Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Take up your cross and follow me. I don’t know of many verses in scripture that have been so misused, so twisted, until they end up meaning something completely opposite of how they were intended. I’ve talked to women who have remained in abusive relationships because they thought the abuse was their cross. I’ve heard from people of color who were denied promotions and were given justifications that this sort of prejudice was just their cross to bear. That’s nonsense, of course. Jesus is talking about something much deeper, much more significant.
And I got to thinking about the things we carry. That’s the whole thing here, carrying your cross, and I’ll be honest, most days, my hands and pockets are so full I don’t know how I would do it. I mean, literally, I’ve got keys to a house and a car and a church and an office and I don’t even know what half of these things do, and for every key there’s a responsibility there, something that takes up my time. And then of course I’ve got my wallet with all my credit cards and never any cash, and I seem to spend a lot of time with this card in my hand, because there are certainly plenty of financial responsibilities I have to deal with. And then this thing, which I have told you I would like to throw in the road most days, but which takes up time it doesn’t even ask for because even if I’m not fielding a phone call or answering an email that candy isn’t going to crush itself.
And those are just the physical things I carry with me. I also carry my pain, and my past, and my hopes, and my worries, and you understand it’s not just as easy as bending down and picking up the cross. You’ve got to set some stuff down.
This is going to sound silly and so I hope it doesn’t seem too sacrilegious, but what this story in the Gospel of Mark reminds me of is the last week before initiation into my fraternity. I don’t know, maybe since we’re traveling to Holy Week it reminds me a little bit of Hell Week in the fraternity.
And since it was the very end of pledgeship they sort of ramped it up the week before we were initiated as brothers in the fraternity, and it really wasn’t that bad, but one of the things they made us do was carry a brick around with us all week. We painted it yellow, which was the fraternity’s color, and we named them—I named mine the Pater Familius after a line from my favorite movie--and we were instructed to get each of the brothers in the fraternity to sign the brick over the course of the week, but that we were to hold onto the bricks for dear life, because the brothers would be trying to take them.
Listen, it only takes a couple of nights sleeping with a brick under your pillow to have an appreciation for how difficult it is to carry something for a long time. And I really don’t mean to compare this to the cross because it isn’t the same thing. I just want to acknowledge that when you can’t put something down, you’ve got to pay constant attention to it. You constantly have to keep hold of it, make sure not to set it down and misplace it. I mean, I felt the same way after we had our daughter, because for the eight weeks of paternity leave I took, I couldn’t set her down. And it’s lovely, carrying a beautiful kid around, but I mean, you can’t go to the bathroom, you can’t cook, you can’t do much of anything. Carrying something around like that takes your full attention.
And it makes you wonder, you know, how it is that people who have figured out how to be faithful Christians who carry their cross everywhere they go….just how it is that they manage to do that without breaking their backs. You look at somebody like Mother Teresa, who spent her days in the streets and slums of Calcutta, and you wonder, why even try? I’ll never be like that. I don’t have a strong enough back to carry that kind of cross, to live amongst that much misery all day. You look at somebody with that kind of back and you think, I’ll never live up to this verse. I’ll never be able to carry my cross. It’s too heavy. I’m too weak.
But then it must be possible, somehow, or Jesus wouldn’t have said it. And, we’re here aren’t we? I mean, somebody carried the cross forward, carried it through the streets of Jerusalem, the via dolorosa, the way of suffering, and up Calvary’s hill. Somebody must have taken it down after the crucifixion and carried it back down the hill and back through the streets. Somebody must have taken it from there and carried it hither and yon, and at some point somebody brought it up North Decatur Road for a minute as this church was founded! That’s a lot of somebody’s, to get us to this day, and sure, it sounds impossible, to do that kind of heavy lifting, and yet it must be possible, for here we are two thousand years later still talking about it because the cross has been carried from then to now, halfway around the world.
That’s not to say that it’s easy. Just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s easy. But it means that it happens, and you may have a list like I do of people who have carried that cross long enough to hand it to you. I mean, you’re here, right? You’re in church, and I know there are lots of other things you could be doing right now. I remember once I was hearing from a woman at another church who was actually on staff, believe it or not, and the conversation turned to Easter, which was coming up, and she said, “I just love Easter,” which, I mean, when you work for a church, it’s sort of like our Super Bowl, so I love it too for all the reasons you might expect, and she went on to say, “I just love Easter, because on that day, there aren’t any lines at Six Flags and you can ride the rides all you want.”
That’s not much of a cross, you know? Riding Goliath fifteen times in a row is not much of a celebration of the Risen Lord. But it’s just to say, I know there are other things you could be doing, so I’m not going to give you a big sermon trying to convince you about the importance of this stuff, because you already get it. You’re here.
