September 24, 2017

Good Friday

Is 52:13-53:12
Ps 22
Hb 10:16-25
John 18:1-19:42


“By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future?”

Another translation renders the rhetorical question thus: “Who cared about what was to become of him?” Who cares?

It is Friday, Good Friday. Tell me what is so good about it: A poor guy being executed in a mishandling of justice in order to appease rage and fear of the authorities in charge? The offering of a scapegoat to the people to believe that justice was served and sacrifice to God was made? What is good about this Friday when God abandoned the world and the most beloved of its creatures? What is good about this? Are we forgetting Luther’s admonition when he said that a theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil, while a
theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is? So tell me what is good about it.

Or call it for what it is. Desolation Friday? Wretched Friday? Agony Friday? But we know better, don’t we? We know that it is good because it bought us our salvation. It is good because God sacrificed the beloved one on our behalf. It is good because on this day our brokenness was atoned. It is good because it made us good in
spite of ourselves. It is good because we know what the outcome is. It is good because tomorrow is Saturday and the alleluias are coming back. We know that it is good because all is well that ends well. And the eggs, chocolate, marzipans are being prepared. It is good because tomorrow is Saturday and Easter Sunday is on the wait. We know that it is good, because after the long readings for today, this is not the end of the story. We know that it is good because there are only some hours to wait for what is sure to come, the Saturday vigil, the intonations of alleluias, and, of course, a good meal with family and friends. It is good, because we know that at the end glory defeats gore, wonder will undo the wound, and splendor will shine over spite. We just know it.

Yes, we know that the story did not end there. But I am afraid we know too much. We know a bit too much. We know the story of Jesus, but not the way we know the story when the results of a blood test, of a scan, or a biopsy say this ominous word “positive.” We know the story of Jesus, but not the way the Haitian or Chilean victims of recent earthquakes knew or even know now theirs. We know the story but not the way the
people of Congo or Afghanistan know theirs; not the way when tragedy visits and tomorrow is an unfathomable thought; not the way the person who receives another decline letter in a row of dozens in applying for a desperately needed job. We know the story of Jesus, but not the way the family and friends of Kaia and herself knew about her story last Friday. We know the story, but not in the way when pain strikes and abandonment is felt quenching the flickering flame of hope’s last candle. We know too much about the story of Jesus, that we don’t care any longer about the journey because we know the destination, the happy port of arrival, the glorious end.

We know too much as to slide over a single word in the long gospel lesson of today, a severe word that is not a transition, but an end. It is one word only in the original text; one word but decisively ultimate: tetelestai, it is finished, it is over. When I think I know the story of Jesus, I realize that I know it because I did not hear or have been cavalier in regard to that one single word, telestai; story, there is no more; not for us; not on Friday!

Here, now is where and when all end. The story is over. Close the book and open your life. It is finished, close the book and open your eyes. It is not too late to take up a Lenten discipline. It is not too late because it is still Friday. It is Friday, and tomorrow we don’t know. This is the discipline: unlearn the story and be
awake. Be attentive; be prayerful, be watchful, as Jesus asked the disciples at Gethsemane. But, alas, they went to sleep, because they thought they knew how the story would end. Their master was the conqueror of the world as they knew it, everything would be alright, so they thought; they knew too much. As the disciples we also know so much about Jesus, or so we think, that we slumber missing the mark of the places where
he is even now, because it is Friday. And late when we awake we will ask in utter surprise and dismay: “When did we not see you?”

Yes, we want to reach glorious Easter Sunday and cling to the enthroned Christ. We know too much about our destination, so much as to be oblivious to the road we totter. And this is why we miss it. How long will it take for me to realize that I cannot reach this Christ; it is in vain as much as I try. At my reach is only the God who came to be by me in the Fridays of my life. The discipline of Lent is to unlearn the story we think we know the end of, while we miss in it the gravity of the one word that encloses it all: tetelestai, it
is finished. The end is right at the center, in middle, in the depth and the heart of our own existence. Cling onto that, that which is nearest to you. Trust that, there alone God is at your grasp. Tetelestai! Dwell in this word. Through it God comes to you.

What follows, and indeed there is more written after that, is the account of witnesses who reporting on a wretched Friday said: There is where I met the one and true God. All the rest that follows sends us back to Friday. The lesson for today is not a prelude, it does not have a point to which it direct us; it does not have a point. It is the point. The words of a poem by Wendel Berry, written shortly after his son died attests to this
discipline of unlearning.
I read of Christ crucified
the only begotten son
sacrificed to flesh and time
and all our woe. He died
and rose, but who does not tremble
for his pain, his loneliness,
and the darkness of the sixth hour?
Unless we grief like Mary
at his grave, giving Him up
as lost, no Easter morning comes.

If this (LSTC) is a place of learning, this learning is made of instructions on unlearning stories that make us slumber and forget that their end is deep down in the middle; there is the point; tetelestai, that is it. Learn this, which Nicholas of Cusa called docta ignorantia, the learned ignorance, the erudite foolishness. Be appeased not for what is to come, but because on a Friday the almighty joined our finitude down to its most bitter end. And when we are asked by the prophet, who cares? We might say while still awake: I do.
Then, maybe then, if Sunday comes we may greet it fully aware of where we dwelt, with tense-ridden words as these (fromWilliam Butler Yeats):
:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Preached at LSTC on April 2, 2010 (Good Friday).

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