The refiner’s fire

Text: Mark 10:35-45 (a second baptism)

Does spiritual growth have to involve suffering? Does following Jesus always imply pain and loss?

In the conversation involving James, John and Jesus that we heard today, Jesus uses the metaphors of cup and baptism. He is not talking about an everyday drinking cup or about his baptism in the River Jordan. He is talking about his crucifixion in Jerusalem that will occur just a few days after James and John make their request to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in his glory.

Jesus says that his friends will drink from the cup he is about to drink and endure the second baptism he is about to endure. This implies that they too will undergo a baptism that will be like a crucifixion, a daunting prospect if there ever was one.

It is also a prospect that runs against the idea that Jesus does the work of healing for us. Many churches teach that one merely has to believe in the cross to be saved for eternal life.

Since I do not find this teaching plausible, I am glad that it is contradicted by today’s passage. Jesus walks a path of death and resurrection as our role model and companion. But even after his death and resurrection, we still have to walk the path ourselves. As in many other places, in today’s reading Jesus says that in order to save our lives we must lose them. To achieve greatness, we have to spend ourselves in loving service to others.

Happily, losing our lives does not always involve the pain of crucifixion!

The forms that baptisms by fire take vary. Sometimes, they involve pain. But with grace they lead us to greater love, peace and joy. They do so by lifting us out of our small, anxious selves into a deeper connection with God and neighbour. Any difficulties or pains we undergo in such baptisms are more than compensated by the relief they offer from our ego’s fears and desires.

Examples of second baptism include parenting, social justice work, charitable outreach, engagement with works of art, communion with nature, and acceptance of loss. Anything that helps us realize that our ego, with all its anxieties and impossible-to-fill desires, is an illusion can function as a second baptism.

Not all spiritual growth involves suffering. Nor does all suffering lead us to new life. But the presence of suffering is a sign that transformation is probably available.

I have been suffering for the past two years, and I am sad to report that it has not led to new life. My suffering strikes some as odd or unnecessary since it is about social change. I feel distress because movements that spread fear of Muslims, immigrants, and sexual and gender minorities have brought to power leaders who pursue racist, sexist, and violent policies. They include Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Donald Trump in the United States, and Doug Ford in Ontario.

The upset I feel at the victory of such leaders has led me to wonder if I have wandered off a path of death and resurrection.

From a young age, I tried to place my identity at a social level. When oppressed groups and nations rose out of bondage, I cheered; but when events swung in the opposite direction, I suffered.

When I see rising levels of literacy, the overthrow of despotic governments, greater autonomy for women, and the eradication of deep poverty, I feel at peace. At such moments, it seems easy to let go of my small self.

I had thought that placing my identity in humanity was a way to rise above ego. In seeking union with all people, I believed that I could lay down my ego at the end of life and to see this as God’s amazing grace. But with sharp increases in racism, sexism, and violence – developments that also seem to close off the possibility of solving issues like climate change and war – I struggle to see Grace. I may be suffering as a result, but I am not transforming.

So, it seems that I have some work to do.

This week, I subscribed to a daily online meditation from the American Franciscan priest and writer Richard Rohr. I have always appreciated his writing, and I went to his website looking for ideas for my Continuing Education plans in 2019. Rohr runs a retreat and education centre in New Mexico called the Centre for Action and Contemplation.

This week, the theme in Rohr’s emails was suffering. He quoted from a variety of spiritual writers who raise up the ideas that failure is the path of transformation and that darkness and woundedness are our primary teachers.

In the past, I might have found it easy agree with this. Critical moments of broken-heartedness, failure, and helplessness have, with grief and grace, led me closer to faith, hope and love.

But now in the face of the reality that hundreds of millions of people are willing to support ignorant and unstable bullies who pursue policies of ethnic cleansing, the oppression of women, and political violence, I am unsure. The fact that such leaders get enthusiastic support from fundamentalists – whether Christian, Muslim, or other – makes the situation more difficult.

Perhaps foolishly, I look for signs that the cultural tides are turning. Last week, I took one news story as such a sign.

The reaction to the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Kashoggi by Saudia Arabia in Turkey on October 2 might be a turning point. Kashoggi’s murder is shaking the close ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia in a way that other horrors – such as the brutal suppression of civil rights in the kingdom, Saudi support for a 2013 military coup in Egypt, and the proxy war that Saudi Arabia is fighting against Iran in Yemen with tens of thousands of deaths – have not.

Perhaps this is because Kashoggi resided in the United States, spoke English, and wrote for a prestigious newspaper. Whatever the reason, I welcome the push back his case represents against the murder of critics by dictators despite the praise that President Trump heaps on every dictator he meets.

This push back reminds me that the same people who today are flocking to support racist and sexist bullies can in other circumstances suddenly swing towards compassion, truth, and solidarity. It has happened many times before, and it will surely happen again.

I pray that the energy of young activists helps precipitate such shifts soon. Perhaps leaders like Vladimir Putin, Duterte, and Trump who have been able to get away with so many outrages will soon find themselves reviled by their former supporters.

