There’s a picture circulating around social media. Whether it’s a real picture of a church sign by the roadside or one that’s been edited, I don’t know, but it sure reads true. It says, “This is the lentiest Lent that ever lented.”
Does that rings true to you? Traditionally, Lent is a time of sacrifice. It’s a time of austerity. It’s a time for letting go of our splurges and indulgences for a more sparse, more simple, pared down version of our lives. We talk about giving up things we like in an exercise of sacrifice and fasting. This Lent, and the physical distancing we have been forced to practice has given us a new level of “giving things up for Lent.”
Lent is also a time, beginning with worship on Ash Wednesday, when we wrestle with our mortality, when we face the truth that from dust we have come and to dust we shall return. I don’t imagine there has been a Lent in most of our memories where this reality has been so prominent in our collective conscious as it is this year when both the local and national news broadcasts begin with an update of the death toll in our region, in our state, in our country, and around the world. This is the lentiest Lent that ever lented. The Rev. Jan Edmiston, the executive presbyter of Charlotte Presbytery, drew the comparison out even farther when she noticed that this week, which some models were showing might be the deadliest week for the pandemic in parts of country, is also our observance of the deadliest week for Jesus.
I’d add it might also be the loneliest – for many of us and also for Jesus. That’s what sticks out to me in the story of the crucifixion – how utterly alone Jesus seems to be. The last we heard from one of his disciples was when Peter denied knowing him, being one of his disciples, in the courtyard of the high priest. Since then Jesus has endured the night of his arrest alone. He has appeared before Pilate, the Roman governor, alone. He stood in front of the crowds who yelled “Crucify him! Crucify him!” alone, without one of his followers, without even his closest disciples standing up with him, or for him, or even just near him. He was alone.
He was alone when the soldiers led him into the palace courtyard.
He was alone when the whole cohort arrived to mock him – draping a purple cloak over his shoulders and a crown of thorns on his head to deride him, striking him with a reed to torture him, spitting on him to humiliate him, kneeling down in a parody of homage to scorn him.
When Simon Peter, one of his disciples wasn’t there, to help him carry his cross to the crucifixion, another Simon was conscripted for the job.
He was alone, except for the two criminals crucified with him, when he was put to death, publicly and painfully, on a cross.
He was alone.
A friend of mine in Little Rock, Arkansas, the Rev. Dr. Robert Williamson, is both a religion professor at Hendrix College and a pastor of a church called Mercy Community Church. It is Mercy Church’s mission to welcome all people, especially those living on the streets of their city, and the majority of their community is made up of people experiencing homelessness. Bobby, the pastor, said in his preaching podcast this week, that this passage, this, the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, is one of the favorites in his congregation. I have to admit, that seemed a bit odd to me when I heard it. I don’t think I could say it’s one of my favorites. It might be an important one, but that’s not the same as a favorite. The crucifixion story is uncomfortable for me as I am forced to ponder where I would be in the story –
in the courtyard denying Jesus with Peter?
alongside Pilate avoiding a chance to change the course, washing my hands of the whole situation, ordering Jesus to death?
with the crowds shouting crucify him?
with the soldiers humiliating him?
with the guilty punished next to him?
The crucifixion story is essential in the story of the good news that Mark sets out to tell, but I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favorites.
But in this particular church, among believers and disciples who live on the streets of Little Rock, Arkansas, people who may have lost ties to their families, who are isolated from or ignored by most of society, who could be held by addiction or who suffer from mental illness, people whose access to systems of education and justice has been lacking – this story is a favorite.
What do they see in it that I can’t?
Well, Bobby says, they see a savior who has been where they are. They see the Son of God who has such deep love for humanity that he is willing to experience every last bit of the human experience, even humiliation, even pain, even loneliness, even death, so that in whatever it is we are experiencing we can know that we are never alone.
We are never alone.
We are never alone.
In our homes in quarantine – we are never alone.
In our sadness about lost opportunities – we are never alone.
In our grief over the deaths of loved ones and ones we will never know – we are never alone.
In our uncertainty about what is next – we are never alone.
In our fear of what could be coming – we are never alone.
In isolation units of hospital wings – we are never alone.
In convention centers turned into field hospitals – we are never alone.
In churches turned into morgues – we are never alone.
In temporary burial sites – we are never alone.
We are never alone.
We are never alone.
The scene at the cross in Mark’s gospel continues on with two more verses after Jesus breathes his last breath and before the evening falls on the day. Here we find out maybe Jesus wasn’t as alone as he felt when he cried out that even God had forsaken him. Mark writes:
“There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the young and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.” (Mark 15:40-41)
It wasn’t perfect, but they were there. They were watching. They were grieving. They were taking it all in so that they could bear witness to his pain and honor it – – so that they could remember it for themselves and to tell the rest of his disciples – – this is the love of our God, love that goes even to death to be with us in every part of our life.
Thanks be to God. Amen.