The cross is the central image of the season of Lent. It appears on Ash Wednesday as we receive it on our foreheads, accompanied by the words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The cross greets us every time we gather for worship during Lent. First, in the gathering space where a Christmas tree cross is draped in a purple cloth. Then it’s front and center on our altar adorned with a crown of thorns.
The cross is in the hymns we sing this season such as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross.” Finally, it becomes the sole focus of Good Friday worship as we recall the Seven Last Words of Christ, and receive a nail in our palm as we exit the church.
All of this gives us the impression that the cross is really serious stuff. And, indeed, it is. So when Jesus tells us this morning “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me,” we hear this as an impossible task to fulfill.
What can we possibly do that would qualify as cross-bering? What act of service could we perform that would be big enough to embody this command? What sacrifice could we make that would even be a small reflection of the sacrifice Jesus made for us?
Somehow giving up chocolate or abstaining from eating meat on Fridays doesn’t cut it! Somehow helping a neighbor in need or giving a few extra dollars to charity doesn’t seem like enough to meet this high and lofty goal. Cross-bearing has to be MUCH bigger than this…or does it?
I’m convinced that our expectations for fulfilling this command are too lofty and unobtainable. Since we set such a high standard for cross-bearing, we don’t even attempt it at all. I’ve preached on this subject many times before. Most of my sermons define cross-bearing as the acts of love and service we offer to others in the name of Christ. But this week, our First Lesson helped me to see cross-bearing in a new and different light. I came to the conclusion that it requires something of us that’s reasonable and doable. So lets look at the story of Abraham and see what we can learn about cross-bearing.
The writer of Genesis tells us that when Abram was ninety-nine years old, God appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. and I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.”
Wow, that’s big, serious stuff! Earlier in chapter 12, God told Abram that he would be the patriarch of a great nation. God would bless Abram, make his name great, and he would be a blessing to EVERY FAMILY on the face of the earth. Talk about pressure! How in the world could Abram pull this off? It sounds more like a job for a superhero than a senior citizen rancher and farmer.
After God shares this unbelievable news with Abram, we expect Abram to say something profound like Mary does when the angel Gabriel tells her she is going to give birth to a son even though she is a virgin: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” [Lk 1:38]
But Abram is having none of this! There are no grand speeches. Instead, Abram falls on his face and laughs. Much of this laughter is due to the second part of God’s promise which is that Abram’s 90 year old sweetheart Sarai, is going to give birth to a son.
Abram busts a gut, thinking about the absurdity of this promise. He points out the biological impossibility of the situation and probably thought the Almighty was trying to pull a fast one on him. “Ha! Ha! That’s a good one, God! I thought you were kinda serious about the father of a nation stuff, but now I know you’re pulling my leg.” The beauty of this story for me is that God does not reprimand Abram for his laughter. In fact, God does not skip a beat and gives Abram further instructions regarding what to do next.
In case we think this is an isolated incident, Abram is not the only one who laughs in this story. Later in chapter 18, Sarai overhears a conversation between Abram and three strangers whom we suspect are undercover angels. When she heard them talk about her becoming pregnant she laughs to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” In other words: It’s Not. Gonna. Happen. The story ends with God laughing along with her, saying, “Is anything too wonderful for God?” [Gen 18:14]
The kind of laughter I see in this story, is a laughter of impossibility. It’s a laughter that says “There is NO WAY this is going too happen. There is NO WAY that new life can come from a post-menopausal woman and her infertile husband.”
But the story does not end with laughter, because this laughter gives birth to hope. Our second lesson from Romans says “Hoping against hope, Sarah and Abraham believed, and so became the mother and father of many nations… They never questioned or doubted God’s promise; rather, they grew strong in faith and gave glory to God, fully persuaded that God could do whatever was promised. Thus, Sarah’s and Abraham’s faith was credited to them as righteousness.”
Now I’m sure you’re probably thinking, “What in the world does this story have to do with cross-bearing?” My answer is EVERYTHING! What this story teaches us is that cross-bering doesn’t have to involve grand gestures of sacrifice and service. Cross-bearing means having the audacity to believe that new life can come from death; that nothing is too wonderful, or impossible, for God.
Cross-bearing means being able to laugh in the face of a seemingly insurmountable situation, and then letting that laughter give birth to the hope that God can help us to find a way out of it. Cross-bearing means that we’re crazy enough to affirm that new life can come out of death; that those who feel barren on the inside can give birth to something new; That an instrument of torture and death became a way to defeat death forever.
If this is what it means to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus, then I think we just might be able to pull it off. So, let’s reframe cross-bearing this morning. Let’s think of it in terms of laughter and hope. Cross-bearing is the kind of holy laughter that believes in the impossible possibilities of God. It’s a laughter that renounces our pessimistic attitudes regarding the way things work in our world. It’s a hope that believes God is a force of healing and transformation in the most dire of circumstances. Cross-bearing is the unshakable conviction that God can help us to achieve whatever dream God has planted in our hearts.
It’s having the hope that the voices of traumatized high school students from Lakeland Florida can bring about gun reform and help to end gun violence in our schools. It’s having the hope that women who share their stories through the Me Too campaign will transform a toxic culture of abuse and discrimination.
On a personal level, it the kind of holy laughter that believed God had called a gay, skateboarding, guitar playing, chemistry major to become a pastor. It’s the hope that this same pastor, would fall in love, get married, adopt children, and serve the ELCA faithfully for nearly 30 years.
You helped this holy dream to come true. But if God had told me 30 years ago that all of this would happen, I can guarantee you I would have laughed harder than Abraham and Sarah combined.
So, friends in Christ, let’s look at cross-bearing a bit differently this year. May it be rooted in laughter and hope. May it help to help us to reach for whatever dreams God has planted in our hearts. Amen.
Copyright ©2018 David Eck