Homily for March 15, 2008- Lent 3

Exodus 20:1-17 Then God spoke all these words: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work–you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour. You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

Psalm 19 The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat. The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.

19:14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

John 2:13-22 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

A ten-year-old boy was failing math. His parents tried everything from tutors to hypnosis, to no avail. Finally, at the insistence of a family friend, they decided to enroll their son in a private Catholic school.

After the first day, the boy’s parents were surprised when he walked in after school with a stern, focused and very determined expression on his face, and went right past them straight to his room, where he quietly closed the door. For nearly two hours he toiled away in his room, with math books strewn about his desk and the surrounding floor. He emerged long enough to eat, and after quickly cleaning his plate, went straight back to his room, closed the door, and worked feverishly at his studies until bedtime.

This pattern continued ceaselessly until it was time for the first quarter report card. The boy walked in with his report card — unopened — laid it on the dinner table and went straight to his room. Cautiously, his mother opened it, and to her amazement, she saw a bright red “A” under the subject of Mathematics.

Overjoyed, she and her husband rushed into their son’s room, thrilled at his remarkable progress, and wondering what had made it all happen. “Was it the nuns?,” the father asked. The boy shook his head and said, “No.” “Was it the one-on-one tutoring? The peer-mentoring?” “No.” “Different textbooks? teachers? curriculum?”

“No,” said the son. “It wasn’t all that stuff. On that first day, when I walked in the front door and saw the guy nailed to the ‘plus sign,’ I just knew they meant business!”

St. Paul has got it right when he says: “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” There have been so many competing and conflicting views about the reason for the Cross, its value, its purpose etc. that Lent can be a very confusing season when it urges us to “take up our cross,” and “lift high the cross,” etc. Actually interpreting what the cross means for us can be a difficult and uncomfortable challenge.

I saw an ad that shows a church message board, displaying the following message: “This Sunday: SACRIFICE. BETRAYAL. DEATH. Don’t forget to bring the kids.” It’s almost like we ought to place a warning on the bulletin board that says, “Warning, mature subject matter.”

Our traditional conception of what the Cross means is based in large part on a particular interpretation of a passage in the book of Genesis. The story of Adam and Eve, interpreted literally by early church leaders, came to mean a variety of things, but the key thing was that Adam and Eve, by their rebellion against the rules, caused what came to be known as “original sin,” a condition we all inherit because we are all supposedly ancestors of those two individuals. According to this view, God is all about rules, and human beings are incapable of keeping them so there is a permanent flaw between humanity and God.

Clearly, as we understand now, the story is a myth. A myth attempts to explain a difficult and mysterious aspect of human nature – in this case our tendency to be self-serving, cruel, and distant from God. Myths can and do speak eloquently to the deeper mysteries of life. Unfortunately, the whole thing, with talking snakes, magical fruit that can give you divine powers, and God walking around in the garden like a live-in grandparent, was taken literally, as a real, historic event. And the story, understood literally, was used by the Church to make people believe they were inherently bad, if not downright evil. Elaborate explanations were put forward, by the best theologians, for how the state of sin was transmitted. Guilt about people’s basic undesirability was used to manipulate them, making them feel bad about themselves one way or another, whether for having original sin in the first place or for causing Jesus to suffer or for being unable to please God. The result was a huge preoccupation with sin and human unworthiness, and a distorted and miserable relationship between human beings and God. Appeasement and escape became the primary objectives of medieval religion. In our time, this distorted view is a major part of the reason why people are turning their backs on God and the Church.

I don’t know about you, but for me, the image of God punishing children, or punishing Jesus – for sins or whatever – is repugnant and offensive, It would also seem to be a contradiction of the image of God Jesus seemed to operate by and expressed in his teaching. I think if your primary orientation to anything is fear, the typical tendency would be to avoid it at all costs. How misleading, even tragic, that God has been cast in that light!

