Carrying the cross

File:Gelati Gospels MSS (2).jpg

Thursday

Luke 14:25-33

27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

When I was twelve or so I learned how to tie a hangman’s nose. I don’t know why it interested me. Perhaps it was due to the westerns I had watched on TV. Perhaps it was because my cousin, who showed it to me, invested it with a certain emotional energy – it was ‘cool’. Perhaps it’s just because the knot itself was an interesting puzzle. As a white boy in the California suburbs it had no other meaning to me. It did not speak of terrorism, of the brutal realities of Jim Crow segregation, of the violence we would come to see thanks to Bull Connor and his dogs, billy clubs and fire hoses. The knot had the vague numinous power of something associated with death, but it did not fill me with the fear of lynching for failing to respect the strict social requirements of the dominant culture. It is only later that I learned that this knot was a symbol of terror and oppression.

Such was the cross in Roman hands. It was an instrument of subjugation, a brutal demonstration of power and the consequences of challenging that power. Any sign of resistance on the part of a slave towards his master, any rebellion against the social order, was answered with this bloody instrument.

We wear crosses of gold and silver, now, adorned sometimes with precious jewels. We put them on bumper stickers and doorknockers and give them as wedding gifts for a new couple to put on their living room wall. Imagine giving a newly married African American couple in the 1950’s a hangman’s noose for their wall.

The cross has been robbed of its power. For the generation threatened with crucifixion in the arena, fed to the lions, or used as the ancient equivalent of cannon fodder for mass entertainment – for this generation the meaning of the cross was quite clear. They had taken the symbol of oppression and used it as a symbol of liberation. They took the instrument of Roman dominion and used it to proclaim God’s dominion. The symbol of Rome’s power became a witness to the ultimate triumph of the reign of God.

To take up the cross was to endure the hostility of the world for the sake of the world to come, the world God was creating, the world where all imperial powers are thrown down, all injustice overthrown, where debts are released and prisoner’s freed, where neighbors are loved and bread is shared, where the honored are not those who rule but those who serve.

Those who live in “the real world” mock the “starry-eyed dreamers.” But Jesus was not a dreamer. He saw the world clearly. He knew his fate. Yet all the might of imperial Rome could not silence his witness that a world in which the Spirit of God governed was coming – indeed, was already present. Sins were forgiven, the sick healed, the scattered gathered, the dead raised. Bread was already being shared, the light shining, a new creation dawning.

Those who would follow in Jesus’ footsteps must be clear-eyed, too. It’s not a requirement to give up everything to follow him; it’s just a fact. You can’t hold on to a dying world and participate in a new one. You can’t hold on to hate and follow love. You can’t hold on to fear and follow faith. You can’t hold on to wealth, power and privilege and follow hope, mercy and service.

The dying world doesn’t go away easily. Hate and fear, violence and shame abound in us and around us. And the dying world resists the birth of the new. Always. But the new is come. And those who would be disciples should recognize that we are not on a pilgrimage to the old Jerusalem (after which we all go home to our same old lives); we are on a pilgrimage to the New Jerusalem, the city God creates, the world God governs, the community where the fruits of the Spirit reign: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGelati_Gospels_MSS_(2).jpg By Anonymous (Center of MSS (Tbilisi, Georgia)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Amazing grace

Thursday

Mark 10:32-45

File:Francisco de Zurbarán 020.jpg43Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

Again and again Jesus keeps coming back to this theme. The realm of God is not about power, honor and glory; it is about service, suffering and love. It is about showing honor. It is about taking the lowest place at the banquet. It is about sharing one’s goods not amassing them. It is about forgiveness not revenge. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” not “Blessed are the victorious.” Our teacher and lord has bent to wash our feet. The anointed of God bears our sins. The Messiah suffers rather than strikes down. Jesus eats with sinners; he doesn’t parade with the righteous – though he eats with the righteous, too, and seeks no revenge when they treat him without respect.

Mary is welcome at his feet as a disciple. Mary Magdalene is the first to see him risen. He does not shame the woman at the well, or the woman who weeps over his feet, or the woman who reaches through the crowd to touch the hem of his robe. He does not shame the family that lacks sufficient wine, but blesses the wedding with wonder. He touches the leper. He gathers the children in his arms. He lays down his life for the world.

It is shocking to hear Jesus say: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him.” And if it weren’t so familiar to us, we would be shocked, too.

And this declaration doesn’t end by Jesus saying “But I will get my revenge!” It doesn’t end with the threat of hell fire. It ends simply: “and after three days he will rise again.”

God’s answer to human evil is not to punish it, but to give life. God’s answer to hate is love. God’s answer to offense is forgiveness. God’s answer to greed is generosity. God’s answer to pride is humility. God’s answer to his squabbling disciples’ quest for honor is a towel, a basin and a job for only the lowliest foreign-born slave. Our central act as a church is to break bread and hear Jesus say, “my body is broken for you.”

We are like James and John. We have a long ways to go before we inhabit this realm of grace.

But it is an amazing realm.

