The Dangerous Gospel of Good Friday

What follows is the text of the sermon I gave for our Good Friday service, only an hour ago.

Today is Good Friday, the day that we commemorate the death of our Lord, Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ.

On Sunday, we will have Easter. Easter is one of those times of year where many people that we would not normally see in church will come. They will come, because Easter Sunday is a day of hope. It’s the day that we celebrate the new life that comes with resurrection. It’s a wonderful day to start a Christian journey, or to reaffirm a journey that we’ve gone astray from. New life is something that we always seek; every year, every month, every day, we seek to “wipe the slate clean” to “start fresh.” And so, we all come on Easter Sunday, to celebrate the chance at new, abundant life that Jesus gave us when He walked out of the tomb. And we call Good Friday “good”, because we believe that Jesus took our old lives to the cross, so that we could have this new life on Sunday.

But, today is not Sunday. Today is Friday. And, while the Gospel of Easter Sunday is affirming, and joyful, and comfortable, the Gospel of Good Friday is dangerous, controversial, and solemn. Yet, we ignore this Gospel at our own peril.
This dangerous Gospel begins in the Garden, when Jesus says, “Not my will, but yours be done.” It continues when Jesus tells His disciples to “put away their swords” in defense of their lives and His. It reaches a climax when Jesus, accused before the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate, answers the charges laid before Him with a simple, “It is as you say.” And, it culminates with Jesus looking at His enemies, the ones who had nailed Him to the cross, and saying, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”

This dangerous Gospel demands more than it gives. It calls us to death, rather than new life. It strips us of our rights, our privileges, our pride and our freedom, and gives us a cross. Resurrection Sunday offers us a crown of glory, but all that Good Friday has to offer is a crown of thorns. Easter gives us clean and shining white robes, but Good Friday divides our garments and strips us naked.

What will we do with this dangerous, perilous Gospel? Will we run and hide, in fear of our lives, as most of the disciples did? Will we deny that we know Jesus, as Peter did? Will we stand helplessly at the foot of the cross, as Mary and John did? Will we recognize the innocence of the Son of God, as the murderer next to Jesus did? Will we help Him carry the cross, as Simon of Cyrene did? Or, will we stand and mock him for His impotence, as the Roman soldiers did?

The call to follow Jesus on Good Friday is a call to die “to” and to die “for”. When Jesus told His disciples, “Whoever would come after me must take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life, will lose it. But, whoever will lose his life, for my sake, will find it”, He was not using a spiritual metaphor. They lived under a brutal occupation by the most powerful empire in the world, and the message that they spread would have dire consequences for them. We can see the evidence for the literal meaning of Jesus’ call in the way that so many of His disciples died in the same way that He did.
So, the first and most important lesson that we can learn from this dangerous Gospel, is that the call to die may very well be literal. Many Christians around the world understand this. As we sit, comfortably, in this church, there are thousands across the world who live in fear of a very physical death, such as the university students in Kenya, who were dragged out of a worship service and killed just this week. Christians in Iraq and Syria live in fear of extremists who drag them into the streets and behead them, regularly. Christians in Communist regimes worship in secret, for fear of a State that will not tolerate any form of religious expression. For these Followers of Jesus, the decision to follow Jesus is a literal laying down of their lives.

But, as Americans, we do not understand this as fully as we should. We have always lived in a country where the greatest persecution we suffer is the insults of those who do not share our faith. In our country, we worship in public. We have prayer breakfasts in government buildings, we have churches on every street corner, the words “Under God” are enshrined in our pledge of allegiance, the words “In God We Trust” printed on every dollar bill that comes into circulation. For us, the idea of death in the name of Jesus is an abstract, a hypothetical. We may boldly proclaim that we are willing, but would we still proclaim as boldly if our faith was put to the test, if our lives were truly threatened?

In this culture, the things that we have to die to are much more subtle. When we Christians talk of dying, we often talk of dying to our sin, dying to the world. But, there are things that we must die to that we would balk at. Dying to our sin is easy, compared to the cross that Jesus would have us bear. Dying to “the world” is a cop-out, when we see the Savior inviting us to share in His suffering. Jesus tells us that we must die to ourselves: everything that comprises ourselves. We must die to our pride. We must die to our concept of freedom, of liberty, of rights. We must die to our families: our parents, spouses, children, friends.

