The Second Sunday in Lent – March 1, 2014
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
“For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
There’s a wonderful poem by A.A. Milne called ‘The Old Sailor,’ which begins like this:
There was once an old sailor my grandfather knew
Who had so many things which he wanted to do
That, whenever he thought it was time to begin,
He couldn’t because of the state he was in.
The sailor is shipwrecked on a deserted island, and thinks oh dear, I’d better get busy here. So he starts making fishhooks so he can catch himself some fish, but realizes the sun is so strong that he’d better make himself a hat first, and then as he begins on the hat he finds that he is so thirsty he’d better find a spring first, but then realizes he’d better work on a boat to escape so he starts making a needle in order to sew a sail…and finally, he lies down on the sand in the sun and waits to be rescued.
And so in the end he did nothing at all,
But basked on the shingle wrapped up in a shawl.
I have had many, many days like that old sailor. I can’t seem to get anything done because something else needs doing first, and finally all I want to do is give up. Sometimes I even do.
The days I do give up are the most successful.
Now, I’m not saying that it’s inherently good to be lazy, that we’ll never get everything done so we shouldn’t even try. There are all kinds of things that we do have to do and need to do and should do for others and for ourselves every day, and of course we do them, or some of them. But I do have a picture up over my desk to remind me of my daily futility, of a gravestone that reads “Got everything done – died anyway.” And I do believe – and I know it from experience – that frantically trying to do everything that we think needs to be done is actually bad for us. And bad for all those around us too.
Of course there really is a great deal on my list that needs to be done. There are people to get to know, meetings to set up, books to read, opinions to be solidified, budgets to be understood, boilers to be repaired. And if I step away from that to home, then there is laundry to be done, dinner to be made, homework to be supervised, and mommy, you told me 6 months ago you’d make that nightgown for my doll and you still haven’t done it. And my mother wants to know why I haven’t called. I am a failure on all counts. Which is why it is sometimes good to give up.
Jesus said to them, “if you want to become my follower, then you have to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” It is the clearest summing up of the life of discipleship that Jesus gives us. But it does not sit easily. Perhaps it is a sign of our brokenness that it sounds so negative to us. I’m sure it did to his listeners as well – take up your cross? The cross, a shameful instrument of torture, and I should do what with it? I thought you were the Messiah, the one who heals and leads us all into wholeness and the kingdom of God, and you’re talking about a cross? Hardly a symbol of victory.
Since there’s nothing obviously appealing in the call – he could have done better with take up your cross and make $6000 a day! – we usually interpret it as a call to suffering. “Take up your cross.” Figure out the thing that is maximum suffering for you in your life and head straight into it. This terrible illness, this abuse, this deep pain? Well, I guess it’s my cross to bear. “Deny yourself” – turn away from all you love in this world. Jesus did it and so must I. He didn’t necessarily want to suffer, as his long night in the garden of Gethsemane shows – he asked God for it not to happen. But at the end, he was willing to follow God’s will for him: and suffer he did. So that must be what this denying ourselves is all about – and so Lent takes on this terribly gloomy quality for us all, as we linger in the darkness together.
But suffering was not what Jesus’ cross was all about. His cross was what came about because of how he lived. You could say the cross is what happened to Jesus because he loved so deeply. His journey went to the cross because he was grounded in God and living out God’s desires for him, and teaching and healing and bringing life as he did brought upon him the forces of death and destruction. There was suffering in that, yes. There is no doubt that the powers of darkness hit hard, and will do so to any who follow Jesus as well. But that suffering wasn’t the final part of the story. It turned out that those forces weren’t as all-powerful as they seemed. Life was more powerful than death – the resurrection revealed that to the world. Living fully in God’s love brought life, for Jesus and for all. That is the cross Jesus took up.
So what is our cross? And how do we take it up?
Maybe it’s easier to get at it the back way, by talking about what it is not. If our cross isn’t suffering for suffering’s sake, or denying all that we love in life; then what is it? Is it all that we carry in our lives every day? All that we burden ourselves with? It sure feels sometimes like we deny ourselves and carry a load pretty much every day – all the stress and frustration and tiredness we drag around with us all the time. Is that what Jesus means?
“For what does it profit us to gain the whole world, but forfeit our life?” Or in another way of translating it, to gain the entire cosmos, but destroy our soul?
Back to our old marooned sailor. There is a lot we spend our time on with the goal of gaining the whole world. We spend long hours at work so that we’ll get ahead, climb the ladder, get a bigger paycheck. We vie with each other for notice and recognition in our activities at church and other groups. We race to catch the train, jump out to get the cab, jockey for position on the road or the sidewalk. We get in at the restaurant and get tickets to the show and get the latest copy of the book. And we try so hard to get it all done. But somehow we never do, because there is always more. We are always behind and someone else is always ahead. All the mess we carry around inside looks so terrible compared to the grace and perfection we see in other people’s lives. So sometimes, to save our souls, we just have to give it all up.
Because all the activity in the world does not equal life. Busying ourselves with all there is to busy ourselves with is not living fully. We can carry the whole world on our shoulders without ever taking up our cross.
Does that mean we should just lie down on our shingle and bask until we are saved? Yes. By which I mean that before we do anything, before we try to look busy and important, before we tie ourselves into knots over our to-do lists, before we come up with 100 other things we think should be the cross that we carry today, we must first be still. We must deny ourselves all of the ways we try to control it and please others and avoid it all, and instead, we must bask. Bask ourselves in God’s love until it soaks through us and permeates all we do. Let go and follow God’s lead, follow the way Jesus walks. Carry the cross of love and allow God to bring life through us.
Because then what we do will come out of God, and not ourselves. Our lives will show action, not merely activity. How we live and who we are will be congruent, grounded, transparent – showing God’s purpose and love for the world. There is so much God longs to do for you and through you.
This season, take the time to simply stop. To sit in God’s presence, be quiet, and listen. Jesus asks us to follow; to do that we must look and listen for where he is leading. Begin your day with quiet; end it with reflection. Learn from God all the ways there are to love. Be still, and let it unfold.