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A prayer for Good Friday

God of great mercy,
you have drawn us into this community
of those who would follow your Son Jesus.

You draw us again into the story
of Jesus’ last day.
Open our hearts by its Truth;
renew our spirits by its Grace;
deepen our walk with him
who calls us friends
who gave his life for all.

Patient God,
we offer you our longings to be faithful
and our failures to do so.

We live surrounded and sustained by your grace:
where we cannot keep faithful to you,
you remain faithful to us;
even as our love falters and stumbles,
your love endures;
where we pull back in fear,
you draw us forward into your Reign of Love.

We know the price you pay to live us.
Receive our grateful praise.

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A Good Friday sermon based on John 18: 28 -38

About 80 years after Jesus had been crucified on a Roman cross, a man named Pliny was the governor of the Roman province of Bithinia. Bithinia was on the Black Sea, in what is now northern Turkey. There was in the province of Bithinia a small Christian community. Pliny was not quite sure what he should do about them so he wrote to Rome to get some directions. “There is a little group of religious fanatics,” he wrote, “who sing a hymn on the first day of the week to Christ as to a god.”

The emperor replied, “If these Christians leave it at that, what’s the harm? As long as they don’t cause a commotion, don’t trouble yourself; they are no threat to the empire.”

We know now that the emperor was mistaken. Within a couple hundred years, small communities of Christians had grown so strong and so powerful that they had taken over the Empire. They had done it without firing a single shot or deploying a single battalion, but they were the dominant force in the culture. The Emperor himself was a Christian.

You and I have gathered on this Friday morning to sing our hymns to Christ, whom we call “Lord and Saviour”, “fully human/fully divine”, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sing of the world”. We are relatively small gathering, really, considering that we have brought three congregations together for this service. We are few in number partly because Good Friday is a hard sell in our churches. Good Fridays services are not known for being the most upbeat experiences. The gathering is also small, I suspect, because much of the culture believes that our sining a few hymns and our telling some ancient stories is not accomplishing anything significant or important. “Let them be,” says the culture. “What’s the harm? The certainly pose no real threat to the world.”

Well, we shall see. The end of the story has not been written yet. We do not yet know what our God will make of our attempts to remain faithful in the dying days of Christendom. We do not know what God will do with the worship we offer as we seek to serve God in this time before God’s new thing bursts forth across the land.

We do not know, but we gather as a community of people who have staked our lives on the truth of God that the world thinks is foolishness. We hear Pilate ask, “What is truth?” and the answer we have to give is, simply, “Jesus”. Jesus is truth.

And, truthfully, the truth that Jesus is does often look like foolishness.

Jesus is truth that forgives not just once or twice but seventy times seven times. And we are invited to forgive with such extravagant abundance because that is how our Father in heaven deals with our sinfulness and brokenness.

Jesus is truth that welcomes strangers and shares meals with all the wrong people and turns the other cheek and travels the extra mile and loves even enemies because such wild, crazy love takes us to the mystery at the heart of our God.

Jesus is truth that refuses to abandon us even when we deny him and abandon him and betray him. Jesus comes looking for us when we wander away, even if he has to travel all the way to hell and back to find us, because that is how determined God is to get all God’s children home.

Jesus is truth that is cross-shaped and hurt-shaped and driven by vulnerability because such suffering love is the crucible of God’s life-giving newness.

Jesus is truth that invites us to live as communities of faith that are learning to forgive one another as Christ forgives us and welcome strangers as Christ has welcomed us and to offer all that we suffer up to God, believing that God will take even our suffering and redeem it for God’s good and holy purposes. We believe that God has that power even through those stretches when we cannot see it.

Today we remember that Pilate will always try to crucify such Truth. Such remembering is important because we do not know how long this time of being pushed to the margins of the culture is going to last. We do not how long we shall be mostly ‘small groups singing our subversive hymns to Christ” while the culture thinks we are harmless. We may be just at the beginning of a long stretch. Good Friday may be just beginning. Or, maybe we are near the end — that resurrection, God’s ‘new thing’ is just around the corner. Perhaps we are stuck in Holy Saturday and will be here for a while yet, waiting for God to raise the dead and break open the graves.

Wherever we are, we know that the Church — Christ’s Church — has been before. We hold on, in trust and in hope. We hold on because we are part of a community that believes that even in suffering and in vulnerability; even in those times when the glory of God is hidden from our sight; even when all we have to hold onto is the ache and the longing that God’s absence brings; even when the powers of this world have done their worst — even then, our God, the God of our crucified Saviour, this God can be trusted.

