“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves,
and take up their cross and follow me.” Mark 8:34
I want us to think this morning about what it means to “take up our crosses”—and to do that not just because this is Lent; and not just because we’ve had our share of funerals lately, and loved ones have died, and we’ve had to bear crosses of sadness; and not just because losses of jobs and savings and even homes have laid crosses of fear and anxiety upon us. Granted all these events, I believe taking up our crosses is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. It’s what followers of Jesus do, day in and day out. “If any want to become my followers,” he says, “let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.”
There is, of course, nothing optional about crosses. They just are—events that can crucify us, that can kill our spirits, our hopes, our ambitions, our sense of well being. And there’s no option about whether we will bear these crosses. Somehow we will. They become a part of who we are. We simply are people who have suffered, or will suffer, losses of loved ones, jobs, homes, promotions, good health, etc.—or we share and feel the crosses of others. Every single one of us experiences loss—even if it’s something as simple as losing electricity after a storm, or missing a plane connection or dropping and breaking an ornament.
In the Christian tradition we call these things crosses because we tend to link them in our minds with the cross of Christ. We believe in Jesus, whose suffering and crucifixion is God’s great saving event for all who will follow in faith. But here’s the point: It is what we do with our crosses that makes all the difference. There’s a very big difference between bearing or suffering our crosses and taking up our crosses. Bearing our crosses is simply a fact of life. If we’re sick, we’re sick; if we lose our job, the job is gone; if we lose our loved one, we won’t see her or him again this side of heaven. And it’s hard; it can be painful beyond words.
Just bearing or suffering our crosses can take all sorts of forms, some of them healthy and some not. Some of us use sickness, for example, either to earn martyrdom or to gain acceptance. Have you ever met someone who’s “enjoyed” poor health for years, who always finds a way to let you know how awful their life is, or how courageous they are in the face of suffering? A healthier way, of course, is just to put up with your suffering without advertising it and without trying to gain sympathy. All of us know people like that—people who were born with some physical disability but make little of it, or suffer a tragedy and simply take it in stride. Folks like that do live with some dignity. Of course they may or may not be fun to be around! We’ve all run into people whose infirmities have turned them into grumps, or who make it plain they don’t want you around.
God calls us not just to bear or suffer our crosses but to pick up our crosses and carry them. Let me illustrate the difference. Do you remember back in mid January when a pilot named Chesley Sullenberger landed his airliner in the middle of the Hudson River? That event electrified the whole country. It also, in my view, offered us an exceptional example of picking up a cross. The February 23rd edition of Newsweek contained a piece about the event written by Sullenberger himself. “Sully”, as he is now widely known, says he resists strongly being called a hero. A hero, he says, quoting Lorrie his wife, “is someone who decides to run into a burning building.” “This was different,” says Sully,“—this was a situation that was thrust upon us.” Do you hear that? Crosses are losses or burdens that are thrust upon us. We’re forced to bear them—like it or not.
Now, listen to how Sully picked up that cross. He writes, “My first officer, Jeff Skiles, and I did what airline pilots do: we followed our training, and our philosophy of life….We valued every life on that airplane and knew it was our responsibility to try to save each one, in spite of the sudden and complete failure of our aircraft. We never gave up. Having a plan enabled us to keep our hope alive.” That’s the kind of attitude that represents picking up our crosses! We follow our training and our philosophy of life. We know God calls us to bring some good out of what is happening to us, and always to care about the wellbeing of others.
Furthermore, we don’t give up. Sully compares his experience with what others are going through these days. He writes, “Perhaps in a similar fashion, people who are in their own personal crises—a pink slip, a foreclosure—can be reminded that no matter how dire the circumstance, or how little time you have to deal with it, further action is always possible. There’s always a way out of even the tightest spot. You can survive.” Survive he did—as did the other 154 people on the plane. But I am sure that his deeper meaning here is survival not only in the physical sense. Sully is abundantly aware that even some of the best pilots have been unable to save all their passengers, or even any of them, in a crisis.
And that’s the way it is with crosses. We may or may not have hope of surviving them in the physical sense. But we still pick them up. We still carry them with confidence. I had a good friend in Newport News, an educator whose name was Ben. Ben and I ended up on the same committee in the Southern Diocese and used to travel together to meetings. One day he confided in me that he had just received a grim diagnosis from his doctor. He had come down with lung cancer and it was spreading rapidly. And then he answered the question which had sprung to my mind but which would have been unkind to ask: Was he a smoker? “Doug,” he volunteered, I’ve never smoked in my life.” It was the cruelest kind of cross: A wonderful family man, a strong Christian, a non-smoker—why should he have to die? But Ben knew how to take up that cross. He kept on keeping on with his wife and children, his school work and his church work; he kept right on with his bright spirit and his great sense of humor. My last visit with Ben was at the hospital where he died. As I approached the room I saw his family, whom I did not know, gathered outside. “Could I see Ben?” I asked, unsure whether they would let me in. “Let me ask him,” one replied. “Of course, let Doug come in,” was the immediate answer. With a smile on his face, Ben not only let me into his room but into his heart, to share his cross, his death and his victory.
Now, this final word today about crosses: God calls us and enables us not only to take up our own crosses and to share in the crosses of others. God calls us to do these things consciously and intentionally in the companionship of Christ. Remember Jesus’ challenge to his friends: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I want to be as clear as I can here: Following Jesus, being a companion of Christ, is far more than an exercise in memory about how much he suffered, how heavy that cross was, how excruciating the pain. Companionship with Christ is God’s supreme gift that we’re offered right here, right now, and through every minute of our lives. Picture him in your mind’s eye. If you lose your job or your home, see him at your side, sharing your discouragement. If you lose your loved one, feel him holding you close to himself, shedding his own tears with yours. The love God pours into us is not only a joyful love, it is a suffering love. It is a love by which God calls us into a whole new adventure of trust and intimacy which will revolutionize our life.
But let us be warned, you and I, as Jesus warned his friends: “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.”