Monday, September 14, 2009

Must I Take Up the Cross?

Sermon for 9.13.09
Mark 8:27-38

Please pray with me: “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long” (Psalm 25:4,5).

From Today’s Gospel: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

This Gospel verse gives us three directives: We are to deny ourselves, we are to take up our crosses, and we are to follow Jesus. In certain parts of the southwest and in Latin American countries, there is a tradition, on Good Friday, of walking the way of the cross in a dramatically literal way. The one staggering under the load of the cross beam is often really flogged, and the faithful, who follow along the path to Golgotha, thoroughly immerse themselves in the tragedy of Christ’s suffering.

We Methodists are less comfortable with drops of sweat and blood, at least in church. We find other ways to revere Jesus’ sacrifice. Perhaps we are more private until grand old hymns like “The Old Rugged Cross” or Spirituals such as “There is a balm in Gilead” draw out grief and devotion. Then again, while our lives are often difficult, even harsh, we may not have known the desperate poverty and oppression that lie behind Latino reenactments.

Thus, as the children discovered this morning in our time together, we have crosses in our churches, rather than crucifixes. And the wonderful symbol of our church is the cross draped with the living flame of the Holy Spirit. And yet the words of Scripture remain: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Do we shy away from what seems like an overly difficult, even unfair demand?

In fact, many of us—right here, right now—are carrying huge burdens, crosses of our own. All we need to do is to feel the tightness in our backs, the knots at our trigger points, and the tension is clear: Illness of body, of mind, of ones we love; financial, workplace, or personal difficulties; worries about our children, spouses, parents. This is the human condition, and some of us, it seems, are hit far harder than others. Most of us don’t have to look around for a cross to carry to show our devotion; it’s already there—or waiting. We are already right in the middle of that Gospel verse, sharing Christ’s suffering. The verse promises that Jesus is also sharing ours.

And those of us who are ashamed of our troubles might also remember how incredibly shameful Jesus’ punishment was. Crucifixion was not only torture, it was the death reserved for slaves, those considered worthless except for labor and profit. The extreme dishonor of crucifixion not only confirmed their status, but spelled it out publically. There were a number of times when 1,000 or more at one time were nailed on crosses along a roadway.

Second-century non-Christians considered Christians insane for associating a crucified one with God. Some Gnostics even argued that Christ—the real and spiritual Christ—had to be outside of the body of Jesus on the cross. Thus the crucifixion was not even depicted for some 250 years, or if it was, the cross was a support for vines so that it became a tree of life. The little painted cross from El Salvador that I showed to the children belongs to that category: It’s filled with hope. Animals and a plowed field and children and a teacher!

By giving such details, I’m not trivializing what I’ve said about taking up our own crosses. Our troubles are dignified by the comparison. The symbol that links us and these hapless slaves to our Lord must be taken very seriously. The troubles, mistakes, conditions of none of us are worthless. It is the Christian promise that the cross is always taken seriously by God.

Acknowledging our cross, therefore, is actually good news. But first we are to “deny” ourselves. This may be harder. Let’s be clear about what it isn’t: There is no evidence that Mark is talking about further punishment for us here—the kind of no-candy-in-Lent mentality. What Jesus is asking is for each of us to give up our place as the center of things, to let go of that tightness that whispers that all else must revolve around us. It’s what I call the ego rampant! Even bruised, the ego manages to arrange this. Psalm 25 says it so well: “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.”

Sometimes we have to get to the very end of our rope before we are willing to give over pride of place, pride of ego, even pride of suffering. This is, in part, the fear of having to do it on our own and the fear of not being tough enough or strong enough or loving enough. Since Jesus is reaching out his hands to us from the cross, we must also be willing to reach out and grasp them, again and again. To do this is not to follow behind him, but to enter into relationship with him.

And then the story is not over. The third requirement, that of following Jesus, takes us beyond the tomb. New life is shown on the little painted cross in terms of this life; that would be the hope of mission, of programs for food and education. But for every one of us—so-called privileged or so-called poor—there is the hope of new strength, of renewed purpose, of healing of spirit as well as body; the promise of victory and triumph. These are Transfigurations, right here, right now; they prefigure Resurrection.

One of the crosses I showed the children is called the “tau cross” or the “T cross.” In Hebrew the letter for T is “tav” and it is the last letter of that alphabet. Just as the omega is the last letter of the Greek alphabet and reminds us, in our own church windows, that God is the center and circumference of all things—the beginning but also the end—so this “tav" cross reminds us that God, in God’s way and God’s time, ends all things well. This is why we are signed with the cross at Baptism. In the words of our hymn this morning: “Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure, by the cross are sanctified; peace is there that knows no measure, joys that through all time abide.” Since the final word from the cross is alleluia, we cannot do better than to take up the cross that we are given, knowing that it is draped with the living flame of the Holy Spirit.

And so we pray: May our proclamation be that God is worthy of our trust and Christ of our discipleship. May we know that we are not alone. In the midst of this life, may we live as followers and heirs of Christ. May we know that we are in a world that God is endlessly creating and loving. Amen.

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