THE SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT Genesis 17:1–7, 15–16
ST. PETER’S – NEFFSVILLE Romans 4:13–25
MARCH 1, 2015 Mark 8:31–38
Preaching Text – (Mark 8:31-38) — Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ (NRSV)
So … this past week I was looking at a lot of doors. Pictures of doors, to be precise. I was pulling a selection of images from the internet to use in the slide show that we play each Wednesday morning and evening as the prelude for our mid-week Lenten services. As you should know by now, our Lenten theme is “Doorways of Hope” … so … I was looking at doors. And I came across a couple of sites that were filled with ideas about how one can put beat up old doors to good use. I saw planters and tables and garden accent pieces and chairs and mirrors … and I found all those images without even going on Pintrest. So it got me thinking about the connection between our Lenten theme – “Doorways of Hope” and today’s talk about bearing your cross. I thought about things that doors and crosses have in common. They both are geometric shapes … they are both typically made of wood … each of them has been around for a long, long time … and you can nail things to them … yeah, there is that, too.
Lent is the season in the church year when we think a lot about nails … and wood … and an event that we have been remembering for a long, long time. Then crucifixion is what defines Lent. Crosses litter the landscape during Lent … we can’t get enough of them. We wear them … we put them on our bulletins … they adorn paraments … they dominate the images and pictures that we use … yes, the shadow of the cross falls upon everything we do in Lent. So it seems appropriate that after following Jesus into the wilderness last week … we now pick up the cross with Jesus and follow him through life … until death … and into New Life again.
There’s just one problem … in spite of our best intentions, we often misunderstand this image of cross-bearing. We know the phrase, that’s not the problem. I have heard people use the phrase “it is my cross to bear” hundreds and hundreds of times over the years. Don’t lie to your pastor … who here has used that phrase at least once in your life … raise your hand … I have. The problem with that, is that much of the time, what we are talking about are human burdens that we are often called to endure in our lives. So I talk with a husband who has a nagging wife (hypothetically, of course – no one’s wife ever nags, right) … anyway, I talk with this long suffering hypothetical husband and he says to me, “It’s my cross to bear, pastor.” Or I have coffee with a woman who has a hostile work environment, but who cannot seem to find a better paying job, and when I offer sympathy, she says to me, “I guess it is my cross to bear.” Or I chat with a member after church in the narthex and hear about a long and involved struggle with a health problem, and that person tells me, “It is just my cross to bear, pastor.”
Understand me when I acknowledge that these can be significant burdens to bear … struggles in our relationships … difficulties at work … problems of health and wellness. They are concerns for which the Christian community should offer support. And they are concerns for which your Savior offers you strength and discernment in finding ways to cope with them, and at times resolve them. They can be identified as crosses to bear with a small “c”. Challenges that grow from living lives in a broken and sinful world. But if we understand what Jesus is saying to us in today’s lesson, the crosses that we bear in these circumstances are only part of the equation.
Jesus also speaks about bearing one’s Cross with a capital “C.” This Cross is characterized by the suffering and adversity that arises from being a disciple of Jesus. This Cross reminds us of the adversity that may arise from giving your life over to Jesus. This Cross invites the rejection that you might experience because the values you cherish in life are different from the values that the world cherishes. It is in the meeting of these two dimensions of the Cross of Christ, that we experience the life into which Jesus of Nazareth calls us. A life that is defined by loyalty to our Lord and Savior … and a life that lives out that loyalty by reaching out to a world that is suffering. It is the place where the pain of the world meets the hope of the world, that the Cross of Christ is found.
Vicar Matt and I have been reading a book together that has been assigned as part of an online class he must complete for his seminary degree. The book is by Norma Cook Everist and Craig L. Nessan, and it is entitled, Transforming Leadership: New Vision for a Church in Mission. In a chapter entitled “Twelve Ecclesial Foundations”, the authors identify characteristics that are consistently found in transformed and transforming churches … churches that the authors describe as embodying a commitment to growth in mission and ministry. The 10th of those 12 foundations is entitled “Strength: The Church is a Suffering Church.” Hear the author’s description:
When we deny the existence of suffering or seek to alleviate it from only our own lives, the goals of truly loving the neighbor and bringing about justice are subordinated to the goal of getting through life “well,” unscathed, and untouched by the suffering of the world. This is to seek a Christian utopia. Freedom from suffering is not the value Jesus Christ strove for. Neither was it passive endurance, but rather productive suffering for the sake of justice, ministry, and mission. God is not a sadist. Nor is God a contriver of suffering, an originator of it, nor merely a spectator to it. God is not cynical. God is the liberator, the ally of the poor. Jesus is the oppressed victim, the man of sorrows. At the beginning of his work he renounced both power and freedom from suffering when he was tempted by Satan. He did not want to be stronger than we are collectively. He did not want to be strong except through the solidarity of the weak.” Believing in Jesus Christ, the transforming church will not have as its goal “life without suffering.” It will not forget the needy once television producers have determined their viewers have compassion fatigue. Trusting in a suffering God, a transforming church can overcome narcissism and replace apathy with empathy.
At its core, the Cross of Jesus is about relationships. The relationship you have with Jesus … and the relationship you have with a world that is suffering. It’s a complicated relationship, as most are. It involved a healthy rhythm between giving up and receiving, between faithfulness and forgiveness. It involves sacrifice and doing without … it involves putting others needs in front of ours on occasion … it reminds you that at times you will be hurt, and at times disappointed. It is a relationship. Thus it also requires the courage to trust and the willingness to forgive.
A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with a couple who was having some struggles in their marriage, and who were looking for a marriage devotional that they might read and pray through together. What I suggested to them was a book that I have always cherished, by Walter Wangerin, entitled, As for Me and My House: Crafting Your Marriage to Last. As is often the case with Wangerin, it is crafted more like a love story narrative than a systematic point by point examination of what makes a marriage work. After a detailed and candid examination of his own marriage, Wangerin addresses six core tasks, that are intended to keep couples deeply connected to each other. Wangerin doesn’t use the image of the cross a lot in the book, but he does use it in a few key places to make the point that in any relationship, there is always pain and loss that accompanies the blessing of connectedness. Hear these words, which have always helpful reminder to me about the role of the Cross of Christ in our most intimate relationships. Wangerin writes:
Please know that it isn’t your spouse’s sin which crucifies you, though you might have thought so; rather, it’s your loving willingness to forgive. That was the cross of Christ, the cross you take up when you deny yourself and follow him. Therefore, forgiving will not immediately soothe your pain; instead, it introduces a different pain, a much more hopeful pain because it is redeeming. You do ‘deny yourself’ and die a little in order to forgive. Pride dies. Fairness dies. Rights die, as do self-pity and the sweetness of a pout or the satisfaction of a little righteous wrath…. You die a little, that the marriage might rise alive.
It is a metaphor that applies to the entire life of a cross-bearing disciple. We die a little … we deny ourselves … we accept the reality of some suffering … and recognize that these realities are a natural part of a relationship with our God that is both deep and rich, and yes sacrificial. It takes courage … and I pray that courage upon you and us all. Amen.