That Blessed Dependancy

"There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him who hangs upon the Crosse…" -John Donne, "Death's Duell"

Tag: The Cross

Tetelestai!

Annunciation-Crucifixion

(Saint John the Baptists, Annunciation, Crucifixion, Saint Catherine of Alexandria,               Francesc Comes, circa 1400)

A Sermon Preached on Good Friday, March 25, 2016

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 10:1-25; John 18:1-19:42

May I speak in the Name of Christ Crucified. Amen.

“It is finished.”

Those are the dying words of Jesus.

“It is finished.”

Those words are the key to understanding the meaning of this day.

“It is finished.”

Those words make absolutely no sense in the context of the story we have just heard.

Of course, if all Jesus meant was, “This is done with,” or “This is over,” then we might think that “It is finished” makes perfect sense. And after everything Jesus has been through, who could blame him if what he meant by “It is finished,” was really, “I’ve had enough,” or “I can’t take any more,” or even, “I give up”? Any of those might make sense to us.

But that’s not what Jesus said.

When Christ declares, “It is finished,” he isn’t saying anything like, “This is done with,” or “I give up.” The phrase “It is finished” in the English of our Bibles translates a single word from the original Greek of John’s Gospel: Tetelestai. That word doesn’t carry with it any hint of giving up or quitting or throwing in the towel.

Rather, when Jesus says, “Tetelestai,” and bows his head and gives up his spirit, what he is really saying from the Cross is “It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. It is completed.”

Tetelestai!“​

Jesus isn’t saying, “I give up.” Jesus is saying, “I have done it.”1

“It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. I have done it.”

Those are the last words of an innocent man who refused the violent rescue-attempt proposed by his friends in the garden; refused to answer the false accusations brought against him; refused to plead his case before the governor who could release him; refused to accept the offer of crude anesthetics meant to dull his pain; and refused to come down from the Cross with divine power and might to answer the cruel jeers of the spiteful crowd.

“It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. I have done it.” Those are the dying words of a broken man whose body has been whipped and scourged; whose clothes have been stripped away and gambled off; whose friends have deserted him; whose mother stands weeping for him; whose epitaph, nailed above him while he’s still alive, is a mocking political joke: “This is the King of the Jews!”

“It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. I have done it.” This is the last utterance of a faithful man who came to earth that others might have life, and have it more abundantly; of a man who healed the sick and raised the dead; of a man who fed the multitude with a few loaves and a couple of fish; of a man who opened the eyes of the blind and who shut the mouths of the learned; of a man who called God his Father, and tax collectors and sinful women and stupid fishermen his friends; a man who, before this death of agony, asked God to glorify his name, and who heard the voice of God declare in reply, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

Here, hanging upon the Cross of shame, this man declares with his dying breath, “It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. I have done it.”

It doesn’t make any sense. Crucifixion was meant to be an utterly meaningless death. The whole point is that it was pointless. The cross was a tool used for erasing the record of a person’s existence. It was a way, not simply to kill a man, but to wipe him from the rolls of the human race.

How can this death be a fulfillment of anything? How can this death accomplish anything? How can this death be anything but an absolute, unmitigated, irredeemable failure?

Unless, of course, dying a death like this is precisely what Jesus came to do.

“Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring and prolong his days.”

“And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

“See, God, I have come to do your will.”

What if the crucifixion were not a hateful, horrible interruption of Christ’s life and ministry? What if the crucifixion were his very reason for being born, and the full completion of his three years’ work?

There’s something special about this Good Friday. Something happens this year that will not happen again until the year 2157. Today is March 25. We are exactly nine months from Christmas Day. Were it not Good Friday, the Church would celebrate this day as the Feast of the Annunciation: the moment of the Incarnation.

This is the day when the Angel Gabriel brought word to a lowly Jewish peasant girl that she would become the mother of the Messiah. This is the day when the Word of God took on flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary his mother. This is the day when God came among us as one of us–and this is the day that he died.

This rare coming together of Good Friday and the Annunciation happens only a few times or so every century. It happened during the lifetime of the poet and priest John Donne. Reflecting on this convergence in 1608, Donne wrote that “This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown / Death and conception in mankind is one.”2

“Death and conception in mankind is one.” From the moment we begin to exist, we are vulnerable to death. This is the sad truth of the human condition. No matter how wise we make ourselves; no matter how wealthy we become; no matter how advanced our technological achievements or vast our information networks; no matter how high we build our walls to keep the enemies out or how deep we dig our vaults to hide away our treasures, we cannot escape death.

That’s the terrible message we read in the silent spread of terrorist networks through the free democracies of the world. That’s the toxic background to the fear-mongering and scapegoating that increasingly characterize our nation’s political life. That’s the source of the brokenness we find in our corrupted institutions and our ineffective systems and our ruined relationships and our endless empty consuming.

