Tag Archive: Cross


This is the first sermon (September 13) in our sermon series, “The Way of the Cross: Our Journey with Jesus,” at Community Lutheran.

 

Today is a huge day! We’re kicking off the Program Year with Rally Day, we’re giving blood, and we’re even training Sunday School and Confirmation teachers.  It’s also the day we’re kicking off our sermon series, “The Way of the Cross: Our Journey with Jesus.”  Over the next six weeks, we’ll be exploring more what it means to be a disciple of Christ by taking a closer look at Jesus’ encounters with others in the Gospel of Mark.

This discussion in today’s text between Jesus and the disciples, and especially Peter, is a great way to start off our series.  Jesus and the disciples are traveling through Caesarea Philippi, an ancient town, with a strong cult to the Greek deity, Pan.  As part of worshiping Pan, there were frequent sacrifices made.  It’s in this area that Jesus asks his disciples, “who do people say that I am?”  They tell him what they’ve heard – that he’s John the Baptist come back from the dead, or the prophet Elijah returned to earth, or maybe one of the other rock star prophets of Israel’s past.

The Ruins of Caesarea Philippi (Banias/Panias) - January 2014

The Ruins of Caesarea Philippi (Banias/Panias); The cave for sacrifice can be easily seen even from a distance – January 2014

I can see Jesus nodding thoughtfully, taking it all in.  And then I see him looking at them and asking, “But who do you say that I am? Thanks for reporting what you’ve heard – that’s well and good, but I want to hear who you say that I am.”  Silence falls over the disciples as they wonder what’s going on.  Slowly, Peter clears his throat and says, “You are the Messiah.”  Jesus tells them to keep quiet about his identity and they continue walking.

I always imagine Peter smiling, truly pleased with himself for coming up with the right answer and thinking, “I’m in good cause I’m with the Messiah.”  Maybe he was even thinking “YES! I AM AWESOME!” Or whatever the Aramaic equivalent of that is.  But, of course, the story doesn’t end there! Nope, unfortunately for Peter’s ego, they keep walking.  Mark’s Gospel tells us, “Then Jesus began to teach them that 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.  He said all this quite openly.”

In this area where people sacrificed animals to satisfy a half-man, half-goat god, fully human and fully divine Jesus reveals that he will suffer and die.  He reveals openly that he will offer himself as a sacrifice, bridging the gap between God and humanity once and for all.  This is too much for Peter.  It messes with his image of who a god should be and what a god should do.  It’s not at all what he thought the Messiah should be about.  Jesus’ teachings about a suffering Messiah are completely the opposite of God who is glorious, mighty and worthy of praise, aren’t they?

Peter can’t take it and so he speaks up, being the bold and the brash fellow that he is.  Maybe he was thinking he’d get two right answers in a row.  No such luck, because Jesus tells him “get behind me, Satan.”  Zing! From all-star disciple to major failure in a few verses.  That’s why I love Peter! We all have those moments where we feel like we’ve got it and we’re moving in a great direction and then … BAM! We realize we don’t have it at all.  It’s like a scene in the 1980s comedy, “The Three Amigos.”  Steve Martin’s character is chained in the enemy’s prison, but he realizes he can move the chains by pulling his arms and legs forward toward the chain release lever.  He slowly creeps forward, saying, “gonna make it.  Gonna make it. Gonna make it.  Gonna make it.”  He reaches the release lever, and shouts, “I made it!” Then is slammed back against the wall with an “Ow.”

This exchange between Peter and Jesus is just like that – Peter thinks he’s figured it out and Jesus clarifies pretty strongly that he hasn’t.

I find Jesus’ words interesting and not just because he just told Peter that he’s acting like Satan, the accuser and tempter.  I find his words interesting because if I had an enemy, the last place I would want the enemy or the adversary or the accuser to be was at my back – I can’t see him, I don’t know what’s going on.  These words are a form of rebuke for sure because they also appear in the Old Testament, but I think it’s also saying something to Peter.

If you’re behind someone, most likely you’re following them.  Jesus tells Peter to get in line – “get behind me.”  Stop setting your mind on human things – the things everyone in this world thinks are important.  It’s like Jesus is saying, “Peter, don’t you see? Those aren’t the things that God cares about.  God has something else in mind – something that involves dying and rising, sacrifice and new life.”  So Jesus tells Peter “get behind me” and to all who are gathered, “take up your cross and follow me.”  It’s a lot harder to follow someone else, the ways of the world, or our own evil hearts, if we have our eyes firmly set on Christ and we are carrying our crosses.

