FUMC News

"I Would Lay My Case before Him"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 10/14/2018
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
“I Would Lay My Case before Him”
October 14, 2015
 
 
           When there is a drought the fields and woods become liable to wildfire.  One careless match or one lightning strike, one overheated car or one stupid camper and the grass starts to smoulder and then the brush goes up and then that’s it.  Then there are only two ways to stop it.  One is to pour water on it, but lack of water is what set up the disaster to begin with.  The other way is to contain the area and let the fire burn itself out.
 
           The grief that Job feels sets off a crisis of faith just at the time that it’s faith which is asked of him.  In other words, he has only a little water to throw on the flames, and it will not be enough.  So what we see happen is how his suffering burns over until it burns out.
 
            David’s favorite son, Absalom, rebelled against his father and tried to overthrow him, leading to his death in battle.  The Bible tells how when the news reached him,
 
“The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!  Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’”  [II Samuel 18:33]
 
David’s grief was real, and stayed with him for his remaining years, but his sense of what had gone wrong was clear and Absalom’s death had a definite “why” to it. 
 
             Job’s suffering was different from that.  The precipitating events of his deepest trouble recede into the background and we don’t hear him repeat his children’s names, nor mourn the loss of his wealth.  He does express his physical pain, but even that is easy for the reader to lose sight of, because those things set off his struggle with God’s role in all of that.  Somehow things would be bearable if they had a clear cause-and-effect.  Without that, Job questioned God.
 
              One gift this gives us is permission to own up to those troubles if and when they arise.  Not everybody goes through that introspective torture that John of the Cross named “the dark night of the soul”.  I cannot imagine somebody like David had the temperament for that.  When he was mourning his son, one of his soldiers came to him and said, basically, “Whatever you do, don’t let the army see you doing this, because they just fought a war to defeat the son you’re crying over.”  He told David to his face,
 
“You have made it clear today that commanders and officers are nothing to you; for I perceive that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased.” [II Samuel 19:6b]
 
So David put a mask on his feelings and went out and thanked the troops.  That’s how some people are, and that is okay.  For those who are more like Job, however, there is no shame in feeling their own emotions deeply and genuinely. 
 
          The poet Gerard Manly Hopkins expressed this often.  One of his poems says,
 
“I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night!  what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.
 
With witness I speak this.  But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life.  And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.
 
I am gall, I am heartburn.  God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
 
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours.  I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.”
 
He speaks out the same dread that Job looked at: that God is far away.  He proposes the same wish that Job speaks, just to be able to lay out his lament, his complaint before God.
 
            Job says, in fact, that even if he wonders if it makes any difference, he still just wants his chance to lay things out in front of God.  He just wants to be heard.
 
“O that I knew where I might find him,
   that I might come even to his dwelling! 
I would lay my case before him,
   and fill my mouth with arguments. 
I would learn what he would answer me,
   and understand what he would say to me. 
Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
   No; but he would give heed to me. 
There an upright person could reason with him,
   and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.” 
[Job 23:3-7] 
 
He is like a woman pleading in an elevator with a Senator, “Look at me!  Don’t turn your eyes away; look at me!”
 
            So do that.  Do exactly that.  Speak out your case.  Leave aside, for now, what kind of answer or results come of it, or what your expectations might be.  Shout, grumble, or sing the blues.  If nothing else, it brings your troubles into focus.  This example will be dumb, but bear with me.  One time a friend of mine who was going through a break-up wrote what he called “The Black Coffee Blues”:
 
“I got the blues in my coffee.
I got the blues ’most everywhere.
I got the blues in my coffee.
I got the blues ’most everywhere.
I got the blues in my coffee
’Cause, sugar, you just ain’t there.”
 
Or maybe – and I actually think this is better – open up the Bible and pray the Psalms.  Pray the psalms of lament.  Pray a psalm like 130:
 
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
            Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!”
 
