The Perspective of the Cross

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost/Lectionary 22, Year A
August 31, 2008
Matthew 16:21-28

Grace, Mercy and Peace be to you from God the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 
Amen.

My oldest daughter, Talitha, is beginning to learn about perspective.
She understands that our current position determines how we see something.
So, when we’re playing “hide and seek” in our neighborhood playground,
    she cleverly hides behind a pole or tree or piece of playground equipment . . .
    but she doesn’t stay still.
She just doesn’t stay there and let us find her.
As we approach her hiding place, she moves, always keeping the tree between us and her,
    always keeping herself hidden,
    knowing that where we’re standing affects what we see,
        and what we don’t see.

Perspective.
In my junior year of college I spent a semester at a university in Temuco,
a small city in southern Chile.
On one of my first days there I wore a t-shirt my grandmother had given me,
a t-shirt that sported Pennsylvania’s tourism slogan:
Pennsylvania: America Starts Here.
And so one of my university classmates asked me in Spanish what the shirt said.
I translated the slogan into Spanish – Pennsylvania: America empieza aqui.
He gave me a look, and then asked me when Pennsylvania was founded. 
1690s, I responded.
He looked intently at me – 1690s? 
150 years before Penn’s Woods were settled,
The city of Santiago, Chile,
was one of the last major settlements in Latin America to be established.
And long before 1690 or 1540,
indigenous communities had long populated the continents now know as the Americas.
So, how could I get away with wearing a t-shirt
claiming that America –
a geopolitical name claimed by both North and South Americans –
began in Pennsylvania?
I didn’t wear that shirt for the rest of my stay in Chile.
I had gained a new perspective.

Perspective.
One of the hardest things to do is to change one’s perspective.
We each see the world through particular lenses –
    lenses crafted by our culture, our personality, our family history,
    our economic situation . . .
These characteristics go a long way in explaining how we look at the world.
Same thing goes for how we read the Bible.
Today we English-speaking, Fairfax County living, Lutheran Christians
    read and hear Bible stories in a very different way than did the earliest Christians.
I say that because . . .
today’s Gospel reading requires us to change our perspective,
    because it’s one of those readings that we can’t just read from our
    21st century English-speaking, Fairfax County living, Lutheran perspective.
I mean, there are some biblical texts –
    God is love, love your neighbor as yourself, the loaves and fishes –
    that are pretty straight-forward, that translate pretty easily over 2000 years.
But then there are stories such as today’s story –
    particularly that line about “take up your cross and follow me”
that require us to try – as much as possible –
to read it through the eyes of those early Christians,
to get their perspective on these words of Jesus.
I say this because I fear that our Western culture has watered down this text,
    has turned the notion of cross-carrying into a trite, throw-away phrase
    about every-day burdens and inconveniences:
        “Oh, it’s my cross to bear!”
But the cross is so much more than that . . .
So let’s try to change our perspective.  Let’s try to read this text with different eyes.

 

Christianity began as a minority religion,
a religion whose adherents were marginalized and persecuted
for believing that a man rejected by the religious authorities
and brutally executed by the civil authorities
was God. 
For more than three hundred years Christianity endured everything
from social ostracism to outright oppression and persecution.
Quite a different perspective, quite a different experience than today’s United States,
    where political leaders speak openly about their Christian faith
    and where an evangelical preacher can interview political candidates
on national television.

In that era of oppression, those first three hundred years of the Christian faith,
the most significant and enduring traditions of the church were developed –
the New Testament books were written,
the Bible itself was assembled;
patterns for Christian worship that persist to this day were established;
rites and rituals surrounding Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were developed;
and the foundation of orthodox theology was articulated
in the writings of the early church fathers
and in the formulation of the Apostles’ Creed,
a creed we here at King of Kings confess every Sunday. 
Under the weight of oppression, the church was born. 
Our religion, at its origins, is an oppressed religion.
Or put another way, it is a religion of the oppressed.

Keeping in mind, then, this context of oppression and persecution,
    Jesus’ invitation to take up our cross and follow him
        becomes much more than a trite phrase
about life’s daily inconveniences or burdens.
The cross was the Roman Empire’s primary tool of intimidation, torture, and execution.
Much like the Nazi swastika or the Ku Klux Klan’s burning cross,
    the Roman Empire’s cross struck fear into the hearts of those subjected to Roman rule.
Jesus’ invitation to take up your cross, then,
    is not a call to humbly endure some weighty burden, as we often understand it today.
No.  Let’s look at this from the early Christian perspective:
    Jesus’ invitation to the oppressed is to confront their oppressors,
to take up your cross is an invitation to face the fear, to engage the evil.
Jesus’ invitation to take up the cross is an invitation
    to claim that symbol of oppression, rather than allow it to claim you,
    to lift up your cross rather than let it lift you up,
to live not in fear but in faith,
        and by doing so to challenge oppression itself
by ridding it of its power to intimidate, its power to inspire fear.