We must die to our responsibilities. I heard a tragic story recently of a young man. This young man went to a Chrysalis retreat, and he came back full of fire, passion and zeal. He literally wanted to leave everything that he had behind, and go and use the skills that he had cultivated as a carpenter to build houses in third-world countries. He was committed to this course, until a very well-meaning relative said, “You can’t do that. You have to get a job, you have to go to college, you have responsibilities.”

That young man was ready to die to everything that he had built and cultivated in his short life, and he was ready to die for a group of people that he had never met. But, someone told him that he couldn’t, that the call was too much, too foolish. And now, that young man drifts through life, unfulfilled, restless, because the call that he answered, the call to die, was also his hope of resurrection. It was denied to him, because he was told that the cross was too heavy, that he had another cross to bear, the false cross of responsibility.

How often do we, in this culture, chase these responsibilities, these activities, things to fill the emptiness, the lack of fulfillment? How many of us have burned in our hearts to do something radical, something dangerous, something so perilous and foolish that it can only be a call from Jesus? How many of us have quenched that fire in our hearts with the responsibilities that we have made an article of our faith?

If we are to follow Jesus on Good Friday, we must learn that our responsibilities are often nothing more than a well-dressed idol. They are an outgrowth of our pride, our need to be important to the world around us, our need to have purpose in a world that so often seems purposeless. Yet, Jesus demands only one purpose for us on Good Friday: a long road to a lonely hill, and a cross. He calls us to be despised by those for whom we wish to be so important, to surrender the rights and the earthly responsibilities that we have filled our lives with. He calls us to be fulfilled in death.

To follow Jesus on Good Friday, it is not enough to die “to”, we must also die “for.” We call this Friday “Good” because Jesus died “for” us. So, if we are to follow Jesus on this road, who do we die for? We die for the same ones that Jesus died for. We die for the poor, the helpless, the hopeless, the broken, the bloodied, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned. We die for the young veteran in our congregation who can’t see a way to go on living. We die for the young mother who worries about how to pay the rent, how to put food on the table, how to raise children with a spouse who is either absent or non-existent. We die for the desperately drug addicted man, whose only hope lies in a needle in his arm. We die for the man on the side of the road, holding a cardboard sign, living without pride or dignity. We die for the senior citizen, who has to choose between buying food and buying medicine. We die for the parent of the adult child, who wonders day and night if their child still lives, after months and years of not hearing from them. We die for the thieves and the murders. We die for the prostitutes and the pimps. We die for the Muslim, for the black person, for the immigrant, for the terrorist, for the hypocrite. We die for them when we die to ourselves, when we make the task of being Jesus to them our only responsibility, our only purpose. We die for them when we give up our time, our energy, our money, to minister to their physical needs, as well as their spiritual.

In 2006, I went to Iraq for the first time. In 2008, I went for the second time. And, by June of 2012, I was only a shell of the person that I had once been. I had purpose, I had responsibilities, but it was all I was. I was crushed by all the things in my life that made me feel important, that made me feel useful. My family, my duty to my country, my responsibilities to the soldiers under my command, my responsibilities to the commander that I served… all of it made me popular in the eyes of those I worked with. It made me valuable to those that I served. And yet, for all the acclaim and value that I had cultivated, I could not see a way to go on living. And so, on a normal day in June, I woke up in the morning and decided to take my own life. I would leave no note: my life was my note. I simply decided to drive as fast as I could into a utility pole on Peacher’s Mill, which I drove down every day.

As I passed the stop light at the intersection of Peacher’s Mill and Creek Coyote, I saw a church sign. I had passed this church many times, but today was different. Today, I was ready to die. And, the sign said something simple, something like, “God loves you, and so do we.” That simple message, that profound statement, made me buckle my seatbelt, slow down my car, and find a new way to live.

