March 17, 2006

"Ain't Got Time to Die"

Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland
Sunday, 12 March 2006; Second Sunday in Lent, Year B

Mark 8:31-38 - link to NRSV text

I once heard a sermon suggesting that Jesus' command to deny self, take up the cross, and follow him could be as easy as picking up an empty beer can on the beach and throwing it away.

This is a different sort of sermon.

I'm not going to say that taking up the cross is as easy as picking up a beer can. I don't think such a thing could even be said in Jesus' time or Mark's. In their time, a cross wasn't a pattern for jewelry, but an instrument of terror as well as torture and death. They knew absolutely and inescapably something that we 21st-century folk have to learn: namely the darkness of the cross. Jesus' earliest followers knew the dark realities the cross represented in their time, and therefore they understood just how powerful the light of Christ is in transforming the Cross into a symbol of liberation.

So to appreciate what writers like Mark and St. Paul were doing in presenting the cross as central to our following Jesus, we need to start with the darkness of the cross. And the Cross is a dark place, a monument to how we, "blessed with reason and skill," in the words of one of our Eucharistic prayers, make use of God's gifts to engineer darker and narrower prisons for ourselves. The Roman culture that invented the cross was known for its ingenuity in making use of simple and natural forms for engineering. Shape stones a certain way, and they form an arch that will support tremendous structures, held together by gravity and friction in a way that makes mortar a mere formality. Chart the right pathway for it, and water can be propelled over a tremendous distance solely by natural gravity in aqueducts.

And perhaps the height of Roman engineering, ingenious in its simplicity, was the cross. Take heavy posts, and set dozens and dozens of them along the busy roads into the city. Set brackets in them to receive a horizontal beam. Nail or even tie a man's hands to a beam, set that beam across the pole in brackets, and you have an excruciating form of torture and slow death that takes little time or effort to start but days to finish. Rulers like Pontius Pilate didn't hesitate to use it. It was diabolically simple, cost-effective, and highly visible as a public deterrent to those who would oppose the might of Rome. During the Passover season, as Jerusalem became clogged with pilgrims remembering how their God liberates slaves from their oppressors, Pilate lined the roads with hundreds of crosses, each filled with a living tableau of how narrow and dark a prison we can make of our imagination when we set it upon wounding others.

In short, crucifixion was state-sponsored terror meant to keep the populace in line. It made one person suffer unspeakably, obscenely, excruciatingly, and made that suffering a sign for all to see that Rome was the ultimate power, able to bring hell on earth or peace and order.

Is that what the Cross signifies for us, then?

As St. Paul would say, by no means!

We can't realize -- that is, both understand and make a reality -- the meaning of the Cross without taking a moment at least to look at what it meant to the empire that occupied the Roman province of Palestine in Jesus' day. If our heart skips a beat, or if there's a sharp intake of breath when we think about the cross, that's a good sign. The crosses along the roads of the Roman Empire weren't bits of litter that could be picked up and put away by anyone who "gives a hoot." They formed a long, terrible gash, an open wound in human freedom, in the human imagination, in God's dream for humanity.

And yet it has become a sign of our freedom, our healing, the reconciliation of all Creation with one another and with God.

How is this? How can it be?

It can be -- it is -- in Christ Jesus, and his transformation of Rome's cross into something that for us marks the path of freedom and abundant life -- THAT just might be the most subversive act in history.

Across the Roman world, the cross was a symbol of power -- the power of empire, the power of armies, the power to dominate. And we'll need to look hard at and talk frankly about power if we're going to claim fully what the Cross means to us as Christians.

"But what's with this power stuff?" you might be thinking, "isn't the Cross important to us because that's how Jesus died?" Yes ... but think about it this way. If the only thing we knew about Jesus was that he died on a cross, we would have no clue that Jesus was special. The Passover season was a time when the people of Israel were called to celebrate their liberation from oppression, and thousands upon thousands of people made their way to Jerusalem each year to do precisely that. Imagine for a moment those crowds on every street corner, and imagine the mood among those gathered to celebrate liberation. The combination made Roman authorities in Judea very nervous, and when Roman authorities got nervous, they tended to crucify first and ask questions later, or never. So in all likelihood, when Jesus died on a cross just outside Jerusalem's walls during the Passover season, he was surrounded not just by two men, but by dozens. In that sense, Jesus' death was nothing special. Even Jesus' resurrection would just be an item for "news of the weird" or grist for an episode of The X-Files or Smallville, if all we knew about Jesus was that he died and then was alive again. Or let's say that I tell you that the Plain Dealer this morning had a credible story about some guy named Jim Gundersen in Minnesota who'd had been executed by lethal injection and certified as dead, but then was alive again three days later. I have a hunch that most of us would be saying, "Huh, That's really weird," and not "Where is he? Tell me, so I can go worship him!"

