Looking For God in All the Wrong Place
Updated: Apr 21, 2019
Yesterday afternoon I had the privilege of preaching at St. Leo's Catholic Church in downtown Tacoma for their Good Friday Service. It was a moving service and a wonderful experience. Please check out the sermon I offered entitled Looking For God in All The Wrong Places
On Monday morning I was returning home from a meeting with my tax accountant (which I had wrongly assumed would be the worst part of my day) and was immediately greeted by a horrific vision on my television screen. The Cathedral of Notre Dame was engulfed in flames. I can’t really describe dread I immediately felt. I along with the rest of the world, watched in shock and horror as the Notre Dame Cathedral burned- Victor Hugo described the cathedral as a “Vast Symphony of Stone.” It is a historical monument and sacred space that has been with us for more than 850 years of history: memorialized in paintings, songs, novels, war photos, Disney movies (which of course I watched this week), and more recently well posed selfies- but it was all being consumed by a raging fire. It’s an image that I could not get out of my head as I prepared for this sermon today- one columnist wrote “It does not take a pious person to draw the connection of a bloody, broken and dying Jesus to an all-consuming fire destroying one of the world’s most beloved and iconic churches.” As I watched the news coverage I found myself wondering or praying- God, are you in this?
And today we find ourselves observing Good Friday. Good Friday, oddly named, is the one of the toughest day on the church calendar. On Good Friday we are reminded of our humanity and the pain and violence that is in the world we live in. This is not a day to focus on beauty, or dignity, but rather Jesus asks us to find Christ in the places that are painful, dark, scary, fearful, and undignified- and to ask of ourselves what are the ways that I participate in the scary and awful practices of our world. And also how might Jesus be joining me in the painful, dark, scary, fearful and undignified places in my own life. On Good Friday we are tasked with looking for God in all the wrong places.
On this day Jesus- our lord and savior- was betrayed and denied by his closest friends and companions. A group of people with torches and ill intentions found him in the middle of the night and took him to multiple dignitaries hoping to end his life. He was beaten by police. He was arrested and judged guilty. He was proclaimed to be a sinner and a blasphemer. He was incarcerated. A mob of people made it known that they would not be satisfied until he was dead. He was flogged and tortured. He was laughed at by crowds of people-. He was isolated and alone. He was executed by the Roman State, publicly shammed for his life’s work. He was stripped naked for the thrill of others playing a game. After he died his body was removed quickly as to not be an undignified reminder of his torture during the holy worship of Passover. Simon Weil says “across twenty centuries of adoration, the degradation which is the very essence of the Passion is hardly felt by us . . . We no longer imagine the dying Christ as a common criminal.”
It is clear in the Passion narrative that when God became human- God slipped into “the vulnerability of skin and entered a world as violent and disturbing as our own.” (Quote by Nadia Bolz Weber) In any way we suffer Christ whispers in the passion narrative- “I suffer along side of you in this.” The part of this story that makes us uncomfortable is also the birthplace of hope because it is the clue to how we find God in our world and it is where we find our calling as Christ’s servants—the sadness, suffering, and death the incarceration, the beatings, the humiliation, the mistreatment—is most important. God has come to the worst places- all the wrong places- and the most painful circumstances to share our suffering, to care for us in the midst of tragedy to bear our sorrows.
I also believe that Good Friday illuminates where we find God in our world. In our world today people around the globe are suffering in the very ways that Jesus did 2,000 years ago. Who in our world are being sought out in the middle of night with torches and ill intentions? Who are beaten by police? Who are arrested and condemned? Who are the incarcerated? Who is sought out by mobs of people- condemned to die by the mob? Who in our world is mocked, who are the isolated and alone- who are the undignified that we try avoid when we come to worship? What makes us uncomfortable is actually the illumination of the Holy Spirit as to where Christ is in our world- but the whisper in and throughout John’s passion narrative is that when we are looking for Jesus in our world- don’t look to the noble or regarded, the beautiful but rather look to those who suffer like Christ, and it is there that you find the Presence of Christ.
As Father Matt mentioned at the beginning of the worship service- I recently received a call to begin a new worshiping community at the Washington Correction Center for Women- often referred to as the Purdy Prison. This congregation is newly named Hagar’s Community Church and The mission statement for Hagar’s Community Church is to be a Sanctuary for God’s Beloved Exiles at the WCCW. Hagar’s Community Church meets every Saturday evening and it is an ecumenical church meaning that all are welcome no matter what faith tradition they belong. We have communion every week and it has become important in my liturgy each week to say “on the night Jesus was arrested” reminding the women that Jesus was arrested just like them and that Jesus experienced the pain and humiliation of incarceration.
Since beginning to work in a Correctional facility I have realized that too much prison talk is not welcomed in many social circles- it has the tendency to make people a bit, uneasy. It’s not the best party conversation. The stories the women share and that I carry in my heart are heavy and it can be hard to convey to people on the outside just how complicated it all is. I have had many conversations with people who want to justify quickly that these women must deserve their incarceration and think they deserve whatever must be happening to them. Out of sight, out of mind and Please keep it that way.
The women in my congregation are living many people’s worst nightmares - they are separated from their family and children, they have little freedom to make choices about their lives, and the world defines them by their worst mistake. One woman I met with just signed papers to release her child to be adopted, another woman’s husband is on hospice and is coming to the realization she will most likely never see her husband again. Other women have lost contact with their family and friends and have no one to support them while incarcerated or when they are released. And that is just a snapshot…
Many of the women in my congregation are also artists and worship is a space where the women can offer their talents which has led to many sharing their own poetry in worship. This past week in our Good Friday Service this poem was shared: (Because of Confidentiality I am not allowed to share her name)
My God, My God Can you hear me?
I Long for home
My memories I treasure all I had is gone
My comfort is destroyed I feel your presence I know you are near
My home calls me, Life awaits me- I feel that life has been put on hold.
O God My God Listen to my cry!
These walls surround me my spirit is crushed
O lord my savior free me from this darkness
Heal my iniquities
Your child is hurting
I know you hear me, I know you are there
O God, My God Please let me Go.
It is my witness that in the walls of a prison that I have encountered Jesus Christ in ways that are unimaginable. These women have shown me what it means to love one another, what it means to support each other, what it means to rely on God, and what it means to joyfully come together in worship. The worship services I have the honor of leading each week are full of laughter, gratitude, and love. The few from the outside who have had the privilege of being able to visit during worship say they are caught off guard by this- expecting worship to be much more somber - they comment on the power of the women’s faith and how it speaks to and teaches them. This work I have been called to do and these women I have been called to work with have fundamentally changed me as a person- being allowed to witness the lives of the women at the WCCW and worship alongside them each week has opened my eyes to the difficult realities of incarceration in our country but has also showed me how transformative God’s love can be. How important it is to enter into what feels uncomfortable….
So on this Good Friday afternoon I encourage to turn towards the cross, to let discomfort be your guide, to see God even in the hottest fires, and to go about looking for Christ in all the wrong the places. Amen