Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus said, “Take up your cross.” (Matthew 16)
I’m surprised how every now and then, some text or story that I read long ago but had completely forgotten, suddenly pops up in my memory. Maybe that happens to you, too.
It happened to me this week with “The Tunnel,” a German surrealist short story written by Friedrich Dürrenmatt in 1952. I read it as an undergraduate when I was making what I have to confess was an only moderately successful attempt to learn German. It tells the story of a university student who one morning boards the same train he always takes to school, but when the train enters what had previously been only a very short tunnel, it mysteriously never remerges. The tunnel just goes on and on.
Five, ten, fifteen minutes go by as the train rushes ahead, and the student grows increasingly anxious—especially because no one else even seems to notice. He finally confronts the conductor, who leads him up to the cab where they discover the engineer has already jumped, and the train is now hurdling into an abyss. “What shall we do?” asks the anxious conductor. “Nothing,” the student replies. “Nothing.”
By now, the long shut-down in which we are living of what used to be normal life seems rather like that tunnel, doesn’t it? Think back to early March when things first began to close. It was the beginning of Lent, and we all rather glibly expected a relatively short abstinence, much like Lent itself. But Easter came and went, and we celebrated it only rather half-heartedly, thinking that surely by Pentecost, we would be back together again and able to celebrate Easter properly. But here we are at Michaelmas, and the tunnel still goes on. It’s as if Lent never ended, and never will.
But to shift registers, the sense of time-endlessness is not just a liturgically unresolved Lent—it’s also political. This election season has also become a very long tunnel, and to make matters worse, the fear of falling into an abyss is palpable. You can feel it in the air, in the edginess of people’s voices, in the tension held in our own bodies. And in the political sphere, the long, dark tunnel from which we never seem to emerge has been going on not just months, but for years. And the question which many of us fear, is what is this abyss into which we feel ourselves falling?
One thing is clear: our nation has become addicted to the mutually reinforcing intoxicants of violence, mendacity, hypocrisy, and anger. The fact is, that behavior lubricated by such attitudes is very seductive, because it’s so satisfying and cathartic. How pious it feels to fire off a self-righteous email, or put a nasty bumper sticker on the car. It is so much more beguiling than the more sober effort and steady restraint required by being truly committed to working for the common good of all. And like any person suffering from addiction, we as a nation will most likely have to hit bottom before things begin to change. Like the train in the tunnel, we may have experience what it’s like to fall over the edge.
In his original version of the story, Dürrenmatt added an additional final sentence. After the student tells the conductor that “nothing” can be done, he goes on, “God let us fall and now we’ll come upon him.” Those words dropped out of a later version of the story, but we might still notice that they suggest a way of thinking about it that brings me back to today’s gospel.
As we Christians understand it, the cross is both the nadir of human existence, and the beginning point of its exaltation. It is both the instrument upon which life lost the battle with death, and where love triumphed over evil. In short, the cross is what lies at the bottom of the abyss — if the abyss is thought of as the place furthest from God, yet also the beginning point of return to God.
That, I think, is the great wisdom that lies at the heart of the tradition of AA — to understand that only when one has hit bottom, and come face to face with one’s powerlessness, does the reality of a higher power waiting for us to come home truly hit home. That, I think, is what happens to Satan in the story of the war in heaven we heard in today’s anthem, in which he fights against Michael: Satan hits bottom when he realizes that evil cannot and will not prevail.
I don’t know when or how we as a nation are going to hit bottom in our current binge of societal craziness. But perhaps as we contemplate the present moment, one meaning of Jesus’ call “to take up your cross” is to accept responsibility even in these times for bearing the message of renewal and restoration that is at the heart not just of AA, but of the whole of the Bible’s prophetic tradition, and which reaches its climax in the cross itself.
The literary jeremiad (which we are currently studying in the Sunday Forum) is exactly that. Taking its clue from the prophet Jeremiah, it is a discourse that moves from celebrating the gift of God’s covenant, to lamenting the people’s desertion and abandonment of it, to anticipating an eventual restoration of right relationship.
Taking up one’s cross is to live a life that embraces the whole of this trajectory: from original blessedness, through current despair, to anticipated renewal. And as people of faith, our high calling is to bear witness both to the brutal realism within that trajectory, but also to its inextinguishable hope.
This week, we’ll be mailing out the 2021 Stewardship packet to all the households of this parish, which will include a small wooden cross as a sign of this call to take up your cross and follow Jesus. At this particular moment, the cross comes with the strong encouragement to see yourself as being “Blessed, to be a blessing,” to be a witness in your own way of promise and hope in these dark times.
For unlike the student on the train who in the moment of crisis said that “nothing” was possible, as followers of Jesus we hold that with God, “all things” are possible, even now. That is our confidence and our hope. Amen.