Being a Cubs fan – (I’ve got to squeeze every last baseball illustration into my sermons here before another sad season’s over) – being a Cubs fan, and a Padres fan, is a way of suffering.
I first fell in love with the Cubs, in the summer of 2003. I was finishing up my first year in seminary and I had been starved for a baseball team to fall in love with. I was like the person who throws their entire soul into a relationship, no matter how right that relationship is, because they’re just desperate to love. I had been desperate for a baseball team to love, because I had moved away from Houston, and the Astros had built a new stadium, I been stranded in Dodger country throughout college, plus the player strikes had resurfaced, disenchanting me from baseball for a few long years. So I was ready, and the Cubs filled that empty place in my baseball heart. And so off we went, hand in hand, the happy couple into the 2003. So romantic. They were having an amazing run at the pennant, as you may recall. And to make a long, sad story short. They were just 5 outs from winning the NL championship against the Florida Marlins, and a fan, Steve Bartman, interfered with a foul ball, infuriating the Cubs, the lost their composure and lost that game and every game after…to lose it all.
The morning after was awful for me. I remember dragging myself to class with a blank stare, everyone was just incredulous. As far as I was concerned it was a national tragedy. The president should have proclaimed a Day of Mourning. The Florida Marlins? They were almost as new to MLB as I was new to being a Cubs fan!
But the long time Cubs fans that had become my sponsors—baptismal sponsors in my being dyed in Cubby blue—just shook their heads and looked forward. “Welcome to being a Cubs fan,” they shrugged, “there’s always next year.” I am sure they felt way more pain than I did, and yet they held their heads, greeted the passerby on the street, they smiled. I couldn’t believe it.
They had been through this before. It’s just part of the life of cheering for the Cubs. How could they be surprised that they lost?
You know where I’m going with this?
Jesus. Christianity. The way of the cross. The theology of the cross.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, Jesus-followers, this way of the cross—that Jesus describes today—is a way of suffering. It’s like cheering for the losing team, but never giving up. That’s not something we hear a lot in American Christianity. It’s not. Because that doesn’t sell, it doesn’t compute, it’s foolishness (to use the Apostle Paul’s word). Can you imagine if we said this at baptisms? “Welcome to being a Christian, it’s like cheering for the Cubs. Are you ready to lose it all?” (I actually offered this idea once at the church in Orange County where I served, and someone came up to me very upset afterwards and said, “No, Christianity is only about winning, that’s why I joined.”) Like Peter, thinking about cheering for a losing Jesus makes me too want to shout like vs. 22, “God forbid it, Lord. This must never happen to you.” I wanted to agree with this woman and just dream Christianity as the winning team…but like dreaming the Cubs to win the pennant every season. Jesus’ message doesn’t really register with our predominant dog-eat-dog, competitive, race-to-the-top Western psyches.
(Pr. Dan Erlander’s newest book: "Tales of the Pointless People".)
The challenge for us, Jesus-followers, sisters and brothers in Christ, is weathering the loss and still clinging to Christ, as he always clings to us, like a long-time Cubs fan just keeps on cheering for their team. Calmly shaking their heads, shrugging, feeling the pain of the world deeper than anyone, and yet still greeting the passerby, smiling. Living life in a way that reflects the love and grace of their God.
There are saints like this in our midst. Many of you, living life in a way that reflects the love and grace and forgiveness and peace of your God, smiling still, not numb to the pain, in fact the opposite. And yet looking forward, “Welcome to being a Christian,” you say, “there’s always tomorrow.”
It’s an incredible image—the faithful fans of Christ. With their joy despite suffering. It’s not apathy or cynicism or ignorance, quite the opposite. It’s a patient and non-anxious compassion for this world, especially when there’s suffering. Not avoiding pain, but being right in the middle of it with Christ. This life of faith, is a willingness to accept the pain that will ensue, a willingness to follow Jesus on the way to the cross. How could we be surprised when trouble comes down that road?
Contemporary scholar and theologian Douglas John Hall writes about the changes in the church:
How could we have been listening to the Scriptures all these centuries and still be surprised and chagrined by the humiliation of Christendom? How could we have honored texts like the Beatitudes and yet formed in our collective mind the assumption that Christian faith would be credible only if it were popular, numerically superior, and respected universally?
How could we have been contemplating the “despised and rejected” figure at the center of this faith for two millennia and come away with the belief that his body, far from being despised and rejected, ought to be universally approved and embraced?
In today’s Gospel, at the end or our summer, the beginning of a new school year, Jesus makes it clear to his disciples again that his way is the way of the cross…a way that involves self-offering and even suffering. We might imagine that Jesus calls us to be committed to him, to follow him, like a faithful fan of a team who’s willing to bear the burden of pain and yet smile through the tears.
Into the Fall, namely in September, this “way of the cross”, this way of which Jesus speaks—“losing our lives only to find them in Christ”—this way of the cross starts to unfold. The way of the cross is about being tortured on a cross; this way of the cross starts to unfold in our own lives…
Next week (Sept. 4), this way of the cross starts to unfold as we consider a text about confronting in Christian love those who have done wrong – healthy ways that we might hold one another accountable.
Then on Sept. 11 – can you believe that our assigned reading is the text about forgiving our enemies? That text was set for this Sunday back in 1978. Talk about “losing ourselves only to find our way with Christ.” Forgiveness, letting go of anger, not repaying evil for evil. If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they’re thirsty give them something to drink.” That’s the kind of suffering we’re talking about. It’s almost worse than being crucified, because crucifixion only lasts a couple hours. But we’re talking about the painstaking process of letting go of anger, hatred, fear, jealousy – not just with our enemies, but with those who have hurt who are the closest to us. That’s the way of the cross.
Finally on September 18, we hear a story where Jesus grants the same pay to the guys who show up at the end of the day. This doesn’t fit our idea of fairness. But Jesus calls it grace. If we live and preach this kind of a message, it will be no wonder the church is in decline. And yet this is what Jesus teaches us – radical grace, radical hospitality, radical forgiveness, radical love.
And it’s offered first to you, my sister, my brother in Christ, right now, this self-giving, risk-it-all, radical love. Despite your foulest deed, despite your most hurtful word. You are forgiven and sent. For this is where the way of the cross of Christ leads: to your being freed. Thanks be to God! AMEN.