ECW Retreat, Toddhall Retreat Center—Philippians 3:8-14, Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Luke 20:9-19
Have you ever stopped and thought about how crazy it is that we’re here at this moment doing what we’re doing? We’re not at work, directly contributing to the economy. We’re not at leisure, being entertained. We’re not getting any chores or projects done around the house. We’ve given up precious time—time for which we could easily think of a number of different uses—we’ve given up valuable time to gather in this rather odd building that has little or no practical or functional use, and participate in rituals and ceremonies that don’t feed a single hungry person or educate one illiterate immigrant or add one dime to the gross domestic product. Some of us are even dressed in costumes that haven’t been fashionable since the Roman Empire. What could we possibly be thinking?
What we’re thinking, of course, is that “the Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.” What we’re thinking is that there’s an awful lot in the world that is broken, there’s an awful lot in our experience that makes us weep, there are an awful lot of people out there who are in pain of various kinds. And we come here to worship and pray to a God who specializes in fixing things that are broken, drying the tears of those who weep, and bringing comfort to those who suffer. We come here to worship and pray to a God who makes old things new, who lifts up those who have been cast down, a God whose nature is to redeem and restore. The deepest desire of God’s heart is to put right the things that are wrong, to make things that are out of things that are not, to bring strength out of weakness, truth out of error, hope out of despair, health out of the sickness, light out of the darkness, and life out of death. Listen to the word of the Lord as revealed to his prophet Isaiah:
Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth…I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honor me, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.
This is a theme echoed by the Psalmist:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy. Then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”
This, precisely this, is why we are giving up valuable time and energy and money so that we can come and waste time here in this strange building doing these strange things. “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.”
In our gratitude and in our joy, however, it is easy for us to be deceived. It is easy for us to come to see our salvation—all this good stuff that God wants to do and is doing, all this work of righting wrongs and lifting up the lowly and forgiving sins and healing relationships and bringing something out of nothing and making us fit to live with him in Heaven—it’s easy for us to see our salvation as something that comes to us magically and painlessly, as if God just waves his wand and says, “Make it so.” God just waves his wand and a deadbeat dad goes back to his wife and children. God just waves his wand and the heart of a racist is melted in love toward those who are different from himself. God just waves his wand and there’s an abundant wheat crop in Canada that wards off a famine in Africa. God just waves his wand and I lose my predisposition toward anger or lust or envy or greed or whichever of the deadly sins I happen to be susceptible to.
These things happen, of course. They happen every day. But there’s no wand-waving involved. Last week we heard the parable of the Prodigal Son, and we saw the “cost” that God bears in procuring our redemption. But it also costs us something. Now I realize that sounds like heresy to ears that are at all formed by the theology of the Reformation. It sounds like an offense to the concept that, as a song says, “Jesus paid it all.” So I’m certainly not suggesting that we can come anywhere close to footing the bill for our redemption ourselves, and just need a little bit of help from Jesus to push us over the top. No, God’s grace is both free and sufficient. But, we do need to cooperate with that grace. We need to give our active and ongoing consent to the work that God wants to do in our souls that will bring us to the holiness for which we are destined.
When we attend closely to parables like today’s—the one about the vineyard owner who sends a series of representatives to his rebellious tenant farmers, until finally he sends his son and they kill him—and when we attend closely to the theology that St Paul lays out for us in his letter to the Philippians, we learn the particular way in which God redeems and restores us. There is a particular shape to God’s saving work, and that shape is defined by the cross. It is the shape of the cross that provides the template for all the good work that God wants to accomplish—in your heart, in my heart, and in the very fabric of the universe.
St Paul puts it this way, when he expresses his desire “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Sharing the sufferings of Christ, becoming like him in his death—this is the experience of conformity to the cross of Christ that God uses to save us.
Let’s face it: We wish there were another way. Getting crucified hurts. We wish it were a matter of waving a wand, magically and instantaneously making us whole, and the entire universe at the same time. In God’s wisdom—which is foolishness to humans, St Paul says—in God’s wisdom, it doesn’t work that way. The path to life is through death—not around it, but through it. The path to success is through failure, the path to victory is through surrender, the path to strength is through weakness. It is the way of the cross—not some other way, but the way of the cross—that is none other than the way of life and peace.
Learning to walk this way, the way of the cross, requires us, first, to take up our cross—not to evade it, but to embrace it. This is the cross of our lifetime, a cross we may not even be able to recognize fully until we are well into our lifetime. This might be the cross of chronic illness, the cross of disability, the cross of unfulfilled dreams or aspirations for career or a particular kind of career, for marriage or a particular kind of marriage. The cross of a lifetime is unique to each of us, yet it is never anything except a cross, and crosses are for suffering and dying. “…that I may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…”
Walking the way of the cross is also about bearing our cross. Here we’re talking about not so much the cross of a lifetime, as the several crosses that come to us and demand to be carried about each and every day. This is the daily struggle of resisting temptation, of learning good habits and unlearning bad habits, of cultivating virtues such as courage and patience and kindness and generosity. This is the ordinary work, the routine maintenance, of the spiritual life. When we forget this—or never learn it—when taking up our cross and bearing our cross is not part of our spiritual hygiene, we find ourselves at a disadvantage. We find ourselves bereft of any spiritual tools for coping with the suffering that inevitably does come our way.
You see, here’s the deal: We are going to suffer. Bad things are going to happen to good people, not to mention bad people (and there are times when the latter category includes each of us). The only question is, will our suffering be redemptive, or will it be meaningless? Among the saddest moments in my work as a pastor have been when I’ve been with an older person who is undergoing great suffering—perhaps the suffering the leads up to the terminal crisis of his or her life—and they have never cultivated a spirituality of redemptive suffering. In that moment for them, God is only God if he gets them out of what they’re going through. Sometimes God does get us out of it, but sometimes God does not. And if we have never learned conformity to the shape of the cross, if the shape of the cross has not been branded into our souls, then suffering leads only to bitterness, and not to hope.
Our invitation, then, at this late stage in Lent, is to keep the cross before our eyes, to ask the Holy Spirit to increase within us a desire to share the sufferings of Christ, to become like him in his death, that we may also know him in the power of his resurrection, sharing with him in his eternal life. If we can accept this invitation, we have the opportunity to put our suffering into a context of meaning and hope, giving us true joy and abiding peace. This is surely my hope and prayer for each one of us as we approach Holy Week. Amen.