|Today’s scripture readings:
1 Corinthians 1:18-24
|Sermon audio unavailable|
In the fourth century, Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, led some archaeological digs in Jerusalem, which uncovered what she and others believed to be the actual cross on which Jesus was crucified. That cross was displayed in Jerusalem for people to see on Good Friday, and splinters of it were sent as relics to churches throughout the region. At the site of one of the excavations in Jerusalem, the Emperor Constantine built a church, and that church was dedicated on September 14, 335. So today, on a September 14th nearly 1700 years later, we mark this anniversary by celebrating the festival of Holy Cross Day.
On a day when the cross is at the center of our worship, we should pause to consider how absurd the Christian faith really is. Think about it. We Christians are people who claim that the most important thing that ever happened in the history of the world is the humiliating death of a poor Jew at the hands of a colonizing empire. The central symbol of our faith, the cross, is the ancient equivalent of the electric chair. At the heart of our religion is an event that seems to reveal weakness and failure. There’s no getting around it. Our faith is absurd.
The absurdity of our Christian faith became even clearer to me over the past few days. As if their gruesome beheadings of American journalists weren’t enough, this week photos emerged on social media showing that members of ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, have begun crucifying—yes, crucifying—those who oppose their growing influence in the region. Every Sunday here in church we are surrounded by crosses—beautiful, ornate crosses: at the front of the procession that calls us into worship, on the mural painted above the high altar in the chancel, on the front covers of your hymnals, on the stained glass in our windows, traced on our bodies at key moment in the service. I wonder sometimes if we have so sanitized the cross that we forget what a horrifying event it represents. Seeing the photos ISIS posted on the Internet this week, I was reminded of the horror of the cross. And I was reminded how strange and even offensive it is that our religion puts a crucified man front and center. We ought to be sick to our stomachs.
The message of the cross has been difficult to comprehend from the very beginning. In today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul acknowledges that his proclamation of Christ crucified is a “stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” In Paul’s time, the Jewish people were longing for a mighty and powerful messiah who would crush their Roman colonizers and bring about political liberation. The Gentile Greeks valued wisdom and philosophical reason above all else. Both groups had their own ideas about what God’s work should look like—and a dead man on a cross wasn’t it.
Things haven’t changed that much in 2,000 years. Many of us, like the Jews of Paul’s time, think we know what God’s work in the world is supposed to look like. God is the source of victory and prosperity, and where God is present there are abundant blessings. Wealth, health, and happiness are signs that God is with us. Worldly success is proof of God’s favor. Suffering, on the other hand, is a sign that we have strayed too far from God and need to work a little harder to earn God’s blessing.
Some of us are more like the Gentile Greeks, valuing philosophical wisdom and logical reasoning above all else. We believe in the law of cause and effect. If you work hard and do all the right things, then you will have success. This is the promise of the American Dream. Those who struggle to get by, of course, are suffering the consequences of poor choices. So it goes. You reap what you sow. We generally like living in a world where people get what they deserve.
Whichever camp we find ourselves in, the message of the cross remains a stumbling block for us today. It’s hard to see in Jesus’ crucifixion anything other than failure, the demise of a fool who paid the consequences for his reckless behavior. And yet, as Christians we believe that everything we need to know about who God is and how God relates to humankind, is revealed in the cross.
What the cross reveals is that God knows the depths of human suffering and is present to us in the midst of it. Suffering is not some sort of cruel punishment inflicted by God upon those who have been unfaithful or disobedient. Suffering is not a place of Godforsakenness, as though God casts us off and leaves us alone to fend for ourselves. Quite the opposite: By coming into the world in the suffering human form of Jesus, God suffers with us. We worship a God not who is far off, removed from the pain and sorrow of our lives. Rather, we worship a God who chose to endure the very worst of human experience so we would know that the prayers we lift to God fall on sympathetic ears. When we come before God pleading for mercy, we are praying to a God who knows well the suffering we endure and stands with us in the midst of it. The cross reveals that God is in solidarity with the bruised and broken of our world. Who are those suffering in our midst who need us to stand with them in compassion and love?
