Sermon 9.12.2021

Date: Sept. 12, 2021
Scripture Lessons: James 3:1-12 and Mark 8:27-38
Sermon: Take Up YOUR Cross
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Twenty years ago yesterday, we, in this country, witnessed the most cataclysmic event of the 21st century, perhaps until the spread of this pandemic – we don’t know yet. 9/11 changed our lives, our country, and our consciousness in ways that we are still discovering and coming to grips with. And there are still lessons to be learned from that horrific day beyond security screening at the airport and the monitoring of terrorist groups around the world. 9/11. Towers fell. And our world fell – apart. And we have not yet been able to put it back together. In fact, it seems to be further fragmenting, so that even former president George W. Bush warned yesterday, “that domestic terrorism could be as much of a threat as terrorism originating from abroad.” [George W. Bush compares ‘violent extremists at home’ to 9/11 terrorists in 20th anniversary speech, by Amy B Wang and Caroline Anders, September 11, 2021 at 4:23 p.m. EDT, washingtonpost.com ]

Today there are shrines and memorials to 9/11 all over the country including here in St. Petersburg. There is a piece of steel from the World Trade Center towers on 66th Street North. And another memorial was added in the Warehouse Arts District. And many of these memorials are to honor those who died in the 9/11 attacks as fallen heroes.

Now let’s look at that for a moment. If you went to work that day, showed up at your desk, and began your day and the building was destroyed by hostile forces, does that make you a hero? Are the people who went to work in the Pentagon that were killed heroes because they went to work that day and happened to be in harm’s way? It’s a terrible tragedy, yes. But most of those people did not choose to die. They were innocent victims. And their families and loved ones forever bear the scar of grief that goes with such a horrific loss. But they did not choose to do something that they knew would end
in their being killed.

So I don’t think we can say across the board that everyone who was killed on 9/11 and in the aftermath was a hero. BUT there were many who were heroes on that day and the days that followed. There was the woman in her office in the World Trade Center who knew they needed to get out of the building while others in her office were hesitating. She insisted. They resisted. Finally she said she wouldn’t leave until they did. And they reluctantly joined her in exiting the building and they lived. She chose to risk her life, to jeopardize her safety, to use her life as leverage, to save others. She was laying down her life for her coworkers, knowingly, voluntarily.

There were the people on flight 93 that crashed near Shanksville, PA who took it upon themselves to confront the hijackers and managed to divert the plane so that it could not do greater damage as planned. Yes, they died, but they thought beyond themselves and helped to spare the lives of others.

That is what we might characterize as taking up your cross. Doing what is right, doing what is consistent with the realm of God, surrendering your own self interest for the wellbeing of others. Being obedient to the good, the right, the true, unto death, if need be. And there were countless first responders who also chose to risk their lives to save others. Yes, it was their job, but they took extra shifts, they took extra risks, they volunteered and came from distant districts to help. Ron Bucca was the only fire marshal from the city of New York to die in the 9/11 attacks. His son reflects, “He was exactly where he was supposed to be in life, doing what he loved to do.” [Man remembers firefighter father whose military service set his own unanticipated path, Jada Yuan, 6:08 p.m. Sept. 11, 2021, washingtonpost.com ] That kind of sacrifice actually has inspired others to want to become firefighters. We want to give our lives to something. That is taking up your cross. Choosing to risk your life to save another.

There were also the people in Canada who with no advanced planning provided comfort and hospitality to the people on the planes that were forced to land in Canada when the US, the entire country, became a no fly zone. Their efforts are celebrated in this recent Twitter exchange:

I am so down on the human race right now, help me out here.

Tell me about one person you know personally who restores your faith in people. Tell. me about them.

And here is a response:

My friends in Newfoundland Canada. 20 years ago they provided shelter, food and friendship after my plane was diverted to Gander NFL on 9/11. We are friends to this day and have been back to stay with them 8 times since. They restored my faith in humanity.

