Thursday, 18 September 2014

Holy Cross Day sermon

This is a sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Paul Trathen, on Holy Cross Day 2014, 14 September. The text of the sermon follows:

NUMBERS 21:4-9; PHILIPPIANS 2:6-11; JOHN 3:13-17 There is a running gag that says that if you assembled all the supposed relics of the True Cross held in churches around the world, you would be able to build a small log cabin with the pieces! In actual fact, the myth is the bit that has grown a little too large, for in the last century, a French archaeologist went around measuring all the relics of the True Cross of Jesus that are housed in church reliquaries around the world and found a total of 4 million cubic millimetres. He estimated that the real cross on which Jesus was murdered would probably have been much larger -178 million cubic millimetres, in fact, so it is quantitatively possible that all those slivers and snippets are after all part of the Cross that was found in the year 326 in Jerusalem and identified as the one that Jesus was hanged upon, although archeological science was not so sure as mathematical. It was found by an excavation team led by Helena, the mother of Constantine the Emperor who built a church there and chose the date of September 14 in the year 335 for its dedication. She thought it was the date of the dedication of Solomon's Temple, hundreds of years before. Today, almost every Christian church proudly displays a cross, or many crosses. Christians and even those with no particular commitment like to wear crosses. Until the time of Constantine, though, there wasn't much interest in the Cross as a Christian ornament. It was shameful, it was a symbol of the most ignominious kind of capital punishment; so it would be like wearing a little model of the electric chair around your neck, or a hangman's noose done in silver filigree. Crucifixion was used in Phoenicia only upon rebellious slaves, like lynching, and the Romans and Greeks took it up, but only for their subject peoples. Men were crucified with their backs to the cross, naked, except in Judea, where the Jews had won a special indulgence allowing them to be crucified with a loincloth, and women were crucified facing the cross, because of their religion's horror of nakedness. It was a shameful way of dying. There was nothing glamorous about the cross. It was not used liturgically or in Christian symbolism until the Emperor Constantine made it the symbol of imperial conquest, "In Hoc Signo Vinces", and it began to replace the FISH - the "IXTHUS" whose letters are the initials for the Greek words Jesus Christ of God the Son Saviour. And they used the symbol of the Shepherd. The Cross was too horrible to think about. That Cross, that hilltop outside the city wall, that bloody awful Friday… Now I want us to shift to a different scene. This place of meeting, the assembly of God’s people in Christ: St Peter’s-in-the-Forest, Walthamstow. And we have gathered to celebrate this ancient feast of the triumph of the cross. At the outset, we have to confess that – reflecting on our first reading from Numbers - our coming to this holy place has been less a purposeful “journey” through the wilderness and more where we’ve pitched up in our wanderings. We, too, have like those Israelites come more by way of murmuring than by seamless faith. Our path has been a series of lurchings—times of movement and clear vocation interrupted by pauses filled with doubt and self-concern. Some of us remain in some Egypt or other - places of enslavement to one kind of addiction or another. And others of us have had profound occasions of deliverance - of forgiveness and reconciliation, of healing and call to ministry. But our more general situation on this glorious feast day is that we have arrived at this place of assembly as God’s snake-bitten people. Old wounds not yet healed, some from our childhood. Others more recent - failures of our vows to each other and to our God. When you look across the church on this day of festival, what you see most frequently is a people afflicted with the snakebite of disbelief. There was a book that came out just after the Second Vatican Council; it was called “God’s Frozen People.” But in these days, maybe its sequel would be titled “God’s Paralyzed People.” A paralysis whose cause is our snakebites of disbelief. Nothing is more deadly, really, than to go through the motions of our faith - our practices in sacrament and song - yet all the while, afflicted with such a paralysis of faith. And the symptoms…? Oh, we already know most of them. Talking about each other rather than speaking to one another. That’s one symptom. Another? How about the culture of blaming that is so widespread in the church? Find ourselves in a crisis, we turn and look for someone to blame. And that perennial fear of change, of new directions for ourselves and our parish. We’re so much like our Israelite ancestors. There’s always some “Egypt” or other that lures us back to a place of security and changeless safety. But we are here, God’s people in this early 21st century wilderness and we can’t go back, and we cannot save ourselves. How can a paralyzed people celebrate this feast day of the Holy Cross? We need, I want to suggest, to hold on to the key difference between the sign given to the Israelites in their desert and the sign given as the signal of the New Covenant God spoke and enacted through Our Lord, Jesus Christ. The Israelites were able to address only their perceived, presented need: to be healed of the snakebites they had received. The bronze snake raised up on the pole became an icon of acknowledgement of that limited need, and God honoured even such limited faith. In the person of Jesus, God does something so utterly different as to almost defy the category, much as the writers of John’s Gospel and St Paul try to tie in the comparison. For Jesus makes in Himself the icon of humanity itself, hurting, persecuted, beaten humanity. Not just one presented need, but the nature of human inhumanity. In that one astonishing and reconciling act, He sums up what His life has been about and what ours is (or can be) about. We choose, or not, to respond to a God who is crucified. Jurgen Moltmann says, memorably: “The crucified Lord embodies the new humanity which responds to God in the circumstances of inhumanity which oppose God. He incorporates home in the circumstances of alienation, and freedom in the midst of the chains of slavery. But it is just through this that men are empowered to alter these relationships, to make the world more homelike and to abolish internal and external slavery. Reconciliation, as theological language expresses it, is the beginning of redemption in an unredeemed world, and redemption is the future of reconciliation which may be hoped for.” Jurgen Moltmann. Man. (SPCK, 1971), p.116 So, how to be free of the draw of ‘Egypt’? Not to seek to save ourselves, or to dwell on our perceptions of wrongs or ills done to us but, rather, radically, to see God in every Other – to feel their hurts, to suffer their pain and to offer to carry the Cross, for them, so that He might work through us. AMEN

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