Learning to Die Daily: a sermon for the second Sunday in Lent

Lent 2B – Mark 8:31-38 this sermon is inspired by my study of the work of Dr. Cornel West. His words flow through the lines of this sermon and his prophetic imagination provides the hope-filled vision of LOVE parading around the world as justice.

Listen to the sermon here

The anonymous gospel storyteller that we call Mark, wants us to know that: “Jesus began to teach them that the Promised One, the Messiah, the Chosen One, the one the oppressed people of Israel had been longing for, waiting for, expecting, hoping for, the Promised One,  had to suffer much, be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and religious scholars, be put to death, and rise again three days later.” Furthermore, the gospel storyteller makes it absolutely clear, “if you, wish to come after me, you must deny your very self, you must pick up your cross and follow in my footsteps.”  Those of us who have the audacity to call ourselves Christian, those of us who seek to follow Jesus, must deny our very selves, we must pick up our cross, and we must follow in the footsteps, of Jesus. Follow in the footsteps of the ONE who is understands that he must suffer much, be rejected by the elders, the pillars of society, the powerful religious leaders and the scholars, follow in the footsteps of the One who understood that rejection meant that he would have to be put to death, and rise again. Quick change the channel. There must be something better on offer than this.

Change the channel, I can’t stand to watch this one again. I’ve seen it before. The hero, the beloved, the freedom fighter, justice seeker, peace maker, that one, the one we’re all rooting for, our saviour, suffers and dies. Change the channel, I’m not up for this. Don’t give me Jesus. I don’t want Jesus. I don’t want anybody telling me that suffering and death are the inevitable; especially my suffering, and my death. Change the channel. There must be something better out there.

I don’t want to know. Distract me. Distract me from the pain and the suffering. Change the channel. Find me something more interesting, more uplifting, more hopeful, more cheerful.

We live in a world filled with instruments of mass distraction. I don’t have to see, or know, or do anything I don’t want to see, or know, or do. I have the power of my remote. I have the power of my smartphone. I have the power of my computer. I have videos, music, books, and time to enjoy the pleasures they bring. There’s food in the fridge, wine in the cupboard, take-out on demand, entertainment galore. I don’t have to see, or know, or do anything I don’t want to see or know or do. I can tune in and tune out. Life’s too short to waste it on suffering or picking up crosses. I don’t want to know. So, I don’t know. I never knew. And even if I do know, there’s nothing I can do. The cross is too big, too heavy, too horrendous. There’s too much suffering, too much violence, too much hatred, too much racism, too much injustice, too much greed, too much pain, too much hunger. The world doesn’t need another martyr. There’s no point in me sacrificing myself. It’s hopeless. Change the channel, click on another link, open a new website, pick up a happier story, let Jesus hang on his cross if he wants too but turn the page and sing a happy song, let’s think about something else. Distract me. There’s no point asking me to pick up a cross and follow in Jesus footsteps.

I’m not the type of person who is willing to die for a cause. When I was just a kid, I backpacked around Europe. I’ve always been a bit of a history buff. I blame my father for making me sit through all those grainy black and white documentaries about World War II. Dad was just a kid when the war ended; just twelve years old. Growing up in Wales and then England, the war loomed large in his life. So, I suppose watching all those documentaries about the war helped me to understand a little bit about the events that shaped my parents and grand-parents. I remember the grainy images from the death-camps. Mom used to argue that we should change the channel. It was just too horrendous to watch. But Dad would insist that we needed to know what happened so that it never happened again. So, those grainy black and white images of death camps live in my brain. When I was backpacking around Germany, those images haunted every encounter I had with individuals of a certain age. I found myself looking at people, German people in a very strange way. Well I say German people, but it wasn’t exactly German people per se.  It was German people who were then in their fifties, sixties and seventies; I just couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t help wondering what they had been doing thirty years earlier, during the war. I’d see these men and I couldn’t help subtracting the years and imagining what they had been doing 30 years before during World War II. Were they soldiers and if they had been soldiers, what kind of soldiers were they? Sitting on buses and trains, I would look at the men and I would wonder. I kept telling myself to cut it out, it was crazy, and it was unfair. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t help seeing the uniforms. The uniforms from those grainy black and white films, and I couldn’t help wondering what exactly my travelling companions had done during the war. What had they done and what did they know? Did they know? Did they know what was going on in the camps? Did they know what was being done by their government, in their name? Did they know? And if they knew, what did they do? What could they have done?

