Saturday, May 03, 2014

Sermons from Good Friday - The Seven Last Words (Christ Church Episcopal, Las Vegas. Apr. 18, 2014)

On Good Friday my associates and I preached on the Seven Last Words from noon to 3 pm. I thought everyone did a wonderful job. Here are all the sermons, except the one by Pamm McGill. I will include Pamm's sermon as soon as I have it.

1. "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing"

The Rev. Bob Spencer, transitional deacon

            Last night we witnessed the betrayal and arrest of Jesus along with a mock trial.  This morning we have witnessed Jesus being tortured – brutally and unmercifully – then condemned to death by crucifixion.  Our Stations of the Cross take us to station 11 and Jesus being nailed to the cross.  The movies about this crucifixion show Jesus crawling onto the cross, even kissing it.  I shed tears at this moment knowing that He did it for me.  Yes, and for you too but I know He suffered this terrible ordeal for me.

            Death by crucifixion is basically death by asphyxiation.  Many articles have been published about what Jesus had to endure, what pain He had to suffer to even utter a few words.  Today we are assembled to hear those last seven words. 

            Jesus had to fight through searing horrific pain to say anything.  Picture this in your mind’s eye: it is the 6th hour (noon by our modern standards) and the cross with Jesus nailed on it has been raised to its upright position.  Jesus pushes on His feet – nailed to the cross – I can’t imagine the pain – He pulls with his arms – nailed to the cross – again scorching burning pain – just to get enough air to say something.  What He says under these circumstances defies description, He prays, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”  I’ll try phonetic Aramaic ABBA, pachop eli havaianoi viaton.

            This first word (saying) has so many elements in just 11 actual words. 

            He calls God Father, using the same familiarity He gave us in the Lord’s Prayer, and that He used in the Garden of Gethsemane just last night

            This prayer is totally and completely unselfish. Jesus does not ask for forgiveness for himself (how  many of us would sacrifice even that request?).    He is concerned for the people who are responsible for crucifying him and is asking God to forgive them. Who are these people who are responsible?

            He could be praying for the Roman soldiers who routinely put men to death; just obeying orders.

            Pilate might be a better candidate. He was a crass, two-faced, self-serving politician; desperate to hold onto power.  To avoid a riot he gave the order to execute Jesus.  He routinely ordered executions and it was in his authority.

            The Chief priests and scribes were the prime force behind the crucifixion; they were determined to kill him. Behind the scenes they had paid off Judas for his betrayal.  They felt Jesus was a threat to their power and authority --- the ability to remove  such threats was condoned.

            The Pharisees and Sadducees sought to discredit him. The Pharisees were the first to actively plot Jesus' death (Matthew 12:14). Sadly, we have the equivalent of them in todays’ Church.  The real Jesus is just too threatening to established religious powers that resist change. 

            The disciples who abandoned Him.  Although He told the guards to let them go, they  were pretty much running away.

            There is Peter who swore he would never abandon Him.  Peter must have had horrible shame after bragging and then denying Jesus – three times.

            Finally there’s you and me.  Think about it.  I don’t know about you, but I have done things I need forgiveness for. When my daughter died in 1971, just 21 days old, I thought Jesus had turned his back on me.  It wasn’t until 1981 when I realized that it was me that had turned my back on Jesus and He had been with me the entire journey.  

            Jesus gave the caveat, “for they do not know what they are doing”.  We have 2,000 Years of hindsight.  We look at what happened and think, yea, sure --- they did know what they were doing, but did they really?  Jesus’ entire ministry was full of love and forgiveness.  His own apostles walked with Him and witnessed this love.  Right about  now, at this time of day they are hiding out, afraid for their lives.  Until Easter morning they really don’t know, they just don’t get it.

            Paul, who isn’t really too much  on the scene yet describes it so well:

            "None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory." (1 Corinthians 2:8; see Acts 3:17)

            Paul himself, who persecuted Christians to their death, did it because he just didn't understand.

            "Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief." (1 Timothy 1:13)

            We have a lot of company in deserving forgiveness because we didn’t know what we were doing.  In my own journey when I had turned my back on Him I really and truly did not know what I was doing.  I prayed for my daughter to live, against some pretty tough odds, and felt that because my prayer wasn’t answered the way I wanted, God must have turned His back on me.  Now when I read the Passion or see the movies, I know in my innermost being that Jesus died for me and these first words are directed at me some 2,000 years later.

