Mom’s Handkerchief – Good Friday

Mom

Muriel Titus Stewart

As a child, I wondered why they called Good Friday ‘good’. It wasn’t. It was awful.

At the annual Good Friday service my mother’s cheeks were wet. She’d hold her handkerchief in one hand and, without drawing attention to herself — Mom was shy and shunned attention — she would dab the tears, hoping no one would notice.

A soloist would sing:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when the crucified my Lord? Oh……

Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Mom would dab her cheeks and eyes.

As I grew older I began to understand why they called the Friday of the crucifixion ‘good’. It wasn’t good because they nailed him to the tree, or because they took him down and laid him in a borrowed tomb. It was good because, in that deep darkness, tears fall in grief and in hopes of something else. Tears that recognize both the betrayal, denial, flight — our  own and others’ – and the steadfast love, courage, and magnanimity of the man on the cross.

Both sides of the human condition are front and center on Good Friday. So is the sense of god-forsakenness – the wrenching cry from the cross, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) — the gnawing feeling of senselessness, meaninglessness, and helplessness, hanging alone, tortured and mocked, over the abyss of nothingness.

Over the years, I’ve learned that a healthy sense of denial is sometimes a good thing. So is truth-telling. Good Friday brings me face-to-face with myself at my worst and my best. And at the heart of it all is a man with arms spread wide, looking out at us who still crucify him — ours is a Good Friday world — with eyes that reach my soul. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Into Your hands I commit my spirit.”

On Easter Mom would dab her eyes for joy because she’d brought her handkerchief with her from Good Friday.

— Gordon C. Stewart. Chaska. MN, April 14, 2017. Originally published April 3, 2015.

The Day of Nothingness

On Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter, we experience the silence of nothingness.

The sounds of hammers, taunts, and screams, and the sight of three dead men very different in life but equal now in death leave us face-to-face with all that is cruel, hopeless, meaningless – the deep darkness of despair.

This Holy Saturday the world is on full alert. Dread and fear spread. We who live in the aftermath of the latest terror in Brussels experience Holy Saturday – the day between Good Friday and Easter, knowing that only a resurrection can redeem a Good Friday world.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 26, 2016

Warning: Danger Ahead

If you’re interested in a homiletic case consistent with Bernie Sanders, check out the Rev. Ed Martin’s sermon at Shepherd of the Hill Church in Chaska, MN. It’s superb.

A Verse for Easter

Readers unfamiliar with Christian scripture will find it helpful to learn that the original Gospel of Mark ended abruptly and curiously, not the way one would expect good news to end. Upon discovering the stone rolled away from the tomb and the tomb empty, Mark ends not with triumphal joy but with fear. “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for fear and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Here’s Steve’s verse for Easter:

The Short Ending of Mark

Most scholars think that first came Mark,
then Matthew, or perhaps St. Luke,
but Mark is shortest of the three
and it takes work for brevity.

The empty tomb is found in Mark,
but in the first draft of the book
no resurrected Christ appears–
his followers are left in fear.

The Gospels four all tell the tale
of thousands fed by miracle,
but only Mark will tell it twice–
this Jesus is the Bread of Life.

Young Mark assumes from Chapter One
that Jesus is the Son of God
the Christ-Messiah, Holy One.
His faith was fed by wine and bread.

Mark must believe that doubts and fears
can turn to trust when he appears.

[Mark 16:1-8]

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, April 5, 2015

Do unto others…

It’s not often we follow up of Steve’s poems. But today’s post (“Verse – Indiana”) on Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) merits further comment on Holy Saturday.

some so-called Christians change the
Golden Rule:
Do unto others what hate did to you.

Steve and I are both Presbyterian ministers. We’re Protestants. We’re not proud of it; it’s just who we are. At this point in his life, Steve restricts his social commentary to poems and verses.

Here are the earlier stanzas of of “Indiana” that succinctly set the Indiana religious Freedom Restoration Act in its ironic historical context:

To America came the Protestants.
In England they could not live
as they would.
They were despised by ruling residents
and fled to freely worship their own God.

