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Matters of Life and Death
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
February 25, 2018
A Reading from the Gospel of Mark
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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’
The story goes like this, and you may have heard it before. Cassie was a normal kid growing up in a normal suburb. Her parents were evangelical Christians and Cassie grew up with a lot of church, until, as a young teenager, Cassie began to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Her parents start to ask some tough emotional and psychological questions, until finally Cassie goes on a weekend church retreat which restores her faith and restores her to herself, at least in her parents’ eyes. So now Cassie is a normal high school junior going to a normal high school with a whole lot of Christian faith in her heart and then one day in the spring of 1999 two of her fellow students at Columbine High walk into the building with guns drawn and begin shooting. The story goes that they found Cassie in the library. That Eric Harris found her hiding underneath a table, and then, at gunpoint, asked her whether or not she believed in God. The story goes that she said yes, and then Eric pulled the trigger.
If you have heard this story before it is because Cassie became a phenomenon, the girl who said yes, the girl who looked death in the face and nonetheless confessed her faith in the power of God, the girl who died for what she believed. Not six months later, Cassie’s mother was on the New York Times bestseller list, with She Said Yes: the Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall. After that, her name would show up in Christian rock, music videos; she was, in death, the “It” girl of the moment, a hero of Christian faith resolutely staring down the violent forces of the outside world. After all, there’s something very compelling about martyrdom. About accepting death in the name of what you believe. In some ways, after Cassie’s death, it became all the rage. Writing in the Washington Post, Hannah Rosin reported on the way in which her story captivated what she calls a kind of “Christian-sanctified death wish,” best expressed in the words of sophomore Tina Leonard. “God has laid it on my heart that I’m going to be martyred,” she says. “When I told one of my friends, he said, ‘That’s awesome. I wish it could happen to me.’”
I suspect something about that makes your stomach turn. It makes mine turn, too. But it would be easier to argue with if we as Christians didn’t have such a long history of worshiping and sanctifying the folks who in the name of Jesus Christ make easy acceptance of death. The early church is famously full of Christian martyrs, the martyrs of legend, the folks who stood resolute even when Rome decided that it had finally had enough with this upstart religious order and started throwing folks into prison cells and worse. There are probably not as many historic martyrs as there are in legend but that’s entirely the point; we love this story, we love this mythos, we love to claim the heritage of these saints who make such easy acceptance of death. Never mind that journalists and historians are now pretty skeptical that Cassie was actually the one under that table who confessed her faith. “You will never change the story of [Saint] Cassie,” her pastor told the Post. “You can say it didn’t happen that way, but the church won’t accept it. To the church, Cassie will always say yes, period.”
Maybe we just need some examples to help us through this Gospel, “For those who want to save their life will lose it,” Jesus says, “and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” The scene starts with Jesus and his disciples alone. Peter has just finally cracked the mystery; he has just figured out for himself that this Jesus of Nazareth is the long-expected long-prophesied long-foretold Messiah of the Jewish people, which is good news for a people locked into oppression and empire. But just as soon as he has figured out this good news Jesus starts to tell a different kind of story, a story about death. “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 Peter won’t have it. Peter will not accept death as part of this Messianic expectation, and so Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him: “Jesus, that’s not how the Messiah thing works, you’re here to save us, you’re here to liberate us, you and death are not on the same team,” but Jesus won’t have it. He calls Peter out in front of everybody. “Get behind me, Satan. For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
And now Peter’s an object lesson. Now Jesus gets a whole crowd together just to make a point about how wrong Peter is. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” There is death in this story, he says, to Peter, and in front of everybody. You’d better learn to accept it. “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.” Talk about your Christian-sanctified death wish. How many times do you think those early Christian martyrs read this story before they ran into the fire? How many times do you think this text was read during the telling of the story of Saint Cassie? To be Christian, you see. To be Christian, with the mark of the ashes still lingering on our foreheads. To be Christian, you see. To be Christian, with the sign of the cross hanging over us at every moment. To be Christian is walk around just itching for a fight with death. Just waiting for a chance. Just accepting the inevitable.
And frankly if accepting the inevitability of death is a marker of the Christian faith then I think I’m doing a fantastic job. It wasn’t always easy. After Columbine, after Cassie and her schoolmates were gunned down, I was a sophomore in college, in Washington, D.C., and I was shell-shocked for years. We all were. I couldn’t possibly imagine such a horror. We cried over it and talked about it and grieved over it for years. We chewed on it for years. It ate us away for years. And then, of course, gradually, I got older, and time passed, and we argued a bit about mental health reform and gun control, and mostly water flowed under the bridge. And then in April of 2007 I was working in Charlottesville at UVA and we got word of a shooter on campus at Virginia Tech, just a few hours down the road. And we followed that news by text message from friends and colleagues, locked in classrooms and scared for their lives, and we sat with that for months. And we argued about the politics of mental health reform and gun control and mostly water flowed under the bridge and then eventually we just moved on because we got better, because I got better at accepting the inevitability of death.
