Carrying Our Cross

Proverbs 1:20-33 | Psalm 19 | James 3:1-12 | Mark 8:27-38

Where’s the good news today, my friends, in these words where Jesus speaks sternly, rebukes his disciple and friend, and promises to be ashamed of us if we’ve been ashamed of him? Is this a case of “this is going to hurt you more than it hurts me” or Jesus showing us tough love? It might seem like it at first glance, but think of how much we miss in our lives when we’re too hurried. If we rush through the lessons and the gospel today, we might miss the most important invitation of all, which is to take up the cross and follow Jesus.

The seriousness of Jesus’ words and actions catch our attention. He might not be flipping tables here, but he’s using a tone of voice that can stop us mid-stride. Walking along to Caesarea Philippi, we imagine the crowd around Jesus talking and walking along. Jesus seemingly casually asks, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples answer: “John the Baptist,” “Elijah,” “one of the prophets.” He hears them and shifts the question: “But who do YOU say that I am?” Peter answered him, without hesitation it seems, but maybe because everyone else got really quiet: “You are the Messiah.” Jesus sternly tells them not to tell anyone.

But why not? I mean, Jesus is still walking around doing the amazing things he does, saying the incredible things he says. Why not share that this is the Messiah they’ve all be waiting for? Because he’s not what they’ve been waiting for, as they understand it. Remember, they wanted a militaristic messiah who would overthrow Rome and restore the chosen people to their freedom from oppression. Even as the disciples understood him, they couldn’t grasp who he was and is, really. Their tongues would deceive people at this point in time, not reflecting the full reality of Jesus as Christ.

Jesus goes on to foretell his suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection which is in a way a result of the people’s disappointment that he’s not the messiah they’ve imagined. Mostly, though, this is what will happen. The words that Jesus speaks are the Word of God. He knows this must be the way the salvation of the world unfolds, our great Paschal Mystery. Even hearing this teaching, Peter again steps to the fore, rebuking Jesus, saying things we don’t have recorded. It’s not hard to imagine him telling Jesus he’s off his rocker, that they wouldn’t ever let those things happen to him. Every time I hear this story, I imagine the hurt Peter feels when he’s rebuked by Jesus, something akin to a teacher’s pet being reprimanded by the beloved teacher when he truly thought he was doing what was right. But again, Peter didn’t know, didn’t understand. Jesus is foretelling what is to be. Jesus foretells what makes way for God’s will to be done. Above human understanding, even above human affection and attachment, Jesus places God’s will above all else.

So far it’s been about Jesus and his disciples, right? It’s easy to think about them and their relationship with Jesus, their mistaken understanding because they couldn’t know what was to unfold. We have such a better understanding, right . . . until the words of Jesus turn to a much broader scope as he calls to the crowd and his disciples, and we know as readers of the Word that we’re part of the crowd, too.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” ~ Jesus

First of all, he’s just said that he’s going to suffer, be rejected, and die. Secondly, the cross for them is a symbol of humiliation and torture. Third, our whole life? Isn’t there value in our lives? Don’t our lives need to be here to spread whatever good news we have to share?

As if reading their and our minds, Jesus continues, saying, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation (meaning that they’ve turned toward other gods and away from the one true God), of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Why does Jesus throw in the shaming language? We notice it, don’t we? Think about what he’s saying.

You’re going to be ashamed of me now, be embarrassed or humiliated to be one of my followers or to heed my words, then so I’ll be ashamed of you.  But do we embarrass or humiliate the Son of Man? The meanings of words get complicated here.

In the Greek, the word translated as “ashamed” is “shall be being on viled.” Vile is the strong word there. We associate vile with toxicity, unpleasantness, foulness, but in archaic terms, it also meant “of little worth or value.” If we place little value on Jesus and his Word, Jesus will also put little value on us. We don’t like to talk about judgment in our church, but here is Jesus saying if we are so selfish as not to heed the Son of Man who gave and gives everything to us, then we can expect to be judged accordingly. Our psalm today assures us that the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Okay, I get the tough love. What’s the good news? Where’s that most important invitation?”

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” ~ Jesus

What if instead of all the self-centered worries and fears that Jesus’ followers had when they first heard these words, we hear them today anew. What if we hear Jesus saying to us these same words but know that

  • we keep our reason, our thinking mind and critical skills,
  • we have faith in a tradition that sees through the suffering and death and knows Easter joy in the Resurrection,
  • we often carry or display crosses as a symbol of the mystery that gives us eternal salvation,
  • And, most importantly, we know that in our baptism we die to a self-centered way of living and give our lives over to God’s will.

In our baptism, we are given a cross–the cross marked on our foreheads. I imagine a great heavenly joke where there’s a blacklight of sorts that shines on the foreheads of Christians to make us feel truly special as it picks up the remnants of the oil from the chrism that marked us as Christ’s own forever.