But, I died that day. SGT Woywood, a man who was respected for all of the responsibilities that he was willing to undertake, ceased to be. And, over a period of months spent in this sacred space, that man was resurrected into the man you see here today, a man who tries so desperately to make his only responsibility that of following Jesus. A man who has died, but who has discovered that it was the only way to be reborn, the only way to find new life.

I want to die for each of you. I want to die for those that Jesus died for. I want to be like the young man who was willing to leave everything to die for those who live in desperate poverty and homelessness.

I want to be a Good Friday follower, not just an Easter Sunday follower. I want a dangerous Gospel, not a comfortable one. I want to die before I am resurrected.

Do we all want that? Or do we only want to worship the triumphant Jesus coming out of the tomb, and ignore the Jesus who willingly went to the cross?

Will we live for our rights, our freedoms, or will we die to them? Will we chase after our responsibilities, or will we carry them with us to the cross? Will we seek a crown of glory, or a crown of thorns? Will we accept only an easy path to new life, or will we desire the dangerous, but authentic, road to death?

I found a quote some time ago, and it so perfectly encapsulates what I’ve been trying to say tonight, that I must share it as I close.

“Religion seeks to transform a man; the Cross seeks to crucify him. Religion may fail to bring about the desired result, but the Cross never fails to achieve its end. Mankind will pursue morality, virtue, spirituality, even perform religious works and good deeds, in order to avoid death on a Cross. But there are no wounds, no scars, no evidence of having ever died and been made alive again unto God. Either a man has never died, or he has died and been raised again. You cannot fake a resurrection.” – Chip Brogden

Sisters and brothers, will we follow Jesus unto death? Will we follow Him, though it means scars? Will we follow Him, though it means death to everything that we hold dear? Will we follow Him, though it means giving our life for the least, the last and the lost? For it is only in dying with Him on Good Friday that we can ever have hope of a true, authentic resurrection on Easter Sunday. Because the straight and narrow that Jesus would have us walk is only as straight as the road to Golgotha, and exactly as narrow as the cross on which Jesus died for love.

“I Can’t Breathe”: A White Man’s Thoughts on Eric Garner, Ferguson and the Specter of Racial Injustice

“For me, this is a very religious thing. I don’t believe you can love your neighbor as yourself and then kill them. Police officers have to learn to love their neighbors as themselves. If we continue a situation where cops are allowed to continuously resort to lethal force, the cycle of violence will continue and death will continue to beget death. I think people of faith need to demonstrate. We have a fundamental responsibility to be in the streets, to be creating coalitions, to be building change.

I keep thinking about Eric Garner saying, ‘I can’t breathe.- It made me think — that’s what Jesus is saying in this culture. Jesus is fundamentally connected to the marginalized and right now Jesus is saying, ‘I can’t breathe.’ I think the church should be saying the same thing — that we can’t breathe in this culture and we have to change this culture in order for us to have breath and exist in this society.”

— Rev. Jeff Hood

I normally try to keep these blog posts confined to religious topics, and I do my best to avoid specifically political issues. I have not been perfect in this regard, because there are times when the weight of political/social events becomes so heavy that the religious community can no longer afford to sit back and try to be peacemakers.

This is one of those times.

As I sit here, my head is still reeling from the grand jury verdict of “no true bill” for Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, Jr.. I have struggled since the announcement of the verdict to understand how we have come here, to this place in America where a professional with a firearm can be reasonably threatened by an unarmed civilian – at least to the point where lethal force is appropriate. That goes against my beliefs on non-violence, but it also goes against my training in escalation of force and rules of engagement. The addition of the fact that the officer in question was white and the victim/perpetrator was black, and the case takes a new dimension. Suddenly, we’re thrust into the world of racial injustice. We suddenly have to consider that a young black man is 21 times more likely (http://www.propublica.org/article/deadly-force-in-black-and-white) to be shot dead by police than their white counterparts (this study includes both white and non-white police officers.) We have to consider the racial injustice of the courtroom and prison, the fact that there are more black Americans in prison or on probation or parole than were enslaved in the year 1850 (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/criminal-justice/locked-up-in-america/michelle-alexander-a-system-of-racial-and-social-control/).

