Sermon – Bethany Lutheran Church
September 14, 2008
Holy Cross Sunday: Numbers 21: 4b-9, John 3:13-17, I Cor 1:18-24
“Holier Than Thou”
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God who dwells among us as Creator, Sustainer and Comforter. Amen
Sometimes the inbox on my computer holds some interesting email. This past week a friend sent me a power point about Hot Chocolate. As I watched the presentation I was struck by the correlation (which frequently happens when I’ve been asked to preach) how this story related to theme of this sermon, “holier than thou.”
The story unfolds with a group of former students deciding to go back and visit one of their favorite professors. Upon entering the professor’s apartment the former student’s began to converse about their lives, the stresses, the jobs, family obligations, pressures to make money, etc… As the professor listened he asked if they would like hot chocolate. They all answered yes.
When the Professor came back from the kitchen he held a tray with a wide variety of cups filled with hot chocolate. Some of the cups were China, others porcelain. Some were very ornate with designs others were clear glass and some were the simple mugs for every day use. Once each had their cup of hot chocolate, the professor broke into their life lament and commented how each person had taken the best of the cups offered to them. No one grabbed the plain cups, first. He found this interesting because they each held the same beverage.
Being kind of like Forrest Gump he then equated hot chocolate as representing life; every one had a life to live. The hot chocolate, their lives, were dished out the same. The cup in which they received their hot chocolate didn’t define or change the quality of the hot chocolate. It was merely a tool to help them sip the beverage.
He then suggested the cup as representing their job, money and position in society – the tools they use to hold and contain their life. Again he suggested the cup didn’t define nor change the quality of the life they lived; yet if we only concentrate on the cup – getting the best, vying for the best, being “holier than thou,” we fail to enjoy the hot chocolate – the life God provided.
The professor intimated the happiest people don’t have everything – they make the best of everything they have. God makes the hot chocolate – man chooses the cups.
Just 5 weeks ago I was standing in the midst of a crowd under the arched ceiling of the Sistine Chapel searching for the famous painting of God imparting knowledge to humanity. I was sure by week’s end I would need a chiropractor to straighten my neck from staring up at the ceilings of St. Paul’s, St. Mark’s and St. Peter’s cathedrals.
Each place gave forth an opulent rendition of being “holier than thou” – humanity was insignificant and overshadowed by the art, the paintings, the frescos, the sculptures, the canopies, tombs and stonework which marked every corner, floor, wall and ceiling of these massive places of worship.
Today we lift up the cross for inspiration, hope and affirmation of our faith. Four weeks ago in these great “holy” historical places I had difficulty in finding any of those things. This surprised me. I walked where Paul and Peter had walked. I trod over stones the early Christians had been herded over as they were persecuted for their faith in the Coliseum. Yet I felt no foreboding in that place; I felt no awe for God in the gold and opulent surroundings of these famous settings.
Even hearing the history of how they were built, each pope or monarch seemed to want to out do another in building the grandest, the best, the most expensive or ornate structure of their predecessor or competing king or country.
This Festival of the Holy Cross as your Celebrate began 1600 years ago. This was the time when the Church was flourishing and building grand places for worship; commissioning artists and artisans to perform their magic and transform a simple countryside into a lavish place of worship. Some of the cathedrals took one hundred up to 400 years to build. Standing in the midst of them I couldn’t help but wonder for whom these holy sites were built. Does all the art, finery, gold, silver and bronze help us to realize and affirm our faith in God? Or does all this finery offer a sense of taunting – an attempt at being “holier than thou?”
None of these thoughts really struck me until I accidentally meandered into a Protestant church in Lucerne Switzerland. The building itself was massive – built from stone. The interior was not much larger than Bethany. Expecting more of the same, I struck dumb at the plain gray walls. The seats were individually folded rather than large heavy pews or hand crafted wicker and wood. Nothing ordained the walls. The central aisle ended with a simple wooden table upon which were two plain gold candlesticks and a golden cross. The altar was bathed at that moment in light hues of color from a very basic stained glass window depicting Christ’s resurrection. The simplicity gave me pause. The cross, empty, was easy for anyone to see. This was a place of worship.
When one walked in, one came to worship God, not ogle at the art. In this place the cross was holy and central to its message.
Historically the church – which historically has been predominantly Roman Catholic – has been caught up in the beauty of structure; granted historically the people were illiterate and art was a way of bringing the Gospel and Old Testament to life. Granted too, the service was in Latin; so if one wanted inspiration and understanding it probably had to come from craning one’s neck to look at the ceilings or the artistry on the wall to gain any knowledge or support for one’s faith.
After this whirlwind tour of Europe with my daughter I came home with a greater appreciation for my Lutheran heritage and Protestant upbringing – not to say I came home with a “holier than thou” attitude because of my leaning towards a more simplistic place of worship, just a deeper understanding of why Luther wanted the Word in the hands of the people and not on the walls of the Church.
The cross was possibly one of the first artifacts used to mark one as a believer. Yet even this simple cross took on opulence and adornment which would and could rival its message.
Today we have heard of two occasions when something or someone was lifted up to provide healing and wholeness. In the Old Testament the snakebites reminded Israel of how quickly they turned to the world for solace and redemption, instead of to God. God did not remove the snakes; the people were still being bit, but by looking up they did not die.
Years later Jesus was lifted up on a simple wooden cross. His death on the cross and later resurrection, which leaves the cross empty are a sign to us. The cross doesn’t get rid of man’s nature to depart from the ways of God. We still sin; we still fall short. The cross reminds us that even though we sin, we still live.
It seems only fitting the church chose John for today’s scripture reading. All the theology, the opulence and even the simplicity of the church are wrapped up in these few words:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
And so we do. Be we Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist - evangelical, conservative or protestant none of us are holier than the other; all of us are lifted up because of the power of the cross.
God makes the hot chocolate – man chooses the cups.
For me and maybe for Luther this means - Live simply. Love generously. Care deeply. Speak kindly. Enjoy the hot chocolate.