Thursday, April 27 – The Rev. Dr. Randal Gardner

This sermon was preached for the Feast of Christina Rossetti on Thursday, April 27 by the Rev. Dr. Randal Gardner. The readings for this sermon were: Exodus 3:1-6, Psalm 84, Revelation 21:1-4, and Matthew 6:19-23.

What do we know about young Moses, the Moses we meet before this encounter with a burning bush? We know that he was:

  • Born to Hebrew woman
  • Rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter
  • Raised in Pharaoh’s home
  • Aware of his Hebrew heritage and saw the oppression of his people

We know that he:

  • Murders Egyptian
  • Flees from Egypt to Midian
  • Meets the priest of Midian
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The Rev. Dr. Randal Gardner

Perhaps we can imagine the confusion Moses would have been dealing with in his flight from Egypt.  Given the privileges of a royal upbringing, aware of his own Hebrew heritage, so troubled by the discovery that the good fortune of his own life rested on the oppression of his own family. When he enters Midian, he is recognized by the women he meets as an Egyptian, not a Hebrew.  When he names his firstborn child, he gives the baby a cry of lamentation for his name – I have been an alien living in a foreign land.  Moses does not know himself.  He does not know what is true.

The scripture is often frugal with words, conveying powerful meaning in such shorthand that it slips by us.  With whose household does Moses join while he is in Midian?  — The priest of Midian, named as Reuel or Jethro.  The priest of Midian.

Three times Jethro is called the priest of Midian, just so we are sure to see it.  When Moses meets his father-in-law years later, after the exodus from Egypt, we can recognize tenderness and affection between them.  We can imagine that Jethro was a guide for Moses, teaching him the patience needed for watching sheep – such a different occupation than that of a prince.  We can imagine that Jethro would have offered insights into the ways of the spirit, insights into the wisdom of God.  Perhaps Jethro taught Moses to pray so that, like Patrick of Ireland, Moses used those long hours of solitude with the sheep to deepen his spiritual life and attunement with God.

It may have been essential for Moses, born with a purpose from God to be the deliverer, also to have these years of exile in the company of the priest of Midian.  It may have been essential for Moses to have this deep friendship and guidance from a holy man to be ready to see the burning bush, in order to have the curiosity to investigate this strange phenomenon.

To be in seminary is also to be a stranger in a foreign land.  Those of you who are here for a while to study and prepare have left behind the familiar, and perhaps the comfortable, for the sake of a burning bush you have seen.  Those who are here for a seminary career as teachers and staff support can also feel like strangers in a strange land, working to interpret afresh a church that is changing year by year, and often chaotically.  Together we are all engaged in a conversation about the church and ministry that has become much more fluid than structured, much more complex than simple.

For those of you almost finished with seminary, who will soon be accorded titles as professional holy women and holy men, some of whom will sit down at the family dinner wearing a black shirt and white collar for the first time, you may do your best to imply that nothing has really changed.  I predict that there will be a season when this new role can feel alien, foreign.  I pray that it will always feel so.

The faithful news is that we are not alone, that our strangeness in the church and world is not a fruitless exile.  Have your eyes open for the possibility to meet your own Jethro.  The world abounds with those who are priests of Midian, many of whom are not officially leaders of the church.  Watch for those who can teach you the way of the spirit and steady you for the work of self-risking ministry.  The most important gift of a true priest of Midian will be the encouragement and companionship that will enable you to lose yourself, to venture beyond what is manageable, comfortable and successful into the realm where there is only Christ.  Let your treasure be in heaven, Jesus teaches.

It is not enough, however, to reflect only on our own experience of strangeness and transience.  We live in a relatively rare period in history when levels of human migration are creating political and economic upheaval.  There are all kinds of reasons that people are leaving their homelands today, and the majority are moving because of relatively easy travel to take advantage of opportunity or to expand the influence of one culture in others.  By far the greatest migration in the past ten years has been from India into Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

What we see in the news are the millions who are all but driven from their homelands by war, violence, oppression, poverty, natural disaster and famine.  As these refugees flee toward safe and stable nations, the host nations experience a groundswell of resentment, fear and antipathy toward the immigrants.  Marie Le Pen is tapping that resentment in France, just as Donald Trump tapped into it here.

