2nd Sunday of Lent, 2009
“Deny yourself. Take up your cross and follow me.”
I’ve got a question for you – how long did Jesus carry the cross? All his life?
I’ve been to the place where most likely Jesus was condemned, and most likely to the place Jesus was crucified. It’s maybe a mile – at the very most – two.
Another question - How long did Jesus hang on the cross?
About 3 hours – according to the Gospels.
One more question – how long have you carried your cross? How long have you hung on your cross?
It’s a trick question of course – and not really very fair –
For many of us – we describe chronic pain of one kind or another as the cross that we carry. It could be recurring physical illness. It could be a troubled relationship with a partner or maybe our son or daughter. It could be lack of success - not having enough money to give to God, to save, to pay bills, and then be able to go to a movie every once in awhile. It could be a persistent interior voice that is convinced we are less than….beautiful, or loveable, or wise. It could be judgment that we carry – maybe you haven’t kept those 10 commandments that we read earlier, and believe that you are not good human beings. Maybe none of these describe you and you wonder how anyone could even think these things and you’re glad that you’ve escaped troubles.
But maybe you have picked up the heavy cross beams and nailed yourself – and others – and the inevitable troubles of life to the cross bars - and hung there for how long? Maybe years. Maybe a life time.
Certainly, many of us have been trained to do this, to submit to difficulties, to soldier on – especially we women have been trained to do this – even now – after all these years of feminism.
But what I’ve learned over many years as a Christian woman – a follower of Jesus - is that when we define life’s difficulties as crosses to bear we significantly narrow down our ability to respond to tragedy in creative and life giving ways. My guess is that if you pay attention to what happens in your body – when you think of “bearing your cross” - your stomach gets tight, your heart rate increases, your breath shortens - and anxiety or depression are not far behind. What happens when you try to be good and shoulder your burdens is that a whole range of creative possibilities for healing and for reconciliation and for change are lost because they cannot even be imagined. There’s no physical room for imagination to blossom.
This is Not what Jesus had in mind. He hated the cross. He abhorred this instrument of torture and death for the thousands who were crucified along Roman roadways. For Jesus, the cross was not a good to be grasped as proof of saintliness or Godliness or goodness. The cross was splintery hard wood with rusty iron spikes – and it was designed to asphyxiate – to choke out breath. It was designed as a public teaching tool to keep people knuckled under and fearfully assenting to their own poverty and powerlessness. We might glorify the cross – but Jesus did not. He would have done anything to avoid it – think about him in the Garden – pleading to the point of sweating blood. He would have done anything to avoid the cross - except deny who he was and who God is and who creation is meant to be. Who you and I are meant to be. Not bent over nailed down struggling to make a buck beating our chest about our unworthiness men and women – but straight up beloved glorious energetic beings – stewards of creation – and fully, wholly dependent upon the Lord the giver of Life. We are meant to be friends of God. Jesus would have done anything to avoid the cross except not tell the truth. And not live wholly and fully and directly in the truth.
What truth? The truth that underlies the entire creation – Love that is not wrapped up in itself but pours outward through creation continuously. Love that is always available - that breathes in and through us and sustains us whether we are aware of it or not. Jesus was not about trying to act good. He wasn’t about mentally understanding certain principles. He was about Recognizing this Sustaining Love.
He was about healing and life. Everywhere he went people crowded around him hungry to touch him, to bring into their own bodies and spirits the magnificent power of healing and life and clear vision that flowed through him. They hung on his words. They didn’t understand them, for the most part – but they knew that he taught them so truly that they could trust him in a way that they had never ever trusted before.
So the cross that Jesus had in mind was not the cross of chronic suffering. He came to heal those things that ravage and destroy our lives. Professionals, prayer, community discernment – all of these are ways that the Spirit can pour healing into your life. And the truth is – sometimes suffering is not lifted – sometimes it continues – and the community of Christ is called upon to help spread the weight of it around. That’s why we have lay Eucharistic visitors and pastoral care teams and prayer chains.
The cross that Jesus talked about what was the very particular suffering that arises when you re-align your allegiance to a new way of life in which God is at the center – and not country, not family, not church, not liturgical styles, not organists or priests, not ego. This new life is not about abandoning your country, your family, your church, your ego – it’s about those things taking their proper place.
Follow me. Jesus said. It will cost you everything. It will liberate you completely.
What does that look like?
It looks like Ma Khin Khin Lee – whose picture is on the front of the bulletin and whose name might sound familiar to you, because we have written many letters through Amnesty International on her behalf. She was arrested, along with her three year old daughter, in 1999, for helping to plan a pro-democracy march in her native Myanmar. A young teacher, with a bright future – Ma Khin Khin Lee and her husband shouldered the cross – paying a heavy price as they worked for basic freedoms for their fellow countrymen. The wonderful news is that she, along with 23 other prisoners of conscience, were just freed this past February 24th – after 10 years in prison.
It looks like Jenni Williams and the other women of Zimbabwe, who put their lives on the line for social justice and fair and free elections. She leads a women’s movement for justice that has been nurtured in church sanctuaries – Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, and Apostolic. These women confess to raw fear – Jenni has been jailed over 33 times and severely beaten – but she says that she calms her fear and the jack hammering of her heart by breathing deeply and remembering that she is following Jesus on behalf of her children and all the children of her county. And so, Jenni and the Christian women of Zimbabwe take up their crosses and follow Jesus, with their own bodies on the line.
It looks like Jonathon Daniels, one of the martyrs of the Episcopal church. A priest in training, Jonathan Daniels answered the call of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and went to Alabama, along with other clergy and laity, to help with the fledgling civil rights movement. After being released from jail, he was with a group of other Christians who’d also been jailed. The day was hot and they bought a soft drink from a small town grocery store. An unpaid deputy met them on the porch and aimed his gun at a black teen age girl named Ruby Sales. Jonathan pushed her to the ground and took the full blast of the gun. His death shocked the Episcopal Church into putting civil rights onto the top of it’s agenda. Jonathan and the thousands upon thousands of unnamed people took up their cross and followed Jesus must be dancing in heaven to see this day when the President of the United States is African American.
Deny yourself. Pick up your cross and follow me. Most of the time this is not dramatic – as in the stories I’ve just told you. Most of the time it’s much more quiet. It’s prayer – “wasting time – not “doing” anything of substance – but spending time with God. It’s letter writing – as we’ve done with Amnesty International and Bread for the World, and as many of you do day in and day out, whether you see the results of your efforts or not. It’s going the extra mile for your student – or for some stranger who needs help. It’s releasing your grip on having things your own way – and asking above all else – for the desire to walk with Jesus, whether it’s to the mountain top or to the cross.