St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church
The Rev. Barbara Hutchinson
2nd Sunday of Lent
February 25, 2018
The season of Lent holds an invitation to tell the truth of who we are, to ourselves, to others, and to God, so that we may be transformed into the truth of Jesus. These 40 days are a soul-stripping time, when our self-protective edges become unraveled, when what is known and comfortable feels wrenched from us, and when our guarded illusions of our self-image are shattered. All of this is God’s invitation to ramble inward to reach our spiritual core, that place where we see ourselves through the eyes of God, where our self-manufactured narrative of who we are drifts away in the ocean of God’s love, and God’s narrative of our life rises to the surface, where our truth becomes God’s truth.
As we meander on this path of truth-telling, we may learn surprisingly marvelous and life-giving things about ourselves that we hadn’t previously claimed or we may catch a glimpse of devastatingly sad truths which suddenly sparkle in God’s spotlight, which cause us to stumble, reflect, and repent. Memories may surface that reveal desires not met and we realize we are suddenly able to name and release pain we’ve unknowingly lugged around for decades. It is certainly grace that Lent isn’t something we do for God but something we do with God, for truth telling can be excruciatingly challenging spiritual work and I imagine we would never do it without God initiating the process and could never do it without God lovingly carrying us through it all.
We understand this self-reflective discipline of truth telling to be holy work because that’s what Jesus did in our story this morning and multiple times throughout the gospels. At Jesus’ baptism, which is the opening scene in Mark’s gospel, Jesus claimed the truth of his messiahship, which his disciples and the crowds delighted in, especially as miraculous healing spilled from his being, but today Jesus named the unpopular truth that with that title came suffering, rejection, and execution. This is not the truth Peter and the other disciples had bought into. They thought the Messiah would deliver them from the pain of their poverty, their meaningless lives, and by following Jesus, somehow the pain of human suffering in daily life and especially from the Roman oppression, would be gone. Jesus is telling them that simply is not true. And to make matters worse, Jesus actually expects those gathered around him each day, those who sat at his feet soaking up his stories and those who witnessed and received miraculous healings, to follow him into his suffering, rejection, and execution. Of course, we know that this invitation came with the promise of resurrection, but the disciples at the time did not. No wonder Peter rebuked Jesus in this his first prediction of his suffering and death.
This crucial turning point in Mark’s gospel hangs on the unwavering need of Jesus to tell the truth of his life, identity and purpose. As Jesus’ followers, we too need to tell the truth of our life, identity, and purpose as Jesus did – with the hope that our truth will reflect Jesus’ truth. Oftentimes this process involves critical self-analysis to determine if the narrative we tell of our personhood and life is the same narrative God would tell of our lives or wish to tell of our lives, inviting us to notice the points of intersection or disconnection.
In our gospel story today, Jesus’ famous line, “pick up your cross and follow me” is inviting the those around him– and us– to move from being a disciple, one who sits at Jesus’ feet to learn about the Way, to following Jesus, which means taking on the identity of Jesus, where our deepest truth is Jesus’ truth, and that means participating in the life, ministry, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. This is a new level of truth telling which involves risk and cost. Maybe we’re like Peter, wishing so much that it not be true, because we are afraid that the truth within us is that we’re not willing to take that risk or to bear that pain for the sake of Jesus. And if that’s where you are, I understand that. Yet I, like Jesus, will invite you to know it is God’s love, ironically, that invites us into and through the pain and death of Jesus, so we can experience his resurrection in new beginnings in our life now and in the life to come, because Jesus’ death was not the end.
So often the disciples are portrayed as unwilling to make that shift from discipleship, receiving the teaching of Jesus, to participating in his walk to the cross, as evidenced by their absence at the foot of the cross. However, there were others mentioned in Mark’s gospel who were willing to participate, not just witness to Jesus’ impending rejection and death, but those who were willing to name the truth of it and boldly share it with him. They knew it would cost them something, maybe everything, and they were willing to offer it.
