Take Up Your Cross

A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent

What is the most humbling moment of your life? Maybe it's something like the scenarios people share, sometimes with apprehension, in television shows like “America's Funniest Home Videos.” Does anyone here remember “Candid Camera”? “Smile,” the musical jingle from that old show began. “Smile! You're on Candid Camera.”

Perhaps, with the passage of time, your life's most humbling moment has also become humorous to you. Maybe you're able to smile or even laugh about it. But it may have been anything but funny when it happened. It helps to remember that the words “humbling” and “humorous” come from the same root word: humus. “Remember you are dust,” we hear on Ash Wednesday or at a funeral, and to dust . . . to humus . . . you shall return.” A humbling moment may be a moment that helps us get in touch with just how humus-like, how human we really are. To be truly human is to be humble enough to find a little bit of humor in what may have actually been humiliating in the first place. Even if we can't find the humor in what was once humbling, even if the moment never becomes funny to us, there may still be a lesson to learn.

One of those lessons, one of my most humbling moments happened a long time ago, during my initial training as a hospital chaplain. Hospitals are great places to learn just how human we all are. From this pulpit I've talked of my grand learning experience as a Clinical Pastoral Education intern at what was then called Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City. But I don't think I've told you this part of my story from the summer of 1984.

On this particular day my supervisor was evaluating my progress and performance as a student chaplain. I really don't remember anything else he said to me that day. I also don't remember what I had said to cause him to say what he did. But I hope I never forget these words he spoke: “Tom, it's as if you were standing at the foot of the cross and yelling, 'Jesus, get the !@#$% (expletive deleted) down from that cross. I'M supposed to be up there!'”

Needless to say, that was the kind of evaluation I had neither hoped for nor expected. But his words have held real power and meaning for me ever since, because, I have come to believe, they were so humbling at the time. Even humiliating, at first. Not funny back then, not at all. But slowly, over time, those words have become daily evidence of my humus. Now, they make me laugh! They remind me that I am not God, not Jesus, not perfect, not immortal – not even “All Saintly.” When Rev. Randy said those words to me, I was clearly a “not yet ready for primetime” minister. Today, if I am ready to be a priest and a minister in the church of God, it's only because I keep trying to learn how often I am not ready. I have learned that I need help following Jesus. I need help being humble. And I have learned that I am not alone.

Before today's familiar story from Mark's Gospel account begins, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” (8:27) They answer by rounding up a list of all the usual messianic suspects: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the other prophets. Then Jesus asks, “But who do YOU say I am?” Peter, who will become the rock of the church, says, “You are the Messiah, the Christ.” (8:29) In Matthew's version of that declaration, Peter is rewarded by Jesus for his accurate assessment, by making him the rock of the church (16:13-20). But Jesus is not finished with Peter. Or the other disciples. Or with us. Not at all.

Remember how our story begins today? “Then (Jesus) began to teach them that the Son

of Man must undergo great suffering . . . and be rejected . . . and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31). We don't know for sure how the other disciples responded, but Peter will have nothing to do with this kind of humility, not in HIS Messiah. Peter does not want to hear Jesus' description of the Messiah as the suffering “Son of Man.” He can't even hear the part about rising, and he is so caught up in the part about dying that, as the scripture puts it, he “rebukes” Jesus. Perhaps Peter walked over to Jesus, put his arm around him, and said something like this: “Jesus, suffering, rejection and death are not on the agenda! This Messiah thing is supposed to be all about prestige and power. After all, it's David's throne we're after, ruling the nations with might and right. I don't know about the rest of the disciples, but I signed on for a crown, not a cross!” (thanks to W. Hulitt Gloer, in Feasting on the Word, p. 73). And what does Jesus do in reponse to Peter's lack of humility? He rebukes Peter! “Get behind me, Satan!” (8:33) What??!! The church's rock is now the stumblng block? How humbling is that?!

But Jesus doesn't stop there, either. He calls not just the other disciples but the crowd that was following him, all of them together with Peter, and then speaks those words that we, if we're honest, really wish he had never, ever said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and (then) follow me.” You may have heard it put this way: “If you're going to follow Jesus, you need to get ready for some of the same kind of treatment he got.” If you and I, human beings, want to follow the suffering Son of Man, a fully human being, we need to get ready to suffer in ways that remind us of the suffering of Jesus.

