Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

 

The Foolishness of the Cross

Third Sunday of Lent

Sunday, February 27, 2005

 

 

 

 

 

Rev. Dean Snyder

Dean Snyder, Senior Minister, is a preacher, writer and activist who coordinates a talented ministerial and lay staff. He has previously served congregations in Philadelphia as well as a director of communications, editor, specialist in congregational development and new church starts, campus minister and college instructor. A graduate of Boston University School of Theology and Albright College, his articles have appeared in dozens of publications.

 

 

The cross is full of barnacles. The cross, for good or ill, is our symbol – we who are Christians. But for 2,000 years it has been accumulating connotations and associations which cover it and weigh it down.

 

One of the great ironies of Christian history is that the cross of the crucified, nonviolent Christ became the symbol used by Emperor Constantine to justify his violent expansion of the Roman Empire. After he had conquered a city, Constantine would plant a cross at the gate of the city as the symbol of his power and reign. The emblem of Christ’s suffering became a symbol of domination and conquest. To this day, military chaplains, for example in the Middle East and Muslim countries, need to be careful about wearing a cross on their lapel because it is seen there as a symbol of aggression and domination.

 

What is the meaning of the cross? What is the meaning that the cross might have, could have, for us today – this symbol that we continue to mount on the steeples of our churches and to wear around our necks? What is the meaning of the cross?

 

For several Sundays this Lent, I would like to ask you to think with me about the cross. Especially to think and to try to understand with me what the cross meant to the first generations of the followers of Jesus Christ before Emperor Constantine. I’d like to begin this morning with what the apostle Paul says in the first chapter of First Corinthians.

 

This is what he says about the cross: the cross is foolishness. The cross, he says, is foolishness to that part of us that is attached to this world and that is perishing. The cross, he says, is God’s foolishness, which is wiser than human wisdom. The cross is God’s weakness which is stronger than human strength. To the part of us that is indoctrinated by the assumptions and values of the world of which we are a part and which is perishing, the cross is foolishness. It doesn’t make sense.

 

Human wisdom expects a powerful God who will protect us from trouble, who will rescue us when things get bad, who will heal us of diseases, and who will bless us with good things.

 

Isn’t this our human expectation of divinity, of the creator, of God – that God would take care of us? Human wisdom expects a deity who makes the sun shine. I was very appreciative for Phil Wogaman’s willingness to come and to return to Foundry and to preach here last Sunday when Jane and I were in Liberia. When I first came to Foundry, Phil gave me some pieces of advice. One of the pieces of advice he gave me is that he told me that, from time to time, people here at Foundry would ask me to provide them with good weather for some event or another. He said that sometimes when people ask for this, you actually do get good weather. He warned me that I needed to be very careful that, when there was good weather, not to take credit for it. The reason he said for that was this: never take credit for good weather, because, if you do, you have to take responsibility for the bad weather as well.

 

Isn’t our human expectation of a God that God will provide us with good weather? That God’s role and job is to provide us with good weather and protection and care and defense and healing and blessings? God’s strength is revealed when we are doing well and blessed and have all that we need.

 

What kind of sense, then, does it make to worship a God whose symbol is the cross? A God, who instead of rescuing us out of trouble, rescues us by entering into the trouble with us? A God who instead of helping us avoid pain, heals us from our pain by entering the thick of our human pain with us? A God who instead of fixing things, fixes them by becoming weak with us in our weakness. 

 

This is the foolishness of the cross. Life in the real world is very painful. All of us know pain and grief and disappointment in our lives. We want a God, our human wisdom wants a God, who will fix it and make us feel better. The foolishness of the cross is a God who enters into our pain and bears our pain with us. To the part of us that is human and perishing, we don’t understand this. But to the part of us that is being saved, it is the power of God.

 

There is a lot of pain in Liberia. Liberia has been at war for fourteen years. There has been violence and death and destruction for fourteen years, year after year, month after month, day after day in Liberia. Most of the buildings are wrecked and ruined. The nation has had no electricity for fourteen years, no running water for fourteen years, and no sewerage system operative for fourteen years. There is hardly a family in Liberia over the past fourteen years that has not suffered a deep and painful personal grief through the untimely and unnecessary death of a loved one. Almost a whole generation of children has not been educated in Liberia. It was a humbling experience to sit with the United Methodists of Liberia for their annual conference. Oh, they struggle to have hope in the midst of their situation, but they were surrounded by such pain and such grief.

