The Shadow of the Cross
A sermon preached by The Rev’d Jered Weber-Johnson
For Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, MN
April 10, 2020
I’ve been turning a lot lately to the poet Mary Oliver. She writes, in her poem “Shadows,”
Everyone knows the great energies running amok cast
terrible shadows, that each of the so-called
senseless acts has its thread looping
back through the world and into a human heart.
Shadows. We all have them. I have been wrestling with my anger of late. I’m not proud of it. It bursts out of me at the most unhelpful of times, like Mentos dropped in a Coke bottle, or, more truthfully, a volcano blowing its top, and whoever is closest gets burned. I don’t like this part of myself, and I especially don’t like the damage it does. And, I’m working on it. This is part of my shadow side, a side that we all have, a part that stems from the hurts we’ve all experienced, the losses, the griefs, the upsets and disappointments that life inevitably brings our way, some of us more than others. As our Associate Rector pointed out last week, our essential spiritual type, if you follow the Enneagram, can teach us a lot about who we are, how we are prone to respond in stress, how our anxiety and grief manifest. This kind of self knowledge is especially important in times such as the one we are in, when there is enough grief and anxiety to go around. Like many of you, I am grieving the loss of my autonomy, the feeling of being hemmed in, the limiting of choices. Like many of you I am grieving the loss of events and celebrations that had to be postponed, altered, or canceled. Like many of you, grief is beginning to touch my circle of friends and family as more and more people we know get sick and suffer as a result of this novel virus.
When I am grieving or anxious or stressed, especially if I am not taking good care of myself, resting, eating well, praying, and connecting, well, then my shadow is more pronounced. And, my shadow is an angry one. Yours might look different, like depression, over-functioning, highly critical thinking, or full on retreat. Whatever it is, we all have a shadow.
In 2015, indie music darling, Sufjan Stevens released a song, “No shade in the shadow of the cross” that every year feels like a fitting soundtrack to Holy Week. Stevens is vulnerable in this song in ways that speak to the themes of this week, and especially today, Good Friday. He explores his personal mistakes, griefs, addiction, and recovery, confessing ultimately that there is no shade in the shadow of the cross. I’m not sure if he intended it, but this line speaks to me of the ways that the Cross of Christ exposes so much about the darkness of the world. Far from hiding us and sheltering us in its shade, the cross lays bare the ways in which our own griefs and struggles weave together, how what we have done and what has been done to us somehow intertwine and get twisted about, so that our shadows can and often do collude with what we Christians call sin. These shadows loop back through the world and into our hearts, as Oliver says.
The cross is that moment where the ugliest truths of the world and of our own lives are exposed. That may come as little comfort to all of us. Especially now when we most need and want to be comforted. In many ways the past months of this pandemic have, like the Cross, exposed the worst in the world. We’ve seen the most cynical side of many leaders. We’ve seen the way some would exploit this pandemic for personal gain. We’ve seen how, through human greed, we have created systems of oppression that exclude the most vulnerable from life-saving healthcare. Early reports are telling us that the most affected populations in many states are persons of color, that death rates are highest among minorities, many who suffer from chronic illnesses and lack of income or access to lifesaving care. In Chicago alone, 70% of the deaths from COVID-19 are African American, when African Americans only comprise 23% of the city.
This disease is exposing the glaring inequality of our cities and communities, raising alarm about some of our brothers and sisters in this country for whom poverty, access to healthcare, and chronic illness are a tragic daily existence. We cannot hide in the shadow of the cross. This disease, the crucifixion by neglect and disenfranchisement of our neighbors is made clear in this moment. So too are the ways that our own shadows, our fear of not having enough, our fears of the other, our divisions and the intentional distances we place between ourselves and those Jesus calls “the least of these” are made plain to see in the shadow of the Cross. I see these truths laid bare, and I am immediately enraged.
But, the cross of Christ does not abandon us to our shadow. The cross not only illuminates our sin and pain, it also brings to light the source of our liberation from these things. As Jesus hangs dying on Golgotha, the gospel of John tells us that far from damning the powers, far from anger and blame, Jesus turns to his mother and the Beloved disciple at the foot of the cross and invites them into something radically different.
John writes “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”
Johannine scholar, Karoline Lewis says, the translation here for home is “not a physical place. It is a relationship.” The kind of dwelling here that is implied in the new relationship begun between Jesus’ mother and the disciple whom he loved is one of interdependence and mutuality. The disciple takes her to be among his people.
This is the radicalness of the cross. The shadows that we project and perpetrate on the world are the very causes of what separate and divide us. It is not so much our grief, loss, pain, and suffering that separate us, but how we live out of those things – our desire to regain control, or our giving up when we can no longer get our way, and our anger at our own frustration – stand between us and the kind of mutual indwelling that the Cross makes possible. On the Cross, we believe, the powers of death and sin no longer hold sway. We are liberated and set free to live with and love a world that needs connection and relationship.
Right now as we isolate out of love for our neighbor, as we separate by distance from those we love the most, here we are most vulnerable to our anxieties and griefs, and it is especially here that we are more prone to project outward our shadows and hurts. Yet, today, this Good Friday, we are given the promise that by the power of God, and the love of Jesus poured out on the Cross, we are given the possibility of a radical new way of being in the world, with one another, as family. Today we can be — indeed we are — united in the shadow of the cross.
Oliver concludes her poem, writing:
everyone who has heard the lethal train-roar
of the tornado swears there was no mention ever
of any person, or reason—I mean
the waters rise without any plot upon
history, or even geography. Whatever
power of the earth rampages, we turn to it
dazed but anonymous eyes; whatever
the name of the catastrophe, it is never
the opposite of love.