What would you say to someone who asked, why you are here?
What are you doing here to see a cross? Why look upon suffering?
Why subject yourself, voluntarily, to the suffering of the cross.?
The cross, a tool of the Romans as a means of intimidation and domination.
The cross of Golgotha, which was nothing more than the city dump, a place for trash, human and otherwise, to be dumped.
The cross of rough hewn wood,
stained with the blood of countless, nameless, forgotten criminals who died upon it.
The cross which our Lord hung upon,
whose blood soaked its wood,
why are you looking at it?!
You have been encouraged by the clergy and by the detailed scriptures that we have been reading in these last weeks, to enter into the vivid story of Jesus Christ, to be a part of his life and witness, especially in his last day of life, and this, his very last day of life.
You are invited to stand with Mary as she watches her first born son die,
To lovingly watch with the disciples in their confusion and terror,
To look upon the sickening triumph of the temple authorities, in their murder of their enemy.
To love along with all of the quiet faithful around the cross who want to stop this tragedy from happening, but know they can’t; like Joseph of Aramathea and Nicodemus who believed in spite of the dangers of believing and tenderly cared for Jesus’s body at the last.
You are here to love alongside them.
You are supposed to be here.
Therefor, be present to the cross. Do not turn away your mind’s eye, do not stop your ears from the cries, do not entertain thoughts that it isn’t real and that it doesn’t matter. You are where God wants you to be, you are supposed to be here.
For Jesus to die is deeply painful, for Jesus to die alone and unloved is simply unthinkable.
The book of Isaiah, a prophetic book of the Old Testament anticipated what Jesus, the Messiah, would be like and exactly the suffering that he was supposed to endure.
In this morning’s reading it says, “…many who were astonished at him, so marred was his appearance…He grew up like a root out of dry ground;
(with) no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him….despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity… He was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities…He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb… to the slaughter…like a sheep before its shearers… he did not open his mouth…They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth….” (Isaiah 52:13-53:12)
By the sheer grace of God, and yes the pain of the cross, there is a group here in this church which has seen Christ’s cross in the mission field, and their lives will never be the same. If I may, I will share with you what happened to them…
We have recently welcomed a group of missionaries back from New Orleans. Many of you prayed for them while they were gone last week.
20 members of our choir, led by Mark and Virginia Whitmire and Andy Smith went to serve in the Upper and Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, a section of that city which is still in terrible shape since the Hurricane wiped away homes, streets, businesses, and lives 2 1/2 years ago. It is hard to describe the devastation they have seen and told me about. Many areas are EXACTLY as they were the months after the storm…street signs still missing, debris piled up where it was dumped by the merciless waters of Lake Pontchartrain and trailers sitting in rows and rows, decaying on weed-covered lots.
The team went to help, to offer their elbow grease and building skills towards the work of gutting and demolishing, framing and rebuilding churches and homes…especially the home of Alvin Thomas.
As the group tells me, Alvin was very shy when they first met him. With a disheveled appearance and mental disability, he lived in total poverty, completely alone since he had been separated from his family in the chaos of the storm evacuation. His home had been reduced to a filthy frame shack with no plumbing or electricity. He slept on a sinking foam cot and his toilet was a bucket out back. Poor and black, Alvin was invisible to most. Few had paid him a minute’s attention.
In the first days of the team’s work, Alvin stayed back from this group of strangers in his home, watching them from a distance- speaking just a few words to them and rarely looking them in the eye. He seemed apprehensive (no doubt he has had many opportunists knocking on his door these last few years).
For 7 days the missionaries cleaned out filth and debris, reframed walls and windows, installed doors and prepped Alvin’s house for the next team that was scheduled to come. Soon Alvin’s house would have a kitchen, a bathroom, even furniture!
As the team worked, they got to know Alvin and were filled with unexpected delight as he came to hang around the site a little bit longer each day, warming to them as he did, smiling and laughing at the gregarious group.
One team member noticed that as the house gutting and demolition changed into rebuilding and growth, Alvin began to change as well…cleaning himself up before the team arrived in the mornings, speaking more freely and looking them in the eye. His home was being rebuilt, his life was being rebuilt, and most of all, he was being loved and he enjoyed it.
By the end of the week, with their kindness and hard work, the team won the affections of Alvin.
At the close of their mission, members went to say goodbye to Alvin and he offered his hand to shake in friendship, inviting them back and wishing them well.
The team returned home last Saturday elated, energized and filled with gratitude for the support of this church and their families towards their work. They were optimistic about the future for the city and so thankful for their new friendship with Alvin. For several, meeting Alvin was by far the most important experience of the mission.
They were happy that they could have shared their love with a man who so very much needed it, wanted it, and most certainly deserved it.
The morning our team left, a member of our church working down there on her own went by Alvin’s home to deliver a fresh jug of milk.
She found Alvin laid out on his newly swept porch having suffered a stroke.
Alvin died 2 days later and was buried yesterday.
Remember, you are at the cross, do not turn away, do not stop your ears.
Again, Isaiah writes, “…many who were astonished at him–so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance… He grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him…Despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised…We held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God…Upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed…He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth… Like a lamb led to the slaughter, like a sheep before its shearers… he did not open his mouth…He was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth…” (Isaiah 52:13-53:12).
While we sent the mission team of 20 to New Orleans to build, we also sent them there to love…to share the love of Jesus Christ with whomever they met, and they most certainly shared it with Alvin Thomas. The fact that it was the last week of Alvin’s life, none of them knew, not even Alvin. In a forgotten frame house on French St. in the Upper 9th ward of New Orleans this fortunate group of missionaries accompanied Alvin Thomas to his cross.
They went to his cross in order to love him there.
They were supposed to be there, that was supposed to happen.
For Alvin to have died is deeply painful, for Alvin to have died alone and unloved is simply unthinkable.