Monday, April 24, 2017

Three Weeks, Same Day


This coming Sunday is the Third Sunday of Easter. In case you've forgotten, there are eight Sundays in the Easter season, including Pentecost, which is the 50th day of this 50-day celebration of the resurrection. Since this is the third Sunday, we're almost half-way through this annual escapade, but you might notice that we haven't gotten very far. On Easter Day, we read the story of the discovery of the empty tomb. Yesterday, we began our gospel lesson on the evening of that same day, when Jesus appeared to all of the disciples except Thomas, who had his own encounter with the risen Lord a week later. If you thought we'd be moving on by this point, you'd be wrong because this Sunday's gospel lesson starts in the same place--the evening of the Day of Resurrection. Good news for organists: even though "Welcome happy morning!" is out, we can still sing "Hail thee festival day" one more time. Bad news for preachers: we're still stuck on Day One.

The good news for those crafting a sermon this week, however, is that the Road to Emmaus allows the kind of deep textual and liturgical engagement that makes preaching fun. Two disciples are walking away from Jerusalem on  Easter evening, when they are met by the risen Jesus, whom they are kept from recognizing. He opens the scriptures to them, explaining why the death and resurrection of God's anointed one was necessary, yet they still do not see who it is with whom they are walking. When they sit down at the table, Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives the bread to them, and their eyes are opened. Immediately, Jesus vanishes from their sight, and the disciples get up and walk the seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples, who have their own resurrection stories to tell.

What will the preacher say? A sermon on the fact that sometimes scriptural exposition isn't enough to apprehend Jesus--sometimes we need table fellowship, too? Another sermon on the reality of the resurrection sinking in only when the disciples meet the resurrected Jesus--the way we, too, meet him in his body and blood, which are given for us? A sermon on the transformation of death to life that happens within each of us when we encounter the resurrection for ourselves--only after we've walked the road of uncertainty where Jesus himself meets us? But all of that seems familiar to me. If there's a challenge this week, it's preaching a sermon that feels as fresh to the preacher and, thus, to the congregation as the encounter with Jesus felt to Cleopas and the other disciple.

There's a reason we're still stuck on "that same day," and it's not because the lectionary authors ran out of material for Easter. Like the disciples, we need time to encounter the resurrection of Jesus. The discovery of the empty tomb may have happened at one particular moment in time, but the ramifications of that filter through several encounters that first day and in the weeks that followed. We need time to know that the tomb isn't merely empty but also to see that he is risen. We need time to consider why that matters and what it means. This doesn't feel as fresh and exciting as the moment when Mary Magdalene found the stone rolled away. I don't run through this gospel lesson the way Peter and the Beloved Disciple raced toward the empty tomb. But I'm not supposed to. This is a walk--a long, seven-mile walk. This is consideration. This is the church's way of lingering in the story. We've expanded that first day for three weeks. Don't expect to rush through it. Easter is a season, not a day, and this Sunday's gospel lesson gives us the chance to dwell in it together.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Unless...I Will Not Believe


There's a reason we read about "Doubting Thomas" each year on the Second Sunday of Easter, and it isn't because Thomas is special. Thomas plays an important role in John's account of the resurrection. In fact, it's a role he plays throughout John's gospel account. Thomas isn't the curmudgeonly hold-out who is the last one to accept the newfangled way of thinking. He's the guy who needs to encounter Jesus before he can believe in the resurrection. In other words, he's you and me.

Yesterday, Steve Pankey wrote beautifully about the compassion Jesus had for Thomas, urging us to hear his words not as a taunting rebuke of the faithless disciple but as an offer of his body as physical proof of the resurrection. I strongly urge you to read his post. I want to build on what he said, using the Greek text to show that, as Steve concludes, Thomas' "unbelief" is not only not recalcitrance but the same honest, genuine skepticism that we bring to the story of the resurrection.

When Thomas heard from his companion disciples that they had seen the risen Jesus, he responded, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." As I often ask people in bible studies, if you were the film director designing this scene, how would you set it? My instinct is to show Thomas with his arms crossed, shaking his head, denying actively what his friends were saying to him. When I hear him say, "...I will not believe," it sounds like an expression of his will. It's as if he were saying to them, "I am withholding my belief until I get the proof I want. I have made up my mind not to give in until my terms are met."

