24 March 2013

Friend, Friend Indeed

Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin (1809-1864),
"Christ's Entry into Jerusalem" (c.1845)
Luke 19:28-40 & Philippians 2: 5-11

Palm Sunday/ 24th March 2013

Today we walk with Jesus into Jerusalem, with palms in hand, and our shouts of “Hosanna” and “Blessed.”  It’s bittersweet.  Always is.  We know what the week will bring.  We know the stories, all of them:  Matthew’s and Mark’s, Luke’s and John’s. They each have their own slant, their own distinctive voice, with unique (even conflicting) chronologies and theological outlooks. This year the lectionary favors Luke’s version of Jesus’ entry into the religious and political powder keg otherwise known as Jerusalem, the City of David, the city of Yahweh’s shalom, Yahweh’s peace.  Was there ever such a misnamed city?  City of God’s peace?

            We all know what waits.  Even after all these years, this text, these stories of that fateful week that changed the course of history, of our history, the questions remain, the answers difficult to discern. Why?  For what?  What did Jesus’ suffering and death accomplish? What does it tell us about the nature of God? How we answer informs our faith commitments, Holy week, every week.

            During our adult education hour throughout the season of Lent we explored the various ways the New Testament attempts to “make sense” of the cross. One theme that I tried to suggest each week is that the New Testament does not speak with one voice regarding the meaning of the cross.  Even the creeds are silent.  Not silent about the cross, but what the cross means.  Instead, throughout its history the Church has generated metaphors, that is, ways to express its meaning, metaphors of atonement (victory, sacrifice, etc.).  But the metaphors should not be taken literally.  Metaphors should be revelatory; in other words, our metaphors or images of the cross should open up reality for us, they should allow the real, the true, the beautiful, to emerge. They should not close off reality, but open it.  Not provide less meaning, but more.  They should enlarge the soul, not diminish it.

            The fact that we have various metaphors, images, symbols, theologies of the cross tell us that what occurred that week was bigger than our metaphors.  It’s a story that we can’t completely tell.  Never will.  History as a science does not have the power or the authority to bear such truth.[1] 

            The New Testament gives us four gospel witnesses, but there were others, too, who experienced that awful week, who walked with Jesus into Jerusalem and watched him confront the powers that seek to undo God’s way in the world.  And so we must attend to this story lightly, gently; don’t think you have it all figured out, don’t assume you know what it all means – because you don’t.  Here and there we are given glimpses of the truth, discover a new angle or perspective that allows us to see things about the story that we never noticed before.  And sometimes, by the grace of God, we hear the story with an entirely different ear; we listen to the story with our souls and hear it as if for the first time.

            Speaking of ears and listening, I’ve had a hymn running through my head for the last week or so.  It’s the Lenten hymn, “My Song Is Love Unknown.”  The text was first a poem by the English Puritan minister, Samuel Crossman (1623-1683), written in 1664 while England was enduring yet another outbreak of plague.   The tune was written in 1918 by the English composer John Ireland (1879-1962).  The story goes that one-day Ireland was at lunch with Geoffrey Shaw (1879-1943), himself a composer and Anglican church musician.  Shaw handed Ireland a slip of paper and said, “I want a tune for this lovely poem by Samuel Crossman.”   Ireland took the paper with the poem on it, picked up a menu, and then proceeded to compose the tune, on the back of the menu.  In a few minutes Ireland handed it back to Shaw, with a casual remark:  “Here is your tune.”[2]

Both the tune and text have been working on me this week.  The part that grips and grabs me, that touches something in me occurs when tune and text come together in a striking way toward the center of the tune.  About halfway through Ireland intentionally deviates from the dominant or tonic key of D-Major. It’s a technique called chromaticism, modulating out of the dominant key; it’s a signature technique that Ireland loved to use.  He breaks out of tonality.  Inserts dissonance.  Producing a kind of twinge that then hooks us. The companion text for this part of the tune, the dissonance in each verse, is:  
            …O who am I That for my sake;….
            …But O my Friend, My Friend indeed;…
            …Then ‘Crucify!’ Is all their breath;….
            …Yet steadfast He To suffering goes;….
            …This is my Friend, In whose sweet praise….

            It’s here, at the heart of the hymn, at the heart of the text, it’s these lines that kept repeating, again and again, in my head:  Yet steadfast he to suffering goes.  Yet steadfast he to suffering goes.

            That’s my image of Palm Sunday as Jesus faces Jerusalem, knowing full well what he was doing.  Steadfast. With unwavering commitment he sets his face toward a city he knows will reject him, as it did to so many prophets before him.  With firm resolution, rooted and grounded in unfathomable love, he chooses to go this way.  He chooses to suffer, to undergo what few of us are willing to endure.  It’s this act, this choice, this willful decision that’s so remarkable, that arrests us with awe.  He doesn’t go to conquer or defeat or annihilate or judge. He goes to suffer.  Not to celebrate suffering for its own sake, not to glory in suffering.  God forbid!  Echoing Isaiah from long ago, Jesus is one who serves by suffering, a “suffering servant,” (Isaiah 53), suffering for, suffering with, suffering through the pain and anguish of broken world, a world of broken hearts, suffering the sorrow of a wayward humanity alienated from God’s justice and love and hell-bent on self-destruction.

