Sunday, February 25, 2024
The Second Sunday in Lent

Picking up your cross

The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77450

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Mark 8:34   He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” There is so much in today’s passage, probably a month worth of sermons, yet this is one of the most challenging statements from Jesus. I do wonder what they all thought. This statement is contained in all three of the synoptic gospels which meant it was important to all three authors and the early church over a 50 year period.

The cross in the time of Jesus was not just a means of execution but a tool of terror. A painful death reserved not just to punish the guilty but to terrify everyone else. Mark’s audience would know about the day when 2000 Jews were crucified all along the road to Jerusalem. Guilty of an uprising that this violent act ended.

This instruction is certainly not something that any of us would put on an evangelism poster. I doubt this would draw many people to come check out our parish! That leaves us with the question of what do we do with this statement, this instruction in today’s world. For that we must examine what the cross that we are invited to pick up might look like in our time.

Richard Rohr in his daily email on Thursday had this statement by Contemplative writer Joyce Rupp reflects upon Jesus’ difficult teaching for followers to “take up their cross and follow him”: 

What did the crowd following Jesus think when he made that tough statement. Did they wonder what carrying the cross meant? Did they have second thoughts about accompanying him? Jesus wanted his followers to know that the journey they would make involved knowing and enlivening the teachings he advocated. In other words, Jesus was cautioning them, “If you decide to give yourselves to what truly counts in this life, it will cost you. You will feel these teachings to be burdensome at times, like the weight of a cross.”

We can’t just sit on the roadside of life and call ourselves followers of Jesus. We are to do more than esteem him for his generous love and dedicated service. We do not hear Jesus grumbling about the challenges and demands of this way of life. We do not see him “talking a good talk” but doing nothing about it. He describes his vision and then encourages others to join him in moving those teachings into action.

Now we need to step back in this reading a little to the rebuke of Peter. “he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” The key here is you are setting you mind not on divine things.

Peter get out of my way, you have no idea how God works. That is the key turning point of this entire passage and where Jesus begins to make a very important point. This is where he calls the disciples and us to change how we think about this whole Messiah thing. The idea of God’s thoughts and ways not being our ways is actually a very old concept, well steeped in Jewish theology. Just think about the passages that tell us this from the Hebrew Scriptures.

The second song of Isaiah is the first passage that comes to mind. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor my ways your ways says the Lord.”  There is the famous passage about the lilies of the field and the injunction not to worry but to trust God. All of this relates back to the promise of God, the covenant with humanity that God made all the way back in our passage with Abraham. God changes Abram to Abraham and says that he is their God forever. God promises to care for Abraham to make of his children a great nation. Nothing is asked of Abraham. That is certainly not the way we as humans operate.

I believe the key is in recognizing that God’s ways, Jesus’ ways are not our ways and that is where the deny yourself piece comes in. I turn to what I consider one of Richard Rohr’s greatest teachings. Thomas Merton a monastic from the middle of the 1900s was the first to seriously write about the true self and the false self. Richard Rohr picks up on this with his idea of the first and second half of life.

The first half of life is what we do as children and young adults. We build a strong ego centered container that is essential for our lives as adults. Giving up that control is hard, but that is also what the next and most challenging part of this passage is talking about. However, if we have made the decision to allow Jesus to lead, to be in charge, this then is a natural thing to do.

Richard in both his book Falling Upwards and the Naked Now speaks at length about how we must first identify and come to grips with the ego needs we have as children and young adults. Then as people enter the second half of life (and this is not chronological age by the way) they have the resources to step out of that self-centered being and grow into the disciples that Jesus is talking about today.

He is looking for disciples who have the ability to see beyond their own needs and look to the needs of others. In recent years this is often brought on by what people refer to as a mid-life crisis. That moment when you ask, is this all there is. At that point we have the choice to move forward, the deny ourselves and pick up our cross and finally learn to fill the God shaped hole in our life with God. Either that or we step back and redo the first half of life and start the process of trying to fill the God shaped hole in our lives with worldly things all over again.

If we put our own ego and self-centeredness on the back burner then we have begun to deny our self. When we make our focus outward rather than inward, we take up Christ’s cross and grow into mature Christians. This process is not only true of us individually, but I also believe it is true for churches. Richard Rohr said at a lecture I was at a couple of years ago that most churches are stuck in the ego-centric mode. Focused on their own survival, desperate to prove that they are right and everyone else is wrong. The problem is that all of those people who have moved beyond that way of being, find no connection to God in those churches.

I truly believe that the Franciscan Blessing that I use almost every week at the 10:30 and occasionally at the 8:00 is the very definition of take up your cross. Listen to this powerful statement and ask yourself, is this the cross I need to take up contained in these words?

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths,  and  superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can  make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done

This blessing contains many crosses, more than any one of us can carry. But as a church there is much we can carry because we can all work together. One of the things the diocese and the national church are asking churches to do is to go beyond charity. Throwing just money at a situation helps but there is not much long term change that happens. This is the story of the village that was constantly pulling bodies out of the river and giving them a decent burial. Great act of kindness but the bodies just kept coming. Nothing changed until they went up river to find out where they were coming from. When the cause of the distress is found and remedied then the bodies stopped.

We have been shifting our Outreach ministries in part to help support work that is making a change, helping break the cycle of poverty or injustice. Katy Christian Ministries, Katy Cares, the Neighborhood Garden and in a possible new venture Christ Clinic all get to the root of the problem rather than just putting a bandage on the wound. Now I’m excited about an opportunity from Christ Clinic that I will be investigating next week. They have identified us as a potential site for a pop up clinic once or twice a month. We have one member who is already involved, and I will be meeting with them on Wednesday to get more information. They are interested because we sit in an area where there is need of a clinic for underinsured families.

What I am trying to show you is that the cross that we are being asked to take up can be challenging but it is work that will make a difference right here in our backyard. The cross that Jesus asks us to carry is one that ultimately shares God’s love with God’s people. I don’t’ know about you, but that is cross I am happy to take up.