Holy Cross Day in the Diocese of Georgia

Sermons for Good Shepherd, Augusta and Christ Church, Savannah
September 14, 2008

There’s a fascinating dialogue going on in the gospel today between Jesus and the crowd, who struggle to understand who he is. Jesus tells them, walk in the light while you have the chance, believe in the light, give your hearts to it, so that you may become children of light. And then the rest of the verse 36, which we didn’t hear this morning, says, “After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.”

That’s a remarkable contrast – Jesus tells them to walk in the light while they can, and then he runs off to hide. But it’s not a new pattern. Jesus is alternately there and not there when people are in crisis – when he stirs up a near-riot in the synagogue in Nazareth and then disappears, he’s not there when the disciples are trying to row across the stormy sea in the middle of the night, the tomb is empty on Easter morning, and Jesus leaves them on the day we celebrate as Ascension. There’s something very important about Jesus’ absence. It’s as though he’s reminding his followers, or training them, to cope when he’s not physically in their midst. “How are you going to walk in the light when I am no longer walking around with you?”

Even the kind of crosses we use in our churches to remind ourselves of the central mystery of our faith speak the same message. How often do you see a cross up there that still has a body on it? Most of our crosses are empty, and most of the ones that do have a representation of God’s son show us the risen and victorious Christ rather than the suffering Jesus. Even the grisly crucifixes more common in Latin American churches show a body that is apparently no longer living. It’s as though Jesus is constantly reminding us of what the angel said, “he is not here, he is risen.”

There is something central to the Christian journey that has to do with living in that tension between “Immanuel, God with us,” and “Christ is not here, he is risen.” How do we walk in the light when we’re struggling to remember that God is still with us? How are the folks in Texas hanging on to a sense of the presence of God while they live through the dark night of the hurricane? How do you and I remember God with us when we get news of a dreaded diagnosis, or the divorce of one of our children, or the death of a dear friend? Maybe that’s what the Philippians author means by working out our salvation in fear and trembling. We’ve got to do the best we can to keep on walking through the darkness, equipped only with the memory of having walked in the light. It’s obviously not easy, for even Jesus wrestled with it in the Garden of Gethsemane and as he hung on the cross – “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If we are to have the same mind as Jesus, who was humble and obedient enough to die, you and I are also going to wrestle with God’s absence.

I don’t have an answer to those dark nights. But I do know that they are made more bearable by the presence of others. When Jesus asked his friends to watch with him through that long night in the garden, he was looking for some companionship and assurance. He didn’t get it that night except in the most passive way – his friends hung around, but they couldn’t even stay awake. He did get it at the foot of the cross, in the presence of the Marys and the beloved disciple. When we manage to stay awake and present to our friends’ terror and sense of abandonment, that is what we do for each other. We become God with skin on, if you will. We can become that presence for the folks in Texas and Haiti right now, and most of us know how – prayers for all, reaching out to those we know and don’t know, supporting the recovery in any way we can. It’s going to be a very long night. Disasters, human and natural, are often a time when parts of the human community respond with a superhuman, even divine, presence. We do become Christ for each other. That need for the faithfulness of others is one reason why none of us can be Christian alone.

I’ve met the crucified one not just in the crisis of disaster but in the crisis of long enduring that’s more like what the Hebrew people experienced in Egypt or Babylon, or under the Romans. Surviving a dark night that lasts years and even generations, without becoming the evil that permeates and shadows the night, is only possible when God is known and quite literally re-membered in community. The strength and identity of the Hebrew people was born out of their long nights when God seemed so absent – when they were wandering in the wilderness, or feeling abandoned in exile. The strong faith of many communities in Latin America is born of centuries of struggle to survive. The deep and enduring and vigorous Christian witness of the African American community in this country has roots buried in the experience of the cross of slavery. [Christ Church Savannah is discovering the crux of community in an experience of loss and absence.]

I’ve seen the long-suffering patience and impatience of Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, trying to recover the kind of life-giving community they’ve lost in recent decades. They call the aftermath of World War II nakba, the disaster. And 60 years later the Palestinian Christians of the West Bank and Gaza and east Jerusalem are still waiting for a real Easter. I celebrated Easter with the Bishop of Jerusalem this year, and he told me that most of the diocese was still in the midst of Lent. They would wait to celebrate Easter again with their Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters a few weeks later. I’m struck with the thought that not only is Lent a lot longer there, but they’ve found a way to remember Easter twice in one year.

We are not meant to celebrate the cross because of the suffering inflicted there – its glory is not the torture it inflicts but the way in which it eventually yields resurrection. We cannot stop at Good Friday, even if it seems to last for years. The rest of the body of Christ pulls us on toward Easter, like that remarkable icon that shows Jesus standing over the gates of hell and literally dragging Adam and Eve out by their wrists.

Jesus’ saving work involves both being born of human flesh and dying a human death. His life, death, and resurrection link heaven and earth, and as Jesus is lifted up on the cross, he draws all humanity to himself. Athanasius and Irenaeus long ago said that God became human in order that human beings might become divine. Because God has shared our human flesh, that very mortal flesh has been redeemed. God in the flesh invites us into being Christ to others, and that opportunity is the redemption and salvation of others, inasmuch as any of us can hope to do so. Our presence, our ministry, our Godward journey is an essential part of our neighbor’s salvation as well as our own.

What do we do when it feels like God has absconded? Or Jesus has run off and hidden from us? Cry out, lament, insist that someone come and be with us. Sometimes we all feel like a motherless child (so get down on your knees and pray). There is a reason for the existence of suicide hotlines – that last instinct to cry out for help. God does hear the cries of those who wander in the wilderness. And we are an essential part of the answer. We can share in Christ’s redemptive work, we can even become a sacrament of that work, as we gather around and hold other parts of his body close. We can re-member that body, put it back together again, heal and reconcile the world. The cross we see may be empty, and that emptiness can invite us to stand in solidarity with all those who are dying, lonely, and feeling abandoned. God is with us, in the skin of this very body of Christ.