Note: After a couple of posts filled with complaint, I thought it might be nice to look at the God-ness of life. Here is a Lenten sermon filled with hope. It was delivered last Spring at MIT. The scripture reading was Mark 8:31-38.
We started this season with ashes on our foreheads. You come from dust, you’re going to dust. Get over it. It seems pretty harsh.
In the gospel, Jesus is pretty harsh. You want to follow me? Then be prepared to be called names, to be challenged and deceived, to be tortured and killed in the most brutal and ritually unclean manner. Pick up your cross. Notice that the gospel does not relate that Jesus says find a cross, find your cross. He doesn’t say pick up my cross. He says pick up your cross. You don’t need to find it. It’s already there. Welcome to the world, baby!
It would be easy to read this and think of that catch-phrase of this pessimistic age, Life sucks and then you die.
Then to make things worse, your supposed to do something once you’ve picked up your cross. You’re supposed to follow. Where are we going? Why would I choose this life, this cross carrying narrow way?
In our culture one of the stock characters is the used car salesman. If you’ve ever been on a used car lot, you know that every car was driven by a little old lady who only took it to church on Sunday. It’s like new! Imagine what would happen if the car salesman came up to you and said “This thing was totaled a month ago! Look what a great job we did making it look new! It even runs, but who know what damage was really done. It might last for years, it might die next week. Are you willing to gamble on this baby with me?”
So we could look at the gospel and say, ‘Well, at least Jesus is telling us the truth.” We could.
But then we would be forgetting the context of this passage. Jesus has finally, after three years of preaching, revealed to his followers that he is the Messiah. He is the Anointed One who has come to save Israel. He is the fulfillment of God’s promise.
Salvation didn’t take the form Israel expected. The warrior-king who would re-establish a strong and united nation free from foreign domination and centered on a life of worship at the Temple didn’t appear. The Romans were not driven out of Palestine. Samaria was not returned to the fold. Those damned Greeks with their philosophical quibbling were not driven out of the land. It is as if God were saying, read the fine print. I made a contract with you that said I would deliver you my way. And my way is not your way. Deal with it.
You’re ashes. Embrace your pain. Deal with it. My way or the highway. It seems pretty rough.
Except there is that promise. I WILL deliver you. I will save you from your fear, your despair, your pain. I will change you and your world. I will connect you to something bigger, something amazing. I will include you in my life, in the house of my Father. I will fill you with the Holy Spirit. Yes, go out there and change the world. Pick up your cross. Struggle and make justice. But rest in my promise. Abraham did. I’m not going to coddle you. I’m not going to tell you things will be easy and fun all the time. We are by our nature broken, but we have a goal. If we were perfect, where would we go? If we didn’t need to reconcile the disjunct that is the human condition, what would we do? Every day I am asked to bring that part of me that would soar, that would dive into life, that longs to love and to sing into relation with the part of me that is scared, that is greedy, and resents, that is ashes. And I find joy in THIS work because I believe in God’s promise. I live with a cross and a promise.
Look at Abraham and Sarah. Pack up and move. Trust me. I’ll give you a child. Trust me. Bind Isaac and be prepared to kill him for me. Trust me. I promise you that even though you don’t understand what I’m doing, I’ll make it all good. Look at Moses. Go back, I’ll help you free a nation of slaves. Don’t worry about the details, I know how to send plagues. Simon and Andrew… I’ll make you fishers of people. What does that mean? I’ll give you on-the-job training, you’ll figure it out. Take the leap. Pick up your cross and let’s go to where you know not doing what you can not guess.
And along the way there was joy. Isaac, the boy loved by his parents, a gift from God. Celebrations, liberations. A road through the desert and manna from heaven. A messiah. God-with-us. And we know that the promise is fulfilled. Abraham’s children include all who accept Christ and are baptized into one holy Church. I am a child of Abraham. You are a child of Abraham. We are loved. Dare I suggest that life in Christ can be joyous despite the crosses we carry? Yes! You must be this tall to ride this ride… you must be tall enough to say I AM, I WILL. And what a rollercoaster it is. Every day we are surrounded by five million miracles. The God who gives us life and who loves us beats in every heart, breathes in every wind, buds with every tree. The amazing miraculous wacky world of God is a world of wonder. We should balance our cross carrying with dancing and joy. It’s funny how we can take pride in our pain. I suffer better than you do. My people have suffered more than your people. I have virtue in my self-denial. Or more to the point, my Lenten discipline involves real suffering. Mechtild of Magdeburg tells us that, “Those who would storm the heavenly heights by fierceness and ascetic practices deceive themselves badly. Such people carry grim hearts within themselves; they lack true humility which alone leads the soul to God.”
Humility. God made a promise. I choose to trust in God. I am ashes. I have a cross. But I am a child of God. I am an amazing miracle of love. There will be a cross for me. But there will also be an empty tomb, a new life… an eternity of love. The great Jesuit poet Gerard Many Hopkins gave one of his poems a rather long title. It is called “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection.” The poem, and this sermon, conclude with these words about mankind:
Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, ‘ death blots black out; nor mark
Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time ‘ beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, ‘ joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. ‘ Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; ‘ world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, ‘ since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, ‘ patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.