Monday, February 26, 2018

Pick Up Your Cross

Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.

It has been eleven days since the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  In a few days the students will return to their classes for the first time since Ash Wednesday, the day the church invites us to remember our own mortality.  I cannot begin to imagine the courage it will take for fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen year olds to walk through those doors, stand in the hallways, and sit in the rooms where they experienced unfathomable horror and terror.  My heart goes out to them and to their parents and to all who work in and for the school.  My thoughts and prayers are with them.

And my prayers are with our country as we launch yet again into a national conversation about what to do about violence in our society.  I am not going to stand in this pulpit and preach the answer is… gun control… arming teachers… spending more money on mental health programs… etc.  This is not the place for that.  But I do want to say, “Enough!”  This kind of tragedy is becoming far too common and we need to come together as a country to insure it does not happen again. 

Maybe I am the only one, but I just feel so powerless in all of this.  Like Peter in today’s reading, I just want the world and the people I love in it to be safe.  I don’t want to see anyone hurt.  I don’t want violence to be the norm.  But it is, not everywhere and not all the time, but it is not going away any time soon.

Jesus understood his own path in life was going to take him to a very dark and difficult place – the Cross.  It is one of the most brutal methods of execution devised in human history.  How interesting Jesus invites each and every one of his followers to pick up our cross and follow him.  Your own personal cross is a composite of all the pain and suffering and brokenness in your life.  We have broken hearts and broken bodies, broken thoughts and broken relationships.  All of this and more is your cross.

Jesus’ teaching to pick up your cross and follow him raises two questions.  First, why in the world would you pick up your cross?  Well, because if you try to hide from the pain and brokenness in your life it will overwhelm you.  You can try to pretend it does not exist, but if you do this – what Jesus names as trying to “save” your life – your cross will eventually crush you. 

The second question is this, if I pick up my cross and follow Jesus, where will he lead me?  Jesus will lead you on a path he himself has already walked.  When Jesus teaches his followers he will undergo suffering, be rejected, and be killed, he adds one more thing.  He tells them when all of this happens, after three days he will rise again.  Jesus is walking the path of resurrection and new life.  Only when you embrace the brokenness of your life and carry it with you as you follow Jesus can you begin to hope for healing and wholeness.

Scott Bader-Saye, a professor at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas and our keynote speaker at last week’s diocesan council, said something that helped me clarify my own theology around a question with which I have struggled for some time.  God, he said, is not behind human history pushing it forward.  God is ahead of human history inviting us into God’s self.  Think about this for a moment.  We often ask why God allowed a tragedy to happen, as if God is somehow either the author or the allower of everything that happens.  Bader-Saye says this is the wrong perspective.  God is ahead of human history working, as Paul writes, to reconcile all things in Christ.  God sees our brokenness and invites us to bring it to God’s healing heart; to the place where we find resurrection and new life.  God feels deeply the pain of this world and invites us all to move toward God’s reconciling love.

And while we here at St. Paul’s are far from perfect, I believe we are on the path Jesus walks as he invites us to follow.  As individuals, we have responded to Jesus’ invitation to pick up our cross and follow him and he has led us to this place.  Here we sense and see the heart of God.  We are a community of peace, mutual affection, respect for one another, compassionate, self-giving, merciful, and joyous.  And while I feel powerless to change the world, in this place I feel empowered by God’s Spirit to a part of a community reflective of God’s dream for all people.  We are witnesses to the power of a common life centered on Jesus Christ. 

Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, was the speaker at our clergy conference last fall.  It took place less than two weeks after 26 people were killed at a mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland, Texas.  I asked Bishop Curry to share his thoughts on church safety.  His answer, which I cannot possibly hope to replicate verbatim, encouraged us not to approach our national debate as conservatives or progressives, but as Christians.  Hold up, he said, what the faith holds dear.  As Americans we prize above all else life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  We in the Christian tradition know the value of each and understand that each must be safeguarded.  But above all else we value the first gift God has given to us – the gift of life. 
If innocent lives are being taken through gun violence with greater and greater frequency, we people of faith must speak up for life.  Again, I am not here to say what specific liberties and what forms of happiness need to be forfeited.  But Bishop Curry’s point hits home.  We must do all in our power to uphold the value of life.

I believe God invites us as a people to journey to the place where God is, where true healing and wholeness is to be found.  Perhaps it is a destination we will never reach in this life, but surely every step we take toward it gets us a little bit closer to the abundant life God seeks to share with all of us.  My prayer is as a country we will find a way collectively to pick up our cross and follow Jesus.