Sermon for Sunday, March 4, 2012

Mark 8:31-38

“I Can’t Stand The Pain!”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ www.FranklinCircleChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

To hear this sermon podcast, click here:  120304SermonPodcast

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I really cannot stand pain.  Oh, I know that’s a fairly common human trait, or even characteristic of all living things.  But I really can’t stand pain!  I believe the primary, if not sole, reason that I brush my teeth as thoroughly as I do every morning and night has nothing to do with a brighter smile, but because I remember the drill.  And as nice as Dr. Mullikan was, memories of that drill are seared into my brain far more intensely than his delightful demeanor.

Likewise I cannot stand gore.  Oh, you know, blood and guts.  You wouldn’t know it from my earliest days.  As a young child I wanted to emulate my mother and so I had decided that I would be a doctor.  Mom would occasionally bring home an extra supply item from the operating room.  You know, one of those distinctive blue cloths from the O.R. table.  An IV tube.  A plastic syringe (minus the needle, of course!).  I had fun “operating” on my teddy bears.

But I remember that momentous day when my stuffed Winnie the Pooh bear stopped being able to say things from the metal box deep within him.  Once he could no longer spout “Have you seen my honey jar?” or “Christopher Robin is my friend!” I declared that he was seriously injured and in need of an operation.  Bringing in the fake vampire blood from my other childhood fascination, Halloween, I bloodied poor Pooh up within an inch of his life.  I must have worked hours on that vampire blood soaked bear, but somehow never managed to break the skin (or fuzzy fabric in this case) during any of the operations.  His conditioned never improved, either.

So, with such a visual in your mind, you ought to wonder how on earth I could announce to you that I cannot stand gore.  Well, the rest of the story is that once my mom thought I was really interested in medicine, she began bringing home operating room catalogues and journals.  They had pictures of the real gore: wounds held open with the newest and best clamps, hearts being sliced open with the finest and sharpest scalpels, blood – REAL human blood – being sopped up by revolutionary new sponges.  Oooh!  Yuck!  I dropped that future vocation like a hot potato (or, better yet, bloody organ)!

And these aversions, to pain and gore, continue into adulthood and have remained with me, perhaps even deepened.  Which puts me at a distinct disadvantage during the season of Lent.  It also seems to put me at odds with a particular strand of contemporary Christian culture that appears to be quite popular recently.  I’m speaking of the fascination many good Christian folks have with the Passion of Christ, particularly the torture and crucifixion of our Lord and Savior.

Now, if you’re one of these folks, stick with me on this one, okay?

I do worry about a culture that has such a fascination with blood and guts.  It is exhibited in the general culture by the television shows we produce and watch.  I sat through a promotion for a cable show called Spartacus recently that had the most horrific and stylized splattering, splashing, and spraying of blood I have ever witnessed, and it filled 50 seconds of the 60 second commercial!  Some people pay good money to attend, or watch on television or their computer, the new field of extreme fighting.  A quick search on the internet revealed dozens of sites for Xtreme Fighting Championships, World Extreme Fighting, Ultimate Fighting Championships, and even something with the completely unnerving name of Felony Fighting!

And, lest I forget to mention the most common form of blood-and-gore-fascination, we all love to slow down on the highway near an automobile accident just in case we might get to see that body on the gurney headed to the ambulance.  You know that’s what rubbernecking is all about.  Be honest!

And, if I might be so bold to say, Christianity has made an art form of carnage.  While I can’t speak to two thousand years of history (which I strongly suspect has always exhibited a certain Christian captivation with the pain and blood of Jesus) I certainly know at this point in history there is a clear allure to his painful torture and bloody death on a cross.  It’s hard for me to imagine how much time, money, energy – and yes, passion – has been spent delving into the morbid details of Christ’s Passion.  Books, websites, plaques, tattoos, and t-shirts – which with any other content would be deemed offensive or, at least, in bad taste – are poured over or worn by God-fearing folks in their homes, on the street, to work, and to church.

