In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Most of us have heard this morning’s Gospel – or at least a paraphrase of it – so many times that it is one of those that can just sort of wash over and not “stick to us,” if we’re not careful. Sometimes when someone offers me a decadent dessert or another Scotch that I don’t need, I have been known to jokingly say, “Get behind me, Satan.” But what follows that famous line in today’s Gospel, may have a much more important message for us.
Mark tells us that Jesus followed His famous rebuke of Peter with something that is even tougher. He gathered his Disciples together with the crowds of followers and challenged them with,
"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (v. 34).
The initial response of His first hearers must have been, “Are you kidding me? What about the feeding miracles and the healings? Isn’t this all about how good we feel when we’re around you?” The people gathered around Jesus that day did not want to hear His challenge. And 21st Century Christians are not any more ready to hear that we should lay aside everything else and pick up Jesus’ cross than were the first hearers of Mark’s Gospel. Let’s admit it, it does seem pretty daunting to think about picking up Jesus’ cross and carrying it. I mean, going off to face death on behalf of God and God’s people, is somewhat outside our comfort zones.
But what exactly does it mean for us, the people of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, to pick up our crosses? Frankly, carrying the cross of Christ could potentially mean many things. But here is one that makes particular sense and seems to ring true to me.
In 2003, Jon Weece became the Senior Pastor (what we Episcopalians would refer to as the Rector) of Southland Christian Church in Lexington, Kentucky. At the time that Weece took the call, Southland was already a “mega-church,” with weekly attendance of around 7,000. You might think that he would have taken the helm of this successful venture and just sort of enjoyed the ride. But he did not.
Jon Weece spent a good portion of his childhood in Haiti, living with his missionary parents, who worked with some of the poorest people on earth. So when he became the leader of Southland Christian, he told the congregation that they should take a period of time to read the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles and then figure out what they were being called to do in order to facilitate God’s mission in the world. After a year and a half of self-study and Bible study, Weece says,
“We started focusing on people outside our four walls, and we found our niche. It was a catalytic season for us in that we determined we’re here in central Kentucky to love people that no one else in our church community was paying attention to.”
And now, 10 years later, the Southland Christian congregation is an incredibly active group of participants in what is known as the “Social Gospel,” the belief that Jesus’ mission on earth was centered around ministering to the poor, the outcast and those to whom society has turned a blind eye. Pastor Weece says,
We decided to launch a series of free medical clinics throughout our city …. We are now the primary care provider for 3,500 people in central Kentucky who can’t afford to visit a doctor or fill prescriptions. It takes an army of volunteer doctors and nurses and a lot of donations from major pharmaceutical companies to make it work, but all the effort is worth it.
Southland also operates a school lunch program, a community garden, and they provide tutors for local students. They run a prison care ministry and they even have a garage to provide cheap automotive care for those who cannot afford regular repairs. They have obviously taken very seriously, Jesus’ admonition that we should: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit those in prison. But one of the “marquee ministries” that Southland offers is what they call the “Dollar Club.”
This congregation with current weekly attendance of 12,000, asks every man, woman and child in attendance to bring a dollar bill to church. So, in addition to the tithing and other monetary giving that the congregation does; every week, each person gives a dollar to the Dollar Club. That $12,000/week is distributed directly to individuals in need. “Weece explains. ‘We’ve paid for surgeries, wheelchair-accessible vans and adoptions. It is so fun watching people who can’t afford what they need get overwhelmed by the same love that overwhelms me: God’s love.’”
It would have been much simpler and less demanding for Southland Christian Church to focus on those things that they did well inside their walls, and to carry on doing things the way they had always done them. But they did not choose the easy way – they chose God’s way. They set down the things that had held them back and instead, picked up their crosses and followed in the way of our Savior. They risked what they had in order to serve those who had less. They followed Jesus’ command to love the Lord their God, and to love their neighbor.
Fred Craddock, one of America’s great preachers, once said that most of us would like to make some sort of grand gesture (on behalf of Christ) – giving a large sum of money to build a church or, perhaps, dying on a mission field. However, (he says) God has called us to pay the price of discipleship a quarter at a time – giving a sandwich to a hungry person or a cup of water to someone who is thirsty – teaching a Sunday school class or singing in the choir. Those things are not as glorious as martyrdom, but our willingness to do the small tasks as they are needed is more important than our willingness to die when that is not needed.
Fred Craddock, Jon Weece and all of the true adherents to the Social Gospel understand that Jesus’ call to pick up our crosses seldom has anything to do with walking “the Way of the Cross,” or following Jesus’ footsteps into martyrdom. Instead, picking up our crosses most often means that we should walk the way of Jesus while he ministered. It means teaching those things that He taught, doing those things that He did; in other words, loving people as He loved them – unconditionally and completely. It means meeting people where they are and not judging them for being in those places. And it means caring for people enough to make sure that they get the best we have to offer – whether our judgmental minds believe that they deserve it or not.
St. Barnabas is a community that reaches out to those in need. It has been that way at least since the days of Father Ken Cooper. Through our incredibly dedicated and faithful Outreach Committee we do much good in the world. But we can never sit back and rest on our laurels. We can never accept the idea that we are “doing enough.” There is so much suffering in the world, so many people who are doing without, or otherwise need a helping hand, that there are surely more crosses for us to pick up and carry in and around Lafayette. During this Lenten season of introspection, let’s try to find out where those additional crosses are, and begin to make plans to pick them up and carry them as we should – in the name of the one who carried cross for us, Jesus Christ. Amen.