When I survey…

April 10, 2022
Luke 23:13-27

The cross – how to get rid of it, how to live with it, how to make peace with it

We are entering a complex week. We call it Holy Week. Jesus arrives in Jerusalem after healing and teaching and restoring people to their families, and empowering the disempowered. His itinerant ministry and community organizing is a gift to many who find new understanding, new life, and new ways of being in the world. Jesus is celebrated with a welcome parade. But this same healing, restoration and empowerment is felt as a dangerous threat to those who hold political and religious power. The powerful have been plotting against Jesus for quite some time. This is the week that those plots culminate.

Add to the complexity of Holy Week our own raw grief in this community. In the last two weeks we have been walking with LeAnne and Kathleen and family as they marked the death of their beloved sister Jen; with Marc and Melanie and Amelia, Marlin and Christine upon the death of Joshua. We grieve with former members Crissie on the death of her mother Wilma, and Cheryl and her family at the death of her father, former HMC pastor Bob Schreiner. Add to these deaths the recent killing of DaQuon Dockery at the Mall at Prince Georges (by two teenage brothers,) the thousands upon thousands slaughtered in Ukraine, the ongoing Covid variations and deaths. How can we call this week Holy?

Congregations sings: VT 323

When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the prince of glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.

The title of this sermon is “When I survey” with a working subtitle: “The cross – how to get rid of it, how to live with it, how to make peace with it.” That is too much for one short sermon – the circular process of throwing it out, reluctantly accepting it, coming to the point of thinking maybe there is something there for us, only to wonder again if it isn’t just time to toss it. Don’t expect it all today. But please, consider this permission to take your own journey of struggle with the cross, to ask questions and struggle some more until like Jacob wrestling through the night by the river, you receive a blessing – that may make you limp forever.

The cross has long plagued me. I cannot make sense of how it becomes “wondrous.” We take this torture device and turn it into jewelry and art, into a symbol of hope. For much of traditional Christianity, the empty cross is a symbol of triumph, triumph over death. It is a way to show that God wins in the end and we can rest knowing that everything is gonna be all right.

Some Christian traditions give us not only the cross but Jesus’ suffering body on the cross. The crucifix appears in churches around the world as well as in schools and hospitals. Perhaps this symbolizes that the suffering Jesus is with us always, that Jesus suffers with us, that we are not alone in our suffering. And the crucifix, Jesus’ broken body on the cross, might be re-traumatizing for those who have experienced violence to their own bodies. Seeing the violated body of Jesus might not be healing but re-wounding.

Maybe my imagination isn’t big enough but I get stuck knowing that historically, the cross was a symbol and tool of torture for the Roman Empire. It was a threat and a symbol of power that the Romans used to terrorize. Crosses were lined up along main roads and then used for public torture and death; it was a gruesome way that Rome could keep the colonized, deserter soldiers and foreigners in line. There is a very good reason that Black theologian, James Cone, calls out the commonality between The Cross and the Lynching Tree. The cross and the lynching tree have both been used to terrorize people, to put people in their place, to make it clear who is in charge, to make it clear where the “real power” lies.

Yet we continue to wear crosses on our necks as jewelry, put them on our bodies as tattoos. How can we make sense of this? Can we make any sense of this?

Let’s listen to just a short part of the Passion story as we wrestle with the cross.

Pilate then called together the chief priests, the ruling class, and the people,  and said to them, “you have brought this person before me as someone who incites people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for any charge against him arising from your allegations.  Neither has Herod, for Jesus has been sent back to us. Obviously, he has done nothing to deserve death.  Therefore, I will punish Jesus, but then I will release him.”

Pilate was obligated to release one prisoner to the people at festival time.  The whole crowd cried out as one, “Take him away! We want Barabbas!”  Barabbas had been imprisoned for starting a riot in the city, and for murder.

 Pilate wanted to release Jesus, so he addressed them again.  But they shouted back, “Crucify him, crucify him!”

 Yet a third time, Pilate spoke to the crowd, “What wrong has this Jesus done? I’ve found nothing that calls for death! Therefore, I’ll have him flogged, and then I’ll release him.”

 But they demanded that Jesus be crucified, and their shouts increased in volume.  Pilate decided that their demands should be met.  So he released Barabbas, the one who had been imprisoned for rioting and murder, and Jesus was handed over to the crowd.

As they led Jesus away, they seized Simon—a Cyrenean who was just coming in from the fields—and forced him to carry the cross behind Jesus.

A large crowd was following, many of them women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. 

This story of the injustice that Jesus experienced continues to ring true. Ask any “courtwatcher.” There are judges who feel obligated to imprison people or who are bound by law to send people to their death, despite their better judgement. There are crowds who seem eager for blood, though if individuals were separated from the crowd, they might understand themselves as peaceful. There are foreigners, like Simon of Cyrene, who get sucked into the dysfunctional legal system that causes so much suffering – when all they want is to find work and support their families. And of course there are the women who wail and raise the alarm, who remind us to “say their names” and never forget. This story never grows old.