Conservatives want to preserve the past,
forgetting which side they were on…
They now
discriminate against those who resist
and say, “To your beliefs we will not bow.”

Tomorrow Steve will celebrate Easter in Illinois. I will celebrate Easter in Minnesota. The symbol of the stone rolled away will be front and center. There can be no hate at the empty tomb. Governor Pence and legislators, pay close attention. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It’s hard to believe they didn’t know what they were doing, but in the sense in which the prayer from the cross was uttered, they really didn’t know`1.

 

Mom’s Handkerchief – Good Friday

As a child, I wondered why they called Good Friday ‘good’. It wasn’t. It was awful.

At the annual Good Friday service my mother’s cheeks were wet. She’d hold her handkerchief in one hand and, without drawing attention to herself — Mom was shy and shunned attention — she would dab the tears, hoping no one would notice.

A soloist would sing:

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

Mom would dab her cheeks and eyes.

As I grew older I began to understand why they called the Friday of the crucifixion ‘good’. It wasn’t good because they nailed him to the tree, or because they took him down and laid him in a borrowed tomb. It was good because, in that deep darkness, tears fall in grief and in hopes of something else. Tears that recognize both the betrayal, denial, flight — our  own and others’ – and the steadfast love, courage, and magnanimity of the man on the cross.

Both sides of the human condition are front and center on Good Friday. So is the sense of god-forsakenness – the wrenching cry from the cross, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) — the gnawing feeling of senselessness, meaninglessness, and helplessness, hanging alone, tortured and mocked, over the abyss of nothingness.

Over the years, I’ve learned that a healthy sense of denial is sometimes a good thing. So is truth-telling. Good Friday brings me face-to-face with myself at my worst and my best. And at the heart of it all is a man with arms spread wide, looking out at us who still crucify him — ours is a Good Friday world — with eyes that reach my soul. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Into Your hands I commit my spirit.”

On Easter Mom would dab her eyes for joy because she’d brought her handkerchief with her from Good Friday.

— Gordon C. Stewart. Chaska. MN, April 3, 2015.

The Garden Outside Pleasantville

This is the manuscript of the Easter sermon yesterday at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN. The sermon was an exploration into the contemporary meaning of the text: The Gospel According to John 20:1-18.

In some way or other, I think it’s safe to say that we all have a kind of nostalgia for the innocence and purity of the Garden of Eden…before what we call “the fall.” We have a sense that we are not supposed to be outside the gates of the Garden…out here. At the expulsion of the man and the woman in the story from Genesis, .the cherubim (angels) are posted at the gate to be sure that those who have been expelled cannot get back in. The cherubim and a twirling, flaming sword keep Adam, Eve – you, me, all of us – on this side of the gate, outside the Garden of Eden.

Well it’s a story, of course, but isn’t it our story? Nostalgic for a world where nothing ever goes wrong But illness comes, a marriage goes bad, a relationship with someone you love falls apart just when you think it’s to lead to something more permanent, you lose a job, you suffer depression, you suffer from an illness, you’re left alone in grief over the loss of a loved one. Or you yourself are dying, and there are wars and rumors of wars. We watch the children and wish that we could protect them, but we can’t, even though we are parents and grandchildren, aunts and uncles. Out here…outside the Garden…it’s rough sometimes.

In this morning’s Gospel (John 20:1-18), the Risen Christ’s appearance to Mary takes place in a garden The garden is outside the empty tomb. Until Mary turns and sees the One she supposes to be “the gardener”, the text has said nothing about Jesus being laid to rest in a garden. It says only that Jesus was laid in a tomb in which no one had yet been buried.

Mary has already been there by herself in the early morning darkness. When she sees, to her great horror, that the tomb is empty, she runs to tell “the other disciple” and Peter.

What do they do? Well…these are guys, you know. They race each other to the tomb.

