Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, RCL Year B, Proper 19
September 15, 2012
at Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Trussville, Alabama
Beloved sisters and brothers, let us look to the Lord.
May only God’s word be spoken,
May God’s word be heard.
In the name of Jesus, I pray. Amen.
“Crux est Mundi Medicina” is inscribed above the entrance of Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York. It means “the cross is the medicine, the healing, of the world.” The Order of the Holy Cross is Anglican and Benedictine and, some years ago I adopted a Rule of Life and formally associated myself with the Order of the Holy Cross – this cross is a symbol of that – placing my life at the service of God while remaining at home in the world. At the same time I have a particular vocation to be in places where God is present in the world; including here with y’all at Holy Cross Episcopal Church, and at other places where I’ve encountered Jesus among the poor, hurting, and hungry.
So, all of this was on my mind in the midst of this Gospel invitation to “take up your cross and follow me”. And not coincidentally, the day before yesterday was Holy Cross Day, which goes back 1700 years to when the Roman emperor Constantine had a vision of the cross and issued an edict granting tolerance to Christianity. Afterwards, many people became Christians, including the emperor, but it was a mixed blessing. The Emperor wanted all Christians to become soldiers; and he reorganized the church by creating bishops who began to justify their participation in warfare, leading to the so-called “just war” theory. This Gospel, this Feast Day, are important because it seems like maybe we don't talk about the cross enough; and in those days, they talked about it all the time. It feels like I need to ask myself, and perhaps we need to ask ourselves, "Why was Jesus killed? What did the cross mean to Jesus? What does it mean to the early Christians? What does it mean for us?"
If we ask, "Why was Jesus killed?" a common answer would be, "To save us from our sins." Does that mean the Roman soldiers and Pilate said to themselves, "Oh, good, if we crush and kill this innocent person, he'll save us?" Of course not, they killed him because he was a troublemaker, a revolutionary, telling people not to pay taxes, and not to worship the emperor. Does that mean that Jesus wanted to be killed? I don't think so. He prayed in the Garden the night before his death that the cup would be taken away from him.
I think Jesus wanted everyone to welcome the reign of God, to do as he taught. He didn't want to be tortured and killed, but no one would accept the whole of his message. So, Jesus turned toward Jerusalem, walked into the Temple, disrupted the whole corrupt business of buying and selling doves and changing money in the name of God, and the religious authorities were furious and had him arrested, condemned by the empire, tortured and killed. The cross was the form of capital punishment they used then. It is the death penalty. So when he tells his disciples, "If you want to follow me, you have to deny yourself and take up your cross," he's saying you have to oppose the empire, and be willing to be executed and martyred, and they are totally shocked because they know he is serious.
As my friend, a personal hero, Daniel Berrigan says,
"If you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood."
What does the cross mean? I don't think, as one theologian said, the cross means having a bad day or a bad relationship or a flat tire. I once heard a sermon suggesting that Jesus' command to deny self, take up the cross, and follow him could involve something as simple as picking up a beer can on the beach and throwing it away. I don't agree. I certainly don't think such a thing could be said in Jesus' time or Mark's. In their time, a cross wasn't a pattern for jewelry, but an instrument of terror as well as torture and death.
For me, I think the cross of Jesus means confronting systemic injustice, like he did, in a spirit of active nonviolent love, insisting on the truth, calling for conversion, and announcing God's reign. It means speaking out against the empire's institutionalized evil, and knowing that there will be consequences for doing the right thing. It means giving your life away for others, as he did.
This is why in the peace and nonviolence ministries I’m involved in speak out against the teaching of kidnaping, torture, and murder to our Latin American and Middle Eastern allies at the former School of the Americas now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation – WHINSEC; and unjust immigration reforms that criminalize and disrupt families; and the immoral lack of healthcare, jobs, education, and housing. And I do it because I'm supposed to be a disciple of Jesus, which means I have to carry the cross, too. As followers of the Way of Jesus Christ, we are each called to carry the cross with Jesus. This is the trademark of our Christian discipleship. The cross makes Christianity serious, authentic, and real. The cross is very painful and it’s not fun; it's not supposed to make us feel good. It disrupts our lives and demands great faith and love. Maybe that's why it seems we're all trying to avoid it.
But the amazing thing about the cross is that, in the end, Jesus is right. The cross is the best way, the only way, to transform ourselves and the world. Jesus is betrayed and rejected, but he doesn't yell or scream or hit anyone or kill anyone; he is perfectly loving and nonviolent. He trusts in God, forgives everyone, and still insists that the world has to change and welcome God's reign. And as he suffers and dies on the cross, with perfect nonviolent love and forgiveness, scales fall from our eyes, we realize the wrong we have done to this innocent person, we turn back to him, we start to make his reign of peace and nonviolence a reality in the world, and he wins us all over.
That's why he says in another part of the Gospels that eventually he will draw all people to himself. The cross works. Sacrificial love is the only way to change hearts and the world. And he wants us to participate in his redemptive work, to get on with the work of welcoming God's reign.
Now the early Christians understood the cross much better than we do because they faced martyrdom every day, so they wrote a beautiful hymn which Paul quotes in his letter to the Philippians, explaining how Jesus deliberately did not cling to power or being God, how he consciously emptied himself, became a slave, died on a cross, won everyone over, and is the most exalted human being who ever lived.
In that same text there's an important Greek word which is used for the only time in the entirety of the New Testament--"kenosis," which means, "to empty." Jesus "emptied himself," they said, and as his followers, we too have to "empty ourselves." What I think this means is that we have to let go of everything, give ourselves away, and give our lives away for one another and the whole human race. We are not going to put anyone on the cross but ourselves. We are not going to support the crucifixion of anyone, but we are as willing to be crucified as Jesus was. That was their understanding of the cross.
So what does the cross mean for us? I invite you to think about this. How are you accompanying Jesus as he carries his cross today in the world? How are you taking up the cross against injustice and violence? How do you use the power of suffering love, the dynamic and logic of the cross, to overcome problems in your life or at work or to resist violence in the world and welcome God's reign?
In the end, the cross of Jesus offers ultimate meaning and power and even joy. If we side with the crucified one and the crucified peoples; if we refuse to side with the crucifiers or put people on the cross; if we vow never to hurt another human being again; if we take up the way of the cross and give our lives away for others like Jesus; if we speak out against injustice and try to stop the killings in the world, try to stop the crucifixion of the poor; if we even dare to suffer with love for truth, for others; if we try to live well and die well like Jesus – not only will our lives bear good fruit and we will leave the world a better place, we will be exalted with him, and share in his eternal life of resurrection peace.
Thanks be to God!Amen. Alleluia.