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Is it possible to participate in Lent without giving something up? I mean does it even count? Can you just say, “Yep, I’m doing Lent”, and not forfeit anything? Now, I’ve heard of people adding things during Lent instead of giving them up, but that’s really giving something up too because you are replacing free time with prayer, Facebook with reading, the addition is really a subtraction. The passage today leaves us with these heavy words – “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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.”
Denial, loss, taking up our cross – these are all directives that make us wince. Can we get back to the “my yoke is easy and my burden light” part, Jesus? And there’s this word that surrounds not only this season of Lent, and this passage, but the Gospel stories as a whole – sacrifice. Like repentance, sacrifice is a word that we don’t like very much in the so-called “progressive” church. Sacrifice kind of rubs against our incarnational theology – the kind that says we are children of God, beloved by God and accepted by God. Sacrifice – denying ourselves – doesn’t seem, at least on the surface, to fit with that. Plus, the idea of sacrifice has been used against us so much, to keep women “in their place”, to make children “obedient” and to help men…well, OK, it doesn’t get used much for the men in the typical religious scenario, though I’m sure they will tell you that being in charge of everything is a great burden. Still, sacrifice, like repentance, has been weaponized.
Yet sacrifice and self-denial also feature heavily in the work of the mystics and the wisdom of the monastics, who seem to understand the difference between something unhealthy like self-abuse and the spiritually rewarding work of resistance, especially to our own proclivities. So they would fast, and pray and participate in individual and group worship that was dedicated to renewal and an encounter with the Holy. The idea behind this kind of sacrificial practice is not that we become someone else or that we conform to some set idea of an ideal human being; rather it is centered in the acceptance that God is with us and working on us, creating us to be more authentic to who we truly are, a more genuine version of who God created us to be.
What these terms repentance and sacrifice assert is that we mask this reality. We aren’t who God created us to be. We are instead what “America” created us to be, or our family or our tribe or label — whatever narrower system we either believe, or are told, grants us identity. Repentance calls on us to notice this, even to confess it, and to turn around, which is what that word literally means. And sacrifice is the tool that helps us notice our “selves” – or the difference between our self and the identity we portray to the world. Fasting helps us know that we are not defined only by our food, or our bodies, or our media, or whatever it is from which we fast. Prayer helps us be centered on something other than entertainment or distraction, and it allows us to seek help, which is an unrewarded virtue in our non-religious lives. Taking time to stop, to reflect, to seek new information, to redefine ourselves in the process and to learn to grant others the benefit of the doubt is not only a strange experience, it is downright subversive.
And this is the point, after all…to transform ourselves. But this is hard to accept. Even as Jesus lays out the road ahead, full of confrontation, suffering, rejection, death and resurrection, it is Peter, the “rock of the church”, who pulls him aside, the text says, to rebuke him. Peter rejects all of this talk of sacrifice in favor, we assume, of a much more glorious one where Jesus the messiah kicks the Romans out and sits on David’s old throne…maybe with Peter by his side. But Jesus blasts him – get away from me! You are my enemy! You are so stuck in the ways that human beings do stuff, you can’t even see how God works!
It is quite possible, of course, for us to be religious and never practice religion. It is possible to be active in a church and inactive in the Gospel. Religion can easily become a facade, something we do for show, in order to have the right sticker on our car, or show that we belong to the right club, or to claim a title while we do not engage in any of the struggle and sacrifice that the religious practices are designed to produce. We can become so in love with promoting and praising Jesus that we forget to follow him, to practice what he practiced and challenge what he challenged and, perhaps most importantly, to learn to love the way that he loved.
But that takes sacrifice. Again, by sacrifice, we’re not talking about merely succumbing to the needs of others, or martyrdom, or what modern psychology calls co-dependency. This sacrifice is a practice, it is something you choose, you take on and then set down again. It is meant to take us out of our own personal experience so that our exposure to someone or something else helps us grow when we go back to our own personal experience, which is where we really live anyway. This is the practice of religion, rather than religion for religion’s sake, for when we have religion without sacrifice, it turns hierarchical, even deadly. Religion without sacrifice loses the ability to listen, to change and to be shaped. It learns that it owns God, like any other commodity of power, and it refuses for God to get out of the box in which we have placed God. And it learns that the point of religion is defending the castle, which is not the point of religion at all. For if our religion does not make us more humble, more mistrustful of power, even our own power, then it is not religion, it is domination masked in piety.
We have seen this time and time again, of course. In our own tradition, beginning with the marriage of Christianity and the Roman Empire, the very thing it was born opposing. Then with the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem Witch trials, Manifest Destiny, the Ku Klux Klan, the Holocaust – all examples of religion not practiced but manipulated. And so, when religion gets marched out and held up as a badge of honor I am left wondering – is this the religion of plastic piety, the desire for the appearance of religion, or a genuine effort to practice religion? For I know the kind of fruit both versions produce. If we do not reflect with depth and sincerity on commands to love our neighbor as ourselves, we can develop immigration policies that are cruel and inhuman and exploit others for our own gain. If we do not actively practice the concept of grace, then we can learn to scapegoat, pinning all the blame on someone and casting them out. We can create systems of so-called justice that dehumanize people and unjustly imprison those we deem lesser by whatever means we determine their lesser status. If we do not take seriously Jesus’ warning that it gains us nothing to own the whole world and lose life in the process, then we will let greed and power and money rule the day, we will forget people in the name of profit, and justify anything if it makes money.
In contrast, is the counter-intuitive Gospel’s truth – that the more we give, the more we receive; the more we seek to be a friend, the more friends we discover; and more we love, the more we are loved….when we give our life away we save it. Is is as perplexing, challenging and ultimately important a question as any great spiritual truth. We know this, I am sure. But we forget. And what’s more, we are encouraged to not believe it. We can live our whole lives practicing these preposterous ideas and still have work to do, for this is the point of religious practice – we sacrifice for our own growth. Yes, surely such sacrifice should also help others, through charity, advocacy, and solidarity, but that is, finally, a step in our own wholeness. This is not selfish, it’s obedience…obedience to the teacher who taught with his own life that we can trust God with such foolishness as a covenant that says if we just love, God will handle the judging and if we will hope that even the cloudiest of days, even weeks full of grey and rain, will give way to the bright sunshine – just like yesterday afternoon as people gathered in downtown Tulsa to speak against an unjust immigration system and to stand in solidarity with students and workers, families and children for a better tomorrow for all people.
When Jesus says that any who want to follow him must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow, he does not say this to only the disciples, as many of his more difficult statements go. He says it to the crowd and the disciples, making it clear, at least in Mark’s telling, that this message is for all of us. And it sounds so hard. I don’t want a cross, Jesus. I’ve seen The Passion of the Christ – yuck! No, thank you. But pronouns matter. Jesus doesn’t ask us to take up his cross, but rather our cross. It’s not the same thing. We aren’t supposed to be Jesus, that part is already taken, we are supposed to follow Jesus with our spiritual practices, with a theological critique of the world around us and by practicing sacrificial love in the world. Maybe this means you stop to help someone in need, maybe it’s a donation to One Great Hour of Sharing, maybe it is in standing up for someone, or standing in solidarity. And maybe it is found in the simple act of listening to someone, and sharing a smile or hug. Or maybe it comes by fasting this week, skipping a meal and replacing it with prayer, or fasting from technology for a night to help you remember what is important and what is not. It can even be found in seeing such sacrificial love in someone else and making sure to thank them for their witness. Such practices, I will absolutely confess, are not world-changing, but they are YOU-changing. And that’s how the world changes. That’s how we recognize the kin-dom that is already here. One sacrifice at a time.