(Lots of folks missed worship today due to weather, so here’s the sermon. The Scripture is Matthew 16:24-17:8, where Jesus says”Carry your cross” and then the Transfiguration is described.)
I am going to do something this morning that I’m not sure is a good idea – for the second time in month I’m going to open the sermon with a quote from The Princess Bride. The movie has been on my mind because after I talked about it a few weeks ago, Celia Poteet let me know that there is a new book about making the film by Cary Elwes, who played Westley. So I read it in just a couple of days because it was so much fun.
Anyway, here is the quote from the Princess Bride that is an apt beginning for this sermon about bearing the cross and about the transfiguration:
“Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
“Life is pain” may be overstating the point I want to make here which is this – pain is a reality in our lives. And truly, anyone who says you can make it through life in this imperfect, sin-scarred world without any pain or suffering or disappointment is selling something. Or asking for a donation.
Especially Christians. Sometimes the Christian faith is presented as pain and suffering avoidance insurance. Just believe in Jesus, and go to church and follow the rules and send in a donation, and your problems will disappear. God will wave a magic wand and “poof!” you’ll be walking on sunshine and all your life will be rainbows.
Certainly, it is only natural to want to avoid suffering. We are certainly not called to SEEK suffering for suffering’s sake – our own suffering does not and will not save us – there was only one person who’s suffering was ever salvific and that person’s suffering saved the whole world.
But . . . the reality is that until we enter the perfection of eternity we are going to face sickness and stress and even death. Believing that those things don’t happen to good Christian folks is only going to leave us disappointed and doubting when the troubles inevitably come.
Life in Christ – life lived to the fullest – is not found in security – “Those who want to save their life will lose it,” Jesus says in today’s reading. As Pastor Chris Duckworth writes in his blog, “Life is found in relationship with Christ and with those whom Christ loves.” And Jesus didn’t hang out with the “safe” people – he was known for being with the poor, the sick, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the rebels, children, and others who were either ostracized or looked down upon – or both. Jesus risked his reputation – and his life – to touch the untouchables, to reach out to the marginalized.
That is part of what Jesus is saying in that invitation to his disciples – to us: “Anyone who wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Let’s take a moment to consider those last two words of Jesus’ invitation – “follow me.” Where was he going? Where is he inviting us to follow?
In Matthew’s Gospel right before today’s reading Jesus told his disciples for the first time that he had to go to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed.
Do you remember Peter’s reaction to that news?
“Never! I will never let that happen to you!”
Do you remember Jesus’ reaction to Peter?
“Get behind me, Satan.”
Peter was tempting Jesus – like Satan had tempted Jesus in the wilderness – with taking the easy way. “Turn these stones into bread.” “Don’t go to Jerusalem.”
But Jesus was born to go to Jerusalem – Jesus was born to die for Peter and for us. Jesus did not run from suffering – from that point he turned toward Jerusalem, even knowing what waited for him there.
Because Jesus was born to suffer for us, and to be IN our suffering.
Jesus invites the disciples – and us – to follow him to Jerusalem, to walk with him to the Cross. That is how we often describe the season that begins this Wednesday with Ash Wednesday – the season of Lent is our walk to the Cross with Jesus.
And the last Sunday before Lent is always Transfiguration Sunday. The turning point. The turn toward Jerusalem. The turn toward the cross.
Six days after telling his disciples about his coming suffering and death, Jesus and his disciples arrived at what would come to be known as the Mount of Transfiguration. He took three of his closest disciples up that mountain with him. They witnessed something amazing – something that is beyond our understanding. Jesus was transformed – transfigured – his face and his clothes described by the Gospel writers as glowing and shining. Suddenly, the greatest prophets of the Old Testament – Moses and Elijah – were there, talking with Jesus.
And Peter – gosh, I love Peter – does the first thing that comes to his mind. You’ve heard me say before that I think of Peter as the ADHD disciple – he’s the one who impulsively steps out of the boat to walk on the water with Jesus, he’s the one who tells Jesus he won’t let him die in Jerusalem (he’s also the first one to confess Jesus is the Son of God), he’s the one who pulls out his sword when Jesus is arrested.
On the mountaintop, his impulse is one that I think we can relate to – “Let’s stay here.” What he says doesn’t make much sense – let’s build some shelters – but the feeling behind it is “It’s safe here. Up here on this mountain there are no sick or dying or poor asking for help. No Pharisees or Romans. We’re a long way from Jerusalem. Let’s just hang out up here.”