 

Perhaps, for me, the most powerful moment of the annual conference was when Bishop Innis was preaching and talking and said to the people: “These are our children, the government soldiers and the rebels. These are our children.” The conference grieved with great pain.

 

The other moment that I remember especially from the annual conference was when the director of Ganta Hospital made a report. The United Methodist Church has run Ganta Hospital for seventy some years. It is the only hospital in a whole section of the nation of Liberia, the only medical provision and, during the time of trouble and violence, it had been closed down. It only re-opened last March. It re-opened as a result of the sacrifice of United Methodists in Liberia who gave what they did not have in order to re-open the hospital. One day, the Director of Ganta Hospital was giving his report and one of the things that he reported is that over half of the people who are coming to Ganta Hospital are the former rebels and soldiers who participated in destroying it. There were a couple of seconds of silence in the congregation. Then someone began to applaud and then the whole annual conference of United Methodists began to applaud because they were experiencing reconciliation and healing in the midst of their pain and suffering.

 

The cross is a symbol of a divinity who chooses to enter into our human places of greatest pain.  The cross is a call and a challenge to us to face and enter into our own pain, to enter into the pain of others and to enter into the pain of the world around us. This makes no sense in human terms where all we want to do is avoid the pain. But it is the power of God to the part of us that is being saved.

 

I have a psychiatrist friend who says to me again and again that the only way out of hell is through the middle. The only way out of our own pain is through the middle. The only way out of the pain of others is for us to go through the middle of it with them. The meaning of mission is not so much helping others, as it is being with others at the place of their greatest pain.

 

Never, never land is so much more tempting. We are tempted, I am tempted to want to fly away to never, never land where there is never hurt or difficulty or struggle or pain. The human side of me chooses never, never land every time. But the God of the cross of Christ is in the midst of the real world where we hurt. 

 

In his letters and papers from prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “Only a suffering God can help.” Jurgen Moltmann, when he was a German soldier at the end of World War II witnessing the devastation of war, said that the only God who could speak to his despair and pain was the crucified God, the God of the cross. To the part of us that is perishing, it doesn’t make sense. But it is the power of God in our lives to the part of us that is being saved.

 

In Liberia last week, I was thinking about my ministry early here at Foundry. Before I came to Foundry, I had been on conference staffs. I had been in the judicatories of the denomination for seven years. It had been seven years since I had been a pastor. It had been seven years since I made a hospital call or sat next to someone’s bed who was terminally ill.

 

Early on, maybe my first week here at Foundry, I got a phone call that a young man was in the hospital and that he was critically ill. I got one of our lay leaders to go with me and we went to the hospital. That night, while we were praying with him the Lord’s Prayer, he breathed his last breath. I have never found the side of pastoral work of being with the dying to be simple or easy for me. It upset me and for the next week I wasn’t able to sleep through the night. I found myself getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning and sitting in our kitchen drinking tea, realizing that I was back in the pastoral work where I would need to have more grace than seems to come naturally for me.

 

One of those nights I was having a conversation with God, I had the closest thing to a vision that has ever happened for me. Actually, I was sitting there remembering a conversation I once had with a bishop. I once went to meet with a bishop because I was in charge of a fund-raising project for an urban ministry endeavor. I went to ask the bishop to write a letter supporting our campaign. I did an awful thing. The bishop had suggested that that might not be a good idea. I asked, “Why? Don’t you like the project?” And the bishop said, “Oh yes, I like the project.” And then I said, “Why don’t you want to write a letter?” And the bishop said, “I don’t like asking people to do things.” And, very inappropriately (I was young at the time) I said to the bishop: “You don’t like asking people to do things? What do you think a bishop’s job is? A bishop’s job is to ask people to do things. That’s what a bishop does. If you didn’t want to do the work, why did you take the job?”

 

And so when I first came to Foundry, I was sitting in our kitchen in the middle of the night, and I remember having this conversation with the bishop, and I had a conversation with God in my mind, and I said to God, “If you didn’t want to take care of this young man, why did you take the job of being God?”

 

In my mind, I saw an image of a crucifix, one of those cheap plaster crucifixes that they sell in Catholic bookstores where Jesus looks particularly weak and sad. As I saw the image of this plaster crucifix in my mind, I seemed to hear the words: “This is the way I do my work. This is the way I do my work.”

 

The human part of me wants a God who will rescue me from pain. The God of the cross walks with me in the midst of pain. Out of that walking together in pain come my healing and my salvation and the possibility that in our pain we will walk together with one another. Not fix each other. Not rescue each other, but walk together so that we might know the healing power of the cross.

 

 

 

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