REV. DR. ELIZABETH CUNNINGHAM
Stouffville United Church
Second Sunday in Lent
In Mark 8:29, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” To which, Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” And it is as if the disciples finally get who Jesus is. And yet in the next breath it is clear they don’t. For in our passage today, Jesus tells them that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” It’s as if the disciples stopped listening after Jesus said he would be killed. They missed the ‘rise again after three days’ part. For their idea of messiahship meant power and glory and a win. Not suffering and death. And Peter takes Jesus on, and argues with him – probably saying something like how can you be a Messiah and yet suffer and die. Messiahs are powerful and triumph in glory over the enemy. Jesus has harsh words for Peter – ‘Get behind me, Satan. For you are settling your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ A commentary wrote, “Of course we would never rebuke Jesus, never with our words, not ever. Our ‘rebukes’ are of a kinder, gentler nature. We respond with benign neglect, insipid difference.”
Yes, we are good at following Jesus the healer and the teacher. But how well do we follow the crucified Messiah? Jesus challenges us to consider what it means to deny ourself, to pick up our cross, and to follow him. To deny oneself – what does that mean? To give up something for Lent? To think of others rather than ourselves? Is it like that?
And what about this cross? What cross is it that we’re picking up? I know that on the Stouffville Good Friday Cross Walk along Main Street, people take turns carrying a wooden cross between the prayer stations. I remember the feeling of hoisting it over my shoulder, with both hands holding onto the lower base. It was a deeply moving experience. But we don’t all walk around carrying wooden crosses over our shoulder. What cross is Jesus giving us? Henri Nouwen writes about taking up the cross for Jesus. He notes that Simon from Cyrene was “enlisted to carry the cross for Jesus because it had become too heavy for Jesus alone … Jesus needs us to fulfill his mission. He needs people to carry the cross with him and for him.”
Is carrying a cross about helping others? Is it taking food to the food bank? Is it time and money to good causes? Is it being involved in church work? Is that what carrying the cross is about? I don’t think so. That’s all too ‘expected.’ It’s all too rote. I don’t think that is what Jesus means when he talks about carrying his cross. Maybe when I do something spontaneously, when I’m not asked, it’s not expected, when I don’t have it on a to-do list, when it comes from a different place within me, maybe this is what Jesus is asking from me.
I call it sacrificial love.
Sacrificial love comes from this deep place within. Where we give of something from within us to someone who is in need. Where we sacrifice something to help another in need. Where we make no ‘note’ of it. Where there is no ‘pat on the back’ for it. Sacrificial love is something I’ve experienced between a mother and a child. When the mother wakes up in the middle of the night to feed her baby, which deprives her of sleep night after night after night so that the baby will be fed and grow and be healthy – that is sacrificial love. When you give of yourself for the betterment of another, and in a way that takes something from you, without counting the cost – this is sacrificial love.
In Mark 15, a woman comes into the place where Jesus is dining in the house of Simon the Leper. She comes in unannounced, and sits at his feet and breaks open a jar of costly ointment and begins to rub the nard into his feet. And the perfume fills the house. This is an act of sacrificial love. She gives something that leaves her with less, but which gives life to the person who receives. She will be chastised for ‘wasting’ this costly ointment on Jesus when it could have been sold and the money given to the poor. And Jesus will say, but she has anointed my body for its burial. This woman gave in a way that was not on a ‘to do’ list she had tacked on her fridge at home. This woman gave in a way that was not something she had seen someone else do. It came from a deep motivation within her to help in this moment.
Last November, Khaleel Seivwright began building tiny shelters for the homeless in Toronto. He is a carpenter by trade and when he saw the homeless who had been turned away from a full shelter system, to sleep in tents, or on grates, in the freezing cold and snow, he got his saw, and he got the wood, and he began to build. The tiny shelters are 4 by 8 feet, insulated and designed to be warmed by a person’s body temperature, installed with smoke detectors and a fire extinguisher, and with exterior walls of inflammable material. They are constructed on wheels so they’re easy to push around. Each one costs a $1,000 to build. The City of Toronto deemed them hazardous, built without a permit, and on public property. They demanded that he immediately cease production. A church stepped in to offer their ‘private’ property as a place to install the shelters. Last Monday the City of Toronto launched formal court action against Khaleel, to stop him from building tiny shelters for homeless people in Toronto.
When listening to Khaleel on a November 24th CBC Metro Morning podcast, he explained why he started building the shelters. He said that the City doesn’t talk about the people kicked out of the shelters and have nothing. Or that the 24-hour Timmies and McDonalds are closed due to Covid. They are left outside with nothing. He is giving because he saw a person next to him freezing to death on city streets. And he built them a house. He picked up his saw and started cutting wood. This was not on his ‘must do to be a good person list.’ He saw people dying from being out in the cold. And something inside said there has got to be a way to save my neighbour. He is being sued. He is being harassed. The injunction that is pending prohibits him from building tiny shelters. He says the money the City is spending to stop him should be going to finding housing for the homeless. They shouldn’t be stopping him. It’s February. It’s cold.
Jesus died on the cross for us because he loved us, because he loves us. Sacrificial love comes from a deep place within. Where we give of something from within us to someone who is in need. There is no ‘note’ of it. There is no ‘pat on the back’ for it. Like the woman who knelt at Jesus’ feet, rubbing the expensive nard into his tired feet, it is a spontaneous act of love that marks the spot that says, love lives here.
Jesus says some hard words. Deny yourself. Take up your cross. And follow me. I know that he’s asking more from you and me than we’re comfortable with. He’s asking us for more.
Thanks be to God. Amen.