So why is Jesus different for us? Why are Jesus' death and resurrection so important for us that we gather to tell the story every time we break bread in this place? One way to think about it -- the way I want to concentrate on this morning -- is that Jesus' death and resurrection have meaning for us because of the way Jesus LIVED.

But what was it about Jesus' manner of life that so transformed the cross for those who love him? I think it's related to something I've noticed this year as I've written week by week on the Gospel According to Mark.

It has to do with the title "son of God," which is NOT Mark's favorite way of talking about Jesus. He doesn't use that title much, but he presents Jesus as being God's son at three crucial points -- all of which we visit over the course of Lent and Holy Week -- as he tells "the beginning of the Good News of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God."

We hear the phrase at Jesus' Baptism, when he has a vision of the Spirit descending upon him, and Jesus hears God call him as a beloved son. And empowered by that experience, Jesus enters the desert.

We hear the phrase at Jesus' transfiguration on the mountaintop, as Jesus is called as a prophet alongside Moses and Elijah, and once more hears God saying, "this is my beloved child." Empowered by that experience, Jesus journeys toward his Passover in Jerusalem.

You may have noticed my saying "empowered." These are stories about Jesus claiming his power. Is that hard to hear? We need to hear it, though. We need to hear it to understand Philippians 2, to realize the vision of the Cross. Because it's at the foot of the Cross that Mark's third crucial use of the phrase appears, that someone -- a Roman soldier no less, a man whose humanity has been so wounded, so eroded, so subverted that he could put another man on a cross -- finally gets what Peter doesn't get in this Sunday's gospel, and this Roman soldier looks at the broken man above him and says -- knows -- "truly this man was God's son."

He gets it. He perceives Jesus' power in its fullness -- power made perfect in weakness, power poured out for the powerless. He's talking about what St. Paul was talking about when he wrote this in Philippians 2:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
(Philippians 2:1-11)

That's the way of the Cross, of Jesus' cross. Jesus claims his power, God's power, and he gets it -- that real power, God's power, is not a limited thing to be grasped, but an inexhaustible stream flowing freely to refresh and empower the weary and the marginalized.

What, then, might it mean for us to take up our Cross and follow Jesus? It's not a call to martyrdom -- if nothing else, saying that Jesus' blood shed on the Cross was a perfect, full, and sufficient sacrifice for sin, ought to suggest at the very least that God does not want or need any more bloodshed. God is not calling us to be a herd of lemmings. God calls us to be the Body of Christ. There's wisdom in the old spiritual:

'Cause when I'm healin' the sick
it takes all o' my time
'Cause when I'm feedin' the poor
I'm workin' fer the Kingdom…
'Cause when I'm givin' my all,
I'm servin' my Master ...
I ain't got time to die
oh Lord, I ain't got time to die

We are called to pray as Jesus taught us -- that God's kingdom would come and God's will done on earth as it is in heaven -- and then to SEEK that kingdom and seek it first. We are looking for and journeying toward nothing less than God's dream given flesh in the world! We see it every day in communities of justice and peace and hope and abundant, vibrant life, and until we see it everywhere -- on earth as it is in heaven -- we ain't got time to die. No Lord! We ain't got time to die.

But it is time to take up the Cross and follow Jesus. It's time to do with our power what Jesus did with his. This is a powerful congregation. Some of us have power by virtue of our education, our relative wealth in the world, our privilege in society, our voice. And those of us with that kind of power are often tempted to seek nothing more than charity. Charity is a start, but it can take us to a dangerous place in which we release some portion of our resources in order to get more power. We maintain a death grip on the unjust privilege that makes us wealthy, that gives us the illusion of control, and then we give away just enough to feel generous without seriously compromising our privilege.

The way of the Cross -- Jesus' way of life -- calls us to let go of that. Jesus' way calls us to be honest about the power we have -- that some of us have worldly power because of our skin color, our gender, our social class, our education, our birth in the most powerful nation in the world -- and then every one of us has spiritual power, world-changing power, because we are a community upon which God has breathed the Spirit. Taking up the Cross to follow Jesus means being clear about all of the power we've got as a community, and then letting all of that pour out -- "let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:24) -- to empower the poor and powerless.

That's what we remember when we gather as a community of Jesus' Cross, as people who share in Jesus' resurrection. We are called not only to make sure that the most marginalized have a place at the table, but also to recognize whose table it is. The table around which we gather belongs to Jesus the Christ, who saw, as Peter in this Sunday's gospel did not, that true power is made perfect in self-giving love, that the way of abundant life leads to the Cross. And the symbol of humanity's brokenness, of power corrupted to become domination, becomes a sign of peace, and freedom, and life.

Thanks be to God!

March 17, 2006 in Atonement, Cross, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Lent, Mark, Year B | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack