174a Hoylake Road
Good Friday Morning
Too much Spring
John 18 v 1 – 19 v 42
A Russian cosmonaut who had just returned from circling the earth in his spacecraft was welcomed back in Moscow where he was the guest of honour. After the meal, the cosmonaut got up to make a speech. “I can confidently proclaim there is no God! For I have just returned from the heavens and I did not find God!” He sat down to thunderous applause. Amidst the cheering, an old Orthodox priest turned and whispered to him “My friend, if you have not found God on earth, how do you expect to find Him in heaven?”
We began our Holy Week journey on Sunday by identifying Jesus as one who shares with us this “season of fatigue”. In this most strange of times, we admitted that this Easter we may no longer expect a miracle but will seek to “patch together a content of sorts”. As the week has gone on, we have seen in the words of Jesus, but above all in his pattern and example, an acknowledgement that he is there for us in this time of “staying at home”, calling us to our humanity, to encounter the divine light of Christ in each one of us as a unique gift and in our personal encounter with the other person to whom we are asked to minister as Christians, one by one at any moment.
Yesterday I woke to a beautiful sunny spring day. From outside my study window I could see the early morning sun light up the apple blossom on the manse tree. The birds were singing, and from my lockdown I ventured to the back lawn and looked up to “that tent of blue the prisoners call the sky”: no patterns from the polluting wake of jet planes, just pure blue. “I see skies of blue, and clouds of white; the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night; and I say to myself what a wonderful world.” Two hours later and a drive through the empty roads of Liverpool (a necessary journey before you phone the police, as you will see), I arrived at my destination. There were daffodils by the roadside. The birds were still singing, but with a Scouse accent. What a wonderful world!
And then the hand gel. The social distancing. For this was a crematorium, and the journey was to allow me to conduct the service of a former elder in my pastorate, a beautiful lady who had died in a Liverpool hospital without the comfort of her family by her side (though I know the wonderful nurses ensured she did not die alone alone). Some of you may have sadly experienced such funeral scenes already – the seats miles apart, the number of mourners limited to ten people, the lack of hugs and handshakes when they are most needed. A beautiful world outside, spring at its most glorious, the promise of nature awakening again. But inside the crematorium were ten grieving people. As the heartbroken Cio-cio-san laments in Madama Butterfly, troppa luce è di fuori, troppa primavera. Too much light, too much spring.
“My friend, if you have not found God on earth, how do you expect to find him in heaven?” It is not easy to find God on earth. When I wrote the original version of this sermon, I was at a computer in my room at CMC Vellore’s campus. The smell of mimosa and jasmine wafted through the open window. And I said to myself, what a wonderful world! So, I decided to begin a prayer exercise that David Adam recommends: “Think of a tiny part of God’s creation, a flower or a pebble glistening after the rain and reflect on the mystery and beauty of God in creation.” And at that very moment a large mosquito settled on my hand! Too much spring.
There was a chorus we used to sing at Scripture Union camps called “Have you seen Jesus my Lord?” I still remember the lines: “Have you ever looked at the sunset, seen the sky all cloudy and red? Then I say you’ve seen Jesus my Lord.” Really? A century ago, there was a theological and political movement in the USA that predicted that 1900 would see the start of a golden age. Then came the Great War. How often have we heard our leaders herald a new era of prosperity only to have our dreams and hopes shattered? Brexit? We have got through that! What can stop us now? And in December in a wet market in Wuhan (wet markets are dangerously familiar to Leslie and me in Navotas, which is why I send my father there to bring back the live shellfish) a bat’s droppings containing a little virus is transmitted to a pig (perhaps) and then to just one human. Two months later, in Japan the cherry blossom was about to put on its show of annual colour: the famous sakura-fubuki, the snowstorm of cherry blossom falling from the cherry (sakura) trees. By that time the virus had taken hold and Japan was in lockdown. Nobody was there in the parks to see it. Too much spring.
From Auschwitz to the Twin Towers, from the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge to the destruction of the tsunami and now coronavirus, creation is not enough. Remember Pilate’s words as he showed the baying crowd the tortured Jesus: Ecce homo. Behold the man! And I am reminded of a painting by one of my favourite artists, Paul Nash, who served in the Great War and saw the horror of the trenches. When he returned, he painted a bleak canvas: a landscape stripped of all grass; just mud and burnt trees remained. He titled the painting, “We are making a new world!” To quote one of George MacLeod’s prayers: “Always in the beauty, the foreshadowing of decay. The lambs frolicking careless: so soon to be led off to slaughter. Nature red and scarred as well as lush and green. In the garden also: always the thorn.” Yes, too much spring.
Yet today, in spite of all that we are or all that we have failed to be, that is not the end of the story. There is an answer that comes in the very ending of our false optimism that gives us back our true humanity, redeems us and tells us that even in the godlessness of a thousand individual tragedies, God has not abandoned us. The Orthodox priest was indeed right. We can find God on earth.