Does this sound familiar? "Would you like them in a house? Would you like them with a mouse?" Sam-I-Am asks. "I do not like them in a house. I do not like them with a mouse. I do not like them here or there. I do not like them anywhere," the unnamed character responds. That's Thomas. That's the Thomas of my imagination--stubborn, cynical, pouty, and uncompromising. And all of it is because of the way his response to the disciples' testimony is conveyed. But I don't think that's a fair translation of what Thomas says.


The verb that Thomas uses to tell the disciples that he will not believe is "πιστεύσω." As you might expect, it is the future indicative active first-person singular verb for "to believe." It is, of course, rightly translated, "I will [not] believe," but that doesn't necessarily mean the stubborn refusal that is sounds like in English. For starters, consider how someone might say, "Unless I get pregnant, I will not buy a car seat." That's not stubborn. It's just sensible. Unless the context is a high-pressured sales pitch, during which the salesperson badgers a woman into buying a car seat she doesn't need, to which the response would rightly be a stubborn, insistent, defiant rejection, the statement "I will not" isn't necessarily defiant. It's just naming the condition necessary for the purchase to ensue. As Steve suggests in his post, maybe Thomas is simply saying, "This is what I have to have--not because I want it to be that way but because that's what I need in order for the faith to be real to me."

Taking the Greek a little further, it may be worth noting that in New Testament Greek there is no difference in the form of a future indicative active first-person singular verb and the form of a aorist subjunctive active first-person singular verb. In other words, the same word πιστεύσω, that is usually translated, "I will [not] believe," may also mean "I shall [not] have believed." Before my Greek teachers line up to take my passing grades away from me, let me acknowledge that the context makes that unlikely, but the fact that the forms are identical suggests etymologically that there is similarity in the meanings--a similarity that comes out in the awkward translation I provide. The point I'm making is that the volition behind the English "I will not believe" is not necessarily present in what Thomas says to his colleagues.

If I were directing this scene in a movie, I would give Thomas a pleading posture and an urgent tone. When he says, "Unless...I will not believe," I would invite the actor to portray that with a desperation that yearns for the truth. "I want to believe, but I will not, cannot, until I can touch it for myself." Isn't that what we say? Isn't that John's point?

"Have you believed because you have seen me?" Jesus says. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." That's John's way of letting us know that our own doubts are reasonable. No one would have believed in the resurrection unless Jesus had appeared to them in the flesh. The other eleven disciples had that opportunity, and Thomas' doubt is our doubt. His question of Jesus back in John 14--"We do not know where you are going. How will we know the way?"--is our question as well. He's the reasonable one. He's the rational one. He's the real one--the one who, like us, doesn't find true belief because someone tells us we should. He needs to see and know and feel the risen Jesus. We don't have that opportunity, but the realism of Thomas' request helps us overcome our doubts. Our faith is found as Thomas' is found, and Jesus' response to us is the same: Here I am. Come and touch me. Feel me. Do not doubt but believe.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Be Known to Us


There is a fraction anthem in the front of the hymnal that we don't sing very often (ever) in our church that captures the moment when Cleopas and the other disciple realized that it was Jesus who was sitting with them at the table in Emmaus: "Be known to us, Lord Jesus, in the breaking of the bread." I have sung those words in other churches, but I have never identified them explicitly with this moment--this episode in Luke when Jesus was revealed to these two followers. I wonder, however, whether it is fair to say that "Jesus was revealed" to them and whether we should instead say that "the disciples apprehended him."

Consider for a moment all of the resurrection encounters you can remember from the New Testament. When has the one to whom Jesus was revealed understood immediately what was standing in front of them? Mary Magdalene weeps outside the tomb and mistakes Jesus as the gardener. The two disciples see that the grave cloths are in the tomb but go back to their homes still unable to understand. Thomas refuses to accept that Jesus has been raised until he can feel with his own fingers and hands the flesh of the risen Jesus. Even though they had already met the risen Lord, the disciples gather behind locked doors out of fear. Standing on the beach, the risen Jesus calls to the disciples in the boat, inviting them to cast their net on the other side, and only when the net is filled with fish do they understand who it is who is speaking to them. And then there's today's story from Luke 24, in which two disciples walk down the road to Emmaus, unable to see who it is that has come among them.

All of that suggests that none of us is ready to meet the risen Lord. Even after we have heard stories of the resurrected Jesus appearing to some of his disciples, we are not prepared to perceive who it is that comes among us. No exposition of scripture, no matter how careful and thorough, can move us from belief to recognition. It's one thing to put the pieces together, but it's quite another to sit down at a table with Jesus. Like the first followers of Jesus, we participate in the body of the faithful--in the body of Christ--not only with our minds but also with our whole selves. We know Jesus as we have been known--fully, intimately, physically, personally.