These are uncomfortable statistics for white Americans, because they indicate an institutional racism that we have become complicit in. We are not racists on an interpersonal level, yet we continue to live in a privileged state compared to our dark-skinned brothers and sisters. Our sons are far less likely to be shot dead by police, or tried and imprisoned, for often minor crimes. We are not feared in large numbers. We are not a targeted population for stop and frisk laws. We are not as likely to lose our voting rights as a result of felony incarceration.

We are privileged, but we don’t want to admit that. We don’t want to acknowledge that America is an easier place to live when you’re white, because it would challenge the false narrative of racial harmony that we’ve been building for at least the last 40 years. White Americans now quote Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on non-violence (while conveniently ignoring his pleas for racial justice.) We lionize a dead civil rights champion, while we simultaneously demonize living ones (see: Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton). We point to a black president as “proof” that we’re living in a “post-racial” society, yet we fail to see that the same President has been subject to racist campaigns to discredit his citizenship and a level of vitriol unheard of in my lifetime.

I have family and friends that feel strongly that the case of Ferguson, Missouri and the death of Michael Brown, Jr. is a case of “race-bating” and “fanning the flames” of racial division. But, they fail to see that we, as white Americans, have already done that. We have fanned these flames into a raging inferno, and then stood back and complained that it’s too hot. How have we done this? We have done this by ignoring a system of institutional racism that has existed, in some form, since the foundation of this country.

We owned slaves for 245 years in this country, from the first landing in 1620 until 1865. After the practice of slavery was abolished, we continued a system of legal segregation and discrimination for another century (the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964.) So, for 344 years, black Americans were either owned or legally prevented from going to the same schools as white Americans, working at the same jobs, living in the same neighborhoods, shopping at the same stores, eating from the same restaurants, etc. To put this into a different perspective: my father was born in 1962. He is now 52 years old. That means that the first black Americans to be born into a world without legal segregation and discrimination are just hitting what we would call “middle age.”

Is 50 years long enough, in the scope of cultural and institutional trends, to make up for three and a half centuries of hideous racial injustice?

Is 50 years long enough for the memory of those crimes to fade?

Is 50 years long enough for the children and grandchildren of slaves – the children and grandchildren of the legally disenfranchised, segregated and discriminated against – to “pull themselves up” out of the hole that white Americans dug for them and threw them in?

I’m using strong language for a reason. It’s time for us to acknowledge that we created the very cycles of crime that we turn our nose up at. We created the urban neighborhoods that we don’t feel safe driving through. We created the generational problems of incarceration that leave so many young black men fatherless. We created the poverty that forces so many black families onto federal assistance.

We created these problems, as a society and a culture, and now we wash our hands of it, we shake our heads disapprovingly, we protest innocence and say, “I didn’t do any of those things.”

Protestations of innocence do nothing to solve the problem of racial injustice.

Disapproval makes it worse.

Denial of privilege makes it worse.

This morning, I watched the video of Eric Garner being murdered by a NYC police officer. I listened as he cried out, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” over and over again. Unlike the tragic story of Michael Brown, Jr., there was on question of whether or not Eric Garner was an aggressor. He was well within his rights to tell police officers to leave him alone. He was committing no crime at the time of his arrest. From the words he said, this was not the first time he had been unjustly confronted by officers.

And they still confronted him.

They tackled him.

They choked him.

They killed him.

A grand jury failed – not refused, but failed – to bring back justice for Eric Garner. A police officer is clearly shown on video as an aggressor, is clearly shown to ignore the cries of a man who is in pain, and yet a grand jury said to the people of that neighborhood in New York City, “Eric Garner doesn’t matter.

Does this cast a different light on the “situation” in Ferguson, Missouri? Does this make riots and looting understandable? MLK Jr. referred to rioting as “the voice of the unheard.”

Can you hear that voice? Are you even listening? Do you even care?

That voice is the cry of the oppressed, the cry of the needy, and we are instructed clearly in the words of Jesus about what to do when we hear those cries. Those cries are His cries.

