A Sermon for Holy Cross Day

Preacher’s Note: It’s been a minute since I posted a new sermon on this site. Between moving, getting ordained, and starting a new call, life’s been… hectic. By my count, I have four sermons to catch up on posting, so for the first few days this week, I’ll plan to post a sermon a day until I’m caught up! And then, hopefully, I can stay on top of posting regularly and in a timely fashion once again. (Hopefully!)

+Pr. Josh

A note on this sermon: This sermon predates my last published sermon, as it was preached for the call committee at Unity while I was still in the process of interviewing there. Now that my call is long since publicly official, I can at last share this short “sermonette” on one of the texts from Holy Cross Day (September 14).

Unity Lutheran Church, Brookfield
24 September 2018 + Holy Cross Day (observed)
1 Corinthians 1.18-24
Josh Evans, preaching

The cross is everywhere. It’s on our steeples and in our chancels. We carry the cross in procession and embroider it on our vestments and altar hangings. Some of us wear cross necklaces or even have cross tattoos. In baptism, we are physically marked with the cross of Christ, and we make the sign of the cross on our bodies.

We see the cross in so many places that I’m willing to bet we don’t really even think much about what it symbolizes anymore — I mean, what it actually symbolizes. The cross isn’t just what Jesus died on. It’s what the powerful Roman Empire used to brutally silence anyone suspected of treason and pretty much anything else. The cross was an instrument of execution. And yet, here it is: the symbol of our faith. It would be like the modern equivalent of hanging a giant syringe or electric chair on the wall. Foolishness. And, admittedly, a little unsettling.

The passage from 1 Corinthians we just heard comes from the set of readings assigned to Holy Cross Day, a festival of the church year celebrated every September 14th. Holy Cross Day traces its roots back to the fourth century, when Helena, the mother of Constantine, the first Christian ruler of the Roman Empire, was overseeing some archaeological digs in the Holy Land. At one excavation site, she unearthed what she believed to be the true cross of Jesus, a relic which quickly became an object of veneration for pilgrims visiting Jerusalem — at the site over which the Church of the Resurrection now stands.

It’s doubtful that Helena and her archaeologists actually discovered the true cross, but they did give us this festival day, another sacred opportunity pause and focus on the cross. Holy Cross Day is actually a prime day for us Lutherans. Owing to our namesake Martin Luther, we have in fact been called theologians of the cross. We place our emphasis on the cross because we believe that we can’t have Easter without Good Friday, or resurrection without death.

One of my favorite days in the church year (besides Holy Cross Day!) is Good Friday, the day we gather not to mourn Christ’s death but to proclaim the triumph of the cross. Foolishness, some might say. In many churches on Good Friday, a large wooden cross is carried in procession and placed in the midst of the assembly. This year, I stood with my congregation literally around the cross for the closing hymn, and we sang one of my favorites, “Holy God, Holy and Glorious.” This stunning hymn text holds together several paradoxes and seeming contradictions: The holy and glorious God comes as one among us into human time. The holy and powerful God bends to us in weakness. The holy and wise God chooses the way of folly — foolishness — and becomes God the crucified.

This is the message of the cross: God’s glory and majesty and saving power come to us in the least of all expected places. An instrument of torture and execution becomes a symbol of life and victory over death.

In a time when the institutional church as we know it is itself dying, the message of the cross might not seem the best evangelism tactic.

For some demand signs How many do you worship on Sunday? How many small groups does your church have? What are the numbers on your latest parochial report? What about the budget?

…and some desire wisdom How many books on theology have you read? Do you have all the answers to life’s questions?

But we proclaim Christ crucified a stumbling block to those who want to see signs and foolishness to those to want all the easy answers.

The cross is why we are here. It doesn’t make much sense out there, and it’s not going to be the most popular message to proclaim. But it’s what we have. And it’s absolutely necessary.

The cross stands at the center of our faith and our life together. It is indeed the very reason we keep showing up Sunday after Sunday and Good Friday after Good Friday because we need to keep hearing this message. The cross shows us where God is — in the foolish, despised, rejected things of this world.

I wear this pectoral cross every time I preach. It was given to me several years ago by a woman who visited seminary with me when we were both prospective students. This particular cross comes from Ecclesia Ministries, an outdoor “street church” ministry she serves in Cincinnati, geared toward those who are experiencing homelessness, bringing church to where the people are. For me, this cross has become a reminder of where we are called to go and be the church.

The cross is our calling as the church. It calls us outside these walls, to the margins, alongside the suffering, to proclaim the message that God meets us where we are, as we are. The message of the cross proclaims that God is for us and with us, not against us, that God loves us fiercely, no matter what. That’s not something that really makes any sense. It’s foolishness. But it’s true. It is life in the midst of death, hope in the midst of desperation, love in the midst of what divides us.

The message of the cross is foolishness. But it is everything.

Thanks be to God.

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