Sunday, February 28, 2021
Second Sunday in Lent, Year B

Prayer of the Day
O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life. Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Readings and Psalm
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16   God blesses Abraham and Sarah
Psalm 22:23-31
Romans 4:13-25   The promise to those who share Abraham’s faith
Mark 8:31-38   The passion prediction

Sermon
Title:  The Cross:  Comfort and Call

If you are an avid listener to NPR as I am, then you know that each Friday, Morning Edition (the daily news show) plays a short selection from Story Corps – a project that records people in conversation telling the stories of their lives.  These tender and touching stories regularly give witness to the best in humanity, the higher angels that folks can be, and often they leave me with a lump in my throat and at least one tear in my eye.  This past Friday’s offering was exceptionally moving.  The conversation was between Tony Hicks and Azim Khamisa, a most unlikely pair.  Because Tony Hicks, in 1995 when he was just 14 years old, shot and killed Azim’s 20-year-old son, who at the time was working delivering pizzas while going to college.  Five years after that tragic night, Azim decided he needed to meet Tony face to face.  Their conversation on Story Corps revisited that meeting.  At that prison meeting in 2000, Azim told Tony that he forgave him.  Looking back, Tony described that forgiveness as being heavy on him.  That phrase caught my ear.  We often think about our wrongs and shortcomings as being a heavy burden.  But he was one who was experiencing profound mercy describing the forgiveness shown as a heavy on him.

Setting this conversation against hearing Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow, I started thinking that before we take up the weight of the cross, perhaps it is wise and necessary to take some time to examine the heaviness of God’s forgiveness, the profound and undeserved forgiveness that we are shown.  Not heavy as in crushing or inhibiting.  Paradoxically, it is heaviness that frees, that strengthens, the enlivens.  As Tony said to his forgiver, the example of this level of forgiveness gave him space to see that he was worth being forgiven.

We who are loved by God (that means all of us), the weighty forgiveness that we experience through Jesus the Christ, crucified on the cross, gives us the space to see our worth.  We are freed to take on the heavy task of exploring and living the worth that is revealed in us, mind-boggling worth, God-sacrificing worth, life-changing worth.  As one favorite preacher liked to say:  we are cherished children of God.  The forgiveness of God transforms that hideous and scandalous cross into a source of comfort, one might even say heavy comfort, that proclaims us loved and valued, worthwhile and priceless to our God and creator.  (Those familiar with weighted blankets might better relate to the concept of heavy comfort.)

Only by seeing the comfort of the cross can we then dare to approach to touch it, lift it, struggle with it, carry it, bear it, lift it high.  Not that we each have to do all of that.  For each are uniquely called.  Each embark on a unique faith journey.  Sometimes carrying and journeying together, sometimes alone.

But let us be clear.  Contrary to some popular phraseology, the crosses Jesus is calling us to bear are not hardships that life might challenge us with. They are not annoying people or plaguing health issues.  The cross of discipleship is not the cross referred to in comments like: “well, that’s just my cross to bear.”  No, those are things that certainly can rob us of the joy of living.  But, if applied to what Jesus is speaking of in today’s gospel, the cross is trivialized, forced upon us, causing us to be self-centered and even boastful, and ignoring the heart of Christ’s call.

It’s key that Jesus sets denying oneself as preparation for taking up our cross.  In our first reading, God calls Abraham and Sarah to deny themselves to such an extent that their names are changed.  Who can be surprised that the old man fell over when God said, “deny your age and become a father.”  Crashing through all their disappointment and fixation on limitations, God assures them that they will indeed be the founders of a world-changing legacy. Now, while this couple has always been an example of faith for their willingness to hear God’s call and leave their home and their people and venture into the wilderness for the establishing of this new nation, there were somethings about them that did deserve some divinely guided denial of self.  They did display some serious trust issues and, in their anxiety, took matters into their own hands.  When an heir was not coming fast enough, they came up with this great plan of having Sarah’s servant/slave Hagar bear Abraham a child, only to spark jealously in Sarah resulting in them heartlessly casting out Hagar and her son Ishmael.  Then there was that time they lied to the Pharaoh leading him to wrongly think he could take Sarah as his wife.  Yes, there was some serious denying of self that these two needed to do so that the promise of God might come to fruition in them and through them.  And in spite of their shortcomings, God never cancelled the call, never withdrew the covenant.  God continued to abide with them fulfilling the promises made.

Now Peter gives us a good picture of what denial of self is not.  Having just answered Jesus’ question of ‘who do you say that I am,’ with that great revelation and celebrated confession of faith: “You are the messiah,” now, just three verses later, Peter is forcing his idea of messiah on Jesus asking Jesus to deny his identity.  We are called to deny that which separates us from God and sets us against God’s reign.  Peter was asking Jesus to deny that which was of God, that which made him who he was and is.  Peter wanted the comfort of his own understanding, a powerful and victorious messiah, not one subjected to the scandal of the defeating cross.  But Jesus knew that joining us in our broken world meant that he himself would be broken.  This could not be denied.

Jesus goes on to invite all those who will follow him, those present that day, those who follow him today, to deny ourselves and take up that same attitude of love that knows no bounds, of life that is lived with awareness beyond one’s self, one’s concerns, and one’s priorities.  Azim – the forgiving father who spoke with Tony Hicks – spoke of denying his anger and his desire for vengeance.  He knew there would be no life if he clung to it for the rest of his days.  As he expressed it, forgiving another was something he gave to himself.  His Sufi tradition told him to value the spark in the other as he valued the spark in himself.

So, what does this mean for us as we strive to live into the cross-bearing example of Jesus?  What must we in ourselves deny, let go of, set aside, become a stranger to (just as Peter will try to do with Jesus the next time he denies him)?  Part of our Lenten journey is to ask this question each year as we strive to let go of our self-made burdens so that we might more fully embrace the gracious, life-giving identities of God’s cherished children given to us in baptism.  I pray you will take time to answer this individually.  But what about our diverse community of faith?  What must we together deny that serves our self-centeredness? 

In the early church, these images and questions were intensified by the martyrdoms that were increasing.  Those early believers saw quite literally what it meant to take up your cross, and to lose your life for the gospel’s sake.  For us it is much more subtle and internal, but still so very crucial. In our time, denial of self (individually, corporately, and systemically) can mean something as simple as masking wearing and protecting neighbors and something as big and challenging as turning away from racially-based power systems.

The challenge of subtle times is to reach beyond subtleness.  A favorite petition in a prayer I sometimes use for morning prayer comes from the Iona Community’s Service for Justice and Peace:  If we have dumbed down your Word and domesticated your Spirit because we want an easier faith and a tamer dove, God of justice, show yourself.

The comfort of the cross is the heavy forgiveness that is ours through the grace and mercy of God made known in Jesus the Christ.  Undeserved, yet overwhelmingly filled with worth-affirming love.  The call of the cross is the heavy challenge to deny ourselves and walk in the footsteps of the one who bore the cross for us all.  It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that either can be taken up.  And from that Spirit that comforts us in grace and leads us in our calling there is life.

Oh, and Tony Hicks, he is now out of jail, and works as a volunteer in the foundation that Azim started in his son’s name that works for justice.  Deny yourself and live.

Azim says that the pain of forgiving and facing Tony was not a bad thing because it made him a better person.  Those who lose their life with save it.

The Rev. Mark Erson,
Pastor

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