April 4, 2004, revised April 5, 2020
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
I am preaching this in my living room because, as those who are listening in real time know, New York State is under “stay-at-home” orders during the coronavirus pandemic. It is Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week, and during Holy Week, the church traditionally reenacts Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the events leading to his crucifixion. Holy Week embraces a roller coaster of emotions — from the highs of the giddy crowd as Jesus rode into the city to the cries of Hosanna, through the pain and grief of his death on the cross, and back once again to the wonder of his resurrection. In a time when our own lives are buffeted by fears and anxieties one minute, perseverance and hope the next, when we feel gratitude for community even amid the loneliness of isolation, we are perhaps closer to the reality of the Holy Week experience that we have ever been. Bearing the cross even as we hope for resurrection is no longer a religious metaphor but this year, it is something we are grappling with every day. This year, we are learning that we can’t skip from the palms of Palm Sunday to the lilies of Easter without finding our way through the shadow of the cross.
As I thought about today’s message, I remembered a story I told one Palm Sunday many years ago about the cross and its intrusion into our ordinary lives. I searched through my files and found it in a sermon I preached 16 years ago. It still rings true to me so I have decided to share that story again with you today. So Sherman, set the Wayback machine to April 4th, 2004, Union University Church, Alfred NY.
The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,
“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!”
Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
Jesus said to the people, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Well, I have now fulfilled at least part of the discipleship requirement. Yesterday, I carried the cross. Carried it as it was meant to be carried – across my shoulders, through the streets, and up the hill toward Golgotha. Well, okay, not quite toward Golgotha; it was more toward Belmont, but I’m getting ahead of my story.
Yesterday, Saturday morning, I came down to the church to set up the cross in the sanctuary. Last year, at my request, Dave Porter had made a large cross for the church which we used during the weeks of Lent to hold little slips of paper listing our acts of kindness and sacrifice that we as congregation performed during the weeks leading up to Easter. During Holy Week, we moved the cross to the front of the church where Lana Meissner used it as a centerpiece in her altar decorations and many people commented on its striking presence during those services. After Easter was over, however, the question arose: “What should we do with the cross now?” And as so many Christians have done for centuries, we decided to put the cross in storage until the following spring. We’d had seven weeks of contemplating the meaning of sacrifice; time to put the cross away so that we could breathe a little easier for the remaining 45 weeks of the year. Accordingly, we shoved the cross into the back of the Church Center shed and there it stood among the lawn mowers, pruning shears, and mouse poison until we were ready to cope with its reality again.
So yesterday afternoon, I opened the church shed for the first time this spring and picked my way through the lawn care implements to get to the cross leaning against the furthest corner. Wrestling it back over those same lawn care items, I got it out the door and then, practicality winning over my subconscious resistance to the obvious symbolism, I hoisted the cross over my shoulders and started to walk over to the church, carrying the cross.
It’s got to be less than 100 feet between the shed and the sanctuary door, but I remember every step I took. Not, as you might think, because the cross is heavy. Surprisingly, just as Jesus promised, “the yoke was easy, the burden light”, but my public discomfort made the short walk feel miles long. Remember, this was Saturday afternoon. College students strolled down the street, cars with their music blaring roared around the corner, and there I was toting a cross, transforming Church Street into the Via Dolorosa. Every one who passed turned to stare, and I imagined them saying, “Who does she think she is, Jesus?” or mentally marking me as some “uber-Christian” who would accost them with testimony if they got too close. I mean, who else but some crazy Christian would be carrying a cross through Alfred on a Saturday afternoon?
It’s not easy to so publicly and forthrightly declare our faith especially when it requires shouldering the foolishness of the cross. Even Peter fled in denial when the cross loomed that close.
But yesterday afternoon, I managed to endure the wary looks of those around me as I carried the cross over to the church and thankfully slipped into the shelter of the sanctuary. My ordeal with the cross, however, was not, as I had hoped, over. When I went to stand it up by the altar, I discovered that the base of the cross had broken over the winter. Whether the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter had weakened the wood, or whether one too many lawn tools had rested on its stand, I don’t know but somehow a crack had split the foot of the cross leaving it precariously unstable. Visions of the cross suddenly toppling over during Children’s Time and crashing down the steps to take out a few of your offspring left me quite uneasy, so I decided that I had better try to fix the base before we used it. I made a quick trip home to hunt up some scrap wood and tools, and then I hauled the cross out to the side deck where I attempted to perform surgery on the pedestal, but I succeeded only in making things worse. There was no way this cross was going to make it through worship let alone all the way until Easter unless I nailed it to the altar floor which would mean we’d be stuck with the cross all year round. Clearly, I had to do something to save us from that frightening situation and so, heaving a heavy sigh at the thought of a repeat performance, I once again lifted the cross to my shoulder and headed back out on the street.
