Sermon for Sunday, August 31, 2014
12th Sunday after Pentecost
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
The Rev. Carrie B. Smith
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Tuesday, August 26th was National Dog Day in the United States. I can’t blame you if you missed it, what with all the ice bucket, rice bucket, and rubble bucket challenges in your Facebook feed this past week. And then, later that evening, a truce between Israel and Gaza took effect, thanks be to God! I hesitate to call this current state of being “peace”, but as one Redeemer worshipper said, “No one is actively dying in a bombing today in Gaza, and I’ll take that for now.” Amen!
Clearly, there was a lot going on this week to take your attention away from the veritable Facebook flood of adorable dog photos. I will admit, however, that I noticed them. I noticed because apparently 95% of my friends in the States own dogs (and cameras). I also noticed because I didn’t have a photo of my own to share. You see, one of the consequences of moving here to serve in Jerusalem was that we had to find new homes for the animals in our family.
|Charlie the dog, in my former church office|
Photo by Carrie Smith
Charlie, our dog, is in a really, really good home. He has three kids to love him, and a little dog friend named Lucy to keep him busy. He lives in our old neighborhood, and gets to walk in his familiar places. I am utterly confident that we made the right choice in not bringing him with us. Still, the day that we dropped Charlie off at his new home was one of the most difficult parts of this move for me. I’m not ashamed to say I shed many tears over it.
As many of you know firsthand, international moving requires much planning and often much sacrifice. At one point in our relocation process, a friend said to me something like “Gee, Carrie…when Jesus said ‘Take up your cross and follow me’, he really meant it, didn’t he?”
At the time, that sentiment felt exactly right. Selling our home and saying goodbye to church and friends and animals felt like a huge burden. But I was remembering this comment as I watched those cute dog pictures flood Facebook this week, showing up right alongside the horrific photos coming out of Gaza. Giving up my dog was really, really difficult. Was it my cross to bear? Hardly.
But we need to be clear about saying that neither is digging out of the rubble of our destroyed home the cross we are to bear. Or learning to live without legs after surviving an air strike. Or enduring a chronic illness. Or being the parent of a child with a disability.
All of these situations are difficult. All of them are examples of real human suffering. But these also are not the cross Jesus asks us to carry.
Illness, pain, grief and war cannot be the crosses Christians are asked to bear, because frankly, I can’t believe in a God who would deal out disease or disability or war from a deck of cards in order to give us the opportunity to learn self-denial or to increase our faith. On the cross, Jesus shows his love for and solidarity with all who suffer. But suffering, in and of itself, is not the cross he asks disciples to take up.
No—rather, “taking up the cross” refers to a conscious decision, as a follower of Jesus Christ, to surrender status, ego, comfort, and even life itself, for the sake of others, and thus for the sake of God’s kingdom.
I can’t emphasize enough the voluntary nature of cross-bearing. As a pastor, I’ve often heard people describe a medical diagnosis, a job loss, or even a particularly annoying co-worker as “the cross I must bear.” While it might be accurate to describe these situations as burdens, as trials, and even as opportunities for spiritual growth, these are not rightly compared to the cross of discipleship. Again, it gets down to what we believe about the God we serve and the Christ we follow. As Jesus prepared the disciples for the next step on the journey, the entrance into Jerusalem, he told them the truth. He told them that as a result of his radical message of grace, he and any followers would soon face suffering, and public humiliation, and possibly death. He did not say to them: “Andrew, here’s your cross. And Philip, here’s yours. Peter, yours is especially big, because after all, you’re the rock. You can handle it.”
What Jesus did say was, “I’m going to Jerusalem. Things are going to get tough—really tough. I want you to come with me. But if you want to join me, you’re going to have to leave some stuff behind, because what you’ll be carrying is heavy. This will require all of your heart, your mind, and your strength. Even so, do not be afraid, for what you will find in the end is life, and life abundantly.”
