Sermon: When it Hurts like Hell

[Sermon given on Friday, March 25, 2016 (Good Friday) at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church– Kansas City, MO by the Rev’d. Fr. Marcus G. Halley]

Here we stand, both figuratively and quite literally at the foot of the Holy Cross, an instrument of unimaginable shame and suffering that by the grace of G-d was somehow transfigured into an arbiter of G-d’s radical welcome and boundless compassion.

We stand here because we must, because there is no Easter, no lilies, no trumpets, no light, no celebration, no life without this, because “before the crown we wear, the cross we must bear,” as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. writes. This moment of mist and shadow matters because we cannot understand the significance of Jesus Christ – his message, his mandate, his ministry – until we lay ourselves bear before the Cross and allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to enter the reality of suffering. For that matter we cannot even understand ourselves without also understanding suffering for suffering is a part of the human condition. Therefore, as it is we stand here because Good Friday is an invitation to enter our own inner darkness.

I was having a conversation with someone the other day and, as any good southerner would, I ask them “how are you?” Now typically in the South “How are you” or “How’re you” is just a longer, more polite way of saying “Hello.” It isn’t really an invitation or expression of concern or compassion, it is merely just a salutation. You say it move about your business. It is no unlike the phrase “bless your heart” which is a more polite way of saying “I think you’re an idiot.” We southerners are nothing if not polite. This is just how words work down South. But I learned a long time ago to create space for sacred listening, that every single person I meet on the street is fighting a battle that I know nothing about, that some people spend their whole lives being talked at but never listened to. At a certain point pretense has to go by the wayside an honesty and vulnerability have to come to the forefront. So, when I met this person and asked them “how are you?” I meant it.

“Fine,” they said. “Actually, I’m not fine…” They then digressed into a litany of all that was going on in their lives, areas of deep pain and anxiety. After a few minutes they said, “so no, I’m not fine. It hurts like hell, but I’m here.”

The space of “It hurts like hell, but I’m here” is this painful space at the foot of the cross, a space that we all must enter sooner or later. My suffering may not look like your suffering and her suffering might not look like his suffering, but at the fundamental, foundational level of our emotions and nerves I believe that the journey of life will lead each of us into the rawness of suffering – a place of deep hurt, a grief that we just can’t seem to shake, pain that just won’t heal, rejection that we just can’t seem to get over, trauma that we dare not speak. We see so much brokenness throughout our world, so much destruction, so much pain and like the writer of Lamentations we cry out “the thought of my affliction… is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.”[1] Marcus Halley translation – “G-d, where are you?!”

So we come to the foot of this cross, bringing all of our pain and agony. We sit in the darkness wondering where G-d is, how G-d could let his happen to us, where we went wrong, how we can fix it. Our minds wrestle and race back-and-forth trying to rectify what went wrong and all the while the Holy Cross stands, seemingly unmoved, but if we look closer we see innumerable indentations…

…and scratches…

…and long grooves…

…and blood. The blood of Jesus. The blood of those nameless men, those who got caught in an insatiable machine of capital punishment and were crucified on that same cross the day before.

If we look long enough and listen with intention we might be surprised to hear the story this cross has to tell.

It is not a fairytale or nursery rhyme. It is a real story of real life, real suffering, and real pain endured by a real G-d in the form of a very real man who loved the world so much that he came to that place of “it hurts like hell, but I’m here” and sat there with us.

If we look closely enough, we see our stories written in the wounds of the Cross. We find all of our suffering situated in the suffering of Jesus Christ – all of our pain is projected onto those nails, all of our brokenness is bundled into that crown of thorns. Our tears are his tears. Our hurt is his hurt. All of our darkness is found in the darkness of Calvary where Our Lord cried out in painful agony “Eloi! Eloi! Lama sebachthani?” (My G-d! My G-d! Why have you forsaken me?)

If we look close enough we see that in Christ we have an icon, a window, into reality and totality of the human condition. I deeply believe that if “substitutionary atonement” has any surpassing value it is not in the fact that a vengeful G-d needed someone to pay the price for sin, but in the uncomfortable reality that Christ was willing to enter our melee, to suffer not only the wounds that life throws at us anyway, but to endure the hurts we inflict upon one another. G-d gave of G-d’s self fully to the journey even to the point of death.

In his act of selfless giving, we find G-d’s deepest compassion, G-d’s overwhelming desire to leave the eternal splendor of Heaven and enter our mess. When G-d put on flesh, G-d put on nerves that felt pain, tissue that would be broken, tendons and ligaments that would be stretched, senses that we feel, and emotions that would be overwhelmed. G-d gave of G-d’s self fully and completely to preaching a prophetic message of love knowing what we tend to do to prophets.

But G-d gave of G-d’s self nonetheless because G-d knew that we would need some help in that place of “it hurts like hell.”

All through Lent a small but faithful group of us paused each Tuesday evening to reflect on art and spirituality. We heard our stories in ancient scripture and contemporary poetry. We saw both our pain and our joy reflected in the chrysalis of a butterfly and in a barren forest both pregnant with possibilities. We saw our hope shimmer in flickering candle light and community forged in broken bread and poured wine. Arts and spirituality became windows in our experiences. Our worship, no matter how intricate or simple, liturgical or extemporaneous, is nothing more than inviting G-d into our midst that we might experience the world through G-d’s perspective.

If this is true, then tonight is an invitation to see suffering through Heaven’s eyes. Scripture makes abundantly clear that G-d is concerned about those who suffer. “Blessed are you who are at the end of your rope or when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Blessed are you when you feel like you are broken beyond repair… when your whole world has fallen apart. Blessed are you when tears fall… when you feel empty and hallow, lost and unmoored.”

How can Jesus call us blessed? He can call us blessed because all it means is “I’m here with you, in the trenches, in your pain.” “You are blessed,” says Jesus, “because you are not alone.” That may not sound like a whole lot to you, but when I’m in that place of “it’s hurts like hell” sometimes it is helpful to know that the one who beat Hell is there with me, and not only that but that someone made it out and is calling my name.

“The thought of my affliction… is wormwood and gall,” says the writer of Lamentations. “My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning…”[2]

Beloved in Christ, the testimony inscribed both in the wood of the Holy Cross and the very foundation of the World is this: suffering is real, but G-d’s mercies never fail.

The Cross stands defiantly against hopelessness and lets us know that the most unspeakable pain and horrific shame can never separate us from the love of G-d in Christ Jesus. Nothing can. Nothing will. Because G-d is here in this mist and shadow with us, bearing our pain, weeping with us reminding us that to be a follower of Jesus Christ is to always, always, always be a prisoner of hope – hope that the “sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed in us.”[3]

The Psalm-writer makes clear:

Where can I go then from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand will lead me
and your right hand hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will cover me,
and the light around me turn to night,”
Darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day;
darkness and light to you are both alike.[4]

The Cross still stands down through the centuries to let us know that it might “hurt like hell,” but if G-d’s got us then we are dwelling in G-d’s safety and “we gon’ be alright…”


[1] Lamentations 3.19, 20

[2] Lamentations 3.19-23a

[3] Romans 8.18

[4] Psalm 139.7-11 (BCP, pg. 794)

 

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