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 The Burden and the Power

Sermon - 9/16/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 8:34-38

We are continuing in our study of the Gospel of Mark this morning, and have come to the 8th chapter. This section that I'm going to share in just a bit comes right after that question Jesus asked of his disciples: "Who do you say that I am?". And it's Peter that responds "You are the Christ".

And then Jesus gives his first of three predictions of his suffering and death, and Peter didn't like that, tries to talk him out of it, doesn't want to hear of it, and Jesus says "Get behind me Satan". And then Jesus teaches what it means to be one of his followers, what it means to be a disciple. So that's the section we're reading from, chapter 8, verses 34 through 38:

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’. 

If there is one metaphor to describe discipleship, what it means to be a follower of Jesus, I think it's this one. This notion of carrying the cross, taking up the cross. And that has always seemed to me to be a rather heavy burden. Does it seem that way to you? Crosses are not light things.

We remember, after all, Jesus said: "I was hungry and you did not feed me". And we say, Lord there are so many hungry people out there.

"I was sick and in prison and you did not visit me". Do you know who's in prison?! Drug addicts! Rapists! Murderers! Criminals! You don't mean we should visit those people, do you?

"Foxes have holes, birds have nests, the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head". But there are over 2,000 people here in Eugene alone that are homeless! Jerry Smith informed me this morning there are over a million children in this country that are homeless. How can we provide for all those?

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God". But Lord, the Iranians are trying to build a nuclear bomb. And the Libyans killed our Ambassador. It's time to quit apologizing and to get tough.

You know, if we try to take on every single just cause, pretty soon we find it's not the cross we carry, it's the weight of the world on us. And who can do that? Who can carry it all?

You know there are those who I think actually enjoy carrying the world on their shoulders -- you know who I mean, right? The martyrs? "I have so much work to do, I have so many committees to work on, there are so many jobs here at the church, if I didn't do it, who would do it? So many people depend on me, there's just not enough time. . . . .". Do you feel for me? :) If I ever act like that, do me a favor, just take me out back and shoot me :).

So here's the first thing I want you to take away from the sermon this morning: taking up the cross is not a personal invitation from Jesus for you to be a martyr. Remember what Jesus says in Matthew's Gospel" "Come to me all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for my yoke is easy, my burden is light".

Really? I mean it doesn't sound very light to me. How is it that the cross of Christ on which Jesus was crucified is an easy burden, especially when so many seem burdened by it?

I don't know if you've ever noticed that I'm a bit of a Duck fan :) I'm so quiet about it, I hardly ever mention it :) One of the things that I appreciate about sports, like football and basketball, is the team aspect of the sport. When one person is having a bad day, drops the ball at the one-yard line, along comes an offensive lineman who's run 50 yards to recover the fumble in the end-zone (was that great yesterday, or what?!).

One of the best moments of the Olympics this last summer, I thought, was when Michael Phelps won his 127th gold medal (whatever it was :). Do you remember the one in which he became the athlete with the most gold medals ever? Do you remember which event it was? It was a relay -- it was a relay, the 4x200, he needed his teammates to win that medal. And I love that image, it wasn't the individual sport, it was about the team. And not only that, but he was swimming the anchor, and I'm sure it's because his coach new it was going to be a special moment, go down in history of the Olympics. Normally he did not do that. The other team that was the closest competition, their anchor was 1 second faster than Michael Phelps. But his team gave him a four-second lead, so they won by three seconds. I love that. So that's the medal that put him over the top, his 18th or 19th, whatever it was. It's about the team.

So I want to suggest to you that Christian faith is not about our individual achievements -- it's about the team. If we seek to carry the cross alone, it is unbearable. But if we share that burden then there is no load we cannot bear.

It's rather remarkable in the gospel (Mark and Matthew, maybe Luke too, I forget), when it comes for that time when Jesus is called literally to bear the cross, you remember that? He doesn't do it alone. It's Simon, a Cyrene, who's called to bear the cross for him. So, if the son of God got help bearing the cross, who are we to think we can bear it alone? Do you think God wants you to carry a heavier burden than Jesus?

Remember the promise of Jesus, where two or three are gathered together he will be with us? Carrying the cross is about bearing one another's burdens, because that's what makes it bearable. That's what makes the yoke of Christ light.

The final scene in that wonderful, classic Christian musical "Godspell" (of some 30-plus years ago) that I love so much, after Jesus has been crucified, the disciples take him down and in the movie (the way it's portrayed) he's carried into the streets of New York City as they sing "Prepare ye the way of the Lord". It's a wonderful moment that sends chills down my spine because that is the meaning of taking up the cross -- to carry it, to carry Christ together into the world. And when we do that, working together as followers of Jesus, we participate in the incredible transformative power of God which can and does work miracles. It is a power that is greater than the sum of the whole.

The author Wallace Spears writes "The success of Christianity does not depend on the brilliance of the few great men or women, it is rather a tidal wave of cumulative power created by the combined belief and action of countless ordinary people like themselves, gathering momentum as it rolls along until, through overwhelming mutual convictions, it lifts everything in its path to new heights of beauty and perfection".

And so we speak not of the burden of the cross but of the power of the cross. Created by the combined beliefs and actions of countless ordinary people willing to take it up and to carry it into the world. Heaven knows if the success of the church were dependent upon the brilliance of your Senior Minister, we'd be in a heap of trouble, right? :) Amen :)

It takes all of us. It's the combined power of ordinary people like us, with that power of God, that does extraordinary things. Like the Sunday breakfast, Phyllis can't do that by herself, right? It's all those other folks down there helping out. Like the Good Samaritan Ministry, and like the Choir -- you can't have a choir by yourself.