While Moses rose above his own distress at being displaced and uprooted, he also embedded that experience into the center of the faith and justice culture we inherit.  To be a true participant in the faith story of Moses, Elijah and Jesus requires an identification with, rather than a disdain for, the immigrant and alien among us.

For the faith and the belief system that flows from Moses to our own time celebrates that alien status.  The scripture reminds us over and over that we were once aliens and slaves living in the land of Egypt.  We are one with Jesus of Nazareth, who exclaimed that he was no longer welcome in his own home.  Jesus reminds us that our treasure is not the treasure of this earth, but that it is to be invested in that which transcends the transient.

“All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee” – many of us have exclaimed that on the Sundays of our lives.  But the scripture quoted 1st Chronicles 29:14 rolls on into verse 15 – “For we are aliens and transients before you, as were all our ancestors; our days on earth are like a shadow, and in them there is no hope.”

As we strive to be faithful ministers of God’s Good News, our goal is not to become happily settled or comfortably familiar.  If we are not occasionally lost or uprooted, we are probably missing out on relationships with the priests of Midian; we have probably stopped leaving the path to hear the voice of God in the burning bushes we pass.  When we find that there are blessings in the times when we are lost and uprooted, our sense of connection with those who are aliens, strangers, and immigrants will be transformed.  No longer merely advocates for the immigrant, no longer merely workers for justice on their behalf, the immigrant and alien will become companions and kin.  Then we will not speak for them, we will speak with them.  As David cried out on the temple mount, “For we are all aliens and transients in the eyes of God, as were all our ancestors.”

 

Image: Moses Stands at the Burning Bush BY YORAM RAANAN

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Thursday, April 20 – the Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers

This sermon was preached for Easter Thursday, April 20 by the Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers. The readings for this sermon are: Acts 3:11-26 and Luke 24:36b-48.

Tonight’s Gospel picks up in the middle of a story, so a little context is in order. It’s evening on the first day of the week, and the disciples are gathered somewhere in Jerusalem, comparing notes about the events of the day.

First, early in the morning, a group of women had gone to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. But instead of a body, they found two men in dazzling clothes who announced that Jesus had risen. When the women reported this, the disciples found it to be an idle tale.

Then two of them, walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, had met a mysterious stranger on the road. The stranger had used the Hebrew Scriptures to explain to them all that had happened. When they invited this stranger to dinner, they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread.

The two disciples had returned to Jerusalem to share the news. There, they found the eleven and their companions gathered with news of their own: Jesus had risen and had appeared to Simon!

This is where we begin tonight, in the hubbub of that room, disciples repeating their stories, trying to make sense of their experiences – an empty tomb, a vision of angels, Jesus appearing in the breaking of bread and then disappearing.

In the midst of the chaos, Jesus appears. “Peace. Shalom,” he says, offering well-being, wholeness, harmony, divine grace and blessing. But the disciples are terrified! How could one who had died be standing before them? Despite reports that Jesus had risen, the disciples think that they are seeing a ghost.

So Jesus offers his crucified body, showing them the wounds in his hands and his feet. The risen Jesus who stands before the disciples is the same Jesus who had lived among them, who taught and healed and fed the multitudes, who was tortured and nailed to a cross. As further proof of his bodily resurrection, the risen Jesus asks for food, and right before their eyes he eats the piece of fish that they provide.

In a similar way, at Emmaus earlier that evening, the stranger had taken bread and blessed it, then broke it and gave it to the disciples. At that moment the disciples recognized Jesus.

In “Supper at Emmaus,” painted by the Italian artist Caravaggio at the beginning of the seventeenth century, we see Jesus seated at a table, his right hand stretched out over a meal that includes bread and wine as well as fruit and a roasted chicken. The two disciples are seated at the table. The one on the left is at the edge of his seat, his hands gripping the arms of his chair, leaning forward in astonishment. On the right, the other disciple’s arms are outstretched, and he, too, leans forward. The energy is palpable. The artist has brought us into the scene at the moment that the disciples’ eyes are opened to the true identity of the stranger they met on the road.

There is another person in this scene: the innkeeper. He stands next to Jesus, his head tilted slightly to one side. In contrast to the astounded expressions of the disciples, the innkeeper seems unaffected, attentive yet oblivious to the revelation right in front of him.

