Prayer of the Day
O God, through suffering and rejection you bring forth our salvation, and by the glory of the cross you transform our lives. Grant that for the sake of the gospel we may turn from the lure of evil, take up our cross, and follow your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Greetings and welcome back! This week’s lessons have a focus on suffering for the sake of God’s good news. This is crystallized in Jesus call to his disciples to “take up the cross” and follow him. I have to confess that “cross bearing” is a term I use with great trepidation. In common parlance, that expression has come to mean nothing more than a personal inconvenient circumstance, as in “we all have our cross to bear.” But the cross is not just any misfortune that happens to occur nor is suffering patiently a virtue in itself. No woman should accept her husband’s violent and abusive behavior as a trial to be endured with patience and acceptance. No child should accept sexual abuse. No one should be expected to remain passive in the face of discrimination or persecution on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation. Similarly misguided is the notion that God inflicts suffering upon us to punish or instruct us. We now know that parenting methods that employ the infliction of pain and guilt do not produce healthy children. I don’t believe we can attribute to God child rearing practices that even we know to be defective.
So what does it mean to “bear the cross”?
As was the case last week, this reading comes to us from a section of the Book of Isaiah scholars attribute to “Second Isaiah.” For more information on this fascinating prophet, I refer you to last week’s post for the September 9th readings. This Sunday’s lesson is the third of four poems which scholars often refer to as “servant songs.” There is no little debate over whether the “servant” refers to Israel as a whole, the prophet/poet or some other figure. It is probably misleading to insist dogmatically on any single answer to this question as the prophetic message of Isaiah (indeed, of all the Hebrew prophets) is layered and complex. In this reading, it seems clear that the servant is the prophet whose message is meeting resistance from among his own people. Nevertheless, the prophet models the call of Israel to live faithfully among the nations in obedience to a just and faithful God. Israel can expect that her faithfulness will bring about ridicule, rejection and perhaps persecution in a world governed by the brutal geopolitics of empire. Yet both Israel and the prophet have the assurance that the God of Israel, who yearns for a new and better day, struggles and suffers with them. The suffering in this case is not good in and of itself. But because it is the consequence of faithful obedience to the God whose purpose is to redeem and restore all of creation, this suffering will not have been in vain.
As we learned last week, the prophet of Second Isaiah had the task of convincing his or her exiled people that the time had come for them to leave their captivity in Babylon and make the perilous journey back home to Palestine. Many of these folks were skeptical of the prophet’s message and motives. No doubt some of them dismissed his daring vision as a mystical pipe dream. It appears that some folks were actually hostile to the prophet. They felt threatened by this impractical call to return to the homeland that was dividing families, disrupting communities and apparently convincing many families to uproot themselves and leave behind their land, livelihoods and loved ones. The intensity of opposition to this prophet is reflected in his reference to “those who pulled out the beard.” Shaving off the beard is a method of shaming a man still very much alive and well throughout the middle east. Taking off facial hair without the benefit of a razor adds a good measure of pain to the shame! We don’t know whether these measures were literally taken against the prophet or whether they are merely figures of speech. Either way, the prophet is experiencing intense opposition and isolation. This prophet is not a masochist. S/he does not revel in pain for pain’s sake. Nevertheless, s/he understands that the call to proclaim God’s new beginning for Israel will necessarily stir up opposition among those who are determined to maintain the status quo. The prophet does not shrink from such opposition, however, because the prophet is convinced that God’s new beginning is inevitable and s/he experiences joy in his or her part in proclaiming it.
This is a prayer of thanksgiving offered by a person who has just come through a very difficult time in his or her life and has reached a level of recovery. The prominent Hebrew Scripture scholar, Walter Brueggemann would probably call this a psalm of “reorientation.” It might well be sung by someone who has endured a long and difficult cancer therapy and received news that he or she is finally “cancer free.” Or it might be heard on the lips of someone who has gone through a difficult divorce that brought to an end a relationship that was supposed to last until death-and found the way back from heartbreak and despair to a healed life of love and trust. This psalm could be the song of a recovered alcoholic or the survivor of an abusive relationship.
This psalm does not explain what caused the psalmist’s suffering. Nor does it not suggest that the psalmist is somehow at fault or that his or her suffering is part of some greater plan. Sometimes suffering just is. There is no explanation for it, but one thing is clear. The psalmist knows that God has not deserted him or her throughout the dark times. God has been present all along the difficult journey from darkness into light. It is important to understand that this journey does not take the psalmist back to “the way things were.” Often, there is no going back. The scars of surgery remain even after a full recovery. Life after divorce can be filled with love, life and hope-but it does not restore the relationship that was lost.
