A Bitter and Healing Story

Good Friday 2017                                         April 14, 2017

What is it that brings us back to this dark and violent story? What draws us to the tormented figure on the cross, to this grotesque humiliation of human dignity, to this echo and image of every act of torture and degradation? Why do we keep picking at this scab? Are we Christians, as some have suggested, somehow in love with violence and death? Do we take a perverse pleasure in suffering and humiliation?

We humans are shaped by the stories we tell – far more than we realize in this purportedly rational age. Stories are still what feeds our imagination. The stories we heard as children shaped our understanding of the world, our sense of ourselves, our ideas of the possibilities and potentials of life. Stories like Jack the Giant Slayer taught us that even ordinary folk like ourselves were sometimes called to extraordinary things; that it was sometimes necessary to be brave in this life, when things are looking bleak; that sometimes good things happen to humble folk who stick it out. The books we read in school taught us to see the world through others’ eyes, to realize that people different than ourselves could also be people worth getting to know.

Stories continue to shape us as adults. The movies and TV we watch, the books we read, the tales we tell each other, continue to feed our imaginations and form our sense of what is possible and what is good. Some stories nourish our imaginations to keep us healthy: they keep us rooted in the reality of the world, give us a robust sense of who we are, with both our limitations and our innate worth; open us to the experience of others. Other stories are more like junk food for our imagination: they feed us with sugary-sweet, sanitized versions of reality; or they stoke our prejudices and sense of entitlement, leaving us feeling smug or aggrieved. There are many who have a vested interest in serving us junk stories, just as there seem to be many in the food industry who seem to have an interest in serving us junk food. Advertisers, politicians, Hollywood, Disney, the crackpots on the internet, all have their own reasons for selling us junk stories. There are plenty of junk stories out there, and plenty of people whose imaginations have grown weak and flabby and peevish from watching and reading them. The next time you listen to the news, with its depressing litany of violence and intolerance and corruption and just plain stupidity – think beyond the people you are hearing about to the junk stories which they are shaped by, or which they are pedalling to others. The world has grown sick on junk stories.

I believe in the power of stories to shape who we are. While the occasional bit of fluff for sheer entertainment never hurt anyone, we all of us need a steady diet of healthy stories if we are to stay spiritually healthy: stories that will challenge us, stories that will ground us more deeply in the realities of this world; stories that will open us to others; stories that will give us a healthy sense of ourselves, not as better than anyone else, but not worse either, but of true worth. That is one way of looking at what we do here: the church is a place with the responsibility of telling stories that will keep us healthy.

And right at the dark heart of the stories that we tell is this one, the bitter tonic of the story of the cross. How does it shape our imagination, what does it teach us that can keep us healthy?

In my Lent/Holy Week letter I suggested a number of things, a number of ways in which this story exercises the muscles of our hearts to keep them healthy.

This story teaches us compassion. It teaches us to pay loving attention to all who suffer violence and oppression. We live in a world where the scale of human suffering can leave us feeling overwhelmed and indifferent – with the endless litany of suffering that pours out of our radio with every newscast, it is so hard to keep on listening, keep on caring, keep on praying for the victims. Increasingly, we are hearing harsh voices that encourage us to blame the victims so as to spare ourselves the trouble of caring. Compassion is an attitude we need to cultivate consciously, if we are to keep our humanity. And what does this story of the cross teach us but compassion? As we look to the face of the man on the cross, our hearts feel pain. It is a good pain, a healthy pain, because it means we are alive to the suffering of others, because it melts our hardened hearts into warm flesh and blood.

Something else this story can teach us, something we too often forget or suppress: this story ought to teach us anger. Not the aggrieved anger flowing from a sense of entitlement that is so common in our world, and so destructive: but a righteous anger that is the only healthy response to cruelty and brutality and selfishness and greed. Here too we get tired: the selfish and the greedy and the power-hungry in this world are so relentless, they push themselves forward with such a mindless intensity, that we just get tired and start to accept that that’s how the world is. When we tell the story of the cross, whenever we tell a story that forces us to see the face of the victim, that complacency is stripped away, and we are reminded that we have every right to be angry, angry on behalf of all those who are downtrodden by the aggression of others, angry at the selfish half-men who are driving our planet to ruin. This is a holy anger, an anger that fuels our hunger and thirst for justice, and we need to hear stories that will keep it alive.

This story teaches us courage. In a world of terrorism and insecurity, where politicians, media, and advertisers all seem to have an interest in stoking our fear, we need to practise courage, to enter into the experience that dark and difficult things can be faced and overcome. It is the lesson of Jack the Giant Slayer, but we need to be reminded that it applies not just in a never-never land of our childhood, but also in the very real darknesses and fears of our lives.

This story teaches us hope. I am becoming more and more convinced that what our world needs, more than anything, is hope. One only has to listen to the pessimism of teenagers today, pessimism about their own prospects, pessimism about our society, pessimism about the future of the planet. It is hard to fault them: things do look bleak, much bleaker than when we were their age. There is little reason for optimism. But that’s just it: we are a culture that looks for reasons for everything, and when we find none, we are stuck in our pessimism. Which is why hope is so difficult for us: hope is what kicks in when there are no reasons for optimism, hope is what keeps us going despite all appearances.

The story of the cross is a story about hope – precisely because it seems so hopeless. It tells us that God entered, quite deliberately, into the very depths of hopelessness, the hopelessness of human violence and cruelty, the hopelessness of death. Because God has entered even that darkest place, there is no place without hope, no place where new possibilities cannot arise in impossible situations. The resurrection is not some happy end slapped onto a fundamentally tragic tale: it is already there on the cross, hidden in the identity of the one they crucified. When we have said and done all we can, God still has the final word.

In all the clamour of the junk stories that surround us and poison us with their lies, we need to seek out stories that will feed us and build us up, stories that will give us compassion and righteous anger and courage and hope. There is no better place to start than with the cross of Jesus. It is a bitter story to hear; but of all the stories, it is most healing and life-giving.