Year A, Proper 17, RCL Track 1
Exodus 3:1-15, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28
Who today is willing to give up their life for Christ? Christ says, “Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Christ is telling you that you have a choice. You can pick up your cross and follow him and in doing so you will lose your life, your old life. In this process, you will gain new life. The alternative is to keep your old life, by trying to stay safe or keep your old ways. In doing this, you will lose your life, your spiritual life. We can live now and die later or we can die now and live later.
When we follow Christ we are asked to do all kind of things that we would never otherwise do. Over the years we have heard ourselves and our friends say, “I’d never be caught dead doing that.” “That” may be, helping someone who has a mental illness; bringing a person, even an unknown person, into your home for dinner or for them to spend a few nights or weeks with your family as they begin to recover from a disaster. How many of us are willing to clean out someone else’s house that has been damaged by a hurricane? There are always people in our community who have needs and with this recent storm, the needs become even more self-evident and almost unlimited. Christ calls us to help the poor, the destitute; to help the people living on the margins of society. Since our current natural disaster, there are now some people who weren’t on the margins, a week ago, who now are. As difficult as this may seem, doing the uncomfortable work in this world is picking up our cross.
I witnessed some of our volunteers picking up their cross. During the Summer Lunch program, there were volunteers who took lunches door to door in our community. Some volunteers were a bit reluctant to go out knocking on doors, but after they tried it once or twice, they were eager to do it again. This eagerness and desire to help wasn’t only physical growth, building confidence to go into the world and meet new neighbors, but I guarantee that there was spiritual growth as well. This growth will make it easier for them to serve Christ in the future.
All growth comes with pain. The actions that cause us to stretch beyond our comfort zone cause pain. It could be the anxiety we find when we knock on a stranger’s door. It could also be the pain we have when we write a really large check to a relief organization.
I remember back to a day late-in January 2005. We were married just under six years and we had three children all under the age of four. Like many families, we were paying a mortgage, a car payment, along with all the other mundane and unusual expenses that we have as home owners and parents. Being a young family we probably splurged a bit more than we should have for Christmas just a month before. It is what happened, just several weeks earlier, on December 26, that day after Christmas, that made this day in January so significant. This was the day that a massive earthquake happened in the Indian Ocean, near Indonesia. It sent a tsunami which destroyed villages and killed hundreds of thousands. In its aftermath,
I knew we needed to do something. But what could I do living so far away? All I could do was give money. I spent time deciding which charity would use our money best and then it was time to write a check. This is where the rubber met the road. How much can we give that will make a difference or at least make me feel that I have made an impact? There was not a right or wrong answer but I prayed about it. I then I talk to Amy about what came to mind. For a young family, it was a large number; it was well more than a pay check. But after discussing it, we knew it was the right thing to do. It was with a sinking feeling in my stomach that I wrote the check.
This is sacrifice. I’m not telling this story to pat myself on the back. I have heard others with similar stories when helping in a natural disaster or even when they increase their pledge at church. Carrying a cross is not easy. Even Christ stumbled and fell to the ground while carrying his. Giving this money didn’t make God love me more. It didn’t make me more prosperous. What it did, was increase my faith, making it easier to give more generously next time. My heart also grew, much like Dr. Seuss’ Grinch.
Jesus tells his disciples this wisdom because he is going to have to do something very difficult and the disciples are going to have to deal with difficulty as well. Jesus seems a bit harsh and he isn’t beating around the bush or sugar coating the truth. He is telling the disciples how it is, straight up, just as many coaches speak to their athletes. I don’t think any coach would tell his team before a game that this will be a cake walk. Nor will a coach tell the team that this game is impossible to win. Even if the odds are against you there is always hope.
Every day we may encounter hardships and Paul tells us how to handle some of these situations. He says, “Bless those who persecute you.” How hard is it for us not to hold a grudge or get mad at the people who cause us grief? Paul says we are not to curse them but bless them. Anyone who has answered the phone at work only to receive the wrath of an angry client or customer knows how difficult holding your tongue can be. The only thing that may hold us back from telling what is really on our mind is that we could lose our job. For some of us, the threat of being fired is why we hold it in. If this is the case, then we are focused on the wrong thing. We shouldn’t be worried about what our employer thinks or our job; we should be offering good will and blessings on this upset person because of who we are in Christ. Christ calls us to build people up, not tear them down. This is a common theme in the New Testament.
Paul gives several examples of how we are to be in relationship with those we dislike. He is not saying that we are to kowtow to these people. He says we are not to let their actions or their bad mood change who we are called to be. We are to bestow love and generosity on those who have done us ill will. In our culture, no one in their right mind seems to do this. Most may even view this as unusual behavior. But this is exactly what a deeply faithful person does. Empathy allows you to help the person who is hurting you. This generosity may or may not change their mind so they don’t see you as the enemy, but hopefully, it will. Hopefully, it will allow them to see that Love is stronger than their negativity. Even if this doesn’t happen you are not allowing yourself to go down with them. You are rising above the situation. You are being a Christ like example.
Christ tells us to take the long road, the road less traveled, where we can build and rebuild relationships. These long term goals are what we need in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. There are three phases of a disaster; Rescue, Relief, and Recovery. For the most part, we have emerged out of the Rescue stage in which we search for and rescue people, bringing them to safety. We have now entered the Relief stage in which we help people with their daily needs such as; food, water, shelter, and medication. They may have lost their car. The company they work for may have had to close because of damage. People in this stage cannot sustain their living. For some people in a large disaster, it may take months before they find any stability. For others who were near the brink of poverty, disaster can put them over the edge. Recovery starts when people begin to have some semblance of their regular routine. For those who have resources to draw from, through pain and lose they will find recovery. For others, especially the marginalized, without outside resources, recovery may be all but impossible.
We as a parish can stand strong in the relief and recovery efforts. We often see groups come in after a disaster, to help in the relief efforts, but then they leave. The Diocese of Texas, and the Episcopal Relief and Development organization have committed to help people well into the Recovery side, even after others have left. It is because Eagle Lake was not hit as hard as our neighboring communities that we have the ability to help them. Help can come in many forms, not just financial. It can be helping others with our knowledge, ability, or connections. It can be offering internet and computers to fill out FEMA forms or insurance claims. It is offering a safe environment for the kids so that their parents can begin to clean-up and rebuilding. Or it can simply be a cup of coffee and the willingness to listen to someone’s story.
In helping others, we are picking up their cross and carrying it for them; much like Simon of Cyrene did for Christ. We can stretch ourselves to go into the world facing situations and jobs that we never thought we would do. And for this, we will be doubly blessed. Our hearts will grow with compassion and empathy as we pick up someone else’s cross. And our faith will be filled with Christ as we pick up our own.