Monthly Archives: April 2022

In Search of A Good Death


Acts 9:1-20

Psalm 30

Revelation 5:11-14

John 21:1-19

Prayer of the Day: Eternal and all-merciful God, with all the angels and all the saints we laud your majesty and might. By the resurrection of your Son, show yourself to us and inspire us to follow Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” John 21:18-19.

As dark as these words appear, they are good words for Saint Peter. Peter famously vowed to go with Jesus to prison and to death-only to deny him when he was presented with the opportunity to do just that. But Jesus will not deny Peter. Jesus assures Peter that our God of the second chance will give him another opportunity to put his life on the line for Jesus. He will have another chance to glorify God and God’s reign of peace though imprisonment and death.

Aside from their obvious context, these words of Jesus strike a nerve with me. Perhaps it is because over my forty years of ministry I have seen so many people grow old, lose their health, their stamina and their cognitive abilities. I have seen so many once strong, independent men and women rendered helpless in old age, needing others to make important decisions for them with which they are not always happy. Or maybe these words strike me with increased urgency because I am entering into the autumn years of my own life. Whatever the reason, these words of Jesus to my namesake speak to me in a personal way and bring home what I have always known on an intellectual level but struggle with existentially, namely, that the day will come when “someone else will…take you where you do not wish to go.” Unless I die suddenly as a result of accident or some traumatic medical event, such as heart attack or stroke, I will experience physical and mental decline in the coming years. At some point, my wife and I will be unable to live independently in this home we built together. At some point, we will become dependent on others for transportation, housekeeping, meal preparation, dressing and personal hygene. This is not where I want to go. But it is clearly where I am headed.

Nobody likes to contemplate the end of one’s own life. Perhaps that is why we never speak of the end as such. We speak in glowing terms of retirement and the “golden years.” “Independent living” communities, an Orwellian term describing living arrangements for persons who have lost or are losing their capacity to live independently, have increased geometrically over the last two decades. Advertisements abound for medications that are supposed to improve memory, exercise routines that stave off the effects of aging and lotions designed to erase years from our faces. We tell each other stories about one hundred year old men and women who are still climbing mountains, as though this were achievable for anyone with enough discipline, determination and the right dietary/exercise regimen. But that is not way most of us will end our lives.

It was not always so. During medieval times, death was at the very center of life. According to church teaching, the whole purpose of life was to prepare for death. Participation in worship and the sacraments was understood as a process of formation, readying one for a “good death.” Time was measured in saint’s days marking the death of biblical and post biblical heroes of faith. The landscape was dominated by parish churches and towering cathedrals which were the sites of local graveyards. The faithful were challenged to so live that in death their hope and confidence in the resurrection and eternal life might glorify God. Death was surrounded by familiar communal rituals and symbols of comfort and hope. It was sad, to be sure, but not terrifying and hopeless.  

Over the last few centuries, however, the cultural influence of religion in defining the meaning of life and death has receded. Discussion of all the reasons for this is beyond the scope of any single article. Suffice to say, there no longer exists a strong cultural consensus about what constitutes a “good life” or what “meaning,” if any, life has. Yet despite the demise of faith, death remains. In the absence of the myths and religions that once made sense of death, nothing is left but, to use Dillon Thomas’ words, “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”[1] That is, by and large, what medical science has done. Improvements in medicine, the availability of health care to more people and a deeper understanding of how the human body works and how it can be maintained have decreased infant mortality worldwide and pushed the average life span to historic lengths.[2] No one has to convince me that modern medicine is a blessing. I have medical science to thank for the fact that members of my immediate family are living normal active lives rather than residing in the cemetery. But for all that medicine can do for us, it cannot change the stubborn fact of human mortality.

