August 30, 2020
+ Last week, I preached about my strange relationship with the Church—capital C,
As I thought about it, it seems that one of the reasons people lose heart in the Church is that they have a preconceived notion of what the Church is.
I think there are a lot of people who think the Church is this sweet, nice place where everyone gets along.
As I said last week in my sermon, the Church is not always that place at all.
In fact, the Church, as I have always said, is a human-run organization run by fallible human beings.
I don’t just mean Bishops and Priests.
I know it’s fun for some laity to be anti-clerical.
We can blame the clergy for this and that.
But it’s false.
Lay leaders have also done much to undermine and hurt the Church as well.
If you don’t believe me, read a very interesting book called When Sheep Attack.
I think people also think that being a Christian means being happy, and joyful all the time with nothing bad happening in our lives.
There are people who cannot understand why bad things happen to Christians.
Shouldn’t God be protecting us in some special way?
In fact, I had an argument with a friend of mine not all that long ago about this very same subject.
This friend—a committed Christian— told me that they believed that it was God’s will that we be happy.
“It is?” I said. “Really? Find me anywhere in scripture where that is the case!”
Of course, he couldn’t.
Because it’s nto true.
That is simply not the case.
It is not God’s will that we be happy in this life.
Yes, we should strive for happiness and contentment in our lives.
Yes, we should do our best to live fulfilling and meaningful lives.
But we are not promised rose gardens in this life (as the old Country song goes).
If you want proof that life as a Christian often means living with hardship and pain and suffering, then you need look no farther than the martyrs of the church.
At our Wednesday night Mass, we invariably encounter a martyr or two.
And their stories are often horrendous and frightening.
But martyrs are an essential part of the Church, of our faith.
After all, in the early Church, the martyrs were the rock stars of their age.
They were loved.
They were emulated.
They were, in some cases, often disturbingly, imitated.
To be murdered for Jesus at that time was a great honor at that time.
Even now martyrs are considered great heroes.
We, of course, honor and emulate such martyred leaders of the Church as Martin Luther King or the great Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer or the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda, Janani Luwum
But this discussion of martyrs does cause us to ask some questions of our selves.
The big question is: if worse came to worst, would we be willing to die for Jesus?
Would we be able to take to heart the words of today’s Gospel, when Jesus says,
“those who lose their life for my sake will gain it.”
Now, for those of us who were raised in the Roman Catholic faith, some of us heard about the differences between “blood martyrdom” and something called “dry martyrdom.”
A “wet” or “blood” martyr is someone like Martin Luther King—someone who died violently.
A dry martyr is one has suffered indignity and cruelty for Jesus but has not died violently in the process.
For example, Sister Constance and her companions were a group of Episcopal nuns who died while caring for the sick during a Yellow Fever outbreak in Memphis Tennessee in 1878.
They are known as the “Martyrs of Memphis,” even though they were not murdered for the faith.
Suffering for Christ then doesn’t just mean dying for Christ either.
There are many people who are living with persecution and other forms of abuse for their faith.
Or people who suffer for simply standing up and speaking out for what is right, even if it means they will be persecuted for such a view.
And it is a perfectly valid form of martyrdom (martyr of course means “witness”)
The point of all this martyr talk is that we need to be reminded that as wonderful as it is being Christian, as spiritually fulfilling as it is to follow Jesus and to have a deeply amazing personal relationship with the God of Jesus, nowhere in scripture or anywhere else are we promised that everything is going to be without struggle.
We all must bear crosses in our lives, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel.
“If any want to become my followers, let them take up their cross and follow me.”
We all still have our own burdens to bear as followers of Jesus
And those burdens are, of course, our crosses.
While we might understand losing our lives for Jesus’ sake might be easier for us to grasp, picking up our cross might seem like a vague idea for us.
Bearing our crosses for Jesus means essentially that, as wonderful as it is being a Christian, life for us isn’t always a rose garden.
Being a Christian means, bearing our cross and following Jesus, means facing bravely the ugly things that life sometimes throws at us.
I don’t think I have to tell anyone here what those ugly things in life are.
Each of us has had to deal with our own personal forms of the world’s ugliness.
As we ponder those who are “with” us this morning—both virtually or in the Church—most of us here this morning have carried our share of crosses in this life.
Most of us have shouldered the difficult and ugly things of this life—whether it be illness, death, loss, despair, disappointment, frustration—you name it.
The fact is: these things are going to happen to us whether we are Christians or not.
It’s simply our lot as human beings that life is going to be difficult at times.
It is a simple fact of life that we are going to have feasts in this life, as well as famines.
There will be gloriously wonderful days and horribly, nightmarish days.
We are going to have to endure pandemics, social isolation and fear
We are going to have to endure political upheaval.
We, as human beings, cannot escape this fact.
But, we, as Christians, are being told this morning by Jesus that we cannot deal with those things like everyone else does.
When the bad things of this life happen, our first reaction is often to run away from them.
(I don’t know how to run away from a global pandemic).
Our instinct is fight or flight—and more likely it’s usually flight.
Our first reaction is to numb our emotions, to curl up into a defensive ball and protect ourselves and our emotions.
But Jesus is telling us that, as Christians, what we must do in those moments is to embrace those things—to embrace the crosses of this life—to shoulder them and to continue on in our following of Jesus.
By facing our crosses, by bearing them, by taking them and following Jesus, we was able to realize that what wins out in the end is God and God’s love, not the cross we are bearing.
What triumphs in the end is not any of the other ugly things this life throws at us.
Rather, what triumphs is the integrity and the strength we gain from being a Christian.
What triumphs is Jesus’ promise that a life unending awaits us.
What triumphs is Jesus’ triumph over death and the ugly things of this life.
What we judge to be the way we think it should be is sometimes judged differently by God.
We don’t see this world from the same perspective God does.
And as a result, we are often disappointed.
Yes, our burdens are just another form of martyrdom—another albeit a bloodless form of witnessing to Christ.
And, like a martyr, in the midst of our toil, in the midst of shouldering our burden and plodding along toward Jesus, we are able to say, “Blessed be the name of God!”
That is what it means to be a martyr.
That is what it means to deny one’s self, to take up one’s cross and to follow Jesus.
That is what it means to find one’s life, even when everyone else in the world thinks you’ve lost your life.
It means in the midst of sadness, suffering and pain, to be able to say, “Blessed be the Name of God!”
So, let us take up whatever cross we’re bearing and carry it with strength and purpose.
Let us take our cross up and follow Jesus.
Let us say, as we do so, “Blessed be the Name of God!”
And, in doing so, we will gain for ourselves the glory of God that Jesus promises to those who do so.
Let us pray.
Holy God, blessed is your name! we thank you for giving us the strength and purpose to take up our cross and follow your Son, Jesus, along a path that, although uncertain and frightening at times, leads always to you. In Jesus’s Name we pray. Amen.