Feast of Holy Cross, transferred, and the 15th Anniversary of the 9/11 AttacksPhilippians 2:5-11; John 12:31-36a
Last week, I told you that today I’d give you Part 2 of my contribution to this sermon series on Finding Jesus. I will do that, but this day has a very different tone from last Sunday. Last week was Labor Day weekend, our final taste of summer relaxation. Today, we’re remembering the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
There is no official feast of 9/11 on the Church calendar, so we’re moving the feast of Holy Cross from Sept. 14 to today. 9/11 and the feast of Holy Cross share some resonances, particularly about the place of suffering in this world God loves, as well as where and how we find God in that suffering. So on this day, as we honor the anniversary of 9/11 and honor the mystery of the Cross, we remember a theological truth so deep that it defies logic, one you have to experience to know. That truth is this: Jesus redeems our suffering, healing the brokenness of human life and rolling away the stone from our tombs, by entering into our suffering directly. Jesus comes to us in our most grievous moments, takes flesh, and dwells in the midst of pain and sorrow we thought we could never bear. And through his stunning compassion, contrary to all human logic, Jesus conquers our pain and sorrow and the brokenness from which it comes, leading us out of the grave and into new life. I don’t expect that to make perfect sense, laying it out there that way. It’s like trying to explain love. In fact, it is trying to explain love. With content like this, logical explanations can only go so far. At some point, we have to enter into the deep truth that only story and memory can hold.
First, about 9/11: I imagine every one of us in this room over a certain age can remember where we were and what we were doing 15 years ago this morning, when airplanes flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. I was in seminary. We were beginning the first week of classes for that semester, the senior year for Ann and me. That morning, I was excited about the semester but worried about Ann. Her health hadn’t been good for a few weeks; she was having pain in her lungs, and shortness of breath, and general exhaustion. And we didn’t know what was wrong.
That morning, the whole seminary community was gathering in the auditorium for orientation to the first week of classes. Before we got there, some of us had heard that a plane had hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center; the initial reporting said the pilot of a private plane must have made a tragic mistake. As the academic dean was speaking, a voice came from the back of the room, the ethics professor shouting out, “Oh, my God, a plane has hit the second tower, too!” Class was over. We turned on the TV news coverage and sat there, the whole seminary community, paralyzed.
After a couple of hours of shock and fear, one of the professors realized we should be praying. So we filed out of the auditorium and into the chapel to offer the Supplication, a rarely used rite in the Book of Common Prayer intended for “times of war, or of national anxiety, or of disaster” (154).
From that brief time of prayer in the chapel, the image that comes to mind for me is the seminary cross. When you enter the chapel at Seminary of the Southwest, the first thing you notice is that there is no cross inside. There’s an altar, and a pulpit, and a pipe organ, and rows of chairs – but no cross. Looking for it, your eye goes to the wall behind the altar, a wall of clear, leaded glass revealing the grounds outside. And among the huge Texas live oaks in the yard stands a bronze cross, probably 15 feet high, weathered green over the years. That is the chapel cross – but significantly, it’s not in the chapel. It’s in the world. That cross shows where Jesus was, and where Jesus is – in the world that he gave himself to redeem. One could argue that’s where the cross most belongs.
It is perhaps an accident of physics that, on that day, the ruins of the World Trade Center also left a bare metal cross, standing in the dust – amid the sacrifice of the first responders, amid the joy of the rescuers, amid the broken hearts of families left alone. It’s pictured on the cover of today’s bulletin. Like Good Friday, like the crucifixion itself, that cross is a stunningly powerful proclamation of the horror of humanity’s sinfulness – our willingness to turn our backs on the peace and love God intends. But it also proclaims the power of God to redeem that sinfulness by being lifted up in an act of deadly healing that sets the world to rights. The cross represents Jesus’ victory over sin and death, his being raised up “to draw all people” to himself, as we heard in today’s Gospel reading (John 12:32). God has highly exalted him, as Paul writes in Philippians, so that at the name of the crucified Jesus, “every knee should bend … and every tongue confess” that he is the true emperor, the true king, replacing all human pretenders to the throne. (Philippians 2:10-11). That’s the message of this feast of Holy Cross we’re marking today.
