St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
Good Friday – April 3, 2015
Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus speaks these words as he dies on the cross, demonstrating that even the person we idealize and rely on most faced doubt and despair in the bleakest moment of his struggling. But on Good Friday, Psalm 22’s opening question is as much our plea as it is the plea of Jesus. Watching Jesus weaken, suffer and die, we sense the man who once meant everything to us gradually withdrawing from the world he used to be at the center of. The confidence and he joy he bestowed on us appear to have been temporary: no longer will he gather us together to teach us a lesson or tell us a story; no longer will he pronounce forgiveness of our sins or heal the diseases suffered by our loved ones; no longer will he offer us a meal, breaking the bread and sharing the cup. At the foot of the Cross, we are the ones who are abandoned and lost, we are the ones who cry out to God and find no answer, we are the ones who feel despised and rejected and acquainted with grief. The liturgy of Good Friday—with its silencing of the organ, with its dramatic depiction of Jesus taking his last breath, with its omission of the Eucharist–-emphasizes more than any other day of the year the truth we try so hard to shy away from: that Jesus is dead, that he is not here, that he is gone.
Of course, this is not true completely. We still hear about him in our stories and songs, and we can still call out to him in prayer. Some of us feel his presence surrounding or guiding us from time to time, and some of us still see him in our dreams. His resurrection, which we commemorate each Easter, indicates that death is not the final ending for him, that in some sense he has not left us for good. However, once he ascends into heaven forty days after Easter, Jesus doesn’t seem to ever appear again on earth in physical form. In our daily lives, Jesus is not present to us in flesh and blood; he doesn’t breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide; he’s not someone we can hug or shake hands with or bump into at the grocery store. In a very real sense, he has forsaken us; he has left us alone.
This sad reality makes many people uncomfortable. More than one person has told me that they go to great lengths not to attend Church on Good Friday—it’s too depressing, they tell me, too morose, too brutal. A tortured, dying Christ doesn’t jive well with the loving oasis of calm we want the Church to be. Even many seriously religious people try to shield themselves from the real desolation and terror of Good Friday by stressing their close personal relationships with God and articulating their beliefs with a constantly increasing degree of certainty. We all seem to be running away from admitting to each other how distant God at times can be, and how alone we really are.
When the musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell came out in the early 70s, they scandalized some by presenting the story of Jesus’ life without a resurrection. At the time, Billy Graham declared that Jesus Christ Superstar had “border[ed] upon blasphemy and sacrilege” because it “left out the resurrection, and if there is not resurrection,” he said, “there is no Christianity.” But by ending their stories at the crucifixion instead of rushing ahead to the resurrection, the musicals were able to wrestle more seriously with the full meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death. In the musicals, the loss of Jesus is significant and real; his death is not a minor blip, a setback we know to be temporary, something that will be quickly remedied with an easy fix just before the curtain. Lacking an explicitly positive resolution, Jesus’ death becomes far more emotional, far more raw, and far more poignant.
My favorite song in Godspell, called “Beautiful City,” was not in the original show. Stephen Schwartz, the composer of Godspell, initially wrote the song for the movie adaptation, in which it takes on the same happy-go-lucky 70s tone that pervaded the rest of the musical, naively imagining a utopia that it thinks will pop up perfectly out of nowhere. But Schwartz reconsidered the song when he was involved in a Los Angeles production of Godspell in the wake of the Rodney King riots. In an effort to address the dramatic racial tensions highlighted by the riots, Schwartz wrote a new version of the song. The result was a piece of music that was no longer naïve, a song that had acquired depth by incorporating knowledge of the suffering and conflict that surrounded it. In the new version, the beautiful city is not a perfect one—a “city of angels,” gleaming and flawless, requiring no effort at all—but a realistic one—a “city of men,” comprised of fallible, imperfect human beings that can only be built up gradually, “brick by brick, heart by heart.” It’s a civilization that takes shape amidst destruction and loss, a “ray of hope” emerging “out of the ruins and rubble, out of the smoke, out of our night of struggle.” When “your trust is all but shattered,” the song tells us, “when your faith is all but killed, you can give up, bitter and battered, or you can slowly start to build.” The song asserts that moving forward is possible even in the least promising, most discouraging of moments. In the recent Broadway revival of Godspell, the cast sang parts of this song as they carried the limp dead body of Jesus out of the theatre. Still glancing at what death had done to their Savior, the followers of Jesus already started to progress beyond it. For them, hope didn’t wait for the resurrection; it began at the cross.
Similarly, for the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, the blood shed on the Cross is a great reassurance. In Hebrews, the Cross—far from spiraling us into deep despair—opens up for us “a new and living way.” Hebrews urges us to remain persistent in our faith even in the face of Jesus’ death: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering,” the writer suggests, “for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching.”
To look beyond the pain of death and abandonment and see any sort of promise is difficult, for sure. But it was a task that Jesus himself advocated. John tells us that right before dying, Jesus addressed his mother and the disciple that he loved. To his mother, he presented the disciple, saying, “Woman, here is your son.” To the disciple, he presented his mother, saying, “Here is your mother.” Before losing his life and leaving the world, Jesus placed those whom he loved into each other’s arms, giving them the responsibility for each other’s welfare that he himself once had. Jesus may have distanced himself from them in his eventual death, but he made clear that he desired for them to grow closer to one another once he was gone.
In many stories about early Christians, this is precisely what happens. Even in the immediate moments after Jesus’ death, Jesus’ followers were able to reach out to one another and begin to move on: the disciple Jesus loved took Jesus’ mother into his own home, while Jesus’ friends Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea worked together to honor his body and lay it in a tomb. Though the Christian community would become more concrete after Easter and Pentecost, it already began to coalesce at the moment of its greatest setback. Even when they experienced God at his most absent, even when their glimpses of the future were at their most uncertain and obscure, the earliest followers of Jesus learned to keep on going, to manage, to muddle through. And we can too.
The cross might be where we lose God, but it is also where we gain each other and ourselves. It is only when we are stretched to our limits, when we experience the worst that life can send us, that we can realize the full capacities of our own strength and potential, both individual and collective. The cross is not the cause of our downfall, but the instrument of our empowerment. The cross is not the desert of our loneliness, but the foundation of our love for each other in community. Why else are crosses so often present when Christians gather? At the cross we come together. At the cross we begin to build the Beautiful City.
 I have been thinking about absence in worship recently partly because of a homily Christian Wiman gave on George Herbert several weeks ago at Yale Divinity School. In the homily, Wiman suggested that Christ is both “here” and “not here” in worship, and in the Eucharist specifically. I am also indebted in this sermon to the way Barbara Brown Taylor connects Jesus’ absence to the Christian community in her sermon “Looking Up Towards Heaven,” found in the collection Gospel Medicine.