March 4, 2012
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
The world likes to read things thinly. Words, events, pieces of writing have only one meaning, one purpose, one layer today. Listen to the political rhetoric (although do not listen too long!) and you will hear that there is only one way of doing things. It is all good or it is all evil. Compromise is now heresy. Dialogue has been confused with treason. Ideological loyalty trumps reason.
But life is more complicated than that, isn’t it? We are not just this label or that label. We are not “just” anything. Each one of us is a conglomeration of needs, wants and desires. Each one of us made in the image and likeness of One who defies description.
Like our lives, the Bible is meant to be read thickly, like poetry, like song lyrics, like, well, let’s face it, like scripture. But in turbulent times, it gets a thin reading at best. We reduce it down to a few select verses, interpreted only one way, and that is what the Bible says.
Twentieth century American fundamentalism saw the atrocities of World War I, the encroachment of science into the realm of human meaning and purpose, and the libertine ways that Prohibition ironically encouraged, and fought back with a thin reading of the Bible: Here is what it means for now and for all times, for all people everywhere.
How differently the Good Book was read in South Korea, in Honduras, in Haiti, in South Africa! Retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu said the worst thing the white South Africans could do if they wanted to keep the blacks in line was give them the Bible. Read by the whites, it was about personal salvation and not rocking the boat. What better to give them than this means of social stability sanctioned by God?
Read by the blacks it was about getting out of the brickyards of Egypt, surviving and facing down the empires of Babylon, Persia and Rome, and being fully recognized as children of God. What better to give them than the idea that God cares for the oppressed?
The cross also gets thinly read. It has become jewelry, or a tattoo, either a sign of our Christianity, or because it is fashionable. It is the reminder, sometimes deeply and heartfelt, of Jesus dying for our sins. It is shorthand for Christianity and the church.
The cross, too, must be interpreted thickly. We will not squeeze all of the meaning out of it. We cannot.
The cross was a symbol of imperial power. Not as an emblem or a logo, that would have to wait for Constantine several centuries later. From the Seleucid Greeks to the Carthaginians to the Romans, the cross was used as a torturous way of killing people. Some have said it is the equivalent of the electric chair or the lethal injection gurney. Except that it was the electric chair placed on top of a billboard by the highway; the lethal injection gurney placed on the exit sign by the off ramp. It was painful (the word excruciating comes from the Latin for “of crucifixion”), it was public (on a hill or roadside), it was humiliating and shameful (you would be naked), it was filthy, and it was unclean according to the Torah, because the body was left for a long time.
During the slave revolt led by Spartacus, 6,000 crucifixions lined the road from Capua to Rome. In Roman ruled areas, crucifixion was reserved for slaves, for pirates and for outlaws, those who actively opposed Roman rule. Roman citizens were spared crucifixion for the more humane beheading. Thieves were not crucified. The word sometimes translated as thieves for those crucified with Jesus is better said “bandits.”
Jesus’ followers knew this. They all knew that the cross was the symbol of Roman power, of the ability for some human beings to put others to death legally, painfully, and publically. And because they were raised in thick readings of scripture, they knew that this image was a symbol for the ways of death, the ways of Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar and empire and oppression.
Jesus says “if you want to follow me, take up your cross.” This is not simply belief. He is saying that the Christian journey is how we engage the world, living with all allegiance to God and none to Rome. Have no illusions that if you are doing it right, you could get in trouble.
The political reading of the cross is not the only reading. Otherwise we are simply reading thinly in a different way.
The cross is also God’s foolish way of breaking in.
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing,
but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
In the cross, we find that God’s love is revealed the most in human suffering. Not as the cause of suffering, but in powerful answer and opposition to it. Rome crucified Christ with the weight of the law and keeping order on its side. But in the cross, such law was revealed for what it is – the weight of empire, the ways of death.
In the resurrection, the power of death is denied and the power of God is revealed. Not even the ability of Rome to painfully, shamefully, and publically kill those who deny Rome for the sake of God has final say. That belongs to God.
Last week when I announced that Mary and I lost the pregnancy, I heard some of your stories of loss. Some could speak. Others could only say “I’m sorry.” I understand. I told Mary that if I could come up with something better than “I’m sorry” to say I would. We are getting through this because we are in it together, even thought we experience it very differently, and we know that there is more than the suffering.
And here is where the foolishness of God is wiser than the world. Because the world wants the front, the good show, the toughness, the “never let them see you sweat,” the illusion of independence. But our lives are not like that. We suffer. Our experiences of suffering may be very different, but we suffer. And that is where God’s love is made known to us. That we are not alone. We have one another. And God has us.
And there is more than suffering. The way to Easter is through the cross. Because the love of God is deep enough to take whatever is painful, or shameful, or humiliating, whatever suffering we may know, and make something new. There is no suffering too great that God cannot hold it and meet it with love, with grace, with forgiveness, with peace.
This is foolishness to the world. But to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.