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Sermon for Proper 17A

    Aug 30, 2020

    Passage: Matthew 16:21-28

    Preacher: Rob Donehue


    "Take up your cross," the Savior said. Now, more than ever, we need to understand what taking up our cross means.


    Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (2020)
    August 30th, 2020
    St. Anne’s, Conway SC (Online due to coronavirus)

    Exodus 3:1-15           Romans 12:9-21           Matthew 16:21-28

    If there’s one lesson that best sums up what it means to follow Jesus, it’s the words we just heard from Matthew’s Gospel: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” And, if there were only one lesson worth hearing week in and week out about what it means for us to follow Jesus, it’s the lesson of bearing the cross. But there’s a question that arises about bearing the cross that I think anyone who is serious about following Jesus must ask from time to time. And the question for us who want to be Jesus’ followers is, “What is this cross? I want to know more about what I am being asked to bear.” 

    If you’ve been paying attention to what’s going on in the world over the past several weeks and months, I’d not be surprised to hear any of you say that it looks like the world is spiraling out of control. I don’t think I need to make a list of the events that have taken place - even apart from the madness surrounding the ongoing pandemic, the violence we’re seeing almost every day in our country is enough to make even a casual observer draw back in alarm. And for those who cherish the gospel message of peace, the increasingly ugly rhetoric of division and hatred is heartbreaking. And it might seem like we are powerless to stop it. But here is where the message of the cross is more relevant than ever.

    When compared to modern times, I would argue that over the past several decades, the church has been relatively at ease, and when we think of what it means to “bear the cross,” there has been a tendency to treat the cross only as a personal matter that only involves how we respond to the specific and limited circumstances in our own lives. “I’ve got a pesky neighbor whose dogs bark early in the morning.” “My boss is making me work overtime again.” “I don’t have time to do everything that’s required.” And the response is, “Well, we all have a cross to bear.” And while I do not want to totally dismiss the reality that we all have our own private struggles, I do suggest that thinking about the cross only in this way might cause us to overlook the even heavier burden that Jesus is asking his followers to bear.  

    Because it’s not merely a specific person, or a specific event, in our own lives that we’re being asked to “carry.” We’re being asked to carry something much heavier. We’re being asked to carry the universal burden of love. And love is not just quiet acceptance and teeth-grinding endurance in the hope that we’ll somehow make it through. Love is an active and engaged response not just to our immediate and localized circumstances. It’s an attitude toward the world as a whole - even to those and for those whom we will likely never meet. And it’s an incredibly heavy burden, especially when you stop to think that we are being asked to carry it in the weakness of our human condition. When confronted with the ugliness that exists in the world, our hearts break. Our hands fail. Our knees buckle. 

    I don’t think St. Paul was unaware that he was asking the Christians in Rome to do something exceptionally difficult when he wrote to them saying, 

    “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” And so on. 

    He knew what a challenging thing he was asking them to do. He was exhorting them to take up the burden of love in the midst of a world that was full of greed, exploitation, and injustice. He was admonishing them to refuse to give into chaos. 

    And when things are in chaos, as they increasingly seem to be now, it may be tempting to give into the chaos; to say that nothing matters anymore and that bearing the burden of love - and doing things like speaking out for truth and justice and mercy - is just too hard in current circumstances. So why bother? Why even try? Why not just throw aside the burden? Why not stop being heartbroken over the world’s ills and instead pick up a torch and help burn everything to the ground? Why not join the cult of power and destruction and [take a stand with the powerful and] fight to come out on top when all the dust settles? The answer is that if we do that, all we’re doing is fighting to be the rulers of an empire of dust and ash.  

    The harder way is to bear the burden of love. The harder way is to listen to Jesus when he says, “Take up your cross.” Take up your cross - let your heart be broken when you see injustice anywhere instead of turning a deaf ear. Take up your cross - speak and act in love even when others scorn you for it. Take up your cross - show care even for those who want to nail you to it. Take up your cross - bear the weight of this world’s violence without resorting to violence yourself.

    We in the church still have a job to do in this world, and the job is to continue challenging the narrative that only might can make right. Or that we should only care about “people like us.” Instead, our narrative is shaped by the idea that love and sacrifice and actively working for the benefit of others are the only truly creative forces in the world. This is why Jesus, even knowing what the cross would mean for him, could not only embrace it but tell his followers that they, too, should take up the cross and follow. 

    So take up your cross. Bear the burden of love. And if the chaos continues to grow, hold ever more dearly to it. Because it is only by bearing the cross that we will find life.  

    God save us.