Call to Worship/Isaiah 25:1-10 (NRSV)
O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.
For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt.
Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you.
For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.
When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm, the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place, you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds; the song of the ruthless was stilled.
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain.
O God, in creation you fashion us in your image, in Christ you reveal to us your love, through the Holy Spirit you welcome us into the fellowship of believers; we bow in humility and gratitude before you. We consistently distort your image, but still you restore it. We daily betray your love, but still you extend it. We often disrupt our fellowship with one another, but still you bless it. Come to us at this time, O Lord, that your image in us might be revealed, your love for us returned, and our fellowship in Christ renewed. Amen.
Scripture Lesson/John 19:38-42 (NRSV)
38After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 39Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden, there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
There were many witnesses to the events which took place on that hill outside Jerusalem two-thousand years ago. An angry crowd gathered to be certain that their verdict of “guilty” be carried out in the sentence of death by crucifixion. A small group of the condemned man’s followers milled about the crowd; still in shock over the injustice being meted out, many of them kept their identity secret to protect themselves from a similar fate. And some had to be there—those responsible for tending to the necessary tasks which went along with an execution.
But there were other “witnesses” as well, ones we don’t usually think about, although they were even closer to the events than the crowd. In fact, they actually participated in those events in unique ways. They are the Silent Witnesses. If only these things could speak! What might they tell us about the events from their viewpoint? Today, we will hear from The Shroud.
I know that you have already heard from other silent witnesses. Perhaps you even found their accounts fascinating. It seems to me that some of them would be hard to believe. I guess I would difficulty accepting them as accurate too, except for the fact that I also participated in that climactic event. If I hadn’t been so close to the events myself…well, maybe I better just tell you what happened.
I came from humble beginnings. After being scattered along with many other flax seeds, I grew to be a slender, straight flax plant with beautiful blue flowers. It’s difficult to match the natural beauty of the flowers of the earth, even the flowers of plants that many consider to be weeds. It’s also amazing what changes can take place that make the common precious, the average valuable, and the simple elaborate. That’s what happened to me.
I started out as a simple weed in the fields, but I was selected, along with many others, to be carefully prepared for a special purpose. You see, with the proper care and preparation, what seems to be no more than a somewhat attractive weed in the fields can be turned into a gift fit for a queen. I had wondered as I grew if I would ever become more than I was. I was so excited to have been literally picked and then woven into linen. That’s what they do with flax: make it into linen.
It may surprise you to know that linen is often as fine and smooth as silk with a beautiful shine and amazing tensile strength. That comes about by all the individual plants properly prepared and working together. Through all the spinning and weaving, plants become threads and threads become an eye-pleasing and robust piece of linen.
Someone has commented that people could take a lesson from us flax plants. It has been said that some folks are simply happy to grow tall and allow their blossoms to bloom for all to see. The sad part is their unwillingness to allow themselves to be gathered with others of our kind to become even more beautiful and quite useful. For some it is difficult to give of themselves in that way, but what a difference when the spinning and weaving are finished! But becoming a piece of linen is only part of the miraculous change and use made of former flax plants. Once the change has taken place through the skilled hands of spinners and weavers, there are several ways we can be used.
Linen was often used to adorn the tables in palaces during the grand banquets that are commonplace among the titled and wealthy. Linen is often used as wall hangings, displayed for all to appreciate its beauty. Other pieces of linen are to cover the bodies of those who can afford us. You see, linen is not only pleasant to the eyes but cool as well. And in this part of the world, cool is in great demand!). So, as you can see, it is one thing to be transformed from flax into linen, but then there is the anticipation of how that linen will finally be used. Personally, I had hoped to be a fine garment for a member of the royal family or one of their courtiers or attendants. Then again, I guess I’ve always had high expectations, especially considering my humble beginnings as a weed in the field.
Apparently, my imagination got the best of me. I had set my hopes way too high. When I found out what I was going to be used for, it was a real blow to my ego—that is, if a piece of fabric can have an ego. Maybe I should just tell you what happened.
A man named Joseph—I believe he mentioned that he was from Arimathea—came into the shop, asking for a piece of linen. At first glance, I was excited. I knew it was my turn to be sold since I was on top of the stack. This man Joseph was well dressed so I assumed that he was a person of high standing and quality. Listening closely, I learned that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, which was the Jewish ruling council. The Sanhedrin was a panel of seventy elders who made important decisions related to the faith life of the Jewish people. Knowing that, my mind raced with thoughts of adorning a fine table, or a wall hanging—a conversation piece for all who might enter his home. Or maybe I would be custom tailored into a garment for him or his wife or one of his family members. I was about to become famous! In some ways, I was right…but, in another way, I was wrong as well.
This man, Joseph, told the shop keeper that he needed a piece of linen to be used as a burial shroud. Can you imagine the cold, drafty, damp feelings that shot through my fibers at that moment? Here I had seen myself as an important part of nobility or royalty, only to discover that I was to be wrapped around a corpse and buried away in a dark, damp tomb, never to be seen or appreciated ever again.
How utterly degrading! I wished I had been left in the field to die and go to seed. At least then I would have served a purpose and would have left my mark on the face of the earth for a season. But to be stuck away in a hole wrapped around a decomposing body was more than egregious to my hopes and dreams.
I was purchased and taken by Joseph from the shop. A short time later, we met up with a man named Nicodemus, another member of the Sanhedrin. He and Joseph seemed pensive, nervous, ill at ease with the situation. I found out later that what they were about to do with me could get them into a heap of trouble with the other members of the Council. This couldn’t be happening! Being stuck in a whole, wrapped around a dead body for eternity, and used for some clandestine purpose?! Ugh!
