Take up your cross

Our congregation is often reminded that preachers at Holy Communion don’t get to pick their texts from the Bible. We are a people of the lectionary, a calendar of readings that takes us through much of the Bible through the course of three years. The readings are assigned by an international interdenominational committee, and sometimes I question their wisdom.

Our congregation is often reminded that preachers don’t pick their texts at Holy Communion because our Priest Associate, seminarians, and guest preachers like to complain about their assignments. “Mike gives away all the hard ones,” they say. You’ll notice, I haven’t mentioned Laurie yet. I can’t remember Laurie complaining about an assignment. Good on you. But for all the other preachers, let today’s record show. I don’t duck difficult texts, not always.

As a family with a new child in our home, “whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father, spouse, and child” was rough to read. As the rector of a church about to start renovations, Jesus’ taunt “here is the person who began construction, but couldn’t complete it!,” yeah, those words are more than a little terrifying. Let me assure you, our vestry has counted the costs again and again. Your treasurer has set aside a contingency fund. We’re going to finish this construction. Still, for my sake, say your prayers.

This is a tough Gospel, but I need to lay those personally difficult pieces aside. The stakes are higher than my new family dynamics. The stakes of the gospel are higher than our wonderful buildings. Jesus sums up today’s teaching in one challenging line. The hatred of family, the warnings about cost, they turn on this one phrase: “Whoever doesn’t carry their own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Difficult words.

As the Jesuit priest of blessed memory Daniel Berrigan rephrased, “If you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.”

I want to lay something at your feet, Episcopalians. I think are weak when it comes to the theology of the cross. Generally, writ large, our denomination, heck most of the denominations like us, progressive Presbyterians, progressive Lutherans, and Methodists, and the UCC we are pretty weak on the cross. We avoid it. We don’t like these words, in part, because we do not talk enough about the cross.

Not talking enough about the cross has consequences. Bad theology abounds in our so-called “Christian” nation. If we don’t have a good theology of the cross, all we have is the awful default version. There is a terrible American colloquialism surrounding this particular saying of Jesus. “That’s just my cross to bear.” Have you heard it? Have you said it? “That’s just my cross to bear?”

I chose the word “terrible” for this colloquialism because it is a way of spiritualizing and supposedly justifying awful situations. We often hear that phrase attached to a painful diagnosis, or an intractable struggle with mental illness. “That’s my cross to bear.” I have to tell you, this is bad theology, because it comes with a sense that we carry this load all on our own. If you’re carrying it alone, quietly, it’s not the cross. Even Jesus didn’t carry his cross alone. If you are suffering, quietly, the cross would ask you to lean on your community, to let them share your burden.

Most terribly I have heard the words “that’s my cross to bear” used to describe an ongoing situation of abuse from a spouse or parent. This is also bad theology. We need better theology. We need to offer the world a better vision. The cross isn’t about quiet suffering. Jesus asks no one to suffer alone. And Jesus asks no one to suffer in vain.

Jesus asks no one to suffer alone. And Jesus asks no one to suffer in vain. According to our faith, the cross is the location of transformation. Jesus’ suffering changes our world. Christians believe that the cross has real power to change our circumstances. The cross has real power to save us. Because with Christ we do not suffer alone and we do not suffer in vain.

Saying “that’s just my cross to bear” about abuse is bad theology, it misunderstands who we are in the mind of God. Let me say, in case there is someone who needs to hear these words, “God does not want you to stay quiet.” Abuse is hardly ever isolated. Someone who abuses a romantic partner often repeats the pattern of abuse with the next partner, or with children. A boss who abuses one staff member is likely to repeat the behavior with another. If there is a “cross to bear” in these situations it is this, “take courage, get out, get help, report the abuse.” Reporting the abuse can be awful. Telling the story again and again can be re-traumatizing. But telling the story, that may indeed be your cross to bear. Because telling the story has the power to stop the pattern. Making the report holds out the possibility that the abuser could be stopped. Telling the story might bring an end to the suffering.

Likewise your family’s homophobia, your addiction, your lack of self-esteem, these are not your crosses to bear. They aren’t, because in Christian theology crosses liberate. The power of the cross is precisely that an instrument of torture, an instrument of death brings salvation, brings hope, and health, and life to the world. The work of “taking up your cross” is about about setting the captive free. Bearing your cross isn’t about quiet suffering. The cross is always about liberation.

Sometimes crosses are personal, they’re about the dynamics of a family, or a workplace. Sometimes crosses are about speaking unpopular truth so that a local injustice can be stopped, so that a home or an office can be transformed. Sometimes the work of transformation is personal, and sometimes the work is societal.

I know many of you, like me, are struggling with what to do in these days. More than a dozen children have been murdered in St. Louis since the beginning of the year, victims of a gun violence emergency. Our governor refuses to call a special session of the Missouri House and Senate to deal with gun violence, though he will hold a special session to address nuances in sales taxes for cars. The governor’s party refuses to entertain the mayor of St. Louis’ proposal that cities be allowed to establish their own gun laws. Familiar political lines are drawn in the sand.

But the real frustration is inaction. No one seems to have a plan to stop the killing. No one, not the mayor, not the governor, not the city or county council has a plan to improve the relationship between the community and the police so that at least some of these murders might result in prosecution. The mayor of St. Louis has resorted to asking her wealthy campaign donors to bribe city residents into talking with the police. This tactic of offering a bribe to folks who come forward with information has not been received well in the black community. The trust in law enforcement officials remains abysmally low.

So where do we begin? I keep asking myself that question about these murdered kids, about the gun violence epidemic. Where do we begin? No one seems to have a winning strategy. No one seems to have a solution that could really transform the situation. Where do we begin?

Today, I want to suggest that we begin by doing something radical, that we take up the cross. Take up the work of the cross. I want to suggest that we help the families of the slain kids know what the cross teaches us: they do not suffer alone, and we will not let their suffering be in vain.

I want to propose that we take up this particular cross, that we continue to work, to build relationships, to advocate, to march, to call our representatives, that we say “do something,” that we demand leadership until a change is made, until kids stop dying.

Jesus does not abandon the suffering. This is true personally, and this is true on a societal level. Jesus makes the location of God’s salvation, God’s defining action to be a hill outside the city gate, among those the society calls criminals and outcasts. Jesus shows us a God who counts the suffering, who counts the poor, who counts those the society counts out. The cross is a sign of God’s commitment to walk with those who suffer, to stand with those who are persecuted, to transform the suffering world. When Jesus says, “take up your cross,” he invites his followers to stand with those the world crucifies.

The work of discipleship then is a decision to take up the cross, to go and to walk with the suffering, and to work until suffering is transformed. The work of discipleship is the work of not forgetting, of not allowing the news cycle to move on. The work of discipleship means staying restless, giving up comfort, paying the cost to transform the most intractable injustices.

Not easy stuff. The next time this lesson comes up, I’ll probably assign Laurie. At least she doesn’t complain about tough readings, yet. This is a difficult teaching from Jesus, but sometimes our difficult world requires difficult teaching. Taking up your cross isn’t easy work.

The work of the cross is often painfully slow. If I’ve learned one practical thing in all my years of ministry it’s this: God’s timeline doesn’t often conform to mine. But if I’ve learned anything good theology of the cross, it is this: with Christ no one suffers alone, and no one suffers in vain. If you choose to take up your cross, you will be in strange company, but good company. If you choose to follow Christ, to take up your cross, you’ll be standing with a wildly diverse band who believe the world can be re-shaped by sacrificial love.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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