Today’s story has me thinking about the cross. It is ubiquitous in our lives.
Here in church, the cross is everywhere: we make the sign of the cross before the Gospel is read; before we settle in to hear the sermon; before and after we take communion; during the blessing right before we walk out the church doors.
Once we’re outside those doors, the cross is still present.
We see the cross in design and architecture. Like in glass window panes joined together in the shape of crosses…we look out of those onto our big, beautiful world; backs of chairs contain the shape of a cross, with rungs holding us up when we are tired; street signs are shaped cross-like and give us direction; beams in the shape of a cross serve as foundations of buildings we go into. Even utility poles look cross-like, which seems fitting because they are conduits for light and power. The cross is in the alphabet, in math symbols…even the airplane is shaped like a cross – soaring above the earth, carrying bodies and souls.
If you look, and I hope you do, you’ll see the cross everywhere. But is it SO ubiquitous, that sometimes we don’t see it. What happens then? If we don’t see it, does it lose some of its power?
Today I would love to tell you where I saw the cross, where I did not see the cross, and where I discovered a new vision of the cross.
Last month Epiphany went on a walking pilgrimage and I was one of the pilgrims. We were in England, walking roughly 12-16 miles a day. On our walk near the town of Kent, we were journeying though this massive, wheat field where all you could see is this gold and yellow and beige and brown wheat. It was beautiful. If you looked way off in the distance, there was a massive cross marked in the hillside. It’s called the Chalk Cross. In 1920 and 1921, it was cut into the chalky hillside as a memorial to the town villagers and neighbors who died in WWI.
This cross looks amazing from far away. I can’t tell you how momentous it looks. When I first saw it, it made me gasp. It is a HUGE cross. You almost can’t believe what you’re looking at. (I took a picture of it). You’re down below, and you’re looking up at it on that faraway hillside, and it’s the only thing there. Nothing else is in front of you except blue sky, and some trees dotting the landscape. The chalk cross is all you see. It is all there is. This lone, singular entity. It looks powerful and otherworldly. It looks like the God described in today’s Old Testament reading picked up a thunderbolt and carved this massive cross into the Earth.
Looking at it made me think of grand themes like Atonement. It made me think of the Cosmic Christ. And of dramatic themes that the cross represents like sacrifice and suffering. That’s what we traditionally think of when we think of the cross, so of course this one being birthed as a memorial for loss endured in a war – it makes sense for why it’s there.
So we pilgrims walked toward that cross. I’m thinking sparks are going to fly out of it because we were beholding such a powerful image.
Finally we reached the Chalk Cross. I went up to it. I walked alongside it, slowly, my feet tracing its outline. Then I stood right in front of it. I faced it. All of us pilgrims stood there quiet for a while. Silent at the foot of the cross.
I was standing next to parishioner and dear friend Barb Marshall. I remember I wanted to chat with her about this cross. But I chose not to because only a reverential silence seemed appropriate. That’s what we traditionally think of with the cross. Like when we say, Stand there with a stiff upper lip, and Keep calm and carry on. When we say that, what we mean is that big theme our culture has about bearing the cross of your pain and suffering and sacrifice in a stoic silence.
But something happens when you get close up to an object. You know what I’m talking about, right. Something happens. You get close up to something, and you lose the frame. It looks different.
So on that day, on that pilgrimage, in front of that cross I chose to NOT be silently stoic. Because what I saw MADE me speak up. I leaned over to say something to Barb. I whispered that the cross looked different close up than it looked from far away. She and I started talking about it.
It was then I realized what it was that was different.
The. cross. looked. ordinary.
There, close up, surrounded by wheat and grass and wind and sky, the cross looked ordinary. I got scared in that moment. Because this is The Cross! Isn’t the cross always supposed to be this larger than life, magnificent entity? That image looms large over the church. Because we know the story of what Jesus endured on the cross.
But this story, is that there, on that day, this cross looked like…simply markings on the ground. Like it had lost some of its grandeur. Its ordinariness surprised me. I felt vestiges of disappointment and sadness because close up like that it almost looked less powerful. Is that what ordinary is? That something becomes less powerful?
I almost couldn’t stomach that possibility about the cross. That cross made me turn around, to pray about why I was perceiving it as “ordinary.”
So, the cross was behind me. I looked out at that beautiful field in front of me…and I thought about the steps that got us there. Steps that day, the day before that and the day before that. The steps we take every day.