But, what if there is no “original sin” in the first place? Theologians like Matthew Fox argue that we should understand Genesis as the story of “original blessing” and if you look at the opening chapters of Genesis, where God is described as naming everything as “good” or “Very good,” and everything seems very coherent and harmonious, that interpretation of the divine intention seems to make a lot of sense.

For me, the whole “fall and redemption” dynamic is in question, and if so, what is the meaning or significance of the Cross? For one thing, it means that Jesus’ suffering and death are not undertaken to appease an angry or disappointed God, so it must have additional if not completely other meanings. Paul acknowledges how difficult it is to comprehend the meaning of the Cross, but it can’t simply be dismissed. You have to take seriously any gesture that is self-sacrificing to that degree: Jesus’ decision to sacrifice himself gets your attention, if not your sympathy and devotion.

The Cross certainly represents a tremendous act of faith – it says something about the God Jesus believed in that he would put his life on the line in that way. I think of the Buddhist monks who, during the Viet Nam war, lit themselves on fire and burned themselves to death to protest the violence. The Cross is a precedent that gives meaning and incentive to all unselfish, sacrificial acts – and under this banner you could include people like Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila, Agnes MacPhail, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Harvey Milk. The Cross, on one level, is foolishness, as Paul acknowledges. But, as William Willimon said: “What sensible person would wish the pain of childbirth if she sensibly thought of all the dirty diapers, the risks and inconveniences of child-rearing? If it weren’t for the foolishness of our forebears, we wouldn’t be here.”

The Cross is the definitive sign and precedent which declares that sacrifice is not meaningless — it has created an expectation that sacrifice will make a difference. St. Paul teaches that “the cross is the power of God.” Indeed, Jesus’ actions speak of a different kind of power — not military, political, economic, social or even religious power — and obliges us to re-think what power truly means. The Cross is a message about the power of sacrifice and the power of non-violence, the power of faith. It is a sign that confronts the prevailing powers and wisdom of the world, especially when they lapse into tyranny and oppression.

In turn the Cross becomes symbolic of the importance of risk – of offering your life – and not just playing it safe, or burying your talents in the ground. It is a powerful message about commitment, about persisting in doing what is right, despite the repercussions.

The Cross also stands as a symbol of the world’s blindness, obstinacy and brutality, and raises the question of why we so often choose the way of violence, and why, simply in order to protect our own turf, our own ego, we deny, exclude and even sacrifice so many people. As such, if we are prepared to be honest, the Cross may be a mirror in which we see ourselves – both the heights and depths, and the agony and the ecstasy, of human life.

Scholar Frances Young (professor of theology at U of Birmingham, 1971-2005) says “without the cross it would be impossible to believe in God” – her idea being that the cross suggests that God is with us, in the midst of suffering, and that the suffering of the world would be overwhelming and unbearable if we felt that God was simply aloof and uninvolved. The Cross may bring God nearer to us, and give God a human face, a human dimension. The Cross may teach us that redemption may be found through suffering – that suffering is not necessarily meaningless. As Dr Young says: “In the end Jesus did not waft away the darkness of the world, all its sin and suffering and hurt and evil, with a magic wand. He entered right into it, took it upon himself, bore it, and in the process turned it into glory, transformed it.”

The Cross brings liberation – from fear of death certainly – but also from fear of religious and other forms of tyranny – as I think Jesus demonstrates in today’s Gospel of the clearing of the Temple, religion can easily bog down in legalism and proper procedures and political correctness and entirely lose the point of its purpose!

The Cross may be a window through which we are able to see what divine love looks like. As the mystic Julian of Norwich said, “Love was his meaning.” The cross reveals the power of love — a self-giving love that brings new life. To me, the Cross is, above all, a sign of God’s love, which says God will go to any length to offer us new life. As Jesus said, “It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

Is the cross folly? Is it nonsense? Or is it the defining act of human history, an expression of the profoundest love ever seen, revealing the true meaning of existence? Is it an inspiring act of human courage and character, or is it ultimately a divine gesture so beyond logic, reason, precedent and convention, that it breaks through our consciousness and creates a new reality?