There is no way back to the way things were. There is only the way forward into a better future that God promises.
Professor Walter Brueggemann divides the psalms into three categories: Psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation and psalms of re-orientation. I believe that is a helpful distinction because at any given time in our lives we find ourselves orientated, disorientated or re-orientated. There are times when all seems well with the world. The job is exciting and filled with opportunities for advancement. Marriage is filled with intimacy, spontaneity and delight. The kids are getting good grades and behaving themselves. There is not a cloud in the sky. A psalm of orientation, of shear praise and thanksgiving for God’s faithfulness and goodness is appropriate. Then tragedy strikes. The company you work for goes out of business. A spouse proves unfaithful. One of the kids gets sick-really sick. Or that routine X-ray exposes something very wrong going on under the skin. That picture perfect life is thrown into disarray. The darkness seems impenetrable. At times like these, psalms of disorientation give expression to our feelings of panic and abandonment. A good example is Psalm 39 which concludes with a prayer that God would “look away from me, that I may know gladness, before depart and be no more.” Yet even though the psalmist seems to have given up on God, the psalmist is nonetheless still speaking to God! Psalms of re-orientation, such as Psalm 116, are songs of those who have fallen from a secure and well oriented life into disorientation, but have experienced the salvation of a God who has led them out of the darkness and re-orientated their lives. The journey has not been easy, nor does it bring them back to where they were before. Re-orientated people have been changed forever by their trek through the darkness. They now know just how dark and terrifying life can be. But they also know just how faithful and steadfast is the God who continues to lead them even as they pass through the valley of the shadow.
Once again, I strongly encourage everyone to read two psalms per day, one in the morning and one at night before going to bed. There is no better path to deep, meaningful and transformative prayer!
Last Sunday Morning I stopped at the little convenience store on Main Street in Bogota to pick up some milk and cream cheese for the family education hour I hoped would follow the Eucharist. I met a very young woman with a little girl that could not have been more than four years old. The woman greeted me with the words, “Good morning, Father.” Then she said to her little girl, “You see that man? He is a priest. Do you know who a priest is?” The little girl said nothing. “A priest is someone who works for God,” the woman continued. The little girl looked up at me, wide eyed. I have no idea how much or little she understood about God or whether the word “God” had any meaning for her at all. But if she remembers anything from this interchange it will be that people who wear black shirts and collars like mine represent God. That is a scary notion! Now I think I understand why James tells us that “not many of you should become teachers.” Like it or not, we who teach are held to a stricter standard. We can protest that we are only human. We can insist that a clerical collar does not make us better people and that is certainly true. Nevertheless, the collar sets me apart and identifies me with God. Like it or not, I have to live with the consequences.
“We who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.” That might not seem fair, but it’s true. It does not matter that the instances of pedophilia are actually much lower among priests than in the male population generally. When a clergy person molests a child it is always more devastating. In addition to the permanent emotional scars always left by such abuse, the abused child’s perception of God is horribly corrupted. The public’s perception of the church-which is called to be Christ’s resurrected presence in the world-is irreparably damaged. It does not matter either that clergy are statistically among the least susceptible to crimes of embezzlement and fraud. When a pastor abuses the trust of his or her church in matters of money, the damage to the congregation far exceeds whatever the financial loss may be. Again, the church’s credibility with the public is undermined and so is its witness to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims. So I read James’ warning with a degree of fear and trembling.
Of course, like it or not, we are all teachers in some measure. Our children learn from us more than they will ever learn in Sunday School about faith, worship and discipleship. We parents are teaching our children by example every waking moment about love, forgiveness, faithfulness and the importance of worship. We cannot avoid being teachers. The question is, how well and faithfully are we teaching? What lessons do our children come away with? What are they learning from our examples about what really matters?
