Friday, March 25, 2016


We Christians used to have a better breed of adversary
         than we do today.
We’d be better at understanding and expressing our faith
         If we were playing in a tougher league.
But our current class of atheists substitute sarcasm and contempt
         for thinking.
They don’t even understand us well enough
         to disagree intelligently.
I barely recognize the religion they are attacking.

But the father of 20th Century atheism, Friedrich Nietzsche,
         understood our faith – all too well perhaps.
He got it better than most of us do.
And he attacked us at our most vulnerable point – the Cross.
He was appalled by the Cross.
He is not alone.
Jack Miles, author of Christ: A Crisis In The Life of God, writes:
         “The crucifix is a violently obscene icon.”

Nietzsche agreed.
At the age of 44, he wrote The Anti-Christ,
         a powerful critique of Christianity.
Of the story we have heard today, he said:

         God on the cross – are the horrible secret thoughts
         behind this symbol not understood yet? All that suffers,
         all that is nailed to the cross, is divine. All of us are nailed
         to the cross, consequently we are divine. . . . Christianity
         has been the greatest misfortune of mankind so far.

He far preferred the Greek gods like Apollo and Dionysius.
If they are what God is, then brilliance and passion are godlike.
But if Jesus on the Cross is God,
         then suffering – your suffering and mine -- is godlike.
Do we want a religion that worships suffering?
Most people are looking for something quite different.

When I was in my early 30s,
         freshly returned to the Church,
         I went on a parish retreat at a beautiful Idaho lake.
One man there with our congregation was successful building contractor.
His wife was a good Episcopalian but he wasn’t buying it.
I remember his words as if it were yesterday.
“Where is the religion for kings?” he asked.
That was what he wanted – a winner’s religion that would validate
         his success the way the market and society did.
Two years later he was bankrupt.
I don’t know what kind of religion he was looking for then.

But Nietzsche was looking for the same kind of religion,
         a faith for winners.
In The Anti-Christ, he wrote:

         What is good? Everything that heightens the feeling
of power in a man, the will to power, power itself.
         What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness.
         What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing . . .
         The weak and the failures shall perish . . .
and they shall be given every possible assistance.
         What is more harmful than any vice?
                  Active pity for all the failures . . . .: Christianity.

The father of 20th Century atheism admired strength
and felt only contempt for vulnerability –
                  or so he said.
But the most passionate expressions of hatred
         are sometimes a masque to conceal a secret love.
Could it be that the atheist, Nietzsche,
         did protest too much?

Just four months after writing The Anti-Christ,
Nietzsche was in Turin, Italy.
He was not visiting the Shroud of Turin.
He did not intend to see the face of Christ.
He was there to eat gelato and enjoy his favorite small city.
But one day Nietzsche was walking along a Turin street
when a draft horse collapsed from exhaustion.
The owner began flogging the horse ruthlessly.
Nietzsche, whose writings abhorred all morality but most of all compassion,
betrayed himself.
He rushed to the fallen horse and threw himself across its body
         to take the flogging in its place.
Sobbing, he held the fallen horse and from that moment never regained
         his full sanity.

Nietzsche spent the remainder of his short life in an insane asylum.
Was he truly mad? Had he discovered a forbidden truth? Maybe both.
While in the asylum he wrote his last lucid letter.
He signed it “The Crucified.”

Our image of God expresses what we most admire,
         what we affirm, what we value above all else.
A god like Apollo with the perfect hair, face, and body,
         exuding wisdom and power, that makes sense.
Apollo could land a leading role on a soap opera
         while getting tenure at an Ivy League university on the side.
Who wouldn’t worship that?

But Jesus on the Cross?
What are we worshiping there?
The Gospel stories don’t help us answer that question.
They just tell the story and leave it to us to sort out.
The would-be atheist Nietzsche explained it as well as anyone.
         “All that suffers, all that is nailed to the cross is divine.
          All of us are nailed to the cross. . . “

A lot of religion tries to escape from a basic truth.
Life hurts.
Next to Christianity, I most admire Buddhism for teaching:
         The First Noble Truth is suffering.

We can think all the pretty positive thoughts ever dreamed up
We can eat right, work out daily, read the self-help books,
and practice all the habits of highly effective people.
But we are still left with what Anglican poet and theologian,
         Samuel Taylor Coleridge called,
         “the tears in the nature of things.”

There is a Buddhist story of a woman whose only child died.
Disconsolate, she went to a holy man on a distant mountain
         begging him to revive her son and end her sorrow.
He said he would do it -- on one condition.
She must bring him a handful of salt
         from a house in her village that had never known grief.
She went from door to door – every door in her village –
         but could not find a single house that had not known grief.
So she returned to the holy man and said, “I understand.”
There are “tears in the nature of things.”

Many people have tried to explain why it’s that way.
I even wrote a book on it and some of you were kind enough to read it.
But God didn’t explain it away.
God didn’t explain why we deserve it or how it’s really for our own good.
Instead God did the most amazing and inexplicable thing:
         He joined us in it.
He saw us on the cross and got on it with us.

Brothers and sisters, there is a balm in Gilead.
There is an end to suffering and a birth of joy.
But not here. Not yet.
Jesus said, “While you are in the world, you will have troubles.”
I am sorry to tell you, it is true.

When God in Christ Jesus went to the cross,
         he did not end our suffering.
But he decisively changed the meaning of it.
He made our suffering a place to meet God,
         and a place to meet each other,
         like the Buddhist woman meeting her neighbors,
like Nietzsche holding the fallen horse.

When we venerate the cross tonight, whose cross is it?
Jesus’ cross? Your cross? My cross? Our neighbor’s cross?
The Syrian refugee’s cross?
Brothers and sisters, it’s the same cross.
There’s only one cross.

Jesus turned our suffering into something that will not destroy us.
Instead it is the basis of our compassion for one another.
We do not suffer alone but together with God and each other.
That’s what the word “compassion” means – to suffer with another.

We live in a world that worships success.
We have little use for the old religion of self-denial.
We practice disciplines of self-coddling.
The chaplain of a national Episcopal group this year
         actually wrote a Lenten letter urging us
         to go to a spa and relax in sensual delight for our Lenten discipline.
Our society averts its eyes from the poor, addicted,
         handicapped, and even those wounded in our wars.
A lot of so-called Christians are preaching a prosperity gospel:
         “Get your religion right,” they say, “and God will make you rich.”
It’s the religion for kings, the faith of winners.

But that isn’t Jesus’ religion.
The cross isn’t about that.
The cross is about “the tears in the nature of things.”

And eventually, if we cannot escape the thought of God
on the cross in Christ Jesus,
we’ll wind up asking,
“Must Jesus bear the cross alone
and all the world go free?
No there’s a cross for everyone
And there’s a cross for me.”

And if we cannot forget the story we have heard tonight,
         sooner or later,
         we’ll find ourselves like Nietzsche,
         overcome with compassion for a someone,
         ready to weep with them,
         ready to shield them with our own bodies
         out of godly mercy and vulnerable love.