Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

On this Second Sunday in Lent I am at St. Michael's on the Heights,in the Burncoat area of Worcester. Next weekend they will welcome their new deacon-in-charge, the Rev. David Woessner. Dave is a transitional deacon, which means that he expects to be ordained a priest (God willing and the people consenting) on July 11, at which time he will become priest-in-charge at St. Michael's. This is a three-year appointment, after which St. Michael's will have the option to call Dave to be their rector. Part of my work as Canon to the Ordinary is to be a little bit of a John the Baptist - to point the One who is coming. It is also to remind congregations that all who serve as deacons and as priests are servants of the One who came among us to serve, and not "the messiah" - a job that is already taken. It is an exciting time in the life of St. Michael's! Below is my sermon manuscript for this day.

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If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. We talk a lot about the cross as Christians and we talk even more about the cross during Lent. At the end of this forty-day journey through the wilderness there is an old rugged cross on the horizon.

That is not our final destination as you know, because the story will continue beyond Good Friday to the empty tomb. But you can’t “get there from here” without traveling by way of the cross. There is no Easter without Good Friday.  

My provocative New Testament professor in seminary, Kalyan Dey, liked to say that if we really wanted to truly understand the scandal of the cross in contemporary terms, then we should replace all of the crosses in our congregations with electric chairs. And then he’d laugh this wonderful belly laugh. (New Testament professors can be like that.) His underlying point was quite serious, however: Jesus wasn’t the only person to ever die on a cross. Crucifixion was the preferred method of inflicting the death penalty in the Roman Empire; it was cruel, but not unusual, punishment. Our distance from that historical socio-political context and our familiarity with polished shiny crosses made of silver and gold can make us forgetful of that, in spite of that great prayer in the BCP that notes how God has made “an instrument of shameful death” to be, for us, “the means of life.”

How is it that we dare to make such a claim? As I read the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, what I discover there is a God who will not give up on us. In the beginning, God created the world in love, and saw that it was good and that human beings were very good. Our disobedience made us ashamed to be in God’s presence, but our shame and disobedience could never negate that love. Love wins.

So God called Abraham and Sarah into covenant and would not give up on their descendants who have numbered like the stars, even when they (and we) failed to hold up our end of the covenant. Over many centuries, they (and we) began to realize that there is no place we can go in all creation to get away from the love of God. When the psalmist asks “where can I go then from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” the clear and resounding answer is, “no place.” (Psalm 139) St. Paul tells those early Christians in Rome that he is convinced that “neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) Margaret Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny learns that there is no place he can run where his mother will not find him. She will find him because love wins.

So, too, with our God, who so loved the world that he gave his only Son. There are various theologies of the atonement which try to explain why Jesus died on the cross and some of those explanations are better than others. But none of them is complete. Some may even be harmful to your spiritual growth. I tend to find myself a bit antsy, for example, whenever I hear the cross interpreted and explained in a way that sounds overly transactional: as if an angry “father God” needed to be appeased and settle up his accounts, so he sent his Son to die in our place. What I can tell you is this: the Bible tends to resist that kind of explanation and offers us different angles and perspectives from which to view the mystery of the cross. I think all attempts to explain the cross will fall short. Ultimately the point is to come again to the foot of the cross to encounter the man who was willing to die there and to discover in his face, the face of the Crucified God.  

So when I hear that verse from John 3:16 which I memorized as a young child, the key words that I hear are love and gave:  God so loved the world that he gave… God is both Lover and Giver. Loving and giving converge in Jesus, who emptied himself to take the form of a servant to be with us through thick and thin. We see it in a stable in Bethlehem and in the young and fearless prophet who challenged the collusion of religious and political power. We see it in the wise rabbi who taught in parables and the compassionate friend who ate and laughed at table with all sorts of scoundrels. And beyond the cross we see it in the risen Lord who deigns to be our guest every time we break the bread together, every time and place where two or three are gathered in his name. So it isn’t only on the cross; it’s just that it is writ largest there. The lengths to which God will go to find us, the breadth and depth of God’s loving and God’s giving, are truly amazing grace.

