The Rev. Christine E. Reimers, Ph. D.
Readings: Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Psalm 22, Hebrews 10:16-25, GOSPEL: John 18:1 – 19:42
Tonight is the ‘midnight’ of our Christian year – there is a great silence and absence of light in this night. Our Lenten journey is preparation for this terrible night. Tonight we are called to feel and acknowledge the depth to which God in Jesus Christ participates in the human story — even to suffer torture and death on a cross – the instrument of Roman oppression, torture and execution. The one we confess as fully God and fully man is suffering and dying. The African American spiritual asks the question for us to meditate on in this terrible and sacred night:
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord. . .?” [Sung?]
As I have contemplated the challenge of being fully present to Jesus’ suffering and death, I recognized that this is not something that comes naturally to us, we humans try to avoid suffering. So HOW are we enter into the meaning of Good Friday? [PAUSE] What do we know in our own lives about Good Friday? WHERE have I, where have you, encountered Good Friday? I invite us each to take time in a moment in silence to reflect on where YOU have encountered Good Friday? By this I mean both times when you have supported someone experiencing great loss and pain and also those times when you have been in the midst of loss and pain yourself.
[Pause] Where have you encountered Good Friday? [Silence]
I’ll share with you a story from my experience of being with someone in her Good Friday place in life. A woman I will call Grace came to me in, my ministry as a pastoral counselor, with a sense of deep fear and anxiety – so deep it was hard for her to get out of the house, to drive her car, to go to the grocery. She feared getting lost, being in an accident, most of the activities of everyday life. She talked and wept with me about her life – her long marriage to an abusive husband, her struggle to be faithful to God and her commitment made in her marital vows, raising 2 children – keeping them safe and teaching them respect for their father –despite her personal experiences with him. She also shared wonderful stories of service to others – working with the deaf and many more stories of self-giving to community and church. Then one day, just a year or so before I met her, she had a clear sense that she must leave her marriage and everything connected to it – that she would die there if she did not. I can only begin to imagine how hard it was for her to turn and walk away from 40 years of faithfulness to her marriage, in spite of her spouse’s cruelty, faithfulness to her vows taken before God.
However, leave she did. She left her home of 40 years in another state and moved to Richmond, VA, with a sister nearby for support. However, her Good Friday was not the day she realized she must leave her marriage or die. Her Good Friday was the year long struggle she’d been in by the time I met her with fear, anxiety and serious health problems. Living alone for the first time in her life was terrifying; leaving the city she lived in for so long disorienting, and years of physical abuse had taken a terrible toll on her body. With all that, her Good Fridaywas the loss of certainty about what God wanted her to do with her life. Her Good Friday was accepting God’s unconditional love and trying not to look back and see her years in that marriage as ‘not hearing’ God; as somehow being ‘unfaithful’ in her certainty that it was God Will that she suffer and that her suffering would somehow be redemptive. Her Good Friday – one I did not expected — was that loss of certainty and re-learning how to experience a deep sense of God’s love and presence OUTSIDE a life defined by violence, fear and service to others.
I felt very blessed to listen, to be witness to her story. It was clear the best way to support Grace was to simply be present with her – a silent witness to both the reality of suffering and to hold hope – on her behalf – hope for her future and a new relationship with God. [PAUSE] I believe I was called to figuratively walk with her on a spiritual journey through a scary and lonely time, as a person of faith who shared her desire to know God and Jesus Christ more deeply and to serve more truly. I offered mostly silent companionship in her journey from a sense of certainty (in the context of suffering) to an unknown place of freedom, but much less certainty. I prayed, when asked. I encouraged her to tell her story – with as many troubling details as she needed to share. I struggled to remain silent, in the face of her stories of abuse. Sometimes I held her had. She slowly developed a new sense of God’s presence in her life. She developed new daily practices of prayer, scripture reading, listening for God’s guidance in daily life, and sought moments of joy in spiritual songs that lifted her out of her fear and depression. One of the scary parts of this new faith journey was finding a new church where she felt safe and accepted; rather than staying in survival mode, withdrawn from other people and from a community of faith. Our conversation as faith-filled Christians was part of that journey back to community. Grace was grace to me and I to her.
What is your story of a Good Friday encounter? [PAUSE] Was it sitting with someone in pain, despair and suffering, a silent witness – as it we hear in today’s Gospel? Standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. Or is it your own Good Friday suffering where, hopefully you found someone present to you.
That brings me to another question, HOW to move from silent bystanders to witnesses? To be a witness, it seems to me, is first to ‘get involved’ in some way – emotionally, physically, even politically. Sometimes being a ‘silent witness’ is the appropriate response – in many times of personal pain and loss. There is also, as Brent spoke of last Sunday, the larger context of suffering and oppression where we are called to move beyond being bystanders and risk being witnesses to social injustice. Ellie Wiesel, the famous Jewish novelist and Holocaust survivor speaks of the problem of just being silent in the larger context of human suffering and oppression: I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
I suggest our call is first to face human suffering and discern how to respond. To make faithful choices to be present and move from stunned, frightened, perhaps self-protective bystanders to be witnesses. To be a ‘witness’ to violence and suffering may start with the simple act of listening or seeing. It may also lead to action – literally giving testimony in a trial, or standing up and speaking for what you believe in a public setting, or, remaining silent (but not neutral) in a public way and sitting/standing/ praying side-by-side with those who are suffering or oppressed.
This brings me back to tonight – Good Friday – and recalling those who John describes as the witnesses to Jesus’ suffering: [John 19:25-27]: Standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. They did not run away from the awful experience of the suffering of their friend and leader, their son or nephew. However, it is the next verse that I found most touching. It speaks to me about HOW we can find the courage to be witnesses to suffering: “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son,’ Then he said to the disciple, “here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” What struck me most is, even as he is suffering and dying, Jesus is concerned about those he loves. He cares for his mother and friend and tells each to be family to the other. I believe this is a very significant moment in the Passion Story – one I’ve frankly overlooked in the past. While we are called, particularly today – Good Friday, to recognize the reality of suffering and to open ourselves up to being witnesses; we are also gifted by Jesus final words to his followers from the cross, with a call to be family for each other, to be a community who can make new relationships, who can bear witness to suffering and provide healing—sometimes even a greater measure of justice to those who have been victimized. Suffering, regardless of its cause, is often a deeply lonely journey. It is a spiritual and psychological truth that it makes a difference if you experience someone with you in these terrible times Some folks are blessed with a clear sense of God’s presence in these times, but even Jesus cries from the cross ‘My God, my God why hath thou forsaken me.”
To be witnesses, not passive complicit bystanders, to the reality that Good Friday is to acknowledge that every day, every night women, children and men suffer at the hands of other people for no reason. In our Good Friday commemorate we can find our unique Christian witness that ‘enough is enough’ and God, in Jesus Christ, has entered fully into suffering and death for the purpose of breaking its power. [PAUSE] So. . .how do we go out tonight holding this irresolvable tension – Christ suffered and died to put an end to suffering and death and suffering and death continue?
One answer, for me, is that we seek to create and receive new relationships, to be family to those who have none, to be friend to the friendless, to ‘give a witness to the truth – to ‘give a witness to the faith that is in us.” One final image I would offer — to be a witness to suffering requires that we ‘hold hope’ for something redemptive to occur beyond the suffering in front of us. I imagine this being like sheltering a single glowing ember and keeping it alive until the one who is in the midst of despair and overwhelming suffering can receive it back and rekindle their fire of hope. So. . .let us go forth as witnesses willing to ‘get involved’ and to ‘hold hope’ – often in caring silence – for those we encounter who are suffering. AMEN.