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Sunday, August 31, 2014 | 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00 a.m.
“Take Up Your Cross, the Savior Said…”
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
God asks us to jump from our secure perches, to stop calculating the risks. Jesus bids us, “Take up your cross, follow me. . . . Don’t insist on knowing exactly what comes next but trust that you are in the hand of God, who will guide your life.”
Turn My Mourning into Dancing
I looked and I looked and I looked this week. Surely, I thought, surely at some point in the past fifteen years of preaching I had taken on these words in Matthew about the cross and self-denial and losing one’s life to find it. In fifteen years of preaching, I must have done that, right? Wrong. Apparently every time this particular story from Matthew has come up in the lectionary, I have either been on a late summer vacation or I have chosen to preach about Moses, which is the story found in the Exodus passage selected for today. I have never focused on this particular passage from Matthew 16.
But honestly, I know why I have avoided this passage, why I’ve always chosen Moses over Jesus’ words. It is because of women like Sherry. Now, Sherry is not her real name. It is important that you know that. But Sherry is someone who has had a lasting impact on my ministry, though she would never know.
I got to know Sherry early on when I served as a pastor in the Dallas area. One day, around 4:00 in the afternoon, Sherry showed up in the church office, asking to see the pastor. Sherry was not a member of my congregation. She simply lived in the town and drove by the church on her way to and from work. She decided to stop that day because she had seen my name on the church’s sign and figured I was a female pastor who might have a different perspective on her story. I showed her into my office, and we sat down. Then in a voice that was barely audible, Sherry told me her story. She told me about the abuse that occurred in her home. Her husband was the perpetrator, and up until the night before, Sherry was the one who had always been on the receiving end of the violence. But the evening prior to our meeting, their daughter became the target. That was the last straw for Sherry.
So she called the police, but no arrest was made. Texas, like Illinois, leaves it up to the officer’s discretion as to whether or not an arrest should be made after an accusation of domestic violence (National Institute of Justice: Domestic Violence Cases). And for whatever reason, the officers who responded that night determined an arrest was not necessary. Sherry had not pushed the matter with them, because frankly, Sherry was not used to her voice counting for anything. As a matter of fact, throughout this conversation, I kept having to lean in closer and closer, because Sherry spoke so softly. Perhaps it was because she had become so used to being silenced that her entire demeanor reflected her loss of voice. But even though her voice was quiet and often shook with emotion, she still had the courage to tell me why she was there.
“I have my own church,” she said. “But my pastor does not understand. I once told him what was happening with my husband, and my pastor told me that the violence must be my cross to bear. I needed to just pick it up like Jesus did and deny myself in order to save my marriage and keep my family together. He told me it must be God’s will and to pray that I might learn to accept it.”
You see, it is because of women like Sherry and countless others that I have always avoided preaching these words from Jesus to his disciples, the words that invite “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” For generations these very words of Jesus have been taken and twisted into commands that serve only to legitimate violence in the name of faithfulness. “I was told his anger was my cross to bear,” Sherry told me that first conversation, “and that I needed to bear it like Jesus.”
Unfortunately, Sherry’s experience with this passage and others like it is not all that unusual. Delores Williams, a womanist theologian, has written about the real danger of interpreting Jesus’ words to imply that women, and particularly for Williams, black women must suffer and stay in “their place” in order to be a faithful follower of Jesus. Williams claims that phrases like “take up your cross” have been so destructive that, for her, the cross is not the symbol of redemption or salvation. Rather, she states Jesus’ life and ministry are what save us and show us what faithful living looks like (Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness, pp. 165–167).
One of the most provocative questions Williams asks is what might have been different in the course of our history had the primary symbol for our redemption and salvation been loaves and fish rather than the cross. What if that symbol is what we wore around our neck and had displayed in the front of our churches? For indeed, from the crusades to the KKK, the symbol of the cross has been co-opted to be a symbol of God-sanctioned violence against those considered “other.” Loaves and fish might have been a much more difficult religious symbol to twist around and misuse.
Of course, in the time when Jesus and Peter lived, there was absolutely nothing religious about the cross in the first place. Rather, there was only one purpose for a cross in the time of the Roman empire: the purpose of execution. The cross was both the symbol and the means of political and military punishment for dissidents and criminals. It was Rome’s version of the electric chair or the strap-covered gurney sitting by the lethal injection machine. In Jesus’ day, the cross had no veneer of redemption, no hint of life, and absolutely no connection with the divine. It was an instrument of suffering and death for those hung upon it, as well as an instrument of fear and intimidation for everyone else.
It was not uncommon for the road to Jerusalem to be lined with crosses, each one of them bearing a body (Barbara Brown Taylor, God in Pain, p. 59). Clearly, the cross-lined road was meant to scare the daylights out of everyone—children and adults alike, everyone who passed by that place of public execution as they went from their home to the market, or from the market to temple, or from temple over to the house of a loved one for a visit. You could not escape the crosses’ looming shadows as the sun rose on a new day or as it set behind the horizon. And after a while, I’m sure that kind of constant pressure of fear and intimidation took its toll on the people’s spirit. Having to walk down a road lined with crosses must affect one’s ability to fully live or to fully love or to fully hope. And if you ever let yourself stop and look, you would inevitably hear the empire’s announcement of its power over your life.
That is what each cross was doing as it stood there—it was preaching a sermon of the empire. “Look and see,” the cross would proclaim. “Look and see what holds your life and your death. You can worship whom you want, but look and see and don’t forget under whose power and reign you truly live.” Frankly, that kind of sermon was what was being proclaimed to Sherry every time her preacher told her that the violence in her home was her cross to bear. Undeniably, with that interpretation of “taking up your cross,” she was also being told whose she was: her husband’s. And she was being told under whose power and reign she lived: his alone. No wonder she struggled, so much so that she was willing to tell a complete stranger her story in the hopes she might hear a word of life rather than another tired word of death.
