Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sermon for 5th Sunday in Lent: 22 March, 2015

Sermon for 5th Sunday in Lent: 22 March 2015

"We want to see Jesus" 

The Rev. Carrie Smith

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” the Greeks said to Philip. When pilgrims come to Jerusalem today, they expect to see Jesus, too. Christians come from all over the world to hike the Jesus Trail, to walk the Way of the Cross, to touch the star on the floor marking the spot of Jesus’ birth, and to get as close as possible to the place where Jesus was lifted up on the cross, in order to draw all people to himself.

Pilgrims in line to enter the tomb
Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem
Photo by Carrie Smith
But as many visitors to Jerusalem discover, it can often be difficult to see Jesus, even in the Holy Land. We want to see Jesus, but instead we see crowds, and tour guides, and selfie-sticks. We want to see Jesus, but instead we see scaffolding and entrance fees and postcards for sale. We want to see Jesus, but instead we see the same old stuff which dominates our vision in every other place: The schedule. Our bank balance. Emails to be answered. And, even more distressing—our same doubts, our same fears, our same hunger for something more. At the end of the tour, at the end of the trip, or at the end of the workday here in this holy city, we may wonder if we are the only ones who did not see Jesus.

Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up on the cross, will draw all people to myself.” This is Good News, the same Good News of John chapter 3, verse 16, which says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Lifted up on the cross, Jesus draws all people, all of creation, indeed the entire kosmos to himself. But if this is true, why is it often so difficult to see Jesus, even in places like Jerusalem, where one might expect to have epiphanies on every corner?

(By the way, if you are having epiphanies on every corner, there’s a name for this condition, and a special floor at the hospital for fellow sufferers of “Jerusalem Syndrome.” You might want to talk to me after church!)

We want to see Jesus! Unfortunately, there’s plenty else in our line of sight. The tour itinerary, the to-do list, the laundry, the groceries, the stack of bills, the 5 year plan, the books you meant to read, the project you keep meaning to finish, the doctor’s report, the daily briefing, and the world news, to name a few. It’s easy to miss Jesus when so much else has our attention.

But these are merely distractions. These are temporary screens obstructing our vision, easily moved aside by a vacation, a self-help book, a Lenten discipline, or a pilgrimage to the Holy Land…for example.

At least, that’s what we want to believe. We want to see Jesus! So we faithfully go to the right places, and pray the right prayers, and sing the right songs, and do the right things, and hope beyond hope that we will therefore see him more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly, day by day.

Villagers from the unrecognized Palestinian village of Dahamash
Praying in front of the high court
before a judgment on the demolition of their homes
Jerusalem, 15 March 2015
Photo by Carrie Smith
Oh, we want to see Jesus, but what we see is Christians killed in Pakistan and terror in Tunisia. We want to see Jesus, but what we see is a black man hanged from a tree in the state of Mississippi in my home country. We want to see Jesus, but what we see is the wall and the checkpoints and new settlements and an election which seems to guarantee more of the same. We want to see Jesus, but what we see is the filthy rotten system of greed, revenge, violence, and power over others, which rules the world as we know it.

And Jesus says: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” In great love, Jesus is drawing all people to himself—you and me, our neighbors and our enemies, every nation and the rulers of every nation. The world is being drawn to Jesus, but our vision is clouded by our support, acceptance, and endorsement of a system which stands in direct opposition to the cross. Our love of life as it is gets in the way of seeing Jesus, revealing to us life as it could be.

We’re so busy being a grain of wheat, doing what we think wheat is supposed to do, we can’t imagine what could happen if we were buried with him, broken open and raised to new life. Still, there he is, lifted up, and loving us to the end. Conquering death. Reconciling us to God. Drawing us to a life of mercy, forgiveness, gentleness, and sacrificial love for the sake of others.

But the message of the cross is more than Good News for us personally. The message of the cross is more than a helpful life hack, designed to give you, individually, a better relationship with Jesus, better focus and efficiency, or a more fruitful future.

“And I, when I am lifted up on the cross, will draw all people to myself” said Jesus. All people. All of creation. The cosmos, in its entirety.  

And this means the cross is both Good News for us and judgment for the world. The cross judges a world that values firepower and power over others. The cross judges a world that values walls and borders and empire. The cross judges a world that values excess and greed and self-interest.

Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” And again, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” The hour has come for the Son to be glorified on the cross, and we are invited to follow him there. Therefore, what needs to die is our acceptance of the world as it is. What needs to die is our endorsement of the dirty, rotten system which says that revenge, greed, and domination are the way to “win” not just an election, but life. What needs to be buried with Jesus is our instinct to destroy the enemy, defend our “way of life”, and end the game holding the most chips.

The cross of Christ invites us to let it go. Let it fall to the earth. Let it be buried in the tomb.  Roll the stone over the entrance and be done with it. Hallas! “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  

Olive trees, Mt. of Olives
Photo by Carrie Smith
The hour has come. On this last Sunday of Lent, we turn to the cross, and there we see Jesus. Lifted up on the cross, we see Jesus drawing the world to a new way of life, a life which values people over property, human rights over the right to defend, and the flourishing of humanity over the privilege of a few.

Lifted up on the cross, we see Jesus transforming this broken world into the tree of life, with leaves for the healing of the nations. 

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus”, they said. And Jesus said, “The hour has surely come.” Amen.  

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sermon for 4th Sunday in Lent: 15 March 2015 (John 3:16)

Sermon for 4th Sunday in Lent

15 March 2015

The Rev. Carrie B. Smith

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

This morning’s Gospel text includes John 3:16—by all accounts the most beloved, most familiar verse in the Bible, and at the same time the one we still most need to hear.

It can be difficult for a preacher to imagine what “new” can be said about such a familiar verse, but then again, “new” is never the point of preaching. The Good News is the aim of preaching, specifically God’s Good News for our Bad Situation. The Good News is now, and ever has been, that through the cross of Christ we see that God loves the world. And our bad situation is that we love the darkness.

Heaven knows, there’s plenty of darkness in the world today. There is the stuff we’re pretty sure doesn’t apply to us (terrorism, extremism, and violence) and the stuff we actively seek to avoid (racism, sexism, and homophobia). Then there’s the stuff we know is darkness but find tempting anyway (consumerism, greed, grudges, and indifference to the suffering of others, to name a few). But the darkness we really love, the darkness which most attracts us all, is the belief that only some of the world is beloved.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” John 3:16 has been called “the Gospel in a nutshell”, a perfectly condensed expression of the Good News. We memorize it, we put it on t-shirts, we stick it on our cars, but when it comes to living it out, the news sounds a little different: For God so loves the good people….For God so loves the ones who look like me…For God so loves the ones who vote like me…For God so loves the Christians…For God so loves the Christians who worship like me and share my theology...For God so loves the people on my side of the city, my side of the wall, my side of the issues…

With John 3:16 as our motto, we proudly proclaim that through the cross of Christ, God loves the world…but the world we imagine is very small indeed.

View from the tower at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
Photo by Carrie Smith
I’ve been showing my parents around Jerusalem for the last several days. It’s their first visit here, and it’s been interesting to see the city anew through their eyes. Things that seem normal after living here for a few months (I’ve now been here almost eight months—hard to believe!) once again look scandalous and strange. The division seems starker. The quarters seem further apart. The lack of human interaction across boundaries is shocking and even embarrassing to behold. Do all these people really live on this tiny piece of real estate? Wait, who is allowed to live in this part of the city? Wait, where would this third temple be built? Who is allowed to pray, and where? How many churches are sharing this space? And why do they fight? Explain again about the ladder?

Jerusalem is the perfect place to see in living color how the darkness of exclusivity is so attractive to humans. God loves us, and not you. God wants us to do this, and not that. Christians are certainly not immune. Pastors and missionaries and activists and aid workers are not immune. And this is why we need to hear John 3:16 again, and again, and again. For God so loved the world. For God so loved the world. For God so loved the world! The belovedness of the world—the whole world—is the most amazing Good News to hear, and the most difficult news to accept.

Milky Way,
Wadi Rum
Photo by Danae Hudson
But indeed, this is the message of John 3:16, for, as it reads in Greek: “God so loved the kosmos, that he sent his only Son…” And yes, that means exactly what it sounds like in English. God loved the cosmos, the universe in its entirety, all of creation—or, as Psalm 24 puts it: For “the earth is the LORD's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it”. God’s love is for those who are like us and those who are not like us at all. God’s love is for those with whom we agree and those we would call enemies. 
God’s love is for everyone—like it or not.

