This sermon was preached on the Thursday after Ash Wednesday, March 2, 2017 by the Rev. Dr. Susanna Singer. The texts for this sermon are: Deuteronomy 30: 15-20, Psalm 1, and Luke 9: 18-25.
“Choose life!” urges Moses in our first reading, and which one of us wouldn’t? (I want to add, to our visitors, “Choose CDSP too!” but that’s probably not a legitimate use of the privilege of the pulpit!) But isn’t life what we all want: prosperity and blessings and length of days; a noble purpose, a happy ever after ending, and a glorious legacy?
Moses, and our Psalmist too, make it clear that real life can be ours, if only we will serve and obey the living God. I get suspicious about that, though, suspicious of myself, suspicious that what I think is life, and what I think is serving the living God, doesn’t actually have a lot to do with God’s vision.
There’s been a big and intractable example of this in my life for the past few years. I live in San Francisco, and one of the things I face every day is the presence of chronically homeless people who live on the streets around my home. And the religious exchange model that I construct from Deuteronomy and Psalm 1, the model that says that if I am only good enough, I will have the good things that I want, that model just doesn’t work in this situation.
Good enough? Does that mean that all those suffering people I encounter every day are simply bad human beings, (not) getting what they (don’t) deserve? I don’t think so. Good enough? Does that mean if I give enough, if I’m humane and pleasant enough, helpful enough, sympathetic enough … what will happen?
What I am secretly hoping of course, in my sinful, narrow little heart, is that this big problem will go away because it makes me too uncomfortable. I’m hoping that “my” streets will magically be quiet and clean; that I will not have to face the heartbreak of seeing people sick, cold, and hungry in “my” space; and that I will not have to admit that I cannot solve this problem despite – or perhaps because of – all my privilege. My secret hopes have nothing whatever to do with God’s vision of life, certainly not for the un-housed people on the streets, and not for me either.
And then Jesus comes along in tonight’s Gospel, and completes the job of busting my “be good and get goodies” religious racket.
Jesus is not who the disciples think he is; the life he offers is not remotely what they expect; and what he promises if they serve and obey the living God is absolutely not what they want. The disciples are clear that most people see Jesus as a re-make of an old story: he’s John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the ancient prophets. But above all he’s a known quantity, part of the established divine narrative, the story that promises the good life in exchange for faithfulness.
Peter, however, is bold enough to blurt out a new understanding: maybe, just maybe, Jesus is the Messiah of God, the one sent to redeem Israel. Now God knows, occupied Israel could do with some redeeming from the Empire of Rome. But by proposing this new idea, Peter inadvertently opens a completely new can of worms. He makes it possible for Jesus to reverse everyone’s preconceptions about who “the Messiah of God” will be, and what the new order of things that his life and death will inaugurate is all about.
It is not about any kind of military redemption, any kind of triumphant vindication for a subjugated and oppressed people. It is all about suffering, rejection, and death. Above all, for Jesus, it’s about taking up his cross – and for his followers, it’s about taking up their own cross. The identity of the disciples of Jesus is apparently going to be a cross-shaped identity.
Now, that whole concept is a really hot potato. It has been used by Christians to oppress many people – people of color, poor people, women, minorities – who have been told over and over again to take up their cross, usually by those who have a vested interest in maintaining their own power and privilege. And it has been trivialized, over-used in relation to ordinary human suffering. “Oh, it’s just my cross to bear.” Of course all human suffering is real, and of course it should be taken seriously – God surely takes our suffering very seriously indeed.
But the cross is not ordinary, and it’s not about ordinary suffering. It is, however, central – central to who Jesus is, central to what he calls us to do and to be as his disciples, and central to the upside-down kind of life he is offering us.
When Jesus tells us to take up our cross, he is telling us to identify with the class of people (including Jesus himself) who are most likely to be crucified – those who oppose unjust regimes, and who are poor and powerless besides. Crucifixion was reserved especially for them, and it was designed to stamp out their humanity.
Other versions of this Gospel story portray the disciples’ dismay and rejection of this very idea, and especially of Jesus’ invitation to them to walk the same road. And when it came to the point, they couldn’t, they didn’t walk that road with him. Jesus took up his cross alone.
I am not wild about the idea that there’s a cross out there with my name on it, either. So I need to wrestle with the implications of Jesus’ command to take up my cross – its implications for a disciple like myself, a person of privilege, whose life is constituted in such a way as to avoid suffering and loss at all costs.
The cross is solely and completely an instrument of death. And Jesus is dead wrong about the “taking it up” thing. Nobody, in his day, ever took up their cross willingly. It was laid upon you, loaded onto your naked, bleeding back, by the executioners of the Empire. Nobody “took it up,” except Jesus.
What Jesus did with the cross was to use it to shatter the moral foundations of the Empire, in which might makes right, in which money and power talk, in which the little people are under the boots of the conquerors, in which resisters get what is coming to them. Jesus turned that whole rotten system upside-down.
Not by being “the Messiah of God” that his disciples were hoping for. Not by beating the Empire at its own game, but by taking vulnerable non-resistance to the level of an art form, in order to re-make the world – in all its violence – into the image of God.
“You want to come out with swords and cudgels to arrest me?
Let me heal your servant’s cut-off ear.
You want to intimidate me into telling you me who I am, and whose authority I work under?
Thank you, but no, I will not give you your answers – I operate under a different authority, so far above yours as to make you laughable.
You want to break me with your brutality, to make me curse God and die whimpering?
I will forgive you; I will pray for you; I will turn towards others in love even when I have been skewered naked onto the Empire’s torture and execution machine.”
It is because Jesus does this to death that resurrection happens. His systematic taking apart of the Empire’s way of death makes space for God’s way of life to break through and change everything.
Jesus won that battle for us all, once and for all; it doesn’t have to be won again. But it has to be lived again, by us, in the only way we can – by taking up our own cross daily. That means identifying with, standing in solidarity with, suffering with, all those whom today’s Empires brand as “God-forsaken:” the outcasts, the despised, the resisters of the way-things-are, all the people who are treated as less than human. It means standing up with and for people who get their crosses laid upon them, who don’t have the luxury of choosing whether to take them up or not, as I do.
For a respectable, privileged Christian like myself, taking up my cross means letting Jesus break apart, piece by piece, my own participation in the power of the Empire, just as he shattered the Empire itself from his cross.
In practical, everyday terms, it means letting go of my self-righteous indignation about “the homeless problem.” It means coming out from behind my defenses and letting myself really see and be touched by the humanity of the people asleep on the San Francisco street outside my front door. It means opening my mouth and speaking to them, asking their names, getting to know them as Linda and Nick and Lee and Judy – as children of God like me. It means making their interests my own, and being willing to pay in full for doing that. Only if I all do these things can the cross continue to do its subversive work of shaking the moral foundations of the Empire in my own life, which is in part built on imperial privilege.
The hymn we will sing at the end of tonight’s service ends like this: “For only those who bear the cross may hope to wear the glorious crown.” But the thing is, cross and crown are not an exchange. We’re so far beyond the world of exchange here. When you follow Jesus, the cross is the only crown that there is.
Working out how to help my sinful, narrow little heart say yes to that truth just a little bit more fully is going to be my daily work this Lent. Only in this way I can serve and obey the living God and choose real life.
 I am indebted to my colleague, Paul Fromberg, for this understanding of the cross.
Image from TracyHall Art.