Cookie Settings

The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart."

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."

From Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians:

The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.

In preparation for preaching to all of you, my colleagues, this morning, I descended the stairs at our Diocesan House to what we call the Resource Center, a kind of jewel of a library at our office, and I combed through the books focusing on the Cross. In doing this, I wanted to access whatever I have left of a beginner’s mind with the aim of exploring the Cross afresh but, particularly in the context of our work as clergy in congregational life, whether we do this directly or support those who do it directly.

I did have one book in mind to find, and I found it—Fleming Rutledge’s 2014 book entitled The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. For whatever reason (and I can imagine a few), I was the first person in the ten years since its publication to check it out.

The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.

Rutledge, a hard-headed, outspoken, theologically conservative Episcopal priest and preacher, begins with one idea stated forcefully and repeatedly:

Not just the death of Jesus, but the death of Jesus by public execution on the cross in a way that disrespects and degrades him and all those associated with him, that makes him and all those associated with him the off scouring of the world, the off scouring of creation, the death of Jesus in this way is essential to the lives we live in the light of the resurrection.

And so, as Rutledge moves through many understandings of the cross in the New Testament and beyond,  she returns over and over again to Jesus’ death on a cross as a death conducted publicly and with all cruelty, exposure, and loneliness by one of the most sophisticated, developed societies in human history, Jesus’s death on the cross as something that shows us both the depth to which humanity can go wrong and the depth to which God in Christ Jesus will go to come after us, to embrace us, all humanity, and creation, itself, while it suffers.  God in Christ Jesus goes all the way down to the very depths of pain, alienation, disgrace, and degradation, to the very depths of evil itself, for the sake of the world, to join with us, to join with us before being raised by the power of God to fullness of life and, in doing so, to raise us all and creation, itself, to fullness of life.

As I read the book, at times I thought to myself, I think I know where she’s going with this theologically. And I said to myself “stop” because I didn’t want to go there with her. But I had to read on and on through eyes that were, surprisingly, at times full of tears. The tears were about wars, about suffering, about the death of innocents, about race, about the political strife here in this imperfect country I love, and about creation, about birds and bears and sea creatures and trees and rocks and the peril they and the people of the earth are in. And my tears were about my own profound need for a companion sufferer and redeemer even as I do my best to act like I am perfectly competent and fine.

And so, whatever is said today, colleagues, about our lives with God and on behalf of the people of God, I have come to believe that we must start here. Start with the cross of Christ, the action and person of God who has gone before us, crucified and risen, and who bids us come with him and come again, and yet again.

For The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.

And so what I would like to put before you out of this start of a raw acceptance of Christ Crucified, the power of God to us and for us, what I would like to put before you are some ways that this power might show up in our vocations and work.

Please know that everything I say here will have exceptions or qualifications that I won’t be going into. And so, take what’s valuable and leave the rest.

And so:

First, Christ Crucified and Risen by the power of God bids us remember that we’re not God. We are not God. How can we not just assent to this but act on it? Herb Shepard, a famous Organization Development practitioner, penned “10 Rules of Thumb for Change Agents.” His first was this: “Stay Alive.” By this, he meant (and here I am using my own language) care for the God-given fire within you and, what is more, don’t fancy that your role as a clergy person is to mount the first cross you can find and die there in some kind of misguided imitation of Christ. Rather, you are, humbly and with every skill you have, to assist God’s leading a community of people toward greater depth in their baptismal identity and purpose. And this is a daily thing, a costly daily thing. You are not God.

You are also not God in that while, of course, you have gifts and flashes of sheer genius, you also have foibles, vulnerabilities, ways you get in your own way and get in the way of others. Know these things about yourself, spend time with them, offer them up, and work on them. You are not God. Embrace humility in who you are and what you do, holding your very good and inspired ways of being and ways of acting with a bit of an open hand.

Second, Christ Crucified and Risen bids us to focus first on people and then on visions and plans (and here I am drawing a bit on a Lutheran writer, John Berntsen). Jesus is the costly relationship of God with all humanity and with the creation itself. What leads Jesus to the Cross are a host of relationships in which those without dignity are treated with dignity, those without worth are treated as valuable, and Jesus’ willingness to suffer to declare this and to live this. What this means for us is, then, is that we remain in relationship, even when it’s difficult to do so. We listen, even when we don’t want to. And, what is more, any visions or plans or priorities will come out of these relationships and out of this listening, both our listening to others and our fostering a community that listens to itself. We focus first on people.

Third, Christ Crucified and Risen bids us not to shrink from the worst. In the crucifixion, we look upon the worst. We look upon injustice, betrayal, nakedness, loneliness, degradation, suffering and death. We look upon the Holocaust, the murder of George Floyd and Matthew Shepard, the suffering of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. We look upon societal and political division, intrigue, violence, and disintegration. We look upon divorce, losses of every kind, chronic debilitating illnesses, and fatal illnesses that arise and surprise us. We look upon death and the disfiguring of our own lives and the lives of the people we serve. And, yes, we look upon the squabbles, the betrayals, the sabotage, and the woundings—all the less-than-the-image of God behaviors that we encounter in ourselves, in our churches, and in our neighborhoods. We do not shrink from any of these because Christ did not shrink from these. And we choose to act in hope in the face of these things, over and over again.

And finally, Christ Crucified and Risen bids us proclaim that suffering and death will not have the final word. I have talked about this enough for one Lent and Easter cycle, but let me say it one final time. In Christ Crucified and Risen, we see that God chooses over and over again to make a new thing out of the jagged shards of that which was broken or destroyed, even unto death.  In Christ Crucified and Risen, we will see that God often writes a new thing in our lives and in the life of the world in the ashes left after a destructive and fiery blaze has gone out. Another way of saying this is that whatever heaven we experience in this life has often come through hell. And so, you and I are to be witnesses to this, midwives to this awful and awe-filled process. It is the Paschal mystery that is at the very heart of our life as Christian people.

As I prepared this sermon, I heard a little voice inside myself saying: “Oh my gosh, Melissa, this is kind of dark and, maybe, even dispiriting to some. Quite the message for the Episcopal clergy of one diocese and the Lutheran clergy of two synods to hear at the first time we have all come together.”

But then I thought back over one conversation after another I’ve had with some of you over this last year.  Yes, there have been conversations about joy, accomplishments, hopes, and new opportunities.  But the conversations I most remember, the conversations where I got to know you best, where, I believe, you got to know yourselves best, have been those that have had some sort of a cross in them–conversations about unexpected illness, conversations about recurring struggles, conversations about disappointments, conversations about the fractured and frightening world we live in right now and how to respond to it.

And so, colleagues, in the end, at least for me, there is no message more important than this on the day we reaffirm our ordination vows and bless the Oil of Chrism:  In the cross of Christ, God has overcome every evil; God has redeemed every abandonment, God has prevailed over every injustice, God has freed every imprisonment; God has torn down every barrier; God has taken into God’s very self every threat. The Cross of Christ has done these things. And we, baptized and ordained, live a resurrected life in response to that Cross. Always and forever in response. In response.

The Most Rev. Melissa Skelton
March 26, 2024

Bishop Skelton’s 2024 Chrism Mass Sermon

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *