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Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on March 12, 2006

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Sermon preached by
The Very Rev. N. DeLiza Spangler

March 12, 2006
Lent 2

Writer Ann Lamott has written about teaching Sunday School and how, one day, she asked her class to draw their vision of the resurrection. At the end of the class, a little girl proudly presented Lamott with her drawing: the Easter Bunny standing outside the empty tomb. Everlasting life and a basket full of chocolates. Now that's really living! ( Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, p. 140)

We do much better with a focus on everlasting life and resurrection (and chocolates) than with talk of crosses, deny-ing ourselves and losing our lives. Yet that is exactly what Jesus is talking about today, and Peter clearly doesn't want to hear it. All this talk scares him and so, Scripture says, Peter rebukes Jesus. In Matthew's account, Peter goes so far as to say "God forbid it, Lord, this must never happen to you."

Peter's reaction, in turn, receives a harsh response from Jesus - "Get behind me, Satan!" Several commentators believe such a response suggests that avoiding the cross was a real temptation for Jesus. In fact, Jesus' prayer in the Garden of Gesthemane - that the cup be removed from him - makes it clear that the cross scared not only Peter; it held fear for Jesus as well. Yet, Jesus faced the cross, he faced that which scared him because, as one writer has said, "God had given him a vision of his death that was not all dark. It leaked light. There was clearly something that lay beyond it, and he knew his job was to walk toward it instead of running away." (Barbara Brown Taylor, God in Pain, pp. 58-59)

During Jesus' time, the word "cross" was often synonymous with crucifixion. In the first century AD, crucifixion was probably the strongest form of deterrence against insurrection or political agitation in the Roman provinces. (Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, p. 184) It was, of course, a public act with bodies left on crosses as a warning to those who might question Rome's authority.

With Jesus' crucifixion, and passages such as today's, the cross has come to symbolize a number of things: God's self-giving love, martyrdom, something difficult in our own lives, some act of self-offering we freely choose on behalf of another as Christ did the cross. In short, the cross has meant, and continues to mean, a variety of things, but as one writer has recently suggested, perhaps our cross can also be whatever it is that scares us to death, that keeps us living in fear so that we don't really live at all. (See Taylor., p. 60) Peter's response in today's Gospel is a response of fear. Death, the cross, was the worst that could happen; God forbid it should happen to Jesus - or any of them.

But, as author Barbara Brown Taylor says, "By telling his disciples to pick up their crosses, Jesus defied the idea [that death was the worst thing in the world]. He suggested that there were worse things...and that living in fear was near the top of the list. If they were going to let fear run their lives, then fear would become their god. The only standard for their behavior would become how much something scared them. If it did not scare them, they would do it. If it did scare them, they would not do it. And when their anxious days finally came to an end (death can't be avoided forever), they would discover that they had never really lived at all.

But that was not the only choice they had. Instead of surrendering themselves to their fear, they could surrender themselves to God." (Id., p. 59) That didn't mean they would never be afraid again; it just meant that fear would not be the most powerful force in their lives. Instead, God's power to help them walk toward their fear rather than running away, the grace to move through the darkness of their fear into new life, would be the most powerful force in their lives.

But often, when things scare us, we not only don't want to face them; like Peter, we don't even want to talk about them. And yet that gives them even more power. In the Harry Potter books, the evil Lord Voldemort is referred to as "he who cannot be named" - which makes him even more fearful. And yet when we face our fears, when we name them, when we walk toward them and through them, they lose their power. One of the things I've noticed with private confessions is that, once people can speak out loud a sin that has weighed on them, the relief is almost palpable. The fear has been faced, the unnameable named - and life returns.

The movie The Sixth Sense is about a little boy sees the ghosts of dead people and the psychiatrist who feels called to help him. When the little boy finally tells the psychiatrist what he sees, he describes it by saying, "I see dead people. But they don't know they're dead." That may be what Jesus spent his life trying to tell us: looking around he saw dead people but they didn't know they were dead. They didn't know they were unable to really live life because they lived in fear: fear of failure, fear of loss, fear of death - the same fears we live with today.

My guess is that we are among the walking dead - but we don't know we're dead. My guess is that each of us has something of which we are deathly afraid. Maybe it is the fear of admitting an addiction that is controlling our lives, or the fear of a memory that still has power over our emotions, or the fear of standing up for something we believe in, or the fear of discovering we have an illness that no medicine can cure, or that someone we love does.

But in walking toward our fear rather than running away from it, we find a life we couldn't have imagined. In admitting an addiction we can begin working on being freed from it rather than enslaved by it. I've heard people recovering from addictions say, "I've finally gotten my life back." In letting go of a memory, we can move on into the future instead of being stuck in the past. In standing up for something we believe in, we're no longer imprisoned by the fear of what others will think, but freed to do what is important to us. In facing disease, I've known people freed to focus on what matters most, rather than on the trivialities that often clutter our lives.

To quote Taylor again, "Whatever it is that scares us to death, so that we start offering to do anything if it will just go away, that is our cross, and if we leave it lying there it will kill us, [it will suck the life right out of us]. If we turn away from it with the excuse that this should never have happened to us, then we deny God the chance to show us that in the midst of our worst fear is the door to abundant life." ( Id., pp. 59-60; modified)

We may think an empty tomb and a basket full of chocolates is really living. But real life comes when we can move through the fears and face the deaths that then lead to resurrection and new life and our own empty tombs. Jesus' call to take up our cross and follow him isn't a call into death but a call into life, real life. Rather than running from our fear we are, like Christ, to walk toward it, to bend down, pick it up and carry it, assured that, as with Christ, it will lead not to the loss of all things but to the gain of all things, it will lead not to an end but to a beginning, it will lead not to ultimate death but to abundant life - because the darkness and fear into which we walk, by the grace of God, leaks light. And living into that truth is really living.

 

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2006 The Very Rev. N. DeLiza Spangler
St Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, Buffalo, New York
Reprinted with permission