Deuteronomy 30, 15-20; Luke 14, 25-33.
In today’s readings we get two different pictures of the religious life. In Deuteronomy we get what might be called the prosperity gospel – which was a theme which ran through many of the books of the Old Testament and is still preached by some strands of the Christian church today.
This approach says if you do what God wants, keep the rules, and perform the right rituals then you will prosper, have a good life and live a long time. If you don’t, you won’t.
The trouble is, so often real life doesn’t work out like that. We all know really good people who have suffered enormously; and nasty and evil people who have prospered. And saying that the apparently good ones must have secretly sinned doesn’t wash; if, like Job, they maintain they are unjustly punished, what answer is there for them?
In the Gospels, and particularly in our reading today, we get a very different picture of the life of the faithful. Jesus doesn’t promise prosperity to those who follow him. Rather, he warns them to expect family conflict, loss of possessions and even death as his disciples. In that time, to carry your cross meant you were a dead man walking. This picture runs counter to all our normal human priorities. We try hard to ensure life, prosperity and health for ourselves first and our family next. In today’s consumer society, it would be a very incompetent advertiser who tried to sell a product on the basis that its USP (unique selling point) was poverty, suffering and death.
Luke places this warning at the point where Jesus is beginning his journey to Jerusalem, a journey that will end in his arrest, trial and death. He is being followed by enthusiastic crowds who have heard his teaching and seen his miracles, and probably believe he is about to bring in the good times for them. What he said is shocking enough to us – even in this individualistic time, we don’t expect to be told to hate our families by a religious leader. It would have been even more shocking in a time when individuals had no significance apart from family and community. What this passage describes, however, is the experience of Jesus, and his disciples, and the early Christians – that following Christ can be an immensely costly undertaking, and that we ought not to commit ourselves to it without proper thought about that cost.
Nowadays, we do tend to think a bit more seriously than people once did about becoming a Christian. It is not the social norm that it once was in this country. But we don’t really expect church membership to be very costly. We don’t expect to have to carry a cross. But when we do have a cross to bear, sometimes it makes us give up our faith altogether – because deep down we secretly hold to the Deuteronomic teaching that faithfulness to God will bring us worldly success and prosperity.
It’s not so everywhere. A Gallup Poll found that the poorest countries tend to be the ones where religion is felt to be most important in people’s lives. In countries like Bangladesh, Niger, Yemen and Indonesia 99% of people thought religion was important in their lives; in Estonia, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Hong Kong and the UK less than 27% did so. Yet these are countries with high numbers of people suffering from stress related illness – countries with crosses of a different kind from the very poor ones.
As human beings, we cannot escape the cross. Everyone suffers in some way at some time in their lives. There are many different sorts of suffering. There is the suffering we see in the media every day of the week: suffering caused by natural disasters, as a consequence of war and civil strife; suffering from poor sanitation and lack of medical facilities. There is suffering from persecution for your faith, or your race, or your gender or your sexuality, made even worse when the persecution comes from your neighbours and even those who share your faith. There is suffering from sickness, whether physical or mental, both our own and the illness of those close to us. There is emotional suffering, when relationships break down, or when we are unjustly accused, or our sense of self-worth is damaged by unemployment. There is suffering from depression and the loss of a sense of the presence of God.
So, no-one has a monopoly of suffering; nor can we say that one person’s suffering is worse than another’s. We cannot know how heavy a cross feels on another person’s shoulders, and all suffering has the potential to darken and destroy. So, how can we ‘carry’ the cross and follow Jesus? How can we bear our suffering in the way that he did, so that we can find life and meaning in it, rather than it overwhelming us with bitterness and despair?
Let me share with you some insights from a marvellous book, called ‘Finding Meaning and Hope in Suffering’. ( SPCK 2010.) It is by Trystan Owain Hughes, the Anglican chaplain of Cardiff University. At the age of 37, he was diagnosed with a degenerative spinal condition which means he cannot stand or sit for long without pain. But instead of this increasing his unhappiness, he drew on insights from his reading, his faith and and his pastoral work to seek out sources of hope and meaning in his ‘cross’.
It’s impossible to summarise the whole book in a short sermon, but I hope that I may inspire you to read it for yourselves to help you to carry your crosses, whatever they may be. Though we cannot escape suffering, we are not entirely without control. We can decide how to cope with it, and what we decide to do can contribute to our suffering, or allow us to overcome it. Changing our way of thinking about suffering is not an easy journey, but doing so can help us to feel better. Hughes quotes often from Victor Frankl a Jewish psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz. Frankl said that those who survived the concentration camps were not necessarily those who had robust constitutions, but those who developed a sense of spirituality, a life of inner riches and freedom.
Hughes uses the metaphor of building a tower (from the parable in today’s Gospel reading) to set out a plan of how to carry our cross. The foundations of the tower are Awareness and Acceptance.
Awareness means living in the present – not worrying about the future or constantly going back over the past. It means searching out the moments of beauty and love in whatever situation we are in, what is called ‘practising the sacrament of the present moment’; not rushing through life, but standing sometimes, as a child does, in wonder at the intricacy of life. It means looking for God’s presence even in situations where God seems absent.
Acceptance involves admitting the reality of the present situation and relinquishing the struggle for control. It involves saying “I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be”. This is not the same as minimising suffering or passivity or fatalism, but involves embracing a vision of life that is bigger than the suffering. It often involves waiting patiently, not trying to explain suffering, but believing there is growth even in darkness. It means trusting that God has a plan even if we cannot yet see it; believing, as Julian of Norwich wrote, that ultimately “All things shall be well”.
We Christians can do this because our faith tells us that God is not absent in our suffering. The one who Moltmann called ‘The Crucified God’ came through suffering, including the sense of the absence of God, to resurrection. We need to practise awareness and acceptance daily to help us to step back from our suffering and begin to build our tower of hope and joy.
Hughes suggests five building blocks for our tower. The first is the beauty of nature – the appreciation of the wonder of our world, which we tend to lose as we leave childhood.
The second block is laughter. Only humans in the animal kingdom laugh and cry, and it seems a faculty without any evolutionary purpose: but laughter is a way of rising above suffering and tragedy to a spiritual realm. G K Chesterton said “The reason why angels can fly is they take themselves lightly!”
The third block is memory. Although unhappy memories can keep people in bondage to the past, happy personal memories can help us to find hope and purpose and see meaning in the present and God with us. So can Bible passages, poems and sounds and pictures. So we need to store away a memory bank of grace that nothing can take from us, to draw on in times of suffering.
The fourth block is art in all its variety – music, painting, sculpture, poetry, drama and film. Somehow art helps us to feel things more deeply and to bring order into the chaos of suffering.
The final block is other people. Suffering can push us into isolation and self-obsession. But it can also help us to empathise with others, and to reach out to help. If we chose that way, then we can grow through our suffering, and, in a way, take revenge on it and deny its power. Many of us will have met people who, in spite of the most intense suffering, exude joy and hope. They are living symbols of the truth that ‘the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it’. (John 1.3)
The Gospel reading calls on us today to carry our cross and follow Christ.
What is your cross?
Have you prepared yourself to bear its weight?
How will you carry it, to bring you fulness of life and to give glory to God?