Finding Hope in the Cross

+ A sermon for Holy Cross Sunday at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on September 13, 2020 +

Texts: Revelation 22:1-5; 1 Corinthians 1:18-24; John 12:31-36a


“Our streetlamps were still on at 10:00 am, the smoke was completely blocking out the sun.”
That’s what I heard from a Facebook friend in the Bay Area earlier this week as wildfires raged across the western United States.
This was after seeing a timeline full of pictures of orange skies and charred buildings.
This was as tens of thousands of residents were forced to evacuate and many more were told to prepare to go at a moment’s notice.
This was as millions of acres were scorched, towns were leveled, and lives were lost.
And as I’m preaching this sermon, we have been advised not to even go outside because of the hazardous levels of smoke in our region right now—though, honestly I’m fine with staying inside because outside has an otherworldly yellow dinge under a blood red sun.
It’s been a week filled with these potent reminders of a changing climate and human-caused degradation of God’s good creation.
All this smoke, all the destruction, all the loss stemming from land burning, forests burning, trees burning.

Maybe you’ve seen those shocking pictures of Salem, Oregon and San Francisco, California.
Maybe you heard them get compared to apocalyptic visions or end of the world movies.
Because, wow, those pictures were pretty scary.
I even saw a picture of a rural ELCA congregation outside Canby, Oregon, a large cross on its exterior illuminated by neon lights standing in stark contrast to the dramatically dark and orange skies.
But rather than thinking of apocalyptic films as I looked at that picture, I found myself reminded of Good Friday, when Luke tells us that the sun’s light was blocked and gloom covered the lands.

“In the midst of all the gloom,” that same friend asked on Facebook, “where are you seeing hope and happiness?”
Some replied that they were finding happiness in friends and family and pets.
One friend who works at Costco said he found hope in the large number of people who came to the store to buy supplies for firefighters and those who had lost their homes.
But I kept thinking about the picture of that church building with the light of its illuminated cross standing against the gloom of fiery skies.     

As the world is burning, as we look for a cure to viruses, as we seek reformation in our governments and in our streets, as we look to end systemic racism, we are looking for explanations of why this is happening, yes, but so many are desperately looking for signs of hope.
And somehow, we Christians have found hope for nearly two millennia in the cross and our proclamation of Christ crucified.
We look at this brutal instrument of torture, the punishment for insurrection against the empire, a symbol of humiliation and death and we dare to see a sign of hope.
It seems such a foolish proclamation in response to the sufferings and gloom of this world, doesn’t it?
It seems so strange to celebrate this Holy Cross Sunday this year in this congregation of the Holy Cross—especially when we can’t even gather in person.
And yet we look to the cross, that symbol of death and destruction, and we defiantly hope for the life and healing we dare to insist it heralds for our world.

Now, I realize that each time we’ve celebrated this festival together, each time we’ve commemorated our congregation’s name day, I’ve pondered aloud in my sermon about the foolishness and strangeness of this primary symbol of Christianity.
Perhaps I will always struggle and revel in the strangeness of the cross—perhaps the mystery of the cross is at the very heart of our Christian faith itself.
But this year especially, as we look for hope and happiness amidst all the gloom, as we celebrate our congregation’s name day even as we cannot gather together, I have been pondering the cross all the more and what it means to me—to consider why we find hope in its rugged beams.

Each of our readings for this festival day offer different visions of the cross and each has a unique message of hope.
We hear from First Corinthians about the subversive wisdom of God which is mysteriously offering an alternative to the easy answers and quick solutions that fail to satisfy and instead invites us to trust in the wisdom and power of God that surpasses our own human understanding.
In Revelation, we’re given a vision of the verdant tree of life at the center of God’s new creation, producing an abundance of fruits, whose leaves bring healing and life to the nations.
And from John, we hear Jesus telling a bewildered crowd—just days before his death—that he will be lifted up and will draw all people to himself.
But as Professor Karoline Lewis reminded me this week, this being lifted up does not just mean his crucifixion, but also Christ’s resurrection and even his ascension.
That even as Jesus is lifted up on the cross, he is already drawing all people into his new resurrection life.

