Monday, September 14, 2009

15 Pentecost Year B

Mark 8:27-38

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Many years ago now my friend A. was a newly ordained priest. She was serving on the staff of a church in the New York City suburbs. On a particularly hot July Sunday morning, she was the designated celebrant at the Eucharist. The church hadn’t yet installed a central air conditioning system, and it felt even hotter in the church than it felt outside. She opted to put on her stole but not to wear the chasuble, the heavy poncho like vestment that the celebrant traditionally wears. The Prayer Book rubrics—look at them sometime if you’re interested—only stipulate that the stole must be worn. A. figured that everyone, including the other clergy who were serving with her that day, would understand. She was wrong. Right before the service began, the elderly rector emeritus asked her why she wasn’t wearing the chasuble. When A. said she was too hot, she was reprimanded with the words, “Don’t you know that it’s a good thing to suffer for Jesus? After all, he suffered for you.” The old priest didn’t speak these words with a smile on his face; he was entirely serious. In his mind, enduring physical discomfort was an appropriate, even desirable way of following in Jesus’ footsteps.
History provides a more vivid and far more extreme example of the idea that it’s desirable to suffer for Jesus. In the Middle Ages, groups of men known as Flagellants gathered and marched in procession, beating themselves and each other with leather whips with iron spikes attached. The motivation behind this apparent madness was that this self-inflicted punishment would atone for the sins that caused the deadly outbreaks of bubonic plague. They thought that by inflicting pain on themselves they were sacrificing themselves for the world’s sins. They thought they were imitating Jesus. Unfortunately, their violence extended beyond the harm they inflicted on their own bodies. According to historians, the Flagellants were known to harm clergy who objected to their practices. They were also reported to have killed Jews they encountered. The pope condemned their activities in the mid fourteenth century, but similar behavior in times of plague persisted for at least another hundred years.
While we can be more than reasonably certain that Jesus wouldn’t have approved of the practices of the Flagellants, Jesus would hardly have us shy away from suffering. On the contrary. He tells his disciples and the crowd around them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” As we all know, Jesus suffers plenty on the way to the cross and on the cross itself. But are we to understand that our suffering is a good thing? Are we to understand that Jesus actually wants us to suffer? I can’t be so sure about that.
A reasonable reading of Mark’s gospel and of the other gospels demonstrates that Jesus devotes considerable time and energy to alleviate or even eliminate the suffering of others. In last week’s gospel lesson, Jesus first cast the demon out of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, although as you may remember, he didn’t do it without a little persuasion. Then he cured a man of his deafness and his inability to speak. In the same chapter that contains today’s lesson, Jesus cures a blind man at Bethsaida. In the next chapter, Jesus heals a boy with a spirit. Even the prohibition against doing work on the Sabbath didn’t keep Jesus from healing a man’s withered hand. For Jesus the remedy of the man’s disability was more important than observing the letter of the law. For Jesus alleviating suffering took precedence over following the dictates of religious tradition. The healings and exorcisms that I’ve just mentioned are just a few of the many that Jesus performs throughout the gospels.
Jesus isn’t just interested in easing the suffering caused by physical illness. Many, many times he aids people who suffered from possession by demons or spirits. Today we might refer to demon possession as mental illness or addiction. Jesus has great concern for the poor and for those who are social outcasts. Poverty causes physical suffering every bit as real as that caused by illness or injury; the poor don’t get enough to eat, often don’t have adequate shelter, and frequently have little access to medical care. Poverty and exclusion from society cause spiritual suffering too, which Jesus also seeks to remedy. Jesus feeds hungry people and takes away the discomfort of their empty stomachs. He eats with sinners and tax collectors who are shunned by so-called respectable society and the local religious establishment. Jesus doesn’t shy away from associating with the untouchables of his world. He seeks to remedy the pain of exclusion by drawing them into his circle of association.
We might want to consider all of Jesus’ healings and his compassion for the poor and the outcast in the light of his question to the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers this question quite correctly by replying, “You are the Messiah.” In practical terms, though, what does this answer mean for Jesus’ followers? What kind of Messiah is Jesus? What will the kingdom that Jesus will bring as the Messiah look like? What difference does it make? What difference does it make to the disciples, and what difference does it make to us what kind of Messiah we are following?
All of the healing miracles that Jesus performs suggest that the kingdom he proclaims is a kingdom where shalom will prevail. Shalom means “peace” in Hebrew, but it means more than simply peace. Shalom also means health and wholeness. Shalom in the kingdom of God means that people won’t have to deal with the pain of hunger. Shalom in the kingdom of God means that people will no longer be afflicted by physical ailments, deformities, and limitations. People will no longer be possessed by demons. In the kingdom of God shalom means that relations between people are conducted in such a manner that there is no such thing as a marginalized person; all are welcome and included.
If the disciples of Jesus—and the disciples are us as well as the original twelve—seek to follow Jesus the healer, what does it mean in terms of how we conduct our lives and our relations with our neighbor? How is this type of discipleship different from discipleship that emphasizes the suffering of Jesus? Which kind of discipleship is likely to lead to a state of shalom?
There’s a real danger in investing too much in the idea that Jesus suffers. He asks us to take up our cross, true. But there’s a very real danger that we might come to see suffering as a good thing. If we see our own suffering or the suffering of others as any kind of a good thing, we’re less likely to intervene to prevent or stop suffering when we see it. If we think the struggles of others for food, adequate housing, decent health care, or inclusion in society are redemptive, or even just character-building, we’re less likely to provide any aid. Remember the practices of the Flagellants, who I mentioned earlier. Their self-inflicted pain didn’t lead them to treat others with kindness and compassion. Instead, they tended to deal violently with civil and religious authorities who opposed them.
So, as we’ll sing in the Offertory Hymn in a little while, “Take up your cross, the savior said.” Follow Jesus. Follow him as a feeder. Follow him as a healer. Follow him as a gatherer of souls. Don’t be afraid to suffer if that suffering is necessary. But please don’t think that’s what Jesus wants for you and me. It seems to me that while he would have us carry his cross, he has no wish for us to hang on it too. Jesus hung on that cross so that you and I wouldn’t have to. Amen.