But there is a difference between showing up to church, which I acknowledge isn’t easy, and carrying your cross, because when Jesus talks about carrying your cross, he doesn’t say things like, “just make sure you are in the pew at least every other Sunday and that will be good enough.” That’s important—worship is the most important thing we do—but Jesus says things that make me think this is more to it than just being in church. He says things like, “let them deny themselves.” Things like “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for me sake, and for the sake of the Gospel will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
And it sounds like a lot, but we have agreed to try! When we are baptized as Christians in the United Methodist Church, the second question we answer is this one: Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
Asked another way, we could say, do you agree to take up your cross and follow Jesus?
And maybe that helps. Maybe that helps make sense of it, because taking up your cross isn’t about bearing abuse or resigning yourself to putting up with systems of injustice. In fact, it is exactly the opposite. Taking up your cross means making the conscious decision to do so, to accept the freedom and power—power!—God gives you to be God’s hands and feet in the world and using that power to resist evil, to fight injustice, to work for the rights of the oppressed. I have to tell you, this is why I felt it necessary to put the bit in your bulletin about the death penalty. I don’t pretend to think we’re of one mind about this, and I certainly don’t want to discount the evil actions that lead someone to be sentenced with capital punishment. But to carry your cross is to accept that power to resist injustice and work on behalf of the oppressed, which by definition is an unpopular task. And then I think about King David, and Moses, and the apostle Paul, murderers all of them, and I wonder what would become of these great heroes of the faith if they were alive today.
Listen, when Jesus says that those who want to save their lives will lose it, and those who lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will save it, that calling in and of itself can sound like a death sentence, or at the very least a particularly unpleasant way of being. But this isn’t what Jesus means at all. I doubt Jesus is calling you to death. It happens—you look at those poor Egyptian Christians martyred for their faith and you remember it happens—but that feels so far removed from my life I’m tempted to write the whole thing off. But that’s a shame, because to lose your life isn’t to die, necessarily. In fact, for you, that’s probably not what Jesus is talking about. But what Jesus is talking about, I think, is recognizing that your life is not your own. There are higher things, deeper things than what makes me happy right this moment, than instant gratification, and to live a live steeped in the Gospel is to live, as the theologian Frederick Buechner says, searching for the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. It is to be intentional about living your call to ministry. Now, maybe you are called to pastor, and if you think that’s how God is pulling you my goodness, let’s talk, but that isn’t exclusively what I am talking about here, because God calls all people to something.
Buechner goes on to say that your job, your profession, may be your calling, but maybe it’s not. And if, for instance, you spend your days writing cigarette advertisements, maybe that’s not your cross. But if you delight in sending time with youth and teaching them about Jesus, or if you delight in working for the welfare of those who do not have enough, perhaps that is your cross. If you love making prayer beads and letting people who need love know that they are loved and remembered in prayer, maybe that’s your cross.
We have this idea that to take up your cross must be a miserable experience, because it certainly was miserable for Jesus, but that’s a lie that keeps us from living into our birthright, our baptism into the family of God.
We think it’s miserable, and that’s why we are so hesitant to do it, but to take up your cross means no more than this: it means asking the question, “what am I giving my life to?” and then further asking, “how does the thing I am giving my life to honor God?” What am I giving my life to? And how does the thing I am giving my life to honor God?
We all are giving our life to something, after all. Everybody’s living in one direction or another. For Jesus, of course, it was the actual cross, it was walking to the cross and dying and then defeating death once and for all. It was showing us a better way to live, a way of love, of justice, of peace. That was the thing he gave his life to, and it quite literally was a gift. But for you, it’s probably something else. It’s probably something else. To take up your cross and follow Jesus means to take the thing you are giving your life to and giving that to God. It is to say, here is who I am and here is what I hold dear, and here is how I will use those gifts and talents and my very being to accept the freedom and responsibility God gives me to resist evil and injustice and oppression in the world. That is your cross. That is how you take up your cross. In some ways, it’s so much easier than carrying a tree up a hill, as Jesus did so long ago. But I won’t lie. In other ways, it’s one of the hardest things I know, for to carry a cross, you’ve got to have your hands free, and boy, that’s a lot more difficult than it sounds. And then you’ve got to take who you are and lay it upon the altar and say, this is my offering. This is how I respond to the gift of grace. This is how I will offer my life to Christ and fulfill my baptismal vows, to resist evil and injustice in whatever forms they present themselves. Thank God we don’t do any of this alone. And thank God that the while the business of carrying your cross is not easy, the journey doesn’t end with the cross, but with the empty tomb, with the resurrected Lord, with the victory of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.