Paula Northwood June 21, 2020
Scripture: Matthew 10:26–39
Before COVID-19, many of us had things coming at us from all sides. Heavy work expectations, priorities, phone calls, emails, longer hours at the office all meant more productivity. Many of us thought that the best way to get lots of things done was to work faster and longer. We multitasked. We tried being on the phone while reading emails. Some tried texting while driving or at the very least talking while driving. And then the coronavirus hit, and we learned something. Our high-stress, fast-paced life was not the only way to live. Sometimes we need to go slower. It’s the lesson of the fable about the race between the tortoise and the hare. Sometimes steady wins the race. Such is the nature of a paradox. Paradoxes go against our common sense. It’s a statement that seems contradictory, unbelievable or absurd but is, in fact, true.
For example, when talking to my son-in-law about mountain-biking skills, he has said that sometimes the safest way to ride down a steep, rocky trail is to accelerate. Apparently, you need speed to carry you over the rocks safely. Intellectually, I know that what he said made sense, but I’m not sure I could ever do it.
We live with paradox daily. In relationships, our instincts may be to rush in to help those we love in whatever way we can; but the truth is that there are times when doing so is not the most loving thing, that love at times dictates holding back, creating space, allowing those we love to find their own way. Here are some more paradoxes: The more you hate a trait in someone else, the more likely you are avoiding it in yourself. The more you fail, the more likely you are to succeed. The more afraid you are of death, the less you’ll be able to enjoy life. The more you try to argue with someone, the less likely you are to convince them of your perspective. And a final one: Our instincts sometimes tell us to pull back when a situation becomes too painful, when in fact what is needed is deeper engagement even when it hurts.
In the verses just before our text for this morning, Jesus sounds like the Buddha in his conversations with the disciples. He begins with a matter-of-fact assertion that he must undergo great suffering and so will they. Jesus goes on to talk about how much suffering they will endure. And he ends with the ultimate paradox: Anyone who wants to be his follower must suffer as well, deny themselves and take up their own cross. We must lose our lives in order to save them. This has always been the challenge of following Jesus: Who would want to follow someone whose good news is linked to a cross?
In 1960, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote an article titled “Suffering and Faith” that was published in The Christian Century. This was after the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and three years before the March on Washington. He wrote:
As my sufferings mounted, I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. Recognizing the necessity for suffering I have tried to make of it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation . . . . I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.
There are some who still find the cross a stumbling block, and others consider it foolishness, but I am more convinced than ever before that it is the power of God unto social and individual salvation. The suffering and agonizing moments through which I have passed over the last few years have also drawn me closer to God. More than ever before I am convinced of the reality of a personal God. . . . [We are] to make the cross be the way of life.
To make the cross be a way of life: It’s more than wearing a symbol around your neck or placing it in our houses of worship. To understand suffering as redemptive is a paradox. To take up a cross in order to find life is the ultimate paradox. It doesn’t make sense, but it is true. Under the Roman Empire, taking up the cross was not, as it has often become today, a metaphor for accepting the hardships of life. Taking up the cross was not even simply a way of saying one should expect persecution and division. More radically and most importantly, taking up the cross indicated the type of response Jesus’ followers were to embody in the face of such persecution and division. As opposed to taking up weapons and following Jesus, taking up the cross is a readiness to forsake any and all power we might have in this world, to be humble and vulnerable and to open our arms wide and rely only on the mercy of God.
And so I have wondered: Without the inhumane, unjust crucifixion of Jesus, would we know his name? If George Floyd were not unjustly murdered before our eyes, would we know his name?
Please, please understand me, I’m not saying the means justify the end but rather that these horrendous acts open our eyes to the human condition and the possibility for the resurrection of our minds, bodies and souls. The cross became their way of life. Now is the time to make George Floyd’s sacrifice redemptive. We will allow his death to break open our hearts? Will his death be the catalyst to change “business as usual” and move us toward creating a more just society?
As Jesus warned his disciples over and over, you will be broken on the shores of life. Your stubborn egos will be knocked around, and your frightened hearts will be broken open—not once, and not in predictable patterns, but in surprising ways and for as long as you live. We are in one of those moments now. We are broken: some by the losses and pressures of the pandemic, others by devastating reality of how we white people continue to treat people of color.
We are hurting. We are broken people. It’s time to stand before one another as our vulnerable selves, and it’s time to lay down our power of office, status, race or even gender. It’s time to make the cross a way of life.
What does that look like? In Jesus we see a person against the pervasive injustice that authorities participated in and that their privilege symbolized. He was against a system that gave power to a few, while ignoring the plight of women and slaves and children and the poor. We, too, get trapped in this system and need to be shocked from our complacency about abusive language, racist and sexist attitudes, violence against people of color and women, inequities in the workplace, rigid gender roles and more.
In this passage we have the very troublesome words from Jesus: “I have not come to bring peace but the sword.” But did Jesus really bring a sword? Many commentators agree Jesus loves to use a figure of speech or a metaphor, and the sword he claims to be bringing is not a literal sword, but rather the cross. Jesus says his death will divide families, friends, communities for generations.
Reread today’s Gospel text from the perspective of anyone who has been rejected for the color of their skin, their sexual orientation or gender, always made to feel second class, rejected and feared by the human family, even by the church. These people know what Jesus is talking about. They have felt the strife within the human family. Jesus offers some amazing grace, that we might know there’s a God more expansive, more loving than the false god of any land. Jesus envisions a time when the powerless will be lifted up, when authorities will be stripped of their authority, when old understandings of family and society will be undone. We are seeing glimpses of the possibility of this new reality as we begin to wake up as a society, as we work for police reform. We’ve been cracked open.
I’ve heard people ask, “Will change really come this time?” The answer is in our hands and hearts. We may find the image of the cross a stumbling block, but when we lay down our weapons of privilege and power and surrender to that which we most fear, trusting in God’s assurance that in losing our life we will save it, we live into that metaphor of deep change. By knowing deep in our bones that Black and Brown lives matter. By knowing in our hearts that gay, lesbian, and transgender lives matter. By knowing that the first shall be last and last shall be first. By knowing that love is stronger than hate. By agreeing that we will not abandon each other even in our darkest hour, we live that metaphor to make the cross a way of life.
The system we inherited is not the system that does justice or loves mercy or helps us follow humbly in the ways of God. But there is another way. And Jesus says, “Follow me.”