+ A sermon for Holy Cross Sunday at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on September 15, 2019 +

Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-24 

Audio: LINK

They’re all around us.
It would be hard to count them if we tried.
We wear them around our necks, we see them on our bulletins and hymnals, we display them with prominence in our worship spaces.
Crosses are everywhere. freely-50688
We fashion them out of precious metals and jewels, many people trace them on their bodies, and for centuries the most important churches were constructed in the shape of the cross. And crosses go beyond our religious tradition too as they have come to signify hospitals and aid organizations, as they adorn national flags, and as they mark countries’ recognition of nobility or military heroism or extraordinary civic contribution.

Crosses have become so ubiquitous, so ever-present, that I sometimes wonder if we have reduced the cross to a mere architectural element or a beautiful ornament.
I wonder if we sometimes forget the meaning of this strange symbol that is all around us.
And I wonder what would happen if one of our earliest Christian siblings were somehow transported here to join us for Holy Cross Sunday at Holy Cross Lutheran Church—I wonder what she would say.

new-york-city-skyscrapers-lit-with-crosses-for-easter-march-29-1956I imagine she would look around our congregation and our society in shock and maybe even terror as she saw these crosses everywhere.
I think she would see something very different than we do.
Because while we may use beautiful crosses to adorn our sacred spaces and decorate our bodies, I think she would see a symbol of death and defeat.
A reminder of that particularly cruel and horrific form of execution that was reserved for the only most dangerous of criminals: murderers, insurrectionists, and those labeled as enemies of the state.
Crucifixion was the Roman Empire’s way to terrorize its subjects into submission and silence those who objected to their rule.
And it was a death that not only Jesus suffered, but so many of the apostles, countless followers of the early church, maybe even some of her loved ones.
I think she would have seen us surrounded by signs of the Roman Empire’s power and determination to stomp out this movement that insisted on following Christ instead of Caesar.
I think she would have been reminded of the fate that could well await her if she wasn’t careful.

And if we look at the cross as this ancient sister might, as a symbol of death and despair, I think our eyes would be changed as we look at the world and see crosses all around, too.
We might see crosses set up in detention centers on our southern boarder.
APTOPIX Tropical WeatherWe might glimpse the cross in inadequate or uncaring responses to hurricanes in the Caribbean.
We might recognize crosses in the streets as we see the rising number of murders of trans women of color.
We may see how our siblings in Christ are being crucified all around us on the crosses of corporate greed and racism and guns.
And then maybe we, like our early Christian sister, may wonder why we have decided to put the cross all over the place, why we insist on surrounding ourselves with this strange and potent symbol.
We might see how clinging to the cross seems, well, rather foolish.

And we would not be alone in realizing the how ridiculous the cross is.
St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians shows is this is nothing new.
I think the cross seems as foolish now as it did then in the first century when Paul traveled the known world preaching Christ crucified.
How ridiculous a message that was!
It sure seems like Paul needed to work on his marketing techniques and find some better messaging.

“The Crucifixion” from the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald

For those people who had hoped that Jesus would be the Messiah who would come with a mighty army and throw off the oppressive Roman occupiers and restore his people to their former glory, the cross was a sign of utter defeat.
For those people who searched for wisdom in philosophical reason and logic above all else, they found neither in the idea of a god who would willingly die at human hands.
These Corinthians had an idea of what they were looking for from their god and a dead man on a cross sure wasn’t it.
Come on, Paul; step up your evangelism game!

And yet, rather than shy away from these expectations, Paul proclaims the foolishness of our faith, “But we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Paul preached how we put our trust in a God who works through what we would call weakness and whose wisdom we might call folly.
We have the audacity to claim that it is actually on the cross, on this instrument of death and defeat, that we can see God most clearly.
That it is on the cross that we can see the love of God that is for the whole creation made plain.

And I admit, this message may still sound like foolishness to our ears.
We may still long for a God who comes with might and will correct all the problems that surround us in this world.
We may still long for a God who works in ways that we can understand, who acts in ways that make sense to us.
We may want clear signs that we are doing things right or that God is blessing us in ways that will benefit us.
But we proclaim Christ crucified. IMG_5644
And while this may not be the God that we expect, perhaps not even the God that we would choose, the cross gives us an understanding of how our God is working within and around us in the world today.

Our God does not come in military might, trampling evil under foot, but instead comes among us in weakness—a God who is not afraid to walk with us in the darkest, most painful parts of our lives.
Our God does not come in ways that we can predict or expect, but sneaks in and finds us when we feel utterly alone, intimately knows our suffering and walks with us, and shows up when we’re afraid that no one can help.
Our God does not conform to our expectations and will not be limited by our restrictions, but moves and loves in ways we thought impossible.
Our God is not found in easy answers or feel-good messages, but in the deep mysteries of faith as we ponder life and death, truth and doubt, joy and suffering.

