good friday

Holy Week and Easter 2017

This year, join us in the season of death and new life. For Holy Week, St. George's will be celebrating services on Palm/Passion Sunday, and a joint Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services with Comox United Church, Cumberland United Church, and Comox Presbyterian Church (for Good Friday). For Easter, we will be celebrating an Easter Sunrise service (with Comox United at Goose Spit) early morning, and Easter Sunday worship on Easter Day.

Sermon: "A Whole New World," Good Friday March 25, 2016

"The Beautiful Mess," Daniel Bonnell

"The Beautiful Mess," Daniel Bonnell

This sermon was preached at a joint Good Friday service held at St. George's by St. George's, Comox and Cumberland United Churches, as well as Comox Presbyterian Church.

The Passion According to Luke

A few years ago, I was a chaplain intern at St. Paul’s hospital in Vancouver. It was the surgical floor, people were usually there for a few days, or a few weeks at a time, so short term stay. And when people aren’t in hospital very long, they often see less of a need for a chaplain. Because their biggest problem is being in hospital. And they know that’s going to be over soon.

But more often than not, people are going through stuff in their lives before coming to hospital. They bring that life with them. And I remember one middle aged woman who was there for kidney surgery, very short stay in and out. But two days before, her husband died of a heart attack, suddenly, out of nowhere. The surgery wasn’t bad, but the recovery was going to be hard. Just when she needed him the most to help carry her through this thing, he couldn’t. “I don’t know what to do,” she told me, “it’s the end of my whole world.” And this is the way that a lot of people describe the death of a loved one, whether sudden or not. “It’s the end of the world.” Maybe you’ve experienced this yourself. That the death of someone close to you has fundamentally changed life for you forever, that your world somehow ended. That life would never be the same again.

Death often means the end of the world as we know it. And like any other life, Jesus’ world ended on Good Friday, on a cross. We may know how the story eventually unfolds. Jesus did not just appear dead, or avoid it through some act of smoke and mirrors. Jesus did not emerge from the tomb with the words “gotcha.” The tradition has been very clear. The 4th century Apostle’s Creed says, “I believe in Jesus Christ, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” Jesus’ humanity was not just a mask. Jesus truly met and experienced death, like any of us.

Earlier this week, we joyously celebrated his entry in to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. His movement started with such promise, excitement, and power. But here in Luke’s account of the passion, Jesus has been betrayed, arrested, condemned and sentenced to death. He’s been led away to a place they call “the skull.” And he’s led along with two other criminals sentenced to the same fate. And there, the Roman soldiers will crucify Jesus. Here, at this place, Jesus will breathe his last. And commend his own spirit to God. God’s kingdom of mercy, forgiveness, healing, justice and compassion were alive and active, embodied, on the loose, bringing life and love to all who found themselves in his presence. But now he finds himself surrounded by the very powers of death who will wrench that very life from him. This is not only the end of the world for his movement and his followers, and the end of his life. “If you’re the Messiah, laughs one soldier,” take yourself down from the cross. This looks like the very end of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed, the end of the world God has always envisioned for humanity. It’s the end of God’s good world. Death has its day and its way.

The world ends for Jesus. Jesus dies and there is no getting around it. Darkness, the powers of sin and death reign on this day. And there’s no getting around that, either. But you’ll notice something strange that happens right in the middle of the crucifixion. Jesus, if you remember, is crucified between two criminals. One on his left and on his right. One joins in with mocking Jesus, saying if he has the power to save, he should save himself and bring them with him. We hear the same in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion. But in Luke’s account, the other criminal who has been crucified beside him actually intervenes to defend Jesus. “Look, we’re getting what we deserve,” says the man, “but this guy has done nothing wrong.” And with that, the man turns to Jesus. “Jesus,” he says, “remember me when you come in to your kingdom.” In the midst of taunts and degradation of enemies, in the middle of his own death sentence. This man affirms his trust in Jesus and the kingdom he has come bearing.

Which is kind of crazy. Because this man is about to die. And so is Jesus. He doesn’t do this at Palm Sunday, at the height of celebration or expectation. But just before the moment of death. He trusts Jesus with his future when there’s no future in sight. The world’s about to end. And Jesus’ reply is no less crazy in that way. “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” It’s such a strange thing for Jesus to say. “You’ll be with me in paradise.” Paradise. Today, no less. Often in hearing these words, we’ve understood that this criminal, despite his misdeeds has faith in Jesus. So when he dies his soul will end up in heaven. Nobody really believed this at the time. When you die you die. And you’d have to wait for the resurrection at a future date. So Jesus must mean something other than his soul leaving his body for another place. The world for both of us is ending.  But hey, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Today.

