St. Simon’s on the Sound
September 3, 2017
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow me.
This has been a challenging week for me. As a matter of fact, I find all first weeks following my Haiti mission trips challenging. The jump from being embedded in what many have called a “fifth world” country to a fast-paced, technologically savvy, and incredibly affluent “first world” country – the USA, is jarring, and deeply troubling. I can speak only for myself when I say that my initial inclination on these first days back home is to jump on the next plane back to Haiti, to be with those whom I have come to love so very dearly as they walk their way through an unbelievably dangerous, difficult, and arduous existence.
It is during these post-trip weeks that I consider in absolute wonder how I arrived at this place of deep commitment to a culture so foreign from the one in which I grew up – so very much the antithesis of the one in which I live. These are weeks in which I shed tears. Tears of sadness for the painful images impressed upon my mind’s eye. Tears of joy and wonder for the memories of happy faces and big hugs received from the men, women and children that I, along with my team, have served.
It is most certainly during these post-trip weeks that I enter into deep prayer more than several times each day. Prayers in which I beseech God to support me in the important task of discernment and to guide me, through the presence of the Spirit in my heart, mind and soul, as I make my way through next steps in this complex mission work. A mission call that I have been given by God that attempts, in some small way, to strengthen the capabilities of those in remote rural Haitian communities as they struggle to bring healthcare to their brothers and sisters who live near and around them – to their community.
And, then, of course, this past week brought the nightmare of Hurricane Harvey. Devastating wind and rains pummeled Corpus Christi, Houston, and Louisiana. Flooding in these areas has forced the evacuation of an estimated 1.7 million people. 1.7 million people displaced, their homes and businesses destroyed.
Our eyes and ears have been glued to various devices that continually scroll news media headlines, twitter feeds, and heart-breaking images of men, women, children and their pets stranded, sometimes chest deep in swirling, dangerous waters. An astounding number of people affected by Hurricane Harvey, waiting to be rescued, hoping for relief – images and reports that bring tears to our eyes and compel us all towards a rush to action. What can we do? How fast can we do it? How can we make it better?
And so, amid post-mission trip emotions and disbelief at the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, I sat down to write today’s sermon. I read and considered today’s Epistle and Gospel readings, saying over and over to myself, and others, “Wow – what could be a more appropriate for this week? Not only is Jesus giving us our marching orders – ‘Take up your cross and follow me,’ but Paul is instructing us in the “how to’s” of carrying out this very clear and compelling commandment, ‘Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.’ ”
The critical question here, of course, is - what is the cross that Jesus is referring to? What does it mean when Jesus says, “Take up your cross.”
In Jesus’ day, a cross was a symbol of pain and suffering; a symbol of death. It was the structure used by Romans to execute criminals. It was the instrument used to inflict an unbelievably painful and disgraceful method of capital punishment.
The Jewish historian Josephus, who witnessed live crucifixions during Titus’ siege on Jerusalem, called it "the most wretched of deaths." Victims were usually beaten and tortured and then forced to carry their own cross to the crucifixion site. Because of the long-drawn-out suffering and horrible manner of execution, it was viewed as the supreme penalty by the Romans.
Therefore, when Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me,” he is not referring to a physical cross – our current symbol of Christianity, which, of course, did not exist in Jesus’ world. No, in this command Jesus means, if you want to be a true follower of mine you must be willing to suffer; willing to die – die to self.
What Jesus was telling his disciples, and us, in this passage is that we need to put to death our own plans; our own impulses and desires. We need to turn our lives over to him and do his will in every way, every day. Jesus is clear - dying to self is a call to the absolute surrender of ourselves to the will of God.
The cross that Jesus is referring to is that meeting place of where we thought we were going and the disruption, or event, that causes us to re-think and re-calculate our way. It is that place in time when we realize that our lives must change, dramatically, because of something that we have seen, or heard, or experienced.
The cross that Jesus is referring to is our answer to a call from God to move forward into a place we never dreamed of, on a journey that is driven by our response to God’s will in our lives.
A journey that quite possibly will challenge us in ways that have yet to be known and that are, most probably going to be, far from comfortable. A journey through which we will become a new self – one that is grounded in Christ.
“If anyone 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 will find it.”
So, what does this mean for those of us here at St Simon’s today? What does it mean for mean in my post-mission turmoil? What does it mean for all of us who want to jump on the next plane to Houston and offer whatever talents and treasure that we possess? What does it mean for those of us who have other needs or concerns pressing on our hearts and minds?
I believe that this is where Paul’s exhortations are so very important. He begins, “Let love be genuine…”
Paul is speaking in this passage of love as agape - the highest possible form of love. The love of God for man and of man’s corresponding love for God. Agape embraces a universal, unconditional love that transcends and persists regardless of circumstance – it is not mere fellowship or a friendly passing acquaintance. Agape is complete, unconditional, and selfless love of the other – no matter where; no matter when.
What does agape have to do with our response to any desire within us – the need to rush back to Haiti; the need to rush off to Houston; or, any other impulse that befalls us. Jesus and Paul both demand that agape form the basis for our thoughts and actions. They demand that our responses and reactions must come from true love of and for the other – agape - not from a need to quiet discomforting emotions within one’s self.
Agape demands that we carefully discern between our own needs; our own desires; our own anxieties, and the true needs and desires of the other. Our cross – the cross that Jesus is asking us to take up if we wish to follow him – this cross is always founded on agape– true love. Once true love has replaced concern for self and personal needs, desires and agendas, all else falls into place. It is only then that with zeal and ardent spirit we can take up our cross and follow Jesus; rejoicing in hope, being patient in our suffering as we journey to serve “the other,” and through serving the other, serve Christ.
When Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me,” there is no doubt that he is inviting us to follow him; but, he does not want as disciples a burdensome rag tag bunch of stragglers who pull at the hem of his robe. Jesus does not want those whom he has invited to be the rock of the church’s foundation to instead become stumbling blocks that cause us to lose our way.
Jesus is inviting us to be rocks that form a strong foundation; and so, he will accept as true disciples only those willing to carry an agape cross, a cross of love and compassion for the other – not always a safe and comfortable task. But it is only an agape cross that will bring love, light, compassion and healing to those with whom we are called to work.
My agape cross is Haiti. My cross brings with it frustration, pain, anxiety, confusion, fatigue and a host of other feelings – none of them very comfortable; many of them quite complex. It is a cross that requires deep and continual prayer, ongoing discernment and tons of patience. It is a cross that binds the people of Haiti into the depths of my heart and soul. I have often said, “My heart belongs to Haiti.”
My agape cross does not allow me to jump on a plane and rush back to Haiti.
My agape cross demands that I not give in to immediate frustrations and anxieties, but that I spend prayerful time discerning and planning my next steps in Haiti. I want to serve God’s mission, not my own.
What is your agape cross? How does it tug at your heart?
Take up you cross, the Savior said, if
you would my disciple be; take up your cross with
willing heart, and humbly follow after me.
Take up your cross let not its weight fill
your weak spirit with alarm; his strength shall bear your
spirit up, and brace your heart, and nerve your arm.
Take up your cross and follow Christ, nor think
think till death to lay it down; for only those who
bear the cross may hope to wear the glorious crown.