The Cross remains one of the big question marks in history, raising questions about evil, human injustice and cruelty, suffering, the apparent absence of God, and the apparent futility of faith. It raises huge questions about the motivation of Jesus. Is the Cross an isolated, individual act? I don’t think so – I believe it is of monumental significance, but to what degree it is a representative death, a substitutionary sacrifice, I don’t know. I think it is important for each of us to wrestle with it and ponder it in order to discern whether the Cross is a sign and symbol of God’s love for us individually.

Like much of what Jesus said and did, on the surface, the Cross doesn’t appear to make any sense at all. It is “counter-intuitive.” And Paul does warn us to beware of trying to make the Cross comprehensible according to any logical/philosophical or even miraculous understanding – it does not fit neatly into existing categories but is a reality that stands on its own. As he says in the next chapter, it must be “spiritually discerned” (1Cor. 2:14). In other words, we need a different kind of wisdom in order to comprehend, because the Cross doesn’t yield its meaning to logic or simple cause and effect reasoning — its truth comes to those who know by way of faith, and who trust Christ enough to take up their cross and follow him. Its truth becomes valid experientially, rather than intellectually or logically. Invariably, those who do trust it, and begin to live their lives by it, find that it no longer seems foolish or irrational to say, as our faith tradition does, that the Cross is the way of life.

rhgr+

Exodus 20:1-17 Then God spoke all these words: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work–you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour. You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

Psalm 19 The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat. The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.

19:14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

John 2:13-22 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

A ten-year-old boy was failing math. His parents tried everything from tutors to hypnosis, to no avail. Finally, at the insistence of a family friend, they decided to enroll their son in a private Catholic school.

After the first day, the boy’s parents were surprised when he walked in after school with a stern, focused and very determined expression on his face, and went right past them straight to his room, where he quietly closed the door. For nearly two hours he toiled away in his room, with math books strewn about his desk and the surrounding floor. He emerged long enough to eat, and after quickly cleaning his plate, went straight back to his room, closed the door, and worked feverishly at his studies until bedtime.

This pattern continued ceaselessly until it was time for the first quarter report card. The boy walked in with his report card — unopened — laid it on the dinner table and went straight to his room. Cautiously, his mother opened it, and to her amazement, she saw a bright red “A” under the subject of Mathematics.

Overjoyed, she and her husband rushed into their son’s room, thrilled at his remarkable progress, and wondering what had made it all happen. “Was it the nuns?,” the father asked. The boy shook his head and said, “No.” “Was it the one-on-one tutoring? The peer-mentoring?” “No.” “Different textbooks? teachers? curriculum?”

“No,” said the son. “It wasn’t all that stuff. On that first day, when I walked in the front door and saw the guy nailed to the ‘plus sign,’ I just knew they meant business!”

St. Paul has got it right when he says: “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” There have been so many competing and conflicting views about the reason for the Cross, its value, its purpose etc. that Lent can be a very confusing season when it urges us to “take up our cross,” and “lift high the cross,” etc. Actually interpreting what the cross means for us can be a difficult and uncomfortable challenge.

I saw an ad that shows a church message board, displaying the following message: “This Sunday: SACRIFICE. BETRAYAL. DEATH. Don’t forget to bring the kids.” It’s almost like we ought to place a warning on the bulletin board that says, “Warning, mature subject matter.”

Our traditional conception of what the Cross means is based in large part on a particular interpretation of a passage in the book of Genesis. The story of Adam and Eve, interpreted literally by early church leaders, came to mean a variety of things, but the key thing was that Adam and Eve, by their rebellion against the rules, caused what came to be known as “original sin,” a condition we all inherit because we are all supposedly ancestors of those two individuals. According to this view, God is all about rules, and human beings are incapable of keeping them so there is a permanent flaw between humanity and God.

