Growing up, I had the opportunity to spend vacations with my Grandparents in Hamden, Connecticut, a town just north of New Haven. As I have mentioned in previous homilies, some of my fondest memories of my grandfather include going to church with him at Trinity Church on the Green in New Haven. While my grandfather’s churchmanship was always solidly rooted in the Episcopal Church. My grandmother’s was not.
My grandmother, being the daughter of Swedish immigrants, was raised as a Lutheran. Even though she was received into the Episcopal Church soon after she married, to her dying day she always identified herself as a Lutheran and Bethesda Lutheran Church as her church home. This said, my grandmother’s regularity of worship, in either the Episcopal Church or Lutheran Church, was sporadic at best. My grandmother’s true church, or at least the one she attended most, was the one she tuned her bedroom TV to every Sunday morning at 9:00 a.m.
The service was called the “Hour of Power”, presided over by Robert Schuller from the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. As I think back over the numerous Hours of Power I watched with my grandmother, I can still remember Dr. Schuller’s warm smiling face and his message of positive thinking. The other thing I remember about the show were the countless commercials encouraging the television audience to send money and offering coffee mugs and other types of souvenirs all containing positive messages that would change your life and help support the ministry at the same time. And of course, if you did donate to the Hour of Power Dr. Schuller always assured his viewers their lives would be blessed in innumerable ways.
For the most part, Dr. Schuller along with Jimmie Swaggert and other tele-evangelists subscribed to what is known as the prosperity Gospel. This message basically says, if you believe hard enough, and behave in a Godly way, your life will be prosperous. And if you didn’t believe him all you had to do was look at the magnificence of the Crystal Cathedral, the Church that prayer built as testimony to his Gospel.
It seems many of us still hold to or seek the message of the prosperity Gospel. Deep within our spirituality we still hold to the belief that if we pray enough, if we behave enough somehow our lives will be free of the hardships so often associated with human life.
I have often wondered how this Gospel ever came into being. Is it somehow rooted in our Protestant Work ethic which tells us “idol hands are the Devil’s workshop” and which assures us if we work hard enough we will prosper? Or is it the result of the post communion prayer at the end of the Burial Office when the congregation prays, “Grant that this Sacrament may be a comfort in affliction, and a pledge of our inheritance in that kingdom where there is no death, neither sorrow nor crying, but the fullness of joy with all they saints; through Jesus Christ our Savior.”
To my knowledge, Jesus never told his disciples following him and life would be easy. In fact , Jesus’ message to his followers tended to be the opposite, more in keeping with today’s Gospel in which Christ tells the gathered crowd, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
This statement is more in tuned with my experience and journey. It parallels what Josh shared of his life last week when he said, “ how grace will meet us where we are, but will never leave us where it found us.” This is at the heart of what Christ is saying when he tells us to deny ourselves and to pick up our cross.” Because, Christ/grace is always willing to meet us where we are at, but he will not let us stay frozen in the place where we are found. Choosing to follow Christ, or to allow the grace of God into our lives is not about finding the easy button to life, it is more about finding the confidence to face the darkness within ourselves and within our world and to confront the darkness knowing we are always and will always be the beloved children of God.
The very reason for the cross is to provide us with the gateway or portal through which we learn that which we perceive as being broken or damaged goods is transformed into wholeness through God.
Wholeness never comes easily, wholeness requires sacrifice. Wholeness is never cheap, it always comes with a cost. This morning Jesus says, we must be willing to lose our lives in order to gain it.
A common thread which runs through many of the healing stories is Christ asking the question, “Do you want to be healed.” Its most striking when he asks the paralytic who was brought ea to the waters of Bethsaida each day in hopes of being able to enter the pool when the angels came to churn the waters.
“Do you want to be healed?”It sounds like such a silly question knowing this man’s history. And yet, the question is legitimate. So often we claim we want to be healed but are not willing to make the sacrifices necessary in our lives to be healed.
“Do you want to be healed? Jesus asks while really asking,” are you willing to accept the burdens of being healed?” The burdens of being healed for the paralytic meant becoming a productive and self-sufficient member of society. It meant giving up being cared for. It meant giving up being the victim of his circumstance. It meant giving up the personae of one who is paralyzed and dependent on others.
In the story of Blind Bartimaeus, when Jesus calls Bartimaeus from the crowd, the blind man throws off his mantle, the cloth he caught the coins people threw at him when he was begging on the streets, he throws off the cloth he was dependent on for survival. This symbolic gesture indicated his willingness to pick up his cross, to pay the price, whatever it maybe, to be healed.
Do you wish to be healed? Do you wish to be made whole? Are you willing to deny yourself and pick up your cross in order to follow Jesus and be transformed? Are you willing to meet Christ where you are today and let Christ move you from here?”
All of this is possible when we come to accept there are no easy buttons with Christ, no assurances of prosperity on this earth. Instead, what we find is through Christ there is the transformative love of the cross freely offered. A love that can and will make us whole, but only if, if we are willing to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow Christ.