A few weeks ago, our Global Justice Team let us in on a horrendous truth. They showed a documentary entitled 3rd World Canada. They focused our attention on the horrendous conditions under which our neighbours are suffering. First Nations people just a few hundred miles north of here are living, suffering, and dying in conditions that would be judged as intolerable in the so-called third world. I didn’t know. If I’m honest I suppose I was happy not to know. Now that I know, what will I do? I tried distracting myself. I’m a busy person. I have important work to do. I wish this wasn’t happening. But what can I do. The politicians are worse than useless. The situation has been deteriorating for decades. What can one person do in the face of such suffering? I don’t know.

Trouble is, I do know. I’m a good person. I don’t want to be responsible for the oppression of anyone. I don’t want to be responsible for the suffering of my neighbours. I want justice for the people of Canada’s First Nations. But what can I do? Better more capable people than I have tried, and they have failed. What can I do? It’s hopeless. Change the channel. I can’t bear to watch. Besides, Nations People aren’t the only ones who are suffering. The world is so full of injustice. There are so many people in so many places who are suffering, starving, and dying. Poverty, injustice, violence, oppression, greed, hatred, racism, everywhere, everyday, non-stop…..change the damn channel already! There’s nothing I can do?  I don’t want to know. I don’t know. It’s hopeless.

We can dream about the Reign of God, a world where everyone has enough and where the planet is protected, and all creatures thrive, but that’s all it is a dream. And yet we keep dreaming it. We dream it in our deepest truest selves. The dream surfaces in the work of our imaginations. The dream lives in our finest literature, in our most beautiful works of art, in our greatest movies and in the most moving music. The dream drives some of our greatest thinkers, inventors, engineers, explorers and dancers. It’s a dream of justice for all. It’s a dream that despite humanity’s best and worst efforts will not die. Yes, the dream has suffered untold defeats, and millions of deaths but somehow the dream lives on. The dream lives on because we are fearfully and wonderfully made we human beings. Yes, we are capable of despicable things. Yes, we are responsible for the injustices in this world. But we are also capable of such beauty, such truth, such life, and our capacity for greatness means that the dream lives.

But there can be no life without death. There is no resurrection without crucifixion. Unless we are prepared to die there can be no rebirth. We are after all is said and done: human. Human, unique among the creatures of the earth because we know that we are going to die. Our consciousness is defined by our knowledge that we are finite beings. From dust we came and to dust we shall return. Being human means learning how to die.

Each one of us is on a grand pilgrimage from the womb to the tomb, and as we travel we learn the meaning of what it means to be human. Human, from the Latin “humando” which means burying or burial, think humus, earth, on our way back to the earth. Humans are the ones who are on our way to back into the earth from whence we came. Our task according to the philosopher Cornel West is to learn how to die.

Learning how to die? Each and every day learning how to die. As West puts it, coming to terms to the reality that each and everyone of us will become the culinary delight of terrestrial worms.” And our question, our life’s question is “Who will we choose to be on this journey from womb to tomb?” Will we choose to deny our own reality?  Will we choose to deny death, or will we embrace death. In the words of Dr. West: “Do you have the courage to learn how to die in order to learn how to live?”

All the great philosophers, the lovers of wisdom like Plato insisted that to philosophize is to learn how to die. Seneca the great Roman philosopher insisted, “He who learns how to die, unlearns slavery.” Learning how to die frees us from slavery to our distractions. West reminds us that any time we examine our assumptions or our presuppositions, when we question our carefully held prejudices and our assumptions and decide to let it go, that’s a form of death.    There is no growth, no development, no maturation, no rebirth without death. In the words of Dr. West: “Anyone seriously engaged in the embodiment of the act of living must be on intimate terms with forms of death. Each and every day of our journey we need to have the courage to let go of our hopelessness, let go of our distractions, let go of our fears, let go of our delusions, and indeed our doctrines and dogmas. We need to have the courage to let those old tapes in our heads die so that new ideas can be born. The idea that there is nothing that we can do enslaves us to acquiesces and so we turn our heads or change the channel. The idea that the problems are too big, enslaves us to powerlessness, hopelessness, and so we are enslaved to systems that oppress our neighbours relying on injustice to keep us distracted from realities too painful to look at.” Our cynicism toward our leaders, our politicians, even our heroes, enslaves us to inaction and sense of powerlessness that leaves us grasping for our remotes to sooth and entertain our anger and frustrations. Tightly held doctrines, dogmas, and practices enslave us to rigidity and heartlessness as we fearfully cling to the way things were and refuse to engage the way things are. Refusing to let things die in us enslaves us to lives that are turned off and tuned out, confined to repeating the travesties’ of our past.”

