Just How Heavy Is This Cross?

Sunday’s sermon …

I brought my crosses in from home and up from my office to dress the altar with …

… and handed these out to each of the kids.  I took rocks a drew crosses on them with a black sharpie.  A very simple project, but neat for the kids.

Mark 8:27-38

Just How Heavy Is This Cross?

“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’”

Let them deny themselves … take up their cross … and follow me.

This scripture posed a challenge to me. Over the past several years I think I have developed something of a sensitivity to correlations made between the cross and our experiences as Christians.

People tend to be surprised when they find out what I do for a living. Let’s face it – I do not really look like the stereotypical image of a pastor. Even in 2012, people hear the word “pastor” and they think of a tall, middle-aged, white male. I am short, blonde, young and female. The cards seem to be stacked against me.

More than that, however, I have always felt like I do not necessarily have the same outlook on ministry that some of my colleagues do. Throughout the years I have met clergy and read books and articles written by clergy that take sort of a negative outlook on our profession. When I was in seminary my pastoral care and congregational leadership professors emphasized the importance of self care in such a difficult professions. Years and years ago, being a pastor was an extremely healthy and fulfilling profession – but times have changed. Nowadays, it is statistically proven that vocational ministry is one of the unhealthiest professions in the entire country.

There are several reasons why this may be true. As mainline churches continue to decline and budgets continue to be cut, clergy are faced with more work and less resources in which to do that work. Clergy often feel isolated, especially if they serve a church – or multiple churches – as the sole pastor. Conference staff and bishops tell their local clergy not to have friendships with members of their churches and those clergy sometimes feel like they do not have a nearby support network. Clergy often work long hours, late into the night and on their days off. They spend a lot of time emotionally strained, which can affect both their relationships and their mental and physical health. Most clergy are not millionaires and worry about providing for their families. Night meetings and weekend activities cut into healthy meals and workout times. Clergy tend to carry the burdens not only that their churches face, but also that their communities and the world faces.

It sounds like a pretty miserable profession, doesn’t it? Call me naïve (and many people do!) but I have always thought that the benefits outweigh the rewards. When I speak to clergy or read books and articles written by clergy I am continuously shocked at how negative of a light they tend to shed on being pastors. “But this is the cross we have to bear,” they tend to follow up their droning with. “God called us into the ministry and this is the cross that we have to bear in order to answer that call.”

“This is the cross we bear.” I hate that phrase. Jesus said, “I any want to become my followers, let them … take up their cross and follow me.” He said to “take up” a cross, not to “bear” a cross. What does that phrase even mean, anyway? Does it mean that in order to be a good Christian or an effective minister that we have to drag along some sort of negative and heavy burden that inhibits us from living happily and living out our ministry to the best of our ability?

The cross has always had a very special place in the Christian tradition. In the Gospel passage that we read this morning Jesus asked his followers to take up their cross and follow him. Jesus died on a cross in Calvary. For centuries, Christians have seen the cross as a sign of discipleship and connection to one another and also to Christ. We wear crosses and hang them on their walls as a sign of their devotion to their Christian faith. When a steel cross was discovered in the rubble following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, many people – both Christians and non-Christians – felt comforted by it, seeing it as a sign that peace can come out of tragedy.

And yet, in the Old Testament – and in the Jewish tradition that Jesus was a part of – the cross carried with it extremely negative meaning and harmful connotations. If you look up the word “cross” in a bible dictionary, the definition is absolutely dreadful.

Cross: (Greek – stauros) An ancient instrument of torture and execution. The use of an upright stake to display a corpse or to torture or execute a person was widespread in the first millennium B.C., especially in times of war. Grisly spectacles involving the crucifixion of sometimes hundreds or even thousands of victims were arranged for the intimidation of besieged cities, the punishment of conquered peoples, or the deterrence of rebellious slaves or troops.

The OT does not mention the stake or cross as a mode of execution, but it does refer to the practice of displaying the corpse of an executed person “on a tree” to signify that such a person was accursed by God.

Well – when you look at it like that, the cross itself is an extremely heavy cross to bear.

So Jesus said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Just how heavy is this cross? If we look at the Old Testament definition of “cross” – the cross that people were hung on, the cross that sometimes innocent people died heinous and gruesome deaths on – that is a heavy cross to bear. When I hear clergy or professors or other religious leaders say that difficulties in ministry are “the cross that they have to bear”, I think of the Old Testament definition of “cross” and it wonder why any of us get into this crazy profession. If it is really so awful, why would God call us to be here?

The phrase “cross we bear” is not one that is reserved only for clergy, either. I have heard charismatic preachers tell their congregations that the Christian journey is one of many difficult obstacles, challenges and sacrifices. We are expected to give up our time, our talents and our resources. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, Mary sacrificed her body and Jesus sacrificed his life – what are we, as Christians, willing to sacrifice? Jesus asked us to deny ourselves and take up our cross – just how heavy is this cross?

When I first read this week’s Gospel lesson I had a mental picture of every single one of us walking out of the sanctuary dragging crosses that weigh twice as much as we do through the village and around the town of Rehoboth. Jesus was not just talking to his disciples when he said these words, but to everyone – to all of us. I looked at a commentary this week that said this passage was about discipleship. “These sayings,” it said, “often called ‘the cost of discipleship,’ are addressed to the crowd and not simply the disciples of 9:27. They unfold the most radical implications of proper confession of Jesus as Messiah. Would-be disciples must enter into that same mystery that characterized Jesus’ life. Following of Jesus, denial of self-interest, even to the point of losing one’s life for Jesus and the gospel (v. 35) paradoxically results in making life more secure.”

So what is the cost of discipleship? How heavy is this cross that we are called to take up?

Here is what I think. I think that the game changed the second Jesus died on that cross and was given new life three days later. The cross does not mean today what it meant 2,000 years ago. The gruesome death of crucifixion was conquered by God’s love and grace. The cross no longer carries the burden of torture and execution – the cross is empty, it is no longer heavy and weighs us down. Yes – being a pastor comes with challenges. Yes – being part of a Christian community comes with challenges. Yes – life comes with challenges. But these challenges are not supposed to tear us down; they are supposed to lift us up. The cross is not a burden that we have to bear; it is a blessing that carries us along this journey we are all on.

One final thought. In his earthly life, Jesus told us to deny ourselves and take up our cross. Now Jesus was living in a time where the definition of “cross” did mean “instrument of torture and execution”. But this morning’s scripture comes to us at a point in the story when Jesus was foretelling his death and resurrection. He carried with him wisdom beyond his earthly realm. Jesus knew that the cross that would ultimately end his earthly life would also bring grace and peace to those who followed him.

So just how heavy is this cross? It is not heavy at all. In fact – I think that it lifts us up.

With that in mind, hear Jesus’ call to you one more time. Jesus said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

I think that cross just may take us all on an incredible journey.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

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