It's hard for me to imagine how it is that two disciples could walk and talk with the same Jesus whom they knew so well and not see him. It's hard for me to imagine how they could sit down at a table with him and begin a meal together without knowing who it was with whom they were sharing table fellowship. But it's not hard for me to imagine how the act of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving the bread to them was the act that united them to one another. And, as strange as it sounds, it's not at all hard for me to imagine Jesus disappearing from their sight as soon as they understood who he was.

Caravaggio captured this moment of recognition in his painting of this scene. In it, we see Jesus' hand extended over the bread in the dominical gesture of blessing. We see the arms of the older disciple outstretched in a gesture of surprise and welcome. We see the other in the act of jumping to his feet, leaning forward with hands gripping the sides of his chair as he prepares to leap up to embrace the risen Lord. We see the quizzical look of the man who is serving the meal and who wonders what it is that is going on in front of him. There is movement in this painting. There is intimacy. We are drawn into the circle at the table in the open corner placed right in front of us. The basket of fruit seems like it will fall into our lap at any moment. We want to reach out and slide it a little more fully onto the table. Caravaggio is begging us to find our place there. There is room for us to reach into the canvas toward Jesus. We see where it is that we, too, will meet our risen Lord.

Be known to us, Lord Jesus, in the breaking of the bread. With those words, we not only express our belief that Jesus meets us when we gather for Communion. We acknowledge that this meal--this ceremonial act of table fellowship in his name--is the way that we know him. It is here that we not only hear the story of Jesus' self-offering. It is here that we partake of it, participate in it, and are united to it. We are not here to see Jesus unveiled. We are here to know him. In the bread which we break and share, Jesus is not only revealed to us. In it, we know him. Be known to us, Lord Jesus, in the breaking of the bread.


Caravaggio's The Supper at Emmaus (1601) in the National Gallery in London
The image is in the public domain.



Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Light Shines in the Darkness


Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

There's a line in the movie Rounders that I seem to come back to over and over. That's the poker movie from the late 1990s that stars Matt Damon and Edward Norton. In the film, in order to forestall the violent beating of his friend, Damon's character vouches for Norton's character, agreeing to accept the gambling debt of the latter as if it were his own. The two men work together, cheating at poker, in order to raise the money. Just when it looks like they are close to having enough, their dishonesty is discovered, and they lose everything. Damon's character must appeal to other friends and acquaintances, seeking a loan to prevent his own violent demise, and one of those would-be lenders begins to lecture Damon on where he went wrong. Damon's reply still bears truth in my own life: "This is the one time I don't need you to tell me how I [screwed] up. I know I [screwed] up. What I need from you is money."


I have always been uncomfortable with Good Friday sermons that identify the sins of the congregation as the nails that held Jesus to the cross. I don't disagree with the theology behind those sermons--just the timing. Sure, Jesus died on the cross to free us from our sin once and for all, but, when I'm staring at the cross itself, my mind and heart are not fertile ground for such seeds. I know I screwed up. I don't need the preacher to tell me I screwed up. I need a way out. I need hope. I need Jesus and the limitless love that he brings to the world.

The light of Easter seems a much better time for me to confront my role in the cross. Repentance is always easier when I have something to turn toward and not just something from which to turn away. Today is Tuesday in Easter Week. We're just three days into the resurrection, and what is the appointed reading from Acts? "Peter said to the multitude, 'Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified'" (Acts 2:36). We've just finished forty days of penitence. We've done the self-examination. We're ready to move on. But Peter isn't finished with the cross yet. He can't be. From the defeat of the cross springs new hope and new life and new possibility.

Notice how Peter says it: "God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified." He doesn't start with the failure. He begins with the victory. God has made him victorious over death despite your worst efforts. Easter shines forth into, over, and above the darkness you created. There is possibility here, and Peter starts with the possibility, but, at the same time, he doesn't want us to miss the circumstances that gave rise to that new possibility.

Pay attention to how the crowd responds: "Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, 'Brothers, what should we do?'" The hope is not detached from the circumstance; it is articulated in opposition to it. God raised the one you crucified. Presented with this reality, the response is a seeking: "What should we do?" An exposition of darkness cannot draw out such a response. If Peter had merely beaten the people over the head with their misdeeds, they would have turned away from him and his message. But Peter offered hope in the context of reality, and the product was faith.

