Follow, Carry the Cross

“Follow, Carry the Cross”

Mark 8-34 take up your cross, print

Mark 8:31-38 (8:34) – February 25, 2018

When you imagine children at play, what do you think of? Children in a schoolyard, out at recess or out at lunch break? I am not sure what children play now, but when I was in school, school children played all kinds of games. Besides hopscotch and jumping rope, there were games of Red Rover Red Rover, Mother May I?, Duck Duck Goose, and Simon Says. And, Follow the Leader in the playground among the play equipment.

When we compare children’s games today with the words of Jesus from Mark’s Gospel reading, we are looking at two very different things. When Jesus said, “Follow Me!” He was not talking about a fun thing like a children’s game. He spoke about something quite serious.

The background of these words is critically important for us to understand exactly what Jesus was getting at. What was the history, the backstory? Here we are at the center of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus had healed, taught, cast out demons, and performed other signs of power, but often in secret. And, people had questioned who this upstart Rabbi was, but with little answer.  Up until this time, Mark had only mentioned the term “the Christ” once, in the opening verse at the very beginning of the book, until here in today’s reading, in Chapter 8.

Just before this scripture reading today, the Rabbi Jesus asks His disciples, “Who do other people say I am?” Great question! We are familiar with the responses. Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah or another prophet, but you and I know better. We know different. We know the end of the story. The thing is, these disciples do not.

Jesus has been asking the disciples to follow Him ever since the first chapter of Mark. When He called James and John, Simon and Andrew, Levi and all the rest, Jesus said simply, “Follow Me!” And, they did! They left everything, in fact. Commentator Matt Skinner said “Jesus isn’t so much about gathering pupils or making sure everyone understands him. He calls followers. Want to see who he really is? Join him.” [1] Which is exactly what many people did.

Today, we are following Jesus step by step on His journey to Jerusalem and the Cross during the next weeks, throughout Lent. Similar to these early followers of the Rabbi Jesus, we are taking this following thing one step at a time. We focus on one facet of the journey each Sunday. This Sunday we look at what Jesus said about taking up the cross when we follow Him. What on earth does that mean?

Here we can see that Jesus knew where He was going, and what He was going to do. Others probably did not, and even would call Jesus crazy or somehow deluded. “What do You mean, Jesus? How can You say that?”

Didn’t Peter just say that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, the chosen One of God? I suspect the disciples were thinking, what kind of mixed messages are coming from Jesus now?

Jesus not only mentioned that the disciples ought to follow Him, but He also wanted them to take up their cross. Jesus even made some mention of a person being willing to give up their life. The only comparison I can figure is that of police officers and firefighters. They “make the decision to put themselves in danger, risking their lives to save another person.  They measure their lives not by length, but by depth and quality.” [2] That sounds very similar to the sort of thing Jesus said in our reading today.

There is a problem. I can hear some people today saying, “Wait a minute, Jesus! I didn’t know that following You meant the possibility of giving up my life! I didn’t know that there was such danger and risk involved in being a Christian.”

Except, giving up one’s life was what the apostle Paul talked about over and over again in his letters to the churches in the New Testament. And, that’s what Jesus starts telling His disciples quite plainly, starting in today’s Gospel reading. Listen to Jesus: “If any of you want to come with Me,” He told them, “you must forget yourself, carry your cross, and follow Me. 35 For if you want to save your own life, you will lose it; but if you lose your life for Me and for the gospel, you will save it. 36 Do you gain anything if you win the whole world but lose your life? Of course not!”

What is more, Jesus rebuked Peter for telling Him He—Jesus—was wrong, and for trying to keep Jesus from walking the journey to Jerusalem and the Cross. Preventing Jesus from facing the Passion and sure death. At this point, Peter did not understand the full meaning of Jesus being the Messiah, the Christ. Plus, I suspect Peter and the other disciples were not clear on what taking up their own cross and following Jesus meant, either. But, they would find out, in the months and years to come.

Yes, sometimes it is difficult to follow Jesus. And, who in their right mind would want to shoulder the difficult burden of carrying a cross?

When we consider police officers or firefighters and what challenges they face on a regular basis, sometimes we call them heroes. Yet, Jesus calls all of His followers to face any number of difficulties and challenges, too. Except, not quite like running into a burning building or running down perpetrators, but still just as challenging.

Imagine someone you know, or someone you’re related to, bearing different crosses during their life. Crosses can be burdens we carry, difficulties we face. Some crosses involve physical pain and suffering. Other crosses can be financial, relational, or mental. What are the problems you or your family are dealing with today? Last month? Next year?