In his book, Being Mortal,[3] Dr. Atul Gawande explores the role medicine plays in our experience of dying and finds it wanting. The goal of medicine, Gawande points out, is healing. Medical doctors are trained to “fix” their patients. To its credit, modern medicine has extended the average life span by decades, eradicated diseases that formerly killed millions and enabled persons with medical conditions that would have killed them in childhood a century ago to live normal lives. But there is no cure for mortality. A discipline designed to heal, repair and extend life is ill-equipped to assist people who can no longer be “fixed.” Too often, medical treatment has served to prolong suffering, foster false hope and create unrealistic expectations while providing no meaningful relief. Gawande writes in his Epilogue:

“Being mortal is about the struggle to cope with the constraints of our biology, the limits set by genes and cells and flesh and bone. Medical science has given us remarkable power to push against these limits, and the potential value of this power was the central reason I became a doctor. But again and again, I have seen the damage we in medicine do when we fail to acknowledge that such power is finite and always will be.


“If to be human is to be limited, then the role of caring professions and institutions-from surgeons to nursing homes-ought to be aiding people in their struggle with those limits. Sometimes we can offer a cure, sometimes only a salve, sometimes not even that. But whatever we can offer, our interventions, and the risks and sacrifices they entail, are justified only if they serve the greater aims of a person’s life. When we forget that, the suffering we inflict can be barbaric.” p. 259-260.

That, of course, brings us to the question of what “the greater aim” of our life is. As far as disciples of Jesus are concerned, John’s gospel is clear on that point. “[T]his is eternal life, that they may know….the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom [God has] sent.” John 17:3. This “knowing” is more than just theoretical understanding. It is relational. To know God is to be drawn into the love that binds the Trinity as One, love that is the very essence of God. John 17:20-24. And because God is love, love alone is eternal, as Saint Paul reminds us. I Corinthians 13:13. Eternal life, then, is not so merely by virtue of its duration, but because of its quality. A life grounded in love participates in what is eternal, what is real and what outlasts our mortal existence. Such a life, as well as the death in which it ends, glorifies God.

So the question I ask myself is this: How can I ensure that I will die well? I cannot do that anymore than I can ensure that I will live well this day. What I can do is give myself to the ancient practices of discipleship: worship, prayer, witness and generosity. I can pray that God will grant me grace to exist in love; to care for, serve and advocate for my neighbors near and far; to live gently on the land loving its creatures, reverencing its network of living and non-living communities; to live joyfully, thankfully, generously and obediently within my creaturely limits, trusting God to manage what is beyond those limits. I can pray along with the Psalmist that God will grant me a “heart of wisdom” that I might “order my days” and that the work of my hands might be established. Psalm 90. I can pray that something of my life might be graciously woven into the fabric of God’s new creation and so glorify God. I pray that when I draw my last breath, I will know the company of the Good Shepherd, the peace that passes all understanding, the love of family and friends and the prayers of the church as I pass through the valley of shadow into the light of God’s nearer presence.

Here is a poem by George Herbert that speaks both the harsh reality of death and the confident faith with which it can be met.


Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing,

                           Nothing but bones,

      The sad effect of sadder groans:

Thy mouth was open, but thou couldst not sing.

For we considered thee as at some six

                           Or ten years hence,

      After the loss of life and sense,

Flesh being turned to dust, and bones to sticks.

We looked on this side of thee, shooting short;

                         Where we did find

      The shells of fledge souls left behind,

Dry dust, which sheds no tears, but may extort.

But since our Savior’s death did put some blood

                           Into thy face,

      Thou art grown fair and full of grace,

Much in request, much sought for as a good.

For we do now behold thee gay and glad,

                           As at Doomsday;

      When souls shall wear their new array,

And all thy bones with beauty shall be clad.

Therefore we can go die as sleep, and trust

                           Half that we have

      Unto an honest faithful grave;

Making our pillows either down, or dust.