But if this doesn’t happen soon enough for my liking, I hope that I can still find a way back to a path of death and resurrection. Assuredly, this would involve empathizing with victims – with assaulted women whose truth and pain is dismissed; with refugees who languish in danger as the borders of rich countries close; with families of dissidents who are murdered or imprisoned by the world’s strongmen; and so on.

It might also involve giving up ambitions. I thought I had escaped the trap of egotism by transferring my ambitions to society – to the collective creativity and productivity of humanity, and by locating grace and joy in the end of poverty, ignorance and oppression.

But now I wonder if I have to realize that success and failure are illusions at both the individual and social level. Instead of success or failure, there is just reality in all its messiness. Nor are the people of the world our brothers and sisters only when they behave they way I want. They are our siblings even when many of them are filled with racist fear and sexist rage. If I am to love my neighbours, I have to love them in all circumstances.

Imagine if the Saudi monarchy like Russia and North Korea gets away with the murder of its critics? Imagine if lies, racism, and sexism continue to help bullies gain power around the world? Imagine if climate change is not slowed.

Would such a world mark the end of a Christ-like path of faith, hope and love? No, for even as we support values of truth, fairness and compassion and even as we work for peace with justice, reality will force us to rise above desires for so-called success and above fears of so-called failure. Reality may cause us to suffer. Nevertheless, Christ calls us to transformation and love.

Life is about more than our egos; and it is about more than the collective health of humanity. Life is about grace, joy and love, which are available in this as in any moment, right here and now.

In this life, we may be forced to drink many cups that taste bitter. We may undergo many baptisms by fire. We may find ourselves dying to illusions over and over again, sometimes with pain and grief. But we trust that our souls and spirits will be lifted to greater beauty, truth, and love.

Jesus has shown us a Way. He promises to walks with us on it. And we trust that he will be with us as the Risen Christ when the fires of our suffering have refined us into a unity more Sacred and beautiful than our egos could ever imagine.

Thanks be to God. Amen

Below is the “preamble” to worship that provides some context for the above sermon — Ian

This week Liliana asked me how we decide on themes for our Sunday morning gatherings. I replied that they often flow from the season of the church year. For instance, the four Sundays before Christmas form the Season of Advent, and by tradition these four have the themes of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.

In the first five years of my ministry, I also sought inspiration in a biblical reading cycle called the Revised Common Lectionary. Many churches around the world follow this three-year reading list. It suggests one reading each Sunday from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a passage from the letters of Paul, Peter, James, or John, and a passage from one of the four Gospels. I usually only chose one of the four, with a strong bias towards the Gospel reading, although sometimes I chose two and very infrequently three or all four.

However, I decided to abandon the Lectionary two years ago given that another central inspiration for our gatherings is what is happening in the world; and with the election of the 45th President of the United States in November 2016, the world entered a new era, in my opinion. His election and the success of other racist and sexist leaders revealed that the level of fear and rage among a substantial minority of people had reached such a height that tribal conflicts had retaken centre stage in society, and often in our hearts.

So, since then, I have created short or long sermon series, and searched for a Bible reading or two that might fit the theme. For instance, in September I led a three-week series on Paul’s spiritual virtues of faith, hope and love. Following that, we had three weeks related to a Stewardship campaign, with readings suggested by the national church.

But looking at the rest of October and November, no sermon series came to my mind. So, I decided to return to the Lectionary. This morning, the passage Barb will read for us in a few minutes, Mark 10:35-45, is the Gospel reading assigned by the Lectionary to October 21, 2018, the 29th Sunday after Pentecost 2018. I find a lot of inspiration in this reading, which is about the idea of a challenging second baptism, and I look forward to reflecting on it.

As I prepared my remarks, I wondered when I had previously preached on this text. So, I did a search on my sermon blog. This is one reason why I publish the texts of my sermons on a blog each Sunday – so that I have easy access to what I have written in the past. When I searched for Mark 10:35-45, I found that I first preached on this text six years ago on October 21, 2012 when I was in my first posting as a minister, in Borderlands in Saskatchewan. Given the three-year nature of the Lectionary, the timing is not a surprise. That sermon made what I think was a clever reference to a heartbreaking last-second defeat for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the 2009 Grey Cup.

Also not surprising was the date of the second time I preached on this text, which was three years ago on October 18, 2015. In that one, I preached about the spiral trajectory of our lives as we endure the grace of one baptism by fire after another.

But what did surprise me was the third time, which was only eight months ago on February 25, 2018. In this case I used the text Mark 10:35-45 because of a controversial Dodge Ram ad that ran during the broadcast of this year’s Superbowl. The ad contained an audio excerpt of a sermon preached by the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years ago to the day of the Superbowl on February 4 1968, which was just two months before his assassination.

I had forgotten about this sermon! But given how much I find in today’s reading from Mark 10, I am OK to have chosen it again. I hope you get as much from listening to this reflection as I did in writing it.

As for the rest of our hour of prayer and song, I pray it will help us touch the joy that the many baptisms of life bring us as they help us rise above our anxieties and nto the wide vista of Love we call God.

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