The Crucifixion as Interruption

Yo Mama’s Pieta, by Renee Cox, 1996

(This homily was preached at St. Hildegard Catholic Community in Berkeley, California. Scripture readings for the homily can be found here.)

A few nights ago, I had a dream that I was having lunch with some friends– old friends that I hadn’t seen in years. As we laughed and caught up on each other’s lives, I suddenly saw one of my theology professors run up to me. He interrupted our conversation, grabbed me by the shoulders and shouted “DON’T FORGET THE CRUCIFIXION.”

Needless to say, it was a shocking end to what had been a pretty pleasant dream.

Like my dream, this week’s readings seem a bit off-putting and out of synch with the liturgical calendar. Here we are humming along in ordinary time, talking about bread and journeys and miraculous healings and then BAM! All of the sudden, it seems like we’re in Lent again: We read about the Son of Man being rejected, suffering and being killed. We hear Jesus promise us “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Like in my dream, it feels a little awkward to be thinking about the crucifixion right now—as we wade through a heat wave and some of us head back to school for a new academic year.

We might be looking forward to the Feast of All Saints, or Thanksgiving, or even beginning preparations for Advent. But we probably aren’t thinking much about Lent, yet. Amidst our busy, ordinary lives we want to focus on happy things, and not get bogged down thinking about Jesus’ suffering. We don’t always want to remember the crucifixion.

And yet, here are these Lenten-sounding readings confronting us in September, asking us how we are remembering the crucifixion all year long. How we are taking up our own crosses and following Jesus?

In today’s readings, we experience the crucifixion as an interruption of our ordinary lives. The crucifixion breaks through ordinary time to shock us, to remind us of the suffering of the world, to challenge us to live our own lives differently.

These readings are a reminder for us that the crucifixion wasn’t just a one-time event, but that happens daily as the Body of Christ on earth suffers from isolation, violence and oppression. The Crucifixion doesn’t just happen on Holy Week, but happens every day in the deaths of Syrian refugees trying to make it to Europe, in the lives of black people killed with impunity by a police system that sees them as less-than, and in people suffering from war, violence and poverty around the world.

Today, Jesus asks us not to tune out the tragedy of the crucifixion– not to become numb to it– but to allow it to interrupt our daily lives so that we can take up our own crosses as well. What would it look like if we allowed ourselves to become attentive to the suffering of others, to notice where Christ is being crucified today? What would it look like for us to take up our crosses and join the Body of Christ crucified in our own communities?

Last month, my husband Alex traveled with other seminarians from the Graduate Theological Union to Ferguson, Missouri, where teenager Mike Brown was killed by a police officer last year, which became a turning point for the Black Lives Matter movement. Alex and his fellow seminarians were there for the first anniversary of Mike’s death to participate in protests and vigils, and to meet activists on the ground who have been working for justice and ministering to the people of Ferguson.

One of the seminarians Alex traveled with, Marvin K. White, preached a few weeks ago on their experience. He said that one of the stories they heard over and over again from activists was about how neighborhood churches responded—or failed to respond—to the events in Ferguson. Activists told them about how during the height of the protests they went around to neighborhood churches asking for sanctuary—for a safe place to escape from barricades and tear gas and rubber bullets. But time and again, they would be turned out by these churches, who were worried that letting protesters seek refuge would raise their insurance premiums.

Honestly, part of me (particularly the part that worked in non-profit administration for years) relates to these churches that I imagine had small budgets and overworked staff. These churches that had to worry about how to put on a good worship service that Sunday, how to deal with a declining membership, how to build their youth ministry. They had so many every day concerns, how could they drop all of those to respond to such an extreme situation?

And yet, I worry about their inability to be present to the crucifixion happening in their own backyard, to minister to the crucified Christ in their neighbor. I worry that they may have gotten so wrapped up in their own “ordinary time” of committee meetings and line items and insurance premiums that they failed to be attentive to the reality of the crucifixion, which had come to interrupt their everyday lives.

Pope Francis once said, “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” I worry that these churches were so focused on clinging to the security of their church building that they forgot their mission to be the church, which might have been calling them to risk getting hurt or dirty by taking up their crosses to join the crucified body of Christ on the streets of Ferguson.

As we celebrate the incredible growth that St. Hildy’s has experienced in seven short months—the growing community, the meaningful liturgies, I think this is a reminder to us to not get so wrapped up in running a church that we forget to be the church, forget to notice where the crucifixion is happening in our own bay area communities, take up our crosses and be present with the suffering Body of Christ. It’s a powerful reminder that church budgets and liturgical planning is not what makes a healthy church– discipleship is: the ability to allow ourselves to be interrupted by the crucifixion in today’s world.

As I imagine the future of St. Hildy’s I know I have a pretty big wish list: a bigger budget, more members, and weekly liturgies. I’m so excited about all those things, but it’s important to remember that none of those things are what Jesus asked of us—he simply asked us to take up our crosses and follow him, to be present to the suffering in the world and allow it to transform us. To allow our ordinary lives to be interrupted by the crucifixion of the Body of Christ.

Of course, that’s a terrifying idea. It was understandably terrifying to those churches in Ferguson, and maybe it’s even more terrifying to us as a new, fragile community. But the gospel teaches us that by taking up our crosses and following Jesus we aren’t following him to death, but to new life. It is only by allowing ourselves to be interrupted by the tragedy of the crucifixion that we can be transformed by the mystery of the resurrection. It is by going out into the streets to risk getting hurt and bruised that we actually allow ourselves to be healed.

Seven months ago, we gathered in this upper room for the first time to sing Hosanna and wave palm fronds. We chose to leave the supposed safety and security of the institutional church to seek out new life in an unknown place.

As Catholics, we had witnessed the crucifixion happening in the institutional church: to women, to LGBT people, to indigenous communities, and had allowed our hearts to be broken by it. We felt the Spirit calling us outside those walls to take up our crosses and follow Jesus into the unknown. It was scary, and it’s been hard at times, but seven months later, I can honestly say I’ve found new life in this place, and I hope you have too.

By responding to the crucifixion happening in our church, taking up our crosses and following Christ into uncharted territory we have encountered resurrection.

I wonder what resurrection those churches in Ferguson might have encountered if they, in Pope Francis’ words had chosen to risk getting hurt and bruised by entering the streets to join the hurting, bruised Body of Christ. I wonder what new members they would have encountered, what powerful street liturgies they might have experienced.

I’m heartbroken for the people of Ferguson that these churches failed to let themselves be interrupted by the crucifixion happening in their midst, but I’m also heartbroken for these churches that they missed seeing Christ resurrected in the people of Ferguson.

My prayer for St. Hildy’s is that we never get so concerned about insurance premiums that we miss the resurrection when it comes. That as we continue to grow, as we continue to stabilize, we never become so comfortable that we forget to take up our cross and follow Jesus into the streets where people are being crucified today. In our quest to build a church, may we always remember to be the church: hurting, bruised, holy. May we have the faith necessary to follow the Crucified Christ into new life.

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