The cross also reveals that God shows up in unexpected places. This isn’t exactly a novel idea. Throughout scripture we find that God favors not the powerful elites but those on the margins. God calls Abraham and Sarah—childless foreigners—to give birth to God’s chosen people. God continues to call as leaders the people we would least expect. Take Moses, a poor public speaker with little confidence in his abilities who leads the Israelites out of slavery into freedom. Or David, a lowly shepherd with a sling, who fights the mighty Goliath and emerges victorious. When Mary finds out she will give birth to the Son of God, she offers up a song of praise: “You have cast the mighty down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. You have filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” God is always “doing a new thing,” to quote the prophet Isaiah. As David Weiss has written in his book To the Tune of a Welcoming God, “The Biblical story, in its broadest perspective tells… how God must time and again surprise God’s own people… bursting asunder the orthodox boxes that we fashion for the restless deity.” God shows up in unexpected places—not in things that are powerful, wise, and important by human standards, but in those things that seem weak, foolish, and insignificant—including, and especially, the cross. How often have our own misguided expectations about who God is and what God is like made us unable to detect God’s activity in our world?
Last weekend I was in Wisconsin for an in-law’s wedding. What began as a joyous reunion of far-flung relatives we rarely see quickly became tense when one particular aunt arrived, a member of the family who has burned many bridges through a pattern of hurtful words and actions. These days most of the family have written her off, unwilling to expend an ounce of energy rekindling a relationship with a person who has wrought so much anger and pain. Throughout the weekend the family performed an elaborate dance to ensure that this aunt was kept at a distance from those most likely to be upset by her presence. It was sad to see the toll this broken relationship was taking on the entire family.
At one point, during a moment of downtime, I watched as one of the cousins who was deeply hurt by this aunt several years ago, sought out and sat down with the aunt—who was, not surprisingly, sitting alone—and began a conversation. Many members of the family were looking on from a distance with a sense of admiration.
“How did that go?” the rest of the family wanted to know when the cousin caught up with them a little later. “It was fine,” he said. “I heard more about her resentments and bitterness, of course—she always has plenty to say about that. But I also learned more about the demons that haunt her and make her life hard. And she asked about me, too. There weren’t any major breakthroughs. But I do feel like we made a human connection. I think we understand each other a little better now.”
Most of us, I suspect, arrived at this wedding expecting to experience God in the sharing of marriage vows and in the reuniting of beloved family. We expected to find God among the lakes and pine trees of this northern Wisconsin resort town. But I wonder if the most profound experience of the Holy was actually shared by this unwelcome aunt and the cousin who initiated an unlikely encounter.
Isn’t this true to our own experience, that our most profound experiences of the divine come when we’re least expecting it, when we open ourselves to a new way of thinking and being with people the world has written off? I know this has often been true for me. And at the end of the day, this is why putting the cross at the center of our faith makes sense to me. It flies in the face of wisdom and reason, but more often than not, I find that God is most powerfully present in the places the world would tell us not to waste our time looking.
So we don’t shy away from the cross. Rather, we face it head on. We look to the cross as a reminder that we worship a God who suffers with humankind, that we worship a God who meets us in the most unexpected places. We put the cross front and center as a reminder that we are called to be people who suffer in solidarity with those on the margins, and that we are called to go to the places and be with the people the world tells us to avoid. May the cross always confound us and challenge us to be this kind of people. Amen.
David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).
Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).
Douglass John Hall, The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003).
Anna Madsen, The Theology of the Cross in Historical Perspective (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2007).
Mary M. Solberg, Compelling Knowledge: A Feminist Proposal for an Epistemology of the Cross (Albany: State University of New York, 1997).
SundaysandSeasons.com, Augsburg Fortress.