Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Proper of the Day: Exaltation of the Holy Cross

On this day (and its eve) the Church takes time to contemplate the mystery of the Cross and what happened on It that contributed to our salvation. This Major Feast is the joyful counterpart to Good Friday, a day that ordinarily isn't very appropriate for joy. Here's a sermon of mine from 2005 on this feast day:

May these words be in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About 15 billion years ago or so, give or take a billion years, before there was space or time, cosmologists conclude that the universe as we know it burst into existence, beginning in an almost-infinitely small, almost-infinitely dense, almost infinitely-hot union of matter and energy. This singularity, as it’s called, immediately began to spread out in all directions, except that direction doesn’t have any meaning when there is no space outside space, at least cosmologically. Over billions of years, the universe spread out into what we now see as the seemingly infinite vast space and time that we know, with the galaxies, stars, black holes, nebulas, and all the rest of the wonderful and strange interstellar objects that Carl Sagan used to go on so blissfully about. And eventually, maybe ten billion years ago, some of the hot matter that was clumping together got hot enough to initiate a fusion reaction and form Sol, our own sun, located in a rather quiet little backwater of a rather ordinary galaxy we now call the Milky Way. Five billion years ago, more or less, the dust and gunk swirling around Sol banded together and formed planets. One of them, the third one out from Sol, was not too hot and not too cold, and was blessed with a steady bombardment of rocks and asteroids and lots of oxygen and nitrogen and water. There, less than a billion years ago, the first spontaneous photochemical reactions took place and began to repeat. Over the next billion years, riotously diverse kinds of life evolved. Some forms flourished, like algae and plants and mammals. Others didn’t, like the great reptiles of the Age of Dinosaurs. Then, perhaps more or less simultaneously in both what we now call Asia and Africa, the first mammals began to walk upright, and to look around at their surroundings, to make tools, to see the heavens at night, and to use language. And so humankind came on the scene, born of water and time.

And eventually humanity became aware that there was something other than themselves all around them. They began to express their beliefs in that which we now call God. They also saw that they were separated from God and they knew of no way to undo that separation. And they looked at themselves and their world and saw they were separated from each other, too, and from the world around them, and even from themselves. Invasions, natural disasters, poverty, famine, disease, revenge, cruelty – all of these became part of what they began to call evil, and represented all the separations they saw and mourned and could seem to do nothing about.

And they began to tell stories to one another about God, and about how they had come into being, and how that separation came about. About three and half thousand years ago, one little group in a little land at the crossroads of Asia and Africa had a unique insight that they wanted to share about God – that there was only one God, and that God somehow created all of humanity and indeed the entire world and everything in it, and that all of creation started out Good and without separation. And they started their story with “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

And they wrote down that story, and other stories, too, about how people came to be, and how their own ancestors came to be, and how some of them felt God’s presence even through the separation, and began to understand God had a message for them. One of those ancestors was Abraham, and in several stories God told him that he would be the ancestor of many peoples. And so he was. And eventually there were other great ones, like Abraham’s wife Sarah, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Ruth, and David, and Moses, and Isaiah, and many other prophets, all who carried the message about God and from God. Most of the time, the people didn’t believe those who carried the messages, but sometimes they did. Much of the struggle of this people to bear God’s word is recorded in what we call the Hebrew Scriptures today.

And in due course, about two thousand years ago, another human was born in that same little land, a very special man, descended, it was said, from both David and Abraham, who also bore God’s message and lived it out. The times were not right, so it seemed, for this message, because this man was killed as a common criminal, lifted high on a cross, just about the most humiliating death one could have gone through at that time. But this man was special because he was not just human, even though he was born with a human mother like all of us. He was also God’s Son, actually God himself in a way that no other human being had ever been or has been to this day. He, too, brought God’s message, but more than that. Because he was both God’s Son and a human son, when he died, his death was not permanent. Three days after he died, God raised him from death. It’s totally against what they knew about nature, but those who knew him, trusted in what they saw, and they trusted and believed in him. And they began to spread God’s message far and wide in a way that no one had yet seemed able to do, but those who knew this Holy One became infused with a Spirit that enabled, practically drove them, to tell what they had seen and trusted.

