Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Worth, Texas
Lent II 2012
by the Rev. Bruce Coggin
As the deacon read the gospel just now, I hope that amid all the drama of Jesus calling Peter Satan you didn’t miss one of the most widely known and repeated formulations of Christ’s call to each of us: Take up your cross and follow me.
Take up your cross. Follow me.
It would be hard to imagine any words more appropriate for our hearing and learning and praying on a Lenten Sunday than those—take up your cross; follow me—because they rivet our attention on the mystery of the cross, which I find, aside from the mystery of the resurrection, the central and often the most confusing and vexing of all the mysteries of God’s dealing with us. Jesus, long before he goes to the cross on which he died, calls us each and every one to take up our own cross and follow him.
Gotta tellya, growing up a Wesleyan in Montague County, I heard about that. Plenty.
We sang songs about being valiant, Christian soldiers marching onward, braving all disaster, bearing consecrated crosses, to the death we follow thee! We sang hymns like Am I a Soldier of the Cross? and I’ve always recalled one verse in particular—Must I be wafted to the skies / On flow’ry beds of ease, / While others fought to win the prize / And sailed through bloody seas?—because I knew I wasn’t fighting very hard, and as for bloody seas, well.
I promise you, all that worried me. In the first place, I had no idea what it all meant. In the second, I didn’t have a cross. (Well, actually I did and was living with it full time, but I just hadn’t found it out yet.) I didn’t know what the other kids at Sunday School thought about it, because we Did. Not. Say. Such. Things. But when I heard the stories about the martyrs—St. Stephen, stoned to death for speaking up for Jesus; St. Peter crucified upside for speaking up for Jesus; St. Paul, beheaded for the same—I worried considerably. Is that gonna happen to me? I never heard of anybody being pilloried for professing Christianity in Montague County. To the contrary. Where was all that going to happen? And when? Oh, the grisly prospect occupied my youthful mind a good bit.
I knew I was in little danger of any such thing as long as Eisenhower was president, and I was blithely unaware that there were places on this earth where the mention of Christ’s name was a death warrant. Still is, of course, some places. You can hardly help being amused at some Americans today, whining about religious persecution in this country. I wonder how mouthy they’d be in Nigeria? I remember when I was in seminary, working over here at All Saints’ Hospital as a chaplain intern that Fr. Blackwell asked us one afternoon, “What will you do when the goons put the barrel of a gun up the side of your head and ask you if you believe all that hooey?” And I couldn’t say, because . . . well . . . I’d never had the experience. I mean, I hope I’d be brave, but I don’t know. Do you?
Really? It’s a right scary prospect in more ways than one.
When I got a little older, my practical problem got complicated by some real resistance to what’s called blood atonement theology, the notion (in the basest terms) that ever since the Garden of Eden, God has been so monumentally irritated with mankind that nothing can calm his wrath but somebody willingly throwing himself across the altar and dying an indescribably gruesome death. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. For refusing all God’s good, annihilation under all the world’s evil. That’s never appealed to me . . . but that’s another sermon. The point for me is that I ended up a grown man still wondering what that cross was and why I had to carry it. Was to the death on Calvareeee the only way to follow Jesus? Is it?
We usually subsume Jesus’ death on the cross under the broader topic of Christ’s passion, passion in the sense of suffering, undergoing, putting up with, not whatever it is people mean nowadays when they say they have a pa-a-a-assion for this or that. Passion from the same word root that gives us patient in both its meanings. And usually when somebody speaks of the passion of Christ, they’re talking about the Mel Gibson version in that movie about fifteen years ago. Remember that? Oh, it was gonna change the world, that movie was. I was living in Brady then, and the churches sent busloads of teenagers over to Brownwood to see it in the sure and certain hope that those kids would come back converted. What I mean. Well, y’know, it didn’t happen. Somehow they sat through that supremely grisly spectacle—so I’m told, didn’t see it—and came back just a whole lot like they went. Surprised, maybe, but not much changed. Nevertheless, that’s what most people think of when they think of Christ’s passion, a shameful, painful, unimaginably horrible agony, way beyond the power of most of us to imagine. And for some reason, the fact that Jesus died horribly is supposed to reassure me that God’s not mad at me. Jesus died for your sins, no? Well, what am I supposed to die for? If Jesus did it all, why must I pick up my cross, whatever that is, and follow him? Somehow that whole notion of my relationship to Christ has never satisfied me much, inspired me, reassured me.
So where do we go from here? As I wrestled with these lessons I decided to try to get behind the theology and think in simpler human categories, like What am I fairly sure of? And I got some help there.
One thing I’m absolutely sure of is the reality of what we call sin. I have no doubt that there’s something wrong with us. Nobody with two brain cells to rub together can fail to see that. I don’t have to run up a bill of particulars. Just watch the news any evening. There’s something wrong with us. I mean, that’s what the first two chapters of Genesis are all about. If God is good and made us in his image and shows us his love and tells us to love each other, then why do we treat each other like hell? The jury’s still out on the why, but nobody much has ever questioned the evidence. We live on a dangerous little planet in a morally neutral universe where if the microbes don’t get us from the inside, a meteor will get us one day from the outside. In the raw, life can be winsome and lovely to be sure, but give us our heads and we’ll manage to foul our own nest soon enough—to say nothing of what we’ll do to yours. Sin is real.
I am also absolutely sure that love is real, and I mean love in all its multisplendored variety—the love of a little girl for her kitty (a girl in this parish lost a cat last week and came straight here to pray about it), the love of a child for its parents, of parents for their children, of a lad for a lass, whatever package it comes in. I mean also specifically the love of God which we believe is the very source of our life and being, and we know that as Jesus revealed it, that love never says Me first! but rather puts self aside and goes to the rescue of its neighbor at once, joyously, willingly. I believe also that it is God’s will—God’s plan if you have to think that way—that his eternal love take solid, palpable, historical shape in the created universe we occupy and most specifically in you. And me. I know love is real because it’s saved my life more than once, and I’ve watched it do miraculous things, see it doing miraculous things day by day, right here, among you in this family of faith at Trinity. Love is real.