Source: This poem is in the public domain. George Herbert (1593 –1633) was a Welsh-born poet, orator, and priest of the Church of England. He was born into a wealthy family and raised in England. He was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge where he went with the intention of becoming a priest. Instead, he became the University’s Public Orator. His skill attracted the attention of King James I through whose patronage he entered the Parliament of England. There he served for about a year. Following the death of King James I, Herbert gave up his secular ambitions and took holy orders in the Church of England. He spent the rest of his life as the rector of a small parish in Salisbury. You can read more about George Herbert and sample more of his poems at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, by Dylan Thomas.

[2] Though, of course, the distribution of these benefits among the world’s people have been grossly unequal and inequitable!

[3] Gawande, Atul, Being Mortal (c. 2014 by Atul Gawande; pub. by Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company LLC).

The Peace That is No Peace


Acts 5:27-32

Psalm 118:14-29

Revelation 1:4-8

John 20:19-31

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and eternal God, the strength of those who believe and the hope of those who doubt, may we, who have not seen, have faith in you and receive the fullness of Christ’s blessing, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” John 20:19.

It has been a violent Holy Week. In addition to the ongoing carnage in Ukraine, we have seen seven people killed and scores more wounded in mass shootings here in the United States. Pope Francis referred to this holiest of Christian days as an “Easter of War,” in his address from the Vatican. Yet Jesus comes to us as he did to his terrified disciples hiding behind locked doors to say “Peace be with you.” This salutation sounded no less dissonant then than it does today. The disciples were living under a military occupation force whose willingness to employ torture and crucifixion to “keep the peace” had just been made graphically apparent. The world was no less dangerous on Easter morning than it was the week before.

So what are we to make of this “Peace” with which Jesus meets us? Peace has many meanings in common parlance. It can mean simply the absence of violent conflict-such as we experienced during the days of the “cold war.” It can refer to resolution of a conflict by means of cease fire, treaty or alliance. Peace can refer to an inner condition of the self, such as a sense of wellbeing, acceptance of conditions and circumstances of one’s life or the result of a spiritual connection with the divine, the universe, the spirit world, the force-or whatever. But none of those definitions seem to fit here. Though Jesus has been raised, nothing has changed on the street. The people who had it in for Jesus are still out there. Roman forces are still occupying Judea. The war in Ukraine continues to escalate. People are being gunned down in our shopping malls and our political and religious leaders counter with “thoughts and prayers.”

The peace Jesus imparts is nothing like the peace we long for. In fact, Jesus tells us flat out that he is not interested in our kind of peace. “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth?” asks Jesus rhetorically. “No, I tell you, but rather division; for henceforth in one house there will be five divided against two and two against three; they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” Luke 12:51-53. By peace, Jesus does not mean anything like the “peace of Rome” imposed by the sword. Jesus does not want the kind of peace made by ignoring and smoothing over a racist remark made by uncle Harry so as not to “spoil Thanksgiving dinner.” Jesus has no interest in the peace white supremacist politicians are trying to make through legislation erasing from our school curriculum every trace of Black American experience by banning books, threatening teachers and encouraging disruption of local school board meetings. Jesus does not approve of peace made by and for bigots through effectively denying the existence or legitimacy of LGBTQ+ families. Jesus stands with the prophet Jeremiah in refusing to “heal[] the wound of my people lightly, saying ‘peace, peace’ where there is no peace.” Jeremiah 6:14.   

The peace to which Jesus calls his disciples is “not such as the world gives.” John 14:27. It is not quickly or easily achieved. The peace of God is not made by sweeping conflict under the rug. It cannot come without acknowledging and addressing systemic racism that permeates our culture, including the church. The peace of God cannot come without our facing the sexist and patriarchal structures that continue to disfigure the personal, educational and professional growth of women and girls. Peace will not come without our coming to grips with the ongoing ecological ruin of our planet by the ruthless greed of a capitalist society. Peace without justice is no peace at all. Jesus will tolerate no shortcuts when it comes to peacemaking.