In Jesus, we come face-to-face with God’s truth. And so we stay close to the one who was crucified. He still works in surprising ways with people whom the world has dismissed as harmless and irrelevant and useless. His creative Holy Spirit still hovers over the chaos. In God’s own time, God does a new thing against all expectations. In God’s own time, God gives life to the dead.

Not until Sunday, but surely on Sunday. And so, on Good Friday, we sing our hymns and  say our prayers and trust. We stake our lives on this One who is the Truth. Thanks be to God.

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Now we know:

all is grace

all is gift.

You give us all good things:

life and love;

daily bread and water that quenches our thirst;

friends and faith.

 

Most of all, in your Son, Jesus,

you meet us with a love that will never let us go;

you utter words of mercy and forgiveness

that override the hurts,

and heal our brokenness;

you offer new beginnings

where we had expected only dead ends.

 

We give you thanks and praise

for the mystery of your suffering love

that gives us life.

We give you thanks and praise

that you know our weakness

and hear our prayers.

We give you thanks and praise

that all our dying and living

is held in your good keeping.

 

Now we know:

all is grace

all is gift.

We give you thanks and praise.

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Although it is well past Easter, I’m just getting around to typing this sermon up (yes, I still write my sermons out by hand). Many thanks to Craig Barnes and Ed Searcy for their reflections that proved so helpful.

Gathered in Christ

A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church, Sarnia, Ontario on April 8, 2012

Scriptures: Romans 5: 1-11
John 21: 1-14

Easter happens after a long, frustrating night of fishing and no fish are caught. Easter happens after failures and futility and coming up empty. At least, says the gospel writer John, that’s how it happened for Simon Peter.

Three years earlier, Simon had been a fisherman with his brother and his father on the Sea of Galilee. Then, Jesus showed up on the shore and said, “Come, follow me. I’ll teach you to fish for people.” Simon left the life he knew and started following Jesus and was renamed Peter. Then, Jesus was crucified and everything Simon Peter was living for was gone. His life was broken by cruelty. His hope was crushed by cowardice. Everything that held his world together was lost. His dreams and his hopes abandoned him. He was confused; uncertain as to how to move forward.

Craig Barnes has written that that describes the dominant experience of our time: confusion, loss, a sense of being abandoned. One age is dying. A new age is still struggling to be born. Nothing is nailed down anymore. We grow certain about less and less. How do you find your way forward when you are in the midst of that? Where do you find hope for living?

Peter said, “I’m going fishing.” He wanted his old life back. He wanted things to go back to ‘normal’. However, he discovered that there was no ‘normal’ to go back to. His old life was no longer ‘there’ to go back to. He spent the whole night fishing but caught nothing.

Have you ever been there? If you have not, someone you love has. It is a hard place to be. It is hard to be in that space where life as you know it is over but the new life, the new day, has not yet arrived. We have a name for it in the church: Holy Saturday.

Ed Searcy is a minister at University Hill United Church in Vancouver, B.C. He often reminds his congregation that Easter weekend is the heart of our life as Christ’s people. Three days — Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday — shape our life together. Those three days shape your life as a follower of Jesus. Those three days point you to the work of God in your life.

Good Friday is the day of loss and grief. It is the day when life as you know it ends. A job is lost. You become ill or disabled. Someone you love dies. Friends desert or betray you. Then, life takes you where you do not want to go.

We never get much of a crowd out at Good Friday services. This year, three congregations worshiped together and there were still plenty of empty pews. Who can blame people, though? Who wants to face the loss and the sorrow and the grief that comes into our lives? Most people would rather go fishing or golfing or cruising — anything but enter into that difficult time.

Nevertheless, this is where the gospel begins: on Good Friday. The gospel begins with Jesus not abandoning you when you feel most abandoned, but entering into your suffering; walking with you in it. Even when the path you walk takes you through the valley of the shadow of death, he walks with you.

Holy Saturday is that time between Jesus’ death and resurrection. It looks like nothing is happening. It can feel as if your life is stalled. You cannot go back to your old life but you are not able to move forward either. There is nothing you can do to fix what has gone wrong. You cannot find a solution no matter how hard you work at it. Whatever God is up to in your life, you cannot see it. Mostly it feels like God is absent, missing, unable to move against the chaos and the darkness. Holy Saturday is a time of waiting: you want to do something but every way forward is blocked.