Where was Jesus in Ferguson, Missouri? He was bent and weeping over the slain body of Michael Brown.

Where was Jesus in NYC? He was crying out with Eric Garner.

Where is Jesus every day when another young black boy loses his life to police bullets? Where is He when another black man is sent away from his community to rot in a for-profit prison system?

Jesus is always at the side of the oppressed.

But, that’s cold comfort to a community of people who are losing their sons, brothers, fathers, mothers, sisters and friends to a system that doesn’t care about them enough to stop it. They don’t need Jesus standing by their side.

They need us.

This isn’t a narrative about white superheroes and saviors swooping down to save poor black people. This is a narrative about average, everyday white Americans admitting their privilege and consciously ignoring it in favor of solidarity with the oppressed.

This is a narrative about white Americans speaking out in defense of the victims, rather than the aggressors.

This is a narrative about white Americans understanding, rather than judging.

This is a narrative about white Americans refusing to support acts of violence against the black community, regardless of who perpetrates it.

Finally, this is a narrative about white Americans recognizing that we exist in an unbalanced state of racial relations. It does no good to talk about how “colorblind” you are, while simultaneously benefiting from systems and institutions that favor one color of skin over another.

*************************************************************************

I wanted so badly to be a peacemaker. I wanted my first blog post-Ferguson to be about our need for reconciliation, the need for both parties – offended and offender – to come together in unity. But, I no longer believe that this is anything but a white American problem. We have greatly wronged our brothers and sisters of color for centuries, and it is neither Christian nor American to expect them to come up with a solution. We have the only solution.

The only solution is justice.

And only we can deliver that.

How I Almost Lost God This Summer (And How I’m Moving Forward)

My faith journey has been a lot of ups and downs, with most of my “ups” being periods of hyper-religiosity and churchiness and my “downs” being periods of spiritual apathy. Even in the lowest points of my faith journey, I never gave up believing in something Higher. I stopped going to church for nearly 10 years. I would identify as “agnostic” in some conversations. But, I always believed that there was a God somewhere, that God was benevolent, all-powerful, all-knowing. That was a Truth that I was never willing to compromise.

That all changed for me in the Summer of 2013. As background: the fourteen months between June of 2012 and August of 2013 were a period of uncertainty for me. I had a brush with suicide in June of 2012, and a follow-up stay in a psychiatric institution. But, I also rediscovered a desire to be involved in the church and the community of faith after 10 years away. I found Jesus again after planning my own death. And, while I had a difficult time (publicly and privately) defining my faith, I knew that I was a Christian in a way that I had never known before.

In August of 2013, our family was touched by tragedy. An infant boy, the child of dear friends whom I had prayed for fiercely and continuously, died. I felt the grief of this child’s death as though he was my own son – I consider his parents, especially his father, to be more family than friends. I was devastated and angry. And I began to seriously consider the idea that God simply didn’t exist.

As a combat veteran (an Army medic), I have seen my share of death. But, the deaths of my fellow Soldiers, while awful and tragic and devastating, never struck me as unfair. After all, these men and women chose to be Soldiers, and they knew that Death was a risk. But, the death of a child – one who fought as hard as he could to be whole and healthy, whose parents loved him dearly and suffered through every hospital visit with hope and optimism – was distinctly unfair.

And, suddenly, everywhere I looked there was evidence of God’s seeming indifference to creation. Friends being diagnosed with cancer. Loved ones dying before their time. Soldiers still dying in wars that seemed more and more senseless.

I searched for answers outside the faith community, and I found the answers that I was looking for. Based on the hard evidence of the world around me, there was no God. The God that I had believed in all my life was imaginary. The Bible was a book of fairy stories, and Christians were living in varying degrees of delusion.

For 3 months – which is not long, but it felt longer – I railed against the kind of Christianity that shut its eyes to the suffering of the world, that insisted that there was a “Divine Plan” (which included kids being blown up in warzones and babies dying of illnesses before they learn to speak). I prided myself on my newly-found intellectual honesty, and had really wonderful conversations with people that I’d never had much in common with before. It allowed me to see the world of the church from the “other side”, and I really didn’t like much of what I saw.

