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Living God's Love No Matter What

The Rev. Sara Warfield

Scripture: Mark 8:31-38

One of my most sacred tasks as a priest is presiding over the Eucharist with you every Sunday. It’s a moving experience for me every single time, and I take the words I pray very deeply to heart. But there are a few words in Eucharistic Prayer A in our Book of Common Prayer, probably the prayer most Episcopalians have heard most, that always trip me up when I say them out loud.

He stretched out his arms upon the cross,

and offered himself, in obedience to your will,

a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.

Was it really God’s will that Jesus, God’s own son, the Word made flesh, be tortured to the point of his death on a cross? That was the question that came up in Bible Study on Tuesday when we read the gospel. “Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed,” we hear in Mark. And when Peter pushes back against the idea of his teacher, his friend, suffering such torment, Jesus rebukes him in perhaps the harshest words he utters in the gospels: “Get behind me, Satan.”

The very suggestion of trying to avoid suffering puts Peter in league with the very personification of sin and evil, the polar opposite of a God who is love and creation and justice.

“The Son of Man must undergo great suffering,” Jesus says. Why, the people in Bible Study asked, was Jesus’ vast and intense suffering necessary for God’s love and creation and justice to be made manifest in this world? What kind of God, what kind of caregiver, would require that?

That’s also what makes me stumble during the Eucharistic Prayer. “He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to your will.” What kind of God would call for that kind of obedience? Is it a God I can follow in good conscience? More than that, is it a God that I as a priest am willing to advocate for, to represent?

I’ve been wondering since Bible Study if maybe Jesus’ obedience to God was not in his willingness to be tortured to death, to endure the kind of suffering I hope none of us ever have to face. But perhaps Jesus’ act of obedience to God was his willingness to become human and fully live God’s love, whatever the consequences.

Because suffering is an innate part of being human. I can’t tell you why. It’s a fundamentally unanswerable question that has a whole theological term dedicated to it: theodicy. Why would an all-loving and all-powerful God allow us to suffer?

I don’t know. I can theorize that there is no real freedom in our existence without the ability to choose to live with love or to sin. Is the Garden of Eden truly paradise on earth if the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil isn’t there? I can speculate that there’s no experiencing joy without pain. But, as the prophet Isaiah writes, “God’s thoughts are not my thoughts, God’s ways are not my ways.”

All I know, all that I’m sure of, is that suffering is a condition of this human life.

Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

He didn’t say, make a cross or build a cross. He said, take up your cross. Because the cross is already there. Suffering is already there. It’s how we engage the suffering that shows us what kind of disciples we are.

And being a disciple can be hard. Jesus makes no bones about it: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

The root of so much suffering is sin. And what is sin? We talked about this last week. Anything that willfully ignores or denies our relationship, our at-one-ment, with one another. Craving what other people have, clinging to the abundance we have while others are in need, causing harm and destruction to maintain power over others.

Living God’s love flies in the face of all of that. In a sinful world, living the values Jesus taught us, living with integrity, often leads to suffering. It sometimes means sacrificing comfort for the sake of our neighbor. It sometimes means sacrificing our safety for the sake of justice, and justice, as Cornel West says, is what love looks like in public.

So again I wonder: maybe Jesus’ act of obedience to God was his willingness to become human and fully live God’s love in this sinful world, whatever the consequences.

And we all know what those consequences were: betrayal by his friends, humiliation, a crown of thorns, and finally, the cross. We’ll take that journey with him during Lent and through Holy Week.

It’s a journey many disciples have taken in the centuries after Jesus.

Annalena Tonelli was a Roman Catholic missionary in Kenya and Somalia. Her main work was tuberculosis treatment, and she helped treat and save the lives of thousands. But she also spoke out against the practice of female genital mutilation, a brutal but traditional practice in Somalia, which brought her death threats and attempts on her life. She had the audacity to believe that people with AIDS should be treated with care and full medical attention. She brought them into the hospital where she worked in Borama in Somaliland. Protestors threw stones through the hospital windows and accused her of bringing the disease to them. But she didn’t back down. She continued living God’s love in this world by treating the most vulnerable in her community. For that, her hospital staff was violently beaten and she herself attacked. In 2003, she was shot and killed on the grounds of the hospital.

She could have chosen to back down. She could have set down her cross and found a safer, more comfortable way to live. But Annalena Tonelli persisted. She persisted in living God’s love in a fearful, sinful world.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his last speech the day before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.

Annalena Tonelli and Martin Luther King, Jr. did not intentionally seek out suffering. No, they sought, as Jesus did, to obey God, which is to bring God’s love and healing and justice into the world no matter what. Wherever they saw sin in this world, whenever they saw broken relationship, because of poverty, because of structural injustice, because of cruelty, they sought atonement, at-one-ment.

They took up their cross and lost their life for the sake of the gospel.

As disciples, we’re not called to seek out suffering. We’re called to live God’s love no matter what. Few, if any, of us, will encounter the kind of suffering that these martyrs, these saints, encountered. Your different gifts, your different way of being, brings you into different situations. You may not seek out some of the most economically neglected places in the world to bring healing—though our friend Linda Simmons does. You may not rouse a crowd of thousands with your stirring words. Those gifts may not be your gifts. Those places may not be your place.

But your cross is still right there—at your job, on the streets of downtown Gresham, all around you in these pews, in your living room, in the bathroom mirror.

You have so many opportunities to help heal the sins of this world, to take up that cross, to acknowledge and repair relationship, to spread God’s love. And every opportunity matters.

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