Drowning out the Noise

Sermon on Hosea 1:2-10 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Casablanca, Michael Curtiz’ 1942 film about war and romance, may be the most quotable of all time. Every scene seems to contain at least one memorable line, from “Here’s looking at you, kid,” to “We’ll always have Paris.” In a film full of incredible scenes, one scene in particular stands out for what it expresses with almost no dialogue at all. During the scene in question, Victor Laszlo, an idealistic freedom fighter played by Paul Henreid, and Rick Blaine, a cynical expatriate played by Humphrey Bogart, are discussing the merits of resisting the forces of tyranny. Their conversation is interrupted by Nazi officers singing a German patriotic anthem. Laszlo indignantly strides over to the house orchestra and instructs the bandleader to play “La Marseillaise.” The band obliges, and everyone in the cafe stands and sings. Before too long, the singing of the German officers is drowned out by the triumphant strains of the French national anthem. It’s a stirring scene, and it’s especially powerful when you consider the fact that Casablanca was released in 1942, long before Allied victory in the Second World War was assured. This scene held out hope that the chaos and darkness of the world could be overcome, that we could raise our voices in song and drown out the noise of tyranny and oppression.

Yet that is not the most powerful part of this scene. Just before the orchestra begins playing the French national anthem, the bandleader looks to Rick for approval. Until this moment in the film, Rick has been the ultimate pragmatist; earlier in the movie, he excuses himself from a political conversation by saying, “Your business is politics, mine is running a saloon.” But, when the bandleader looks to Rick for guidance, Rick nods ever so slightly. If you aren’t paying attention, you’d almost miss it. Yet, that almost imperceptible nod signals a fundamental change in Rick’s character. It is the turning point in the story, the moment Rick’s perspective shifts from that of a pragmatist to that of an idealist, from self-interested cynic to altruistic hero.

A similar shift in perspective colors our reading from the prophet Hosea this morning. Hosea’s words are initially striking for their anger. In some ways, we expect this from prophets. All the Hebrew prophets have moments when they rail against the faithlessness and sinfulness of their people. Hosea’s anger, however, is unique for its uninhibited, no holds barred ferocity. The first verses of the book contain a withering indictment of Israel’s faithlessness. The prophet writes with a pointed rage that dispenses with social niceties: “The land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.” Hosea goes on to insist that God’s wrath will be complete and merciless: God will “put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel” and “will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them.” Hosea goes so far as to claim that Israel has abdicated its role as God’s chosen people, that God’s people have nullified their covenant with God. His rant concludes with a devastating proclamation from the LORD: “You are not my people, and I am not your God.”

Though this language is uncomfortable, it is consistent with Hosea’s vocation. While “prophet” tends to be synonymous with “seer” in our language, the primary role of the Hebrew prophets was not to predict the future. It was, instead, to tell God’s people that continuing their current trajectory would yield exactly the results they would expect. In other words, the vocation of the Hebrew prophets was to tell people they would have to lie in the bed they had made for themselves. The people of Israel had made quite a bed for themselves: they refused to follow God’s commandments, they failed to act with righteousness toward the marginalized, and they persisted in worshiping idols instead of the one true God. The punishments that Hosea describes are simply the just requirements prescribed by the Law. The collapse of Israelite society is evidence of God’s righteous judgment. As far as Hosea is concerned, his people are getting exactly what they deserve for violating their covenant with God. Israel had repeatedly failed to hold up its end of the bargain, and God was finally fed up.

And yet, that is not where Hosea concludes. This chapter ends with a surprising and subtle shift. In fact, if you weren’t paying attention, you might even miss it. After a blistering litany of condemnations, the prophet writes, “Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’” Though this rhetorical turn is almost imperceptible, it is of enormous consequence. Hosea effectively nullifies the condemnation he pronounced in the preceding verses. Hosea insists that God’s love cannot be erased by the failures of God’s people. This is not an isolated moment. Several chapters later, the prophet offers these words from God: “How can I give you up?…O Israel?…My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger…for I am God and no mortal.” Even the noise of Israel’s persistent disobedience is drowned out by the urgent song of God’s grace and love. In the face of Israel’s inevitable and well-deserved condemnation, God offers a categorical “yet.”

