Jesus 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?
I speak to you in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen. Good morning, Church of the Redeemer. It’s wonderful to worship with you in this stunningly beautiful sanctuary, to stand alongside my good friend and colleague, your rector, Cricket Park. If you are a guest today, I welcome you on behalf of this congregation. I serve as the bishop of this diocese, which takes me every Sunday to a different Episcopal church across four Maryland counties and the District of Columbia. I bring you greetings from those who worship in those 88 congregations.
If you’re the note-taking type, I invite you to take out your bulletins, or a piece of paper, and pen, or a smartphone app, because in a few minutes, I’m going to invite you to write something down to reflect upon during the coming week.
The central theme, and title of this sermon is The Ultimate Paradox of Faith:The Way of the Cross as a Way of Life.
First a story to remind us all of the meaning of paradox:
When our sons were in high school, we spent one family vacation mountain-biking in Costa Rica, which was every bit as adventurous as it sounds. It was also a lot harder than I had anticipated. Nothing in my years of tooling around on paved roads had prepared me the terrain there. Riding uphill was exhausting; riding downhill was terrifying. Staring down vertical trails covered with enormous rocks and marked with huge holes, I would ride my breaks all the way down.
Our tour guide gently tried to teach me basic mountain-biking skills. “I know it doesn’t seem logical,” he’d say, “but the safest way to ride down a steep, rocky trail is to accelerate. You need speed to carry you over the rocks safely.” Intellectually, I knew that what he was saying made sense, but I could never get my body to believe that I wouldn’t be killed if I pedaled my way downhill.
Such is the nature of a paradox. It’s something that goes against our common sense–a statement that seems contradictory, unbelievable, or absurd, but is, in fact, true.
We live with paradox daily. Our perceptions tell us that the earth is still and mostly flat, but the truth is that we live on a sphere spinning through space. In relationships, our instincts may be to rush in to help those we love in whatever way we can; but the truth is that there are times when doing so is not the most loving thing, that love at times dictates holding back, creating space, allowing those we love to find their own way. (I am the parent of young adult men. I know whereof I speak.)
Conversely, our instincts sometimes tell us to pull back when a situation becomes too painful, when in fact what is needed is deeper engagement even when it hurts. Thinking of the marvelous feats of athleticism we have been privileged to watch in the Olympics these past two weeks, I once heard an athletic trainer tell a group of aspiring young athletes that if they wanted to excel in their sport (and fill in here any other endeavor you would want to excel in), they would have to find “a new definition of fun,” one that included long, demanding hours of training and the sacrifices such training demands. That is truth in paradox—when what doesn’t seem true on the surface, in fact, leads us to a deeper truth or way of being to which we aspire.
Applying these insights into the realm of faith, we begin by simply acknowledging that the paradoxes of faith are many. They are, as the Prayer Book describes them, mysteries of faith, those things that on the surface seem impossible or contradictory, or at the very least counter-intuitive, and yet we come to believe, and even to know, that they are true. Surely Jesus gives us the ultimate paradox in his stark assertion that those of us who want to save our lives must lose them, and those who lose our lives for his sake and the sake of the gospel will save them.
Reading again the gospel text for this morning, Jesus sounds like the Buddha in his conversations with the disciples this morning, beginning with the matter-of-fact assertion that he must undergo great suffering. After rebuking his friend for trying to reassure him that suffering could never be his fate, he goes on to say that anyone who wants to be his follower must suffer as well, deny themselves and take up their own cross. It doesn’t make sense: how do we lose our lives in order to save them? How does suffering lead to good? And who would want to follow someone who’s good news is linked to a cross?
What’s striking about Jesus’ words is the presupposition of suffering, an acceptance that suffering is not only a part of life, but an essential part of the spiritual path. He assumes that everyone has a cross to bear, and so the only question is whether we will rail against it or choose to carry it with some modicum of grace, accepting it as our own and finding the life it brings.
Now, certainly there is some suffering that is avoidable, and thus should be avoided. There is nothing to be gained by needless suffering, senseless suffering, or what some psychiatrists call false suffering, that is, the pain we experience as a by-product of avoiding something else. Carl Jung once wrote that neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering. In other words, sometimes we’d rather choose one form of suffering that isn’t necessary in order to avoid of the cross that is ours to bear.
How, then, can we distinguish needless suffering from the suffering of our own particular crosses? How indeed.
One distinction might be in the fruits of suffering, whether or not the suffering takes us anywhere or keeps us spinning in place like a hamster on a treadmill. Is it suffering that makes us more of who we are or confirms our fears and keeps us small? The kind of suffering Jesus endured and that he encourages us to embrace always has redemption of some kind on the other side. In contrast, the pain of false suffering, while real, is pain that goes nowhere. “Choose your pain,” a wise person said to me at an important crossroad in my life. “Whichever path you choose will involve pain. The question is, which pain carries the promise of life?”
There’s a fair amount of language in the Scriptures that refers to a process of dying to self in order to live for Christ, or sacrificing self, as Jesus says today, in order to gain eternal life. But remember what someone told me in my early twenties, “If you don’t have a self to give, then there isn’t much sacrifice involved.” It’s important to remember, when we are tempted, particularly in youth or stages of immaturity, that if we rush too quickly to the part of faith that involves sacrifice without knowing who we are or what we have to offer, then we’re simply avoiding the hard work of becoming a self in the first place.
