Scripture: Luke 6:17-26
Sacred Signposts: Cross
True confessions: the cross is one of the most difficult subjects for many of us preachers to preach on. And that’s true for one major reason: on first glance, it seems like such a downer. Wouldn’t we rather hear Easter trumpets and rousing hymns than sit in a darkened sanctuary on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday and grieve Jesus’ death? “Resurrection,” say Christians: “that’s the heart of faith. Hope rising from despair. Blessing emerging from a curse. New life from death.” Easter, not Good Friday: that’s where we anchor ourselves. That’s what distinguishes us as Christians.
And to a large extent, that’s true. Resurrection is the center of faith. At the same time, though, all four gospels give much more attention to the death of Jesus than they do to the resurrection. And the apostle Paul explicitly grounds his sense of who Jesus is in that same cross. As he says in one of his letters, his main focus is that “the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power”—the very same cross which, to him, is “the power of God” (I Corinthians 1:17-18).
So why all this attention to an instrument of death? Why honor as the central and most recognizable symbol of our faith the ancient equivalent of an electric chair? On first glance, it’s grating and nonsensical. Why would Jesus submit to such a dystopian end to his life? And why celebrate that horrible death with a symbol so painfully and obviously brutal?
I suspect it’s because, while we may often try to prettify it and do whatever we can to avoid the ignominy of that symbol, at some deep level we know the power of the cross, because our lives are punctuated with its repeated intrusion. Most of you, for example, have suffered a death of a family member or a friend, and you know how searing a death can be. You may wonder if you’ll ever feel happy again. You may ache every time you hear the person’s favorite song. You may feel as though you’ll never be normal again. The hole in your life is unimaginably huge. Just a few days ago, I asked a woman I know here in town—a woman who was widowed a decade ago—how she was doing. And she said, “I’m just now beginning to be myself again. It’s taken me ten years to come back to a kind of normalcy.” This woman knows, we know, the shattering cross.
Maybe you struggle in your marriage. There is no spark at all and you feel a million miles away from your spouse. Maybe your business is failing and it’s eating you up. Maybe you’ve been spurned in love and you’re devastated. Maybe you’ve lost a pregnancy and all hope has vanished. Maybe you’ve done something deeply shameful and it haunts you. You, too, know the cross in your life—the disintegration and desolation that shatter you and make you feel as though all is lost. The cross is real to you. It hangs heavily around your shoulders.
And that’s awful, isn’t it. What Christians proclaim, though, is that it’s also beautiful. What the apostle Paul calls “the wisdom of the cross,” and the reason that cross is at the center of our faith, is that it reveals the God whose love knows no bounds. When we see the cross on our most desperate days, what we’re invited to see is a sign of holy presence. Nothing may have gone right that day. We may be agonizing about an impossibly difficult decision. We may feel that no one cares about the same things we care about. We may feel as though nothing can turn things around. But if we take in the cross, if we really take it in, we are reminded that when Jesus hung on that instrument of death, when Jesus succumbed to its terrifying power, the truth above all truths is that God never left him. That cross represents a love that suffers with us.
We don’t always feel this, do we, because sometimes the suffering doesn’t feel at all salutary. It only feels crushing. The cross embodies a massive contradiction, one that’s almost impossible to get our heads around. It seems to declare two opposite truths at the same time. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” asks Jesus while hanging on that cross (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). And at the very same time, he knows that God is with him on that cross as he cries to God in a loud voice: “into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). For Jesus, both are true: he feels abandoned. And he knows he’s not alone. God seems both there and not there. The cross is an instrument of death. But it’s also an instrument of hope.
Maybe you’ve seen both sides of this cross in your own life. Your finances tank and you blame God for abandoning you. Or maybe old age wearies you, and you hold God accountable for not taking your life now. Or maybe you have a low-level fury directed at your spouse, and you wonder why God doesn’t appear and show him or her how right you are. In all kinds of ways, it can feel as though God has forsaken us.
At the same time, though, part of what’s so beautiful about the cross is that it acknowledges all those terrible dimensions of life. It says, ‘Yeah, things can be pretty awful.’ Picture yourself failing at work, or imprisoned, or with a spouse who has deserted you. Maybe you don’t have to picture it—maybe that’s your reality. Since God doesn’t jump in to rescue us from such suffering—which would simply squash our freedom—from a faith standpoint, what could be better than knowing that God shares that hell with you?
The cross is God’s way of saying, ‘I get what it’s like to feel totally awful, like a complete failure. The thing I want you to know more than anything is that you’re not alone in that. I am with you always.’ The cross is the mark of God’s unending faithfulness and presence. The cross is the ultimate sign of love.
When Jesus begins to teach in Luke’s gospel, he stands on a plain somewhere and tells the people, who are hungry and searching, about God’s blessing. Remember? “You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all. God’s [dominion] is there for the finding. You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry. Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal. You’re blessed when the tears flow freely. Joy comes with the morning” (Luke 6:20-21, The Message). The promise of God isn’t that everything will turn around and that what went wrong will suddenly be right. It’s not that every illness will suddenly vanish and every failure will be reversed. No, the promise of God is that, while things are still awful, the Holy One is still present: you’re blessed when you’ve lost it all; you’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry; you’re blessed when the tears will not stop. That’s the cross. And God is present there.