And it’s the condition we find at work in our own lives. To be human is to be caught up into the swirling dance of Death and Sin. It is to be dominated by powers beyond our control. It is to be scourged by the whip of our own weaknesses, and to be mocked with the taunts we hurled at others. To be human is to find ourselves hanging upon the Cross of our own hatreds–pierced by the nails of our own pride–stabbed by the spear of our own selfishness. To be human is to wear the thorny crown of our own control–the bloody crown that shows our rejection of God’s will in our lives and our slavery to our own desires and appetites. “Death and conception in mankind is one.”

This day cruelly confronts us with that dark truth.

But in Christ’s declaration of “Tetelestai!”, this day also dares to declare to us another, better truth. For what this “some times and seldom” overlap announces is that the God of all creation has come to pursue us–and he would not stop with simply taking on our nature. His intention was to become fully, completely human, and because “Death and conception in mankind is one”, today we remember that he has pursued us even unto death!

Christ’s purpose was not simply to become a perfect human being aloof and separate from the sins and sorrows and sufferings of our race. But what he begins at the Annunciation when he takes on flesh like ours, he completes in the Crucifixion when he suffers a death like ours.

For the death of agony that Jesus endures on the Cross means that no human agony is now beyond his reach. The death of shame that Christ completes this day means that no shame can now separate us from him. The accursed, ugly, horrible death he died means that God himself has absorbed our curse; God himself has exchanged our ugliness; God himself has faced the horror of death and made it his own.

“Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases…he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”

For what was ours by nature, God took upon himself by grace. What we have deserved for our deeds, Christ has assumed out of his love. What was for us only dissolution and disaster, Jesus has made an achievement and the occasion of our reunion with God. What to us could only be the penalty for disobedience, Christ has redeemed by his perfect obedience.

“Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”

And let us, this Good Friday, fix our eyes upon the rough wood of the Cross and say, in unison with our crucified, living Lord, “It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. Christ has done it!”

AMEN.

1-I realize that “I have done it,” is not an accurate translation of tetelestai. However, I maintain that it is a theologically and homiletically appropriate rendering.

2-Upon the Annunciation and the Passion Falling upon One Day. 1608

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Man of Sorrows

(Christ as the Man of Sorrows about 1470 Unidentified artist, Alsatian,)

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday in Lent, February 28, 2016

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Exodus 3:1-15; Luke 13:1-9

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do men and women we respect suffer disaster? Why do people we love get cancer? Why do floodwaters sweep away homes and lives? Why do gunmen shoot down the innocent and unsuspecting? Why do tornadoes strike without warning? Why do swindlers defraud and cheat? Why are spouses unfaithful? Why are children ungrateful? Why do drunk drivers speed through red lights? Why do bullies batter young lives to the brink of suicide? Why does depression darken the souls of so many? Why does addiction shatter the lives of others? Why do bad things happen to good people?

Now, I’ll bet I can guess what many of you are thinking. Right now you’re shifting uncomfortably in your pews, asking yourselves, “Good grief, does that guy ever lighten up!? Are we going to have to sit through yet another solemn, serious sermon from that solemn, serious young man?”

Well if that’s what you’re thinking–and I’m sure at least a few of you are–let me take this moment to beg you just to stay with me. The Word of God speaks great good news to us today. But it chooses to speak that good news in and through the painful realities of human life. Our Scripture this morning does not flinch in the face of suffering. It does not shrink from sorrow. It does not try to dodge or deny or explain away disaster. Rather our lessons today carry us right to the heart of human suffering–both the suffering of those people who have been bruised and battered by fate and the suffering of those people who weep for them and with them. So gird up your loins, Trinity. For this morning, we will follow God’s Word into what must be the oldest and most difficult question ever uttered by human lips: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” And there in the dark depths of that question we will wait with eager longing for a glimmer of God’s light.

But first, we must have the courage to face the darkness. It’s there in each of our readings this morning. Suffering is the thread that ties together the passages we’ve heard from the Bible today.

It’s there in the bitter pain of the enslaved people of Israel. How many times must they have asked themselves, during the four hundred years of their bondage in Egypt, “Why? Why must we suffer here? Why are we oppressed by our taskmasters? Why are we condemned to misery as slaves in a strange land?”

The problem is there in the shocking deaths of eighteen people in the collapse of the Tower at Siloam. Their sorrow was sudden and startling. It did not build slowly, accruing over countless generations. Rather it struck in an instant. But still the question must have arisen, “Why? Why must we die this way? Why must we be crushed in a senseless, unforeseen disaster? Why are we doomed to disappear in an instant beneath a pile of bricks and rubble?”

