I had hoped that this would be the last of my virtual sermons during our pandemic. That this next week would be spent trying to figure out the logistics of a single service with our Bishop coming to visit and a number of our teens getting confirmed. “Alleluia!” signs colored by our kids before Lent would be hung up all over, and Easter Flowers which had been on hold would fill this place. There’d be amazing music and hearty hugs and tremendous joy.
How are we supposed to understand God? How do we see God, especially in relation to us? Do we see God as kind and benevolent, or angry and harsh, or somewhere in between? How does the way we see the world and other people influence all of this?
If I asked you to name the fastest animal on earth, you would instinctively say, “the cheetah.” Indeed the cheetah holds the title of being the fastest land animal, clocking in speeds of up to an impressive 75 miles per hour. However the fastest member of the animal kingdom is actually the peregrine falcon which has a diving speed of over 200 miles per hour when it’s going after prey. Falcons soar up to a great height when out hunting, and then use the force of gravity as well as amazing aerodynamics to come barreling in on smaller birds, stunning them on impact. As the stunned bird falls to the ground, the peregrine spins around and catches it mid-air, taking it home for dinner.
I discovered hiking my senior year in college. A mentor and I went to Arethusa Falls near Crawford Notch up in the White Mountains. It was his idea, he had read about it in a Boston Globe article. One Saturday in the fall, we headed up to New Hampshire for the day, taking in the beauty of a glorious October day given to us by God. And I absolutely loved it. Both the nature part of it, hiking a moderate trail in the forest up to a 160 ft high waterfall, and the conversation part of it. I don’t remember exactly what we discussed that day, but I remember the connection of it, the gratefulness to share in that experience with someone who wanted only the best for me and my life.
Our gospel lesson begins with a very odd statement when you think about it. St. John the Evangelist writes, “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews…” What’s so very odd about it is that you could easily include this parenthetical in your reading: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples —who themselves were all Jews—had met were locked for fear of the Jews…” It’s not as if the followers of Jesus weren’t themselves Jewish—they were—or that Jesus himself wasn’t Jewish—he was. It’s that John generally sets up the Jews entirely as antagonists of Jesus, as the ones who don’t receive his teachings or who look for ways to catch Jesus in rhetorical traps when he meant the religious authorities. There are exceptions like Nicodemus who comes to Jesus to learn from him, but often the Jewish leaders see Jesus as a dissident, and so they seek to silence him in order not to disrupt their connection to the Roman Empire, and to maintain their own power.
On the very first Easter, scripture tells us, most of the disciples were holed up behind locked doors full of distress. A few days earlier they had seen Jesus be falsely accused and arrested. Then some stood in a nearby courtyard as the sham trial unfolded and Jesus was found guilty on trumped-up charges. But in that courtyard we saw how quickly Peter disowned even knowing Jesus, fearing for his life. Most of the others had scattered by now, but some followed along with the crowd trying to remain hidden and unknown. Soon enough word got around to all of them that Jesus had died, and had been quickly put in a tomb before sunset.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” declares the Psalmist in sheer agony. “Why are you so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?”
Jesus himself utters these words from the cross according to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, who go so far as to leave the cry in the Aramaic, Jesus’ native language. The language closest to his heart. “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani.” My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
I’ve been watching “Lost” with my son the past couple of weeks. We’re only a few episodes in to Season 1, but that season based on the aftermath of a plane crash on a mysterious island feels eerily familiar to our current situation.
The Psalmist sums up exactly where we have been, you and I, these past many days. If there’s been any time in our collective lives where it has felt like we are sinking to the depths of the ocean, that the water has washed over us and we are drowning, that time is now. “From the depths I call out to you, O Lord God, please hear my cry.” Please, Lord, do not leave me to fend for myself, I need you. It feels like this is it. That the end is coming upon us, and I don’t know what to do. God, help.
A number of years ago I was on a weeklong Lenten retreat at a monastery. I stayed at the guesthouse of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Newburyport, MA which is this tremendously beautiful old New England farmhouse. I’ve forgotten now what the topic was that week for the times of reflection followed by long stretches of silence, but I do remember that this date fell during that time.