What should we do? Repent, Peter says. "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." Repentance, after all, isn't only an act by which we leave behind our misdeeds, our old life, our wrong-headedness. It is the act by which we turn around to embrace something new. It is the beginning of a new life. Peter's invitation, therefore, is to accept that God's path is revealed in the resurrection (and ascension, but that's later in the calendar,) of Jesus. The path that the people had been on was the path that led to the cross. "Which path would you rather be on?" Peter seems to be saying, the one that you were one--the one that led to the cross--or the one that God is one--the one that leads to life? Repentance is an opportunity to change course, and it's always easier to change course when we have the light to show us where we've been going and where we might now go.

Don't let the light of the resurrection come and go without allowing it to illuminate both the Easter path that you're on and the Good Friday path that you've come from. Your sins nailed Jesus Christ to the cross. All of ours did. But that's not the end of the story. Our sin is what led us to the cross. God's victory over that sin is what leads us away from the cross, through the empty tomb, and out into the world in the light of Easter. May our walk with Jesus Christ be a continual repentance from the old and an embrace of the new.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Resurrection Is For The Living

April 16, 2017 – Easter Day
© 2017 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here.
 
Happy Easter to you! We’ve been waiting forty days to say that, and it feels good. I am glad that you are here this morning to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Many of you are wearing new Easter dresses or suits or ties. Some of you have dusted off your seersucker jackets and linen trousers and white shoes. Either way, you all look great. After church, I hope that you have a glorious afternoon waiting on you—one filled with family and food. This morning, however, I want to talk about what comes after that. What comes next—when the brightness of Easter begins to fade?

For Seth and me and lots of other clergy, tomorrow will be a day of rest and recovery. I’ll squeeze in a nap and try to catch up on all the yard work I haven’t been doing lately. What about you? It’s a school day. Many of you will go back to work. If you have had family in town, your house might seem pretty quiet. You might be glad for the rest, but you might miss the company as well. For some of us, the brightness of today is just a momentary reprieve, and the challenges of ordinary life, which we have set aside for this Easter feast, will come rushing back with renewed vengeance. Others of us will carry the joy of the resurrection with us for the fifty days of the Easter season and maybe even beyond that, but then what? Will this Easter—this discovery of the empty tomb—make a lasting difference in our life, or will it come and go just like a tray of mama’s deviled eggs?

Have you ever known someone who was in such a funk that he or she just couldn’t shake it off even when everyone and everything all around them was doing great? Have you ever felt like that? A loved one dies, and we spend months and months stuck in an impenetrable fog of grief. We get burned in a relationship, and we build a wall around our heart so high and so thick that even when love comes knocking we fail to recognize it. An unexpected election result causes us to question the character of the American electorate to the point where we can no longer see the good in one another. Do you ever feel, as I heard in a recent sermon, that “we are dwelling not in an era of blossoming life, but rather [subsisting] within an age of death?”[1] In other words, do you ever feel like we need more than a baked ham and Cadbury Creme Eggs and plastic grass and chocolate bunnies? Do you ever feel like we need more than Easter? Do you ever feel like we need a resurrection moment that can make a lasting difference in our lives? To me, it seems like we need the resurrection now more than ever, but how will we find that resurrection moment?

The resurrection story that we read today in John’s gospel account speaks words of lasting hope that have the power to shatter even our deepest despair, and they come not with the discovery of an empty tomb but in an encounter with the risen Jesus. Some may find the story of the resurrection hard to believe, but I think that the disbelief that runs through today’s gospel lesson is far more unbelievable than the walking, talking, breathing, risen Jesus.

On the first day of the week, while it was still dark, one of Jesus’ closest followers, Mary Magdalene, came to the tomb, and, when she saw that the stone had been rolled away, what did she run to tell the disciples? “They have taken the Lord of out the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Not, “Our Lord has risen just as he promised!” Nor, “The stone is rolled away from his tomb. Could he be raised just as he told us?” But, “They have taken his lifeless body and put it somewhere else.” For months, Jesus had been telling his followers that on the third day he would rise again, but, when Mary Magdalene saw the stone rolled away, she panicked and feared the worst.

Maybe it’s because she didn’t look inside, we might think to ourselves, but, when Peter and the other disciple got there and looked in and saw the linen wrappings lying there but no body with them, their conclusion was no clearer. John tells us that the other disciple believed, but what did he believe? Not that Jesus had been raised, for, in the very next sentence, John tells us that they did not yet understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead. It seems most likely that these disciples believed what Mary had told them—that Jesus was gone. So they left and went back to their homes, carrying with them their grief and loss, which had now been compounded by their master’s missing body.