The belovedness of the cosmos is radical Good News – so radical, in fact that perhaps it is the kind of Good News which needs a hospitable environment in which to take root and grow. I wonder if our difficulty in accepting and living into the cosmic love of John 3:16 stems from our inability to believe our own belovedness.

The other day, I heard a National Public Radio report on a study of American children entering college, and it found in these students a dramatic rise in narcissism (a belief that you are better than everyone around you) and an equally dramatic drop in compassion (an awareness of and caring for the situation of others). The cause? It seems to be the decades of concern over the “self-esteem” of our children.

I was thinking about this report, and how it reveals that once again, we humans have missed the point. We saw darkness (kids with low opinions of themselves) and we tried to fix it with something that ended up being just as dark (overindulgent praise, resulting in kids believing they are better, bigger, stronger, and smarter than everyone else in the world.)

According to this report, the problem of self-esteem has gone away, but now we have created young people who love themselves, but aren’t too interested in other people.

Feeling good about ourselves and our abilities isn't a bad thing. However, I wonder what it would mean for us to know instead that we are beloved—by our parents, certainly, but more importantly, by God.

After all, having good self-esteem just means feeling that when you are put up next to other people, you are just as good or even better.

But being beloved means knowing you are loved even if you are shorter, slower, darker, lighter, richer, poorer. Being beloved means standing tall on the foundation of God’s love and not on our merits or our talents or our DNA. Being beloved means understanding that you are worthy of love and respect because you are part of the cosmos, a world wondrously created by God and redeemed by the cross of Christ. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Being beloved frees us to see the person in front of us not as a threat, but as an extension of God’s love—worthy of respect, worthy of mercy, worthy of forgiveness, worthy of gentleness.

Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, who spent decades living and working with the developmentally disabled, wrote eloquently about this in his book, “The Life of the Beloved”:  

“To be chosen as the Beloved of God is something radically different. Instead of excluding others, it includes others. Instead of rejecting others as less valuable, it accepts others in their own uniqueness. It is not a competitive, but a compassionate choice. Our minds have great difficulty in coming to grips with such a reality. Maybe our minds will never understand it. Perhaps it is only our hearts that can accomplish this.”

In Jerusalem, at the checkpoints, in Mosul, Ferguson, and Madison, it’s clear that human minds are not grasping the belovedness of the other. The light has come into the world, and yet where such darkness reigns, humanity is already condemned.

But God so loved the world that God could not abide the reality of our brokenness.

God so loved the world that God would not just “let it be”.

God so loved the world that God sent the Son into human time, to walk with us and share our sufferings.

God so loved the world that the Son was lifted up on the cross, revealing the power of love to overcome the darkness.

God so loved the world that on the third day the Son was lifted up from the grave, defeating death and sin once and for all.

God so loved the world that Christ is present for us in ways our hearts can understand: in water, as bread, as wine, in and among the beloved community.
Jerusalem sunrise
Photo by Carrie Smith

Sisters and brothers, God so loved the world that those who believe, those who have come into the light, may live the promised eternal life in the here and now. That life begins when we see the other as one with us, a beloved, integral part of the cosmos God created and Christ has redeemed. Go, and live in the light. Amen. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Sermon for 3rd Sunday in Lent: 8 March 2015

Sermon for Sunday, 8 March 2015
3rd Sunday in Lent
John 2:13-22

The Rev. Carrie B. Smith

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

It occurs to me that it might be nice if Lent included the tradition some churches observe in Advent, in which the 3rd Sunday is a “Joy” Sunday. Just a little break, a little relief from the fasting and the solemnity and the penitence.  A little break from the cross. But alas, we are only halfway through Lent, and our Gospel reading for the day continues to challenge us. Again, we will focus on the cleansing of injustice, hypocrisy, and sin from our hearts, from our community, and from our holy places. We are still on the Way of the Cross.

In other contexts – perhaps the churches we grew up in – preachers have seen this morning’s Gospel text as an opportunity to preach on the sins and abuses of the modern institutional church, especially the perceived creeping in of consumerism, secularism, or liberalism. I remember having a heated conversation with a retired pastor who was upset that Girl Scout cookies were being sold by Sunday school students inside the church on Sunday mornings. The story of Jesus turning over the tables of the moneychangers was brought in as Exhibit A, and the argument was made that if cookies were going to be sold in the church at all, they would absolutely need to be a certain number of feet away from the worship space, and certainly would not be permitted in the fellowship hall next to the cookies we were offering for free.

