Preached at Unity Lutheran Church in Berwyn, Illinois, April 14, 2017.
You will hear the question from time to time, often from a friend, coworker, or classmate, or maybe even from that voice in the back of your own head… The questioning goes like this: “why the cross? It’s so morbid. Why wear that gruesome thing around your neck or put it up in a church? Isn’t that just a holdover from a less enlightened, more barbaric time?”
And there are often no satisfactory answers to these questions. Any attempt to explain the cross often raises many more, in fact. It is deeply paradoxical and resists any attempts to resolve its tensions. Perhaps you feel that tension even today, right now. In darkness, with the altar stripped, we gather in a familiar place that looks unfamiliar. We gather in an extension of the contemplative silence of last night, yet still feeling no resolution. The readings we have heard are intense, even disturbing. Where is the good news in any of this?
The cross prompts, demands, this reflection; it does not resolve it. In the deepest of its tensions, the cross on one hand represents the worst of humanity, and on the other hand, it is the place where God comes most near to us.
Indeed, if ever there was an example of the human inclination to misuse resources, it is the cross. Imagine it: a tree, perhaps cypress or cedar, having grown for years, is unceremoniously cut down, hewn and planed…two planks fused together in that familiar shape…then dragged through the streets by a condemned man. This tree, used as an instrument of state violence and execution by a vast, oppressive empire. Humans took from the earth, and used the product to destroy: destroy dignity, destroy identity, destroy life.
And before you think this is a phenomenon confined to Roman history, please be assured that the forces that gave rise to the cross still operate today. We still, as a society, unjustly allocate resources, whether through skewed tax codes or social services left unfunded due to a lack of state budget in Illinois; the state still executes human beings…there are nine such executions scheduled this month alone, including 7 men over 11 days in Arkansas; we still take from the earth and with little regard for sustainability or the wellbeing of creation. It is right and good that we should repent of these sinful actions and mentalities. In the cross, and all it represented and still represents…in the cross we come face to face with the full gravity of our human brokenness.
And yet the cross is where God chooses to come closest to humanity. In the clearest, darkest expression of our sin, that is where God meets us. God’s work through Christ on the cross, once and for all, is a bold proclamation: God’s power and gift of life are most apparent in that most radically unlikely of places; that thing that could not possibly be redeemed, that which we would most like to forget, that is ultimately the means of redemption for the entire world. An instrument of death becomes the tree of life.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I would rather God not meet me in my sin and shame. I would much rather keep that part of myself hidden, bringing only to God that which I have prepared and polished, showing off how composed and with-it and together I am. But that picture will always be incomplete, and God meets us not as we would want but as we most need. The totality of God’s love and grace must meet the totality of our humanity, and that includes our brokenness, our sin, the cross.
This is certainly not easy, coming face to face with brokenness and the way it diminishes the life and dignity of others, creation, and ourselves…it’s not easy, but it is necessary. It’s also not the end.
In Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-Step programs, great meaning is often communicated through short, seemingly banal cliches. Sayings like “First Things First,” “Easy Does It,” or “One Day at a Time” don’t immediately communicate much, but for those in the program, they can convey life-and-death truth. For someone in the grips of withdrawal, for example, hearing that really all you have to get through is one day can be the very thing that staves off relapse.
One such saying is “Keep Coming Back,” often said at the end of meetings, or to someone who is experiencing doubt: doubt in the program, doubt in themselves, or doubt that anything can ever be different. It encourages that person to see the potential for transformation, even if it seems far away or impossible now. “Keep coming back” serves as both an acknowledgment of where they are, and an assurance that another way is possible.
On this Good Friday, this short, powerful mantra can be a guide for our reflection: we acknowledge, confess, and repent for the brokenness in ourselves, in our relationships, and in the world. But that cannot be the end of our process. It might, indeed, be tempting to wallow in sorrow and shame, embarrassment and denial. Sometimes the task seems too great; the divide between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be seems too wide; and what can we, in our sin and mortal limitation, do about it anyway?
To that I say: this is not the end of our story, that even today on this Good Friday, we gather as people of resurrection, as the Body of Christ…So:
Keep coming back,
Keep coming back,
Keep coming back.