How to carry your cross

How to carry your cross February 29, 2024

Here’s a sermon for you, preached on September 3, 2023, at St. Paul’s Episcopal in San Rafael. Enjoy! 

On Wednesday, my boys and I drove 18 minutes south to San Leandro for our one-year-old neighbor’s birthday party. Our expectations were not all that high: the one-year-old is darling, mind you, but it’s not like we hang out with this budding toddler on a regular basis. The boys wanted to stay at home, so they could be with their stuff and hang out with the dog and shoot hoops if they felt like it too. I wanted to stop in and say hello, because they’re our neighbors and they had given us an invitation, after all.

We agreed to a quick hello – that way the two of them could get back to their list of Very Important Things to do and I could still feel like we’d shown up for our neighbors.

What we didn’t expect was to stay for two hours. We didn’t expect kiddie pools filled with Dawn dish soap and water, and a bunch of wands to make giant bubbles. We didn’t expect face-painting and balloon animals, nor did we expect pizza and Capri Suns, fried chicken and sauteed brussel sprouts and grilled potatoes too. We didn’t expect engaging conversations with other neighbors and new-to-us friends, and a six-inch-tall aquamarine mermaid cake with pineapple rings baked into the batter.

Perhaps because our expectations were so low or completely misaligned altogether, we didn’t expect to have such a good time in the middle of a random park on the San Leandro waterfront. But we did, and at the end of it, all three of us breathed big sighs of relief. We couldn’t stop talking about what a great afternoon it had been.

There is, of course, a point to this story, and it’s one of shattered expectations – of the image we had going into it completely turned upside down.

It’s not all that different in this week’s gospel reading. Jesus is about to shatter every image and expectation the disciples have of him, when he tells them about how he’ll soon go to Jerusalem and “undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” He’s going to shatter their image of him when he rebukes Peter and when he soliloquizes about the disciples must pick up their cross and follow him. “What will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” he asks. “Or what will they give in return for their life?” Is Jesus really asking for death here in this shattering declaration? Is that what he means by “taking up the cross?”

As one theologian surmises, the big idea of “carrying your cross” is actually answered in the text we heard read just a few minutes ago: Romans 12:9-21 offers readers a long list of virtues, “actions and attitudes that make life meaningful.” When we look at Paul’s list, we can’t help but find that it bubbles over with divine energy, the theologian adds.

It’s almost like Paul’s written a scroll and it looks something like this:

“How to Carry Your Cross”

By Paul

  1. Love from the center of who you are
  2. Don’t fake it
  3. Run for dear life from evil
  4. Hold on for dear life to good
  5. Be good friends who love deeply
  6. Practice playing second fiddle
  7. Don’t burn out
  8. Keep yourselves fueled and aflame
  9. Be alert servants of the Masters, cheerfully expectant
  10. Don’t quit in hard times
  11. Pray all the harder
  12. Help needy Christians
  13. Be inventive in hospitality
  14. Bless your enemies
  15. No cursing under your breath
  16. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy
  17. Share tears when they’re down
  18. Get along with each other
  19. Don’t be stuck up
  20. Make friends with nobodies
  21. Don’t be the great somebody
  22. Don’t hit back
  23. Discover beauty in everyone
  24. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody
  25. Don’t insist on getting even
  26. Let God take care of the judging
  27. If you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person food
  28. If he’s thirsty, buy him a drink
  29. Let your generosity surprise others with goodness
  30. Don’t let evil get the best of you
  31. Get the best of evil by doing good

And there we have it: Paul’s super handy list of how to carry your cross, spelled out in the 9th letter to the Romans!

It’s not all that different from the old poem, “All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten,” perhaps because when you break down what it actually means for Christ-followers to carry their cross, it’s simply about loving God and loving people.

Need to know how to carry your cross with a curmudgeonly neighbor? Discover beauty in everyone. Want to know how to carry your cross when you encounter an unhoused person on the street? Go buy that person food. Crave advice on what it means to carry your cross with your annoying little brother? Don’t hit back.

The list goes on. I imagine, if we were to take the time to talk about each one of these, we’d come up with a thousand different examples for each of the numbers.

For our purposes this week, take a look at the list one more time. Which one sticks out to you? Was there one that sent shivers up your spine or made you perk up in the pew, just a little bit straighter? I wonder if that’s the one you might focus on this week. I wonder if that’s the one you’re to put in your back pocket and carry as your cross in the days and weeks ahead.

This last week, I’ve been reading a fascinating novel called A Tale for the Time Being. Set between Japan and the West Coast, it dives into the “relationship between writer and reader, past and present, fact and fiction, quantum physics, history, and myth,” or so the back jacket states. It’s one of those books I don’t quite feel smart enough to read, which is also why it’s so much fun to read.

In one scene, a sixteen-year-old girl named Nao walks down the street and into a restaurant with her great grandmother, who happens to be a Buddhist nun. Nao sees this group of rabblerousing teenagers outside the restaurant: the teenagers are being terribly rude. They’re cursing. Something’s about to go down – all Nao wants to do is get away before the teenagers do something bad to her and her great grandmother.

When Nao and her 104-year-old great grandmother finally leave the restaurant, the grandmother stops in front of the naughty teenagers. Nao tries to get her attention. She pleads with her, but Great Grandmother ignores her. She is more a century old, and can’t hear all that well, anyway.

Then the Buddhist nun does the unthinkable (or perhaps, in this case, the completely thinkable): she bows deeply to the teenagers.

The human in me honors the human in you, her bow communicates to those who sought her harm. One by one, the teenagers bow to her in return, the leader of the “bad” group the first to bow in return and urge the others to do the same.

I honor you, I honor you, I honor you.

The belief systems present in that story may be different than our own, but I find it’s another example of finding beauty in another human beings – yet another example of carrying the cross, as Christ first did for us.

So, my friends: whatever number you choose (or, as holy God-luck would have it, whatever number God chooses for you), might your expectations be shattered as you go out and carry your cross this week.

Amen.

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