We gather at this table, where bread is taken and blessed, broken and given. What do we see in the breaking of the bread?

Back in Jerusalem, Luke doesn’t tell us how the disciples responded to Jesus’s crucified and risen body, or his ability to eat in their presence. Did they recognize Jesus? Or were they still terrified and disbelieving?

The encounter with the crucified-and-risen Jesus continues. As he had done earlier in the day, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus turns to scripture, interpreting his life and his passion, death, and resurrection in light of the law and the prophets. The disciples on the road to Emmaus later recalled that their hearts were burning within them when Jesus opened the scriptures to them. I wonder whether the disciples gathered in Jerusalem also felt their hearts burning within as Jesus taught them.

For the disciples in Jerusalem, Jesus does more than teach. He commissions them. They are to be witnesses, telling the world about Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection; proclaiming repentance, forgiveness, and new life to all nations.

In tonight’s reading from Acts, we find the disciples doing just that, bearing witness and calling people to repentance. This reading, like tonight’s Gospel, drops us into the middle of the story. It takes place at the temple in Jerusalem, where Peter and John had gone for afternoon prayer. At the gate of the temple, they encountered a beggar, a man who had been lame, unable to walk for his entire life. Instead of money, Peter offered healing. “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,” Peter said, “rise up and walk.” Then Peter took the man’s hand and raised him up. Acts tells us that the man entered the temple with Peter and John, walking and leaping and praising God. We enter the story here, as the crowd gathers, abuzz with wonder, staring at Peter and John, trying to figure out what power they have.

It’s a preach-able moment. Peter bears witness, right there in the temple. Everything he says emphasizes continuity with the faith of Israel. Invoking the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of their ancestors, Peter attributes the healing to Jesus, the crucified-and-risen one. Jesus, says Peter, is the prophet like Moses, the servant who fulfills the servant songs of Isaiah. The suffering that Jesus experienced was predicted by the prophets. Now, God is doing something new, raising Jesus from the dead and calling people to repentance and new life.

“You are witnesses,” the risen Jesus had told the disciples. Not, “you will be,” or “you ought to be.” “You are witnesses.”

The Book of Common Prayer appoints readings for the Eucharist for each day of Easter Week. Each of the appointed Gospels is a resurrection story, culminating on Sunday with the story of doubting Thomas, who insisted that he needed to touch the wounds of Christ, to see and feel for himself. The same Gospel passages are appointed year after year. The fact of resurrection – and I use that term advisedly, in this age of alternative facts – the fact of resurrection is so astounding that we need to hear and remember the accounts of those eyewitnesses who walked on earth with Jesus, who ran away when Jesus was crucified, who struggled to believe when the risen Christ appeared in their midst. Without those eyewitness accounts, told from many perspectives, we might think that the resurrection – the resurrection of the body, as we say in the creed – is but an idle tale. By immersing ourselves in the stories of the resurrection, we remember who God is and what God has done for us, most especially in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

During Lent, at my parish, All Souls in Berkeley, I helped lead an adult formation series on the Baptismal Covenant. Each week, we rehearsed the Apostles’ Creed, our affirmation of what God has done for us in Christ, and then we dug into one of the promises, asking how we live that out not only individually but also as a parish. Our promise to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” is specifically about witness.

As we explored each commitment, I became newly aware of the ways these promises are intertwined. We proclaim the Good News as we participate in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship. Our worship, the breaking of bread in which Christ becomes present among us, the offering of prayer for the world and the church: all of this bears witness to the crucified-and-risen one. Loving our neighbor, striving for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being: these acts, too, bear witness to God’s love made known in Jesus. We persevere in resisting evil as we work for justice and peace, all of it a witness to the Good News of God in Christ.

Here, today, Christ is risen. In the midst of a sinful and broken world, with saber-rattling over North Korea, catastrophic climate change, and increasing hostility toward immigrants and refugees; in a world in which fear and anxiety so often rule, we proclaim that Christ is here with us, calling us to repentance and offering new life. Here, tonight, in this place, among this seminary community, we celebrate the crucified-and-risen one, and we are witnesses to the Good News of resurrection life.

