I don’t remember where I got it. I don’t remember when I got it. But I wore it every day. To school. To soccer practice. In the shower and in the pool during gym. It became a part of me – an extension of my body. Twice it fell off when I wasn’t looking, but both times, it landed in my hand. I thought that was a sign. A sign that it wasn’t meant to be lost. A sign that someone somewhere wanted me to keep wearing it.
Another time, it fell off while I was playing Frisbee in the street. It didn’t land in my hand, but on the pavement. I didn’t notice until my friend threw the Frisbee so poorly that the Frisbee rolled on the ground, coming to rest right beside it. Another sign, I thought.
But then, one day, the strands of rugged rope gave way, and it fell to the ground, never to be seen again by me. I loved that cross necklace.
Crosses. If you keep an eye out for them, you’ll see them everywhere. We hang them in our homes, we wear them around our necks. We tattoo them on our arms, and we give them as Confirmation gifts. We stick them to the back windows of our cars and we pound them into the earth to mark a grave. They come in all shapes and sizes – some are made out of gold, others out of splintered wood. Some are shiny and detailed, others simple and plain.
All these crosses are a good thing, I think. Because as Jesus says in our gospel lesson, we are to be cross-carrying people. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” But the question that comes to mind is – what does it all mean? What does it mean to take up your cross?
Does it mean what I have so often heard? That is, our crosses are the sufferings each of us bear? You know the phrase: “I guess this is just my cross to bear.” It is a phrase we throw around for both inconveniences and catastrophes in our life. That annoying person at work – just my cross to bear. That mass in my lung – just my cross to bear. A leaky roof – just my cross to bear. A child born with Down’s Syndrome – my cross to bear. We say it as if these are assignments handed down from God that either teach us a lesson, test our faith, or punish us for bad behavior. And the guidance given is usually – just endure it. Jesus had to suffer and so must you. It is your cross to bear. Just hang in there. If that is how the text is understood than I fear that it has become rotten to the core and hollowed out of any meaning and depth, justifying suffering and denigrating God.
The problem is, you see, we have lifted this verse out of the gospel of Mark. Out of its context and disconnected it from what has been said just before it.
Jesus has just told his disciples that the road on which he is headed leads straight into suffering and betrayal and rejection, and ultimately, to death. Peter wants nothing to do with this road. No king of Israel, no savior of God’s people can suffer, be rejected and die. The savior of the world must come in power and might. So Peter pulls Jesus aside and tries to straighten him out and show him that he can’t go down a path of suffering and death. To which Jesus barks back, “Get behind me, Satan. Do not tempt me with any easier way. You’ve put your mind on human things, not on divine things.”
And there it is. Human things verses divine things. Jesus says Peter is focusing on human things by wanting to avoid suffering. But divine things, Jesus says, include the realities of this life, like suffering and pain, disappointment and despair, fear and isolation. These are divine things. But these are not divine things because God has handed them out to poor unsuspecting people. They are divine because God has walked straight into these places of suffering and pain, so as to be with God’s people. Jesus said he must undergo suffering, rejection, and be killed. Jesus marks and claims the suffering of the world as the very place where he will be found. These are the divine things.
A couple of a years ago, I was a chaplain at a hospital. I would receive requests from patients or their families to visit a patient. Many times I would come to a room where the patient was sleeping or unconscious, with tubes and machines hooked up all over them. And I was terrified. When they weren’t awake or no family was around, I breathed a sigh of relief and slowing back out of the room, unnoticed. But you know, I never felt good about that. Like Peter, I wanted to avoided any suffering and pain I must encounter with this person. One time, I was called to the room of a 22-year old who had had a major stroke and was in a coma. When I got to his room, no family was around. But by the grace of God, I found the courage to stick around and stay with this young man. His parents came around eventually. We prayed together. We cried together. And God was there. You could feel it.
The human thing is to avoid suffering, like Peter. But Jesus won’t do that.
And then Jesus says, “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” If we put this verse back into its context we can see that it isn’t about God handing out assignments of suffering, but it is about God entering into the very suffering of the world.
Let me be clear: your suffering is not the cross Jesus is talking about. Jesus isn’t talking about tolerating a bothersome boss, Jesus isn’t talking about enduring cancer. Jesus is not calling us to passive acceptance of painful suffering. The cross Jesus is talking about is not the one on your back, but the one on your forehead. The cross that has marked you long ago as a beloved and chosen child of God. A mark that says, “With you is where God chooses to be.” Never separate from and never beyond the presence of God.
You have been marked with the cross of Christ. In baptism and in blessing, you, each and every one of you, have been claimed by God. God has stamped you with a cross that will not wash off or wear out. So take up your cross – that cross – and follow me, Jesus says, into a desperate and dangerous world, filled with suffering and pain. That’s where I’ll be, God says, and I need you there too. Bringing about peace, mercy, and justice. Take up your cross and follow me.
You’ve been mark with a cross, meaning you’ve been claimed by God. Therefore, to place a cross somewhere is to also proclaim it as claimed by God.
I’ve told you this story before, but perhaps it is worth telling again. A well-known preacher, Tom Long, tells a story about a congregation in Kentucky. The congregation is in a town that has become littered with violence. In fact, the town has become the murder capital of the United States. It is all over the news, it is worried about among the residents, and joked about by the morning DJ’s. It has become an infection for this town. The pastor of this congregation decided that another word needed to be spoken by the church. One Saturday, on an impulse, he took the processional cross from the church and he went to all of the places where violence had occurred in the past week. He placed the cross in that spot, and he prayed for the victims of violence and for the ones who brought about the violence. Eventually, word trickled out into the community about what this pastor was doing and now every Saturday, a group of community members goes to the places of violence and puts a cross there as if to say, “Even here. Even this place of deep and dark destructive violence is not outside of the reach of God. God has entered into this very place and claimed it. God has taken it into God’s own being. God will not avoid it. God will enter into it.
To place a cross somewhere – in a ditch on the side of the road, around your neck, on your arm, in your living room, or into the hands of your granddaughter at her confirmation – is to mark that place as a divine thing. A sacred thing. A holy thing. To say this is where God will be present. And you, my dear friends, have been marked with this cross.
When we baptize Presley and Zeah in a little bit, we don’t pour over their heads a promise of safety and security. We pour over their heads the promise of unconditional value and love in the midst of a world that can sometimes tell us otherwise. We mark them with a cross that says your life is no longer your own, but it has been claimed by God. That God will be with them all the days of their life.
And when we gather together at this table in fellowship and forgiveness today, each of you will receive not only bread and wine, but also a cross placed on your forehead as a reminder that you have been marked. Mark with the cross of Christ which you carry with you into your life. It is a cross that claims you and blesses you and sends you out into this tattered world to hand out grace, mercy, and peace. And Jesus said, “Take up that cross and follow me.”
May this be so. Amen.