Second Sunday in Lent, Year B
28 February 2021
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
That the apostle Peter has difficulty with Jesus’ announcement of his suffering and death shouldn’t surprise us since it’s not exactly our idea of a great time either. I mean, who wouldn’t go to great lengths to avoid suffering and death? And while we may not be able to avoid death, we do our darnedest to avoid suffering. I know I do and always would.
When I was a teenager my mother once came back from her Bible study group, offended by someone else’ definition of suffering. They may have been speaking about our passage from Mark eight and about taking up one’s cross. Another person had given the example of not having been able to go on the cruise she had booked because of a broken finger. Not exactly sure how this could have been, except that perhaps it occurred just when they had to leave and she needed to seek medical attention. Not sure this is what Jesus had in mind when he invited his followers to take up their cross. What made matters worse for my mom was that she had never been on a cruise.
I will always remember the story, in part because it shows how difficult it is for western Christians to imagine what following Jesus and bearing one’s cross would look like.
It is important to note that Jesus was not talking about suffering in general but suffering as a result of following him and of self-denial in his name.
Surely, this is one of the reasons we say that our charitable giving should hurt at least a little bit, it shouldn’t just be what’s left at the end of the day, because choosing something and someone else over my own need moves us a little closer into the direction of self-denial.
The great Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr from Selma to Montgomery, once said, that self-respect is the fruit of discipline; (and that) the sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself.
Jesus does not advocate suffering. He does not say that we should suffer. After all, Jesus heals people and restores their health and wants to liberate people from unjust cultural discrimination (think of women, foreigners, the outcast). He does, however, say that suffering may be the byproduct of serving God and following him.
If that is so, it requires a shift from regarding suffering as the worst possible outcome to regarding a lack in faithfulness to Jesus as the worst possible outcome. Then learning to say no to myself as Heschel suggests, will not only build self-respect in me, but widen my horizon from being focused on me to focusing on the world, on my neighbour, on justice, on the future.
One thing that is often lamented is that our time lacks great and charismatic leaders, unlike the difficult times of the 20th century when great leaders emerged and rose to the challenges. Perhaps it is precisely our comfort and affluence that have prevented great leaders from emerging, because affluence is not suitable to forming great leaders. This is not to say that leaders today don’t sacrifice, but most leaders in the West are relatively comfortable in the sacrifices they make.
And yet this analysis can lead us into some kind of nostalgia where see everything in the past as good and everything in the present as bad. This nostalgia then results in pointing the finger at the kids of today, as if they were the problem, after all they only learn from us, in the same way as I – when I was in grade five – thought that those in grade one showed far less respect to me than I had shown those in grade five when I had been in grade one.
The problem is not always somewhere else, the problem is not always someone else’ fault, whoever that may be.
Driving to the church one day this past week I came upon a report about a group of women in Sudbury, who in their community started reaching out to the homeless. First there was only one of them who went downtown with water bottles and granola bars, then she put out a call on social media and others joined her. They went from water bottles and granola bars to hot meals and clothes. I didn’t get the whole show, but two of them had kids who had been in that situation, one was no longer there and lived a stable life, the other had died of a suspected overdose. It was a moving to listen to because people openly shared their story. And as you listened the people they served were no longer a problem but people, not just because they also spoke, but because someone cared enough. The women who spoke reminded me of 80 something year old Marguerite, who joined our outreach in Abbotsford because she had a granddaughter somewhere in a similar predicament.
Now, the show connected the story also to the opioid crisis, and the opioid crisis won’t go away because a few community volunteers start an outreach. And no doubt, those volunteers know this as well. But the reason I tell you the story is because here you have a group of people who not only sit around and call on politicians (I am sure they do that too), or lay blame somewhere, but who are willing to make personal sacrifices. And making sacrifices takes us back to Heschel and the ability to say no to oneself. These people said no to themselves in the way they said no to their fear and yes to those suffering in their community.
The story reminds me of another memory. When Peace in Abbotsford was reaching out to the homeless population in and around Jubilee Park, we were joined by folks from a charismatic church. A woman from that church, very much like us, suburban and middle class, with children my children’s age or perhaps younger, told us that women at the park had asked for makeup. And so she had gathered up makeup to take to the park, only then to have doubts arise. She thought to herself, what if the woman who asked me wants to use the makeup for her work in the sex trade, often the only way to survive for homeless women. And she brought this before God and prayed about it. And she came to the conclusion that God did not want her to judge or patronize people in need. She had been asked for a kindness and she was going to deliver it without second guessing, judging, or patronizing. The makeup would have cost something but suspending one’s judgment and desire to control was far more costly.
I don’t remember the woman’s name but the way she reasoned and acted is something I deeply admire.
It is true that it is difficult if not impossible for us to imagine persecution. Living in a largely secular society where the church still has many privileges does not constitute persecution.
But perhaps we can imagine saying no to ourselves from time to time, perhaps we can imagine sacrifice. Perhaps even to serve a people who make us uncomfortable and a cause that seems far removed from our own relatively comfortable lives.
Serving is the key word, for everything else can quickly devolve in patronizing.
Jesus came to serve and those who follow him are invited to serve.
The debates we engage in often don’t require sacrifice, but sacrifice may just be the place where we need to begin, because the things that are costly are infinitely more valuable than those that aren’t.
And that is the good news of following Jesus, even should it lead to suffering and death.