One could say that “yet” is the biggest little word in the Bible. It is the word that promises hope when all hope seems lost. It is the word that affirms that God’s covenant with us cannot be nullified by our unfaithfulness. It is the word that raised Jesus Christ from the dead and defeated the powers of sin and death. It is a word that signals a fundamental change in the way we understand our relationship with God. God’s love is not contingent on our ability to follow God’s commandments; in fact, God’s love is not contingent on anything. Instead, God’s love is rooted in the fact that God is God and no mortal, that God will be who God will be. Hosea’s “yet” signals that even the deepest human frailty can be quenched by the even deeper well of God’s grace.

Though we understand the centrality of grace in theory, it is hard for us to put this knowledge into practice. This is especially true when we bear witness to the calamities that have been afflicting the world over the past several months. We tend to feel that we need an answer to all of the problems that plague us before we bother with the question of grace. What we fail to understand is that grace is an answer to these challenges. Grace is an antidote to the chaos and darkness of the world, because it empowers us to shift our perspective. Grace enables us to claim joy in every circumstance, at all times and in all places (always and everywhere). While this shift may be subtle, even imperceptible, it makes all the difference in the world. In the face of the deepest human frailty, we are called offer Hosea’s “yet,” and proclaim the unfathomable depth of God’s grace and love. We are called to sing of God’s faithfulness, trusting that our song can drown out the noise.

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Children of our Time

Known as “Spy Wednesday” in some traditions, the Wednesday of Holy Week is observed in a variety of ways. Holy Wednesday, for instance, is the traditional night for Tenebrae, an ancient monastic tradition of meditating on Christ’s Passion in darkness. It also happens to be the culmination of a slightly less ancient tradition known as “Lent Madness.”

Lent Madness is the brainchild of an Episcopal priest who noticed that the Christian season of penitence and renewal usually coincides with the NCAA Basketball Tournament (known colloquially as “March Madness”). Seeing an opportunity to educate people about the Christian faith, this creative cleric applied March Madness’ tournament bracket to the lives of the saints. The idea behind Lent Madness is pretty straightforward: 32 saints go head to head in a single elimination tournament bracket in which people vote for their favorite saint. The tournament continues (through the “Saintly Sixteen,” “Elate Eight,” and “Faithful Four”) until two remain to compete for the “Golden Halo.” It’s good fun, and is a wonderful way to learn about the lives of the saints: those who lived their lives knowing that they had been transformed by the grace of God.

imgresThis year’s matchup for the Golden Halo is a clash of the titans: Julian of Norwich vs. Dietrich Boenhoffer. Julian was a 14th century Christian mystic. Though she lived at a time when women were barred from positions of authority in the Church, she was regarded as a spiritual leader in her community. In spite of the fact that she lived in a tumultuous and uncertain time, her theological vision was characterized by a profound and abiding sense of God’s faithfulness and providence. This is encapsulated beautifully by what is perhaps her most famous statement: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

imgresDietrich Boenhoffer lived in a similarly tumultuous time. A founding member of the Confessing Church in Germany, Boenhoffer was a theologian, pastor, and dissident who, unlike many other clergy in the 1930s, actively resisted the Nazi regime. He was executed by the Nazis in 1945. Boenhoffer implicitly understood that the Christian life is fraught with peril and sometimes brings us face to face with the evil powers of this world:

There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security… Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God.


Though it was an accident of voting, the fact that these two saints are competing for the Golden Halo is almost providentially appropriate for our world today. Every day, we hear of violence throughout the world: from Brussels to Anakara to Yemen to Istanbul to Baghdad. Every day, we hear of people risking their lives to seek refuge from terrorism, only to be turned away because of fear and prejudice. Every day, we hear political rhetoric that is an affront to human decency. The fabric of our humanity seems to be fraying.

In the midst of this tumult, the clarion voices of Dietrich Boenhoffer and Julian of Norwich call out in the words of the psalmist: “Put your trust in God.” During Holy Week, we remember that God experienced the absolute depths of human frailty and sin, that God witnessed us renounce our very humanity. At the same time, we also affirm that God redeemed even our inhumanity. The cross reveals a fundamental truth that animated the lives of both Dietrich Boenhoffer and Julian of Norwich: even when everything appears to have fallen apart, everything still belongs to God.

I won’t be voting for the Golden Halo this year. I can’t choose between two people who speak so prophetically to the Church and the world today. I will, however, give Julian the last word, and invite you to remember it as you meditate on the mystery of Christ’s Passion: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Lament at Camden Yards

I am a baseball fan. I love almost everything about the game: the way that it puts me in touch with my childhood, the way that it juxtaposes the urban and the pastoral, the way that it creates its own sense of time in an overly-scheduled world. I find, however that the most compelling thing about baseball is the way that it lends itself to story and narrative. The great Bart Giamatti, baseball’s resident philosopher during his brief tenure as its commissioner, noted that the game can be divided into three acts (3 x 3 innings) that enact a fundamental human drama: the journey of life that takes us through perils and challenges as we strive to make our way home.

Unlike the dramas of stage and screen, baseball encourages and requires the participation of the audience. Those assembled in the stands of the ballpark function much like a Greek chorus, punctuating and narrating the events unfolding before them with cheers, jeers, groans, and applause. The practiced ear can tell what is happening on the diamond just by listening to the sounds of the crowd: from the steady escalation of enthusiasm as a double play is turned to the collective sigh of disappointment as a 3-2 count results in a walk to the unbridled ecstasy of a well-hit home run ball. The sounds of baseball are crucial because they remind us that the game is not played in a vacuum, that it is meant to be a shared experience. The sounds of baseball testify to the fact that the story baseball enacts is our story, the story of a people trying to find their way home.

Everth CabreraYesterday, baseball was robbed of its power to tell this story. As a result of the recent unrest in Baltimore, the Orioles played the Chicago White Sox in an empty stadium. This game marked the first game that two teams have played without an audience of any kind. Naturally, it was a strange experience. Though the players pitched, fielded, and hit as usual, they gave the appearance that they had lost their reason for playing.

At first, I thought that closing Camden Yards to the public yesterday was a mistake, a missed opportunity. After all, sports have the almost unique ability to bring people together after terrible tragedies. The first Red Sox game after the Boston Marathon bombing, for instance, was a cathartic and unifying experience for the people of that beleaguered city. Surely, an Orioles win at Camden Yards would have galvanized the people of Baltimore and helped them to move beyond the events of the past several days.

As I thought about it more, however, I realized that it is not time for the people of Baltimore or any of us to move beyond the events of the last week. In our culture, our first instinct is to paper over our grief and pretend that our pain has gone away. When we do this, however, we fail to allow our grief to be transformed and to transform us. The crowdless game at Camden Yards may have been painfully necessary because it exposed the depth of Baltimore’s grief. As I watched yesterday’s game, I had an unavoidable and overwhelming sense of emptiness. I think that it is important for us to feel that emptiness. It is important for us to recognize that there are people in this country who have felt that emptiness for too long. The empty silence at Camden Yards was important to experience because it gave an opportunity for lament: lament for Freddie Gray, lament for injustice, lament for victims of violence everywhere.

