It’s Kind of Like This …

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
July 27, 2014
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

It’s Kind of Like This …

Secondary Text – Epistle Reading: Romans 8:35, 37-39
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Primary Text – Gospel Reading: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-46
Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. … The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Good morning. This will be the first sermon I’ve preached in quite a while that’s not part of a series. We finished our history series on the church’s artwork in early June, and we finished the series on the stained-glass windows last Sunday. We have a lot to celebrate about ourselves as a congregation, and we learned a lot about who we are during those weeks. We have another thing to celebrate today too: we have some very special visitors. With us today are Charlie Tewell (who crafted our stained-glass windows about 34 years ago) and his wife Betty and their daughters Marcia and Debbie. We’re so happy to have them here with us today. Please make sure to greet them during fellowship time and let them know how much these works of art mean to us.

Now, for several weeks, rather than embarking on another series, I plan to follow the lectionary—the scripture selections that are used by several mainline denominations. We pick up the lectionary cycle in the Gospel of Matthew—in particular, with some of Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of God.

Parables. I have to ask: How many here have seen the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding? I couldn’t write this next part of this sermon without thinking of that movie. Because what is a parable? <<In the voice of Toula’s father Gus>> “Well, is come from the Greek. Now, gimme a word, any word, and I’ll show you how the root of that word is Greek. Show me about the word ‘parable,’ you say? Okay. Parable is come from the Greek word para, which mean beside, and from the Greek word, ballo, which mean to throw. So you take one thing and you throw it beside another, and you make a story out of it, to make a point. To make you smart so you grow up and find a good Greek person to marry. Because there’s two kinds of people in the world: Greeks and everybody else who wish they were Greeks.”

(That was Gus, Toula’s father.) Thank you, Gus. That’s helpful. Because if a parable is two things thrown together, then here’s what it’s not: it’s notcarefully crafted and perfectly polished until every detail has a specific interpretation. A parable makes one or two points about something—contains one or two nuggets of truth—but not every word has some deep, hidden meaning. Not every element represents something that we should make a new teaching, a new doctrine, out of. I believe Jesus “threw” a lot of his parables together on the spot, and when he got home, he may have even said, “Oh, no! Did I really say that? I hope nobody wrote that down!” (That’s one reason, in case you were wondering, why I always use a manuscript!) The point is—don’t overanalyze the parable!

We have four parables in today’s Gospel reading. Each of these parables begins with “The kingdom of heaven is like …” So these parables must be about heaven, right? They must be telling us what heaven is like, so we know what to expect when we get there, right?

No. Jesus actually taught very little about heaven and how to get there. (Let that sink in for a moment…) I’ll explain. Jesus spoke a whole lot more about the here-and-now, about how to bepart of God’s kingdom in this world. You see, when Mark and Luke recorded these same parables in their gospels, they used the phrase “kingdom of God,” and by that they meant right here, right now, because they knew that’s what Jesus meant by the phrase.

But Matthew used “kingdom of heaven” because he was writing to a Jewish audience. And devout Jews did not—and many still do not—pronounce the name of God because they considered it too holy to be spoken by human lips. (How many have seen God written “G-d” in some theological texts? That’s the reason.)

So, because Matthew’s audience wouldn’t pronounce the name of God, he had to come up with a substitute word in his gospel. He chose the word “heaven,” the place where God lives, and we do the same thing today: “Good heavens, this is a long sermon! Heaven only knows what she’s going to talk about next! Heaven forbid, I hope she doesn’t go on all day!”

These parables are about this world, this life. That’s where Jesus’ listeners needed help. That’s why they gathered around him in such crowds—because he gave them hope for this life, as well as for the next. That’s what happened the day Jesus told the parables that are in today’s Gospel reading. They gathered around because he gave them hope. The Bible says “that day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.”

