Many years ago now Real Simple magazine ran an issue on the kindness of strangers. Readers had submitted short reflections detailing their own encounters. One couple described backpacking through Europe in their early twenties, running out of cash, and needing a place to stay in from the rain. They received accommodations, a delicious meal, and cash from a farmer in France. A few people described road trips that had gone south—like a flat tire or a blown head gasket—and the people who had stopped to help them. There were stories about hospital visits and plane rides and messy divorces all about the times someone else helped them. Each time people described strangers who had shown empathy, care, and kindness.
If you were following closely, you likely caught St. Paul’s drift in our reading from his Second Letter to the Corinthians this morning. He’s asking for money. Not for himself mind you—Paul worked as a tent maker when he traveled to care for his own needs—but for the people of the church in Jerusalem who’ve hit on some hard times. We didn’t read it this morning, but Paul begins by telling the Corinthian church that the disciples up the road from Macedonia had already given even in the midst of their poverty. He tells the Corinthians that it was “a wealth of generosity” on the Macedonians’ part. He continues, “For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints.” The Macedonians wanted—neigh, they begged—to give back to the church where it all began in Jerusalem. To let them know that even though they were primarily Jewish believers, the Gentile Christians of Asia Minor saw them as their spiritual forebears.
I started kindergarten when I was four. As kid number six, I’m sure my mom was thinking that she would like a bit of quiet in the house for the first time in 16 years and she got me into school as soon as she could. Even though I had a November birthday, I met the cut off, by golly, and so I took my place at South River Elementary School.
At a wedding reception for a college friend of Melissa’s a number of years ago, each table was asked to come up with at least one song with the word love in it, and then serenade the happy couple throughout the dinner. There was one catch: no repeats allowed. Within a minute the first group popped up and began singing “All you need is love” by the Beatles. One by one other tables sang too, sometimes mumbling forgotten words, and often out of pitch. Songs like “I had a vision of love” by Mariah Carey or the B-52’s “Love Shack.” Whitney Houston’s “I will always love you” got belted out by a diva wannabe. Our table sang “Seasons of Love” from the musical “Rent” with its “Five Hundred 25 Thousand,600 minutes” refrain. After more tables went and some opted to go again, the remaining people got desperate trying to conjure up songs—this was the pre-smart phone era, so we couldn’t just Google titles online—and so one guy decided to do his best Tom Cruise crooning, “You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips,” the opening lyrics to “You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling,” and immediately got booed down by the bride’s family. Oh, we could go on and on, and I suspect some of you may spend the next 10 minutes of my sermon trying to come up with other variations, but you get the idea.
We read a portion of scripture today from the first letter of John that includes words from one of my favorite hymns—a hymn I want sung at my funeral some day. It’s “I want to walk as a child of the light” and the words from John’s epistle can be found in the chorus, “In him there is no darkness at all.” The song goes on to say that the night and the day are both alike, and how Christ the Lamb is the light of the city of God. It closes with the request, “Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.” (And if this weren’t “Covidtide,” I’d be asking our organist to play that song for us at the end of the sermon, throwing him an audible call in the middle of the service.)
You can say whatever you’d like, but reading a gospel text for Easter that doesn’t even have an actual appearance of the risen Jesus is just downright odd. After the events of Good Friday when the body of Jesus had been placed in that new tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus’ disciples rested on that Sabbath overcome with grief even though it was the Passover feast. They were called to remembered the deliverance of their ancestors from the Egyptians by the hand of God, and also the gift of the Sabbath given at creation. But that rest and remembrance faded to the background as they replayed the events of the last week in their minds and tried to figure out what had really happened. Jesus had spoken about the dream of God—of a beloved community—where the last would be first and the first would be last. He told them stories of an overflowing banquet where those from the streets would be invited in. He healed the sick, and opened the eyes of the blind. He raised a little girl from the dead, and also called his friend Lazarus from the tomb. But now he was dead. And with him that dream of God that he had proclaimed.
Dark is the only way to describe Good Friday. Cold, raw, bleak, dreary. We hear the account of Jesus’ last 20 hours or so on this planet, and it’s overwhelming. He’s betrayed by a friend, and disowned by another. His countrymen push him off as an outsider, demanding his execution. The judge sees that he’s being set up, but doesn’t intervene. He’s stripped naked, flogged, spit upon, and mocked. He’s forced to carry the means of his execution across his shoulders, the rough hewn wood digging in to his skin. When he gets to the place called The Skull, the soldiers string him up, and then gamble away the remnants of his clothing. As he teeters between life and death, he sees his mother standing nearby taking this all in, and he asks a friend to treat her as his own mother, and that she receive him like her own son. He sips from a sponge saturated with wine just to wet his parched throat, and then he bows his head and dies. Upon closer inspection from his executioners—who can see that he is already dead—they add one last insult and pierce his bare side with a spear. This day is utterly and painfully dark.
If your house is anything like ours, you’ve got a place for towels, perhaps a linen closet or a spot in the cupboard under the sink. Of course, we have those towels that we can pull out in a pinch for guests—when we used to have guests, that is—those we’ve deemed nice enough for a guest to dry themselves after washing up. But then we also have those towels that are ratty and torn, strings of fabric hanging off them, perhaps stained in a few places or bleached out in others. We don’t pull those out unless it’s to wipe up a bad spill on the floor or to get mud off the dog’s feet after a long walk. Our towels have been used after a dip in the ocean, or cleaning up after one of the kids had an accident. They’ve come in handy cleaning up spilled milk, or wiping of a forehead after a hard run. They have swaddled babies and have stemmed the flow of blood from a bad cut.
I often listen to movie soundtracks from large sweeping epics of films as a backdrop to my workdays. Movies like “Legends of the Fall,” “Last of the Mohicans,” “Out of Africa,”and “The Mission.” Rarely are there singing voices in the soundtracks I prefer; this allows me to concentrate and focus on writing or contemplating one idea or another. And for the last dozen years or so throughout Lent—and especially as I reflect on and write my Holy Week sermons—I listen to the soundtrack from “Schindler’s List.” I’ve only seen the movie a couple of times, but I know the haunting music that John Williams and Itzhak Perlman co-wrote very well. The way the violin takes center stage throughout many of the pieces, providing movement and giving a depth to the story that both crushes the soul and lifts the heart.
One of my favorite musical pieces is Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere mei Deus” written during the 1630s for use in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week. The text comes from Psalm 51 which we read together today; the title of the work simply comes from the first words of the Psalm in Latin: Have mercy on me, O God. I first heard the “Miserere” during a Lenten retreat for clergy as the facilitator played the 8 minute piece for us. We sat enchanted by the ethereal voices asking God over and over for compassion and loving-kindness, for mercy and forgiveness. I closed my eyes, letting the music wash over me as I thought about my own life, about the times when I had missed the mark. About how much I needed God to blot out my offenses and to create a clean heart within me.