True, but little-known story of a group of German women married to Jewish men who took Hitler on in 1943 and won. The story is so unfamiliar, that when Judy and I watched the movie "Rose Street" (the name of the street where the men were held and where the protests were), we watched the movie earlier this summer, it wasn't until I started working on this sermon and I looked it up, I realized I actually used this as an illustration 9 years ago when it first came out. Totally had forgotten that, when watched the movie again. It's a great movie.

At any rate, it's the story of how these Aryan women were face-to-face with the SS troops sent by Hitler to put an end to the protest, who were demanding the release of their Jewish husbands. And with the whole city, in effect, watching. And the soldiers couldn't do it -- they shot over their heads, tried to intimidate them. But through the conviction and the rightness of their cause, they persisted until finally the SS had to back down. And those Jewish men were freed and their lives spared. In the heart of Nazi Germany, a thousand Jewish men saved because of those women working together.

This is the power of the cross. When we share its burden to further life and goodness, overcoming the shame of evil, through combined actions of ordinary people. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves when taking up the cross. That is, to take part in something that is larger than ourselves. In the whole, for the sake of the greater good, that exceeds the interest of any one individual while seeking the good of all individuals.

Now I won't deny that still requires some sacrifice. I will insist that the sacrifice of life is not the will of God, and that the sacrifice of Jesus was to put an end to that kind of sacrifice. And yet we are still called to sacrificial living -- not sacrificial dying, and certainly not sacrificial killing. Sacrificial living means we give up the possibility of living in extravagance, that there may be an abundance for all to share.

Sacrificial living means we live for others as much as we live for ourselves. As Jesus said: "Love your neighbor as yourself".

Sacrificial living means that we give proportionately of our resources, back to God. "To whom much is given", Jesus said, "much will be required". I think we are people to whom much is given.

The pundits have now had a field day over Mitt Romney's refusal to release his tax records for the last 10 years, because he says he does not want to give undue attention to the recipients of his charitable giving, primarily the Mormon Church. And skeptics speculate it's because he hasn't fulfilled the requirement of giving 10%. OK, Christian people, do you know what the average for Christians is? It's less than 3%. And we're going to make a case that Mitt Romney hasn't given 10%? I suspect probably the reverse is true, I take him at his word, that he doesn't want to draw attention to his Mormon faith because that may work against him in the election. But still, we have something to learn from that example. Mormons, as a group, are among the highest who give to charitable causes of any faith group. We can learn a few things from them.

Sacrificial living, of course, means much more than how we use our financial resources. To deny ourselves and to take up the cross is to unite with the body of Christ and to serve when and where as Christ served. To bring wholeness and well-being to the sick and broken. To give hope to the hopeless and help the helpless. To find the lost, to save the condemned. To turn war into peace in hate into love.

This is the primary purpose of our many outreach ministries, like the Sunday breakfast, and the Helping Hand ministry, and the Good Samaritan ministry, and our Trailer ministry, and our outreach offerings that support the work of Disciples around the world. Like Fiji, mentioned this morning in our bulletin. And things like Church World Service that we work with very closely in serving people around the world. To carry the cross into the world, that pain and suffering, hunger and violence, injustice and war may be nailed upon it, and transformed by its power, lifting our world to new heights of harmony and beauty, unveiling new visions of peace and justice.

It's also, this may surprise you, the purpose of our Youth ministry. Helping youth to discover their place in God's world, and God's will for their life, affirming each as a child of God, whole and beautiful as God made them as they are. It's also the purpose of our Music ministry, to create harmonies of God's peace within the discord of the world's unrest. To give voice to our praise of God's justice and love. It's also the purpose of our Educational and our Small Group ministry, opening up the minds of young and old alike to the presence of God in our midst and the way that God would have us live.

It is the purpose of all that we do as the body of Christ, sharing in mutual responsibility for one another, carrying each other's burdens, making love of Christ manifest, tangible, visible, here in the heart of Eugene.

It was about 12-15 years ago that the City of Eugene lost its court case in the Ninth Circuit Court (federal court) over the Skinner's Butte cross, where the flag now is. The City decided rather than to take the case to the Supreme Court, to take it down. And the Mayor appointed a relocation committee, and I was one of those appointed to serve on the committee to find a new home for the cross. Now, there were some people very upset, disappointed, angry. There were others very pleased. It was an opportunity to have really good, honest dialogue with one another over what the whole issue of separation of church and state means. The one thing that I said consistently, before even that the decision was announced, I said from the pulpit and I said in the press during that whole process of finding a new home for that cross was this: that it is not the job of government to hold up the cross. That is our job as Christian people.

And furthermore, I have to tell you, particular now in light of all the unrest in the Muslim world over this awful video (and Muslims that are quite understandably offended), I was offended. I was offended at the way the City of Eugene, through a vote of the people, said that cross on that hill was not a religious symbol. Seriously, we voted, and we said that it's a war memorial. And that was the City's defense of why it was justified on public property, because it wasn't a religious symbol. Are you kidding me?! Of course it's a religious symbol. It's the most important symbol we have in our faith, and that's precisely why it had to come off of public property. Because we are the ones who are called to carry that cross, not the City. It is our job as Christian people. And so what better way to symbolize its power than to take it down, and to show how, through the weakness of God that is greater than our power, to show that transformation that is possible, we took it down just as they took down the cross from Golgotha, to carry it into the world, into the community where it belongs, held up by Christian people as the sign of God's transformative power available to all.

My hope, my desire, my vision, has always been that we will be that kind of community of transformation where people will see and experience God's life-changing power by sharing together this blessed burden of the cross, as we carry it into the world. To be that light for all to see.

May it be.


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