At the end of a particularly testy exchange with his disciple Peter, in which they argued about the path to crucifixion and what it meant to proclaim Jesus as the Christ or Messiah, the gospel of Mark has Jesus say these words (pronouns adjusted): “If anyone wants to come with me… they must forget self, carry their cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save their own life will lose it; but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
Forget self – carry your cross. Words that have the power to heal and transform, and, because of their power, words of potential danger. For if misappropriated, these are the kind of words with the power to double-down on someone already carrying burdens too heavy to bear.
Last week I hearkened back to my earliest days of Ministry, and at the risk of making a habit of it, will do so again, for these words about self-denial and taking up the burden of the cross take me back to hard-learned lessons as a young preacher in my twenties. Back in those days, in rural communities, most deaths were followed by a Church funeral, whether the deceased had been Church-involved or not. This meant that I had to rely heavily on what I learned from the family in our pre-funeral visit. This particular funeral was for the mother in a farming family, who had basically worked until there was nothing left of her, and then died.
The visit with her three adult children was challenging. Occasionally someone would say what a good cook mom had been, or the pride she had in her vegetable garden, but the comments were separated by uncomfortable silences into which I would introduce probing, mostly unanswered questions. Eventually I asked if they could think of words to help me understand their Mom a bit better. At this, the middle son in the family, who had spent most of our time looking downward in silence, finally looked up and offered one word: “doormat.“
Neither of his siblings challenged the assessment, and I then heard the heartbreaking tale of a woman who had been told by her husband and her community and her society, and eventually by her own diminished self-image, that her job was to expect nothing and just do what she was told. We worked to find less blame-filled words to describe their mother, we were able to acknowledge that much of her life was just surviving a bad situation, but you could tell how much the quiet desperation of their growing-up years had shaped their approach to life, as they searched for their own meaning in adulthood.
As I searched my soul to prepare for that service, and as my young eyes started to see more of the difficult unfolding of many people’s lives, and I realized how easy it is for words and concepts like these ones from Jesus – forget yourself, deny yourself, carry your cross – to become life-diminishing words rather than life-giving ones. Intended to challenge and correct any triumphalistic notions about how power is held in the new way of Jesus, and to prepare us for a road ahead that will be better for everyone in the long run, these words can so easily be used in other ways. Co-opted by the powerful, or by those so harmed and hope-less that no escape route seems possible, these words have been used to add layers of seemingly God-endorsed guilt to the limited opportunities already experienced: by many women, and people of colour, and people with chronic challenges, and minimum-wage earners. Intended to challenge arrogance, these words are summarily brushed aside by the arrogant, and instead taken deeply to heart by those who are already carrying crosses and denying their own hopes and needs.
So on this second Sunday in Lent, I wish to repent of that pattern – to turn and find a new way. I still want and need to hear Jesus’ words about selfless service, I am called to proclaim their truth, but in order to do so I must say out loud that it is not the will of God to add burdens to those already burdened. The way that Jesus calls us to is difficult, but it is difficult because it proclaims a newly shared, lived reality of justice. In these words of carrying our crosses, Jesus declares a world of fairness, and community, and love – a way of life that will demand more of those previously disengaged from life’s struggles, and will offer support, advocacy and hope for those who are already all-too-well-acquainted with carrying their cross.
Friends, I realize that so far, this sermon has been this <steep, root-bound> kind of trail, rather than this <wide, meandering> kind of trail. That being the case, I welcome words of from a couple of voices other than my own. First are the words of Presbyterian Minister, Author and Photographer Melissa Bane Sevier, whose book on Ministry Sabbaticals was so influential for me two years ago, as she engages this difficult scripture. “Maybe this is the very hardest of Jesus’ teachings” she writes. “Not because it is difficult to understand what he’s saying, but because it’s impossible to understand why he’s saying it. ‘Taking up the cross’ means taking on suffering. But why? Who on earth would want to do that? Well, certainly not Peter. He surely doesn’t want Jesus to do it. ‘Come on, Lord. You’re upsetting the crowds. Nobody wants to join up with a rabbi who’s going to suffer and die. They want peace. They are looking for happiness, security. They are looking for God, for heaven’s sake. Not suffering. And certainly not death.’”