We don’t ever compete, do we, guys!? And Peter loses! The other disciple gets there first, and then Peter follows, huffing and puffing. Peter, bold man that he is, goes in. Peter in this story is like detective Joe Friday in the old Dragnet series: “Just the facts, Ma’am; just the facts!” He sees the facts. The burial cloths are lying there as though the body had evaporated out of them, but the napkin that had covered Jesus’ face, was neatly rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple goes in, sees the same thing. He believes…and then…they just…go home.

Well…what happened to Mary? They leave Mary there? By herself? And it is Mary who gets it – because Mary continues to stand there, weeping. She’s feeling her grief, feeling her sorrow, and it is as she is feeling her sorrow and her grief. It is as she goes down into the horror of the cross, the horror of having stood helplessly at the foot of the cross that she experiences the Risen Christ.

It is there that there is suddenly a garden, a new garden of Paradise.

I don’t know how it is with you, but sometimes I want to live in a perfect world. I want everything to be in its place. I don’t want any problems. I don’t want to feel anything. Someone I love much once said, “I hate feelings!” This is about feelings, brothers and sisters.
There is a certain kind of Christianity that says “No, no, no!” to every “negative” feeling. It wants everything to be happy. Like Steve Martin dancing around with happy feet. All we want is happy feet. But you don’t get happy unless you know sadness. You don’t get to laughter unless you know what it is to cry real tears of sorrow.
—————————————————-

This distorted kind of Christianity, this preference for the perfect world without any negative feelings or experience is humorously by the film Pleasantville.

David, who is played by Toby McGuire, and his sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) lead very different high-school social lives. Jennifer is popular and shallow. David is introverted, keeps to himself, and spends most of his time watching television. David’s favorite show is Pleasantville, a nostalgic throw-back black and white television series about the idyllic Parker family in the late 1950s. The little imaginary town of Pleasantville is, for David, a kind of Garden of Eden in which nothing ever goes wrong. Everyone is nice. No one ever feels pain. They are just, well… so nice.

One evening David and Jennifer fight over the TV. Jennifer wants a concert. David wants to watch Pleasantville. As they fight, the remote control breaks.

A mysterious TV repairman, played by Don Knotts, shows up, quizzes David about Pleasantville, and replaces the remote control with a strange new one. When the TV repairman leave, David and Jennifer resume their fighting, and are sucked through the television set into the black white gray, colorless world of the Parkers’ Pleasantville living room.

They are no longer David and Jennifer. They must pretend to be Bud and Mary Sue Parker, the son and daughter of the Parker family of Pleasantville.

David and Jennifer witness the wholesome nature of the town, such as a group of firemen rescuing a cat from a tree. David has to remind Jennifer that they must stay in character and not disrupt the lives of the town’s citizens, who don’t even notice the difference between the show’s original characters of Bud and Mary Sue, and their role replacements, David and Jennifer. In keeping with the show’s plot, Jennifer dates a boy from high school, but when she has sex with him, a concept unknown to the boy and to everyone else in town, the spell of colorless innocence is broken.

Slowly, Pleasantville begins to change from black and white and grayness to color. Flowers and the faces of people who have experienced bursts of emotion begin to have some color.

David becomes friends with Mr. Johnson, who owns Pleasantville’s cheeseburger and soda fountain. He introduces Mr. Johnson to colorful modern art via a book from the library, sparking in him an interest in painting. Mr. Johnson and Betty Parker fall in love, causing her to leave home, throwing George Parker, Bud and Mary Sue’s father, into confusion. The only people who remain unchanged are the city fathers, led by Big Bob, the mayor who sees the changes eating away at the values of Pleasantville. The city fathers resolve to do something about their increasingly independent wives and their rebellious children.

As the townsfolk become more colorful, a ban on “colored” people is instituted in public places. A riot begins when a nude painting of Betty, painted by Mr. Johnson, appears on the window of Mr. Johnson’s soda fountain. The soda fountain is destroyed, books are burned, and people who are “colored” are harassed in the street. As a reaction, the city fathers announce new rules preventing people from visiting the library, playing loud music, or using paint other than black, white, or gray.

