Loser – September 3, 2017

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul;s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 3, 2017

Jeremiah 15:15-21; Matthew 16:21-28

Let us pray.

Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.

Loss is an omnipresent reality in human life. All of us have lost our keys or our wallet or our purse at one point or another. We lose articles of clothing and important pieces of paper for no discernible reason whatsoever. Losing a race or a game or a match is often a formative experience in a young person’s development. Employees lose jobs because of layoffs; lovers lose significant others because of incompatibility; children lose parents or grandparents because of illness or tragedy. This week, the Gulf region has been devastated by the unending rain of Hurricane Harvey, and the rest of us have watched with horror as residents have lost their homes, their possessions, their sense of security, and, in some cases, even their lives.

Loss may be a common occurrence in modern society, but it is nonetheless something that is highly stigmatized. The very term “loser” is a derogatory epipthet, flung around by everyone from the playground bully to the internet troll to the President of the United States. At best, we look to those who have lost something with pity, lamenting their bad luck and terrible fortune. We might even seek to comfort them or help make their situation better. At worst, though, we impose shame and exclusion on those who have suffered loss, communicating to them our assumption that they are not as smart or as capable or as worthy as everyone else. When we ourselves are faced with loss, our negativity can turn inward and we can become consumed with fear, anger and self-hate. Loss, for the most part, is something we avoid, ignore, and push away. Rarely is loss something we choose to accept or embrace.

For Jesus, however, loss is central to living with meaning and purpose. Jesus himself willingly goes to Jerusalem, aware that it will result in his losing his very life. Paradoxically, he claims, it is those who are open to losing something who actually will be able in time to find something worth holding onto, while it is those preoccupied with saving what they already have who expose themselves to the possibility of experiencing devastating loss. Amassing all sorts of protections and comforts can backfire on you if you forfeit your sense of integrity and purpose in order to do so. In rebuking Peter for setting his mind not on divine things but on human things, Jesus is critiquing the mentality that believes that self-preservation is everything, that vulnerability is a liability, that all loss can be prevented.

It is possible through Jesus’ words—and, indeed, through the story of Jesus’ life—to romanticize and justify suffering. Fervent, literal-minded believers may counterproductively seek out unnecessary suffering in order to prove how holy they can be. Meanwhile, Jesus’ willingness to suffer can be exploited by the powerful as an excuse to refrain from helping the powerless and oppressed, to stop them from speaking up in protest, and to keep them in their place. But Jesus was anything but acquiescent to power; he had no trouble frequently challenging power, whether implicitly or explicitly, and asking for more from it. The truth is that the political and religious apparatus of Jesus’ time was strong enough to execute him if it wanted to; Jesus’ death was, however unfortunate, inevitable. When Jesus tells us to take up our cross, we should remember that the cross was an instrument of punishment, often inflicted unjustly, that could not be requested. The cross was not a hard path Jesus chose for himself; it was a cruelty that was foisted upon him for doing what he thought was right. Jesus’ willingness to take up his cross—to accept a fate he could not escape—does not absolve the corrupt powers who determined his fate from being morally accountable for their actions, nor does it suggest that those of us who follow Jesus should suffer simply for the sake of suffering.

On the cross, Jesus not only loses his life but also reveals himself to be a loser, a victim at the hands of a system he can’t effectively fight against. To losers everywhere who fail to live up to the standards of others, who endure the taunting and hate of the crowd, who struggle to put food on the table, who look violence in the eye, the cross proclaims that God is one of them, that God knows and cares about what they are feeling, and that, as awful and unfair as their ordeals may be, through them they become closer to and more like God. To those of us who are wealthy and privileged and fortunate enough to be shielded from many forms of loss, the cross is a call to be vulnerable, to surrender our self-regard, to open ourselves better to others, and to hold on less tightly to what we have. And to those of us who trample on the losers of the world, who laugh and ridicule, who reject and shame, who benefit from underpaid labor, who subdue the unarmed and defenseless, the cross serves as a warning: in abusing and mocking our neighbors, the one whom we truly abuse and mock is the God who suffers with them.

How long will we let God hang there on the gallows, put to death without reason or cause? How long will we sneer and snicker, treating the deep hurt of others as mere entertainment for ourselves? How long will we make up excuses, convincing ourselves punishment was justified and deserved? How long will we stay at a distance, barricading ourselves away, unwilling to disturb our tranquility, refusing to hear the cries? How long will we fear our vulnerability? How long will we delay our loss? How long will we let God suffer?

Categories: Sermons, Worship