Or even consider the words that Job spoke:
 
“If only I could vanish in darkness,
   and thick darkness would cover my face!”
[Job 23:17]
 
because there is more than one form of thick darkness, and more than one reason you may not be able, in sorrow, to see God.  It could be that at that very moment you are like a scared and troubled toddler whose Father has scooped you up to let you cry everything out with your face buried against his shoulder until it all passes.  He may not be too far away for you to see.  He may be too close.

 

"Trying to Make Sense of It All"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 10/7/2018
 
 
Job 1:1, 2:1-10
“Trying to Make Sense of It”
October 7, 2018
 
 
           For the next four weeks, the lectionary assigns readings from the book of Job.  I am going to take my sermon texts from that, and I wanted to find a phrase from the book to give the series a good title.  What I kept coming up with was from chapter 38: “Words without Knowledge”.  I didn’t think that would inspire much confidence, so I let it go.
 
          Consider this a spoiler alert.  Job is about trying to understand why things go wrong, why there is tragedy, why the innocent suffer, and whether there is any justice in the world.  In the end, it doesn’t give us a simple, clear answer.  There are a lot of popular sayings that may comfort a lot of people: “Everything happens for a reason”; “The Lord doesn’t give you more than you can bear”; “What goes around, comes around”.  Job doesn’t go for any of those.  In the sections of the book that we skip over, Job’s friends show up and try to convince him of each of those explanations, and they all get knocked down.  Go ahead and read the whole book.  If there is a section that spells out its central theme, it comes from chapter 28:20-24.
 
“Where does wisdom come from?
And where is the place of understanding?
It is hidden from the eyes of all living,
and concealed from the birds of the air.
Abaddon and Death say,
‘We have heard rumor of it with our ears.’
 
God understands the way to it,
and he knows its place.
For he looks to the ends of the earth,
and sees everything under the heavens.”
 
So, if there is no easy, speakable answer, then what is the point?  Is it all really just “words without knowledge”?
 
            No, it isn’t.  There is a great deal to be gained by struggling with these matters.  Merely engaging with them is a little bit like going to the gym.  You may not ever be able to lift the heaviest weight, but even trying lesser weights will change you.  I’m stealing this idea from a couple of lectures I heard around 2005 by the Rev. Darrell Woomer.  He pointed out that in the opening chapter, Job’s children are all together at a family reunion when a tornado blows down the house, killing every last one.  Job survived because he was off on his own, praying that they would not sin while at the party.  In the last chapter, after his time of suffering, we see him opening his house to his brothers and sisters, and starting a new family.  His suffering led him to engage with people and to embrace life in a deeper way.
 
“The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning.” [Job 42:12]
 
That isn’t meant to say that if you just stick to it, everything turns out right in the end.  It certainly didn’t do that for his first children when the roof dropped onto their heads.  It does say, though, that for Job (and by extension for others who endure), the experience of pain and suffering can change you, often for the worse, but sometimes for the better.  But it will change you.
 
            Loss and sorrow and suffering are inevitable.  That is the unspoken assumption of this book, and it’s an unassailable truth.  It has been said that nobody gets out of this world alive.  We take suffering so much for granted that we are able to ignore it as long as it does not touch us directly.  There’s a poem by W.H. Auden [“Musée des Beaux Arts”] where the writer is looking at paintings in a museum.  Part of it says,
 
“About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.”
 
Last week, an earthquake and tsunami killed almost as many people in Indonesia as died in the 9/11 attacks.  We paid more attention to the antics of people in Washington. 
 
            Everything is very different when you’re the one involved.  The medical definition of “minor surgery” is “surgery performed on or by someone else”.  When you are the one who is troubled, your own experience can be overwhelming and all-consuming.  There you sit in the emergency room with a spouse moaning in pain, and even though you know that there are a dozen other patients in the rooms around you, you want to know what is keeping the nurse away so long.  Why has no one come in to ask questions?  How long until a bed opens up and they’re admitted?
 
            So much, though, so very much depends on how you meet the inevitable.
 
Job’s wife suffers with him, and she wants to get it all over with. 
 
