Did you ever wonder why only a priest or deacon reads the Gospel lesson in Eucharist? It is because it is more than a reading. It is a proclamation. The sermon is a continuation of that proclamation, always following the Gospel lesson and usually followed by a creed. All three—the lesson, the sermon and the creed—are part of the proclamation.
Today it is tempting—with good reason—to forego the sermon. Let the proclaimed Gospel of the cross stand alone. I will be brief this morning but I do have something to say. We need to look at the cross. We need to take a good, long look at it. Every Sunday we follow the cross into the church and the cross is always before us on the retable. But today we face the cross with special intentionality.
There is a story my first bishop told of some young men who lived in France years before. It was a nice spring day and these young friends had gotten a bottle or two of wine and went outside the village to a nice spot to drink and cut up. When the wine was gone, they decided they wanted more. Being a little inebriated they came up with a plan. They would draw straws and the looser had to go into the village and get more wine. But that wasn’t enough. They decided he would also have to go to the little parish church, find the priest, make his confession, do his penance and then return with the wine. They laughed when the youngest of the boys drew the short straw (as it was probably intended).
Being a good sport, he went to the village church, found the priest, and made his confession. The priest was wise and spiritually savvy. And he remembered what it was like to be young and silly, innocent still but flirting with debauchery. So he told the boy his sins were forgiven and his penance was to go into the church, to look up at the cross which bore the body of Christ. He told the penitent to look at the face of Jesus suffering on the cross and say, “I know what you did for me and I don’t care.” (Actually, when the bishop told the story, he used more emphatic language than “I don’t care.”)
Like so much in the prayer book, the pastoral office known as the Reconciliation of a Penitent has never been introduced to many Episcopalians. It is too easily dismissed with the argument that you don’t need a priest to forgive you. That isn’t true. We do need a priest to forgive us. That was at the heart of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. We must forgive each other, be each other’s priests. Those of us who are ordained to the priesthood have been set aside by the Church to speak for the Congregation, for all Christians, when we pronounce absolution. The pastoral rite is there because some of us carry terrible burdens and need an absolutely safe place to lay that burden down and hear the words of Christ when he said, “Come to me all who are burdened and I will give you rest.” The last line in the penitential rite is the priest asking the penitent to “pray for me, a sinner.”
Back to the story, the young man, still a good sport, did what the priest had told him to do. He went into the church, walked down the aisle of the church focused on the cross and the face of Jesus. When he got close he said, “I know what you did for me and I don’t care.” At least he started to say that. He found he couldn’t. He stumbled over the words. He managed to say that he knew what Christ did for him but he just couldn’t bring himself to say that he didn’t care. Because he did care.
My bishop said that this story was told in a French cathedral and when the bishop finished telling the story he said, “That drunken young boy who looked at the cross of Jesus was me.”
Anything that trivializes the cross of Christ is sin and must be confessed lest its burden destroys us and robs us of the joy of our salvation.