This might be the cross Jesus calls for us to bear, whether dealing with a devastating disease, accident, handicap, or disability. (Seen or unseen.) On the positive side, taking up our cross might assist us as we journey with Jesus toward Jerusalem. Lutheran pastor Edward Markquart reminds us:

-To take up our cross daily means to be open and flexible to God’s plan.

-To take up our cross daily means to focus on God daily.

-To take up our cross daily means that we can fail. That is, we do not do it.

-To take up our cross daily means to try to be loving every day.

-To take up our cross daily means to go the extra mile to do our jobs in life well.

-To take up our cross daily means to work on my relationship with my relatives and with people I do not like. [3]

Like I told the children earlier, we need to live like Jesus. We have to love God every day and love the people around us even when it gets hard. Yes, Jesus tells us clearly what it is like to follow Him. It is simple, yes. But easy, not necessarily so. May we pray for the grace, strength and perseverance to continue to follow Jesus, and to take up our own crosses.

And at the end of our lives, when we stand before Christ, what does the apostle Paul say? In Romans 8, “If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 Certainly not God, who did not even keep back his own Son, but offered him for us all! He gave us his Son—will he not also freely give us all things?” Praise God, we are indeed accepted by the Messiah Jesus. We are loved by our Beloved, Jesus Christ. Amen, and amen!

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1383  Matt Skinner

[2] https://sacredstory.org/2012/02/29/jesus-faces-death-taking-up-the-cross/

“Jesus Faces Death: Taking Up the Cross,” Mother Anne Emry, Sacred Story, 2012.

[3] http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_a_peter_the_stumbling_blockGA.htm

“Peter: The Stumbling Block and the Way of the Cross,” Gospel Analysis, Sermons from Seattle, Pastor Edward F. Markquart, Grace Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Love Your Enemies

Matthew 5:43-48 – February 19, 2017

matt-5-44-love-enemies-pray

“Love Your Enemies”

Rules are good things. Rules help us to know what are good things to do, or prudent actions to avoid. Rules—or laws—or commands give us guidelines for how to behave, and what is or is not acceptable. You all know the rules of the road, and traffic laws we need to follow. We have codes of conduct and ethical guidelines for different professions. All of these are rules, laws, codes. Commands.

Moses talked about commands, too. The Ten Commandments, and an elaboration of the big ten, too. That’s what we have for our Old Testament reading today. We used a modern translation, Eugene Peterson’s The Message, to give us a fresh understanding of this important part of God’s rule book, or God’s guidelines for living.

There are 613 laws—or rules—or commands—in the Law of Moses, in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the last few weeks, our Gospel readings have Jesus starting with a big law from Moses’s Law Code, and then elaborating on it. Not reciting the law by rote, like some child at school, but much more than that. Jesus transcends the Law of Moses, every time.

Like last week. Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 5:21? “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’” He quickly followed with Matthew 5:22—”But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Transcending the Law of Moses, with additional information. Jesus was talking about the inside job, about how people’s feelings translated to their outward actions. Today’s reading from Matthew 5 goes even further. How does Jesus begin? In verse 43: “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that.”

We all know how children scuffle and argue together. Imagine a playground or the park in your mind, with a group of kids. Two of them start arguing. The argument escalates. Soon they are name-calling, first one, then the other. Then, they start pushing one another. They push harder, and more vigorously. Before you know it, punches start flying. Maybe the friends on both sides get involved, and we have an outright brawl on our hands.

What did Jesus say, again? “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that.” And then, Jesus goes a step—or three—further. He adds: “I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer.” This may well be the hardest thing that Jesus ever told us to do.

We can tell, from specific examples in the surrounding verses, that Jesus was thinking about the occupying Roman forces. He gave several examples of how His listeners ought to act when confronted by Roman soldiers, and made some recommendations on how to respond. Positively, courteously, and not in a retaliatory way! Turn the other cheek; don’t hit back. Give the soldier your cloak, and the shirt off your back, too.

Jesus said—in extremely plain language—we are not to retaliate. Not to escalate things, or make things bigger, or worse, or to blow things out of proportion. Jesus said “Love your enemies.”

Here is the parallel passage from Luke 6:32-33, where Jesus is also preaching. “27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.”

I know this may be difficult for us. But—what part of this rule do we not understand? Or, is it just really, really challenging for us to live up to this particular command of Jesus? This is part of God’s rule book. This is the ultimate. The pinnacle. This is the last of the laws from the Law Book of Moses that Jesus quotes here, and then goes even further in His interpretation.

