The sign of the cross

A couple of weeks ago, I preached about the cross. Today, again, I want to preach about the cross. Episcopalians are sometimes accused of avoiding the cross, if not in our architecture, in our theology. I think we need some time with the cross As I said a couple of weeks ago, the cross is a central symbol, a lens through which we see faith more clearly.

Snake on a stick?

And if you are like me, we certainly need some clarification today. This is the Sunday in the calendar of readings I like to call “snake on a stick Sunday.” Snake on a stick Sunday almost always comes in Lent, and when we are able to gather in person, I love watching the faces of the congregation during the reading from Numbers. There are almost always frowns. Once in this parish, though I can’t remember if it was for this reading, I heard someone mutter, loud enough for all to hear “huh?”

The question is apt. Did God really send snakes to bite the people? (I don’t buy that line. Notice, Jesus doesn’t deal with it. I think we can write off the sending of the snakes to the people’s own imagination). What bothers me more theologically me is this: Did the same God who punished the people for making a golden calf really tell their prophet to make a bronze serpent? The Bible itself is uncomfortable. Long after Moses’ death. Long after the people are settled in Israel, the temple built, King Hezekiah, worried about the people being tempted to worship it, has the bronze serpent destroyed. This is a strange story.

It is also possible this is one of those stories that helps us understand the history of Scripture. Remember, the Bible was an oral tradition long before it was a written tradition. Stories were told to explain symbols: The staff and serpent is an ancient, ancient symbol, more than 1000 years older than the book of Numbers.

It is possible that this story was told because little kids asked around the campfire about the symbol of the staff and the serpent, which already in the ancient world was associated with healing. Such a powerful symbol needing explanation, and so a story about Moses and healing was told. Moses lifts up the image of a snake, and all those who are suffering, all those who are dying, all those who look upon the image lifted up, are healed. You don’t have to buy my theory about this being a campfire story, it’s just a theory.

Jesus and the sign of the cross

What is not a theory is how Christians used this story. In our reading today from the Gospel, John gives Jesus himself the role of interpreting this symbol. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up…” then comes the famous 16th verse: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.” Jesus is the sign of healing for the world. The cross is a sign which gives life.

That the cross is a sign which gives life, gives healing, is preposterous. Remember, for those living in the time of the early Christians, crosses were a symbol of the Roman Empire. They were a symbol of state violence. Imagine if we decorated our churches with electric chairs, wore little electric chairs on gold chains around our necks. How can such a symbol of violence bring healing?

St. Paul says Jesus fellow religious teachers would call the cross “scandal” the Romans would call it foolishness to celebrate such a violent death. The Cross is the sign of our defeat. Our movement is for losers. The cross is a reminder of what happened to our leader, what happened to the Human One, what happened to Jesus.

The black womanist Episcopal lay theologian Verna Dozier once said: The cross is not only symbol; it is the sign of the collision of the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. The cross is what happens when, to quote William Sloane Coffin “seemingly powerless love” encounters “loveless power.”

Much of the theology that has had the biggest influence on me comes from El Salvador. Some of you have been with me on pilgrimage to the country. The theologian Jon Sobrino, reflecting on the words of Archbishop Romero, his mentor Ignacio Ellacuria, and others often talks about the “crucified people.” Sobrino says the “cross expresses a type of death actively inflicted…to be put to death, it means there are victims and there are executioners.” Sobrino and his mentors look upon the suffering, those whose human rights are violated.

They look on families sending children unaccompanied toward the United States. They look on God’s LGTBQ+ children tortured and killed with police indifference or worse participation. This theology looks at those who are the victims and says, “There, there are the crucified today.”

The Cross is judgement of the world. Again and again the cross speaks to our reality, again and again corrupt powers conspire to torture and take away life and livelihood. God sent his only Son out of love for the world, and the world responded by putting perfect love to death.

I am mindful that the cross is difficult. There’s a reason so many Episcopalians avoid it. Today is a difficult Sunday, because this Sunday marks one year since we worshiped together in this building. One year now. In one year more than a half million dead in our country. Our own congregation has lost members, family members, friends. Others have lost jobs, lost businesses, had to set aside dreams. This has been a year of grief, and a year of grief where comfort was hard to come by. We have lost year of time together, for hugs, for laughter, and to dry one another’s tears. This is a difficult day to preach the cross.

The cross isn’t going to magic this better. I wish I could say that you should come here, to the church two households at a time, to simply look at our bronze cross lifted up. That suddenly it would all get magically better. But God doesn’t work like that. Disease doesn’t work like that.

But I wouldn’t be here this morning if I thought the cross didn’t have something to offer. In a world broken by loveless power, facing an ongoing pandemic for a year now, I would understand if you are grumbling. My family can tell you, I’m grumbling sometimes. I need to remember, I need you to remember, lift up your head, look on the sign of your hope.

There is a danger that we will turn toward false hope. I don’t think God sends the snakes, but I know the snakes are there. I know our social structures can be poisonous. Still, I’m more concerned about idolatry, because I know how tempting idolatry is. I know it can be tempting to stare at the idol of a bank balance, to trust in the idol of a national myth of citizenship or race. And yet we try to wring meaning from idols.

What the cross tells us about the universe

The cross stands against them all. The cross tells us that the universe, creation is oriented toward dignity, toward equity, toward love. As much as we try and control our own fate, as often as we push back, God keeps coming. God keeps coming.

The cross is a reminder that we are not alone. God chose us, and God did not choose us at our best. God did not come to those who had everything together. God did not choose to stand with those who were the winners. God chose the losers. God chose the suffering. God chose the forgotten, the excluded, those who were cast outside the city walls, to quote the letter to the Hebrews.

Yes, the cross is a reminder that our world is sinful. Yes, the cross is a reminder that empires will always work to silence and to make an example of those who would turn the tables. The cross is a reminder that corruption often reigns. But the cross also tells us the corrupt will not have the last word.

Our ancestors in the faith took that symbol, the symbol that was supposed to terrorize them, the symbol that was supposed to shut them up. The early Christians pointed to the cross and said, right there, right there is our hope.

Because God stood with us… and you know what, the message of Easter, spoiler alert, coming in just a few weeks is this: seemingly powerless love will win over loveless power. Violence will not have the last word. Disease will not have the last word. Death will not have the last word. God’s judgement is clean, and it is simple. God stands with the victims.

The cross is a defiant symbol, the cross looks at the year’s-long lenten misery of our world and says Hallelujah anyhow, because God stands with those who are suffering.

If you have spent time with the poor, if you yourself have faced persecution or stood with those who have been persecuted, you also know: God’s people are resilient. There is laughter and life and love, even among those, especially among those who the world tries to keep down. You can’t silence the laughter. You can’t stop God’s resilient people.

God stands against loveless power again, and again, and again, and God will continue to do so until seemingly powerless love triumphs.

God so loved the world, that Christ was willing to be lifted up. Look to Christ. Look to the cross, lift up your head with defiance, and hope, and faith. Don’t let your love be silenced. Amen.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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