The Magnetic Cross - Rev. William Kemp (ret.) in the pulpit

Jeremiah 31:31-34 & John 12: 20-33
5th Sunday of Lent

A couple of Sundays ago, Elizabeth likened the cross to the electric chair. That’s an apt analogy because the cross was the Roman means of execution during the time of Jesus. The state of Florida has had its problems with electric chairs (remember “Old Sparky”?) but now we have a more humane form of execution -- lethal injections. (I hope you don’t miss my sarcasm.) Of course in days gone by and in other cultures, hanging and the firing squad had their day. They all do the same thing, though we would never do with them what we do with the cross.
We decorate the cross and wear it as jewelry. We recently visited my sister and her husband who are wintering in New Smyrna Beach. Since our time coincided with Bike Week in Daytona, we ambled up the road to see what all the excitement was about. We saw more crosses than I ever imagined I would, all on people who would not likely brighten the door of any church. Many of them were very large tattoos. Some, no doubt, would be tattooed in places where we dare not look. The Celtic Cross is commonly found in churches of the Reformed tradition. And you always find a Crucifix in a Roman Catholic Church. And, denominations morph the cross into their contemporary logos.
So why would we wear a cross around our necks, but never an electric chair?
“Jesus said, ‘And I, as I am lifted up from the earth, will attract everyone to me and gather them around me.’ He put it this way to show how he was going to be put to death.”[i]
The cross is like a magnet. As people of faith, we are drawn to it. I suspect, however, that we don’t feel drawn to the electric chair or to a needle dosed with a lethal chemical. Why? Admitting that all analogies break down, let me try this on for size. I think it has to do with polarity. I don’t remember much about my high school physics class, but I do remember as a child playing with two little Scotty dogs that were magnets. Depending on the orientation of the magnetic poles, they would either be attracted to each other or one would run away from the other. Remember, the old adage is that opposites attract and, conversely, likes run away each other.
We run away from other forms of execution because in them we see a reflection of ourselves, and a truth about ourselves that we do not like – we can be very malicious and vindictive. Vengeance may belong to the Lord,[ii] says the scripture, but we want to get our licks in, too.
Does it seem to you, as it does to me, that Since September 11, 2001, the people of our nation have not been as angry as they are now? The media call it “populist rage.” Everybody’s looking for someone to blame for the mess we’re in. Who is it? Wall Street? Big banks? Greedy CEOs? The Congress? The President? The former President? Bernard Madoff? Arthur Nadel? We want them to pay for their misdeeds. We want to get even. No, we wouldn’t seriously consider execution, but some executives of AIG have needed police protection.
There is such a thing as righteous anger. Anger can be healthy, but it depends how you direct it. I talked with a man this past week who was seething with anger over the current economic conditions. At one point it sounded as if he was coming off his hinges. It wasn’t as if he had lost his job or his home. He’s been retired for several years, has a good pension and lives a good life. But his portfolio isn’t what it used to be and the future has become so unpredictable. His misdirected anger is the kind that eats away at one’s insides.
The Dalai Lama and an Indian psychoanalyst held a public dialogue in which the subject of hate arose. The psychoanalyst said that a healthy person should be able both to hate and to transcend hating. The Dalai Lama said that was not the Buddhist view, and he told a story about a man who had been imprisoned in Tibet and tortured by the Chinese. After he got out, the man told the Dalai Lama that on two occasions things had gotten very bad in prison. Had he been close to death? the Dalai Lama asked. “No,” the man responded. “Twice I almost hated the Chinese!”[iii] If hatred is not in the Buddhist tradition, it can hardly be in the Christian tradition.
We are attracted to the cross because we are its polar opposite. Yes, the cross is just as much an expression of our hatred as other forms of execution. Remember we all had our hands on that hammer. We can’t blame the Romans, or the Jews. We all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.”[iv] But on the cross, we see so much more than the reflection of ourselves. Unlike the electric chair, we know the cross is not the end of the story. Therefore, we dare to embrace it or, as the old hymn sings, We cling to the old rugged Cross, an emblem of suffering and shame.
Susan Andrews is a former moderator of our church’s General Assembly. In a recent issue of The Christian Century she reflects on one of her pastorates where the Presbyterian congregation she served shared worship space with a Jewish congregation. They discovered they had much in common, but there was one area where they differed sharply. She writes:
During a seminar, I asked the Jews in the room to suggest images that came to mind when they heard the word cross. They answered, “Pain, prejudice, Holocaust, suffering, hate, punishment.” I then asked the Christians, and their responses were “love, forgiveness, mercy, grace, salvation, rebirth.” We had uncovered the central truth of the gospel: what the world sees as bad, we Christians claim as good because God can transform the blood of passion into the beauty of passion – and life has the last word.[v]