Right at the point of his ministry when the disciples hoped things would get easier, Jesus spoke not of victory or growth or success, but of putting all that on the line, to initiate a world of fairness and promise for all. In Melissa’s words, “Jesus … stands with the suffering in the most significant of ways. Not to make them feel better. To make them not feel alone. And we stand with each other. We are better at this once our own hearts have been broken. Not that we have the answer after that, but we tread a little differently afterwards. We see a little differently. Our own hurt, if we let it, eventually can allow us to open our hearts to the hurts of others.”
“So, yes”, Melissa concludes, “the crosses that we bear weigh us down. But Jesus invites us to follow him in his cross-bearing. Toward the future. Away from denial. Into the path where cross-bearing is acknowledged… and the pain is lessened by all the company we have around us. We raise our questions and our pain to God;…God holds them gently, and weeps,…[and] refuses to turn away. This is the true gospel.”
As her words have often done for me, Melissa’s words help me see the path ahead from a slightly different and more hope-filled angle, and I am thankful for that. The second voice I turn to, are the words of Episcopal Priest, Canon David Sellery, who engages today’s gospel like so:
“The word ‘gospel’ literally means ‘good news.’ Yet this week’s gospel is full of words that sound like really bad news, words like: suffering… rejection… losing your life… and carrying your cross. No wonder Peter tries to straighten Jesus out. Peter wants happy talk. He wants miracles. He wants … a macho-Messiah who seizes power, crushes his enemies and rewards his friends…. But Jesus has a different idea.
“Jesus is not the fulfillment of Peter’s fantasies. He is the embodiment of God’s love… the Lamb of God… here to save… here to serve. His kingdom is not of this world and will not be won by the weapons of this world. Yet he is the greatest revolutionary the world has ever seen. He will turn the established order on its head… changing lives, changing values, changing history… changing how we see ourselves and how we see each other… and most significantly, changing our entire relationship with God.
“As disciples, our lives must actively proclaim the love of Christ, by a life of service. Like Jesus we must lead by serving. And in that context, leadership does not mean barking commands. It means example. It means inspiration. It means being a channel of God’s grace…witnessing the love of Christ in all we do and to all we meet. [This] life is hard to live. That is why Jesus accurately describes it as the way of the cross.” <end quote>
These two authors help me see more hope in these hard words of Jesus – to embrace his words and be embraced by his words. Yes, Jesus is calling for something counter-cultural and because of that, it is hard and challenging. To not feel challenged, is to not hear these words. But in addition to how much servanthood challenges me, and tempts me to unwisely set aside healthy boundaries in those times when my own capacity is stretched, Christ’s call to servanthood also emphasizes my life as a gift of grace to others. Carrying my cross, is to step away from the way that my privilege makes my life easier at the expense of another, and to walk the path of Christ which speaks authentic hope into suffering, hope that recognizes suffering and those who suffer. Carrying my cross, is to believe the good news of Jesus Christ enough, to give myself to the task of justice, and to hear the heartbreak of those who have been carrying their crosses for a very long time.
My friend, Lutheran Pastor Brian Stoffregen, quotes Mark Twain in saying, “Many people are bothered by those passages in Scripture which they cannot understand; but as for me, I always noticed that the passages in Scripture which trouble me most are those which I do understand.” Innately, when I hear Jesus speak of denying myself and carrying my cross, I know exactly what ego-involvements that Christ is calling me to step away from, and which burdens I am needing to shoulder. But I also need reminding of those danger zones, where I start to tie my self-worth to how good a job I am doing at denying self and carrying the cross. Jesus calls us to step into a shared humanity, not a life governed by guilt or blame.
We are called away from the lie of selfishness, toward a world of shared load-bearing. We are called away from the lie of superiority, toward a spirit of humility. We are called away from disengagement from life’s hard places, toward empathy, and mutuality, and grace. In all these ways, may this Lenten walk with Jesus be to the benefit of all of life, and all who live. Amen.
References cited: Bane Sevier, Melissa. https://melissabanesevier.wordpress.com/2015/02/26/bearing-the-cross-of-compassion/
Sellery, Rev David F, https://us6.campaign-archive.com/?u=dbffd2070718c7bb6a1b9b7e0&id=c2086440f4&e=9d753c1a09
Stoffregen, Brian. http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark8x31.htm
© 2021 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.