We sit, in our safe, warm church, looking back at the first century. We consider Jesus, talking about the occupying Roman forces. They had the whole nation of Israel under their collective thumb. But, we aren’t under occupation, being crushed by enemy forces or living under martial law. However, the nation of Israel was. What’s more, Jesus knew it, very well. Even more than that—Jesus gave these commands, or rules, for believers to follow, with full knowledge of the land of Israel being under occupation.

One of the commentators I consult regularly had this example listed for the Gospel reading today. Carolyn Brown describes a children’s book called The Christmas Menorahs: How A Town Fought Hate, by Janice Cohn. She tells us, “A hate group threw a rock through the bedroom window of a Jewish boy in Billings, Montana.  There was a menorah lit in the window.  In response, the children of the town drew menorahs to put in their own windows.  The local newspaper printed a full page menorah for other families to color in.  It was the community’s way of standing up to a bunch of bullies.” [1]

Thus, a loving, non-violent, empowering way of standing up for someone being bullied. Of loving one’s enemies, just like Jesus said.

“The book includes the legend about the King of Denmark wearing a yellow star when the occupying Nazis decreed that all Jews must wear a yellow star.” [2]

I remember what a dear senior friend of mine told me, who grew up in the hilly region of France not far from Switzerland. She was a child during World War Two. A number of unaccompanied Jewish refugee children were being housed in their small town. A very devout, Christian town, let me add. The occupying Nazi forces demanded that the Jewish children wear the yellow stars of David, indicating they were Jewish. My friend’s mother sewed yellow stars for every child and young person in that town. They all wore the yellow stars, every day, whether Jewish or Christian. That is how they combatted the Nazi occupying forces, using peaceful, non-violent means. (And, they saved the lives of every Jewish child in that small town.)

Remember what Jesus said in response to the question: “But, who is my neighbor?” Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the Jewish people could not stand the Samaritans! Jesus knew that! Yet, that was just His point.

Is it difficult to show love to our enemies? To those who hate us? Yet, this is exactly what Jesus calls us to do. This is right up at the top of God’s rule book, right next to “Love God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Including our enemies. Including whomever is a Samaritan to each of us.

Yes, loving our enemies is difficult, and challenging. It’s difficult for me, and I suspect it’s a challenge to a number of others here, too. But, God will help us. All we need to do is ask God for help with loving others who are difficult for us to love.

Listen to the words of Jesus, finishing this Gospel passage: “48 “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity.” We already know what to do and how to live. Let’s go out, and live like it.

Alleluia! Amen!

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/01/year-seventh-sunday-after-epiphany.html Worshiping with Children, Epiphany 7, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014. 2011.

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/01/year-seventh-sunday-after-epiphany.html Worshiping with Children, Epiphany 7, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014. 2011.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Listen for the Shepherd’s Voice

“Listen for the Shepherd’s Voice”

Jesus Mafa, from a Christian community in Cameroon, Africa. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library

Jesus Mafa, from a Christian community in Cameroon, Africa.
From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library

John 10:14-16 – April 26, 2015

So many voices, sounds and cries, clamoring for our attention today! Noisy voices, going bash, bang! Clash, crash! Busy voices—hurry, scurry! Going round and round, almost spinning out of control! Angry voices, growling, scowling, mean and nasty. Making me want to run and hide myself away! All of these loud voices, and sounds, almost too much to handle.

Here in our Gospel reading today, Jesus talks about being the Good Shepherd. He is referring to us—that’s each one of us—as sheep. Rather unflattering, but in my opinion, pretty accurate.

Jesus portrays Himself as the Shepherd. The Good Shepherd, caring for His sheep.

Sheep can be fearful, not sure of what to do. Sheep can be stubborn and single-minded, going their own way. Sheep can even be gluttons, eating food that will make themselves sick unless they are steered away from certain kinds of plants in the pasture. But our Lord Jesus identifies Himself as our Shepherd. That’s a difficult job. Being Shepherd of so many, varied, and assorted kinds of sheep.

As someone who was born and bred in the city of Chicago, I do not know anything at all about sheep, or lambs, or ewes. However, I have learned a number of things since I’ve become an adult. I’ve gleaned information from books, and articles, and from people relating their experiences with sheep.

You might be aware that sheep are at the same time stubborn and timid.

Sheep aren’t good at many things. They are relatively dumb animals and can do little on their own. However—they are good at following—sometimes. As I have read on one of my favorite inductive bible study websites, sheep are also good at distinguishing sounds. They can recognize the familiar voice of their own shepherd. They often follow their own shepherd willingly enough, but won’t pay any attention to others who try to lead them—sometimes.

