The Rev. Melanie McCarley
In today’s lesson from Mark, Jesus predicts his death for the first time. It’s a momentous occasion; one which no one expects, nor wants. Jesus says to his disciples: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed and after three days rise again.” Now, for those of us standing on this side of the resurrection, we might perceive in these words hope. After all, even though this is the season of Lent, we’re Easter people at heart. But for the disciples, whose context at the time was quite different, these words arrived with all the subtlety of a grenade. Suddenly, their hopes and expectations were blown to smithereens.
Think of it. Those who heard these words for the first time had built on Jesus all of their hope and plans for the future. They had seen Jesus perform miracles and had witnessed firsthand his charismatic ability to draw huge crowds. In Jesus, they believed they had found their longed-for future. And now, here he is, telling them that he is going to die…and in one of the most ignominious ways possible. Now, what could be more disorienting or more ludicrous, for his disciples to hear than that?
So, it shouldn’t surprise us in the least that Peter (a man who could never be accused of subtlety) says what is on everyone’s mind: “Heaven Forbid, Lord, this shall never happen to you.” And in what might be the sharpest and most surprising rebuke in all of Holy Scripture, Jesus issues this slapdown to his leading apostle: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” And now—if that is not enough, Jesus turns to his followers and issues this command: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” What?
From my perspective, encouraging folks to take up their cross and follow Jesus is never easy; however, during the year 2021 it is perhaps more difficult than normal. After all, many of us feel as though we’ve been carrying crosses for some time—and now, we’d like nothing more than to lay them down. And so, this morning I would like to offer you a different perspective on what it means to “carry your cross”.
For most of us, the image of carrying a cross brings to mind a burden—one which we’d much rather not have the cause to bear. An irritating relative; an oppressive work environment, poor health, addiction, grief or depression; this is how we speak of the crosses we bear. But might there be a different way?
To begin, consider that shouldering our cross is something Jesus asks of each of us as his followers. No one is exempt. Indeed, our Savior himself tells us that carrying a cross and being his disciple are synonymous. To begin, ask yourself this: Is carrying a cross only about hauling around an unsightly burden and suffering? Might it also be about something else…. Perhaps something such as new life?
Consider what makes a great novel. There’s drama, in those pages, isn’t there, humor and perhaps, if we’re lucky, even a bit of romance. But a good book isn’t simply about the hero or heroine moving from good experience to good experience—leaping from mountaintop to mountaintop on a perpetual sea of ecstasy and good fortune. A good story (a good life) includes suffering as well as joy. That’s where character development comes in. In that story surely there are moments of terror as well as opportunities for perseverance, introspection, creativity and compassion. Characters develop not simply through achievements, but also through loss, struggle and pain. In other words, a really fine story—or a really fine life, includes all of these elements. How might this figure into discerning the shape of the cross that you carry?
Begin by considering the vertical beam of the cross, reaching from the ground to the sky and the sky to the ground. Imagine this as our relationship to God and God’s relationship to us. It is one based upon love. God loves us unconditionally, and in our lives as Christians, we learn to love God. It is a mutual relationship.
Now look to the horizontal beam of the cross, and picture the arms of our savior embracing humanity. As the beautiful collect for mission from Morning Prayer phrases it so eloquently: “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace. So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you.” That beam represents how we, emulating our Savior’s love for humanity, reach out to those around us.
And now, we look to the center of the cross, where those two beams intersect and join together. The one representing the relationship of love that God has for you and you have for God, and the other, which represents the love of God for the world and our obligation to care for others. In the center of this beam is where you find your cross. Another way to perceive this is to think of that intersecting beam as your vocation. Frederick Buechner once wrote: “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.” There it is, at the heart of the cross.
So, if you are a nurse or doctor during this pandemic, your calling—the cross that you carry, is to bring the compassion, love and healing of God to those in your care. Is there is suffering in this? Without a doubt. And certainly, the world-wide pandemic makes this time harder than others. Think of your cross as your vocation—your reason for being. It may be a job—such as a teacher, a lawyer, an accountant. But it might just as easily be a relationship: a Grandparent, a spouse, a sister or a brother. I think of an older person who, isolated during this pandemic learns to use a computer in order to read bedtime stories to a grandchild. The situation isn’t what anyone wants—and, to be honest, it’s hard, as well as heartbreaking, in its way. But it’s also filled with love. That is the image of a person carrying their cross. A teacher, who is suddenly relegated to teaching students on zoom is someone who is shouldering a cross; a parent caring for a small child as well as an aging relative—that is someone carrying a cross. Everyone’s cross is different. Perhaps it even changes with time. Yet there is one aspect that does not change—and that is this. Our cross, like the cross of our Savior, is filled, not simply with sacrifice, but also with love.
As counterintuitive as Jesus’s words must have sounded to Peter’s ears, and those of his disciples, and perhaps even to our own, they were indeed Good News. In today’s lesson, Jesus is telling us that the path of life includes suffering and even death. And if we’re smart—here’s the truth—we’ll let Jesus drag us right down into the grave along with him. Because this same Jesus also had something to say about what would happen three days later. The cross and the hope of Easter are inextricably joined together. We don’t get to one without the other. There is hope in those intersecting beams that you carry. There is also life, so lift it high and carry it with joy. In Jesus’ name. Amen.