The gospels tell us there is a small chance, a religious technicality, that Jesus can be released, for this whole mess to go away, for the Prince of Peace to be among his community again. But the people, whipped into a frenzy, demand freedom for Barabbas instead of Jesus. Drew Hart writes in his book, “Who will be a witness,” (chapter 2) that Barabbas and Jesus were both revolutionaries of a sort; it is their methodology that distinguishes them from each other. Barabbas is a freedom fighter “not opposed to using religious violence to gain victory.” Jesus is arrested while praying and doesn’t even fight back.

Both Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Barabbas (as he is known in some early gospel manuscripts) want things to change, want their people to live freely and not under the oppressive rule of the Romans. The difference is in how they intend to bring about that freedom.

Jesus of Nazareth is a rabbi who brings healing to body and soul. He calls God “Daddy.” Jesus of Nazareth helps the people build community and power across difference, between tax collectors and the faithful, with sex workers and people who are poor. Jesus of Nazareth says he brings a (metaphorical) sword that divides families but when Peter wields a literal sword, Jesus of Nazareth tells Peter to put it away. He says that violence only leads to more violence, not to peace and freedom.

Jesus Barabbas (which ironically means “son of the father”) also longs for change but he is probably part of a movement called the Sicarii, the “dagger men” that are known for their “stealthy political assassinations.” The charges brought against Jesus Barabbas are for insurrection, rioting and killing a political opponent (not random “murder” as we might think from reading the gospels.) When the time comes for a prisoner to be released, the crowd shouts, insists, that they want Jesus Barabbas to be freed. The blood thirsty crowd chooses violent revolution over non-violent change .

When I think about Jesus being killed because he lived into non-violent revolution, I am somehow inspired – and scared – about what that might mean for my own choices. If I truly want to follow in the Jesus way, what do I need to do to be part of the non-violent revolution, now? Who do I align myself with? What changes will I need to make in my life? Will it cause suffering in my own life if I accompany others in their struggle for freedom? Will it cause suffering for me if try to prevent the suffering of others?

And now we are back to suffering, what I was trying to get away from. But these are the kinds of questions that can lead to solidarity, according to Latina theologian Ada María Isasi-Díaz.  Ada Maria sums up solidarity as “the union of kindred persons” who work together toward “the unfolding of the ‘kin-dom’ of God.”  The bottom line is not who wins or loses the struggle, or even who secures enough allies to flip the power dynamic. Ada Maria wants us to see that the loving, sacrificial friendship at the heart of solidarity is itself the antidote to (sin and) oppression. (from R. Rohr daily meditation 4/8/22) Sacrificial friendship is the antidote to oppression? Is that what was happening on the cross?

I can somehow almost hear it when it comes from a Cuban American, mujerista theologian, (mujeristas are Latina feminists.) Ada Maria was marginalized and sidelined by the Catholic church because she thought women should be ordained; she thought queer people  should be fully loved and respected and integrated in the church. Knowing that Ada Maria endured her own kind of suffering, catches my attention and helps me hear this perspective on sacrificial friendship. My anger and frustration with the cross start to be turned upside down.

The cross starts to become intriguing – and still hard to grasp. Music gives some clues. Let’s return to the 18th century Isaac Watts text. Instead of singing it to the usual tune, written by Lowell Mason who was an early American music director and banker, let’s try a South African anti-apartheid tune, SenzeniNa. Does knowing that this music comes out of non-violent struggle, where people were killed as they marched for freedom, does that give a different perspective on this “wondrous cross?”

Congregation sings: VT 322

When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the prince of glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it Lord that I should boast,
save in the death of Christ, my God.
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them through his blood.

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

It doesn’t resolve all the theological questions and challenges. But depending where we stand, depending on our experiences and commitments, the question begins to arise: can the cross be a revolutionary symbol? a symbol for change? And – those of us who hold great power due to our race and economic situation, our education and place of origin, our gender and abilities, we must be very careful with the ways we approach the cross, with the idea of a revolutionary cross.

If we force others to carry the cross of suffering, as the foreigner Simon of Cyrene was so ordered, we tread into dangerous territory. The church has too often been a place where we re-traumatize each other, where we force each other to carry burdens of suffering, instead of offering, in “sacrificial friendship,” to carry the burden for our friend. What might it mean – not to take up our own cross – but to carry the cross for someone else? in the church or even outside of the church?

As we head into this Holy Week, this week of complexities and grief, pain and suffering, remember that we do not have to understand it all or even believe it all. But let’s hold the questions, let’s hold the pain, let’s carry it together. And let’s keep wrestling with the questions, remembering that any blessing may be received with a painful limp.