Moreover, as Jesus warns us, living in and making this peace does not come without risk. Rev. Franklin Graham found that out when he got reamed on social media for having the audacity to call upon Christians to pray for Russian president, Vladimir Putin.[1] Society of Friends, Mennonites and the other peace churches have known for generations the hatred, ridicule and sometimes violence that can result from urging love for those our nation has declared “enemies.” When you reach out the hand of friendship across national, tribal, ideological lines you risk getting a nail pounded through it. But if peace, real peace, reconciling peace is to prevail, disciples of Jesus must be as willing to put their lives on the line for it as soldiers are to put their lives on the line for nation, blood and soil.

Here is a poem/hymn by William Alexander Percy that speaks eloquently to the peace of God Jesus proclaims and offers.

They Cast Their Nets in Galilee

They cast their nets in Galilee
Just off the hills of brown;
Such happy, simple fisher-folk,
Before the Lord came down.

Contented, peaceful fisherfolk,
Before they ever knew
The peace of God that filled their hearts
Brim-full, and broke them too.

Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,
Homeless, in Patmos died.
Peter, who hauled the teeming net,
Head down was crucified.

The peace of God, it is no peace,
But strife closed in the sod.
Yet, brothers, pray for but one thing–
The marvellous peace of God.

Source: Episcopal Hymnal (1982) (Hymn 661). William Alexander Percy (1885 – 1942) was a lawyer, planter,and poet from Greenville, Mississippi. His autobiography Lanterns on the Levee (Knopf 1941) became a bestseller. His other works include the text of the above hymn and the Collected Poems (Knopf 1943). Percy spent a year in Paris before going to Harvard for a law degree. After returning to Greenville, Percy joined his father’s law firm where he practiced until 1916 when he joined the Commission for Relief in Belgium. He served in Belgium as a delegate until the withdrawal of American personnel upon the US declaration of war in April 1917. He served in the US Army in World War I, earning the rank of Captain. From 1925 to 1932, Percy edited the Yale Younger Poets series and published four volumes of poetry with the the Yale University Press.

[1] Everyone who follows me with regularity knows that I am no admirer of Rev. Franklin Graham, the brand of Christianity he preaches or the hateful political agendas he has promoted under the cover of religion. Nonetheless, he is right as rain in saying that we ought to pray for our enemies and persecutors. That is about as central to Jesus’ teaching and example as anything can come. To follow Jesus is to believe that God hates nothing that God has made, that all human beings bear the image of their maker and that God’s Spirit is capable of transforming even those in whom that image has become extremely distorted.   

Easter Making Time for What Matters


Acts 10:34-43

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

1 Corinthians 15:19-26

Luke 24:1-12

Prayer of the Day: O God, you gave your only Son to suffer death on the cross for our redemption, and by his glorious resurrection you delivered us from the power of death. Make us die every day to sin, that we may live with him forever in the joy of the resurrection, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Acts 10:34-35

Saint Peter understands that God knows no partiality. In so doing, he declared the ancient gods of nation, blood and soil dead. He declared all claims of national sovereignty null and void. Whatever salutary purpose humanly drawn borders might serve, they cannot be invoked to deny anyone access to safety, nourishment, shelter or any other basic human need. Henceforth, people are judged by how their actions square with what is acceptable to God. The “nations” will be judged solely by how well or poorly they treat the most vulnerable in their midst. See Matthew 25:31-46. Once that sinks in, the world cannot help but know that its priorities have to change!

Alright. But what does any of this have to do with Easter Sunday and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ? Everything. Understand that nobody in the First Century doubted the power of God (or the gods) to raise someone from death. The ancients did not suffer from the conceptual handicaps imposed on us moderns who find resurrection incompatible with our mechanistic view of the universe. The resurrection of Jesus was not remarkable insofar as what happened, but to whom it happened. Our religion would look very different had God raised Alexander the Great, Augustes Caesar, Peter the Great, Winston Churchill, General Patton or some other great personage. In fact, however, God raised the man who never wielded a weapon, never wore a crown, never held any political office or aspired to any position of leadership. The one God raised was poor and belonged to a people having no substantial legal standing with the government under which he lived. God raised the one who had the audacity to confront the might of empire and the machinery of oppression armed only with words and and acts of mercy and peace. And he lost. He was rejected by the leaders of his people, deserted by his disciples and executed by the state. Jesus was, by every reasonable standard of success, a failure.

