If you walk away...I will follow. -- U2
Regulars here at my little Lutheran variety show know that I devote a post every week to Sunday's Gospel lesson. Standing on the shoulders of many people much smarter and better educated than I am, I write a short, usually third-person "think piece" on the text, say "Amen," and then wait to see how others "hear the Word." I've found that it's a way for me to get more out of the Sunday lessons and sermon at my own church, and hope that it does the same for other people; and frankly it's good practice for the sermons I'm occasionally asked to preach and the devotional pieces I'm occasionally asked to write.
But today I'm going to stray from my formula a bit. I want to get personal. Because a number of conversations this past week have made me think about the time in my life when I, contrary to Christ's words in today's text, put down my cross and ran away from him.
Or, I should say, when I ran away from the Christians. Because that's how it was. There came a point in my life in the Church where the dynamics in my own congregation at the time, which was imploding in an ugly way after a beloved pastor took another call, and the religious dynamic of my community at the time -- where the fundamentalist bullies on the local ministerial council would harrass our pastor by turning their backs on her when she spoke, or talking loudly to one another as she tried to address the group -- as well as the religious dynamics of the country in general, at a time when the Religious Right was in ascendancy, drove me to the point of saying, No mas.
Actually, that's not what I said. I remember the day when I told Christianity to take a hike. It was after a depressing church service, our congregation eviscerated by infighting and grief over the loss of our clergyperson. As I drove home, it felt as if I were standing alone on one side of a great chasm, and on the other side was the face of Christianity that was presenting itself to me at that moment. Petty people verbally slapfighting one another and otherwise causing division in my congregation, unraveling all the good that our pastor had done. The loud, aggressive, intolerant contingent in the local Christian community. Falwell, Robertson, Kennedy and the other Grand Dragons of the Religious Right, and their mindless foot soldiers. I saw beyond this front line, too -- back to the bigots I knew in my childhood church...back to the "good Christians" who subjugated and lynched African-Americans, who gassed Jews and gypsies and disabled persons and queers, who killed and enslaved indigenous peoples. I saw back to Martin Luther inveighing "Against the Jews and Their Lies," and back to the Christian conquerers of Eastern Europe who lined up the pagan population at the water's edge at swordpoint and said, "Either we baptize you or we kill you -- you decide." I saw back to Tertullian and his description of women as slimy vats of filth. I saw back to the early Christian community where, as I understood it, women were told to sit down and shut up and where same-sex relationships were declared an abomination that would certainly separate one from God forever. I looked across the divide at these people, this self-identified Body of Christ.
Fuck you, you assholes, I said. Fuck all of you. I am through with this. And that is what I said -- I remember it -- so to those of you who are easily offended, I'm sorry, but I have to tell the truth here, and this is it. This is how I felt; this is what I said.
And now I sit here, lay-minister-in-training, working out my "Blessed are the meek" sermon for our Beatitudes series and wondering if I need to press my alb for tomorrow.
So what changed? Well...I did, thanks be to God. When I was struggling with regaining my faith -- and it was a struggle, because at the time I didn't want it -- one of the nagging suspicions that would not leave my mind was that losing my grip on Christianity had been a function of losing my grip, losing my focus, on Christ. Jesus said, "Take up your cross and follow me." Follow me. Not them. Me.
But taking up our crosses and following Jesus is a rough road to travel. During a recent training retreat our visiting professor talked to us about the standard Roman crucifixion, and how the condemned man or woman -- who'd already been tortured nearly to the point of death -- would be forced to carry his or her crossbeam to the place of execution, reminiscent of the contemporary Chinese practice of making one pay for one's own execution bullets. It was another way, in an honor/shame society, to add to the psychological as well as the physical agony of the prisoner. Oftentimes the prisoners were so weakened by their pre-crucifixion whippings that the soldiers would wind up having to carry them part of the way. One can imagine the scorn and disgust this would elicit in the executioners. And then there was the crowd of onlookers -- perhaps some feeling compassion for the condemned, but others scornful, judgmental and angry. That's the Gospel witness of the atmosphere surrounding Jesus' walk to Golgotha.
Our taking up our crosses has often been framed by the Church as bearing the burden of personal hardship, or enduring the suffering inflicted by the "powers and principalities," the corrupted impersonal systems that run our world. But it's very seldom that the institutional Church counts itself as one of the "powers" doing the inflicting. And yet it has been, in various manifestations over and over again throughout history.
The fact of the matter is, sadly and ironically, that "good Christians" and the institutions they claim as their own have often watered -- perhaps poisoned is a better word -- the tree whose wood winds up abrading the backs of the faithful as they stumble along in Christ's bloody footsteps.
But, again, this is also a part of "Follow me." Who wanted to kill Jesus of Nazareth -- a faithful son of Abraham, a man who loved Torah, whose words and thoughts and actions were infused and propelled by the Law and the Prophets? Oh, the secular occupying forces wanted him dead, because he was a dangerous, destabilizing nuisance. But it was the self-identified righteous, "Torah-believing" holy folks who also came to the conclusion, for various reasons, that the world would be better off without Jesus in it.
Here's a miracle, though; here's a God thing: Despite this -- despite being beaten and bloodied by the very people who claim to represent Jesus Christ -- the despised and rejected respond to Christ's genuine call. They follow nonetheless. Historic women of faith like Hildegarde of Bingen and Mechtild of Magdeburg and Julian of Norwich who, even as they were being marginalized and dismissed by the powers in the Church, preached and taught and counseled and did theology in a way that provides inspiration for their enlightened and emancipated sisters and brothers today. Indigenous and enslaved peoples who, despite having Christianity in many cases imposed on them by their oppressors even as their pious "saviors" denied them the dignity of equality, came to embrace Christianity as their own and enlivened it both by the influence of their cultures and by the theological influence of their experience as people seeking liberation. Gay people who, despite being told either that they're unholy abominations -- or, in the "kinder, gentler" version of homophobic bigotry, are offered a kind of conditional, minimal toleration as long as they sit alone in the weepers' row in the back of the church and stay out of the active life of their Christian community until/unless God "heals" them of their disturbing condition -- have responded with a "Yes!" to Christ's "Yes!" to them; who live Christ into the world around them and into the faith communities of which they're part; who have been good and faithful servants in God's vineyard, the seed fallen into good soil and yielding an astounding crop. All forgiven, freed, commissioned members of the household of God who have found themselves saying, with the Apostle Paul, "We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything."
I have days when "Follow me" is a joy; when my feet seem to stay a foot off the ground, and the burden I bear is featherweight. There are days when "Follow me" almost crushes me; when I find myself face down on the ground, struggling with the weight on my shoulders, listening to the derisive laughter and angry condemnation of the crowd. There are days when I want to cut and run, or when I find that I'm one of the crowd, looking down with contempt on someone else, because I've taken my eyes off Christ again.
But then I find myself back on the path.
"Follow me," says the voice ahead.
I will follow.
"Ecce Homo," Georges Rouault