The Rev. Dr. William A. Heisley
Lessons: Numbers 21:4b-9; Psalm 98; 1 Corinthians 1:18-24; John 3:13-17
“Keep your chin up.” That might be a good slogan for today. Holy Cross Day. Keep your chin up, keep your head up, keep your eyes up. Might be good to think along these lines today, just like an athlete, always with her eyes on the goal. When you keep your chin up you’re not able to look at your navel. You’re not able to become so self-centered that you miss what’s going on around you, going on in the world. You’re able to see, and to see the widest view possible. And you’re able to see truth.
Moses and Israel were wondering through their lives, looking for life. Looking down at the land. Looking for a land flowing with milk and honey and all good things. And they weren’t finding it. Only hunger and thirst and then, to top it off, snakes. So Moses consulted with God. “What do I do now? These people are making me nuts!” And God told him to be absurd.
Since the snakes were biting the people and killing them, since the serpents that God sent to punish the people for their sinful impatience were the agents of death, God said to make a serpent of bronze and put it high up on a pole. If you get bit, look at it. If you sin, look up. You’ll be healed. Keep your chin up and your eyes will be up, too, and you’ll be able to see, really see.
But isn’t it prideful to keep your chin high? That puts your nose up in the air, after all. Prideful and boastful and overly self-reliant? I guess it depends where your eyes look. If they look down on someone else, maybe you’re a little too proud. But if they look up, if they’re able to see the truth, able to recognize healing, maybe that’s right where they need to be.
It’s pretty easy to walk with your head down here in Manhattan. To not look up. I often have to remind myself that there’s nothing for the next block that I might step in. No accidents waiting to happen. I guess that habit comes from walking in neighborhoods where there are lots of hazards for feet to avoid. When I look down without looking up in those places I see ugly stuff almost every step of the way.
I’ve started trying to look up as much as possible no matter where I’m walking. There’s a sky up there. Sometimes blue, sometimes misty, sometimes rainy, there’s a sky up there, always beautiful. If I keep my chin up I can see it.
Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews, picked his way down the road by night to see Jesus. He had to keep his eyes down so that he could see where to step as he walked through the dark, through the darkness of his life. He and Jesus talked and Jesus had to get serious about teaching Nicodemus, serious about opening his eyes, serious about lifting his chin up. He did it by saying, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” He would be lifted up, lifted high on a cross.
I’ve never seen death on a cross but it’s supposed to be one of the most hideous ways to die. Agony and blood and sweat and dirt and unimaginable horrors. Jesus would be lifted up on a cross, lifted like a hideous, venomous serpent, and people would look up at him and see their healing, see salvation. But what a way to be saved. What a vision of eternal life, eternal peace, eternal joy. But sometimes you just have to do things.
It was Emperor Constantine’s mother, Queen Helena, who thought she found the true cross in the Holy Land. She found three crosses and was certain that one of them was Jesus’ cross because it raised to life a corpse upon which it was laid. So they started showing the cross all over Jerusalem in Holy Week. It became so important to people that it had to be guarded. People wanted to take a bite of it and to take it home with them. But no biting allowed.
On Good Fridays here at Holy Trinity we venerate the cross, coming forward and kneeling before it one by one, looking up at it, maybe kissing it. No biting allowed. It’s the same cross that’s marked on our foreheads in Holy Baptism, the same gory cross. But it’s hard to remember that it’s gory, hard to remember the price that was paid on the cross for us. We lift our chins up and see the cross and it looks beautiful. Brass, or gold or silver, maybe set with jewels, maybe made of sensuous beaten metal. So many designs. And we see beauty.
There’s an early English poem called, “The Dream of the Rood.” (They called the cross the rood.) In it the cross speaks and the poet sees the majestic beauty of the speaking cross. Encrusted with rubies. Beautiful, deep red rubies. Rubies, the color of blood. But then the vision becomes clearer. He lifts his dreamy eyes up for a better look and sees that those aren’t rubies. Those are drops of blood. Precious drops of the blood of the new life of the universe.
Just then the cross says, “All wet with blood I was.” But the blood became the food for new life, for the saving of our eyes and the raising of our chins. The blood became the food that fed the tree of life. And the cross has become the instrument by which God in Christ Jesus sets a beacon before us. Look up. Raise your chin and you’ll be able to see the tree that is our beacon. The tree of life.
Once I attended a photography exhibit at an art museum. In it were lots of black and white photos of trees, mostly in winter. Bare branches reaching up. Branches twisting and turning like the changes and chances of life itself, up into the sky. It was like looking up into a tree can be a reminder that there is much more beyond me, much more to living. There is sky and there is a vast future and it’s all because we look up that we are healed from our sins, from our sickness of spirit, from our pride.
Look up. Raise you chin. You’ll see the sky, yes. But you’ll also see the cross of Jesus Christ, the cross that has become for us a symbol of his presence. Even as you step forward, look up. Amen.