There are plenty of other potential targets for such sermons. One might want to preach on driving out such modern excesses of the church as video screens in worship, or disposable coffee cups…or female pastors. The appeal of this text is perhaps especially strong for those of us from the Reformation tradition, a movement which began with the effort to cleanse the church of excess and abuse of power. And to tell you the truth, it is a bit enticing, to think of standing in the pulpit this morning and channeling my inner Cranky Jesus, verbally tipping over the tables of everything I see to be wrong with my denomination or with the state of Christianity and the church today.

But the problem is, I’m not Jesus (a fact which keeps emerging again and again!) It’s always good to be reminded that though we are his followers, we are not the Messiah, and therefore this Gospel lesson is not a license to unleash our complaints upon the modern church and walk away. One thing the world does not lack is judgmental Christians.

But to take it a step further, not only are we not Jesus, the institutional church is not the modern day temple.

It’s easy to see why there would be confusion about this. It’s natural to read this text today and substitute one holy building for another, to swap one religious institution for our own. And to be fair, there was confusion about what Jesus meant even as he stood amidst those overturned tables in the temple. “Stop making my Father’s house into a marketplace!” he cried. And then, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The crowd naturally thought he was talking about the building in front of them, which had been under construction for 46 years.

But John, the author of this Gospel, insisted Jesus was talking about his own body, which would soon be destroyed and then raised on the third day.

Temple Mount/Al Aqsa, Jerusalem
We have the privilege of hearing this text today just a few minutes’ walk from the site of the temple, which was indeed destroyed in 70 A.D. We know there are those in this city who wish to see the temple rebuilt, and we also well know there are complicated political, architectural, and religious implications of such an effort.

However, as Christians, we have a different perspective. As followers of the risen Christ, we believe the temple has already been raised up in the resurrected body of our Lord Jesus. Furthermore, we believe that we are the Body of Christ in the world today. “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27) Through the Holy Spirit, the divine resides in and among us, and the temple is now the people of God. “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Corinthians 6:19)

Because of the resurrection, and through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we believe God is on the loose in the world, not bound to a particular place, or to a particular tradition, or to a particular people.
Esther, temple of the divine!

And this means that if we want to worship God, we need to look no further than the person standing before us.  If we want to worship God, then we must treat each person with as much respect and love as if he or she were the temple itself, holy and majestic, the dwelling place of the divine. 

As we read this text today, in Jerusalem, just steps away from the place where Jesus drove out the merchants who were turning the temple into a marketplace, his words challenge and convict us. His words challenge us to consider what it means to encounter the presence of God in our neighbor, rather than in the neighboring building. And his words convict us: Which of our tables would Jesus be tipping over today?

If Jesus were in Jerusalem today, for example, would he be standing at the Temple Mount, or the Holy Sepulcher, or Al Aqsa, railing over the abuse and desecration of holy buildings?

(Actually, he might be! Heaven knows there’s plenty to say about that topic!)

Faced with the reality of moneychangers and others who had moved into the temple, Jesus shouted, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

Faced with today’s reality, including the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the ongoing occupation of Palestine, the recent violence in Jerusalem, the increasing extremism across the Middle East and Africa, and indeed the state of affairs in nations across the world, Jesus’ righteous indignation may sound more like this:

Stop sacrificing human beings at the altars of privilege and access and power.

Stop buying and selling human rights to achieve political ends.

Stop using human bodies as currency, assigning value based on ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and class.

Stop making my Father’s dwelling place – my beloved children – into marketplaces.

Today, it is the temple of humanity which is being desecrated, defiled, and disrespected. This is the same sin, the same idolatry, the same commodification of the holy which Jesus sought to drive out of the temple. Clearly, this is a human problem, one we see happening within every culture, every nation, every religion.

And yes, this is a church problem. The institutional church, and those of us who belong to it, are not exempt from hearing this challenging word, just as the temple authorities in Jesus’ time needed to hear the truth of their implication in a broken system.

