September 13, 2020, The Feast of the Holy Cross

The Feast of the Holy Cross
September 13, 2020
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Isaiah 45:21-25; Psalm 98; Philippians 2:5-11; John 12:31-36a

From the Gospel according to John, “(Jesus said) And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     There is a Medieval legend that suggests that the wood used for the very cross upon which our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified came from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as described in the Creation Story as found in the Book of Genesis. We might remember that story from Genesis where the serpent entered the Garden of Eden and tricked Eve and Adam into eating the forbidden fruit of that tree and in so doing, brought sin into the world. Now, as much as I would like that Medieval legend to be true, it is highly unlikely. And yet, there is a marvelous comparison here: on the one hand, a tree that caused humanity’s betrayal and downfall in Eden and on the other, a tree that brought salvation into the world at Calvary.

That concept is echoed in our Good Friday liturgy here at Holy Cross as the gathered congregation proclaims, “Through the tree we were made slaves; and through the holy cross we obtained our freedom.”

     As you might have guessed from today’s scripture readings, hymnody, and the introduction to this sermon, today is the Feast of the Holy Cross – our patronal feast day. Typically, on Holy Cross Sunday the parish gathers for a wonderful breakfast, our annual mission and ministry fair, and as summer vacations have ended, reconnect with one another as a vibrant community of faith. Holy Cross Sunday is always a time of celebration for this parish. And yet this year, our celebration is markedly different. There is no breakfast, and certainly no mission fair, and as for reconnecting with one another? Such is relegated to a computer screen and online gatherings.

     As I pondered how this year’s observance of the Feast of the Holy Cross would lack the fanfare and energy of past celebrations, I wondered if perhaps, by removing all the trappings of our typical celebrations, God might be offering us an opportunity to reflect more deeply on what that cross really means to us as individuals and as a community of faith.

    See, we all know that for the Christian, the cross holds sacred meaning. It is the symbol of our redemption just as it a solemn reminder of our own culpability in Jesus’ death. After all he came and died because of my sin and your sin. The Cross is so important to us that it has become not only a part of who we are, the symbol of our faith, but even a part of our culture. Crosses are worn as jewelry around our necks, they hang from our ears and from who knows where else. Many have crosses affixed to the walls of our homes. Look around at our cities and towns and one can see Church steeples with crosses at the top and crosses in cemeteries. When watching sporting events it is common to see athletes cross themselves in the end zone after a touchdown, or in the batter’s box, or at the free-throw line. Crosses have become such a part of our lives that for some, crossing the heart has become a meaningless gesture, or upon seeing a cross, think, “Oh, how pretty,” rather than grasp that it is through the ugly brutality of that cross that God proclaimed, “I love this world, I love you so much that I am willing to die so that you might live.”  

     And yet the cross, for many in this country is also a symbol of fear. It is often carried aloft at fascist rallies.  And with the rise of the Neo-Nazi and White Supremacist movements across this nation today, often the cross is not only carried aloft, but wrapped in our nation’s flag. And throughout our history, how often members of the Ku Klux Klan would gather and torch and burn a cross outside the homes of people of color. That symbol of hope and redemption has been and sadly, continues to be used by some, by many, as a symbol of exclusion and oppression, and a means to inspire fear.  

     And that leads me to ask the question this morning? What does that cross me to me, to you, to us? And what difference does it make in our lives?

     See the cross should always be understood and reflected upon in light of the person who carried it and died upon it. And in gazing upon that cross, just as it reminds us that through the cross salvation and freedom from sin came into the whole world, so should we also be reminded and urged to recommit ourselves to walk in the ways of the one who was nailed to it: our Lord Jesus Christ. Far too often, Christians look to the cross as the symbol of their redemption but forget that it is also a symbol of a counter-cultural way of life: a way of life Jesus calls us to embrace; a way of life that at baptism we promised to not only uphold, but also to live, emulate, and share. And that way of life, that assurance of redemption that changes hearts, minds and attitudes toward God and our neighbor, is exactly what our nation and culture needs to rediscover right now.

     See, our culture today encourages and praises power and self-promotion and greed: the very opposite of what the cross, what Jesus Christ stood for and still stands for. As my colleague, the Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham said so well in his Holy Cross Day Sermon, “the image of the crucifixion” – and that is what the cross is -that image “says, our true reality is one of emptying, not grasping. Compassion, not arrogance. Dying to self, not greed.”

    I believe that is at the heart of what St. Paul was trying to get the Philippian church to understand in today’s reading from his letter to the Church. Paul says, “Let this mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who …(What?) … emptied himself, (took) the form of a slavehumbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.” To put on the mind of Christ means to pattern every aspect of our lives on Jesus Christ’s own life which was marked by self-emptying, the laying down of one’s life for one’s friends, of loving one’s enemies, of making the care of the sick, the poor, the hungry, the alien, the vulnerable of society the focus on one’s compassion, and forgiving again and again and again, even when nailed to a cross.

     But no, our culture seems, through its spoken desire to dismantle safety nets for the vulnerable, attempt to deny healthcare for the sick and aged, eliminate food programs for the hungry and homeless, and exclude those who are different from us, our culture while claiming to be Christian, more often than not emulates the self, praises power and self-promotion, not the Christ who emulates anything but himself and calls us to live differently.

     In today’s gospel lesson, John tells us that when Jesus said, “When I am lifted up,” he was referring to the cross, to his death. But we need to remember, the cross wasn’t Jesus’ ending nor is it our ending. No, the cross was only the beginning of Jesus being lifted up. He will be lifted up in crucifixion and death, but he will also be lifted up in resurrection, and lifted up in ascension. “And I,” Jesus says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  The cross becomes his glory, his triumph because not only does he overcome sin and death, but he shows us what the prophets and sages throughout human history have urged us to grasp: to live in unity with God and with one another requires that we empty ourselves and follow him, follow his example.

    See, when Jesus said that in being lifted up he would draw all people to himself, I believe he was describing something far more than that single, incredible moment of redemption, that moment of glory, that moment in human history - something to be celebrated in the past. As we will pray in this morning’s Collect, when we choose to lift and carry that cross, it is opportunity to not only celebrate but, demonstrate our commitment to continue Christ’s reconciling work in this world; to demonstrate in our words and deeds a more fulfilling, loving, and forgiving way to live that can change our culture, nation, and world. That is the power of the Cross. The power of the Christ. But like all things in scripture: the choice is up to us. Will we lift up that cross and truly follow him in every aspect of our lives? It’s up to you.

     And so, on this day, this Feast of the Holy Cross, this feast that celebrates the very name of this blessed church, may God help us grasp that how we choose to live every moment of every day is the most meaningful and transforming way to lift high the cross not as a symbol fear and oppression, but as a symbol and reminder of the merciful, grace-filled, sacrificial and eternal love of God in Christ Jesus who continues to draw all people to himself. God help us to take up that cross, to have the mind of Christ, and, therefore, be as Christ to everyone we meet, and to our culture, and nation. Amen.