Good Friday C2019
by Pastor Sarah Stadler
Throughout the Lenten season, we gathered on Wednesdays around the theme Walking the Valley of the Shadow of Death, each week considering a different biblical perspective on death.
Death as a natural process, death as blessing, death as enemy, death as a community grief, death as loss. One perspective I had failed to see in scripture was death as teacher, death as something that informs how we live our lives. Mid-way through the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus intentionally turns his gaze toward Jerusalem, towards his death. But in the gospel of John, Jesus sets his eyes towards Jerusalem from the very beginning. I used to think that meant Jesus’ mission or goal was to die, and Christian theologians across generations agree. Jesus was born to die. But, as my seminary student self argued in Systematic Theology class, does that mean the healings, the teachings, the miracles, the friendships Jesus nurtured as he journeyed to Jerusalem didn’t matter? Does that mean salvation would have been accomplished without the feeding of the 5,000, without the Parable of the Good Samaritan, without Jesus telling Nicodemus that God so loved the world, without the Sermon on the Mount, without the resurrection even? My professor turned a wary eye to me and said: Well…
Jesus was born to die. But his mission, his goal, his calling was far greater than that. Jesus knew he would die, and after about 30 years of working carpentry and observing the Sabbath and sharing in family life and whatever else Jesus did in the time between Christmas and his baptism, he decided finally to fulfill his calling. He met John the Baptist at the River Jordan, got baptized, was sent by the Spirit into the wilderness, and came back to Galilee to call disciples and proclaim the kingdom of God come to earth. Once he threatened the power of the Roman Empire, once he stirred up controversy with the Pharisees, once crowds of common people started to follow him and hail him as king, he knew his time was limited. As he went about healing and teaching, praying and raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus lived in the shadow of the cross.
We know the clarity that imminent death sparks. When someone receives a diagnosis of a fatal disease, life suddenly appears transparent where confusion once reigned. How do I want to spend the time that is left? People in crisis ask. Often, people will go and do the thing they always wanted to do but put off. They will go on that trip or spend time with that child. They will say “I love you” at each good-bye or serve until their feet and hands could not possibly do more. Death looming large pushes people to stop stewing and just do the things to which they feel called.
A friend recently told me about her mom’s visit to the Phoenix area, four weeks in total. My friend loves her mother, of course, but at times, the space between my friend and her mom fills with impatience and misunderstanding. At the beginning of the four weeks, my friend wondered about the wisdom of four, long weeks, wondered if perhaps 30 days might strain her and her mom’s capacity for kindness. Two weeks later, my friend told me that, suddenly, her perspective shifted. Wait, she said herself, my mom is only here for two more weeks. And she began to greet each new day with her mom as a gift, a time set aside to enjoy one another’s company. As we talked, my friend realized: Our time is always limited, limited to this life. How do we want to use the time?
Similarly, two days ago as members of Grace sat in my office for private confession, each one confessed, among other things: “I have squandered the inheritance of your saints, O God.” One among us, reading the word “squandered,” realized that squandering is exactly what had happened in their life. All this time, all these spiritual gifts and skills, all these amazing people surrounding them, a loving, supportive family, legion opportunities for service, life itself—squandered. To be fair, this particular person and most of us here have not truly squandered in its entirety all God has given us, but for this one and for my friend, for Jesus and for all of us, our call is not simply to one day die. We surely will, and Jesus will too. But our death teaches us to use this one precious life, the life God has given us, for God’s own purposes.
Mary Oliver, an American poet and a woman of faith, once wrote:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention,
how to fall down into the grass,
how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed,
how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Everything dies at last and too soon, including Jesus. With Jesus’ one wild and precious life, he put flesh on the grace and love of God, fed people and ate with them, forgave and befriended them. He did not avoid the inevitable suffering of crucifixion but accepted it as a consequence of a life well lived, a life full to the brim of God’s own work.
Jesus was born to die—but not simply to die. And neither are we. Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? On a day where death looms large, there is no better question. Amen.