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Sermon for March 29 2009, Lent V

The Cross and the Tomb

This all happened on Friday, the day of preparation, the day before the Sabbath. As evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea took a risk and went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. (Joseph was an honored member of the high council, and he was waiting for the Kingdom of God to come.) Pilate couldn’t believe that Jesus was already dead, so he called for the Roman officer and asked if he had died yet. The officer confirmed that Jesus was dead, so Pilate told Joseph he could have the body. Joseph bought a long sheet of linen cloth. Then he took Jesus’ body down from the cross, wrapped it in the cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been carved out of the rock. Then he rolled a stone in front of the entrance. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where Jesus’ body was laid.
—Mark 15:21-47

I’ve finally been reading The Shack. I’ve been avoiding it for a while, but it’s due back at the library on Thursday and I told someone I’d read it. The novel revolves around Mack Philips, whose daughter, Missy, is abducted during a family vacation. Though her body is never found, evidence in an abandoned shack proves that she was brutally murdered. After receiving a mysterious invitation to visits the scene of the crime, Mack goes back to the shack, walking back into his darkest nightmare and experiencing a weekend-long encounter with God. Much of the book deals with the question of why God allows bad things to happen. The Holy Spirit is personified as a stunning, ethereal Asian woman named Sarayu. At one point, Mack asks Sarayu “What am I supposed to think? I just don’t understand how God could love Missy and let her go through that horror. She was innocent. She didn’t do anything to deserve that.”

I hear similar questions all the time. “Where is God?” Everyone’s life is sprinkled with moments of evil and suffering. At some point, tragedy, or great suffering, or some unexplained pain will grip each of our lives. “Where is God?” Sometimes people ask the question because they feel abandoned by God when they needed God the most. People come to me and want to know why God didn’t protect them from the abusive father, the molesting uncle, the bullying mother, the merciless teacher. They want to know why God would allow such things to go on — The woman who was beaten as a child for something as senseless as spilling her milk; the little boy who was scared to death of his alcohol-crazed father, the family who lost a loved one to suicide, or cancer, or a fatal accident.

Anguished voices echo across the centuries back to the days of Jesus and before...back to humans’ first awareness of death. And we always ask the same question...WHY? It might be the hardest question that has ever been asked. I ask it every time I listen to the news. Just pick up the evening newspaper and its all there...terrorism, wars, starvation, population-killing diseases, unsustainable climate change, worldwide economic meltdown, and on it goes. So why won’t a loving God do something about all of this mess? Didn’t God become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth to make things better . . . to redeem us from our sin and restore us to the loving arms of God?

Try to imagine the scene that Mark depicts in today’s gospel lesson. It is a Friday. Darkness covers the land for three hours. It’s Mark’s way of describing the shadows that invade our world. Deserted and betrayed by his disciples, rejected and condemned by the nation’s leaders, taunted by the crowds, publicly humiliated and punished as a political insurrectionist, Jesus now experiences utter despair. At this moment, Jesus is fully one with us. At this moment, Jesus faces evil, pain, and death, and shares our human despair to the fullest. It’s as if Jesus is crying out with us, “God, WHY? Where are you when I need you?” And with a final cry of anguish, Jesus dies. Then something amazing happens. A Roman centurion–one of the executioners looks at the dead man and says, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” In Mark’s Gospel, no human being utters these words until this point. Caesar is the only one who is called God’s son. Now, a Roman soldier, and symbol of state terrorism, recognizes Jesus as God’s Son..

Here’s the point. Jesus knows all about suffering from evil and pain. He tells us that we will face violence. But he also tells us that we won’t be alone when evil abounds. Jesus knows what it’s like to feel abandoned by God. The way he suffers reveals his true nature. Jesus won’t idly stand by when our hearts break. Where is God when evil abounds? Where is God when tragedy strikes? Where is God when death looms, when we are scared senseless, when we are confused by the pain in the world and in our hearts? God is with us, reminding us that Jesus came to fill our suffering with God’s presence.

Every time I think about the passion accounts, the behavior of the disciples shocks me. When darkness comes, they run away. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. In times of darkness, we are tempted to pull back from others and hide. Some people think that we are becoming more isolated from one another. A study in 2006 showed that Americans are more socially isolated today than they we were two decades ago. A growing number of people say they have no one in whom they can confide. A quarter of Americans say they have no one with whom they can discuss personal troubles. Overall, the number of people Americans have in their closest circle of confidants has dropped from three to two. Some argue that social networking Internet sites like Facebook increase a person’s social connections. However, a recent study maintains that social networking sites play a significant role in making people become more isolated. While social networking sites should allow us to enhance our social lives, some research suggests that the number of hours people spend interacting face-to-face has fallen dramatically since 1987 as the use of electronic media has increased. There is actually an evolutionary benefit to us being together geographically. Much of it isn’t understood, but there does seem to be a difference between real presence and the virtual variety.

