The Sunday Sermon: On Holy Ground

These last couple of weeks I have had many one-on-one conversations with members of the Cathedral community: clergy and lay, staff and volunteers, newcomers and longtime members. It has been a great blessing and privilege to hear the stories of so many people: the faith tradition you grew up in, the journey that brought you to the Episcopal Church; the ministries of St. Paul’s that get you fired up; your hopes and dreams for the future.

The most profound parts of your stories have been the painful parts: the stories of broken relationships; of losses and griefs; of years spent in denial of some truth; of struggles and difficulties with the church or with family or vocation. When someone shares that part of their story with me, I feel as if I have been handed a precious, fragile treasure; something to be handled with care and reverence. This is holy ground, the ground of suffering, and each of us has stood on that ground at some point in our life. On Palm Sunday we penetrate to the heart of our faith, the holy ground where our God suffers an undeserved and cruel death so that we may receive the gift of life. The Passion is a story we hear every week in the Eucharistic Prayer and the Creed, but hearing it every week enables us to skim over the surface, to move quickly past the suffering and death to the part about life and resurrection, to the celebration and the blessing.

Today, however, we linger at the foot of the Cross. It’s uncomfortable here: nobody wants to dwell on the details of torture and injustice; we get as much gory detail as we can take from the television news and the police dramas we love to watch. Church is a place of refuge, a place of healing and comfort. But not today. Today we must stay in the presence of the crucified man. We must allow him to interrogate us, to know us, to see us standing here in front of his broken body. Today we must stay and face the one who will never accuse us, but whose very love accuses us and convicts us of neglect, of complacency, of forgetfulness. We must stay until we are changed by him, our hearts broken and pierced by his pain, our lives turned upside down by the suffering of the world encapsulated in this one man’s suffering. This is holy ground, the ground of the world’s pain made holy by the gift of the suffering servant of God.

What language can we use to describe this scene, to respond to it, to justify our presence as bystanders? We can take refuge in familiar prayers, in the Creeds and doctrines of our traditions; we can seek sacramental reconciliation and healing; we can sing pious hymns and anthems. But the only response that comes close to being adequate is simply to stand by the Cross and weep. No words are sufficient; no formulas will wipe away the guilt: only our acceptance of the gift will do that. We must stand in his presence and remain present to his pain, embracing the truth of our own complicity in a world that continues to condemn the innocent, to abuse the vulnerable, to traffic in the captivities of the human soul.

The final image of the Passion story, the corpse on the cross, the soldier declaring that this is the Son of God, is both powerful and paradoxical. It sends a signal, a dualistic message to the world, a message about the God we worship. Our God is powerful, lifegiving, majestic, a transformer of lives, a transcendent beauty. Our God is also weak, powerless, humble, hanging naked and emptied on a Cross, an obscure teacher who lived and died in an occupied corner of a long-ago empire, who left nothing behind but a word, a story, a piece of good news to be passed from one believer to the next.

The irony of the Passion is made clear by the voices of the participants at Calvary: from the words of Pilate, who names Jesus as the Messiah and sees no wrong in him; to the crowd who willingly take on the blame for themselves and for future generations; from the soldiers who cheer him as King of the Jews, to the bystanders who quote Satan’s words, “If you are the Son of God”; from the chief priests who deride Jesus’s trust in their God to the undoing of Creation that greets his death; we are told the truth about Jesus over and over, by those who seek to destroy him for being exactly who he claims to be.

Can we do better? When we proclaim him King, Messiah, Son of God, the author of the new creation, how do our actions confirm our words? Or do we repeat the words on Sunday morning and then follow the crowd on Monday, join the chorus that shouts “Crucify him” on the Calvaries of the world, wherever the innocent are crushed by the powerful? Do we reach out to the hungry, the thirsty, the unjustly accused, steadfast at the foot of the Cross, or do we turn our faces away, wash our hands, take refuge in ridicule and exclusion?

One thing I know: each of us will, sooner or later, suffer in a way that will recall, however faintly, the suffering of Christ. When that suffering comes, the time we have spent at the foot of the Cross, watching and waiting with him, will inform our ability to navigate from shock to acceptance to healing. The gift of Christ’s suffering is nothing less than the possibility of a new creation, a creation that transcends death, a life that is not limited by the grave. And so we stay on this holy ground at the Cross, gently cradling the fragile treasure of the suffering of God, watching and waiting, as the darkness deepens and the crowd disperses and the bodies cool.

We watch, and we wait, and we pray.

The Very Rev Penelope Bridges
Sermon for Palm Sunday, April 13, 2014

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