"Then Jesus told his disciples, "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 will find it."
One morning in July I was thinking about this text while I was taking Peter for a walk. If you happen to see me out walking, it's usually for two reasons. The first one is that I need the exercise, but the second is that it frees up my mind to think about things. As I walked, I was trying to think how many times I've preached on this text. I think it's been about five times now. It appears in various forms in the other Gospels, so we tend to hear it frequently. The plain reading is that of self-sacrifice and service to the cause of Christ.
It's a perpetually challenging text. Every time it comes up for preaching, I will confess, my belly sinks a little, as if I've had too much water to drink, and I ask myself, "How am I going to preach it this time?" Because, you see, I don't like the challenge of it. I don't like the rigorousness of the text. It's all or nothing. You can either follow Jesus, giving up everything, or you can go off with the crowds to the next travelling prophet.
The text cuts right though the attitude of the casual Christian, the occasional contributor, the ones you only see at Christmas and Easter. Do you know what I mean? There's no grace in this text for the person who only follows Christ when it's convenient. If you want to be a Christian, you have to be one all the way.
And this text cuts through the Christian establishment, too. It is still probably impossible for a non-Christian to be elected President of the United States, and yet, can you honestly see a President washing the feet of a Christian foreign dignitary? Can you honestly see the President of the United States "turn the other cheek" when a terrorist strikes? No. You can't imagine that. Which only serves to highlight the difference between what our culture thinks a Christian is, and what we know a Christian should be from our Bible. You see that?
There are so many aspects of the Christian life that even devout people do not fully follow, and they all boil down to how much we're really willing to "take up our cross," and "deny ourselves," and follow Jesus.
When I went to seminary, I did so, obviously, as a young man with a pocketful of experience in the real world. Since I was a very small child I have wanted to do what I am doing now, so it was a real eye-opener to meet people who had given up a lot of things. One seminarian I knew had given up a lucrative career in the financial world; another had actually put his marriage in jeopardy by following what he felt was God's call. Another one, who is now serving oversees, was actually shunned by his family for awhile, because they didn't understand "all this `God' business."
The Church for that family was like a convenience store. Need the child baptized? Call up the priest, we'll go down during the week and have him do it. No, he won't mind, I'll show him a big check, he'll roll over. Cathy wants to get married, but the country club is booked? Fine! I'll call up the Church. The priest knows I can buy and sell people like him. If he doesn't want to do it, I'll just tell him we'll move our membership to the Presbyterians…he'll get the picture.
So in that family's mind, the clergy were just shopkeepers for religious goods and services. They didn't want their boy to have such a low-class job, and be paid what he would be paid.
I heard all this and I started to ask myself, "What have I given up to be here?"
What about you? Do you ever feel that way about this text? Do you ever get that little catch in your throat, or the sinking feeling in your stomach that you've actually got a long ways to go before you can honestly say you've picked up your cross? Believe me, I'm not saying this to make anyone feel bad. This text cuts me up in so many pieces that I almost feel like I shouldn't be standing here. I mean God has actually let me come home to the Shenandoah Valley…there was no sacrifice there! (Pause.)
I think of a friend of mine who is a missionary in Sudan. After years of parish ministry, which followed a very successful career in journalism, the Rev. Lauren Stanley, a priest of this diocese, has given her life to serving the Sudanese people. She has been under house arrest. She has been threatened and intimidated more times than anyone can count. She's been forced out of the country, and made her way back in. She has lived close to the edge financially for years, suffered health setbacks, and yet there she is.
She pops up at Council and clergy retreat like a silver tray, just glistening from the good work she's been doing—hopeful, Spirit-filled, radiant. She's pushy in ways that I can't be pushy. She can say things I could never say, and I respect her deeply for it.
To my mind, she has picked up her Cross—but if you know Lauren she'd probably respond, "Oh, I've got a long way to go before I can say that."
