Open Hands, Take Your Cross, Love Another

believe-tattoo-design-inked
Believe tattoo. Google Images

A Sermon for Sunday August 31,  Exodus 3:1-8a, 10; Romans 12:9-10, 14-16, 21 and Matthew 16:21-24
Believe.

A small word with profound meaning: to have a firm religious faith, to accept something as true, genuine or real.

Believe.

A word used by people as a way of resisting oppressive and unjust systems or justifying oppression and injustice toward others.

Believe.

A word used to convey one’s religious and moral convictions and attitudes about God and life, which can birth goodness or create much harm.

Believe.

I believe. We believe.

I believe that, but you believe this.

We don’t believe what y’all believe.

Do you believe? Do you belieeeeve in the nameee of Jesussss?

Believing and claiming what you believe is an important part of religion. But believing is not the single most important component of religion.

I realize that might offend several of you and it’s understandable to think that what I’ve said is blasphemous.

For centuries human beings have been taught that it was our job, our sacred duty to believe and only believe and all would be ok.

That idea is at the heart of all our beloved stories and myths. There is a crisis and the hero (Superman, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter) rises up to save the day and fixes everything!

This hero narrative is good movie popcorn fun but it has not practical application. History tells us over and over that there isn’t one hero that swoops in to save us all.

Yet our expectation and belief that a hero will save the day and repair a broken world in mere minutes remains deeply ingrained in our minds and hearts. We as human beings often place this expectation on our leaders and authority figures—politicians, police, pastors, and so on. And many self-identifying Christians certainly place this expectation and belief at the feet of Jesus.

It is common to hear some fellow Christians say, “Jesus saved. I’m saved (if I believe). We’re all good. No need to worry about the other stuff going on in the world. God will sort it out in time or maybe not. Either way, I’m saved and others need to be saved by accepting Jesus and that’s what matters.”

But Jesus doesn’t charge onto the scene like the mythical heroes of our culture, and with the wave of a hand or a show of super strength, end evil and suffering instantaneously.

The scriptures tell us that while God in Christ has/is/will transform the entire world in unconditional love, Jesus commands each one of us to follow and be a part of what God is doing in the world.

follow-image
“Follow” Artist Unknown. Google Images

Jesus says, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.”

Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.”

Jesus says, “Whenever you do for the least of these, you do also for me.”

Jesus says, “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Jesus calls us to humbly and selflessly follow, to live like he did. Jesus’ actions inspire others to join in a movement toward God’s kingdom of love, mercy, peace and justice.

This movement narrative (as opposed to the hero one) underlines these ancient stories of the Bible, our own history and the greater over-arching story of God and humanity. It’s not about one hero saving the day but one person or group of people inspiring others to make the world a better place, to make God’s kingdom a reality in the here and now.

In the words of Margaret Mead, the famous American anthropologist: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Theresa were champions of civil rights for blacks and the poor, respectively, and yet, they alone didn’t bring about complete change nor entirely fix the problem of racism and slavery. It was through the living out of Jesus’ command that they inspired others to take up the cause long after their deaths.

In today’s passage from Paul’s letter to the early church in Rome, the apostle gives instructions on how to live like Jesus, focusing not on what one must believe to be a disciple of Christ but on what one must do to be a Christian:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor…. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly, do not claim to be wiser than you are…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Notice that Paul uses active verbs—be genuine, hold fast, love, outdo, bless, rejoice, weep, live, associate, and overcome.

Paul emphasizes that it’s not enough to simply make a belief statement or passively believing. Being a Christian, says Paul, is about putting what you believe into action. It’s about living out the good God wants us to do.

This past week, a video of a gay intervention of a 20-year-old college student in Rome, Georgia went viral. In the beginning of the conversation, the family of Daniel Ashley Pierce, told the young man that although they loved him, they believed his sexual orientation went against God’s Word. They further explained that if he continued to be gay, they would no longer support his education or allow him to live at home or come to visit. As the young man, who recorded the incident on his cell phone, struggled to understand his family’s motives, the stepmother became enraged. She yelled obscenities at Daniel and beat him while the grandmother cheered her on. Eventually the father pulled his wife away and then looks at his son and says exasperatedly, “You are a disgrace.”[1]

The family states in the video that they believe in God’s Word, but their actions clearly don’t show it. They aren’t living out God’s goodness.

A friend once told a story about his son who was having trouble behaving at school. The father got into the habit of telling his son each morning as he dropped him off for class, “Be good today, buddy.” Sometime later, it dawned on him how important those words were in a culture that often tells people, particularly children and youth: “Don’t be bad.”