2. "This day you will be with me in paradise"

The Rev. Bonnie Polley, Deacon

Chaplain to the Las Vegas Police Dept


As we come to the second “words of the cross”, we find ourselves listening to a conversation between Jesus and two others who were crucified with him.

One of the criminals was mocking Jesus, deriding him saying, “Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we for getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong. “Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It concludes with Jesus pardoning the repentant man and giving him eternal life. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

The jail is full of those who rail against God in their self-righteousness and presume that God is obliged to make their life smooth.  There is no spirit of brokenness, or guilt, or penitence, or humility.  They only see Jesus as a way out, an escape.  It never enters their minds to repent and change direction.  

Rick was one of these.  Rick, a body builder who won national recognition, was charged with the murder of a woman who was his Administrative Assistant. He slit her throat, stuffed her in the truck of his car and set the car on fire.  From the minute Rick was booked and charged, he justified his actions one way or another.  He worked the system from the get go, doing everything possible to make himself look like he had gotten a raw deal and was also a victim.  At his trial he testified against his wife who was his co-defendant, making it look like she killed the woman in a jealous rage and that he was only was only there for the ride. He had no need to repent.

But there are only a few who own up to the fact that God owes us nothing, and that any good to come our way will be due to his mercy, not out merit.

Kelly was one of the latter.  Kelly was one of my inmates charged with a hideous crime. Kelly, Rick’s co-defendant, like the penitent thief admitted that she was guilty and wrong. She surrendered; laid herself open before the God she feared and accepted her punishment as deserved and without complaint.  Kelly will be in prison for the rest of her life.  She is serving God, acknowledging the goodness and power of Jesus. As part of Kelly’s testimony, she shapes three crosses.  She holds up the first cross. “Jesus is on this one, she says.  The second cross also had a clay figure on it.  The thief is on this one.  Then she holds up the third cross and explains why it is bare.  I am the murderer that should he on this cross, but instead it is empty.  Because Jesus died, I am here today—alive and free on Life Row. 

Kelly asked Jesus “remember me when you come into your kingdom. Jesus replied, “today you will be with me in paradise”.  

The Greek word for paradise, the word we often mistake for Heaven, is paradisio.  It refers to the Garden of Eden-a state of delight-a place where all things are just, and fair, and whole. 

I don’t know about y’all, but I have certainly wondered what heaven is like?  I wonder where it is, I wonder what we will do there.  I wonder if it will be fun and I worry that it might be boring.  I wonder if we will wear clothes and what will they be like.  I wonder what our new bodies will look like, what will we eat, where will we live.  Will we be recognized by our loved ones and our friends?  Will we see our pets whom we loved?  Will Rufus remember me?  Will he run around in circles with excitement when he sees me? Will he still want to be taken for his walk?  Will we see God face to face and what will God look like?  Will all of our questions finally be answered?

No-one has captured what heaven will be like as well as C.S. Lewis.  Taking his cue from Jesus’ reference to Paradise and Isaiah 11’s depiction of predators and prey living together in perfect harmony, Lewis imagined a magical place he called Narnia.  Heaven, Lewis suggested, is a gloriously beautiful and exciting place of unlimited adventure and unlimited security where you can swim up waterfalls and play with wild animals without ever being afraid. Heaven is a place of reunion with the people you love to see and get to know, a place where good things never end and each adventure is better than the one before.  Heaven is a place where every creature is in the prime of life, in the best possible physical shape, and free from the constraints of time and the bondage of sin.

A place called paradise is what Jesus promised the thief on the cross.  It was his promise to Kelly.  It is his promise to you and to me.  Thanks be to God.


3. "Woman, behold your son; son, behold your mother"

The Rev. Gaye Lagana, Deacon

Director of pastoral care

We are gathered here today offering our presence to our dear Jesus as he is making his transition in the most brutal way.  As we are immersed in our own grief and loss and feeling abandoned by the one who we thought would save us from our own misery of suffering, we hear his words,  "Woman behold your son, and to his disciple, Behold your mother!"  And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.  


"Woman behold your son, and to the disciple he said, behold your mother."   And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.  These words, this message reverberates within my body.  As my grief subsides, I am coming to know how they are directing me to live.  This is a most generous final act of Jesus.  Out of his compassion for his Mother's welfare, Jesus gives her to the one who he knows will care for her as well as his knowledge of the compassion and tenderness that Mary can offer his disciple.  Joined as family to each other they can fortify each other in this time of grief.  Jesus knew their vulnerabilities  that needed attention first. Then they could continue with the ministries that were set before them. 