Clearly, as we understand now, the story is a myth. A myth attempts to explain a difficult and mysterious aspect of human nature – in this case our tendency to be self-serving, cruel, and distant from God. Myths can and do speak eloquently to the deeper mysteries of life. Unfortunately, the whole thing, with talking snakes, magical fruit that can give you divine powers, and God walking around in the garden like a live-in grandparent, was taken literally, as a real, historic event. And the story, understood literally, was used by the Church to make people believe they were inherently bad, if not downright evil. Elaborate explanations were put forward, by the best theologians, for how the state of sin was transmitted. Guilt about people’s basic undesirability was used to manipulate them, making them feel bad about themselves one way or another, whether for having original sin in the first place or for causing Jesus to suffer or for being unable to please God. The result was a huge preoccupation with sin and human unworthiness, and a distorted and miserable relationship between human beings and God. Appeasement and escape became the primary objectives of medieval religion. In our time, this distorted view is a major part of the reason why people are turning their backs on God and the Church.

I don’t know about you, but for me, the image of God punishing children, or punishing Jesus – for sins or whatever – is repugnant and offensive, It would also seem to be a contradiction of the image of God Jesus seemed to operate by and expressed in his teaching. I think if your primary orientation to anything is fear, the typical tendency would be to avoid it at all costs. How misleading, even tragic, that God has been cast in that light!

But, what if there is no “original sin” in the first place? Theologians like Matthew Fox argue that we should understand Genesis as the story of “original blessing” and if you look at the opening chapters of Genesis, where God is described as naming everything as “good” or “Very good,” and everything seems very coherent and harmonious, that interpretation of the divine intention seems to make a lot of sense.

For me, the whole “fall and redemption” dynamic is in question, and if so, what is the meaning or significance of the Cross? For one thing, it means that Jesus’ suffering and death are not undertaken to appease an angry or disappointed God, so it must have additional if not completely other meanings. Paul acknowledges how difficult it is to comprehend the meaning of the Cross, but it can’t simply be dismissed. You have to take seriously any gesture that is self-sacrificing to that degree: Jesus’ decision to sacrifice himself gets your attention, if not your sympathy and devotion.

The Cross certainly represents a tremendous act of faith – it says something about the God Jesus believed in that he would put his life on the line in that way. I think of the Buddhist monks who, during the Viet Nam war, lit themselves on fire and burned themselves to death to protest the violence. The Cross is a precedent that gives meaning and incentive to all unselfish, sacrificial acts – and under this banner you could include people like Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila, Agnes MacPhail, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Harvey Milk. The Cross, on one level, is foolishness, as Paul acknowledges. But, as William Willimon said: “What sensible person would wish the pain of childbirth if she sensibly thought of all the dirty diapers, the risks and inconveniences of child-rearing? If it weren’t for the foolishness of our forebears, we wouldn’t be here.”

The Cross is the definitive sign and precedent which declares that sacrifice is not meaningless — it has created an expectation that sacrifice will make a difference. St. Paul teaches that “the cross is the power of God.” Indeed, Jesus’ actions speak of a different kind of power — not military, political, economic, social or even religious power — and obliges us to re-think what power truly means. The Cross is a message about the power of sacrifice and the power of non-violence, the power of faith. It is a sign that confronts the prevailing powers and wisdom of the world, especially when they lapse into tyranny and oppression.

In turn the Cross becomes symbolic of the importance of risk – of offering your life – and not just playing it safe, or burying your talents in the ground. It is a powerful message about commitment, about persisting in doing what is right, despite the repercussions.

The Cross also stands as a symbol of the world’s blindness, obstinacy and brutality, and raises the question of why we so often choose the way of violence, and why, simply in order to protect our own turf, our own ego, we deny, exclude and even sacrifice so many people. As such, if we are prepared to be honest, the Cross may be a mirror in which we see ourselves – both the heights and depths, and the agony and the ecstasy, of human life.

