A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Susan Allison-Hatch
Years ago, I worked at a school that rented out its commons space to a church. Every Sunday morning the church wheeled a big cabinet out to the commons where they set up church. One of my neither spiritual nor religious friends referred to that church as “The Church in a Box” implying that all that was that church could be boxed up and rolled out on Sunday mornings and boxed up and rolled back to its place on Sunday afternoons. “Church in a box”—it’s more than a metaphor. For some it’s a way of life. A way of keeping the Holy contained, at arm’s length, safely within a carefully proscribed space.
Well-spaced shelves, each neatly ordered and organized according to the structure of the service. Easy access to all that you need to worship God. Right there at your finger-tips.
No agonizing search for worship essentials. Just open the box and you’ll find what you need. Prayer cards second shelf on the right. Scripture lessons smack dab in the center. Songs of praise in the middle on the left. Easily accessible to right-handed people. Candles on the bottom shelf. You don’t want to reach too far for the light. And on the inside of the door, a guide for setting up. Nothing left to chance.
“Church in a box”—it sounds rather like a caricature doesn’t it? Nobody really approaches church like that. That’s the stuff of fantasy or maybe fanaticism. The stuff of folks who have it all figured out. Folks who are quite clear about who’s in, who’s out and why. “Church in a box”—that’s the other folks’ kind of church. Church for people who think they have it all together. Church for folks who have found their worshipping niche. Church of the safety zone.
To the people of Corinth—people who have God boxed up tight with their ideas about how best to know God—the apostle Paul says, “We preach Christ crucified”. What a scandal! What an enigma! What a challenge! A bit later in the same letter to the church in Corinth, Paul says, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
Christ crucified, tortured, dying a painful and humiliating death. Exposed to shame and ridicule. Powerless. Abandoned. Alone. This is the God Paul proclaims? This is the God who trumps the signs of the Jews and the wisdom of the Gentiles? Christ whose last words are, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
Is this the God we seek? The crucified God? The abandoned God? God whose cries of pain echo through the ages? What comfort, what strength, what hope can we find in this God of the Cross? What box contains this God—this crucified God?
So often the God we seek, the God we claim is a lesser God. A God we can understand. A God we can influence. A God we can bring home for dinner. God who comforts. God who inspires. God who plays fair. God who plays nice. A fixer God. God in a box.
But this is not the God Paul proclaims. This is not God of the Cross. Not the God of our weary years or the God of our silent tears. Not the God of Auschwitz or Dafur or the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Not the God of Matthew Shepard and those who mourn him still. Not the God of the women buried on Nine Mile Hill. Not the God of you and me in our worst moments.
To the people of Corinth and to you and me as well, Paul proclaims Christ crucified. Foolishness to some and a stumbling block to others. But to those with their backs against the wall, to those who have lost all hope, to those in the midst of despair, assurance that no terror, no shame, no fear, no pain fall outside the embrace of the Cross.
In his autobiographical novel Night, the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel tells the story of the night two Jewish men and a boy were hanged as a lesson to the other prisoners. Everyone in the camp was forced to watch the execution. The men died quickly, but the boy died slowly, torturously. At one point someone in the crowd yells out, “Where is God?” Silence meets the question, so again the man cries out, “Where is God?” A voice deep inside Wiesel replies, “There hanging from the gallows.”
Only a God of the gallows, only a God of the Cross, only a God abandoned and alone is God enough for our lowest moments, our fractured world and our broken lives. We proclaim Christ crucified: God of the long haul.