Walking the Way of the Cross
13th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 18C)
September 8, 2019
[[First of all, I want to thank and praise God that our city was spared from the brunt of Hurricane Dorian's effects. Though many of us were inconvenienced by the mandatory evacuation, it seems that most of us experienced little to no damage. The church property was also undamaged. That said, our neighbors in North Carolina, in the Bahamas, and other parts of the Caribbean were not nearly so fortunate. Please keep them in your prayers and consider supporting them through donations to Episcopal Relief & Development.]]
Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."
Last Sunday, the Standing Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia announced the names of the candidates in our upcoming election for the next Bishop of Georgia. I spent some time this week (around the busy-ness of evacuation and preparation for Hurricane Dorian) reading all the information provided about the five candidates. In addition to their names, they released photos, short biographies, their resumé or CV, and their answers to the nomination/application questionnaire.
The Search Committee kept this last part of the process quite simple. They only asked the nominees to respond to three questions. I’m paraphrasing, but the first question basically asks, Why do you think you are called to be a bishop? Then the second asks, Why do you think you are called to be a bishop here and now in the Diocese of Georgia? And the third question is worth quoting directly: “What does it mean for you to walk in the way of the cross?”
Wow! That really gets at the heart of it. (For the record, all five candidates gave beautifully-written answers to that question and I highly recommend that you take a few minutes to read over their materials on the website. You can find that site and see their names and photos on a flyer on the bulletin board. Remember that Mrs. Joenelle Gordon, Mrs. Margaret Anne Pearson, and Dr. Clemontine Washington are your elected delegates for the Diocese of Georgia Convention this year. They will be entrusted to vote on your behalf for our next bishop. So talk to them and me about who stands out to you and why.)
“What does it mean for you to walk in the way of the cross?” This is a perfect question for potential bishops because they are entrusted with so much responsibility. They are vested with so much authority by the Church that it’s important that we know about their relationship with Jesus.
But it’s also a question for each of us to consider. It’s a question that points to the center of what it means to be a Christian, a Christ-follower, a disciple of Jesus Christ. Because, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel passage, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
One of the most memorable prayers in the Book of Common Prayer is part of Daily Morning Prayer. It’s on page 99 and it’s the Collect for Fridays, so many of us say it at least once per week. It also pops up on Palm Sunday and the Monday in Holy Week. It comes back to the phrase that our Bishop Search Committee highlighted for the nominees:
“Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
We pray that (A) we will find the strength and courage to walk with Jesus in the way of the Cross, and (B) that as we do so we will find it to be the way of life and peace. That is a powerful prayer, but it’s a prayer of contradiction. How can that be true? How can the way of the cross be the way of life and peace?
What even is the way of the cross? Jesus was literally arrested, beaten, scourged, sentenced to death, and forced to carry his cross up the hill to Golgotha, where they nailed him to the tree of death. For Jesus, the way of the cross was not a metaphor. He had to walk a brutal path toward suffering and shameful death on a cross. So why would we sign up for that, even in a symbolic way? Why would we choose to enter the waters of baptism where we die with Christ and rise with him? Why would we submit ourselves to ritual drowning? And why would we do it to our children?
Well, it’s because the way of the cross is the way of life and peace. The way of the cross requires us to stand up for love and healing even when people would rather stew in their toxic hatred. The way of the cross requires us to promote peace even when we feel like taking revenge. The way of the cross shows us a joy above all joys and a peace that surpasses understanding. The way of the cross, despite its pain and suffering, is the way that leads to life and peace for all, not just the rich and powerful few.
The way of the cross is the way of voluntarily taking on some discomfort so that others can have life’s necessities. It’s the way of giving generously so that your brother or sister can have what they need even if I can’t have what I want. It’s the path of dying to self that draws us closer to the Love at the center of the universe. It is an enlightening way that helps us see the value in all of God’s creatures. And it is exactly what Jesus is calling us to in this text. He says that the way of the cross, the way of following Jesus might cause you to “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself.”
We talked about a few weeks ago about Blessed Enmegabowh, who went against his father-in-law for the sake of saving his tribe and his people from slaughter. He chose the way of life and peace in a critical moment of uncertainty and fear. The way of the cross might lead you to stand up to your family or friends or fellow church members or even your Rector. The way of the cross is the way of Jesus that puts love for God and neighbor over human-made titles and positions of honor.
So the way of the cross is a lifelong struggle for all Christians. All of us will face moments of uncertainty where we will need to choose between things that seem good, or between what we know is right and the people who we love. Life isn’t easy for anyone. And choosing what is good is even harder. Yet Jesus is right there with us, leading us along the stony path toward the cross, toward abundant life, and toward peace.
For the last few weeks, we have been praying the collect for the Election of a Bishop from the BCP at the end of the Prayers of the People. We’ll continue to do so until the electing convention on November 14-16. One of my favorite parts of that prayer is in the last line. We pray to God for guidance so that we can receive a bishop who is “a faithful pastor, who will care for [God’s] people and equip us for our ministries” (BCP, 818; emphasis added). According to this prayer, we don’t elect bishops (or rectors) to do all the ministry for us. Ordained ministry is only one kind of ministry that the diverse Body of Christ does.
We often get the misconception that pastors are the ministers and laypeople are just supposed to show up and do what they’re told. But the Bible and the church are clear: you are ministers (each and every one of you in this room). Anyone who has been baptized or who wants to be baptized is a minister. You’re either a lay minister, a deacon, a priest, or a bishop, but you’re a minister either way. And the vast majority of Christians are laypeople, not clergy. So the Church can only follow God’s will if all its ministers own their ministries. A bishop or a priest can encourage and equip us in those roles, but they can’t just do it for us.
Each of us must decide individually that she is going to walk in the way of the cross, that she will accept the divine calling to follow Jesus with everything she is, and that she will love God and love neighbor without reservations. And when a community of people who are sold-out for Jesus comes together, we can accomplish great things for the Kingdom of God. We can be the hands and feet of Jesus in this broken world. We can share Jesus’ love and compassion with the neediest among us. We can remind people that God is love and love never fails. And, if need be, we can suffer together when the powers of this world retaliate against our faith, hope, and love.
Even if, like Jesus, we are led to suffering and pain, we can remain confident that this way of the cross is the way of life and peace. We share the abundant life of Jesus with all the downtrodden, we proclaim God’s love and forgiveness in the midst of our sin and our sorrow, and we show peace to people overwhelmed by chaos and violence, all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.