And then it was December of 2012, and I was living in Princeton, and I was a new father, and I was about to be a new pastor, and it was a Friday, and then the news said that a gunman had walked into an elementary school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. And I remember watching that coverage for days. I remember crying for hours. I remember getting up in the pulpit the next Sunday and saying something about Jesus Christ coming into the world as this small unprotected child. And of course then we argued about mental health reform and gun control and then water flowed under the bridge but it was easier, now, because I had learned how to accept it. How to accept the inevitability of death. I had not martyred myself but I had bought in. I had made it easy. So that when another gunman walked into Stoneman Douglas high school last week and opened fire, I was ready. I had learned. I had figured out how to grieve quickly. I mean, I was done in a matter of hours. Let’s get the arguments out of the way. Let’s move on. The water will flow under the bridge, and we’ll be done. Because I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve gotten comfortable with it. I’ve learned to accept it.
I’ve learned to accept something that is totally unacceptable.
It is, after all, unacceptable. No matter how desensitized we get. It is unacceptable. It is unacceptable that any student should go into any classroom in this country and worry about whether or not they will get through the day without a madman with a machine gun breaking down the door. This is unacceptable, and the fact that it keeps happening does not in any material way change how unacceptable it is, no matter how comfortable with it we become. Reflecting about this week’s CNN town hall involving some of the Stoneman Douglas students, New York Times critic James Poniewizik took a beat to reflect on the power of these teenagers being so un-resigned. “This is the part of this essay where I am supposed to note that there have been times when the conversation around an issue seemed to shift … and then shifted back. That’s what we expect from a smart take — a knowing cautiousness, informed by history. That instinct is not inaccurate. But the last week of the Parkland students suggests that there is also value in not being too aware of what all the smart people know is impossible.” Thank God for these children, who have no wish to accept the unacceptable. Even death itself.
What would Jesus say? “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.” But when Jesus talks about being alive he means a lot more than the simple question of whether your heart is beating and your brain firing. When Jesus talks about life he also means all the trappings and all the comforts and all the perks that we gather around us, all the safety that his disciples had to lay down in order to take up their crosses and follow him. And it’s still even bigger than that: when Jesus talks about life, when the Greeks talked about life, they didn’t just mean my life or your life, they meant the well-being, the flourishing of an entire community. It means that my life is bound up in yours and your life bound up in mine and all of ours bound up in the lives of these students living in such fragile times. And so when Jesus says that those who want to save their life will lose it, he means just that thing we’ve heard him say a thousand other ways and a thousand other times: that following him means rejecting our own comforts, for the sake of the flourishing of the whole of God’s creation. And sometimes those comforts are material. And sometimes those comforts are emotional. And sometimes that comfort is this desensitized acceptance of death itself.
And so today, for the sake of the Gospel, uncomfortable as it may be, I do not accept this death. I am done getting used to it. I am done learning to live with it. I’m not here today with political solutions, but I am convinced that no political solution is possible until we grapple with the theological condition of having resigned ourselves to the inevitability of this death and I am done being so resigned. The Gospel is not that death comes for all of us and so we may as well let it happen. The Gospel is very much that God called us into life and called us into flourishing and that God wants us to be alive. That God wants you to be alive. That God wanted these children to be alive. The Gospel is that God grieves this loss with tears I cannot imagine, and we will join our grief to this divine grief. That we will grieve for Alyssa. For Martin. For Nicholas. For Jaime. For Luke. For Cara. For Gina. For Joaquin. For Alaina. For Meadow. For Helena. For Alex. For Carmen. For Peter. And for their teachers: for Scott, and for Aaron, and for Chris. We will join the chorus of those who mourn with prophetic urgency, those who know it doesn’t have to be like this, those who know it’s not supposed to be like this at all.
It’s not supposed to be like this at all. And it will not always be like this. After all, we worship a God who lived as we do, died as we will, and then rejected death itself, even death on a cross. We worship a God who lived as we do, died as we will, and promises some kingdom where death will be no more and tears will be wiped away. We worship a God who promises some kingdom where you and I can feel the rich joyfulness of creation without also carrying around this deep longing, this deep grief, this deep open sore at the very core of our being. And I know, sitting here on the second Sunday of Lent, I know it feels impossible. I know, sitting here in the wake of the weeks just past, with the stench of death so firmly in the air, I know it feels impossible. I know, as even this last tragedy begins to fade, as the arguments fade, as the water starts to run under the bridge, I know it feels impossible. But I also know this. The Gospel is this.
There is some value in not being too aware of what all the smart people know is impossible.