September 12, 2021 - Sermon - Rev. Hamilton Throckmorton

Sermon Text

Scripture:  MARK 8:27-38   


     My story of that day begins as so many do: it was an absolutely stunning late summer morning, with a brilliant blue and cloudless sky. I was in the main office of the church I was then serving in Barrington, RI. Someone mentioned that a plane had hit one of the towers at the World Trade Center, and we all hurried to our church Lounge to watch with horror what was going on on TV.

   Three months later, in early December, Mary and I had a chance to travel with other RI UCC clergy to New York and to Ground Zero. Mary remembers the toxic smell. The indelible image I have is of walking past a nearby pharmacy that had not yet been entered. Inside, the entire store was coated in thick dust and dirt. A woman’s high-heeled shoe lay on its side on the floor. And the manual price scanner used for checkout was still blinking unrelentingly. In the three months since the terrorist attack, nothing had changed. And of course, everything had changed.

   On the Sunday after the attack in worship, I knew what I needed to do. I needed to acknowledge the anger and grief and fear of those who came to worship, and to remind the congregation of the promises of God. Amidst the rage and tears and anxiety of that week, I needed both to name those overwhelming reactions, and to let us all know again what we might well have forgotten: that there was something bigger and more lasting and more grounding than anything that had happened that week, and that God would not let us go. That is so often the pastor’s role—as I have said before, to enter a room where the word “God” may not have been spoken, and to speak that word and to evoke that presence.

   That has also been my role, as you likely have noticed, over these last eighteen months. As jobs and social habits and weddings and funerals and performances and sporting events and most of all human lives have been ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, in this place, first virtually and now also in person, we have been about trying to name the pain and, at the same time, to let ourselves be reminded that never, in all this, are we, or have we been, alone. Walking with us along the way has been the Jesus whose gentle and fierce embrace never lets us go.

   Along the way. That’s the story of our lives. We are always on the way. In the very middle of Mark’s story of Jesus, after Jesus has wowed the crowds with healings and miracles, suddenly the tone of the saga changes drastically. At this mid-story fulcrum, the public marvels are now largely done. Now it’s time for Jesus to let the disciples know who he really is, and to make it clear what their role will be going forward.

   The conversation begins innocently enough as they amble along the road going from one town to the next. “Who do people say that I am?” asks Jesus. Maybe you and I, as well, can imagine asking any number of variations of this question on our own behalf: who does my spouse say that I am; who do my children say that I am; who do my co-workers and fellow church people say that I am? We don’t really know, do we, and we, too, might be curious about what people think of us. I remember a conversation Mary and I had with our two sons one day several years ago, and one of our sons saying he had found me to be a stricter disciplinarian than Mary during their childhood. I suppose it didn’t really surprise me, but I hadn’t known that until that moment. Who do people say that I am?

   I suspect this is more than simple curiosity in Jesus, though. He knows he doesn’t have much longer with the disciples, and I’m guessing he wants to make sure they really get who he is. And at the heart of who Jesus is is that dismaying cross. I say dismaying because ultimately none of us really wants that cross to be the centerpiece of Christian life. Certainly, Peter doesn’t want it. When Jesus tells Peter and the others that he is going to suffer and be rejected and be killed, “Peter [takes] Jesus aside and [tells] him to stop talking like that” (Mark 8:32, CEV). Peter thinks this is the worst marketing campaign in history. He knows that none of his friends will want anything to do with this remarkably unappealing Jesus-way.

   And we may well feel the same way. Why on earth would we be talking about such a downer thing as the cross on Rally Day, of all things? Why wouldn’t we talk about pretty things, happy things, uplifting things? I’d be surprised if there’s anyone worshiping with us today who doesn’t wish for something that will just make us feel better.

