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The cross everywhere, every day

Mar 27, 2013

Luke 9:18-24


Preached at our synod's Chrism Mass

The cross is the head of a procession leading to everywhere…birth to death, death to birth… from the moment gentle fingers trace a blessing on the forehead of the baby newborn and reborn…the cross etched in ashes and the cross traced in healing…from a child’s hand learning to begin praying by marking a pattern "in the Name" and wondering whether left to right or right to left makes a difference to the God who hears us even before we speak…

The cross is everywhere…solemnly leading Pope Francis to the edge of the balcony on the day of his election…guiding our footsteps as we have journeyed this Lent, for example, and throughout this life in general…it is everywhere as we look upon the One whom we have pierced, as Zechariah says, the many pierced…

The cross is everywhere. For who has not seen row upon row, cross upon cross, to tell of one death and many, whether named or unknown, as we pray for God’s angels to come and bring home a beloved to Abraham’s bosom. The cross, everywhere, from tenderness of young fingers to blisters from physical labor to wrinkles that reveal a life of many crosses.  

The message about the cross is what we proclaim, so it’s important for me to talk about the cross with you as we renew vows and enter this week. It’s important for us.

You’ve seen those optical illusions which seem at first to be one thing but then suddenly become something else. Remember the hodgepodge of sticks glued to a plaque of wood, popular in the 80s and 90s, which suddenly in the blanks spelled the word "Jesus"? Or the outline of a chalice turning into two faces? Or an old haggard woman becoming a lovely young girl? It depends largely on what you’ve experienced or what you expect to see, and sometimes, once you have seen one of the figures, it becomes nearly impossible to see the other. "Jesus" is clear among those sticks. What we believe to be there is what we tend to see there. Once we think we understand something, it’s difficult for us to go beyond that understanding.

That’s how it is in the realm of faith, too. There are things we think we understand. And this Holy Week that seems to be especially true.

It was that way for the disciples, too. When Jesus questioned them as to who the crowds believed he was Peter seemed to understand a good deal. Others may have thought that Jesus was John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the prophets, but Peter knew and declared him to be the Messiah of God. After all, Peter had seen him heal the sick, raise the dead, feed the hungry. It is not really surprising to hear Peter’s confession: "You are the Christ of God" – not really surprising. He had good reason to know and understand who Jesus was.

And yet, as Jesus then went on to talk about what it meant to be chosen by God and to follow God’s Anointed One, it is likely that Peter and the others really were surprised.

Suddenly, like an optical illusion that seems to change before our eyes, their perspectives were altered. Jesus spoke not of power and majesty and dominion in the way they might have expected from the Messiah, but of service and suffering and rejection and death. He spoke of taking up a cross daily – note that word, friends.

This must have been hard and confusing for them, because the words flew in the face of what they thought they understood. This was a view of discipleship that was new and difficult to absorb.

For us, of course, it is no longer new. We have heard these words of Jesus before, haven’t we? We’ve heard them so much that they no longer shock us. We have the advantage of knowing what lay ahead for Jesus and those who followed him. Two thousand years of history and tradition have taught us that those who name the name of Christ pay a high price. Peter may have been amazed at Jesus’ saying that he must take up his cross, but we know that Peter was indeed called to do just that, dying a martyr’s death, nailed head down to a cross. All of that fits our understanding of what it means to be a Christian. And so it is not likely to shock us as it did those first disciples.

There is, however, another reason these words are less likely to trouble us. The reality is: most of us will never see a cross. Martyrdom is not likely to be required of us, right? And so the call to take up our cross is less frightening. But what if our perspective were suddenly to change? What if we focused on that word "daily" – take up our cross daily? What if a different understanding came to light during all of that signing we tend to do, all of that placing of the cross on ourselves and on others? Might this call of Christ then take on a new meaning for us?

Jesus spoke of taking up the cross before his crucifixion when speaking to the Twelve about a cross would not necessarily have made them think of death. Rather, it might have brought to mind the cross-shaped mark branded on cattle as a mark of ownership. That cross was, in effect, a sign of slavery, a mark of being owned by someone else…and that is very different from martyrdom. In a way it is easy for us to talk about taking up the cross if it means dying a martyr’s death, because we know that it’s highly unlikely that we will be asked to make that sacrifice. But it is harder for us to talk of slavery, of service, of being owned by someone else, because that means giving up control of our lives, and we want to be in control. Acknowledging that we cannot provide for ourselves, that our every breath is dependent upon God, that all we have comes not of our own doing but as a gift from the Creator – this is the slavery we are called to, the cross we are summoned to take up every day. Following Christ then means offering whatever service we can, in gratitude for all that we have received.

We have all made vows about this serving that may not be grand or noble or earthshaking.

This serving may mean making a call on someone who is homebound rather than becoming a missionary…it may mean taking seriously the call toward preferential treatment for the poor, the call toward downward mobility…it may recognize that we are always being led from death to life, with the cross before us...every day…everywhere.

For God, who provides in love, who spreads the table before us, calls us to respond in humble service, which is a lot more difficult to do than merely to die. It is the life of those who have been marked, who daily take up and bear and follow the cross gladly, because, day after day, God does the leading, not we ourselves, led by the cross.  

Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo



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