“Today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus says. On this day. This God forsaken day, where there is no paradise in sight. But even on this God-forsaken day, in this God-forsaken moment on the cross, even in the midst of this moment where the worst that humanity can do is on full display. Even now, in the darkness, we see God’s power for life at work. If only a momentary glimpse.

When Jesus says “today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus is talking about a whole new world dawning. And it’s already begun. The man says “remember me when you come in to your kingdom,” Jesus tells him that it’s begun here and now. The Greek word that we translate as “paradise” is the same word used in the Greek Old Testament, as the word for garden. For Genesis. For Eden. A glimpse of God’s world mended and restored. That for this man who has no future, who stares death in the face, even now at this moment, even now he can experience the power and presence of God.  Because in Christ, the seeds of paradise have already been planted. The cross, the cruel tree used to crucify Jesus is the first tree sprouting in the new creation. On this dark day, they may lay dormant in the ground, out of sight. Scattered at the foot of the cross. Even on this day of death, God’s power for life may hidden, but not destroyed. “This day,” Jesus says, “you will be with me in paradise.” Even on this day where the world has ended, a whole new world has begun. A New Creation has dawned.

And this is the same news for us this day, friends. This day is the dawning of a whole new world. That on this day of darkness. And every other day of darkness, every moment of darkness we face in our lives and in our world. Every cancer diagnosis, every broken marriage, addiction, and sin-sick soul. Every child who lives day to day in poverty on an empty stomach. In the ruins of every suicide bomb and drone attack. You may not see them. But in every moment of death and darkness God is already planting seeds of paradise. Even if you don’t quite know it yet, a whole new creation has begun. Even on this day.

So, friends. Take heart. Even on this day. Take courage, even on this day. Because the same God whose unbreakable love and blessing grabs hold of a criminal dying on the cross and will never let go, is the same God who grabs us whatever darkness we find ourselves in. And because of this, we, too, can experience paradise, even on this day. Because even with in the end of our worlds is the beginning of God’s whole new one. Whatever pain or sorrow, hurt or injustice we may face. We are able to face them head on, and with courage, knowing that the love and power of God is and will always be greater than anything we might ever face. Even dath. “Truly, this day, even this day, we may set our sights on paradise.”

This, friends, this is the only way we can call this Friday “Good.”

AMEN.

Holy Week and Easter 2016

As we process through the Season of Lent, we also make our way to the central celebrations of the Christian year--those of Holy Week and Easter.

Holy Week is the last week of Lent. Beginning with Palm/Passion Sunday, it is the week that begins immediately to Easter Sunday. It is observed in many Christian churches as a time to commemorate and enact the suffering (Passion) and death of Jesus through observance and worship. Common observances include Maundy Thursday (the last supper), Good Friday (the crucifixion), and Holy Saturday (where Jesus lays in the tomb). 

Holy Week is important, especially in our own cultural context where Easter joy is celebrated, and often celebrated early (with Cadbury Easter eggs showing up as early as late February). Ours is a culture that often hides suffering, or seeks to escape it. While suffering is not a good thing, it is simply true that our world is filled with it, and that much of human life is touched by it. Whether personal, social, economic or environmental, it sits at the center of human existence.  It is important to place the hope and new life of the resurrection on Easter against the larger backdrop of death and endings as seen on the cross. Easter is figured as the divine answer not simply to the problem of death, but to the suffering of the world. It is only through walking under the shadows of darkness on Good Friday do we fully understand the light and hope of Easter Sunday.

This year, join us in the season of death and new life. For Holy Week, St. George's will be celebrating services on Palm/Passion Sunday, and a joint Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services with Comox United Church, Cumberland United Church, and Comox Presbyterian Church (for Good Friday). For Easter, we will be celebrating an Easter Sunrise service (with Comox United at Goose Spit) early morning, and Easter Sunday worship on Easter Day.

