Learning, Loving & Letting God Lead

A sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 16, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 116:1-8,James 3:1-12, and Mark 8:27-38.


If you should drive out Interstate 66 toward West Virginia, you’ll come to Interstate 81.  Just south of that intersection is Strasburg, Virginia.  Though Strasburg is known for its antiques, its Civil War history, and I’ve gotten good apples there—I think it mostly for its landmark along interstate 81.  Right there, enormously poised by the side of the road are three gigantic crosses.  The tallest, the one in the middle is 150 feet tall.  (Just to give a sense of scale, the Washington Monument is 555 feet tall, but about 150 feet up is where you can see the change in the color of stone.)  In addition to the three giant crosses, put up by the Church of the Valley in Strasburg, on either side of the large, central cross are huge American flags.  
What do such crosses mean?  One cross might mean one thing.  Add two more and it evokes Calvary.  Add the flags, and the meaning multiplies.  The meaning of the cross is not self-evident. What does any cross mean?
The Supreme Court continues to wrestle with situations that feature crosses in used as memorials.  When they are placed on public or park land, there are questions about “church and state.”   When a cross is used in creative ways in an art project, should we be offended or is it something else altogether?  When one wears a cross as jewelry, what, exactly does it mean?
The cross, of course, was used as an instrument of persecution.  It was something like the cultural equivalent of an electric chair.  It was the means by which the State put to death criminals, and it carried with it shame, disgrace, embarrassment, and scandal.  
 But in our day, what power does the cross have?  Have we emptied it of power and meaning by overuse?  Or, are we able to answer in our own way, the question that seems to come out of today’s readings.  Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” but he might be asking just as well, “What is my cross for you?  What is the intersection between my cross and your world?  Where do you experience death, but then allow God’s life to break in, change everything, and raise you to new life?  How do you take up your cross?
When Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers. In words the church calls the Confession of St. Peter, he goes out on a limb like he often does, he speaks more with faith than common sense and he says, “you are the Christ.” But Peter is not prepared for what this will mean for Jesus, or what it will mean for his followers.
Jesus talks about suffering and being rejected and being killed. But then, he talks about rising again after three days. This makes no sense to Peter, so he tries to stop Jesus from going in this direction.  But Jesus won’t hear of anything that lessens or lightens his way forward. He says, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
And so it comes down not so much to lifting high the cross of Christ, as being willing to take up our own cross and follow in the way of Christ.
There are many ways of taking up our own cross, some dramatic; many not so dramatic. The scriptures today suggest at least three aspects, three marks, three qualities of taking up our cross.
The first is an aspect of learning. To take up our cross and follow Jesus will involve learning.  Isaiah says, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear.” In other words, God has already brought Isaiah to the place of realizing that he doesn’t know everything, certainly not everything there is to know about God, or God’s ways. And so God teaches Isaiah. Even more, God gives Isaiah “the tongue of those who are taught,” which is to say a tongue that thinks before it speaks, a tongue that wonders where God is in this or that, a tongue that tries to be slow in its criticism of others and quick in its encouragement.
If you think about it, much of the time he spent with his disciples, Jesus was teaching them. Through his Holy Spirit alive in each of us, through (as Richard Hooker said) tradition, scripture and reason, Christ continues to teach us.
And what a good time for this scripture to be our lives, as the fall season is about to begin. Sunday school begins today.  The Adult Forum begins next week. Through the year there will be book studies, and Bible studies, and other opportunities for learning.
Imagine what All Souls would be like if we, as a parish, were open to learning from God how to take up our cross daily? Every nook and corner of this building would be filled with teachers and learners, hungry for the wisdom of God, aching to discern the ways of the Spirit, desperate to learn God’s direction. I pray for that day, and I invite you to do the same.
We are invited to take up our cross daily, and learning is a part of that. Loving is another aspect of taking up our cross.
The Second Reading today, the Epistle of James, is a love letter. It’s a love letter from James to the church spread out all over. You can tell it’s a love letter because it’s impatient, it’s full of anger, it’s full of desire, and full of vision. James knows what Christians can be, he knows who they’ve been called to be, but they’re falling way, way short. They’re settling. They’re taking it easy. And so he thunders away about God’s love and how God’s love needs to be shown not just in what we say or sing, but in what we do and in how we do it.
James says, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”  Our faith in the cross and the one who died and rose again from the cross has to be a part of our life, a part of our working, a part of our being. The cross is not standing on a hill, far, far away (not even on a hill in Virginia). It’s wherever there is someone who is living in oppression, it’s wherever there is someone who is hungry or living out of shelter, it’s where there is pain or crying or loss or death. The cross casts a shadow, and sometimes people live in that shadow, and they can’t see the light anymore. They can’t feel its warmth, they can’t be sure it’s even still a possibility. And so we are called to take that person by the hand and lead them around out of the cool, dark shadow and into a place of love and light and warmth. We are called to be Christ’s love in the world, one person at a time.
Taking up our cross daily is easier than we might suppose, really. If we are willing to learn from God, if we are able to love through Christ, and one more thing—if we are willing to let God do the leading
Sometimes this is the very place we stumble with our crosses. We have decided which cross we might like to carry. This is my cross, I say. I carry it in just such a way. I become comfortable carrying it, and decide that others should carry crosses just like mine. It becomes my cross, my effort and my glory. This might be all well and good and I might even be accomplishing quite a bit of work, but it becomes the will of John, not the will of God.
Saint Peter was confused by Jesus for exactly this reason. Not only did Jesus seems to keep changing the plan, but the closer Peter looked, the more his own nightmare came true—there was no plan. Or at least, there was no plan visible to the human eye. The plan was in the mind and heart of God, unfolding just as surely and timely as anything else with God unfolds. The only way to know that plan is to stay connected, to stay attentive, to be as close to God and as tuned into God as possible. That’s what Jesus did, and what he tried to show his disciples how to do.
On Good Friday, we venerate the Holy Cross.  We say and sing the antiphon from Good Friday,

We venerate your Cross, O Lord,
and praise and glorify your holy Resurrection:
for by virtue of the Cross,
joy has come to the whole world.

By virtue of the Cross, joy has come to the whole world. Through our faithful living and our willingness to take up our cross, by learning, by loving, and by letting God take the lead, joy continues to come to us and to the whole world.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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