Even still, as our Good Shepherd, I suspect that Jesus has a difficult time in leading His widely varied multitude of sheep around the pasture. What with stubborn or confused ones wandering off into far-flung or seldom-traveled areas of the pasture, this huge flock must be hard to keep track of, and even harder to round up.

This particular morning, I want to focus on one particular verse: John 10:16. Our Lord Jesus mentions that He has lots of sheep. Other sheep, from outside of this little sheep pen. Lots of sheep, from all over the place. Even from all over the world! Jesus is not going to neglect those other sheep, either.

What are we, as sheep, going to do out on the hillside, when we are out in the great, big pasture with Jesus? This wide pasture can be a scary place. We might get lost from the Good Shepherd. Maybe there are dark places, rough spots on the hillside, where I as a sheep, or some of the other sheep, might wander off. Maybe, get in trouble, become sick, have an accident, or meet a predator.

Let’s consider the wider context. The wider world. Other voices can be just as loud as the welcoming, confident voice of our Good Shepherd. Instead, the craving, the desire for more, and never having enough. Just think how listening to that alluring, insidious, beckoning voice can destroy relationships within a family or a group of friends.

A second voice can be quite loud, drowning out the supportive voice of the Good Shepherd. Instead, the sneaking voice of suffering and despair, weakness and sorrow. The penetrating voice of bitter tears and clamor can distract and cause a great deal of dismay. That insistent voice doesn’t have to be loud, but is so often nagging, persistent, even heart-rending.

What can our Good Shepherd do, in those cases? I admit it. I am often a fearful, anxious sheep. I cry out, and say “help me!” or “save me!” And, “I’m scared!” or “I’m all alone!” Thank God that our Shepherd Jesus has a strong, familiar voice. He is insistent and persistent, too!

          I can hear Him when He calls out to me. Can you hear Him when He calls to you, too?

When my older two children were very small—I’m talking a toddler and a preschooler, now—I can vividly remember one time when we were at a department store in Chicago, in the women’s clothing section. There were a great number of round clothing racks, about four feet high, and I was pushing my younger daughter in a stroller. I took my eyes off my older daughter for just a few seconds, and by the time I looked back at the place where she had been standing, she was gone.

I tried not to panic, but began calling her name. Calling over and over, traveling in and out among the many racks, around the clothing section. Sure enough, she came out from the middle of one of the clothing racks where she was hiding, coming towards my voice. A familiar, comforting voice, one that she knew well. She knew she could respond to that voice in trust and assurance.

Do we know the familiar, nurturing voice of Jesus, our Shepherd? Or, is that voice the voice of a stranger—to us? Is Jesus just a nodding acquaintance, or is He one of our best friends?

Let me tell you about a Lutheran pastor who I sincerely respect, the Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt. I often read her sermons online. I was especially moved by the one she wrote on this passage.

She, too, is listening for the nurturing, encouraging, supportive voice of the Shepherd in her life. As she listened for the voice of the Shepherd, she found herself remembering other, life-giving voices which have shaped her.

Let Dr. Hunt tell you, in her own words:

“When I was in my last month of seminary, my adviser Paul was preparing to retire. Like me, he was a lover of books, but without his office shelves, he needed to get rid of a whole lot of them. So he let me have my pick. . . . A number of them still sit on my shelf. Paul died of cancer not long after that, so all I have left of him are those books with his handwritten name inside and a handful of letters he sent me while I was on internship. . . . I feel as though I still hear his voice of confidence in me whenever I run my fingers along their spines.”

We can see that our Good Shepherd’s encouraging voice can echo in the voices of other dear ones, too. Other helpers, who reflect that familiar Voice of our Shepherd, and also serve as confident supports. Challenge and teach us. Mentor us. Come alongside of us, and act as nurturing, helpful voices in each of our lives.

          What do you hear as you listen today?

Do you hear the confusing voices of the world? Or, do you hear the nurturing voice of Jesus, our Shepherd? Do you hear the discouraging internal voices of sadness, hurt, and depression? Or, does the comforting voice of Jesus come through, loud and clear?

          I encourage each one of us to listen for our Good Shepherd’s voice.

Listen to that familiar, comforting, nurturing, supportive voice. This is the Good Shepherd, who loves each of us so much He laid down His life for the sheep. Praise God, we can celebrate! We can rejoice that we do have a Good Shepherd who intimately knows each one of us, and loves us. No matter what. Praise God!

Alleluia, amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!)