Image: “Supper at Emmaus” by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Prayers of the People, Tuesday, March 14

Each week student lay assistants compose original Prayers of the People for our Eucharist services. The following was written for Tuesday Eucharist, March 14 by first-year student, Phil Hooper. 

In humility and in love, let us offer our intercessions to the Exalted One in Whom all things are reconciled and renewed, responding to “God, in Your Mercy” with “Hear our Prayer”.

Bless your Body, the church, O God.  Animate us with your Spirit, that the breath of life and truth may emanate from our lips.  Sustain us with the Blood of your Son, that it may course through our limbs and bleed joyfully in Your service.  Illuminate us with Your loving power, that our eyes may be lamps dispelling all darkness.  

God, in Your Mercy, Hear our Prayer

Guide this nation, and all nations, ever closer to the justice and peace of Your heavenly kingdom.  Inspire our leaders, that they may walk hand in hand with Wisdom and in so doing, tread the pathways of the righteous.

God, in Your Mercy, Hear our Prayer

Look lovingly upon Your creation, O God.  Where there is degradation, show us the way toward restoration.  Where there is division, grant us the courage to seek understanding.  Where there is apathy, wound us with the tender painfulness of feeling, that we may live again in Your presence.

God, in Your Mercy, Hear our Prayer

Be with this community, O God, as it grows, flourishes, and becomes rooted, ever deeper, in the mission to which you have called us.  Show us how to care for one another, how to inspire one another, and how to walk alongside one another in humility.

God, in Your Mercy, Hear our Prayer

Bestow your consolation on those who need it most, O God: those who tremble alone in the darkness, those who fear the light of a new day, those who, in their pain, are blind to the quiet yet insistent beauty of the ordinary.  We pray especially for those who are sick, suffering, or otherwise in need, especially: ________ and those we now name.

God, in Your Mercy, Hear our Prayer

Run gladly, O God, with joyful abandon, to embrace all those who have departed this life.  Welcome them as sojourners, arriving home at long last, and grant them a seat alongside all Your saints at the eternal heavenly banquet.  We commend to you especially ______ and those we now name.

God, in Your Mercy, Hear our Prayer

 

Tuesday, March 7 – Keith Howard

This sermon was preached for the First Tuesday in Lent by Keith Howard. The readings for the sermon are: Isaiah 55:6-11, Psalm 34:15-22, and Matthew 6:7-15.

In today’s lesson from Second Isaiah, we are taught that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.  We are also taught that we may never understand the mechanism by which God operates.  “Nor are your ways, my ways.”  God’s actions and thoughts differ from our own.  I suppose we should give God the benefit of the doubt and accept what God says.

If we are at seminary with the hope that we might lead people toward God, this lesson should give us all pause.  It suggests that what we think we know and what we think will be helpful in guiding others to God may be wrong.  How then, can we have confidence, stepping forward to the front of the line to lead and guide God’s church?

Today’s New Testament lesson gives us the essential equipment we need.  The lesson today is the Lord’s Prayer.  This prayer is located in Chapter 6 of book of Matthew (there is a shorter version in Luke).  It follows the Sermon on the Mount in Chapter 5.  In that passage, Jesus teaches his followers that much of what the world values is a mistake.  It is all upside down.  Jesus teaches that the meek shall inherit the earth; that peacemakers are blessed and that those who have pure hearts are blessed and they may see God. The Sermon on the Mount gives us insight into how the ways and thoughts of humans may differ from those of God.

After that sermon, he teaches us, his disciples, how to pray.

In today’s lesson, Jesus suggests that we focus on the Kingdom by praying secretly, in the way He instructs us.  The Greek word in the text translated as “secretly” could also mean “inwardly”.  These prayers, then, are for the inward journey.  He teaches his disciples a way to pray that helps us purify and turn our hearts to God.

Think about the structure of the prayer.  It has three parts.  First, we are to sacredly recall our source and creator, and ask for the divine presence to be in our lives here on earth.  Then we ask God to join into earthly time.  We seek Daily bread – spiritual and physical nourishment, today.   We ask for forgiveness for yesterday’s wrongs and release from future temptations.  We ask for this because we see the ultimate reality:  the Kingdom of God, power and glory forever.