After the disciples left, Mary stood weeping by the tomb. This time it was her turn to look in, and when she stooped down to peer into the tomb, she saw two angels, clothed in white, sitting where Jesus’ body had been laid. “Woman, why are you weeping?” they asked her. And, if you thought that two angels surely would trigger in her mind that something supernatural was going on, you’d be wrong because she answered, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Talk about blinding grief! Then, when she turned around, she saw Jesus, standing in front of her. Jesus himself spoke to Mary and said the same thing: “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” But she was still not able to see the miracle even though it was standing right before her eyes. Supposing him to be the gardener, she replied to him in utter agony, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away and give him another burial.” Something had to give. Finally, unwilling to let this fog of despair linger any longer, Jesus cut right through it and said, “Mary!” And, in that instant, everything changed.

“Rabbouni!” she said to him, seeing for the first time that he had indeed been raised from the dead. With that one word—her name—spoken by the one who knew her best, the only one who could call her out of her grief, the risen Jesus brought her from the shadows of despair into the light of the resurrection. And she would never be the same again. “Go to my brothers,” Jesus told her, “and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your father, to my God and your God.’” And Mary Magdalene raced away from the tomb as fast as she could to find the disciples and say to them, “I have seen the Lord!”

What does it take for us to live in the light of the resurrection? What does it take for us to leave the darkness of doubt and grief and woundedness and despair behind and experience the transformation that the resurrection brings? The terrible thing about despair is that it creeps in slowly, and, before we know it, it takes over our life and changes everything we know from light to dark, from hope to fear, from life to death. It gives us not a set of “alternative facts” but, worse, an alternative truth so that, even when signs of new possibility are all around us, we are unable to see them for what they are. Our despondency rewrites those signs of hope, changing them into another defeat waiting to happen. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The resurrection is not something we experience when we die. It is a gift to the living—to those who have met the risen Jesus and believe in him and follow him as the one who has the power to bring light and life to even the darkest places. In him, the defeat of the cross becomes God’s greatest victory. Those who witness the miracle of Easter, in whose hearts the light of the resurrection lives on, know that there is nothing that could ever take God’s saving, redeeming love away from them. But how do we find that victory? How do we meet the risen Lord? It’s not by putting together all of the pieces of the Christian faith until you come up with a believable whole. We discover the resurrection when we hear Jesus call our name. Today, this miracle is for you. This morning, it is your name that Jesus is calling. Can you hear him speaking your name?

Live in the light of the resurrection. Hear Jesus speaking to you. See him show you that God has the power to take even your darkest troubles and open up within them the possibility for new life. Do not dwell in the shadow of despair any longer. Do not leave the empty tomb this morning without encountering the risen Jesus. He is the one who has the power to give you life. He is here with us, and he is calling your name. See him. Believe in him. And carry the unbreakable light of the resurrection with you in your heart every day for the rest of your life.



[1] J. Seth Olson, “Good Friday,” 14 April 2017.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Hope Without Hope


April 15, 2015 – Holy Saturday
© 2017 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

It’s hard to know which one was heavier—the hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes that Nicodemus brought to the tomb or the lifeless body of Jesus that Joseph carried to its resting place. I have carried a fifty-pound sack of seed corn over my shoulder, and I may have attempted to carry two at once back when I was younger and more foolish, but I don’t know whether I could manage it now. I suppose a hundred pounds might be brought in a wheelbarrow or a another sort of cart, but the devotion that these two men had for their Lord, which John goes out of his way to mention, seems more fully expressed if the men could feel the full weight of the load as they approached the tomb.

The day was nearly over by then, and the crowd had left since the spectacle of the three bandits’ gruesome deaths was finished. The people had gone back to their homes to light the Shabbat candles and say the appropriate blessing before the sun set and the sabbath began. Except, perhaps, for a few faithful onlookers who watched from the shadows, hardly anyone noticed Joseph stumbling awkwardly beneath his imbalanced load. The Torah described as cursed anyone who died while hanging on a tree, but it also commanded that the dead body be taken down and given a proper burial before sunset. Perhaps that dignity didn’t seem important to the religious leaders who had called for the radical rabbi’s execution, but it was important to Joseph, a secret disciple. Although his request may have raised some eyebrows among them, the scriptural mandate gave him an excuse to take his master’s body down and place it in a tomb.