The cross shows us how invested our God is in humanity, how God willingly chose to shrug off divinity and come among us as Jesus our brother, how there are no limits to how far our God will go to bring God’s love to the world.
Or, as 20th century martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Those who have found God in the cross of Jesus Christ know how wonderfully God hides [Godsself] in this world and how [God] is closest precisely when we believe [God] to be most distant.”
The cross reminds us that we see our God in the places we would least expect, with the people we would least expect, and even within the parts of ourselves that we would least expect.

So perhaps our proclamation is foolishness.
Perhaps our faith is indeed based on foolishness.
Because I don’t think we modern people want a crucified God, one who is seen through defeat, any more than those people in Corinth did.
I imagine that we would all still prefer a God whose actions we can predict, who makes sense to us.
But instead, we have a God whose power is made known in weakness, whose love is seen through folly, who dares to bring life from the places that we can only see death.
Because while we know the story of the cross, we also must remember that the cross never was going to have the final word.

“Risen Christ” by Peter Eugene Ball in St Giles’ Church, Balderton, Nottinghamshire, UK

We also must remember that we also proclaim Christ’s resurrection from the dead and how God refused to let this love die at human hands but triumphed over it all to bring life and love everlasting to the whole creation.

Because the other thing we can perceive as we gaze at this holy cross is our God who is constantly working in and among us through both subversion and transformation.
In the cross, we see the subversion of human understandings of power and might to reveal divine power demonstrated in weakness.
In the cross, we see the subversion of human wisdom to reveal to us God’s wisdom.
In the cross, we see the subversion of human justice to reveal to the world God’s vision of justice.
And in the cross we see how God is working to change the world around us, transforming a brutal instrument of death into the tree of life, transforming an object of terror into the basis of our hope and joy, transforming the depths of defeat and despair into the ultimate triumph of love and the victory of God.

Apse mosaic in San Clemente Church in Rome depicting the cross as a tree of life with rivers streaming from its base and births nested in its foliage

We see how God will go to the most broken parts of our lives, the most neglected parts of our communities, the most wounded parts of our world and bring the power of the cross, never ceasing until the whole creation is transformed and the whole creation reflects God’s vision for the perfect reign God is revealing in our midst.
All of this we, who have glimpsed God’s wisdom, can see in this simple, poignant, and powerful symbol.

So when we but the cross on our bodies and place it in the center of our worship, I believe we are inviting ourselves to see the world through God’s eyes.
When we lift high the cross and pronounce our foolish proclamation, we are striving to abandon the wisdom of this world in search of God’s wisdom and God’s might.
When we take the name of “Holy Cross” for our congregation, we are inviting God to help us see the crosses that surround us as we partner to join in God’s subversive and transformational work here in this place, here in this community, and throughout the world—we ask God to make us a part of that foolish work.

Because in the wisdom of the world, is it wise to spend our Sunday mornings here? One of our weekend mornings when we could be hiking or brunching or watching the Seahawks? But seeking divine wisdom we come here, week after week, to build relationships, to seek transformation and new life, and to reconnect with our God and the whole creation.
In the wisdom of the world, is it wise to freely give away our time and money to this little church? And yet, we labor and we donate to lift up this congregation and this green space as an ensign of God’s love and power that is for the whole world.
While the wisdom of this world craves certainty, we boldly explore the mysteries of faith.
In a region of nones, we claim that our unseeable God has a role in our lives and our world.
In a time when our environment is being destroyed, we faithfully steward our small patch of creation as we advocate for better care for our planet.
In a system based on scarcity, we abundantly feed the hungry people around us and we work to provide shelter and warmth for our neighbors.
In a time that seems at best uncertain, we look to the future hoping to see what God has in store for us, for our congregation, for our neighborhood, and for our world.
In so many frankly foolish ways, we strive to shake off our worldly wisdom and follow the God whom we claim to know most clearly through the cross.

St. Helena and her son, Emperor Constantine, with the “True Cross”

You know, this festival that we celebrate today dates back to the 4th century when tradition tells us that St. Helena found what she believed to be the true cross on which Jesus died.
She founded the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem to house that cross and for 1700 years, pilgrims have streamed to pray in that holy place, myself included.
It didn’t take long for that supposed relic to be splintered and sent across the Christian world so abbeys and cathedrals, kings and popes could posses a fragment of that true cross.
Now maybe all of that is true, maybe she did find the true cross, I don’t know.
But what I do know to be true is that in each of our baptisms, we were indelibly marked with the sign of the cross, claimed by the God who works in the ways that we wouldn’t expect, sealed by the unimaginable love of God, and etched with the symbol that reminds us that our God is still working in and through and around us to subvert and transform the whole world.
In our baptism, we received the fullness of Christ’s true cross, foolishness, power, love, and all.
And in that cross that is always with us, we are ever reminded of our calling to follow where Jesus is leading us, living into his example of divine wisdom and power and love.
May that true cross ever be our guide and may this congregation of the Holy Cross ever inspire us to seek God’s wisdom as we partner with God to transform the world.

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