Friday, March 29, 2013


Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
March 29, 2013

Good Friday
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Psalm 22:1-21
Hebrews 10:1-25
Psalm 69:1-23
John 18:1-19:37
            I remember the first time I attended a wake and a funeral. I was a kid, not sure how old exactly. I remember my parents explaining what it was going to be like visiting at the funeral home and then later what the funeral mass would be like. I remember being sad, frightened, and worried. I remember wondering how I – or anybody else – would be able to get through such a hard and painful experience: the death of someone we love.
            Since then, like most of us, I’ve been to more wakes, memorial services and funerals than I can count – more than I would want to count.
            These gatherings are always daunting and sometimes so painful, especially when we mourn someone young or someone who has died suddenly or someone who had an especially difficult or troubled life.
            But, still, we go and we gather.
            We gather to grieve.
            But, at wakes, memorial services and funerals, we gather also to remember – to remember happier times, yes, but more than that to remember and even to celebrate the core – the essence – of the one who has died.
            And, that’s what we are about today.
            Good Friday is a day of grief and it’s also a day of remembering – and, ultimately, it’s even a day of celebration.           
            We grieve the tragic death of Jesus of Nazareth – the horrifying and shameful death of the prophet who preached repentance, forgiveness, and love.
            We grieve the senseless execution of the meek king who had so recently been greeted with waving palms and cloaks on the road and shouts of Hosanna as he rode on a donkey into his capital city.
            We grieve the death of the Son of God.
            And maybe, on this day, we also grieve the deaths of so many other innocent people who have died and are dying even today at the hands of 21st Century counterparts of Caiaphas, Herod and Pilate.
            We gather to grieve and we gather to remember.
            As an act of grief and memory, on Good Friday it’s been the custom since very early in Christian history to read the Passion according the Gospel of John.
            It’s a beautiful account, but one that needs to be put into some context. Listening to the story of betrayal and abandonment and calls for crucifixion, we need to remember that Jesus and all of his first followers were Jews. What we are hearing is a tragic conflict within Judaism and among Jews of the First Century. It’s a tragic conflict that has nothing to do with Jews of today or of any other time.
            It is an act of memory when we cry out “Crucify him!” But, we’re not standing in for Jewish people of two thousand years ago. No, we’re playing ourselves. We’re being reminded of the ways that we ourselves have crucified and still crucify Jesus when we turn away from his command to love God and to love one another.
            We grieve and we remember and, ultimately, we celebrate.
            So, what is the core – what is the essence – of Jesus that we remember and even celebrate today?
            Well, for me, nobody says it better than St. Paul:
            Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
            That familiar passage is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians but most scholars think Paul is actually quoting a very early Christian hymn – an early Christian reflection on the core – the essence – of Jesus and the core – the essence – of the Gospel.
            The core – the essence - of Jesus Christ is self-emptying love.
            Open up just about any page of the gospels and you’ll find it.
            But, we see the self-emptying love of Jesus most clearly at the end of his life.
            On Maundy Thursday morning we remembered John’s story of the Last Supper. John tells us that Jesus “got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.”
            There it is: the core – the essence of Jesus Christ – self-emptying love.
            And, on the cross, Jesus gives way - empties out - his life for us all.
             “It is finished.”
            Of course, if the story ended at the Cross, if Jesus and his mission were really finished on that first Good Friday, none of us would be spending part of our afternoon here today.
            But, we know on that first Easter God did what God always does, turning death into life. God refills the empty vessels. Faster than we can give away love, faster than we can pour out ourselves, God always manages to replenish us with more love - more of us - so there’s always even more love and more of us to give away.
            Back at the Last Supper, after Jesus was done washing the disciples’ feet, he explained to them why he did it:
            “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
            The core – the essence of Jesus Christ – is self-emptying love.
            And as Christians, our core – our essence – is meant to be self-emptying love.
            Two thousand years ago people didn’t know what to make of the self-emptying love of Jesus.
            The religious and political authorities saw him as a threat.
            For the most part, even Jesus’ closest disciples didn’t get it – didn’t understand Jesus’ self-emptying love. Instead they jockeyed for position or prestige. They were suspicious and jealous of others who healed in Jesus’ name. They dozed off – they betrayed – they abandoned Jesus in his time of greatest need.
            But, there were some who understood and imitated the self-emptying love of Jesus.
            Mary of Bethany got it when she anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume worth nearly a year of wages – giving away - pouring out - all she had as a gift to Jesus.
            Two thousand years later people still don’t know what to make of the self-emptying love of Jesus.
            Look at all the attention Pope Francis has gotten by doing things like carrying his own bags, paying his own hotel bill, personally canceling a newspaper subscription, preferring to live in a simple apartment instead of a palace, and yesterday washing the feet of prisoners  - even some women! - at a youth detention facility.
            Of course, he’s just doing his best to imitate Jesus.
            But, we don’t have to look all the way to Rome for examples of Christians following Jesus’ example of self-giving love.
            In my time here at Grace I’ve seen it over and over again. I’ve seen self-giving love when a bunch of girls and their moms decided to put on a play, raising money to help pay tuition for a girl whose mother had died far too young.
            I’ve seen self-giving love in times of tragedy and loss when we sign up to provide meals for grieving families, when we offer shoulders to cry on, when we make time to visit people in hospitals and nursing homes and even jail.
            I’ve seen self-giving love when I recently bumped into a parishioner at Shop Rite pushing a cart filled with groceries – groceries bought not for her family but for a family in need.
            I’ve seen self-giving love when parishioners create a delicious gourmet dinner for homeless people and when on “Souper Bowl” Sunday our soup pots overflow with cash and checks for soup kitchens in Morristown and Dover.
            Right here at Grace Church, over and over again, I’ve seen the self-giving love of Christ.
            Today we’ve gathered together to grieve the tragic death – the senseless execution of Jesus of Nazareth.
            And we’ve gathered to remember the core – the essence of Jesus: the self-giving love that he poured out throughout his life and finally when “he stretched out his arms of love on the hard of the cross, that he might draw the whole world to himself.”
            Then and now the world doesn’t know what to make of self-giving love – is still surprised and confused by it.
            The Evangelist John tells us that just before Jesus took his last breath on the cross, he said, “It is finished.”
            But, we know on that first Easter God did what God always does, turning death into life, refilling empty vessels.
            Faster than we can give away love, faster than we can pour out ourselves, God always manages to replenish us with more love - more of us - so there’s always even more love and more of us to give away.
            May it be so.