A Lutheran Says What?

Sermons and random thoughts on God, the world and the intersection of the two

Hold On February 28, 2021

This sermon was preached for the community at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT on February 28, 2021. It can be viewed on YouTube at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC.

The texts were:

Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16
Romans 4: 13-25
Mark 8: 31-38

Children’s message: Have my bag handy:  My children, who are now grown-ups, always make fun of the size of my bag. I quit carrying a small bag after becoming a parent as I felt like I was always needing something I didn’t have. If they got hurt, I would need a first aid kit, snacks for when they were hungry, water for thirst, pen and paper for when they were bored, tissues, hand wipes, and more. If they needed something, I could help. And even after they were grown, I discovered that keeping these things around wasn’t a bad idea, not just for if I need them, but I could help someone else too. We all need help sometimes don’t we? We all get hurt, sick, lonely, hungry, sad, it’s just what happens in our lives. We don’t like it and we don’t like to think about it do we? Well our story about Jesus today is kinda about that. Jesus was walking along with his disciples and started telling them that he was going to be hurt and die, which happens to every person. But Peter didn’t want to talk about that. Peter wanted to believe that Jesus and hopefully himself as a friend of Jesus, would avoid ever being hurt and dying. But Jesus says, no, that’s not how life goes. We can’t pretend that we’ll never be hurt, sad or that people will never die. We have to be honest about that and tell the truth of how God is always with us especially when we are hurt, sad, lonely and dying. Jesus tells the disciples that they can’t pretend that hard and scary things won’t happen, because that doesn’t help. But they DO need to help other people through the hard and scary things, maybe crying with their friends and family, by sharing food, clothes and money, by saying no when someone is hurting someone else. That’s what “picking up our cross” means. Notice how the cross looks like a “t”? Well, Jesus wants us to follow him into the truth that yes, we might get scared and hurt, and the truth is also that God hold us and hold each other and help others when they need it-like what’s in my mom purse. I want you to draw or write what you have that you can share when a friend is hurt, scared or lonely.

 Full confession: I have always possessed a “gallows” sense of humor or maybe what is better described as Gen X snark. It’s probably because I’ve had a few life events that if I didn’t find the irony or the humor in, I’d cry all the time or be jaded. Well, and maybe I am both of those things, but mostly, the snarky thing. Call it irreverent, call it a coping strategy, but it’s all part of my charm. So, when the pandemic first started, and Mike and I would be watching the horrifying news each evening, all the poor decisions or simply lack of leadership happening, I would turn to him and say, “we’re all gonna die.” To which he would say, “yes but maybe not today.” Each day in 2020 would pass with some over the top new low, and I would look at Mike and say, “We’re all gonna die.” “yes,” he would say, “but maybe not today.” There’s been a couple of times with all of the chaos in the past two months where Mike has conceded where we might all die sooner versus later….
Despite my snark, it is true that we are all gonna die. From this life anyway. Yet, I think what is at the root of my snark is our ability as humans to think that we can outsmart reality, suffering, hurt and death. That WE’RE different from everyone else and we’ll escape it. But that’s just not how life works, it turns out. We often ask, “why me?” when bad things happen to us, but I’ve learned the real question is “why not me?” Suffering and death is a part of life and all the major world religions have at their core how we cope with life’s hard realities. But we live in a culture that tells us to deny aging and death: from commercials for anti-wrinkle creams, hair dyes, fat removal, to how we keep dying people hidden away in facilities and sanitize the dying process so that no one is uncomfortable. We are lulled into holding on to the deception that we can avoid the inevitable. We will do anything: any diet, any exercise routine, any procedure, any supplement, and hold on to any illusion or delusion to convince ourselves that we can outsmart aging, suffering and dying. Until we can’t. Until we trip and fall into the reality that we and everyone we know suffers and dies. But even then, our inner dialogue becomes one of rationalization that maybe they didn’t hold on tight enough, that their suffering was teaching them something, or us something, or worse, was God’s will. This is never true.
Peter is caught up in the very human delusion that he can escape the reality of suffering and death, after all he knows Jesus, the Messiah who will conquer all! The Messiah who will hold the Empire accountable and the Israelites will be conquerors and in power at last. But Jesus sees the self-deception that Peter is holding on to, and names it by calling him Satan, the deceiver. You see, Peter was still deceived that he was in control, he hadn’t figured out yet that following Jesus,aligning your life with God, isn’t going to spare you from hurt, suffering, oppression and death, it doesn’t spare you from being human. Following Jesus means that you let go of all the deceptions, all the fears, so that you can pick up your cross; you can pick up the truth that there is suffering in your life and the lives of people around you. The truth that we can’t honestly enter into the hurt of the world if our hands and hearts are clutching our own misconceptions, worries, fears and delusions. Picking up our cross means that we’ve let go of anything that doesn’t bring the fullness of life for ourselves and the people around us.

This isn’t easy, and it’s not supposed to be. It’s a journey that we have to be honest about and commit and recommit to every day. We can’t put our heads in the sand, or hope that someone else says the hard, but true thing. We can’t drive by the tent camps of people living on the streets and hold on to the myth that a solution is too expensive or the people won’t want it. We can’t watch over and over again as black and brown people are unjustly incarcerated and murdered by authorities and hold on to the lie that racism and white supremacy doesn’t exist and we don’t have a role. We can’t witness the denigration and lack of human rights of people who are LBGTQIA+ and hold on to the prejudice that they should be excluded. We can’t ignore the racist or sexist joke because we want to hold on to “niceness” or our need to be liked. Like Peter, we want to hold on to the delusion that following Jesus means that we should be able to hold on to our comfortable life, or hold suffering and death at bay, or that being church is about feeling good, safe, and secure.

We forget what the cross really means in our life. It’s not a sign of holding on to protection, piety, status quo or comfort. The cross was a symbol of abusive power for the Empire, for the powers and principalities as Paul calls it, and was used by the Empire to keep the marginalized people of the society in their place out of fear. But God doesn’t allow abuse to continue, let status quo stand, doesn’t let fear and death win. Jesus picked up the cross to turn it into a symbol of God holding on to God’s vision of justice, of God’s upheaval of worldly authorities and of God’s will for life and wholeness for all creation. Jesus picked up the cross to show us to let go of the myth that suffering is good, God’s will or redemptive, but to show us that suffering is reality AND that God is present; we aren’t alone in our suffering. Jesus picked up the cross to show us that God lets go of everything that doesn’t bring life, empties God’s hands to hold on to us, to reveal that when it’s hard, when it looks bleak, God’s love, justice, mercy and life will find a way to hold on.

We are called to empty our hands, to let go, so that we pick up our cross, we hold on, we hold on to one another when suffering abounds, to hold each other in God’s love and care, clearly name the oppression, abuse and harm being inflicted on our marginalized siblings and speak the truth to the powers of this world in love. Not love that is sentimental and mushy, but love that can hold on in tension, paradox and reality. This is Luther’s theology of the cross, that in the cross of Jesus, suffering, reality and wholeness in God’s mercy and grace can be held together. We pick our cross, the cross that holds us when nothing else can, and we let go of the delusions of what we think life should be. We let go of our false life to hold on to a true life of being held by God’s love, mercy and grace, in the reality of our lives. This is good news indeed. Amen.

 

Held By the Cross of Christ, Mark 8: 27-38 Pentecost 16B Sept. 13th, 2015 September 13, 2015

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.