But we can’t jump to the triumphal end of the story just yet. Jesus’ victory, the victory in which we share – it comes at a cost. For the reason why Jesus can defeat sin and death is because he has been there. He has faced down Satan and endured the worst that humanity could dish out. He has suffered along with the powerless, along with political prisoners, along with those who have no country, along with those who can’t fight back. He has suffered with the sick, with the hungry, with the naked, with the abandoned. Jesus has hung on that cross in the world; and from that cross, he has overcome the world (John 16:33).
We know that story from 2,000 years ago. What makes it true is that it’s still our story, too. As the first responders rushed into the ashes 15 years ago, Jesus rushed in with them. As thousands bled and died in the rubble, Jesus waited with them. As family members tearfully posted photos of the missing, Jesus cried with them. As passengers on a plane over Pennsylvania decided to sacrifice themselves to save people below, Jesus crashed along with them. And as innocent people now endure discrimination born of fear and hate, Jesus stands with them. What makes the story of the cross our truth is this: that Jesus does not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but he empties himself; and being found in human form, he humbles himself in the ultimate act of love: compassion, which literally means “suffering with” someone. And what Jesus bears, Jesus heals – no matter what life dishes out, no matter how fearsome the world becomes, no matter how clearly death appears to be the victor. Jesus heals us by entering into our suffering, taking it on himself, and reminding us how the story truly ends.
So I told you last week that today I’d finish my story of finding Jesus. It’s this compassionate Jesus I had in mind, and I met him in a hospital. It was about a month and a half after 9/11. I mentioned earlier that Ann had been having health challenges, though we didn’t know the cause. She entered the hospital just after 9/11, and it wasn’t long before we had our answer. She had lupus. Now, lupus presents in lots of different ways – sometimes being mildly disruptive, sometimes threatening your life. It was the latter kind that attacked Ann. Her lung capacity began vanishing, and her heart rate rose to a consistent 160 beats per minute. The doctors tried all kinds of things, but nothing made much difference. She just kept losing lung capacity, and her heart kept up its killing pace.
Then, one afternoon – on Halloween, actually – her heart started slowing, but not in a good way. Suddenly, her blood pressure was down to 80/40. The nurses tried to seem calm as they whisked her off to surgery, as her heart rate kept dropping. There wasn’t time for much conversation before surgery began, and Ann didn’t know what was happening anyway.
The nurse led me to the surgery waiting area and into one of those little rooms they reserve for “private consultations.” Now, I had done my chaplaincy training in this same hospital several months earlier, and I knew what those little rooms were for. I’d used them with patients. That’s where the chaplain takes you when the news isn’t likely to be good. Ironically, though, there was no chaplain, and I didn’t really want to talk with a stranger anyway. So I called Ann’s parents and mine, to let them know what was happening.
And then I called my friends. There were six of us in my seminary class who’d become especially close over the previous two years: Amy and Kathy and Faith and Wes and Cal and me. We called ourselves the Six Pack. So I talked with one of them – Faith, I think – and she rallied the other four. Within minutes, they were walking into the waiting room.
Of course, nothing they could say would change the fact that Ann was having emergency surgery to drain a quart of fluid from around her heart. There were no explanations or rationalizations they could offer. But the presence of my friends was the presence of Jesus Christ, the one who calls us “friends” (John 15:15). In my fear, Jesus was there. In my suffering, Jesus was there. Now, if you’d asked me, I might have been able to make that connection intellectually. But here’s how I felt it: When they arrived in that scary little waiting room, one by one they each hugged me. Hugs are always good, but it’s the last hug I remember particularly. It was Cal. Cal was an athlete, a swimmer; and even in seminary he had kept up his regimen. So Cal came to me, and put his arms out like a cross. And he wrapped me in the strongest hug I’ve ever known.
It wasn’t Cal. It was Jesus. In the worst moment, as life literally seemed to be draining away, Jesus came and stood before me and wrapped me in his love. He knew what I was experiencing. He’d been there before, after all. He’d been through the worst that human life dishes out.
The God who suffered on the cross suffers with us still – and eventually walks with us, out of that scary little waiting room, out of the tomb, and into the victory of life made new.