Where Are Your Wounds?
Every preacher has a favorite biblical text. If you listen to enough sermons, you will hear this text preached on regularly. It will slip into prayers and find its way into Bible studies. A favorite of many comes at the midway point in Mark's gospel as Jesus pronounces, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."
I've never liked this text. Oh, I've preached on it before. I've chided congregations to accept their cross bearing duties. But, I've never liked this text. And, it's more than that. I resent it. For God's sake, people bear too many crosses already without adding another. Some crosses are as obvious as the one to which Jesus was nailed at Golgotha. They stand across hospital doors where cancer and heart disease strip the life out of patient and family. They stand in embattled living rooms where parents scream at children and doors slam in disgust. They stand on street corners where people sell anything to help make life palatable for one more day.
Chaim Potok is a contemporary Jewish novelist with a profound understanding of the cross. In his novel, My Name is Asher Lev, he tells the story of a young Hasidic Jew raised in Brooklyn. His gift of painting enrages his father who believes painting
is an offense to God. His mother bears the cross of her husband's rage and her son's artistic gift.
Finally, Asher is asked to leave his religious community when his painting entitled Brooklyn Crucifixion is displayed. As he completes this painting, he says to himself, "For all the pain you suffered, my mama. For all the torment of your past andmy future years, my mama. For all the anguish this picture of pain will cause you.
"For the unspeakable mystery that brings good fathers and sons into the world and lets a mother watch them tear at each other's throats. For the Master of the Universe whose suffering world I do not comprehend. For the love I have for you, for all these I created this painting—an observant Jew working on a crucifixion because there was no aesthetic mold in his own religious tradition into which he could pour a painting of ultimate anguish and torment."
Some crosses are as plain as Asher's mother's who was caught between the love of her child and the love of her husband. Some crosses are not nearly so clear. They are well hidden in the landscape of life. Peter bore the cross of success. Just before Jesus preaches the "follow me" sermon, Peter tries to stop Jesus' talk of suffering.
If you sometimes just don't get a sermon, remember Peter. Peter saw no sense in Jesus walking in the lonesome valley of suffering. I can hear Peter now fiercely arguing that the saying "God helps those who help themselves" is somewhere in the Bible. And if it's not, it should be!
No one is going to follow an unsuccessful Messiah. That's what Peter knew without a doubt. How many of us labor under the cross of compulsory success? Are we "successful" parents, "successful" business leaders, "successful" students,"successful" Christians? How often do our hearts ache from the burden of carrying a cross we simply cannot handle?
Then there are those of us sinking under the weight of a cross of self-protection. James Dittes of Yale Divinity School suggests, "Sometimes we devote so much energy to protecting ourselves—to washing our hands constantly, to wearing heavy rubber gloves, to searching for the very best gasoline prices, to equipping our houses with burglar alarms, to monitoring the stock markets and interest rates—that we hobble ourselves; our protection buries the very self we wanted to protect."
Jesus pronounces, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me." Why does Jesus want to add one more cross to our burden? What sense does he see in our straining under more weight than what life already imposes on us and we on ourselves?
Maybe Jesus isn't adding one more cross. Maybe the reason I've never liked this text is I've never understood it. Jesus' words sound like a somber demand when our lives are weighted with more demands than we can meet now.
What if they are just the opposite? What if Jesus' words are not another demand, but an invitation? What if their intent is not to increase our burden, but to lighten it? What if "Follow me" has less the sound of a drill sergeant and more the sound of a scout who leads a thirsty crowd to a stream of fresh water?
Jesus is remarkably honest here. By saying, "take up their cross," Jesus dismisses any suggestion that life can exist without crosses, without undue anguish and unjust suffering. But by saying, "Follow me," he invites us to walk with one who can give our suffering meaning.
I was reminded this week of the moving novel by Alan Paton called, Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful. The story is about Robert Mansfield, a white South African headmaster. He resigns his post when his school is not permitted to play a black school team.
After his resignation, a black man by the name of Emmanuel Nene visits Mansfield. Nene wants to meet a man of courage. In the conversation, Nene announces he has come for another reason. He is also going to do something that will brand him a radical and enemy of the state. He is going to join a multi-racial political party.
Mansfield warns Nene of some of the consequences suffered from such a decision. "Yes," Nene responds, "I'm going to get wounded, also. Not only by the government, but by my own people as well. Just like you." Nene stands and prepares to leave. But he has one more thing to say.
He turns again to Mansfield and says, "I don't worry about the wounds. When I go up there, which is my intention, the Big Judge will say, `Was there nothing to fight for?' I couldn't face that question." Is it any coincidence that Nene's first name is Emmanuel?
A life without wounds. That's the great lie. People chase after it with desperate vigor. Peter tasted it for a moment and wanted it forever. The idea is enticing and sometimes tempting beyond resistance. And yet, Jesus knew better. He knew life will inevitably wound us all.
When the Big Judge asks, "Where are your wounds?" which wounds will you and I display? Which wounds will we show were gained from following one whom we call Emmanuel? Which wounds will reveal we had the courage to walk what Scott Peck has called, "the road less traveled?"
"If any wants to follow me, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me." What a wonderful invitation into a life worth living and a death worth dying. Gary Charles Alexandria, VA