I’ve learned many enduring lessons from being a parent.One of them came to me during the time I was gone from First Church on family leave this spring and summer.My spouse Jen and I are both pastors, so Sundays are normally working days in our house.Bernadette, our Sunday nanny, meets our children at the house and brings them to church.During the weeks away from work, Jen and I took turns bringing the kids ourselves to attend each other’s congregations. We were always late – due to an endless array of mishaps: an ill-timed nap, a last-minute poopy diaper, a temper tantrum, a forgotten art project.I turned to Jen one of those Sundays and said: “Wow, it’s really hard to get to church with your kids!”And she said, “Yeah, it sure is!”
It’s hard for any of us to get to church, especially when it’s not our job to be there. We’re exhausted from the week and Sundays can provide time and space to breathe (and sleep in). Other things get scheduled: sports games, weddings, vacations, brunches. Sometimes taking a long walk in the woods or sitting beside the water is more spiritually renewing than being in a pew. (I get that!) Many people work on Sundays; others, because of age or illness don’t have the physical ability to be here. “Regular Sunday morning church attendance” is now 1 or 2 Sundays a month rather than 3 or 4.
It’s hard enough to get to church and then, once we’re here, on a holiday weekend, no less, we are immediately confronted with Jesus’ hard words about the cross. “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.” This all leads me to wonder, what place does the cross have in our lives, our real lives, the lives we live when we’re not here in the sanctuary? Is there an interpretation of the cross that is life-giving, instead of life-denying?
As Professor Koyama points out in today’s Gathering Words, those who suffer the most in this life are perhaps best equipped to understand Jesus’ message about the cross. Jesus was a peasant who ministered to peasant people. In Jesus’ day, as in ours, a tremendous gap existed between the haves and the have-nots. Under the harsh rule of the Roman Empire, the common people lived unrelentingly hard lives. There was no relief from hunger and sickness, no forum for addressing political and economic oppression. For the peasants of Jesus’ day, and ours, the cross simply is. It symbolizes the burdens and pains of daily life. In times and places of plenty and peace, it’s tempting to try to ignore the centrality of the cross in human experience. But in every person’s life, the cross breaks through at one time or another.
This week, I joined the University Community Response Team in meeting with members of the University of Minnesota marching band. They are mourning Robert Brau—a senior band member, friend, student leader, mentor and role model to many—who was killed late this summer in a motorcycle accident. The four of us on the team (two ministers, one counselor and one staff person from the domestic violence center on campus) helped the band, a community of 350 musicians, continue to process this experience and reflect on their varied perspectives and feelings. Some knew (and grieved) this student personally. Others didn’t know him at all but found that this loss re-ignited the pain of other losses in their lives. Students also noted that the shock of Robert’s death awakened them to questions of ultimate meaning in their lives. The leader of our team summed it up: “Oftentimes things like this leave us asking if we are the people we want to be, living the life we want to live.”
Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”There are so many unhelpful ways of reading this statement.“Take up your cross” has been made to sound like an exhortation to go around picking up extra burdens or seeking out abuse or putting up with injustice.But Professor Koyama implies that the cross is not something we choose to take on or not to take on.It’s not a suitcase, or even an enormously weighty duffel bag that we can pick up, or leave behind. The cross is part of us and part of our experience.The cross Jesus urges us to take up is not the literal cross,two pieces of wood nailed together, nor is it specifically Jesus’ final hours of torture and death.The cross encompasses not only our personal pains but also the burdens of the people we love and serve and the pain of a broken world, a world marked by terrible inequalities.
I hear this text as an invitation to come to Jesus as we truly are with the crosses that mark our human experience. I hear hope, not shame or resignation in his words. Don’t lie down and give up. Take up your cross and follow me. Don’t medicate your suffering in unhealthy ways. Take up your cross and follow me. Don’t arm yourself, adopting the methods of violence. Take up your cross and follow me. Don’t cooperate with evil. Take up your cross and follow me. We follow Jesus because he shows us a way through death that leads to life. He reveals the power of dying to all that keeps us from being the people God wants us to be, and rising to the fullness of life that we desire – in our deepest hearts. He teaches us to die and rise so that we might be freed from the forces of oppression and injustice that hold all of God’s creation captive.
There’s only one problem with Jesus’ way of the cross. It doesn’t make sense. It’s a riddle: how can we find, and save, our lives by losing them? Peter could not fathom that the Messiah would “go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”Professor Koyama puts it this way: “If this was God’s way of solving the human problem it certainly went counter to all human ways of problem-solving we may devise. It was the slowest, most inefficient, unsuccessful method that could possibly have been devised.” But, those who are suffering most intensely in our world, Koyama goes on to say, are the ones who can “recognize and understand the God that is bound underneath that weight of wood. They don’t mind that this solution to the problems takes longer than the plans and panaceas in our efficient briefcases, for they have seen in him a savior who is not only for them, but with them.” (A Procession of Prayers: Mediations and Prayers from Around the World, p. 205) The cross is not our way of solving problems; it is God’s. In the self-giving life and ministry of Jesus we see God’s compassion, God’s willingness and desire to suffer with us, suffer as one of us. In Jesus’ embrace of death as a defiant act of protest, we see God’s resurrection power at work in our human situation.
A few years ago, as part of the “God Is Still Speaking” campaign, the UCC put out a poster I love. It says: “If you think getting up on Sunday mornings is hard, try rising from the dead.” I’m so glad when you and I make it to church on Sunday mornings. But that’s the easy part, right? A cross-bearing, Jesus-following life is not an easy life, but it is a hopeful and joyful life, a life that is worth living. In the face of the cross, let us come alive with compassion and with God’s resurrection power. Amen.