“The Apostle Paul insisted that the followers of Christ must learn to die daily. Die daily. What needs to die in us today, so that the dream of justice can be reborn? Well the truth is, it’s not all about justice, because as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr insisted that any justice that is only justice soon degenerates into something less than justice.  Justice must be saved by something, which is more than justice, LOVE rebirths justice.  LOVE the power that lies at the heart of all reality is the midwife to justice. LOVE the very source of all that is gives birth to the courage we all need in order to die. LOVE gives us the courage to let suffering speak to us. LOVE is so much more than a feeling of tenderness.”

West reminds us that, “Tenderness is what LOVE looks like in private, but Justice is what LOVE looks like in public.” LOVE is the power that will give us the courage to let even our hopelessness die so that Justice can be born.

Yes, the problems are immense. Yes, the suffering is intense. Yes, we have tried and failed so many times. Yes, we are only one person. Yes, there are untold reasons to be cynical and do nothing. The courage to pay attention to the world around us will come from the LOVE that lives in each of us, love for ourselves, love for our families, love for our neighbours, all our neighbours and love for our enemies.

LOVE the power that lies at the very heart of reality. LOVE the source of all that is. LOVE that which we call God is the courage we need to learn how to die. LOVE that is God, enables us to die daily, so that freedom can be born in us. Freedom to let LOVE take on flesh and parade around in the world as justice. Freedom to let LOVE speak so that suffering can be heard. There are so many crosses out there waiting for us to pick them up and follow.

Like Peter, I am reluctant to follow where Jesus is leading us. I too want to deny death. I don’t want to know. But, the LOVE that lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond all of us, that LOVE that is God, has taken on flesh and has ears to hear, and has heard the cries of our First Nations sisters and brothers.

Our Global Justice team has the courage to let suffering be heard. Gary, you have heard suffering speak and the power of LOVE has moved you to let those naysaying voices that haunt all of us die. You have worked with our sisters and brothers in DARE to help bring justice to birth.  Sharon, you and your dedicated team of volunteers, you have let those voices of hopefulness die in you and you have given birth to warmth and helped people to eat and clothe themselves in the midst of this cold winter. Petra you have let the voices of cynicism and disdain die in you and inspired some of the naysayers among us to do something about the plight of our planet. Each of you have let hopelessness die in you so that LOVE can give birth to hope, and hope has inspired subversive sweetness and victories have empowered LOVE to give courage to others.

We cannot turn away or tune out. We cannot let our distractions lead us to deny death. We must let the LOVE that lives in us give us the courage to let suffering speak. Because when we know.

When we hear the cries of our neighbours and see the misery of our enemies, the LOVE that lives in us will give us the courage to let our hopelessness die, so that justice can be born. Justice which is the way that the LOVE that is God walks around in the world. LOVE is the courage we need to pick up those crosses of ours and follow Christ into the world, to hear and bear witness to the suffering of our neighbours and our enemies.

They said Germany would never recover after the war. They said the Berlin Wall would never come down. They said civil rights would never come to the American south. They said a partied in South Africa would never end. They said gays and lesbians were an abomination and they belonged in jail. They said women could never be pastors. They said a married lesbian Lutheran pastor was an impossibility. They say that poverty will always be with us, but that statistics tell us that there are fewer people in poverty than ever before. They say that crime is on the increase. But the truth is that crime rates of all sorts are lower than they have ever been lower. They say that peace is impossible. They insist that poverty is a reality. They say that our politicians will never be anything other than greedy selfish charlatans obsessed with their own power. They say there’s nothing we can do. They say its hopeless to try. They say sacrifice is a thing of the past. They say no one is willing to pick up a cross.

Get out of my site Satan! Let these presuppositions, cynicisms, racisms, prejudices, and social constructs die so that Love can be born in us and parade around the world as justice!!!  We know, and because we have had the courage to listen to suffering we can let all those fears, doubts, and excuses die in us, so that LOVE can be born again. That’s resurrection. That’s the joy of living. Choose life. Die daily!!! Choose life. Let LOVE live in, with, through, and beyond us, now and always.




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