Perhaps the person who first comes to mind is Simon of Cyrene, who actually carried the cross for Jesus on the walk to Calvary. We can imagine that his knees buckled under the weight of the timbers, his hands ached and were worn raw by the coarseness of the wood, his heart was crushed under the burden of the stares and sneers of the crowds, his lungs gasped for air when his nostrils inhaled the dust kicked up by the soldiers boots, and yet he offered himself fully in his walk to the cross, to participate in the fullness of Jesus’ identity, which included his suffering and death, the real truth of his being.
And then there’s that unnamed woman who embarrassingly barges into the dinner party in Bethany, precariously carrying a fragile translucent alabaster jar filled to the brim with expensive nard. We can imagine her heart beating feverishly, her eyes deflecting the scandalized expressions of the assembled men, her knees buckling in prayer, but also because they had suddenly gone weak, and her soul holding silence during that pregnant pause as she carefully removed the lid of the jar and the sweet fragrance danced through the room. She anointed Jesus’ body for his impending burial – and this act of offering her whole self and her worldly goods to Jesus cost her much more than the cost of the perfume. She risked humiliation, rejection, and societal banishment, to participate in the fullness of Jesus’ identity, the real truth of his – and her being. Simon and this unnamed woman risked their whole hearts to participate in Jesus’ suffering and death. That’s what following Jesus means, risking our whole hearts, as stated so well in our Rite 1 Eucharistic Prayer: we offer and present unto thee our selves, our souls, and our bodies, in other words, we offer our complete surrender, for it is then, and only then, that our truth becomes the truth of Jesus.
We may naturally wonder, “How do we get to this place of the complete offering of ourselves to participate in all that Jesus was about, so that the truth of Jesus becomes our truth?”
At the recent retreat I participated in at Holy Cross Monastery, we were invited to imagine this same story of the woman anointing Jesus’ body as he prepared for his final walk into Jerusalem in reverse. By that I mean, imagining Jesus was the one keeling before you, tenderly and cautiously holding the jar of anointing oil, honoring the moment in silence and prayer as he warily uncorked the shimmering alabaster jar, and unrestrainedly poured it on your head, spilling it over your shoulders, allowing it’s flow to lovingly anoint your entire body. What would that action of the surrender of Jesus to the truth within you open up in you? As the fragrant oil collected in small pools in your upturned hands, what feelings would arise in your heart for Jesus? Would you, in turn, surrender your whole heart? Would you follow him wherever he would lead? As his tears fell from his closed eyes at the tenderness of the moment and mingled with the fragrant nard, what pain within you would be washed away? With the softness in his eyes expressing devotion to you, what life-giving parts of yourself would he sanctify or bless or strengthen? With the force of his soul bearing into yours, what truth would he name within you? Possibly the truth that says, “I will follow you with all of my being.”
This holy work of truth telling, of allowing God to seep within our souls to spotlight that which needs to be washed away by the tears of Jesus, that which needs to be held in love by Jesus’ healing touch, that which needs to be sanctified, claimed as holy within us, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, all of that is the intentional work of Lent. I invite you to let Jesus do this work for and with you, as you offer yourself, all of yourself, to follow the One who loves you beyond measure. Jesus was inviting the disciples and is inviting us to look at our greatest fear often hidden deep within the recesses of our heart and mind and to look at our deepest pain straight in the eye, so it can be transformed into something that can be life-giving for us or for others. Although many people erroneously imagine that somewhere along the way God or Jesus told us that if you believed enough, life would be easy or painless, Jesus is saying clearly here, “There will be pain”, but Jesus adds, “I’m not going to let it define you.” “Following me into and through the pain will bring you to the truth, the only honest truth of who you are, that you are a precious and beloved child of God.”
Lent is an intentional time of stripping away that which we no longer need, that which no longer serves us well, that which inhibits us from finding our spiritual core shaped by God, that which is a barrier to our moving from believing in to following Jesus, so that we can focus on what endures, what matters, what reconciles, what seeks the good. This will cost you, Jesus says. And yet, I can tell you the rewards will be beyond your imagination. Jesus says, “Follow me”. My deepest prayer is that you will say, “yes” with your whole being so you may discover the truth deep within yourself, which is God.