I’m wondering if there are any of you who—
when I was reading this text – your mind started to wander?
I don’t need a show of hands.
Just ask yourself if your concentration was on this text
the entire time it was being read.
If your answer was no, don’t worry, you’re not alone.
When the HBO series “The Sopranos” ended its run several years ago,
somebody uploaded a “7 years of Sopranos in 7 minutes”
compilation to YouTube.
They tried to cover every major plot point of the entire series
in 500 quick cut scenes—
–all in 7 minutes.
It was a don’t blink, don’t breathe or you’ll miss it kind of experience.
It has felt this way through much of Lent,
with the passages of John we’ve looked at,
and so with this reading today:
There is A LOT in this text, this story of Jesus’ passion;
Its packed like that YouTube video,
and I only read an excerpt this morning.
But…I don’t think that’s why we might have wandered.
It’s hard to keep our focus when the text is the suffering of Jesus.
* * *
The great English poet John Milton once tried to write a poem
about the suffering of Jesus on the cross.
He wrote 7 or 8 stanzas, and then he quit.
He quit because he realized that when he was writing about the suffering of Jesus,
ALL he could really talk about was
how John Milton felt about the suffering of Jesus.
How melancholy he became.
How sad it was to read and hear these words.
So he gave up.[i]
* * *
Why is it hard to do?
Why is it hard to focus on the suffering of Jesus?
If one were to observe the number of folks around the land
who will NOT be in church
on Maundy Thursday, or on Good Friday—
–the relative lack of attendance is not just a reminder
that it can be inconvenient to come to church in the middle of the week.
It’s also a strong reminder of how difficult it is
to sit with the suffering of Jesus.
Why don’t we like to look at the suffering of Jesus?
= Well, for one thing – its difficult to be in the presence of ANYONE who suffers.
We can be physically present, and still not really be present.
There is, for example, the human tendency—
to take another person’s suffering and, as Milton noted—
to turn it into a discussion about our own suffering.
Haven’t you ever had the experience of going through something awful,
and you confide in someone else,
a friend, a person you trust,
and meaning well, they proclaim, “I know just how you feel!”
And they spend the next ten minutes describing an event
in their own life that is not at all what you’re going through.
And you think to yourself – no, no, that’s not it.
You don’t know how this feels.
It is so comforting to share our suffering, but it can be so hard
to just let that suffering be authentic
to offer a caring presence and support
and not to try to mold it into our own experience.
=Another problem is that today, its not just anyone who suffers.
It’s JESUS who suffers.
When I picture Jesus in my mind’s eye:
But Jesus suffering…NO.
=And another reality, I think, is that we often don’t like to be
in the presence of suffering
without having REASONS for the suffering.
- So, you hear people tell you:
“God has a plan. I don’t know what it is,
but there’s a reason I’ve had to walk down
this road of grief.”
- Or, do you recall the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People—
Almost immediately after it was published,
there seemed to have been a collective,
subconscious, renaming of that book’s title.
Most people remember it as
WHY Bad Things Happen to Good People,
even though that’s NOT the title NOR is it
the question that Rabbi Harold Kushner tried to answer.
- Even Martin Luther King, Jr. attached meaning to his trials:
“I’ve lived these last few years with the conviction
that unearned suffering is redemptive,” he wrote.
“The suffering and agonizing moments
through which I have passed…
…have also drawn me closer to God.”[ii]
- THE CHURCH has been very adept at providing REASONS
for the suffering of Jesus.
Jesus suffered and died so our sins will be forgiven.
Jesus substituted himself for the consequences of OUR sin.
Jesus needed to suffer to conquer sin and death…
…In other words, if we can attach meaning or growth or goodness
to suffering, it can assuage the pain.
There’s something therapeutic about knowing
that a PARTICULAR suffering serves the greater good.
OK…but notice that in our passage today,
Jesus says NOTHING about his suffering.
He attaches no meaning to it.
He offers no lessons from it.
* * *
It’s the PASSIVENESS of Jesus
that really stands out during Holy Week.
Jesus doesn’t try to prevent his suffering, he doesn’t lead a fight.
Jesus is passive.
He lets Judas betray him.
He lets Peter deny him.
He lets the authorities arrest him.
He says nothing to Pilate in his own defense.
