A sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me
.[1]

My mother had a little collection of things she used to say from time to time when I was growing up: Life isn’t fair, for example. I don’t care who started it. If you’re bored, go read a book.

And she would say, I suppose we all have our crosses to bear.

Sometimes she meant that one sarcastically, as in, You kids are being really annoying today. More often she was taking about those burdens in life that we didn’t ask for and we can’t change, so we just have to put up with them, no matter how difficult they are.

It might sound similar, but I don’t think that’s exactly what Jesus meant when he told his disciples to take up their cross and follow him.

We know the cross is about suffering and death, yet paradoxically – through Jesus Christ – we also see it as a sign of hope, a sign that whatever difficulty we’re enduring now, whatever despair we feel, this isn’t where it will end. Because God will have the last word. In that way, our suffering and his are definitely connected.

But what Jesus says to his disciples is take up your cross and follow me, and that’s something different from passive acceptance of whatever hardship comes our way.

The Gospel says Jesus began to “show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and endure great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribe, and be killed.”[2]

He was on a path toward death. That was ultimately where the journey to Jerusalem was going to take him, and he knew it. And it didn’t actually require tremendous supernatural powers to realize that this is what was coming. It was the predictable consequence of the way he constantly stood in opposition to abusive power, both religious and civil. He knew what would happen if he kept on down that road, and he went there anyway. And he told his disciples to do the same.

I want to focus this morning on these two short phrases from this morning’s Gospel: take up your cross, and follow me.

What exactly does it mean to take up your cross? One thing I’ve mentioned already is that this is active, not passive. Take up your cross is not the same as accept your cross.

For us, taking up the cross is a decision to live in a certain way. To live in opposition to the power of evil. It’s living, as Jesus did, in opposition to injustice, knowing where that might lead, but doing it anyway, because you know it’s right.

Jesus stood up against the religious authorities whose rules and regulations were heavy burdens,[3] because they seemed to have lost sight of the real purpose of religion.

And he stood up against the power of the Roman Empire. I don’t mean that he recruited a militia or preached violent rebellion. What he did was far more subversive. He preached about the kingdom of God, the way the world would be if we ordered it God’s way.

The cross is a powerful symbol for us, a symbol of hope and liberation, and it was a powerful symbol in Rome, too – but there it was a sign of something else entirely. Crucifixion was meant to be a vivid public warning of what would happen to anyone who dared to stand against the interests of Rome.

It wasn’t a common form of punishment for offenses of all sorts. It was reserved for a particular kind of criminal – the kind of people who needed that warning. Slaves who escaped, for example. And enemies of the state.

And Jesus was that. He preached the kingdom of God, when any mention of a kingdom led by someone other than Caesar was seditious. Jesus preached that, and the crowds followed him.

Some called him the king of the Jews – the wise men from the East who came at his birth,[4] Pilate at his trial,[5] the soldiers who taunted him and put the charge against him on the cross over his head: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”[6] And when they asked him about that, he didn’t deny it.

“Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate said.

“You say so,”[7] was his response.

And what will they say about us?

Will they say that we spoke out about injustice? Spoke out against hate?

Will they say that we stood up for what was right?

Will they say that we took up our cross, too?

Take up your cross, and follow me.

“Follow me,” Jesus says, again and again.

“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” he said to Andrew and Peter.[8]

“Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.”[9]

“Follow me,” to Matthew in the tax booth.[10]

“Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”[11]

Peter and Andrew left their boats and followed him. Matthew left the tax booth. They went with him on that road to Jerusalem.

And where will we go?

Paradoxically – to use that word again – we have to find a way to follow Jesus without going anywhere, because 2,000 years later we can’t take that same exact road trip.

If what it means to be the church is to be disciples who follow Jesus – and that certainly is what Matthew thought it meant – what can that look like for us?

We talk about the healing, transforming power of Christian faith, but the theologian Miroslav Volf says that faith has to be something more than ourselves, even if that’s where it begins.

“… if faith only heals and energizes,” he says, “then it is merely a crutch to use at will, not a way of life.”

Volf says our faith should do three things for us:

First, it should set us on a journey. That’s our journey of following Jesus.

Second, it should guide us on the way.

And third – it should “give meaning to each step we take.”

This happens when we make our story part of the bigger story of God’s love for humanity, which we read here piece by piece every week.

Volf says, “faith guides us by offering itself as a way of life that … tells us what our specific tasks are in the great story of which we are apart. Finally, that story itself gives meaning to all we do, from the smallest act to the weightiest.”[12]

Every little thing we do, every moment of our lives should be part of God’s larger story.

That’s what it means to follow Jesus, and it doesn’t really sound so hard. But … maybe yes, and maybe no.

Take the story of Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed last month in Charlottesville. Such a quiet, ordinary life she lived until that day. Thirty-two years old, working as a paralegal at a local law firm. Her friends said she was a person who loved her dog, a chihuahua named Violet, and she loved mac and cheese.

And her friends said she was a person who stood up for people, mostly in small ways, like when she stood up for kids who were bullied on the school bus when she was growing up.

Never before had she gone anywhere to attend a demonstration, but this one came to her. She told her friends she was a little afraid, but she felt she had to be there just to show that she stood against hate. She wasn’t involved in any fighting. She was just walking down the street in a crowd when the car hit.

Her family says now that they’ve forgiven the driver, who seems clearly to have been wrestling with his own problems.

“Our daughter did not live a life of hate, and hating this young man is not going to solve anything,” her mother said. “ … It’s not that I think he should go unpunished for his crime. But hate only engenders more hate, and there’s no purpose in hate. Heather’s life was about — passionately about — fairness and equality and caring, and that’s what we want people to take away from this.” [13]

A quiet life, one we wouldn’t even know about if fear got the best of her and she stayed home on that day. A quiet, ordinary life. An unlikely hero, probably not perfect at every moment. I’m not either, but you know what – you have to start where you are.

Day by day, you have to stand up for what you believe.

Take up your cross and follow me.

Each one of us here who is baptized took up the cross on that day, when we were signed with a cross in holy oil on our foreheads.

These are the words that go along with that sign: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”[14]

I’ll tell you, I feel a shiver every time I say those words. Not just for the joy in that statement, but also because it’s an awesome challenge to be Christ’s own. I pray that we are up to it. Amen.

[1] Matt 16:24 NRSV

[2] Matt 16:21

[3] They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. Matt 23:4

[4] Matt 2:2

[5] Matt 27:11

[6] Matt 27:29, 37

[7] Matt 27:11

[8] Matt 4:19

[9] Matt 8:22

[10] Matt 9:9

[11] Matt 10:38

[12] Volf, Miroslav, Public faith: how followers of Christ should serve the common good, .

[13] “Charlottesville victim: ‘She was there standing up for what was right’” https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/charlottesville-victim-she-was-there-standing-up-for-what-was-right/2017/08/13/00d6b034-8035-11e7-b359-15a3617c767b_story.html?utm_term=.c4d1770a34c2, accessed Sept. 2, 2017.

[14] Book of Common Prayer, p. 308.