SERMON OF MARCH 8, 2009
M. Bruce McKay
Pilgrim - St. Luke’s United Church of Christ
"The Way of the Cross"
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Mark 8:31-38
In the mid 1980’s President Obama was working as a community organizer in Chicago. He was with a project affiliated with the Gamaliel Foundation, the training institute that has a contract with VOICE-Buffalo and the organization I work for part time.
Mike Kruglik was President Obama’s supervisor at the time. Mike still works with the Gamaliel Foundation and tells a story about an incident that occurred when he and Obama were walking through the streets on Chicago‘s South Side.
A young African American man approached them and asked for money. Rather than try to avoid him or reach in his pocket Obama looked at him directly and said, “You can do better than this.”
He went on to engage him in a conversation that left this young man convinced that there were better options for his life than asking people for money on the streets.
During his years in Chicago President Obama joined Trinity United Church of Christ. This African American congregation is the largest UCC church in the nation. Several years before Jeremiah Wright, its former pastor, was in the national news, the UCC News, a national publication of our denomination, featured Trinity in a front page article.
Rev. Barbara Allen, one of Trinity’s Associate Pastors, was asked what characterized Trinity’s uniqueness. She said, "There's a continuous reminder here that we’re supposed to be doing something - that God has put us here for a purpose. We try to help people find that purpose for their lives."
The man who approached President Obama got clearer about God’s purpose for his life in an unexpected encounter. President Obama got clearer about God’s purpose for his life as a member of Trinity UCC.
Peter thought he knew God’s purpose for his life, when he left his fishing nets to follow Jesus.
Just before today’s text begins Peter and the other disciples are with Jesus on the way to Caesarea Philippi and Jesus asks them, "Who do you say that I am?"
And Peter answers, "You are the Messiah!"
At that point Peter was clear that God had put him where he was for a purpose. And that purpose was to follow Jesus of Nazareth, whom he believed to be the Messiah - the Lord of Lords and King of Kings - the one who would usher in God's reign of peace and prosperity - the one who would wipe away every tear from his eyes - and bring an end to sorrow, sadness and suffering.
God had a purpose for Peter - to follow the One he now knew to be the Messiah – the Christ of God.
And then, before he's managed more than a few steps along the way of following his Messiah, Peter hears Jesus proclaim that he's going to suffer, be rejected and be killed by the powers that be.
This is more than Peter can handle, so he rebukes Jesus, Mark tells us. The word in Greek translated “rebuke” means literally “to take charge.” Peter attempts to take charge of the situation by correcting the one he’s just confessed to be the Messiah!
Notice what happens next. Jesus turns and looking at his disciples, he rebukes Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Jesus calls Peter, "Satan," meaning “my adversary.” In effect, Jesus is saying, “You are trying to deter me from living out God’s purpose for my life! And I’m not going to let you do it! You can do better than that!”
Make no mistake about it. This is strong language from Jesus, the Teacher. Peter’s life, the lives of the other disciples and our own lives hang in the balance. If we get this class wrong, we flunk the whole course.
Jesus continues teaching them and us by saying, "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."
Here’s a lesson that we, like Peter, don’t want to learn.
We live in a self-centered world – a world that encourages self-absorption, self-actualization, self-advancement, self-assurance, self-improvement, self-seeking, self-affirmation and self-fulfillment. Is it any wonder that we set our sights on being healthy, wealthy and wise? We set our own agenda and follow where our ambitions lead, just like everybody else. For many people that defines their purpose in life. And along comes a Messiah who says something different - very, very different.
"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."
God has put us here for a purpose - to take up our cross and follow Jesus.
So what is the purpose of your life?
What is the cross that you're asked to take up?
To answer that question, let’s first consider 2 things it isn’t.
First, taking up your cross doesn’t mean accepting a life of being oppressed or abused by others. Whether we’re the victim of oppressive systems or the victim in an abusive relationship the invitation to deny ourselves and pick up our cross is not the invitation to be a victim. Jesus’ ministry was devoted to freeing victims from all that would prevent them from living the live God created them to live.
