Sunday, January 23, 2011

Foolish Cross

Sermon from January 23, 2011
(Epiphany 3 – Year A)
1 Corinthians 1: 10-18
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

As a preacher, it is always nice when the biblical passage for the appointed Sunday includes one of his favorite verses in Holy Scripture.
In the selection from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul is chastising the people of Corinth for dividing themselves into factions.
The Apostle Paul tells the people of Corinth that they are to be united, united around one, single unifying purpose.

Now I believe that many people erroneously interpret Paul as saying that we need to be united around issues, issues such as abortion or gun control or politics.
However, I don’t believe that Paul wants us to be united around issues.
I believe that Paul wants us to be united around one single, foolish purpose:
We are to be united around the powerful Cross of Christ.
And the Apostle Paul concludes his argument with one of my favorite verses from scripture:

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,
But to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Last Sunday at St. Alban’s, we started our brand new, weekly, 5:00 PM Sunday Eucharist.
This new 5:00 o’clock service is now being held every Sunday in the Mahan Commons, in the St. Alban’s Outreach Center.
Jimmy and I spent a lot of time to find a song leader for this service who can lead us in both traditional and contemporary music on the guitar.
Jimmy and I spent a lot of time thinking about the Commons, which was formerly the school library, re-imagining it as a regular worship space, re-arranging the chairs and the altar to give it just the right feel of being casual, yet intimate and dignified.

Claudia Bachofen led the creative effort to make 12 beautiful quilts that depict scriptural scenes, quilts that now hang in the Commons and look classic.
The altar was set up in the midst of the people with a simple white linen cloth and candles.

Last Sunday, Jimmy and I had the Commons looking just the way we wanted it to for our inaugural 5 o’clock service.
Afterward, the reviews of the worship were wonderful.
The Holy Spirit had been tangibly present in that room.
Yet I have received one comment that I have found extremely interesting.
Several people who attended last week’s 5 o’clock service have noted the sublime beauty of the Commons, but they have also asked this powerful question:
But where in that room is the Cross?

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,
But to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

For to the world, the Word on the Cross is foolish and stupid.
But to us, to us who are being saved from this world, the Cross is our one, single, unifying purpose.

When I was growing up as a kid in the Episcopal Church, I served as an acolyte, carrying a torch or the cross in Sunday worship.
One Sunday afternoon when I was 16 years old, Mr. Mitchell, who was the adult in charge of the acolytes, called me at home on the telephone.
He inquired:
“Jeff, you know Rodney Wilson, don’t you?
He is another one of the acolytes.”
I replied.
“Yes, I know Rodney, but not very well.
He usually likes to acolyte at the early service.”
Mr. Mitchell then continued:
“Well, Jeff, I don’t know how to say this, but Rodney Wilson is dead.
Rodney was cleaning his gun with his father and the gun accidently went off, killing him.”

I was silent on the other end of the phone.
I had never known of another kid to die before.
Mr. Mitchell then continued:
“I have spoken with Rodney’s mother and she told me how much Rodney loved being an acolyte.
Therefore, Mrs. Wilson has requested that the pallbearers for Rodney’s funeral are to be his fellow acolytes.
And she wanted you to be one of Rodney’s pallbearers and to carry his casket.
Can you please get out of school at go to the church, then to Forest Lawn Cemetery, at 2 o’clock on Tuesday?”
I quietly replied:
“Yes, Mr. Mitchell.
I will be there.”

I will never forget that Tuesday afternoon.
I remember that I got out of my chemistry class early in order to leave school and go to Rodney Wilson’s funeral.
After the church service, as Rodney’s body was carried out of the church, the processional cross, carried by one of acolytes, led us out.
Then I witnessed something at that funeral that was quite different, something I have not seen very often at all, even in all the many funerals that I have officiated at since I have been a priest.
And the unusual thing was this:
Mrs. Wilson, Rodney’s mother, insisted that the brass processional cross be placed into the casket coach, next to the coffin, to make the journey to the cemetery with the body.
And at the cemetery, Mrs. Wilson insisted that the Cross lead Rodney’s body to the grave and that the Cross remain with his body until the end.

In those days, acolytes were mainly all boys.
And 8 of us teenaged boys served as pallbearers, dressed in navy blazers and clip-on ties, struggling to carry our brother, Rodney, to his grave.
I am sure that we looked foolish, trying to act like brave men.
Yet we were really just scared and weak boys, struggling under the weight of the coffin in the soft grass.
However, to the world, the most foolish thing of all was seeing that powerful and unifying cross, bravely lifted up, as we proclaimed “Alleluia” at the edge of the grave of a teen-aged boy who accidently shot himself while cleaning his gun.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,
But to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

You see, to the world, the cross means stupid foolishness and a blind faith in a God whom cannot be seen.
But to us who are being saved, the Cross of Jesus is the unifying power of resurrection and forgiveness and love.

To the world, the cross is the sign of a stupid failure, the total failure of Jesus’ work and ministry.
But to us who are being saved, the Cross of Jesus gives us power, power to overcome when we get broken or when we get laid off or when we mess up or when we accidentally shoot ourselves in the foot.

To the world, this piece of wood that hangs over the altar at St. Alban’s is an instrument of death and capital punishment, much like an electric chair or a noose.
But to us who are being saved, this carved piece of wood that hangs over the altar is the greatest sign of God’s unifying, loving purpose for us, showing us that nothing will ever, ever, ever, separate us from God’s power of love.

You see, Camille Webb Ward, a founder of this church, carved that cross that hangs over the altar here.
And, did you know, that Mrs. Ward also carved a smaller cross, a cross that used to hang over in St. Alban’s School?
I have listened to the voices of those who are being saved.
So next week, Mrs. Ward’s smaller carved wooden cross will be hung above the altar in the Mahan Commons, the site of our new 5 o’clock service.

And when I die, I want you all to remind Susan that I want that brass processional cross to be put in the casket coach with my body,
And I want that Cross of Jesus to stand powerfully and foolishly at the edge of my grave.
For even at the grave, we make our unifying song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,
But to us who are being saved
It is the power of God.


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