As children of God in the Christian tradition, we need to know what is expected of us, where the boundaries are, what our consequences are. This isn’t when I start putting conditions or qualifiers around God’s unconditional love for us. God’s love for us, the salvation given to us through Christ, and the power given to us by the Holy Spirit is ours to have, just as Wisdom is ever available to us, should we heed it. When we turn away from God, when we deny Christ, when we squander the power given to us by the Holy Spirit or don’t listen to the Wisdom whispering in our heart of hearts, there are consequences. We set up ourselves to struggle in a self-made cycle of suffering and run in our hamster wheel of self-sufficiency.

Maybe it’s not so much that we have to take up a cross but remember that we already have a cross given to us as a symbol of so much more. Or maybe we want to have that cross to help direct us and guide us because our way of doing things isn’t getting us anywhere. Or maybe we want nothing to do with a cross that is a symbol of humanity’s interpretation of power in the name of God that’s led to so much suffering and pain. We have to pause and listen. We can do a lot of discernment on our own, but sometimes we have to say things out loud to know where things get real and when we are more serious than we’ve ever been.

If we’re going to be serious about being Christians, serious about being followers of Christ, we know it’s not all fun and games. There are times for feasts and merry-making. There are also times to pause and listen to what Jesus is saying to us. There are times to have a reality check and evaluate how we’re doing in carrying that cross of ours, even if no one else can see it.

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Our Minds Are Set

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 | Psalm 22:22-30 |Romans 4:13-25 | Mark 8:31-38

Last week, on the first Sunday in Lent, our gospel lesson from Mark recounted Jesus’s baptism, his 40 days of temptation in the wilderness by Satan, and his call that the time is nigh to repent and believe the good news, beginning his Galilean ministry. Jesus goes on to cleanse and to heal, to call his apostles and to preach to all, sprinkling in a miracle now and then because calming a storm, walking on water, and feeding thousands make quite an impression and aren’t actions of a run-of-the-mill preacher. And then, “quite openly,” “Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected . . ., and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Again, we know the story; he’s offering a foretelling to his followers so they can be prepared. Judging by Peter’s reaction, they need all the preparation they can get. Poor Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Peter rebukes the Son of Man. Imagine that conversation a minute.

Peter: “Jesus, c’mon. You’re doing amazing things. We need you. They need you. Don’t be silly with all this death talk. We know who you are (because Peter’s just called him out as the Messiah, Mk 8:29), but keep your head in the game.”

Jesus hears what Peter is saying. Dramatically, Jesus turns (away from Peter) and looks at his disciples, now doing the rebuking himself, not even looking at Peter.

Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Peter, who is so eager to follow, so willing to get out of the boat, anxious to mark the revelation of the Divinity, and to name Jesus as the Messiah he is, gets the brunt of Jesus’s admonishing. This is more than a cold shoulder, this is outright denial of what Peter represents in this moment.

And what is it that Peter does that is so wrong?

If a beloved friend and teacher says they’re going to suffer, be rejected, die, and somehow rise from the dead, it’s plausible to imagine a healthy dose of denial and skepticism. It’s not what we would want for someone we love and care about, and it’s not exactly something that makes sense. But it’s not Peter’s heart that Jesus focuses on: it’s his where his mind is. “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” In our own imagining, everything Peter might remind Jesus of is based on Peter’s attachment to Jesus here and now in their ministry. It could be Peter’s personal attachment to Jesus, or it could even be a more selfless thinking of all the good Jesus is doing everywhere he goes. This is a classic example of sticking to a personal agenda and either forgetting/ignoring/not recognizing God’s will or intent. This is us thinking, “We’ve got this.” At least Peter has Jesus with him. He knows who he’s keeping company with, but he’s lost sight of the magnitude of God’s work that will be accomplished not only in Jesus’ ministry but also through his death and resurrection.

This is hard for us to comprehend, and not just hard for us but for the disciples, too.

In Mark’s gospel there are a total of three times that Jesus repeats the same foretelling of his suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. In both of the other times, too, the disciples don’t understand, can’t comprehend what Jesus is saying. They are attached to their finite, worldly thinking: they’re debating who’s the greatest or who will sit at Jesus’s right and left hand (James and John have dibs). In both of the other times, there’s still the contrast between the focus on the human and the divine.

In this first foretelling, though, Jesus does a clever thing in turning his back to Peter. Because if you really want someone to pay attention, you pretend not to be talking to them. Jesus chides Peter for being focused on human things, not divine. Jesus knows that the disciples and the crowd don’t really understand, but, again, their hearts are in the right place. They need something to do. He tells them to take up their cross and follow him.

