Mark 15: 16-41, NRSV
They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.
It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’
There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.
Preached Sunday, June 3, 2018 at Westfield Church by the Rev. Jonathan Chapman
For months now, I’ve been dreading having to preach on this passage. It’s not our usual Sunday morning pick-me-up, is it? Preaching the cross is tricky territory because for centuries its been used to crucify more than Jesus. Many have used the symbol of the cross (and everything they think it stands for) to beat others into submission. And in a way, that makes sense. Before we hung them on our walls or draped them around our necks, crosses were a brutal tool for torture and execution. Their purpose was to prolong the coming of death, to make the crucified suffer. There was a cloak of shame that lingered around crucifixion. In fact, in this entire passage, the crucifixion of Jesus makes up half a verse—a single clause in a sentence. “And they crucified him,” Mark writes. The rest isn’t about the pain or torment. The rest isn’t about the nails or sword. The early Christians Mark was writing to knew all about that. The rest of the story—the parts surrounding that single clause—is about the shame of it all. It’s a story about mocking and dismissing and deriding.
That’s actually what I thought this sermon was going to be about—shame. About how the cross is a reminder that Jesus has lived the worst our human life has to offer—and that so many of us assume that’s death, but, in a way, there are things more insidious than death, things like shame. I was going to ask if you’d ever been ashamed, if there was ever a moment when you thought you’d die from embarrassment. It could be that one time in middle school or just last week at the grocery store. Or maybe it’s when you’re failed a test or your spouse cheated or you tried on clothes that didn’t fit anymore and stared into the mirror wondering what happened. Those aren’t necessarily things that deserve shame, yet we assign it nonetheless. I wanted you to be inspired, comforted by Jesus’ endurance of such shame, knowing that he made it so we can.
But then, just before I started writing this sermon, I learned that Margaret Norden lay dying in ICU at Hartford Hospital. I’d visited her on Friday. Brought her flowers and laughed. We gabbed about new pew cushions (she’s pretty excited about them) and what I was planning for my upcoming sabbatical. We prayed and I left, each of sharing a last smile. The next day—yesterday—her daughter called me in tears. “This is it, Jon. This is the end.” A few hours later, Susan called back. “She’s with the big guy,” she said.
And what I thought was going to be a sermon about shame turned into a sermon about heartbreak.
You see, there’s no justice in death. Oh, we say it. “They’re facing it with such courage.” “They’re better off.” But really, it sucks. It’s a finale no one wants to watch, a conclusion no one wants to read. Death is like that—it’s a reality that we content with every day, yet one we push to the back of our thoughts as soon as it crosses our minds. We’d just rather not think about it. Until, there comes a day, like this one, when we can’t deny its presence anymore.
Jesus’ disciples were like that. Every time, every time, he mentioned his death, they ignored it or missed it or argued with him. In fact, when the hour of his death had come, the disciples we know by name—that is, the men—are no where to be found. Instead, it’s two men we’ve never encountered before, Simon of Cyrene and the Roman Centurion, and the women who’ve accompanied Jesus all along—Mary Magdalene, Mary, Mother of James, and Salome. Jesus’ followers who dominate the gospel aren’t there to see it.
Who knows, of course, where they were. Maybe they were there all along. Or maybe they just couldn’t muster the courage to face what was coming, fearful that it’d happen to them. Or maybe they were heartbroken.
Heartbreak affects people different ways. Some get angry, some distraught. Others are silent, while still others wail. Some run and other stand stalwart. But here’s the thing about heartbreak. Heartbreak likes to be the star. That is, when we’re heartbroken, it’s nearly all we can pay attention to—our sadness, our loss—our despair, our…well…brokenheartedness. And because all of our attention is on that, we lose our ability to see beyond it. We can’t quite remember what life was like before that heartbreak. We begin to think it’s the end—that heartbreak and all its friends will be around forever, that they’re the last chapter of the story. Heartbreak can blind us from the truth. It wasn’t the the cross that made the disciples think the story was over. It was the heartbreak.
Here, in the gospel of Mark—at the very climax that we’ve spent fifteen chapters getting to, it’s none of Jesus followers that speak the truth—they can’t. They’re vision is blurred with the tears of heartbreak. It’s the Roman Centurion who says what they cannot: Truly this is the son of God.
The question, when we encounter shame, death, and heartbreak—together or alone—is whether or not we have people around who can tell us the truth. It’s counterintuitive, really. When we encounter deep loss, our instinct is to turn inward, to isolate. But you see, when we do that, we remove our ability to hear the truth. Because for so many of us, living in a state of heartbreak is like living in a fog. It can be hard to tell which way is which. So instead of isolating, we have to keep engaging.
And here again is where the women are our inspiration. Rather than disappearing the next day like the other disciples, other gospels tell us that they wait at the tomb, keeping each other company and telling the stories of Jesus.
When we encounter heartbreak, we don’t stop talking about the person we’ve lost or the situation that didn’t work out how we wanted to. No—the heartbreak of the crucifixion is about darkness—a literal darkness that covered the land, and a metaphoric one that lingers in unanswered questions and unreached hopes. And the way we live through that darkness is to bring what we’ve lost into the light. It’s not always easy and it’s not always quick. It took Jesus three days, after all.
But, when we keep showing up and telling the stories of the ones we love, it’s like—even in the haze of heartbreak—they are with us again, like a resurrection of sorts. And soon, that fog begins to lift and we begin to see more clearly than we could before. And heartbreak’s old friends, despair and hopelessness are replaced by new ones: gratitude and awe. Awe at what we experienced and gratitude that we experienced it together.
Jesus lived it, so we know we can, too. And Jesus lives beyond it. We will, too. Thanks be to God. Amen.