But Saint Peter would have us know that it is not our judgment that counts, but the judgement of God. In raising Jesus from the death sentence we impose upon him and people like him, our judgments about right and wrong, power and powerlessness, justice and injustice, rights, privileges and entitlements are overturned. This Jesus, says Saint Peter, “is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.”

The resurrection of Jesus is meaningless unless you know about the life Jesus lived and the way he died. So it is that Saint Peter begins by pointing out to his audience how “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” He then went on to declare that Jesus was duly executed by state authority, thereby letting his hearers know in no uncertain terms that the good Jesus did was an intolerable afront to the powers that be. His death was therefore entirely predictable. It is what happens when powerless people speak truth to power. That much is hardly surprising. What shocked Peter’s audience is the assertion that God raised this Jesus, that God is not on the side of the global, societal or ecclesiastical winners, but on the side of the vulnerable, the outcast, the refugee, the sick and the homeless. “God,” Saint Peter tells us, is not who we thought God was. God’s priorities are not what we thought they were.

This is good news because it means neither the powers that wield the specter of death nor even death itself need be feared. And how much more so our lesser fears. Jesus’ resurrection is good news because there is a lot of crap we don’t have to worry about anymore. We don’t have to worry about what college we do or do not get into. We don’t have to worry about getting to that much coveted Nirvana of “financial security.” We don’t need to worry about what we look like in the latest style or whether we are wearing anything close to the latest style. We don’t need to sleep behind locked doors with a loaded revolver next to the bed. We don’t have to worry about whether the nation we live in has enough bombs and missiles to protect itself. We don’t need to obsess over who other people love and marry or any of those other culture war issues that get so many so called Christians’ underwear in a bunch. We don’t need to agonize over the past or fret about the future. That frees us up for what matters.

And what matters? How about the 6.6 million refugees worldwide who are living in refugee camps in squalid conditions without any nation or people willing to claim them as its own? What about the forty-five hundred children confined in adult prisons exposed to ruthless abuse on a daily basis? What about the LGBTQ+ kids in Florida and other states now subject to legislatively approved bullying and exclusion? The list could go on to include aged and infirm persons institutionalized in substandard long term care institutions; homeless folks who are prohibited by law from begging for their subsistence; and many others who have been deprived of even a voice to cry out for justice. These are the priorities for which Jesus’ resurrection frees us up to address with undivided attention.

Here us a prayer/poem by Michel Quoist reflecting the radical reorganization of priorities occasioned by Jesus’ resurrection.

Lord, I Have Time

I went out, Lord.
People were coming and going,
Walking and running.
Everything was rushing:
Cars, trucks, the street, the whole town.
People were rushing not to waste time.
They were rushing after time,
To catch up with time.
To gain time.

Good-bye, Sir, excuse me, I haven’t time.
I’ll come back. I can’t wait. I haven’t time.
I must end this letter–I haven’t time.
I’d love to help you, but I haven’t time.
I can’t accept, having no time.
I can’t think, I can’t read, I’m swamped, I haven’t time.
I’d like to pray, but I haven’t time.

You understand, Lord,
They simply haven’t the time.
The child is playing,
He hasn’t time right now…Later on…
The schoolboy has his homework to do,
He hasn’t time…Later on…
The student has his courses,
And so much work…Later on…
The young married man has his new house;
He has to fix it up…He hasn’t time…Later on…
The grandparents have their grandchildren.
They haven’t time…Later on…
They are ill, they have their treatments,
They haven’t time…Later on…
They are dying, they have no…
Too late!…They have no more time!

