Proper 17A 2014
A sermon preached by the Rev. Beth Maynard
A while ago I listened to a podcast featuring a Christian teacher of prayer named Jim Finley. He’s an expert on the writer Thomas Merton, as well as a psychotherapist, but the thing that was interesting to me about this podcast was that it was put together by a publisher of New Age spirituality books. So what that meant was that a New Age leader was interviewing this Christian contemplative. Finley spoke from his own experience, which was deeply shaped by Jesus -- but did so, I thought, very accessibly and graciously for an inter-religious context.
The interviewer was open and gracious as well, but at one point she asked Finley a question that I found tremendously revealing. He had made some references to a point that clearly was totally foreign to her, and finally she stopped him for an explanation.
What she wanted clarified was the mentions he’d made in his story of weakness and suffering. He had talked more than once about how he had been through times of feeling powerless and surrendering to God. Why did he keep mentioning this? This New Age leader just didn’t grasp how suffering could have anything to do with what she understood spiritual growth to be. ....
She went on to say, “Often I interview various [wisdom teachers] who talk about spiritual awakening, and the emphasis more is just this breakthrough into the power of unitive consciousness... Things like [brokenness and powerlessness] are not normally referred to.” She was used to teachers who said that coming closer to the divine meant that things would go your way more often, that you would feel more powerful and more in charge. And then she very sincerely asked, “Is [weakness] one of the unique qualities of the Christian… path?”
I was so struck by this -- because to me, everything Finley had said was pretty standard. To me, of course descriptions of Jesus meeting us in our brokenness are going to come up any time a Christian describes how God has worked in her or his life. Of course we’re going to make mention of weakness when we tell our spiritual stories. This is how we talk, as Christians, because of who we worship. We heard it just a minute ago in the Gospel reading.
If any want to become my followers, Jesus says, let them 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 will find it. Of course we talk about weakness. Our Lord, our Savior, is a crucified God, a God who has known rejection and loss and pain, a God who has given everything to enter with us into our own brokenness and bring us through it and, at the end of the story, out the other side.
This is why, as Christians, as much joy as we find in knowing God and worshiping him, as much delight as we find in gathering with our sisters and brothers, as much good news as we have to share with the world, we can’t go with that interviewer to where she wants to go, to a place that claims that a really spiritual person’s life will just keep getting better, that a really spiritual person will display control of their world. Because it’s not true. Any description of a really spiritual person that is contradicted by the life of Jesus is just not true.
Take up your cross, he says this morning, and follow me. You sometimes hear this talked about as if it means we should go looking for a negative or painful thing, a cross, to pick up and carry around. But I think more deeply it simply refers to a basic truth: we all have times of pain in life, we all have times of loss or weakness or suffering. Pain is inevitable. It’s going to come. And when it comes, we deal with it one of two ways: taking it up, or trying not to.
We can do what Peter did in the Gospel today: try to refuse. God forbid, he says when Jesus predicts his own suffering and death, this will never happen to you. He wanted to tell Jesus, no, no pain for you, no Cross for you. When suffering comes we can try to refuse it too – either deny it, minimize it, pretend it’s not happening – or on the other side of the same coin, we can become filled with bitterness and resentment. Those are both ways of saying no, of trying to reject the reality that we are faced with.
Or, when suffering comes, we can deal with it by facing that reality, taking it up, taking it on board. I certainly don’t mean liking pain or asking for it – Jesus in the Garden begged his Father that if there was any way, the suffering he saw ahead of him not be something he had to go through. He didn’t like it. He knew how hard it was going to be.
But as it came, he accepted that this was what lay ahead on his path. He set his face, one of the Gospels says, to go where he had to go and do it to the full. And this, we believe as Christians, is precisely how our salvation was won. In weakness, not in power. In surrender, not in control.
And then there’s the second half of the sentence: Take up your Cross and follow me. Even as we take on board a reality that is painful for us or someone we love, even as we face and carry difficulties, we have someone to follow who has been there. I always find the words of the epistle to the Hebrews so comforting: For we do not have a God who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tested in every way, just as we are--yet he did not sin.
We do not have to follow a god who will tell us that if we were really spiritual, we wouldn’t be hurting, we’d have it all under control. We follow a God who has been hurt himself, who has given up control himself, who has gone to darker places than we can possibly imagine, and who, when we follow him, will lead us into redemption.
Even if we can’t imagine what that redemption is going to be. Even if it looks like we’re walking into the blackest night, we are following someone who knows what pain is and who can be trusted. There is nothing, nothing, that God cannot and will not redeem if it is taken up honestly and used to follow him. When Jesus is involved, there is no pain that cannot give birth to joy. When Jesus is involved, there is no death that cannot give birth to life.
This is why, incidentally, we can obey the command Paul gives us in Romans today: rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. In the Christian life there is rejoicing and weeping, both of them, full strength, right next to each other sometime. It’s not just one or the other. It’s both.
Because our God is Jesus crucified and risen, there is no need to pretend we don’t feel like weeping when we do, and no need to damp down our rejoicing when it’s time to rejoice. He knows them both, and he works in them both. We are immeasurably blessed to follow a God who knows reality the way we know it, the good and the bad, the loss and the gain, the joy and the agony. It’s all here. It’s all his. It all belongs at this altar. We don’t have to leave anything outside.
If any want to become my followers, Jesus says, let them take up their cross and follow me. Whatever reality we are facing right now, whether it brings us rejoicing or weeping, the truest way to face it is to take it up and use it to follow him. Walk as close to him as we can. Track his every step. He will lead us into larger life than we thought there was. He knows where to go. He’s been there. He can be trusted. He really can.