Picture it. Jesus was so overrun with followers that he got into a boat and pushed it off just far enough so he could avoid being stifled by the crowd but they could still hear him. (I wonder how many followed him into the water. I think I may have…) I’m picturing Jesus standing up in the little fishing boat and noticing individuals in the crowd and wanting to make his message relevant to each one of them. How could he “throw it together” so they could hear and understand? He sees a farmer—a grower of mustard—and he says to the crowd, “It’s kind of like this … The kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed that you sow in a field. It grows into a tree, so big that the birds make nests in its branches.” Then he sees a baker of bread, and he says to the crowd, “And it’s kind of like this … The kingdom of God is like yeast that you mix with a lot of flour, and all of the dough is leavened.” Then he looks around and sees a landowner, and he says to the crowd, “And it’s kind of like this … The kingdom of God is like a treasure that you stumble upon in someone else’s field. You hide the treasure in the field, and then sell everything you own just so you can go back and buy that piece of land.” Then he looks around and sees a merchant, and he says to the crowd, “And it’s kind of like this … The kingdom of God is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When you find one, you sell everything you own and buy that one valuable pearl.”

Jesus told about the kingdom of God in many ways—at least seven of his parables are about it, describing it in slightly different way each time—because he wanted to make sure every single one of his listeners got at least part of the message. Then, together, they could preserve it and pass it on.

That message was: “It’s here! It’s now! It’s ready to burst forth, if you just nurture it! It only takes a tiny bit of ‘God seed’ to make a big difference in the world. A tiny seed will grow, spread, provide shelter for the vulnerable, the weak, the helpless. It doesn’t take much ‘God-yeast’ tocause the worldto become more like God wants it to be: nourishing, satisfying, delicious. Just a little bit of good, of love, of acceptance, of open-mindedness, goes a long way toward building the kingdom of God on earth.”

“It’s here! It’s now! It’s a treasure, a pearl of great price! Sometimes you find it when you go out looking for it, and sometimes you stumble on it when you least expect it. So, yes, certainly, seek to know God. But also be open to finding God’s wisdom, God’s delight, in everyday life in places you don’t expect to find it.” …

Paul probably wasn’t in that crowd that day. Paul didn’t become a follower of Jesus until about 15 years after Jesus walked the earth. But the people who were there—they were listening. And they remembered. And they took it to heart. The seed sprouted. The yeast rose. The treasure was revealed. The pearl was preserved. And 15 years later, when it was Paul’s turn to receive the treasure—the good news of God’s love for all—it was passed on to him, pure as the day Jesus spoke it. Paul received it, and he wrote about it, later, to the church in Rome (our Epistle reading today). Paul wrote, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

That is the pearl of great price that has now been handed down to us. That is the good news of the kingdom of God. Nothing can to separate us from the love of God. Nothing! Neither sin, nor human weakness, nor unwise decisions early in life, nor religious pride, nor the judgment of others, nor prison bars, nor race, nor culture, nor sexual orientation, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

It’s kind of like this … No, it is like this. There’s no “kind of” about it.

It’s Still Not the End of the Story

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
July 20, 2014 (Fifth and Final Sermon in Stained-Glass Window Series)
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

It’s Still Not the End of the Story

Old Testament Reading: Hosea 14:5-7

I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily, he shall strike root like the forests of Lebanon. His shoots shall spread out; his beauty shall be like the olive tree. … They shall again live beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom like the vine, their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon.

Gospel Reading: Matthew 28:18-20

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Good morning! Today we conclude our sermon series on our stained-glass windows. These windows have taken us, so far, through the story of the life and ministry of Jesus, from (1) his birth to (2) his baptism and his discipling a group of followers who would carry on his message, that mandate to (3) “love one another” as the church, to (4) his temptation in the wilderness and his crucifixion (where we left things two weeks ago). That “Temptation and Crucifixion Window” is by far the darkest, the most somber of the windows, because, indeed, that is the darkest part of the story of the life of Christ. Literally dark.

