How can an instrument of shame be transformed into a sign of hope and glory?

The smoke is pretty thick here in Vancouver. Please do pray for our neighbours. One of my colleagues called it the reality of climate change right on our doorstep. Many are fleeing from their homes as fires rage in Oregon and other parts of the West Coast. This is a really dangerous time for families, for seniors, for folks who live close to the street and of course, for firefighters and rescue workers. So I ask that you would continue to uphold these folks in your prayers this week. Thank you.

There’s a prayer for Holy Cross Day that we’ll say this morning just before the priest consecrates the bread and wine for Holy Communion. The prayer is this: “Merciful God, through the death of your beloved Son you transformed an instrument of shame into a sign of hope and glory. Receive all we offer you this day, and renew in us the mystery of his love; through the same Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.”

This is probably my favourite prayer in the whole of the Anglican tradition. It speaks to one of the central questions of the Christian faith: how can an instrument of shame become a sign of hope and glory? It’s a question that is particularly important on this Holy Cross Day when we celebrate the sacrament of baptism—proclaiming with the outward and visible sign of water the inward and spiritual grace that is already present in the life of the child who will be baptised here today, and as we reaffirm that same transformation that continues to be at work in our own lives.

How can an instrument of shame become a sign of hope and glory? Our reading from the book of Numbers puts us with Moses and the people of God in this unknown wilderness. They’re afraid and they’re tired—physically and emotionally, to be sure. They’re also soul-tired, feeling this sense of exhaustion on a deeper spiritual level. The people complain and God sends poisonous snakes. The snakes aren’t so much a punishment for complaining as they are a reminder of the source of their fear and exhaustion. If we think about the snakes as a metaphor, the poison is a symbol for the instruments of shame the people of God have carried with them into the wilderness, the ways of being they’ve sort of become accustomed to from years living as an oppressed people, years living with plague and pandemic, years living in really harsh circumstances. By complaining, the people are looking to God as the source of their shame as opposed to the source of their transformation. 

One day the people of God decide to change course, to look at things a little differently. Moses prays. God tells Moses to craft a serpent out of bronze and to set it on a pole. And whenever someone is bit by one of these poisonous snakes they need only to look at the bronze serpent and live. God has literally taken the instrument of their shame (the serpent) and turned it into a sign of hope and glory. The serpent, which was once a source of death is now a pathway for healing and life. 

How can an instrument of shame become a sign of hope and glory? The writer to the Corinthians says only fools dare ask this question and only the really foolish seek to answer it. After all, when we think about the things that feel shameful in life, the things that leave us in that place of fear, exhaustion, and vulnerability, the last thing we want to do is hang around. But in God’s upside-down world, it’s the things that have caused us to feel vulnerable that help us to reveal God’s power. Perhaps we can think through a few examples. Once we’ve been through a difficult time in a relationship, maybe a break-up or a difficult time with a family member, we’re maybe more likely to have empathy, more likely to be able to support someone else whose having a hard time. If you’ve been in quarantine or had a COVID scare, or any major health crisis, you’re maybe more likely to have patience with the safety protocols at the grocery store, knowing how scary it can be when your health is at risk. Shame makes us feel vulnerable and vulnerability is a kind of great equalizer, a reminder that we are, every one us, fragile human beings. 

On this Holy Cross Day we hold up the Cross, this instrument of shame on which Jesus died, we hold this up as the pathway to healing and life. Jesus’ crucifixion and death followed by his rising from the dead—this is a sign that instruments of shame do not get the last word. The fear, exhaustion, and vulnerability we carry in ourselves, the instruments of shame used on us by others, none of these things are beyond God’s reach. 

In the Christian faith we say that all that is used as an instrument of shame in the human journey, God has stripped these things of their power by making the Cross, the ultimate symbol of shame, the very pathway by which Jesus came to resurrection and new life. So when you see something in your life being used as an instrument of shame, take it up and strip it of its power, because in God’s universe shame doesn’t get the last word, the promise of transformation and new life does. 

Transforming instruments of shame into signs of hope and glory, this work can be exhausting. There’s an image that comes to mind for me, and I’ll leave you with this today, the image is portaging, carrying a canoe or a kayak through a forest to a lake or a river. Tell me if you’ve done this (and if you’ve done this with children, you are my hero): you set out for a nice day at the beach. You’ve got your cooler, your picnic chairs, your beach towels, your floatees, and it’s your job—maybe as a parent or grandma and grandpa—it’s your job to carry the canoe and all of the extras from the parking lot to the beach. Even if it’s only 100 metres, it’s an excruciating 100 metres, from the hot pavement to the nice pebble-stone path, through the bush, maneuvering around all the other people until, ah, finally, here we are. And as soon as you get to the water, you first go back for the noodle and the hat that got dropped, but then you’re back and you push the canoe out onto the water and the water acts as a buoyant for the weight you’ve been carrying and the canoe is no longer such a burden because the water is going to take it from here. 

Taking up our cross to transform instruments of shame in the world, this is like carrying a heavy load to a body of water. In the sacrament of baptism, water is a symbol of transformation, water the sign that we do not do this work on our own strength. God is the water which lessens the load. God is the water ready to meet us when the load has become too heavy and the journey too long. We are called to transform what we have carried as instruments of shame in this life, and to say that shame has no power here, only hope and God’s glory. Christians worship a God who is so not ashamed of human beings she is willing to become human herself, making God’s self known to us through the person of Jesus Christ. This is the faith that with God’s help we are called to take up. This is the faith of our baptism.