Of Lenses and Filters and Light (It’s a Photography Metaphor)

Grace has recently become interested in photography, having received a pretty nice digital camera from her grandmother for Christmas. A couple weeks ago, we went to the Butterfly House in St. Louis and she wanted to bring her camera along, but she didn’t have a case for it, so I went down to the basement and dug out my old camera case. It still had my old Canon from that first photography class I took in college. Remember, back when cameras used film? And as I cleaned out the case, I found all the old filters, little bits of glass and plastic that I would put on the lens to adjust for various effects. Like if the sun was particularly bright, I would use one filter, but if it was a cloudy day I would use another. I also found different lenses. I have a macro lens for when you want to take a picture of something really close up, and you want to get the details. I have a wide angle lens for when you want to get the whole picture, but can’t back far enough away to do it. And as I unpacked these and remembered what all they are used for, I thought, this is exactly what the Bible does for us. It gives us all of these filters and all of these lenses, all in one package. All these different ways of hearing about God and learning about God’s activity in the world, and some of the stories are wide angle lenses, and some are macro lenses. Some are the stories we need when it is sunny out, and some are the prayers we want when things cloud up.

But one thing that I have recently discovered, in conversations with individuals, and through the adult class on Monday nights in Lent, is that there is one lens that, as Christians, we all use when we look at Scripture. There is one overriding lens, whether we are going to go up close, or whether we are going to look at the big picture, whether it is good weather or bad. We all read the story of God’s activity in the world, through the lens of the cross. For better or for worse. Good Friday, for a Christian, is at the heart of the story. And what we think happened on Good Friday says a lot about who we think that we are, and who we think that God is.

We could pull out the macro lens and spend some time on the details. There are a lot of details here to dig into. There’s the linguistic details, like the fact that, when Jesus tells the criminal, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” the word paradiso in Greek actually means garden, so what he says is, “Today you will be with me in the Garden,” which is maybe more about returning to a state of being right with God, a state of shalom, of peace, of righteousness, as we were in the Garden of Eden, than it is about heaven. Or maybe it’s the same thing. Or the detail that the centurion says both, “This man was innocent,” and “This man was righteous.” Those are the same word in Greek, which goes along with the thing about returning to the Garden.

There’s the literary details. Like the two criminals hanging beside Jesus might allude back to the first two criminals, Adam and Eve, who were also thieves, stealing from God. And at least one of them is invited back into the Garden, even as Jesus hangs there on the cross. Or the way that Luke is the only Gospel writer to mention that Herod and Pilate were friends after these events, where once they had been enemies. That Jesus is bringing reconciliation, even as he is being condemned to death.

Or there’s the theological details, how Jesus has been accused of catering to outsiders and unworthies throughout his ministry, and here, in this Passion story, it is the women and the criminals who capture his attention. It is the Gentile Centurion who declares his innocence. Or the way that the Temple curtain is torn in two, the curtain that is the last thing that stands between the people and the Holy of Holies, the ultimate sanctuary of God, and it is ripped asunder, and God is loose in the world. 

All these details are part of the big picture, and they give us places to focus, and interesting ideas to chew on, and they can make for good Bible study classes and lead us into all kinds of theories about what God is up to in this event of the cross.

But theories are like those filters. They have a way of working well only in some circumstances. What works on a sunny day doesn’t work so well when it’s cloudy.

Meanwhile,[- there is a big picture here. And we might be in danger of missing that big picture if we spend too much time in the details. So it’s perhaps best to put away the macro lens for the moment and pull out the wide angle. Or better yet, put away the camera altogether. Because this event of the cross is not a subject for our examination, so much as it is an event for us to experience, an invitation for us to engage, a moment around which everything turns, a moment that draws us in, and turns us, flips us on our heads, and sends us out again.

It is the moment when we hear the truth. The truth about ourselves. The truth about you. The truth about me. The truth that I deny God daily. That I, left to my own devices, would turn away from God again and again; that I would give my neighbor up to save myself; that I participate daily in systems of exploitation and slavery; that my concept of power has as much to do with tearing down and destroying as it does with building up and creating; that I look for God in strength and might and fail to recognize God in vulnerability and relationship; that every day that I live, I am busy dying – in my body, in my relationships, in my belief that I can do it all myself, that I do not need anyone or anything else. In short, the truth that I am human, I am broken, and I would have been there with the crowds, shouting “crucify him,” even as I looked around for God to come in glory to save him. That is Good Friday. The realization that we are broken human beings. It comes to us in so many ways – through the broken bodies of our loved ones; through the guilt and shame of broken relationships; through the feeling of weakness and vulnerability of our own broken health and broken hearts. It is where most of us spend our lives. At the foot of the cross, where the light of God’s judgment finds us and shows us for all that we are, and we look around desperately for a shadow in which to hide, for a way to shine that light on someone else, for a way to avoid knowing ourselves that fully. For a cave, a tomb in which to hide, because at least there, we won’t have to face this truth, the truth that the cross tells us about ourselves.

