How many of you have taken on a discipline for Lent? I have been talking to many parishioners and most of us are taking on something. Either we have agreed to say our prayers more regularly, we are reading a book or scripture more often, or we are doing some kind of community service or good deeds. Many of us have committed to playing Lent Madness, which sounds like fun, but still involves reading about the saints each day. In this way, our Lenten disciplines are burdens – things that we might not make time for normally or are just things we don’t really enjoy doing, but we do them hoping to learn something. Or perhaps, as we hear Jesus say in our gospel lesson, we are denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and following Jesus.
To be honest, I am not sure most of us know how to deny ourselves. We are trying to deny ourselves by following Lenten disciplines. We are denying ourselves chocolate. We are denying ourselves more time on Facebook or Instagram so that we have time to learn about saints. We are denying ourselves extra sleep so that we have time to get up and exercise. But I am not sure that is what Jesus means when he says we should deny ourselves. I think what Jesus means when he says we need to deny ourselves is that we need to realize that life is not all about us – our needs, our wants, our plans.
Several of our teens and pre-teens are going through a program called Rite-13. One of the parts of that program is a liturgy in which we bless a transition they are facing in life – from being shaped primarily by their parents to being shaped by their peers and community. In that liturgy they will stand on one side of the church with their parents at the beginning, but then they will move over to the other side of the church with their peers – symbolizing this change. For the teens, I think they often enjoy this part because the move toward their friends feels like freedom – finally getting rid of their overbearing parents. But what many teens do not realize is that although the freedom is indeed fun, that freedom is also scary. They are stepping out of a place of safety and protection – out of a situation where it is “all about you” – into a place of vulnerability and trust – into a situation where it is not going to always be about you. In fact, very often they will need to tend to the needs and concerns of their friends more than their own needs and concerns.
This is what taking up our crosses and denying ourselves really means. Taking up our crosses means finally seeing that our faith is not just about us and God. Our faith involves a community that needs us.[i] And as we learn more, we will find that not only does our church community need us, but the community outside of these walls needs us. So denying ourselves and taking up our cross means that we might need to be the Christ-like person who helps someone without enough food. Taking up our cross is going to mean that we might need to be the Christ-like person who stands up for someone else, either by stopping a bully or by advocating for systemic change. Taking up our cross is going to mean that we might need to be the Christ-like person who talks about their faith even when talking about God might make you seem un-cool.
Julian of Norwich, who was actually one of the saints who almost won Lent Madness a few years ago, once said, “If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.” We are not guaranteed a carefree and safe path just because we are a part of a community and because we offer love. But love, which we find in the gift of community, will be with us whether we succeed or we fail.[ii] One of my favorite pictures is from of a friend of mine who has two boys. When the second was born, the older brother came to the hospital to see his new younger brother. My friend took a picture of her older son holding the younger son. The look on the older son’s face was priceless – the look was a look of utter distain. In his grimace you could see anger, jealousy, and a sense of betrayal. That one picture captured perfectly what most of us feel when we realize we are not the center of universe. For many of us, that is what taking up one’s cross feels like. We deny ourselves, valuing the community over ourselves. When we do that, we will often feel the same way that older brother felt. But what I also know is that eventually, the older brother came to love the younger brother – he found a playmate, a confidant, and a friend. Like Julian explained, in loving outside of himself, that brother was not always protected from getting bruised up from time to time. But he has always found love – in others, and especially in God.
That is our invitation today: not to deny ourselves the simple pleasures in life, but deny ourselves the privilege of being the center of universe. That work is not always fun, and sometimes we will feel like that older brother with a grimace on our faces. But sometimes, when we really let go of our focus on ourselves, we find something a lot greater – a love that we could never experience alone – a love that can only come through God and our neighbor. In that way, taking up our cross and denying ourselves does not seem so bad. Amen.
[i] Karoline Lewis, “A Different Kind of Denial,” February 22, 2105 found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3542.
[ii] Becca Stevens, The Way of Tea and Justice (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), 46. Stevens quotes Julian’s words found in Revelations of Divine Love and adds her own commentary.