks, the paradoxically deep goodness of this most challenging of days. Let the paschal mystery become for you, in this setting in which we in all our uniqueness are juxtaposed with one another, “a continual openness to God’s presence in our suffering, and of God’s presence to others in their suffering through our presence to them.”[13] May we embrace our vast belonging in the collective body of Christ, and may that belonging deepen and strengthen our connection and commitment to God, to one another, to our world. Amen

[2] National Geographic, “Behold the Surreal Magic and Mystery of Slime Molds.”

[3] James Farwell, This Is the Night: Suffering, Salvation, and the Liturgies of Holy Week (T&T Clark, 2005), 49. He builds on the work of Gordon Lathrop in Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993)

[4] Lathrop, Holy Things, 32, cited in Farwell, 50.

[5] Farwell, 54-57

[6] Lathrop, 50

[7] Farwell, 59

[8] Farwell, 60

[11] Farwell, 60

[12] Farwell, 60

[13] Farwelll, 67

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