When David and Mr. Johnson protest by painting a colorful mural on a brick wall, depicting their world, they are arrested. Brought to trial in front of the town, David and Mr. Johnson defend their actions, arousing enough anger and indignation in Big Bob, the mayor, that Big Bob becomes colored as well.

Having seen Pleasantville change irrevocably, Jennifer stays to finish her education, but David finally manages to return to the real world by use of his magical remote control.
———————————————————-

Easter is about a full color world. FULL of color. Full of emotion. Ups and downs. It has nothing to do with this imaginary, utopian Garden of Eden that never was and never will be, in which we no longer have to feel much of anything. “I hate feelings!”

There is no return to the Garden in which the man and the woman live in unconscious innocence, no way back into the black and white and gray world of the Garden of Eden from which humankind is expelled.

But this morning we see a colorful woman. She is a colorful woman, this Mary of Magdala, who stays with Jesus all the way through.

According to one tradition in the Church, this Mary was a prostitute. Mary Magdalene comes to Jesus, stays by Jesus, is healed by Jesus. Now she is in deep grief on this morning when, so far as she knows, her Lord was still buried in that tomb following a Roman crucifixion, dead and gone.

It is this Mary who goes out early in the morning, “while it was still dark.” Women don’t go out in the night; they don’t go out unescorted in the dark. But Mary does! And when the other disciple and Peter, the two heroes to whom she had gone for help, abandon her, she is there by herself.

“Why are you weeping?” ask the two angels, one where Jesus’ feet and been and one where his head had been. The cherubim!

These cherubim, who guard the way back into the lost paradise of the Garden of Eden, are there in the tomb. “Why are you weeping?”

Mary’s voice breaks into a stammering primal cry of horror. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him! Tell me where he is! Let me hold him!”

She turns around. The gardener greets her. The Risen Christ greets her, but she does know that it is Jesus. She supposes him to “the gardener”. She is in a garden where only the gardener would be early in the morning. The One she assumes to be the gardener greets her. She doesn’t recognize him. He asks the same question, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Mary gives the same answer.

Then he calls her name. “Mary!”

Rabboni (Teacher)!!! It’s YOU!!! Is it really YOU?”

How about you? Why are you weeping? ask the Cherubim and Jesus.

“Mary, Mary, Mary!’ Her name is called. Your name is called, the name of the real you. Not some black-and-white-and gray, colorless character in a Pleasantville world, but the real flesh-and-blood, colorful you, the real Mary. The real Bob. The real Jane. The real you in living color.

“Do not hold me,” he says, “for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and sisters and tell them I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

”Go! Go! Go now!”

Tell each other. Tell each other it’s not over. Tell each other you have seen me. Tell each other that Caesar did not have the last word. Tell each other that life is greater than death, greater than might. Tell each other that you have heard the cherubim, standing guard from within an empty tomb, asking you why you are weeping. Tell them that you have heard the Gardener’s own voice in the New Garden outside my empty tomb!

Today the tears of sadness and the cries of horror are turned into the tears of gladness and shouts of exuberant joy:

“Christ is risen!” brothers and sisters, “Christ is risen! Christ is risen!” Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”

Is Easter’s coming?

After receiving this today I called Steve suspecting depression. “Hi, Steve. Your stuff’s been really dark lately. Are you depressed?” “No! Why?” said Steve with a chuckle. “Not at all. Pay attention to the last line. I CAPITALIZED Easter.”

miserable days

these days cold rain falls on faces
looking for the season’s changing

birds are silent somewhere hiding
winds whip trees no buds are showing

bulbs are prisoned in their places
beneath clods slowly rotting

floods have drowned all springlike traces
dark clouds keep the sun from shining

graves are closed is Easter coming

– steve shoemaker, urbana, il, feb. 26, 2013