Ernest Hemingway tells the story of a Spanish father who wanted to be reconciled with his son who ran away from home to the city of Madrid. The father misses the son and puts an advertisement in the local newspaper. The advertisement read, “Paco, meet me at the Hotel Montana at noon on Tuesday. All is forgiven! Love, Papa.”
Paco is such a common name in Spain that when the father went to the Hotel Montana the next day at noon there were 800 young men named Paco waiting for their fathers![vi] That’s just how desperate all of us are for forgiveness, the kind that is found only at the cross.
We are also desperate to discover how to find life, real life. Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”[vii] He wasn’t spouting off some esoteric philosophy, nor was he suggesting that we must beat ourselves up. I believe he does mean to suggest that we learn the world doesn’t revolve around ourselves. “It’s not about me!” It is forgetting about me so we can discover the joy of serving others in the name of Christ.
In his classic book, The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen asks: “Who can save a child from a burning building without taking the risk of being hurt by the flames?” Who, indeed? But firefighters take that risk every day.
Perhaps you saw the story on the Today Show this past week. I the city of Boston in November, 1968, a firefighter rushed into a burning house and rescued a little baby and breathed the breath of life into her. What’s the big deal? During the 1960’s racial tensions were about as bad as they ever have been, not only in Boston, but throughout the nation. William Carroll was white, and the baby, Evangeline Harper (now Anderson) was an African American.
Over forty years later, William and Evangeline were reunited and a new friendship has blossomed. What’s the big deal? Morning television was liberated from so many frivolous stories and the world saw a contemporary example of real life. Not only did William risk his physical life in the rescue, he risked whatever false idea he may have had about the superiority of one race over another and discovered the bond of our common humanity. By the way, Evangeline literally means good news.
I must share with you something I discovered on the internet this past week which is rather astounding. As in everything astounding from the internet, I was immediately suspicious. Since it concerns the human body I checked it out with a doctor. He said it was for real.
It concerns a substance called laminin. which is a protein molecule that is a major component of human cells. It’s like the glue that keeps each cell together and binds each cell to others. Laminins are an integral part of the structural scaffolding in humans and almost every animal tissue. Laminin is vital to making sure overall body structures hold together.
When you see laminin under an electron microscope it is shaped like a cross and has four arms that are designed to bind to four other molecules. The three shorter arms are particularly good at binding to other laminin molecules, which is what makes it capable of binding to cells, which helps anchor the actual organs to the membrane. [A picture cannot be included in this format. Readers who are interested should Google laminin and see what I mean.]
In Paul’s letter to the Colossians we read: “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”[viii]
In Christ Jesus, all things hold together. He is the glue, the laminin that keeps each one of us from coming off our hinges . He is the laminin that binds us together with every other person on the planet. That’s why he is the hope of the world.
The prophet Jeremiah promised that “the days are surely coming when the Lord will make a new covenant with us and write his law upon our hearts.” When will those days come? No one knows, but there is much in scripture to suggest that such new life can begin right now for each one of us. Today we hear Jesus say “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” but just a few chapters earlier when some of his followers urged him to “show yourself to the world,” Jesus said, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here.”[ix] A few chapters before that he tells the Samaritan woman at the well, “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.”[x] I think of that every evening when I hear Brian Williams say, “Nightly News begins now.” Our time is always now.
Some years ago a colleague of mine introduced me to a song that seems to fit today’s texts. I invite you to remain seated as you listen to Stephen Iverson sing. As you become comfortable with the tune, quietly sing along and allow the words to be etched upon your hearts. They really are quite simple:
The time has come,
the time is now.
To stop, feel
the pull of the Lord.
O Shepherd, speak to me.


[i] John 12:33, The Message
[ii] Deuteronomy 32:35 and Romans 12:19
[iii] Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Winter – quoted in Christian Century, 3/24/09, p8
[iv] Romans 3:23
[v] March 24, 2009, p. 21
[vi] Told by Tom Tewell, excerpted from a 30 Good Minutes broadcast in 2003
[vii] John 12:24-25
[viii] Colossians 1:15-17
[ix] See John 7:1-13
[x] John 4:23