But, of course, the ultimate exhibitionism of the gruesome nature of Christ’s death can be found in the movies, and no movie did this more fully than “The Passion Of The Christ,” Mel Gibson’s epic 2004 movie (1) that brought the word “bloodbath” into common contemporary Christian conversation.  My little Pooh Bear looked like a Garden Nymph next to the Jesus character in “The Passion.”

So, you wonder if this sermon is ever going to get around to the Bible, or will it simply be a critique of culture.  Well, in fact, all of this thinking was sparked by the Gospel reading in the lectionary for today.  In Mark 8:31-37 we hear Christ’s first revelation of three to his disciples that he, the one on whom they are pinning their hopes to be the Messiah, the one who would transform their world, that he would, in fact, suffer and die.  Earlier in Chapter 8, just prior to today’s reading, we have two miracle stories – the feeding of the four thousand and the curing of the blind man at Bethsaida – and then Peter’s epic reply to Christ’s question of his identity, “You are the Messiah.”

Suffering and death are the furthest things from the disciples minds, especially after watching such incredible miracles and hearing their leader, Peter, answer Jesus’ cryptic question with an A+, 100% correct answer.  He was the Messiah!  And we know how Messiah’s are supposed to work.  They inflict pain, not accept pain.  They cause people’s deaths, not succumb to death.  In Mark 9:31-37 and 10:32-45 Jesus will twice again prep his followers for this distinctive approach to Messiahship, and in both cases they cannot overcome the incongruities between their expectations and Jesus’ predictions. (2)

Mark writes, “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”  It’s impossible to hear the “rise again” part after hearing about the “great suffering,” rejection, and death parts.  Is it any wonder, then, that Peter rebukes Jesus?  Not only is this no way for a Messiah to be treated, it’s no way for any decent human being to be treated!  But Jesus, in a moment that takes our breath away, replies with his own stinging reprimand, “Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

The Crucifixion, Matthias Grünewald, panel from the Isenheim Altarpiece, 1515.

It is in this exchange between Jesus, Peter, and the disciples that we get our first hint of pain, blood, and gore.  Jesus says unequivocally, “great suffering” would ensue and that he would “be killed.”  Each gospel has it’s own distinctive descriptions, but in Mark the actual trial and crucifixion is described simply, but effectively.  In Mark 14 we read, “some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him… the guards also took him over and beat him” (vs. 66).  In Mark 15 the continued mockery and beatings is depicted in more detail:

Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard… And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.  (vss. 16-19)

Certainly, it is well within the bounds of human imagination and artistic creativity to interpret these moments in the life of Christ as realistically as is possible.  My concern is as to why these few scenes in the life of our Lord and Savior seem to evoke such passion, and I use that word intentionally, and invite such scrutiny.  In much of my life I have seen the awful effects of our culture’s thrill, even titillation, with all things macabre and gruesome.  News from Chardon this past week weighs heavy on my heart in this regard.

There is no question that an ethical dilemma exists as to whether or not re-presentations of violence and horrific butchery mostly fulfill a prurient craving and even encourage violence and brutality by those of weaker moral fiber.  It is unthinkable that unimaginable violence becomes more imaginable when our culture makes readily available in movies, video games, and sports abundant opportunities to not only hear about such cruelty, but to see it visualized before you, with all the power that money and fame can put behind it.  I worry that the captivation of faithful Christians with Christ’s bloody suffering and sickening death on a cross only contributes to a culture of death that threatens our very existence as civilized human beings on this planet.

But I did ask those of you who do find meaning in envisioning Christ’s passion to stick with me.

