A Sermon Preached
Good Friday - April 18, 2014
St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church – Wilmette, Illinois
In his book Night, Elie Wiesel describes the gruesome execution of a boy in the concentration camp. He talks about other prisoners being forced to watch him hang in prolonged suffering and eventual death on those gallows, about another prisoner asking the question any one of us might ask: Where is God?
Indeed. Where is God, in moments like that?
It’s a question I am asked often, in my life in ministry. Sometimes it’s hurled at me, sometimes it’s angry – as in: “If you believe in a loving God who created and ordered the universe:”
- Where is God, when a ferry filled with people, with school children, goes down in the sea and no one can stop it, or rescue them?
- Where is God, when a gunman opens fire on innocents at a Jewish Community Center on the day before Passover?
- Where is God, when someone plants a bomb at Mile 26?
- Where is God, when the United Nations releases a report that details the ways we are destroying the same Creation that God entrusted to our care?
- Where is God, when the United Nations releases another report with evidence of the ways God’s people are destroying God’s people in North Korea?
- Where is God, when the news every day depicts the ways that God’s people are destroying God’s people in Syria, in Crimea, in Ukraine, in Chicago?
And where is God, in the geography of our day-to-day lives, as we see:
- …our children suffer and struggle?
- Where is God, when we see the signs of someone we love succumbing again to the force of her addiction?
- Where is God, when we hear the diagnosis from which we will not recover?
In fact, on this day of all days, as we remember Jesus flogged and spit upon, as he falls under the weight of the cross they force him to carry, as the people ridicule him and the nails go into his hands and his feet, as he hangs there struggling to breathe and hears people argue about accuracy on the signage of the Cross, it’s a fair question: Where is God?
The mystic, Julian of Norwich, suffered through the plague in the spring of 1373; along with that disease came serious fever. She recovered slowly, went on to write the first book in English ever authored by a woman. Julian titled that book Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love; in it, she included the visions she saw during her fever while fighting her way through the plague.
In the Eighth Revelation, on the Cross and Passion, Julian asks: “Is there any pain like this? Here I saw a great ONE-ing between Christ and us (a great connectedness): for when he was in pain, we were in pain…all creatures that suffer pain, suffer with Him…and the firmament, the earth, failed in sorrow.” In preaching about Dame Julian, the writer Diana Butler Bass claims “the cosmic circle of grief, emanating from Jesus’ passion, reveals that Jesus not only suffered for us; but he suffered with us – his death occurred for the sake of kinship and love with all that was, and is, and will be.”
We hear a lot on Good Fridays, and in the theology that bleeds out of them, about Jesus suffering for us, about Jesus dying for us. As a former writing teacher, I have to say that it’s worth paying attention to our prepositions here: for versus with. Listen to the meaning there, because: “‘for’ is a contract…’for’ always separates the actor and recipient, distancing a sacrificial Jesus from those for whom he died. At the Cross, Jesus is the subject; we are objects.”
With stands in contrast to for. With implies proximity, relationship, connection, shared participation, working together toward the same goal.
So which is it, this Good Friday? For, or with? Contract, or relationship? Separate, or together? Distant, or close?
For gives us something to make sense of. We understand contracts. We’ve all negotiated trades of some kind or another. God dies for us, so we trade Hell for Heaven. We recognize the logic and proportion, even though it might make us feel guilty. Maybe that’s the price we pay for the contractual obligation.
But with is messy. It asks something more of us that the contract outlines. It dares to ask: have we suffered with others? Have we sat with friends or strangers through a space without answers? Have we walked with others through the valley of death? Do we know something, together with Julian, about the ONE-ing – the great connectedness – with God?
Choosing with offers an entirely different perspective on the question: Where is God? Right here with us. Right there with those who suffer. God with us in the Emergency Room or the courtroom, or the Intake Center. God with the people shot last Sunday in Overland Park, and with those shot on the streets of Chicago throughout the weekend, and even with those so lost that they chose to pull the trigger. God with the runners and with the cheering and then with the screaming crowds at Mile 26 a year ago Tuesday. God with creation as the ozone layer eats and the people of Korea starve and drown and the Syrians and Ukranians and Chicagoans suffer. God suffers with them, with us – not in separation, but in kinship that knows no stopping point. Because that is what Emmanuel means: God With Us. That is what God is for – to be with us.
What if Wiesel is right, as he looks at a young Jewish boy hanging in his agony, hears another prisoner ask: “Where is God?” “There,” Wiesel points, at the one who suffers and dies.
“There. Here. Right here. With us.”