And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. There was no waiting, no forms to sign, no institutions to sanction this adoption, no questions of the legitimacy of this family creation, just a pure intention of the heart to offer solace and comfort to each other.


Now I said these words live in me and are directing me in how to live.  What exactly does that mean?  For me the gospel is personal and it is relational.  It is my story.  I live in it, and it lives in me.  Time is collapsed.  The past becomes my present and my  present becomes my future.  From the cross to now.  A leap in time. 


This gift of relationship gives me pause to reflect on "who are we to each other."  Who is my mother?  Who is my father?  Who are my Brothers?  Who are my sisters?  Who are my children?  How do I create a family?  Is my family one or two people, or is it a whole community? 


We have all been given a family from which we originate and if we were lucky we were nurtured and cared for until we could offer the same love and nurturance in return.  But what about those folks who have been abandoned in one form or another from birth?  Who is their family?  Have they lost status because they have been disenfranchised from birth?  That was the norm when I was growing up in the 40' and fifties.  Is it still applicable today?  Should it be?


As a daughter of the Christ, I witness the disintegration and recreation of the fabric of our society.  There are deaths as well as new life dissolving and coming into being on a daily basis.  While our last two major wars are ended, we are still impacted as a society by the return of our broken soldiers.  Many are returning to families who can not behold them in  the old way, mentally, spiritually, emotionally and physically.  While they may want to return to the comfort of what was, a wide chasm has been created and their new job is to create a bridge to their futures.  Their lives have been rearranged and they need to begin a new.  The life of Jesus offers them hope.


As I write this homily, I hear a very sad story on the news which took place in a community close to where I grew up.  In Murrysville, PA, a young man took two sharp ten inch knives to school and started to stab his classmates.  Luckily, none of his classmates died, but several remain critical.  It was learned that this young man wanted to die.  How sad that he found no recourse to his pain.  He was not able to ask for help.  He felt he had to resort to inflicting pain on others to resolve his own pain.  This story is tragic and very sad.


What I also learned in this story, is that many of the students acted in  a heroic way saving the lives of fellow students. One young man stepped in front of his best friend to save her  from a stab wound.  Instinctively, his friend applied a level of caring intervention which saved his life.  These levels of conflict run deeply within us and now more than ever we need to hear the words of the gospel and live them to protect the life we have been given. 


Even though we have tragedy all around us, we also have hope.  With a clear and loving intention in our hearts we can be agents of positive and powerful change.  I find the words of a Beatles’ song which I have slightly changed reflect the hope that Jesus offers us.


"When I find myself in times of trouble

Mother Mary comes to me,

Speaking words of wisdom, let me see.

And in my hour of darkness

She is standing right in front of me

Speaking words of wisdom, let me see.

Whisper words of wisdom, let me see."


To fulfill the promise of the Christ, the song affirms-

"And when the broken hearted people

Living in the world agree

There will be an answer, let it be

For though they may be parted

There is still a chance that they will see

There will be an answer, let it be."    Amen.


4. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

The Rev. Richard O'Brien,

Senior associate priest

            My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Of all the utterings of Jesus on this bleak day, that is the one that resonates with me the most.  It is so out of character with the idea we have in our heads of Jesus Christ.  Jesus is the good shepherd; the finder of lost souls.  Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to champion the poor, the downtrodden and the marginalized.  And this gentle teacher, this man who loves all without regard to status or position, breaks down at the end.    

            The same Jesus who prays that God forgive them for they know not what they are doing, the same Jesus who takes pity on the thief, utters the all too human lament, “my God my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Who of us has not had that thought in moments of deep sorrow, pain or despair?  When life seems more than we can bear, when the world has closed in around us, when the pain seems too much for us, we find ourselves uttering this same sentiment.  And that is exactly the point.

            When he chose to become one of us, Jesus fully became one of us.  He accepted human form and was incarnated as fully and completely human.  Jesus was both fully divine and fully human, and we see glimpses of both of these throughout the seven last words.  But it is in these rare moments where Jesus’ pure humanity shines through, like when he drove the money changers out of the temple, or when he wept at the tomb of Lazarus.  These images remind us that Jesus’ incarnation was not merely for show.  He didn’t merely pretend to be human, he truly was human.  And being human, he had to remain human through the good and the bad times.  When he was driven into the desert and tempted by the devil, Jesus the Lord could easily have used his power to feed himself or to prove that he was in fact the messiah.  But that would have meant he was not really human, that he was only playing a part as a human like an actor in a play.  To use his power for his own benefit would have been to do something that the rest of us cannot.  Jesus used his divinity many times in the service of others, but he never once used his power for his own gain.  So Jesus, in his great love for us, fully embraced his humanity.  And that meant accepting the humiliation and pain of death upon the cross.

