Following the Cross into Fall

lozano-piedad-en-el-desiertoA sermon for September 8, 2019, the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The scriptures are Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 1, Philemon 1-21, and Luke 14:25-33

Listen to the sermon HERE

One of the most moving times of the year for me to be in church is on Good Friday. I love the old prayers, the music, and the slow pace of the worship that allows us to imagine what Jesus went through in his death on the cross. But I especially love the part of the service we call the Veneration of the Cross. In this church and many, many churches, a simply wooden cross is brought forward and the faithful are invited to come forward and “venerate.” Veneration is different from “worship.” To venerate is to show respect, to give thanks, to show love, even; all the while understanding that the thing or image venerated points to a deeper, greater reality. What I love so much about the act of venerating the cross is that while it’s an individual decision—whether to come forward, whether to kneel before it, stand near it, touch it, or even kiss it—we venerate the cross together. Two volunteers usually hold the cross. Ushers help direct people. Usually one or two of us is on hand to help those who wish get to a kneel and then help them get back up again. While it’s deeply personal, it seems like everyone around understands this and respects this.

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. We practice taking up our cross on Good Friday. We practice in our own prayers and our faithful living, but we also do it together.

Speaking of one’s “cross to bear” is sometimes used more casually, as though a difficult member of the family, or a coworker, or a challenging commute to work is one’s “cross to bear.” But we should be careful about that. Everyday difficulties are not “crosses” to bear. A difficult person is not a “cross to bear.” And we should be very clear than if one is ever in a relationship of abuse, it is never a theological justification for the victim to stay in such a relationship by telling herself or himself that this is just “a cross to bear.”

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 that part of the Good Friday liturgy that focuses on the cross, but there are other ways that we engage in becoming a “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 as 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. Well, you can always come home again to the church, 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?

Here at Holy Trinity, the little icon images that show The Stations of the Cross are only hung around the church during the Season of Lent. And while I sometimes wonder how permanent Stations might look along these corridors—in another way, I really like the practice of putting the stations up and then taking them down.

While the Stations are up, the images and characters speak to us and invite us to identify with them, to relate to them, and imagine what their experience was like.

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 those faithful followers who helped Jesus with his cross remain in our mind’s eye. The characters missing from the room invite us to take their place.

Friends in Christ, as we move into a new Fall and a new program year at church, I invite you to re-commit to the Way of the Cross. 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.

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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