 

Image: Francisco de Zurbarán [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Around a single table

Lutheran Altar

Altar at the Castle Church in Torgau

Sunday Evening

Mark 4:35-41

38 They woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

I don’t know whether it was the mood of the whole worshipping assembly today or just mine, but the tragedy in South Carolina seemed to hang over worship. It rattled around in the sermon about Jesus stilling the storm. Perhaps I should have spoken directly about the violence that invaded Emanuel Church where nine laid down their lives – or had them stolen away – but I was not ready.   Nevertheless, it was there when we talked about the power of God’s word that brought order, beauty and goodness out of the chaos of the primeval waters – a word that Jesus had authority to speak. It was there when I talked about the storm at sea through which God obstructed Jonah’s flight from God’s command to bring God’s word to the hated Ninevites. Jonah would rather perish than carry to Assyria a message that might save Israel’s enemy. It’s a comical story with a profound message – a message Jesus takes up when he declares:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:43-45)

We don’t really want to hear that God loves everyone. And, like Jonah, there is a part of us that runs from that assignment. Who wants to bear witness to skinheads and white supremacists? Who wants to challenge bigoted and prejudicial speech? The safety of our like-minded churches is much to be preferred. Or, at least, what we thought was safety.

All hate is linked. We need to get this through our heads and hearts and souls. All hate is linked. We cannot disseminate vitriolic emails about Muslims, Obama, Democrats or Republicans, or climate change supporters or deniers, without adding to the level of hate and intolerance in the country. We cannot oppose the building of a mosque without adding to the desecration of all religious traditions. We may enjoy the snarky remarks, exaggerations and falsehoods on the news channel of our choice, but we are adding to the spiritual pollution of our time.

All hate is linked. And it is linked over time. We are not far in time from lynching as a public festival, with children in their Sunday best watching a body in flames. We are not far in time from segregated schools and segregated buses and segregated workforces. We are not far in time when persons of color died because a white hospital would not treat them. We are not far in time when a white woman’s word sealed the fate of a black man, any black man. We are not far in time when white sheriffs picked up black men for ‘vagrancy’ and ‘hired’ them out to work in the orange groves. We are not far in time when a black child with a toy gun is shot on sight.

All hate is linked. And it is linked over time. We have hated “Commies”. We have hated the Japanese before them. Interestingly, we tended to hate Nazi’s rather than Germans, but made no such distinction about imperialist Japan. We have hated the native peoples who occupied this land. We have hated the Irish when they first came to this land and, at various times, Italians and Jews and most other migrant groups in their time. We have allowed our hates to morph and shift rather than choose the path that Jesus’ proposed – well, actually, commanded.

The sin lies in all of us. And repentance doesn’t mean feeling guilt. It means changing our allegiance, changing our path, changing our loyalty from self-interest to the well being of our neighbor. It means changing from the spirit of our age to the Spirit of God. It means truth telling about our story and listening with care to the stories others tell. It means restraining our greed and considering well the welfare of the whole community. It means restraining our speech. As St. James records:

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” (1:26)

It means taking to heart what James declares when he says that the tongue is

a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. (3:8-12)

All hate is linked. But the eternal source of life, who commanded the sea to be still and brought forth the world of beauty and goodness, has come among us in this Nazarene. And he gathers us still, week after week, around a single table to remind us of his promise to gather all nations into the banquet of perfect peace. And he has made us his witnesses that our lost humanity can be restored.

“Love your enemies”

Saturday

File:Racial theories about Jesus Christ.pngMatthew 5

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

To be fair, the scripture nowhere says, “hate your enemy” – though there are plenty of vindictive verses in the scriptures about one’s enemies.

In the aftermath of the brutal destruction of Jerusalem, the author of Psalm 137 is full of bitterness towards Edom and says of Babylon 9Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”  Although technically this is not so much hate as revenge; these outsiders brutally harmed his group and the poet wants them to pay.

The psalmist declares, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?” (139:21) – though again, to be fair, the word ‘hate’ in the Biblical world wasn’t an emotion infused hostility and desire to harm; it was more of a detachment, regarding the other as a person for whom one has no obligation, no group solidarity.  To ‘hate’ those who ‘hate’ God is to have no fellowship, no regard, no concern for those who show no allegiance to God.

The scribes have taught that the commandment in Leviticus to love your neighbor applies only to fellow Israelites.  You have no obligation to those who are not of your tribe.  No need to grant them either mercy or justice.  No need to clothe them when they are naked, shelter them when they are homeless, or feed them when they are hungry.

But, Jesus has declared that the kingdom of God is dawning.  He is teaching his followers to live as citizens of God’s kingdom.  And here Jesus points out the simple truth that God sends rain on all.  God shows faithfulness and solidarity to all humanity.  God regards all people as members of his kin group.  We are all God’s children.  And if we are all God’s children, then there are no enemies, there are none outside the circle of our concern, there are none we should not receive as family, none we should allow to go hungry or cold or without a sip of cool water.  None who should languish untended in prison.

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel we will hear that great story about the sheep and the goats with those memorable words: “as you have done to the least of these you have done it to me.”  Those who treat everyone as if they were members of their family are the true children of the kingdom – and they will be acknowledged and welcomed as members of the household of God.