I suppose the origins for this sermon was in a conversation last Saturday, though I admit I did not real theologizing about it until later in the week. Last Saturday, to refresh our memories, we were in the midst of the parish cleanup. Holly and I were washing windows in the parish hall. John Stokes had invited me again to the Rotary Pancake breakfast, and I had accepted, not realizing the conflict. Now, you all know John. Everybody in Brentwood knows John. Everyone that came by John to say hello got introduced to me. Some paid attention to the “This is our priest,” promptly shook my hand, and took off. Others wanted to talk to a priest. Still others did not hear the priest part. And let’s face it, I was dressed like a cleaner, except for my cross.
One gentleman decided to tell me the story of a lady’s cross. He went into great detail about the origins of her cross. It was made out of dogwood. Her favorite tree had been a dogwood which was killed in the blight or fungus that killed them all thirty years ago. The brother had taken up carving as a way of using the wood. He made the whole family crosses out of that tree. He’s even painted the top of hers to match the bloom. It was a good story of a cross and told a bit about families and memories. Clearly he was impressed by the story of the cross. Then he asked me if mine had one.
Now, many of you know the story of my ordination cross. It survived a run through Chosin Reservoir. The gentleman who gave it to me specifically rejected giving it to family members because I was greater battles. For those of you who do not know the story, ask at another time. Frank had enlisted in the Marines underage, had been sent to Asia, and before that battle at Chosin Reservoir served as an acolyte for an Anglican Eucharist. This cross had been given him by the bishop, and, as far as Frank was concerned, explained as well as anything why he had survived when so many had perished.
It’s a good story. It’s a really good story. It makes carving a cross from the deadwood of a tree seem . . . trivial. But I was not in a mood to be trivializing. I sure did not want to embarrass John or a friend of John’s. Palm Sunday and Holy Week were upon me. So I deflected. I started off with a discussion about how all crosses point to the Cross and the love and heartfeltness we should all feel toward God, particularly this time of year. The comments annoyed a couple people who were listening to his story. You ministers are always so . . . churchy. I am certain the other fellow meant it as a slam, but I am glad he is encountering ministers in his life that are excited about God and the Church and the Gospel. For so long, many of us have been . . . less than excited.
Of course, too much passion can be a bad thing. Some of my colleagues were in a discussion this week. One clergy friend was buying crosses for those being baptized. It was there that he got a lesson in the cross as a fashion accessory. Boy or girl? What color looks best on them? Low cut blouses or high neck colors? As he griped about his experience, others chimed in. I was asked if I wanted one with a little man on it. I was asked why it was so popular to begin with. Clearly, a nerve had been struck, and many had a story to one up each other. One colleague even posted a magazine article, I think it was Glamour but it may have been another fashion magazine, that helped the reader figure out what kind of cross went with every kind of outfit. Apparently, the cross is not the sacred symbol we consider it to be. As an aside, our own Frank says that crosses had become more of a fashion statement that a statement of faith when he retired from the jewelry business.
Then I wondered if the ever was a worldwide symbol of faith. The cross in Rome was a symbol of futility, humiliation, and power. There are other ways to kill people, but crucifixion is particularly drawn out. It goes on and on and on. Heck, we get a sense of that from our readings today. The authorities want the condemned men to die quickly because of the solemnity of the occasion, so they ask Pilate to break the men’s legs and speed their death. Let me state that again, they need Pilate’s permission to speed up the death of the condemned. We can’t have it happen too quickly, else the people will never learn the lesson.
And imagine the lesson for the family members and friends. They get to watch the loved one suffer and die, and they are powerless to do anything about it. What must have been running through the ladies’ minds as they watched Jesus die? What kind of raging futility must have gripped Mary? Was she mad at Rome? At those who conspired against her son? At Pilate? At Jesus for putting Himself in this position? At God, for making her watch on helplessly? And I wonder f maybe there were fear? She had to be worried on some level that maybe she was next. She had raised Him. Where had He gotten these ideas that He was the Messiah? Someone might come looking for her.
