A sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 4, 2016. The lectionary readings are Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 1, Philemon 1-21, and Luke 14:25-33.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
I began my ordained ministry in Havre de Grace, Maryland where they used to keep a really wonderful tradition on Good Friday. All of the churches in the town get together to walk the Way of the Cross. A hundred or so people usually attend and the procession makes a stops briefly in front of each of the churches. Prayers are offered. A meditation is said. Each year, there is a giant cross made of 4X4 lumber. The cross is big and heavy, but the tradition is that throughout the afternoon, people volunteer to carry the cross. One person at a time carries the bulk of the weight on his or her shoulder, but it’s really not the case to say that one person carries the cross alone. There is backup. There are people on either side ready to take over, ready to lend a hand, ready to offer support.
There was always a woman from the Methodist church in her eighties who wanted to carry the cross. I watched as people allowed her to think that she was carrying it all by herself, yet I could see they were carefully supporting most of the weight themselves. A man in a wheelchair would carry it for a stretch, and a few of the children would team up to lend a hand. A retired priest helped, as did a Baptist missionary, and one of my own parishioners. It was, for me, a powerful reminder of what it means to carry the cross, to share in carrying the cross.
To speak of the Way of the Cross may seem like a very strange thing on this Sunday of Labor Day, this Sunday at the beginning of September as many return in their minds to September 11, 2001. I might have picked something a little more uplifting, like the wedding at Cana, or one of the parables about the Kingdom of God. But instead, the church would have us focus on these lessons, to strip away all that is secondary and to look at the basics of our faith and motivation for being here. The Gospel invites us (at least for a few minutes) to put aside our hopes, our expectations, our passions, our resentments, our misgivings, even our joys…. And concentrate on the cross.
In today’s Gospel Jesus says “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.” I think we misunderstand these words if we take them to mean that Jesus is calling us to some kind of individualistic or self-involved piety.
Sometimes we misunderstand the term and when we have an old car, or a problem we’re facing, we think of this as “our cross to bear.” Sometimes that term is used to justify all kinds of things.
When one person in a relationship abuses another, that’s not “a cross to bear” for the victim. That’s wrong and has nothing to do with God’s intention. Parts of the church have justified slavery, suggesting that this is “one’s cross to bear.” Again, falsehood and nonsense.
To bear one’s cross, or to be ready to bear one’s cross is a way of expressing what it means to follow in the way of Jesus. And “to follow in the way of Jesus” means to follow with others. It has no meaning in isolation. It has to do with our being ready to give up our place for another. To give up our privilege, to give up our rights, even. It has to do with our attempts to put our own needs and desires and passions on hold long enough to look around and notice the needs of others.
A few minutes ago I described a Good Friday celebration that had to do with a literal carrying of a cross, but there are other ways that we engage in cruciformed community. There are other ways that we share one another’s burdens and can come to see the risen Christ in our midst.
When friends gather around one who is sick or awaiting results from a biopsy or test or is undergoing surgery, there is participation in the cross of Christ. The friends put themselves second, and lift up their friend who is in need.
When someone dies and the whole community is able to gather around the one who lives on, the cross of Christ is shared. In such times the cross can begin to feel like a kind of lifeboat or raft, the community of faith begin the only thing that perhaps keeps us afloat. Whenever we move out of ourselves in mission, whether that is by hammering nails with Habitat for Humanity, adopting a family after a hurricane, volunteering to tutor a child, or even writing a check [yes, writing a check is a form of mission]—there is the possibility if not the probability of sharing in the cross of Christ. Our lives are re-oriented. Our priorities are realigned. We make choices based on our faith.
Moses knows something about making choices. We hear about this in our first reading. Moses talks about setting our heart on God. The section we heard from Deuteronomy comes near the end of Moses’ life. He has spent forty years with these people: they are his people and he loves them. He wants them to prosper. He wants them to live. And so he reminds them of what is at stake. “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God,” Moses says, “by loving God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live. But if your heart turns away, then you shall perish.” “Before you [is] life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life.” Love God, obey God and cleave to God.
It turns out these scriptures have quite a lot to say to us at Holy Trinity at the beginning of a new fall? We have choices before us. Some of you perhaps wondering whether this is the church for you. Should you commit? Should you sign on the dotted line? Should you say out loud that this is your church home?
There may be others who are wondering whether it is time to return, to come home again. With apologies to Thomas Wolfe, the truth is that you can come home again, and we’re glad to see you.
And perhaps there are those whose church home is elsewhere but there’s something about Holy Trinity that tugs on your heart. There’s a place for you, too. And we want you to feel welcome, whenever you can worship with us.
And then there are the troops; the loyal, the faithful, the tireless (but tired) who are the backbone of this place; the saints. You have choices as well—how do we best carry the cross into the future? What will carrying the cross together look like? How much will it cost? What will we sing and how will we pray along the way?
Moses puts before his beloved and before us, the question of life and death, of blessing and curse. What will it take to keep us moving in the way of life, of health and of wholeness. What will it take for us to avoid the way of compulsion, addiction, and selfishness? It’s not about what church is closest. It’s not about the organist or the preacher or even about the Sunday School—it’s about what kind of community will help us to carry our cross? What kind of community will stand by us? What kind of community will pray for us and accept us, no matter what?
The Stations of the Cross at Holy Trinity are only put up in Lent. And in a way, I really like that practice. It means that when they are up, we are invited to find ourselves in those stations, and try to relate to the characters portrayed. Jesus carries the cross, but he is also supported by others.
There is his mother Mary. There is Simon of Cyrene. There is Veronica. There are the strangers who walk along side, ready to support, ready to help, eager to share. And if you look really closely, you’ll begin to see people who look familiar—people from this church family who stand ready to help, to support, and to befriend.
When those Stations of the Cross are taken down, the image of them remains in our mind as an invitation for us to take their place.
Friends in Christ, I invite you to re-commit to the Way of the Cross that begins in this place. May we pray for each other, may we support each other, may we grow in faith with each other, may we walk together in the shadow of the Cross of Christ until we see God face to face.