Centering on the Cross

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A sermon for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, November 10, 2013.  The lectionary readings are Job 19:2,3-27a, Psalm 17:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, and Luke 20:27-38.

Some of you are familiar with the practice of Centering Prayer.  In past, we’ve had a small group of people who would meet for Centering Prayer, and a number of us continue that kind of prayer or a similar kind alone. In Centering Prayer, one returns to a word or image.  Distractions come in prayer—always, but after noticing the distraction, one returns to the word.

It’s good to have some kind of practice to go to when we’re thrown off center.  In my apartment building laundry room, when the washer is off center, it just stops.  That happens with machines, but it can also happen in life.  Something throws us off, and we freeze, not quite knowing how to re-set.

In the Gospel we just heard, a group of religious leaders are trying to do their best to throw Jesus off center, to bog things down, and throw him off his mission. Jesus has come into Jerusalem. The procession we recall on Palm Sunday has already happened. Jesus has overturned the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple and he has gotten some attention.

The Sadducees were a powerful group in Jerusalem, and in today’s reading, Jesus comes up against them. Their beliefs were based on the first five books of scripture only, and they believe that these had been authored by Moses.   If it wasn’t contained in those books, then there was no reason to believe it.

But Jesus talks about things not contained in the books of Moses. And Jesus talks about eternal life. But the Sadducees don’t believe in eternal life, not for a minute. So when they ask Jesus a question about it, he suspects that they’re trying to trick him.

Both Jesus and the Sadducees know the longstanding Jewish practice that if a man dies and he has no children to continue his family, his brother should marry the widow to provide for the brother’s family to come. And so, the Sadducees ask Jesus a hypothetical: what if each of the seven brothers dies, but at each point along the way, a remaining brother marries the widow. At the resurrection, whose wife will she be? Jesus sees the attempt to throw him off center but refuses to let it happen.  He tells them that if they were really so concerned about the resurrection and believed in it, then they would be more concerned about getting their own lives in order, not obsessing about marriage. Marriage is for those of “this age,” Jesus says—those who need to provide for a family or provide for the wellbeing of others.

The typical marriage in First Century Palestine, like much of the first millennium, was more about property and possessions.  It was about taking care of folks and making sure life could continue.   But whenever Jesus talks about marriage, he talks about it as something that always points beyond itself. Marriage doesn’t exists as an end in itself. It doesn’t exist simply for the two partners, or even the nuclear family. Marriage is a preparation for something to come, a training ground for love, a hint of something even more incredible to follow, something that will be even better than the closes of human relationships, at the resurrection.

In talking with the Sadducees, Jesus is not thrown off by talking about marriage or the treatment of widows or even of the justification of the Sadducees as a religious group.

Instead, Jesus keeps his focus. And he keeps moving toward the cross.

He tries to wake up this crowd when he says, “Ours is not a God of the dead, but of the living, for to God all of them are alive.” Anything that is not a part of that life—the life of God—is less than it can be, and anything that tries to turn us away from that life is a distraction.

Last weekend, we observed All Saints’ and All Souls’.  We gave thanks for the famous saints and their example to us, and we also gave special thanks for those saints (those ordinary believers) who we have known and loved, and who have died.  Though we feel death—its pain, its shock, its disruption, we also know that death can throw us off center.  Sometimes for weeks—or months, or years.  But faith in Jesus who died on the cross, who battled down death in the grave, and who rose again—faith in Jesus and his resurrection centers us again.

The other readings for today, in their own way, also attest to this power of God to dispel distractions and to bring us gently back to center again. In the Old Testament reading we see Job, who even in the very midst of death—the death of his family, the death of his career, his health, even his future (it seems)—he clings to the life of God. Job refuses to be done in by the distractions around him, especially when his friends try to create complicated theological justifications for what he is experiencing. Instead, Job goes to what he knows deep down in his heart.  He cries out for life: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth.”

Likewise, to the people at Thessalonica, Paul says, “the Lord is faithful. He will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.” These are appropriate words as we approach Veterans Day tomorrow, when our country remembers those who have often strengthened and guarded us.

We still get thrown off center. We may not have Sadducees coming up to us and trying to trick us with questions about the resurrection, but we do have plenty of people who will try to trick us with religious arguments, with scripture taken out of context, with confused theology, with simplistic thinking. Whether it is the campaigns political or the campaigns theological that attempt to sidetrack us; whether it is the attack from the right or from the left, from the friend or from the stranger; or just our bodies growing old and rebelling against us—there are always things and people who can make us feel like those children’s toys that lean this way and that, and almost fall down.

The cross of Jesus Christ calls us to re-center.

We center on the cross in prayer.  Prayer helps. Meditation lessens the distractions; contemplation keeps us clear.   In the midst of whatever comes—sickness, through any challenge, through any test—even through death into eternal life. The cross of Christ is a reminder of where we’re headed, and that there is life and resurrection on the other side.

We also center on the cross in the Eucharist. At the altar,  we meet and receive Christ crucified.  We meet and receive Christ broken, transformed, and shared for us, calling us back to the center of what matters most.

Our worship itself can center us.  Whether it’s the prayers of morning or evening prayer, the prayers we may say alone or with our family, or the weekly return to this community of prayer.  We spin and run and tilt all week long, but when we return, there’s a calm and a centering that can happen in this place, with God’s people.

Whether we picture the cross in our prayers, hold onto it, or reach for it, may the cross of Jesus Christ lift us in this life, and life us again into life eternal.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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