Schedule of Holy Week/Easter Services 2016

Palm/Passion Sunday March 20th 10:30am at St. George’s United Church
Maundy Thursday March 24th 5:30pm at Comox United Church
Good Friday March 25th 10:30am Joint Service at St. George’s United Church
Easter Sunrise Sunday March 27th 6:30am Joint Service at Goose Spit
Easter Sunday March 27th 10:30am at St. George’s United Church

Sermon: "The Torn Curtain," Good Friday April 3, 2015

April 3, 2015
Good Friday
Joint Worship at Comox United Church
Mark 15:16-39

"The Torn Curtain"
Rev. Ryan Slifka

Peter Reynosa, "Crucifixion in Black and White"

Peter Reynosa, "Crucifixion in Black and White"

A few years ago, Lillian Daniel, an author and minister in the United Church of Christ in the USA, wrote a controversial article about problems she has with contemporary spirituality. She fears sitting next to people on airplanes, she says, because someone inevitably asks what she does for a living. That’s not the problem so much that when they find that out, someone will, inevitably, tell her how they don’t go to church. And that they don’t need to go to church to experience God. “Sunsets,” Daniel says, “they always see God in a sunset. Or long walks on the beach.” Or when their kids say the darndest things.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with seeing God in a sunset. Read the Psalms—the heavens declare the glory of God. But what Daniel is getting at, is that spirituality in modern North American society is more often than not focused exclusively on the nice, the beautiful, and the pleasant in human life. With book titles like the “Hidden Art of Happiness” and “Your Best Life Now,” you get the sense that the life of faith—any life of faith—is limited to how it might help us achieve happiness. Daniel notes that, so far, no one sitting next on a plane has told her that they see God in cancer.[1]

Which brings us to today, Good Friday. Today we commemorate one of the least pleasant parts of the Christian story. The trial, suffering, and crucifixion of Jesus according to Mark’s story of Jesus. It seems counterintuitive. Counter-cultural by North American standards. Today, there are no sunsets. No long walks by the beach. And no displays of affection or kindness. Today we see the worst that human life has to offer. Jesus has been abandoned by those closest to him. Betrayed by a friend. Arrested and convicted on false charges. Persecuted by the state and failed by the legal system. He has been brutally tortured, mocked and shamed, spit on by a whole battalion of soldiers. And nailed to a cross. Left to hang, sneered at by passers-by. To make matters worse, God seems to be missing in action. “Let the Messiah come down from the cross now,” say the Pharisees and scribes “so that we may see and believe.” And another says, “let us wait to see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” All around expect that God will rescue this man from suffering if he is who he says he is. But there is no sign. If there is anything bereft of niceness, beauty, and pleasantness, this is it. No God to be seen.

Yet, Mark tells us, this is precisely where God is. Hidden. As Jesus breathes his last. The story says that the curtain of the temple in Jerusalem is suddenly torn in two. That the divine presence, that normally lies hidden is finally exposed for all the world to see. And when a soldier who stands facing him sees his last breathe, he declares “Truly, this man was God’s Son!” His declaration is the first time in the whole story that anyone actually says this about Jesus. This is the first time that the truth actually comes out of anyone’s mouth. The definitive revelation in the whole story is found not in Jesus’ ministry. Or even in triumph at the resurrection. It’s found in the cross. In the midst of such ugliness, abandonment, terror, and death. God is found hidden in the cross. And God is closer than ever.

And this is, perhaps, the good that comes out of Friday. That in the cross, we discover that God is not just present in the good in our lives, but powerfully present in the worst that the world has to offer. Truth be told, anyone can see God in a sunset. But it takes something incredible to see God in the midst of cancer. It takes something incredible to see God in the midst of family breakdown and personal bankruptcy. It takes something incredible to see God in the midst of a world that seems overcome with war, environmental destruction and greed. To see God’s power and presence in the midst of the broken and hurt places in our lives and our world. Yet, to walk the Way of Jesus Christ is not to escape the troubles of our lives, our neighbors and our world. But it enables us to love more deeply. To be able to face them head on, and with courage, knowing that the love and power of God is and will always be greater than anything we might ever face.

Friends. Brothers and sisters. Today we see the curtain torn, and from behind it pours out a love so deep, powerful, and unbreakable that will never abandon us, or our world in its suffering and pain. This is why we call this Friday “Good,” though it appears to be anything but. This is the gift of Good Friday, the gift of the gospel. And the gift that Christ has brought to us, so we might bring it to the world:

See from his heads, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?[2]

AMEN.

[1] This illustration is gathered from two places—one from the United Church of Christ’s daily devotional called “Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me,” and the other from her Christian Century article “You Can’t Make this Stuff Up,” both from 2011.

[2] John Newton, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”