And so all people run after time, Lord.
They pass through life running–
Hurried, jostled, overburdened, frantic,
And they never get there. They haven’t time.
In spite of all their efforts
They’re still short of time,
Of a great deal of time.
Lord, you must have made a mistake in your calculations,
There is a big mistake somewhere.
The hours are too short.
Our lives are too short.

You who are beyond time, Lord,
You smile to see us fighting it.
And you know what you are doing.
You make no mistakes in your distribution of time to men.
You give each one time to do what you want him to do.
But we must not lose time,
waste time,
kill time,
For it is a gift that you give us,
But a perishable gift,
A gift that does not keep.

Lord, I have time,
I have plenty of time,
All the time that you give me,
The years of my life,
The days of my life,
The days of my years,
The hours of my days,
They are all mine.
Mine to fill, quietly, calmly,
But to fill completely, up to the brim,
To offer them to you, that of their insipid water
You may make a rich wine
Such as you made once in Cana of Galilee.
I am not asking you tonight, Lord,
For time to do this and then that,
But for your grace to do conscientiously,
In the time that you give me,
What you want me to do.

Source: Quoist, Michel, Prayers (c. 1963 Sheed & Ward, Inc.) Translated by Agnes M. Forsyth and Anne Marie de Cammaille. Michel Quoist (1921-1997) was ordained a priest in1947. A French Catholic of the working-class, Quoist reveled in presenting Christianity as part of gritty daily reality, rather than in forms of traditional piety. He was for many years pastor to a busy city parish in Le Havre, France serving a working class neighborhood and developing ministries to young people through Catholic Action groups. Prayers, the book from which the above poem was taken, has been translated from the original French into several languages including Hungarian, Polish, Chinese, Portuguese, Swedish and English.

Finding Ourselves in the Palms and the Passion


Luke 19:28-40

Isaiah 50:4-9a

Psalm 31:9-16

Philippians 2:5-11

Luke 22:14 — 23:56

Prayer of the Day: Everlasting God, in your endless love for the human race you sent our Lord Jesus Christ to take on our nature and to suffer death on the cross. In your mercy enable us to share in his obedience to your will and in the glorious victory of his resurrection, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
‘Blessed is the king
   who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
   and glory in the highest heaven!’
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’” Luke 19:37-40.

The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, also authored by the apostle, takes a more favorable view of Pharisees than we find elsewhere in the gospels. A few weeks ago we find them warning Jesus that Herod is out to murder him and advises him to flee. Luke 13:31. It was the Pharisee Gamaliel who persuaded the ruling council in Jerusalem to refrain from punishing the apostles for preaching the gospel. Acts 5:33-39. Saint Paul was a Pharisee and the Pharisees sided with him when he was brought before the same Jerusalem council in connection with a riot at the Temple. Acts 23:1-10. Thus, it is entirely possible that the Pharisees in Sunday’s gospel were well meaning when they told Jesus to dial back his disciples’ enthusiasm. After all, their praises were charged with subversive political significance. In the Medeterranian world of the first century, there was only one “lord,” namely, Caesar. There was but one peace, namely, the peace of Rome imposed by raw power. Whoever dared assume the title of “king” made himself a rival to Caesar and a sure candidate for crucifixion.

But we have known since chapter nine of Luke’s gospel that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Luke 9:51. He is under no illusions about what awaits him there. Jesus is about to confront the death dealing power of empire armed only with God’s limitless, patient and suffering love for the world. The result is all to predictable. Were it not for the fact that God raised Jesus from death, the passion narrative we recite each year at this time would be just another story about the tragic end of an idealist. It would be a cautionary tale about what happens to people whose dreams run away with them. We might then end our telling of this story with a salutary admonition for our hearers to be “realistic,” to temper expectations, to understand that, however much we would like to believe otherwise, ours is a cruel, violent world where the good must give way to the achievable and “nice guys finish last.”

