Year A, Proper 17
August 31, 2014
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Really? Those are hard words to hear. Very hard words to hear, particularly on such a joyous occasion as this, the baptism of young Gabriel this morning. It is probably good, such sober talk on a day when a new soul is embraced in the name of God by God’s people in the holy Catholic and apostolic Church. Maybe it will help us to put aside some of the nostalgia and sentimentality that can come up at church, at baptisms in particular, for being a Christian is not, should not be for the faint of heart.
Someone I know was in the Holy Lands this past year, and in their travels met a Yemini Jew tending a stall in the market place. And she asked, “Is it hard being Christian? “ She continued, “I think it is hard being Jewish; tearing all the toilet paper before Shabbat, all the food, the cooking, all the rules over everything in our lives. It is hard. Is it hard being Christian?” So, is it?
This passage from St. Matthew’s gospel says, “Yes.” Being Christian is hard. It shouldn’t have to be, but it would seem that it is. Being Christian is supposed to interfere with our daily lives, it is supposed to be a push against the dominant culture, against the way everyone else does things, particularly for those of us who live in the midst of the Empire of the era. The words of our savior were very, very clear to his disciples. They are very, very clear to us. They are, they will be, God willing, very, very clear to Gabriel; “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Hard words… and Jesus means it. This is an imperative, an exhortation, a command from God, and following God in Christ is very hard. It will cost you your earthly life, but the reward for losing that is gaining eternal life, life in line with the way God intends. So, the question to you, young Gabriel, and to all of us who are about to promise to walk with you on this road, what does that mean to take up your cross and follow Jesus and how do we do it?
Jesus was very clear: He would die in our place on the cross, but His death, the terrible sacrifice He made for all of us would not, does not exempt us from the cost of discipleship. His sacrifice atoned us, reconciled us to God, it opened the path for us to God in God’s self, but it is left up to us to follow. That pesky free will. It’s up to us.
To take up your cross means to follow God wherever that leads you. Life, true life, life as it is intended is found in obedience to God. And obedience to God, maybe that is best understood as being and doing what you are supposed to be and do when you are supposed to be being and doing it. Right? There is nothing magical or mystical about that. Doing what you are supposed to do, fulfilling your part in how things are supposed to be, that is the reward. That is resonance with the heartbeat of the creation and the Creator. To do otherwise is dissonant, off key, blurry, it just doesn’t feel right. It is a cold prickly, not a warm fuzzy. To take up our cross, to deny ourselves is to die to the powers that possess and control us. It means not conforming to the way our culture tells us to be, but rather to do what you in your bones know is right, that our Holy Scripture and the communion of saints teach is right, even if it seems dangerous, or unpopular or futile. That’s what Harriet Tubman, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Rosa Parks, and the Berrigans did. And they weren’t any more or less human than you are, they just did what they knew was right. Period. This is very good news!
Now, do not doubt for a second that everyone of us has the potential and opportunity to be a moral hero like Mother Theresa or Archbishop Tutu. Most of us, though, will be subtler heros. Heros of the breakfast table, heros of the line at the grocery store, or a hero of the traffic snarl by keeping your cool, being kind and generous to everyone, regardless of their behavior, even that such-n-such in the SUV that just cut you off. There are plenty of crosses that need picking up right here in little old Eugene. Each of us are called to manifest the radical love of God for the world in the world through our bodily worship, our activity and presence in the world. I do wish it were an easier charge to you, Gabriel, but this is what Jesus tells us.
But how? Jesus lays out for us a lot of what-to-dos, but not a lot of how to do it. (He only had three years to teach: Moses had 80, The Buddha 30ish, Mohammed 22). He tells us to turn the other cheek, but how? How do we go against our crushing human nature to respond to violence with violence? How do we actually turn the other cheek? How do we really bless the meek? How do we really love God with all of our hearts, all of our minds, all of our bodies and our neighbors as ourselves? How? How I wish there was an easy answer. How I wish that there were some formula. How I wish that we could just say the right words, believe the right things, sing the right prayer at the right key facing the right direction and we’d be saved. But there is no easy answer. I slog through every day, trying to do what is right, failing and trying again, usually, trying to stay out of my own way and the way of others, trying to fulfill my obligations in the world, trying to see outside of my own little shell, trying to be in relationship, trying to be nicer than given my druthers I would be. And that’s the answer. That’s the work. That’s the how most of us need to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus: the day in, day out, unsexy business of living into each moment as best we can. That is how we deny ourselves. That is how we take up our crosses; one right decision, one kindly act, one act of hospitality or humility or love, genuine, un-hypocritical love at a time. But specifically, how do we even do that?
St. Paul is incredibly helpful to this end today. He lays out for us a how-to manual for picking up crosses. His litany in Romans 12 where he lays out the qualities and activity of “genuine love.” And taken together, it is a path, a set of practices, it is a way to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Jesus Christ. Genuine love, one who authentically picks up their cross, abhors evil and clings to the good. Genuine love is being affectionate to each other, outdoing one another in honor, not lagging in diligence, being alive with Spirit, serving God. Genuine love is rejoicing in hope, persevering in adversity, contributing to the needs of the saints and offering hospitality to strangers. St. Paul offers us a laundry list of means to a Godly end. Yes, we could abhor evil by standing before a tank in Tiananmen Square, or sitting where you are not supposed to on a bus, or chaining yourself to an ancient tree. We can also abhor evil by spending your money in line with your values: never buy anything without at least wondering where it came from, who made it, who is making money from your purchase, and how. That practice will change your life, it has changed mine, mostly for the better. It is slower, less convenient, sometimes more expensive and I don’t buy a lot of products that Monsanto has a hand in any more, but I am confident I am living more inline with God’s will.
Bless those who persecute you. That does not mean tolerating bad behavior. Folks were right to be enraged by yet another unarmed African-American boy being shot by police. Righteously angry and individual purveyors, systems, cultures of racism and oppression must be confronted and resisted at all costs, and (not but) and, there is never a case for harboring hatred. Not according to God’s plan. Not if you are trying to deny yourself. We all have feelings that flow through us at times, feelings of hatred, resentment, jealousy, lust where it really ought not be felt. Just because you have those feelings does not mean that they define you, that you have to embrace them, that they are You. Look at our sin filled world. That’s where the darkness comes from, it gets inside of all of us and we churn it, incubate it and it becomes foul and we push it out into the world. That is what we need to overcome. And that is the heart of denying ourselves; overcoming our very human nature immersed in a very broken world filled with people at least as broken as we are.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony… do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” and my own personal message from St. Paul, “do not claim to be wiser than you are.” All of these things, they are not the fruits of a Godly life. These are not the feelings to expect once you have picked up your cross. No, these simple acts of kindness, minute intentions of goodness, baby steps to radical hospitality, doing these things, living this way is the path, is the Way to follow Jesus Christ, cross slung over your shoulder. Gabriel, this is our charge to you. Being Christian, being a follower of Christ is hard. Thanks be to God that you were born up to the challenge; just like us. AMEN