Then God speaks from a cloud – “This is my son. I love him. I am pleased with him.” Remember, those are the words we first heard when Jesus was baptized, when Jesus began his ministry. Now God reaffirms Jesus identity as he begins the last stretch of his ministry toward Jerusalem and toward the cross.
God says something else. As many times as I’ve read and preached on the transfiguration, I noticed something new this time. I think God is talking especially to Peter.
Peter who had argued with Jesus when Jesus said he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer and die.
What does God say up there on the mountain where Peter wants to stay? “Listen to him!”
Listen to Jesus. He knows what he has to do . . . for you. For the world.
Listen to Jesus. You can’t stay up there on that mountain. You have to go back down, back down to the real world. There’s danger down there, and pain, and death . . . but you don’t go back down alone. Jesus is with you. Jesus will always be with you.
There are times when we’d just like to stay on the mountaintop, above it all. Sometimes the church can be our mountaintop – and it should be. We are safe here – safe to be ourselves, safe to share our doubts and our fears and our questions. Safe from the hostility that much of the world seems to have for Christ and for Christians.
The mountaintop can be people who believe and think like us. We can be careful to surround ourselves only with people who agree with us. But Jesus calls us to GO – to take the Gospel to all the world, not only to people like us but ESPECIALLY to those who are not.
The mountaintop can be the things we do to shield ourselves from the reality of suffering. It can be immersion in media or in substances or just staying away from those who are hurting or lonely. But part of carrying our Cross is carrying THE cross – carrying the hope of the one who died on the cross – to those who are suffering.
Jesus said to come down off the mountain. Jesus said, “Carry your cross.” What does that look like?
As I considered that question I couldn’t help but think of someone who we heard this week lost her life because she gave it to others. You probably read or heard about Kara Mueller’s death in Syria. She died while in captivity to the evil that is ISIS or ISIL or the Islamic State or whatever you want to call it.
Listen to what she wrote in a 2011 letter to her parents: “I will always seek God. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love. I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”
Kayla Mueller saw God in suffering. She saw the God who suffered and died on a cross. She refused to stay on the mountaintop. She found God down in that valley where troubles and danger lurked. She refused to stay on the mountaintop. Kayla Mueller’s journey took her to India and Israel and to the Palestinian Territories and finally to Syria. According to CNN, she was drawn to help Syrian refugees on the border between Turkey and Syria where she was kidnapped in August 2013.
Even in captivity, she was a light in the darkness. Again according to CNN, Reverend Kathleen Day, who headed a campus ministry Kayla had joined at Northern Arizona University, recalled that she wrote in a letter from captivity that she tried to teach crafts to her ISIS guards, including how to make origami peace cranes. Listen to what Reverend Day said, “We delight in that. She said she found freedom even in captivity.”
As Christians, we are called to acknowledge that suffering is part of this fallen world, but we are never called to a fatalistic attitude that “well, that’s just the way it is.” No! We are called to respond to suffering and lessen it where we can. Listen to more of Kayla’s words, this time to a Kiwanis Club meeting when she visited home a few years ago: “For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal. I will not let this be something we just accept.”
Brothers and sisters, you and I may not be called to go to Syria or India or anywhere other than our own neighborhood. But we are called to GO! To be inspired and emboldened by the mountaintop but to leave it, to follow Jesus down and confront the suffering we find there. We are called to follow Jesus to Jerusalem, where by his death he not only saved us but demonstrated that he does not avoid suffering, he is always THERE in our suffering.
“Carrying your cross” means to respond rather than turn from the suffering of others, to be willing to be vulnerable for another person.
I could name many examples of cross-carrying just in our congregation. Those who give up so much to care for sick loved ones, especially those who sacrifice much of their lives to do everything for husbands and wives and mothers and fathers with suffering for dementia. There is cross-carrying in actions of concern for families that are struggling with relationships or finances. There is cross-carrying in sacrificial work for and support of the ministries of the church that reach out to those who suffer.
God is there in our suffering. God is there in the suffering of others. That is where WE are called to be as the hands and feet and mouths of God’s love.
Let me share just a few more words from Kayla, from a letter she wrote to her parents from captivity. They are words of faith, they are words of hope, they are words that exhort us to action – to cross-carrying, to following Jesus to Jerusalem, to coming down from the mountain:
“Please be patient, give your pain to God. I know you would want me to remain strong. That is exactly what I will be doing. Do not fear for me, continue to pray as will I. By God’s will we will be together soon.”
Let us pray for Kayla’s family that they will be filled by the hope of those words, that through the Cross and the empty tomb not even death can interfere with the hope of reunion.