Is he talking about wearing pretty jewelry or carrying the cross around town or in the procession, showing off our cross so everyone can know how pious and devout we are? Of course not. The cross for these early people of the Way was a symbol of humiliation. If you were to die upon a cross, you had not only lost your honor and dignity, but you had dishonored your family and community. No one would willingly take up a cross because it would be shameful. Yet this is exactly what Jesus is telling them to do. Do something unpopular for my sake. Do something that is so far outside our comfort zone that we have to get over ourself, knowing that what we’re doing isn’t for our own sake but for something far greater. And if we’re too ashamed to do it for Jesus’s sake, he’ll also be ashamed of us.

What would that look like today? What would it look like today to do something that shows you are a follower of Christ? What do Christians do that is unpopular or disrupts the norm, crosses invisible barriers? Where/when do we risk not only being uncomfortable but also risk being judged by others, often negatively (not to mention how harshly we judge ourselves).

On Ash Wednesday, I saw that Father Roger and a priest he works with held “Ashes to Go” in their neighborhood in New York. We just had the traditional service here, but Ashes to Go provides an accessible invitation to a holy Lent and a mark of the cross to signify the day and one’s observance. In Hot Springs, my rector heard from a parishioner who had experienced it in Key West and thought we should do it, too. My rector thought it was a great idea and told me to do it. Obedient curate I was, I vested in my cassock, surplice, and stole, put up a sign, and stood beside the street with ashes from the service earlier. Folks drove up and walked up, happy to get their ashes. For others it was indulging in trying something different. For me, I’ve never more imagined that this was what it must be like to be a prostitute. A woman, standing by the street in downtown Hot Springs, offering something to passers-by, hoping they would want what I had to offer. And I wondered, “God, what are you trying to teach me in this?” I reminded myself this was a holy day, that this was holy work. Nearly everyone who drove by looked my way, saw me in my vestments, saw me smile at them. They couldn’t hear my prayer of blessing for them, nor could they hear the struggle within as I stayed out there, publicly displaying my faith, completely outside the safety of the church walls. Maybe that’s something of what Jesus means in taking up a cross: carrying the burden of showing our faith to the world around us, putting the beliefs in our heart into action in our lives for others to see. How else do we expect them to see Jesus?

Any time we reveal what is within, we step into that realm of the vulnerable. I definitely felt vulnerable. I felt like people were judging me, and this sense reminds me how attached I am to the human things, the self-centered, ego-preserving mindset that Jesus rebuked, even when our intentions seem good. Letting go of this, for Jesus’s sake and for the sake of the gospel, is losing our life as we often understand it. It is through this loss of self that we gain eternal life through Christ. By bringing a proclamation of faith in the good news of Jesus Christ into the world–with our crosses seen and unseen–, we mark the space and time with the presence of Christ, bringing more light and love into the world.

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On Carrying a Cross & Following Jesus

The Scripture Texts for Proper 19, Year B, Track 1  are:

Proverbs 1:20-33 | Psalm 19 | James 3:1-12 | Mark 8:27-38

ashleyrosex_-Close-Cross; source: http://www.bishopinthegrove.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/ashleyrosex_-Close-Cross_yph0pk_zxz0yg.jpg We think we’ve got this figured out. To carry a cross, we hold fast, stay true, and stake our claim on what is right and good. We do what is right and stand up for Jesus. We stand behind the cross we boldly carry before us. But somehow we find ourselves back to back and going nowhere fast. Somehow we’ve created walls with our crosses and have lost sight of Jesus. We know we’ve lost sight of Jesus because there is no room for true love of neighbor, and love of God looks more like violence than compassion. Others don’t see Jesus, either. Or the Jesus they do see looks nothing like the Jesus of the gospel.

Whatever we think it means to be a Jesus-follower, today might be a good day to have a moment, like Peter, when Jesus flat out tells us that we don’t have our head in the right place. Today, Jesus tells us that if we want to be one of his followers, we need to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him, losing our life for his sake.

“Tell my would-be followers to deny themselves,” Jesus says first.

How do we deny ourselves? What are denying ourselves of?

I think of the phrase that I’ve been hearing and seeing a lot lately: “Not my monkeys, not my circus.” When I hear or use this phrase myself, there’s a sort of disassociation happening. We’re not responsible for what’s going on because that’s completely someone else’s problem, from the players to the whole play. But what if we look at problems around us and see ourselves as part of creation, part of God’s creation. Looking at it this way, I cannot deny responsibility nor accountability, but I do realize a crucial thing: I am not God.

What if to deny ourselves means to deny myself the first seat of power? What if I do the amazing thing and let God be God. What if I let Jesus bear the cross for humanity? Instead of trying to walk with Jesus under the weight of the world, whispering in his ear what I think the best next move is or even trying to show him what the best next step is by walking ahead of him, how about I let him go before me. Lead me, Jesus, through the valley. Show me the way out of death into life. I don’t have the power to do any of this alone. All power is yours, O God; help me, your willing servant.