Scholar Frances Young (professor of theology at U of Birmingham, 1971-2005) says “without the cross it would be impossible to believe in God” – her idea being that the cross suggests that God is with us, in the midst of suffering, and that the suffering of the world would be overwhelming and unbearable if we felt that God was simply aloof and uninvolved. The Cross may bring God nearer to us, and give God a human face, a human dimension. The Cross may teach us that redemption may be found through suffering – that suffering is not necessarily meaningless. As Dr Young says: “In the end Jesus did not waft away the darkness of the world, all its sin and suffering and hurt and evil, with a magic wand. He entered right into it, took it upon himself, bore it, and in the process turned it into glory, transformed it.”

The Cross brings liberation – from fear of death certainly – but also from fear of religious and other forms of tyranny – as I think Jesus demonstrates in today’s Gospel of the clearing of the Temple, religion can easily bog down in legalism and proper procedures and political correctness and entirely lose the point of its purpose!

The Cross may be a window through which we are able to see what divine love looks like. As the mystic Julian of Norwich said, “Love was his meaning.” The cross reveals the power of love — a self-giving love that brings new life. To me, the Cross is, above all, a sign of God’s love, which says God will go to any length to offer us new life. As Jesus said, “It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

Is the cross folly? Is it nonsense? Or is it the defining act of human history, an expression of the profoundest love ever seen, revealing the true meaning of existence? Is it an inspiring act of human courage and character, or is it ultimately a divine gesture so beyond logic, reason, precedent and convention, that it breaks through our consciousness and creates a new reality?

The Cross remains one of the big question marks in history, raising questions about evil, human injustice and cruelty, suffering, the apparent absence of God, and the apparent futility of faith. It raises huge questions about the motivation of Jesus. Is the Cross an isolated, individual act? I don’t think so – I believe it is of monumental significance, but to what degree it is a representative death, a substitutionary sacrifice, I don’t know. I think it is important for each of us to wrestle with it and ponder it in order to discern whether the Cross is a sign and symbol of God’s love for us individually.

Like much of what Jesus said and did, on the surface, the Cross doesn’t appear to make any sense at all. It is “counter-intuitive.” And Paul does warn us to beware of trying to make the Cross comprehensible according to any logical/philosophical or even miraculous understanding – it does not fit neatly into existing categories but is a reality that stands on its own. As he says in the next chapter, it must be “spiritually discerned” (1Cor. 2:14). In other words, we need a different kind of wisdom in order to comprehend, because the Cross doesn’t yield its meaning to logic or simple cause and effect reasoning — its truth comes to those who know by way of faith, and who trust Christ enough to take up their cross and follow him. Its truth becomes valid experientially, rather than intellectually or logically. Invariably, those who do trust it, and begin to live their lives by it, find that it no longer seems foolish or irrational to say, as our faith tradition does, that the Cross is the way of life.

rhgr+

Exodus 20:1-17 Then God spoke all these words: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work–you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour. You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

Psalm 19 The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat. The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.

19:14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

John 2:13-22 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

A ten-year-old boy was failing math. His parents tried everything from tutors to hypnosis, to no avail. Finally, at the insistence of a family friend, they decided to enroll their son in a private Catholic school.

After the first day, the boy’s parents were surprised when he walked in after school with a stern, focused and very determined expression on his face, and went right past them straight to his room, where he quietly closed the door. For nearly two hours he toiled away in his room, with math books strewn about his desk and the surrounding floor. He emerged long enough to eat, and after quickly cleaning his plate, went straight back to his room, closed the door, and worked feverishly at his studies until bedtime.

This pattern continued ceaselessly until it was time for the first quarter report card. The boy walked in with his report card — unopened — laid it on the dinner table and went straight to his room. Cautiously, his mother opened it, and to her amazement, she saw a bright red “A” under the subject of Mathematics.

Overjoyed, she and her husband rushed into their son’s room, thrilled at his remarkable progress, and wondering what had made it all happen. “Was it the nuns?,” the father asked. The boy shook his head and said, “No.” “Was it the one-on-one tutoring? The peer-mentoring?” “No.” “Different textbooks? teachers? curriculum?”