Ok, but what on earth does it mean to deny ourselves and take up our crosses to follow Christ?  Does it mean saying of annoyances we experience, “I suppose this is my cross to bear.”  No.  It means turning away from the things that would lead us away from God and seeking to live out our lives in a Christ-like way.  Carrying our crosses is a constant reminder of whose we are and what he has done.  It is a reminder of God’s sacrifice on our behalf – a sacrifice made out of sheer love.  Who do you say that Jesus is? And what would it look like to live formed by Christ’s sacrificial love, so that we might share that same sacrificial love with those around us?

It might mean spending time working with the hungry children in our area, getting to know them, hearing their stories, and ensuring that they have food.  It might mean welcoming refugees, offering up your resources and maybe even your home so that someone might have a warm, safe place to stay.  It might mean journeying with someone as a Stephen Minister and providing a listening ear and a loving heart.  It might mean sitting with a friend who has lost a job and being there for them.  It might mean spending time tending the gardens of the church so that it looks welcoming for those coming inside.  The possibilities are endless.

The crucifixion, and indeed all of Jesus’ human life, took place in the midst of a period of oppression, poverty, suffering, despair and difficulty.  And the fact that we are called to take up the cross as well means that we are called not to run from the difficulties, the ugliness, or the pain of the world, but that we are called to journey with those who suffer.  Anglican N.T. Wright even described prayer in this way: “Prayer stands cruciform at the place where the world is in pain to hold together Jew and Greek and slave and free. To hold together male and female, to hold together a battered and bleeding world and say, ‘No, there is a different way to be human.’”

Yes, there is a different way to be human.  And ironically, it looks like letting go of the things society upholds in favor of the cross.  It means that in order to pick up our crosses and follow Christ, we sometimes have to say, “get behind me, Satan.  I want nothing to do with you” to the things that tempt us to despair, to give up, to fear, or to forget God’s love for the entire cosmos. So to what do you need to say, “get behind me?” Is it the rat race? Is it to taking on more work in order to seek some kind of esteem? Is it spending money on things you don’t really need? Is it that dread feeling of hopelessness when you look at the world? Is it the voice of scarcity that would tell you to safeguard everything you have and not share it with others because there might not be enough? Is it that nagging voice that says God cannot or will not forgive?

Today, I want to invite us to say to those things what we need to say – to put them in their right place in our lives.  Behind Christ.  Not before Christ.  To say, “get behind me.  I follow Christ.”  As Jesus says in the reading, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” The way of the cross is hard.  It’s arduous and often times it’s not as glamorous as the life of those we see on TV or in movies.  But ultimately it is the way of true life – of life that is lived for something bigger than itself.  For the sake of God and for the sake of others.

Peter may have thought he won the prize with his first answer about Jesus being the Messiah.  And he was right.  But it was actually his mistake that led to the life-giving lesson.  Jesus is the Messiah, but it’s the kind of Messiah he is, and the people we are called to be as a result, that is truly life-giving.  God chooses to work through the weak, the imperfect, the foolhardy and often confused disciples, the brutal cross, and ultimately, the surprising, in order to being about abundant life for all people.  As followers of Christ, we are not perfect, but God has seen fit to work in and through us for the good of the world.  It may not be what we were expecting when we set out on this journey to follow Christ, but it is good indeed.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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My sermon from Transfiguration of Our Lord Sunday, preached at Community Lutheran Church

I love mountains.  You could probably even say it’s in my blood since my maiden name is actually Peake!  On my dad’s side are Scots and English folk who settled in the mountains of western North Carolina, probably because it reminded them a bit of the old country.  Almost every year growing up, we’d travel to western North Carolina to visit the land grandparents and great-grandparents called home.  It’s on the side of Roan Mountain where there’s a wonderful Rhododendron festival every year.  I love that land.  I love hiking around it.  And I love the connection to the past I feel there.

It also holds a special place in my heart because it’s where my Grandpa is buried.  And it was at his funeral that I first really heard the Gospel and tried to mumble along as best I could with the words of the Lord’s Prayer.  On a sunny day, on a mountainside in North Carolina, I encountered Christ and had my own mountaintop moment.

My family's land in North Carolina

My family’s land in North Carolina

The festival of the Transfiguration of Our Lord comes at the end of the season of Epiphany.  It comes at the end of the season of light as we’ve been hearing about the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry to Jews and Gentiles alike.  The season where Jesus has been revealed through not only his words, but in his actions.  And now, we find ourselves on a high mountain with Jesus, Peter, James and John.

