Year B; Lent 5; 3.21.2021
A year ago on Good Friday, we were live streaming from the little chapel in my dining room. I had found the cross we always use on Good Friday and brought it to my house. It’s the cross that Claude Brancart made, with two slender logs affixed in a cross and inserted in his hand-made and painted stand.
Over the seven years I’ve observed Good Friday at St. Paul’s, that cross has been a source of meaning for me. It was made with care by a parishioner. It was solemnly brought out for silent veneration during the Good Friday Liturgy. You allowed me to kneel at its feet first. Then, over a period of time, you would come, one-by-one to say your prayers, to interact with it, sometimes weeping.
From time to time, I think I become hardened with all the worries of my life and of the responsibilities of my vocation – that is, until Good Friday and I’m left welling up with tears at the foot of Claude’s cross. That happened again for me last year, even during Facebook Live…even in my “messy” studio-like dining room chapel.
Jesus, in the Gospel passage this Fifth Sunday in Lent, has now arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover feast. He had upset some religious leaders by raising his good friend Lazarus from the dead. Jesus brought deep and godly life-giving power to Lazarus, and that threatened the officials.
He had upset Judas very much at a banquet by allowing Mary to use expensive perfumed oil to anoint his feet. Jesus used the sacred moment to teach the guests that Mary was anointing him for the day of his burial. He was aware that the plot to set up a phony arrest and his death was real and would surely take place soon,
He then rode into Jerusalem on a donkey to waving palm branches and glorious shouts of “Blessed is the King of Israel!” The Messiah rode in spectacle into the religious capital of the Jewish population. But he was not the Messiah they were looking for; a leader who would drive the Romans and corrupt religious officials out. He tells Pontius Pilate later, “If I had been that kind of leader of this world, my followers would have intervened with violence in my arrest.”
Instead, he was led out to Golgotha to die on the cross, the instrument of Roman Capital Punishment. Guilty or innocent, it didn’t seem to matter, the cross was used to set an example for an unruly population. The splintered, wooden, used and re-used frames where iron nails affixed the bodies of the sentenced, surely were stained with blood. How could any redemptive meaning come from them?
To this day, much of our world seems impossible to redeem. Racial disparities in access to healthcare still persist, laid bare as the largest vaccination effort in the history of our country is ramped up. Poor countries scramble to receive any vaccine at all. Some elected officials have fanned xenophobic flames against Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans, converting the coronavirus name into racial slurs. And a young white man went on a shooting spree killing 8 people in Georgia, clearly a hate crime against people of Asian descent. The cache of weapons found in this man’s home make me wonder, “Can nothing overcome ‘the freedom’ of purchasing obscene amounts of weapons and ammunition?” 26 firearms, 2 silencers and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
Jesus calls out the source of this violence and hate. He says to the crowd, “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” Other translations call it the “Prince of this world.” I call it “Satan” or the “empires of this world.”
And then Jesus shares how the “ruler of this world will be driven out.” This is when I begin to weep because it means his death and resurrection. I weep because the power of God’s love makes it possible.
Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
The ancient rabbis had an intimate relationship with the verb “to draw.” It’s a word that evokes attraction, enticement, gathering, beckoning. The writer of Jeremiah used it when God finally says to Jeremiah, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.” “I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.”
In rabbinic literature, it is said that love motivates a Jewish person of faith to bring someone they love “…nigh to the Torah.” (The Torah meaning, the Godly Way of living). When you love someone, you wish for them to live in God’s way.
“The natural desire of someone who feels this love toward another means to make them sharers in the knowledge of God.” (R. Brown, “Commentary on the Gospel of John,” vol 1, p. 146) Scholars of John’s Gospel extend this rabbinical teaching to Jesus when he says, “And when I am lifted from the earth, I shall draw all people to myself.” Jesus loves us, and his death on the cross draws all people “nigh to God.” And with this truth, the tears of gratitude begin to fall.
Recently in a podcast I learned about the soil collection project of lynching sites across this country. It’s sponsored by the Equal Justice Initiative and is part of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Bryan Stephenson, the civil rights lawyer helped to found this holy site. He tells the story of a middle-aged Black woman who decided to collect soil from a lynching site that was near the museum. She went there alone and was a bit nervous. But she felt strongly that she wanted to help collect this soil that surely had been spattered with the blood of the victims, even so many years ago.
She found the site and got her collection jar, the little scoop and the instructions paper, and began to dig. Soon, she saw a truck pass by and slow down. A white man was driving. He looked out the window and stared at her. Anxiety began to build in her. Still, she kept digging. He turned around and drove slowly the other direction, still staring.
The woman just looked down and kept digging. But the man stopped. He got out of his truck. He was a big white man. The instructions counselled the diggers that they were not obligated to tell anyone what they were doing. The man asked, “What are you doing?”. And she decided she needed to be strong and bear witness to the truth and tragedy that her digging was revealing.
She said, “I’m digging soil because this is where a Black man was lynched in 1931, and I’m going to honor his life.” Then she turned and kept digging. The man read the paper she handed him. Soon, he looked up and asked, “Would it be ok if I helped dig?” He got on his knees next to her and used his hands to dig and put the soil in her jar. She describes tears coming to her eyes. He saw them and apologized for upsetting her. She said, “Oh no. I’m not upset. I’m crying because you blessed me.” Finally, they filled the jar and he sat back on his haunches. He now was crying. It was her turn to ask about his well-being.
“Are you alright?” “No,” he said. “I’m so afraid that it might have been my grandfather who committed this act.” And they sat in silence for a moment, these strangers drawn together by a history of unspeakable violence, and soil that most certainly had traces of victims’ DNA. And yet, they were drawn by a spirit of redemption beyond anything they could describe.
I do wonder, what draws you to Christ? Even in the most horrendous acts, what does the cross mean to you when it is lifted up for us all?