Sermon 9/15/19: A Stick, A Fence, A Cross

September 14/15, 2019

Holy Cross Day

Pr. Craig Mueller

A Stick, A Fence, A Cross

Snake on a stick. No, it’s not some new-fangled snack from the Minnesota State Fair. It’s the bizarre, yet beautiful account of Moses telling the people to put a bronze serpent on a pole. The snake is the sign of their sin and disobedience. Think of the serpent in Eden. Yet, when they look upon this snake on the stick, it is for them healing, salve, salvation. The American Medical Association uses the serpent on a pole to illustrate the healing arts of medicine. It is a wondrous mystery: threat and salve are entwined together. Surgeons who work under the snake-symbol have to hurt you to make you whole.

Then there is the cross. No symbol is more associated with Christianity than the cross. Literally, it signifies rejection, execution, death. Yet Christians love their crosses, don’t they? Crosses on churches. Crosses lifted high in processions. Crosses on walls, crosses on vestments, crosses as jewelry.

Sometimes Western Christianity is accused of glorifying the suffering of Jesus that placates a wrathful God. Movies like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and paintings by Rubens and Grunewald accentuate the gory extremes of Jesus’ passion and death.

Yet Eastern Christian icons show an almost regal Christ on the cross. It reflects more the theology of the gospel of John. As Jesus is lifted high on the tree, he draws the world to himself. God so loved the world, as John proclaims.

Early Christian writers saw in the cross Christ’s victory over sin, death, and evil. That is why Holy Cross Day is called the Triumph of the Cross by Roman Catholics, and the Exaltation of the Cross by Eastern Orthodox. That is why our processional cross shows a risen Christ. That is why the ancient Good Friday liturgy—and the way we celebrate it at Holy Trinity—is not a dirgy funeral for Jesus! The cross and resurrection cannot be so easily separated as we are prone to do: be sad on Good Friday, be happy on Easter Sunday. Rather, the cross is the best non-binary symbol of all. The cross is paradox. The cross is mystery.

Decades after Jesus’ death, Saint Paul already proclaimed the crucified Christ as the wisdom of God, the power of God. It seems foolish: that in weakness and vulnerability we find the means to healing and wholeness. to salve, to salvation. For Paul, the cross is glory.

As centuries passed, Christians looked upon the cross and saw it as the very tree of life itself, as illustrated on the bulletin cover. In a famous mosaic in Rome, healing waters flow from the cross, as if it is Paradise itself. There are birds on the branches and deer drink from the precious stream.

Yes, the cross is about Jesus. Yes, Holy Cross Day originates from an ancient story of St. Helena finding the true cross in the fourth century. But the cross is about our lives. The cross is about our baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection. Out of “sadness and sickness, misery and melancholy” (Martin Connell), God transforms us with healing and new life.

From a stick to a tree to a fence. This past week I attended a performance of a most moving and profound work called “Considering Matthew Shepard.” As most of you know, Matthew was a gay college student living in Wyoming. In 1998, in a brutal hate crime that captivated the nation, Matthew was murdered, and left hanging, like a scare crow, on a fence outside Laramie.

The librettist uses the word “passion” for the work, as there is a strong connection to choral works based on the passion of Christ. The fence becomes a character in itself. As Matthew is near death on the fence, his arms are extended, like on a cross. In one song, the fence is addressed like this: “Most noble evergreen with your roots in the sun: you shine in the cloudless sky of a sphere no earthly eminence can grasp.” I couldn’t help but recall an ancient hymn text about the cross: “O tree of beauty, tree most fair, ordained those holy limbs to bear.” In one haunting song, the personified fence sings of holding the dying Matthew Shepard all night long: “heavy as a broken heart / His own heart wouldn’t stop beating / The cold wind wouldn’t stop blowing / His face streaked with moonlight and blood.”

When protestors from Westboro Baptist Church show up at Matthew’s funeral with placards that read “God Hates Fags, Matt is in hell,” the choir sings kreuzige, kreusige, which is German for “crucify, crucify.” It is the hatred of the world that crucified Jesus. It is the hatred of the world that continues to crucify those despised and oppressed today.

But an amazing thing happens. People come to the wooden fence to pay homage, to pray and grieve: “flowers and photos / prayers and poems / crystals and candles / sticks and stones / they come in herds / they stand and stare / they sit and sigh / they laugh and cry.”

Every Good Friday, as they have for centuries, the faithful hear the words: “behold the wood of the cross.” And they stream forward to the cross to touch and venerate this sign of healing and hope—God’s love for the world, God with us in godforsaken places of heartache and loss.

In a profound turn, the librettist later writes: “I walk to the fence with beauty before me / I leave the fence surrounded by beauty . . . Still, still, I wonder . . . “ The fence becomes a place of beauty.

Beauty. The cross is for us, beautiful. As we gaze upon it, God transforms death into life. In a few moments we will sing a favorite hymn of many at Holy Trinity:  Holy God, holy and beautiful; beauty unsurpassed, you are despised, rejected / scorned, you hold us fast / and we behold your beauty.

Out of incomprehensible hatred, violence and suffering, the story of Matthew Shepard ends—as does the story of Jesus, as does the story of humanity—with profound hope. Again, from the libretto: “Meet me here where the old fence ends and the horizon begins . . . This evergreen, this heart, this soul, now moves us to remake our world, reminds us how we are to be / your people born to dream / how old this joy, how strong this call.”

At Ravinia, in this climactic moment, hundreds of high school choir members stood and joined in the hymn-like music. And through my tears, I felt hope for our world. And a deep joy. The ancient words from the Good Friday liturgy come to me: “We adore you, O Christ, and bless you, for by your holy cross joy has come into the world.”

A snake on a wooden stick. Christ lifted on a tree. Matthew dead on a Wyoming fence. Yet, the human heart is resilient. Lift high the cross. Trust the promise of baptism: that out of death, God births life. Reverence the holy cross.  As Luther urged, trace it on your body at day’s dawn and days’ end. Bow as it passes. Eat and drink its mystery each Lord’s Day. Let this sign of beauty be for you, the very heart of God.