“Do you still persist in your integrity?” she asks him.  “Curse God and die.” [Job 2:9]
 
When you care about someone you don’t want to see them suffer.  When a family has been keeping vigil with someone who is dying, and especially if they have been taking care of them for months or years and watching the quality of their loved one’s life decrease and their distress increase, then when the end comes there may be a collective sigh of relief.  There is no shame in that.  Yet at the same time, there is the unanswerable question – generally an unasked question – how much of the desire to see someone’s trouble end is wrapped up with a desire to see your own struggle end?  (That’s one of several reasons that I cannot get behind the idea of “assisted suicide”.  It’s one thing when nature takes its course, but another to unduly hasten things.  Who really can assess anybody’s motivations, especially under that kind of strain, even your own?)
 
            Job does not take the easy way out.  The Accuser (which is the meaning of the word “Satan”) insists that suffering and pain will undo his faith.  His accusation, laid out before God, is that all human beings have their breaking point and that Job can be used as a test case. 
 
“All that people have they will give to save their lives.  But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” [Job 2:5]
 
When Job’s wife speaks, she echoes the Accuser’s view.  Job, on the other hand, meets the situation with faith that God knows what he is doing.
 
“Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” [Job 2:10]
 
Mind you, Job’s troubles are not coming from God.  Not everything that happens is God’s direct intervention.  That’s the problem with the saying, “God has a plan for your life.”  God has a purpose for us all, but that doesn’t mean every detail is written out and that we have no choice in any of it. 
 
           One commentator, Roland Murphy, points out that this story tests God as surely as it tests Job.
 
“I think that we may say that the author has deliberately place God in a no-win situation.  If he goes along with the satan’s designs, he comes across as a heartless tyrant.  If he refuses the challenge, then there is the lingering doubt: Is God afraid to trust creatures to remain faithful to him?  Maybe the satan has a point.  What is the quality of the love that humans are supposed to have?  Is the ‘fear of God’ [1:1] a servile fear after all?  By accepting the challenge, the Lord shows a trust in his creatures.”[1]
 
It turns out that what holds Job together here and throughout the story is the firm conviction that it is not all for nothing.  He has faith in God, and part of that is believing that God has trust in him.
 
            That faith, rather than any kind of rational understanding or reasonable explanation, is what holds anybody together through the dark days.  It’s more than just saying, “Come on!  You can do it!”  It’s the conviction that God is going through it, too.
 
            It had not yet happened when Job was written, but we can see God going through it when we look at Jesus on the cross.  There are those two separate aspects, side-by-side.  On the one hand is the terrible sense that God is uncaring, perhaps even cruel, to allow anyone to suffer unjustly.
 
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Mark 15:34]
 
At the same time, there is the solid determination to rely on him.
 
“Into your hands I commend my spirit.” [Luke 23:46]
           
It’s by exercising that reliance that we discover, as sure as the sun rises, and as sure as the Son rose, that God has been there every step of the way, and is always one step ahead of us.
 

[1] Roland Murphy, The Book of Job: a Short Reading (Mahwah, NJ: The Paulist Press, 1999), 14.

"Amputations"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 9/30/2018
Mark 9:38-50
“Amputations”
September 30, 2018
 
 
            It should be obvious, but I feel I should say this clearly every time we read this passage: Jesus does not want you to cut off your hand or foot or poke out an eye.  Every so often a hospital will have a patient whose mind has gone off into frightening and horrible paths, and who has latched onto some of these verses, who decides that rather than fall into some sin that tempts them, whatever it might be, that the preventive measure is to harm his or her body.  Let me assure you that even someone who takes every word of the Bible as if it were dictated letter-by-letter would not hesitate to say that these words are not to be taken literally.
 
