God does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty;neither does he hide his face from them... Psalm 22:23
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. In the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Ghost, Amen.
“What images have competed for allegiance in your life? Which have you chosen and which have chosen you, perhaps overcoming your better judgement?”, my homiletics professor Tom Troger asked our class last autumn.
What image has claimed allegiance over my life, despite my better judgement. I let the question sink into me but immediately I knew the answer, or to be more precise, I felt the answer. My memory pulled me back to a time before I became a Christian.
Back then the strongest images of God I had was sovereign, powerful, present but untouchable.
Weaving creation into being, all powerful but distant. Abstract, safe...
Yet one day, while studying abroad in Ghana, my breath fell short, my assured and confident bones lay quaking and fevered, suffering sick in bed. Suddenly the sky seemed to turned black and I was struck with a vision of a naked man strung up, lynched on a Tree More than anything else I felt the weight of his beautiful body, hanging, pinned, suspended by heavy pain- and I knew it was God. The way the truth the life, eternity stepped into time, that was executed by a military state and rejected by even his closest friends.
That vision entered my chest, coursed through my heart, throttled my mind changed my life. We proclaim Christ Crucified. I now see God as present, and touchable, powerful but weeping with the broken, begging us to turn from selfishness to communion. God is acutely present with the suffering. Calling us from self absorption to being acutely present with the hurting.
Crosses are all over the place. But before this experience my mind had written God out of the cross. I did not see Jesus there. The cross was placid and plastic to me, common. Iconic, nonetheless, but empty of the Divine.
It isn’t hard then for me to understand where Peter is coming from in today’s Gospel. Jesus tells everyone where this road is going, that it is leading to a brutal, public and humiliating death. Death on the cross. This is not abstract. This is not safe. The cross was not placid and plastic to those in Jesus time. The disciples knew exactly what it meant. In 1st century Palestine, the cross was torturous slow death awarded to any who threatened Caesar’s kingdom and supremacy.
Peter knew what the cross meant. I imagine him violently gripping Jesus’ arm, pulling him aside and rebuking him. I can hear him painfully saying “I won’t let you die like this.” I understand Peter’s impulse to protect his friend. And I also understand the desire to obscure and avoid the violence of this world. At all costs to look away, not have to witness, experience and be shattered by wretched violence. ]
Yet Jesus calls this impulse a temptation of the devil. Get behind me Satan! Jesus then turns toward the entire crowd and ups the ante. Not only will I suffer, he says, but if you want anything to do with me you must deny yourself, take up your own cross and follow me.
This is not abstract. This is not safe. There is no going around the ugliness and brutality of this sinful world, but only into it. And only there can it be transformed. Love does not go around the violence of this sinful world, but confronts it.
On that intense day in Ghana when I became a Christian, beholding the violent brutality of the cross I was terrified. I wanted to turn away. So did Peter, when he heard Jesus predict his death. The cross is scandalizing, it challenges our desires to sanitize and shield ourselves from the violence of this world. Jesus says we have to follow him all the way up calvary.
But I want to run the other way. Just like I want to turn away from the violence of this world. I want to ignore the slaughter houses where my meat comes from. I want to ignore the homeless. I don’t want to sit with my friend when she processes what it is like to live with bipolar. I don’t want to confront the depth of my own self absorption. I want to pretend that police brutality and violence against people of color has nothing to do with me. I want to be shielded from the wickedness and horror of the world. Especially horrors that I benefit from. I want to hold onto a false sense of security that everything is fine in this world. I don’t know what particularly you struggle with, what you avoid and turn your eyes away from- but I believe the Cross of Christ demands our attention, and calls us to confront all that we wish to shield our gaze from. At the soup kitchen I hear stories that I want to pretend are not true. Stories of people so caught up in cycles of desperation they sell their children to get out of drug debt. Stories of poverty in New Haven that is the kind of stuff the Prophet Isaiah says, “from which people turn away their eyes.” (Isa. 53:2-3) I want to turn away. But Jesus has a word for us. Deny yourself. Follow me. Loose your life for the sake of the good news. Become my disciple.
Gustavo Guiteraz says that sin is a turning inwards and selfishness that leads to fundamental alienation, which is the root of all social injustice and exploitation. Self denial means relinquishing our isolation, alienation and indifference to the suffering of others. This is hard work. In a culture that thrives off of fear, alienation and individualism, with gated communities and class segregation. This is hard work, when my heart is so hardened by selfishness. The way of the Cross calls us to turn outwards, to gaze upon our wounded Saviour, to not ignore suffering and pain. Jesus calls us to shoulder each others burdens, like Simon of Cyrere who carried Jesus’ cross with him. We worship a broken saviour, and we must journey to the places of suffering.
Yet the incredible and good news is that when we enter into the pain of the world, God is there also. And though our hearts will have a greater capacity for suffering, they will also magnify in our ability to rejoice, have compassion and feel the presence of our Lord. Being formed by a love that seeks communion and solidarity, becoming seriously invested in the wellness of those that are suffering. It is only because of the generous grace of God that we are able to be strong in suffering. There is no way we can do this journey alone, and this is precisely why we need each other and need to break out of isolation. We need the hearts of one another, to cry to laugh to love to heal together.
This is the paradox of the Gospel, without entering into the suffering of one another and God’s pain on the Cross, we shield ourselves also from the depth of joy available to us when we enter into radical relationships.
In building relationships, listening to the needs of others, and truly loving each other, God is present. I see this in the Saint Hildans who serve people in need, and then testify to feeling God change them into more compassionate and loving human beings.I see this in the tireless work of employees of the soup kitchen, some of whom themselves live in poverty- yet still volunteer their time with others out of love. When we open our hearts and commit ourselves to the betterment of one another, new life is possible. For as Paul in our letter from Romans said today, we worship a God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Hoping against hope, let us believe.
Let us love so radically it makes the demons shudder and the powerful hasten to plot our demise.
In the stations of the Cross that we do here on Fridays in Lent, we as a community gather to kneel and pray we enter into the suffering of Jesus. In this pilgrimage of the Cross we follow the God who loved us so deeply and confronted this world so harshly, that the powers of this world had him executed. Jesus took the path of radical love and did not avoid the consequences of doing this in a military state. He did not take the safe road, ignoring the suffering of the world. This Lenten season as we pilgrimage with Jesus to the Cross, let us all examine how we are being called from selfishness to shouldering the suffering of others. Jesus came to draw us forth from sin, heal us, reorder us, embody another way.
In this ritual we meet Jesus’ sorrow and are called to repentance, turning, following, becoming His disciple. In the Stations of the Cross we are pulled into the writhing pain of God, to not see the cross as a placid and plastic symbol. This act of penance should help curb our egos and self absorption that we might be able to go forth from these walls and no longer turn a blind eye to the sorrows of this world. We are called to turn from selfish isolation to community; mission instead of individualism, to be invested in the healing of one another and the world.
So we bow our heads and pray one of the collects from this pilgrimage: Stir up our conscience O God, and make our hearts break at the sorrows of those who suffer injustice and let us weep at our own waste of your great gifts- that we may know and repent our sins. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.