There’s an old saying among Christians, “That’s my cross to bear!” It’s usually said as a way of coping with circumstances that are difficult and inescapable. It speaks to faith that God is present in the midst of those circumstances, giving strength, and, perhaps wisdom and comfort. Today’s gospel reading gives weight to such an understanding. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
We sang the hymn that celebrates this message. “Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise, when song gives place to sighing, when hope within me dies, I draw the closer to him; from care he sets me free: his eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.” We live, we dwell within the circle of God’s great concern for us, of God’s abundant and amazing love. So, we can bear whatever life sends our way. God is with us.
That is a foundation of faith. God is with us. God sees us. We are of value to God – worth more than the sparrows. God knows our needs.
This is good news when the storms of life threaten to overwhelm us. This is good news when we struggle with personal problems or inter-personal conflicts. God sees us. God loves us. God is with us.
“From cares he sets me free,” the hymn declares. Years ago one of my husband’s co-workers said that he thought the role of the church was to encourage people to become self-sufficient. The church’s role was to provide a coping mechanism for folks so that they wouldn’t be a burden on society.
“Got Jesus?” one church asked on its billboard. The implication is that Jesus is what one needs in order to have a healthy, successful life – kind of like milk. Jesus is the answer for self-sufficiency. Jesus gives you the ability to cope with all life throws at you.
That’s fine. It presents the good news that we are beloved children of God. Yet…yet, it’s missing a vital part of Jesus’ message. “That’s my cross to bear” is usually a statement about what has come upon us without our consent. The “cross bearing” is not a choice. It’s a way of describing the difficulty of coping with life’s frustrations. By saying “That’s my cross to bear” we declare that God is with us, we are not alone in our struggles. But, bearing the cross was not a decision.
This morning’s gospel lesson needs to be considered in its full context. It’s part of Jesus’ discourse as he sends the twelve disciples out with the good news. “The kingdom of heaven has come near. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” Jesus warned them, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves…You will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.”
In the midst of these ominous words, we hear Jesus’ words of reassurance, “So have no fear of them.” But he goes on with his warnings about what it means to follow him. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword….whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
“Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” This “cross bearing” is not a reaction to what has happened to us. It is an active choice in response to Jesus’, to God’s call. To begin to more fully understand it, we have to look at the ultimate “cross bearer,” Jesus, the Christ. Now, there are some differences in the Biblical tellings of his crucifixion. Matthew, Mark and Luke all say that someone else carried the cross to the site of the crucifixion. John’s gospel says that Jesus carried his own cross. But, bearing the cross is much more that physically carrying it. Jesus bore the cross in the crucifixion itself. And that crucifixion was, in some ways, his choice. No, he didn’t choose to be crucified. But he did choose to be faithful to God and God’s ways even as he found himself, the Lamb of God, in the midst of the wolves. The cross he carried was the consequence of faithfulness to God’s realm, a faithfulness that challenged all the powers of his day.
“That’s my cross to bear” is a statement that too often falls short. It focuses on the self rather than on the values of God’s realm – values that call us far beyond ourselves. “Those who find their life will lose it,” Jesus declared. “And those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Is that not what happened in Jesus’ own life? He chose to resist the temptation to save his own life – as he faced Pilate, the chief priests, scribes, Pharisees and the people. He chose to be faithful to God’s plan, no matter the cost to himself. And, in that faithfulness he found his life. God raised him from death, proclaiming to Jesus and to us that even a cross, willingly borne for the sake of God’s realm, had no ultimate power.
When I was in college, one winter evening, I decided to go visit friends in another dorm. The shortest way was to travel behind all of the buildings. There wasn’t a formal sidewalk, but there was a path through the snow. It was a well-known and well-used shortcut. I got near my friend’s dorm, walking on the edge of the golf course. Suddenly, on the course not far from me, a cross burst into flames. (I’m guessing a local KKK group might have been responsible.) I went to my friend’s room shaking. Those who were there didn’t believe me, so we all went back out – and found the smoldering ashes. The cross was being used, still, as a way of engendering fear. It still had the power to torture. We talked about how we might respond. I think, regretfully, that we did nothing. I don’t think we even called campus security. After all, the only sign of that cross was a pile of ashes. Only I could say what it had been.
We sell the good news that Jesus brought and proclaimed short when it becomes little more than self-help coping mechanisms. Jesus’ good news is about a changed world. And, just as in his day that message set him at odds with the powers of the day, if we seek the values of God’s realm today we find conflict – not peace. When I look back to that college incident, I wonder if we couldn’t have begun a campus discussion about race relations. There weren’t many black students at the time. I wonder how isolated they felt in a part of the country that was almost one hundred percent white. I wonder how isolated they felt even on a campus that proclaimed a welcome. The fear of the “cross” left us silent. We probably prayed about it, but did nothing else. I think, as days went on, we wondered if anyone else had even seen that burning cross. So, “Why stir up controversy?”
Today I often hear that the call of Christ is a call to “speak truth to power.” The powers are many. Some are political, some corporate, some cultural, some religious, some personal – there are powers all around us that need the transforming message of God’s good and loving intent for this world. Yet, any time there is transformation or even a call for transformation there is going to be conflict. If the church sees its role only as providing a system for people to cope with the world that is, it has failed God’s call. The crosses we are to choose are the ones that lead us to participate in God’s good work of redeeming a world that knows too much injustice, intolerance, hatred, disdain, and dismissiveness.
Even the good news brings resistance. Those in the “helping professions” speak about the difficulty in family systems of helping the sick get better. The sick person often bears the symptoms of a deeper malaise. Curing the one sick person often disrupts the uneasy peace in the family. “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons,” Jesus said to his disciples. Yet those deeds would shake up the communities where the sick had their place, where the dead were expected to stay dead, where the lepers were condemned and the demons were feared.
I was exploring the idea of societal transformation and came upon an article by Leonard Joy published by the Quaker Institute. He wrote: “As we can individually create our own lives by the choices we make, so we can collectively create the history of the species. Indeed, we cannot avoid so doing. The only question is whether we wish to do this reflectively, deliberately, and together. It requires that we develop values-sensitive public reflectiveness to guide choices for public action. We need to form strategic constituencies of moral suasion and address those with power in society who continue to make choices based on narrow perceptions of national or corporate interest.”
Some might tell us that the church’s cross, today, is the cross of being marginalized in our own society. But, no. Jesus challenged his disciples – who were themselves counted among the marginalized – to go out into the world and accept the reality that they would be rejected. Yet, even with that rejection they were to do God’s work and proclaim God’s message. To take up the cross is an active choice that has consequences.
We, the church today, have wonderful stories of those who chose to take up the cross and follow Jesus – and made a mark on this world that has endured and changed who we are and how we see things. Some have persisted as individuals when no one else would join them. Many of them suffered for their vision of a better world. Others have banded together, pursuing ministries of compassion, education, health and justice. The Christian Church, at its best, built hospitals and clinics; it built schools and universities. At its best, it challenged slavery, and racism, and sexism. It has challenged labor practices that essentially enslaved children and others. God’s gift to us is the church – broadly defined – where we, together, seek to imagine the world God intends and then work for that world. The cross Jesus calls us to carry is easier when we carry it together.