            The hand and the foot may be used to commit sins.  Smash that windshield, grab the package on the carseat, then run!  There are sins that begin with sight: David, looking down from his palace, saw Bathsheba in her swimming pool and didn’t care that he was married and she was married.  Yet not all theft involves break-ins and some theft is even accomplished through legal means.  Blind people fall in love, and are also capable of forgetting themselves. Changing our physical capacity to sin might eliminate some opportunities, but not the desire, and God, who sees into the human heart, judges that.  Jesus said, after all,
 
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.”  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”  [Matthew 5:21-22]
 
By those standards, most of us would be walking around without being able to speak, because we would have had to cut the tongues out of our mouths. 
 
           What we need to get rid of or to curb are the impulses within ourselves that lead to the actions that our bodies and our minds carry out.  That is an amputation that is far more difficult, and probably more painful, than a once-and-done lopping-off of a limb.
 
           A good example is what happened one day when the disciple John discovered someone that neither he nor the other disciples knew had been going around and casting out demons in Jesus’ name.  Instead of being glad for the people the man was helping, John just saw this as a sort of copyright infringement, stepping on the disciples’ prerogatives, diluting their special role and their unique standing.  He couldn’t stand for that, and so he took the matter to Jesus, probably expecting Jesus to shut the man down for unlicensed use of his brand.
 
“But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” [Mark 9:39-40]
 
Chop!  Sorry, John, but there went your need to control anybody else’s ministry.  Oops!  It looks like a section of your self-importance was still attached. 
 
            Maybe another way to express it is to say that some of the losses we experience are losses that we need to undergo if we are to be whole, which is what Jesus was telling us.  It’s better to lose whatever keeps us from entering the kingdom of God in its fullness and wonder.  The most difficult part of that is depending on our own abilities and our own achievements, rather than trusting entirely on God’s grace, and the more you have going for you the harder it is.  Sometimes God goes to great lengths to get through to us on that.
 
            I like the story of Elijah that is found in I Kings, where Elijah faces down King Ahab’s idolatry and stands up to the way that the people have turned away from God.
 
“Then Elijah said to the people, ‘I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty.” [I Kings 19:22]
 
He faces them down successfully and then when Queen Jezebel threatens him (and this is a measure of how scary she must have been) he runs away to hide.  Out in the desert, God speaks to him.
 
“‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’  He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.’” [I Kings 19:9-10]
 
Then Elijah is told to stand on the mountain and there is a mighty wind, but God does not appear to him through the wind, nor through the earthquake that followed the wind, nor through the fire that followed the earthquake.  Then came what the Bible calls “a sound of sheer silence,” and in that
 
“there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’  He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.’” [I Kings 19:13-14]
 
The Lord doesn’t respond to that, except to give Elijah his next assignment, his marching orders, telling him whom to set up as the next set of kings and to appoint Elisha as his own successor.  And then, at the end of the list, he lets him know, Mr. I-Alone-Am-Left, that there have been seven thousand other faithful people in Israel that he either didn’t know about, or wasn’t paying attention to. 
 
            The Lord was letting Elijah know, as Jesus would later let John know, that the usual suspects may not be the only game in town, and it would be a good idea to cut out the self-importance in order to get a real sense of what is going on as the kingdom of God is growing right there under his own nose.
 
            We all need to be kept humble.  Wise people may even know how to do it gently, but effectively.  Years ago, I was a summer intern at a country church in North Carolina that had a very active men’s group who met over breakfast one Sunday each month.  One of the leaders was a wonderful guy, whose name was Buck.  He did, however, have very clear notions on how to divide up any job and was quick to assign roles.  This one Sunday, I don’t know why, but he overslept.  The men were all at church in the kitchen, but Buck wasn’t there to make the biscuits.  Rather than have breakfast without biscuits, somebody mixed up the dough.  Buck wasn’t there yet.  Somebody else rolled the dough out.  Still no Buck.  Then somebody cut the biscuits out and put them on the cookie sheets.  No Buck.  It was getting late, so finally someone went and called his house, because they had done as much as they could without him and Buck and only Buck could put the biscuits into the oven.  Ten minutes later, Buck was there, with the sleeves of his pajamas sticking out of his shirt cuffs, and he stuck the biscuits in the oven, gave permission for someone else to take them out when they were ready, and went home again to get ready for church.
 
