Lectionary 24 (15th Sunday after Pentecost)
September 13, 2009
Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I remember when my oldest daughter, Talitha, was learning about perspective.
She understood that our current position determines how we see something.
So, when we played “hide and seek” in our neighborhood playground,
she cleverly hid behind a pole or tree or piece of playground equipment . . .
but she wouldn't stay still, as she had just a year or so earlier when we would play.
Rather, as we would approach her hiding place,
she'd move, 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.
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 in Pennsylvania or 1540 in Santiago,
indigenous communities had long populated the continents now know as the Americas.
So, he asked, how could I get away with wearing a t-shirt
claiming that America began in Pennsylvania?
I didn’t wear that shirt for the rest of my stay in Chile.
I had gained a new 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 faith, 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, Arlington 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, Arlington 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 can 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
for whom these stories were written down,
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!” we say.
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
For more than three hundred years Christianity endured everything
from social ostracism to outright religious persecution.
Quite a different perspective, quite a different experience than today’s United States,
where political leaders speak openly about their Christian faith.
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.
It was under the weight of oppression that the church was born.
Our religion, at its origins, was an oppressed religion.
Or put another way, it was 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 burden, as we often understand it today.
No. Let’s look at this from the early Christian perspective:
to take up your cross is an invitation to face the fear, to engage the evil
Jesus’ invitation to those oppressed by the cross
is to confront their oppressors with the cross.
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 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 free society).
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 as the faith of a very small minority –
understanding Christianity’s origins in oppression –
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.
But we can’t. To do so would be to do damage to the Scripture, our tradition, and our faith.
If “take up your cross” comes out of the context of oppression,
and yet if we find ourselves in quite a different context,
how do we who are not oppressed take up our cross and follow Jesus?
We can begin by changing our perspective.
If we see ourselves not as oppressed but as free,
perhaps we need to reflect again on the myriad ways that sin oppresses us –
from over consumption and greed,
to exploitation and disregard for our neighbor,
from pride and envy,
to covetousness and deceit.
That is, I wonder if we first need to assess whether the assumption
that we are not oppressed is even true.
I grew up saying the words of the confession of sin from the Lutheran Book of Worship:
we confess that we are in bondage to sin, and we cannot free ourselves.
We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
And I'll be honest … for many years I didn't believe those words.
I said them, but they rang empty to me,
they didn't really seem to be on target
with how I understood life, "free will" or sin.
But over time I came to see that indeed sin surrounds me,
that my will is not free,
and that those words of confession are quite true …
and perhaps don't even go far enough.
Brokenness, pain, envy, hatred, anger, conceit … these and more are part of my life,
and not only my life, but your life, our life, indeed, the life of our society and world.
Sin oppresses me, sin oppresses you, sin oppresses the world.
In our neglect of God's word and the Christian community,
we see sin at work.
In our personal transgressions against God and each other,
we see sin at work.
In the unequal distribution of even the most basic and essential of goods,
we see sin at work.
In random acts of violence that harm individuals and whole communities,
we see sin at work.
In the rule of a colonial government that would reign terror on an occupied people
through the heinous evil of the cross, we saw sin at work.
And Jesus, in calling us to take up the cross, invites us to confront the sin at work in the world,
to run toward it – cross on our backs – rather than flee from it.
In calling us to take up our cross, Jesus is calling us to confront the plague of sin in our lives,
to respond in faith, rather than fear, to the oppression we all share.
So, how do we take up our cross and confront the oppression of sin?
In part through the work of this congregation.
A glance at our draft budget for next year's ministry
shows that we are committed to funding an education ministry
where children and adults alike grow deeper
in their knowledge of the Bible and the God it reveals.
We are committed to a ministry of worship where in Word and Sacrament,
song and prayer and the gathering of Christian community
God nurtures faith and promises to speak to us.
A glance at our draft budget for next year's ministry
shows that we are committed to giving financial gifts to organizations
that serve the poor and the abused,
the prisoner and the refugee, the immigrant stranger to this land.
Every Saturday we distribute clothing to people who have need,
who cannot afford to walk into Target and purchase jeans or a shirt or shoe,
And in a few weeks members of this congregation will participate in the annual CROP Walk,
a community walk that raises funds for hunger relief programs locally and abroad.
These efforts are part of our congregation's response to Jesus' call to take up our cross,
to walk with Jesus with crosses on our backs into the face of oppression and sin.
Later this fall you'll be asked to consider how you might respond to our Lord's call
with financial support for this congregation's ministry.
If taking up your cross is a manner of confronting sin in faith,
then funding a ministry that confronts sin
through teaching God's word, serving the poor, worship and Christian witness,
is one manner of taking up your cross to follow Jesus.
However you do it, remember that taking up your cross is about confronting sin,
not merely putting up with day-to-day inconveniences.
Confronting sin – on a personal, community, or global level –
and comforting those affected by it,
is not an easy task.
For sure, in so doing Jesus, and many of his disciples and followers in every generation since,
have suffered and died for it.
But we don't do this alone.
We take up our cross with brothers and sisters in this place and in our neighborhoods,
alongside people of faith who for 2000 years have been treading the same path
first walked by Jesus,
a path of promise that leads us through sin and death and into everlasting life.
And therein lies the good news – that Jesus leads before us,
showing us the way,
and revealing to us the promise of new life.
May we, in carrying our crosses in this world,
share this good news in word and deed,
showing through our lives the new life promised to all through the cross of Jesus Christ.