 

We might not ever truly understand the kind of oppression
those first generations of Christians experienced.
Few of us could even fathom being targeted, arrested, and killed because of our religion.
Just 20 some years ago in El Salvador, however, the church faced persecution.
El Salvador was and is an overwhelmingly Christian country,
    but during that country’s civil war in the 1980s,
many Christians spoke out in faith against the injustices of the government,
and found themselves at the wrong end of death squad rifles. 
Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero repeatedly preached against the injustices
    of the civil war and the suffering of the poor
    from his pulpit in the cathedral and in other parishes around El Salvador.
On March 24, 1980, while saying Mass at the chapel of a small catholic hospice center,
    he was shot killed by an un-uniformed death squad.
Several years later similar death squads entered the campus of the Central American University
    in search of the Roman Catholic theologians whose writings, teachings and preaching
    highlighted the plight of the oppre
ssed and challenged the government’s moral authority.
Six priests were killed in the early morning hours,
    along with their housekeeper and her daughter.
That same day, Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez –
another outspoken critic of the government and its injustices –
was sought after, a death squad breaking into his church to capture or kill him.
    Bishop Gomez was not found.

These Christians took up their cross, confronted evil,
refused to allow fear to overwhelm their faith, and followed Jesus . . .
followed Jesus to the cross, risking – and for many, suffering – death in the process.

But this is not our situation.
We do not live in an empire, as did those early Christians,
that could punish us for adhering to a small, obscure religious sect
(though members of small, obscure religious sects
are rarely warmly embraced, either, by our society).
Thankfully, we do not live in a country where death squads seek
to silence the voices of the government’s critics.
Living in a country which honors freedom of religion and freedom of speech,
    and where the overwhelming majority of citizens are Christian –
        in stark contrast to Christianity’s early years –
    understanding Christianity’s origins in oppression –
        or assuming early Christianity’s posture of a persecuted church –
        can be difficult to do.
In fact, why bother?
We can simply change the story and forget the past,
or at least forget about that part of our church’s history,
write it off as irrelevant to our situation today.
We can turn Christianity from a religion that cared deeply
about the material concerns of people –
        Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry, by the way –
and turn it into a religion that would keep to its spiritual self and
have little to do with the world.
We could do that.  And indeed, much of Christianity has turned into that –
    a disconnected spiritualism that is more akin to self-help than the global renewal
we read about in Genesis, the prophets, the psalms, the Gospels and more;
        or more like a personal hobby than a holy encounter with God in the world.
But we can’t.  We can’t be content to see the world only from our own perspective.
We have to be willing to move a little bit – even my five year old daughter knows this –
    we have to be willing to move a little bit if we want to avoid falling into a trap.
But what does all this mean? 
If “take up your cross” comes out of the context of oppression,
and yet if we find ourselves in quite a different context,
    what does it mean to take up our cross and follow Jesus?
Dr. Bruce Birch, dean at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC,
        and noted Old Testament scholar,
    suggests that we who struggle to understand the experience of oppression
        would do well to walk with, listen to, to gain the perspective of others
        who do experience such oppression. 

If a largely white, middle class social location is our norm,
    we would do well to change our perspective,
    to spend time with other peoples, looking at the world – and the Bible –
        from their perspective.
And I think therein lies the answer to our question –
    taking up our cross means changing our perspective.
    Just as Jesus challenged the early Christians to change their perspective
        from one of fear to faith,
        from one of death to one of life,
    so too does Jesus challenge us today to change our perspective,
        to exchange the comfort of an acculturated Christianity for
the posture of a persecuted church,
        to care less about spiritual self-renewal than about the
            presence of God in those persecuted
on account of their race, religion, gender,
sexual identity, immigration status . . .
That is to say . . . taking up our cross requires us to change our perspective,
    to challenge oppression rather than apathetically sit by,
    to be our brother’s keeper,
    to walk in the face of oppression, not in the ways of oppression,
    to confront evil rather than coexist with it.
Are you ready to do this?  Are we gonna do this?

Yeah, it scares the crap out of me, too.
I look at Oscar Romero or Martin Luther King, Jr. or at the saints of the early church
    and I just shudder.
Who am I compared to these greats?  I couldn’t do what they do. 
    Their voice, their strength, their determination, their faith . . .
But, dear friends, all they did was follow.  Jesus led the way.
Take up your cross, and follow me, Jesus says.
Let us follow Jesus, dear friends, to this cross of life,
to this table of renewal,
past the waters of rebirth,
and into the world of holy encounter.
Let us change our perspective,
    let us not forget the posture of a persecuted church,
    and let us carry our cross,
    knowing that Jesus walks with us every step of the way.

Amen.  Thanks be to God.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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