They’re just hanging out and all of a sudden, Jesus is transformed before their eyes, shining in dazzling white clothing – clothes so white, no one on earth could bleach them that white.  This is not only an Oxyclean moment, rather the Gospel is getting at the fact that Jesus was divinely transformed, what we call the Transfiguration.  He’s shining brilliantly in glory and not only that, but Moses and Elijah, two figures who represent the law and the prophets are chatting with him.  Looking at Moses and Elijah, people thought to come before the Messiah, the disciples are terrified.  And poor Peter, in his shock and terror, stammers out, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  He’s trying to be productive and helpful, but he’s missing the point.  Jesus is revealed in divine light and radiance and Peter wants to start a construction project.

Then, suddenly, a cloud overshadows them and a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved listen to him!”  And before they know it, Peter, James and John are alone again with Jesus on a high mountain.  They’re confused and wondering about what they’ve just experienced when Jesus tells them not to say a word about this until he’s risen from the dead.  Well, that should help clarify things! If we keep reading, we’d find that the next verse says, “So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.”  These poor guys have just seen something crazy and wonderful and now they’re baffled about what rising from the dead means.

In Mark’s Gospel, there are three major events that occur: Jesus’ baptism, his transfiguration and the crucifixion.  At each of these moments, Jesus is identified as the Son of God.  In between, Jesus keeps telling people and unclean spirits to be quiet about his identity.  However, at the Transfiguration, Jesus is transformed so that the disciples can catch even a fleeting glimpse of him in glory – a preview of the resurrected and victorious Christ.  They don’t understand what it means at the moment, but after the resurrection, they will.

Maybe you’ve had a moment when you’ve encountered a glimpse of the glory of God.  Maybe it was very clear that it was God at work.  Or maybe it was baffling and confusing and you found yourself questioning what happened.  Maybe you wanted to share it, but didn’t know how.  Maybe you can’t think of a time when you’ve had such an encounter.

Whatever the case may be, mountaintop experiences can be beautiful, terrifying, inspiring and confusing.  But we are doing ourselves a grave disservice if we live searching for these experiences.  The reading for today shows that as quickly as this amazing event happened, it was over, and it was time to go back down into the valleys and wildernesses of everyday life.

I know that I have had some mountaintop encounters in my life and I long to experience those things again.  But as wonderful as those moments are, I know that the more important question is how do I live in the every day? The struggle is, how do I continue to be faithful in the meantime when things aren’t so clear? The Transfiguration shows us that Jesus walks with us in the valleys of our lives, too, and not just on the mountaintops.  Jesus does not abandon the disciples for glory or to keep chatting with Moses and Elijah, but comes down off of the mountain to live with them in the difficulties of the world.  He descends in order to go all the way to the cross – the place where the love of God and the brutality of the world collide.  While glory is alluring, the way of God is a downward path – it’s not the climb up the mountain, but the one down to which we should pay attention.  In the words of one of my favorite hymns, “When I was sinking down, Beneath God’s righteous frown, Christ laid aside His crown for my soul for my soul.”  Christ lays aside his crown, comes down off of the mountain, and walks with us.

Peter says, “it is good for us to be here.”   And it is good for us to be here in worship and in the church, but how do we come down from the worship high of Sunday morning and go back to living in the mundane and weary world?  The disciples hear the voice of God speaking from within the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved listen to him!”  This command to listen has the sense of, “keep on listening” or “continue listening.”  It’s as if God is saying, as you go down into the valleys, away from the brilliant glory you’ve experienced on this mountaintop, keep on listening for Jesus’ voice.  Don’t stop listening.  Remember what you’ve experienced and keep on listening.

So how do we listen in the middle of our overflowing days and weeks? One way of listening for God is keeping Sabbath or finding ways “live Sabbathly” throughout the day.  Our Lenten series this year will look at what it means to observe and keep the Sabbath, especially in the middle of our jam-packed lives.  What does it mean to slow down and to spend time simply delighting in God? Peter, rather than taking in the glory of God and rejoicing in the moment, tried to capture it – to spend time building dwellings.  Part of living Sabbathly is not trying to commoditize everything, but to appreciate work and play, rest and delight in the goodness of God.

Another way to keep listening is to be mindful of the ways that God’s light is shining around us, even in the most difficult of situations.  I will be the first to admit that it’s sometimes really hard to see God’s light while navigating crowded roadways with crazy drivers, or dealing with bureaucracy, or in difficult relationships.  But I am often surprised and amazed at where and how I encounter Christ.  In a child reaching out for bread at Communion.  In my dog as she reminds me to slow down and take in the sights and sounds of the neighborhood.  In laughter and teasing over a family meal.  And, often, in pain and suffering.

