Heart of the Cross   March 21, 2021

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                               John 12:20-33

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

As Jesus approached the Passover celebrations in Jerusalem with an ominous sense of danger, he tussled more frequently with burning questions of death and life. If a grain of wheat is buried, dead to the world, it will sprout and produce life many times over. If you hold on to life, you’ll lose it. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have life eternal.[1]

What does it mean for us to die to self that we may live forever? Our bodies are actually dying and rebirthing every day. About 100,000 cells die in our body every second. In healthy bodies, the same number are being created. Apparently, every cell in our body is replaced within 7 years. (Although I need a scientist to explain to me why my new cells seem to carry the same aches & pains as my old cells!)

Just as our physical bodies need to continuously go through the process of death and rebirth, so does our soul; so do our mental and emotional states. Creative growth requires death as much as it does life. What is it in our lives that needs to die; what is it that we need to let go, that we may live? We need to ask this question of ourselves and of our society.

Process theology teaches us that everything is in a constant state of flux, moving from life through death to life again. Alfred North Whitehead writes, “Life is a process of perpetual perishing.” That sounds pretty morbid until you realize that a millisecond of experience has already disappeared by the time you process it and are, by then, entering the next millisecond.

Buddhists teach us how to be fully present—mindful of what is, letting go of what was, not fearing what is to come. Contemplative, Christian meditation also teaches us to stop grasping past regrets and future worries. As we let go of the past and of the future, we are learning how to die to that which was, as well as to that which will be. Living fully in the present allows us to cultivate gratitude and be mindful of the beauty that God gives us every second of every day—even during the most challenging of days. This is incredibly difficult to accomplish but with practice, it is possible.

During this Lent, we are posting on our website Rev. Barb Jardine’s 10 minutes of daily guidance in how to develop a Christian meditative practice. It’s called “Take Ten”. The days build upon each other, so you may want to listen to them in chronological order. After teaching us some basic tools, Barb takes us through Psalm 23 and then through our various senses as we learn to listen to God in different ways. She is now taking us through the Lord’s Prayer and teaching us how to pray for others through silent meditation.

More often than not, silent meditation takes us into the deep peace of Christ. But sometimes, it takes us into death, as God makes us aware of something that needs to die—that we need to release.

The suffering and death wreaked by COVID is making us angry enough to find courage to change unjust structures that cause needless suffering for the most vulnerable, including those facing racism and poverty, those shut away in personal care homes and those struggling because of physical and mental disabilities.

Back in the late 4th & early 5th century C.E., Saint Augustine wrote that Hope has two beautiful daughters: Anger and Courage. We need both anger and courage to let go of what needs to die today, that we may have hope for a more compassionate tomorrow.

Death is not easy—it is usually accompanied by pain and it’s not something we go willingly into. One of my students from a former field-based educational program, John Robertson, died suddenly last week, leaving behind deeply grieving family and friends. When our program ended, another student’s wife made me this Lenten stole, with the names of each of the students embroidered on the back. John’s name is one of them. One of the most difficult things we will face in life is death.

Many years ago, a congregant from another church I served was in agony as she asked me, “You’re a minister—tell me, why did God allow my husband to die? What did he do to deserve this? Why didn’t God take me instead?” Her pain was intense as she pleaded with me, hoping against reality that I could somehow convince God that there had been a mistake and God had taken the wrong person. I could offer no rational explanation, but I could offer her my presence and assurance that God knows excruciating suffering and death and promises to walk closely with us through the valley of the shadow of death.

Theologian Jürgen Moltmann connects suffering and untimely death with the cross. God’s response to our suffering is to suffer one of the most agonizing deaths on the cross through Jesus’ crucifixion. Why this response? What good could possibly come out of more suffering?

Feminist theologians have long critiqued the theories of atonement. The satisfaction theory of atonement suggests that God is a just and righteous God. To be able to be in the presence of such a holy one, sinful humanity needs a spotless, blood sacrifice to pay the price of our sins. But many of us ask why. Why do we understand God to be so vengeful and demanding of sacrifice? Isn’t God full of mercy and forgiveness? Is there any redemptive value in the cross?

However, there have been recent feminist theologies which have revisited atonement and are suggesting that there may indeed be redemptive value in the cross. One of these is Korean Wonhee Anne Joh in her book Heart of the Cross. On the cross of Christ is han, a Korean term which means suffering, crippling pain, oppression of the masses, isolation.

But Joh suggests that jeong is also on the cross. The Korean term jeong means compassion, love, deep connection, community, solidarity, healing power, the heart of vulnerability. When Jesus chose to be in solidarity with societal outcasts, when he dared to speak out for them and challenge the system which kept them on the out, he knew that he was risking his life. The cross is a symbol not of love, but the risk of love. In itself, the cross is not redemptive. Suffering is never of God. But the risk of compassion might entail suffering. The risk of relationship might be costly. The cross symbolizes God’s willingness to love us in spite of the risk. At the heart of this type of risk-taking love lies redemption.

It took a close brush with death to give Laura Archer the courage to follow her heart. She was driving in California when a speeding car clipped her bumper, sending her car careening off the road and rolling like a tumbleweed across a field. When she was pulled out, she only had a few bruises and a broken collar bone. But it changed her life. If she was going to make a difference in the world, she knew that she had to do it then, at age 23, while she was still able. She sold her possessions and travelled through Asia and the Middle East, trying to discern her heart’s tug. She was nearby the Dec. 26 tsunami when it hit southeast Asia a few years ago. Trained as a nurse, she stocked up on medical supplies and went to the hardest hit area in India to offer first aid. That’s when she learned the difference between being a tourist and a humanitarian. Her curiosity about the world turned into compassion for it.

Upon return to Canada, she was accepted by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Bordrs) and worked in refugee camps in Chad and the Central African Republic. She returned again to Canada, this time, painting moving portraits of faces of refugees she encountered so that she could continue to tell their stories. She then went back with Médecins Sans Frontières to Darfur, where she worked until she was kidnapped and held hostage until her release with two other workers three days later. She knew the risk, but her compassion moved her to take it.

The cross is where the power of jeong, the risk of compassion & relationship, meets the horror of han, suffering & isolation. The cross is where two sides of the same heart meet, where death and life coexist. Our gospel lesson refers to this horror which troubled Jesus’ soul so deeply that he prayed he would be saved from it, but in the same prayer, he was moved with compassion to stay the course and risk the horror. That’s the redemptive power of the cross. Han, the depth of suffering, death and isolation does not have the last word. In solidarity with us, God took on the depths of han that the vulnerable, powerful, heartfelt compassion of jeong might carry us in the crucified arms of Christ.

The cross reminds us that there is a cost to compassion. Some things need to die in our own lives and in society. When anger and courage come together to give us the ability to let go what needs to die, we will disturb others. When our lives change, it will affect our close relationships—our small deaths will be costly. When our society changes, not everyone will be happily inconvenienced—the changes will be costly. But, as Joh writes, “When we live with heart, we cannot remain immune to the other.” When we risk compassion and even death, we will find hope and life abundant.

[1] Paraphrased from The Message.