I am always caught off guard by Holy Week. My own insufficient Lenten discipline is surely in part the cause, and I could say as well that Lent is always for me the season of the fundraising road trip, when I thoroughly enjoy meeting those who love and sustain Concordia, but also when so many places at so quick a pace can cause even the romance of free breakfasts at the Hampton Inn to fade—and when it can be easy to forget that there is a calendar other than the one on my iPhone. Jesus has been making his way to Jerusalem even while I am flying from Phoenix to Reagan National.
But I think my surprise runs deeper than that. Two years ago, when my father died just before Christmas, we had been working—Dad most of all—to get him home, assuming with good reason that he’d live in hospice care for several months. He died on the tenth day. I was in Lorentzsen on a Friday morning, plane ticket ready for a Sunday flight to our hometown, when the hospice nurse called to say, Come now. Dad died while I was in the air. We knew he was dying, but that did not change the hard truth of his death—all too real, all too soon, caught off guard.
Our college was caught off guard ten days ago, when sophomore Lucas Anderson died. All too real, all too soon. At the vigil here last Monday evening, I was taken by the tributes from fellow music students David Jensen and Brianna Drevlow: David telling of Lucas' remarkable—soulful—gifts at the piano, and Brianna insisting in grief that we not turn away from the reality of his death: the cruelty and dread of it, the easy way that addiction can deal us into the hands of those for whom human life is cheap. Equally, I was struck at his memorial service this last Thursday, when his Concordia teacher, Jay Hershberger, who in his eulogy had sustained the weary with a word, insisted that a word is not enough. Though it can never define the lives it claims, drug abuse is real; death from it is real, here, even in the Prairie Home. I heard Jay saying that the Christian response to Lucas’ death would be to face the truth of substance abuse—to embrace the lives who suffer from it, and to battle down its power, asserting the dignity of every soul, made in the image of God.
Dearly beloved, we are not the only ones who suffer. Last Thursday Professor Fanny Roncal Ramirez and her students spoke of their Justice Journey to Peru. Please watch this video from Lutheran World Relief about farmers in another region of that country. Ordered by terrorists to grow coca for cocaine; treated by the military as terrorists themselves, the people tell us: “They bombed our farms, and there were hundreds of bodies floating in the river.” The reach of substance abuse, and the brutal trade that thrives on it, they claim the poor. Last year during Lent, I was in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the city with the highest homicide rate in the world, many of its victims children caught in the crossfire of the drug trade. You will remember political disputes in the U.S. last year during Lent about what we should do to or for the children crossing our southern border illegally. Many of them were running for their lives from the murderous narcos.
And there are other addictions too, common and widespread habits that injure the whole body of creation. One of the things that has become clear on many of the world’s poorest farms is that climate change has made it no longer possible to grow the same crops in the same way for sale or for food as before. In the face of loss, in the face of—let’s call it what it is—violence, we can turn to the Christ who turns his face to Jerusalem, himself a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, one who became “like a broken vessel . . . as they plot to take [his] life” (Ps 31:12-13; NRSV). In Christianity, there can be no denial of the reality of suffering and death.
Jesus’ embrace of our human suffering and death, the Word made flesh walking our darkest path: this is the story of Christ’s passion. I am struck by the fact that in his narrative of the Lord’s Supper, Saint Luke—unlike the other gospel writers—includes the quarreling of the disciples about “which of them was to be regarded as the greatest” (22:24). It sounds like the transcript from a presidential debate. But remember now Jesus’ response, given at the very moment when his own life is to be seized:
The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them. . . . But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. (22:25-27; italics mine)
My assumption is that Saint Luke intends us to see that this is what the supper means, that this is what Christ’s passion is for, that the creation and redemption of the world is at its heart an act not of power but of love.
The lure of division, of anger, and of fear—and the violence they threaten—is all around us, the daily bread of our media, and sadly, of all too much of our political discourse. But the passion of Jesus shows us another way, the way of a radical love that runs deeper than fear, stronger than death. And so even in our grief we make a loving, life affirming response to the death of Lucas Anderson; Lutheran World Relief teaches farmers to grow a new crop in the face of the narcos; the servant Christ, in his perfected love, transforms suffering into new life. “There is no fear in love,” we read in 1 John, “but perfect love casts out fear” (4:18).
What a heritage we have at Concordia College! We are called—here, now—to become thoughtful and informed so that we may influence the affairs of the world, dedicated to the Christian life. In his essay on Christian Liberty, Luther made it fully clear what that life is to be. Set free by the love of God in Christ, Christians
in all [their] works . . . ought to entertain this view and look only to this object—that [they] may serve and be useful to others in all that [they do]; having nothing before [their] eyes but the necessities and the advantage of [their] neighbor. . . . Here [says Luther] is the truly Christian life1.
In just a moment we will sing a great Holy Week hymn, ending with this verse:
Great God, in Christ you set us free your life to live, your joy to share. Give us your Spirit's liberty to turn from guilt and dull despair, and offer all that faith can do while love is making all things new.
Let it be so, suffering and redeeming God. Amen.
1Christian Liberty, ed. Harold S. Grimm (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1957), 28.