           I’m emphasizing pride in these stories, because that seems to be one of the issues that Mark alludes to when he talks about John’s complaints.  There are a multitude of other amputatable (is that a word?) attitudes, like envy or bitterness or apathy or fear, that we do far better without, and those, too, the Lord can take care of for us.  Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”  I wonder sometimes if God doesn’t see us blockheads that way: as wonderful works of his own art just needing to be chipped away a little here and smoothed out a little there, with a major chunk on this side that will have to go, but just the right grain over there to reflect the light.
 
           If so, maybe we should be patient with the way that he works on us and, for that matter, learn to admire the rest of the masterpieces-to-be that are all around us.

 

"The Great Ones"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 9/23/2018

 

Mark 9:30-37
“The Great Ones”
September 16, 2018

            In this country, the church has no legal standing to provide asylum to people accused of crimes, but there is a longstanding tradition of respect that makes authorities reluctant to enter a place of worship to arrest anyone.  On very rare occasions, churches have provided sanctuary (as they did in the days of the Underground Railroad).  It’s always controversial.  First United Methodist Church of Germantown has taken in some undocumented immigrants, as Arch Street did last year, knowing full well that they are in violation of the law.  This sermon is not about that practice.  I mention it to put the story I want to tell you into context, because we often think that tales from over a thousand years ago must be alien to our setting, when they often could take place today. 

           In fact, at the end of the 300’s the same question about the Church telling the State to stay away – physically stay away – from church property was a major issue in Constantinople.  The Archbishop of Constantinople, John, who is generally known by his nickname of Chrysostom (the Golden-Mouthed) faced off against a high imperial official named Eutropius.  Eutropius had been empowered to rule in the emperor’s name, and one of the things he did was to make it illegal for the church to harbor fugitives.  Chrysostom argued back that it was not up to the state to tell the church what it could and couldn’t do, especially in this area.  It got truly ugly.  But the day came when Eutropius fell from favor with the emperor.  He was already hated by the people, and the army wanted him dead.  He needed to take refuge somewhere, and quickly.

            Here’s what happened next, in the words of one of those overblown Victorian writers.

“In the humblest guise of a suppliant, tears streaming down his puckered cheeks, his scant grey hairs smeared with dust, he crept into the Cathedral, drew aside the curtain in front of the altar and clung to one of the columns which supported it. Here he was found by Chrysostom in a state of pitiable and abject terror, for soldiers in search of him had entered the Church, and the clattering of their arms could be heard on the other side of the thin partition which concealed the fugitive. With quivering lips he craved the asylum of the church, and he was not repulsed as the destroyer of the refuge which he now sought.”[1]

Patience.  I’m going somewhere with this.

            Actually, I should say that Chrysostom went somewhere with it.  I’ll read on.

“He concealed Eutropius in the sacristy, confronted his pursuers, and refused to surrender him. ‘None shall violate the sanctuary save over my body: the church is the bride of Christ who has entrusted her honor to me and I will never betray it.’ He desired to be conducted to the Emperor and taken like a prisoner between two rows of spearmen from the Cathedral to the palace where he boldly vindicated the church’s right of asylum in the presence of the Emperor. ... The next day was Sunday, and the Cathedral was thronged with a vast multitude eager to hear what the golden mouth of the Archbishop would utter who had dared in defense of the Church’s right to defy the law, and confront the tide of popular feeling. But few probably were prepared to witness such a dramatic scene as was actually presented. The Archbishop had just taken his seat … and a sea of faces was upturned to him waiting for the stream of golden eloquence when the curtain of the sanctuary was drawn aside and disclosed the cowering form of the miserable Eutropius clinging to one of the columns of the Holy Table. Many a time had the Archbishop preached to unheeding ears on the vain and fleeting character of worldly honor, prosperity, luxury, and wealth: now he would force attention, and drive home his lesson to the hearts of his vast congregation by pointing to a visible example of fallen grandeur in the poor wretch who lay grovelling behind him.”