But that is not the only truth that the cross reveals. Because even as it tells us the truth about ourselves, it tells us the truth about God. The truth that God loves us so utterly, so completely, that God, knowing all of these truths about us, knowing how completely broken we are, knowing how desperately we would hide from God, still, God comes seeking us. And still, God gets in our way. Still, God comes to us in weakness and vulnerability, defying human power with divine frailty. Still, God gives God’s only Son for us, pouring his very self out for our sake, not in condemnation, not in punishment, not even as a substitution for our punishment, but precisely so that we would know the truth about ourselves, would know that God knows the truth about ourselves, and so that we would know also that we are forgiven. Forgiven because we know not what we are doing. Forgiven because we don’t know how much we need God. Forgiven because we don’t know that we look in the wrong places for God. Forgiven because we don’t know that we are living lives of Good Friday. We don’t know until God reveals it to us, and forgives us, and gives all that God is, out of love for us.

And these truths transform us. When we see these truths, the truth about ourselves, that we do not know what we are doing; the truth about God, that God knows it and loves us enough to forgive us, that changes a person. It gets into your heart, and it breaks open the tomb, that cave where we have hidden, where we have shied away from the light. It breaks it open and turns it out, so that this day, this Good Friday life, these thousand little breaks, these daily moments of dying, are no longer what rules you. And it is not the details of the story that matter, it is not the snapshot of Good Friday that you must understand and analyze and figure out. It is the movement of your heart, it is the breaking open of the tomb, it is the truth of the cross.

This is Good Friday. This is the cross. It is not a theory, viewed in the details through the macro lens. It is not a filter a tiny bit of story that only works in certain lights. It is not even a lens that opens and shuts, blocking out parts of the story or cutting out shades of the light. 

It is instead the light itself, the revelatory light through which all of the story can be seen. It reveals the truth about God more completely than any other moment in history, the truth that God knows you, completely, that God knows all that there is of you, the good that you would bring into the light, and the bad that you would hide away, out of view of the camera. And that, knowing you, God loves you. God goes to the cross for you. God in Christ pours himself out, in order to reveal the light of God’s love, to draw you, all of you, each of you, out of the darkness, and into the light. Into relationship, into community, into love, into life. Life in the light of the cross.

Palm Sunday – Into the Tension

If you’ve ever tried to knit or crochet, if you’ve ever played a stringed instrument, if you’ve ever fished or tried your hand at archery, then you have experienced first-hand the importance of tension. To get the yarn to run the way that you want, to get the garment to fit right, to coax the perfect pitch out of your instrument, to troll a fish, to pluck a bowstring, all of these require that you have exactly the right amount of tension. Too little and you’re flat, too much and you can’t stretch the bow to notch the arrow.

Today we sit squarely and firmly within the tension of our faith. We begin the day with palms waving, shouting Hosanna!, and remembering Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Yet we are still in Lent. We still hold back our Hallelujahs, even as we shout Hosanna! And we are leaning into Holy Week, leaning toward the passion and the cross, toward death and the grave. We know that one week from today we will be singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” but right now, we can see that there is a long way to go. Right now, we are living in the tension.

I think we might like our faith to be the place where they tensions are resolved, not as a place where they are reiterated and exacerbated. It would be comforting to think that God simply brushes aside all tensions, and ties everything up in a nice neat bow for us, so that we can ignore the tensions of life. But to ignore the tensions of our world would be to ignore the brokenness and the injustice and the suffering and the needs of our neighbors and of our own hearts. To ignore the tensions would be to abandon the world. The world that God loves so much.

So instead of ignoring the tensions, God steps into them. Personally, I find far greater comfort in a God who will join me in these tensions, a God who truly understands what it is that we live through because God has been here, God has lived in this broken world, and died in this broken world, and died for this broken world. Not to resolve the tensions for us, but to teach us how to live freely within them, This is not a God who ignores our experience, brushing it aside as unimportant in God’s grand scheme. This is a God who embraces our experience, all of the tensions of our lives, and carries them for us onto the cross.

Listen for the tensions in the passion narrative that you are about to hear:

         The woman who anoints Jesus for death, even as he lives.

         Judas who sells Jesus for wealth, even as this woman has given all her wealth for Jesus.

         Judas who has betrayed Jesus, yet still kisses him and calls him Rabbi.

         Jesus who knows that he has been betrayed, yet breaks bread with his betrayer;

         Peter, James and John whose spirit is willing, but whose flesh is weak;

         Peter, who wants to stay faithful to Jesus, but cannot stop his denials.

Consider the tensions that we learn in our vocabulary of faith         

Our language about God:

         Fully human yet fully divine, as Paul describes;

         speaking, yet listening, as Isaiah describes;

         entering Jerusalem in triumph, only to die in disgrace, as Mark describes.

Our language about life:

The time is fulfilled and the kingdom has come near, yet we pray again and again for God’s kingdom to come.

Our language about sacrament and community:

Our sins have been washed clean by our baptism, so we are saints, yet we are captive to sin, so we are sinners.

We move each day toward death; yet in Christ, in our baptisms, we have already died, and been raised to new life.

We are isolated, alone, individuals, yet in Christ we are one Body.

Today and over the coming week, you are invited into Christ’s passion. Through the tension of this journey, we come to better understand and appreciate the God who would live with us, die like us, and overcome even the final enemy, drawing new life out of the barrenness of the grave.