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Plain Speaking ~ Mark 8:31-38

These mornings in Lent, Deanne and I are getting up just a wee bit earlier. We read the paper and have our coffee as usual but during these weeks before Easter we have been reading one of Ann Weems’ poems from her collection, Kneeling in Jerusalem. It is not the best book of spiritual poetry we have ever read – but the discipline is good. One piece entitled “Looking Toward Jerusalem” resonated with me. Listen:

The journey to Bethlehem
was much more to my liking.
I am content kneeling here,
where there’s an aura of angels
and the ever present procession
of shepherds and of kings
who’ve come to kneel to the Newborn
in whom we are newborn.

I want to linger here in Bethlehem
in joy and celebration,
knowing once I set my feet
towards Jerusalem,
the Child will grow,
and I will be asked to follow.

. . . the conversation along the way
turns from Birth to Death.
I’m not sure I can stand
the stress and pain;
I have enough of those already.
Besides, I’ve found the lighting
on the road to Jerusalem
is very poor.
This time around, there is no Star . . .

The shepherds have left;
they’ve returned to hillside
and to sheep.
The Magi, too, have gone,
having been warned in a dream,
as was Joseph
who packed up his family and fled.
If I stay in Bethlehem,
I stay alone.
God has gone on
towards Jerusalem.

I agree with Weems. Lent is a downer. Wilderness is lonely. I like Christmas better than Easter and Advent better than Lent. Turkey better than Lamb. Presents better than eggs. Maybe that’s just me. Oh, one other thing, I don’t like to think about suffering.

“Then he [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected . . . and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Please Jesus, I don’t want to hear that. That suffering is necessary, fated, determined, pre-destined? Great about the rising again in three days but why can’t we just skip to that point. Why can’t we just skip to a new job and forget the unemployment? Why can’t we just skip to the cure and forget the chemo? Why can’t we get back to the loving and skip this pettiness? Why can’t we get to peace and skip the war? The laughter without the tears?
I understand Peter’s rebuke. Please Jesus – suffering is a downer. You are supposed to be God, right?

The word “rebuke” is the word used to cast out demons. It is a very strong word. The divine one is being called the devil. And Jesus rejects , channeling Austin Carr’s words on the Cav’s broadcast: “Get that weak stuff outta here.” “Get behind me Satan..you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Yes indeed, the ways of the divine are mysterious and way beyond our thinking.

It may not be light and comforting, it may be an idea that we don’t like but it is one of the most startling and important doctrine of our faith: God suffers. God gets real and down and does not avoid what cannot be avoided.

There is so much bad theology today that keeps promoting the promise that faith is connected to success. Suffering is somehow tied to punishment. God rewards the good. And that may be true to some extent but I am reminded of the words of some saintly woman who once said: “God you’d have a lot more friends if you treated the ones you have better.” But the power of our faith is not that we are promised success if we are good (that is human cultural talk) but that God loves so much that God suffers and dies regardless.
Jesus Christ, God among us, Emmanuel, suffered and died because of what humans and human institutions did – and yet even that wasn’t enough to keep God from imagining a different outcome not based on cause and effect. That is divine madness.

But in the madness there is something so fine, and full of wonder: There is no place where God is not. There is no space, no condition that God is absent from. That is the presumption, the madness, of biblical faith; both in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. It is necessary for the Son of Man to undergo suffering. Because suffering is part of life, it means that we are alive.

Certainly suffering is all around. Some of you are in the midst of it right now. Do you deserve it? Did you earn it? What gives you more hope (for indeed hope is all that we have sometimes): that God is distant from you now and indeed may be judging you, or even punishing you?

Or that in the reality of your life experience right now … even if you can’t see it, feel it, yet still God is present and the tide may turn and the day may dawn and it is worth waking up because you also can imagine a different reality. Now that is divine thinking.

The promise of our faith is that even if you make your bed in hell you are still counted among the beloved and that there is no space outside of God’s graceful purpose for you. That is of immense significance, immense. Again, that is divine thinking. It allows for creativity – which is also an act of God.

In verse 32 the Gospel, we read that Jesus “said all this quite openly.” The Greek word for “quite openly” means “without gloss,” “frankly” – he was “keeping it real” telling it like it really is, laying it all out there.

Sickness, depression, foreclosures, unemployment, loneliness, I don’t want to think about it, I keep my fingers crossed – but it is a fool’s game.

Suffering is part of life and can’t be avoided even though we sure try.

But there are some choices I think.

Suffering can either crush you, or it can redeem you – it doesn’t necessarily but it can.
When you HAVE to let go of expectation, HAVE to figure out how to live now that your love is gone, when you have to say “NO” to that which you wanted and say “YES” to that which you didn’t. When you HAVE to get out of bed each morning realizing that you have no where to go. When you HAVE to create an outside reality that doesn’t quite match the inside one.

Sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes, when you get a real dose of reality, you get new eyes. You get knowledge. You see the world differently.

Cancer survivors – you know what I am talking about.

Parents whose children have died – you will never be the same. Sometimes when you experience injustice, you begin to register with those who suffer injustice daily. It is no longer just their problem.

Sometimes when you have face it all plainly it can hone your compassion. Doesn’t always, but can.

Sometimes the reality of suffering moves whole communities to action. Right now in East Cleveland through NOAH (Northeast Ohio Alliance for Hope) finally the citizens are rising up – sick and tired of the drugs, sick and tired of the empty buildings, sick and tired of the political run around that promises all and does little.

Jesus is just telling it like it is: you have to take up your cross – you have to get real, not gloss over or prettify, or dull yourselves with shopping or eating or drinking or trying to find love in all the wrong places. Jesus says, take up your cross; be aware of the splinters, heft it, hoist it. Take up your cross, let go of control, deny yourself, get real. Jesus is talking both personally and institutionally, communally. For it is never just about me, it is always about us.

This kind of reality check leads, I think, to four typical responses: Taking that honest look at your life can be too threatening so I deny I have any problem at all. I don’t have a problem. I don’t have a cross, “it’s all good!” Refusing to see even if everyone else knows, refusing to take up the cross that is lying at your feet.

Blaming others is another response to Jesus’ admonition to take up the cross. I didn’t do anything wrong, it is your fault. So we gloss over personal and national sins in the name of progress or manifest destiny and we never look and we never get real. We blame the victim.

Denial and blame are two ways we seek to rebuke the call of Jesus Christ on our lives. And typically blame leads to fear or fear leads to blame – there really is a conspiracy out there.

Then there is admission to the problem but a flat refusal to change. It is just the way I am, and at the end of the day I don’t really care how it affects you. It may be wrong what I do, but I have been doing it for the last thirty years so get used to it.

Or, you fall into self-negation. Yes, there is a problem and I deserve the punishment so I just stand and look at the cross – toe it now and again, or maybe I lie down upon it as it lies on the ground. If the cross were a cloak I would wrap it around myself – my own victimization wrap. I won’t take the cross anywhere, I will just stay put at its foot and know I deserve the pain. This isn’t really that much different than the more aggressive “I will not change” response – both are very selfish. This one is just passive.

But, somehow – and this is hard to talk about, I don’t know if I have the proper words to really get to the heart of the matter – but somehow as we are real with ourselves, holding everything, even our cross, our very worst, loosely – offering it up to the light, taking it up, bearing it and moving one foot forward, this is the miraculous journey towards the light behind the shadow; picking up the cross, not denying, blaming, refusing, or becoming its victim but offering it, moving; this leads to a kind of victory and power. The Freedom Riders. Nelson Mandela – 30 years in prison, never lost his dignity. Mother Teresa, even in the shadow of the valley of her doubt – she kept ministering to the poor. Somehow they caught a glimpse of a larger picture.

I think of the one who names himself or herself an alcoholic and goes to meetings and discovers a depth of spirituality and identity and community. There is a cross of power that is transformative.

I think of a young woman who says NO to returning to that abusive relationship – no longer the victim but the victor. Yes, sometimes being real with your cross forces others to look at theirs in a new light – but so be it – just keeping it real – no more enabling.

I think of the young man who picks up the cross and says “Yes, I am gay.” Oh certainly, sometimes saying yes to things, claiming who you really are – makes you hoist a very heavy cross, because of the social stigma.

I think of the care giver who every day faces the same routine and who sometimes admits to feeling that it would all be better if the one they are caring for would just die.

These are the crosses, the realities that lie at our feet. And what really allows the soul to survive?

We know that chasing after wealth can lead to forfeiting the soul – as the stock market plummets and we all suffer in the trickle down. We know that chasing after security causes us to close borders and build walls and discriminate and profile and we lose our souls in the worst kind of insecurity. We know we can anesthesize ourselves to oblivion. But “What will it profit” Jesus says, “to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

It’s all about honesty; without glossing over.

I am so glad that Jesus tells it like it is, talks frankly to us, talks the truth, describes what we know to be true, because we are living it. And so perhaps if Jesus is telling the truth, perhaps it is worth taking him at his word: that resurrection has the final word, that tears may tarry in the night, but joy comes in the morning and so we consider the lilies, and become blessed peacemakers, and cling to being beloved, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, taking up your cross and following.

No shame in that.

And when the Son of Man comes, he won’t be ashamed either.

AMEN.

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