And the problem is there in the brutal killings of the Galileans in the Temple. Pontius Pilate, as a pagan Roman, had no qualms about desecrating the sacred precincts in Jerusalem. Not only did he slaughter a company of Galileans for crimes unknown to us–he did it in the most sacrilegious way imaginable, mingling their human blood, with the blood of the animals they were offering to Almighty God. Though they knew that their demise had been decreed by a petty tyrant, and while they probably knew why Pilate had resolved to destroy them, nevertheless those murdered Galileans must have wondered, “Why? Why must we go down to death in such shame–such disgrace? Why is this happening to us? Why are damned to die a death of desecration?”

The pain in each situation is clear. But the reason behind that pain is downright perplexing. Why did those terrible things happen? Why do terrible things still happen? Why do bad things happen to good people?

The simplest answer, and the one most often deployed in ancient times, is to deny the question altogether. The argument goes like this: A good God rules the universe. That good God is just and holy, and he cannot abide injustice and unholiness. He punishes the evil and rewards the good, and he does so through human agents and through the natural world. Therefore, anyone who suffers must not really be good. They must have done something wrong, even if it was something secret. They must have done something to deserve the fate that they have been made to bear. Bad things don’t happen to good people–bad things happen to bad people.

That was a popular view in Jesus’ time. Truth be told, it remains a popular view today. We want the world to make sense. We want an explanation of evil that satisfies our desire for logic and clarity. Most of all, we want to find a way to shield ourselves from pain and suffering. If we can be certain that tragedy and sorrow come only as a result of God’s judgment against sin, then it follows that I can avoid tragedy and sorrow simply by refraining from sinning. If only I am good, good things will happen to me.

And yet the trouble, beloved, is that Jesus flatly denies this explanation. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you.” “Do you think that the eighteen crushed by the Tower of Siloam were worse offenders than all others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you.” Do you think that because the children of Israel languished in slavery for four hundred years, God was somehow punishing them for their transgressions? Surely not!

Suffering is not the sign of God’s wrath against certain sinners. Rather, it is the result of being a vulnerable human being in a fallen world. The truth is, we are broken, breakable creatures living in a broken, breakable world. Scripture refuses to give us the clear-cut, easy answer we long for to the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

Indeed, the Bible is not interested with answering that question at all. It simply throws us back, again and again, on the fact of our frailty, the truth of our transitory nature, and the reality of our wretchedness. As our collect this morning puts it, “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” In the face of our repeated, wondering, “Why?”, Scripture responds only with the undeniable reality of our brokenness.

But it does not leave us there alone. Hear again the words of God as he speaks to Moses out of the burning bush: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings…”

God knows the suffering of his people. God hears the cry of the oppressed. God sees the misery and sorrow and heartbreak of human beings. And God acts in the midst of tragedy.

“Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.”

That is the assurance Scripture gives us. Not that the bad things of this life will make sense, or that the universe will resolve itself neatly according to our desires, or that we will be able to understand and explain the problem of evil in our lives or in the lives of others. But the Word of God reminds us again and again that the God we serve will never leave us or abandon us in our suffering. The God we worship will never separate himself from us because of our sorrow. The God who calls us each by name has also come down into the muck and mire and brokenness of our condition.

For the assurance of God’s presence does not end with our passage from Exodus. But even as we hear Jesus’ stern call to repentance we are reminded that he is, himself, God’s great answer to human suffering. God’s reply to the problem of evil was not a rational argument but an invitation to relationship. God’s response to human pain and loss was to walk among us as one who felt pain and loss. God’s solution to human sin and brokenness was to be broken upon the cross.

 

 

 

 

Beloved, each and every one of us here will be made to suffer senselessly at some time in our life. It may not be under the heavy-hand of an oppressive demagogue. For you it may simply mean enduring the petty tyrannies of a workplace tyrant. It may not mean suffering the long legacy of slavery. But for you it may mean bearing a family legacy of dysfunction or addiction–of depression or alcoholism. It may not mean the sudden ending of your life in a terrible tragedy. But for you it may mean the slow unraveling of your life, or the burden of living a life that seems to have lost all meaning and purpose. It may mean a diagnosis you didn’t deserve and didn’t expect. It may mean the end of a relationship, or the beginning of financial trouble. It may be large or small, brief or lingering, life-threatening or soul-deadening. The only certainty, in the midst of life’s changes and chances, is that life in a fallen world always includes suffering.

 

 

So when tragedy comes, cling to the Cross! When sorrow surprises you, set your eyes upon the Crucified! When bad things happen, hold onto the nail-pierced feet of Jesus! When your life falls apart, fall into his outstretched arms! For the Cross of Christ is God’s great answer to the problem of evil. The Cross of Christ is God’s defiant response to our ruination. The Cross of Christ is God’s assurance that nothing we suffer will ever separate us from him.

For “who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

AMEN.

“I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior!”

ChristCrucifiedontheTreeofLife_Lawrence_OP
(“Christ on the Tree of Life”, mosaic by Edward Burne-Jones, 1894.)

It was my great privilege to preach yesterday at the Church of St. Michael and St. George in St. Louis, Missouri. How delightful to be with that wonderful congregation on such a meaningful day! The Rev’d Andrew Archie and his clergy colleagues, the Rev’d Blake Sawicky and the Rev’d Ezgi Saribay, extended me such warm hospitality on a snowy Ash Wednesday. The staff and parishioners were so kind in their welcome. The music, conducted by Dr. Rob Lehmann, was sublime. 

A Sermon Preached on Ash Wednesday, February 10, 2016

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston

Texts: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

“I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior.”

Those words were written by an 18th-century sailor, slave-ship captain, Christian convert, Church of England priest, and hymn-writer named John Newton, most famous for penning the lyrics of “Amazing Grace.” Nearing the end of his long life, with his health broken and his eyesight grown dim, Newton told a friend, “My memory is nearly gone, but still I remember two things: that I am a great sinner–and that Christ is a great saviour!”

Standing before you as a guest preacher this Ash Wednesday, I take Newton’s words both for my introduction to you and for the starting place of my sermon. I am tremendously grateful to the rector for inviting me to preach today. But I am also keenly aware of the fact that I don’t know you, and that you don’t know me–or at least, you don’t know me apart from whatever Father Sawicky might have told you about me, in which case I am tremendously grateful you didn’t stay away from church today.

Seeing, then, that we are strangers to one another, I have resolved to stick to what I can know–what I do know: “That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great savior!”

For you see, that announcement–that declaration–is really what this day is all about. On this day, the Church exhorts her members both corporately and individually to “lament our sins and acknowledge our wretchedness.” On this day, we are called to claim with one voice John Newton’s self-summary–we are invited, each of us and all of us, to say, “I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior.”

And that is what makes this day so difficult. To confess our sins–to own up to the fact that we’ve done wrong–isn’t necessarily hard for us. We do it every Sunday at the Holy Eucharist, and daily at Morning and Evening Prayer. We know we are guilty of faults and offenses–that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, against God and against our neighbors. We know we have gone wrong, both by our actions and by our inaction–by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We know we have sins to confess.

But Ash Wednesday goes deeper. On this day, we do not simply confess our sins–we confess that we are sinners. On this day, we do not merely own up to those times and places when we have broken God’s commandments–we own up to the fact that, at all times and in all places, we are broken creatures. On this day, we do not just cry out for forgiveness, asking that we may be set again on the narrow path–rather on this day, we cry out for salvation, acknowledging that apart from God’s grace we are lost no matter the path we tread; admitting that without the breath of God’s Spirit we are dead in our sins and trespasses; declaring that, until the Great Physician comes with balm for our hurting souls, “there is no health in us.”

This day dares to confront us, not simply the undeniable truth that we sometimes commit sins, but rather with the profoundly uncomfortable truth that we are sinners: that our hearts are hardened against the loving-kindness of God–that our wills have turned in on themselves to seek only our own drives and delights–that our very nature is fundamentally disordered by the problem of disobedience and the fact of Sin.

That’s why, when we come forward for the imposition of ashes today, we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Those words carry us back to the very root of the problem. They are the words spoken by God to Adam after he and Eve have broken the commandment not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. By choosing to disobey the Lord’s only law, human beings lose their only true freedom. They become slaves to their own needs and appetites–their own devices  and desires. They have no power of themselves to help themselves. And so God tells the dust-creatures who were made in his own image that that image will now be marred by mortality: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Now don’t for a minute get hung up on the historicity of that story, and worry about how a snake could talk or where the Garden of Eden might be located on a map. That story isn’t meant to explain things that happened long, long ago. That story is meant to explain things that happen now–each and every day–around us, and within us.

Why is it that we fall back again and again into behaviors we know are not good for us, for our souls or bodies, and are not good for our relationships with others? Why is it that I eat too much and drink too much, even though I know that temporary indulgence only leads to pain and unhappiness? Why is it that you tell lies even though you know they only serve to make your life more complicated and more difficult? Why is it that we continually look on other people as objects or obstacles or as the means to our own personal ends, even though we know that that leads only to the exploitation and degradation of God’s image in our fellow creatures?

“Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Today we hear again God’s words to Adam and we realize that they apply to each of us as well. The powers of Sin and Death are inextricably linked. The fact of our mortality and the problem of our continual disobedience are both wrapped up in the reality of our sinfulness. The ashes upon my head will declare what I cannot hide or deny–that I am indeed a great sinner.