Secondly, taking up your cross doesn’t mean dealing with the suffering and sadness life brings your way.
A colleague tells a story about a Bible Study class where she’d just read the text about Jesus’ insistence that his followers deny themselves and take up their cross.
“What do you think this means?” she asked.
After a moment of silence an honest person responded: “My mother used to say that my father was the cross she had to bear. I hope that taking up my cross is nothing more than dealing with the difficulties that we inevitably face. I hope it doesn’t mean what it sounds like, because my life is already hard enough. I don’t need to look for any new burdens to bear. And I don’t think Jesus wants my life to be any harder than it is already. That doesn’t make sense to me.”
That doesn’t make sense to most of us, most of the time. And yet, Jesus isn’t equating the crosses we take-up with the burdens we bear. We all have burdens all of the time. Things happen to us and to those we love that create these burdens. But burdens are not crosses.
The "cross" is something we carry because we decide to follow Jesus. We take up the cross because we’ve made a commitment to follow Jesus, along the way he's traveling, along the way to Jerusalem, the way of the cross – the way of suffering, self-giving love – the way of losing our life to save it.
This doesn’t make sense to most of us most of the time because it’s not plain and simple but paradoxical. So we preachers settle for saying things like, "If you follow Jesus your life will be easier." As today’s Gospel makes clear, following Jesus on the way of the cross may be the beginning of your troubles, not the end of them.
“William Stringfellow stresses that at the heart of the gospel is a `sense of absurdity—an instinct for paradox—a conviction that truth is never bland but lurks in contradiction.’ To lose your life is to save it. Unless a grain of wheat dies, it can not bring life. To take up the cross is to embrace the power of God. It doesn't make sense; it's foolish—unless you see it from the eyes of faith, from the converted heart. For believers, it is the very power that transforms lives.” (From A Simplicity of Faith quoted in The Foolishness of the Cross by Joe Roos – www.sojo.net Sermon Prep for March 8, 2008)
As Martin Luther King, Jr. said so clearly, "The cross we bear precedes the crown we wear. To be a Christian one must take up one's cross, with all its difficulties and agonizing and tension-packed content and carry it until that very cross leaves its
mark upon us and redeems us to that more excellent way which comes only through suffering."
God has put us here for a purpose – not just people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barak Obama – God has put each of us here for a purpose. And that purpose, whether we like it or not, whether we accept it or not, whether we're up to it or not, whether we understand it or not, is to follow the way of the cross - the way of suffering, self-giving love.
We do this not because it means an end to our problems or our pain - not because our parents said it was the best thing to do - not even because Jesus tells us to do it. We do this because we know in our hearts that ultimately it's in our self-interest to do it.
Ultimately, this is the only way we can become the person God created us to be..."for those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?"
The word for "life" in Greek is psyche - which also means soul.
What will it profit someone to gain the whole world and forfeit their soul?
As Tracy Chapman puts in “All That You Have is Your Soul”:
Oh my mama told me
'Cause she say she learned the hard way
Say she wanna spare the children
She say don't give or sell your soul away
'Cause all that you have is your soul.
Don't be tempted by the shiny apple
Don't you eat of a bitter fruit
Hunger only for a taste of justice
Hunger only for a world of truth
'Cause all that you have is your soul.
God has put us here for a purpose. At the end of the day, when all is said and done, all that we've got is our soul - and the way to save our souls - the way to save our selves – the way to save our life is the way of the cross - the way of suffering, self-giving love.
God has put us here for a purpose.
All of us, all of the time, are faced with the temptation to deny that purpose, as Peter did so vehemently when he took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him – to try to take charge of Jesus, rather than let Jesus take charge of him and his life.
