How many times have you used, or heard the cliche, "Well, it's my cross to bear!" Usually the person is describing an inconvenience they are enduring. For example, I drive a very gas-thirsty car. I filled it up on Wednesday, the day before the gas frenzy happened in North Texas, because our son James had a football game in Sulphur Springs Thursday night (90 minutes each way). I filled up at our local grocery store because I had amassed a significant discount: 80 cents/gallon. So I paid only $32 to fill up my tank. After the road trip and going to Dallas yesterday for a funeral, I needed to fill up again. This time it cost $50. Would you say paying the extra $18 was my cross to bear?
No. Well, you might, but you shouldn't. My task today is to eliminate that cliche from our common vocabulary. The Cross is not an inconvenience. It is not something that causes us frustration. It is a direction for our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. To say a slight inconvenience is a cross to bear trivializes the suffering of Jesus, the apostles, the martyrs, and modern day Christians who are persecuted.
Jesus tells the disciples that he must suffer. Three times in the gospel he teaches this. And they can't deal with it. Peter says, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you." Jesus says famously, "Get behind me, Satan! You are settling your mind on worldly, not heavenly, things." He teaches that whoever would be his follower must dent themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. He says everyone who wishes to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will save it. The cross is not an inconvenience; it is a way of life.
I have several images from the past week to show you.
|These guys didn't bring a cross to the floods, they brought their boat.|
|Throughout the last week there have been hundreds of images like this. Strangers helping strangers.|
|Thousands of people have been displaced from their homes and are in shelters, waiting to return. If it's even possible.|
|Last Sunday in Houston and in other areas of South Texas many churches closed. This guy is a pastor. He spent his Sunday swimming through the highways searching for people trapped in their cars.|
|I grew up in the Houston area, and when I was a kid I watched professional wrestling. "Mattress Mack," as he's known in Houston, always had the cheesiest commercials. But when the flood hit, he opened his businesses as shelters.|
|These guys found Gallery Furniture showrooms places for rest.|
|JJ Watt of the Houston Texans had a goal to raise $200,000 for hurricane relief. So far he's raised $17 million.|
Now, I have no idea if any of these people, or thousands of others who gave of themselves this past week to help, are Christians. But this is what it means to take up one's cross and follow Jesus. Disciples go where they are sent, regardless of risk or cost. It's who we are.
|Joel Osteen has been in PR mode for several days.|
Which brings me to Joel Osteen. Now, let me say: I am not a fan. I know many, many people are, but this was not a good week for his church. Joel became the target of lots of criticism this week after his church did not open its doors for people displaced by Hurricane Harvey. I wasn't there, so I am not joining the feeding frenzy. But we do have his words and his theology to better understand. Joel says his church was not closed to people, it was just never asked to help by the City of Houston, so it didn't. Other churches and places of worship, like many United Methodist churches and mosques, also were not asked by the City to help; but they jumped in and opened their doors. Joel has had to expend energy spinning his church. Look at the background of the picture. That's not a coincidence.
The theology Joel and his church espouse is one of personal development. God is on our side, God blesses us when we are faithful, so if we have a good attitude, are generous and nice to others, God will reward us. And that is true. God does love us, and God is for us. But to claim that positivity is the whole of the gospel weakens the message. I love ice cream, but I understand that its nutritional value is limited. If I only eat ice cream all the time, I'll be limited in my life with Christ. If I only believe God works during the happy moments of life, then I will not know how to look for God in times of crisis. And my response to the suffering of others will be to wait until I am called, rather than acting. I am not criticizing the man or the people who find him inspiring. I'm criticizing the theology that informs how he lives out his faith.
Yesterday I traveled to Dallas for the funeral of Bill Bryan, a clergy colleague who served as my internship supervisor many years ago. Bill was a longtime champion of social justice and the poor in Dallas. He helped save several churches in East Dallas in the '80s, when he served as pastor at Grace UMC near downtown. Bill was a great example of what it means to follow wherever Jesus leads. Bill and I served together on the Conference Anti Racism team. Vickie Washington-Nash, who also served on that team, spoke at the service. Thinking of Bill, she quoted an old African American spiritual, the refrain of which is, "I am on the battlefield for my Lord." I had not heard the song before, but I found this clip of a woman singing it at a retirement community:
Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him-- to put our very lives at risk. But that doesn't mean that being a disciple isn't a joy-filled life. So I invite you to follow Jesus out to where you are needed. Do not wait to be called: Go. Jesus will be there, inspiring, challenging, strengthening.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.