Saved by the Cross

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
April 14, 2019
The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday

Isaiah 50: 4–9a
Psalm 31: 9–16
Philippians 2: 5–11
Luke 22:14–23:56

My Friends:

camp_gestapo_and_place_of_hanging_the_auschwitz_commander_28930463617729

Camp Gestapo, Auschwitz

Of the many testimonies to horror, cruelty, and courage to reach us from the Shoah, one in particular, witnessed by Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, is especially poignant.  In his memoir Night, Wiesel describes the summary execution of a young boy at that notorious death camp in which Wiesel himself was imprisoned.  The boy had been caught by a camp guard in some minor infraction of camp discipline.  After questioning the child to determine his alleged “guilt,” the commandant decided to make an example of the boy before his fellow prisoners.  So, he ordered the whole camp, including Wiesel, to assemble at dawn the next morning to witness the boy’s execution.  When the prisoners had been herded into the freezing, snowy yard of the camp, the frightened child was dragged before them, stripped of his clothing, and hung from a makeshift gallows as the entire prisoner population watched in helpless horror.  The camp guard who had caught the boy in his petty infraction then turned to a rabbi prisoner and asked in a sneering and tormenting voice, “So, rabbi, where is your God now?”  The rabbi looked his tormentor in the eye and calmly pointed to the twisting body of the hanging child.  “There he is,” the rabbi said, “hanging from your gallows.”

Now, as Christians, we should not be shocked or surprised by the rabbi’s answer to the cynical guard.  We know that God, in Jesus the Christ, has entered completely into the human experience of suffering and death to transform it from within through self-surrender and suffering love, making it the occasion for new life.  So, when we hear today about Jesus’ suffering and death in the Gospel’s Passion Narrative, we keep this knowledge and perspective before us and continue to receive it as “good news.”  We realize that we are not hearing about just another random act of murderous political violence, this time in first-century Palestine.  Rather, we are listening to a proclamation concerning the redemption of humankind from the power of sin and death by a God who, in Christ, loves us enough to suffer and to die with us to free us from their grip.  For if we truly believe that Jesus the Messiah is the eternal “Word of God” raised by the power of God from the grip of the grave, then his voluntary surrender to death on the Cross—in complete continuity with his mission to proclaim and to initiate the “kingdom of God” in word and deed—is no mere accident of fate or inexorable concession to human evil.  It is the providential prologue to the triumph of God over the “powers and principalities” of this world three days later when “death is swallowed up in victory.”  For when God who is Love collides with the power of sin and death, it is death that is destroyed, not Love.  The suffering and death of the eternal Word in Jesus Christ are another expression of that same kenosis, that same “self-emptying” of God, witnessed at the Incarnation when, in Jesus of Nazareth, God joins our human condition to be born, to suffer, and to die with us and for us, as Saint Paul so eloquently expressed it in our reading today from his Letter to the Philippians.

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Photo Credit: Martha Bancroft (Parish of the Messiah)

For most of us, the Incarnation and the Resurrection—the being born and the rising from the grave—are not a problem at all.  I suspect that this is one important reason for the full-house in most Christian churches on Christmas Day and Easter Sunday—not that I’m complaining.  It’s the suffering and the dying part of the story that we humans seem to find as troubling and perplexing as did the first followers of Jesus.  And I, for one, can easily empathize with the impulse just to run away from and to deny the unusual and unexpected sort of messiahship displayed by Jesus in the Gospel’s Passion Narrative.  Saint Paul was quite right to say that it looks, on the surface, to be an egregious case of either Divine impotence or Divine “foolishness.”  I too am much more comfortable with the exorcising, healing, wonder-working Jesus of power and might than the vulnerable, broken, helpless, tragic messiah of suffering love nailed to a Roman cross in abject humiliation and apparent defeat.  And I’m certain that even the most pious and convicted among us must have moments when, like the derelict Jesus on the Cross, we also cry out with the psalmists words:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me and are so far from the words of my distress?”  We don’t have to be on this earth too long before we learn, through painful experience, that suffering and death—together with all of the other many forms of natural and moral evil—are the inescapable rhythm of our existence here. Sooner or later, any thoughtful person with even a shred of integrity will ask in the midst of failure, exile, and defeat that same question put to the rabbi by the cynical concentration-camp guard:  “Where is your God now?”  And, for Christians, the answer will be the same as the rabbi’s:  God is there in the midst of the innocent suffering, the death, the brokenness, and the evil:  filling them with God’s presence; transfiguring them by God’s grace; and making them new through the creative power of God’s love.