But what do we mean by suffering? And is all suffering necessary? “The great Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung once said that so much unnecessary suffering comes into the world because people will not accept the 'legitimate suffering' that comes from being human” (Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, p. 73). To live a healthy, human life, some suffering is and will be necessary. This is true for all of God's creatures in God's creation. In the deserts of Arizona, for example, “only one saguaro cactus seed out of a quarter of a million seeds ever makes it . . . to early maturity, and even fewer (make it) after that. Most of nature seems to . . . accept major loss, gross inefficiency, mass extinctions, and short life spans as the price of (any) life at all” (ibid., p. 77). Paying attention to the rest of God's creation humbles us, when we realize the gift of being given a life at all. But more often than we care to admit, we don't pay attention to God's creation. We avoid suffering and humility.

And yet, there is for us human beings a necessary and legitimate suffering that cannot be avoided. Jesus calls it “losing your life.” Some call this kind of life that we need to lose the “false self,” as opposed to the “True Self,” a name for the God-self within each of us. It was my false self that Rev. Randy was holding up to the light. Your false self, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says, “is your role, your title, your personal image that is largely a creation of your own mind . . . It will and must die,” he claims, “in exact correlation to how much you want (what is) real (in life). 'How much false self are you willing to shed to find your True Self?” Rohr asks. “Such necessary suffering always feels like dying,” he says (ibid., p. 85).

Doesn't sound like very good news, does it? Being humble, living into our necessary suffering, dying to our false self. But Jesus doesn't stop here, either. Jesus shows us a different way to suffer. It's called the way of the cross. It is a way of suffering and death, yes, but it is also a way of life, glory and peace. The way of the cross is a way of letting God absorb all our pain and suffering. The way of the cross is about feeling our pain, but it is not about passing our pain and suffering on to others. The way of the cross is never about transmitting it, but about allowing God to transform our human suffering and pain, mysteriously, from destructive behaviors into creative possibilities. When Jesus accepted the cross as his destiny, his death released the healing power of God's love. And when we accept any of the crosses – the sufferings, rejections and death-like, humbling moments of our lives – when we take up our cross, we allow that same healing power of God to flow through us.

It is, of course, our own cross we are to take up – not someone else's and certainly not the cross of Jesus. Real humility, real suffering, real dying to self is all about real living. It is not about the unreal suffering that unhealthy, unwell living becomes. We so easily create unreal, unnecessary suffering for ourselves and for others. Yes, there is all the unnecessary suffering in our broken, sinful world and then, there is the suffering that we can help make no longer necessary, the suffering of others in which we can choose to share, through our compassion, our literal “suffering with.”

One of my other spiritual teachers, a Quaker named Parker Palmer, puts it this way: “It is the suffering (of others), already present in the world, which we can either identify with or ignore. If pain were not real,” he says, “if it were not the lot of so many, the way of the cross would be pathological. But in our world – with its millions of hungry, homeless and hopeless people – it is pathological to live as if pain did not exist. The way of the cross,” Parker says, “means allowing that pain (and suffering) to carve one's life into a channel, through which the healing stream of (God's) Spirit can flow to a world in need.” And that healing stream of the Holy Spirit takes us beyond our own cross, so that we lose not our real, true lives but our unreal, false selves – our “burdens,” as Parker puts it, “of falsehood and illusion” (The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life).

What about your burdens? What falsehood or illusion about yourself are you carrying today? Is it time to lose your false self, life-as-you-have-known-it. and lay those burdens down? One way to do that today is to ask for help, God's help, through prayer. Today and every Sunday in Lent, during Holy Communion, our ministers of healing prayer will be waiting back there – to lay hands on us, to anoint us with holy oil and to ask God, on our behalf, for the healing we need, so that we can be the True Self God wants you and me to be.

Maybe that's the gift we all need this Lent. Maybe we need the gift of learning that we are not alone. Maybe we need the gift of learning more about how to be humble enough to ask God and others for the help and the healing we need. Maybe we need the gift of learning how to be a little more human, a little more humble, a little more like Jesus. Then, maybe we will be a little more ready, willing and able to take up our own cross and follow Jesus. Maybe, someday, we can even find some humor in being his disciple.

—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
March 4, 2012