Talk about visual aids!  It was humiliating to Eutropius, of course. 

            This is just one short section of Chrysostom’s sermon:

“Where now are your feigned friends? Where are your drinking parties, and your suppers? Where is the swarm of parasites, and the wine which used to be poured forth all day long, and the manifold dainties invented by your cooks? Where are they who courted your power and did and said everything to win your favor? They were all mere visions of the night, and dreams which have vanished with the dawn of day: they were spring flowers, and when the spring was over they all withered: they were a shadow which has passed away — they were a smoke which has dispersed, bubbles which have burst, cobwebs which have been rent in pieces.”

If you ask me, there’s not much Christian love in that.  Not long afterward, Eutropius made a run for it when nobody was around but was captured in Cyprus and returned under guard to the capital and this time he was executed, although I would note that Chrysostom did not stop pleading for his pardon.

            Jesus’ followers have never been particularly good with handling power.  Oh, we may be very good at pointing out how others abuse it, and when we see its misuse we know how to call it out – and we should.  But we are no less liable than others to let it go to our heads or to take the occasional cheap shot when we get a chance.  The difference, maybe, is that we have a sense of shame when we are caught.

           Jesus and his disciples had been traveling through Galilee.

“Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.”  [Mark 9:33-34]

Of course they were silent.  When they were asked, they realized how silly they would have sounded to say, “He said he’s greater than I am, and I said, ‘No!  I’m greater!’ then he said, ‘I’m greater than either of you,’ and we said, ‘You are not!’ and he said, ‘Am, too!’”  They all knew – even though they had gotten drawn into it – how childish it was. 

            The antidote, the corrective, was right there.

Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” [Mark 9:36-37]

He picked the child up.  He held the child.  He acted as a grownup acts.  He was caring and nurturing and unconcerned with the snipping and sniping.  Greatness, if it matters at all, comes as a byproduct of the service that is offered to others.  Greatness doesn’t come by proclaiming how great you are.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” [Mark 9:35] 

It’s the same lesson he tried to teach them the night before he died, when he got up from the dinner table and wrapped a towel around his waist and began to wash their feet, the way the lowest servant would do.  And he told them,

“I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.  Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.  If you know there things, you are blessed if you do them.” [John 13:15-17]

 

 

 

[1] Introduction to the “Two Homilies on Eutropius” in Post-Nicene Fathers.  See http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/ecf/109/1090068.htm .

"Crosses"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 9/16/2018
Mark 8:27-38
“Crosses”
September 16, 2018

 

            The passage we have heard from Mark’s gospel this morning is one of the most profound descriptions of what Christian discipleship may hold and indeed has held for Jesus’ followers across the centuries.

“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.” [Mark 8:34-35]

Taking up your cross has been more than an expression of duty.  In the earliest days, that was exactly what the disciples had to do.  Tradition says that Peter was crucified, but asked – asked! – that it be upside down, since he felt he did not deserve to die the same way as Jesus, since he had denied him before his own execution.

            As a preacher, I also feel some trepidation speaking about suffering and trial from the relative comfort and safety of this time and place.  Who am I to speak, when Chinese Christians go about under governmental suspicion every day, or when Coptic churches in Egypt are bombed, or when Pakistani Christians have been condemned to death on charges of blaspheming Muhammed or disrespect for the Q’uran? 

            Even so, as one writer put it,

“Jesus says that every Christian has his own cross waiting for him [or her], a cross destined and appointed by God.  Each must endure the allotted share of suffering and rejection.  But each has a different share: some God deems worthy of the highest form of suffering, and gives them the grace of martyrdom, while others he does not allow to be tempted above that they are able to bear.  But it is the one and the same cross in every case.”[1]

The writer here knew what he was saying.  This was written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian who spent the 1930’s building and strengthening the “Confessing Church” in Germany that refused to implement Hitler’s policies and Nazi laws.  In June of 1939 he escaped to New York City and was given a professorship at Union Seminary in New York City, but when he learned of the imminent invasion of Poland, he resigned to return to Germany just so that he could do his part to keep the Church faithful to Christ in its hour of need.  He knew what his cross was.  It found him.  He had the right to speak about martyrdom.  He was imprisoned by the Gestapo and hanged in 1945 as the liberating armies approached.