Try to imagine it. Put yourself in the place of the disciples. You have followed this man for three years—believed him to be the one who would change the course of history—the one who would deliver the people from the bondage of their oppressors—and now he is gone. Snuffed out. The world has suddenly become a very dark and desperate place—so desperate that even God had to turn his face away. And in the face of the tragedy of it, you can do nothing but wail … <<Bill Otto sings from behind the wall.>>

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?

Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?
Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?

This, the final window, takes us from that place of wailing, rendered so movingly by Bill Otto just now, to the place of victory. Because that fourth window, the Crucifixion Window, was not the end of the story.

Rev. Nick Natelli says in the video, A Community Cornerstone, “This is the Resurrection Window, the Easter Window, and it’s the story of what our faith is all about.” Amen. Our faith is all about resurrection, victory, new life. That is the gospel Jesus commanded us to preach. Were you there when God raised him from the tomb? Yes, we were. We still are. For it is in the triumph of that moment that we as Christians have our hope. We are loved. We are forgiven. Our future is secure, in this life and the next, because God raised Jesus from the tomb and conquered death—for us.

The symbol of the lily, which we see in three places on this window, has become for Christians the symbol of new life. In the words of Rev. Natelli, “It’s new birth, rebirth, joy, the symbol of Easter.” The lily is rarely mentioned that way in the Bible, but I found one such reference in the prophecies of Hosea, our Old Testament reading today. This passage uses a variety of images—not just the lily, but also the forest of Lebanon, the olive tree, the garden, the vine, and the fragrance of the wine. All of these images are about life, growth, thriving, fullness, richness, maturity. God’s best hopes for humankind, coming to fruition. And we see God’s hand again in this window reaching down to the hands of humanity, conveying the lily, the image of the gift of new life in Christ.

The other prominent symbol in this window is the logo of the United Church of Christ—our denomination. We see in the logo the world at the bottom, the cross rising from it, and the crown, symbolizing that Jesus is the king of the world.

Notice again in this final window, as in the first one, the pieces of green glass laid together along the edge. As in the first window, those green pieces represent this community—the Black Forest. In the first window, we had Jesus being “born into” the Black Forest, and now we have this church, a UCC church, bringing that gospel into this community. Thank you, Al Wynne, for reminding us that we are the UCC church of the Black Forest. No other church in the Black Forest has the same rich and prophetic history as our church has. No other church in the Black Forest has the potential to be the same positive and powerful force in people’s lives as our church does. Because no other church in the Black Forest hears God in exactly the same way that our church does. Those are bold statements, I know, but I believe the slogan that the UCC adopted several years ago: God is still speaking. God is still speaking, and this is still not the end of the story. We are the UCC church in the Black Forest, and we have a particular identity, a particular call, a particular mission, because of that.

Now I am aware that some say the UCC has lost its way, that it has become too political, that it is no longer the church that it once was, that it needs to get back on track. Well, let’s take a look at nearly 400 years of history and see what kind of church the UCC has been.