Any time we separate from each other, evil has an opportunity to abound. But there is another way – the way of Christ. Facing evil can lead us to become peacemakers. Peacemakers are people who heal by pulling close instead of tearing apart. Peacemakers are people who an get in touch with their own pain and disappointment with God and reach out to others who suffer. Peacemakers are those who have suffered with Christ, just like Christ as suffered with us. Because of their connection with the suffering of Christ, they have compassion, humility, and the desire to root out the weeds of evil.

Let me tell you about a peacemaker I recently met. You may have read in the paper that one of the Lost Boys of the Sudan has been in the area. The Lost Boys of Sudan are more than 27,000 boys who were displaced or orphaned during the Sudanese Civil War in which about 2 million people were killed. In a mass exodus from the country, tens of thousands of children fled Sudan on foot – a four-month journey across the country to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. Over half were killed or captured. In 2001, about 3800 Lost Boys arrived in the United States. No longer boys, these Sudenese men currently pursue their educations. They maintain a strong sense of community and work to support themselves. They are dedicated to helping rebuild their villages and their country now that a peace agreement has been signed. I had the opportunity hear Gabriel Bol Deng, one of the Lost Boys, speak at Hillcrest School on Friday. When he was 10 years old, Gabriel ran from a militia attack on his village. He swam crocodile-infested rivers and walked endless deserts. Crossing the Sahara, he recalls: “We were always thirsty. We tried to lick the dew on the sparse Savannah grass but it did not quench the thirst. Some people died of dehydration. We had no food supplies ... so we ate the leaves off the trees.” In 2001, Gabriel came to the United States. He resettled in Syracuse. He has since graduated from Le Moyne College in Syracuse, having received their “Distinguished Student Teacher of the Year” award in 2006. Gabriel has thrived in the United States and is now working to help his village enhance their education by building, maintaining and raising money for the Ariang Primary School. His commitment to education is strong and his belief that education is key to his village’s success has not waived. Gabriel is a peacemaker. In the face of the worst humanity has to offer, he survived and makes a way for peace through education. He tells students to always stay positive and focus on their learning. His ultimate message is that having hope and perseverance can enable people to overcome adversity. This from a man who, when he was 10 years old, lost his parents, was shot at, walked across the Sahara, lived nine years in a refugee camp, and survived.

Peacemakers are spiritual activists. They turn the world upside down by radically living out the Good News that God has not abandoned us. They do crazy things like forgive others. They allow themselves to mourn. They stand up for justice, and compassion and equality. They do it with humility, and sacrifice, and grace.

There are many peacemakers around us today. Can you be one of them? Peacemakers learn to love those with whom we are in conflict. This is a challenge for most of us. First, we need to love, forgive and accept ourselves before we feel good enough to love our neighbors and our enemies. I really believe that a mind full of love cannot hold fear and anger at the same time. Perform a small, loving act toward an adversary. Act with compassion even if you feel rejected or offended.

Peacemakers see the image of God in everyone.

Peacemakers pray. They pray for ourselves for strength, patience and intelligence. They pray for guidance and wisdom to say and do the right thing as we walk on this path. They pray for each other, our leaders, our nation, all life, and the planet. They pray for our adversaries. Holding negative thoughts about others is counterproductive. It leads to division and isolation. Peacemakers pray for the well being of all. They pray for guidance and a positive resolution to any differences between people with whom they differ.

Peacemakers stay alert for fearful or angry images that others want us to focus on. We can transform our consciousness by lifting our thoughts out of fear, anger and negativity by affirming the highest God-given qualities and virtues for ourselves and others.

Peacemakers let go of the obsession to dominate and always be right. They focus on the issues rather than attacking the opposition.

Peacemakers are not isolated from the pain and suffering of the world. As we let the pain in, we become transformed, compassionate and motivated to action.

Peacemakers commit to non-violent, direct action as an appropriate way to protest harmful and unjust practices. When evil abounds, peacemakers affirm that God has not abandoned us —that God can be found among those who establish the values of God’s Reign — love, peace, kindness, gentleness, and forgiveness.

Where is God when evil abounds? God is with us because God has faced the darkness has shown us the way to the light. God is with the peacemakers, for they are the children of God. Our hearts go out to those who have lost much, and we pray the comfort that friends and a suffering Christ can provide.

Sources:
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week
“Online networking 'harms health'” at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7898510.stm
“Social Isolation Growing in U.S., Study Says” at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/22/AR2006062201763_2.html
“Hope for Ariang” at http://david-morse.com/hopeforariang/gbd/

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