Lament is an important and misunderstood part of the Christian experience. Perhaps the most well-known lament from Scripture is Psalm 22, which begins with the plaintive question: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” It is the psalm that Jesus quotes from the cross in the gospels according to Matthew and Mark. It is a psalm that explores feelings of abandonment, loss, and emptiness. At the same time, it is about far more than the psalmist’s pain; it is a psalm that affirms the faithfulness of God. After the psalmist has recited all of the ways that he has felt abandoned, he writes, “I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” In Scripture, lament is not about despair, it is about acknowledging our grief before the One whose faithfulness is beyond our capacity to imagine. As we lament for Baltimore and for all victims of injustice, we are called to trust that God will transform our grief into hope. Moreover, we are called to use that hope to empower the leaders of our communities recognize that we are all part of the same story.

There was one sound at yesterday’s game that was new to even the most experienced baseball fan. Though the stadium was closed to the public, a small group of Orioles faithful gathered outside of the stadium to cheer on their team from afar. Towards the end of the game, the faint chant of “Let’s Go Os” grew more and more distinct. In the silence of grief and lament, this chant was a still, small voice of hope, a small token of our shared story, a reminder that we are called to find our way home together.

Simplicity

Sermon offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer on Maundy Thursday, 2015.

In January of 1929, Rube Goldberg, an artist and former engineering student, began contributing satirical cartoons to Collier’s magazine. These cartoons depicted everyday tasks being accomplished through the most complicated means imaginable. You’ve probably seen these drawings: they are commentaries on America’s seemingly boundless faith in technology. Since its first publication, Goldberg’s work has become a cultural touchstone. As early as the 1930s, Merriam-Webster added “Rube Goldberg” to the dictionary, defining it as “accomplishing something simple through complicated means.” Since 1989, engineers have competed in the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, in which contestants must build a machine that accomplishes a simple task in at least 20 steps. I wonder, however, how Rube Goldberg would feel about his cultural ubiquity. His cartoons were shaped by an implicit sense that life had become too complicated, that the labor saving devices on which we were becoming increasingly dependent actually prevented us from experiencing the fullness that life has to offer. Goldberg’s drawings exposed the artifice of modern life: the false assumption that our life has meaning because of what we possess.

This evening, we commemorate two acts of Jesus that, unlike the designs of Rube Goldberg, are striking for their simplicity. Indeed, when juxtaposed with the careful Passover instructions articulated in the book of Exodus, the footwashing and the institution of the imagesLord’s Supper are almost laughably straightforward. In both acts, Jesus uses the most basic element imaginable: a pitcher of water, a loaf of bread, a cup of wine. Paul and the other witnesses don’t tell us that there was anything special about these; in fact, the evangelists imply that Jesus used the bread and wine that happened to be left over at the end of dinner. And as Jesus shares the simple elements of bread and wine and water with those gathered around the table, his instructions are equally uncomplicated: “do as I have done for you”; “do this in remembrance of me.” The simplicity is almost comic, and might lead us to wonder why these simple gestures have any power at all.

The narrative context for these two rituals reveals that their simplicity is deceptive. John tells us that Jesus washes the feet of his disciples knowing “that his hour had come to depart from this world.” Paul reminds the Corinthians, as we are reminded every Sunday, that Jesus shared bread and wine with his disciples “on the night when he was betrayed.” Both the footwashing and the institution of the Eucharist, in other words, are colored by the fact that Jesus is about to be handed over to suffering and death. More significantly, Jesus shares this simple meal with and washes the feet of the very people who betray, deny, and abandon him. The simplicity of the acts performed by Jesus exposes the artifice of those gathered around the table: the shrewd patience that keeps Judas at the table until the appointed time, the disquiet that leads the disciples to say, “Surely not I, Lord?” when Jesus predicts his betrayal, and perhaps most damning of all, the false confidence that leads Peter to protest, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” Jesus spends his last night on earth with a group of people who will fail him at every turn.

