Sunday, April 1, 2012

Ultimate Risk

Ultimate Risk
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
April 1, 2012
At Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 23: 26-38

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

The Crucifixion of Jesus

26 As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. 27 A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. 28 But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ 30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ 31 For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

32 Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

               I ended last week's sermon with the question "why do we think that anything less than carrying the cross would be enough" . . . and then prayed for the strength for us to be able to carry the cross, but I didn't say anything about what "carrying the cross" means, and I realize that, that very question, "What does it mean to carry the cross?" is difficult, maybe even as difficult as carrying it. I think that is a question Christians have been wrestling with for 2000 years, and being aware of that fact is truly humbling. I had some thoughts of my own, that I'll get to later, but I wanted to see how they measured up with what other people were saying, so I did a little research, not of great commentaries and theologians, but that bastion of popular theology, Yahoo I figured the internet was a good place to find the practical reality of just where the past 2000 years of faithful scholarship has really gotten us. Here are some that I saw there. . .  this first one was voted most popular:

·         "Carrying your cross means bearing the difficulties life throws your way with the strength and patience Jesus showed."

·         Another person wrote, "I believe it means that we are to run the race that is set before us."

·         It means to me that each of us is on a life long journey to try to live as Jesus did.  

·         In life we all have our own cross to carry we make it lighter if we help others carry theirs.

·         Carrying your cross "means to display your beliefs proudly, letting the world see that you love your religion"

·         Carrying your cross means to "just do what is right"[2] 

This is what I found, and to be honest it is what I expected to find. Did anything of these surprise you? It seems to me to be the simple answers you'd expect on yahoo answers, but to be honest these too are the simple answers that I've heard in church my whole life, but are we challenged to do more than this?. . . You know more than just "doing what is right, dealing with our burdens, helping others deal with theirs, running our race, being proud of being a Christian." Jesus puts it this way according to the gospel of Mark, 8:34-35 "Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it." All of those ideas that I shared from the internet do not go as far as this, as far as death, but that is exactly where the cross takes Jesus, death. The cross to me seems to represent the ultimate risk, and none of the definitions I found honestly call people to risk anything. All they do is state the obvious truth about the world, and that is that the world is difficult and harsh, and we should deal with it because it isn't going to change. That is just simply the way it is. These are the truths about our world, reality that we see all around us, now.

So if that's the way it is now, let's look then at the way it was, then. I've said before that there were three basic truths in the Roman world:

1.      The Emperor is God, what he says goes, he has ultimate power
2.      If you mess with the Emperor, one of his agents, or Rome herself you will be put to death.
3.      When they kill you and you die, you stay dead. Period.

And the Roman Philosophers had a way of dealing with this harsh system, too, it was a philosophy called Stoicism. Stoicism basically calls people to be virtuous, but offers no hope, no reward, for virtue to a stoic is its own reward. The world is simply in constant conflict, dog eat dog, winner take all, might is the only way to create stability because there are many god's fighting in the heavens, and many powerful men fighting as well, and the rest of humanity is caught in the balance. . . That is the way it is, deal with it, that is what it means to be a Stoic. That philosophy also seems to sum up what we as Christians 2000 years later are holding up as what it means to be a disciple of Christ, what it means to carry the cross, at least according to yahoo, as if the cross and the empty tomb have done nothing at all to change the world. Might still makes right, dogs still eat dogs, look to the government to make sure your dog is the one that is eating rather than the one eaten, and don't mess with it, don't step out of line, it is way way way too risky.
Jesus through the cross doesn't just "deal with it." He doesn't just "suck it up" instead he challenges those three basic facts of the Roman world with the cross. Can you imagine anything more risky than going to your certain death? Standing up against the Romans, standing up against the authorities, marching through a crowd mocking, jeering, hating, and abusing you. I was amazed by one of the rationales I read on Yahoo Someone wrote on there saying that, "Jesus' cross wasn't really heavy, it was just heavy because of the weight of our sins." Obviously, that person has never tried to carry a human size tree, obviously that person hasn't seen Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, obviously that person is trying to minimize the cross into a theological doctrinal academic exchange. Why do we do that?
I agree with that person in some ways. Passion of the Christ is more disturbing than helpful. We have to look at the "cross" as metaphorical because crucifixion has gone out of style as a method of capital punishment. Also, I think, if we get ourselves too caught up in the physical pain we can miss the true impact as well because as so many t-shirts say today, pain is temporary. . . and the cross is eternal, so what is going on with this cross?
I realize that I often find myself citing literature, and I sometimes think that I should resist the temptation, but I spend so much of my thinking time while I'm teaching, and this week was no different. My students were reading from Don Quixote this week. You know the story of the misguided idealist who goes around as a Knight when there are no knights, and jousts with windmills because he thinks they are giants. It is interesting that I'm teaching and reading that while I'm pondering what the cross means. Since they don't read the whole novel, and because I think the musical, Man of La Mancha really gets at some of the aspects of the novel I want to expose them to. I use it, or at least three of the songs from it, but the song that wouldn't leave my cross ponderings is the one, "Impossible Dream." It goes like this:
To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far

To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell
For a heavenly cause

And I know if I'll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I'm laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star