The Road to the CrossDuring this Holy Week, we need look no farther than the holy Cross of Jesus the Christ to know that the mortification—the suffering and death of our very mortal bodies—is the painful, but inevitable gateway to our glorification and a larger and greater life in God.  This is why the holy Cross is the universal symbol of the Christian faith:  It represents the victory of God over the power of sin and death; the recognition that nothing—not even the grave—“can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”  In Jesus of Nazareth’s death and resurrection, God has claimed innocent human suffering and death—no matter how heinous and no matter the time or the place—as God’s own, making them the fertile ground for our glorification.  This is the Paschal mystery—the “protecting sacrifice”—that we Christians celebrate during the “Holy Week” we are entering today.  God has “drawn near” to our suffering and death and made them the hidden ground for new life in God.  We Christians, then, look upon the holy Cross and see, not the defeat of the saving work of Jesus the Christ, but its culmination and fulfillment.  For us, it is the extravagant, steadfast love of God; the compassion of God; the victory of God; the glory of God; the power of God; even the divine “foolishness” of God.  The Cross is our “Etz Hayim,” the “Tree of Life,” planted once more in the midst of that empty, garden-tomb outside the walls of Jerusalem, where Paradise is finally restored in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  So we are right to call the day of Jesus’ death “Good” Friday, for this is “good news” indeed!  Through the Cross, humanity’s self-inflicted wound is healed; our exile from Eden is over; and the victory of God is won!

My friends, sooner or later every single one of us—in both small and great circumstances and ways—will find herself or himself upon that same holy Cross someday.  If it has not happened yet, it is surely coming for, according to Jesus, it is the common destiny of each and every one of his disciples.  And when we find ourselves there, experiencing the inevitable mortification of our very mortal bodies, may we find real inspiration and hope from the deep knowledge that our God in Jesus Christ has gone before us to that place to dignify and to transfigure our very human suffering and death.  May we believe and trust, really and truly, that, in the words of the psalmist, “God is close to the brokenhearted,” and God “does not let God’s holy one see corruption.”  And, finally, may we rest in our hope that God will do in and for us—we who have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection—every good thing that God has done in and for Jesus, God’s Christ.  For the mercy of God is hidden in human suffering.  And we are saved, not from the Cross, but by the Cross.  AMEN.Living_Cross_by_Sarah_Hall

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Go Smell It

Homily for Sunday, April 7, 2019
Lent 5C
John 12:1–8

perfume bottlesIn their classic of the family therapy repertoire, The Family Crucible, co-therapists and co-authors Gus Napier and Carl Whitaker tell of how Carolyn, the wife in a couple with whom they’ve been meeting, has been making substantial progress—she’s more her own person, she’s more emotionally expressive, she’s more… alive!  But David, the husband, in a dynamic that is not unusual when one of a couple experiences growth, is resistant and—perhaps subconsciously, as part of his resistance to this new person and this new dynamic in the marriage—found a job offer in another city.  Napier writes: Continue reading

Open Spaces

Homily for Sunday, March 31, 2019
Lent 4C
Luke 15:1–3,11b–32

When I strike the open plains something happens.  I’m home; I breathe differently.  I tried for years… to get over it.  But I stopped trying…  It’s incurable…  That love of great spaces, of rolling open country like the sea, is the grand passion of my life.

