I don’t listen to much Christian pop music, to be completely honest. I prefer Rush, Boston, Bruce Springsteen, Colin Hay, Elton John, etc. It’s not that I’m picky about genres, I’m not-I listen to everything from country to gospel to metal to pop. But message matters. Most, but admittedly not all, of the Christian music’s message tends to focus on if you only believe enough, have enough faith, read the bible enough, are generous enough then your life will be wonderful. The focus of the music is on us and what we think and do and not on what God has already done. Now, having said that, there is an artist, Natalie Grant, whom I really love and she has a song from 2005 called“Held.” The chorus goes like this:
This is what it means to be held.
How it feels when the sacred is torn from your life
And you survive.
This is what it is to be loved.
And to know that the promise was
When everything fell we’d be held.
I love these words as they ring true in my life and maybe they do in yours as well. I saw an interview of Vice President Joe Biden by Stephen Colbert during which Mr. Biden opened up about the recent death of not only his son Beau, but the deaths many years ago of his first wife and daughter. He beautifully witnessed to the importance of rituals such prayer and for him the rosary, and how worship, even when he wasn’t sure about God, centered him somehow. He spoke about the community of people who had faith for him when he wasn’t feeling up to it, carried him through some dark days and kept the glimmer of the light of Christ burning for him. His wife, Jill, put a note up on his side of the bathroom mirror one day that was a quote from Soren Kierkegaard: “Faith sees best in the dark.”
You see, something that Mr. Biden has learned throughout his faith journey is that faith isn’t a once and for all sort of event. It’s an ebb and flow, it’s a windy road, it’s confusing, and it’s foundational for who we are as God’s children. Faith doesn’t promise us that everything will be perfect, that we will have all of the money that we need, that we will be healthy forever, that cancer won’t touch us, our loved ones won’t get sick or die, that we won’t lose our jobs, we will have friends and all of the worldly comforts. Faith, it turns out, is complex, a mystery and causes us to have more questions than answers.
Questions, confusion, and the mystery of faith are at the heart of this morning’s gospel text that I will admit is not one of my favorites. Like, Peter, I’m uncomfortable with not only the bluntness of Jesus in his explanation of the suffering and death to come but seriously uncomfortable with this entire take up your cross business, lose you’re your life and shame talk. It seems contrary to the Jesus that we have just seen who relieves suffering, who offers inclusion for all, who points to that fact that rules can’t save us, only God can do that. The language of denying ourselves and taking up our crosses triggers me in many ways. Is Jesus telling us that we MUST suffer? That we need to let others walk all over us, abuse us, deny our own dignity and self worth? To me, that is very dangerous language-especially for those for who are already oppressed by patriarchy, racism, are being told they are nothing by an abuser, or are telling themselves that they are nothing because they don’t measure up in our culture. Dangerous words indeed, Jesus. How much must we and other people suffer to prove that we are followers of Jesus? Go to jail for our beliefs? Be physically harmed? Put to death as many of the disciples would be?
All of that seems contrary to the rest of the message of Jesus. The Jesus who walks on water, Jesus who feeds crowds, heals women and little girls, who is opened up by a gentile woman, who heals the deaf, who makes the blind see and who proclaims that the kingdom of God is near, surely now isn’t saying, “you must prove your faith through suffering.” I think what Jesus is doing is naming the reality of our lives and of our faith. It’s not that we have to suffer, it’s that suffering in life where the kingdom of God is not yet fully come, is inevitable. We will suffer losses, death, lack of material resources, loneliness, diseases and all of the ways that the world takes its toll on us. Jesus will know suffering too. Jesus will know what it is like to be poor, abandoned, suffering in pain and ultimately killed. Jesus runs head on into the reality, our reality of the world and doesn’t shy away or try and gloss over it with pretty or trite words of platitudes such as, “God has a purpose for your suffering,” or “God is testing you,” or “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” or “If you have more faith then these bad things won’t happen.”
No, Jesus doesn’t say any of those things but instead says “take up your cross; you know the same cross that I will suffer a very human suffering on. Take it up, not so that you will suffer but because you are suffering, your suffering is real and God sees your suffering and loves you.” The cross of Christ is not about suffering but about the promises of God to be present with us when we do suffer. The cross that we take up is not God allowing abuse, hurt or suffering but the cross we take up is the cross of the promises of God to hold us when we suffer, to love us when we are all battered inside and out by the world and not much to look at, to lose ourselves in this reality and not the reality of the world.
“Faith sees best in the dark.” Faith in the dark allows us to stop seeing ourselves how the world wants to see us-perfect, autonomous, happy and shiny, but allows us to finally see ourselves how God sees us: broken, messy, needy, beloved and worthy of abundant life. We can trust that faith is not dependent on us at all but is all about God and how God wants to live with us now and forever. We pray, sing, worship, study, share, serve, love to reorient ourselves as individuals and as a community to those promises of God, as an expression of faith whether times are hard or joyous.
There is good news in these words, “deny yourself and take up your cross.” The good news that it’s not about anything that we do but all about what Jesus has already done to offer us and all of creation the promises of God for abundant life here and now, and forever. The cross isn’t our suffering to carry, no, the cross of Jesus Christ promises to catch and to hold all of our suffering and all of us, always. “This is what it means to be held.” May we all take up our cross and know that it is the cross that takes us up into the life, love, mercy and hope of our God who holds us always. Thanks be to God.