What’s troubling, though, is the implication that this isn’t just
Jesus’ human passiveness on display.
It’s the passivity of God.
The submission of God.
The suffering of God.
That’s the problem, isn’t it?
We want God to rule with POWER…
and in Jesus—we receive God’s child
who bleeds with us,
who suffers with us…
Truth be told, I find some comfort that perhaps—just perhaps—
the passiveness of God wasn’t what Jesus wanted either.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
According to the Gospels,
Jesus felt alone and abandoned when he died.
The only people he know who went with him,
the only friends who made it part-way…were the women.
The women who followed Jesus, who provided for Jesus
“were also there, looking on from a distance.”
The women were the only disciples
who could be in the presence of their Teacher’s suffering.
And let it not be lost on us:
that the Christian Church has spent the better part of 2000 years
NOT letting women have the same voice
and power and position as men.
But scripture tells us that it wasn’t the men who were faithful.
It was the women.
And who were the first people to experience Easter?
The same people who stuck around when he died.
If we can say it like this,
the women were the ones who started the very first church.
They were the ones who traveled with Jesus to his Cross.
This is no accident.
According to Matthew,
You can’t get to Easter without traveling to the Cross.
You can’t be a church of Resurrection
without being a church that can sit in the midst of suffering.
* * *
Too many thoughts abound today that seem to treat the Gospel
as if they’re ashamed of the Cross:
Have you heard any of these before?
Let Jesus enter your life, and your suffering will stop.
Want to reduce your stress?
Want to get over your problems?
Just add Jesus.
And whenever we say something like that—
whenever we just want Jesus to reduce our stress,
solve our problem,
eliminate our pain,
–how are we different than the crowds who waived their branches?
They all thought: “Hey, this is great.
When the Messiah comes, there will be no more suffering.”
But that’s not what our text tells us.
Our text tells us that where there is suffering,
THAT’S where you’ll find God’s Messiah.
* * *
I read something not too long ago by a woman who—
I don’t know if she would call herself “Christian”,
but I think Jesus would say “Amen” to the way she lives her life…
Her name is Deirdre Sullivan,
and her philosophy of life is to always go to the funeral.[iii]
She learned it from her father,
who made a point to take his kids to calling hours
and funerals throughout their childhoold.
“By the time I was 16, I had been to five or six funerals,” she writes.
“I remember two things from the funeral circuit—
bottomless dishes of free mints
and my father saying on the ride home:
“You can’t come in without going out, kids.
Always go to the funeral.”
“Sounds simple—when someone dies,
get in your car and go to calling hours or the funeral…
…But I think a personal philosophy of going to funerals
means more than that.”
“[It] means that I have to do the right thing
when I really, really don’t feel like it…
…I’m talking about those things that represent
only inconvenience to me
but THE WORLD to the other guy.
“You know, the painfully under-attended birthday party.
The hospital visit during happy hour.
In going to funerals,
I’ve come to believe that while I wait
to make a grand, heroic gesture,
I should just stick to the small inconveniences
that let me share in life’s inevitable, occasional calamity.”
* * *
Sharing in life’s occasional calamity—
isn’t that what the church is supposed to be about?
Isn’t that where the promises of God get their strongest test
and their most prominent work out?
It’s at places like this—at funerals,
in the face of suffering,
at the foot of the cross—
–that we meet the God who MATTERS,
the fullness of God—in all God’s love.
It’s the promises of God we remember at funerals.
Just picture it:
there’s a funeral for somebody you don’t know well,
and her family expected very few to show—
–and in walks the family during the prelude,
and they are ASTONISHED to see so many people in the pews…
Its just a little time out of your day, a little inconvenience,
a way to say “You’re not alone.”
But its also remembering the promises of God by which we ALL live,
and by which we ALL die..
At the very least, it might serve to remind us
that when Jesus died, he was alone.
“Always go to the funeral”—
it could be a way of saying to someone,
even though Jesus died alone, you don’t have to be.
* * *
I think John Updike lived by this credo, before he died a few years ago.
The very last poem he published, written just 30 days before he died,
was titled “Fine Point.”:[iv]
Why go to Sunday School, though surlily,
and not believe a bit of what was taught?
The desert shepherds in their scratchy robes
undoubtedly existed, and Israel’s defeats—
the Temple in its sacredness destroyed
by Babylon and Rome. Yet Jews kept faith
and passed the prayers, the crabbed rites,
from table to table as Christians mocked.
