March 8, 2020
Village Chapel Presbyterian Church
Dr. Todd R. Wright
In Mark, when Jesus begins to tell his disciples what awaits him – suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection – he tells them that anyone who follows him will need to deny themselves and take up their own cross.
Have you considered the power of that line – take up your cross?
We have gotten used to the phrase. Time has dulled the sharp edges. Centuries of church power and privilege have distanced us from its power to shock. We have forgotten the violence.
For the disciples, it was like a slap in the face!
They had already abandoned their families and jobs to follow him; they had already followed him on the road, never knowing where their next meal would come from or where they would sleep; they had already chosen his side in disputes with religious authorities.
Now he was telling them that all that sacrifice wasn’t enough. He was telling them that if they wanted to continue they were risking their lives … and worse, that they had to be willing to embrace the most painful, humiliating, and slow death the Romans could dream up as a deterrent.
The cross was an ugly way to die.
How could he ask that of them?
Let’s think about the cross, in all its ugliness. Let’s think about why this passage is such a challenge to us during Lent. Let’s think about Jesus’s uncompromising call to each of us.
The title of David James Duncan’s novel, The Brothers K, is a nod to Dostoyevsky but also to the “K” of a baseball strikeout and … (improbably), to the cross. Everett, one of the brothers, offers his own definition of “K,” which is as good an insight into Mark 8 as any:
K (Kā) verb. K’ed, K’ing.
1. baseball: to strike out.
2. to fail, to flunk, to fizzle, or . . . (I’ll skip ahead.)
9. to lose your home, your innocence, your balance, your friends,
10. to lose your happiness, your hopes, your leisure, your looks, and, yea, even your memories, your vision, your mind, your way,
11. in short (and as Jesus K. Rist once so uncompromisingly put it) to lose your very self,
12. for the sake of another, is
13. sweet irony, the only way you’re ever going to save it.1
How can the cross be both dangerous and life giving?
How can it be both a curse and the symbol of something holy?
How can it be a sign of defeat to the world and victory to those who believe?
Jesus does not seek to clear up these contradictions. He does not include fine print. He just lays it out there – if you want to follow me, you must take up your cross.
It has been 2000 years and the cross has become the symbol of those who follow Christ.
Amy has taken the crosses you have shared and made something beautiful.
The crosses are bits of colored glass that catch the light and clay dug from the earth; they are wood and wire. They are gilded or painted, carved or cast out of precious metal. They are large enough to weigh heavy in our grip or small enough to hide in our hands. They are … beautiful!
How do you take something so ugly and make it beautiful?
Let me tell you the story of Greg Zanis, a carpenter from Aurora, Illinois.2
When he travels to the sites of mass shootings, he brings a handmade cross for each victim. They are simple, white painted wood, with a base so they will stand steadfastly. Zanis, the founder of “Crosses for Losses”, writes the names of the victims and the city where they were killed on each cross with a black magic marker, along with a Bible verse. (If they are Jewish or Muslim, he’ll make a star of David or a crescent moon, but mostly he makes crosses.)
After leaving them up as a memorial for 40 days, he will return and present them to the victim’s family. He says he’s spoken to relatives who still have crosses he made 20 years ago. “That’s all they have left, and it means everything to them,” he says to a reporter.
He’s been doing this since 1996 when his father-in-law was murdered.
The day there were shootings in both El Paso and Dayton he drove to both cities to place crosses – 20 in one; 9 in the other. He figures he has built 26,680 crosses; 21,000 of them for shooting victims. He has them all recorded in a spiral notebook.
It does not get any easier. “I break down. You’re going to see me cry. I don’t mind,” he said. “I hug victims all the time, and I try to be strong, but I’m really not. I’m OK with that. I feel so good afterwards because I’ve done something.”
His story caught my eye because he is doing just what Jesus asked: He is taking up his cross and wading into all the ugliness and pain, all the grief and tears, all the shock and anger. He cannot turn back time or set things right, but he can bring a little comfort, a little love, a little beauty.
That was what Jesus was doing: descending into a broken world full of sin and violence, of crying and gnashing of teeth, and bringing a little comfort, a little love, a little beauty.
But he was seen as a threat, a rebel, a danger to the way things were.
Those in power moved to silence him. (That’s what the powerful always do.)
As Jesus predicted, they rejected him, made him suffer, and killed him on a cross.
But somehow it backfired.
Somehow his words from the cross:
“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do
Today you will be with me in paradise
Woman, behold, thy son! Son, behold, thy mother!
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
It is finished
Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”
transformed an ugly instrument of death into a sign of what God was willing to endure to save us; a signal flare of mercy; a light in the darkness for those trying to find their way home.
It would take the resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit to finish the transformation, but somehow the followers of Jesus began to see the cross as a beautiful thing.
And the idea of living a cross-patterned life became something to aspire to.
So now, when we hear of a carpenter who carries the crosses he has made to places of violence hoping to bring some peace, we nod our heads, and wonder what we can do to imitate Christ as well.
It is not the kind of answer that you blurt out. You may have to think about it for a while. You may have to try several things until something feels right. But you’ll know it when you find it, because it will be what Christ has called you to – your own way of taking up your cross and doing something beautiful.
May God guide you to your answer this Lent. Amen
1 I ran across this illustration in “Life Lost and found” by Scott M. Kershner, 3/2/09
2 see https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2019/08/us/memorial-crosses-dayton-cnnphotos/index.html by Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN