2011 Sermons Sermons

September 18, 2011 – 14th Sunday of Pentecost


by The Rt. Rev. Arthur E. Walmsley

I Corinthians 1:18-24, Psalm 98; John 3:13-17

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” — John 3:17

One of the most widely quoted texts from scripture is John 3:16.  Will someone quote it for me:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have everlasting life.

No wonder that it is such a popular summary of  Christian belief.  You have seen it everywhere: on wristbands, on billboards, in those claims by Pentecostal preachers that you will be saved if only you will confess your sins, and . . .  You fill in the rest of the sentence.  Cut through all the hype, all the shorthand and the cheap promises by television preachers that faith is like winning the celestial lottery.  God’s love is the heart of Christian believing.  Life in this world does have ultimate meaning.  The grave is not the end.  Jesus’s death on the Cross is God’s vindication that life in the here and now is meant to be a taste of what life with God will be in the forever.  It is a mistake to separate John 3:16 from the next verse in the Gospel.  Listen:

God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

A contemporary translation makes very clear what John intends in this promise of new life:

God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the people.  He sent him to save them.

That’s an important truth.  But it involves real struggle.  The secret of life is to act as though we possess the thing we most painfully lack — a sense that we are joined to all of creation, with every other human being in a world and a society which counts for something because it belongs to, was created by God.  We gather today to celebrate the Feast of the Holy Cross, which today’s bulletin describes as associated with the discovery by the Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena of a supposed relic of the true cross, and the dedication on September 14, 335CE of a basilica in Jerusalem on the site where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands.  As a church dedicated to the Holy Cross, we annually celebrate the day on a Sunday close to the 14th, and it is a time of beginning our Fall program for the year ahead.

How we Christians understand the Cross is important not only for our life in the church, but how we face life in a society which we recognize is deeply troubled about its values.  For Christ, the death on Cross is the pivotal point in the act of redemption, as Jesus is quoted in a later chapter of John’s Gospel:

Now the hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified.  In very truth, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains that and nothing more; but if it dies, it bears a rich harvest.  (John 12:23)

Our liturgy makes clear the centrality of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus in the experience of the Church and of the individual believer.  In dying to self we live.  In surrender is our true freedom.  Nothing is easy about the cross. The more we journey on the way of the Cross, the more our values clash with the culture around us.  During the commemoration last Sunday of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I was struck by how divided we are as Americans about our future as a people.  My point today is to examine how Christian faith nevertheless helps us shape our response to the challenges we face.

James Carroll, a thoughtful Roman Catholic layman and author, looked at the 9/11 events in this way.  On Monday he wrote:

Last week’s national introspection suggested two opposite conclusions about American life.  At the personal level, the many individual anecdotes and small memoirs of courage and self-sacrifice pointed to a citizenry characterized by goodness, a common nobility.  Memorialized first-responders, self-critical journalists, coping veterans, the still burdened but resolute legion — their individual faces add up to a quilted tapestry of American hope. (Ten years after that terrible event, the courage and generosity of ordinary people is an important legacy.  Carroll goes on:)

But at the institutional level, the 9/11 anniversary, in combination with the discordant political rhetoric, showed what the stresses of the past decade have wrought.  Every branch of government disappoints.  An unelected judiciary has given elections over to moneyed special interests.  Homeland security offers protection that threatens.  Pentagon wars turn defense itself into defeat.  Congress gives new meaning to the word broke . The wailing economy has a mind of its own, rewarding the affluent few, the struggling most.  (A) collapse of trust in government (is) so total that liberals and conservatives, otherwise opposed, jointly sponsor contempt for Washington.

But let us ask:

What if, rather than let every institution be discredited and every public principle be brought into question, we instead regard the ailing post-9/11 public realm through the other lens — the narrowly personal lens of the decent common folks who so defined the moral meaning?  The flight attendants, cops, airport workers, ER nurses, back-room messengers, firefighters.  The memoirs and anecdotes of 9/11 hold every person as valuable, and what is the core of democracy if not that?

And what is the core of the Gospel if not that?   I like Carroll’s word: the decent common folks who so defined the moral meaning. If I didn’t believe that the Gospel is about changing the world, I wouldn’t waste another day with Jesus.  I would see no point as to why he came.  He certainly didn’t come so that we could indulge ourselves in playing church.  But faith is not that. Faith is what Holy Cross Church represents, decent, common folks who try to live together with one another and raise our kids to appreciate that life is about the sometimes simple but always important acts of respect and care for one another because of what God has done for us.  Faith is about waking up in the morning — as each of us has the opportunity to do in these sparkling early fall days — and living out the day taking it, the good and the problematic, as if we had the strength we so much long for.  The fact is that we do.

Neither Jesus nor Paul said, “Go out and look for a cross to bear.”  My guess is that each one of us already has a cross to carry, a weight which threatens to kill us.  It is the human lot, our mortality.  Note that Jesus did not say, “Take up my cross.”  I doubt that any of us in this service is in danger of arrest or crucifixion for our faith, though some of our neighbors and nephews are in harm’s way because the nation is involved in two wars.  And countless of our neighbors, our Christian sisters and brothers in danger spots around the world are in genuine physical jeopardy for their faith.  For us to take up the way of the cross is not to put something on, the way we might wear a cross around our neck, or put a symbol of the cross in the window over the altar.  Rather it is so embrace our mortality, our fragility, to be coaxed almost against our wills to receive life in all its fullness.  It is as if God has said in Jesus, “It is precisely your weakness that I choose to use.  Because in weakness is strength, in self-giving is richness, and love is what turns your isolation and loneliness into community.”  Erich Fromm the psychologist once wrote, In love, the paradox occurs that two people become one and yet remain two. That is true in human love, I am never more truly myself than I am in the love which binds Roberta and me together in our marriage.  And that allows each of us to be more fully the human being which was and is part of our potential.  That is true as well in God’s economy.  Together we are more than a sum of the parts.

In no single person’s life was that more true than in that of St. Francis of Assisi.  Consider his history.  A rich playboy and wastrel until he was cut short on the road that day eight hundred years ago, and shocked right out of his sandals by God’s call to him:

My son, everything which you have loved and desired in the flesh it is your duty to give up if you wish to know my will.  And when you have begun, all that which seems to you sweet and lovely will become intolerable and bitter.  But all which you used to avoid will turn itself  to great sweetness and exceeding joy.

Talk about incredible turnabout.  The road Francis was on led to a leper colony.  When he enters it, the shocking sight of disfigured people and the stench of their rotting flesh appalled him.  But he remembered the Lord’s words, took control of himself, drew out his purse, placed a gift in each of the dreadful hands outstretched to him, and to his own utter surprise, embraced and kissed them.

Discover Francis’s secret, discover the victory of the Cross and it scarcely matters whether one lives or dies, because you are who you are: the Lord’s woman, or man, or child.

How else could St. Paul write such magnificently paradoxical words as he did to a tiny and struggling congregation in Corinth:

Honor and dishonor, praise and blame, are alike our lot: we are the imposters who seek the truth; nobodies yet we are in the public eye; dying, yes, but see, we are still alive; disciplined by suffering, but not done to death.  We know sorrow, yet our joy is inextinguishable; poor ourselves, but we bless many others with true riches.  Penniless, and we own the world.  (II Cor. 6:8-10, my translation)