“A Chosen Cross”
September 3, 2023
Dr. Kadi Billman
Exodus 3:1-15; Matthew 16:21-28
When I first read what our scripture passages for this morning would be, I remembered a conversation with my pastor that took place when I was seventeen years old. I said to my pastor, “I wish I could get a clear call from God—like Moses or Jeremiah or Paul.” He replied, “You’d better think twice about that. Remember what happened to those people—what they had to go through.” Uh-oh. What if God had already heard me say I wanted such a “clear call”—like Moses got—and gave it to me? What if God called me to do something incredible and I didn’t want to do it? What might it cost? What would I have to give up?
During those younger days I also started to believe that Jesus wanted his followers to pursue some form of suffering or deprivation. And no words of Scripture I ever heard as a young person seemed to state that idea more clearly than the words of Jesus I just read today: “If any want to become my followers, let them first deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it; and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (16:24-25).
My seventy-three-year-old self recognizes at least two things that I did not recognize as a seventeen-year-old who was struggling to understand what “call” means and to understand the relationship between following the call of Jesus and being willing to suffer.
First, about that dramatic “Moses-like call” I told my pastor I wanted. In hindsight, I think my pastor may have rightly sensed that I was eager to change the world and was awaiting my marching orders—and he was trying to rein me in a little.
But along with scaring me, which was the downside of how he responded to my longing for a “clear call,” he did a great job in his ministry of imparting the idea that every single Christian has a calling to carry on Jesus’s ministry in the world. Having a Christian vocation is about who and how one is in the world; how one embodies the love of Jesus in all times and places, in the humblest of activities, whether changing a diaper or preparing a meal, whether laboring on a farm or in a palace, whether one is a street cleaner or a governor. The calling of a Christian life is never reducible to a position one holds or any particular occupation. It is about embodying Jesus’s commitment to foster life and healing, justice and freedom, especially for the most vulnerable; how one pays attention to the grace that makes all things new; that makes one’s labor holy.
Today, as our country marks another Labor Day weekend, it is surely appropriate to remember and give thanks for the many forms that Christian calling takes; indeed, to give thanks for all people everywhere whose labor is carried out with a loving heart. During the worst of the pandemic, the undervalued and underpaid labor of domestic workers, grocery store workers, food pantry and restaurant workers, health care and childcare workers, teachers, and so many others was publicly recognized as “essential.” I wonder whether that realization—about what is truly most essential—has made any long-term difference in how these workers are treated and compensated. I wonder how we recognize what “heroic” labor really means in a society that pays so much attention to those who are obsessed with their own importance and less to those who quietly seek the common good, a good that does not minimize their own well-being but that wants that well-being for everyone.
Anyway, I have come to believe that my pastor did not intend to frighten me away from longing to experience God’s “clear call” in my life, but rather to remind me that the vocation to show forth the compassion and care of Jesus is the clear call of all Christians, even if it does not involve a burning bush or other dramatic event, and even if our callings do not involve the type of labor that that gains much public recognition.
But the years have taught me something else in addition.
When I was seventeen pondering what Jesus meant by “taking up one’s cross,” I had limited experience of the suffering that permeates human life—and the life of creation itself. Although suffering can result from human choices, there is so much suffering that comes upon all mortal creatures, which at times can overpower us, despite our best efforts. Our bodies are vulnerable to disease and the “wearing out” that comes from aging; loss and sorrow are part of living, and all mortal creatures die. We need look no further than the prayers of lament found in the Psalms and elsewhere in the Bible to know that when unchosen pain and limitation comes upon us, our first impulse is often to cry out, to protest, to plead for help. Indeed, the apostle Paul reminds us that the whole Creation cries out with eager longing for rescue and relief.
The contexts for our two scripture lessons this morning are alike in at least one regard. In both contexts, suffering is already present. For those who were here or online last Sunday, we heard the story from Exodus of how the king of Egypt ordered the murder of firstborn Hebrew boy babies—a cruel measure undertaken to limit the population growth of Hebrew slaves, especially boys who might grow up to be warriors. Two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, conspired to save the lives of those babies, not by openly opposing the king or seeking martyrdom but secretly, quietly, behind the scenes. The only time God is mentioned in that story is in the phrase, “the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded, but let the boys live” (Ex 1:7).
As we pick up the story today, Moses, who was saved by the behind-the-scenes conspiring of those women who quietly did the labor that was theirs to do—is hiding out in the desert. He is in hiding (we learn in Chapter 2 of Exodus) because even though he grew up in the king’s palace he never forgot his identity as a Hebrew. In intervening to save a Hebrew slave who was being beaten by an Egyptian he killed the Egyptian and was forced to flee.