The thing is, the kicker is, that for reasons I don’t entirely understand God’s divine love chooses to live in history, our history, your history, and living in history means living with sin, coexisting, sharing the playing field. And that’s where I think we find Christ’s passion, where I, at least, can get a grip on what that cross he bore was, other than a hunk of wood they nailed him to. It doesn’t take rocket science to see that if sin, sin in general and our sin and sins in particular, set themselves athwart God’s eternal self-sacrificing love, the results will be gruesome. Somebody’s gonna get hurt. I mean, I don’t have to spell any of this out. You know that. From experience. You also know, of course, that in the final struggle God’s love is gonna win, has won, does win, shall win. It’s just the playout that’s rough, and since Jesus was Jesus that’s where he spent his whole life.
I think Christ’s passion was far more those last unspeakable three hours. Christ’s passion is eternal, part of the mystery of God’s being. Jesus is the historical incarnation of that passion, that clash, that cross, that crucifix right smooth at the center of the intersection of sin and God’s eternal love. I think Jesus’ whole life is a parable of divine love offered and rejected. Herod struck first, but the list is endless. They tried to throw him off a cliff, ran him out of town, laughed at him, cursed him, spit on him, beat him up, called him everything but who he was; and finally they did their worst. And how did he react? He turned the other cheek, went the extra mile, forgave them, offered them love, again and again and again. Seventy times seven. And when they finally lowered that tie-beam onto his back, how did he in fact carry it? When a little clutch of us do the Stations of the Cross here on Fridays, we’re reminded. He shed blessing all the way to Calvary, that’s what he did. He consoled the women of Jerusalem. He blessed Veronica for wiping his bloody face. He forgave the men who nailed him up. He forgave Dismas and promised him paradise. He blessed his mother and his best friend. He was being who he was, who he is, the embodiment of that divine love which shares the field with our sin. He was living like always at that hot intersection where time and eternity meet. And it hurt. For Jesus there was surely the real hurt, the physical nightmare, but there was also the pain in his heart and soul he’d known all his life—and I figure the last was worst than the first. I think we catch perhaps the truest, most pitiful glimpse of the passion of Christ when he weeps over Jerusalem. How often, he wails, I would have gathered you to my bosom like a mother hen does her chicks. And you would not. The pain in that cry, the pain. Pretty breathtaking. And that, I submit, is the passion of Christ that you and I are called to share, to carry like a cross.
Okay. If that’s the cross Jesus bore all his life, what’s mine? Oh, it’s not too hard to tease that out, is it? I, like Jesus, live at the intersection of my sins and God’s love. You, like Jesus, live at the intersection of your sins and God’s love. Curious, isn’t it, that we don’t seem to fret about it a lot of the time? Curious how we get right adept at ignoring that reality. I mean, we know what Christ’s call involves, or at least we certainly should, most of us. Yet when our sin, somebody else’s sin, sin in general whispers sweet nothings in our ear, we almost reflexively opt to believe the deceiver. And it doesn’t have to be Big Sin, doesn’t have to be Cecil B. DeMille sin, David and Bathsheba stuff. The thirty-nine cent variety will do for an illustration. This morning on the way over here I was driving at a pretty good rate along I-30 just east of downtown and spotted a man walking across a bridge on the very edge of the road. He was old, maybe as old as me. He walked with that Little Old Man shuffle, the Tim Conway walk. And he was bowed down under a heavy backpack, about as big as he was. Poor old thing, the minute I saw him I could sketch in his life, the sad story of how love had failed him. Now . . . you’d think . . . you’d think . . . I mean if I were really loving my neighbor as myself this morning I would have pulled over, tried to see if I could help, just extend a hand, a little love. He might’ve shot me. He might’ve been looney. He might’ve been absolutely vile. He might not thank me for the effort. Beside that, I had places to go and commitments to keep, a schedule, plans. So I shot right on past, And I feel just a little diminished by the memory. In a perfect world . . . but it’s not perfect and I’m not perfect. True but little comfort. My cross was inconvenient this morning, is a lot of the time, in fact.
Well, now we know about my cross. What about yours? How do you handle the crucifixion of living at the intersection of your sins and God’s love? Sad to say, I can’t answer that one for you. Oh, I could likely make some suggestions. We’re pretty talented when it comes to figuring where somebody else has failed the divine calling. Some people make a career of it. I’ve done my share, and it tastes bad, believe me. The simple, sweet truth is that each of us, you and I, must work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, living suspended on the cross that forms in our lives and hearts when we open our eyes to the reality of the presence of God in our lives—and the unspeakably heavy cross that lays on our drooping shoulders. Just like I fail my calling daily, you fail yours, and the sad thing is, it’s not going to stop. We carry that cross right to the grave with us, and the only thing I know to do with my failures is to pile them up and lay them at the foot of that Old Rugged Cross where the savior of the world suffered and died. And know what? His love is enough to make up for my failures, your failures, our failures, the failures of humankind. Aren’t you glad?
Well, we have to leave it there, I reckon. There’s no way to sort it all out, no way I’ll ever sort it all out nor will you. But if this call from the gospel—take up your cross and follow me—has called you into the mystery of the heart of darkness and the light of Christ that leads us out and onward to our own resurrection, then I figure I can just leave you there with the Lord and let y’all find your way forward. I reckon you will. And I can’t think of a better way to stop than with that prayer from the foot of the cross: We praise you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world. Amen.