If that is not what we preach, it is too often reflective of what we believe. In my first parish, I was teaching an adult Bible Study group examining the Sermon on the Mount. A gentleman in that group, who I knew to be a sales executive for a pharmaceutical company, shook his head at one point and told me, “pastor, if I had to do my job the way Jesus says we should live, I’d be crucified.” I don’t remember what I said then. I am never as witty and articulate as I often wish I had been in retrospect. But I sometimes think I ought to have said, “No, my friend. You would not be crucified. You might lose an account or two. You might miss out on a promotion. You might even get fired. Yet even so, you would still be a long way from the cross Jesus calls us to bear with him.”

Years ago, in a similar setting, a career military man and dear friend told me to try and imagine the kind of world we would be living in had the world dealt with Hitler according to the Sermon on the Mount. Again, I do not recall exactly what I said. But I would have been tempted to tell my friend that I do not know what the world would have been like if the churches in Germany and, indeed, throughout the world stood up as one in solidarity with fascism’s victims. I don’t know what would have happened in the 1930s and 40s had pastors, priests, bishops and other church leaders throughout the world been demonstrating consistently through their actions and teachings that humanity is one single family made up of persons uniquely reflecting the image of their Creator and that there is no greater blasphemy than to desecrate that image through oppression, discrimination and violence. What I do know is that, after two bloody world wars that were supposed to eradicate evil from the face of the earth, we are on the brink of yet another one. So please do not lecture me from the terminus of the dead end to which your road has led us about the futility of the road not taken.

Perhaps it is better that I did not respond in the way I wish I had. The old adage holds true here: whenever you point a finger at someone else, three more are pointing back at you. I am no more successful than anyone else when it comes to taking up the cross. Like Judas, I am tempted to cash out and leave the church and its ministry when it looks like things are going south and my own needs are no longer being met. Like Peter, I sing hymns about following Jesus and bearing the cross. But when following puts my reputation, livelihood or safety in danger, I lose my nerve. Like the disciples as a whole, I desert Jesus when following becomes too dangerous. Though I would not express the views articulated by my past parishioners, I know that I often live by them. I am skeptical of Jesus’ way and I frequently devise in my own head any number of rational excuses for making end runs around the cross in my day to day life.  

Perhaps that is the point of juxtaposing Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem with his passion and death in that self same city. This day of the Palms and the Passion compels us to reflect on the depth of our commitment to Jesus, the sincerity of our belief in the kingdom he proclaims and the price we are prepared to pay for our allegiance to God’s way of overcoming evil with limitless love and forgiveness. As I have often said before, there are no heroes in the passion narrative. We find only traitors, cowards and deserters. The first community of disciples, those closer to Jesus than any others, the earliest manifestation of the church failed miserably to take up the cross. Yet it is to these same people huddled together behind locked doors that the Resurrected Christ comes with the same call, the same mission, the same challenge to take up the cross.

We are invited to find ourselves reflected in the passion narrative. It isn’t a flattering picture. We find there a people that fail miserably to follow Jesus. But we are nonetheless people Jesus continues to follow, continues to seek out and continues to offer new opportunities for discipleship. Jesus refuses to give up on us. God means to make something beautiful out of the mess we’ve made of our lives. So we dare not give up on ourselves or our world.

Here is a poem by Beatrice Goldsmith about failure, brokenness and the slow work of redemption.

Lullaby for A Failure

Slumber, slumber,

Slumber till the last

Crushed tallus of your days,

The last of broken rock and mangled flower,

Turn seamless ground and smooth

Sweet soil for blossom.

Oh, sleep, sleep,

And let this scentless sleep,

This long slow sleep,

Solder the years wreckage, softly sew

The ragged edges of your patterns-

Your desperate design.

Source: Poetry, (September 1934). Beatrice Goldsmith (1915-1950) was born and raised in New York City. When she was young, she worked as a sales person in Brooklyn. During the 1930s she worked for the Federal Writers’ Project. Her first poems were written in Yiddish and published in a New York children’s magazine. Her later work, written in English, appeared in Poetry magazine. You can read more about Beatrice Goldsmith and sample more of her work at the Poetry Foundation Website.