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.

Still life 2

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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All Things Are Possible

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
November 11, 2018
Proper 27B: The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 17:8–16
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:24–28
Mark 12:38–44

My Friends:

Tallulah_Bankhead_1941Every time I hear this morning’s beloved Gospel narrative—commonly referred to in the tradition as “The Widow’s Mite”—I am reminded of a story, perhaps apocryphal, told about the late, great actress Tallulah Bankhead, who really was a devoted Anglican, albeit with a wicked and ironic sense of humor.  Apparently, Ms. Bankhead had just attended a high Anglican liturgy in an English cathedral, at which an Anglican bishop, all bedecked in his episcopal finery, presided.  The liturgy included the use of incense burning in a golden thurible on a long chain.  Anglican lore has it that, at the conclusion of the service, Ms Bankhead approached the bishop and, in that legendary, deep gravelly voice, said to him, “Your Grace, I love your drag, but your purse is on fire.” Continue reading

Unless You Become Like Children

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
September 23, 2018
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost — Proper 20B

Jeremiah 11:18–20
Psalm 54
James 3:13–4:3, 7–8a
Mark 9:30–37

My Friends:

Jesus with Children stained glassBy now, all of us have likely seen far too many images of Jesus Christ that I like to refer to as the “Swedish Jesus”: that is, Jesus portrayed with blond hair and blue eyes, surrounded by a crowd of adoring, happy children.  And yet, we know that such a depiction is both a complete and a literal misrepresentation of Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century, Mediterranean Jewish artisan living under Roman occupation in the Roman province of Syria.  He was entirely embedded in his west Asian religion and culture, and his little world consisted of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, with occasional incursions into adjacent Greco-Roman cities, as we have heard over the last two weeks.  He lived, along with everyone else, in what we in the West now call the “Middle East.”  His cultural background included a system and hierarchy of honor at least as old as the patriarchs of the Hebrew Bible, and persisting to this very day in that part of our world. Continue reading

Able to Hear It

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
June 17, 2018
The Third Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 6B

Ezekiel 17:22–24
Psalm 92:1–4, 11–14
2 Corinthians 5:6 –17
Mark 4:26–34

mustard seedsMy Friends: A story is told about a young man who reported to his Freudian psychoanalyst that he had a recurring dream in which he always smoked a cigar.  Because he was not a smoker of any sort, the man was convinced that the cigar must have some hidden meaning for his neurosis.  Freudian psychology, after all, held that every object in a dream—especially in a recurring dream—has a symbolic meaning very often linked to some childhood trauma or inhibition.  So, the patient and his analyst spent a good deal of time and effort exploring the possible significance of that “dream-cigar” with no success at all.  Finally, after several fruitless—and expensive—sessions, the exasperated psychoanalyst threw up his hands and exclaimed, “You know, sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar!” Continue reading

Encountering God’s Essence (and Energies)

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
May 27, 2018
Feast of the Holy Trinity—Year B

Isaiah 6:1–8
Psalm 29
Romans 8:12–17
John 3:1–17

Trinity circle croppedMy Friends:  We have come to that Sunday of the Great Church Year that nearly every clergy person dreads: Holy Trinity Sunday.  Having just celebrated the Feast of Pentecost at the end of the Great Fifty Days of Easter last week, with its celebration of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to the nascent Church of Jesus Christ, we are now bidden by our liturgical calendar to contemplate and glorify that greatest of all mysteries—God’s self-revelation as a Trinity of Persons—before we cross the threshold into the season known as Ordinary Time.  This movement, of course, implies that we have already been immersed in the extraordinary since the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the Great Church Year.  And indeed we have, as we have celebrated every one of the great mysteries of our redemption and salvation with each passing feast day and each special season for the Spirit.  Some will say that with Trinity Sunday, our liturgical calendar has saved the best for last; others might claim that the Church has given us today the “mother of all the mysteries” of our Christian Faith.  I subscribe to both of these points-of-view. Continue reading

Season of Forgiveness

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
April 15, 2018
The Third Sunday of Easter—Year B

Acts 3:12–19
Psalm 4
1 John 3:1–7
Luke 24:36b–48

Duccio di Buoninsegna-Appearance while the Apostles are at Table

Appearance while the Disciples Are at Table —Ducchio di Buoninsegna

My Friends: If we post-moderns often find it difficult and challenging to appreciate and to understand fully the events described in the New Testament’s narratives about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, imagine the astonishment and consternation of those first witnesses to these things.  Our reading this morning from the Gospel according to Saint Luke is made even more pointed and dramatic when we recall the incidents that immediately precede and follow it.  When Jesus suddenly appears in the midst of his disciples in this morning’s Gospel, he finds them already in excited conversation around his earlier appearances to a handful of them on Easter morning and subsequently to two of them on the road to Emmaus that evening.  Then, following the incident described in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus brings his motley band of followers to Bethany—just beyond the Mount of Olives—blesses them, and, to their great astonishment, is taken up into the full presence of God before their very eyes, no longer restricted by time and space and matter.  Imagine the massive assault upon the ordinary hearts, minds, and imaginations of these disciples as a result of these unprecedented events and all of this extraordinary talk about what came to be described as Jesus’ “Resurrection” and his “Ascension”! Continue reading

Witness to Hope and Truth

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
December 10, 2017
The Second Sunday of Advent—Year B

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Preaching_of_St_John_the_Baptist - Domenico_Ghirlandaio

Preaching of John the Baptist, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1449–1494

My Friends: While we will never know the details of John the Baptist’s preaching, one thing is quite certain from this morning’s Gospel: John must have been an arresting and remarkable figure because Saint Mark tells us that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”  Even if we admit some hyperbole in this account of the Baptist’s preaching, it appears that John made quite an impression on all manner of folks from both the countryside and from the capital city.  Then, as now, this was a remarkable feat:  artisans and sharecroppers, together with urban dwellers and religious elites, were prompted to “repent,” to “confess their sins” and to “be baptized” by him.  And they were doing it in droves!  What preacher would not be willing to do almost anything for that result? Continue reading