How do you go from being a Christian, to being an atheist, to being a Christian again? Some of my friends outside the faith community think I simply buried my intellect and went with the crowd (and I would be dishonest if I said that, on my more depressed days, I didn’t agree with them.) But, it’s a lot more than that. I had, until that point, always believed that Christianity was a series of True/False propositions – even when I held unorthodox or even heretical ideas, I always thought of myself as finding the right Truth to cling to. Truth was the highest value of my Christian faith, and so when one of the Truths that I had always held about my faith – that God answers prayers in a literal sense, that God is “in control” of how the world behaves day-to-day – when that Truth became invalid, the entire house of cards fell apart.

But, what I had left, even after I had denied the existence of God, was an experience. I had the knowledge that something had happened to me, on numerous occasions, something that had made me stop and acknowledge a Presence that I could neither see nor understand. By denying the existence of God, I was invalidating a part of myself, and a part of a community that I had been a part of for over 20 years. And while I could argue the cold, hard, observable facts, I could not seem to convince either the community or myself that our collective experience was invalid.

And, so, I took a few tentative, stumbling steps back into a community that received me as though I had never left, as though I hadn’t said hurtful things on Facebook walls or challenged their most basic beliefs. They hugged me and loved me. And, through them, I realized that the problem wasn’t with God, the problem was with how I had learned to see God, how I had learned to experience my faith. Through the community I’m a part of, I learned how to build a faith that doesn’t depend on certain things being True or False, but a faith that is built around the relationships of the people who adhere to it, a faith that is less believed and more lived. The authors (and, yes, I wrote that as a plural without a capital A) of the Bible experienced God as events that seemed supernatural – we experience God through the wonders of science, the beauty of nature, and the way we connect to each other as human beings. The authors of the Bible believed that everything bad that ever happened was God’s judgement, and everything good was God’s blessing. We understand that natural disasters are natural, that medicine can’t heal every illness, and that most of the good things that happen are a result of either hard work, the generosity of others, or just coincidence.

The title says that I’m going to tell you how I’m moving forward, so here it is: my belief is in my life. I don’t need a 6-Day Creation, a Great Flood, a Virgin Birth or a literal Resurrection to give to the poor, visit the sick or love my enemies. I want to do those things, even with no religious belief. BUT… Jesus taught His followers to do those things. And, His followers (or, at least, their followers) believed that Jesus was born of a Virgin and rose bodily from the Grave. He was important to them, and I want to follow His teachings. So, I’m going to live like I believe. I’m going to show my belief through what I do.

I’m going to pray – not because I expect anything from God, but because prayer changes me. It brings me close to the person for whom I’m praying, it makes me far more likely to do something for them.

I’m going to go to church, sing the songs (even when I don’t know the words) and listen to the sermons – not because I need to do that, but because community is the most powerful force, for good or for ill, that history has ever seen.

I’m going to serve, especially in areas where the Church has been traditionally afraid to go. I’m going to seek out the “tax collectors and sinners”, the Samaritans of our time, and I’m going to stand in the gap for them. I’m going to pick up their cross and carry it for them. And I’m going to find new ways to love the ones that I’m standing in opposition to – to remember that, even as I’m standing against ideas, people need to be loved and respected.

I’m going to evangelize – but not the kind of evangelism that passes out tracts or asks people if they know where they’re going when they die. I’m bring this Good News: that there is evil in the world, but that good will always overcome it. That there is hatred in the world, but that love will always overwhelm it. That there is darkness in the world, but that Light has shone through it.

And, this Good News needs to be given to more than just “the world”: the Church needs to hear this. So, I commit myself to continuing to be an Evangelist (An Unlikely One?), to the human community. I have found the Good News, and it was different than I thought it was. I always thought the Good News was that Jesus died for me – it turns out, the Good News is that He lived. He loved. And He not only taught us how to do the same, He died to show us.

In short, as I go forward in my human journey, I’ve learned that the highest value of Christianity (or any faith) is not Truth; it’s Love.