Lent Focus Scripture: Mark 8:34-35 (NRSV)
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Sunday's Scripture: Mark 2:1-12 (NRSV)
When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” —he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
Let us pray:
Patient teacher, we give you thanks for this season of Lent, a season set aside for helping us turn back to you. This Lent, we will study in particular how to take up our cross and follow you. So through the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, speak truth anew to us, and inspire us to follow you. Amen.
On Wednesday, I had planned to put us all at ease by joking about how uplifting the Gospel of Mark can be. And then today, our story is actually pretty uplifting--- literally, right? But let's revisit that passage from the eighth chapter of Mark. Here's Jesus, talking about denying ourselves, about how only if we want to lose our life, we will keep it. The passage from the eighth chapter of Mark is a hard one, that illustrates that Jesus is not always interested in making us feel better. Instead, sometimes Jesus wants us to be better. He insists: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Almost everything I have read says that to take up your cross means to take up suffering and death. Jesus himself explains that we have to deny ourselves, and that taking up our crosses has to do with losing our lives. Again, the Gospel of Mark doesn't really make my job easy, for me. This Gospel message isn't exactly what I would call good. Except, in the same way that Jesus is not concerned about making us comfortable, he is not interested in promoting doormat theology either.1 Doormat theology is when we think God wants us to be doormats, so sweet that we just let people walk all over us, or a kind of robot theology, where we think God wants to erase everything about us that makes us unique and different and reprogram us to be mindless, submissive robots. Taking up our crosses, denying ourselves, losing ourselves is not about turning us into doormats or robots. Instead, it is about love.
That's why we are going back in the Gospel of Mark this morning, all the way back to the second chapter, to this story of five friends. This story is more uplifting that the passage about taking up our crosses. But it is one of the passages that most embodies taking up our crosses, I think. It is fairly literal after all. The four friends are taking up the physical burden of their fifth friend. But it also links taking up our crosses with love.
We don't know much about these five friends. We don't know if they grew up together, we don't know if the one friend has always been paralyzed or if not how he became paralyzed. Later, when Jesus tells him his sins are forgiven, we don't know what sins Jesus is talking about. We just don't know. But we do know that at least four of the five friends, the four who carried the fifth, have great faith. That's what Jesus sees when the fifth man is lowered before him: four friends, itching and dusty from digging through the thatched roof, arms aching from carrying the fifth friend so far and then so high, but four friends with faces full of expectant certainty. Jesus saw faith in these faces. And I think we can also see in those four friends the faces of those who have taken up their crosses.
You see, “To deny yourself and take up your cross invites us into what the cross can also mean--- not just death and suffering, but God choosing human relationships.” We see the cross, and we think blood for our sins. But that's not all the cross means. “The cross represents God’s commitment to humanity.” Through prophets for years, God tried to reconcile God's people, tried to draw us close to God, show us the right way to live. And over and over again, humanity ignored God, or botched the message somehow. “The cross represents what we do when we are not in relationship with the other and think only for ourselves.” That is the death of the cross--- the cross is the desolation of disconnection. But God followed us even there. And so, for us to take up our crosses is not to take up needless suffering, but to choose connection in spite of suffering. To choose relationships--- with God and with one another.2 Those four friends entered into the suffering of the fifth, and chose to love him, to be in relationship with him, and to seek healing with him, just as Jesus did for all of us when he took up his cross.
And just as you have done for me and Aaron this week. They often say that you aren't supposed to be open about miscarriages and fertility issues because it makes people uncomfortable. They don't know what to say. Well, we don't know what to say to someone with cancer, either. So I burdened all of you with the suffering Aaron and I endured this week, and still with which we still struggle. I don't think that our loss is a cross we have to bear though. The cross that I have seen people take up this week with our struggle is the cross that those four friends took up for their paralytic friend. I have seen people enter into our suffering, as uncomfortable as it is, to be ears to listen to me recount what happened, or to bring cake for Aaron's birthday, or to sing Adele songs really loud and off-key to make us laugh, or to lift us up in prayer daily and wrap us in hugs. Many of you have called to check on me, or offered to pick up something I was supposed to pick up, or meet with someone I was supposed to meet just to ensure I could stay at home and rest. You have lifted us up, pointed us to God's love in a situation where we are more likely to feel only absence. Though we have felt strangely hopeful and at peace, you and our family and friends have been digging through the roof with us to help get us to Jesus' healing presence.
Something similar is happening throughout the county in the wake of the horrible tragedy just next door in Abingdon. People are reaching out to one another, as those friends reached out to the one in need of healing--- just as the Officer Daily reached out to the shooter before he was murdered. Not only to the families of those suffering such horrible losses. But there was a story posted to the Harford County Emergency Facebook page that goes like this:
I wanted to share something beautiful that happened to the husband of one of our coworkers here at the 911 Center.
Her husband and his friend (who are both officers from a local Maryland law enforcement agency) went into a local business yesterday.
They were approached by a young boy and his mom who shook their hands and said how grateful they are for what they do. They also presented them with this gift card.3
There was a picture of the gift card to Dunkin Donuts lying on top of a beautiful handmade card that said, “Thank you for all that you do.” Here a young boy and his mother reached out to a complete stranger, adding a little love in the world. He was doing his part to get us a little closer to Jesus' healing presence.
Let us not forget that the instruction is not just to take up our crosses, but to take up our cross and follow Jesus, to follow the Messiah. This is the center of the Gospel of Mark, perhaps the declaration and response on which the whole Gospel turns. If Jesus is the Messiah, then we must follow him. The five friends know this, and their faith directs them, guides them. Lent is the time of year that we too return to this journey.
I am passing out crosses today, a physical reminder of the direction Jesus has given us. But this Lent, I ask that you don't sit at home alone, holding the cross in your hands and praying. Yes, prayer is integral to our Lentan journey. But so is relationship. I want this cross to be a physical reminder for you to take up your cross. I want you to pray, certainly, but I want you--- I want us--- to take up our crosses by reaching out to one another in our need. Who are you being called to be a friend to, to take up your cross for? Who has taken up their cross for you? In what ways can our church take up our cross for the community? I invite us now to reflect on these questions in a time of prayer.
1David Lose writes: “Here I should be clear. I’m not taking about – and I’m quite confident Jesus isn’t talking about – a kind of doormat theology where we are to ignore our genuine human needs altogether or see ourselves as not deserving of love, dignity, and respect. And so there is no justification here for enduring abusive relationships or tolerating injustice. Rather, I’m talking about giving of ourselves in love – which is of course quite different than having others take from us. And that giving in love almost always includes sacrifice, denying ourselves and our immediate gratification so as to meet another’s needs.”
2The quotes in this paragraph are from Karoline Lewis, “A Different Kind of Denial,” Dear Working Preacher, 22 February 2015, Working Preacher, accessed 10 February 2016, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3542.
3Posted on the Harford Emergency Management Services Facebook page 12 February 2016, accessed 13 February 2016, https://www.facebook.com/HarfordCoEM/photos/a.426143164142866.1073741825.346613205429196/964900593600451/?type=3&theater