Blake Morrison is an English poet and writer who published a book entitled And When Did You Last See Your Father? The subtitle is A Son's Memoir of Love and Loss. In this book Morrison poignantly describes his relationship with his father. Soon after his father dies from cancer, Morrison writes, "Never to have loved seems best; love means two people getting too close; it means people want to be with each other all the time, and then one of them dying and leaving the other bereft."
And yet, the cost of discipleship is measured by our willingness to risk loving others – to risk loving God and loving our neighbor as ourself. Avoiding this risk, as C. S. Lewis reminds us, means risking much more.
In his book The Four Loves he writes:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries, avoid all entanglements, lock it safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket - safe, dark, motionless, airless - it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, and irredeemable.
The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers...of love is Hell...We shall draw near to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to God; throwing away all defensive armor..."
God has put us here for a purpose.
Sabina Gonzalez lives in an East Harlem housing project. After raising her six children, five of whom graduated from college, she decided to care for other children in her home. Her husband worked two jobs and her family didn't need the money - but Sabina decided to do this. She cared for infants and toddlers, including our sons when we lived in New York City. Sabina and her family were active Catholics.
Not long before we left New York for Buffalo Sabina decided to take in a foster child - a 10 year old boy named Thomas. She'd cared for Thomas for the first four years of his life. His mother was an addict and his father was in jail. He was a troubled child who'd been in and out of foster homes and already had been in scrapes the law.
One day when I went to pick up Luke and Micah, I said to her, "Sabina, why would you take in Thomas now? Your children are all grown. I know it will be a great blessing for Thomas, but it won't be easy for you or your family. Why do this?”
"God has been good to me,” she said. “I'm the closest Thomas ever came to having a mother. And I know that this is what God wants me to do."
The tears in her eyes told me that she knew how hard this would be and that she was right in saying that this was what God wanted her to do..."to take up her cross and follow Jesus" – “to save her life by losing it.”
The South African novelist, Alan Paton, describes a scene where someone appears before God and hears God ask, “Where are your wounds?”
The person replies, “I have no wounds.”
And God says, “Was there nothing worth fighting for?” (Quoted in Journey Toward Home by Joyce Hollyday, p. 178)
God knows there is plenty worth fighting for in our world. That’s why God has put each of us here for a purpose.
In her most recent book, Kathleen Norris describes visiting a cancer ward for terminal patients in her early forties... As she writes: “I was apprehensive, as I was going to the front lines of a battle that our culture labors mightily to keep hidden, but I needed to visit a friend…The intensity of misery was overwhelming, yet it did not frighten me or repel me, for I had entered holy ground. People my own age, as well as the elderly, were shockingly frail and needed support just to totter down the hall. Still, they were alive, and walking, saying their good-byes to friends, children and grandchildren. What struck me was that the atmosphere was not merely one of sadness, but also one of beauty deepened by the sobering inevitability of death, and blessed by the presence of a vibrant love. While the relentless activity of New York City surrounded us, here everything unessential had been stripped away. Only life remained, a gift and a joy beyond understanding. I had arrived in the real world.” (Acedia and Me, p.175)
God has put us here, in the real world, for a purpose.
I know that as well as I know anything at all.
And I know that I will spend the rest of my life trying to understand more fully what it means for me to live out the purpose of my life.
I also know that the only way I can do this faithfully is in community with others who have also heard Jesus say, “take up your cross and follow me.”
It would be nice if Jesus promised good health, good times and a good deal to all those who follow him.
But there are no promises like that, no promises at all, except for this: “Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me. Get in step behind me.”
That’s where we belong, in step behind Jesus, not fully understanding, only partially comprehending, but following him never-the-less – following him down a risky, perilous, often painful way that leads to a God we would never have met, had we not been following Jesus on the way of the cross!
Note: This sermon draws on material in “Lectionary Homiletics,” March 2000.
31 Then Jesus 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. 32He said all this quite openly.
And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But 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.’
34 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. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?’
`38Those 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.’