Paul Burkhart

Homily: Good Friday 2017

TEXT: Matthew 26.36-46, 27.45-
54
26 36
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he
said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took with
him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and
agitated. 38 Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death;
remain here, and stay awake with me.” 39 And going a little farther, he threw
himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup
pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” 40 Then he came to
the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you
not stay awake with me one hour? 41 Stay awake and pray that you may not
come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
42
Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this
cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 Again he came and found
them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So leaving them again, he went
away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. 45 Then he came
to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?
See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of
sinners. 46 Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

27 45
From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in
the afternoon. 46 And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli,
Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken
me?” 47 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling
for Elijah.” 48 At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour
wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said,
“Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 Then Jesus cried
again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51 At that moment the curtain
of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the
rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the
saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53 After his resurrection they came
out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54 Now
when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus,
saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly
this man was God’s Son!”

Leader: This is the Gospel of the Lord
All: Praise to you, Oh Christ.
HOMILY OUTLINE
GEOGRAPHY: (a) Mt of Olives Cemetery
(b) Prayers of Jesus
(c) Through Death, Into Life

RADICAL RELEASE: (a) The Liminal Space
(b) Radical Trust and Faith
(c) Wallace Stevens: The Final No

EASTER TENSION: (a) Cosmic Good Friday to Cosmic Easter
(b) Nietzsche: God “Feels” Dead Lament
(c) Sitting in the Middle Space

GOD HAS DIED: (a) The Final No: God Has Died
(b) Existential Unknown
(c) Thomas: Rage Against the Dying of the Light

So Liberti Church, may you dwell deeply in the darkness of Good Friday,
and learn to do so well. And may we, together, rage, rage against the
dying of the light. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
AMEN.

HOMILY
Passion Geography
(a) Mt of Olives Cemetery
(b) Prayers of Jesus
(c) Through Death, Into Life

Last year, I took a trip to Israel and walked these very steps that Jesus takes
in our story. And the most powerful place for me on that whole trip was the
Mount of Olives, where our text opens up, where Jesus is praying with his
disciples.

The Mount itself is taller than the city of Jerusalem, so from anywhere on the
Mount, you stand overlooking the entire city of Jerusalem with the Temple
Mount, where the Jewish Temple once stood, standing right in the middle of
your vantage point.

Judaism believes that the Messiah—the one who comes to make all things
right in the world and do away with evil—will come to earth at the Mount of
Olives, down the Kidron Valley and back up onto the Temple Mount, where he
will make the Temple his throne room from which he will rule and reign on
the world in justice and goodness. Further, they believe when he comes he
will raise from the dead all of his people to rule and reign with him.

This belief led to the start of the largest and oldest Jewish cemetery in the
world, built onto the side of the Mount of Olives. This cemetery would have
been there even during Jesus’ time, and it’s hard to miss. While on the
Mount, standing between you and Jerusalem, the place where the Messiah
will make all things right, there stretched before you a massive cemetery of
tombstones numbering in the 100s of thousands.

Additionally, all of these graves are buried with the feet of their inhabitants
facing toward the temple, the idea being that when the Messiah comes, not
only will they be the first raised from the dead, but that they’ll have a
running head start to the Temple.

This was likely Jesus’ view as he was praying this night. And as his
gaze traveled down that cemetery, through the valley, and up to the
lighted Temple ablaze in Passover celebration, he perhaps had on
his mind the weighty truth we will press into tonight: the only way
to Easter, Resurrection Life, and God’s good rule and reign in our
hearts the world, is to descend and cross over into the lowest of
valleys and through death itself.

A Radical Release
(a) The Liminal Space
(b) Radical trust and faith
(c) Wallace Stevens: The Final No

This truth is seen most clearly in the bookends of our passage, those
powerful prayers of Jesus to his Father: “Father, if you are willing, remove this
cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” and “My God, my God, why
have you forsaken me?”. In these brief prayers, there is a universe of
meaning and weight. They occupy a liminal space between doubt and faith,
questions and answers, knowledge and mystery, life and death.

Jesus cries out to his Father and throws himself entirely on the willingness of
his Father to do something that God ultimately does not do! God is not
willing to let this cup pass. And yet, Jesus casts himself and his soul entirely
on the unknown will of his Father. Jesus genuinely does not seem to know
what his Father’s answer may be here.

Similarly, when Jesus cries out with what has traditionally been called the
“Cry of Dereliction”, he is casting his sense of loss into the void to the only
Truth he knows. His Father had already said no to Jesus’ prior prayer (He
would not let this cup pass), and yet Jesus is still willing to leave both the
known and unknown—in both this life and the next—entirely in the hands of
his Father.

This shows us a radical faith, not in observable outcomes are even believed
doctrines, but purely in who this God is—even when we are not 100%
confident exactly what it might look like. The modernist poet Wallace
Stevens’ expresses this tension well in one of his most beautiful poems, "The
Well-Dressed Man with a Beard":

"After the final no there comes a yes,
And on that yes the future world depends."
--Wallace Stevens, “The Well Dressed Man with a Beard”

Stevens wasn’t a Christian as far as we know, but he expresses this sense
that in a huge, cosmic, existential way, we feel in our bones a definitive “No”
stamped on all our endeavors. They will die. We will die. Evil will prosper and
righteousness will lose. The only kind of meaning and fullness we can know is
from what we can extract out of our lives right now in the present. There is,
as Stevens calls it, a “final no” to all things.

