September 3, 2017

We continue with Matthew this morning, and we find Jesus alone with the disciples.  After all the travels and preaching and teaching and miracles, Jesus now speaks directly to his closest followers, and tells them that he must go to Jerusalem to face the authorities, and to suffer at their hands.  This will culminate in his death and, consequentially, he resurrection.

Peter is, literally, playing Devil’s Advocate.  Satan, as it turns out, means adversary.  And Peter, as we all know, means rock.  Well, Peter is plenty thick today!  He just doesn’t get it.  It would seem he is still of the mindset that the Messiah is going to be some mighty physical force to drive out the Romans and restore Israel as a great nation.

Peter is, as one of the commentaries pointed out, a stumbling block to Jesus’ mission.  He is told to “Get behind!”  Disciples are supposed to follow their masters, not admonish them or try to persuade them.  This is the Jewish tradition.  And Peter, if he follows Jesus, can still “get behind” him to continue in his discipleship.

Jesus sees Peter’s exhortation as another temptation of Satan.  Jesus has already been sorely tempted in the wilderness, and will be so again in the garden prior to his arrest.  Doubtless there are many undocumented times when Jesus is tempted to stray from God’s intended purpose.  But, though he may waver, he remains steadfast in the mission the God had mapped out for him.  He is, at this point, a human being.  But he trusts in his Father to bring things out right in the end.

He then goes on to tell the disciples to take up their cross and follow him, for whoever gives up his life shall live, and whoever clings to the worldly life shall lose his life.

“Take up your cross, and follow me”.  What, exactly, does that mean.  It means we need to sacrifices on a daily basis.  More church work?  Yes.  More payers?  Of course!  And, as Paul tells us this morning: “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit.  Serve the Lord.  Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering persevere in prayer.  Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers”.

We have had another natural disaster in Texas, with the landing of hurricane Harvey.  Thousands, if not millions, are homeless.  Some have lost their lives.  And at the start of it all, FEMA went into disaster mode.  Many organizations, under FEMA’s umbrella, prepared themselves to answer the call to help in any way possible.  Massachusetts was among the states answering that call.  The Red Cross, the Salvation Army (originally a Methodist organization, by the way) And our very own UMCOR have also responded.  It is humanity helping out it’s fellow humans.  While it is tragic for disasters to happen, it brings out the best in people of every creed, color, and origin.  We have collectively picked up our cross, whether people realize it or not, to do God’s work.  And while it may be politically incorrect to say so, you can tell them God sent them!  But I think they know that, anyway.

My father was a lieutenant in the army during the Korean Conflict.  One day, his unit was bombarded by the enemy.  A large tent had caught fire, among other things.  Dad went into full crisis mode.  He went about evacuating the tents, and getting his men out of the area.  One man had been seriously wounded, and dad ordered one soldier to grab a jeep and get the wounded man down to the evac checkpoint.  The soldier had two objections.  One was that dad was pointing to the commander’s jeep.  Dad said that he didn’t give a damn whose jeep it was: “Get moving”.  The second objection was that the wounded man was going to die, and the soldier did not want to transport a dying man.  My father, at this point, took the wounded man down to evac, himself.  And the wounded man DID die on the way.  My father continued coping with the general situation.  When things had subsided, he went to the quartermaster to replace his rifle, which he had lost during the fray.  The quartermaster looked at him as though he were seeing a ghost.  “You’re supposed to be dead, sir!” he said.  When dad asked why, the man showed him a mangled rifle that had obviously been caught in the crossfire.  The serial number on it proved that it was the one that was issued to my father.  For his heroism, my father was awarded the Bronze Star.

Now, I did not hear this story until I was in my early forties, and someone asked my dad what had happened on the battlefield to earn him the medal.  I knew that he had received it, but I did not know the story behind it.  Dad was usually vague about it.  He would just say: “I evacuated a burning building”.  That’s it.  No details.  Obviously a man who was not about to claim glory for doing what he knew he had to do.  He needed to take the risk.  He needed to bear that particular cross on that particular day.  And I am sure he felt that he could not live with himself if  he had not done his utmost to alleviate the situation.

Well, we are not in the midst of a natural disaster, at least not now.  We are not on the front lies of a brutal war.  But we need to take up our cross on a daily basis.  Make sacrifices, large or small.  More donating of our time, our talents our gifts, and our service.  Pick up that cross that Jesus tells us to.  Be more than just a church-going follower.  More than just a person who does what any moral or ethical human being would do.  More work and sacrifice is what makes followers of Jesus different than the rest of humanity.  “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love!”.

In Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, our main character, Scrooge, is redeemed by the visits of four spirits.  We all know the story.  But the first spirit, the ghost of Jacob Marley, is, to my mind, the most telling of all.  He visits Scrooge to warn him that his earthly greed will lead to eternal torment.  “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob”, faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.  “Business!”, cried the ghost, wringing it’s hands again.  “Mankind was my business.  Charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all, my, business.  The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”.  Jacob had passed on, and could not longer give comfort to the living.  His fate was to be forever tortured by his own selfish greed.

As he leaves Scrooge, by flying through a window, he is joined by other spirits who are hopelessly longing to help, but had “lost that power, forever”.

And one more illustration.  Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, US, tells of his being recruited for the job he now holds while he was the CEO of Lennox.  Now, as he tells it, his friend was gung-ho about Richard taking the position with World Vision.  And Richard’s answer was that he sold expensive china to people who could afford it.  What did he know of charitable organizations?  “Come, have dinner with me.”, said his friend.

Richard ended up taking the (less-paying) job, and you can join us on the fourth Monday of every month to read how his tale unfolds.  I am looking forward to it, myself, and hope to see you there.  The book is called “The Hole in our Gospel”.  See me after church if you are curious as to what that means!

Stearns took up his cross.  We all have that cross to pick up.

So, what can we do, other than what Paul admonishes us to do?  Have we given all we can?  Have we tried all we can?  Do we take up our cross and follow Jesus?  What if we know that doing so would possibly mean the end to our own lives?  What if disposing of out possessions and giving all away were to lead us to homelessness?  Um, I am not advocating that.  But remember the rich young man was told, by Jesus that he needed to sell all that he had and give it away in order to follow him?  Have we truly done one thing today, just for today, that stretches the limits of our resources, our time, our spiritual being?  And when this day is over, do we have the conviction to take up that cross, tomorrow?

Our selves will die, but live in Jesus, if we do take up that cross.  He has sacrificed his life for us.  He is telling the disciples this very thing as he prepares to make his ultimate sacrifice of his human life.  But he knows what’s coming.  He tells us what’s coming.  We have nothing to fear, if we take up that cross, follow him, and trust in his words and lead by his example of love and sacrifice for all.

“It’ll all come out in the wash”, as they say.  Washed in the Blood of the Lamb.  When we are baptized, and when we make our confirmation vows, we promise to give of ourselves through our presence, our prayers, our gifts, and our service.  But we need to remember this.  As a Catholic priest once told me: “You can’t have Christ without the Cross, nor the Cross without Christ”.  He will make your burden light, as it says in Isaiah.  Trust him to help you lift that cross, and carry it through your life.  The rewards are gloriously eternal!  You can bet on it!

I now leave you with a poem that Pastor Tim passed on to me this week.  It is entitled “I Take Up My Cross”.

The cross is not an annoyance, not a burden thrust on me, but willingly entering the suffering of the world.

Jesus, help me.

I behold your love, overflowing from your cross,
Love piercing my suffering, your love buried in my death.

Your love overflows in me for others, to suffer in care, in forgiveness, in blessing,
To be for them even when t hey are against me

Give me courage, strength and endurance,
To listen, receive, accept and bless despite all whips and nails.

To associate with the lowly,
To weep or rejoice with them,
To overcome evil with good.

To cry to Pharaoh, bold, firm and vulnerable
To let my people go.

Letting go of fears and desires,
I take up my cross, and follow you, close.

It is your cross,
You are here with me.
This is where I want to be, close to you.

And ah! amazing grace:
You carry all the weight.
It is your hands they pierce,
Your death I bear,
And your rising.