It is a cold, dark night. Our sanctuary has been stripped bare and we see by the figure of our crucified Christ hanging in the chancel that we have come at last to the cross. It is time for our speech to match our setting. No more stories need be told after the one we have just heard. Only, perhaps, a few words to remind us what this cross may mean for us.
Lutherans often talk about how the scriptures speak to us with two voices, the voice of the law and the voice of the gospel. The voice of the law is the voice of God speaking to us through the scriptures pointing out the distance between who we are called to be in our baptism – members of one body, one family, a holy nation, stewards of God’s good garden; and who we are in our daily lives – a body broken, a family divided, a nation at war, exploiters of the world’s resources. It is the voice that describes the reality of our failures, that names our sinfulness. The law convicts us. We are guilty.
The voice of the gospel is the voice of God speaking to us through the scriptures pointing out the distance God will go to heal us, restore us, and reconcile us to each other. Bodies blessed, families reunited, swords beaten into plowshares, the very earth healed. It is the voice that describes the reality of God’s love, that names the availability of grace. The gospel liberates us. We are set free.
As the whole world celebrates what the United Nations has designated International Mother Earth Day, we who are Christians sit in the middle of the great Three Days – the bridge that carries us from Lent to Easter, from death into life.
A quick review on this Earth Day of the ecological disasters combined with human failures of the past few years is a stark reminder of our failure to care for God’s creation. Unchecked CO2 emmissions that led to seasons of increasingly severe hurricanes combined with inadequate infrastructure and political failure to put the poorest people of New Orleans in harm’s way when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. To this day, families remain displaced and relief has all but run out. The same set of political and international inequalities combined to disastrous effect when a 7.0 earthquake shook the nation of Haiti last year, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths.
We can barely remember that disaster anymore, because our attention has been turned to the earthquakes and tsunami that devastated our neighbors in Japan last month, and led to multiple partial nuclear meltdowns and the release of toxic radioactive materials into the atmosphere that has resulted in the evacuation of tens of thousands of people on top of the fourteen thousand people who died in the tsunami.
We sense the weight of this night and often we are drawn to identify Good Friday with the voice of the law. In our bidding prayer and in the solemn reproaches that are yet to come tonight, we hear the evidence presented against us in the heavenly court. We are convicted of our guilt.
It is difficult as we kneel before the cross to hear the voice of the gospel. We might imagine that it waits for us at Eastertide. That tonight the law says its peace and come Sunday the gospel will finally win the day. But that is not so.
The gospel spells freedom for those held captive to sin. The resurrection only matters for those who know they are dead. Or, simply, Easter is nothing but pageant without Good Friday. The voice of law and the voice of gospel are both speaking, together, tonight and tomorrow and Sunday morning as well.
Listen to what they have to say:
The one on the cross says, “I was hungry, but you gave me no food. I was thirsty, but you gave me no drink. You saw my poverty hanging from my body like nakedness. You knew I was suffering in mind, in body, in spirit – but you did nothing. You watched as I was kept locked up by fear, by prejudice, by oppression – but it wasn’t your problem. I hang on this cross because of things you have done, and because of things you have left undone.” The voice of the law. We are condemned.
But keep listening, because I know you. You, also, are the hungry ones and those who thirst. You are the poor. You are the ones who suffer, in your minds, your bodies, your hearts. You are trapped in prisons of fear and prejudice and oppression. The one on the cross sees you, tonight, on this dark night. It is not only God who hangs on the cross – it is you and me. It is all the suffering world. It is the displaced people of New Orleans and Port-au-Prince and Fukushima, and it is the children and families hungry for nutritious, life-sustaining food and safe streets in Logan Square and Humboldt Park. It is on the cross that God in Jesus comes to join us. We are not left alone. The cross is for us a sign of the distance God will go to heal us, restore us, and reconcile us to each other and to the rest of God’s creation.
We, who are both saints and sinners, kneel before the cross tonight and hear it speaking to us as both verdict and promise. It is true, each one of us is guilty of our participation in the world’s suffering. We, who each bear the image and likeness of God in our very skin, do not respect that image in one another, much less the earth we inhabit, God’s good garden.
We, as a species, do not respect God’s creations – each other, or the world we live in. We put each other on the crosses at which Jesus now joins us. We must admit this, or there is no need for the gospel. We must admit that we are in bondage to these patterns of human violence and environmental degradation before we can be liberated from them.
Because that is the promise. We will be liberated from these crosses. The ones we hang on, and the ones we hang each other on. These crosses, which are simultaneously a symbol of the divisions between us and a symbol of the end to all divisions, promise us that God will not leave us in this suffering. God comes to us just like this, just as we are, but God does not leave us this way.
This is the cross – the evidence of our sin, the sign of God’s love. Find strength and hope in the cross.