Wisdom of the Cross

Why do you follow Jesus? And how far are you willing to go?

This past week, I got to spend some time with one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century – Jurgen Moltmann. At the age of 84, he traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to come and have a conversation with the 100 or so of us gathered in Chicago.

I had known parts of his story before and I had read at least one of his books. I knew that he was the mentor, a father-figure really, to one of my most important professors in seminary. But to sit before him and hear his story in his own words was absolutely stunning.

The center of Moltmann’s theology is the hope of the cross and the resurrection. Everything else in the world is futile if we don’t see hope there. And our journey of faith must travel through the cross to the love that awaits us on the other side.

The cross is a very difficult thing, however. It has become much easier in our lives to minimize it’s importance, to minimize its call, to polish it up and paint it beautiful colors and let it become merely the symbol of our faith.

But time and time again, this statement of Jesus’ comes up in the gospels:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34, NRSV)

Why do we people follow Jesus? Are we willing to go to the cross?

Peter certainly thought he wanted to follow Jesus. As one of the disciples, sure he didn’t always get things right – but he tried. And when Jesus and his band stopped just outside of Caesaria Phillipi to refocus their mission, Peter was ready.

Jesus asked, “who do you say that I am?” And Peter got the answer right – “You are the Messiah!”

But he didn’t understand the depths of the word that he was uttering. He heard a word that was full of power and justice and victory – when Christ has a much different sort of path in mind.

And I think that is true for many of us as well. We too balk at the idea that of a suffering Christ. We like to quickly pass over the parts about his death and get to the resurrection. We, like Peter, are eagerly waiting for the victory of Jesus to be shown in the world!

And when we are focused on victory and power and success, then we get sidetracked by other things.

The cross that we are called to take up becomes a status symbol. We wear beautiful crosses around our necks… but aren’t willing to give all we have to the poor.

The cross becomes an excuse to flaunt our difference before others. We wear the cross all over our clothes on pins and hats and backpacks… but we aren’t willing to go the extra mile for someone in need.

The cross becomes excitement and entertainment as we flock to the biggest churches with the most charismatic preachers… but we aren’t willing to see the least of these on the street corner.

The cross makes us feel good and we show up for church once a month to get our fix… but then we turn back out into the world and leave our faith in the pews.

Wisdom cries out in the streets; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34, NRSV)

Peter needs to be shown another way. He needs to have his simple story of success and victory with little or no cost altered. He needs to hear the truth. We need to hear the truth.

This week, I believe I heard the truth.

Jurgen Moltmann decided to follow Jesus as a Prisoner of War during WWII. As a young man, he had sort of found himself joining the Hitler Youth movement – not really for any good reason, and then he was drafted into the German Army. During his time of service, he witnessed the Allied bombing of his hometown of Hamburg – where over 40,000 civilians were killed – mostly women and children. He saw his best friend torn to pieces by a bomb right next to him. The two questions that lingered in his mind for years were, “Where is God?” and “Why am I not dead like all the others?” He was later captured by British soldiers and sent to a POW camp in Scotland.

It was only there that Moltmann began to hear about what had happened in the concentration camps. It was there that he began to be wracked with shame and grief and agony. And he had absolutely nothing from his experience that could get him through his pain and suffering. He had grown up in a secular home, and humanist philosophy had no words to describe his loss and guilt and grief.

But in Scotland – as a prisoner of war – as a German soldier and as a man who carried upon his shoulders the guilt of a nation – he found grace. The guards in Scotland looked at them as human beings, not demons or enemies. One of the chaplains handed Moltmann a bible – and with nothing else to do, he began to read.

Moltmann talks about how his life was completely desperate and desolate – that all the prisoners in the camp were trying to conceal their wounded souls with this armor of untouchability. But as he read through that bible from cover to cover, he was deeply moved by two things in particular: The psalms of lament and the death cry of Jesus – “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” He found in these words a fellow sufferer who understood what true sorrow was like.

Moltmann dove into the study of scripture and theology because God was the only thing that could save him from his despair. And out of his experiences and out of the scriptures, he shares with the world a new understanding of the cross.

While we tend to emphasize the cross as this cure for our sins – this simple and singular act that washes us clean, Moltmann began to see it as a complex and messy and passionate and painful understanding of the cross.

