Good Friday Sermon by Rev. Nancy Wilson, MCC Moderator
Someone wrote to me a while ago, upset with MCC because we do not preach enough about "the cross."
I knew what he meant by that, and I know why that charge may be true!
I spent some time thinking about it the last few months. And, I thought about asking about 25 MCCer's, from various theological and cultural perspectives, to write about the cross. I still think that is a great idea, and I would love to see the creativity and wonderful, contextual thinking that would provide. In fact, Jim Mitulski did just that in a Region 1 Spiritual offering a week ago, that I deeply appreciated. . .
But, life took a turn this Lent, and my partner Paula had acute renal failure (she is now on her way to complete healing). Having a partner suffering acutely, while you can do nothing to stop it, is a cross of its own.
Let me say a few obvious things:
The meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus, in the context of his life and ministry, and his resurrection, is complicated, and the subject of passionate theological and personal debate and conflict in and outside of the church for millennia. MCC's challenge is that we are so ecumenical and diverse, and come from so many different historic strands, that sometimes we don't hear ourselves or each other. And we put ourselves under a lot of pressure to resolve all those conflicts, right here and now! Sometimes we simply do not understand enough about what Catholics think and teach (which itself is very diverse!), or Baptists (ditto), or Pentecostals, Congregationalists or Methodists. . . Much less, the contributions, so important to us, of Liberation, Feminist and Queer theologies, in recent decades. Or what it might mean in an inter-religious context. What Good Friday meant to Jews, historically, in terms of vicious persecution, is enough to make any 21st century, progressive Christian tremble, indeed.
And we stereotype certain views. And perhaps demonize some. Some of us grew up listening to theologies of the cross that give children nightmares, and were manipulative, so we have to tread carefully, don't we?
There is a kind of polarization, isn't there? Between those who make the cross the center of the Christ Event, the atonement as the be-all-and-end all, with the resurrection as a footnote; versus those of us who grew up in churches for whom the cross was a little indelicate, and who preferred to skip from Palm Sunday to Easter without mentioning a messy crucifixion. It doesn't quite go with pastels, Easter eggs and bunnies.
Or, between those for whom the suffering of Jesus on a crucifix, the grieving Mother and disciples sometimes seemed to glorify suffering for suffering sake; and those who do not see suffering as redemptive ever, at all, but think of it as an illusion.
It is wrong to say that Jesus suffered more than anyone ever did. His trial and crucifixion lasted less than a day. I think Jesus knew that many did and would suffer torments for years, far more than he endured. I don't think he ever claimed that his suffering was worse than anyone's.
All of these views fail, in some way. They are partial, and sometimes distorted lenses on the profound reality that Jesus suffered and died. Not because God is blood thirsty, or hated us or sin so much; not so that women, and the poor, and those who suffer from war and violence will not rise up and take their power, but would just "offer it up to God."
Dr. Marcella Althaus-Reid, feminist, queer, Argentinean, had these words to say about Jesus crucifixion, and, I have to apologize, I am stringing them together in my own order a bit:
(From the commentary on Mark in The Queer Bible Commentary.)
...we can see the fact that Jesus died and was resurrected throughout the whole narrative of the Gospels. ...the queer reading of the scriptures is not progressive, but transgressive ... In reality, the cross is the attempt to kill once and for all the multiple resurrections of a queer Jesus, to fix him once and forever on a stable cross so that no queer God would do what queer Gods do, that is, to exceed the border limits of a fatigued heterosexual foundational epistemology which has reduced religious experience and human love...
She also talks about the parallels to gay deaths in oppressive contexts, I am thinking now of those murdered in the streets of Iraq, or Jamaica, or so many other places in the world:
...sexual dissidents are portrayed as ones who seek their own death ... As prone to do the kind of wrong things which provoke crimes against them, as when they insist on going to places where they should not be seen..." To me she is taking a page from the New York Times this week, as young LGBT people are gunned down near cafes they are perceived as "frequenting." Marcella asks, ""were they looking for it(?) Jesus knew what was coming. He could have avoided going up to Jerusalem, once there he could have avoided confrontation ..."
Jesus chose a path, a Way of dealing with what was wrong with religion and politics, and what was killing people and excluding them. He offered himself, his body, his words, his associations with outcasts and sinners, his insistence on breaking Sabbath laws to heal.
Today, I offer these thoughts about Jesus death on cross:
It is about solidarity: Jesus died the death of the poor and the outcast, the worst, most humiliating deaths, reserved for nobodies, or people they wanted to make an example of. It was about shaming, and deterrence for protestors and upstart "kings." In one account, both thieves deride him. But in another, my favorite Good Friday story in Luke's Gospel, a thief takes a chance, and reminds Jesus that he is his ticket to a better life. In solidarity that is poignant beyond belief, Jesus rises to the occasion, gathers his dignity and offers the thief Paradise, today. I don't remember who it was who said, "Today, there is a cross in the heart of God, in solidarity with all who suffer."
It is about transforming suffering: Jesus' suffering makes a Way, a new way, to confront profound evil and hopelessness. He offers his young life as a Way, so suffering can be healed, and a new Beloved Community can emerge to live the in that Way. He suffered to end the cycle of violence not to perpetuate it. When Rev Virgil Scott, MCC Pastor in Stockton, California, was brutally murdered after responding to a call for help, after the shock of hearing about it, I had a deeply spiritual experience. I visualized God healing Virgil of all those stab wound before he entered his rest - as if he could not enter with all that violence still clinging to him. It took some time, but that healing was completed, and I felt it. That vision of assurance has stayed with me all these years. Jesus did not die on the cross so that we would shut up about oppression and suffering, but so that we could have the courage to offer ourselves to transform it.
It is not the end of the story: Jesus lets go of his life, and is raised. As we let go, even of our suffering and helplessness, there is the promise of new life, in this life and the next. Suffering is never the end, though moving through it, enduring it, and sometimes fighting to end it, is part of living in that new Way of love and peace, which is a queer Way. Today, we must assure those in Iraq, Jamaica, rural America, and all over the world, that their suffering, today, is not the end of the story, but the beginning of something powerful and redemptive.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Nancy Wilson