Do you ever get a tune or musical phrase in your head that keeps playing over and over again? I guess that’s called an ear worm and it can be annoying, but it can also be instructive. It means the brain is working on something even when we’re occupied with lots of other thoughts and activities. There might be something we need to pay attention to or something we are stuck on.
This past week, the phrase and tune that keeps going through my head is from our opening hymn, “Take up your cross, the Savior said.” We chose this hymn for today because of its obvious association with the gospel reading. Earlier in the week when I was proofing the bulletin, I looked at it again and sang it out loud to make sure it wasn’t too difficult or unfamiliar. That’s when it got lodged in my brain, an ear worm that won’t get out.
Choosing music for this diverse crowd can be tricky. This hymn dates back to the 19th century, and my guess is that less than a quarter of you are familiar with it. That means everyone with musical training is trying to read the music and words at the same time. And the rest are listening to see if you can pick it up by maybe the last verse or just giving up and waiting for it to be over so you can sit down! For most of us, it goes by so quickly that it doesn’t make an impression.
If you do have the luxury of paying attention to the lyrics, you may be put off by the old fashioned language, the theology, or the images that no longer work well for our context. Today we sang about Calvary’s hill and a golden crown. These are shortcut images that work only marginally in today’s context to point us in the former phrase to the death of Christ and in the latter to a reward in glory.
All week my brain has been wrestling with the question, “What does it mean to take up your cross?” How will those words be heard or sung by this congregation with all of your diverse religious and cultural backgrounds? Will the words of Jesus be heard as an invitation to follow the cross as it “guides you to abundant life” as in the words of the hymn? Or will this sound like bad news, part of a religious system that is destructive and victimizing?
Part of the bad theology about the cross comes with the phrase, “It’s just my cross to bear,” as if something or someone has been strapped onto our back, weighing us down as we carry it or them through life. The reason this is so destructive is because it traps us as victims of a God who would weigh us down with overwhelming burdens, and to what end? There is already so much in the world that is difficult and damaging. There are endless ways that people suffer and are damaged by one another and by life’s circumstances. What kind of God would deliberately add to those burdens by heaping on additional pain? It is not true that God never gives us more than we can handle.
It is true that the world can overwhelm us with pain and sorrow. God is not in the business of adding to that quota but rather of coming alongside of our suffering and sorrow to bear the burden with us.
The cross that Jesus takes up, he does so willingly. He is not a victim of God or even the victim of the Roman political process that committed him to this heinous form of torture and death. According to the hymn in Philippians, Jesus takes up the cross “for the joy set before him.” He lives a passionate life, in love with God and with all humanity. He chooses a life of meaning, purpose, joy, wonder and spirit. That choice involves radical love, faithfulness to the truth, acts of justice and mercy, deep compassion and willingness to follow the ways of God in opposition to the ways of death.
When he invites those who follow him to take up your cross, he is inviting us into that same life. He is inviting us into a life that can never be taken away from us, no matter what this world dishes out. Jesus is interested in the long game, the big picture, the truth and reality that gets blocked out by the urgency of daily life.
So much of what we work and strive and long for will simply disappear. Fame, importance, success, wealth, acclaim, popularity and physical strength are all temporal realities. You can lose any one of them in the blink of an eye. Contrary to the gospel of prosperity, they are not a sign of God’s favor. They are simply circumstances. They are more enjoyable circumstances than illness, disaster, failure and tragedy but they do not determine our true and real identity. They can be taken away in the blink of an eye and they cannot secure our body, mind and spirit from adversity. Yet we spend so much of our energy trying to acquire these outward marks of the good life.
Jesus says, “Those who 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?” Or in the words of Jim Eliot, a pastor murdered in 1956 in Ecuador by those he was trying to reach out to in love, “She is no fool, who gives what she cannot keep, to gain what she cannot lose.” “He is no fool, who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”
To take up the cross is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. It is to walk in his way no matter what life’s circumstances. It is to walk by faith, hope and love.
Abram and Sarai are our forebears in this risky walk of faith. With God’s presence and promise they leave everything that is familiar for a journey to a far land. They are given a new identity and a new hope by God, and they stake their lives on it. Their barren lives are filled first with the hope of a child and at last with more offspring than the stars that can be counted. They are given new names in late old age and filled with a hope and promise that upends all that was familiar. Probably more scary than the journey, the foreign land and having to start all over was the possibility of becoming parents for the first time when they were in their extreme old age! Because of their faith and willingness, they have become the father and mother of many nations and faith traditions.
When Bryon and I were discussing this week’s readings at dinner one night this week, he asked, “When did you find your life in losing it?” The verb, “lose” is so close to the verb, “loose.” When I think of losing my life, I think of loosing it, of letting it go. For me to take up the cross is to let go of the need to be seen to be successful, to be seen to be well-liked, to be seen to be right, to be seen to be good. These are all outward and relative qualities. To take up the cross is to let go of these external markers of value and success. To accept the risky journey towards fullness of life. To fix my eyes on Jesus who lived the most amazing, full, abundant life possible. To trust in God’s strength and presence when the journey is difficult and dangerous.
I can certainly think of many times where the risky journey, the difficult choice, the way of Jesus has surprised me with so much blessing and fullness. There are instances too great to number. But the important question is more about what’s next. Where is God calling me to follow Jesus next? What do I need to loose in order to hang on more closely to God? What do I need to let go of in order to receive the riches God is offering? What choices will lead to life and life abundant? Who will I need to open up myself to in order to grow in love?
Most Sundays I have the privilege of dressing up in fancy clothes, addressing you for 15 minutes, mostly uninterrupted and commanding a small measure of authority in leading worship. This could be dangerously ego-enhancing. There’s a desperate temptation to want to be praised for the sermon or acknowledged for crafting and leading worship well. It’s easy to get pretty excited when the chairs are nearly full or to despair when only a few show up.
Most Sundays, we process in ceremonially and it feels like I might be someone important. But there is something more important coming before me, someone more important who is already present and worthy of worship and praise. The cross comes first. The cross of Christ leads me into this sanctuary. The cross reminds me that I follow where Jesus leads and serve as he served. When people bow as the cross enters the worship space, they are honoring the cross of Christ and not those who minister in his name. The cross reminds us of what is true and lasting and life-giving. It helps us to loose what is unworthy and to cling onto and hold fast to what will last. Amen.
2 Lent, Year B
Genesis 17:1-7; 15-16