I wonder if that was part of Peter’s struggle, too. With all of those crosses bearing down on him, preaching words of oppression and death day after day, perhaps he found Jesus’ words about Jesus’ impending suffering and dying to be as horrendous as I found Sherry’s pastor’s words. “God forbid it, Lord. This shall never happen to you,” Peter protested. No one chooses to bear a cross. It is always imposed onto one by those more powerful. That was Peter’s experience. Frankly, that was Sherry’s experience as well. Furthermore, I wonder if it flashed through Peter’s mind that if something like that could happen to Jesus, to the one he just claimed as Messiah, then it could happen to any of them (Barbara Brown Taylor, God in Pain, p. 59). And none of them signed up for defeat. None of them signed up for rejection. None of them signed up for suffering. None of them signed up for death.
So I wonder if though the disciples probably paid a lot of attention during the confrontation between Peter and Jesus, they also stopped listening as soon as Jesus said “take up your cross.” All of them had lived their lives walking down that Jerusalem road. All of them had lived their lives trying to forget the empire’s testimony that fear and death were the powers that defined them. All of them had had to respond to their children the first time those little voices asked why those people were up there and if that was going to happen to them, too. And now this One whom they had grown to trust was telling them to deny themselves and to willingly take up a cross? It did not make sense.
Like Sherry wondered that day in my office, like I have wondered throughout my own journey of discipleship, those first disciples probably wondered what Jesus’ invitation to take up the cross was even supposed to mean. The cross was the tool of the empire. The ultimate expression of power over another. There was no veneer of redemption, no hint of life, no connection with the divine symbolized by the cross. They had lived their lives under the shadows of those crosses, trying with all their might to not look up, constantly attempting to silence those slithering voices that kept proclaiming to them under whose fear-based power they lived, under whose death-reign they existed.
But perhaps this Jesus, this one whom they loved, this Jesus was trying to redefine the cross for them. I wonder if by inviting them to take up their cross, he was telling them to stop giving the fear of the cross so much power. To stop letting death determine their every move. To stop allowing the empire’s threat to have the last word on whose they were and under whose reign they lived. “Take up your cross,” Jesus said, “and stop worshiping fear and death as your gods. Take up your cross and follow me. Take up that horrible cross as a sign that you believe in the life-giving power of God more than you believe in death-dealing power of fear.”
Take up that cross and see for yourselves the empty threat it represents. For God is the one who holds your life, not the empire. God is the one who will walk with you through death, not the empire. God is the one who will give you new life, not the empire. God is the one under whose reign and under whose power you live and move and have your being, not the empire—not an abusive partner, not the economy, not your addiction, not your wealth, not your poverty, not your security, not your status, and not even your family. God alone is the one to whom you belong. And that means you matter, regardless of what other kinds of things you are told based on your gender or your race or your sexual orientation or the amount you have in the bank. Take up your cross as a sign of your protest against those voices and follow Jesus.
I have wondered what might have happened in my office all those years ago if Sherry and I had talked about this passage in this different way. What if Jesus’ call to take up our cross is actually meant to empower his disciples, to give us courage to take a stand against the empire, against violence, against any voice of fear that tries to define us and lock us down? What might have been if Sherry and I had redefined bearing the cross as a way of proclaiming her freedom in God, her freedom that could lend her courage to live a more abundant life, a life where she would not have to wonder if he was going to snap that night, a life where she and her children were able to break free from that kind of domination?
Because the more I pray and study over this passage, the more I am convinced that part of the reason Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow is so that we can show those slithering voices of death and fear, once and for all, who and whose we truly are. But make no mistake about it, when we do, just like Sherry, just like the disciples did eventually, we must make sure our eyes are wide open. For carrying that cross even as protest and being a disciple will not be easy, and the road will not be smooth.
As a matter of fact, taking up the cross and following Jesus might slowly burn away who we have been, and it must just kill any delusion we have of being the center of all things. But if we can summon up our courage to take up that cross and follow, one foot in front of another, Jesus promises us we will slowly find our life, not lose it. A life that begins, ends, and begins again in the light of God’s care and reign and not in the captive shadow of empire. Certainly not in the captivity of abuse or violence or fear.
You are probably wondering what happened to Sherry. She and the kids eventually left her home (after a long time) and went into a shelter, getting their life back on track. Apparently her husband sought counseling and they reconciled. She used to call me about once a year around Christmas, even after I left that church, just to check in, just to tell me she was OK, just to let me know that she finally knew to whom she truly belonged and trusted that as her truth. She always called me because she wanted me to know she finally felt free and that she was continuing to follow Jesus, bit by bit, day by day, into her future. And she wanted to preach to the preacher that she knew nothing and no one would ever have the power to destroy her again. For Sherry, beloved daughter of God, that cross became not only a symbol of her protest, but also of her liberation. Amen.
1. The sermon title is from the hymn “Take Up Your Cross, the Savior Said” by Charles W. Everest.
2. I am indebted to different sources for this sermon: My own theological wrestling match with the doctrine of atonement and feminist/womanist contributions to that dialogue; Walter Wink’s theology of the principalities and powers, as well as his helpful articulation of the myth of redemptive violence; Walter Brueggemann’s language of countertestimony; Ched Myers’ excellent book on the Gospel of Mark titled Binding the Strong Man.