By praying the Lord’s Prayer, we take the inward journey, we acknowledge our creator, we ask for support and forgiveness and we affirm the power of God.  Through this prayer, we strengthen our relationship with God.  We speak to God and God speaks to us.  The contemplative process opens our hearts and allows us to discern God’s direction for our actions.

Having prayed as we are commanded, we are strengthened and ready to take the next step, which is to act, in accordance with God’s commandments:  to love God and to love your neighbor, as yourself.

So as a leader, can you weigh the sacrifice and benefit of stepping to the front of the line?

Consider this: In the summer of 1964, a young man was ordained as a deacon by the Baptist church. Before the end of winter, he would be dead.  Beaten, shot, and beaten again all in the same night, by police after he had participated in an action related to the Alabama Civil Rights voter registration drive.  His name was Jimmie Lee Jackson.  Deacon Jackson had been working in Selma on the voting rights campaign, but on the night he was beaten, he was protesting in Perry County, about 30 miles to the north of Selma.

Since starting seminary at CDSP, I have spoken with people who grew up in Selma.  They told me that after Deacon Jackson was beaten, he was denied medical help in Perry County, because no hospitals in that county would treat African-Americans. Instead, he had to be driven the 30 miles back to Selma, where the Catholic Church had built a medical center to serve all races. Deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson succumbed to his injuries on February 26, 1965.

In response to his death, Civil Rights leaders in Selma organized a march from Selma to Montgomery, the Alabama state capital – about 55 miles away.  The march would symbolically lay Deacon Jackson’s body on the capitol steps and at the feet of Governor George Wallace.

Fifty-two years ago today, Sunday March the 7th, about 600 unarmed residents of the area started walking across the Edmund Pettis Bridge.  They were met by armed authorities and were beaten back, in a violent clash of city police, county sheriffs and deputized local citizens against the protestors.  Today is the anniversary of what we know as “Bloody Sunday”.

After two and one-half weeks of court battles, 25,000 marchers arrived in Montgomery.  On March 24th, on the capitol steps that Dr. King is remembered for speaking about Justice – and when it would be realized:

How long? He called. (How long?) Not long: the crowd responded (Not long).

Deacon Jackson and Dr. King, were Christian men of faith – a deacon and a pastor who took action in the world, standing up to civil authority that was violating the human rights of their fellows.  That action led to a chain of events that changed the course of modern American history – but also led to their deaths.

How could Deacon Jackson and Dr. King have confidence that it would be worth it?

How can we be confident that our actions in the world will result in a better world for all people?  “Our ways are not God’s ways.  Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts.”

The reading from Psalms 34, gives us hope.  That reading comes from a lesson taught by a sage to the children…… “Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” Psalm 34:11.

The teacher explains that righteousness is rewarded by God and that evil collapses of its own weight.

Listen to the end of the lesson again.

“Evil will slay the wicked;
the foes of the righteous will be condemned.
22 The Lord will rescue his servants;
no one who takes refuge in him will be condemned.” (Psalms 34: 21-22)

“Evil will slay the wicked.” This passage grounds our Christian actions in hope, in the knowledge that in the end, God’s will prevails.

It is this hope for the efficacy of our actions to bring about the Kingdom that empowered Dr. King, as he said: “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. (Yes, sir)

How long? Not long, (Not long) because:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; (Yes, sir).”

It is in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Christ that we know – that we are assured — that the order of the world is not as it seems and righteousness will overcome evil.  Blessed are the peacemakers.  The meek will inherit the earth. Blessed are the pure on heart.  As evil is all which is opposed to God, it collapses because it is not grounded in the foundation of God.

Deacon Jackson could not have known what was to follow as a result of his actions.  The 600 protestors on Bloody Sunday could not have known where the journey would lead.  Dr. King, standing on the steps of the Alabama capital could not have realized the reach of their protests.  And we will not know in the moment how our leadership will shape Christ’s followers and the world.  Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts and our ways are not God’s ways. But we can join with all who have preceded us and sacrificed their own agendas to God, by taking a confident first step on the bridge of faith which leads God’s people toward the kingdom.

Let their lives inspire us in faith and hope as we move ahead to lead others.

Amen

Thursday, March 2 – The Rev. Dr. Susanna Singer

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.[1]  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.

[1] I am indebted to my colleague, Paul Fromberg, for this understanding of the cross.

Image from TracyHall Art.