So with all those caveats firmly in place, let’s move now to the hardest way to determine whether a cross is ours to bear. It’s the one that comes to us and we must accept, no matter the sacrifice required, because we have no choice. These are the crosses thrust upon us and the only question is that of our response. The Benedictine nun Joan Chittister writes that “the will of God for us is what remains of a situation after we try without stint and pray without ceasing to change it.”
These crosses require us to let go of something–something that we love, or hoped for, or worked toward–and to let it go for the sake of a greater love, or, because life demands it, even though we wished for something else. And it hurts. It hurts as much as cutting off a limb would hurt, or tearing out our heart. But the paradox, the mystery of faith is this: in the bearing of our cross, when it’s ours and we know that it’s ours, and in the denying and even sacrificing a part of ourselves, God gives us more of ourselves in return, selves grounded in the love of Christ, for us and through us. I don’t know how this works. I only know that it does.
The key is to accept the cross for what it is—the hardest possible thing asked of us—and to embrace it as our destiny, even if we didn’t choose it and would run far from it if we could. In that acceptance, we join our will and our heart to God and freely choose what otherwise has been thrust upon us. We move, then, from being victims of fate or circumstance to active agents of our own transformation, and through us, the transformation of the world. We make room for Christ within, room that he occupies with characteristic humility and love, helping us to become even more of the self we were created to be, even as we’re being stripped away of parts of ourselves that we hate to lose.
Obviously Lent is a particularly fruitful time to consider your life through the lens, and the paradox, of the cross, and to consider the particular cross that is yours to accept, take up as yours as your destiny, your vocation, through which God’s grace may flow.
We’ve come to the note taking part now: I ask you to write down, or hold in your heart, and name for yourself, if you can, the particular cross that is yours to bear.
Think, too, of the people in our society or in the wider world whom you admire for doing the same thing, those who have embraced the suffering thrust upon them for the sake of a greater good. By taking up their cross they are a part of Christ’s on-going redemption of the world.
I have been traveling alongside survivors of gun violence throughout my episcopate. The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting occurred within a month of my consecration, and like many others at the time, I thought that it would be a catalyst for a new approach to gun policy in our country. We were wrong. Over the years I have heard the anguish of those who have lost loved ones to gun violence. Many resolve in their grief to do whatever they can to ensure that others do not have to experience what they have gone through. There is a large and growing body of survivors determined to change our nation’s gun policies.
When the students of Parkland, Florida spoke last week of their resolve not to be the latest in a growing list of schools where a mass shooting took place, but instead the last such school, they tapped into a deep well of frustration, grief and solidarity across the nation. The students are not pretending to be anything other than who they are–students. They also recognize their privilege and their power to make their voices heard. In their struggle to accept the tragedy thrust upon them and to sacrifice a part of their lives, they are poised to help to stem the epidemic of gun violence.
There are countless examples across the spectrum of life experience that we point to–people who are helping change some portion of the world for the better through their acceptance of a cross they were obligated to carry.
As I draw to a close, I’d like to read to you a portion of an article that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in the early years of his public ministry. “Suffering and Faith,” was published in the religious journal The Christian Century in 1960. This was after the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and three years before the March on Washington. The editors wrote King back because in his first draft of the article, he never mentioned his own suffering, and they wondered if he might. He hesitated to write of his own suffering, he responded, but given that they had asked, he added a few paragraphs. They didn’t arrive in time to be included in the main article, but were printed later.
Due to my involvement in the struggle for the freedom of my people, I have known very few quiet days in the last few years. I have been arrested five times and put in Alabama jails. My home has been bombed twice. A day seldom passes that my family and I are not the recipients of threats of death. I have been the victim of a near fatal stabbing. So in a real sense I have been battered by the storms of persecution. I must admit that at times I have felt that I could no longer bear such a heavy burden, and have been tempted to retreat to a more quiet and serene life. But every time such a temptation appeared, something came to strengthen and sustain my determination. I have learned now that the Master’s burden is light precisely when we take his yoke upon us.
As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. Recognizing the necessity for suffering I have tried to make of it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains. I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.
There are some who still find the cross a stumbling block, and others consider it foolishness, but I am more convinced than ever before that it is the power of God unto social and individual salvation. The suffering and agonizing moments through which I have passed over the last few years have also drawn me closer to God. More than ever before I am convinced of the reality of a personal God.
In the Book of Common Prayer, there is a prayer at the end of the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage that reads: Most gracious God, we give you thanks for your tender love in sending Jesus Christ to come among us, to be born of a human mother, and to make the way of the cross to be the way of life.” To make the cross to be the way of life. It is the ultimate paradox. It doesn’t make sense, it is true.
With whatever cross you are struggling to accept, remember that Jesus is here for you to help you shoulder it. Trust that God’s grace will not only sustain you, but honor your suffering and help transform the loss you experience into a way of life. Rest assured that others will know something of grace and love because of the cross you accept and carry. Amen.