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Lent 2 B

The Long Shadow of the Cross.
(Mark 8:27-38)

by Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

So we’ve barely got into our stride for the long Season of Lent, (6 ½ weeks, including Holy Week)
and already Calvary – the Cross of Jesus – is casting its shadow.

Now, we have a cross we love in this sanctuary
an empty cross, infused with the gold of Easter Resurrection light.
Ours is a victorious cross,
and when the winter sun
plays through its panes,
it spangles our carpet (and our eyes) with
the brilliance of God’s victory
and our eternal hope.

That’s not the cross I’m referring to.
The cross that casts its shadow today
is dark, foreboding,
and way too soon in our Lenten Journey.
So soon, I had for most of this week elected to ignore it,
and instead play with the blessing texts of Genesis and Romans.

But curse Mark, and that dark shadow of his.
It has cast itself over the week,
and has resisted my pastoral and homiletic urge to ignore it,
or colour it with blue and purple and gold.1

The World day of Prayer Service held here on Friday was the last nail in the cross.
Malaysian women had provided the words and prayers for this year’s
internationally observed service of prayer,
and they were words shadowed by lots of crosses;
the crosses of their own lives,
of human trafficking, misogynistic legalized injustices,
unfair trading practices that reward the conglomerates
rather than the workers.
The prayers were pleas for God and the world
to take notice of suffering, and to do something about
undeserved suffering.

In places and situations as diverse as Burlington, Ottawa and Homs, Syria,
there have been cross-shaped shadows across our news landscape all week.
And what about that shadow on the ultrasound scan, or the lung x-ray,
or the shadow cast by the death of a dear, dear friend?
Whether we like it or not,
Mark’s long-shadowed cross and its prolific progeny of are part of our
human landscape.
And we don’t like it.

The Gospel of Mark seems to have anticipated this, for his own time, as well as ours.
It’s as if he knows it’s going to take a lot for us to jettison
our determination to assume that suffering is exceptional, rather than endemic.

So, less than half way through his Gospel,
while Jesus is geographically – and culturally – at the farthest point
from Jerusalem, in northern Galilee, in the Roman outpost of Caesarea Philippi,
and while we are still four whole weeks from Holy Week,
in he marches with a big black marker,
furiously drawing with as heavy a hand as Mel Gibson
the relentless horror of rejection,
persecution, execution.
Whether we like it or not,
the shadow of the cross is the birthmark of Mark’s Messiah.

And Peter hates it.
He wants no part of it (and if we’re honest, we’re right there with him)
He, like us, wants God’s Anointed to look like one.
Why can’t this Messiah, this Christ,
be bright and shiny, powerful like the emperors of Rome?
(archeological discoveries show that Caesarea Philippi was well decorated
with iconic representations of its emperor-gods)
Okay, if not like that (which after all has plenty of problems),
can’t the Christ be peaceful, clad in clean calmness?
Can’t God’s redeeming, healing, forgiving, curing, cleansing One
do this work of God with latex gloves and a laparoscope,
deftly excising earth’s evils without disturbing the surrounding tissue?
Save the world without mess?

Peter doesn’t get it, not here in this passage.
He doesn’t get it til fifty days after Jesus’ death,
not until he has this overwhelming bone-deep knowledge
that dying didn’t win, that the life of Jesus is somehow now resurrected in him
(But I’m getting ahead of the story).
Today we’re confronted with a cross before we’re ready for it,
and we are with Peter on this.
We can’t, won’t stomach the notion that
God is going to abandon Jesus to Roman execution, just to make a point,
or to satisfy some twisted divine thirst for atonement.

But that’s not the point of Mark’s long-shadowed cross,
hovering over the Gospel, and our Lent.
It’s his – Mark’s – attempt to help us see God where,
for some reason, we’ve come not to expect to see God.

Where human systems
(and regrettably, some forms of Christianity, particularly here in North America)
have so successfully convinced us
that weakness, sickness and trouble are signs of the absence of God,
Jesus was convinced, and spent his entire life, every last agonizing breath of it,
showing and telling that God is to be found
not in palaces, or churches even,
but precisely in the mess, the horror, the helplessness and hopelessness,
and confusion and chaos that get pushed as far away as possible from
palaces and churches.

Way back in the Fall,
here we discovered in the pages of The Good Book,
repeated examples of
“God’s active, passionate, eternal commitment
to create diversity and abundance out of the mess of chaos,
to sustain, to uphold,
to be in relationships that heal the weakest
and the most vulnerable.”2

Famous preacher at New York’s Riverside Church,
William Sloane Coffin was as outraged at the notion that God is somehow
absent from suffering and tragedy and the world’s pain, as Jesus is in this passage.
His youngest son Alex was tragically killed in a car accident, and many tried to
comfort him with a cleaned up God and Gospel,
until with as much vehemence as Jesus,
he rebuked this pablum with the thunderous affirmation
“When my boy was killed, God was the first one who cried!”3
God’s been here.

It is into those places on the margins, in the depths of secret shame,
in the fractures of a broken heart, or mind,
the tragedies on road or rail, sea and sky,
graveyards, and sweatshops,
that God comes closest.

And if that’s where God is,
then, Jesus rebukes Peter, and those of us who don’t like it,
that’s precisely where Jesus is going to be too.
Going all the way into the depth of trouble to redeem it with sadness, and presence.

And it’s where we who choose to follow him, are supposed to go also,
as the hands and feet of Christ, walking alongside tragedy and pain
all the way through the shadow of that cross,
holding on to the promise
of the gold and purple and blue.4

Oh, and one more thing, this Second week of Lent,
If we’re the sufferer, the one whose heart is breaking,
the one whose head is bowed in sorrow,
this shadowed cross is a reminder that Jesus has been there before us.
If we’re the one in trouble, we have this cross reminding us that Jesus walks
every step with us,5 holding a shadowed cross, that is tinged with purple, and blue, and gold.


© Elisabeth R. Jones March 2012

1Peter Gomes, in The Good Book, (Harper, 1996, p.228) writes: “Protestants have long beguiled themselves with the notions that they worship a victorious risen Christ, and thus an empty cross,…. and so their churches are filled on Easter, but empty on Good Friday. This Easter -biased faith, he says “is one that is unfamiliar with suffering, incapable of enduring it, and unable to recognize the work of God in it.”

2Quote from my sermon, “Loving God’s Neighbour,” Pent 19A(Oct 23). See also “Dilemma and Promise” (August 14) and “Burning Bushes and Broken Bread” (Aug 28).

3Peter Gomes refers to the story in The Good Book, , p.216, but you can also read Coffin’s sermon after Alex’s death, in which he states. “When the waves closed over Alex’s sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

4For those who are reading this on the web, this is a reference to the beloved window that graces our chancel, a brilliantly coloured (empty) cross.

5A reference, by quotations, to the Anthem which follows the sermon, by Larry Shackley, “I want Jesus to walk with me.”

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