March 21, 2021 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

I walked the Via Delarosa, the Way of the Cross in the Old City of Jerusalem during the second Intifada.  Traditionally throngs of Christian pilgrims make this pilgrimage along the stone streets of the Old City to both retrace and experience for themselves the final journey of Jesus.  The practice began very early, probably in the third century and it is most popular during the weeks of Lent, leading up to Holy Week and Good Friday.

A small group of us wandered the streets, looking for Roman numerals carved in stone which marked each of the 14 stations from the time Jesus was arrested until he was laid in the tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  We passed a lot of shops that were closed.  We looked up to see soldiers with automatic guns stationed along the walls.  The air was tense with the threat of violence and fear of the other.  Fresh conflict between Arab Palestinians and Israeli Jews had created further division, suppressed the economy and heightened centuries-long trauma.

This year, for the second year in a row, few Christian pilgrims will travel to Jerusalem to walk the Way of the Cross.  Ongoing conflict and the global pandemic have made it too dangerous.  The Way of the Cross, like so much of our world has gone virtual.

This week I led a group of the Companions of the Holy Cross through the Way of the Cross via Zoom and YouTube, using the beautiful stations from our own St. Mark’s Cathedral that were recorded a year ago.  We followed the officiant as she moved around the sanctuary, stopping at each of the powerful bas relief sculptures depicting the three times Jesus fell, the women of Jerusalem, the cross and tomb.  After every prayer and reading, we took time to reflect and pray.

Just as in all the pilgrims who have gone before us, we carried with us our sins and sorrow.  We brought our own wounds and the wounds of our world with us.  They weigh us down, just as the heavy cross weighed upon our Lord.

What Jesus carries along that way, is our pain.  He carries the anger and violence of the powerful who strike at others out of their insecurity and rage.  He shed sweat, tears and blood with the women, not just of Jerusalem, but of every place and time who suffer rape, violence, kidnapping, murder, discrimination and harassment.   He carries the grief of his mother and all who hold vigil at the death of a dear one, powerless and inconsolable.  He carries the consequences of discrimination, oppression, racism and injustice on his body.  His are the wounds of the slave, the marks of the victim of domestic violence, the trauma of the abused, the shock of the one caught up in a disaster, the despair of the betrayed, the anguish of one denied and despised, the burden of the shamed.

He suffers.  He is afraid.  His soul is troubled.

Those who treat people in pain talk about stages of recovery from trauma.  First there must be safety, deliverance from the violence, control of the virus, shelter from the storm.  This is followed by a period of recovery.  Finally we are able to find some meaning out of the suffering.

But for Jesus, the meaning of his suffering and death preceded it and carried him through it.  He carried the weight of pain knowing that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

John’s gospel makes it very clear, Jesus doesn’t just sacrifice his life or simply give up.  His life is lifted up on the cross.  In fact it is glorified.  And with him, we too are lifted up.   Our pain, suffering and sorrow is transformed.  We are never alone in our trauma for he promises, “Where I am, there will my servant be also.”  We do not have a savior who is above us but rather one who has suffered as we have and has borne our every pain.

This doesn’t mean we don’t have a complicated relationship to the theology of the cross.  As Mother Hillary explained last week, simply viewing the cross as the transaction whereby Jesus pays the debt of all our sins to appease an angry God, reduces and negates the deep significance and meaning.

For Jesus and for his followers throughout the ages, the cross is where the world’s pain and sorrow meet the love, mercy and grace of God.  And love wins. Light shines in the darkness.  The ruler of the world is driven out.  Death is vanquished.

And yet, we are still suffering.  With the ongoing global pandemic we are still in the phase of disillusionment and despair.  Not enough of us are safe in order to move fully into recovery.  We are still in a crisis of racism and xenophobia.  The lives and psychological well-being of Black, Indigenous, Asian and other people of color are still at risk.

Closer to home the crisis of poverty, inequity, addiction and mental illness have combined to increase homelessness all over our state and city, including across the street in Ballard Commons Park.  Many are suffering.  Many are traumatized.  The church has been both a sanctuary and a target during these difficult times.  Many have come to the church for food, respite, kindness and assistance.

A couple have lashed out at the church and the staff from a place of mental illness, addiction and trauma.  One man, believing the church owed him tithes and offerings and suffering from both mental illness and drug withdrawal, attempted to break down the glass doors to Bennett Hall.  He was stopped before he entered but the repairs took months and cost thousands of dollars.

Another man, suffering from some form of mental illness and compulsion has covered every available white surface with intricate writing with a Sharpie in a language other than English.

Recently a familiar Ballard, homeless resident attacked our Groundskeeper, broke windows and got into the lobby of Bennett Hall and then spray painted our buildings and grounds in 35 places.

These have been traumatic events.  There has been a physical, emotional and economic impact on our community.  There is pain, sorrow, anger, disillusionment and fear.  It has been clear that there is no one from SPD to the courts, to mental health providers to social service agencies who are able to save us or to save the troubled individuals who perpetrated the violence and destruction.

Of course I have asked myself, “What does it mean to follow Jesus in this situation?”  “What is the best course of action?”  “How are we to respond?”

My first priority has been to insure, as much as possible, the safety of those who live and work on our campus.  Thankfully we already had many safety procedures in place and good relationships with many in the community.  In every case the persons responsible for violence and damage have been removed from the area and the buildings and grounds have been repaired and cleaned.  We have cooperated with law enforcement, the King County Prosecutor’s office, mental health case workers, local officials and community members to advocate for treatment and if necessary, incarceration for those who a danger to themselves and others.

Without safety for all involved, there can be no recovery, no ability to make meaning of what we have experienced.  And yet, we already have the Way of the Cross, the Way of Jesus to lead us through this trauma and the pain and suffering we experience.  We know that it is the way of love.  The way to love and care for the mentally ill and addicted is to help them find a place of safety, of recovery and treatment.  The way to care for those without shelter is to build affordable housing.  It is not the way of Jesus to turn away from suffering, to avert our eyes, harden our hearts, and shut ourselves off.

We may do so for a time.  Certainly the disciples of Jesus scattered to the 4 winds after his death.  They lost hope.  They gave up the dream.  They hid or tried to return to their former jobs and security.

But their lives had already been changed beyond any return.  Jesus continued to dwell in their hearts.  Their spirits were now animated by the Spirit of Jesus.  The words of Jesus were confirmed as they experienced his resurrected life.  They had experienced great sorrow and they were certain to experience great suffering if they continued to follow him, but they had discovered the abundant life of Christ and so they turned around.  They went back to Jerusalem.  They remembered his promises and the world was transformed.

Dear ones.  This has not been an easy year for anyone.  There has been so much pain, sorrow and trauma.  We have a ways to go to be safe and to recover.  We will continue to do so.  In the meantime, we already have a way to make meaning of all we have experienced.  It is the Way of Jesus, the Way of the Cross that leads to eternal life.  It is where our pain is transformed.  It is where our sorrow turns to joy.  It is where our despair turns to hope.