Third meditation for Good Friday, April 22, 2011. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Boston, MA
|Isaiah 52:13-53:12||John 18:1-19:42|
Down to earth: The way of the cross
“Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there” (John 19:41-42).
The passion narrative starts in a garden, where Judas betrays Jesus, and it ends in a garden, where our Lord is laid to rest: sin in the first garden, and death in the second; betrayal in the one, and burial in the other. John’s Gospel clearly wants to remind us of the garden that begins the story of human sin and death, the Garden of Eden. Of course, on Good Friday we haven’t yet reached the end of the story. On Easter morning, from out of that garden-turned-wasteland where sin and sorrow dwell and death reigns supreme, the risen Christ will burst from the tomb. The garden will be transformed: from a place of death it will become a place where new life rises again. According to John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene will be the first person to meet the risen Christ, and she will mistake him for a gardener (John 20:15) — a wonderful insight, for the crucified and risen Christ is indeed a gardener who brings new life.
Living as we do in this time of the earth’s crucifixion, how do we follow Jesus on the way of the cross and the path that gives life? How do we stay true to the mind of Christ, keeping our hearts open and responding with boldness and generosity to his call to give ourselves to this great work of healing? If ever there were a time to bear witness to our faith, now would be the time. If ever there were a moment to hold fast to our vision of a world in which human beings live in right relationship with each other and with our fellow creatures, now would be the time. Now is the time, as theologian Sallie McFague would say, to recognize that the world is not a hotel, but our home. 1 When we visit a hotel, we may feel entitled to use copious amounts of hot water, to throw towels on the floor, to use and discard everything in sight and then to head to the next hotel – in short, to exercise what she calls the “Kleenex perspective” of the world. But when we realize that in fact the earth is our home – that God created it and loves every inch of it and entrusts it to our care – then everything changes. We realize that we live here; we belong here; we can no longer tolerate a life-style that exhausts the planet’s resources and that treats land, sea, and sky alike as receptacles for waste.
Creating a life-giving society will not be easy. Global market capitalism, the economic system that most of us take for granted, is based on gobbling up the natural resources of the world. As Sallie McFague points out, Christians have an obligation to advocate instead for economic systems that are just and sustainable. We need “to become informed about the global injustices of market economies” and to work “to change the policies and practices of so-called free trade that result in impoverishment and unsustainability.” We have a battle on our hands, for the powers-that-be make hefty profits from the status quo. Oil companies continue to make record profits and to push lawmakers to drill even more widely in our waters and lands. The Clean Air Act is under assault, as is the regulatory power of the EPA. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which boasts that it is the biggest lobby in Washington, is pumping tens of millions of dollars into the effort to deny the science of climate change and to block our country from making a transition to clean, safe, renewable energy anytime soon. 2
There is a political battle going on in which we must engage, so that what is scientifically necessary can become politically possible. We have our own personal battles to carry out, too, as we struggle to simplify our lives, to use less of the earth’s resources, and to acknowledge the tight connection between global warming and consumerism, since unlimited consumption is a major contributor to greenhouse gases. 3 Can we learn to live more lightly on the earth? Can we learn to share rather than to hoard? Can we hear the cries of the poor and the cries of the groaning earth rather than just our own insatiable appetite for more, more, more?
The personal and social transformation that this period in history requires is so profound, it can only be described in the language of religion. As one economist puts it: “Sustainable development will require a change of heart, a renewal of the mind, and a healthy dose of repentance. These are all,” he says, “religious terms, and that is no coincidence, because a change in the fundamental principles we live by is a change so deep that it is essentially religious whether we call it that or not.” 4
The transformation that we seek is symbolized by the cross. The old has died. Behold, the new has come. That is the language that speaks to me now, the biblical language of transformation. There is so much that needs to die, beginning with the small ego-self, that sinful, separated self that lives over and against all other beings and that claims no one but itself (and maybe its immediate tribe) as kin. A whole way of life needs to die, as well, if that way of life is driven by selfishness and greed, if it results in an ever-widening gap between the wealthy few and the impoverished multitude, and if it tears apart the very fabric of life upon which human beings and all other creatures depend.
Endings are real, disruptive, and scary, whether they are the end of oil, the end of empire, the end of a stable climate, or the end of our lives. But Christians, like people of other religious traditions, always live in sight of endings. And we dare to believe that by following the way of the cross, we can do what Jesus did: we can make way for new life to be born within us and among us. We can help turn the wastelands of the earth into gardens, into places where love and life can flourish.
Jesus provoked the powerful, and he endured suffering and death. Yet his consistent message was one of hope, not fear. Why? Because he was rooted in the love of God. Because he knew that nothing could separate him from the love of God. Because he had a vision of how human beings could live well on the earth in obedience to God, a vision of a beloved community of brothers and sisters living together in justice and peace. “I am the way,” Jesus said to his friends. “I am the truth and the life.” And from his words and actions, from his passion, death, and resurrection, a movement sprang up – a movement of passionate men and women who were convinced of the way of self-giving generosity and kindness, committed to the truth of love, and dedicated to a life of praising and serving God, whatever the cost might be.
At the cross of Christ we refuse to settle for a status quo in which the poor go hungry, landfills overflow, lakes die, entire species disappear, gas-guzzlers foul the air, and the global climate is scorched. For here is our brother and savior Jesus, living for us, dying for us, rising for us, standing with us and calling us out to a life that is devoted to God’s shalom and to the healing and wellbeing of all, even when living such a life disrupts the powers-that-be.
In the light of the cross, what can we do to simplify our lives? I invite you to think of one way you can listen more deeply to the land and to learn from it. Maybe you want to start a compost pile, to check out a farmer’s market, or to start a small garden at your home or church. If you have some money to invest, you might invest in socially responsible funds or in local, green businesses. You might get an energy audit, or invite the neighbor you’ve never met before to come over for a cup of tea. We need to build up our local communities, to live in ways that are closer to the earth, more life enhancing, more about sharing than about consuming, more about self-restraint than about self-aggrandizement, more about generosity than about fearful survivalism, so that we can take care of each other when the hard times come. And together we will need to create the most diverse, bold, visionary, wide-ranging, powerful, hope-filled, hands-on, feet-on-the-ground, shoulder-to-the-wheel political and social movement that humanity has ever seen.
It is you for whom Christ came into the world, you for whom he died, you whom he now would fill with his presence and his Spirit. In a little while we will venerate the cross on which he gave his life, and then we will share the bread and wine of the Eucharist, given to us by God in Christ with such tenderness and at such great cost. We will gather at that holy table, as we always do, so that everything in us and around us can be lifted up and blessed — not only the bread and the wine, but also we ourselves, and the whole creation, every leaf of it and every speck of sand. Sharing the Eucharist helps us to perceive, at last, not only our own belovedness, our own blessedness in God, but also the fact that everyone is beloved, everyone is blessed. Everyone and everything is part of a sacred whole, and everyone is kin. In the strength of the blessed and broken bread, and of the blessed and poured-out wine, we dare to hope that human beings will respond with grateful hearts, and come to treat the world not as an object to exploit, but as a gift to receive, as something perishable and precious. We dare to hope that we will become at last who we were made to be, a blessing on the earth.
I invite us to take some time in silence as we consider the way of the cross. What in your life needs to die? What needs to be transformed? What small action step do you feel led to take that expresses your desire to follow Jesus and to live in a way that helps God’s creation flourish?
1. Sallie McFague, A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008, p. 53.
3. McFague, op cit., p. 96.
4. Herman E. Daly, Beyond Growth: Economics of Sustainable Development, Boston: Beacon Press, 1996, p. 201.