James draws our attention to our use of speech as the chief source of potential destructiveness. It takes only one disparaging word to undo the sense of confidence, self worth and courage that parents, teachers and mentors work so hard to instill in a child. Once a false rumor gets started, it continues to live on, projecting itself over the internet, through mouths of talk show hosts and in idle conversation-even after it has conclusively been refuted. But the most insidious abuse of speech, as far as disciples of Jesus are concerned, is its effect on our witness. Like every other gift, speech is intended to give glory to God and to serve our neighbor. Yet when speech is used to injure, insult and destroy, it becomes “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
The Eight Commandment is clearly implicated here: “You shall not bear false witness.” In his Small Catechism, Luther writes concerning this commandment that “We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.” It is the second part of this commandment that needs our attention. It is easy enough for me to stand by and remain silent when I am part of a conversation in which someone is being attacked. Much harder it is to come to their defense, to speak well of them and try to convince everyone else to give them the benefit of the doubt. This is particularly so in cases where I tend to think that the victim might deserve some criticism or when I have my own reasons for feeling angry at him or her. But whether the absent person is guilty or not, the point is that he or she is absent. That person is the one who needs to hear whatever criticism any individual may have. Speaking it in his or her absence only conveys a one sided account to other people who may not even have any part in the dispute. Such speech, rather than bringing about healing, reconciliation and understanding, instead broadens the conflict and contributes to distortion and misunderstanding.
This episode marks the turning point for the Gospel of Mark. Several things are at play here: First, Jesus asks the disciples point blank who they think he is. Of course, we as readers know that Jesus is God’s Son and Israel’s Messiah because we were told that in Mark 1:1. Jesus knows who he is because the Spirit descended upon him at his baptism by John in the Jordan, telling him that he is God’s Son, the beloved. The demons know who Jesus is and are ready to proclaim it-except that Jesus will not let them. Jesus’ disciples, however, remain in the dark about who he is. After Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee, the disciples ask in wonder, “Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?” Now Jesus pops the question directly, “So, who do you say that I am.” Peter, ever the impetuous spokesperson for the disciples, blurts out his answer. “You are the Messiah.” That is half the answer. Jesus is indeed the Messiah promised to Israel. But he is more than that. Peter’s answer is therefore incomplete. Just how far Peter is from understanding Jesus becomes clear in the next scene.
This is the first place in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus speaks specifically about his coming suffering, death and resurrection. Once again, Peter is the disciple who responds to Jesus’ words-and with a rebuke. Mark does not tell us exactly what Peter said, but Peter seems to have taken Jesus aside to have his conversation in private. On the face of it, it sounds reasonable. It is what good friends do when they hear a friend talking about his imminent death. “Oh, don’t talk rubbish! Things will get better. You’ll see. Nothing of the kind will happen to you. I’ll see to that!” Jesus, however, turns and sees his disciples. Why does Mark add this little observation? What does the sight of Jesus’ disciples do to evoke Jesus’ harsh response to Peter? I suspect that the sight of his disciples reminds Jesus why his suffering, death and resurrection are so important. Yes, the cross might be avoided. Jesus could remain in Galilee with his disciples, teaching in the wilderness, on the lake shore and outside of the towns and villages. That way, he might evade capture indefinitely. Indeed, if Jesus were content to remain on the outskirts, it is possible that neither Rome nor the Jerusalem religious establishment would consider him a threat worth pursuing. But Jesus came not merely to level criticism against the powers that be from a safe distance. He came to challenge the right of those powers to rule God’s creation. He came to establish the reign of God. The world needs to be told that Caesar is not Lord. The world needs to hear that God is not the property of any religious elite. There must be a confrontation between the power of empire that claims to rule God’s world and the Son of Man who actually does. Only so will the world know how different the gentle reign of God over creation is and that this reign of God finally will displace the imperial rulers who seek in every age to grasp the reins of power.
Of course, the reign of God will not be born without the pain, rending and blood that accompanies every birth. Just as Jesus will confront the violent reign of the powers that be with the gentleness of God’s reign on the cross, so the disciples will be called upon to live under God’s kingdom in a world that is hostile to it. The shape of faithfulness to God’s kingdom in a sinful world is the cross. Again, this is not to glorify suffering in and of itself. Suffering is unequivocally bad. Nevertheless, suffering that is incurred as a result of faithful discipleship can be redeemed. Just as God raised Jesus, the one who was faithful to God unto death, so God raises up his disciples whose witness to God’s peaceful kingdom in a violent world leads them into the heart of conflict, persecution and suffering.
Staying alive is not everything. “Survivalists” fail to understand that in making survival the number one priority, they are surrendering what is most precious. The kingdom Jesus proclaims is worth living for. And if living for the kingdom results in our dying, then the kingdom is also worth dying for. As the late Dr. Martin Luther King put it, “If there is nothing you are willing to die for, you have nothing to live for.” Or in the words of Jesus, “What does it profit one to gain the whole world, but lose one’s self?”