Not until Easter arrives do you realize that God has been at work in ways beyond your comprehending. On Easter morning, as morning is now “coming to be”, as John puts it, the risen Christ shows up. He usually shows up unexpectedly. If this morning’s story is any indication, you won’t recognize him at first. He does not swoop in like a hero to rescue you. He doesn’t solve your problems for you. He does not fix whatever is wrong. Instead, he provides you with what you need to get through such a time.

“You haven’t caught anything, have you?” he asks. “Try fishing on the other side.” Jesus invites you to enter into a new life, a different way of being. When you listen and do as he says, you discover that the new life which is given is given lavishly, abundantly.  It is full of the presence of God.

Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday: this is the shape of your life with God. This is the bedrock truth of your life, even though your experience of God may be different as your life changes: No experience you have can take you beyond God’s reach. God loves you too much to abandon you any day of your life.

At University Hill congregation, the people ask each other, “How is the gospel with you? Are you living in Friday or Saturday or Sunday today?” God is up to something in your life. The question helps you recognize it and trust it and live into it.

The challenge comes when you find you’re spending most of your time in Good Friday and Holy Saturday instead of Easter Sunday. You can believe that God is at work; you can believe that God has a good purpose for your life. At least, you can want to believe that that is true, but that is not the way the human spirit works.  When you go through long periods of experiencing God’s absence and hiddenness, you can have doubts and questions that will not go away. It gets hard to hold onto faith; to keep believing.

That is why Jesus doesn’t just tell us about God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. Jesus offers a meal. Over and over again in the scriptures, he gathers the people together. He takes bread and blesses it. He breaks the bread and gives it to them. Then, he takes the cup and blesses it and gives it to them, saying, “This is my life poured out for you.”

We are used to hearing those words when we remember the Last Supper that Jesus had with his disciples. However, if you look at the other meals that Jesus shared with people, those same actions are repeated over and over and over. Jesus take, blesses, breaks, gives. Take, bless, break, give. Ed Searcy says that it’s like a figure skater, practising her figures over and over and over until they become part of her muscle memory. She doesn’t have to think all the time about every little move. The body remembers, making the moves even when the mind cannot. It’s like a musician, practising scales and chords and arpeggios over and over and over until they become part of his muscle memory. The music can be played long after the mind cannot concentrate.

Take, bless, break, give.

Take, bless, break, give.

That is what God is up to every day of your living. God is taking what you have and even, even those parts of your life that seem wasted, useless, and too full of failure or compromise or grief to be of any use anywhere. The Holy Spirit takes all that intoa Christ’s suffering love, blesses it, and offers God’s presence within it. God breaks it open and works within it, changing and transforming it so that it becomes something new. It becomes a gift given to you and to the world. It becomes food for the journey. It becomes a way of serving others.

Take. Bless. Break. Give. Those are the figures we practices as Christians, over and over and over again. We practice so that, when life takes you to Good Friday or Holy Saturday, you will know deep in your soul’s muscle memory, that God is at work. God is taking your life and working a blessing into it. God is breaking your future open so you can be given a new life, full of resurrection.

Easter happens. After long nights of frustration and futility, despair and discouragement, ‘as the morning is coming to be’, Jesus stands on the shore, calling you into a new life, a resurrection life, a life full of the gifts and grace of God. He was there all along, making a new beginning. Now you get to enter into it. Thanks be to God.

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The Rev. Dr. Bob Giuliano writes a regular column for the Owen Sound Times. His columns, entitled “Letters of Hope” always provide lots of food for thought. This week, Holy Week for Christians, reflects on suffering — a good post for Good Friday:

Letters of Hope by Bob Giuliano

I began thinking of some folks who need encouragement today. A friend in the States, so discouraged by the problems and burdens of her country and the conflicts that prevent good administration that she sometimes wants to give up. Another friend who is sick without much to encourage him in the days ahead. The list goes on. It just struck me that lots of folks need a gift of hope today. Me too.

A fella wonders about the meaning of suffering itself sometimes. I wonder if there is any meaning in suffering at all, or if there is, why that meaning seems so obscure and difficult to understand.

