By The Rev. Sherry Deets
12 Pentecost, Proper 17 – August 31, 2014
So, this is a tough passage from Matthew for many of us – at least I think so. And the really tough piece of it for me is “take us your cross and follow me”. It’s tough because, what does that really mean, to ‘take up your cross’? How does Jesus’ cross have anything to do with life today? Sure, there are necklaces, rings, pendants, bracelets, but when asked “what does the cross, Jesus’ cross, mean to you?” how will we respond? Last Sunday I asked you to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” Now today I am asking what does the cross mean to you? Not what you think it should mean because you’ve been told what it should mean, because you are a Christian, because you go to church, because you are worried about what the pastor will think, or because you fear that you might get kicked out of church altogether. What does the cross mean to you?
Is the phrase “take up your cross” a justification for suffering? Is the cross a symbol for defiance of empire? Is the cross representative of the absolute certainty of the incarnation? Is the cross a model for resistance to the status quo? Is the cross a reflection of our human propensity to eliminate the voices that call for justice, for mercy, for compassion, for love? Just what cross are you willing to take up? And which one are you not?
It’s interesting that Jesus says, “take up your cross and follow me.” Taking up your cross, then, is not an individual act that validates your faith or demonstrates your willingness to go the distance or a statement of self-sacrifice or self-denial. The cross, then, has everything to do with community. Take up your cross and follow. To follow, by definition, demands something or someone to be followed. Follow me — how do you answer that? Literally following Jesus to the cross, following the person? Isn’t it also following those things that Jesus preached and taught? When Jesus says follow me, what Jesus do you follow? What parts of Jesus’ ministry and teachings do you follow?
Edward Stone Gleason tells this story about a man named Sam. [In Carl P. Daw, Jr., ed., “Breaking the Word: Essays on the Liturgical Dimensions of Preaching” (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1994), pp. 142-43.]
It seems that for more than a decade Sam had operated a successful counseling business in a mid-sized industrial city in the southeast. His contracts were with major corporations which had brought growth and progress to the area. The counseling center offered a variety of services, but most clients wanted help with a drinking problem. The center’s contract with each corporation enabled employees to seek help with a guarantee of remaining anonymous. Each employee’s problems and progress were treated as completely confidential, and it was well known that client files were for the eyes of the counseling staff only.
One day the executive vice president of the largest firm under contract made an appointment to meet with Sam. To Sam’s shock and amazement, this executive demanded to see the files for his employees. Sam told him politely but firmly that this was impossible. The files were completely confidential. The vice president’s face became red, and he spoke loudly and harshly to Sam as he repeatedly insisted that the files about his employees be delivered to him immediately. Sam continued to refuse.
Finally, the vice president stood up and moved toward the door. As he touched the doorknob, he turned around, paused, and stared at Sam. “Very well. Since you insist, tomorrow our legal department will contact you to terminate our contract with you immediately. How many of our employees do you suppose have availed themselves of your services? More than a hundred?”
Sam again reminded him that this was confidential information.
“No matter. You won’t be seeing them anymore, unless you give me their files right now, and I mean right now.”
Sam had a vision of his counseling practice collapsing like a building demolished by explosives. He pictured his own personal finances also reduced to rubble. Then he addressed the executive in as measured a voice as he could muster.
“Dick, how many times do I have to tell you? It can’t be done. It just can’t be done. My center’s work with your employees is completely confidential. Cancel the contract if you must, but you’ll never get those files. Never!”
The vice president walked back and took his seat again. “Okay,” he said, in a subdued voice. “If that’s the way it is, then I guess it’s safe to tell you why I came. I have a drinking problem, and I need your help.”
When he uttered his final refusal of the vice president’s demand, Sam stepped into a kind of death. It was a death freely chosen, one that followed from all that he was as a professional, a counselor, a Christian, a human being. When he uttered that final refusal, he gave up his life as he knew it, trusting that somehow God would be there on the other side.
Sam had no idea what those next minutes held for him. In the language of today’s Gospel, he simply took up his cross, and by his own choice walked behind Jesus down the road to Calvary. All he could see ahead of him was death.
Sam held out against the vice president’s insistent demands as a matter of professional and personal integrity. Yet putting it that way makes his decision sound too abstract. He held out, at the cost of his life, because he could not forget the faces of clients who had trusted him and his agency, people in whom he had recognized the face of Christ. He could not fail to do for Jesus what Jesus had done for him.
There are different ways to phrase it:
— Pick up your cross and follow me. — Give up your life for my sake. — Surrender the whole world.
There is the road of our culture that says, “Get more. Be more. Build a bigger enterprise. Be more successful.” And there is the road of Christ that says, “Deny yourself, take up a cross, and follow me.”
I leave you with the words of the poet Robert Frost who said it so well,
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
Then Frost concludes with these words,
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
So this week, I ask you to take some time and ask yourself, what does Jesus’ cross mean to me? What does it mean to “take up your cross and follow Jesus”? Amen.
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