But, dear people of God, that is not all that those ashes will declare. For mark the shape in which those ashes will be applied to each forehead in just a few moments. They may look like nothing more than a smudge. But feel the way that the priest’s thumb moves across your brow. If the ashes on my face carry with them the terrible reminder that I am a great sinner, they also carry with them the glorious announcement that Christ is a great savior!

For the ashes upon our heads will be imposed in the shape of a cross. The symbol of our sinfulness shows forth the sign of Jesus’ victory. The reminder of our mortality and brokenness also tells out the great Good News that God has not abandoned us or forsaken us.

 For God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The Cross is the everlasting declaration of God’s love and mercy for the lost and the broken. The Cross is the eternal announcement of God’s power and promise held out to the sinful and the stained. The Cross is the undoing of the curse, the defeat of death by death, the conquest of sin by bearing the cost of sin, the destruction of disobedience by means of Christ’s ultimate obedience.

And so the next forty days are not, for us, days of grief and gloom–of dismal drudgery and disfigured faces–of weeping and wailing for our sins. For in this holy season of Lent, we carry our own crosses gladly as we follow the footsteps of Jesus. In the weeks to come, we ready our hearts to hear again the story of what God has done for the sake of people such as we are–for sinners like me and like you. As we approach once more the contemplation of those mighty acts by which God has won for us life and salvation, we go joyfully to Jerusalem, to see sin silenced by the One who would not open his mouth; to see death vanquished by the One who humbled himself even unto death upon the Cross; to see the gracious gift of everlasting life flowing from the open-door of the empty tomb.

So let us, then, make a right beginning of holy Lent. Let us own the announcement of this Ash Wednesday. Let us, each and all, boldly, joyfully, gratefully, humbly declare, “I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior.” AMEN.

From Dogs to Daughters and Sons

A Sermon Preached on the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 6, 2015

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Isaiah 35:4-7a; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37


“Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

The anguish of the parent is palpable.  It is made more poignant and more unbearable by the seeming indifference that meets each cry for help.  But that should come as no surprise.  Between sufferer and potential helper lie centuries of distrust and dislike.  The old familiar slurs and ugly names are known and used by members of both groups of people. Race, religion, notions of respectability and good order—all of these divide the one pleading for a child’s life from those who cannot or will not be bothered to get involved.  And of course, as the tragedy deepens, so too do the ancient animosities. Perhaps the old hatred will glow hot again.  Perhaps the cycle of suspicion and contempt will begin anew, and the rift separating the individuals and the chasm dividing their cultures will grow wider still.

The suffering parent I have in mind is not the mother from this morning’s Gospel lesson.  It is Abdullah Kurdi, the Syrian father whose anguish has now been felt the world over.  Newspapers and websites around the globe this week carried the devastating photo of Mr Kurdi’s three-year-old son Aylan lying dead on a Turkish beach.  Four members of the Kurdi family fell into the Aegean Sea as they attempted to travel from Turkey to Greece, ultimately hoping to reach Canada.  Only Mr Kurdi survived, losing his wife and two young sons beneath the surging waves.

The Kurdi family’s heart-breaking tragedy has brought international attention to the refugee crisis engulfing the Middle East and Europe.  Millions of refugees fleeing civil war and the onslaught of ISIS in Syria have been looking to the West for safety and assistance.  Desperate to escape the violence and upheaval of their homeland they risk everything, paying exorbitant sums to illegal human traffickers and chancing the most dangerous routes and modes of transportation—poorly ventilated trucks (like the one recently found filled with dead bodies in Austria), and leaky, overloaded boats (like those that capsize each day in the Mediterranean Sea).  And they grow increasingly impatient, wondering why the West will not do more to aid them in their hour of need.

Meanwhile, the nations of Europe are struggling to find an appropriate response to the deluge.  As efforts to help grow and widen, so too does fear and suspicion of the newcomers—people who look different, who speak different languages, who hold a different faith. Among many, there is a passionate to desire to help; to do something, anything, to alleviate the suffering of the refugees. But many others are afraid, suspicious, and even disdainful of the outsiders. Action vies with inaction. Compassion struggles against contempt. And among the lowly and the least, the death toll continues to rise.

And of course all of this is merely the latest telling of an old, old story.  Division and suspicion; distrust and separation; indifference toward suffering; inaction in the face of another’s pain: these are the shameful hues that stain the long chronicles of human civilization.  All around the world and all through the centuries the story remains the same: as one of our collects puts it, “the peoples of the earth [are] divided and enslaved by sin.”

Entrenched, mutually reinforced division is one of the bitterest and clearest signs of brokenness in our world.  There is division among nations, division among races, division among religions, division among the branches of the Christian Church, division and strife in our own communities, and workplaces—in our homes and in our hearts.  We are people separated from those different from us. We are people suspicious of those nearest to us. We are people very often alienated from our own truest desires and best intentions.  Beloved, the strife and division we see in our world and in our lives is for us an inescapable reminder of that perennially unpopular doctrine of the Fall—the teaching of the Church that something has gone horribly, hatefully wrong in this beautiful, broken world.

