Monday, March 5, 2012

Put down your shame, and take up your cross

My sermon for Lent 2 A
Last week Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. This week Peter is doing the tempting. Peter is tempting Jesus with avoiding suffering and avoiding death. Peter is offering Jesus something seductive—something that you or I would probably give in to in a heartbeat. And that’s why Jesus calls him Satan in today’s Gospel. Mark is very unclear about how Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, but he’s quite specific about how Jesus is tempted by Peter: Peter says to Jesus, don’t suffer, don’t be rejected by the authorities, let’s compromise and find some common ground, and most of all, don’t die. Don’t take up your cross, and do all these things that will be shameful. Because Peter—understandably—hears what Jesus says about rising three days after death, and doesn’t have enough faith to believe that could happen and what a glorious victory it will be. You can imagine Peter saying, “Don’t be rejected by everyone, Jesus, and be shamed and killed…” and I wonder if in the back of Peter’s mind he’s thinking, “Because then I might have to do that, too.”

Peter’s views are right in keeping with the view of shame in scripture: it is something to be avoided at all costs. The Psalms are full of prayers to “Let me not be ashamed” and of hopeful requests of God to bring shame upon the speaker’s enemies. There are two Greek words for shame in the New Testament; one is good shame—more like modesty. The other—the one used today—is bad shame—more like disgrace. The roots of the English word shame come from words meaning to be uncovered or naked. We all know what it is to feel ashamed—and we probably also all, like Peter, prefer to avoid it if at all possible. 

But here it is today in the Gospel, in an encounter with a sort of circular logic: Peter gets publicly shamed and rebuked by Jesus for trying to tell Jesus that Jesus should not suffer and be shamed. And then Jesus continues by promising that those who are ashamed of him—and of his shame—will likewise be subjected to shame not by the world, but by God himself. And this is somehow related to taking up our cross.  

That’s a fairly easy connection to make: the cross was the predominant symbol of shame for early Christians. In the first century Ancient Near Eastern culture, dying on a cross was the most shameful way of dying possible. It was public, it was naked, and it was reserved for only the worst criminals. Some people who wanted to believe in Jesus in the early church couldn’t because they couldn’t get over the shame of following a leader who died in such a shameful way. The cross was, in Paul’s words, a stumbling block to many because of the shame it represented.  

Which is an association of the cross that we may have lost over the last two millennia. If I asked you the first three words you think of when you think of the cross, what are they? Just free associate. For me, when I did this yesterday, it’s cross: death, pain, salvation. It intrigued me that I came up with both the positive and negative aspects of the cross. But I don’t instantly associate the cross with shame for myself.  

And Jesus himself is not ashamed. “He said all this quite openly” in describing the suffering that is ahead of him. Suffering is not shameful for Jesus; the cross is not shameful for Jesus. Peter is imposing his sense of shame on Jesus’ future actions. And in doing so he’s representing other members of the audience for Mark’s gospel. They wrestled with feeling ashamed of a savior who died on a cross; so Mark helps them by putting Peter in their place.

If the cross was the shameful icon and stumbling block for believers in the first century, I wonder what the equivalent is today. What might we be ashamed of when it comes to God and Christianity? What is it in your faith that you feel like you have to justify or make excuses for to outsiders… Other Christians’ behavior? Or parts of scripture? I know I cringe whenever Westboro Baptist Church is in the news; or when certain texts come up in the lectionary. They make me want to say, “You know God, it would have been a lot easier if you had said this differently…” but then, saying “It would be easier if…” makes me sound like Peter. It would be easier if you didn’t have to proclaim a Gospel with a cross; it would be easier if you didn’t have to proclaim a Gospel rooted in a particular time and place with specific social, gender, and ethnic expectations. It would be easier if….
Taking up our cross today might mean letting go of our fear of shame. And the shame we import onto our sin, our frailty and our failings. If Jesus can approach the cross without shame, surely we can approach our sufferings and trials without shame. Because it seems to me that when we fear shame and try to avoid it—like Peter—we tend to bring it upon ourselves. If we are unwilling to be shamed—by risking our reputations for what is right or just or honorable—then we dig ourselves deeper into sin, like Peter does today. A brief illustration:

In the summer of 2001, while I was in seminary, I was asked to be a chaplain at the Diocese of Los Angeles’ summer camp for a week. To make a long story short, I borrowed my rector’s VW van to get down there, and through a series of unfortunate decisions on my part, and the peculiarity of position of reverse in the VW manual transmission, before I even got on the road, I ran the van into his garage door and dented the door. I was mortified and ashamed—because I knew I was going to have to go in to him and confess. He would know what I had done. And it was all because of the sin of pride. Because I didn’t want to tell Dean that I was having trouble getting the van into reverse, I didn’t want to ask for help. I wanted to do it all by myself. So by avoiding my perceived shame of asking for help, I got myself into worse trouble and got to experience real shame in confessing what I’d done. IT’s not about the garage door, it’s about pride.  

Nathan has been sweetly saying to Jonathan and I, “It’s alright to make mistakes, Mommy.” He moved to wearing big boy underwear the two weeks ago, and we ingrained that message to Nathan because we didn’t want him to feel ashamed when he—inevitably—made mistakes. God doesn’t want us to feel shame for our mistakes either. When I think of things that make me feel ashamed, it is my sins, my errors; it’s how I have failed. What if I were able to pick up those faults, those errors, acknowledge them, and then put them in their proper place—put them down and move on without shame. If I hadn’t been ashamed of asking for help with the van incident, I would have gone in to the house, asked for help, and avoided crashing into the door.  

Despite Jesus’ rebuke today, Peter is still so frightened—and maybe ashamed—that he isn’t present when Jesus dies on the cross. But as always with our lives in faith, our failings don’t have the last word. Having seen the risen Christ, Peter finds the strength of faith to redeem himself and find his way to his own cross about 30 years later. Peter took up his cross literally. We walk a different way of the cross. But in the words of the collect for Fridays, which I’m about to read, it is the way of “life and peace”, not a way of shame. So let us set down our shame, and take up our cross. Let us pray. 

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

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