  • In 1620, the group known as the Pilgrims left Europe for the New World in a quest for spiritual freedom. How does this relate to us? It was the Pilgrims who founded the Congregational churches, and the Congregational churches are, as you may know, one of the four denominations that later formed the UCC.
  • By 1630, the Congregational churches founded by the Pilgrims had spread through New England. The Congregationalists, in an early experiment in modeling democracy, declared that each congregation was self-governing and would elect its own ministers.
  • In 1700, the Congregationalists were among the first Americans to take a stand against slavery. The Rev. Samuel Sewall wrote the first anti-slavery pamphlet in America, entitled The Selling of Joseph, thus laying the foundation for the abolitionist movement that came more than a century later.
  • In 1773, five thousand angry colonists gathered in the Old South Meeting House—a Congregational church—to demand repeal of an unjust tax on tea. Their protest inspired the first act of civil disobedience in U.S. history—the Boston Tea Party.
  • Also in 1773, Phillis Wheatley, a young member of that same congregation, became the first published African American author. Poems on Various Subjects was a sensation, and Wheatley gained her freedom from slavery soon after it was published.
  • In 1777, when the British occupied Philadelphia, they planned to melt down the Liberty Bell to manufacture cannons. But they couldn’t, because the bell had disappeared, safely stowed under the floorboards of Zion Reformed Church in Allentown. (The Reformed churches are, by the way, another of the four denominations that later joined to form the UCC.)
  • In 1785, Lemuel Haynes, a Congregationalist, became the first African American in the world to be ordained by a Protestant denomination.
  • In 1810, America’s first foreign mission society, the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions (ABCFM), was formed by Congregationalists in Massachusetts.
  • In 1839, when enslaved Africans broke their chains, seized control of the schooner Amistad, and were jailed, Congregationalists led the campaign to free them. The Supreme Court ruled the captives were not property, and the Africans regained their freedom—another defining moment in the movement to abolish slavery.
  • In 1846, Lewis Tappan, one of the Amistad organizers, organized the American Missionary Association—the first anti-slavery society in the U.S. that had multiracial leadership.
  • In 1853, Antoinette Brown, a Congregationalist, became the first woman since New Testament times to be ordained as a Christian minister, and perhaps the first woman in history to serve as pastor of a Christian congregation.
  • In 1897, Congregationalist Washington Gladden became one of the first leaders of the Social Gospel movement—which takes literally the commandment of Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself” by denouncing injustice and the exploitation of the poor.
  • In 1943, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr—a member of an E&R church (Evangelical & Reformed), one of the denominations that joined the UCC when it formed—preached a sermon that introduced the world to the now famous Serenity Prayer: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”
  • In 1957, in contrast to the division experienced by so many churches worldwide, the United Church of Christ was born. The Evangelical & Reformed (E&R) Church united with the Congregational-Christian Churches and embraced a rich variety of spiritual and cultural traditions.
  • In 1959, when Southern television stations imposed a news blackout on the escalating civil rights movement, none other than Martin Luther King Jr. asked the UCC to intervene. The UCC’s Office of Communication organized churches and won in Federal court a ruling that the airwaves are public, not private, property.

And this is where things may get a bit uncomfortable for some of you …

  • In 1972, the UCC’s Golden Gate Association ordained the first openly gay person as a minister in a mainline Protestant denomination: the Rev. William R. Johnson.
  • In 1973, the Wilmington Ten—ten civil-rights activists—were falsely charged with the arson of a white-owned grocery store in Wilmington, N.C. One of the Ten was Benjamin Chavis, a UCC social justice worker. The UCC’s General Synod raised more than $1 million to pay for bail, which was, when the conviction was overturned, returned with interest.
  • In 1976, the UCC’s General Synod elected the Rev. Joseph H. Evans as its president, making him the first African American leader of a racially integrated mainline denomination in the United States.
  • In 1995, the UCC published The New Century Hymnal—the only hymnal released by a Christian denomination that honors in equal measure both male and female images of God.
  • In 2005, the UCC’s General Synod passed a resolution supporting same-gender marriage equality, affirming the civil rights of same-gender couples.
  • And this year, the UCC was the first major Christian denomination to file a lawsuit against a state government when it sued North Carolina for violating religious freedom, asserting that North Carolina’s ban on marriage equality is a violation of clergy’s free exercise of religion under the First Amendment. The outcome of this case is yet to be determined.

That’s quite a history—quite a track record of being in the forefront of a lot of social justice issues. Political? Maybe, but isn’t the root of the word “political” actually “people”?

Back in 1976, Harvard history professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich coined a phrase that has since been seen on bumper stickers and tee-shirts throughout the free world. Ulrich wrote, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” To this I respectfully respond, having looked back at 400 years of radical UCC firsts: “Well-behaved Christians seldom change history.”

If those first Pilgrims, way back in 1620, had sat back and agreed to shut up and be well-behaved Christians, where would we be today? If they had decided not to board their little ships in protest and head for a future quite unknown, where would we be today? As the Pilgrims departed, their pastor, John Robinson, preached a sermon through which he hoped to inspire them to keep their hearts and minds open to new ways. In that sermon, Robinson said his famous words, “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word.”