At the intersection of the cross all sorts of separate things fight for one another: live vs. death, hope vs. despair, the godforsaken and the godless collide.

And Christ bears these tensions – all of them, and takes all of these struggling forces to the cross and comes out on the other side with only victory: there is only life, there is only hope, there is only God.

But first, God suffers with us.

We look at the sin in our own lives, and yes – that needs to be dealt with – it needs to be redeemed by God. That happens on the cross, as Christ takes our place on the cross, and in doing so, brings us through to the resurrection.

But Moltmann also talks about Christ suffering with us. Because while there needs to be forgiveness for the sinner, there also needs to be justice for the victim. The victim needs to find peace also.

In his experience, this happened as the stories of the victim were presented to those of the perpetrators.

After the war, Moltmann said, we listened to the stories of survivors of concentration camps- because we didn’t know what happened in the death camps. We listened to their stories and looked into the eyes of the survivors and became aware of who we the Germans really were. Same took place in the truth commissions in Africa – the victims must tell the stories, perpetrators must listen to the stories, or they can’t become aware of their guilt. Sacrament of repentance! Confess the truth, change your mind, make good where you have done evil as you can”

What does it mean to take up this cross of Jesus? To really take it up, to really follow in his footsteps.

Moltmann says that we must not become apathetic. He said that we shy away from love because we believe it will only bring us pain. “If you love no one, you will feel no suffering – if you don’t love yourself you will not feel your own death b/c you don’t care. I saw soldiers who became so apathetic that they don’t care about death b/c they were completely resigned and no longer in service of life, but in service of death.

If you love life again, you risk disappointment, you must be ready to suffer on behalf of your compassion for another person and you must be ready to feel their dying.”

When Christ asks us to take up his cross, he asks us to go to those places where life and death meet. He asks us to go to those places where the victim and the perpetrator meet. He asks us to go to those places where the rich and the poor meet. And we are to listen to their stories. We are to heal their wounds. We are to love them. And by loving them, we open ourselves up to feel their pain. We open ourselves up to be hurt. But we also open ourselves up to God.

Despair to Hope

There are only two things that I really want to comment on this morning – and then I want us to turn our hearts and minds to a time of prayer – because Heaven help us, this is going to be a long summer in Eastern Iowa.

First of all, I was so surprised last night when I again read the scripture from the book of Romans in this week’s lectionary. Not realizing what the situation would be, I had actually planned on not sharing this passage of scripture – I wanted to instead focus on hospitality and use the text from Genesis… the story of Abraham welcoming the three strangers.

But again, knowing that what was happening around us was more important than any preconceived notion of mine, I went back to our texts this week and was ready to use something completely different. Until I read Romans. (5:1-5)

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

When I wasn’t helping out my husband’s family in the past few days… helping to calm worried spirits, getting meals for 11 people on the table, trying to get to places around Cedar Rapids to help sandbag… I was glued to the television. I’m sure many of you were also. And what continued to amaze me were the statements of hope and strength that kept being shared with the community.

Rev. Linda Bibb is the pastor at Salem United Methodist Church. It is on the corner of First Avenue and 3rd Street West and on Thursday evening, their stained glass windows were almost completely under water. And when she was interviewed on KCRG she said: “that the church is not the building, so they Salem church is doing well and proclaiming that they do not fear the future because God is already there.”

Gail Gnaughton – President and CEO of the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library had this to say:

“The Czech and Slovak peoples have endured many devastating events in their history and have survived to become stronger. Iowa is filled with the strength of those who settled here and built the Cedar Rapids community. The museum will rise again from above the flood waters to continue as the touchstone for Czech and Slovak cultural heritage in the United States.”

In Walter Bruggemann’s reflections upon this passage, he shares that the amazing thing about both the Jewish and Christian communities is that memory produces hope in us, in the same way that amnesia produces despair. “We hope in and trust the God who has done these past miracles, and we dare to affirm that the God who has done past acts of transformation and generosity will do future acts of transformation and generosity.”

He shares the hope of Israel even though their communities and cities were destroyed and they were sent into exile. In the prophetic words of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Isaiah, the people heard “a vision that defied and overrode circumstance…” They heard about a restored temple in Jerusalem, a new covenant with Israel where God would completely forgive them and would start again, and they heard of a wondrous, triumphant homecoming to Jerusalem. “So these exiled Jews – the most passionate, the most faithful – took these dreams and hopes as the truth of their life. They acted toward that future.”