One evening this past winter, I was struggling along my walk and suddenly from my unconscious, there appeared an Asian woman, an elderly Chinese or Tibetan woman. She was very clear in my mind. Dark, weathered face, small in stature, deliberate eyes. Behind her were the fields of some ancient, well peopled land. It was desert like, but where she stood, there was greenery and an abundance of life.

This ancient Asian woman did not speak, but smiled gently at me as my mind seemed to gather in the reality of how widespread human suffering is. So much suffering in the world of this woman seemed to be her message. Suffering is the daily fare of millions of people around the world. She, the wizened old lady, was acquainted with much suffering.

I don’t know where she came from. Some Jungian analyst will put that together for me. She is probably some archetypal figure that came to address my battle.

With that reminder from the ancient woman of the extent of terrible suffering in the world, it seemed that I was being told several things. One was certainly that my own suffering was a part of the human condition. Small in many ways compared to the terrible anguish of so many others, my concerns were a part of being human on this earth.

The second insight that came to me was that in our country, suffering is the enemy and we devise many weapons to fight it, cover it, anesthetize us and help us avoid it. I can get to the hospital in a few minutes flat. I can get help without having to walk through deserts and jungles or across mountains to get to the nearest doctor. Folks in those lands accept their suffering as much a part of life as any other day. This does not make their anguish any less burdensome, but human suffering is known as a part of what living each day involves.

I do not know how to progress in my thinking about this. It just seemed like an intrusion of a wider reality that I needed to grasp, listen to, understand. The old lady stayed with me for a long time. Every time I go by the place on my walk that we met, I try to conjure her up for more conversation. However, she remains a memory of a profound in-breaking of truth.

I am reflecting now on the God whom we expect to take away our sufferings. To whom we turn, not only for ourselves but in true compassion for those in the rest of the world whose suffering is brought into our living rooms so vividly by modern technology. We do care about others and our friends and family too. We respond and send people to help and money for food.

I am thinking about this particular night when the One who is said to have been God as well as man, gathered his friends for the Feast of the Passover and made it also a farewell dinner. He knew that much suffering was to be His soon. “How I have longed to have this dinner with you”, He said. Lonesome and betrayed by friends, the next day was to be pure agony.

The message of the next day, the Friday we call ‘Good’, is that the great God Almighty suffered the same anguish as all human beings. He did not avoid it, rise above it, skip that part, but the Creator entered into human suffering fully and experienced it with all His children.

I don’t quite understand all that. But somehow, it has comforted folks who suffer. It suggests that as a result of this God-man’s suffering, all humanity’s agony is given meaning. Our suffering is Holy.

When I was a hospital chaplain, I often felt as I entered the hospital that I should take off my shoes. It is Holy ground. This God who suffers with his children, though not often known or felt in that sterile place, is very present there because his children are suffering.

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A prayer for Good Friday
This prayer was written to be prayed along with the song “I Come to the Cross“, and with meditation on Isaiah 53

“I come to the cross”

Year by year,
we return to this place outside the gates of the city,
outside the places of respectability and prestige,
surprised that your salvation
looks like this.

We were looking for something
more spectacular,
more glorious —
not this weakness and humiliation;
not this broken Saviour.
With your people past and present,
we sing about this strange kind of power,
but we confess
we do not really know what we are doing.

We come to the cross
seeking your mercy and your grace.
We are surprised that our suffering
is included in the richness of your kingdom.
Immerse us in the mystery of this day
till we know that
ever and always
we swim in the sea of your transforming love.

We come to the cross
and we hear you calling us to leave
our securities and
our comfort;
to turn our lives toward
your great dreams and purposes.
This is hard;
more risky than we had counted on.
But your Spirit has joined us
to the company of your people
who practise letting go
for your sake,
and for the sake of the world you love.
Your arms are open;
grant us courage to fall into them
and into life.
Here we come.

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We are cautious about handing over control to anybody, Holy God,
even to you —
especially to you.
You lead your people into ways
that are dangerous and free.
For the most part, we have lost our taste for freedom.
On this day, as we set ourselves
at the foot of your cross,
reach into those places
where we have settled for
comfort and security and safety.
Unsettle us
Discomfort us
Grant us that holy insecurity
that leads to truth and courage and life.
We dare to pray this way
because you have hid our lives in Christ
and he prayed it first.
He has gone before us
into all that life and death may bring
and was not destroyed.
We would be with him where he is.
Into your hands we commit our spirits.

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