That phrase – “everyday steps.” And then I promise you the sparks did fly. They flew from the realization that “ordinary” does not mean less powerful. “Ordinary” doesn’t mean humdrum or nondescript. By “ordinary” I mean every day. That’s what I’m preaching on today. Preaching not on the grandness of the cross, but on the everydayness of the cross. The everydayness of taking up your cross.
Just because something is everyday doesn’t mean it is any less powerful or meaningful. What Jesus endured on The Cross isn’t diluted by us embracing the everydayness of it. The “Everydayness of the cross” means that it is personal and close up, right there in front of me, there in front of you, waiting for us to choose it. THAT is part of its power.
Our everyday cross. This realization wasn’t like a lightning bolt or a burning bush, it was like a shimmering rain.
We can choose to follow the way of the cross every day. Not just during Advent or on Christmas; not just during Lent or on Easter.
Take up your cross means every day we can choose a life that honors Jesus, a life that gratefully recognizes God’s love for us. We make these simple choices of love daily. Our decisions can lead us to the everyday cross or can call us away from it. For example, I almost didn’t go on the pilgrimage!
Right before I left, I got nervous about going. I always go through that when I go on a trip. I think it’s because in general, I like where I am, I like to linger, I don’t like to leave. So I’m telling my daughter Vivian that maybe I shouldn’t go. It’s a big trip, it’s beautiful in Seattle during the summer, maybe I should stay home with her dad. She gives me this sobering look, and in her no-nonsense, straightforward way, says “You already signed up. Live your life.”
What I think God is doing with Vivi’s words was calling me toward the spiritual exercise of pilgrimage, not away from it. She knew that this was an important part of her mother’s spiritual journey and she urged me toward it.
Back in that wheatfield, that supersized cross in the ground was behind me, to catch me and for me to choose as my foundation. I like to think it too, like my daughter, urged me forward, one step at a time.
Urging me forward step by step the same way the everyday cross urged my African ancestors forward. Ancestors who were enslaved in the US south and chose to seek freedom by making countless everyday decisions of faith. Like which clues to put in which sermons they would preach and how would they sew clues into quilts they would make – these clues that were in sermons and quilts pointed to where to start their pilgrimage along the Underground Railroad to freedom. A world of freedom as God designed it.
Because we don’t just go to the cross. When we get there, we move it forward, like Jesus did. These everyday decisions move our cross forward, toward the kingdom of God; the eye of the cross fixed on the vision of the world as God designed it.
The everyday cross makes me think of the Civil Rights Movement. This country just celebrated the 60th year anniversary of Dr. King’s I Have a Dream Speech and the March on Washington. During the Civil Rights Movement, the way of the cross urged forward people like my grandparents and SO many others, some here and online, who marched alongside Dr. King, and participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott with the hopes of ending segregation. People’s everyday decisions propelled that movement forward.
For example, everyday acts of faith were made at what were called “mass meetings.” Mass meetings were held at night in a secret location. Everything was taught and learned there, from non-violent protest techniques to where to meet for a sit-in or who was going to pick up who to carpool to work since they weren’t riding the bus. You know where those secret locations were always held: in a church. They rotated which church to meet at. The adults went to the mass meetings at night after work, the kids were left at home alone – and a neighbor would go house to house to check on each child to make sure they were okay. My mother was one of those children that a neighbor would look in on. The kids were always okay. The everyday decision was who would go from house to house. People looking out for one another.
Allies, some in this room and online, joined in these efforts urging all of us toward a common life of love and equality, which is how God designed the world to be. Yes, these movements loom large, just like the cross, but taking up one’s cross looks like little acts of faith. This is how we keep working for Jesus in the world.
Because the power of the cross is not in its two intersecting lines, its in the effort that it took to get to the cross. Even Jesus had help carrying his. Step by step, you and I can do the same.
With everyday decisions like choosing a calm reaction over an angry one; or sitting with a friend just a little while longer; and giving generously if you can, or reconciling with someone then not holding a grudge, and reaching out to your neighbor with a ride who needs it. Taking up your cross means worshipping God and studying the Word of God because that is how we get a real sense of Jesus’ loving presence before he was on the cross, while he was on it, and after he rose from it.
We’re stepping around the final corner in this pilgrimage of a sermon. I cross my heart we are. In my imagination Jesus is telling us to press the cross into our hearts. We do this, with simple acts of faithfulness every day.