For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
I Corinthians 2:2
Summers ago I sat in a car in a cemetery with a colleague in the Methodist ministry, The Rev. Ed Peet, Barbara’s uncle. Barbara’s aunt, Ed’s wife, was to be buried. We were waiting for the cemetery attendants to arrive and escort us to the graveside. We were early. We had time to talk. Ed, a seminarian when the winds of doctrine blew warm and fair, asked me what I preached about. I told him I tried to follow the advice of my homiletics professor, Paul Scherer: to lead worshipers always to the foot of the cross. Ed was nonplussed. How, he wondered, could anyone find that much to say about the cross week in and out without being very repetitive… and boring, which, however, Ed did not say, the boring part. I added to his amazement by reporting that the previous Lenten season I had preached every Wednesday (eight times, counting Holy Week) on the cross.
Later I heard echoes of Ed’s reaction in the explanation offered by Mormons for why they don’t have crosses on their churches: too negative.
Still I would insist that the cross, more than any other event in human history, tells the truth about us, this humanity we share with everyone else on earth. The cross’s shadow is the haunting reminder of our inevitable imperfection.
Maybe children don’t need to hear that. They need to be encouraged to try harder, to reach higher, to strive to make the most of their lives. Maybe those of us temperamentally unsure of ourselves, the ones who always wait for others to go first, maybe we can get by with only a glance in the direction of Calvary’s imposing shadow.
But those of us in the thick of it, striving for all we’re worth, if for riches and fame, then also to change the world for the better, slaying dragons, eradicating poverty, overcoming ignorance, healing diseases, and doing whatever we can to make this world more like the kingdom of God: we need to mark and heed the cross’s imposing shadow on every human aspiration, for good or ill. There is always a brokenness to this mortal life, that no amount of human industry or goodwill will ever eradicate.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t try. By God and by Christ we are expected, no commanded, to try. But, nonetheless, to understand that heaven on earth always will elude our grasp.
We discussed this issue the other evening (over spaghetti and meatballs!), that question mourners and others sorely afflicted raise when hurt comes their way: “Why? Why me?” My pastoral response is that everyone has something, no one goes through time unscathed. Virtue isn’t always rewarded, and villainy isn’t always punished. All things happen to all people. Jesus has a kinder take on this observation, seeing eternal generosity in the rain that falls on the fields of the just and unjust alike. The cross on which a sinless soul is impaled should be reminder enough to Christians that there must be something deeply wrong with the way things are, especially with the way we manage our affairs as nations.
The cross stands in judgment against every human pretense to perfection. Life is and always will be a struggle.
But a blessed struggle: the same cross rises to insist that life, abundant life, here on earth and elsewhere for ever, goes to those who give, who give themselves freely, gladly, persistently to others. That bit of hard-won wisdom was also expressed over spaghetti and meatballs the other evening.
Easter is this coming Sunday. The Final Four cannot, therefore, be very far behind. Surely, during a critical foul shot, the TV camera will pan in on someone holding up a sign: John 3:16. No need to repeat it here. You know it by heart. I stress the verbs in the opening phrases, about God, that God loves and gives. Said about the cross, the surest event and symbol that this whole human enterprise, the universe itself, issues from a heart full of compassion. To love and give is just another way of getting in tune with the jubilant chords sounding at the throne of heaven. Something like that. It’s what we are made for. And when we love and give, as God and Jesus love and give themselves to us, we are never more alive nor more human.
Give me a cross atop my steeple every time. Take me to the foot of the cross in preaching every sermon. Beyond the judgment of that cross’s shadow, I find the assurance of an everlasting grace.