Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling picture
February 28, 2021

Second Sunday in Lent, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Dearly Beloved,

I’ve always felt bad for C-3PO, the human-like android in the Star Wars universe.  R2D2, the other droid, is always the hero, his little chirps and beeps endearing themself to all of us.  He (or she or they?) gets to ride in the fighter planes while C3-PO is often on the ground nervously telling them all to be careful.  He’s anxious–a worry wort–and is usually convinced that his buddies are taking unnecessary risks.  He says, at one point, “We [droids] seem to be made to suffer; it’s our lot in life.”[1]

Dare we say the same thing about Jesus?  In the church I grew up in, the purple, Lenten paraments, the decorations on the altar, had images of nails and whips, a few drops of blood, a crown of thorns, a spear, and, of course, the cross. Back then, Lent itself was forty days of mediation on the suffering of Jesus. Even the earliest Christians interpreted the story of Jesus through the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Surely he was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”  “By his stripes, we are healed.”  “He was crushed because of our iniquities.” Even the words from Mark in today’s gospel suggest that Jesus knew this trajectory for his life; that he must be handed over for great suffering, be rejected, and killed.  And only after all that, only then, be raised after three days. Maybe you’ve heard this version of Christianity:  Jesus was sent to suffer and die because of our sins.  His suffering and death was his job; his mission; bearing suffering was his identity.

Peter’s problem was that he didn’t get this.  He thought you could go to Jerusalem, bring in a new version of leadership and have a society that was compassionate and just; and that there wouldn’t be any cost to this change.

Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan.”

When he said this, however, he didn’t mean that God intends us to suffer.  That’s not the point; the goal. But Jesus knows deep down that when you bring to birth this alternative vision for what society and our inner life can look like, the system—the powers that be–rises up against that witness, and it puts its knee on the neck of those trying to breathe with Holy Spirit.  It silences witnesses to peace and justice—lynches you as an example to the rest of your community.  James Cone called the cross “the lynching tree.”

Suffering is inevitable when eternity is born in our bodies. Something has to die if we are to be reborn. This is part of the spiritual journey that Jesus witnesses to in the exchange along the Jerusalem road.  Dying and rising are two sides of one coin.

I’m with Peter.  I wish it wasn’t that way.  I would much prefer to have a life without suffering.  In fact, I invest a lot of time and energy in having that kind of life.  I avoid my pain or deep-seated trauma through all kinds of strategies.  It’s so much easier to blame my problems on someone else.  I chase happiness and contentment as if they could be constant experiences, not moments that emerge in another-wise chaotic and anxious life.  I don’t want to have to write in a gratitude journal so that I remember the things I want to give thanks for.  I want to be awash in a constant feeling of thankfulness and spiritual joy.  Mostly, I spend my life picking at, or focusing on, my wounds; unhappy with the present moment; convinced that if I just could get my act together—or my email box emptied—I could be like all those people who post such lovely things on social media.

A friend of mine in the south, who titles his blog, “Grumpy North Carolina Lutheran Peaching 101,” has titled his sermon for this Sunday: “Things Which Should Not Be Served Up Sweet But Often Are: Cornbread, Barbecue, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

We all have this tendency (maybe it’s human nature, an example of original sin) that we take the complexity of human life and reduce it to simple formulas that are overly saccharine and deceptively trite.

I thought about all of this on Valentine’s Day.  Fortunately, my sermon was already recorded so you didn’t have to hear any of this on the day we dedicate to romantic love and the notion that our soul mate and our perfect partner is out there. Or just might emerge in our current partner, given enough work on their part.

Alain de Botton wrote an article for the New York Times, entitled, “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.”  He says, “We need to swap the Romantic view for a tragic (and at points comedic) awareness that every human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us — and we will (without any malice) do the same to them. There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness. But none of this is unusual or grounds for divorce. Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.”[2]

He calls this a philosophy of pessimism.  Yet he’s not really pessimistic. He’s really quite hopeful about what we can create when we’re honest.

He doesn’t mean that some marriages won’t need to end their suffering; or that someone abused should just stay. He does mean to suggest something deeper, and maybe true about the universe:  the place where we suffer is also the place where we can truly come alive.  The person that we get matched with—whether spouse, or friend, or child, or co-worker—or expanding it even farther; the situations that we encounter such as loss, hurt, illness, even death–provides some way for us to grow from winter into spring.

Suffering becomes soil for new life.  Suffering becomes the consequence of reaching more deeply into the love and mission of Jesus.  Only in losing do we find.  Only in dying do we rise.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not telling you to go out and be your own version of woe-is-me C3-PO.  The gospel doesn’t tell us to go out and find suffering for its own sake. Truth be told, right now, not a one of us needs to be reminded that we’re suffering.

But Jesus does seem to say that our deepest life can only come as we face and negotiate our suffering alongside him.  We don’t just carry any cross.  We carry the cross of Jesus.  The cross of Jesus is a revolutionary protest against death, hate, violence, torture, injustice, prejudice, brutality, fear, and bigotry.[3] The cross of Jesus is a revolutionary sign of strength, compassion, courage, and love, the rending of the temple curtain, and the union of earth and heaven.  The cross of Jesus is never carried alone.  He left the tomb to join our journey of suffering and resurrection for all eternity.

Jesus promises that if we pick up the cross, or get marked with it by oil and water, we are fused to his life.  As we bear in our bodies his mission to love, or to be compassionate, or to heal, or welcome, or engage in activist justice, we will suffer consequences.  Relationships will get challenged.  We’ll end up giving money away instead of keeping it for ourselves or passing it on to families that don’t really need it.  We’ll change jobs because we couldn’t any longer justify the industry that’s been supporting us.  Or we’ll simply live with fewer creature comforts or the privileges of American life.  We’ll choose a smaller footprint, ending the game of ever-expanding growth and consumption.

Or, perhaps, we will put to death some of our illusions.  We come to terms with our brokenness, our addictions, our inescapable loneliness, our life with imperfect people, who are after all God’s beloved, our church that is filled to capacity with hypocrites, who are, of course, the ones Christ forgave from the cross.  We pick up the 500,000 deaths to COVID, our shattered lives with their losses and grief, a city on edge as the George Floyd murder trial begins tomorrow in a system still framed by white supremacy, and we lift it up to the Christ.  Who takes it all into his own life, and carries it with us. We are absolutely lost in this kind of sacrificial and graceful love.  We were made for this.  For tears.  For love.  For resurrection.  For this journey.

It’s our lot in life…at least, since baptism.



[1] Thank you to Mark Kiel in his commentary on Mark 8:31-38 for the reminder of C3PO’s character.

[2]New York Times, Opinion, “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person,” by Alain de Botton, May 28, 2016

[3] “The cross of Jesus is a revolutionary protest against death, hate, violence, torture, injustice, prejudice, brutality, fear, and bigotry.”.” is the title of a Lenten devotional booklet by members of Mercy Church in Atlanta, Georgia.