In the same way, Christians refuse to see “the present loss as the last truth (for it is) a community that knows that God is not finished.” We can call the dreaded Friday on which Christ died “Good” because we know that it is not the end. This passage from Paul is a refusal to give in.

Bruggemann goes on to say that our ability to turn memory into hope, even in the midst of loss “is not about optimism or even about signs of newness.” In fact, if watching the images on television and even seeing the waters recede in Cedar Rapids, there is little hope there, little sign of newness anywhere – the streets, the buildings, and everything inside is covered with a disgusting brown film.

No, claiming that hope does not disappoint is according to Bruggemann, “a statement about the fidelity of God who is the key player in our past and in our future… “ and so we have the ability to say: The Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the Good News.
(Walter Bruggemann- http://www.icjs.org/clergy/walter.html – “Suffering Produces Hope”)

Secondly, I want to share with you the call that is before all of us from the Gospel of Matthew. Here again these words at the end of chapter 9:

35Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

The phrase that strikes me the most in this text is that Jesus had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless. The Message translation says they were “confused and aimless” and the American Standard Version says they were “distressed and scattered.” In any case… these were people who needed some guidance. They were having a tough time and they needed some love and compassion and some real help. And Jesus said – we can do this. There are so many of them and there are so few of us… but we just need to pray to God that more people will be sent our way and that we can do this!

At about 10pm on Thursday night, I was watching the news and heard a cry for help. The last remaining water pump in Cedar Rapids was in danger and there was great need to secure the well with sandbags. Evidently only about 10 people were helping there and it simply wasn’t enough. I desperately wanted to help, but I couldn’t get there – it was on the other side of the river, and with the interstate being shut down, it would have taken at least an hour to travel the half mile it would normally take. I couldn’t do anything but pray.

The next morning, they showed footage about what happened that night. More than one thousand people had showed up and created a HUGE fireman’s brigade to get the sandbags to where they were needed. And within a very short time, they had saved and protected that well and in doing so – saved the whole city’s limited water supply. It was extraordinary. A simply cry for help on the television resulted in that amazing response.

Two weeks ago, we heard about the communities north of us that were suffering from tornadoes and flooding, and we quickly sent out a plea for people to head up to that area and help in any way we could. With very short notice, we were able to get a team of 13 people together and go up and make a significant difference in one woman’s life.

The truth of the matter is, in these next weeks and months – the harvest that Jesus talks about is plentiful. There are so many hurting and helpless people in these communities that have been affected and they are going to need more help than what FEMA can provide. They are going to need more than money and flood buckets (although those things are necessary and we should give all we can). They are going to need people to stand beside them and to believe with them that there is hope for their lives. They need people to work along side them and to share the good news that this present circumstance is not the final word of God. And we can be the people who do so.

In your bulletin there is an insert… and it shares the ways that we can respond as a church to the disaster that has struck our part of the world. Two weeks ago I shared with you that Teresa of Avila once wrote: Christ has no body on earth but ours… with which to look with compassion on the world. And that statement is as true today as it was two weeks ago, as it was two hundred years ago. There are so many people out there, right now, who need our help, and we can respond with our hands and our feet and our hearts.

In the Message translation of the bible, the commission of those disciples who go out to serve in the name of Christ goes a little something like this:

“Don’t begin by traveling to some far-off place to convert unbelievers. And don’t try to be dramatic by tackling some public enemy. Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood. Tell them that the kingdom is here. Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons. You have been treated generously, so live generously.
“Don’t think you have to put on a fund-raising campaign before you start. You don’t need a lot of equipment. You are the equipment…”

You are the equipment. You are all that Christ needs to help those that are hurting… and we can share that love freely, because we have been given that love freely by Christ. We can help others and freely give of our time, because we know that others have freely given of their time to help us in the crises of our own lives. We can freely give of our hearts to others, because we know that others would freely give to us if we were the ones in need today.
So take the time to look over the call to help. Take some time to pray about it. And then I hope and I pray that you will say yes. Let us together walk with those who are suffering, and let us together find hope. Amen. And Amen.