Martyred Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero wrote:

“For the church, the many abuses of human life, liberty, and dignity are a heartfelt suffering. The church, entrusted with the earth’s glory, believes that in each person is the Creator’s image and that everyone who tramples it offends God. As holy defender of God’s rights and of his images, the church must cry out. It takes as spittle in its face, as lashes on its back, as the cross in its passion, all that human beings suffer, even though they be unbelievers. They suffer as God’s images. There is no dichotomy between man and God’s image. Whoever tortures a human being, whoever abuses a human being, whoever outrages a human being abuses God’s image, and the church takes as its own that cross, that martyrdom.”

Sisters and brothers, wherever we see our fellow humans suffering because of war, economics, politics, or simple hatred, we see God’s temple turned into a marketplace. As the church, the Body of Christ in the world today, we are called to protect and preserve the sanctity of that temple – which means protecting and preserving the dignity of every human being. There’s no shortage of work to be done in this regard. And indeed, we could be quite depressed about the state of humanity today, and with our seemingly infinite capacity to deny the image of God in each other--from the Armenian genocide 100 years ago, to Selma 50 years ago; from Ferguson last year to Libya last month.

And yet, this same challenging and convicting Gospel text also offers us words of hope. Yes, we are still making the temple into a marketplace. Yes, we are still setting up idols, still ignoring God’s Word, still denying the presence of the holy in the other. We are still falling short of the glory of God.

And yet there are these words from Jesus:

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

These are actually the most important words in this Scripture passage, for these words tell us who this Jesus really is. These are the words which identify him as the Messiah, the anointed one, the one we’ve been waiting for. These are the words his disciples remembered after the cross and after the empty tomb.

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” These are the words which tell us how even when we were still dead in sin, God loved creation so much that God came into human time to walk with us in Jesus of Nazareth.

And so we continue to walk the Way of the Cross with Jesus. We continue this journey of faith, asking for forgiveness for ourselves, for our church, and for our world, for all the ways in which we have denied the presence of the divine in the temple of the “other”.

Sisters and brothers, let us continue on this Lenten journey, knowing that though we may fail to recognize the image of God in others, God always sees us as precious, and beloved, and worthy even of the Cross. Amen. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Sermon for 2nd Sunday in Lent: 1 March 2015

Sermon for Sunday, 1 March 2015
2nd Sunday in Lent

The Rev. Carrie B. Smith

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Priceless and ancient artifacts destroyed by extremist Muslims in Mosul. A mosque near Bethlehem and a church in Jerusalem burned by Jewish settlers. A BBC report that Europe is seeing an alarming rise in anti-Jewish sentiment. Christian protestors yell insults as a Muslim schoolgirl sings the national anthem in the Oklahoma state capitol. A secular Bangladeshi blogger is killed on the street for writing about the “virus of faith.” As a person of faith today—of any faith—there is much in the news of the world for which I may feel ashamed.

Notre Dame Jerusalem Global Gateway
students at the shrine of Sarah
Ibrahimi Mosque, Hebron.
Photo by Carrie Smith.
Shame is certainly one of the feelings I experienced this week on a visit to Hebron in the WestBank. As I stood before the shrines for Abraham and Sarah in the Ibrahimi Mosque, the weight of atrocities committed in the name of the God I worship—the same God worshipped by this forefather and foremother of three faiths—was heavy on my heart.  Horrific massacres and the ongoing tragedy of occupation are truly shameful tributes to the God of Abraham and Sarah. Of course, we would not identify ourselves with extremist perpetrators of violence and terror, but the fact that such terrible deeds are done in the name of God makes our faith in a God of peace, justice, mercy, and love increasingly difficult for others to understand or even to believe.

This fact also makes our bold, shameless confession of faith—and an equally bold commitment to living out that faith—more important than ever.

In this morning’s Gospel lesson, we hear these strong words from Jesus about the nature of discipleship:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."

These challenging words were spoken to a crowd which included all the disciples, but they were surely directed at Peter. Peter, after all, had just rebuked Jesus for announcing he would soon suffer, be rejected, and killed, and after three days rise again. Peter, it seems, was ashamed of the path ahead for his teacher and friend.

“Ashamed” may seem a strong word to impose upon the one called the “rock of the church”, one of the first to confess Jesus as “Messiah”, but Scripture makes it pretty clear Peter was shocked and scandalized by what he was hearing. Just as the increase of religious violence in the world today could make us reluctant to be identified as people of faith, so Peter was reluctant to be identified with a teacher and prophet who was about to be violently killed.