Jesus says to the disciples, “Tell my followers to deny themselves and take up their cross.”

We have to remember that we’re not taking up the Cross, the cross upon which Jesus hung, “the emblem of suffering and shame,” if “The Old Rugged Cross” rings in your ears as it does mine. That cross embodies all the torment and rejection and suffering of the world absorbed when our saviour was crucified. That’s Jesus’s cross, not ours. We reverence this cross, and we can cling to it with humility and respect, but it’s not ours to carry.

I cannot know what your cross is, but I imagine it’s similar to mine.

My cross is made of all the splinters pulled from my wounds–some bigger than others–and is held together by the sap, sweat, blood, and tears that is my awareness of the suffering in the world both far and near. It’s made heavy by my grief, my fears. And y’all, it gets heavy. So heavy that there are times I can’t listen to or read the news because the reports are so awful, the pictures too painful. I could distract myself with what we call entertainment, but I don’t want my heart to be numbed, drugged into apathy or ignorance. Drugs and addictions come in many forms. So the weight gets heavy, heavier still by the “what if’s.” What if the Islamic State grows stronger? What if the voice of reason and common sense gets out-voted? What if my children don’t learn the way of loving kindness? What if I fail my family, my church, my God? All this and more is in my cross. Can I even lift it?

As if in one breath, what Jesus says is, “Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Follow.

With Jesus before me, I see Light. I feel hope. I taste joy, and I hear faith. I am strengthened, or my burden is lightened. All the pain of my cross has already been carried for me. Jesus bore the weight of the world; I carry my mess of splinters. The cross I can pick up and carry reminds me that I have scars, scars that taught me to be calm and strong. Scars that taught me to listen, to be kind. Wounds not yet scarred that remind me to be compassionate, not to judge. These scars and wounds are marks of responsibility, gifts I have that will help me serve in God’s will for this world.

Do we follow Jesus with our cross before us? As far as we’re told, Jesus was removed from the cross. Jesus didn’t take the cross to hell and back. He took the wounds, the wounds the apostles saw, that Thomas had to touch. If we put our crosses before us, we might lose our way and get stuck. We might focus on our suffering, losing sight of Jesus and the hope and light he gives us. We know what our crosses are, what they mean to us, what they teach us. They empower us to overcome darkness and death, thanks be to God.

This isn’t an idealistic kind of discipleship. This is very much our real way of living in this world.

In the face of decade-long horrific violence, there are Christians–followers of Christ–who take seriously the call to be peacemakers. There are people like Amado Bello, who was raised Muslim and is now a Christian pastor in the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, who risks his life to speak to those who have the power to kill him. Not only does he speak to them, he treats them with respect, as fellow human beings, trying to understand them. And he prays with them and suggests routes they can take not to be killed “because I love you,” he says. “While driving with his family, (Bello) was stopped and surrounded by a large Boko Haram contingent. Bello expected to be killed, but one militant looked into the car window and recognized him. ‘He’s a good man,’ he told the others. To Bello, he said, ‘You may pass.’ . . . The family drove on without incident,” though they feared the worst.

The militant who let him pass was a man who had previously washed Bello’s car. Bello didn’t know that the man was a militant when he was talking about the importance of listening, understanding, and addressing problems rather than turning to violence and murder. Bello spoke the truth of the gospel and practiced the compassion of our Lord, empowered by the cross that above all things taught him to love his enemy and to pray for those who persecuted him, and he was recognized as Good. He was willing to lose his life for the sake of the gospel.*

Despite the harsh reality, stories like Bello’s can seem distant and unreal. Our neighbors aren’t often seeking us out to persecute us. More often, our enemies are guised as “friends,” say, Friends on Facebook, who say or do something that offends us. We want to strike back, lash out, “unfriend” them. How often do we offer them our sincere prayer? An openly gay, black priest serving in Kansas City, Father Marcus Halley had the presence of mind–the presence of Christ–not to lash out against Kim Davis in all the furor these past couple of weeks. What he did offer, was a letter, a letter he openly published which she may or may not have read. Among other things that I encourage you to read, he says, “It is my meet, right, and bounden duty that I affirm your humanity. Like our Lord who willingly offered himself in love to those who could not or would not return it – I am duty-bound to do the same. Why? Because creation will know that we are Christians, not by the way we argue right versus wrong, but by the way we love one another.”

In denying ourselves, we put our greatest love first. With God before us, we take up our cross, not buried by it or hiding behind it, but we take it up in our very being. And we follow Jesus, together. We follow Jesus boldly yet humbly, wherever he leads, so that all will recognize us by our love.

*Story of Amado Bello: Peggy Gish, “Learning to Love Boko Haram: A Nigerian Peace Church Responds,” Plough Quarterly no. 6 (Autumn 2015): 13-20.

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