Sept. 3, 2023
“If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
In these times of anxiety over the state of Christendom and panic over congregational decline Jesus’ words may come across as especially unhelpful, I would think. I don’t know anyone in the church growth business who uses today’s passage as a guide. That’s because it’s likely the case that very few of us here listen to Christ’s words and feel especially encouraged to take him up on the invitation.
Whatever taking up our cross looks like it probably pales in comparison to any number of other more inviting and exciting images that come to mind. For example, I played golf about a week and a half ago at one of the most remarkably beautiful golf courses/country clubs that I’ve ever seen in my life. (So, beautiful golf course and country club living or taking up your cross and losing your life?…)
Though ultimately and deep down I have no regrets about my career path, I can see in a setting such as that that a life in which the choice to pursue and afford all the luxuries I could manage for myself and my loved ones would be the most obvious choice I could possibly make. I mean, if you have the opportunity to employ yourself in such a way as to enjoy the best of all creature comforts, why wouldn’t you devote the bulk of your energies to it?
And, I don’t mean this to be disparaging of my host at all. I mean that in a culture such as ours I see it as nearly impossible for any of us to not have our notions of the good life impacted by the appeal of things that have nothing to do with the sacrificial language of Christ’s invitation. How could dying to self lead to life? How could losing our lives lead to finding them? When self is what we feel we most have, and when it’s already hard enough to take on what we’re somehow supposed to be able to afford, do we even want to think about what it is that Christ is saying to us?
Well, we may not always want to give Christ’s words their due, but I do believe that it’s probably a good idea. As I mentioned last week the words Clayton shared at his 90th birthday party really had an impact. You’ll remember that Clayton is a friend and mentor to me and to so many others. Loved ones from all aspects of his life – family, clergy, congregation members, youth group members, conference staff, etc. – gathered to celebrate him, and when we were done making our speeches, he shared how his mother had surrendered him to God when he was child and how later he decided to make that surrender himself. You could see in his eyes as he looked upon us all that we were living evidence of what he was about to say. He said that surrendering to God had led him into a more blessed life than he could ever have imagined for himself. Surrounded by a room full, – and yet just a fraction of – his loved ones, it was clear that he held a kind of wealth that only surrender – only the giving up of himself – could have gained him. If his life’s drive had been the pursuit of himself that room would have been empty and quiet.
What’s it mean to take up your cross and to lose your life for Christ’s sake? Paul, I think, sets us on the right track in today’s epistle passage. “Love one another with mutual affection.” “Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction, persevere in prayer.” “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Do not be arrogant; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay evil for evil, but overcome evil with good.”
There’s a selflessness to all of these things that I think is good. The selflessness is what enables these things to be real and authentic, and not just tactics for harmonious interaction or a prescription for doing the right thing. But, I keep thinking that to take up our cross means something more than moral behavior. To lose ourselves means to claim a greater truth than ourselves. It means to become ourselves by becoming more than ourselves. And, to do that means work, and decision, and effort, especially in a world that’s so rife with distraction.
As I hear it now, to take up our crosses means to take up the work of spiritual exercise, to take up the kind of devoted practice that enables us to believe in the greater and more enduring joy of God’s kingdom.
So, every morning I read a bit. I do it even though everything in me says I should answer my emails. And, I’ve been doing my centering prayer. Silencing the world and attempting to silence my mind so that I can just sit in the presence of God. Of course, my mind isn’t so easily silenced, and for much of the time I find myself in the mode of just getting it done so I can then move on, but sometimes – and there are real moments – I awaken to the discovery that nothing could be better. I realize that stopping it all to just be with a God who wants nothing more than to just be with me is just the miracle of grace that I, and everyone actually, needs. And so, I do it and I find that by the end I’m a bit more ready to consider that God really is offering a better way; I’m a bit more ready to trust that loving my enemy or praying for my neighbor is more than just a commandment, but actually a way home to a self that is found my loosening my grip on self.
From among my readings last week Mirabai Star writes, “And this is why you cultivate contemplative practice. The more you intentionally turn inward, the more available the sacred becomes. When you sit in silence and turn your gaze toward the Holy Mystery you once called God, the Mystery follows you back out into the world.”
In the midst of a world that is begging us to distract ourselves this is no easy task. And, that’s why when Christ tells us to take up our crosses this is what I hear him talking about. It’s not easy, but it leads to life. It’s work, but it’s the work of resurrection because it makes possible for us what we wouldn’t otherwise see.
Words from David Lose keep playing in my mind. He writes with today’s passages in mind, “Can you imagine that God is at work in and through your life for the good of the world? Can you imagine that this congregation has something of value to offer its community? Can you imagine that when you befriend the lonely or encourage the frightened heaven rejoices? Can you imagine that, though afraid, when you stand up to those who spew hate God is with you? Can you imagine that even small acts of love and generosity challenge the world order and introduce a different reality? Can you imagine that God wants for us not just comfort but freedom? Can you imagine that love is more powerful than hate? Can you imagine that God raised Jesus from the dead?”
That’s what taking up our crosses does. It opens our minds to the sacred truth of our lives. It makes our worlds holy.