In moments when I’ve felt most isolated and troubled in my own life, I have experienced more clearly Christ’s comfort and love.  And I’ve encountered this in others as well.  Once, I saw it in the beautiful way a man in hospice looked at his death and trusted heaven to be the most incredible and unimaginable surprise.  Lately, I’ve been reading about Christ present in the lives of every day Rwandans who, after the horrific genocide, practiced unfathomable forgiveness and reconciliation.

And this week, I see Christ’s light shining through the life of twenty-six year-old Kayla Mueller, captured by ISIS while trying to assist refugees escaping the war in Syria.  While it is still unclear how she died, it is clear that even in captivity, in the valley of the shadow of death, she reflected the light of Christ.  In a letter to her family, she wrote, “And by God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.  I have been shown in darkness, light and have learned that even in prison, one can be free.  I am grateful.”  In another letter, she wrote, “I find God in suffering.  I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”  She also explained how she was even trying to teach the guards how to make origami peace cranes.

We may have wonderful mountaintop experiences that move us, confuse us, and cause us to reflect.  But our Gospel reading reminds us that we always come down from the mountain, and more importantly, that Christ comes with us.  We are never left to fend for ourselves in the difficult, messy and sticky parts of our lives.  No, Christ is always there.  And along the way, we catch glimpses of his glory in our lives and in the lives of those around us.  We are recipients of Christ’s glorious light as it shines through others, but we are also called to reflect and shine God’s resplendent light in our lives.  And in this process, we, too, are transformed and transfigured.  As we go out into the world, may we continue listening for God in our lives and paying attention to the way we encounter Christ, not only on the mountaintops, but in the highways, valleys and wildernesses of our lives.  Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

The sermon I preached last Sunday (Holy Cross Sunday) on 1 Corinthians 1:18–24 at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, VA.

During the Emperor Constantine’s construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, his mother, the Empress Helena reportedly rediscovered the True Cross. This cross was said to be the one upon which Jesus died. On September 14, 335, Constantine dedicated the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a huge complex in which Golgotha and the tomb are enshrined, and from then on, the Western Church took September 14th as a day to venerate the cross.

On Friday, January 17 of this year I found myself standing in this massive church. We climbed a stairwell and entered a section of the church where the walls were covered with beautiful mosaics and paintings. There were ornate chandeliers and beeswax candles placed in sand illuminating the room. And there were shining gold and silver icons surrounding a marble altar. On either side of the altar, there were two glass boxes covering the rock of Golgotha. There was a line forming under the eyes of a very watchful Greek Orthodox priest, and as we crept forward we could see the protocol. Each person stooped down to kneel under the altar and reach their hand down through a hole in order to touch the place where the cross of Christ was raised.

Kneeling to Touch the Rock of Golgotha (Jerusalem - January 17, 2014)

Kneeling to Touch the Rock of Golgotha (Jerusalem – January 17, 2014)

As I approached I said a prayer that I wouldn’t clunk my head on the marble altar while trying to maneuver and then awkwardly knelt with my backpack. I crossed myself and as I reached down through the elaborate silver star, I felt a little silly and wondered what to say. But as my hand touched the rock, all I felt was a wave of gratitude. And all I could say was “thank you.”

That day, kneeling in what might be the place Christ was crucified, all I had to say was “thank you.” Thank you, God, for the way in which you came into our world to forgive and free us all our sins. Thank you for calling us to a different way of living that can change the world around us. Thank you for the ways in which we know and experience your love.

And yet, that was not the first emotion I felt. Kneeling there, awkwardly squished under the altar, I wondered how we could possibly know if this was the place of the crucifixion. What was I hoping to experience by touching a rock? Yes, the first emotion I felt was a little bit of silliness. A little bit of foolishness. And Paul, writing in the year 58, knew about this as well. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The message of the cross sounds foolish because it is not a message based on the wisdom of this world. It is not what the world normally hears or wants to hear. It is not rational.

Paul knew this even in his own time because both the Jews and the Gentiles – the Greeks and Romans – had a hard time swallowing his message. The Jews were expecting a Messiah who would use miracles and adhere to the respected teachings. And there were a plethora of different thoughts about who this Messiah would be or how his role would play out, but dying as an insurrectionist on a shameful cross of the Roman oppressors was not part of the picture. As for the Greeks and Romans who prized logic, wisdom and power, why on earth would you want to follow a God who died broken on a cross? It was a disgrace and an affront to their sensibilities.