Not so long after that, maybe thirty years or so, some of those who knew him directly, and those who knew them, began to write down stories about this Holy One who was both human and divine, and to pass them around to each other, so that the message they bore would not perish. And of all the stories they wrote down, the one which was the longest, the most compelling, with the most detail – even if those details didn’t exactly match – was the story of how that One was crucified, lifted high on a cross. The messengers continued to tell what they believed and trusted, and more and more people believed, but not everyone did. We know those messengers as the Apostles and Evangelists, and those writings as our own New Testament.

Some years after that, those who believed in the Holy One began to use a Cross as a sacred symbol, and to trace a sign of the Cross on themselves and over holy things, and to think of the Cross itself as a sign of the Holy One and his message. It gradually began to be seen as the central symbol of the faith system that was being compiled. On this very day in the year we now know as 335 AD, the mother of the first Christian emperor founded a great church over the site in Jerusalem where the Holy One was lifted high on the cross. Over the following centuries, the Cross inspired believers to great good in the world, and sometimes great ill as well. The Cross has led both war and peace, it has flown over cities and over nations, and it has pride of place in practically every Christian place of worship and many homes as well.

Fast forward now to 2005. Here we are, at a little school in a great city on the banks of a river in North America. We at General Theological Seminary are dedicated to training those will help lead the next generation of those who will spread that same message. We believe and trust all those earlier messengers. We trust that same Holy One who lived as one of us, and died, lifted high on the cross, and who rose from death again. We trust that same Holy One who is real and present in Water poured and Bread eaten and Wine sipped, and who continually renews in us that same message, first uttered those thousands of years ago.

The cosmologists tell us that eventually, the universe will well continue to expand and cool off until there is just one infinitely-uniform infinitely-cold emptiness, with no stars or planets or anything. And doesn’t it seem like the universe is running down, right before our eyes? That separation? It still exists, and it seems as strong as ever. We see war, natural disasters, poverty, famine, disease, revenge, cruelty, right now, in our lifetimes. We still see separation from God, from each other, from our own selves, and from nature. It would be very easy to become cynical about it all. Everything seems so bleak. That can’t be all there is. Can it?

That’s where the Cross comes in. Literally! The Cross, towering over the entire universe, demonstrates God’s very presence in and with all creation. The universe isn’t simply some huge Rolex watch that God wound up and then forgot about. And the Cross is more than just shiny bling! In the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, the God who is outside space and time decisively interrupts the ongoing life of the universe and the lives of each and every one of us. The Cross is a sign and symbol of the sacred reality of God in and with us and the entire cosmos. In the Cross, we hear “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” In the Cross, God says, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth.” In the Cross, we are reminded, “I am with you always, even until the end of the ages.”

My sisters and brothers, that is the message. That is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who as a human was lifted high above the earth on the Cross, and as God destroyed death and separation from God and from each other and from the world and from ourselves forever. Our separation from God and each other and all the rest is over. God loves us and wants us to be with him. And God is with us, right now. All we have to do is believe that – trust it – accept it – and we are reconciled to God, and therefore to each other, and to the world, and to ourselves. And it’s not just for us. It’s for all people. He died to draw all the world to himself. Everyone! And not only the world, but the entire cosmos! Everything! That is the Good News that we have. That’s why we celebrate the mystery of the Cross, where Death itself died when Holy Life died on the Tree. That’s why we marvel that an instrument of shameful death is now for the whole universe the means of life. That’s why we are so drawn to Christ Jesus, with those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and why we bend our knee in gratitude and thanksgiving.

On this Feast of the Holy Cross, on Holy-rood Day, we honor our own Rood and its Cross towering high above our heads. We honor it not only with our ceremony, but with our service. As we are joined to Christ in his whole life – ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension, so we are joined to his work as well. His work is the redemption of the world, and in the fullness of time, the redemption of the entire universe as well. As Our Lord took up his Cross to cry, “The Cosmos shall be fair, and all her people one,” so do we. Our work may not be universal in scope, but nonetheless, it is ours, right here on the Close. Students, faculty, administrators, staff, and boardmembers – we all have some service to contribute to the spread of our age-old message. Whenever we pass under that Cross here at Chelsea Square, may each of us, with God’s grace, take up our own crosses daily, and may it be our endeavor and joy to continue to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, in all we do, to the glory of God the Father.



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