            Bonhoeffer had about a decade to train (if that’s the word) for the ordeal to which he was subjected, and when the time arrived he came through it honorably.  I say, “Came through it,” because when we follow Christ to Calvary, he carries us the rest of the way beyond.  That’s how we can sing

 

“I will cling to the old, rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.”

Not everyone gets the kind of warning he had, though, or sees trouble coming from far away.  Tuesday was the anniversary of 9/11, which was a horrible, horrible day.  Nevertheless, it brought with it stories of heroism, where people risked (and sometimes lost) their lives helping others, and I have no doubt whatsoever that there were many more stories of faith and courage that we will not know before we get to heaven because the faithful, courageous witnesses died that day.  Yet one thing we might still learn from that tragedy is to set our minds and resolve our hearts so that whenever we face a tragedy (at the same time praying that day may never come) that we do so in the full Spirit of Christ, who said,

“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.” [Mark 8:35]

I haven’t been able to find the source, but I’ve often heard that John Wesley insisted his preachers be ready “to pray, preach, or die at a moment’s notice”.  I’m thankful that I have so far had adequate warning.

            Not all crosses are dramatic, either, though all of them are holy.  When people get married, they promise to express the love of Christ through their relationship to their spouse.  They promise to stick by each other

 
“for better or worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish
till death do us part”.

In other words, they promise to give up living for themselves alone, to lose a big portion of their own life for someone else.  It is all wonderful and good, but for the most part they only find out what they promised to do down the line, when their spouse loses a job and money gets tight, or becomes depressed and needs to be loved through it for an indefinite period, or is confined to a wheelchair by an accident, or any of thousands of situations that call for conscious and deliberate sacrifice on the part of the other person.  Yet it happens every day. 

           Yes, there are times when it doesn’t turn out that way, and human frailty or normal limitations intervene.  What about those?

           The absolute worst persecution of Christians by the Romans took place beginning in the year 303 at the order of the emperor Diocletian.  Many believers were killed.  There were even more, though, who were tortured or imprisoned and survived, who came to be called “confessors”, because they confessed their faith at great risk.  (Think, if you will, of hundreds or thousands of people like John McCain.)  When Diocletian lost his power and the Great Persecution ended, the question arose of what to do about those who had weakened under threat or under torture, and some Christians wanted to ban them entirely from the community.  After all, hadn’t Jesus said,

“Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels”?  [Mark 8:38]

At the same time, there were people who pointed out that the disciples themselves had fled when Jesus was arrested, and only John stood at the cross with the women as witnesses to Jesus’ death.  Jesus himself reconciled with Peter after the resurrection, and must have done the same with the others.  So the Church said that only the survivors, the confessors who understood firsthand what it is like to face those terrible choices, had any standing to judge the others.  For the most part, the confessors, in turn, said they wouldn’t condemn anybody and only Jesus could truly see anyone else’s heart.  They might ask for signs of repentance, but they wouldn’t cut anyone off from mercy.

            For some people, there is the cross that comes with being forgiven, with the struggle to live with the deep sense of human weakness, but also (once the full awareness of Jesus’ love breaks through the guilt) the job of being living witnesses that the cross shows the infinite richness of divine love and compassion, love that led Jesus to speak forgiveness even to his executioners.  And, by the way, that sin and that forgiveness takes in each and every person born.  One way or another, the cross is the beginning of life, not its end.  So

 

“‘Take up thy cross,’ the Master said,
‘Nor think till death to lay it down,
For only those who bear the cross
Can hope to wear the glorious crown.’”
 

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Discipleship and the Cross” in The Cost of Discipleship (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1963) 98-99.

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