Sermon August 30, 2020
When I was in seminary, I helped at a church in downtown Columbus Ohio. It was right across the street from the state capital. The capital took up the entire square block. On Good Friday, I participated in a procession around the entire capital complex. We read the stations of the cross as we traveled. For part of the procession, I carried the heavy cross. It was quite a burden. It was an unusual experience to walk on a downtown street carrying a cross. People looked at us in all different ways. Some ignored us. I think some even joined us for a short time. I thought about how Jesus must have felt as he carried the cross to Calvary. It was an experience I will not forget.
When Jesus said “take up your cross and follow me” I don’t think he meant that every one of his followers needed to literally carry the cross. And yet many were persecuted and killed in the first centuries following his death and resurrection. And some are persecuted even today.
I also don’t think Jesus meant that everything we would do when we followed him was going to be a burden. Yet that seems to be a common thought. We have the expression, “that is my cross to bear”, as if some problem, some challenge we face or even some person we must get along with is what Jesus was talking about when he said take up your cross and follow me.
Some may realize that our burdens are not so bad. I found this story which was attributed to Debra Stitt. A man was struggling with many troubles and burdens. He prayed to God asking for help. Jesus came and asked the man about his problems and the man recounted all of the challenges he faced. Jesus told the man that he would help him and he took the man to a room filled with crosses. They were of all sizes, big and small even some that were huge. Jesus told him that these symbolized the various burdens people carried and asked the man to choose a cross, to choose a burden that he could deal with. The man found a very tiny cross over in the corner and said he would take that one. Jesus said, Are you sure and the man said yes. Jesus then said, "My child, you have chosen your own cross. It is the burden you already carry.” Taking up our cross may be difficult, we may have to do things we prefer not doing, but it is not always something that is truly a burden. In fact, taking up our cross may give us great joy. Helping others is a good example.
Arthur Pink was an Englishman who became an evangelical Christian. While I wouldn’t agree with all of his positions, I do agree with this quote, “Taking up my "cross" means a life voluntarily surrendered to God.” Taking up our cross is a choice we make. It is not forced upon us, like some problem dropped into our lap. Rather, we get to decide what we will do. It may be as simple as choosing between a life of sin and a life of holiness but it is always a choice.
Sometimes our choice is about a job we should do. Moses was given a choice. He didn’t know about the cross of Jesus but he was called by God to go help the Israelites. God had heard the cries of God’s people and asked Moses to help. Moses had lots of reasons why he was the wrong man for the job. I am not good enough, who should I say sent me, what if they don’t believe me, I can’t speak well enough. Moses didn’t think he was worthy of God’s call. God had an answer for every concern that Moses gave him. Other prophets struggled with God’s call. Isaiah and Jeremiah did as well.
Each of us has our own calling, the cross that we are to carry. It will certainly not be the same as one of the prophets from the Old Testament. It may not even be a full time occupation. Most of us will feel unworthy. But God will help us with our concerns and our limitations so that we can do the task we are given.
The apostle, Peter, gives us an example of the trouble that we can so easily fall into. Just a moment before this exchange, he had declared Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Peter was the hero. But Peter had a particular understanding of what it meant to be the Messiah. His human understanding was not God’s way. Peter was distraught when Jesus told the disciples he would die. In following the ways of humans and not listening to Jesus, Peter became like Satan. Jesus felt that Peter was trying to get him to turn from God’s plan. Jesus must have felt tempted to do so.
Taking up our cross means putting away our sins and doing as Jesus would want us to do. We must not fall victim to temptation. I don’t often speak of the temptation to sin as I prefer to focus on God’s blessings. But sin is aways there and the devil is always ready to encourage us to fall into his clutches. Our world is filled with people and opportunities to live a life of sin. Sometimes, the things we think are good can actually lead us to a bad place just as it did with Peter. Christians have often chosen sinful ways thinking that they were doing good.
In the 1970s, El Salvador was racked by a terrible civil war. Leaders thought they were doing the right thing to quash the rebellion. As the war dragged on, the country’s soldiers began to commit more and more atrocities against the people. Eventually, Archbishop Oscar Romero took up his cross and spoke out against the government, asking the soldiers to put down their guns. Before he was murdered by the government, he sought a way to counter this government violence. “The violence we preach is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.” He said further,
Peace is not the product of terror or fear.
Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.
Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.
Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.
Peace is dynamism.
Peace is generosity.
It is right and it is duty.
Romero sought peace and reconciliation. Is it possible that we are called to do the same?
When people try to do good, others may take advantage. I am thinking about people who have chosen to peacefully protest against wrongs that have been committed against their fellow human beings in the United States. But others have turned these peaceful protests into violence. They have taken things too far.
Martin Luther King Junior spoke about this challenge many years ago. We should struggle with Christian methods, he said, “Never succumb to the temptation of being bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline… If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness. .. Let your oppressor know that you are only seeking justice for him or her as well as for yourself”. It seems that those words could have been spoken today. I am sure you can think of other examples in today’s world where Christian people have lost their way.
In our desire to do the right thing, to be followers of Jesus, Scripture gives us good advice like Paul’s encouragement in today’s passage from the Letter to the Romans. Paul wrote about how we live together in community. We are to love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. The list goes on.
My favorite expression this week is Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. It seems especially important at this time when it is difficult to see each other. Perhaps you might find a way to reach out to someone you know and either rejoice with the person or weep with that person. It doesn’t seem too difficult and yet Paul tells us that is part of taking up our cross.
Let us be encouraged with the knowledge that God cares about us, that Jesus is with us and the Holy Spirit will guide us. Let us accept the call God has offered to us, to take up our cross, whatever it may be. Let us not be shy or feel unworthy. Rather let us say, Here I am Lord, do with me as you will. Amen.
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