In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
It is finished and then Jesus bowed his head and gave up his spirit. On this day that we call “good,” we gather together in the middle of the day to keep the three solemn hours where we stand watch with Jesus and the cross. As my brother Leonard so powerfully preached, there is no escaping the reality and the brutality of the cross. So what are we to take from this day called good? Just as Jesus taught us so much in his life, he taught us profound, eternal things in his death and in his dying. It is those things upon which I would like to reflect with you this afternoon; specifically, forgiving, serving, loving.
In the Gospel of John, the narrative arc of Jesus’ life and ministry and death and resurrection are undergirded by the Incarnation: God incarnate in Jesus Christ. As Marcus Borg put it, “Jesus is what can be seen of God embodied in a human life. He shows us the heart of God.” Beginning in the 13th chapter of John, Jesus says that he knows that his hour has come—the time for him to die and return to the Father—having loved his own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. The succeeding chapters are totally intentional by Jesus, the teacher.
Forgiving. When he gathers for that last and final meal with the disciples, He breaks bread and washes the feet of the disciples knowing that one would betray him, one would deny him and virtually all would desert him in his loneliest hours. He forgave them in advance knowing precisely what they would do. Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing. In the season of Lent, as we make our journey, part of our journey is our own self-reflection and examination of the ways in which we have become separated from God and one another. We know that forgiveness, or more importantly, unforgiveness is a stumbling block to the very life and abundant life that Jesus came to give us. In the Gospel of John. Jesus makes it clear, “that I came to give life and to give it more abundantly.” He wasn’t speaking about bank accounts and assets. No, he was speaking about living the abundant life, grounded in the love of God that surpasses all understanding.
What are the ways in which you are carrying or I am carrying unforgiveness? Perhaps sometimes it’s hard to forgive ourselves for something or to forgive someone else. In praying deeply about this day, I felt led to share some personal stories. I can assure you it was not my first choice, but I feel led to do so and I pray that I’ve heard God correctly.
From my own life, when I was going to be 16 my parents decided— more precisely, my mother decided— that it was time for me to have a party, dance. In truth. I think that she was trying to help her painfully shy daughter get a little bit of a boost in the social realm of her life. I grew up in very modest circumstances and I knew that my parents had saved to have this party for me, this dance. My mother was very creative and she’d creatively decorated the parish hall of our church and had made food. We’d bought food and the day came. I had a new dress and I was so excited and the hour came and a few of my closest friends came, but no one else. And I knew that so many people had said they were coming and I couldn’t understand what had happened. One of my closest friends told me that one of my classmates who I’ll name Suzy had called everyone the day before and told them not to come.
Let’s just say it was a bit of a sad sack party. While I was humiliated and deeply hurt, my mother was furious and heaven help Suzy because she had just shot to the top of my mother’s list of public enemy number one. The depth of her unforgiveness for this girl who had hurt her daughter knew no bounds. It’s one thing for someone to hurt you. It’s quite another, as any parent in this room can attest, to hurt your child or to hurt someone in your family. Well, I eventually kind of got over it and eventually sort of put together that it was just one of those mean girl things and that Suzy, for whatever reason, had some insecurities and that’s how they manifested themselves. But my mother hung onto that on forgiveness with red hot intensity.
Decades later, my mother called me—and I’m speaking decades. She said, “Well, I’ve made a decision.” What’s that, mother? “I’ve decided that I’m going to forgive Suzy.” I mean, this was years and years later. She had hung on to that unforgiveness! Friends, we know the emotional energy that unforgiveness takes. It impacts our health. It impacts our spiritual health. I’m so grateful that my mother was able to finally give that one up, but it made me almost weep that she carried that all those years. If you have come today with something that has a grip on you, not long from now in the service, we’re going to be invited to go to the cross. I invite you to take whatever that is: its shame or hurt or unforgiveness and lay it at the foot of the cross and let it go. God and Jesus intended a full and abundant life. Don’t let that be a stumbling block.
Serving. Part of the Last Supper that remains such an image, such a model for us, was Jesus breaking bread with his disciples, again, knowing that they would in turn, betray, deny and desert him. Midway through the evening he takes off his outer cloak, wraps a towel around his waist and gets on his knees to wash their feet; the most humble, lowly, powerful act of what it means to be a servant. Jesus reminded us and reminds us over and over again that we are called to serve, not to be served. Last night, when we gathered in this space, the Maundy Thursday service, for those of you who were there, how powerful was it to see hundreds of you come forward to have your feet washed and in turn to wash others’? Humanity, meeting humanity, serving one another as our Lord taught us.
Loving. He loved his own who were in the world. He loved them to the end. In his final acts, even on the cross, Jesus turns to his mother to ensure that she will be cared for by his beloved disciple when he is no longer with them. How often have you experienced that in your own life with someone you know who’s aware that their earthly life will come to an end soon? I’ve seen this over and over again in my ministry where people will say, Jan, look out for my daughter. Jan, will you keep an eye on my husband or my wife? Loving them to the very end.
My own most recent and personal experience of that was my own father who died a little over a year ago. He knew that his time was near. He had told my brother and me that he was ready, that he wasn’t afraid. He was the one who had decided that it was time to enter into hospice care. I got that call that I was dreading. My brother saying, “You need to come home and come home quickly.” I got there as quickly as I could—going to Texas from here is no mean feat. But I got there by about midnight. My father was deeply asleep, but my brother was able to wake him up and he looked at me and in the last clear word that I heard him say, he said, “Jan.” And I knew that he had waited until I could get there.
My brother and I told him the things that you tell someone when you know that death is near: that it’s okay, that you’re going to be okay, that you’re going to look after one another and it’s okay to let go, to sleep, and to let go. And we told him that we loved him. With great, great effort, he put his hands over his heart and mouthed, “I love you too.” He couldn’t say it, but we knew it was his equivalent of “it is finished.” He had accomplished that which he was sent to do. He loved my brother and me even to the end.
Forgiving. Serving. Loving. Jesus taught us the way. He accomplished that which God had sent him to do. My brothers and sisters on this day called Good, what we carry forth from this place is, it’s our turn. It’s our time to love God with all that we are and all that we have and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Amen.