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According to the American novelist, Joyce Carol Oates: “Homo sapiens is the species that invents symbols in which to invest passion and authority, then forgets that symbols are inventions.” Following last year’s Maundy Thursday worship, I received a very rude reminder of our all too human habit of investing passion and authority in invented symbols. Our efforts to remember the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth are bolstered year after year, decade after decade, century after century by the symbols we followers of the Way have invented and invested with passion and authority. So, after our regular Maundy Thursday ritual of removing invented symbols from the sanctuary, I went looking for our own sacred Good Friday symbol. Each Maundy Thursday, we followers of the Way get together to remember Jesus by focusing upon the symbols which represent to us the events of the night before Jesus died, when he gathered his followers together to eat the Passover meal. At that supper Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it and the rest as they say is history. Our Maundy Thursday Eucharist is packed with symbols, from the hand-basins in which we ritually wash one another to remember Jesus washing of his followers feet, bread and wine which we ritually consume as Christ given and poured out for us, to the ritual stripping of the sanctuary of all of the symbols in which we have invested passion and authority, in our efforts to re-member Jesus.
The rituals of Maundy Thursday prepare us for the rituals of Good Friday and so after our worship, I went downstairs to venture into the cupboard under the stairs to retrieve the stark symbols of this congregation’s Good Friday rituals. It is the same every year, a rough-hewn cross, fashioned out of the trunk of a Christmas tree that once adorned this sanctuary. A Christmas tree – evergreen, a symbol in which we invest our passion for everlasting life, stripped of it’s branches so that only the trunk remains and then cut so that the top section can be lashed with twin to the main section to fashion a cross of sorts. A rough-hewn cross in which we invest our passion for what we have come to call the passion of Christ. Each year, once the sanctuary is stripped of all the symbols which we have invented to facilitate our ritual remembering, I journey down beneath the stairs to retrieve our rough-hewn cross to facilitate our Good Friday remembering. This year, I had designed our remembering ritual, so that we could pay particular attention to our rough-hewn cross. This sermon was built around an exercise of re-membering which I hoped would help us to participate in the very act for which symbols are invented. Symbols are created to point beyond themselves, to direct our focus to that which lies beyond the symbol. This year, my Lenten sermons had focused on a definition of Divinity which describes God as beyond the beyond and beyond that also. So, this Good Friday sermon was written to use our rough-hewn cross to examine the work of the cross in the lives of the followers of Jesus, so that we might see beyond the symbol to the One who is beyond the beyond and beyond that also. I planned to place the rough-hewn cross here on the floor of the sanctuary, right in the middle of our circle so that as the Gospel according to John’s symbolic narrative, which has become known as the Passion Narrative, was read you could gaze upon our rough hewn cross and as my sermon began I would literally and figuratively take apart our invented symbol so that we might peer beyond it. I planned to sit here in the midst of you and unlash the vine that held our rough-hewn cross together and as I untied the vine, I would do my level best to untie the bonds that our religious tradition have placed upon the symbol of the cross and perhaps encourage you to question the passion and authority which is all too often invested in this invent symbol of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Then with dramatic flare, I planned to put it back together again. As I used the old Christmas tree trunk to pull together our history and tradition, and the withered vine to lash our troubled attempts to remember back into the form of the cross in the hope that we might see the cross from the perspective of the 21st century followers of the way which on this day of days we struggle to be. Continue reading