“No,” said the son. “It wasn’t all that stuff. On that first day, when I walked in the front door and saw the guy nailed to the ‘plus sign,’ I just knew they meant business!”

St. Paul has got it right when he says: “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” There have been so many competing and conflicting views about the reason for the Cross, its value, its purpose etc. that Lent can be a very confusing season when it urges us to “take up our cross,” and “lift high the cross,” etc. Actually interpreting what the cross means for us can be a difficult and uncomfortable challenge.

I saw an ad that shows a church message board, displaying the following message: “This Sunday: SACRIFICE. BETRAYAL. DEATH. Don’t forget to bring the kids.” It’s almost like we ought to place a warning on the bulletin board that says, “Warning, mature subject matter.”

Our traditional conception of what the Cross means is based in large part on a particular interpretation of a passage in the book of Genesis. The story of Adam and Eve, interpreted literally by early church leaders, came to mean a variety of things, but the key thing was that Adam and Eve, by their rebellion against the rules, caused what came to be known as “original sin,” a condition we all inherit because we are all supposedly ancestors of those two individuals. According to this view, God is all about rules, and human beings are incapable of keeping them so there is a permanent flaw between humanity and God.

Clearly, as we understand now, the story is a myth. A myth attempts to explain a difficult and mysterious aspect of human nature – in this case our tendency to be self-serving, cruel, and distant from God. Myths can and do speak eloquently to the deeper mysteries of life. Unfortunately, the whole thing, with talking snakes, magical fruit that can give you divine powers, and God walking around in the garden like a live-in grandparent, was taken literally, as a real, historic event. And the story, understood literally, was used by the Church to make people believe they were inherently bad, if not downright evil. Elaborate explanations were put forward, by the best theologians, for how the state of sin was transmitted. Guilt about people’s basic undesirability was used to manipulate them, making them feel bad about themselves one way or another, whether for having original sin in the first place or for causing Jesus to suffer or for being unable to please God. The result was a huge preoccupation with sin and human unworthiness, and a distorted and miserable relationship between human beings and God. Appeasement and escape became the primary objectives of medieval religion. In our time, this distorted view is a major part of the reason why people are turning their backs on God and the Church.

I don’t know about you, but for me, the image of God punishing children, or punishing Jesus – for sins or whatever – is repugnant and offensive, It would also seem to be a contradiction of the image of God Jesus seemed to operate by and expressed in his teaching. I think if your primary orientation to anything is fear, the typical tendency would be to avoid it at all costs. How misleading, even tragic, that God has been cast in that light!

But, what if there is no “original sin” in the first place? Theologians like Matthew Fox argue that we should understand Genesis as the story of “original blessing” and if you look at the opening chapters of Genesis, where God is described as naming everything as “good” or “Very good,” and everything seems very coherent and harmonious, that interpretation of the divine intention seems to make a lot of sense.

For me, the whole “fall and redemption” dynamic is in question, and if so, what is the meaning or significance of the Cross? For one thing, it means that Jesus’ suffering and death are not undertaken to appease an angry or disappointed God, so it must have additional if not completely other meanings. Paul acknowledges how difficult it is to comprehend the meaning of the Cross, but it can’t simply be dismissed. You have to take seriously any gesture that is self-sacrificing to that degree: Jesus’ decision to sacrifice himself gets your attention, if not your sympathy and devotion.

The Cross certainly represents a tremendous act of faith – it says something about the God Jesus believed in that he would put his life on the line in that way. I think of the Buddhist monks who, during the Viet Nam war, lit themselves on fire and burned themselves to death to protest the violence. The Cross is a precedent that gives meaning and incentive to all unselfish, sacrificial acts – and under this banner you could include people like Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila, Agnes MacPhail, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Harvey Milk. The Cross, on one level, is foolishness, as Paul acknowledges. But, as William Willimon said: “What sensible person would wish the pain of childbirth if she sensibly thought of all the dirty diapers, the risks and inconveniences of child-rearing? If it weren’t for the foolishness of our forebears, we wouldn’t be here.”