After all, Peter was Jesus’ right hand man. He had signed on to the journey because he believed in Jesus’ message and the kingdom he represented. But one might expect that being the right hand man to the Prince of Peace would come with a good benefits package! Peter might have wanted to be a prince, or a vice president, or assistant to the bishop. He might have been expecting a corner office, or at least his own group of followers once this Kingdom of God venture got off the ground.

But instead, Jesus is openly talking about suffering, and rejection, and death. He lays out a path that is all guts and no glory. So Peter takes him aside and rebukes him—either because he himself rejects the plan, or because he doesn’t think it will play well to the crowd, or maybe a little bit of both.

Jesus’ answer to Peter is swift and sharp: "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."

Icon of the crucifixion
Athens, Greece
Photo by Carrie Smith
The cross of Christ is no less a scandal today than it was 2,000 years ago. We’re still setting our minds on human things—things like glory and triumph, comfort and privilege. The extreme popularity of churches preaching the so-called “prosperity gospel” is one example. The increasing interest in forming theocracies and imposing belief on entire populations is another.

Those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus still struggle with what it means to follow in the footsteps of one “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, (he) humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-10)

Thanks be to God, our salvation depends neither on our ability nor our willingness to carry anything whatsoever. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) We are not required to carry the cross. We don’t need to walk to Calvary to atone for our sins, because Jesus already did it. And still…Jesus invites, calls, beckons to us, “If you want to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me.”

Jesus invites us to live the Good News and join him in this self-emptying, “other-centric” walk of faith, but we, like Peter, have a hard time hearing it. We sanitize it, we talk around it, we spiritualize it, until “the cross we must bear” becomes an annoying neighbor, a bill we don’t want to pay, an illness we must suffer, or some other burden of daily life.

We downplay the Way of Jesus because the truth of the cross we are asked to carry is not only scandalous but shameful. It can’t be emphasized enough that the cross was and is an instrument of torture and death. What we now wear as jewelry or claim as a symbol of triumph was a human invention designed to cause suffering, death…and shame.

"Pieta" by Paul Fryer
I often wonder what the equivalent contemporary symbol of shame and suffering and death would be today. Some churches have created Stations of the Cross with photographs depicting each station. Images of lynchings of African-Americans, or of Jesus in an electric chair, stand out as fairly accurate modern interpretations. But one could also make the case that a rainbow flag, homelessness, illegal immigrant status, or a Muslim woman’s headscarf are as heavy and shameful to carry as the cross today.

Jesus said, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Not many of us will be called to give up our lives for the sake of our faith, thanks be to God. And Jesus is no cult leader or terror mastermind, demanding violent displays of allegiance.

But discipleship is costly. Boldly living the Gospel of love may mean carrying the burden of criticism from family or friends. Speaking out for justice may mean suffering retribution from an employer. Challenging systems of oppression may bring the weight of the system down upon us. Standing for peace and reconciliation in a world of violence and triumphalism may mean being thought a fool, or worse.

It’s a scandalous choice, to follow the way of the cross.

But we are not ashamed. We are not ashamed, for “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; (and) God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” (1 Corinthians 1:27)

It’s been said that the core message of the entire Bible is “Be not afraid.” It’s mentioned in some form or another at least one hundred times. 

Indeed, our faith in the God of Abraham and Sarah teaches us to “be not afraid,” no matter where our journey takes us.

At the same time, I believe a core message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is “Be not ashamed.”

Be not ashamed to love.

Be not ashamed to confess your own failings.

Be not ashamed to associate with the outcast, the persecuted, and the despised.

Be not ashamed to live for others.

Be not ashamed to speak for justice.

Be not ashamed to show mercy.

Be not ashamed to carry the cross.

Be not ashamed, for Jesus has already borne the ultimate shame.

Jesus has already taken on the weight of our sin, of our lack of faith, of our violent thoughts and deeds, of our unwillingness to forgive or to make peace or to love those who are different.

From the gates of Jerusalem to Golgotha, Jesus carried the shame of the cross on his body for the sake of the world. And now we are invited to follow him in carrying the cross for the sake of others. This is no call to power, or purity, or revenge, or triumphalism. The call of discipleship is a call to life—a life lived for God and for neighbor. Of this we are not afraid. Of this, we will never be ashamed. Amen.