A Letter from God
Last Sunday while I was away, you did this wonderful activity with Allie, where, as I understand it, you thought about Lent as a movement, as a time of transformation, and you wrote down on these pieces of art the things that you were moving away from, or hoping to move away from, and the things that you were moving towards, or hoping to move towards, during this season of Lent. This is the art you produced, and I love it. I especially love reading some of the things that you’re moving towards during this season of Lent: hope and joy and smiling and singing and inclusion and creativity and so much more. Awesome stuff. I wish you well on your journey.
But while I was looking at your artwork, I did notice one thing. I noticed that no one wrote down that in Lent we are moving towards the cross. And I get why. The cross is foolishness. The cross is ugly. The cross is cruel. The cross is scandalous. The cross is a stumbling block. The cross is shameful. And so, for a whole bunch of reasons, we don’t really want to go there. And yet, that’s precisely where Lent is leading. We can try to dress it up. We can take the body off it. We can smooth the edges and gild it with gold or silver and even hang it around our necks and put it on our steeples. But it’s still the cross, perhaps the cruelest form of execution that human civilization has ever come up with. The cross was intended to maximize shame. It was intended for the lower classes, for slaves and rebels and foreigners. The convict was paraded in front of the crowds, stripped naked, beaten and mocked right in front of them and nailed to the cross. The cross was intended to maximize cruelty. Death on the cross was a slow process, the victim slowly expiring as their strength ebbed away, and eventually suffocating because the crushing weight of their own dehydrated body made it impossible to breathe. The cross was intended to maximize fear in all who witnessed these public executions.
I understand perfectly why none of the rays of sunshine on this piece of art says that in Lent we are moving towards the cross.
But that’s what we’re doing. We’re moving towards the cross. Why the cross?
I’ve asked that question often over the years. Why the cross? And this week when I asked that same question for the umpteenth time, this time I imagined that I got a letter back in response. In my imagination, it went like this:
You ask me, “why the cross?” It’s a good question. Let me start at the beginning. Since the very beginning, I have wanted you to know me, and for you to live with one other in the way that I would show you. I gave you hints and glimpses in creation itself. As your own poet wrote down so beautifully, the heavens declare my glory, and the stars and sky show my handiwork. But for you to really know me, and me to really know you, we needed somewhere to meet, a meeting-place, if you want to call it that.
One of our first meeting-places was on the top of Mount Sinai, after I had brought you out of slavery. There I met Moses face-to-face, and I told him who I was and how I wanted you to live together and treat one another, and he repeated what I said to all of you.
But then, as the centuries passed, you grew distant from me, and eventually you asked for a new meeting-place, a Temple, a physical structure where you could come and experience my presence. I had been quite happy to move about among you, but you asked for a Temple, so I agreed, and you built the Temple, a great majestic building that reflected my glory, a place where you could develop the religious practices that you needed to experience my love and forgiveness, a place where you could come and we could meet. And we spent many years meeting at the Temple.
But as even more centuries passed, the Temple came to reflect more and more of your society, more and more of your values, and less and less of me. You established social hierarchies. The Temple increasingly became a place of exchange, a place which differentiated between rich and poor, Jew and foreigner, insider and outsider, privileged and marginalized. When the Temple was destroyed, you rebuilt it even bigger than before. It became more like a fortress, it reflected your values of power, fame and wealth. It started to look more like a marketplace than a house of prayer. It started to look more like you than like me.
So I decided that we needed a new meeting-place. A meeting-place where once more you could come to know me as a God of steadfast love and mercy, the way that Moses knew me on the mountain. I decided to meet you in a new way. When the time was right, I became a human being, “the word became flesh” as your poet John put it, “incarnation” as your theologians call it somewhat less poetically. I became human in the person of Jesus so that we could meet, so that we could get to know each other in the most intimate, in the most human way possible. The new meeting place became the very body of Jesus. If you want to know what I’m like, you must get to know Jesus. Listen to him, watch him, observe what he says and does, touch him, talk to him, get to know him, follow him. This is my body, the new meeting place between the divine and human.
That’s what the story of the Temple action that you read today was all about. I had to let you know that there was a new meeting place. I went in and drove out the animals and overturned the money changing tables for this reason: without animals and money changing the Temple couldn’t function, because people needed to buy animals to make the required sacrifices. So when I went in there and disrupted all that, I brought the Temple activity to a halt. In that moment, the Temple stopped. It ended. Its role as the meeting-place between me and the people came to an end and was replaced by the new meeting place. Jesus became the new meeting-place, the place where you can come to know most fully and intimately what I am like.
But you’re probably thinking that I still haven’t answered your question, “Why the cross?” I’m getting there. The cross was no accident. You remember I said that I created this new-meeting place, I took on human flesh when the time was right? In the fullness of time? What I meant is that at that particular historical moment, I knew that if I took on human flesh, and showed you what I was like, and showed you how I wanted you to treat one another, you would reject me, and I would end up on a cross. Because though I am loving, and compassionate and good and merciful, I am also extremely disruptive. My ways are not your ways. My values are not the values of your culture and your society. And so you put me on a cross. You didn’t know what you were doing, but I knew what I was doing. I chose the most shameful and cruel death that you have ever come up with to show you that the values with which your cultures and societies operate, where some have privilege and status at the expense of others, this looks nothing like the way I want you to live. If anyone should have been entitled to privilege and status, if anyone should have been exempt from the cross, it would have been me – and yet I chose not to exploit that privilege and status, but rather to empty myself, to show you what it looks like to serve rather than be served. In that moment I exposed the worst in you and your world so that I could both forgive it and overcome it. Because you needed to see this and to know that that’s what I am like and that’s how I want you to live.
The body of Jesus is where we meet, you and I. And that body is the one that hung on the cross because I wanted you to know this: I am willing to give up my status, my privilege and my power for you. I am willing to endure violence, cruelty and shame for you. This is how much I love you.
Now you go and love one another as I have loved you.
PS. Three days later I raised my body from the dead. But you know that, because otherwise we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.
Homily: Yr B Lent 3, March 4 2018, St. Albans
Readings: Exodus 20.1-17; Ps 19; 1 Cor 1.18-25; John 2.13-22