March 29, 2013, Good Friday – The PT of the Cross

To listen to this sermon, click here: The PT of the Cross

I passed on an email this past week that I received from Deacon Pat, about little Natalie TaRiele, who was seriously injured in a car accident one year ago. She was just seven years old when the accident happened. Natalie has been on our Intercession list in the bulletin every Sunday this whole year, but it is good for us to hear more about what she is experiencing, so that we can not grow weary or careless in sharing the burden of that family’s suffering through our prayers, and so that we can pray with our mind and our imagination as well as our voice and heart. This is what the email said:

Natalie has had a great weekend! She is working hard at holding up her head and using her voice. She has started smiling more when she is interacting with us and her toys! She loves it when her Daddy plays barbies with her. She is trying to get her left side of her body working. She had a great time outside in her stroller today with Robin Donah. She worked very hard at therapy this week:) and at home with her dad and Emily TeRiele. We are very proud of all of her progress:)

When I read that email, I knew that there was much to be thankful for. I know, having children and grandchildren of my own, that that family surely thanks God every single day for the gift of Natalie’s life, and for the day-by-day blessing of seeing her increase in strength and health. There must have been so many times of rejoicing, seeing the first movements, hearing the first sounds of her voice, seeing the first smiles. And those joys are even greater in the midst of suffering – we delight in each and every sign of hope, however small, in times like that.

But what really struck me, when I read this email, was how huge a task it is for that little girl to get well. If she had just lain in her bed this whole year, bravely trying not to cry or complain, solemnly and passively accepting her pain and her inability to move or to see or to speak, she would still be laying there – if she had survived at all. For Natalie, this year has not been a year of passive suffering – though it has been a year of terrible suffering. It has been a year of intense work, of courageously doing battle with her pain and weakness and woundedness. There has been a lot of pain in the midst of her struggle, a lot of tears on all sides, I am sure, but also joy, as she is rewarded for her hard work by being able to play Barbies with her Daddy or go outdoors into the shine. Natalie is fighting hard, and she is winning her battle, though she will be continuing to fight and labor for a long time yet.

Physical therapy is a very good metaphor, I think, for our daily task of bearing our cross. People often think that bearing our cross means pasting a smile on our faces and just lying there while the world pelts us with the worst it can come up with. As long as we can keep saying “praise the Lord” between our gritted teeth we are bearing our crosses admirably, and when this long, painful ordeal of life is over we look forward to a sort of holy spa treatment in heaven. But that sort of passive suffering has nothing to do with the abundant life that Jesus lived and died to give us. Bearing our cross is a way of living abundantly, of living with every fiber of our being, as broken people in a broken world.

It is our Lord Jesus who most fully shows us the abundant life of the Cross. For those of us who have been walking through the Stations of the Cross every Friday during the season of Lent, we have become intensely aware of the pain and the shame and the grief of Jesus’ Passion. As a man he fell to the ground under the weight of the cross. He saw his friends turn their backs on him. He was surrounded by hatred, beaten and spat upon and laughed at in his suffering. And his flesh was pierced by nails. It is hard even to let ourselves imagine the full horror of what Jesus went through – and, in fact, I haven’t yet been brave enough to watch the movie of the Passion because I am kind of a coward, I guess – I am just afraid I can’t bear to see it all in such graphic detail.

But I think we are in danger as we contemplate our Lord’s suffering, in danger of forgetting that in every step of the way, Jesus was doing the work of restoring health and strength to this dying world. Jesus Christ was doing physical therapy, the most brutal and agonizing physical therapy that has ever been done, on behalf of the whole creation, that creation that he loves with every fiber of his being. Jesus was a victim of terrible cruelty and hatred, but he was never, not for one moment, a passive victim. Just when the powers of evil and death were most sure they had the Son of God under their thumb, he was bringing about their ruin by his suffering – he was causing the death of death and the banishment of all evil. Just when the infirmity of the world was sure of victory, it turned out that Jesus had been doing the work all along, the therapy of the Cross that would heal everything, that would make everything whole again.

When Jesus told his disciples that he was the Good Shepherd who would lay down his life for his sheep, he made it clear that he was not laying down his life as a pitiful victim, but as one who has the power to do as he pleases with his own life. In chapter 10 of John’s gospel, Jesus says: “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” And when Jesus called us to follow him and take up our own cross he gave us that authority, to enter into our suffering with passion, knowing that in the power of the Father we can do the hard work of getting well in all that we do.

For Natalie, that has meant the physical pain and exhaustion of fighting muscles and nerve connections that the accident damaged and weakened, determined day after day to do just a little more than the day before, and struggling to be patient with her own weakness and the slow pace of healing. And even more, to delight along the way in small victories like playing Barbies with her Daddy. And we too, have our work of healing to do; day by day to struggle against our infirmities. Sometimes those are physical, cancer, or arthritis; the weakness of growing old, or the weariness of our daily responsibilities of work and family, and we have to make the choice every morning to get up and to take up our cross, to be stronger than our pain, determined to live abundantly each and every day. It’s a new battle every day, but it is a battle that Jesus already won for us, and we fight as his followers, sure of our victory.

Sometimes our cross is hard to bear because the enemy is hard to see. So much of our spiritual physical therapy goes in inside us, as we battle old fears and discouragement and insecurities. Wounds that were inflicted on us years and years ago are still there sometimes, deep down, festering and giving us pain, and we need to do the work of opening up those wounded places to the light and health of the Spirit. It isn’t easy; it hurts, and it would be much easier to grit our teeth and try to ignore it, just keep ourselves distracted and sedated enough so that we don’t feel it too much. We can do that, we can medicate ourselves with television and busy-ness and worrying about other people’s problems and surrounding ourselves with stuff and more stuff, but that’s not what Jesus called us to do. That will never bring us back to wholeness. That’s not the abundant living he suffered for us to have. And it doesn’t bring life to us or to anyone else.

It is not an easy thing to take up our cross and follow Jesus. But it is the only way that we can live with abundance. And we don’t bear our cross alone. As soon as we bend our backs and pour our strength into the lifting of each burden, whether it is physical weakness or emotional pain or just plain weariness, we find that he Jesus there right beside us, helping us to bear our load, pouring out the balm of his Spirit on the raw places of our wounds, cheering our hearts and refreshing our bodies with the food and drink of his own self along the way. He is there with Natalie every day, rejoicing with her in every little victory; and he is there with us every day, as we do battle with every enemy, whether it is cancer or broken relationships or depression, we battle hand in hand with the One who died so that we can live – really live.

What makes this life abundant is that our spiritual therapy has as its goal something even more than the mending of what was broken – we bear our crosses because we have seen the beginning of the unbreakable, incorruptible, life that is ours now in Jesus. And for that reason, in his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote: “We do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

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