And yet, he admits to a quieter voice echoing out from the nothingness. After
the final No that rages inside of us, there is a Yes. A quiet Yes. A Yes that is
easily drowned out and distracted from, and yet a Yes nonetheless. And it is
on this Yes that all the future depends.

Jesus shows us in these Good Friday pleadings that the No is true and
definite. Feeling it is not a failure of faith. And yet there is a Yes towards
which our intuitions hearken and our trust can be offered. But it is a kind of
trust that has to be an act of abandon shouted into the seeming nothingness,
hoping, praying, that the echo that answers us in response is that “Yes”.

Easter Tension
(a) Cosmic Good Friday to Cosmic Easter
(b) Nietzsche: God “Feels” Dead Lament
(c) Sitting in the Middle Space

It is my belief that we move too quickly to Easter in this time of year. In a
cosmic sense, this universe—and our lives—are currently stuck between the
Cosmic Good Friday and Cosmic Easter. We must learn what it means to live
in this tension—to fully inhabit it and occupy it. The Christian life is one of
process, growth, and abandon to the God that is bigger than our certainty.
Our world lives in Good Friday. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said
that “God is dead”. But have you ever read the full quote from when he first
said this? He said:

"God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed
him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of
all murderers?"
--Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Gay Science”

This statement by Nietzsche wasn’t some statement of arrogant atheistic
certitude. It was a lament; a description of the reality in which so many of us
live. Looking over the history of our world, he points out to us that humanity
has destroyed the pillars that held up all meaning for our existence. All the
transcendence on which our future hope was based has been shattered as
humans have based more and more of their sense of meaning and purpose
on this world and this life here and now.

In a sense, Nietzsche is saying that this world exists in a kind of “Saturday”
after Good Friday; a kind of world where God "feels" dead, where the things
of God feel more like the hauntings of a ghost from one long dead, where the
cries of the dying God on the Cross echo and reverberate against the walls of
our lives.

And again, for those of us that have felt this sense of Divine Death (and I’d
argue it’s all of us), this isn’t an expression of pride, arrogance, sin, Christian
immaturity, or some lack of faith. It is pressing all the more deeply into the
weighty, middle space in which this world lives and our souls exist. Feeling
this way is simply being human.

Notice that in our text, Jesus does not move immediately to Resurrection. In
none of his prayers does he mention it. He doesn’t stare death and evil in the
face and blithely say, “Oh, it’s fine. God’s good and I’ll be raised again in a
few days.” He fully inhabits the unknowing, the fear, and temptation to cling
to what he knows here and now and forget the rest—to be the best
“pleasing” religious person possible without the deep existential abandon of
giving oneself over entirely to God.

He enfolds this middle space of doubt, questioning, unknowing, and Divine
Abandonment into his own experience. And so when we experience those
things, we are not far from God, but rather are closer to the very life of God.

And so we see that Easter and Resurrection life can only come if we pass
through death. And not just physical death, but death to our certainty, death
to our desires, death to our comfort, death to our very will in this world. In
that spirit, there is an Orthodox Monastery in Greece that has this inscribed
over its front door:

"If you die before you die, then you won’t die when you
die."
--Inscription at St. Paul’s Monastery on Mt Athos, Greece

It is by learning to inhabit this liminal space of death and doubt and
alienation that we actually prepare ourselves for eternity. By following Christ
on the Cross and being willing to cast our lives to God and those around us,
giving of our lives freely, we offer ourselves radically into the nothingness,
giving ourselves over to the Final No, hoping, praying that a Yes might come
in reply.
The Good Friday Proclamation: God Has Died!
(a) The Final No: God Has Died.
(b) Existential Unknown
(c) Thomas: Rage against the dying of the Life

And so, on this night, we proclaim: God has died. God has died. There is the
final No. It is loud. It is real. May we learn to commend our souls to a God
even though we don’t know for sure what he will do. We place our souls in
the hands of a God that might very well let us go, drop us, or crush us. At
this point in the story—this Good Friday point—we simply do not know. We
read the words of these Scriptures, press into Christian life best we can—and
still we will never know for sure. All we can do is cast ourselves into the
existential unknown of the Final No and hope, that the response is Yes.

Let us not move too quickly to the overwhelming joy and sweetness of Easter
without passing through the darkness and tension of this night. Let us feel it
rage in our hearts and souls. Let us look out on a world that—most days, let’s
admit it—does not seem to look like it is being ruled by a Good God, but
rather lives in the darkness of Good Friday. Let us learn to do what another
poet, Dylan Thomas, tells us to do:

"Do not go gentle into that good night…
[but] rage, rage against the dying of the light."
--Dylan Thomas, “Do not go softly into that Good Night”
So Liberti Church, may you dwell deeply in the darkness of
Good Friday, and learn to do so well. And may we, together,
rage, rage against the dying of the light. In the name of the
Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

To close the message, I will pray this prayer by St. Teresa of Avila, which is
also printed in your worship folder:

"If it is your will, my God, let us die with you.... Living
without you is nothing but dying over and over again.
Living without you is nothing but living in dread of the
possibility of losing you forever."
-- St Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle