The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 30, 2020
Today’s readings are
If you don’t have a Bible handy, click here for these readings.
I waited until Saturday afternoon to write the sermon for this week. And that’s not usual for me. Usually, I take Friday morning aside, sit with the readings, pray about them, think about them, turn them over in my mind and heart and spirit, and then write. And I like doing it this way. Friday mornings are kinda footholds in the week for me. They’re sure things. They’re sure times when I know that, whatever happens throughout the week, whatever craziness and busyness that happens, I’ve got Friday morning to sit down with the Holy Spirit and ask God: what do you want me to say to your people this week? Sometimes I wrestle with the Spirit, like Jacob wrestling with God out in the desert; sometimes I have a pretty easy time. But whatever the case, it’s always a holy time for me.
But this week was different. The electing convention was yesterday morning, and I just knew that, no matter what happened, whether we elected someone or whether there was a contested election, that there’d be something else I needed to preach about, some movement of the Spirit, some joy, some hope, some love, that would smack me in the face on Saturday morning. And there was. The Spirit of God touched my spirit, and I wondered: goodness, how do I sort all this out enough to say something coherent about it? What do I say? Should I just stand up there in front of folks on Sunday morning clapping my hands and clicking my heels? ‘Cause that’s how I felt.
And this is, in fact, an image of Christianity. Not just the clapping my hands and clicking my heels part, but the quiet part, too. There are times in our faith where we are settled, quiet, thoughtful. There are times when the Spirit gives us rest – and not just any rest, like when we’re asleep, or when we just take a break between big jobs, but real rest. True rest. Rest that Jesus talks about when he says “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” This is rest that brings tears to the eyes, rest beyond hope, rest beyond anything that we have ever dreamt of, for it is a taste of the rest prepared for us in Heaven for eternity. True, holy, godly, rest.
And then there’s the other side: the energy, the fullness, the overwhelming joy. For the Holy Spirit does not just comfort, the Spirit also urges on, fills us up with life everlasting that makes us want to dance like King David danced, to sing out our joy with the psalmist, to run around like a silly heart all wacky-like, shouting from the roof-tops that God is among us and offers us Salvation and Love and everything Good and Beautiful and True with open and willing hands. Christianity isn’t just about the quiet, it’s also about the whoo-hoo and the hooray, the ‘did you just see that!?’, the ‘isn’t this the best thing that you’ve ever seen in your entire life!?’ It’s the smile so wide and the laugh so hearty that all semblance of sorrow and grief disappear, and we catch for a moment a glimpse of that eternal joy that has no ending.
It’s about both, Christianity – joy and quiet, rest and a rising heart, tears of relief and tears from laughing too hard. And here’s the thing: it’s not just about one and then the other but both of them at the same moment. To rest even as our hearts leap for joy, to cry out in laughter in the gentle quiet, to live a life of the noon-day sun and of the setting sun, when the birds sing their night songs and the sky slowly fades to dark. It’s about both, for Christianity is about Jesus – and about the Cross.
For Christians, the Cross is a paradox. It’s about Death and it’s about Life. It’s about the grief and hatred that lies at the heart of us all and about the Voice that calls us to live, to truly, truly live. We decorate our churches with it, wear it on necklaces, print it on our prayerbooks, make the sign of it on our bodies, and have it as our symbol, an image of torture and of Eternal Life. And we as Christians do not turn away from either.
I learned this on Good Friday, that day that is one of the two only days of fasting in the Episcopal Church, the only day when black is the liturgical color, and yet the day that we still call Good. I’ve told this story before, but it bears being told again.
This was in Sewanee, where seminarians, university students, clergy, community members, pretty much everyone gathers on Good Friday to carry this huge cross down the street, praying the way of the cross at intervals. This cross is so huge that it takes four or five people to lift it. And the whole procession ends at the university chapel, a church so big that you would think it a cathedral. Here the cross is placed before the altar, standing straight up, and in the dark of the church, lit only by the sun coming in through the tall stained-glass windows, we pray, singing songs of grief and yet hope as well, songs of sorrow and longing, holy songs, the Church’s songs.
Now, during these songs, some people go forward and kneel before the cross to pray. My first year in Sewanee I didn’t go forward. It wasn’t really my thing (I thought). But the second year I did. It was important, I thought, I don’t know why. Gwendolyn was with me, maybe that was it. Or maybe being in seminary so long had formed me into having that kinda piety. I’m not sure. Whatever the case, I went forward and knelt, Gwendolyn in my arms, and prayed at the foot of the cross.
Now, if you’ve never prayed, kneeling, before a cross, let me tell you that it is a harrowing experience. Good Friday only made it moreso. Time kinda opens up, and you are there with Jesus on the Cross, in all his Passion. But there is a lightness, too, a beauty and a hope that seems so strange for kneeling before this object of torture and death. For on that Cross, in that Passion, in Jesus’ death, he saved us all. It is a lightness that led me, after kneeling there for a few minutes in prayer, to stand up and kiss that hard wood – and then to invite my little infant girl to kiss it as well, which she did.
The Cross challenges everything that we are. It challenges us not just to live nice, happy lives, or to kinda try harder, or that maybe we should be nicer. The Cross challenges everything we are. It reaches down to the depths of our being and asks us not a question in words but asks us with the image of the Cross. And I can only translate that question with images: the image of a little girl kissing the cross, the image of a hospital room where God is present even in death, the image of a life torn asunder by hatred or depression and yet healed and made whole. For in Christ all die, and all are brought to eternal life.
The Cross has been set in your own heart. In Baptism, nurtured by the Eucharist and the other Sacraments; in the call of the Holy Spirit and the Life with find with God; and in our lives in the Church, which is the Body of Jesus Christ – the Cross has been set in your heart. It is a thing of surprise; yes of pain sometimes, when we realize our sins; of grief, for it is there in all the deaths we have the honor to walk beside and, so too, our own; and it is of joy, joy beyond the walls of this world, joy as sharp as swords and as light as a feather. For the Cross is a door, it is an invitation, it is a call, from Jesus Christ, God himself, to eternal life. So open that door, take that hand, lift your voice and your heart to the Lord of all. And sing for eternity that song of the angels: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.