I read this past week an article about this very topic by Eric Wilson in The Christian Century.(3)  Professor Wilson takes on “Passion Plays” that abound around the country, and around the world, especially in very large churches that can afford the special effects necessary to do justice to recreating Christ’s brutal beatings and skin-ripping crucifixion.  But in describing both his disdain of such voyeuristic bloodbaths and concern about their contribution to a culture of violence, he acknowledges that the actual depictions of Christ’s pain and suffering on the stage moved him.  He writes,

“The violence had moved me.  On the most basic level, I was, I had to admit, titillated by the torture.  It gave me a physiological rush – increased pulse, tingly skin.  But the violence also whipped my emotions to a high turbulence.  Fear was there, and pity, too, and an array of other feelings – remorse, anxiety, nostalgia, affection.  The intensity was enlivening; the aftermath, serene.” (4)

Recognizing that he was genuinely moved by the portrayals he saw on the stage, Wilson also reflected on what Gospel truth might come from such intense emotions that he, and so many other Christians, feel when viewing them.  The author summed it up in the word “empathy.”  If such representations of Christ’s suffering and death stir up in us empathy, then there is the chance for redemption in such depictions.  On the other hand, if we allow them to simply feed into our culture’s cauldron of violence, and make us either a voracious thrill-seeker, looking for more blood and even more exciting violence, or an apathetic bystander, numbed to even the most lurid brutality, either way we will have abdicated life to the culture and abandoned Christ on the cross.

Wilson provokes us to be our best selves by writing,

“This is the challenge for Christians in witnessing to the cross’s gore – to be open to the full force of the macabre without sinking into its base arousal, to rise to benevolence while not forgetting the body’s suffering.  But then this is the strange logic all believers must master: the body’s death is invigorating, and living is sacrifice.” (5)

Now I would take it one step further, and this is the point of our scripture lesson for today.  Empathy is not enough.  We must take up our own crosses and follow Jesus.  We must turn the empathy we feel when we experience, in whatever way we might, the Passion of Christ, into compassion and service.  I believe it is not enough to simply be moved by the suffering and death of Christ, we are called to respond.

Mark quotes Jesus as saying,

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (vss. 34-35)

Jesus demands that we take up our crosses.  I find it intriguing that he did not say, “Take up my cross and follow me.”  In the Greek it is “airo autos stauros,” take up one’s cross.”  Jesus goes further and calls us to deny ourselves, follow him, lose our life for the sake of the gospel.  Those are action verbs!  It isn’t enough to be moved by Christ’s suffering and then return to our worlds of creaturely comfort and satisfied theologies.  Christ pleads with us, “Don’t just feel something, DO SOMETHING!

I am taken by the fact that the past two weeks we have received the offering for Week of Compassion.  This offering, received year round, but emphasized during February, is our denomination’s way of supporting disaster assistance and development and long-term recovery and rehabilitation

Turning Empathy Into Service

efforts around the world.  What does it mean that we might – and I’m not saying we do but I am saying we are tempted to – that we might spend more money on a t-shirt, movie, or tattoo depiction the suffering and death of Christ than we do on helping our sisters and brothers who are suffering and dying around the world?

Sisters and brothers, the horrific suffering and painful death of Jesus is well known.  He told us it was coming, and it came.  But likewise, the expectations of our Lord and Savior are equally well known and he made it crystal clear.  Such suffering and sacrifice were not meant for him alone.  While certainly Christ would never expect us to offer ourselves in the exact same way as he did, he did call us to take up our crosses and follow him.

Let us be moved by the pain, suffering, and death of Jesus beyond simple emotions of sympathy and empathy.  We must take up our crosses of compassion and service and follow in his footsteps.  And, Beloved, we can stand the pain, because we know that the one who calls us to experience it knows it well.  All too well.

Amen.

*** To find out how you can turn your empathy for the pain and suffering of Christ into service and action, go to our website: http://www.franklincirclechurch.org/GettingInvolved.htm

*** To give to the Week of Compassion, go to: https://npo.networkforgood.org/Donate/Donate.aspx?npoSubscriptionId=2980

(1) For more information on the movie, go online to: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0335345/

(2) Commentary, Mark 8:31-38, Marilyn Salmon, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2012.   Found online at: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=3/4/2012&tab=4

(3) “Horror And Empathy: My Response To A Gory Passion Play,” by Eric G. Wilson, in The Christian Century, February 22, 2012, Vol. 192, No. 4, pp. 10-11.

(4) Ibid, p. 11.

(5) Ibid, p. 11.

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