Yes, “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word.” In other words, this is still not the end of the story. God is still speaking. Are we still listening? … Amen.

Never Forsaken, Never Alone

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
July 6, 2014 (Fourth Sermon in Stained-Glass Window Series)
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

Never Forsaken, Never Alone

GOSPEL READINGS

Luke 4:1-2, 9-12 – Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. … Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

Matthew 27:35-36, 45-46 – And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. … From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice … “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Good morning! Today we continue our sermon series on our stained-glass windows. These windows have taken us, so far, through the story of the life and ministry of Jesus, from (1) his birth to (2) his baptism and his raising up a group of followers who would carry on (3) his message of “love one another” and his other teachings about how to “be” the church to, today, (4) his temptation in the wilderness and his crucifixion. This, the “Temptation and Crucifixion Window,” is by far the darkest, the most somber and almost frightening of the windows. Because of that, this was not a fun sermon to write, and it will not be a fun sermon to preach. But the temptation and crucifixion are a crucial part of the Jesus story, and the story wouldn’t be complete without them. And neither would our stories. Because we all have those dark, somber, frightening times in our lives, don’t we? Thank God those times are not the end of the story… There is another window in the series…

Let’s take a good look at this window. In the video, A Community Cornerstone, Rev. Nick Natelli describes this as “a very busy window but a very exciting window.” Indeed, I would agree.

First of all, I invite you to notice the edges of the window. There are 40 small yellow squares with a sun in each, alternating with 40 darker squares. These represent the 40 days and the 40 nights during which our scripture says Jesus was tempted in the wilderness after he was baptized. Then we have the tree from the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden, with the apple, the symbol of the initial temptation of humankind. Then we have a beast, presumably Al Wynne’s way of depicting the devil, or evil. It’s a frightful image—with horns and fangs and claws and spikes and a leering grin that could haunt small children in their sleep. It’s cartoonish, but it’s intense, and I don’t think we would want any more graphic of a depiction of the enemy than that in our sanctuary, would we? Then we have the angels, ready to bear Jesus up through this temptation, and we have Jesus, fending off the devil, pushing him away, grasping him almost grotesquely at the front of his neck. And we have, in the foreground, Jesus’ words, his response to the devil: “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.”

In the next panel, we have Jesus on the cross, as Rev. Natelli puts it, “paying the price for what he believed.” Jesus wears the crown of thorns—the mark of derision and ridicule—has blood flowing from his hands, and we see the cross behind him and the words, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” in the foreground.

We’re familiar with the settings of these two stories. In the first panel, Jesus has just been baptized, and he goes into the wilderness for 40 days where he will be tempted, or tested (it’s the same word in the Greek), by the devil. According to the Gospels, Jesus’ ministry hasn’t really begun yet. He hasn’t done any miracles. He hasn’t really done much teaching. He has been obedient to what his faith told him he should do, by being baptized—and the devil is angry. The devil wants to snuff him out right away so he cannot go on and do the things he was called to do. So he tests him—tempts him—tries to get him to give in to him and settle for less than what God has planned for him. He finds him out in the wilderness and says, “Aha! Now I’ve got you! You’re hungry! I’ll provide for you. You’re insignificant! I’ll promote you! You’re vulnerable! I’ll protect you!” (See what I did there? Three “p”s. It would make my preaching professor proud! J )

The devil even quotes scripture to Jesus to convince him that he’s sincere. (A word to the wise: Not everyone who quotes scripture to you has the best of intentions!) The devil says, “Why not test God? You know you can trust him!” <<wink>> He uses Psalm 91:11-12: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”

The temptation is great, to settle for less than what God has for us. The temptation is great to take shortcuts to get provision, protection and promotion from other sources that pull us away from God’s best. It’s tough sometimes to say no, and it’s tough sometimes to discern which of two options is God’s will—God’s best hope—for us. Making wise decisions takes time, and prayer, and meditation on what we know to be true about God. Jesus took time. A full forty days.