Many Christians, like Daniel Pierce Ashley’s family, have reduced the religion to a list of don’t-screw-ups. Don’t cuss, don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t do this, and don’t be that. Don’t say or do anything wrong if you want to be a true Christian, go to heaven and find favor with God.

Although we have to take responsibility for the times we hurt God and neighbor through selfish choices, fretting over a list of don’t-screw-ups doesn’t advance God’s kingdom.

Paul reminds those who desire to follow Jesus that even when you fail, keep following God’s command to be genuine, hold fast, love, outdo, bless, rejoice, weep, live, associate, and overcome. Paul tells us that when there are problems, get out there and love.

Getting out there and loving others is hard. It’s much easier to miserably dwell on a list of don’t-screw-ups.

Following Jesus can be costly. We have to choose whether we will set our minds completely on human things or on divine things. We have to choose whether we will acquire success through status and material goods or love successfully without giving any thought to prestige and wealth. We have to choose whether we are going to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus or leave them on the ground to collect dust.

It’s tempting to do the latter, considering that the culture is opposed to the idea of selflessly loving and caring for everyone. The culture will immediately condemn those who carry their cross and follow the Divine Light who lifts up the suffering, binds the broken-hearted and blesses them with dignity.

Look at what happened to Jesus and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King Jr., and Oscar Romero and many others who, for God and God’s people, went against the culture of individualism, self-interests and preservation of the status quo, to claim love and grace for the poor, the stranger and oppressed.

Keep in mind that it is never noble to suffer or to strive for suffering, nevertheless we are sometimes called to suffer for God and to stand with those who are suffering, to “weep with those who weep,” and “associate with the lowly.” We are each called to deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow Christ.

The question then becomes: What is our cross and what price are we willing to pay to ensure that all of God’s children are treated with the love poured out for them?

Another friend of mine who is studying to be a minister told me this weekend that our crosses to bear are the systematic injustices that occur all around us when we don’t place ourselves in communities unlike our own. She said

to work toward fighting the injustices of systemic racism, sexism, ageism, we have to listen to our brothers and sisters on the other end of those systemic issues. We must go into the communities like Ferguson and join hands, be in dialogue with our Jewish and Arab partners in faith to find commonality, create safe places for those among us dealing with prevalent but shamed mental health conditions.

More can certainly be added to the list. There is a world of hurt and God’s people, much like the Israelites who were enslaved to the Egyptians, are crying out. From cities in the U.S. to the Mexican border to Syria to Gaza to the Ukraine, the misery of God’s people are well known.

God hears their cries and then calls us to go and stand with the hurting—to bring them out of their suffering under oppressive systems. Are we ready, like Moses, to listen for the call of God, turn our heads and see where God lives in the gutters of the world?

Recently, a group of Presbyterian ministers in the state of Missouri, traveled to Ferguson to protest the institutionalized racism that became apparent to the nation following the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson.

Before leaving to join the protests, the Rev. Landon Whitsitt released a statement calling the PC(USA) to stand in solidarity with the people of Ferguson:

“We must as the possession of God…stand where the Lord stands, namely against the injustice of the wronged. … Sisters and Brothers, we must stand arm in arm with the people of Ferguson. Black bodies matter and our white bodies will signify that the killing of black bodies is unacceptable.”

As it was reported on the news and in people’s social media feeds, the most common way people protested in support of Brown was by raising their arms and chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” In response, a group of supporters for Officer Wilson responded with “Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!”[2]

keep-calm-and-carry-your-cross-8
Keep Calm meme. Artist Unknown. Google Images

It is quite an image for the mind and hear to grasp. In an attempt to humbly and selflessly follow Jesus, I would like to offer a third way of protesting and an invitation to practice a much different chant and gesture as we go out to stand with the suffering and face the unjust systems:

Open Hands, Take Your Cross, Love Another.

This we must believe and practice.

Jesus calls us to do nothing less.

In the name of the One whom we follow,

Amen.

Many thanks to David LaMotte who talked me through an outline of the three lectionary readings and largely inspired the direction of the sermon. I am grateful for his thoughts and insight as well as the story he shared about a mutual friend/colleague who got into habit of saying “Do good today, buddy” to his son. I am also grateful to Addie Domske, an aspring seminary student who I quote toward the end of the sermon and for insights from friends Jennifer Larson, Omayra Gonzalez-Mendez, Rachel Pence, Josh Stewart, and Stacey Tarrant.

[1] http://www.ajc.com/news/news/georgians-video-of-gay-intervention-goes-viral/nhB26/

[2] http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/obama-orders-review-policy-enables-police-military-equipment-article-1.1914610 and http://www.reviewjournal.com/columns-blogs/sherman-frederick/truth-doesn-t-fit-templates

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