The Other Side of the Cross

+ A sermon for Holy Cross Sunday at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on September 12, 2021 +

Text: Revelation 22:1-5; 1 Corinthians 1:18-24; Mark 8:27-38


Holy Cross Lutheran Church (c. 1960s)

“In 1960, the Evangelical Lutheran Church Board of Missions decided to start a mission church on the east side of Lake Washington. This church, Holy Cross Lutheran Church, was one of the last churches founded by the ELC.”
Those are the first two sentences of this book, Holy Cross Lutheran Church: The First Fifty Years, which was lovingly produced by two of our own members for our congregation’s Jubilee Year anniversary ten years ago.
When I started my call as your pastor three and a half years ago, this book was one of the first things that I read.
I think it’s important to know our history, to know where we have come from, because it will often tell us not only who we are, but also where we are going.
And what a history this congregation has had.
I learned how we became a place for teaching children, for spiritual counseling, and for training future ministers of the church.
I learned how we once sparked national outrage for being on the forefront of the ecumenical movement.
I learned how we sponsored more than two dozen Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees following the Vietnam War and how committed we have been to providing resources and shelter for our unhoused neighbors.
I learned how we dedicated ourselves to the care of this orchard, the care of God’s good creation, and to provide a place for our community to grow fresh produce for their families and our hungry neighbors.
And of course, I learned stories about our highs and the lows during those first fifty years, the friendship and family that was formed in this place and the difficult and trying times.

Some of us lived this history.
Some of us literally wrote a book about it.
And some of us have only recently come to taste the fruit of what was planted years before us.

But recently I’ve been thinking a lot about those first two sentences.
About how we were first formed and how we became stewards of this piece of land.
About that line that we were one of the last mission starts of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
So, I did some digging this week, working through the complicated, tangled history of Lutheran denominations in this country.
And I learned that the ELC, which founded this congregation, merged with two other denominations to form The American Lutheran Church and this new church body was the first major Lutheran denomination in this country with a diversity of national origins.
Until then, Lutheran bodies were usually based on either current or historic ethnic backgrounds with specific Swedish, Norwegian, German, Danish, and other heritages.
But I also learned that when the ELC started a new congregation on this plot of land, they had already voted to merge to form this new denomination.
That they already knew that their church body would not exist when this new congregation started worshiping.
I wonder what that meeting would have been like—to plant a new congregation when they didn’t know what the future would hold.
I mean, their denomination was essentially ending, dying even.
The old ways were passing away and they were forming a new thing, an unprecedented kind of Lutheran denomination.
That Mission Board couldn’t know for sure what lied ahead, but still confident in the future, they resolutely planted a seed in this orchard—a congregation named Holy Cross.

“The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” St. Paul writes, “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
You’ve heard me say this before, but by all rational measures, the cross is a terrible symbol of our faith, and a strange name for a congregation.
It was an instrument of cruel torture and death, reserved by the Roman Empire for those criminals who most threatened their power.
It reminds us of the gruesome execution of our Lord Jesus Christ by the state, the murder of our God by human hands.
Yet, “we proclaim Christ crucified,” Paul reminds us.
And the foolishness of our faith, the foolishness of our clinging to the cross, is that we irrationally refuse to believe that death has the final word.
Because we proclaim not only Christ crucified but also Christ resurrected.
We preach not only Good Friday, but also Easter Sunday.
We believe that the ways of this world are being subverted by Christ’s perfect reign of self-giving love.
That the powers of the empire have been overcome by the power of God.
That what we assumed was the final ending has given way to God’s promised future.
Because the cross, that instrument of torture and death itself, has been transformed into a life-giving tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations, which stands triumphantly as a beacon of hope and love for the whole world.
And somehow, this admittedly foolish proclamation is the wisdom and power of God.

Now, we know that it can be difficult to fully comprehend this proclamation.
That even after two millennia on this side of resurrection, even after six decades as Holy Cross Lutheran Church, it can be hard to fully trust in the power of the cross.
All too often, we only see obstacles where God sees possibilities.
We only see the endings where God is preparing a new beginning.
We set our minds on human things rather than divine things.

And we’re not alone.
Even Peter, the first to confess that Jesus is the Messiah could not wrap his head around the idea of Christ crucified.
He only saw the ending, the empire’s triumph, the death of his friend and Lord.
His mind was set on human things, on the way our world usually works, and he could not see the other side of the cross and the divine promise and hope held in those rugged beams.
Because when Jesus tells him and the other disciples that they should take up their crosses and follow him, he’s not just talking about the difficulties of discipleship—the struggle against power and selfish desire, the disappointment when we stumble and fall, the reality of what it means to proclaim God’s love in our community through word and deed—Jesus is also inviting us to see the promise of the cross.
To leave behind our limited expectations of what is possible and see what God is doing in our midst.
To let our lives be upended from our design to God’s design, reversed from inward desires to our outward calling.
To see how God is using even cruel human designs to do incredible things that bring life and healing and hope.
To take the cross and use it as a lens with which we see how God is still transforming us and the whole world through the power of the resurrection.

My friends, people of the Holy Cross, there is no doubt that today is a monumental day in the life of this congregation.
It is the culmination of a process that has spanned three years, built on the foundations of previous processes before.
It is the product of so much work and research, dozens of meetings, and countless hours of prayer.
With gratitude for all that has gotten us here today, we have a lot of options before us.
And I’m sure that we each have different thoughts and opinions, hopes and fears for what will happen next.
I imagine some see closure as our only option, while others want to hold on to what we have.
Some would be happy to give away our land while others want to use it to maximize our investment in the future.
I don’t know what we will decide; none of us know what we will decide.
That’s why we, the people of Holy Cross, will gather at the foot of the cross today and pray for Christ to guide us toward the future God is preparing for us in the light of the cross.
To transform our human desires to divine desires, so we hear the cries of our neighbors, the cries of the earth, the cries of whatever expression of church is waiting to be born.
To upend our lives and reverse our expectations so we can see how God is calling us through the gospel.
To turn our endings into new, unprecedented beginnings we can’t even imagine yet.
To subvert the world as it is with the world of resurrection.
To take even death itself and transform it into new and abundant life.

61 years ago, we were planted in this place during a time with an uncertain future.
Like no time before, we have questions laid before us this morning, my friends:
How will we move into our future together?
How will our foolish proclamation reveal the wisdom and power of God?
How will pick up our crosses and share the burden as we glimpse Christ’s promised tomorrow?
What seed will we plant so we can continue to bring life and healing, hope and love in this place, bearing those fruits for decades yet to come?

May Christ continue to guide us, my friends, just as he always has, from death into life, so we can see together the full and abundant life he is preparing for us on the other side of the cross.

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