You see, you find that kind of attitude in people who genuinely give themselves to the faith. It's not a false modesty—they are simply propelled by the Holy Spirit. They don't think of themselves as living saintly lives because they don't see their personal sacrifice as a loss. That's a big difference in the way people think about sacrifice.
Have you ever run into a living martyr? Do you know what I mean? They've got a long list of things to do, and they claim to never have enough time or energy for themselves. They're "giving it all." But they seem to enjoy their own deprivation a little too much. If you're insightful enough to see past their acting, you can see that the joy they get is from making others believe that they're really giving it all, when in fact, they're not.
There's an old story about a wealthy man who showed up at his church after not having gone for years. And they came to a time in the service when anyone could stand up and testify to what God had done in their lives.
So the wealthy man stood up, and said, "You know, most of you haven't seen me at church much in the last few years, but I want to tell you how God has blessed me. When I last came here regularly, about twenty years ago, the pastor said that if we needed anything, we needed to plant a seed. Well, I was just starting off, and I didn't have much money. In fact, I only had one dollar to my name and it was in my pocket. So when the offering plate came buy, I put my dollar in. I put in everything I had, just like the Widow's mite, I put in ev-'ry-thing I had."
"Well, to make a long story short, things started looking up after that, and now I'm a multi-millionaire. I have three houses, five cars, a boat, a beautiful wife and three beautiful children. God really blessed me after I put in that plate ev-'ry-thing I had. Thank you, Reverend." And the man sat down, grinning. He glanced down the pew and saw one of the venerable ladies of the church. She leaned over to him and whispered, "I dare you to do it again." (Pause.)
Have you ever heard someone say, "That's just the cross I bear?" We use that expression, don't we? Anything that seems like an obstacle in life becomes our "Cross to bear," but that's not really what Jesus means, is it? No. Having a sweet tooth is not a "cross to bear." Having a tricky relationship with a spouse is not really having a "cross to bear." It's not about annoyances to an otherwise, relatively speaking, easy life. Taking up one's Cross is a deliberate act of living the Kingdom of God. It means making the faith of Christ the dominant and decisive force in our lives—the central factor for all decisions. (Pause.)
I want to tell you about a dream I had awhile ago. I don't often share dreams, because it seems indulgent. People tend to get a little glassy-eyed when you tell them you'd like to share a dream, because a.) you don't know if you'll be able to understand it, and b.) you have no idea what to say about it. So I promise, I won't tell you about many dreams.
I had this dream about a very special place. And in this place there were people who believed in Jesus Christ. They believed that he has the words of eternal life. They believe that he died, and rose, and ascended into heaven, and will come again.
And in this place the people who believe in Jesus get together regularly to share the wine and bread, and read the Scripture together, and sing songs, and pray, and connect with each other at a heart to heart level.
And then, when they're not together at this place, they pray for each other, they try to draw new folks into their community, they serve Christ in the places where they're employed, but they always come back to this place where they pray, and sing, and listen, and share.
That was my dream. The most amazing part of the dream was when this group of people knelt down to ask God for forgiveness. During the dream, I think I cried at that moment, because it amazed me how these people felt in their conscience that they wanted to pick up their crosses more than they had. That they weren't "there" yet, and they wanted to ask God to forgive them for not giving as much of themselves as they could have. It was the most beautiful part of the dream.
Well, I had this dream on a Saturday night, so as you might imagine, the next day I got up to come to church. I have a little centering moment before the three services of the day begin, and so I was sitting on the second row, right here. And as I prayed, I closed my eyes and I began to think about my dream. It was a beautiful dream—all the praying, and singing, and sharing, and Scripture reading.
The carillon started ringing 8 o'clock, so I got up from my pew, and walked up to the chancel to start the service, and I looked out at the people gathered. And that's when it hit me. That's when it all became clear. It wasn't a dream. It's real.
What I am saying is: We might still have a ways to go. We might not have picked up our cross as much as we should, and we know that. But even still: We are the Church. We are the Kingdom of God. It's what we are, and, at the same time, what we are becoming.
I think that's pretty special. Don't you?