And I think that sometimes, even though we come to church and are Christians, we feel a little foolish about the cross. It’s acceptable as a piece of jewelry, sometimes even used as bling for celebrities and rappers. But to actually talk about what the cross means to us – that’s hard to do. We can find ourselves stumbling over words. Or, as I used to experience, literally facing a lump in our throats. It’s uncomfortable to talk about the fact that we believe in a God who came into the world to live among us, who died on the cross, and who was raised from the dead.

As Lauren Winner, an Orthodox Jew turned Episcopalian, writes in Girl Meets God, “Admittedly it’s a little crazy. Grand, infinite God taking on the squalling form of a human baby boy. It’s what some of the old-timers call a scandal, the scandal of the Gospel. But it is also the whole point.”

The cross calls us to live in ways that are foolish to the world. It calls us to forgive and love our enemies as Christ did from his cross. It calls us to stand up for what we know is right even if it is not popular. It calls us to be vulnerable and ask for help when we need it rather than striving for rugged individualism. It calls us to help the poor and the stranger even when we are not always sure if the money or goods will be used responsibly. It calls us to believe in and work for justice and equity for all people even when it seems we make no progress. And, ultimately, the cross gives us joy in despair and hope in sorrow because we know that after the cross there is resurrection.

It’s utter foolishness. But I think there is one thing that helps us to understand it. And that’s love. As William Goldman writes in The Princess Bride, “…love is many things, none of them logical.” And I think it’s God’s love that makes God’s apparent foolish actions for creation into the very wisdom and power of God.

It’s this kind of scandalous love that knocks us off our feet. At least, that’s what I remember it doing to me when I first heard it. You mean Jesus, a person I don’t even know, would do that for me? You mean God loves me that much? You mean everything I’ve done wrong and will do wrong is forgiven? You mean that life bursts forth out of death? Yes!

This kind of love made me wonder about the God who would do all of this for the sake of the world. It was a love that drove me to seek God and long to learn more. It was this kind of love that led me to the church and later into ministry. Because I found that it was difficult to keep that love to myself – I wanted to share it with others so that they could experience the love, peace, hope and joy of Christ that I had experienced.

And sharing this message isn’t just something pastors or missionaries do. Each of us is called to share this incredible news. As Paul writes, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. … we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” God uses the silliness and foolishness of our proclamation to make God’s love known in the world. Crazy pants!

We are called to proclaim the crucified Christ in our words and deeds. People may not always respond positively or may be apathetic, but that does not change the fact that God has called us to share God’s foolish and abundant love with everyone. We are called to share this love, not to judge or condemn, but in order to save and heal.

When I look at the cross, I am filled with wonder and gratitude, love and hope. It also causes me to turn and look at where I have fallen short. It leads me to think about how I have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done and by what I have left undone. The cross is the place that turns me from myself and calls me into deeper relationship with Christ. It is both a place of suffering and death, not only for Christ, but for dying to myself. It is also a place of new life and beauty.

What does the cross mean to you? Have you thought about it much? Do you struggle with it? Do you have a hard time connecting this event from 2,000 years ago to your everyday life?

Knowledge and wisdom are wonderful things. But I think it’s only through looking at the cross with the eyes of faith, through prayer and meditating on what the cross means to us, that we delve deeper into the life to which this symbol is calling us.

So what does the cross mean to you? Since school is starting, I’d like to give you some homework this week. I know, collective groan! But stick with me. As you go about your week, spend some time praying and thinking about the cross. Write down what the cross means to you. It can be simple thoughts, or a poem, or a song. Or take a picture of something that symbolizes the cross. Or paint or sculpt. Submit your thoughts or creation via e-mail, on Facebook, or bring it back next week. The cross of Christ is at the center of everything we do – let’s start a conversation about what it means to us and how it shapes how we live. Amen.

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Last Sunday’s sermon on Matthew 16:21-28, preached at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, VA.

Peter has got to be one of my favorite disciples. I mean, last week, he gets a gold star for naming Jesus as the Messiah. And then this week, Jesus is calling him Satan. In my mind I imagine Peter frolicking around saying “Jesus is Messiah! I got it! I got it!” Then in the next moment, he’s looking down at his shoes and saying, “I don’t got it…”

To use a recent metaphor, it was like Jeff and me trying to kayak between Chincoteague and Assateague on Monday. We could see where we wanted to go and were paddling together thinking, “we’re getting there!” But then when we looked around, we realized we hadn’t gone anywhere and we were, in fact, drifting backwards due to the currents and the wind. So sad. One step forward… two steps back.