   So let’s take a moment to let ourselves be reminded of why that cross sits so prominently at the center of our life together, and why it, rather than butterflies and rainbows and sugar and spice, is the central symbol of our faith. The cross’s counterintuitive brilliance grows first from something it does that may initially seem scary or unpleasant: the cross names and acknowledges the loss and grief and agony we all experience in life. It witnesses baldly to the raw and unvarnished truth that we all suffer. We feel this acutely as we continue to struggle with this tenacious pandemic. Some 660,000 people have died. Others have had their lives shattered. Governments and businesses and schools and churches are all constantly trying to figure out what rules should apply, what guidelines should be adhered to. Twice this summer, once at a wedding and another time at a funeral, I heard about family members having to be uninvited from these major events when they declined to be vaccinated. In addition to all the deaths, routines have been upended and the social fabric has been deeply scarred—there’s way more than enough pain to go around. So take a look at that cross. It is the very language of pain and brokenness and death. It names what’s real. Off-putting? Maybe. But blessed relief for its brutal honesty? Most definitely.

   The cross speaks, too, to the shards of hatred and loss and immense grief that grew out of the god-awful events of 9/11/01. This week, in various social media and media, stories of those days and weeks twenty years ago have proliferated. And while, at times, we may think we may want to avoid that agony, I suspect there is something deep within us that needs to name that anguish. We know that naming it is far more healing and more redemptive than burying it. I saw, this week, a New York fire fighter, who had been a first responder that frightful day, talk about how difficult it was for him to decide to see a therapist. He said it was like speaking a foreign language the first time he visited her. He had to translate everything for this therapist who knew none of the shorthand of first responders. And yet, he said, when he could finally unburden himself of the deeply buried pain he felt, it freed him up and let him hope again.

   So the cross names the suffering and despair that can overwhelm us, especially at times like now with this seemingly relentless pandemic, and twenty years ago with the searing events of 9/11. It names the anti-Muslim antipathy of twenty years ago and the anti-Asian jingoism of today. It names the isolation and culture wars and anxiety and family splintering that are so prevalent. And that naming is a good thing. Bringing that evil and pain into the light demystifies it and robs it of its power. 

   The cross names our own unique personal suffering, as well. I ran into a man I know the other day. When I asked how he was, he said he had just dropped a child of his off at college. I said, “That’s hard.” He said, “I’m a guy, and I keep wondering why I’m such a wimp”—for feeling that acute loss. And I think: that’s exactly what you should feel. The cross names and acknowledges that deep sadness.

   The cross doesn’t just expose all that evil and pain, though. It also, and even more centrally, says, ‘There is something much greater than any of that.’ It says, ‘Never do you go through any of those dismal valleys alone, because God goes through them with you.’ And it says, ‘When all else seems to fail us, we still always have the opportunity to be agents of healing.’ “Take up [your] cross,” says Jesus. Lose your life so you can save it (Mark 8:34-35). We heard that marvelous song earlier, in our Generosity Moment, the song by Jack Johnson reminding us that we “can change the world with [our] own two hands,” the two hands that let us spread the love of God to every corner far and wide. That cross calls us back to the God-given mission we share, to be agents of healing and peace and reconciliation wherever we go. Naming and acknowledging what shatters us—that’s first. But then, and most crucially, remembering God’s holy presence, and recommitting ourselves to the blessed work that redeems the pain: that’s the deeply healing and redemptive mission of being on the way with Jesus with the cross at the center.

   In light of the marvels of the cross, I want to spend a few moments now reflecting on the new cross that stands before you, and blessing it in its holy task. First, a little context. When Federated embarked on the Rejoice and Renew capital campaign several years ago, one of the things we hoped to do was commission the fashioning of a new cross that would convey some of what we’ve been talking about here. A local artist, Jason Wein, was engaged to design a cross for this space. Jason has done work that appears all over the country, and you can find examples of it in a number of local places. Jason told us he had never made a cross before, but that he was really excited about doing so. Several of us went to his studio in Auburn and gave him some general guidelines. And then he came and spent a considerable amount of time in this sanctuary, letting the space suggest to him how the cross might take shape. Next he designed it and sought our responses. Finally, he fashioned the cross you see in front of you. I want to say right now that it’s not yet in its final form. The cross will eventually be lit in a way that highlights it in a unique and special way. Even without the lighting, though, we wanted to display it today, not only because it accents the cross as the theme of this day, but mostly because it will be a striking focus for our worship now and in the years to come.