Nicodemus, too, had kept his devotion to Jesus a secret. At first, he had gone to Jesus at night, seeking an answer to his heart’s deepest longing. Later on, he had spoken up in defense of the controversial teacher, reminding his fellow leaders of the importance of giving the accused a fair hearing. His colleagues scoffed, saying, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” But Nicodemus wasn’t sure. Maybe the scriptures didn’t foretell a Galilean prophet, but in Jesus he had found what he had been missing. Still, it wasn’t enough to convince him to speak out when the time came. Instead, he had stood silently while the accused was condemned to death, and, only now, as night approached, when the coast was clear, did he come and show true devotion to this son of a Galilean carpenter.

I like to imagine that the two men did their work quickly but reverently, only speaking when necessary. There were ritual acts to perform and prayers to recite, but they needed to finish before the sabbath began and before anyone really noticed what was going on. The sun slipping below the horizon as they rolled the stone in place, the two secret disciples completed their act of reverence and then slipped into the night. Like their ancestors, who had waited through the night to see whether salvation would find them, Nicodemus and Joseph retired to their homes to wait and wonder.

We, too, must begin in the dark. Before the light of a new day can reach us, we must dwell in the shadows of night. Our true devotion is not revealed in the brightness of hope but in the darkness of despair. Our discipleship takes shape when we have forgotten what hope is. Our character as followers of Jesus is fashioned only when we have nothing else to lose. Then, when the silent darkness that seems to have no end comes upon us, will we wait even though we do not know what tomorrow will bring? Will we keep watch even when we cannot see whether dawn will find us? In those shadows, God’s abiding presence is revealed, and true hope is found.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Disorientation Day


I had a text message exchange this morning with my friend and colleague, Jack Alvey, about the challenge of Good Friday. What do we preach on this day? Do we act as if we do not know what Easter will bring? Do we ask our congregation to forget that they know how the story will end? Or do we preach the full message of the cross, which only comes clear in the light of Easter? I think Good Friday is the easiest and hardest day on which to preach--easiest because the cross almost speaks for itself and needs very little exposition and the hardest because we must walk that fine line between sending the congregation away in utter despair and robbing Good Friday of its identity by naming the cross as a place of hope.

There is no hope on Good Friday without Easter. Like a superhero drama unfolding before our eyes, we wait for Jesus to break free of his bonds, to snatch the whip from his tormentors, to come down from the cross and save himself, to triumph over the Roman authorities who have hung him there. We know a good drama, so we wait in agonizing anticipation as each scene follows the last. "Will this be the moment when he escapes?" we ask ourselves. We know the story cannot end this way. Because we have been to Easter, we know it does not end this way. But, when Jesus gives up his spirit, when the soldiers see that he is really dead, when his body is taken down from the cross and handed over to Joseph, when Nicodemus and Joseph place his spice-slathered corpse into the tomb and roll the stone in place, the part of us that is trapped anachronistically in that moment as the first disciples were wants to stand up and wave our arms and scream, "This is not right. It's not supposed to end this way. Jesus is our savior, our king. The hero doesn't die in the end. What kind of story is that?"

Good Friday is a day of total disorientation. Everything we thought we knew about God and Jesus and justice and righteousness and innocence and sin and death and victory and promise falls apart. This isn't how it's supposed to happen. If we take Good Friday seriously, we are supposed to leave the cross in utter bewilderment. We are supposed to leave church feeling lost and confused and angry and despondent. When Jesus dies on the cross, all our hopes die with him--those hopes that had taken shape in our pre-Easter logic. Our hope that the good guy would win. Our expectation that God would never let his chosen one die. Our belief that goodness is rewarded. Our confidence that the making the right choices leads to the right outcome. Our understanding that we are in control of our destiny. To encounter the cross in the darkness of the first Good Friday, to dwell in the real shadow of this day, is to experience complete and total deconstruction. In this act, we are dismembered, taken apart piece by piece.

Because we know that the third day will come, we can accept this disorientation without complete despair. We know that eventually God will (and, in fact, already has) put the pieces back together. We know that this disorientation is followed by reorientation. But we cannot be put back together by God unless we allow him to take us apart completely. We must start over. Our self-made hopes must die completely before new hopes--God's hopes--can be put in our hearts. If we do not encounter the real despair of Good Friday without even a ray of light from what is ahead, we cannot know the fullness of Easter.

This day accept defeat. Yield your spirit over to God. Die completely. Let your logic be put to death. Become completely disoriented. Dwell in that confusion--that lostness without a compass--and wait there until God finds you, reorients you, and puts you back together.