And frankly, don’t we all sometimes feel like Peter must have felt?I know it’s usually the minute I think I’ve got something figured out that I realize, “nope! Still oblivious!” And really, who can blame Peter for his outburst – for trying to stop Jesus from talking about the fact he must suffer and die? Peter is listening to his Lord – his friend – and he’s hearing that this person he loves is going to suffer and die. No one wants to hear that someone they love is hurting or dying. And no one is really certain what to do or what to say when someone they love is hurting. No wonder Peter takes Jesus aside and tells him, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

Jesus’ response makes it clear that his future suffering and death on the cross aren’t easy for him either. He responds by calling Peter, “Satan,” a word meaning “the adversary.” Jesus hears in Peter’s words the temptation to abandon his mission. And his forceful response shows that whereas Peter’s insight about Jesus as the Messiah was divinely given, this statement is temptation from the one who opposes God. Although Peter might have thought he was being helpful and saying there had to be a better way to save the world, Jesus straightens Peter out by saying he’s not looking at things from God’s point of view.

As the Talmud says, “We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.” Peter saw as he was – sad and afraid of what might come down the road for him. He couldn’t see that this was the way to new life.  He couldn’t see that Jesus’ suffering and death would bring about new life for all of creation. He saw things from a human, not divine, point of view.

And boy is that easy to do! Believing in Jesus and loving him, ok. But denying yourself, taking up your cross, following someone else, and losing your life… that’s a hard sell! Who really wants to do that? Who wants to die to themselves in order to gain new life? I’m just fine where I am now, thank you very much!

But that is what Jesus is calling Peter and us to in this passage. It’s what we are invited into when we are baptized. In those waters and with ancient words we are crucified with Christ and raised to new life. We die to our old selves and as the Apostle Paul describes, we are clothed with Christ. We’re marked with the cross of Christ forever. That is not only a phrase we say, but a part of our identity – in baptism we are made a people of the cross, saved by God’s grace, and called to follow the way our Lord and Savior walked.

Called to turn from ourselves and our own egos and to turn toward God. Called to turn from merely serving our own desires to serve and care for others. Called to practice dying to our selfishness in order to listen for and obey God’s call in our lives.

         Whoa. That’s a tall order. Frankly, it sounds exhausting and like a lot of hard work. I like the way Audrey Assad puts it in her song, “The Way You Move:”

I know that the hardest part
of love is not the
things I have to give, no
It’s what I give up, I’m giving up ground
and I’m trading in my solitude for safety now,

All my pride, you know it doesn’t stand a chance
against the way you move,
You’re tearing up roots & breaking down walls,
and I don’t stand a chance at all,
against the way you move.

I think she hits the nail on the head. It’s hard to hear Jesus’ call in this morning’s reading because it challenges us to let go of our pride for the sake of the Gospel. To die to ourselves in order to be free to experience new life and transformation in Christ. It’s a call that requires sacrifice for the sake of God’s rule and for the benefit of others – even those we don’t particularly like. In a society of individualism, instant gratification, and consumerism, so many things bombard us and promise to make us better or happier people. It’s especially hard to turn away from those things in order to follow this challenging, but life-giving call of Jesus.

So what are you unwilling to let go of or to lose in order to follow Christ? Maybe it’s your reputation. Maybe it’s your money. Maybe it’s your feeling of superiority. Maybe it’s control. Maybe it’s your idea of success. And what about us as a congregation?

We want to grow, but it’s so hard for us to really let go and say, “Ok, God. I’m all yours. Help me to follow you, even if it’s into places I don’t want to go. Shape me into the person you’re calling me to be.” We find ourselves thinking, “what will I be giving up in order to grow deeper in my faith?” Or, “God, what are you going to change about me or ask me to do?” Or, “God, I’m scared that you will call me to something I cannot possibly handle.”

Following God is hard because it requires sacrifice and probably doing things we don’t readily want to do. Look at Jeremiah. He was serving as God’s prophet. He called God’s word a joy and a delight and he took these words on wholeheartedly, living them out. As he says in the reading, he didn’t even hang out with the fun crowd, but sat with the weight of God’s words of judgment to the people on his shoulders. And now he’s fed up, hurting, indignant and telling God he feels like he got suckered into something that he doesn’t really want to do anymore!