Now many times when we hear the phrase, ‘it’s my cross to bear,’ it is referring to some kind of hardship or calamity over which we have no control. A spouse dies of a rare cancer. The family has the cross to bear. Someone dies in a freak drowning accident. That is a cross to bear. A child is born with serious disabilities, that is a cross to bear. But this is a distortion of what Jesus is talking about in the story we heard today from the gospel. When we hear of Jesus saying take up your cross, he is talking about willingly laying down self interest and choosing to invest oneself in creating the realm of God on earth, whatever the cost. It is a choice. Intentional. It is not about being a random victim of something horrible.

Many, many people lost loved ones in 9/11. And they are innocent victims. It is a horrible loss. Devastating beyond measure. It is suffering to be endured. Maybe beyond healing. But it is not a cross to bear.

In the gospel, Jesus tells his disciples and the crowds that if they want to follow him, they must take up their cross. They must make a willing decision to try to overcome self interest. He is offering rescue from the tyranny of the self. He is offering freedom from the despot of self interest. He is offering liberation from the small world of me and inviting people into the vast universe of we. Jesus is offering meaning and purpose and community as part of a larger reality. He is reaching out and inviting us to lives of joy, community, and peace. The goal is wellbeing, the wellbeing of creation and of community. And when we work toward that we find our own personal wellbeing on that path. We all need meaning, purpose, awe, wonder, and relationships to live and thrive. Jesus is inviting us to find that fulfillment and wellbeing and wholeness by taking up our cross. Giving ourselves to something bigger than meager self interest and personal satisfaction. That is what truly makes us whole as human beings.

Now let’s pivot a moment to those who hijacked the planes on 9/11. It seems that they were led to believe that they were sacrificing themselves for a greater good, for God’s purposes. They seem to have believed that they were doing this for the benefit of their community. That they were laying down their lives in service to God. Because, like all of us, they had a need for something to give their lives to. They were looking for a sense of meaning and purpose. They wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves. And this was the way that they were trying to meet those needs, sad as it is.

And here we turn to the clash between Peter and Jesus that was part of the story we heard today. In the story, Jesus tells the disciples that he must suffer and die. Peter is horrified. He wants to follow a glorified messiah not a crucified messiah. So, he takes Jesus aside to set him straight. So much for his belief that Jesus is the messiah. If he truly believed that would he be trying to correct Jesus? But Peter tries to dissuade Jesus. And we hear of Jesus responding with the famous line, Get behind me, Satan. Not just, No, Peter, you don’t understand, let me explain it to you. But Get behind me, Satan. This is similar to the reaction that we see from Jesus in the story of the temptation in the wilderness. In that story, Satan tries to tempt Jesus into turning stones into bread for food. Satan lures Jesus to accept worldly power over all he can see, think of the good he could do! Satan tempts Jesus to leap from the Temple to show people his power in a spectacle. All of this Satan offers trying to get Jesus to show his power so that he can supposedly do more good for people. And Jesus rebukes Satan in that story, just like he rebukes Peter in the story we heard today. Get behind me Satan. It is not that what Satan proposes is always bad, evil, like the killing of the Jews in the Holocaust. But Satan often offers things that look like are good, or at least benign. Can’t hurt anyone. Won’t have any negative consequences. But as we heard in the gospel, if it is not of God, in obedience to good, constructively contributing to God’s dreams coming to fruition, then it is of Satan. There is no benign for the follower of Jesus. Either you are taking up your cross or you are saying yes to Satan, however you may conceive of Satan or evil.

The people who hijacked the planes on 9/11 were victims of a very powerful influence convincing them that what they were doing was of God when it wasn’t. God, Allah, Jehovah, whatever term you want to use, is not about killing innocent people who went to work for the day to get a point across. Period. This is certainly not consistent with the God of Jesus.