We mocked, but took. The timbrel creed of praise
gives spirit to the daily; blood tinges lips.
the tongue reposes in papyrus pleas,
saying, Surely—magnificent, that “surely”—
goodness and mercy shall follow me all
the days of my life, my life, forever.
(John Updike, December 22, 2008)
In the last month of his life, where did Updike get that?
Digging into the fertile soil of his life,
he pulled up, in his dying days…the 23rd Psalm.
Where do we most often repeat the 23rd Psalm?
Where does that promise get repeated and remembered,
but in almost every funeral I’ve ever been to.
“SURELY…goodness and mercy
shall follow me all the days of my life…”
Words. Promises…to recite,
to embrace in the hardest of times.
* * *
Deirdre Sullivan describes how her own father
the one who taught her to go to funerals,
died a quiet death from cancer on a cold, spring night.
“His funeral was on a Wednesday, middle of the workweek.
I had been numb for days when, for some reason,
during the funeral, I turned
and looked back at the folks in the church.
The memory of it still takes my breath away.
The most human, powerful and humbling thing I’ve ever seen
was a church at 3:00pm on a Wednesday
full of inconvenienced people who believe in going to the funeral.”
* * *
According to my calendar, there’s going to be a funeral later this week.
And I don’t know who among us will be able to be there,
but I know God will be there.
God with us – THAT is how we began the journey with Jesus in the Nativity stories.
God with us.
More words. Another promise.
We began this morning’s journey
with the traditional words of Palm Sunday—Hosanna!!
Hosanna means, literally – “Save us!”
Scott Black Johnston tells of being at his father’s funeral[v]
almost a decade ago now, around this time in northern Minnesota,
when he was then pastor of Atlanta’s Trinity Presbyterian Church.
The snow in late March was nearly white out conditions
as the family gathered for the service.
Most of us can relate to his description:
“I had just about reached the point that I knew I
couldn’t stand being there much longer,
and yet, this is where I needed to be.”
Just then, the door opened, bringing spring snow with it,
and in walked Ann and Bob—
–two members of his church in Atlanta.
Two representatives of his household of faith,
coming to this household of grief.
Johnston says: “It took me more than a few seconds to reconcile
their presence with my current location.
But seeing them, in that moment, in that place—
–I felt, dare I say—SAVED.
* * *
God’s presence. Our presence.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
God is with us.
God, save us!
God does not email or text message or tweet salvation into a situation
from some ritzy suite in some tony section of heaven.
God steps out of grandeur to stand with us,
to sit with us,
to embrace us,
to walk with us,
to stumble up a hill with us—
–in awkward places
and in EVERY awful time—to experience life and death.
God answers our cries of “Hosanna” in ways so utterly unexpected that we
have to look a second time to see if they could possibly be true.
So…with Palm branches in our hands,
and some sort of cry of Hosanna surely on our lips,
we begin Holy Week.
All that is left…is to go to the funeral.
That unlikeliest of place where we practice the promises of God.
Where we recite the promises of God.
Where we LIVE the promises of God.
Friends: go to the funeral.
Embrace the promises.
Be God’s promise.
[i] As noted in Fred Craddock’s sermon “In the Presence of Suffering” and cited in the sermon of Mark Ramsey “Always Go to the Funeral.” This sermon is indebted to Ramsey’s sermon.
[ii] From The Christian Century, April 27, 1960, cited in “Suffering and Faith,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., James M. Washington, ed., 1986
[iii] Originally found through the NPR segment “Always Go to the Funeral,” http://www.npr.org/2005/08/08/4785079/always-go-to-the-funeral (accessed April 11, 2014). Also: Always Go to the Funeral, by Dierdre Sullivan, in This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women, Jay Allison and Dan Gediman, Ed., 2006.
[iv] John Updike, “Fine Point,” Published in The New Yorker, March 16, 2009. Also available at http://drhguy.com/2009/05/25/fine-point-by-john-updike/
[v] Scott Black Johnson, “Save Us,” Day 1 Podcast, March 30, 2009.
Image: He Qi, Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. Accessed from: http://godspace-msa.com/2014/04/01/resources-for-holy-week-palm-sunday-2014/