Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sermon, Proper 17A, Romans 12:9-21

"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." What does that mean? What does it mean to take up your cross?

I've preached on this several times, so this may sound familiar. Our cross to bear isn't our obnoxious mother-in-law, an unforeseen illness or accident, rotten co-workers or anything else that is thrust upon us. Our cross to bear is our discipleship to Jesus. It is our willingness to follow him, afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, ministering to those in need, standing with the outcast, and respecting the dignity of all people -- young and old, rich and poor, strong and weak. In short, our cross to bear is choosing to follow Jesus and emulate his life, even if that means being rejected by the world.

So what might this look like, this taking up our cross and following Jesus? Paul has a pretty good idea of what this life of discipleship is all about and he summarizes it very well in the passage we heard today from his letter to the Romans.

Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. In other words, be present with people. Be present for birthdays, weddings and other celebrations. We need to share the good times we have with each other, for it is in sharing and through laughter that we get to know people. And once we get to know people on a deeper level, they are much more likely to invite us in to share the bad times. It is through those joyous occasions that we are allowed to weep with them. We are following Jesus' example here of being present in joyous times (the wedding at Cana) and in times of heartbreak (the death of Lazarus).

But whether we are invited or not, we need to make the effort to be present with our fellow human in this thing we call life. It is in that presence, remember, that communities are built. It is through our shared laughter and tears that gives our community strength.

Closely tied to being present with people is the idea of meeting them where they are. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Just because we attend church on Sundays doesn't give us the right to see ourselves as special. In a lot of ways, we are just like the people who gather at the Stockman or the Sump. The difference is that, in most cases, we can claim some relationship with Jesus. So if we don't associate with the lowly, who will? Who else will meet them where they are, respect them and not condemn them, and tell them our story? That, n a word, is also called evangelism. And it is through meeting them where they are that they can hear our story and, hopefully, join our community.

Never avenge yourselves. There's an old saying that goes, "Revenge is a dish best served cold." I would argue that revenge is a dish best served not at all. Why is that? It's because revenge calls for plotting and scheming. It calls for us to put hatred over and above love. It calls for us not to respect the humanity of the other, but to denigrate them into an object. And when all is said and done, do you really feel better after committing an act of hatred?

What Paul is advocating instead is a better way. He's telling us to avoid the downward spiral of violence. He's telling us to avoid the one-upmanship of proving who is stronger. The practice of escalation doesn't stop anything; it only prolongs and makes things worse.

And here Paul brings up a radical idea: if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. What might this world look like if we focused our energies on ensuring people have adequate food and clean water? This is the idea behind the UN's MDGs -- seven goals to help alleviate or eliminate the seven most pressing needs worldwide.

We might compare Paul's admonition to give food and drink to our enemies to that of baptism; for it is through baptism that we are ourselves given spiritual food and drink. It is through God's invitation that we are brought to the table. And we are called to offer that invitation to others, baptizing in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Just like Paul is not advocating beating our enemies into submission, but giving them food and drink, we are not called to force people into Christianity. It does no good to threaten people with the club of eternal damnation in our effort to baptize them. Fear is not the way to develop disciples and build up the kingdom.

Discipleship is choosing to follow Jesus. Discipleship is living into the gospel. Discipleship is learning to put love over hate, being present with people in all of the ups and downs of this life, and meeting people where they are. Discipleship is respecting the dignity of every human being, loving your neighbor and feeding your enemy. Discipleship is leaving the world behind for another way.

Discipleship is being willing to pick up our cross and follow Jesus in all aspects of life, understanding that, like Paul said, there is another and better way. Discipleship understands that picking u our cross may also mean being persecuted unto death. But remember this: where there is death, there is new life.

Hold fast to what is good. Love one another. Be ardent in spirit. Rejoice in hope and patient in suffering. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good; for this is our cross to bear.


Peter S | 2:10 PM, September 03, 2008  

Excellent as always. But can you help me with that "burning coals" line?

Reverend Ref + | 3:08 PM, September 03, 2008  

Maybe a little passive-aggressive attitude on Paul's behalf?

On the other hand, it seems to be a fact that when one person is intent on bad behavior, exhibiting good behavior towards them just pisses them off even more; which, then, appears to be burning coals.

It's one of those lines that we just need to struggle with, I suppose.

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