It is this context of betrayal and infidelity that gives Jesus’ acts on that last night their true power. Even though Jesus knew that those gathered around the table would soon behave as enemies, Jesus calls them “friends.” When he washes the feet of his disciples, Jesus adopts the role of a servant to those who are not worthy of being served. When he says, “this is my Body,” Jesus gives himself to those who would soon betray, deny, and abandon him. Before his disciples can hand him over to the evil powers of this world, Jesus hands himself over in the forms of bread and wine, and nullifies their betrayal. “By his surrender into the passive forms of food and drink,” writes Rowan Williams, “[Jesus] makes void and powerless the impending betrayal, and, more, makes the betrayers his guests and debtors, making with them the promise of divine fidelity…that cannot be negated by their unfaithfulness.” Jesus affirms that in spite of what they are about to do, the disciples are still part of his family. Even as everything falls apart around him, Jesus reaffirms the enduring faithfulness of God. In the Eucharist, the simple act of sharing a meal becomes an eloquent articulation of God’s love, a love that cannot be overcome by the darkness of human infidelity and violence.

From our historical vantage, it is easy to hear these stories assuming that we would never abandon Jesus during his final hours. We assume that we would stand at the foot of the cross, weeping with his mother and the beloved disciple. Or we would stand with the women of Jerusalem at a respectful distance. We certainly would not betray Jesus into the hands of sinners or deny that we ever knew him. But I wonder: when things start to fall apart in our own lives, when we are faced the loss of everything we possess and hold dear, when we lose our sense that we are in control our lives, are we really able to trust that God’s faithfulness will endure?imgres I’d be willing to wager that there are moments in each of our lives that we have turned away from God: perhaps for convenience, or apathy, or fear, or uncertainty, or perhaps for a thousand other reasons. And yet, we put our trust in a God who gives himself to us in spite of our infidelity. We put our trust in a God whose love cannot be negated by our failure. We put our trust in a God who affirms that our life has meaning even when everything we hold dear has been stripped away. Tonight, we affirm a fundamental truth of the Christian faith: that even when things fall apart, the God made known to us in the bread and wine continues to call us family.

Forgetting to Remember

Sermon on Genesis 9:8-17 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  To hear audio of this sermon, click here.

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Jill Price. To read an article about her condition, click here.

Jill Price, a forty-something school administrator from California, remembers everything that has happened to her since she was eleven years old.  I want to make it very clear, I don’t mean that she has particularly vivid memories of her senior prom or the first time she travelled abroad.  Rather, Ms. Price remembers what she had for breakfast three decades ago. As a result of her unique and remarkable memory, psychological professionals have diagnosed Price with an otherwise unknown condition called hyperthymesia.  Others have simply and more romantically dubbed her, “The Woman who can’t Forget.”

Though some have questioned whether Price’s astonishing memory is the result of hyperthymesia or a form of obsessive compulsive disorder, the practical consequences are the same: Jill Price has an extraordinarily difficult time making decisions.  You might think that a long and detailed memory would be an advantage when dealing with a dilemma, that recalling a similar situation would give one perspective when making a decision.  For Price, however, the opposite is true.  She is so overwhelmed with memories that she has no idea how to discern which are important.  In other words, she lacks the crucial ability to forget. Neuroscientists contend that one of the reasons human beings forget is so that we can recognize the importance of what we actually remember.  Ironically, Jill Price’s paralyzing ability to recall every detail of her past effectively prevents her from remembering anything of lasting significance.  The flood of information about who she was prevents her from becoming who she is meant to be.

In Scripture, there is an interesting tension around the notion of memory.  On one hand, memory is held up as one of the primary virtues of the community of faith.  Israel, for instance, was commanded to remember its liberation from the land of Egypt.  Jesus commanded his disciples to eat the Eucharistic meal in order to remember him.  On the other hand, there are moments in Scripture when God’s people are exhorted to forget.  In Isaiah, the LORD instructs the exiled nation of Israel “not to remember the former things or consider the things of old.”  In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul implies that the Christian life is about “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.”  The writers of the Old and New Testaments, in other words, indicate that there is a complicated relationship between faith and memory.

imgresNowhere is this ambivalence more clearly articulated than in the passage we heard from Genesis this morning.  The story of the flood is one of the most familiar in Scripture.  Not only is it an important reference point in the biblical witness, it is also an indelible part of popular culture; just think about how many nurseries are decorated with images of Noah standing on an ark full of smiling animals.  But there is a way in which the very ubiquity of this story has taken away its power.  For many people, the story of the flood is so familiar, so timeworn, that it has become cliched.  But it is important for us to see this story not as a mere fairy tale about a rainstorm and a boat full of animals, but as the foundational statement about the nature of God’s relationship with humanity.

