This is the sermon I preached at field ed yesterday. I haven't usually posted Sunday sermons here, because I think most of my parish sermons haven't been as good as my Seabury sermons (regardless of which parish). But I think I've improved some on that this term, partly because my field ed parish doesn't expect 15 minute sermons, so I don't have to keep writing after the sermon is done. Anyway, here's yesterday's.
One of the things that’s hardest for me about the Christian life is that I can’t look Jesus in the eyes. Looking people in the eyes is a big part of how I come to trust people. There’s a line from the musical of Jekyll & Hyde that always strikes me, where the woman who Hyde beats and Jekyll heals sings “In his eyes, I see a gentle glow, and that’s where I’ll be safe, I know.” I always think that if I could just look into Jesus’ eyes, then I’d find that kind of safety, the kind that makes the danger not matter, because it can’t touch me. But Jesus isn’t standing physically before me, day in and day out, for me to learn his eyes that way.
So I look into other eyes instead, looking for Jesus there. And I usually do find Jesus there in some guise. I look into a mentor’s eyes and see a promise that he won’t give me up if I happen to fail. I look into a friend’s eyes and see a fierce protectiveness for women’s bodies, her own as well as other women’s. I look into another friend’s eyes and see unguarded playfulness.
But then I’m often also troubled by much of what I find in my friends’ eyes. I see things there that I don’t want to see there. I don’t want to look into a friend’s eyes and see that he’s learned not to trust his own body. I don’t want to look into a friend’s eyes and see that the church I love so much, and that she loves too, is basically eating her alive. That’s not what I meant when I said I wanted to find Jesus. That kind of pain makes me want simultaneously to pull back, protect myself from, and to make it better. Of course, I know that I can’t make it better, and that it would be selfish to pull myself back – and, as it turns out, not even helpful to me, really.
I’ve seen these kinds of things in my friends’ eyes for as long as I can remember. But I’ve never been able to name what I was seeing. This week, though, I read a story in Nora Gallagher’s book Things Seen and Unseen that helped me understand a little better. She says that one Maundy Thursday, she went to a footwashing service where it was so dark you couldn’t see who would wash your feet, or whose you would wash, until you got to them. She says that when it was her turn to wash, she looked up and saw her friend Ben, for whom she was caring as he was dying of AIDS, and that after she washed his feet, she lifted her head to kiss the foot, and caught his eyes.
And she says, “I saw in him not the best that was in him, but what made him uniquely Ben, what made him not any other person in the world: his memories, his imagination, his tenderness, and his hope. And I saw something else, Good Friday’s shadow, way in the back of his eyes.”
Good Friday’s shadow. That’s what I’ve seen in all those eyes. And today, I’m wondering if those who had been with Jesus before he went into the wilderness saw that same shadow in Jesus’ eyes when he came out. I think it was there. I don’t know whether Jesus always knew what was going to happen in his life, even in a broad sense.
But whether Jesus knew going into the wilderness that the cross awaited him, I think he knows coming out that Good Friday is the inevitable end to this path that he’s on. He walks out of the wilderness with the shadow of Good Friday in the back of his eyes. Even Jesus can’t have this kind of encounter and come out of it unchanged. The wilderness gets into who Jesus thought he’d be.
But Good Friday is not all there is. And if, as I suspect, the tempting in the wilderness gave Jesus a clearer sense of who he was meant to be on earth, then I suspect that piece was more clearly visible in his eyes after the desert too. I’d guess that his companions saw there a new power to cast out demons, born of his recent victory in the wilderness. Maybe they saw a new depth of compassion, probably beyond any compassion they’d ever known before. Even before the cross, I think his eyes must have held not only the shadow of Good Friday, but everything that made him uniquely himself. And I believe that that included the shadow of Easter as well. Not in the sense that Jesus knew exactly what would happen after he was crucified, though maybe he did – but I think there was a new, unquenchable hope in God, that whatever would happen on Good Friday would not be the final word.
For now, though, Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem, where prophets go to die. And if we want to observe a holy Lent, we have to set our own faces toward Jerusalem, toward the cross. We have to accompany Jesus into the wilderness today, and then once we walk out of the wilderness, we have to set our faces toward Good Friday. We need to keep looking into each other’s eyes, right at that Good Friday shadow. Not trying to fix the shadow or make it go away, even out of genuine love for each other. Lent is not about fixing the darkness, but about sitting with each other in the depths, moving deeper and deeper together. And that’s how we find Jesus – not by trying to scramble up the slick sides on our own, but by following him down into the deepest parts, trusting that he’ll lead us out into the light on the other side. Each Sunday, each day of Lent, we strip away another layer that stands between us and our acceptance and experience of Good Friday, until finally we stand before the cross, undefended. Not because we’ve pretended our way through the story, but because we’ve lived our way into its heart.
It won’t all happen this Lent, for any of us. It will probably take us all our lives really to be able to stand at the foot of the cross totally undefended. But the point isn’t to get there this year so much as to take the next step. Today, it’s our job to walk into the wilderness – intentionally, knowing that it will be hard. Tomorrow, maybe, it will be time for us to face the devil, even though we’d rather not. And the next day, God willing, we’ll walk back out of that wilderness and start moving toward what’s next, toward what’s going to be even harder.
I should warn you – if you cross that threshold today, and let the Spirit lead you into that wilderness, you will come out changed. And that change will not remain secret. It will show in your eyes. Your friends will look into your eyes and see a new shadow there, a deeper knowledge of what awaits on Good Friday. The wilderness is not a safe place, and it does not lead to a safe end. But if we can bring ourselves to go out into the wilderness anyway, and to keep looking at the Good Friday in each other’s eyes, eventually there will be a glimmer of Easter – a glimmer and then a brilliant shining, and love will conquer the danger once and for all.