Here we are again, and here is not where we want to be. We’d rather be able to skip over this stuff. We’d rather jump from a happy Palm Sunday Parade right over to Easter – without having to go with Jesus through the spiritual crisis of Gethsemane, the betrayal of his best friends, thrown into dreary dungeons, beaten and tortured, dragged through courts, humiliated and spat upon, and then finally forced to drag a heavy cross through grimy streets to be crucified. Why do we have to endure year after year?
Wouldn’t it be great to just hit fast-forward and zip through the painful parts? I read a folk tale once about a young man who was terribly impatient and wanted to grow up faster, to become a man and to get married. Out in a forest under a full moon, he was given a magic ball of string by a circle of witchy women. They told him that if he pulled out the string, time would jump forward. So he took it home and hid it, afraid to try. But after his mother died and he was so sad, he took it out and pulled the string – and poof – he was past it; he was older and beyond the pain. Then when he was seriously ill and recuperating, he pulled and he found himself well and happy again. Even when he was bored, he found himself pulling on the string. But as he moved into older age, he deeply regretted having missed so much of his life, and so many ways that he lost insight, wisdom and depth. He felt an emptiness for having skipped ahead.
Don’t you think our age has bit of this feeling to it? Instead of a magic ball of string, we have our screens and devices that never allow us to be bored or to feel uncomfortable or anxious or sad. We have our medications that take away the pain or discomfort. We have talk shows, websites and specialists to tell us how to avoid any ill feelings. We have many ways to pull on the string and to make suffering go away. But sometimes we can’t avoid it – it sticks around, like grief, or trauma, or depression or deep wounds. Sometimes we can find ourselves in our own passion stories – betrayed or in agony or in jail or in court of one kind or another.
The passion story is at the heart of our faith because suffering is at the core of being human. Deny it, or pretend we can escape – like some kind of superhero – and we deny something essential about who and what we are. To try to skip over it means that we also end up neglecting life’s truth, life’s tragedies and pain. We also miss deep wisdom and holy compassion.
As Christians we experienced it when hearing of the horrific bombing this past Palm Sunday in Coptic Christian churches in Egypt in which 45 men, women and children were killed in worship. We feel it with news of famine in Sudan and Southern Africa and continuing violence in Syria – as well as in news of shootings in our own nation. These events bring us to the foot of the cross.
The cross is central to our faith because it confronts us with the reality of pain and sorrow, and questions of justice. It also reveals to us God’s heart and God’s love that is able to go all the way down into the most horrendous sorrow and suffering to emerge brighter and stronger. The cross teaches how to bear our own traumas and suffering without being broken. It teaches us the value of persevering within tragedy – to find God in the midst of them.
Jason Landsel wrote this story in The Plough magazine about a Jewish educator named Janusz Korczak in Warsaw Poland during WWII. “As a young man, Janusz Korczak, promoted his ideals of progressive education in a series of books that combined new insights from child psychology with straightforward love for children. As he wrote: “Children are not the people of tomorrow, but people today. They are entitled to be taken seriously. They have a right to be treated by adults with tenderness and respect, as equals. They should be allowed to grow into whoever they were meant to be. … The unknown person inside each of them is the hope for the future.”
“Korczak was more than a theorist. In 1911, he and his co-worker Stefania Wilczynska established the Dom Sierot orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw. As a creative environment where children could flourish, Korczak’s orphanage even included the children’s own parliament, court, and newspaper. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Korczak was determined to protect his orphans and refused to go underground. Even when the children were interned in the Warsaw ghetto, he chose to stay with them: “You wouldn’t abandon your own child in sickness, misfortune, or danger, would you? So how can I leave two hundred children now?”
“Starving and often ill, he spent the last two years of his life protecting his charges as best he could. When in August 1942 the order came down for the orphans to be transported to Treblinka, Korczak and Wilczynska knew what it meant. Telling the children they were headed to a new home in the country, he led them in a festive procession to the train station, each child neatly dressed and carrying a favorite toy or book.
In the words of one eyewitness: “I will never forget the sight to the end of my life. It was a silent but organized protest against the murders, a march which no human eye had ever seen before.”
“The two teachers died with the children in the gas chambers shortly after their arrival in Treblinka. Just days beforehand, Korczak had written in his diary: “I am angry with nobody. I do not wish anyone evil. I am unable to do so.”
Our faith, like that of Janusz Korczak, perseveres in love in the darkest of times. It waits, and descends into Hell, like Korczak and his children heading to the train – into the depths of sorrow and suffering in our own lives. Faith does not just jump to Easter, to get to the sunlight and candy and the open tomb. We are asked to witness to the fact that so many around us, so many in this world, live in a kind of hell, and God is with them.
Adam Tietje, an Army chaplain and a Ranger – and who served this church for several years, talked to me once about this. He said that his years of visiting severely traumatized soldiers on hospital wards and in rehab made him realize the power of Jesus’ own descent into hell, his extreme trauma and unbearable suffering. Adam is writing his PhD on ways that Good Friday and Holy Saturday are key to our faith tradition, teaching that Jesus himself went through agony – and so is with those to heal those who suffer.
Tonight we journey with Christ into this darkness of suffering – the universal experience of humankind. Let’s not skip over it; let’s not tune out; let’s not self-medicate, but let’s enter into the darkness and uncertainty and grief. Let’s journey with a candle of faith and hope, and discover there in the dim light a glimmer of compassion and wisdom. Amen.