—Willa Cather

liberacion_de_san_pedro_murillo_1667Luke is nothing if not dramatic.  Luke’s Gospel and his sequel, Acts, are filled with big gestures, bold speeches, heroic journeys and wide-open spaces.

  • Big gestures: To the angel’s announcement in Luke chapter 1, Mary gives an immediate “Yes! Be it unto me according to your word.”
  • Bold speeches: In Acts chapter 7, Stephen gives one of the most audacious (and the second longest) speech in the New Testament (the second longest after the Sermon on the Mount): “Brothers and fathers, listen to me,” Stephen says, “You are the ones that received the law… yet you have not kept it.”
  • Heroic journeys: “When the fourteenth night had come, as we were drifting across the sea of Adria… the sailors… took soundings and found twenty fathoms; a little farther on they… found fifteen fathoms… Fearing that we might run on the rocks, they let down… the anchors…and prayed for day to come” (Acts 27).
  • Wide open spaces: Notice how many roads are in Luke—the Jericho road ridden by the Good Samaritan; the Emmaus road on which the risen Jesus appeared to disciples (Luke 24); the “wilderness road” near which Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8); the Damascus road on which Jesus appeared to Saul (Acts 9).

Continue reading

Reverberations

Homily for Sunday, March 24, 2019
Lent 3C
Exodus 3:1–15

“And [Moses] said, ‘Here I am.’” — Exodus 3:4c 

evelynglennieWhat sets the astonishing Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie apart is two things, only one of which can be seen: The first, the thing that can be seen, is that Glennie performs barefoot.  Though all on stage, including Glennie, are in concert black, she goes barefoot.  Glennie performs barefoot not to make a statement or to make herself more comfortable (or her audience uncomfortable), but because—and this is the second thing that sets her apart, the thing that can’t be seen—she is entirely deaf, and the way she listens is, in her words, “through my hands, through my arms, through my cheekbones and my scalp, through my tummy, my chest, my legs,” and perhaps most importantly through her feet.  By the vibrations she feels through the floor, she knows which note she’s playing and how loudly; she knows—she feels—the notes, the phrases, the music that those around her are playing.  She can even without looking feel the audience clap, and know if they are clapping loudly like thunder or softly like rain or hardly at all, like snow.  In a TED talk from February of 2003, Glennie said: Continue reading

Entering the Story

Homily for Sunday, March 17, 2019
Lent 2C
Genesis 15:1–12, 16–17

“[The Lord] said to [Abram], ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’  [Abram] brought [the Lord] all these…” — Gen 15:9–10a

_________

They carried

1280px-soldiers_at_pointe_du_hoccan openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes… lighters, matches, sewing kits [and] two or three canteens of water…

They carried chess sets, basketballs [and] Vietnamese-English dictionaries…

They carried… safety pins, trip flares, signal flares, spools of wire… fingernail clippers… bush hats, bolos, and much more.

Some of that “much more” included things like

The shared weight of memory.  They took up what others could no longer bear.  Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak… They carried the land itself—Vietnam, the place, the soil… They carried the sky.  The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons… all of it, they carried gravity.

Continue reading

An Invitation

Homily for March 6, 2019
Ash Wednesday
Preached at St. John’s Church, Newtonville

“Yet even now, return to me with all your heart.” — Joel 2:12

mary_wollstonecraft_by_john_opie_28c._179729Had he not been Mary Wollstonecraft’s second partner, and had he not been the father of her first child, and had he not taken a job in the timber industry in Scandinavia away from their shared home in Paris, we probably never would have heard of Gilbert Imlay.  Though their long-distance relationship did not last, Wollstonecraft’s letters to him did.  There exist over 70 of Wollstonecraft’s letters to Imlay, from June, 1793 until December, 1795.  To read them is to witness a heart—a capacious and expressive heart—move gradually from the flowering spring of early love, to an autumn of disappointment, to a winter of heartbreak. Continue reading