I remember playing Candyland with a granddaughter. She always had to get Queen Frostine, and she always had to win. We are often like that, too. However can we give up our whole lives and follow Jesus if we must win in this life? It’s a good thing God isn’t finished with us!
Today’s Gospel text reminds us to put Jesus first in our lives. But that’s really hard to do. It takes a lifetime of practice. Especially the way Jesus describes it. He says, Take up your cross and follow me. In those days, people knew exactly what that meant. The cross was an instrument of torture, a horrendous way to die.
When Jesus was a child, there was an insurrection in Israel and the Romans crucified 2,000 people. Crosses and victims lined the highways. The image sent a message to others who might try to revolt against Rome. It must have made quite an impression on children, including Jesus.
So, when Jesus tells the disciples to take up their crosses and follow him, there would have been no doubt that Jesus was challenging them to be willing to die if they followed him. This is a strange kind of recruiting tool!
Today, the cross is decoration. There are crosses on buildings, in gardens, on walls at church and at home. We wear crosses of all styles and sizes: pins, necklaces, bracelets, earrings. Even non-believers wear crosses because they think the design is interesting.
Because it is everywhere, the cross has lost a lot of its deadly implication. We wear crosses as beautiful jewelry, gold or silver, studded with gems, twisted and carved and molded into beautiful shapes.
The crosses we wear and display do remind us of Jesus’ sacrifice, but rarely do we get the gut impact of its deadly meaning. This week in class and on Facebook, I suggested that a noose might better force us to realize the horror of the cross.
American history is filled with stories of the noose. It was used as a legal method of execution. It was used in the Old West as an impromptu method of revenge in many circumstances.
But here in the South, the noose was a tool of murder. The Ku Klux Klan rode through the countryside and cities and sought out victims. Burning crosses on front lawns and nooses hanging from tree limbs were their weapons. Black people in America know what it means to be terrorized. The noose for them is a symbol of unjust death.
I suggest that if Jesus had lived in the American South in the 20th century, some group would have confronted him at midnight in a desolate place and lynched him. When I think of a noose, I get a gut reaction of rejection. Would I have been willing to risk getting lynched as I sought justice for my black sisters and brothers? Would you? So, can we think about taking up our noose and following Jesus? Fewer of us would be willing to do that, because it was not how Jesus died. And, because the noose reminds us too closely of the horror of unjust death.
… Here’s different way of thinking about carrying the cross and following Jesus. Robert Smith is the professor of Christian preaching at Beeson Divinity School. He shares his story with readers in a recent edition of Leadership Journal.
In 2010, Pastor Smith’s son Tony was shot during a robbery attempt in the restaurant where he was working. Hoping against hope, Pastor Smith prayed that his son would live, but an hour after arriving at the emergency room, he died.
The shooter was 18 years old at the time of the trial. Pastor Smith prayed about his feelings and relationship with this young man whose life was forever changed. He realized that dwelling on the loss of his son was not helpful. At the same time, he heard God challenging him: “Do you really believe what you preach?”
He had preached for 40 years about Joseph, Job, and Jesus and the forgiveness they offered to those who offended them. Smith writes: “Now God was telling me if I really believed what I had been preaching, then I must, by his grace, live that forgiveness now.”
Thirty years prior to his son’s murder, Smith himself had been working in a store and robbed at gunpoint. He survived. God had saved him, and Rahab, and Peter. Why had his son not lived? Pastor Smith wrestled with this.
He came to the point of forgiving his son’s murderer. God is still working in his heart, and leading him to model the forgiveness Jesus demonstrated. I’ll use is words to finish the story.
‘I asked prayer warriors to pray for me as I prepared to write the young man and to pray that he would respond affirmatively and ultimately ass my name to the visitors list so that I could come and tell him in person – “Jesus loves and forgives you and so do I.” After nearly two years, in September 2012 I finally mailed that letter.
He added me to his visitors list in 2014. Soon by God’s grace I will see the young man whose face was the last face our son saw before standing in the presence of the Lord. I will offer the young man the forgiveness that Christ offers to me and to all who will believe.”’
Here are two quick stories about people who have chosen to follow Jesus.
At St. Martin Lutheran Church the Smith family welcomed a young mom and her newborn child into their family while she was battling cancer and fleeing an abusive husband. After four years of the struggle the mom died from the cancer and the Smiths adopted the little girl. Now seventeen years later, little Kaley, is getting set to head off to college.
At Beautiful Savior in Amarillo, we've got a long time member named Joe who had to move out of town to be closer to his daughter while his health declined. He is living in a retirement community in Dallas and has become a missionary there to his community. He is well known as a spiritual leader in the community, leading group prayers, and even building a chapel for all the residents to make use of. Joe says God has blessed him abundantly and he is thankful to serve.
As we carry our cross – or wear our noose – can we forgive others as Jesus forgave those who put him to death? Can we love even the unlovable as Jesus did? Who do we know that needs a home and a family? Can we tell people about the reign of God that is already creating something new in our world? The good news is that even when we struggle to put God first, when we are reluctant to carry a cross, God isn’t finished with us. For all of us, there is forgiveness.
Please pray with me. Forgiving God, here we are. While we may be reluctant to go to the extreme of dying for you, we do our best. We offer ourselves to you as we can. Work on and in us until we are finally finished in your presence. Amen