Sermon for Sunday, February 28, 2021 || Lent 2B || Mark 8:31-38
In less than a year, COVID-19 has killed 500,000 Americans. We passed that grim and horrifying milestone last week. Half a million Americans are being grieved by millions more. Half a million. I can barely conceive of that many people. It’s as if you went to Atlanta, Georgia and the entire city was suddenly empty. I almost didn’t write this sermon because I could not imagine what I could say in the face of such a statistic – a statistic tied to the very real lives and deaths of friends, families, neighbors, and strangers across this country.
But then I read today’s Gospel lesson in light of this grim reality. And this commonly read passage hit me in a new way, a way I had never seen before, a way that sheds light on how we might hold the reality of devastating loss as we also push forward to a different future than any of us expected.
Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” These words are so frequently quoted that they run the risk of losing their power. We think of self-sacrifice or a willingness to suffer or the need to purge from ourselves all that prevents us from following – all worthy interpretations. But this week, I realized I had always skipped a step in my interpretation of this passage, a crucial step, especially given the loss we are collectively dealing with right now.
The step I had skipped had to do with the way I thought about the cross. Jesus invites us to take up our crosses. In his own day, people might have taken him quite literally. To join his movement very much meant risking the same style of execution that Jesus underwent. But in our day, we do not literally carry crosses, except perhaps liturgically during Holy Week. (Crosses as adornment – jewelry, tattoos – are a different matter altogether, and not what Jesus was talking about.)
So if we do not literally lug crosses on our backs, how can we enter into Jesus’ invitation in this verse? It all comes down to how we understand Jesus’ cross and what he accomplished while dying on it. Theologians call these varied understandings “theories of the atonement.” Now, this sermon is certainly not the place to get bogged down in the multiplicity of these theories; suffice to say that there are many, and they all imaginatively enter contemplation of Jesus’ death from various metaphorical angles. What Jesus accomplished on the cross is a mystery beyond mystery so the only way we can speak about it is through analogy – “it’s like this, but not exactly like this.”
One of the ways we prayerfully imagine our way into the reality of Jesus’ work on the cross is the concept of solidarity. Jesus so identified with the people he served that he was willing to take on any risk to stay in relationship with them. In solidarity with those who were suffering and who lived under oppression, Jesus went to the cross propelled by his love and his devotion. As John’s Gospel puts it, “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
The end. The end of what? Of Jesus’ earthly life? No, because the story continues after that. The end of our lives? No, because in the power of the resurrection, our stories continue after that too. The end of all things? No, because even at the end of the universe God will still be. Loving us to the end doesn’t have anything to do with time. The end here is the completion or fulfillment of Jesus’ mission, a mission of bringing all creation back into right relationship with God. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them completely, so completely that the Love remains eternally.
This love propelled Jesus to the cross out of solidarity with and compassion for all that God loves, which is everyone and everything. When we take up our crosses for this reason – the reason of solidarity and compassion – we can see why Jesus would link this to giving up our lives. Solidarity means getting outside our selfish selves and standing with others who are going through things that are not affecting us in the same way. Compassion means moving beyond our own comfort and discovering the endurance of love that sustains through suffering. When we accept Jesus’ invitation to take up the cross, this is what we agree to. We agree to embrace compassion as the primary posture of our lives and to stand with others as they suffer or as they grieve or as they challenge injustice.
As we sit with the devastating reality of 500,000 Americans dead to COVID-19 (and hundreds of thousands more around the world), we could retreat into our own tiny, insular worlds and fend off the pain that swirls thick in the air. Or we can follow Jesus and take up our crosses of solidarity and compassion. We can address this pain in our prayer practice. We can breathe in the pain of such staggering loss. We can breathe out the love of God. We breathe in the pain. We breathe out the love of God. We breathe in pain. We breathe out love. In this practice, we become like trees transforming carbon dioxide into breathable air. The atoms still exist, but God rearranges them through our compassion and solidarity into new, life-giving molecules.
As we engage in this compassionate exercise, God works God’s enlivening grace in and through us. We practice holding pain and love. And God spurs us to use the energy of this practice to transform the world. We look at the grim reality of half a million dying in a pandemic, and we see the paths that could have led us to better outcomes. We see the politicization of the pandemic that caused sensible mitigation strategies to take on partisan baggage. We see self-interest masquerading as freedom. We see plainly the racial disparities in healthcare, employment, and incarceration which have led to the pandemic disproportionately killing Americans of color. We see how environmental degradation leads to new viral pathogens as humans come into contact with animals we have no business being near. We see all this and more, and such perspective gives us new choices to make to old, old problems. And our cross-based practice of solidarity and compassion gives us the strength and the courage to make new, life-giving choices for the health of the world.
When Jesus invites us to take up our crosses and follow him, his path leads directly into the heart of the suffering of creation. Once in that heart, Jesus remains there, breathing in pain, breathing out love. This is where he beckons us. And so we enter that heart, as well, and we breathe with him. We breathe solidarity and compassion. We breathe in pain. We breathe out love. We breathe in death-dealing ways. We breathe out life-giving ways. And that’s one way God transforms the world.