That’s one dimension of the power of the cross: God’s unending presence. But that’s not all. Part of what makes the cross so painful and something we so powerfully resist is that the love it reveals is a judging love: it implicates us in the world’s evil. Evil isn’t just “out there.” It’s also “in here,” says the cross. It’s not just a random force in the universe. And it’s not just something that other people do. It’s also something we do.
Now most of us are good, suburban, middle-class Americans, and there’s something about putting it this way that just rubs us the wrong way, doesn’t it? “What do you mean I’m part of the problem? I give to the Food Bank, I recycle, I tithe to the church, I feed my neighbors’ cats when they’re on vacation, I’m nice to everybody. I beg your pardon—I’m not part of the problem.”
And of course there’s a lot of truth to that. Most of us try hard to be good people, to make a difference in our communities, to leave the world a better place. We’re not Hitler or Hannibal Lecter or the Unabomber. In many ways, we’re good, upright people.
At the same time, though, when we’re honest with ourselves, we see a sobering truth: there are still hungry people in the world. War persists, some of it American-waged. The health of our natural world is assaulted by fossil fuels and deforestation and toxins and plastics. Women continue to be subjected to harassment—just the other day, a now-retired Federated woman mentioned casually, with thinly-veiled discomfort, that she had had to live and work before the #MeToo movement. Lies and demeaning dismissals and incivility are nearly everywhere. Destructive forces run rampant, don’t they.
It would defy logic to suppose that these injustices are perpetrated only by other people, and that, by some miracle, those of us in this room are all pure. The sobering truth is that all of us are part of this world that allows such atrocities to continue. When we look in the mirror, there’s no way to avoid seeing a person who has been part of these destructive impulses and forces. You and I understandably see ourselves as good people. And yet, at the same time, we’re all part of a world that isn’t working the way it should.
Ben Dueholm, in his book Sacred Signposts, reminds us of “the cooperation of whole Christian societies in the crimes” against humanity that have so characterized human history. And he says, “For many Christian churches, the experience of the cross survived only in the crosses we imposed on others.” We have persecuted Jews and heretics and peasants and Muslims and women, he says, “and eventually, we imposed the cross on the people we colonized and subjugated. In this ironic way, European Christians kept the theology of the cross alive in the experiences of the people we oppressed” (p. 154). The cross confronts us with a love that judges all our less-than-stellar behavior.
Not least among the various ways we have ironically imposed the cross, of course, is what this society and others have done in persecuting people of color. As we celebrate Black History Month, we dare never forget the brutality and inhumanity that have so characterized so much of this nation’s history. Slavery and the concomitant racism, America’s “original sin,” mark us as judged by that all-revealing cross.
As the cross judges our cruel and sometimes vicious ways, though, it is still nevertheless true that that cross is, above all, a sign of grace and mercy. When Jesus died on a cross, he did it to show us that he was with us in everything, that our worst behavior was judged for what it is, and that, in God’s care for us, we are called to manifest that love wherever we are. Not only do we affirm that God is present in every struggle, and not only does the cross judge our waywardness, but the cross also declares that the Spirit of God is working through us to undermine every evil that stalks us. With this past Thursday’s anniversary of last year’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, for example, the continuing witness of many of its students and families for stricter gun laws and reduced violence speaks volumes for the power of a tenacious love to combat the worst instincts we inflict on the world. The cross calls us to a better way.
It calls us to a better way in our collective racism, as well. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks were sparks of love. We pay attention to them. But if we’re really seeing with clear eyes and hearts, we’re also paying attention to the many ways a holy love is transforming us in everyday ways. Many of you know that my wife Mary is a hospice chaplain. On Thursday, as she was visiting patients in a care facility, in walked a little girl. Frenny was her name. She told Mary she was four years old and couldn’t wait until she was five, and that she had come to that facility with her mother to distribute Valentines to the residents there. She bounced around the residents, shining her unique and brilliant light. To each one she handed a card and a candy. She came over to Mary, pirouetted, and said, “How do you like my dress?” Then she put her arm around Mary, and just cuddled up to her. Four years old. African-American. Ringlets in her hair. Joy unbounded. Frenny was there in that nursing home, where death’s cross hangs so visibly, visiting people, most of whom were white, many of whom were unresponsive, all of whom were dying. And on that cross there was light. There was beauty. There was love.
Body and soul, Frenny conveyed the words of a recent song by Lauren Daigle, a song celebrating God’s astounding love: “You say I am loved when I can’t feel a thing. You say I am strong when I think I am weak. You say I am held when I am falling short. When I don’t belong, oh You say that I am yours. And I believe, oh I believe. What you say of me I believe” (“You Say”). The cross knows our brokenness. The cross knows our complicity, calling us to a better way. And at the same time, the cross beams with golden light. And that’s the blessing, that’s the beatitude: the beauty of the cross, the hope that transforms, the loving God who never lets us go. Thanks be to God.