Now I realize that this song is in many ways trite, and cheesy, but I couldn't help but see the similarities of this and what I was trying to get at. I find in this description of the quest the very thing that those Yahoo answers were all missing. Idealism. . . The idea that the world can be changed by your actions. It is what Don Quixote believes. Now the world thinks that Don Quixote is crazy, and quite frankly so do I. He's absolutely nuts, after all a windmill is just a windmill. Right? Right? of course!
We've been walking with Jesus since Christmas, looking at his life, looking at his teachings. Is Jesus a stoic when he goes to the cross, or is he the ultimate idealist? When he says "it is accomplished" while hanging on the cross, are those the words of someone who is looking at reality, and dealing with it, completely devoid of hope? What is accomplished? What can possibly be accomplished? Then he says to a criminal hanging beside him, "today you will be with me in paradise?" Wake up Jesus, this is the Roman world! You are going to die on that cross, and so is the loser criminal hanging next to you! Dead, final, caput. The fat lady has sung and Jesus nothing is accomplished! Nothing! You've risked it all and have lost! Welcome to reality!
Reality, but is that reality? Is that Jesus' reality? Obviously not because he says, "it is accomplished." In other words, he has "reached the unreachable star." He is the "man torn and covered with scars" and he "strove with his last ounce of courage," and it is accomplished. That is what I think the cross is, simply faith. Faith that the real world is not real. That the ideal is in fact real. How often when we talk of reality we talk about pessimism, as if realism and pessimism are one in the same. How many times when you hear or say, come on man, be realistic, you mean come on dude there is no hope, wake up! Realism means to the world, you can't do it. Realism to Christ means "it is accomplished."
When Jesus asks us to follow him, to take up our cross, to leave everything behind he is inviting us to see the world as it is! As it was created to be! What you know is real is actually the illusion. Instead "The Kingdom of God" is what is true. If you have some time this week and have the internet handy, do a search on for the words "Kingdom of God," and put it in quotes. You will find it is repeated 68 times in the New Testament. Take a look at them. I did and it was interesting to see how Jesus many times talks about the Kingdom of God being near or at hand, as if all we had to do was open our eyes to it.
Now I know what many of you may be saying. What does that look like in the real world? How do we go about doing the business of carrying our cross, rather than just having some elusive notion of faith? Faith is easy, right? Slow down, I think faith is difficult enough. Faith is difficult enough because everything around us seems to point to the idea that it's just a windmill, and by that I mean everything is just as it appears. Think for a second about the reality that surrounds you. For me I'm called to believe that all my students have potential, that is the mission of Blue Ridge School, "teaching boys to reach their potential," suggesting that all boys have a unique potential for greatness, really says who? What could be more quixotic than that, when I'm surrounded everyday with underachieving and poor choices? What about here at church? We are just a little church in a small town, how can we reach the world and make a difference. . . the world would tell us that we can't, and trying to is again just another windmill.
Here is a practical thing. Look at your world. Look at what the so called realities of your world are. Picking up your cross is a challenge to those realities. Plain and simple. What are those for you, is it your age, the world tells you, you are to old? Challenge it. Is it money? Challenge it. Health, challenge it. Are you too busy? Challenge it. No matter what it is challenge it! There is a student at Blue Ridge, I don't teach him, but I had a conversation last week. A real one. He told me that he doesn't think that he can ever do anything worthwhile with his life. He has been told by many that he should set his sights low, that he is A.D.D., that he has a learning disability, and that, all these things define him. It got to me because he said it with no emotion, as if he was already defeated, and it was accepted.  In that way the world has won. The world has convinced him that he is just a windmill. It broke my heart because this senior has not been taught otherwise at a school, whose mission is teaching boys to reach their potential. We obviously are failing with this kid. I just wanted to give him faith, to give him hope, to give him the cross.
What have you been taught that is like that. In his case he believes that he is just a windmill. Christ with the cross challenges us to be more than that, when we say we are not strong enough he says, says who, I made you. When we say we aren't good enough, he says, says who, I made you in the image of God. When we say we can't risk our future, he says, says who, I hold it all in the palm of my hands.
Last Saturday at Blue Ridge, they had a special ethics program, where one of the students' fathers, who is a hospital administrator came to give a talk. He posed the scenario to the boys that they were a policy committee at a hospital and they had a shortage of a certain drug that was used to cure fatal diseases, and they would have to come up with rules about how the  life saving drug should be distributed by the hospital. Basically it was a question of rationing, and they had to come up with parameters on how to do that. The conversations were great, about the potential for life, and longevity, and who could best benefit the greater good of the society. . . It was all really great and really thought provoking, but it absolutely turned my stomach. The speaker said that the boys would have to get beyond theoretical ethics and deal in practical ethics. I thought to myself, why, why are these separate? When is human beings deciding the value of another human being ever ok, even if it is practical? No one ever spoke up and said what I was thinking, and that was that the parameters were bogus. Who says there is a shortage? Who says we have to accept that reality? Who said we have to ration? Find another way! Simple as that find another way! Before this drug existed someone had to find another way! Do so again! Don't accept what the world says is the reality. Awe come on your crazy, people are dying, it's just a windmill. Faith is hard, man, faith is hard.
Come on the ends justify the means, that is what the world says. If we believe that the "ends" are in the hands of God, then all we have to worry about is the means, and that means the ends never can justify the means. The practical must be the same as the theoretical because the ideal is the real. The cross is the greatest statement of that truth, the truth that represents for us the ultimate risk. And Easter, next week is a glimpse and a proof of that real and true reality. If we get through this week, working to carry that heavy cross, next week I will talk about the glimpses of the real world that God gives us all the time, but until then I'd like to leave us with the conclusion of a poem I wrote called, "What Greater Shadow." It actually is this morning's prayer of preparation in your bulletin.

May we remember the cross,
For the cross of hate,
The height of cruel,
The pinnacle of evil,
The high water mark of sin,
Somehow, somehow,
Is not enough,
To overcome


[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 23:26-38). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2] (Go check it out)