The Cross is the definitive sign and precedent which declares that sacrifice is not meaningless — it has created an expectation that sacrifice will make a difference. St. Paul teaches that “the cross is the power of God.” Indeed, Jesus’ actions speak of a different kind of power — not military, political, economic, social or even religious power — and obliges us to re-think what power truly means. The Cross is a message about the power of sacrifice and the power of non-violence, the power of faith. It is a sign that confronts the prevailing powers and wisdom of the world, especially when they lapse into tyranny and oppression.

In turn the Cross becomes symbolic of the importance of risk – of offering your life – and not just playing it safe, or burying your talents in the ground. It is a powerful message about commitment, about persisting in doing what is right, despite the repercussions.

The Cross also stands as a symbol of the world’s blindness, obstinacy and brutality, and raises the question of why we so often choose the way of violence, and why, simply in order to protect our own turf, our own ego, we deny, exclude and even sacrifice so many people. As such, if we are prepared to be honest, the Cross may be a mirror in which we see ourselves – both the heights and depths, and the agony and the ecstasy, of human life.

Scholar Frances Young (professor of theology at U of Birmingham, 1971-2005) says “without the cross it would be impossible to believe in God” – her idea being that the cross suggests that God is with us, in the midst of suffering, and that the suffering of the world would be overwhelming and unbearable if we felt that God was simply aloof and uninvolved. The Cross may bring God nearer to us, and give God a human face, a human dimension. The Cross may teach us that redemption may be found through suffering – that suffering is not necessarily meaningless. As Dr Young says: “In the end Jesus did not waft away the darkness of the world, all its sin and suffering and hurt and evil, with a magic wand. He entered right into it, took it upon himself, bore it, and in the process turned it into glory, transformed it.”

The Cross brings liberation – from fear of death certainly – but also from fear of religious and other forms of tyranny – as I think Jesus demonstrates in today’s Gospel of the clearing of the Temple, religion can easily bog down in legalism and proper procedures and political correctness and entirely lose the point of its purpose!

The Cross may be a window through which we are able to see what divine love looks like. As the mystic Julian of Norwich said, “Love was his meaning.” The cross reveals the power of love — a self-giving love that brings new life. To me, the Cross is, above all, a sign of God’s love, which says God will go to any length to offer us new life. As Jesus said, “It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

Is the cross folly? Is it nonsense? Or is it the defining act of human history, an expression of the profoundest love ever seen, revealing the true meaning of existence? Is it an inspiring act of human courage and character, or is it ultimately a divine gesture so beyond logic, reason, precedent and convention, that it breaks through our consciousness and creates a new reality?

The Cross remains one of the big question marks in history, raising questions about evil, human injustice and cruelty, suffering, the apparent absence of God, and the apparent futility of faith. It raises huge questions about the motivation of Jesus. Is the Cross an isolated, individual act? I don’t think so – I believe it is of monumental significance, but to what degree it is a representative death, a substitutionary sacrifice, I don’t know. I think it is important for each of us to wrestle with it and ponder it in order to discern whether the Cross is a sign and symbol of God’s love for us individually.

Like much of what Jesus said and did, on the surface, the Cross doesn’t appear to make any sense at all. It is “counter-intuitive.” And Paul does warn us to beware of trying to make the Cross comprehensible according to any logical/philosophical or even miraculous understanding – it does not fit neatly into existing categories but is a reality that stands on its own. As he says in the next chapter, it must be “spiritually discerned” (1Cor. 2:14). In other words, we need a different kind of wisdom in order to comprehend, because the Cross doesn’t yield its meaning to logic or simple cause and effect reasoning — its truth comes to those who know by way of faith, and who trust Christ enough to take up their cross and follow him. Its truth becomes valid experientially, rather than intellectually or logically. Invariably, those who do trust it, and begin to live their lives by it, find that it no longer seems foolish or irrational to say, as our faith tradition does, that the Cross is the way of life.

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