Sermon delivered by the Rev. Cristina Rathbone
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “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, 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? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Take up Your Cross
Many years ago now, when I was about half way through seminary and was travelling around looking for a place to do my field education, I walked into a supervisor’s office for an interview and quickly found myself engaged in a powerful conversation about the cross.
I’d come straight from the Boston Common where I’d been working with some of the unhoused folks who made their home there, and was full of hope and joy and the kind of energy that comes from doing something that feels just right, so looking back on it now, I realize that I must have been pretty annoying. I mean, there I was all plumped-up with eager anticipation and a sort of un-informed optimism, and here was this clearly tired priest who was obviously having a hard morning, or week, or month maybe even, whose day was made now even worse by having this beaming seminary student to deal with. At the time, though, I was taken up short by this potential supervisor’s seeming negation of all that felt so full of promise to me in the gospel, and the interview struck me hard.
Some of the things he said were so startling to me that I wrote them down – and I still remember to this day — things like: “We must learn to eat ashes” And: “It’s about getting people to see that they are not as important as they think they are” And: “Death is all around us.”
After half hour or so of this kind of thing, I was beginning to want to get out of there, back to the street with the breeze and the trees and the people of all kinds getting on with their lives. It wasn’t until he turned to me and said: “It seems to me that you need to go out and find your cross,” though, that I lost it. To my horror and my shame, I heard myself saying, pretty firmly, as some of you might already be able to imagine: “Find my cross?! I don’t have to go any place to find my cross! There are crosses stacked up higgledy-piggledy all around me – I’m lucky if I don’t trip up over them on my way out the door!”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, our interview ended shortly after this. And while I wished for years that it hadn’t gone the way it did, I still think of that meeting every time I read this passage, and still wrestle with its implications… Because, I mean, is Jesus’ call for us to ‘deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him’ really a direction to turn our backs on joy? Is it really an invitation to choose, every time, death and ash and pain? I don’t think so. I don’t — at least not consciously. There is, though, a sort of underground current within me that continues, occasionally, to suggest that if I ever find myself in a place of ease, or even joy, that I am somehow doing something wrong.
Do you know what I mean by this tucked away idea that a thing isn’t really good for us – can’t be good for us — unless it tastes bad? If you do, even slightly, then it’s no wonder we sometimes get confused by Christ’s call to the cross. God, we know somewhere deep down, really is truly good for us – and therefore, the logic goes, the process of turning to and ultimately making contact with God must be, in some way, scary, or painful, or at the very least, hard and difficult and dry.
And the truth is that it can be – at least sometimes. I’ve spoken about our fear and reluctance to follow God’s path quite a bit over the past couple of weeks and the truth is that we are afraid, at least some of us, some of the time, because our journeys with God often do involve pain – right? – and regret and grief and loss. They just do.There are no shortages of crosses along the path to redemption.
But here’s the thing: The crosses are not the point of the path. Nor even are they proof that we’re on the right path in the first place.
The truth is that Jesus really does call us to take up our cross and follow him, but he does so because he wants us to flourish – not wither away. Over and over again he speaks about fullness of life, and the completion of joy, and the spreading of peace, and of the power of love-and-of-communion to heal. He came in humility to build us up, not tear us down. He came, as John tells us, not to condemn the world – nor to encourage its people to suffer – but to heal us all and to make us new through love.
It’s just that to do that, he says, we have to work with the reality we have been given, whatever it is; to open our arms to it quite literally the way Christ did on the cross, and allow the fullness of all that we find there (good and bad, beautiful and ugly, soothing and disturbing) to touch us — even as we touch it.
Fullness of life must include the cross, that’s the thing. It has to, or it wouldn’t be full – it would be partial and cramped and afraid. Fullness of life includes the cross — and transfigures it.
I was thinking about all of this all week as I prepared for this sermon, and even more when I read an extraordinary article written by our own Steve White the other day. As most of you know, Steve used to serve as a chaplain at Princeton. He was at the university on September 11th, 2001 and exactly one month later – on October the 11th – he travelled to St. Paul’s Chapel near the World Trade Center to spend the day as a clergy volunteer, offering help to the rescue and recovery workers there. I hope it’s ok to say that Steve seemed to feel, at the very least, ambivalent about doing this – scared and helpless and inadequate. And who wouldn’t? How would anyone deal with the reality of violence, horror and death on that scale? What would it do to him? What could he do for others? Perhaps it would be better to stay away? But he went anyway, just as he was. And what did he find there? Well, for the most part I’ll let Steve speak for himself – I got his permission to print copies of the article he wrote, so you can read it with a little time and a little space whenever you choose to at home. But for now, and with the humility of someone who wasn’t there, I want to suggest that what Steve found at Ground Zero that day was…well, everything. Ruin and death and pain and fear and exhaustion for sure, but also hope and love and faith and communion and meaning and awe.
Steve didn’t have to go looking for his cross that day. It was right there, staring him in the face. All he had to do was go meet it. And then shoulder its weight for a time, sharing it with others, bringing to it all he was, even as it brought him so much more.
What he did that day, it seems to me, is deny himself (his fears, his safety, his comfort), take up his cross (the horrifying truth of Ground Zero) and follow Jesus who was there too, of course, in super abundance, amidst the rubble and the grief.
I believe it is what Jesus calls every one of us to do today too: perhaps less dramatically but no less faithfully for that:
First, recognize your life for all that it is – good and bad, broken and whole, comfortable and downright scary. Then claim the whole thing, say yes to it and raise it high, this life that is your cross, and carry it forward in trust, secure in the knowledge that God is with you as you go – and that God’s wish for you, or more than that – God’s yearning, God’s deepest desire for you – is that your life become one with God’s own abundance, and that your wounds – every last one of them – be healed.