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Sermon for March 8, 2015 / Lent 3

Small Gains
Then Jesus began to tell them that the Son of Man must suffer many terrible things and be rejected by the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but three days later he would rise from the dead. As he talked about this openly with his disciples, Peter took him aside and began to reprimand him for saying such things. Jesus turned around and looked at his disciples, then reprimanded Peter. “Get away from me, Satan!” he said. “You all are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s.” Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my message in these adulterous and sinful days, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. Mark 8:31-38
Is love worth the pain? The quick answer is, “Yes! Of course!” But that answer only comes easily when you are not experiencing the convulsions of loss. Is love worth the pain when you feel like a wounded animal … when each time you get up to do something, you find yourself needing to retreat back to bed, wanting only to roll up into a ball, covers around you, eyes shut, hoping to forget for a while the reality of your pain. The dance of love pulls us close … so tantalizing, so alluring, and yet so painful. It’s a miracle any of us ever go back in for the next round once we have loved and lost. Our hearts will get broken by loss, failure, defeat, betrayal, or death. What happens next depends on HOW our hearts break. In the painful aftermath of lost love, with a heart still raw, regretful and tender, can we choose not to let pain be the cause for a shut down? Will suffering become an excuse to never trust or love again? When all feels lost; can we be startled from our sorrow, can we raise remembering eyes and become blinded by tears of joy instead of sobs of sorrow?

Is love worth the pain? If only we could ask someone like Mother Theresa. Mother Teresa decided it didn’t make a lot of sense to worship God in church while God’s image was dying alone in the streets in bodies of Calcutta’s poor. She believed that it was silly to weep when thinking about Jesus being crucified two thousand years ago, yet not weep while watching Jesus crucified today, on the streets of Calcutta or Haiti or D.C. or in the high school hallway. Mother Teresa saw God in every human being, and when she held a dying leper and dressed his wounds, she did not imagine that she was helping Jesus die with dignity, she really was helping Jesus die with dignity.

Is love worth the pain? The ancient rabbis told a story of when we die and we’re all on our way to heaven, we will look at one another and say one word. When we die and we know fully as we are fully known and are returning to God together, we will look at one another and say, “Oh.” We will say that because we will finally see each other as we really are, scars and all, and know one each other’s full story and fall madly in love.

I’m thinking about love and suffering because of all this talk from Jesus about denying self, turning from our selfish ways, taking up our crosses and following him. We’ve been told from some teachers that Jesus is the example of suffering love. The Savior must suffer and sacrifice his life for others. Jesus stands in for us, suffers God’s wrath on our behalf and opens the way for us to be saved. Christ’s death becomes the final atonement for all sin, past present and future.

I’ve had a problem with this theory for a long time. The fundamental problem, for me, is that it puts God the Parent, co-equal and co-eternal person of the Trinity #1, as the one who cause the suffering and death of an innocent person, namely co-equal and co-eternal person of the Trinity #2. I choose to believe that God is not like that.

What if Jesus did not suffer and die to save us, but to show us how to experience salvation? What if Jesus did not suffer and died FOR sin, but BECAUSE of sin. What if he took up the cross to expose the human potential for corruption and the human tendency to cover our mistakes? What if he died to show us that we can choose to let pain open him so that we can know what it looks like to shine in a world where evil abounds? What if he came to show us how to save ourselves? After all, does Jesus say, “If you give up your life for my sake, I will save it”? No. Listen again: “If you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it.”

In Mark’s Gospel, the call to "take up the cross" is a summons to oppose the powers of evil that oppress people. The kind of powers that would nail a person to a cross.

Mark wants readers to focus on that cross.  Mark wants to show us a stark demonstration of the violence and cruelty of the religious and political powers.  In the face of oppression and marginalization, Jesus suffers because of sin and shows us the face of compassionate love in the twirling tempests of death the world deals. If we follow Jesus, it means we share in the same mission. We speak out against every mean spirit. We feed the hungry and heal the sick. We speak the truth. We touch the untouchable. We forgive the unforgivable and love the unlovable. We march over the Pettus Bridge to face the violence of the Empire if it means holding a mirror up to the cruelty of oppression. We salve the sores of the suffering if it means helping the Savior himself die with dignity. We risk love, even if it rips our heart again. We see each other’s scars and finally realize we are connected by glory, we are connected by pain, and we can fall madly in love with each other again. In other words, we will do God's work in the world, just like Jesus.

When we do that, we have every reason to expect that what happened to him might happen to us. When we love honestly, we also suffer. The two go together.  If God intervened and transformed the misery and evil of the world, if God offered love without suffering, we would have to pay the one price which we cannot pay. We would lose our freedom . . . we would give up the dignity of our humanity. We might be happier, but we would be lower beings. In the Gospels, God sends Jesus to give back dignity to all who have it taken away. As Paul Tillich, the famous theologian from the last century reminded us, “Those who dream of a better life and try to avoid the Cross … and those who hope for a Christ and attempt to exclude the Crucified, have no knowledge of the mystery of God and of [humanity].”

Here’s the question. Is it worth it? Is love worth the pain? When we are broken by loss, failure, defeat, betrayal, and death . . . when we want to retreat to bed, roll up into a ball and shut out the pain of life, take up the cross of suffering and love and follow Jesus?

All I can say is this: Timing is everything. Carrying the cross is not about reaching a destination. It’s more about moving in a direction in which there is no more need to struggle. Carrying the cross is about making small gains towards liberation, step-by-step, in the road of restoration.

Think if a tree grown from a seed, like a maple saplings that roots itself in the untended, leaf-mulched areas in your yard or in the woods. Left alone, a maple grows from that seed, moving around obstacles but persevering. I don’t think a tree thinks much about becoming a giant silver maple while it is still a sapling. All the sapling needs to do is keep growing – surviving day-by-day, season-by season. I think we might learn from the wisdom of the sapling. We grow by how we react to the daily challenges and obstacles we face. We follow Jesus with cautious starts, small gains, one step at a time. Later, we’ll look up and discover where he’s led us.

On the journey of small gains, our hearts will break a thousand times; that alone is enough of a cross to bear. We can watch our hearts break apart, or we can watch them break open. A heart, broken open, allows us to feel the broken heart of others and their sufferings. The small gains of following Christ can be seen in the generosity, in the caring, and in the tenderness we all share, in parting as well as in staying.

Is it worth it? The suffering? The crosses we must bear? Can we stand to gaze into the heart of our loss, the preciousness of what we are losing, and not look away? The greatest gift of love is the gesture of open arms – come what may because we care so much that we are helpless to do anything else. So, we accept the cost, the unavoidable blow to the heart. Better in this life, after all, for the heart to be broken – to take on the rich, the tender vulnerability of being human. We trust that love is a perpetual wound that is always worth taking. It reminds us that love is stronger than fear. Life is stronger than death. Hope is stronger than despair.



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