Thus, when we find Moses in the story today, drawing near to the burning bush, he was not called from a painless life to risk suffering. There was plenty of suffering already going on within him and around him, according to the first two chapters of the Book of Exodus. What Moses was called to do was to speak God’s promise of liberation, with only the promise that he would not be alone; that his limitations would be aided by the gifts of his brother Aaron, and that God would be with them on the journey. He was called to accept a mission that must have spoken to his deep desire as well as his fear: to resist the power of an empire and to trust in the power of a God who responds to the cries of those who are most vulnerable and suffering; a God who seeks to save us from suffering that feels meaningless.
It is not only a risky thing, but sometimes an evil thing, to tell people that they should embrace suffering as if God has caused it or desires it. This is the kind of advice some Christians have given to those who have experienced violence in the home. According to the testimony of too many survivors of domestic abuse, they have been told that such suffering is their “cross to bear.” Moses’ call was not to accept the world as it was but to act on the hope that things did not have to remain as they were; to reach for the world as it should be. He was told to do this not as a perfect leader but as someone who would need help, who would often feel inadequate, whose gifts were important but limited. He would do this as a mortal, not a superhero.
In our Gospel story, Jesus’ words about picking up one’s cross come after Jesus says that he will face suffering and death and Peter responds passionately, “God forbid, it, Lord. This must not happen to you.”
“This must not happen to you.” I know in my own trembling heart there are things I pray will never happen to the people I love; that will never happen to me. I feel a lot of kinship with Peter’s cry: “Please, not this kind of suffering. Not excruciating physical pain. Not humiliation and failure. Not death. This must not happen to you.” Who would not cry out this protest on behalf of someone dearly beloved? Or for oneself, for that matter?
I have come to believe that Jesus’ sharp rebuke to Peter is not directed at Peter’s longing to spare him from suffering but rather at the seductive idea that a “real” savior would sail above the suffering of creation rather than enter into it; his rebuke was against the belief that salvation means being saved or “raptured” out of the world rather than in and with the world. To “pick up one’s cross and follow” is to choose the holy labor of embodying Jesus’ resistance to the glittering but empty promises of the empire, to choose solidarity with the vulnerable, to trust that God is doing something often unseen, yet astonishing even in the places where cynicism and hopelessness seem like they will carry the day. I remember the words a teacher spoke years ago that have stayed with me: the cross is both a resounding yes and a resounding no. It is God’s passionate Yes of love for the world and all of us creatures; a love that takes delight in beauty and draws people together in community. It is a defiant No to all that harms and destroys life. The cross is Jesus’ embodiment of both God’s embrace and resistance. When we live our own mortal lives in a way that holds both this embrace and resistance we follow after what the writer to the Hebrews calls Jesus: “the pioneer and perfector of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising its shame” (Hebrews 12).
The “chosen cross” is the choice for solidarity with all who long for life and wholeness, the calling to be—above all else—a reflection of God’s grace and compassion, God’s justice and mercy.
When Martin Luther King, Jr., said in the speech just before he died that he had been to the mountaintop and seen the Promised Land, I thin he was talking about that kind of “joy that is set before us”—a joy that, when glimpsed, is worth the price paid because it makes life so meaningful; so worth living.
What, though, can we say about the times when we feel so overwhelmed with the challenges of mortal life; when we feel far from where the world’s “action” is happening. What does the “resistance” and “embrace” of picking up one’s cross mean then? My colleague Lea, who is living with Stage 4 cancer, wrote something recently that beautifully captures something of this resistance and embrace. You could substitute “mental illness” or “poverty” or “despair”—anything that makes you feel far from being able to follow Jesus’ call. Lea writes:
One of the many lies that cancer tries to tell you is that cancer is your whole life. It's a sneaky lie because there are days - and weeks - where it absolutely feels true because it feels like your entire life revolves around cancer. At these times, living with cancer feels like living with CANCER instead of LIVING with cancer. It is a daily discipline not to be overwhelmed by fear or sneaky lies like this one, but it's worth it because there is so much grand living to do!
It's a big week here not just because of the test results and chemo regimen, but because my oldest son started high school and my youngest son will start 4th grade. I could not be more proud or more excited for them. (Yes, of course, I also cried...)
So, yes, there are test results and chemo infusions, but we are determined to be LIVING with cancer. This week that includes the gift of loving these amazing children of God as they, too, enter a new chapter.
Things are never dull, my friends. We are so thankful to have each of you as companions for this wild ride.
Embracing the gift of this mortal life, trusting God’s presence all the way, and seeking to choose the way of Jesus through all things, let us be thankful that we have each other as companions for this wild ride. Amen.