Christians quickly adopted the Cross as the standard or symbol of their faith, but the adoption process was not particularly quick nor uncontested. Most of us know that the fish, not the cross, was the figure drawn in the dust to mark a house church in the time before the conversion of Rome. And, let’s face it, when did Christianity ever really truly dominate the world. Sure, we had some prestige in Western Europe. Many of our modern countries trace their existence to some sort of divine providence arising out of those periods. But the world? Movies are out now depicting the missionary activities of the Church in places like Asia or South America. For all our handwringing, I wonder if the Cross was ever the sign or standard that we would like to believe it was. Somehow, given the condition of the world, I doubt it.
I am thankful, of course, that we liturgical Christians focus on the Cross for a few days each year. Unlike our brothers and sisters who chose not to follow liturgical seasons, you and I come face to face with the Cross for a few days every year. Like others, we might convince ourselves that we are the “special” Christians. Like others, we might delude ourselves into believing that our relationship to God means we have a special relationship with rulers. Like others, we might even convince ourselves, or allow ourselves to be convinced, that we are really powerless to change the evil in the world, that we are unfit or impotent to help God with His plan of salvation on earth. For all of what we call Holy Week, you and I and all liturgical Christians (who bother to attend and remember) are called to remember that the Cross was The plan of salvation. The Cross was the means by which God redeemed the world to Himself. The Cross is the means by which we know God’s love for each one of us.
For our more Protestant brothers and sisters, the Cross is strongly (and correctly) identified as the source of their salvation. The Cross becomes that mysterious means by which our mortal, sinful selves were crucified with and died with Jesus. And while this existence is not yet the Resurrection that was begun on Easter morning, it surely is a sign of the hope we have in Christ, a pledge of His power to redeem each one of us.
But the Cross is more than “just” a means of personal salvation. The Cross was a signifier to those early Christians, and to us, that a new reality was bursting in. Rome, the superpower of the day, had put down the leader of this new reality in as cruel and as permanent a way as possible, and still God was sufficient. This new reality, this heavenly kingdom, could not be stopped. Nothing, not even death could stop its determined advance because God was the One empowering it, nurturing it, determining it. It was that sense of things becoming on earth as they were in heaven that caused Christians, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to begin to change the world. It was Christians who began adopting abandoned babies off the trash heaps. It was Christians who began to care for the widowed, the aged, and the infirm. It was Christians that nursed the common people through the plagues. Heck, we like to think we fight about sex now, but it was Rome whose patron goddess was sex even as their patron god was war. Christians, according to non-interested experts, removed the shame that was associated with sex during the empire. To be sure, these changes did not happen overnight. Great numbers of Christians were killed for their willingness to help others. Rome argued that might made right, and they were quick to punish any and all who stood against them. It took three centuries for the empire to begin to convert, at the sign of a cross before a battle I might add, and those “great times” to really begin.
What caused so many normal people to fight that system? What caused so many people to love and serve others into the kingdom? What convinced ordinary people that this life was worth laying down in service of others in a culture that rejected them? The Cross. For so many that cross stood as the symbol of God’s love of the world and all that is therein. The Cross was that wonderful and visible reminder that the world could throw its best and strongest weight at God and that God was still up to the challenge. God was still redeeming the world, one soul at a time, one service at a time, one family at a time, one group of people at a time. And no matter how hard the world resisted, God would win in the end.
Brothers and sisters, we live in an age that is not so different from the age in which our Lord was nailed to the Cross. The poor and homeless are still with us. Disease still ravages us. Slavery still surrounds us and benefits us. Human beings are beaten for no good reason, like sitting on an airplane having bought a ticket. Wars are still happening. Heck, I could give a homily on the injustices of the world, and I am sure I would forget a couple. But the message of the Cross is not just one of personal salvation, as important as that is, but one of molding and shaping us to be heralds of this new order, this kingdom come. All of who we were, who we are, and who we are to be is signified by that rugged tree. And each and every one of us has a role to place in the advancement of God’s kingdom. To be sure, it will not come fully until the Day our Lord returns in glory. But part of our response to the Gospel is to remind people that we are a Resurrected people. We may not look like it all the time yet. We may not sound like it all the time yet. But we are, by virtue of the Cross and empty tomb, a people who can hope, who can serve, who can lay down their lives for others, in loving imitation of the One we rightly call Lord and Master. And through His call on all our lives, we can help change lives, families, systems, governments, and the world. The Cross is not just a fashion statement or means of torture; it is the place where our lives find meaning and purpose.
In Christ’s Peace,