Sunday, March 29, 2015


The story is strong, but the point is far from clear.
Mark’s version is so harsh, so brutal.
And he does not tell us what it means.
Mark just throws a dark, grim, brutal story on the table
and leaves it there.
There is no reconciling, “Fr. forgive them.
There is no sublime resignation,
            “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”
A condemned, tortured man dies in despair.

We may hear it with a prefabricated interpretation.
The popular prefabricated interpretation says it’s about
            an algebra equation of guilt and punishment.
God demands that x amount of sin
            must be punished by x amount of suffering.
We deserve to suffer, but instead Jesus suffers so we don’t have to.

But Mark doesn’t say any of that.
If that interpretation connects you to Jesus,   fine.
But it makes no sense to a lot of folks.
In fact, it cuts them off from God.

So if the idea of God killing Jesus so he wouldn’t have to kill us,
doesn’t work for you,  I want to help.
The algebra equation of sin and punishment
            did not come up in church teaching
                        until 1,000 years after Jesus.
The Bible is crystal clear that Jesus saves us.
But there isn’t a simple explanation for how that works.
There are little hints and glimpses here and there,
            and theologians have taken them as jumping off places
                        to explain salvation in different ways for centuries.

Mark doesn’t interpret his grim story of torture and death.
So I am grateful that we also have a lesson today
            from Paul’s letter to the Philippians
                        to interpret Mark’s story.
This is one of the most beautiful
            and profound poems in the whole Bible.
I love this text because it tells me something I can believe
            and hold onto.
It’s  a way to understand the cross that makes a difference
            for the people who are losing their homes and their jobs,
for people with failing health and broken marriages,
for victims of crime, terrorism, racism, and bigotry.
We need the cross to say something about that.

If God is sitting serenely at ease in Heaven
            while we struggle through the world’s cruelty and injustice,
                        that doesn’t help.
If God is sitting at a safe distance with his
            with his moral accountant’s ledger of our sins
                        so he can exact the right punishments,
                                    that doesn’t help.

So thank God for Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
He tells us that Jesus was not just one more human victim
            in a long line of victims of cruelty and justice.
He says Jesus was God.
But this God did not choose the cushy life
            of being Lord of the Universe.
He “emptied himself,” Paul says.
He gave up that safe nest to share our life.
And he did not choose the life of a king
            or a CEO or a revered scholar.
He chose the life of a menial servant, then a prisoner,
                        finally enduring the most shameful death
                        the world has to offer
            – capital punishment as a condemned traitor.

Jesus did not die proud of his heroic martyrdom.
He had emptied himself of his perfect wisdom,
            so that he died without knowing the meaning
                        of his death.

His dying words according to Mark were,
            “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
He shared our confusion, our alienation, and our despair.
For Paul, this is not something that happened once in history
            and now it’s over.
The cross shows us what God the Son does
            every moment, because in his infinite compassion,
                        he feels every pain that we feel
                                    every inch as deeply as we do.
God is so present with the hungry that his stomach cramps
            -- with the lonely that his throat constricts
                        and he cannot call out for comfort       
            --  so present with the grief-stricken that he cannot move.

Jesus joins us in our worst moments.
“No, never alone,” the old gospel hymn puts it.
If we are afflicted, he will not let us be afflicted alone.
He goes with us right through the gates of hell.

But does that do any good?
Does it help? Does it matter?
I believe with all my heart, it does.
When God in Christ joins us,
            it changes the meaning of our suffering.
It redeems our suffering from being meaningless.
If God joins in our suffering, it turns our suffering
Into the place we find salvation.
We have to meet God to be saved.

We meet God at the cross – his cross, our cross.
It’s the same cross.
We can meet God in other ways too.
We meet God in beauty and in joy.
But it’s like when you are in trouble
            and your friends stand by you.

When God in Jesus joins us in our worst times,
            when God suffers with us so we won’t suffer alone,
                        that’s when we know the depth of God’s love.
St. Paul said “I want to suffer with Christ.”
That isn’t  masochistic.
If I had my choice, I’d rather not suffer.
But we don’t have a choice.
Suffering goes with the turf of being human, 
            so if I have to suffer, let me suffer with Christ.
Let my suffering be my point of connection to God’s love.

Then when we experience love, we can love God back,
            and that changes everything.
When we love as Christ loves us, we become like Christ,
            and we connect to our suffering differently.
We notice that we aren’t the only ones who feel this way.
We take off the blinders and dare to look at the suffering of others
      at war in Syria, or the 21,000 people dying daily of hunger
-- at the shame and remorse in the people right next to us.

Life hurts. We all hurt. We all go to the cross.
But we do not go to the cross without hope
            if we go there together with Christ and each other.
When we bleed together, that’s Communion.

Is all of this an adequate answer for the people
            who are out of work, the victims of violence or injustice?

Is it enough to know we are in this together
            and God is in it with us?
No. It is not enough.
The cross is not the whole answer.
When we are in the burning building
            and Jesus charges though fire
                        to join us there,
            that is the first step toward making a difference.

Salvation happens when he carries us outside.
That’ s the Easter Story
            when Jesus crashes out of Hell,
            breaking open the gates and posting an exit sign.
The crucified Christ is the one who will break the chains
of sin and death to set us free.

That’s the next chapter.
For today, it is only ours to remember
            how much we are loved
                        by one who never leaves us alone.