The Cross: Suffering Reclaimed
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Those of you who have heard my story about how I came back to God have probably heard me describe it as a reclamation project. In the world of construction, to build using reclaimed materials means to scavenge among ruins and destruction for that which is still sound, still viable. Reclaimers go to houses and buildings that are being torn down, and they pick out the wood flooring or the bricks or the antique light fixtures. They take those materials and they build something new, something different, but something that still carries the substance and wisdom and beauty of what came before. The parts that were strong enough to be carried into new life somewhere else.
That has been my faith journey in so many ways. I’ve taken the scriptures from the biblical literalism I learned to reclaim them as a force for liberation. I’ve taken Jesus who, I was taught, died again and again every time I sinned and reclaimed him as a teacher and savior who taught love as the highest call. I’ve taken communion that was once a symbol of exclusion and reclaimed it as the ultimate ritual of belonging.
And I’ve heard many of your stories, your journeys of faith, and I know that a lot of you have a faith built with reclaimed materials. I actually think it’s one of the core things that brings this community together: breaking down ways of believing that were harmful, taking that which is still sound from that deconstruction, and rebuilding into something different, something more open and airy, something that allows God to move more freely within and among us.
There’s nothing new about this process of deconstruction and reclamation in our faith. The Jesus Movement was founded as a reclamation project—the reclaiming of the law and prophets for the sake of a new kind of love.
The cross itself is a reclamation project. That’s what Paul was saying to the Corinthians in our epistle today:
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.
The symbol of our faith was, in fact, an instrument of execution. For a modern equivalent, imagine if we replaced every cross in our church or in our homes or on our jewelry or tattooed on our skin with a noose or an electric chair. Because in Jesus’ time, that was what the cross meant. Actually, I’m not even sure if there is a comparable modern equivalent. Because I think it’s more accurate to say that the cross was an instrument of public torture. The word excruciating derives from the Latin word for cross, or crux. To be subject to punishment on the cross was a sentence of intense pain, deep suffering, and a slow, slow death.
And now it’s the symbol of our faith. Ubiquitous. Life-giving.
If those Romans then could see how we honor the cross today, I’m sure they would be astonished. They would think it’s pure foolishness.
But for us followers of Jesus, the cross contains multitudes. The cross is about overcoming death by dying. The cross is about stepping into God’s power by becoming powerless.
The cross is a testament to the fact of suffering. Because suffering is a fact of life. There’s a whole other sermon there to talk about why that is, but that’s not the sermon I’m preaching today. But I think we can all agree that there’s no escaping suffering.
But we sure do try! We often think avoiding suffering, denying the fact of death, is the key to life. I saw it when I worked as a hospital chaplain all the time. Even when a person had died, so many doctors couldn’t say the word.
“She didn’t make it.”
“He passed away.”
Sometimes they were so vague that once the doctor left I had to clarify to the families that their loved one had died.
We push off suffering. We think it’s unnatural, that it contradicts life. But that’s not what the cross tells us.
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.
The point of life isn’t to avoid suffering, the point of life is to let our suffering open us to the experience of other people’s suffering, to find wisdom there, to find love there. That’s what God did in Jesus.
In a few weeks we’ll remember the Passion of Jesus. The word passion comes from the Latin root passio which means “to suffer.” So com-passion means to suffer with. Jesus was compassion embodied, God come into this world, into this flesh, to experience and understand all that it means to be human. He knew a mother’s love. The joy of a good meal with friends. And, yes, pain and suffering. Because where there is love in this life there is always loss. To risk loving something is also to risk losing it. To be fully human is to know suffering.
That’s what the cross tells us. But it also tells us that suffering is never noble or deserved. There’s nothing inherently redemptive about it. But when we let ourselves feel the depth of our suffering, it opens us to the depth of the suffering of others. The cross can teach us something about how to love. How to love ourselves. How to love others. How to love God.
This week marks a year since all of our lives changed—together, at the same time. It marks a year since the last time we met in person in this sanctuary. A year without casual hugs. A year away from our communities and in some cases our families. A year of being separated.
We’ve been suffering. We didn’t enter the wilderness on Ash Wednesday. We’ve been wandering in this wilderness since last March. So Lent is different this year. As a community, we’ve committed to slowing down. To releasing the ways we’ve distracted ourselves from really feeling the magnitude of this year. To pause and recognize the depth of our suffering and grief.
Theologian Richard Niebuhr wrote that the cross means we are being saved. He said, “We are indeed coming through disaster, but we will not be lost. The cross does not deny the reality of death. It reinforces it. It denies its finality.”
The cross embodies suffering, acknowledging pain and death, but then it calls us beyond suffering. Because that’s not where Jesus’ story ends.
This Lent, we are invited to take a good, long look at the cross, to let ourselves rest at the foot of it, and to feel God’s love present even in the midst of suffering.
But we don’t stop there. We remember that the cross contains multitudes. We remember that the cross is where resurrection is conceived. The cross is where hope is born.