Take Up Your Cross and Follow Jesus

March 1st, 2015

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

You know how certain songs always remind you of a particular memory? Like you’re driving along and a song comes on the radio and all of a sudden you are transported back to a middle school dance and you can remember what you were wearing and the smell of bad cologne and the way the sweat made your hair stick to the back of your neck and ran down the backs of your knees.

Or maybe it’s the smell of a particular flower that takes you back to your grandmother’s garden and you remember long, lazy afternoons of childhood spent playing in the sun and drinking lemonade on the big back porch.

For me this week, the thing that triggered a fond memory was this gospel passage. It was the line, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Weird, I know, but true. You see, as a kid growing up at Grace Episcopal Church in Ponca City, Oklahoma, I was super involved. I was an acolyte, sang in the choir, never missed Sunday School. I was THAT kind of kid.

Steve Mallory was kind of like Diane Carlisle. He loved liturgy and he loved the people and he was involved in all sorts of things. And when I was a teenager, Steve had a major role with two things I was doing. He taught the high school Sunday School class that met each week in a musty library, up a hidden staircase near the bell tower.

And secondly, Steve was the acolyte master. That’s where this quote comes in… I frequently served on Sunday mornings as the crucifer, that is the one carrying the cross in procession, and as we ran around before the service lighting candles, walking through things, and practicing the gospel procession, at some point, Steve would inevitably say to me, “Kate, Take up your cross and follow me.”

It had a twofold meaning: it was literal – he meant pick up the processional cross and follow him wherever it was we were going. And it was a metaphor. Steve was one of my earliest mentors in the church and he knew that. It was a role he took seriously. He had the ability to look past my teenage angst and insecurity and straight into my soul. He believed in me. He expected more from me and empowered me to be the person God was calling me to be. Isn’t that what a great teacher or mentor does?

So what does “take up your cross” mean for us in our modern context? Besides carrying a big cross in a fancy procession… It means bearing our burdens. It means suffering.. sometimes. I think this looks different in each stage of life. For a 4 year old, suffering is quite dramatic, let-me-tell-you. Some days, EVERYTHING, every task is full of dramatic suffering worthy of an Oscar. Would you like an example?

“Avery, it’s time to get dressed for school.” (Avery is my daughter)
“NOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!! I CAN’T get dressed nooooo-www……. I’m reading. I’m busy!”

You get the idea. It’s like I can see her pick up that heavy cross as she trudges to the bathroom to get dressed for school.

Those of you who live with teenagers or those of you who ARE teenagers, what crosses do you bear? The pressure to do well in school or get into the right college? Beginning to date or enter into romantic relationships? Or the struggle to navigate the complexities of friendships and social networks?

And how about those of us in middle age? Striving to balance work, life, kids, relationships, family, health, and every once in a while a little time for ourselves.

Those of you who are older may think you’re getting off the hook, but I’m getting there. How about people who live from one doctor’s appointment to the next? One physical ailment or treatment to the next in a revolving cycle of sickness that never really gets better. It becomes an end unto itself.

All of these things…we all do these things whether I named yours or not. We take up our personal cross and bear it day in and day out. I am preaching about a range of burdens – light to heavy, but all personal crosses. But here’s what I’m NOT preaching about: I’m not preaching about systematic oppression or abuse. I’m not preaching about the inexcusable atrocities and unspeakable horrors that happen every day. Do those things need to be addressed? Sure. But that’s NOT what I’m talking about in this sermon. That is for another day.

So, here’s my advice for today’s topic. You can choose how to go about carrying your cross. You can trudge your way through each day, dragging your heavy cross behind you, as if you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders OR You can take up your cross, and follow Jesus. You can hand your burdens over, take a deep breath, and reorient your daily living towards something more productive.

When we get mired in our suffering, whether it is overworking, obsessing about our illness, stressing about school or relationships, whatever our “cross” may be, it becomes suffering for the sake of suffering and runs the risk of becoming idolatrous. We can even become a martyr to our own suffering.

I’ve heard it in the complaints of my peers, hardworking parents of young children who “do it all.” The complaining and commiserating can tip the scale from healthy venting with friends to toxic idolatry of who can suffer more – a kind of Suffering Olympics of competition to see who is the bigger martyr to their family or job.

When Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me” that is about obedience. So let’s shift our focus away from the suffering and instead focus on obedience and see how that changes things. To what are we obedient? Are we obedient to our idols? Are we obedient to the cause of our suffering? Or are we obedient to God?

There is a tendency in our culture to become professional sufferers, but these cultural tendencies lie outside the Kingdom. Busy-ness is a status symbol and our culture perpetuates this, but that’s not what Jesus meant when he said, “Take up your cross.” Busy-ness as a burden is a distraction from a truly spiritual life even though we often wear it like a badge of honor.

The kingdom of God values turning over the suffering—whether it is great or small—turning it over to God, being obedient to the suffering by dealing with it, but then following Jesus.

And so, after we have tended to the suffering, when healing has happened or suffering has passed, are we willing to let it go? Or has the suffering become a part of our identity?

It can become all too tempting to let the wild beasts of temptation, the daily burdens, slide into suffering which can snowball into idols thus turning us into martyrs. But is that what we are really invited to?

If Jesus were here today, I think he would say, NO. “You don’t have to drag that cross around all the time. It’s really not necessary.” Jesus said: “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” That’s another way of saying, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

It’s all about obedience; obedience to God and allowing ourselves to take a rest from our burdens.