March 4, 2012
Second Sunday in Lent, Year B
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
“You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things… If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Lenten scripture really puts things in perspective. Think about Jesus and where He was, and where He knew He was going. We’ve begun our own journey towards the passion in our Lenten devotions, the purpose of which is to help us remember Jesus and His journey towards the passion. At this point in Mark’s account, Jesus and his friends were operating in Galilee, the crowds were growing, he couldn’t even go into some towns by now, there were so many people. This activity attracted the attention of the authorities. They knew all about him; the religious hierarchy, the collaborators in the government and maybe even the Roman imperial overlords. If this story was contemporary, there’d be a file on Him for sure, He’d be on some FBI list, Jesus probably could not fly. Scary stuff. He knew that before it was over He would suffer, and terribly. He knew that before it was over that those who went with Him would suffer, and terribly. And He knew that after three days He would rise from the dead and be seated at the right hand of God. And He knew that those who stuck with Him, who committed themselves to living, to being the Good News that was being revealed in the world, they would get their reward. “…Those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel, will save it.”
Lent is a time to consider our vocation as Christians; in particular, to take stock of our Christian commitment. How committed do we have to be? What is a reasonable expectation to have of ourselves? How literally do we need to deny ourselves and take up a “cross”? A cross… These are very, very important questions. These questions get to the very root of why we are here in Church, individually at least. And, well, Our Lord and Savior is pretty clear on this. We have to be fully committed. There is no half way. He says directly, “Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me…” Fair enough, He is being very clear with us. But then again, He was talking to fellow members of a radical religious splinter group, fundamentalist peasant revolutionaries, they took their holy books, as we would say in Boston, wicked seriously. They were harassed, persecuted, executed on behalf of the theocratic, collaborationist authorities. What does it mean to us, in polite contemporary society, sitting together here in this room, about as far from Galilee, year 33, as we could get in time or place. What does “take up our cross” mean for us?
What Jesus is telling us is that we have to live out our beliefs. Not even our beliefs exactly. What we “believe” isn’t that important, what is important is that we have to live as we know we are supposed to live. We know right from wrong, we have to live in that knowledge. We have to Be what we are supposed to be. Honestly, I do not think Jesus’ meaning changes based on context, historical, geographical, whatever. If anything, the less our behavior endangers us, the less risky it is, the greater the commitment we are expected to have.
We must deny ourselves and pick up our cross. Denying ourselves, the way it is written here, implies acting in a selfless way, giving up one’s place at the center of things. It is not about me. It is not about you. It is about others, the world, God.
And our cross… that is the work you have been given to do, the burden you have to bear. It can be seen as the hand you have been dealt, the genes you carry, the habits and tendencies your family has so generously gifted you with. It is injuries your wear on your body, mind and spirit. It is the set of skills you have been blessed with or that you were not blessed with. It is knowledge of your life situation AND knowledge that you still have things expected of you. Some of us are sick and poor and miserable, and we still need to get up each day, wash our face, and try our best to be and do what we know God expects us to be and do. Some of us have easy, comfortable lives, blessed by God for sure, and we still need to get up, engage a suffering world, sacrifice our time and comfort and wealth and privilege and be and do what we know God expects us to be and do.
Some of us have begun reading a little book by the English religion writer Evelyn Underhill. You might remember her from our conversation about prayer and mortification back in Advent. One of her legacies is directly related to the level of her commitment to her beliefs, her knowledge of what God required of her, the cross she had to bear. She died in London in 1941. What was going on in London in 1941? The Blitz. At that point, they were alone, the British, alone against Hitler. Can you imagine a more complicated place to be a committed, evangelical pacifist? No. But she was. She became extremely unpopular. But she understood certain requirements of the Christian Life, chief amongst them that war was the antithesis of Christian living. She was unequivocal in her language. The Christian life requires, requires that we love in the face of horror, that we accept all others, that we practice boundless love, that we are willing to embrace and share the suffering of others, even to the point of death. To do less, she says, “Is striking a deal with the Devil.” She uses strong language: requirements of the Christian life, deal with the devil. But this is what Jesus is talking about. The commitment that is required of us as Christians is clear: We must deny ourselves, making it not about us; we must take up our cross, doing the work we have been given to do. And get up each day, each inglorious Tuesday morning and be the child of God, the servant of Christ that we are.
Taking up our cross is not always as dramatic as this. I struggle mightily with taking up my own cross. Doing what I need to do when it needs doing. Most of us are faced with crosses that are long, slow, cumulative burdens. With little ones at home, it is endless. They need to be fed and cleaned and dressed and loved on every single day. A beautiful clean house lasts exactly until the next morning when we all wake up. Piles of laundry stack up religiously. And it doesn’t matter if I had a long day and do not feel like picking up the puzzle pieces that are scattered across the kitchen, or feel like cooking dinner, or doing the dishes or running the tub for them or for Willow to clean the mud caked in his paws. Surely Windy has had a long day too; she doesn’t have an office door to close, or adults to have conversations with. So you lean in, remember that it is not about you and you do what needs doing. And I find that sometimes impossibly hard, but that is the Christian life in a nutshell. That is denying ourselves and taking up our cross and it happens in grand and in very small ways.
Our crosses can take many forms. Take care of your body better. Lose that 20 pounds the doctor has been telling you about. Spend that extra 20% on organic food, maybe even more on local organic food, the future of the planet depends on decisions like that, certainly the future of our community depends on it. Buy less of whatever it is you buy. Put on a sweater and turn the heat down. If you can, walk more, drive less, bike more or use the bus. Use the library. Go to contradances. Participate here. Build community. Cook from scratch, it doesn’t take that much longer, it costs a lot less, tastes better and is better for your and everyone else’s body. Volunteer at the Eagan warming center. Don’t turn the other way when police are rousting a homeless person downtown. Stop and pay attention, everyone in that situation is very vulnerable. When something in the paper boils your blood, when injustice is just so obvious, get involved. Get active with a political candidate, campaign or movement. Do something. Be the person God expects you to be.
What I am saying is that we matter in the world. Our intention, our activity and our presence matters in the world. It matters to God and the world how committed we are to living as we know we are supposed to live. As the baptized, as Christians, we are God’s agents, just like those disciples whom Jesus told to deny themselves and take up their crosses. What is your cross? When will you take it up? Thanks be to God we are not alone in bearing it. AMEN