- Parish House
Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent – Mark 8:31-38
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
We lost a religious giant this week with the passing of Billy Graham. By all accounts, his life was extraordinary. His crusades filled stadiums with a popular Christianity that has become part of the fabric of American religious life. Nearly 215 million people heard him preach in person around the world. His talent and charisma helped him become both a household name and a counselor to presidents and celebrities. The Christian Century reports that, “from beginning to end, Graham voiced boilerplate evangelical theology focused on a simple, nonsectarian call to faith. Virtually every sermon started with a recitation of world crises, followed by national ones, and then personal ones. For each crisis, Christ offered the answer. Whatever the stated text, the actual text of every sermon was the same, John 3:16: ‘For God so loved the world . . .’ Though Graham shunned prosperity and personal fulfillment gospels, he offered a good deal of practical advice about day-to-day living.” And with his unique style, he moved millions of hearts.
There are problems in his legacy, too, as with any larger-than-life figure. His track record on Jews, homosexuality, war, and civil rights cannot be swept easily under the rug. One thing I find interesting is that as he aged, he grew less quick to make pronouncements about particular social questions. Sounding much like Pope Francis, he came to say things like, “Who am I to judge?” And to his credit, with all of his celebrity and influence, he remained wary of any easy alliance between politics and religion. He kept his focus on preaching the gospel, and he was remarkable at it. One article suggested that if there was a Mount Rushmore of American preachers, Graham would be on it, alongside Johnathan Edwards and Martin Luther King, Jr.
I probably have a lot less in common theologically with Graham’s son Franklin, who has assumed the reigns of his father’s movement. On the day that his father died, Franklin posted that Graham was now with Jesus, and then asked, “What about you? When you depart this world do you know with certainty where you will spend eternity? You can know this today,” a kind of Facebook altar call, surprising to me but not surprising at the same time. Ever since I saw it, I’ve been mulling over how far apart our Christian worlds can be. For the record, I did do a little self-check to make sure that the issue isn’t that I’m jealous, since Episcopalians tend to have a much smaller stage. The post which implied two eternal destinations rubbed me the wrong way, especially so close to Graham’s passing. I have enormous admiration for Billy Graham’s ministry and legacy, with a few sharp differences of course. But as with any popular version of a religious tradition, I worry about what can get lost when Christianity is taught through cliches and catch phrases, especially when they convey fear and the threat of eternal punishment. For better or worse, thanks in part to Graham’s enormous success, such popular ideas are now in the water.
Like John 3:16, today’s gospel is a prime opportunity for a simplified word of judgment. Jesus is teaching that that Son of Man will be crucified. And that his followers should take up their cross and follow him. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for his sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. In popular Christianity, taking up our cross is often interpreted to mean that we must accept Jesus in order to be saved. And that we must lose our old lives without Christ in order to save our lives eternally. But if we stop there in our exploration of this passage, I think we miss its true wisdom.
First, let’s explore this dying business, this losing our lives in order to save them. Its a strange teaching. According to Richard Rohr, it’s found in all of the major religious traditions of the world. “If you hear it an early level,” says Rohr, “you think it’s negative, morbid, or self-sacrificial. But it’s about dying to the false self, realizing that I am not the center of the world. When we’re still focused on ourselves, we just don’t see very well. We don’t see truthfully, with wisdom. That’s why traditions talk about dying. You need a whole new vantage point. This is almost impossible to understand as western individualistic thinkers… Jesus teaches that the world is not like we think. The first will be last and the last first. And unless we get these new eyes we won’t see the world closer to how God sees it.”
And then there is the teaching about the cross, to take it up and to follow Jesus. Christians understand the cross as a means to an end, to our salvation. It is that, but the cross is also a wisdom teaching. The cross embodies God’s absolute identification and solidarity with every human being who has suffered. The cross is God’s union with every moment of suffering, and it’s God’s promise to do something with that suffering, which will lead to resurrection.
To understand this, Rohr points out that Jesus calls himself the “human one,” which is a better translation than Son of Man. And then Jesus teaches this: “Watch me and you’ll see how to do the human thing, which is to put it together with the divine thing. I’ll do it for you and then you follow me.” That’s a Jesus we can fall in love with, says Rohr. We don’t fall in love with a transaction for our salvation. We fall in love with God in solidarity with us. That’s the God we change our lives for, one we give our lives for. Taking up our crosses, dying to our old selves, these are not joyless teachings about self-sacrifice. They are wisdom teachings about where the human meets the divine, and where they fall in love and in solidarity with one another.
In addition to reading accounts of Billy Graham’s life and legacy this week, the Florida school shooting has weighed heavy on my heart, no doubt as it has on yours. A bright spot for me has been watching those brave teenagers take on the public square demanding real change. They give me immense hope.
Tragic events remind us that religious messages of carrying crosses and losing lives are not light or easy words. When awful things happen, I don’t find platitudes very comforting or helpful, especially theological ones that try to wrap it all up quickly and neatly as somehow part of God’s larger plan. But the cross is helpful, deeply helpful. The cross is an assurance that God is present in the darkest human moments, in solidarity with those who suffer. We are called to be in solidarity too, strong in our Christian hope that the human and the divine meet in that suffering and that resurrection will come, which for now is but a glimmer beyond our understanding.
This week, I think, has reminded us to seek the wisdom of the gospel beyond the easy or quick answers. The way of the cross is a path of deeper wisdom. The way of the cross is the intersection of love and tragedy, where the human and the divine meet. The cross was never just about a transaction for our salvation. The cross has always been an invitation into solidarity, into seeing this world a bit more as God sees it.