All of which brings us back to our strange and disturbing Gospel lesson this morning.  Preachers quake before this passage, and for good reason.  Jesus’ exchange with the Syrophoenician woman seems cruel, harsh—perhaps even racist.  To the anguished mother kneeling at his feet, begging for help, the Lord of love looks down and says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Impossible though it may seem, there is Good News in these words.  For in these hard, strange words today, Christ Jesus faces head on the brokenness and fallenness made manifest in human division—in the strife between individuals and nations, between peoples and cultures.  He speaks to the Gentile mother in a way typical in those days for Jews speaking to Gentiles—and for Gentiles speaking to Jews. And in so doing, he reveals in one unsettling moment both the problem that he has come to address and the means by which he will address it.

For it is precisely because we are separated and divided without and within that God came to dwell among us.  It is precisely because we regard others with suspicion and throw up walls of separation that God has taken on our flesh. It is precisely because we are broken and fallen that God became a human being in the person of Jesus our Lord.

And in tackling the great problem, Christ chose to step down into the problem with us. He was not born some kind of “generic human”, without a home, a history, a family, or a nation.  Rather, God chose to become fully human: to be born among a particular people at a particular time in a particular place.

So it was that Jesus of Nazareth was born an Israelite.  So it was that the everlasting Son of the Father chose to become also a Son of Abraham.  So it was that the Second Person of the Trinity consented to a Jewish baptism of repentance in the Jordan River.  He did not hold himself aloof from human suffering and human brokenness, but rather desired to stand in the midst of that fulsome flood, to plunge beneath those fearsome waves, and to embark on a ministry that would take away that suffering and brokenness forever.

Thus in Jesus’ upsetting words—the words of a real man, from a real nation, at a real point in the history of fallen humanity—we glimpse the offensive fullness of the Incarnation: that God really did become a human being, and really does stand in solidarity with broken, suffering, divided humanity.

But this story reveals more to us still. For in the faith of the Syrophoenician woman, we see the greater truth that God’s purpose in the Incarnation was not merely to sit with us in the muck and mire of our lives. It is to lift us up. If Jesus speaks in a way that emphasizes our divisions and upholds the special character of the Jewish people, then the Gentile mother, speaking out of the divine gift of faith, recalls his purpose and his mission for all humankind.

“Yes, Lord… but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

She does not deny the ancient, entrenched difference between his people and hers.  But she affirms what his people had too often forgotten: that their election, their special setting apart as God’s chosen nation, is not intended to perpetuate division and separation, but is, instead, God’s means of blessing all peoples and of bringing together the whole world.  She affirms what Jesus himself recognizes in his response to her and in his subsequent actions towards the Gentile deaf mute man: that while he came first to God’s covenant people of Israel, nevertheless he has come to do something that will convict and reconcile all the nations of the earth.

For as it was promised in Isaiah, our God has come. Our God has come with vengeance and terrible recompense for the sins of our self-imposed divisions. Our God has come with judgment and implacable wrath against the petty judgments and the wretched barriers by which we divide nation from nation, people from people. Our God has come and his ears are deaf to the subtle arguments of those who would deny the basic humanity of certain undesirables. Our God has come and his tongue refuses to join in the shrill cries of those who would demonize and dehumanize on the basis of color or nation or language. Our God has come, and he has chosen to become the triumphant victim of our divisions and oppressions.

For in the broken body of Jesus our Lord, God has overcome the brokenness that separates nations and that mars each human life. By the mighty weakness of his Cross, God has battered down the wall of hostility separating Jew from Gentile, slave from free, rich from poor, black from white, male from female—the wall that separated human beings from their God.

Beloved, the children’s food has indeed been thrown to the dogs. The holy things of God have indeed been placed at the disposal of the unholy. For on the Cross, God has given himself to people like you and me—people lost in their shallow hatreds and foolish fears; people squabbling over their silly prejudices and empty pretensions—God has given himself to dogs like us.

And he does it again now. For God’s gift of himself will soon be set before a people unworthy to gather up the crumbs from under his table.  The fount of righteousness now pours out his grace upon the unrighteous.  The feast will shortly be set for those who cannot pay for it, or earn it, or claim it as their own, but who can only receive it as mercy and grace.

Here at this altar, the Most Worthy rushes to lift up the unworthy.  Here the All Holy hastens to help the unholy.  Here the Master of the feast stoops to lift the lazy and the latecomers; the unwashed and the unwelcome; the servants and the slaves to sit at his table.

Here the mangy dogs become daughters and sons.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

The Victim, the Victimizer, the Victor

A Sermon Preached on Good Friday, April 3, 2015

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; John 18:1-19:42

Behold the Man of Sorrows!

