The Humble Power of the Cross

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

We’ve been hearing a lot of 9/11 stories and memories over the past few days, and maybe we’re tired of them. I’ve been thinking about my own 9/11 experience—less as a revisiting of the tragedy of that day, but more as I reflect on what helped me to move forward.  It has to do with religion. 

While I try to be open and supportive of people who are turned off by what they think is “religion,” and prefer to think of themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” on 9/11 and since, I have needed some of the so-called and imagined “entrapments” of religion.

I needed the color and the smell. At the church where I worked on 9/11, we had altar cloths that were purple and black. They’re used for mourning, and they communicate both a profound sadness AND an exquisite beauty what can’t always be put into words. The lingering smell of incense worked like it has for thousands of years—to cover the smells of the world with something from another world and time.

I needed old-fashioned prayers that had been used by people in horrible circumstances long before me. Especially as I had no words to describe what I was seeing, or hearing, or feeling, I gave thanks for words of the Prayer Book to remind me of the historic faith and root me in God.

And finally, I needed the Cross. The cross is perhaps the only symbol that can so fully express the depravity, the evil, the violence of humanity; while at the same time, expressing the power of God’s love to redeem and resurrect.

September 14 is known as Holy Cross Day, and it’s a day in which the Church reflects on the cross. Often the themes of the day include the triumph of the cross, the victory of the cross, and the exaltation of the cross. The scriptures appointed celebrate Jesus Christ, who “lifted up from the earth, will draw all [all things and people, all the whole creation] to himself.”

As the church venerates the cross, it sings of the power of the cross of Christ, its power over evil and death; and its power for good and life. You get the idea: the day can often seem to be about power and might, strength and victory.

But today’s readings can sound a little different. The scriptures today help us to reflect a little about the Cross of Christ, and how that cross helps us to know God more deeply, not so much through power, but through humility.

Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

And so, the practice of taking up our cross involves humility, especially as it allows for learning, for loving, and following God’s lead.

To take up our cross and follow Jesus involves learning, and we hear about this kind of humility in the first reading. Isaiah says, “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens– wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” In other words, God has already brought Isaiah to a place of humility—of realizing that he doesn’t know everything, certainly not everything there is to know about God, or God’s ways. And so, God teaches Isaiah.

Even more, God gives Isaiah “the tongue of those who are taught,” which is to say a tongue that thinks before it speaks, a tongue that wonders where God is in this or that, a tongue that tries to be slow in its criticism of others and quick in its encouragement.

We didn’t read from the Letter of James, the Epistle reading appointed for today, but James reminds us of how dangerous the “tongue” can be. He writes, “The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.. . . How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue.”

What we say and how we speak is a part of taking up our cross. This might lead us to speak to people we normally would not. It might lead us to speak UP for people or (and this is another kind of humility)—of not thinking ourselves better than others. On the other hand, if we remember that “humility” is simply a matter of having a right-sized understanding of one’s self, then it’s also humility to understand that my voice is just as important as someone else’s, and perhaps God wants me or you to speak up.

The Letter of James reminds us that “taking up our cross” involves loving. Taking up our cross involves loving. Taking up one’s cross is not just an intimate, sweet, warm feeling of being close to God. It’s also a fire in the belly, an uneasiness in the heart, a refusal to call it peace until justice is done, until the neighbor is fed and housed and cared for.

Taking up our cross daily is about learning, it’s about loving, and finally, it’s about following God’s lead. Sometimes we aim to take up a cross, but it’s entirely too heavy. But if we step back for a second, perhaps it’s someone else’s cross and we’re not the right person to help with it. Perhaps it’s a cross of our own invention and our own making. We can sometimes cling to it and say, “This is my cross, I say. Stand back, I’ve got it. I will carry it in just such a way.”

But that’s what we see Peter trying to do in today’s Gospel.

Peter is frustrated with what appears to be Jesus’s plan with the Cross. Not only did Jesus seem to keep changing the plan, but the closer Peter looked, the more his own nightmare came true—that there was no plan. Or at least, there was no plan visible to the human eye. Peter doesn’t see, at first, that the way forward has to be a way of humility: of learning, of loving, and of following where God leads.

Among all the various cross that can be used to illustrate our faith, today, I think especially of the cross that seemed to appear among the rubble soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  You’ve seen the cross section of steel that looks like a cross and has been seen as such.  It’s now in the 9/11 Museum downtown.  The day it was noticed and for a few days afterwards, it worked as a symbol of hope, a symbol to unite people with one another and to offer assurance that things would get better.  Of course, it didn’t take long for that cross to be thought of as a weapon, to be used over and against others– but at least at the beginning, the 9/11 Cross represented something of what Jesus is talking about when he invites us to take up our cross and follow in the way of humility.

On Holy Cross Day, an ancient chant sings, “We venerate your Cross, O Lord, and praise and glorify your holy Resurrection: for by virtue of the Cross, joy has come to the whole world.” By virtue of the Cross, JOY has come to the whole world—the quiet, steady joy that comes through humility. By moving with the humility of Christ’s cross, by learning, by loving, and by letting God take the lead, joy continues to come to us and to the whole world.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

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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