Jesus voluntarily took upon his shoulders the cross, the ruling authorities’ ultimate tool of public disgrace and violence, and made it his identifying mark. He transformed the cross from a symbol of death and institutional power into a symbol of life and liberation. His invitation to the disciples, and to us, is to join him in this subversive effort. He asks us to consider: In the context in which I find myself today, where do I see powers and principalities working against God’s kingdom and the Gospel of love? What is the symbol of that domination, and upon whom do I see it inflicted? Once we’ve discovered these answers, we can finally answer the question: What, therefore, is Jesus asking me to take up and carry for the sake of my neighbor?
Electing to take up the cross and follow means choosing an alternate way of being in the world. By choosing the kingdom over comfort, solidarity over status, and the other over the self, we necessarily lose some things—and find others.
One of the things we lose is respectability. I remember having a conversation with church members about whether we would allow same-gender marriages in the building. This was at a time when neither the church nor my country had made any formal decisions on the topic. The church council boldly moved forward in faith, saying they would allow such unions, at the pastor’s discretion. However, just before ending the meeting, someone was sure to say, “Just so long as we don’t fly a rainbow flag over the church, Pastor.”
I had no plans to display anything but a cross over the building, I assure you! But it did make me think: Flying a rainbow flag over the church would certainly have sent a message. It would have branded us as the “gay church.” It would have gotten us talked about, maybe even laughed at. It might have cost us members or money. But then...what do you suppose it was like when Jesus’ followers started wearing the cross after his crucifixion? Crosses weren’t always considered essential pieces of jewelry. They didn’t always adorn the tops of buildings as beacons of respectability and tradition. They were once merely symbols of humiliation, public disgrace, and death—a bit like a rainbow flag, depending on where you live.
Another thing we lose when we take up the cross and follow is the option of remaining invisible. I’ve been thinking about that desire to remain invisible (or at least unnoticed) as I walk through this city as a female clergyperson. One would think, considering the variety of religious attire worn around Jerusalem, that my simple black shirt and white collar could blend in. But female clergy are still uncommon here, and so I’ve been called both “Father” and “Sister”, have been whispered about as I walk by, and have even had someone say to my face, “What ARE you?” I’m not sure where in the world I would necessarily blend in, but oh, it feels good to go home at the end of the day and change into something utterly unremarkable.
(Vicar of Dibley. You should watch it,)
The sight of Jesus, the great healer and teacher, rumored to be King of the Jews, carrying the instrument of his own execution through these same streets of Jerusalem, gathered a curious and mocking crowd. There was no way to make that journey anonymously. In the same way, when we take up the cross and follow, we must be prepared to lose the option of anonymity, invisibility, and conformity. When we name the reality of racism and are ridiculed; or speak and act against the occupation and become targets of retribution; then can we understand the scandal and spectacle of the cross.
“If any want to become my disciples, let them take up their cross and follow me.” The cross was, and is, a heavy burden to carry, and discipleship is costly. But on that walk with Jesus to Golgotha, we may find that with each step, we’re a bit lighter, as we shed the extra baggage of our own self-preservation and self-focus.
Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem
Photo by Carrie Smith
One step forward: Off falls the worry about what people will think.
Turn the corner: There goes my fear of rejection.
Another few steps forward: Now I’ve lost the anger and hatred I’ve been harboring against my neighbor.
Nearly there now: And oops, there go my concerns about my career and my social standing that have been holding me back from speaking truth to power.
Every step toward peace with justice for the oppressed; every move toward honor and respect for the neighbor; and every day that we choose to take up the cross and follow Jesus, means losing one more piece of the junk that’s been weighing us down, until the cross that at first seemed so heavy and so humiliating to carry becomes part of who we are – Christ followers. Dead to sin, but alive in Christ. Baptized into his death, and now a new creation. Lost, but now found.
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake will find it. Amen.
Let us pray:
Look with mercy, gracious God, upon people everywhere who live with injustice, terror, disease, and death as their constant companions. Rouse us from our complacency and help us eliminate cruelty wherever it is found. Strengthen those who seek equality for all. Grant that everyone may enjoy a fair share of the abundance of the earth; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(ELW p. 79)