Behold the Lord of Love!

Behold Christ Crucified!

On this day, we behold the Lord Jesus on the Cross.

“To behold” means more than simply “to see.” When we behold something, we take it to ourselves, we participate in it, we share in it, we grasp it.

So what is it that we participate in on this day? What do we take and claim and grasp as we go in heart and mind to Calvary? What do we behold when we behold Christ Crucified?

We behold, first, the fullness of Jesus’ humanity. The Nicene Creed, after telling us of the eternal Son of God who is the only-begotten of the Father, goes on to say that “for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” We celebrate the wonder of Christ’s incarnation—of his coming among us as one of us—at Christmas. And yet nowhere do we see Christ’s fleshly nature so clearly—nowhere do we see his identification with the human condition so completely—as on Good Friday.

It is a bitter and a cruel irony that we should behold the humanity of Jesus most clearly in his Crucifixion, because the Cross was a tool expressly intended for the awful work of dehumanization. Crucifixion was a distillation of all the clever cruelty, all the ingenious inhumanity, all the brilliant brutality that the mighty Roman Empire could muster.

For the process of crucifixion did so much more than merely kill a person.Rather, a crucified person ceased to be a person on the Cross. That is what this means of state-sanctioned murder was intended to do. The Cross was a carefully designed machine for the unmaking of a human being.

The grinding wheels of dehumanization began to turn as soon as sentence was passed. The person condemned to be crucified would be forced to carry his own cross to the place of execution. He would be stripped naked and exposed—shamed and humiliated before the face of the world—and then he would be nailed or tied to the cross and lifted aloft.

The crowds that gathered to witness the proceedings were part of the punishment, gleefully adding their taunts and mockeries, heaping scorn upon the hapless head of the pierced victim. The death itself was slow—agonizingly slow—and made the crucified man his own executioner, for it was the hanging weight of the crucified body that would, over the course of many hours (and sometimes many days) sap his strength and constrict his rib-cage, making breathing increasingly difficult, and at last impossible.

And then, after death, the dehumanizing power of crucifixion continued. Ordinarily, crucified bodies would not be removed for burial. They would be left to rot in place, exposed to the elements and the animals—denied even the dignity of a grave.

This was a punishment reserved for the very lowest of the low—a punishment for the most depraved criminals; a punishment for slaves; a punishment for nobodies. It was a punishment that expunged the record of the crucified’s existence—a punishment that removed him from the rolls of the human race.

This lowliness, this brutal unmaking, this systematic dehumanization, then, is what we behold in the Crucified Christ. We behold Jesus, whose birth was announced by an Angel to his virgin mother—Jesus, who was declared God’s anointed at his Baptism in the River Jordan—Jesus, who cast out demons, who healed the sick, who gave sight to the blind, who opened the ears of the deaf, who caused the lame to leap like a deer, and who made the tongues of the dumb to sing—Jesus who cleansed the lepers, and ate with the tax collectors and prostitutes—Jesus who preached Good News to the poor, and who raised the dead to life—Jesus who revealed to us the fullness of what a human being is and should be! This Jesus we now behold taking unto himself all the whips and scorns of human brokenness, sharing completely with the outcasts and the imperfect, the unacceptable, and the unclean—even dying their miserable death.

“He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Christ on the Cross reveals himself to be present with all those who are despised and rejected; all who are dehumanized and destroyed; all women and men of sorrows; all who are acquainted with grief.

And this identification—this complete union with the suffering of human beings—cannot be overemphasized, because it reaches with power into every human era, every human culture, and every human heart. For while the Romans may have invented and perfected the method of dehumanization called crucifixion, yet the deep drive to dehumanize did not begin or end with the servants of Caesar.

We behold that drive at work through all the long annals of our weary world. We behold the drive to dehumanize manifested in the actions of ISIS, as it continues its drive to destroy and desecrate all that does not fit within its own very narrow theology. We behold the drive to dehumanize in the actions of a troubled pilot who unmade himself and all of his passengers by crashing his plane into the Alps. We behold the drive to dehumanize in the systematic murder of one hundred fifty college students in Kenya.

We behold the drive to dehumanize closer to home in the senseless deaths of college students through hazing rituals and binge drinking. We behold the drive to dehumanize in political systems that heed the howls of plutocrats and ignore the weeping of the voiceless. We behold the drive to dehumanize in the cruel taunts of schoolyard bullies and the careless words of workplace tyrants. We behold the drive to dehumanize in the abuse of spouses and the neglect of children. We behold the drive to dehumanize exposed every day on the front page of the newspaper, and splashed across every corner of the Internet.

And we behold it, at last, hidden away in the silent brokenness of our own hearts. For who of us has not known rejection and sorrow? Who of us is not acquainted with grief? The truth, beloved, is that to be human in this world means that we will endure dehumanization.

