Saturday, September 2, 2017

Year A, Proper 17, Matthew 16.21-28, Our Cross to Bear

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen                      
“It’s the cross that I have to bear.”
What a statement.
When people make that statement they may mean many different things.
Merriam-Webster defines “cross to bear” in the following way:  a problem that causes trouble or worry for someone over a long period of time We all have our crosses to bear. The loss was a heavy cross for her to bear.”
Often when people us the phrase “cross to bear” they do so with deep resentment.
A woman in a difficult marriage declares that putting up with her husband is her ‘cross to bear’.
Or sometimes it is used with respect to suffering that we experience.
He viewed his cancer as his ‘cross to bear’.
Often, when people say that they have a cross to bear, they do so resigning themselves to put up with someone or something undesirable.
And most often, when people see their situation as a cross to bear, they are not talking about something that they want to do, but rather they are talking about a situation that is thrust upon them, something that they have no other choice but to put up with it.
But is this what Jesus is talking about when he says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Jesus is talking about something different than just the miscellaneous suffering that we sometimes must endure in life. 
He’s not just talking about and undesirable circumstance that we must endure and most certainly resent.
Nor is he talking about some fatalistic resignation to dying a humiliating death.
Our cross to bear is simply this, that we love others as he first loved us. 
That’s it.  It’s that simple.
Father Robert Barron writes:
“Jesus summed up his teaching with a word that must have been gut-wrenching to his first century audience: "Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple." Now, his listeners knew what the cross meant. It meant a death in utter agony, nakedness, and humiliation. They didn't think of the cross automatically in religious terms, as we do, for they knew it in all of its awful power. 
Yet Jesus places this terrible image at the foundation of the spiritual life. Unless you crucify your ego, you cannot be my follower.
But how should we take up our own cross? It requires not just being willing to suffer, but being willing to suffer as Jesus did, absorbing violence and hatred through our forgiveness and non-violent love, thereby transforming it.
We turn to Jesus on his cross and carry ours in imitation--loving what he loved, despising what he despised. We "come after him" through own sacrificial love.”  - Fr. Robert Barron, Lenten Reflection Day 17
We follow Jesus, by loving as he loved, caring more for the other than we do for our selves, to the extent that we are willing to suffer for their sake, and to forgive them as he has forgiven us.

When I first visited St. Nikolai’s Lutheran Church in Novgorod, Russia the delegation from our congregation sat down one evening after dinner for a conversation.  One of the topics that evening was to address some of the things that Russians thought about us, and we about them.
During that conversation, one of the Russians made the statement:  “Americans wonder why people around the world don’t like them.  But we hear, that you don’t even like yourselves, so why would the rest of the world like you?”
That’s an interesting statement, isn’t it?
One of the things that followed in the conversation was the issue of privacy that is so important for Americans, and so foreign for Russians.
One of the differences they pointed out was how important it was for them to live in a village.  Even when Russians live out in the country side, as farmers, for example, they build their houses in villages.  They can’t imagine anyone wanting anything different.  Who would want to live alone.
We had to admit that American’s value privacy so much that in a variety of ways we erect fences so that we don’t have to deal with our neighbors.  This desire for privacy has often resulted in our isolating ourselves in a variety of ways. 
And I would say that it’s one of the ways that we seek to avoid ‘taking up our crosses and following Jesus.
We live in a time that we have become increasingly polarized.
The divisions among us are so pronounced that they are on public display for everyone to see. 
And we are becoming less tolerant of each other.
We see this in the harshness of the politics of our land.
We see this in the Church.
For decades our Church wrestled with questions surrounding human sexuality.  And the differences could not be more pronounced.
And there is hardly a congregation that has not been affected by that conversation.
The one thing that is clear is that we do not agree.
“hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good” Paul says.
The problem is that we don’t agree what is evil and what is good.
That’s why our Church has been divided over the question of homosexuality.
One side sees homosexuality as the evil that we should hate, and heterosexuality as the good that we should hold fast to.
The other side sees prejudice against gay and lesbian persons as the evil to be opposed, and love and acceptance of all people as the good to hold fast to. 
What happened in our Church was that through our decision making process, we agreed that congregations could make the decision, specifically regarding what role gay and lesbian people could play in the Church.
In making this decision, the Church lifted up the concept of ‘reconciled diversity’.  We could have different positions and convictions and still be one in Christ. 
Well that didn’t work out as planned.
There were winners and losers.
And those who felt deep within their hearts that they lost, left.
At the deepest level, though, it was not about winning and losing, it was about a fundamental difference about what is good and what is evil.
When the Church decided that congregations could call gay and lesbian pastors, in committed relationships, and could also bless same sex unions—there were those who were convinced that we no longer hated what was evil and held fast to what was good, but just the opposite.
There was a belief that the Church now loved what was evil, and abandoned what was good.
This disagreement is so great, that we have suffered as a Church because of it.
Congregation after congregation has been divided.
And many, including our own, have lost members.
Jesus said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
“But how should we take up our own cross?” Father Bannon writes, “It requires not just being willing to suffer, but being willing to suffer as Jesus did, absorbing violence and hatred through our forgiveness and non-violent love, thereby transforming it.”
To take up our cross, means to love and forgive.
What does forgiveness mean?
It means simply this:
That we do not count someone’s trespasses against them.
That’s what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:19.
We are called to so passionately love one another that we do not hold their trespasses against them.
We may and will disagree on many things.
And because of our disagreements we will do things that are harmful to each other.
But if we are to be one in Christ, as we are called to be, we need only agree on one thing, and that is to love as we have been loved.
OK, I lied.
We also need to agree that loving as Christ loved, also means forgiving as Christ forgave.

Behind my house in Sandpoint is a cemetery.  Lakeview Cemetery.
And one of the nearest graves in the cemetery is that of George Chatfield, a dear parishioner of mine at First Lutheran.
George retired as a full bird colonel in the Air Force.
He was a pilot.  He flew jet fighters in the Korean War, and tankers for the rest of his career.
George would brag that politically he was a little to the right of Attila the Hun.  He had a pocket radio that he was always listening to lest he miss something that Rush Limbaugh said.
George and I couldn’t be more different.
But one thing George said, as a man of faith, that I deeply respected was this:
That if someone asks for our forgiveness, we must give it.  We have no choice.  For that’s what Jesus commanded.
In some ways, George was indeed ‘my cross to bear’, and I was ‘his cross to bear’.
What does it mean to take up our cross and follow Jesus?
It means to so love one another that we do not allow our differences to divide us.
It means that we so love one another that we do not count trespasses against each other.
It means that we bear one another’s burdens and above all, care for one another.
It means that when they suffer, we suffer with them.
But more that, it means that we are willing even to suffer because of them, yet still love them.

May this peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen

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