A Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday. September 12, 2021
Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Si alguien no le sigue, por no llevar su cruz. Yo sigo, yo sigo, yo sigo a mi Jesús.
Yo sigo, yo sigo, yo sigo a mi Jesús.
If anyone will not follow him, by taking up their cross, I will follow, I will follow, I will follow my Jesus. I’ll follow, I’ll follow, I’ll follow my Jesus.
The reality of the Twenty-First century, for members of the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement, is that the middle of the month has two transformative commemorations. September 11th and September 14th. Only three days apart, these memorials could appear to recall and commemorate two great defeats, two great tragedies, two moments of despair and anguish. But yet, there is another aspect to both—a connection which unites them—and which suggests that there is a very different meaning found hidden within them. The recollection of the massacre of the innocents in the City of New York, the Pentagon, and on a lonely hill in Pennsylvania—and the Feast of the “Finding or the Triumph of the Holy Cross.”
The mystery which lies at the center of September 11th and September 14th is that of suffering: human, divine, personal, collective, and even the suffering of creation. This is the question with which every faith; every culture, every race and place have grappled. Why does suffering occur? Does it have some meaning? Or is it proof that there is ultimately no meaning at all? Is suffering something which happens to only a few or is it an essential part of what it means to be human?
Jesus confronts this very issue in the passage which we hear today from the Holy Gospel according to Saint Mark. In Mark, this is the first (of three) predictions of his passion, suffering, and death. Clearly, he takes his disciples by surprise: “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.”
This is not what they want to hear. Peter, even goes so far as to tell Jesus that he is wrong, he is mistaken. After all, he has just proclaimed his faith that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one, the one who has come to bring about good things-not to suffer. He can not imagine any possible reason for suffering. He denies it because that does not fit into his narrow conception of who Jesus is, who God is, who humans are.
It is helpful to remember here that Jesus is not actually telling Peter that he is the devil, or that he is channeling Lucifer. The word Satan literally means adversary or opponent. Peter is opposing God’s plan and is becoming a stumbling block to Jesus and to Beloved Community. So, it is Peter who will have to change, to grow and to learn—and he will.
Jesus has a clear-eyed perspective of what this will mean in his own life and for his own ministry—in his own vocation to seek and find God “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.”
Jesus understands, and explains to his closest friends, to his chosen family, that he will encounter great suffering and that, when this happens, it will appear as if though it is a great tragedy. His disciples will be traumatized, will scatter, will lose hope, and will hide out in fear. They will believe that all their hopes and longings were in vain. They will taste bitterness, and fear. They will quite simply give up. They will surrender to despair.
And yet, it will be in that very moment that something new will happen. Something unexpected, something that is so surprising and unimaginable that it will literally be gospel, good news.” Because the narrative will not end as Jesus broken body is taken down from the cross and his lifeless corpse is held in the arms of his sorrowful mother. It will end at the empty tomb and the glory of the Resurrection.
Then, it will be part of the daily experience of anyone who chooses to follow Jesus, anyone who chooses to take up, to carry, to wear as a yoke about their neck, the Holy Cross. They will become not people of great suffering, but children of the Resurrection!
When confronted with evil, with sin, with suffering, we really do not know what to say. We want to be helpful. We want to console, to encourage, and to be a source of strength and hope. Yet, we really are clueless. In our ineptitude, we say, as the old show phrased it so well, “the darndest things.” I must tell you that the greatest damage I have witnessed among families and friends, has come at Funerals. Well-meaning people say the most unimaginable and thoughtless things. Rather than helping, they just make those who are suffering feel worse. Rather than encouraging them, they find that their hurt, sorrow, and pain are renewed. It would have been far better to have said nothing, and just to have been present! Sometimes those wounds are so deep that they never really heal. Relationships are damaged forever.
Sadly, the Christian message too has been twisted to such a degree that it appears to be just the opposite of what was intended. Rather than being life-giving, liberating, emancipating and hopeful, it becomes oppressive, burdensome, and manipulative. When suffering is viewed as punishment, chastisement, or curse, there is no sense of mercy, compassion, forgiveness, or healing. There is no hope.
The crucifixion, I was taught in seminary, is not about how much Jesus suffered. It is about how much he loved. And it was that all-encompassing, bottomless abyss of love that made the difference. It was that love which transformed the suffering which Jesus accepted and made it into sacrifice—literally sacra facere-to make sacred, to make holy. It was on that altar of the cross that Jesus united to himself every hurt, every wound, every bruise, every tear which would ever exist and poured out his life in love. This means that, in that moment, in that final and conclusive act of loving sacrifice, the ultimate value and purpose of suffering is revealed. It is that God completely and fully knows suffering. It is that God’s love will not be overcome by suffering, It is that when all seems lost, and hopeless, and impossible, God will speak a final word. That word is life, that word is love, that word is Resurrection!
As disciples of Jesus, then, we have a new understanding. Rather than carrying the cross of Jesus, it is now Jesus who carries our cross. Rather than choosing to join our suffering to the suffering of Jesus, it is that Jesus is now present to us, that Jesus chooses to unite himself to our suffering. It is that every act of hurt, every act of violence, every act of hatred, discrimination, oppression, selfishness, and of cruelty is confronted by God—and will ultimately be transformed by love.
As the abused, tortured, broken, lifeless corpse of Jesus hung in defeat on the cross, the Roman soldier pierced his sacred heart with a lance. Water and Blood flowed forth. Water of healing, of a new creation, of Baptism. Blood of the new and eternal covenant. Solace for those who thirst for redemption, for salvation, for healing, for comfort, for consolation, and for hope.
Remember that in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism we were anointed with oil, were marked with the sign of the cross, and were marked and claimed as Christ’s own forever! We were incorporated into the passion, death, and Resurrection of Christ.
To take up and to carry our cross means that we do all in our power to live as people of love, to work with all our might to make holy and sacred the suffering which we experience and encounter—to bring it to an end, whenever it lies in our power to do so–and to transform it into good news. Jesus reminds us that whenever we are mindful of those who suffer, and care for them in their pain and sorrow, we minister to him in his own pain and hurt.
May we then find in our experience of suffering and death the promise of Resurrection, and so live as people of hope.