            But knowing that he had to do it was not the same as experiencing the brutality of it.  It is one thing to intellectualize a concept; it is another thing entirely to experience the reality of it.  The human Jesus lived as we do, loved as we do, and suffered as we do.  And it is this agonizing suffering that manifested itself in the all-too-human wail “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

            We would think nothing of this if any one of us had said it.  No one would expect to go through such agony and not utter something like it.  It is remarkable to us because it was said by Jesus the Christ, the king of kings and lord of lords.  But remember that it was really said by Jesus of Nazareth, a humble man who was persecuted for crimes he didn’t commit, was tortured and executed as a sacrificial lamb.  This amazing demonstration of his humanity is a tangible reminder of how much our Lord gave up for us with the incarnation, and how awesome a sacrifice he made at the crucifixion.


5. "I thirst"

Ms. Pamm McGill

Postulant for the vocational diaconate

6. “It is finished”

Ms. Terri Porter,

Director of Sunday School

            All the time, I say that for big projects.  Working, laboring on a new yard project recently, exhausted, sore to the bone, completely filthy, satisfied…..  “Whew!  Time for a beer.  That’s finished!”  And I dusted off my hands, rested up, and got involved in another project – one that needed to be finished.

            Sometimes we use those words at the close of a chapter in our lives.  Selling a home.  Relocating.  Ending a painful relationship, even a marriage.  Retirement.  “That’s finished.”

            And we use those words at the end of long struggles.  Not too long ago, my favorite aunt fought her way through a terminal illness.  For almost a year, she patiently endured hospitalizations, numerous surgeries, painful procedure after painful procedure – all because her husband and son could not accept the inevitable conclusion of her life.  When they finally yielded to the offer of hospice care and brought her home for her last days, there was relief.  As she gasped for her final breaths, there was even a whisper of joy through the sorrow.  “It’s over!  It’s finished.”

            When Jesus said “It is finished,” I believe there were layers of meanings.  Close of another chapter.  Finished with the chapter of constant tramping up and down the roads and towns of Galilee and Judea.  Finished with the constant baiting by his critics.  Finished with the fickle adulation of the throngs that gathered wherever he went.   

            On to the new project of living at the right hand of God, living to be our great High Priest, and, as the writer to the Hebrews said, “ever living to make intercession for us.”

            Finished with the great struggle – the exhausting, excruciating week of the Passion.  Finished with the horrible ordeal of the trials, beatings, and crucifixion.

            But most of all, it was the GREAT FINISH of his ultimate work of redemption.  Our modern minds somehow struggle with this idea of a God who would ask for sacrifice of blood in exchange for redemption.  When I lived in Jerusalem, I was  blessed with the opportunity to go twice to the summit of Mt. Gerazim and observe the Samaritan Passover sacrifice.  Late in the afternoon, the children ran among the lambs in the large enclosure, playing, laughing.  Then close to sundown, the priests entered the enclosure and began chanting ancient prayers.  Just as the sun dipped to the horizon, each family took its lamb, slit the throat, and tipped the lamb upward to catch the blood in a basin.  The priests dipped greens in the blood and sprinkled the family.  Then one family member carried the blood quickly to their home to mark the doors.  One swab and the top, swab on either side, the drops inevitably falling to the ground, making a perfect sign of the cross.

            Not long after, I was invited to accompany a group of scholars into the Old City of Jerusalem to meet with a controversial group of ultra-Orthodox Jewish enthusiasts who are busily preparing garments, vestments, and equipment for use when the Temple is rebuilt on the Temple Mount.  One of the scholars asked, “Are you really planning to return to the practice of animal sacrifice?  Why?”  The spokesperson answered, “It is commanded.  How do we know?  Maybe God is a social Being who likes good barbecue.  We simply obey.”

            Jesus obeyed.  Christ’s great work of redemption.  FINISH to the hold of sin and failure as the defining characteristics of our earthly lives.  FINISH to the fear and despair that attack each one of us at one time or another.  And FINISH to death as the ultimate end to our existence. 

            Whether we understand it or not, His sacrifice is accepted.  It is FINISHED.