            This is who God is.  Not God omnipotent, blustering about with bravado, full of power and might, shock and awe, but a God who demonstrates a different kind of power, a power strong in weakness, as the Apostle Paul knew (2 Corinthians 12:9).  Or, as Paul wrote to the Philippians, “let the same mind (that is, way) be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”  And what was that way?  Quoting from a hymn that would have been familiar to the Philippian church, Paul described the way of Christ:
            who, though he was in the form of God,
                        did not regard equality with God
                        as something to be exploited [or grasped],
                                    but emptied himself,
                                    taking the form of a slave,
                                    being born in human likeness.           
            And being found in human form,
                        he [as God!] humbled himself
                        and became obedient
                        to the point of death – even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-11)

            The Lord chooses to empty himself, to give himself completely, to surrender, to be a slave, a servant, steadfast, sure to suffering he goes, in love, even if love means all the way to death, all the way to hell and back – and not just death, the excruciating, dehumanizing death on a cross.

            Last week and this morning in adult education we read statements from two people without a lot in common – the playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and pastor-theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) – writing from different centuries, from different professions, but both in love in Christ, both writing from a prison, in prison for very different reasons; both knew something about a cross.

            In a personal letter Wilde called De Profundis (Out of the Depths), from 1895, (never published in his lifetime), Wilde shares what Christ had come to mean to him.  Wilde compares Jesus to an artist. The life of the artist is one who gives expression to that which cannot speak.  “To [an artist] what is dumb is dead,” Wilde said.  “But to Christ it was not so.  With a width and wonder of imagination that fills one almost with awe, [Christ] took the entire world of the inarticulate, the voiceless world of pain as his kingdom, and made of himself its eternal mouthpiece.  Those…who are dumb under oppression and ‘whose silence is heard only of God,’ he chose as his brothers [and sisters].  He sought to become eyes to the blind, ears to the deaf, and a cry on the lips of those whose tongue had tied….  And feeling, with the artistic nature of one to whom Sorrow and Suffering were modes through which he could realize his conception of the Beautiful, that an idea is of no value till it becomes incarnate and is made an image, [Christ] made himself the image of the Man of Sorrows, and as such has fascinated and dominated Art as no Greek god ever succeeded in doing.”[3]

            And from Bonhoeffer, who discovered something profound after suffering through two world wars and now viewing the world from his vantage in a prison cell.  Our perspective must change, he said in July 1942: “…we have learned to see the great events of world history for once from below, from the perspective of those who are excluded, suspected, maltreated, powerless, oppressed, and scorned, in short the sufferers.” Later, not long before his execution in 1945 and reflecting upon Christ on the cross, Bonhoeffer wrote:  “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on the cross.  He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which [God] is with us and helps us…The Bible directs [us] to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.”[4]

            Pro me.  Bonhoeffer liked to say. All this was done, Pro Me, For me.  For you and me.  Jesus suffers, not in our stead, not because he’s taking the blows of an angry Father-Judge, blows meant for us, blows we think we deserve – No! Instead, Jesus demonstrates with his life: this is who God is; this is what God is like.  God is one who suffers with, who identifies with our struggles and sorrows, who participates in our pain, who bears it all – because we can’t! One who takes on and undertakes Death, to show that even Death has no power to separate us from God’s presence. 

            Yet, steadfast he to suffering goesYet, steadfast he to suffering goes. The dissonance at this point in the hymn tune is matched, twice, with the image of Jesus as Friend. Two images, inextricably linked: the friend who suffers.  Jesus the friend, a true friend, who is with me all the way, all the way to hell and back, who suffers with me in all the dissonant and broken places of my life; Jesus our Friend who suffers – with us – and carries us along the way all the way, even to death, all the way, and back.     
            But O my Friend,
            My Friend indeed,
            Who at my need
            His life did spend!
Yes,     This is my Friend,
            In whose sweet praise
            I all my days
            Could gladly spend.[5]

[1] Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder:Encounter and Conviction (New York:  Peter Lang, 2011), 113 ff.
[2] Muriel Searle, John Ireland, the Man and His Music (Tunbridge Wells:  Midas Books, 1979), cited in LindaJo H. McKim, The Presbyterian Hymnal Companion (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 72.
[3] Oscar Wilde, De Profundis, cited in Anthony W. Bartlett, Cross Purposes:  The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement(Harrisburg:  Trinity Press International, 2001), 177.
[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison. Eberhard Bethge, ed. (New York:  Macmillan, 1971), 360-361.  Emphasis mine.
[5] John Ireland, “My Song Is Love Unkown,” The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1990). 

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