Nicodemus had bought about a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes. It was the custom at that time to wrap a body in linen and place spices and aloes between the layers. This was to somewhat preserve the body—at least keep it from smelling as bad as it might. Hmm. Who’s thinking about me in all this? What if I’m allergic to these spices? Will I be destined to rot in a grave, surrounded by foreign substances from which I might suffer ill effects? What will I do? Benadryl hasn’t been invented yet! Just when I was getting over the shock of learning of my destiny as the graveclothes for some dead person, things got worse. I was set on the ground so the two men could get the body I was to be wrapped around. The body was hanging on a cross, the Roman’s preferred method of capital punishment. I was to wrap the corpse of a criminal who had been crucified! Why didn’t they just toss him into the pit off the side of the hill, letting his body become food for carrion birds or wild dogs or jackals like they did with all the others who had been crucified? After all, criminals in my time weren’t entitled to a proper burial. They were considered to be less-than-human, dying a slow, painful death and then discarded like common refuse, their bleached bones scattered across the trash heap the only reminder that someone had died. Why was this “criminal” special? Why was he deserving of a proper burial? He didn’t look special; he just looked dead. Well, they struggled to get him off the cross and then hurriedly began to wrap me around him as if it had to be done within a tight deadline. Get it, deadline? Sorry…about that. Anyway, the Jewish custom was to use strips of linen with the layers of myrrh and aloes in between.
Remember how I told you at the beginning of my story that I was unique, in that I had come from being a simple plant into fine linen? Do you remember that I also mentioned that I had high hopes of being used for noble purposes and that I had given up hope of anything like that ever happening? Well, I don’t know how to explain it, but when the body of the crucified man first touched me, there was a sensation that passed through all of my threads and bridged the gaps in my weave. It was though I was being fused into one solid mass with beauty and strength beyond that of even the finest linen, supple and soft like the flesh of a newborn baby. I hadn’t expected that. The idea of touching a corpse was ghastly to me, but as I was wrapped around him, I began to understand that this was indeed, someone special. This wasn’t the body of the average criminal who was crucified. This was someone with special powers or a special purpose. There was no doubt that he was dead, yet there was a sensation within me that made me feel alive, stronger than I had ever been.
It was the weirdest moment of my life. Suddenly, I felt that being able to touch this man and serve as his burial shroud was far more important that any other use I could have ever imagined! I knew that I had been set apart from the time I was shooting up out of the earth as a sprout in the field. I was not just one of the flaxes of the earth; I was a small part of something much bigger, something magnificent, something profound. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that something as simple as I could be put to such an important use. I couldn’t explain it; I just knew it. I could feel it through every fiber of my being. Eventually Nicodemus and Joseph finished their task. I was bound tightly around the body. There was no movement, no breathing, no trace of a heartbeat. It seemed to me such a wasteful pity. I had no idea who this man was, but if in death he had the power to affect me as he did, can you just imagine what he could have done for others when he was alive?
It’s probably not my place to second-guess God, who created this power-filled man and who even created me as simple flax. But how grateful I am that God saw fit to allow me, a humble piece of linen, to encounter such a life-changing person as this crucified one. Even though I was confused about all these events, there was a sense of confidence and security as I was privileged to hold his precious body resting in death. Even though I knew that he was truly dead, there was a feeling that something wasn’t finished, a feeling that there was more to come, a sense of excitement that doesn’t usually accompany death and its feelings of grief.
I became content to accept the role that I was given in this story, realizing that I did have a small, yet important purpose. We were moved into a freshly hewn grave—the crucified one and I, that is—and placed on a flat, shelf-like slab of rock. The setting sun’s last rays became hidden as they sealed us tightly by rolling a large, heavy stone into place across the tomb’s entrance. Darkness, quiet, and emptiness surrounded us. We lay motionless for a couple of days, and then…I don’t know if I dare even say it.
We were lying as still as death itself…and I felt a movement. Wait a minute, what moves in a grave? I supposed that it was another earthquake. We had experienced several of them that day before being placed in the tomb. The movement was slight at first. It was a tugging and straining against me. It was as thought the body I held was trying to expand, as if breath were to re-enter it. It was a rhythmic movement, as though the silenced heart were pumping once again. Yes, that was it—it was movement, life! I had no sooner realized what had happened, I found myself alone and laying on the slab—the corpse, gone. I was still wrapped with the myrrh and spices, but I no longer surrounded his body. Something beyond the imagination had occurred, something I can’t begin to explain. I can only tell you as an eyewitness: it happened! And I, a simple flax plant transformed into linen, had been transformed into a shroud, not of death, but life. I didn’t give life to the crucified one, mind you, but I was allowed to serve him by holding him only as long as he chose to be held. He was never really bound, by linen and spices, or even death itself. And now, so I hear, neither are you! He is free from that which held him. And so are you! I used to think death was the end. But now, I see, it’s only the beginning.
Jesus, remember us when you come into your kingdom.
Hear us as we pray.
For your church around the world, we ask new life.
For all who carry out ministries in your church, we ask grace and wisdom.
For Christians of every land, we ask new unity in your name.
For those who cannot believe, we ask your faithful love.
For governors and rulers in every land, we ask your guidance.
For people who suffer and sorrow, we ask your healing peace.
Let us pray in silence for those near to our hearts
Holy God, your Word, Jesus Christ, spoke peace to a sinful world and brought humanity the gift of reconciliation by the suffering and death he endured. Teach us who bear his name to follow his example. May our faith, hope, and compassion turn hatred to love, conflict to peace, and death to eternal life, through Christ Jesus, our Lord who gifts us with these words:
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
Blessing/Benediction (based on Philippians 4:7, NRSV)
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord; and the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, remain with you always. Amen.