The first pages of Genesis do not paint a particularly flattering picture of human beings.  After God creates the heavens and the earth in the first two chapters, it’s pretty much downhill from there.  From chapter 3 onward, all we read about is how human beings tried to put themselves in God’s place, whether it was Adam and Eve disobeying God’s explicit instruction regarding the Tree of Knowledge or Cain jealously murdering his brother.  The first chapters of Genesis describe a downward spiral of sin.  At the beginning of the flood story, the writer explains that “the LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.”  As a result, God is sorry that he created human beings.  God’s heart is grieved that these beings created to have free will used that very freedom to turn away from God.  God is heartbroken, and God decides to start over, to give the world a new birth, to blot out what he had made and start again.

But here is the astonishing thing.  God decides to save a small group of righteous human beings, the very creatures who had abused their freedom and sent the world into a tailspin of destructive sin.  It is implicitly illogical.  God knows that when these creatures with free will are left to their own devices, they ignore God and turn toward themselves.  And yet, God includes them in the renewal of creation. Moreover, even though God was working with these same disobedient creatures, after the flood God promises “never again will all flesh be cut off,” that the world will never again be destroyed as a result of humanity’s disobedience.  The Hebrew word the writer uses also implies that as a result of this covenant, it is impossible for us to be completely separated from God’s faithfulness and love.  Notice that this covenant is completely one-sided.  It is not contingent on whether human beings shape up.  God pledges to remember this everlasting covenant regardless of our repeated attempts to put ourselves in God’s place.  It is here that the complicated relationship between faith and memory becomes most evident.  In order to remember this everlasting covenant with Noah, God has to forget the countless ways that God’s people have rejected him.  Indeed, the remainder of Scripture is the story of God’s repeated attempts to draw us to himself and our repeated failure to respond.  God made a covenant with Abraham, gave the Law to Moses at Sinai, brought God’s people into the Promised Land, instituted a monarchy, sent prophets to warn God’s people, placed them into exile, brought them back from exile and still we refused to respond.  Nevertheless, God was able to forget all of these rejections because they were overshadowed by the memory of God’s covenant with Noah: the foundational promise a that there is nothing we can do to cut off our relationship with God.

In many ways, Lent embodies the tension of faith and memory.  It is a season that begins with a potent reminder of our mortality and ends with a reenactment of the final days of Jesus’ life.  At the same time, it is a period when we forego certain aspects of our lives, forgetting, if only for a time, our typical routine.  This paradox helps us remember Lent’s true purpose.  Lent is not about giving things up in order to somehow please God.  Rather, this season is an opportunity to forget everything that distracts us from our relationship with God so that we can remember God’s enduring faithfulness.  It is a time to name and forget our failures so that they can be overwhelmed by the memory of God’s everlasting covenant.  It is a season that enables us to let go of who we once were so that we can become who we are meant to be.

Stories

Forrest Gump was on television the other day.

forrest-4For those of you who don’t remember, Forrest Gump chronicles the life of a man from Alabama who manages to be present for every significant event of the 1960s and 70s.  He serves in the Vietnam War, participates in the Olympics, and is responsible for catching the burglars at the Watergate Hotel.  Forrest narrates these events as he sits at a bus stop in Savannah, and he shares the stories of his life with his fellow passengers in the most matter-of-fact way possible.  It gradually becomes clear that these stories shape the way that Forrest looks at the world and define his relationships with his mother, his friends, and his beloved Jenny.  He derives meaning from these stories because they remind him who he is.