A God confined to the heavens does us no good. We need a God with skin, so that when we are sitting and waiting for our next chemotherapy treatment or at the unemployment office or listening to our parents fight again about money or trying to do the right thing for an aging parent or standing at the grave of the one we loved “for better and for worse” for 52 wonderful years—in all of those places we will know the answer to the question that wells up deep inside of us: where is God?

Where is God? The answer is: right here and right now, in our midst and in the flesh. We know this because of the cross. So when Joan Osborne sings, “What if God was one of us?” the correct liturgical response is: Amen! Yes! Emmanuel. In his living and loving and losing and hoping and fearing and praying and suffering and in his dying we see God as one of us in the face of Jesus, and on the cross.  

During these forty days of Lent we turn our attention to the cross, and we ponder this great mystery once again. It isn’t necessary to figure it all out or to make sense of it all. It is enough to know that Jesus confronts the evil powers of this world that would corrupt and destroy the creatures of God and they push back, demanding blood. But in the end, Love wins. It is enough to trust Jesus enough to follow where he leads and to know that he is not just as a miracle worker or healer or wise teacher but more than all those, and that the Way he asks us to follow him will take us through the valley of the shadow of death to those places in our own lives and in the world where we are afraid to go, but where we must go. We are invited to move beyond just the notion that Jesus died on a cross and to hear him call us each by name as he did those first disciples by the Sea of Galilee: each of us is called to take up our own cross in order to follow him. We are called not only to bear the cross that may come our way, but to take it up and to follow.

Now this is where it gets pretty scary. No one can accuse Jesus of making this whole discipleship-thing sound easier than it is. No one can accuse him of false advertising. He puts it out there: following him is not about winning friends and influencing people. To be his disciple means nothing less than participating in the divine life of this crucified God, and that requires us to become vulnerable ourselves and to share in the work that Jesus began.

The Rev. Fernando Cardenal, S.J. 
I had a chance in the early 1990s to travel in Nicaragua, where I met Fernando Cardenal, who along with his more famous brother, Ernesto, was a Jesuit priest and liberation theologian who worked for justice in that war-torn land. I will never forget hearing Father Cardenal talk about what it means to take up the cross and saying: "Every bad thing that happens to a person is not their cross. Bad things happen to people every day and they are tragic and sad and emotional but they are the same as taking up our cross. You don’t have to go out and find your cross to follow Jesus; your cross will find you. The key is that when it does—when you are called to ‘do the right thing in the name of Jesus’ even if it is at great cost, will you be ready to take up your cross and follow him? Even if it means that you don’t get the promotion or you that you lose the admiration of the world or you find yourself at odds with your friends or that you have to risk your own life?"

So Jesus 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. These are hard words. When we accept the call to follow Jesus we should not deceive ourselves; Jesus has very high expectations. In order to stand for justice we must be willing to fight against injustice. In order to stand for the dignity of every human being, there will be times when we have to speak out against all that degrades and destroys the image of God in a fellow human being. As the Church we are called to participate with Christ in this new creation by sharing in the work that Jesus began; and sometimes that will be very costly. We are not passive recipients of God’s love and grace; rather, we are invited to allow those free gifts to heal and transform us to become followers who stand ready to serve, no matter what the cost.

I can tell you two things that I believe are good news from this hard gospel reading. First of all, we never walk alone. We walk with God and we walk with each other as companions along the way. And second, the cross is not the end of the story. In fact the ending is going to blow you away! But that part of the story in its own time, and in its own fifty-day season…and it’s only a month away.

You are about to embark on a new chapter in the history of St. Michael’s. You are rightly excited about Deacon Dave’s arrival among you, and I know he is too. Let me just say this, however: he is not the messiah. That job is already taken. He is, like all of you, a fellow traveler on this way of the cross. He comes to walk with you and to serve among you; that is the work of the ordained. And to keep pointing you toward the cross and all that it means, and beyond it to the empty tomb and all that it means. Love wins.

It is hard to be the Church, but here’s a little secret; it’s always been hard. Our idealized memories of the middle of the twentieth century when the pews were filled are too often seen through nostalgic eyes. If you don’t believe me, then try to reflect for just a moment what it was like in the Eisenhower years to be female, or a person of color, or gay. It is hard to be the Church, but this much is clear: we are called to press on toward the goal, not return to some mythological past. We are called to be the Church, here and now, and to take up our cross, and to follow Jesus, with God’s help.
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?