And God’s response is interesting. If you come back to me and continue to do my will, you will speak my words as a prophet and people will listen and turn to you.   Even though they fight against you, I will give you strength so that they will not overtake you. I will be with you even though this road is difficult. This is the promise we, too, have in Christ. In taking up our crosses and following Jesus, we are going where he has been and he is accompanying us on the journey. No matter what. It is not a promise of an easy life, but the promise of Emmanuel, God with us through it all.

When we find ourselves stuck in a rut or overwhelmed by fears or worries, remember that carrying our crosses is never something we do alone. Even Jesus had help carrying his cross from Simon of Cyrene. We too, need help from Christ and from others in the body of Christ to carry our crosses. When we are baptized and marked with the cross, parents, sponsors and the entire congregation promise to help us live out our faith in the world.  

Because, ultimately, the act of taking up a cross is public.   Those condemned to die by crucifixion were forced to take up their cross and parade to the location of their execution. It was a public humiliation. And when we take up the cross, the ultimate symbol of Christ’s love and obedience, it is a public event. We don’t simply do it in the safety of our own homes, but it calls us to go out into the world and follow Christ in word and deed. We take up the cross for the sake of others. We bear one another’s burdens and lay down our lives that we might find new life in the people and places God calls us to encounter.

To be a disciple means to not only be a follower, but to be a student. As we think about the school year and Sunday School beginning again, we are reminded that we are called to be life-long students of Christ and his cross. We are students always learning what it means to walk in the way of the cross, to turn from ourselves and to God.   To turn outward, instead of being curved in upon ourselves, Luther’s very definition of sin. We may balk at or stumble and fall under the weight of the cross, but we are never alone in trying to carry it. Thanks be to God. Amen.

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Born Into Our Suffering

This is the sermon I preached at Community Lutheran Church yesterday on the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.

Here’s the text from Matthew 2:13-23 for the First Sunday of Christmas:

13Now after they [the wise men] had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead. 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

As Jerry Seinfeld might say, “what’s the deal with the Gospel reading for today?!” I mean, seriously, it’s the First Sunday of Christmas, and the lectionary gives us the slaughter of the Holy Innocents?! What happened to the angels and shepherds, the wonder of the manger and the word become flesh?!  It even feels like this gospel sets a totally different tone than the other readings for this morning.  Isaiah speaks of recounting the gracious deeds of the Lord, of praise and God’s mercy.  The Psalm speaks of angels, men and women, birds, beasts, sea monsters (that’s my favorite part!), and, indeed, all of creation praising God.  Hebrews speaks of God bringing God’s children to glory.  And then Matthew speaks of Herod killing all of the children two years old or under.  It’s… awful.

All together, the readings present celebration and praise of God alongside the struggles and pains of life under Herod’s rule.  Herod the Great, who is the ruler Matthew is writing about, was a powerful king – a “Jewish” king in name only known for his complete and unabashed loyalty to Rome as well as his incredible building projects, which included the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, entire cities, and several fortresses.  He was also known to be a ruthless leader, harshly squashing opposition, even to the point killing multiple members of his own family! Talk about family drama…

Bearing all of this in mind, it makes sense that Matthew writes about Herod being afraid when the magi mentioned that they were looking for “the child who has been born king of the Jews.”  And it makes sense that Herod is infuriated that the wise men hadn’t returned to tell him where exactly they had found the boy king.  Herod the Great, a man who lived to defend his power, was terrified at the prospect of a new threat to his throne, even if that person was to be the Messiah!

Now, different traditions say that there were varying numbers of children killed, and we may never know if this massacre actually took place.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that there was a vicious tyrant ruling the region where the Messiah of God was to be born.  A Messiah who was to be the true ruler of God’s people – not the empire of Rome, not the puppet kings appointed by Rome, but a true king, with the best interest of God’s children at heart.  A king that would be worshiped not only by Israel, but also by Gentiles like the wise men who had come from afar.

Needless to say, this made Herod a wee bit uncomfortable and he responded to his fears by commanding that all the children under two be killed.  Now, if Herod had remembered his peoples’ history, he would have recalled the slaughter of the baby Hebrew boys at Pharaoh’s hand and how one baby, Moses, was spared.  He would have remembered that Moses was saved to deliver God’s people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land – to bring about a whole new chapter in Israel’s history.  And if he had remembered all that, it might have crossed his mind that maybe God was acting again in his own day to bring about a new type of liberation.

But he ignores all of that, or at best, forgets, and, instead, innocents die while Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus flee to Egypt.