For various reasons, I do not wish to repeat in full the story of my experiences of the Dunblane shootings on 13 March 1996 [included in the original Vellore Good Friday sermon in 2005]. It is in the past now. But I was too close to it, driving home from a school near Perth that morning when I heard the first sketchy news on the radio. One of the policemen in my Perthshire village was the ballistics expert who had to enter the school gym whilst the bodies were still there; and some of the relatives lived in my village. That night I visited the aunt and uncle of a six-year old girl shot dead. There was nothing I could say.
“My God, my God! Why hast thou forsaken me?” It is another way of saying “Where is God?” Where was God on 13 March 1996 in that school gym in Dunblane? Where was God when the Jews went singing psalms into the gas chambers of Auschwitz? Where was God on 26 December 2004 when the first waves came crashing ashore in the beautiful coastal fishing villages of Tamil Nadu I knew so well? But the message of today is not one of total desolation. The message of today is that when humanity did its worst and broke God, and when nature turned into a violent mother, then God entered the very depths of our human suffering. Today we mark the death of God. In Graham Kendrick’s words (a hymn that could not have been conceived a hundred years ago) “hands that flung the stars into space to cruel nails surrendered: this is our God.” Behold the man! What we have done, or what nature has done, is only half of today’s story. Behold also God!
There is something missing in Leasowe this Easter: the circus big top. Every Easter holiday, a travelling circus arrives at Leasowe. One year, I might go to recreate childhood memories! The acrobats, the trapeze artists, the jugglers – above all, the clowns. (Church members at Moreton do not need to go. They have a clown in their pulpit most Sundays.) I am fascinated by the long history and culture of clowns, and stories that are retold in various European traditions. A famous French clown (the story is told in many forms, but we will call him Coco) was at the height of his powers about 150 years ago. People who managed to get tickets to see him perform would laugh until their sides ached. At the same time there lived a young orphan girl who had lost both her patents in a house fire. She had made a good recovery (we will call her Mary) except for one thing – Mary could not, or would not, laugh. It became such a concern to her aunt and uncle looking after her that they took her to the local doctor. “I think I can help. Next week, the circus is in town and Coco the clown will be performing. Here – take these ringside tickets! I promise you that Mary will laugh!”
Indeed, Coco got to hear the story of the young girl who could not laugh. He secretly vowed to give Mary the performance of his lifetime. And he did. As an Italian clown puts it in Pagliacci, Vesti la giubba e la faccia infarina. La gente paga, e rider vuole qua. (“Put on your costume and apply makeup to your face. The people pay and they want to laugh.”) The audience howled with laughter as Coco pulled off his best tricks and stunts. But Mary from her ringside seat did not even smile. Coco saw this and tried even harder, pulling out everything he knew until the sweat was running down his face. From Mary – nothing. Utterly drained and empty, Coco slumped on the sawdust, breathless, the clown’s makeup ruined. He was a broken man. The audience fell silent. Then Coco began to sob, quietly at first but then louder and louder. And then – another sound. A faint giggle at first, then a chuckle and then a laugh until finally the big top was filled not with the sound of Coco’s sobbing but with a girl’s laughter. It was Mary. She had not laughed at the clown’s performance. But when the great clown was broken, finished, emptied of all he knew and was, Mary could learn to laugh – and live again.
There is our God! For our humanity to be saved from a never-ending cycle of hell and godlessness and evil, Jesus’ ministry is not enough. Like the clown, he has entertained; he has healed; he has preached; he has told jokes; he has made us laugh; he has made us cry. But that is not enough. Vesti la giubba, Jesus. Put on your crown of thorns. The stage of Calvary is set. For only by taking on our death can God redeem and bring us back to where we belong, beyond Spring (we have had too much of that, for sure) to a season of eternity. Only by the breaking of that eternal bond with the Father can the Son, the second Adam, call us back to be the children that God has made us to be. And in that awfulness, in that brokenness on the cross, as in the tears of the clown, we who dare to watch can learn to laugh and live again.
Where was God in that school gym in Dunblane? Where was God when the tsunami took away a little girl, Deepika, from her parents as they watched from the balcony of their house? Deepika, her back turned to the sea, did not even see the wave. On a Sunday morning, she was playing as children love to do in the sand, making sandcastles and chortling happily away. They never found her body. I met the family. They did not even have a photo of 6-year old Deepika. (That is another story I do not want to tell again in full; suffice to say when our college project received a national award for our small efforts in the tsunami relief operation, we dedicated the award to Deepika.) On a bright spring day in March, where was God in that Liverpool hospital side room when Audrey breathed her last, without her family at her side?
With the fragile confidence of someone who has caught a glimpse of a godless Good Friday to see the light dawn on an Easter miracle, I will tell you. God was in the gym with those children at Dunblane. God was with Deepika when the waves broke over her. God was in that hospital side room in hospital with Audrey. And when Deepika gasped her last breath, and when Audrey’s heart finally stopped, God’s was the first of our hearts to break.
This then is the real message of today. God has been here. And in his brokenness and godless death, we shall one day learn to laugh and live again. The show must go on.
And lambs grown sheep are no more slaughtered:
And even the thorn shall fade
whole earth shall cry glory at the marriage feast of the lamb.