It’s fair to ask why on earth we would follow Jesus if his sales pitch is, essentially, “If you won’t come get murdered as a terrorist, you aren’t worthy of me.” That’s basically what “take up your cross” means. Our search for a better reason to follow eventually runs back into these verses, so it’s not like we can escape or talk around them. We rather need some help to understand them. This Sunday, help comes from Jeremiah.
The Prophet Jeremiah seems to have experienced God as overwhelming, and his fellow people as tragically unable to understand or listen to God. Jeremiah’s prophetic career started when Judah was resurgent. King Josiah had restored Judah’s prestige, increased its size, reformed its religion. Or so it seemed. Really, what happened was the Assyrian Empire crumbled suddenly and the few years it took the neo-Babylonian Empire to consolidate power made Judah feel real strong. Jeremiah prophesied that all was not as well as it seemed. The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “Jeremiah has often been called a prophet of wrath. However, it would be more significant to say that Jeremiah lived in an age of wrath. His contemporaries had no understanding of the portent of their times….” As Babylon pressed down on Judah, Jeremiah did the unthinkable and unpatriotic: he said God wanted Judah to submit to Babylon. From our vantage point, this makes good political sense. Judah is tiny and Babylon is huge. For Jeremiah, though, the point was that God was tearing down the old and building the new, no matter how hard that was to understand.
Jeremiah expressed this in the course of awful experience. His words today give us a disturbing glimpse. They’re the sixth of his seven “lamentations,” in the words of one commentator, “the most blasphemous [complaint] in the Bible.” He accuses God, “You have seduced me, and you have overpowered me.” It is language of consent and a lack of it. Heschel writes, “The prophet feels both the attraction and the coercion of God, the appeal and the pressure, the charm and the stress. He is conscious of both voluntary identification and forced capitulation.” Jeremiah wants to serve God; he really doesn’t want to say some of the things God tells him to say. If he tries not to prophesy, though, he feels like he is on fire. Yet he knows he will prophesy and be ignored. He will tell the people, “If you continue in that way, God will respond in this way.” And the people will say, “Oh, there goes crazy Jeremiah, again!” And he will have to watch God do what God said God would do. And then, likely, the people will blame Jeremiah for it.
It was rather like Jeremiah was dealing with someone who struggles with addiction. The struggle with addiction can become a script from which there is no escape. You love someone relentlessly and do everything in your power to help them. Maybe for a while things are okay but then the telltale signs return, and if you say something it only seems to make it worse until the next crisis and the next time that things seem okay for a while. And please understand I am not saying this to devalue people who struggle with addiction. Quite the opposite. We attach a stigma to addiction. Like someone else’s addiction gives us the right, nay, the responsibility to treat the addict as less than human. That sense of guilt and shame just feeds the addiction. It gives the drugs the room to say, “See? I told you they wouldn’t get you the way I do.” Jeremiah deals with a people who respond to him as someone in denial might respond to a friend calling them out for a drug problem.
The Church faces similar obstacles in trying to have the hard conversations our faith compels us to have with our society. The Church finds itself like Jeremiah, crying out, “Why do some of us blame the entire Muslim community for the actions of a handful of terrorists?” No answer, until another terrorist attack, for which we are blamed. Crying out, “Why is it that our society says that it is okay to be so afraid of a black person being black that you can kill them?” We’re told, “You’re playing the race card.” Crying out, “The economic disparity in our country flagrantly contradicts Old Testament and New Testament teachings.” Class War. As Archbishop Camara famously said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
This kind of behavior, whether in someone struggling with addiction or in the people of Judah repeatedly acting out their grim script with Jeremiah, is what Paul Tillich calls, “Existential Self-Destruction.” We experience love as its opposite. We experience love as wrath. God loves us relentlessly, and part of such love is showing us the consequences of rejecting love. But to the one who rejects love, love appears to be a threat to their being.
And with that, it would appear that I’ve talked myself into a corner. Indeed, one of my great struggles in faith is that we work so hard to grow the Church and nurture Christ’s body and love the world and pray that our loving and our living will heal the world and draw others to fellowship in Christ, and we run up against so much that simply doesn’t care. I reckon that it is when we reach that point we are finally ready to understand what Jesus says in Matthew 10. Jesus says, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” The cross erases. That was the whole point of Pilate crucifying Jesus: he wanted him to cease to be. In the moments when we wonder “What the hell are we even doing here?” Jesus reminds us of the cross, and asks, “Was this ever about you?”
All of us experience God differently, but all of us experience God as other than we are. God is many things, chiefly not me. Following Christ is never about me. If it is about me, I immediately lose myself. If it is about me, it becomes some self-improvement method, or lame attempts to justify whatever I was going to do in the first place. I’ll just slap a couple Jesus fish on my personal preferences and political leanings and call it a day. If it is about me, all my shortcomings get magnified, because I do not have this life thing under control. I’ve mentioned addiction, and addiction is many things, and one of them is an attempt to control what is beyond our control. The drugs will numb the pain, or conceal the guilt, or give me the edge I can’t quite get on my own, or shut out my parents. If it is all about me, then that totally makes sense. If it is all about me, any conversation that could upset my little bubble gets really uncomfortable, so even if I don’t like the way we do race, economics, or interfaith relations, I’m just gonna stay quiet. Those who find their life will lose it.
And those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake will find it. I can’t fix my life. I can do things better, yes. I need to get to the gym more frequently (or at all), and eat more green vegetables, and my daughters are always reminding me to say fewer swear words. But that’s not what makes life meaningful. It’s God as the other. It is God as Jesus, who is not me, but who is present in those around me. It is only from other people that I hear the words, “I forgive you,” or, “I love you,” or, “thank you for all that you do,” or, “In the name of Christ your sins are forgiven you.” It is only from other people that I receive the strength to live each day.
We all of us at some point experience love as its opposite. And we all of us in trying to follow Christ run up against a world that seems bent on following its grim, self-destructive script. We all of us at some point face God and say, “You know, you could make this a little easier.” And when that happens, Jesus points to his cross and says, “This isn’t about you. Through ‘them,’ I freed you to live for them.” I have to think what got Jeremiah out of bed most mornings was that he met God in the people, even as so many refused to hear him. It wasn’t about him, or even about whether his efforts “worked”. These were people of God, who needed to hear of God’s love for them. Living for them meant loving them like God did, so much that it hurt; living for anything else simply wasn’t worth it. And thus, Jesus’ hard words become inspiring, as he tells us, “Lose that whole self-centered thing. Lose it in living for others, where I am.”