Last week on NPR I heard a shocking statistic about the war in Syria.  There have been many statistics about this war, but this one caught me completely unaware and caused me to tear up in my car.  I heard that so far, 11,420 children have been killed in this brutal civil war.  11,420.  That is roughly 10% of the total war deaths.  And over half of the 2 million refugees are children.

In addition to these statistics from overseas, we cannot forget that on December 14, we experienced the first anniversary of the shooting of 20 children and 6 educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.

Sadly, it’s clear the slaughter of the innocents continues in our own day – this isn’t just a story about Herod, Jesus and the children of Bethlehem.  It’s a story about us, Jesus and all the children of God.

Giotto di Bondone - The Holy Innocents

Giotto di Bondone – The Holy Innocents

It turns out that this story isn’t the antithesis of Christmas after all.  In fact, it is the very meaning of Christmas that God comes into our hurting world and walks with us through all that we encounter and go through. You see, Christ is born in the midst of the ugliness and hatred and violence of this world.  In a fragile, helpless baby, God enters into history and human time in the flesh.  God is born into our pain and suffering.  And there’s the good news.  God is born into our lives and our experiences – not just into some far off land in another time, but directly into the middle of – the very heart of – our darkness, pain, brokenness and suffering.  And we heard it in the Isaiah reading for today: “…and he became their savior in all their distress.  It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”  In God’s love and pity for us, God chooses to be fully present with us in Jesus.

And Jesus didn’t only live as a human, but also died as a human.  God is a God of the cross, bearing our pains and experiencing death as fully human.  Because God has taken on human life, God is intimately acquainted with the distress, despair and grief we encounter.  As the author of Hebrews wrote: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

Or, in the words of one of my favorite Christmas songs “O Holy Night:” “The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger, In all our trials born to be our Friend; He knows our need, To our weakness is no stranger. Behold your King, before Him lowly bend! Behold your King, before Him lowly bend!”  The fully human and fully divine Jesus is our real king, not a tyrant like Herod.

Of course, we can’t forget that the story continues after the crucifixion.  Our God is not only the God of the cross, but also the God of the resurrection and of new life, conquering sin and death once and for all.  He brings forgiveness, life, comfort and hope to all in need.  This is the promise of Emmanuel – “God with us” – in all that we go through, no matter how difficult or hopeless the situation seems.

In our baptisms, we too, are marked with the cross and given new life in Christ.  As such, we are called and challenged to walk among and with those who are suffering as Christ did, meeting people in their needs and journeying with them – helping to bring about transformation in the name of the One whom we serve, one step at a time.  Where we see the slaughter of the innocents, the oppression of God’s children, the destruction of creation, we are called to step up and respond.  To make a difference, acting in loving service as a response to God’s amazing love and grace in our own lives.  Where there are barriers between God’s children, we are called to work to knock down the walls and bring reconciliation.

As we reflect on God being present in our suffering and that of the world, we can reflect on how we can be present to those around us in their time of need.  What can we do for those suffering in Syria?  What can we do to lessen the violence in our world? What about the children hungry in our own backyard – the children who receive backpacks of food each Friday at our local schools before leaving so that they can eat over the weekends?

Herod feared Jesus and what this baby boy might do.  He feared change and the loss of his power.  And to some extent, Herod’s fears were grounded because Jesus’ birth did change things.  And as our texts for this morning point out, that’s what Christmas is all about.  It’s the celebration and praise of God’s almighty acts and God’s entering into history to bring hope and new life.

Today, Jesus continues to threaten the status quo and promise change and transformation in our lives and in our world.  It’s like that line so often heard in movies: “Is that a threat? No, it’s a promise.”  Jesus doesn’t only threaten change and transformation, but promises it.  Continuing to try to follow Christ in our daily lives transforms us, little by little.  And through God’s grace, we are invited to be a part of changing the world even if it’s hard to see that we are making any difference.

We, like Herod, may fear the change and transformation Jesus brings to our lives, even if we don’t respond as dramatically as Herod did.  We might find ways of ignoring or resisting God’s call, or just feel uneasy about what we might need to face within ourselves to better follow Christ.

But God has come to walk with us in our lives.  The question is, how we will respond to God’s presence? Will we respond with fear like Herod and continue abiding by the status quo? Or will we welcome and embrace God’s presence and the kingdom of heaven?

God never stops coming to us in our lives, seeking us out, and calling us to welcome the ways of God’s new kingdom.  Even if we respond with fear or trepidation, God continues to gently invite us to be transformed by grace.  Thanks be to God for God’s steadfast love that comes to us at Christmas and every day.  Amen.

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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