And when the devil tried to tempt Jesus into testing God, Jesus was able to hold fast to his faith and give him a scripture right back. He fought fire with fire. He quoted Deuteronomy 6:16, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test,” or, as we have it on the window, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” Jesus calls the devil’s bluff—“I don’t need to test God. I know God is faithful!”—and the devil goes away, defeated—for now. And here, I picture Jesus breathing a prayer to God, “Yes. I know. That’s right. You will always be with me, through whatever comes my way.”

But I wonder if Jesus had any idea how difficult the next three years would be. I wonder if he could have imagined what the rejection, the criticism, the constant testing by the devout religious people would feel like. I wonder if he could imagine how heavily the needs of the people would weigh upon his shoulders. I wonder if he had any sense of how very alone he would feel at times when he cried out to God in prayer and the heavens felt as unyielding as stone. Yet Jesus did feel those things, did experience those things, just as we do in this life.

And the culmination of the human experience for Jesus was this, in the next panel: a desperate man, hanging on a cross, with punctured hands and feet, wearing a crown of ridicule while the guards take bids on his blood-stained scraps of clothing.

I can’t imagine that Jesus could have pictured that kind of pain. And maybe God intentionally withheld the details from him, because God knew how incredibly difficult it would be for any person—even for Jesus—to remain faithful through that kind of agony and torment. Have you ever thought, “If only I had known how difficult this would be, I could have prepared emotionally for it.” More often, I think, we survive more than we ever thought we could because we didn’t know how difficult it would be. It’s an act of mercy on God’s part to keep some details from us.

Our second reading says that from noon until 3 p.m. while Jesus was hanging on the cross, it was dark. In the middle of the day, it was pitch dark for three hours. Some say this is when God left. It certainly must have felt that way to Jesus, because in agony, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why have you left me alone like this? I came to earth and did what you asked me to do. I healed their sick. I fed their hungry multitudes. I tried to teach them how to love. I am hanging here because of my love for you! And this is how you are toward me? You leave me now? Why, God, why?”

We all find ourselves asking God “Why?” at one point or another, don’t we?

I have heard a powerful theory about God’s answer to this question. It’s a theory that makes me love God even more because of it. I have heard it said that God could not stand the agony of watching Jesus in such torment, and that he had to turn his face away. He did not leave Jesus nor forsake him, but he turned his face away for the space of three hours, between noon and 3 p.m., and during those hours, without God’s light, the world was dark. God was grieving because of the pain Jesus felt—both his physical and his emotional pain—and had to turn away until it was over.

So this would make this window as much about the nature of God than about the life of Jesus. If we read the Gospels carefully, we become aware of an incredible intimacy between Jesus and his heavenly Father, and a father who is so tender that he cannot look on his own son’s agony is a father I, too, can embrace.

I have always struggled a bit with the Christian view that says God couldn’t forgive our sins unless he had a blood sacrifice to make atonement for us. In fact, a major critique of Christianity by people of other faiths is that they wouldn’t want to serve such a bloodthirsty God who had to have his own son killed before he would forgive all of humanity for their shortcomings.

But this view—that Jesus died willingly for his revolutionary belief in an all-loving God, and that God could not bear to watch the horror of it and had to turn away—reveals a God who is not bloodthirsty and vengeful but loving and compassionate, a God who forgives because of that love, a God who will never forsake us, never leave us alone, even in those dark, somber, frightening times that are part of all of our lives.

Granted, God may have to turn his face away for a moment when our pain is the deepest, and we may feel the loss of his companionship during those times, but thank God, that’s not the end of the story! There is another window in the series! There is Easter! There is resurrection! There is a new day! There is a new people of God called the church who journey together from the darkness into the light. And we are part of that people of God! Never forsaken, never alone.

Thank God this window is not the end of the story! Amen.