7. "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit"

The Rev. J. Barry Vaughn,

Rector of Christ Church

            There are many stories about last words. Sometimes they are funny. When Oscar Wilde lay dying, he said, "Either this wallpaper goes, or I do." When Queen Victoria's favorite prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli was dying, the queen wished to visit him, and Disraeli said, "Why should I see her? She will only want me to give a message to her late husband Prince Albert." I think the last words of the composer Beethoven are especially poignant. Beethoven more or less completely lost his hearing about twelve years before he died. On his death bed, the composer said, "In heaven I shall hear." And sometimes, last words are inspiring. When Charles Gore, the bishop of Birmingham, England, was at the point of death, he whispered, "Transcendent glory."

            According to Luke's gospel, the last words of Christ on the cross were, "Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit."

            Think carefully about those words. Jesus did not LOSE his life on the cross; he GAVE UP his life. Death was not something that happened to Jesus; it was something that he chose, something that he embraced. He was not a passive victim; he was an active participant. But exactly what was Jesus doing on the cross?

            Perhaps you, like I, were raised in a Baptist church or some other evangelical church, and received a big dose of the blood of Jesus just about every Sunday. Frankly, it became tiresome. I thought there must be more to Christianity than Jesus' death, so when I found the Episcopal Church with its emphasis on the LIFE of Jesus and not just on his death, I was delighted. I think that for many years I de-emphasized the cross and the death of Jesus. But now, perhaps because I am getting close to sixty years of age or perhaps because I have done more reading and research, the cross is becoming increasingly important to me.

            From the very beginning, the Christian faith has taught that Jesus' death on the cross was redemptive. In Colossians, Paul says, "For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross." (Col. 1.19-20)

            There are many ways to understand the death of Jesus.

            One way to think of his death on the cross is to see it as God's way of releasing a powerful, redemptive energy into the world. Have you ever used a glow stick? I'm sure you have seen them. They contain two chemicals that are inert until they are mixed. When you break the glow stick, the two chemicals combine and begin to glow. The death of Christ on the cross is a little like that. Christ's broken body releases some kind of light, some kind of energy into the universe. We see that energy in the lives of men and women such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta giving their lives to care for the poor dying on the streets of Calcutta; Dietrich Bonhoeffer resisting tyranny to the point of giving his own life in a Christ-like way; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., witnessing for non-violent resistance to oppression even to the point of death; and as Bonnie Polley reminded us last night, Albert Schweitzer, the theologian/musician/physician who cared for Africa's children in Lambarene. We see Christ's redemptive energy in all kinds of ways in our own lives: Whenever reconciliation overcomes estrangement; forgiveness overcomes guilt; and healing overcomes brokenness.

            Above all, however, I believe that we must understand that we live in a cross-shaped world. Anglicans, in general, and Episcopalians, in particular, are too quick to turn from the cross to the incarnation. We are too quick to emphasize the goodness of the world, the "original blessing", if you will, and too reluctant to take a hard look at the world's fundamental brokenness because I believe that that is what is meant by the phrase "original sin". Make no mistake: the world IS good; God declared it to be good and never changed his mind. But the world is also terribly broken, alienated, and estranged, and that is what the cross shows us.

            We live in a world full of people who live daily with the reality of the cross. People who live with the reality of oppression and persecution. Think of the people of North Korea and Ukraine. We live in a world full of people who know what it is like to thirst and hunger. Think of all the people we serve through Epicenter. We live in a world full of people who know what it is like to suffer and die far, far too young. Presently, the United States, one of the richest countries in the world, is ranked 30th in infant mortality behind Finland, Sweden, Iceland, Norway, the Netherlands, and other countries. Mary's experience of watching her Son die on the cross is an experience that mothers all over the world have every day, including far too many mothers in this country.

            But ultimately, the death of Christ on the cross is a mystery to be pondered and celebrated, not a problem to be solved. It is best approached in song and prayer, not systematic theology. Theologian Richard Holloway writes, "... the death of Christ was a decisive encounter with the powers of evil on a cosmic scale... Somewhere a mighty victory has been won, though it has plunged a spear into the very heart of God... We do not yet see it fully disclosed, though we are visited by hints of it, sudden little rushes of certainty; but one day we shall see it, and seeing it weep that it cost God in Christ so much, and yet rejoice that all sorrow has been turned into joy and that all, at last, has been made well." (Holloway, The Way of the Cross, pp. 100-101)