So what does the cross mean for me these days?
What does the cross mean in this strange year?
Where do I find hope in the midst of all the gloom?
Well, for me today the cross means trusting that the wisdom and power of God are greater than the wisdom and power of this age.
The cross means taking hope in the promised new creation where destructive and unprecedented forest fires will not rage but all creation will gather around crystal clear waters, eating their fill on God-given produce while finding healing and life in the tree of life.
And especially this year, the cross means that the empires and systems and brokenness of this world cannot win in the end—because the story of the cross did not end on Good Friday.
Because we trust that God already has and will triumph, bringing new life, new hope, a new creation that is built for the flourishing of all the world.
The cross serves as a reminder of what it looks like when God gets involved in our world, as a way for us to see who God truly is.
That God is standing with us in the gloom.
That God has walked the way of suffering and death.
That God has experienced the worst of human-caused destruction and is working to transform even an instrument of death into a tree of life so all people can know the fullness of God’s love.
That God is drawing all people to the new life, the new creation, of Christ’s resurrection.
And in all our sufferings, in all our uncertainties, in all the gloom, we can look to the light of the cross and, as Jesus invites us, become children of that light—to not be conformed to the despair and gloom of this world, but to be transformed by the hope of the cross, to glimpse the vision of God’s new creation, and to bear the cross into the world as beacons of God’s abundant love—a God who never abandons us and is working to bring healing and life to the whole creation.

And that’s why this strange symbol is so central to our faith, my friends.
That’s why the cross is emblazoned on our foreheads in our baptisms.
That’s why we make the sign of the cross when we pray.
That’s why some of us wear it around our necks or even mark it on our bodies.
Not only to remind ourselves of the enduring love of God when the times get tough, but to remind ourselves of Christ’s call for us to embody that love as we partner with God to transform the world.
The cross is both our assurance and hope, pointing to what God is doing in our world and it is our rallying point that reminds us of our calling to use our lives and our combined efforts to work with God in making that new creation a reality.
To work with God and each other as we resist oppressive structures, as we feed our neighbors, as we work for the healing of creation, and as we proclaim the love of God for the whole world.
That’s why I love that we have claimed the name of the Holy Cross for our congregation, to remind ourselves that we are called to make this congregation a beacon of God’s love, welcoming all people to experience the healing and hope and life that we have found at the foot of this tree of life.

In the past few years, our congregation has made this, our name day, into a celebration of our community.
We’ve had meals together and given thanks to God for Holy Cross Lutheran Church and our shared ministry together.
Obviously, such a celebration is not possible this year, so I am grateful that we will be gathering after worship via Zoom to continue our conversations about becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation and extending an intentional welcome to our LGBTQIA siblings to experience God’s love with us at the tree of life.

But since you’ve been listening to my musings on the cross and what it means for us, I am left wondering what the cross means to you.
If we were gathered in person today, I’d want to ask you that question.
So, as we gather online, I am still going to ask—what does the cross mean to you?
What does it mean to you when we mark it on our bodies?
What does it mean to you when we name our congregation Holy Cross?
Does the cross inspire hope for you?
What does the cross mean for your life and your faith? I invite you to ponder these questions today and in the week ahead.
And please, I would love to hear some of your thoughts in the comments section of this Facebook post or let me know via email or phone call.

My friends, our congregation prides itself in being rooted in the cross of Jesus, the purest example we have of God’s abundant and redeeming love.
In the struggles, in the pains, in the gloom of this world, may we ever cling to the cross.
May we always ponder its mysteries even as we find solace in its assurances, find hope in its promises, find healing in its branches, and find our mission in its new creation.
May we commit ourselves to bearing the cross into our world, lifting it up on our bodies and through our lives as a beacon of God’s abiding love for all peoples.

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