Sermon for Our Saviour Sunday 2018
Welcome, my friends, to this Our Saviour Sunday festival worship service, as we gather to close out our 150th anniversary year being a vital and integral part of the San Gabriel Valley community. A year ago, you kicked off this sesquicentennial celebration in grand style – both by looking back over the first 150 years of our story, and also by looking forward to all that God might have in store for us.
Of course, this past year has also brought with it lots of changes which perhaps none of you could have fully anticipated just one year ago. This past February, Gary and Peg Bradley retired after so many years as a part of this community. And for the past almost seven months now, I have been with you all as your Interim Rector, as we all find ourselves neck-deep in the process of calling the next Rector here at the Church of Our Saviour. This anniversary year may have begun with a sense of stability and continuity and constancy… but it concludes with a great deal more sense of uncertainty than we thought we had a year ago at this time.
That tension between constancy and ambiguity… between stability and flexibility… between certainty and doubt… between periods and question marks… lies not only at the heart of our experience here at the Church of Our Saviour. That tension of mixed messages lies at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian as well.
151 years ago, this congregation held its first service, and five years later, on September 9, 1872, (exactly 146 years ago today) they dedicated this very space – as noted on a plaque in the back of the church. That celebration fell just a few days short of the Feast Day of the Holy Cross. And so, Phil Smith had the wonderful idea that for our lessons this morning, we use those chosen for that feast day rather than the regular lessons which would have been appointed for today. So, if you were paying attention to our opening prayer and to our Bible readings for today, you consistently heard phrases like: “Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross…” and “Jesus humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” and “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” And we will sing songs this morning with lyrics which proclaim, “When I survey the wondrous cross…” and “Lift high the cross.”
And herein lies the mixed message which accompanies not only the Feast Day of the Holy Cross, but which accompanies as well, the whole of the Christian life. You see, the early church had a major public relations problem. Their founding leader had been brutally killed by the Roman government in a public execution … humiliatingly stripped naked, nailed to a cross, and left to die, as a cautionary tale to all who witnessed it about the cost of daring to challenge the authorities of the day. And then in subsequent years, his followers tried to convince others that this Jesus character really was a pretty good guy and that, despite all evidence to the contrary, they should all follow in his footsteps. This is what St. Paul refers to in First Corinthians as “the scandal of the cross”… a public relations nightmare.
That public relations problem has been a part of our experience for the past 2000 years now. In our present day where our cultural heroes are athletes with multi-million dollar salaries, and film or television or music stars who command top dollar simply to entertain us, and 20-something year old billionaires who made their fortunes by inventing the latest video game to play on our phone or computer, the story-line of one who, in the words of our reading this morning from Philippians, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” is not a particularly compelling one. Even today, there are churches which intentionally avoid the use of any images of the cross in their sanctuaries, concerned that it’s not a good “marketing device” to attract newcomers.
And you know, they’re right. If the Christian Church chooses to view itself as being in competition with Labron James or Beyonce or Bill Gates, that is a competition we will lose every single time. Now let me make something clear here… I have no problem at all with people who are incredibly wealthy or talented or successful in their careers. In fact, I applaud them for being so good at what they do. But the Church – and especially the Church in the light of the cross of Christ – is simply called to use a different yardstick when assessing what it means to live into the fullness of everything God is calling us to be.
If folks avoid the use of the cross – whether it be in their language, or their church imagery, or their theology – for fear that it might be offensive to some people, they’re actually on to something… because the cross, and all that it represents, really is offensive to much of what the world stands for today. The cross, you see, is an anachronism in our culture. The cross is counter-cultural. So to be “people of the cross” means to proclaim without reservation that Christ meets us not only in our successes, but most especially in our suffering. To be “people of the cross” means that we are called to stand alongside the most vulnerable, the most fragile, the most victimized members of our society today. To be “people of the cross” compels us to stand up against the forces of oppression and power and greed who seek to exploit the earth for their own benefit. To be “people of the cross” demands of us that we recognize our own brokenness, our own weakness, our own frailty, and that we call out that brokenness in the systems of which we are a part – be that the church, or the government, or the business community, or our society in general. Is the cross “offensive” to many people? Yes, it is. Because it calls into question many of the values which lots of us hold dear in our lives. The cross shows what it looks like when God gets involved in the world.
Every time we baptize somebody, after pouring those waters of new birth over their head, we anoint the person with oil, making the sign of the cross on their forehead. And then the whole congregation says together, “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified.” Those are powerful actions, and those are powerful words – repeated every time we make the sign of the cross over ourselves during worship, and every time the priest extends a hand offering absolution or a blessing – that we are “people of the cross”… and that we stand for everything which that cross represents.
For 151 years now, the Church of Our Saviour has stood here, just off Roses Road, not just inviting people to come and be a part of its wonderful worship, not just engaging others in the great outreach and service ministries which are a hallmark of this congregation, not just exposing people to the Episcopal way, not just encouraging people to use this beautiful campus as a gathering place.
No… for 151 years now, since its first service on this campus in 1867, and since its dedication in this space five years later just on the cusp of Holy Cross Day in 1872, the Church of Our Saviour has invited people to become “people of the cross”… with all of the joys and challenges and responsibilities which accompany that moniker. I don’t know what that dedication service in here was like so many years ago, but I think it’s a safe bet that it didn’t include Holy Communion (since most Episcopal churches only celebrated Holy Communion rarely). More likely, it was a service of Morning Prayer. And so, I offer a prayer from our current Morning Prayer service, as a reminder of all that the Church of Our Saviour might become in the years ahead, as we live ever-more into the “people of the cross” that God is inviting us to become:
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.