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?
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.
I’m not sure about you, but I really needed to hear the words of the 23rd Psalm this morning. We’ll read it again on Good Shepherd Sunday—the 4th Sunday of Easter, 6 weeks from now—but it’s a balm right now, at a time when the world as we have known it slips away and we don’t know how to respond. I’m grateful for this “psalm of sustenance,” as one commentator put it, in a time when nourishment for our souls seems nearly impossible to find.
There is no denying it, friends: we are in the wilderness.
This past week has been one of uncertainty, anxiety, and trying to prepare for the unexpected. And it’s as if time has screeched to a halt. A friend posted online that she thought it was the change to Daylight Saving Time that would tire her out this week. I replied, “Was that really just last Sunday?”
We gather together at this beginning of Lent in order to remember that our days on this earth are not infinite and that what we do with the time we have been given matters deeply to God. Yet there’s also a tendency to think that this day is partly given over to shame and guilt, for us to feel that what we’re doing is not enough, that we are not enough. In a few moments I will stand at the chancel steps and invite you to participate in the observance of a holy Lent through self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and through reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And this feels like what I’m asking on behalf of the Church—on behalf of the Maker of the Universe—is for you to do more. To take on more in your religious life in order to pay for past missteps, so that you can earn God’s grace and mercy.
Last week I invited you to read through the entire Sermon on the Mount including the bit that we heard this morning. So perhaps you can imagine my inner dialogue with Jesus this past week: “Really, Jesus. You had to go and say that?!?!?! Couldn’t you have skipped that little bit on anger. I mean, have you seen our political world right now? It’s all anger. And that bit about your eye causing you to stumble, what was that all about? And that stuff on divorce, you didn’t mean that to sound so preachy and condescending, did you?”
Two weeks ago I described a letter sent from 20th century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Mahatma Gandhi that had been discovered recently. Bonhoeffer wanted to come visit Gandhi in order to learn how a community could live out the ideals of Jesus since it had become clear to him that neither Christians in Europe nor North America were doing so. Bonhoeffer wrote, “Western Christianity must be reborn on the Sermon on the Mount.”
Happy Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple! Or perhaps you know it as “Candlemas.” Maybe it’s the more secular incarnation of “Groundhog Day” that you remember best. Whatever you call it, this fact remains: it’s been exactly 40 days since Christmas.