Preached in St. Luke’s Chapel at Berkeley Divinity School, Morning Prayer the Friday in the Fifth Week of Lent.
In college, my friends and I would go climbing at the New River Gorge in West Virginia. We’d all pile into my car, which we named “Nutshell” because we could put everything “in a nutshell.”
When you go climbing outside, you buy a guide book to show you the way, both getting to the crag and all the information you need about the crag once you get to there. It used to be that climbing was something passed down entirely orally – you learned about places by going with someone who already knew or discovered it. But as the old timers started becoming old timers, folks started writing it down so you could follow the script to get to the crag.
We woke up one morning at our campsite at the Gauley River put-in, surrounded by white water rafters, sharing the kind of respect that only crazy outdoor types have for each other, “What y’all do is crazy.” (But really anyone who dares to come face to face with Creation is crazy, right?)
We carefully packed our bags, inventorying our gear, checking against the guidebook to see if we have grabbed enough quickdraws and carabiners, if our ropes would be long enough for what we hoped to climb, filling water bottles and packing extra ClifBars. And we set off to the trail. The guide book didn’t mention what kind of trail it was (or rather, no one bothered to read it out to me). When we got there I found out it was the clearing between those giant double poled power lines, and it was a series of five steep hills before the scramble to the lakeside. It was the kind of thing that left you utterly exhausted before you even got to the place where the hard work was going to begin.
Here we are standing at what is probably the last corporate worship any of us will participate in before Holy Week begins on Sunday. We look back on those five hills we’ve climbed to get here, we think about our Lenten fasting and everything we have packed.
On our way, we saw the devil try to dance with Jesus, trying to tempt Jesus away from the journey on which he was embarking for all of Creation.
We saw Nicodemus come to Jesus in the shadow of night, and we saw Jesus shine the brightest light on him, the whole of the story, “that God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son.”
We heard the voices of the Samaritan woman and Jesus echoing softly off the sides of the walls of the well, and we heard her heavy fast footsteps as she ran into town, toward the very people who hated her, to proclaim that she found the Messiah.
We heard the splashing of the blind man in the pool of the Sent, saw the mud running down his face, and we heard him tell the doubters, “Listen, I know what I know. And I know that I once was blind, and now I’m not. And that man must be a man of God.”
And we’ve been to Martha and Mary’s house, which probably still to this day smells like the ancient version of a middle school locker room — death and waaaay too much perfume. God bless Martha, always having to clean up after her stinky siblings.
So we’re standing here at cusp of Holy Week, pilgrims on a holy way with packs on our backs, and we catch our first glimpse of the crag, that first glimpse of what is to come this week. It’s our Psalmist who sees it first, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22).
We know what’s coming ahead of us this week. We have the guide book. We know that we will pay homage to the joy of our King entering the city! We’ll wave and shout! Hope has come! The world will never be the same!
…And we’re right – the world won’t be the same. Moments later in the liturgy it will feel like it’s all crashing down on us when our Hope is put to trial. We’ll leave in crushed silence.
And we’ll wait. Jesus will eat with friends, he will be troubled knowing that one so close and dear and loved by him will betray him, and he’ll kneel down and wash their feet anyway.
As the sun starts to set on our journey, we’ll come to Good Friday. Our Salvation will be nailed to the tree. And the sun will set behind the big wall of rock.
Darkness will come. We stand exposed, night is coming and we start to feel the evening chill set in, we grasp for light but our headlamp has burned out and we’ll grope around panicked and aching and feeling as though we have been left utterly alone. The trauma and grief are real, even as we revisit them on our pilgrimage — our naked humanity is hard to stare down in the face.
But then a spark. A new fire will crackle. And that light will grow and Joy will rise in the morning. And “the afflicted shall eat and be satisfied” and we will Praise the Lord.
We know how this pilgrimage will end, because we have the guidebook. We’ve been here before.
And maybe part of what we’re packing on this journey which we maybe haven’t brought before is this world near us which seems to be a bit more broken than usual, or that maybe we’re more tuned into it. But it seems that we’re packing that in our bags and bringing it all on our Holy Week pilgrimage so that we can lay it at the foot of the cross and Easter can come upon it and upon us. At least I hope.
But ready yourselves for the journey friends, and open yourselves to transformation that comes in the way of the cross. May you find it none other than the way of life and peace. Amen.