Back in the day, I was dropped off each week at Sunday School at St. James Lutheran Church – Wisconsin Synod, West St. Paul. I was a serious, honest little girl with long braids and way more innocence and naiveté than kids today. Maybe this was because the media hadn’t yet gone ballistic, the celebrity culture didn’t yet rule the world, or because I didn’t have to worry about getting shot when I went to school.
The good Lutherans were all about the Bible and Bible stories were Sunday School. No one was interested in our self-esteem or what was on our little minds or in giving us snacks.
Once a month, all of the classes K-6 gathered to sit on child-sized folding chairs in the church basement for a special treat: “The Bible on the Big Screen!” that is, the screen that stood precariously on a little metal tripod. We would watch low-budget, twenty-minute movie versions of classics like “Daniel in the Lions’ Den” or “Noah and the Flood”. Not animated, but with real actors.
It was through these stories that we learned about the power of God. God shut the mouths of the lions so they couldn’t devour Daniel when he was thrown into their cage – as I recall, the movie showed him petting one of them! God destroyed the world, but yay! God loved rainbows (and still does.)
These stories made sense to us (at least to the girls and who cared about the boys anyway). And while the movies were sort of violent, it was vicarious violence since the chances were low any of us were going to confront a lion on the way home or face drowning in a world-wide flood.
The time I remember being most afraid in elementary school was in first grade when I arrived at school in a brand new red dress my mother had made for me. We were going on a field trip to a dairy farm – we always wore dresses to school then but I was probably over-dressed as usual. Riding on the bus to the farm, two mean boys told me that I was in for it since cows liked to charge at people wearing red. So I spent most of the trip crouching behind other kids so the cows wouldn’t see what I was wearing. That this incident is my most-fear-filled childhood memory is about cows not guns, makes me grateful and very sad.
Eventually, I left the loving community Lutherans, to whom I am eternally grateful, because some of what they taught did not make sense to me: justification by faith, the labeling of all other religious faith as wrong and facing eternal damnation …
Much of today’s Gospel does not seem to make sense, like why Jesus would give the strongest rebuke he gives to anyone in Scripture to his good friend, Peter, even calling him “Satan”?
Peter: a big, brash fisherman; always over the top, always wanting more. When Jesus says he will wash Peter’s feet, Peter says no you won’t! But when Jesus insists, Peter wants water poured over his feet, his hands, even his head. You’ve got to love the passion.
But like most of us, Peter is afraid of death.
So when Peter hears Jesus’ prediction about his impending death and resurrection, all he probably hears is the death part and his fear gets cranked up big time. He tells Jesus: “You can’t say that! You’re our hope – you can’t be killed!”
I think it was not only the potential loss of Jesus; Peter knew that if Jesus was vulnerable, so were they all. As Jews living under the brutal Roman Empire, every day brought intensified danger.
But why such a strong response from Jesus?
Possibly Jesus was fighting his own fear as much as Peter was his. Peter’s suggestion that Jesus would be spared probably plugged into a part of Jesus that felt the same way (“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me,” he says later).
Some times fear is a warning that something is wrong and we should pay attention; listen to our gut; trust our instincts. That’s not what Jesus is talking about here. This is a disabling fear, so strong that Jesus labels it evil and satanic. It is a fear that messes with our deepest convictions and finds us looking for any possible out, no matter how much we have to compromise. For us, fear can become almost a god, an icon, the standard by which we evaluate every potential action. If it scares us, we don’t do it. If it doesn’t, we do. How do we know the difference? The Benedictine Joan Chittitser says that “We know it is the voice of God if calls us out of our smallness.”
Fear has a great deal to do with the second part of the Gospel that is troubling, when Jesus tells Peter to “pick up his cross” and follow him.
At that point the Cross had no religious meaning since Jesus had not yet been crucified. But crucifixions were everywhere. The method of execution preferred by the Romans because of its brutality and its power to intimidate, crosses with decimated bodies lined many of the roads that went to and from Jerusalem. At the height of the Roman persecution, hundreds of Jews were crucified every week.
So Jesus was executed by the culturally-preferred method of the time; if he had lived today in the United States, it would be by lethal injection, earlier the electric chair, earlier, the noose.
It’s understandable that the Cross was not the symbol of Christianity for some 300 years after the death of Jesus. Why world his followers want to hold on to such a brutal memory? The writer James Carroll tells us that on the walls of the catacombs in Rome prior to the fourth century were drawings of palm branches, lambs, peacocks, but no crosses. The fish symbol was also important since the first letters of the word in Greek formed the phrase “Jesus Christ son of God savior.” Carroll says that even in the writings of Paul, the waters of Baptism was the predominant Christian symbol.
However, all of that changed in 325 CE with the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and supposedly saw the cross in a vision along with the message that under this symbol, he would conquer. So his plundering armies marched under a flag marked with a cross. Constantine did something else: he turned the Cross on it side, making it into a spear to kill his enemies, or those who a short time ago believed as he did.
