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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Sermon by the Rev. Curtis Metzger,
Good Friday, April 6, 2007

Today is the day in the church year where we really deal with the reality of death. And, typically, we who call ourselves Christians have learned to snap victory from the jaws of defeat. We call this day Good Friday. Why good? Well, because of course Jesus made his ultimate sacrifice for us and showed us the power of his redeeming love with the ultimate gift of his life. It is his gift of his life--his whole life--that sets us free. This is why this Friday is Good.

Thomas Merton, the great Trappist monk, wrote once, “If we have risen with Christ, we must dare to stand by him in the loneliness of his passion.” Today we enter into that spirit, and even literally when we stand for that portion of the Gospel where it gets close to his death. This is our simple act of standing with him and bearing witness. Some get a little too carried away with identifying with Christ’s sacrifice and do some rather bizarre things. In the Philippines every year some men volunteer to be crucified as a testament to their devotion. It is with antiseptic needles and not to death, but still a bit over the top. I imagine Jesus turning to those who want to suffer like him and saying, “Uh, sorry there’s only room up here for one.” But seriously, the point of his crucifixion is that it was done once and for all. Lord knows we all suffer in life without having to want more suffering. The challenge of our suffering as Christians is to remind ourselves that our Lord suffered too, and in the end redeemed his suffering for us. This, I think, is our appropriate response to suffering--not that we love it, but we redeem it where we can.

As many of you know, I spent a good deal of time working in the hospice movement. I was palliative care chaplain in a major teaching hospital in Vancouver where I cared for the dying and their families on the palliative care unit, and also consulted in the emergency room, the leukemia and cancer units, and the 300 beds dedicated to long term care patients. I saw a lot of death and grieving. I guess if I was going to identify the two most important things that have shaped my theology it would have to be Jesus and dealing with dying. There is nothing like dealing with the end of life to sharpen ones appreciation for life every minute that you live it.

I like to think that Mary, her companions, and John, standing at the foot of the cross were the first hospice volunteers. They dared to stand by him, in the loneliness of his passion. This is the gift of hospice volunteers.

Thirty years ago I attended my first Easter Vigil. It is the service in the church traditionally held the night before Easter and is really the first celebration of Easter. The church I was attending started the service around 11PM. There are many readings (up to 10!) in the first part of the service that outline the history of salvation. Eventually it ends with the Easter Gospel.

I was singing in the choir so I arrived early for rehearsal. I came into the back of the church to wind my way along the side isle to the parish hall, Sunday school and choir rooms. Of course the church had been stripped on Maundy Thursday and was looking terribly bare--for what I could see. It was late at night and there were no lights on--only some street light or something making its way in through stained glass to give me enough light to make my way around. But there was something exciting in the air--literally! I couldn’t see anything, but I knew the altar guild had been busy preparing for the service because when I walked in the back of the church my nostrils were filled with the scent of lilies! And as I caught that wonderful smell, all at once the moment became sacramental. I could not see the resurrection, but I could smell it! My eyes were closed to the reality of what was coming….I was lost in the mournful flatness of Holy Saturday. Ah, but my nose wakened me to Easter. It still hadn’t happened, but I could smell it was coming!

The spirit of this day is somber. We should truly contemplate the horror of Christ’s crucifixion, his betrayal by friends, his own sense of being abandoned by his Father, when he cried out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!” But this day, for us, is always in the context of a greater reality--because we know the rest of the story. There is a line in the burial office in the prayer book that sums it up for me very well: “All of us go down to the dust, yet at the grave we make our song, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia! We have put our Alleluia’s away for Lent, right about now, in the midst of his passion, they are beginning to bubble up at the back of our throats. This is a sad day, but it is a good day. My friends, this day is the beginning of the story of our freedom!