Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Good News of the Cross (J. Barry Vaughn, Ash Wed., March 5, 2014)

I want to begin with a quotation from one of my favorite theologians - Tallulah Bankhead. Her father, Congressman William Bankhead, gave Tallulah her mother's Bible and wrote inside the cover: “As a spiritual source at the end of each exacting day may I recommend to you your little mother’s favorite, the 103rd Psalm.” Tallulah recalled that “I have never gone to church since I could avoid it without penalty, [but] I have found consolation in: ‘He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever. He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. . . . For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.’”


Today we remember that we are dust, mortal, finite, limited. It is a message with which our conservative sisters and brothers are comfortable and familiar.


Sometimes the Episcopal Church takes pride in what it is not.  We are not holy rollers; we are not fundamentalists; some of us are evangelicals, but Anglicans tend to be a tamer sort of evangelical (no hell, please; we’re Anglicans); some of us are very high church but Anglo-Catholics are nothing if not tasteful and don’t go in for the more extreme devotions of our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a shrine to the Holy Infant of Prague in an Episcopal Church and I hope I never will.  Above all, we take pride in doing things properly (Martha Stewart must be an Episcopalian).  We are the church of vicars having tea on the lawn with the women’s guild; we are the church of many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence who also just happened to be more Deist than Christian in their theology; we are the church of excellent prep schools, beautiful neo-Gothic churches, and old silver communion vessels. 


I’m afraid H. Richard Niebuhr was referring to more than a few Episcopalians when he said that the problem with liberal Christianity was that “A God without wrath brought men and women without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”  I think Niebuhr was right, but before I tell you why I agree with him, I want to say a good word for liberal theology. 


One other important thing about the Episcopal Church is that we are a church of GOOD news, not bad news.  What I mean by that is that our clergy tend to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ as good news, which, of course, is what gospel means – “good news”.  From most Episcopalian pulpits you will hear that God loves you, that God created the world and declared it to be very good indeed and never changed his mind about it, that God seeks to know us and to make the divine nature known to us, that we are God’s beloved daughters and sons.


All of that is true, but, as Paul Harvey says, now for the rest of the story (Does Paul Harvey still say this?). Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker, who spent almost her entire adult life living and working among the poor, said that God’s love is “harsh and dangerous”.  Lent is about living into God’s “harsh and dangerous” love.  It is about reflecting on what it means that (to borrow Niebuhr’s categories) we ARE sinful, we cannot enter the kingdom without being judged and found guilty of many misdeeds and shortcomings, and that if we take the cross out of the story of Christ, then it becomes nothing more than a saccharine tale of a good man who espoused lovely ideas.


In his book The Next Christendom historian Philip Jenkins points out something that Anglicans have known since the last Lambeth conference:  the vital and growing edge of the church is in the Third World.  Now, that is certainly problematic for us liberal Episcopalians, because the members of these Third World churches really believe that humans need to be redeemed, that God is a God of righteousness as well as love, that there is right and wrong, and that our actions have consequences.  The problem is that they want to impose their values on us the way we imposed Western values on them in the 19th century. 


However, there is also good news in the shift of the church from the First World to the Third World, because the Third World church understands the cross.  They understand the cross because they live in a world in which the cross is their daily reality.  They live in a world in which most children go to bed hungry; a world in which children die in infancy and women die in childbirth in numbers not seen in the northern hemisphere since the 19th century; a world in which substandard housing and the enormous populations of big cities make them vulnerable to floods and earthquakes that routinely result in catastrophes of biblical proportions.  In other words, the Third World churches are a lot more like the church of the New Testament than our First World churches have been in centuries. 


Do not misunderstand what I am saying: I disagree with our Third World sisters and brothers on many issues, but they still have much to teach us about walking through the valley of the shadow of death, losing one’s life for the sake of the gospel, and taking up the cross.


Christians in the Third World know that following Jesus means risking everything.  They are a church of martyrs.  Ugandan dictator Idi Amin had Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwum assassinated for taking a prophetic stand against him.  The Anglican Archbishop of Iran barely escaped death when during the Islamic Revolution assailants fired a machine gun into his bedroom while he was sleeping.  Last year Hindu nationalists in India killed an Australian missionary and his sons.  And daily in countries such as Nigeria and the Sudan where Christians and Muslims live together there is the risk of violence.


God has blessed us with a free and prosperous country, with readily available medical care and probably with more food than we need.  But a loss of spiritual muscle usually seems to accompany the blessings of prosperity and freedom. 


So this Lent I invite you to put the cross front and center.  The cross shows us the cost of discipleship, as well as the height and depth of God’s love.  The cross shows us the reality that Third World Christians live with every day.  The cross is the signpost, the arrow, the X that marks the spot where we find God.  The good news of the cross is that God is in the midst of suffering with us, and when we have reached the end of our rope we have not yet even begun to plumb the depths of God’s grace, mercy, and love.