Saturday, April 19, 2014

Good Friday Sermon: "They shall look on the one whom they have pierced."

Today we look upon the one whom we have pierced. We stand before the Cross, with the pitiful body nailed there, and we cannot look away from the horror we have wrought. I don't like to see suffering. I avert my gaze when the TV drama shows the mutilated corpse. I could never watch when my children received their vaccinations. I can't even look on while I have blood drawn or a flu shot. There is something about the piercing of the flesh that I will not willingly behold. But today I have no choice. On Good Friday I must look on the one I have pierced, even though his piercing happened twenty centu-ries ago and across the world. I have done this. We have done this. Lord, have mercy.

Some years ago I knew a woman who had suffered from Lupus for half of her life. Her health had deteriorated to the point that her bones were brittle and her limbs deformed. She was unable to walk, and her doctors determined that the only way to relieve her constant pain was to intervene surgically: to break her leg bones and rearrange them, forcing them to heal closer to a straight line. They did this by inserting steel rods, rather like the rebar used in construction, into her shinbones. It was early spring when the pro-cedure was carried out, and I visited with her in the nursing home where she was re-covering from the surgery, the steel rods sticking out from her legs and ankles, a living image of the suffering Christ. I always tried not to look at the rods, at the angry wounds where they entered her body; they made me very uncomfortable.

I took her Communion during Holy Week, and we talked about the experience of being pierced as Jesus was pierced, of walking through her suffering with Jesus by her side, walking all the way in pain pierced and wounded, yet looking ahead always to Easter. This woman had suffered for years, and her suffering only increased as time went on, yet she always sought to turn the conversation to thoughts of others; her ministry was one of prayer and encouragement, and she carried it out from her hospital bed, from the place where she lay, pierced and physically helpless. She was one of the most Christ-like people I ever knew, and when the time came, the Requiem we celebrated for her was one of the most joyful I have attended.

They shall look upon the one whom they have pierced. At a small town in Pennsylvania, a week or so ago, a teenage boy brought two sharp kitchen knives, with blades ten inches long, to school. As classes were about to start, he began to run down a hallway, slashing and stabbing at everyone who came within range. Within five minutes, he pierced the skin of over 20 people, critically wounding at least five of his fellow students. One 16-year-old, stabbed in the back, later told news media that he thought he was about to die, and that he isn't sure if he will ever be able to walk through the doors of the school again. But he will likely be called to give evi-dence when the trial of his classmate comes to court; the one was was pierced and the one who did the piercing will look upon each other across the courtroom. How do you face someone who has pierced you? How do you face someone you have pierced?

They shall look upon the one whom they have pierced. The Gospel lets us off the hook, speaking of "they" rather than "we". Who is it who hammered in the nails? Who took the spear and slashed at his side? Who forced the thorny crown upon his head? It wasn't us; we weren't there. It was the villains, the oppressors, the ones whose power was threatened by talk of Messiahs and Kingdoms and new commandments. But we were there; Scripture tells stories of long ago and far away, but they are stories about us, about all of humanity at our best and at our worst. We were there when the homeless woman died for want of shelter. We were there when the Sudanese baby succumbed to malaria. We were there when the Syrian teenage was shot in the street. We were there when the would-be immigrant was impaled on barbed wire and shriveled up in the de-sert sun. We were there. This is our crime, our horror. We are not to look away today.

Today we look upon the one we have pierced. His eyes are mercifully closed; he doesn't look at us; but if he did, what might we see? Not reproach, not anger; we would see love. The kind of love that goes willingly to the Cross for the sake of the undeserving other is a kind of love we can barely imagine, let alone practice ourselves. I don't believe it is possible to experience the full extent of God's love in this life, or perhaps only for fleeting moments of transcendence. But I do believe that we are exposed to that love in its fullness at our death. I imagine that, as St. Paul writes, then we will see face to face, and we will know as we have been known.

To face the love of God may sound like a wonderful thing, a comforting idea, but I don't think it will be. I think that the moment when I experience the full depth and breadth of God's love will be a moment of piercing pain, a moment when I am fully exposed to what Christ has done for my sake. I think that this might be what the church used to call purgatory. I can imagine only those who have done the most terrible things being faced with that love and not being able to bear it, turning away from it and thus turning away from God for ever. I hope that when my time comes I will have practiced facing God's love enough that its full extent won't be too painful to bear.

So the question then is, how to practice facing God's love? How do we learn to experi-ence and witness the sacrificial love of Jesus, so that we can endure that moment of revelation and, accepting the love, embrace eternal union with God? We learn by going to the places where the suffering of Jesus is reflected in the suffering of the world. we learn by seeking and serving Christ in others. We learn by leaving our comfort zone and making ourselves look at the wounds, the scars, the ugliness of violence and hatred, and having looked, making ourselves reach out to touch the wounds, to offer care and healing, to embrace the lonely, to comfort the grief-stricken, to clothe the naked. We do not learn by turning our faces away or by turning off the TV news, by skimming over the hard parts of Scripture and rushing straight from Palm Sunday to Easter; no, we learn by accepting our share of responsibility, by confessing our guilt, and by setting about to work in partnership with God to change the world.

We will look upon the one we have pierced. And our own hearts in turn will be pierced by love, the love that knows no boundary, no limit; the love that gives all of itself away. And knowing that love, we will seek to share it with the love-starved world, touching the wounds, healing the broken places, finding Christ in the faces of all those who have been pierced by exclusion, cruelty, or injustice.

I don't like to see suffering, but today I must look upon it. I look upon it to know that by it I am saved, that the instrument of shameful death is also the means of the world's re-demption, and that even as we sit tonight in darkness, God has already declared victory and the light is coming. And so tonight we proclaim, Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the world's salvation. Come, let us adore him.

Good Friday, April 18 2014
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges 

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