February 25, 2018
Second Sunday of Lent
Mark 8: 31-38
This week as I’ve watched the newscasts of the Parkland high school students pleading with lawmakers and the rest of the country to take their suffering seriously, it brought to mind my own experience as a child with suffering, and in particular with gun violence. When I was a teenager, my cousin Susan was shot and killed on her college campus in front of her sorority house by a man who should never have been able to get a gun in the first place. It was an awful time in the life of my family. But the thing that I remember the most from that tragedy was how much the adults in my life tried to protect me from suffering. While the adults went to the funeral, I had to stay home. And for weeks I wasn’t allowed to watch the news or read the newspaper. I remember feeling so frustrated by their protection because I was suffering too. I needed my suffering to be out in the open too. I needed to share my suffering with my family and community, so that I could make sense of my suffering. Not for it to be bottled up inside. But it was as if the adults in my life thought that suffering was contagious, and if they could just sanitize my life enough I wouldn’t catch it. Like if we could just build schools with thick enough walls and bullet proof glass, or if we could just arm enough teachers with semi-automatic weapons, or if we could just somehow figure out who all the bad guys are soon enough, then maybe we can shield those we love from suffering. Meanwhile, the Parkland students and the Columbine students and the Sandy Hook students are over here actually suffering and wondering why they are being protected from suffering they are already experiencing. Because the Parkland students don’t need to be protected from suffering. Instead, they, like me so many years ago when my cousin was murdered, are asking where do we go with the suffering we actually are experiencing right now? What shape is our suffering going to take?
Which makes me wonder if the crowds listening to Jesus that day felt a similar frustration, when Peter rebuked Jesus for talking openly about his suffering. Because I wonder if Peter was trying to protect the crowd from what they already knew. I wonder if Peter thought he could save the crowd from suffering, not realizing that these were people who already knew quite well what suffering was. They didn’t need to be protected from suffering. They needed to know where to go with the suffering they already had. Which is what I hear Jesus saying when he tells the crowd that “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Jesus is telling the crowd where to go with their suffering, not that they will suffer in the first place. Because Jesus understood what Peter did not. Jesus understood that the people he was speaking to didn’t need to be shielded from suffering, because they were already suffering. Jesus wasn’t handing them a cross. He wasn’t saying if you want to be my follower, then the price is a cross. Because the crowds that streamed to hear Jesus, they already had a cross. The folks who were desperate for the Good News, the prostitutes and the sinners, the lepers and the hated tax collectors, they already had a cross. And the kinds of folks who still flock to Jesus and always have, queers and junkies, the depressed and the jobless, students holding their best friend while they die from another school shooting and the rest of watching from the sidelines crushed in our powerlessness, they and we already have a cross. We already suffer. So, Jesus isn’t giving us a cross. But he’s telling us where to go with the crosses that we already have. With the suffering that already exists in our life, Jesus is calling us to follow. He’s telling us which way to walk. Because Jesus doesn’t save us from our suffering, nor does he heap more suffering on us because we are his followers, but he shows us where to go when suffering bubbles up in our lives. And where we go is with Jesus to the cross and then on into the empty tomb. We take our suffering and we walk with Jesus, because we have heard a rumor that there is life on the other side of death.
When Jesus tell us to take up our cross and to follow him, he’s giving us a battle cry for life. It’s not a coincidence that Jesus’ words sound a lot like military commanders when they say, “Take up your weapons and charge!” But instead of taking up swords or guns or bombs, Jesus says to take up our cross. And instead of charge, Jesus says to follow. Therefore, we are called not to shield ourselves from suffering, nor to avenge our suffering through violence. Instead, we take our suffering, and we walk side by side behind Jesus and we lay our suffering at the foot of the cross and we wait to see what God will do with it. And the great promise is that at the cross, God takes our suffering and squeezes every last drop of life out of it and hands that life back over to us.
But it’s so easy to be like Peter and think that we are in control of our destiny and that the good life comes through defense. That if we just build enough walls and shield ourselves from suffering then we can somehow avoid needing God. Because if we don’t suffer, then we don’t need God to resurrect life out of that suffering. I know I do this all the time. And the primary way I try and shield myself and others from suffering is by manipulating the way I speak, to try and make things sound less bad than they are. Like when you tell your spouse you’re just tired, when in reality you’re depressed. Or you tell your kid that mommy and daddy are spending some time apart when you’re really getting divorced. There are all kinds of ways that we try and shield ourselves and each other from suffering thinking that we are making our lives more bearable, when in reality we are just isolating ourselves in our pain.
One of the best examples of this from my own life was from when I came out to my parents. When I came out as gay to my family, I remember thinking that there was no way that they could bear the pain and so I had to find a way to soften it. And so when I told them, I mingled the truth with a lie. I told them I was gay but that I had never acted on it and that I wasn’t planning on being sexually active. But in reality, I had already had several boyfriends at that point. I just didn’t think that my parents could handle the truth, and I thought that a partial truth would make things better. But my attempt to shield my family from suffering ended up making things so much worse. It created this false sense of hope in my parents that perhaps my sexuality wasn’t real, or that it was just a phase, and it isolated me from them even more because I knew the truth. But most of all what my actions did was prevent me from seeing what God was able to do with my suffering. By trying to control my suffering, I was putting my trust in myself, instead of trusting in God. I wasn’t picking up my cross and following Jesus. I was trying to bury my cross in the sand. And all that did was delay my ability to see what God was doing with my suffering.
Because here I am 20 years later, and my family and I have reconciled around my sexuality, but it took 15 years. So, sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t been like Peter and snubbed my nose at the way of the cross. How much more reconciliation would I had been able to experience if I hadn’t tried to shield myself and my loved ones from the suffering we were already experiencing.
Because I already had my cross and my parents had theirs and you, every one of you, already have your crosses. And the call, this Lenten season and every day of our lives, is to drag that cross out in the open, and to walk together, side by side with our pain and our brokenness and our vulnerabilities shared. And together we are better able to entrust our suffering to God. Because when our suffering is a secret, it’s a lot easier to think we can control it. But when our suffering is out in the open, it’s a lot easier for our neighbor to call Bullshit on our capacity to control things, and thus to remind us of the only real path we had in the first place, which is to carry our suffering to God and to wait for God’s resurrection.