And the cross became linked with violence. A thousand years later the same flag flew above the armies of the Crusades whose soldiers smashed the heads of the infidels in the name of Jesus. So there are some hymns in our hymnal I can’t sing anymore: like “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before.”
Today we see the cross as jewelry, earrings or necklaces worn by the devout and the demonic, by the pope and the bare-chested rock star spewing hatred. We see the crucifix – with the body of the suffering Jesus in the Roman Catholic sanctuary, as well as the empty cross towering above a Protestant church in the suburbs. The Cross has been depicted in thousands of works of art in hundreds of cultures.
There is something primal and arresting about the shape of the cross: two intersecting lines. It points to the four directions; vertically it points up to the heavens and down to the grave; horizontally its arms reaching out to the ends of the earth. It embodies the connection of opposites.
One of the most profound understandings of the Cross. one that make sense to me, is from the writer Barbara Brown Taylor who reminds us that there were three crosses Golgatha that day (probably more). On one was the thief who believed that Jesus could take him to heaven; on the other was the doubter who mocked Jesus. And in the center is Jesus, arms outstretched, embracing all extreme of the human condition and the complexities of the human heart. “One cross makes a crucifix,” she says, “three crosses make a church. “
There are are many stories outside of Scripture about the power of the cross. I like this one because the cross appears in a different form and it shows how to use the power of evil against itself:
The priest and writer Sam Wells tells the story of an abandoned London block with flats boarded up, debris everywhere, no grass, no trees. He writes, “For 30 years the site had been empty since an explosion killed Mabel and Arthur, asleep in their bed in the front room downstairs. No one had ever found their bodies. Nothing grew there until one spring a seed took root. Nobody noticed the plants for several weeks but in the end you can’t miss a sunflower. There it stood five or six feet tall with its heavy golden head. Most of the local people had never seen a sunflower. Some were changed by its beauty…but most were merely bewildered; it seemed so out of place.”
He continues, “The people left the sunflower alone. They thought they’d get used to it but they couldn’t. It showed up the drabness, the desolation around for what it was: empty ugly, dead. One evening they went in a great crowd and they trampled on the sunflower and danced on it, and beat the fibers of its leaves and stems and crushed its petals Then they went away in silence. But in their dance of death they scattered the seed over the entire site and buried some of it in the ground. So it was that the next spring what had been a scene of desolation was covered with sunflowers and there were flowers on Mabel and Arthur’s grave at last.”
It is not my intention today to trample on anyone’s deep devotion to the Cross… far from it. Only to suggest that you might consider enlarging your understanding of it, seeing it as sign of the great empathy of God with God’s children. Dr. Mark McInroy puts it this way:
“In Jesus’ death God achieves an unprecedented solidarity with humanity, and we are left with no uncertainty about how thoroughly how very intimately, God knows our condition. God has entered into death, tasted of its bitter fruit and transformed it from the inside.” In that sense, the Cross is a powerful symbol, not of a ransom paid to let us all off the hook, but of love that promises new life,
So Jesus tell us to “pick up our cross” and follow him. This makes sense to me because I know that there are things I am not facing that hold me back: anxiety, fear, despair about the fate of the world and the country. Also many of us feel a sense that we are never quite measuring up. “America’s rabbi” Harold Kushner tells us that the five most damaging words in the English language are these: ”not living up to your potential.”
For all of us, there are relationships to be mended, behaviors that are hurting us, words we don’t say that others so desperately need to hear, memories that cripple us, grief that never seems to end. Each one of us here knows what our crosses are –we don’t need to be told.
More than anything else, I know this about myself: I would die if it meant that my children could live. Love that deep is accompanied by vulnerability and fear of loss that can become its own cross if it paralyzes us. And we read the news each day, we know that children are being shot —not just here but across the world – children whose parents love them every bit as much has I love mine. And the fear can give way to a kind of paralysis.
This week I have learned that if you can’t take on the big things you can take on the small things with kindness. You can pay attention. You can begin.
Friday night I had left the parking ramp near the Ordway and of course my infallibly bad sense of direction kicked in and the person I was with was distracted. So I strode into a nearby restaurant and approached a couple sitting at the bar: “Excuse me, we’re not from here – which way to the Ordway?” The guy looked worried I might ask for money, but the woman, with the kindest look, pointed the way… and added, “I hope you have a really nice time.”
Why do I still remember that? Why did it make such an impression on me? Maybe because I read too much news, am walking around too defensively, too wary, feeling like the weight of the world is on my shoulders. But in such little things such tiny connections, such little things, hope is reborn, seeds are planted, and perspective changed.
No matter the the height and heft of the crosses we face, individually or together as a country and a world, there will be hands to help. They were there for Jesus on the way to Golgatha.
And we don’t have to do the heavy lifting alone.
James Carroll, Christ Actually, 2014.
Barbara Brown Taylor, God in Pain, 1998.
Sam Wells, Hanging by a Thread, 2016.