   Because this cross is so different from what we’ve had here before, I first want to acknowledge that, for some of you, this may take some getting used to. It’s not like the brass cross that was here before, and sometimes change jars us out of a comfortable familiarity. I get that, and willingly name that as a possible loss for some of you.

   Allow me, though, to point out some of what I find compelling in this cross, and see if any of that speaks to you. First, it’s large, much larger than what preceded it. The gift of that, for me, is that it not only more appropriately fills the space above the altar, but that size conveys what it really was. This was an instrument of torture that took the life of the One we know as the Messiah. The sheer size and weightiness of our new cross allows us to remember that a body, and in fact many other bodies, hung from it.

   Second, I love that Jason, our artist, made it a point to echo, in that cross, the architecture of the sanctuary. Look, for example, at all the rectangles in the cross, and then look around you at this space. See the rectangles on the façade of the balcony, and at the end of each pew, and in the lattice work in the windows, and in the grating that covers the organ pipes. All around us are rectangles that are picked up in this cross.

   Then, take note of the circles that form the cross beam. Those orbs pick up the circles in the brass railings on either side of the chancel area, and they echo the curved ceiling lines. And this is not just a sculptural gift. It’s also a theological blessing—the three circles representing the Trinity, the three-fold nature of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

   So much of what reveals itself in this new cross is traditional, and it’s sculpturally integrated into the larger space. At the same time, though, the piece has a distinctly contemporary feel to it, as well. It’s richly suggestive of what is sometimes called “industrial design,” the sort of design we see in many homes and restaurants and businesses now. Industrial design typically features exposed beams and brickwork and masonry. In this cross, we have something of that look. And not only is the metal in the cross repurposed, which appeals to our environmental consciousness, but, to return to its central purpose, the metal used conveys some of the brutality of this agent of death. There’s a somewhat menacing quality to that material, a quality that is appropriate to its original purpose.

   Lastly, though—and we won’t fully see this until it is appropriately lit, there is a distinctive beauty in this piece. Not unlike a Celtic cross, it conveys that this is what the Celts call a “thin place,” a place where God is richly present and we can feel that presence. Look at the heaviness of this Celtic cross, and note its similarity to the weightiness of our new cross. Both crosses demand that you notice them, and they do so with a simple elegance.

   Our new cross has other echoes to it, as well. You likely remember, twenty years ago, how the presence of some truly industrial crosses at Ground Zero expressed the fervor of the deep trust that, even in the aftermath of that ghastly attack, the God of Adam and Eve, and of Sarah and Abraham, and of Jacob and Rachel and Leah, and of Rebecca and Isaac, the God of Jesus, the God of you and me—that God remains steadfast. That God walks with us on the way, and holds us close, and reminds us what we’re all about.

   In a piece by Troy Smith in Friday’s Plain Dealer, he says this about our contemporary world: “Ironically, it’s a [quotation] from [the TV show] ‘Six Feet Under,’ a show obsessed with grief, that offered up the most poignant message from popular culture in the post 9/11 era”:

 One character says to another: “‘You can do anything, you lucky [stiff]. You’re alive! Push through the pain and keep living. What’s a little pain compared to that?’” (Sept. 10, 2021, p. T6). Yes, we have pain, says this cross. Yes, we struggle and suffer. And at the same time, this cross is the symbol of vitality and of a bottomless hope. Because when all seems lost, that very cross is the instrument of new life. It is light. It is hope. It is resurrection. It declares with untrammeled certainty that the blessing of God will triumph, and that we can be, and are, part of all that is good and beautiful and holy. May we never forget it.


BLESSING OF CROSS: O God of tireless grace, thank you for the extraordinary fullness of life in your world. Hallow this cross, that it might be an instrument of blessing, an icon of hope, a living, pulsing embodiment of your never-failing love for us and for all people. And may it call us, again and again, to take up your cross, to walk the path of Jesus, and to follow Jesus in that sacrificial and hopeful way. Bless it, and most of all, bless us as we seek to live out your mission of spreading your radiant love wherever we go and whatever we do. In Christ we pray. AMEN.