Greetings and welcome to Corona Sabbath. This is one of the ways the church is endeavoring to offer spiritual support during these challenging days of COVID-19. We appreciate your feedback and suggestions.
In this summer series on the theme “Grounded” we turn the foundations of our faith. This post focuses on service and generosity.
We listen to Mathew 16:21-26 read by Earl Waters. In the traditional translation, Jesus tells his followers to take up their cross and follow me. This does not refer to a burden beyond our control like an act of nature or a random accident or contracting COVID-19. It is a reference to consciously choosing the path of service and self-giving.
Scripture video from Earl
From that time on, Jesus began to explain to the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, to suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and religious scholars, and that he must be killed, and on the third day raised to life.
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Rabbi!” he said. “This will never happen to you!”
Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Get yourself behind me, you Satan! You are trying to make me stumble and fall. You’re setting your mind not on the things of God, but of mortals.”
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “If you wish to come after me, you must deny your very selves, take up the instrument of your own death and begin to follow in my footsteps.
“If you would save your life, you will lose it; but if you would lose your life for my sake, you will find it. What profit would you show if you gained the whole world but lost yourself? What can you offer in exchange for your very self?”
Reflection from Kim on video
When I started as pastor of Lakewood United Church of Christ in 1991, the church had a custom around baptism. When a child was baptized at the church, they were given a ‘cradle cross.’ This was a small wooden cross that was to be hung near the child’s bed as a reminder of their baptism and their connection to the church.
Then after one baptism, the parents returned the cross to the church. They said that the cross was an instrument of capital punishment. They would no sooner hang the cross in the child’s room than hang a likeness of ‘old sparky’ – the electric chair that was used in Florida for executions. After that, the church did not order anymore cradle crosses and no longer gave them out at baptisms.
Yes, the cross is an instrument of capital punishment. So why does Jesus, who loves us beyond measure, who is the incarnation of universal, unconditional Divine Love, who wants the best for us, instruct his dearest friends and followers to take up their cross? Why would he suggest that they risk death? Death at the hands of an oppressive government reserved for traitors and people who were perceived as a threat to the public? Death that was an excruciatingly painful public humiliation? Why would Jesus suggest that his followers take up their cross?
The heart of Christianity is love. Love for others, love for self, love for neighbors, love for enemies. Love that is expressed in commitment to the common good. Love expressed in acts of service, generosity, and self giving. The book of James puts it this way: “But act on this word – because if all you do is listen to it, you’re deceiving yourselves. . . . Pure, unspoiled religion, in the eyes of our Abba God, is this: coming to the aid of widows and orphans when they are in need, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by this world. . . Be assured then, that faith without works is as dead as a body without a spirit.” [James 1:22, 27, 2:26]
Jesus does not want us to be dead. He wants us to be alive. That’s why he tells us to take up our cross. True life, at its fullest and most joyful, is life spent in service to others. Our highest is good is marked by our generosity; the giving of ourselves as well as our time, talent, and treasure.
So, first we realize that each and every one of us needs to be lifted; needs to be brought to life, needs to be rescued from the numbing, life-sapping impulses of selfishness, self centeredness, and greed. Jesus saw our need as humans for meaning and purpose and belonging. And so he invites us, urges us, begs us, out of love, to take up our cross. To find our highest good by giving ourselves away. He knew that we would experience our greatest worth by helping others, investing ourselves in the wellbeing of the community. Without that, our lives would be hollow, empty, even tormented.
Karl Menninger, one of the premier psychiatrists of the 20th century, was once asked what action he would recommend if a person were to feel a nervous breakdown coming on: Lock up your house, go across the railroad tracks, and find someone in need and do something for him. Menninger is picking up on the teachings of Jesus and other spiritual teachers throughout human history.
The positive effects of the spiritual command to serve have also been verified by science. Studies show that helping others, practicing generosity, and volunteering have direct health benefits such as boosting the immune system, lowering blood pressure, and other positive physiological consequences. This learning has been shared by Norman Cousins and Dean Ornish. It is also documented in the book, The Healing Power of Doing Good: The Health and Spiritual Benefits of Helping Others by Allan Luks and Peggy Payne.
So we see that modern healing professionals are endorsing the teaching of Jesus, take up your cross. This basically amounts to LOVE. Don’t be controlled by fear. Give your life away. Because, as Jesus teaches, to find your life, you must lose it.
The beauty of this teaching is that it applies to everyone. No matter what your circumstances in life, whatever your condition, your status, your class, your education level, your income, every single person can take up their cross. In fact, Jesus, known for taking up his cross, was poor and owned almost nothing and had no financial portfolio. And he sets the pace for taking up his cross. For giving his life away for the good of others. For generosity and service.
Some of you know that our son, Sterling, is an artist in Los Angeles. This spring he was painting the famous California poppies near an urban homeless encampment. Each day he want to his spot to paint. One day he sent us this text:
Some homeless men just gave ME some change and cigarettes because they liked my painting. The opposite of how it usually works.
Sterling received those offerings with gratitude. And in so doing, he affirmed the capacity of the homeless people to be generous and giving. Like the widow’s mite. He validated the humanity of those who are often treated as less than human in our society.
Take up your cross.
Jesus ennobles everyone because everyone can serve in some way. Everyone can listen. Everyone can smile. Everyone can pray. Everyone has something to give to help another.
Take up your cross.
Realize all that you have been given and all that you are. Experience abundance.
Take up your cross.
Free yourself from the the bondage of selfishness and the tyranny of the self. Free yourself from the false construct of scarcity that is perpetuated by the society around us.
Take up your cross.
Experience your commonality with each and every human being because we all suffer and are all in need of comfort and solace from one another. Be enlivened by the connections borne of solidarity and compassion.
Take up your cross.
Be rescued from a small, constricted, paltry existence and experience the expansive life of love, joy, and freedom from fear.
If you hear of a church that does not ask the members to give, to serve, to contribute, to help others, the community, the world, then head the other way. This is not the life giving way of Jesus. This is not the way of joy and abundant life.
And I can say as a pastor for all the many times I have been involved with getting people to volunteer for some kind of ministry, to help the homeless, to advocate for more just policies, to cook a meal for someone in the church, to teach church school, to help with Operation Attack, whatever it is, people always say to me that they got far more out of it than they put into it. It was far more meaningful to them to have participated than the effort that was expended. I have heard that over and over and over again throughout 35 years of ministry. Thirty five years of inviting people to contribute their money to the church and other initiatives to transform society and the lives of those in need. And never have I heard, I’m sorry I gave away that money. No, what I’ve heard again and again is, I am so glad to give. I feel I am making a difference. Let me know what else I can do.
We know that when we reach out to others and engage in service or generosity of some kind, we are the ones who are blessed by the giving.
This is why Jesus tells us to take up our cross. He wants us to have a full life; brimming with joy and meaning and purpose and well-being and significant relationships with people. All the fruits of service and generosity that come from offering ourselves in service to others in whatever shape or form that may take. Amen.
As you listen to the music video featuring Zach Blair-Andrews, you are invited to notice the thoughts and feelings and that arise for you.
(Click HERE if you wish to see the post containing the video of this text.)