This time, however, I trudged not to the shed but to my car. If I was going to repair the cross properly, I realized I would need to take it home with me. Now, just three months ago, I had bought a new car, a Toyota Matrix, and many people have asked me how I like it. Up to this point, I have always responded, “It’s so much roomier than my old car – we can get John’s whole drumset in the back.” But from now on I will be able to say, “It’s so roomy that I can get an entire cross in the back!” because the cross fit perfectly. The arms slid quite nicely behind the front seats leaving just enough room for the hatch to clear the rickety base. Of course, I had to slide it in oh so carefully because the car is, after all, brand new. You know, all that stuff that Jesus said about where your treasure is, there your heart will be also? Well, I wanted my heart to linger a little longer over my nice immaculate upholstery and I wasn’t about to let any cross put a hole in it. I knew Jesus’ cross can be quite heedless about our material possessions so very, gingerly, very carefully, I slid the cross into the back and when I was sure that the interior of my car was secure against cross damage, I closed the hatch and drove the cross up the hill toward home. Jesus may have had Simon of Cyrene to help carry his cross up Calvary, but fortunately, I live in the 21st century and my helper’s name was “Toyota”.
When I arrived home, I hauled the cross out and looked for a place to set it while I got my tools. Being spring in Alfred, the only place not swimming in mud was my front porch, so accordingly, I propped the cross against the porch railing while I went to get my hammer. Carrying the cross on Church St. was uncomfortable enough, but it was, after all, “Church St.” All of those people who had looked askance at me earlier probably had figured out that I was headed toward the church in which case the presence of the cross made a bit of sense. Now, however, the cross loomed over my home. My house is not that big, my front porch even smaller, and one cannot stand a six foot cross on my porch without it being quite noticeable. Moreover, the people on Stuck Hill Rd. passing by and staring were not unknown college students but neighbors — you know, people who drive by every day forming opinions about your life based on how nice your crocuses look, or whether you leave your garage door open all the time, or whether there’s a huge cross on your front porch. I assume a lot of people on Stuck Hill Rd know that I’m a minister, because that kind of thing gets around, but I’d always hoped that they would feel that even though I’m a minister I could still be an easy sort of neighbor to be around. The presence of a 6 foot cross on my porch, however, proclaimed me as a little unpredictable.
Most of the time, we are able to live our Christianity in moderate anonymity. Being kind and loving doesn’t look much different from run-of-the-mill good citizenship. Even though we may be treating others compassionately because we believe Christ called us to act compassionately, the recipients of our care don’t always know the source of our motivation. We can, most of the time, be exactly the kind of people Christ wants us to be without having to talk about why we are that way. We can be thoughtful, understanding, patient, helpful, tolerant, and charitable without anyone ever suspecting that we are more than just a nice person to have around. Nevertheless, true discipleship, the kind that strikes to the very core of your being and informs every single thought, word, and deed, will one day — don’t you doubt it — will one day — if you are serious about it — lead you to do something all together unexplainable by any other motivation. The cross may require you to forgive someone that even a good citizen would find completely unforgivable, or the cross may lead you to sacrifice your own interests for the sake of someone else in a way that those around you can only call foolish and completely unreasonable. Some day the seriousness of your discipleship will betray the secret you have so carefully guarded: namely that you are not the master of your own soul, you are not the captain of your own fate, that you have turned your life over to someone else who calls the shots. There will be a day when we may have to brave enough to take the cross out of the back shed and stand it up on our front porch where people can see it and understand that that is why we make the choices we make. We are followers of Christ who calls us to have the courage not only to wave palms and shout Hosanna with the rest of the crowd but also to lift the cross and bear it alone to Golgotha as everyone else falls away if that is what love requires.
I was able finally to fix the base of the cross. After wasting a lot of time trying to screw the new base to the foot of the cross and being thwarted by the resistant wood, I grabbed my hammer and unceremoniously drove four nails into the timber, aware with each stroke of the irony of a cross that would accept only nails. And when it was finished, I dragged the cross back into my car, drove back down the hill, shouldered it one last time, and carried it here into the sanctuary. My carpentry wasn’t stellar but it will keep the cross upright during the service so that no children will die as a result of my work. And though this cross will remain in our church throughout Holy Week, and then get shoved once again into the back of the shed, I will never lose the feel of it on my shoulders or the sight of it standing defiantly on my front porch daring me to deny my Christ. May I have the courage to carry it all the way to Golgotha if that is what love requires.
There is an epilogue to this story. Since that time, Lyle Slack graciously improved my temporary fix to the pedestal of the cross by attaching a base with rollers. It is now much easier to get the cross from the sanctuary to the Church Center because it doesn’t have to be carried: we just push it across the street on its little roller skates. And every year as I roll that cross back and forth from church to Church Center, I think, “OK, there has to be a sermon in this,” and when I find it, I promise I will preach it.