So it is that on the Cross, we see Jesus’ humanity made plain. The crucified Christ reveals to us his abiding presence with the lowest and the least, with the suffering and the sorrowful—with us in the depths of our degradation and in the hour of our death.

And yet, Christ’s complete identification with those who are made to suffer is not the only thing that we glimpse when we look upon the crucified Lord. I have said that the Cross reveals Jesus to us in the fullness of his humanity. But the fullness of his humanity goes beyond his solidarity with the victims of dehumanization. The fullness of Jesus’ humanity revealed at the crucifixion embraces the victimizers as well.

Hear again these words from Chapter 53 of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” Christ suffering on the Cross reveals to us his love and care for the lowly and the sorrowful—for all the victims of sin. But what Isaiah announces today is that Christ suffering on the Cross also reveals to us his willing self-offering for the guilty and the guileful, the warped and the wicked, the erring and the evil, the delinquent and the damned—for the transgressors: all the perpetrators of sin.

But if we say that Christ offers himself on the Cross for the sake of the guilty, we must then find the courage to ask: who are they? Who are those guilty ones? Who are “the perpetrators of sin”?

When you hear Isaiah speak of “transgressors” or hear me ask about “the perpetrators of sin”, does your mind immediately conjure up the image of a certain person or group of people? Mine does. I think of the people I’ve read about in the paper or heard about on the news: the people who are obviously guilty, the people who deserve punishment, the people who have done deeply wicked things. I think of the people I know who can’t seem to get it together, who can’t seem to straighten their lives out, who can’t seem to pick themselves up. I think of folks who are different from me, folks I disagree with, folks who have hurt me or hindered me, folks I don’t like or don’t understand.

When I hear Isaiah talk about transgressors and “perpetrators of sin,” I immediately—immediately!—begin to label and to judge; to place certain people within that guilty group, all the while keeping myself and my friends safely within the ranks of the righteous.

And by that mental process, through that inner sense of judgment and self-righteousness, Behold! in an instant, I recognize the same dehumanizing drive that nailed Jesus to the Cross to be alive and active in my heart! In my silent effort to prove myself upright, I suddenly see my own power to deny and desecrate the image of God in others. As I mentally “unmake” other human beings, casting them into the rubbish pile of the rotten and the unworthy, I see my own cavernous capacity for cruelty—my own eagerness to draw boundaries, to exclude, to despise, and to reject.

“He was wounded for our transgressions.” And who were the transgressors? Who were the perpetrators? “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee. ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee: I crucified thee.”

Beloved, Jesus on the Cross reveals to us the fullness of his humanity, and he calls us to claim with humility and repentance the fullness of our own broken humanity as well. For Christ on the Cross bears the pain of the sinned against…and he also bears the penalty due the sinner! Christ on the Cross embraces both my brokenness and my ability to break; both your pain and your power to cause pain; both our sorrows and our sins. To behold Jesus on the Cross is to see in one body all the disobedience and dehumanization of the whole human race: the sins that you and I have endured, and the sins that you and I have committed.

And at last it is to behold one thing more. For the scandalous claim of the Christian Church is that the Cross does not reveal the humanity of Jesus only—but it reveals his divinity as well.

For this, his hour of shame and degradation, of sorrow and dehumanization, is also his hour of glory. To behold Jesus on the Cross is to glimpse and know, and receive, and claim the self-giving love of Almighty God. To behold Jesus on the Cross is to behold God’s wondrous love not for the righteous, but for sinners. “[For] God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against him…He made him to be sin who knew no sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

All that we behold this day, beloved, however bitter and difficult, is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. For today this instrument of torture, this mark of our misery, this banner of our brokenness, this sign of Sin’s power, this declaration of Death’s grip, God has freely chosen and proclaimed to be the supreme announcement of his love! By the Cross of Christ, God has come to restore his tarnished image in us. By the Cross of Christ, the Good Shepherd has come to seek and to find his straying and wandering sheep. By the Cross of Christ, the King of Glory has come to claim his power and reign. By the Cross of Christ, the Creator of the world has come to renew his dead and dying creation. By the Cross of Christ, “for our atonement, while we nothing heeded, God interceded.”

I said at the beginning of this sermon that beholding means more than simply seeing. As you gaze upon the Cross today, may you indeed behold Christ Crucified. May you claim him, grasp him, cling to him. May you behold here the fullness of his humanity and yours: the revelation of the brokenness of this world and the brokenness of your own heart.

But even more, may you behold here the love of God that will not let you go. May you behold here the love that comes to seek you in the depths of your sorrow and in the darkness of your sins. On this Good Friday, may you behold—and be held by—those arms of love stretched out on the hard wood of the Cross, drawing all the world into his saving embrace.

AMEN.