In a similar way, the Jewish Sabbath always begins with the telling of stories.  Every Sabbath includes the same words: “Hear, O Israel the Lord your God, the Lord your God is one.”  The people gathered around that table tell the story of their relationship with God.  They tell the story of God’s faithfulness to their people in ages past and remind themselves that God is faithful to them through the changes and chances of their own lives.

This is why the gospels tell us that the disciples are in such a hurry to entomb the body of Jesus.  According to John, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus place Jesus in a nearby tomb simply because it is conveniently located.  They do this so that they can return to their homes in time to observe the Sabbath, so that they can return to their homes to tell the story of God’s faithfulness, so that they can be reminded that God is faithful even through the changes and chances of their lives.  There is something very powerful about this.  Even though Jesus Christ had been betrayed, abandoned, and rejected, his disciples reminded themselves that God had been faithful to them in ages past.  Even though their world had been shaken to its core, the disciples renewed their trust in the faithfulness of God.

There are times that all of us feel betrayed, abandoned, and rejected.  There are times that all of us doubt the presence of God among us.  But this Holy Saturday reminds us that even in the face of these challenges, we are called to tell the story of our relationship with God.  We are called to renew our trust in the God who is faithful to us even when our whole world has collapsed around us.  We are called to be faithful to a God who is faithful to us even to the point of death.

Faithfulness

As I was driving home from our Good Friday services this afternoon, I caught the tail end of a sports radio talk show that I listen to on a regular basis.  The hosts had apparently exhausted their sports-related talking points and were discussing their plans for the weekend.  One mentioned that in honor of Easter, he had planned to do some community service, but, finding the process of signing up for a project too daunting, had abandoned those plans.  Oddly, his partner praised him for his generosity, even though he was no longer planning to do anything.  At first, I could not understand this exchange.  I didn’t understand why the one host talked about his failed community service plans or why the other host thought that his willingness even to think about doing community service was praiseworthy.  As I thought about it a little more, however, I realized that most people listening to the program probably identified completely with the conversation.  As a rule, human beings are full of good intentions, and as a rule, we like to be praised for our good intentions.  Whether it is going to the gym or giving money to public radio or volunteering for a local service organization or calling our parents on a regular basis or telling our spouse we love them every day, we always say that we are going to do good, that we are going to put the effort into making a difference in our community.  But, invariably, life gets in the way.  We run out of time because we have to work late.  We run out of money because we have to bring the car into the shop.  We run out of patience because we are in a bad mood.  Inevitably, our plans crumble around us and we fail to do what we said we would do.  This is one of the undeniable realities of the human experience: try as we might, it very difficult for us to be faithful to our good intentions.

On Good Friday, the Church has always emphasized the centrality of the cross to the Christian faith.  Few texts embody the Church’s understanding of the cross better than this verse from Venantius Fortunatus’ “Sing my tongue, the glorious battle”:

Faithful cross among all others: the one noble tree.  Its branches offer nothing in foliage, fruit, or blossom.  Yet sweet wood and sweet iron sustain sweet weight.

crucifixion_iconThe first adjective used to describe the cross, and by extension the one who was crucified on the cross, is “faithful.”  Perhaps the most important thing we affirm about Jesus’ experience of his Passion is his faithfulness, his obedience even to death on a cross, his willingness to do what he said he was going to do.  Jesus Christ did not succumb to the very human tendency to look for excuses or be derailed by doubt.  In spite of the abandonment of his disciples, in spite of his betrayal, in spite of his own self-doubt, Jesus marched inexorably toward the cross, because that is what he said he was going to do.  Through Christ’s example, we can trust that we can be faithful to God and one another even in the most challenging and overwhelming circumstances of our lives.  We can be faithful because in his death on Calvary, Jesus Christ revealed that God will be faithful to us.  More than anything else, the “goodness” of this Friday is intimately tied to the faithfulness of a God who is with us even when we come face to face with death.