Jesus is making it very clear that to pursue the joy, peace, and community of God’s kindom requires complete surrender to the dream of God. Whatever the risk. Whatever the cost. There is no half way. Part way. Partial buy in. You commit completely and then deal with the lapses and departures.

The world is offering happiness, satisfaction, and comfort that does not fulfill. That leaves us empty. And searching. We find a sham behind the curtain. Money. Physical beauty. Luxury. Expensive possessions. Power. Access to all kinds of elitist delights. It doesn’t satisfy. It just leaves us wanting more. Or something else. Or something newer. Or something faster. Or someone younger. Or better in some way. The way of the capitalist world around us kidnaps our souls and torments us. Makes us victims.

Jesus offers freedom. Liberation. Take up your cross. Choose to lay down your life. For something that matters. Then it cannot be taken from you. Needlessly. Because you are giving it in service to a greater good. Take up your cross. Jesus is showing us the path to resurrection – to new life, healing, wholeness, right relationship with the Divine, however we may understand it, with ourselves, with each other, and with the natural world.

Jesus is laying it out. To the disciples. To the crowds. Plain and simple. There are forces that can twist the message into an offer of power, money, and comfort. Into looking like the way of God. But Jesus makes it clear, to save your life, you must lose it. Surrender and you will be free. Anyone promising that Jesus will make you a millionaire, will make you thin and sexy, will give you a big house and a fancy car, doesn’t know the Jesus of the Bible.

But we can take heart in the remembrance of 9/11. There were many who did give their lives for the greater good. Who did save the lives of others. Who did risk their lives to make sure others lived. They were random people. Who were living average lives. Who chose to put the common good ahead of their personal safety, their personal interest.

Mike Low, spouse of a flight attendant on one of the planes that crashed reflects, “My memory goes back to that terrible day, when it felt like an evil specter had descended upon our world, but it was also a time when many people acted above and beyond the ordinary.”

There are so many people struggling today – victims of racist policies, victims of economic injustice, victims of the criminal injustice system, victims of lack of access to healthcare, people who are victims of substandard education, people who are entrenched in thinking that diminishes and harms, people who cannot find a way to peace in this life and turn to drugs and substance abuse. There are so many suffering from loneliness, from abandonment, from neglect, even children. There are many suffering from poverty of spirit, without meaningful relationships, without being needed by someone, anyone, for something that matters. There is still hostility against people of the Muslim faith and of Arab background. There are those who have no hope, nothing to look forward to, who see no reason to go on. There are people depressed by the climate crisis and the constant barrage of horrific natural disasters, really human caused disasters which relate to global warming. There are people who can’t live where they are from and can find no where to go. And into this desperate, hurting world, God sends Jesus with a message of life and hope and redemption. There is Jesus promising joy and abundance. If we would take up our cross. Choose to engage in bringing to fruition the dreams of God, in whatever way we can, wherever we are. Take up your cross and find life.

We are all church goers. Trying to say yes to Jesus. Trying to follow, otherwise we would be at home reading the paper this morning. So, we ask ourselves, How are we risking our lives? How are we surrendering – power, comfort, wealth for the wellbeing of the world, of the community, of others? What is it we have chosen to do to further the realm of God on Earth? What are we willing to die for? Can we name our cross? When we can say, this is the cross I have chosen, and describe it, it is not bragging. It is an affirmation of Jesus. We are saying yes to Jesus, yes to the way of life, yes to love, yes to the wellbeing of creation.

Glenn Vogt was the manager of the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. He survived the attack, but 79 of his employees did not. That came after he survived the death of his brother. Now, there is the pandemic. Glenn reflects:

“I had a purpose after Greg died. I had a purpose after 9/11.” “As terrible as 9/11 was, I found some happiness afterward because I could help those people. People needed me —“ [He helped to distribute funds to people from the restaurant industry that were in financial need.] “And now — I just don’t know. I hope there’s something else for me, something else that’s fulfilling, before it’s my turn to leave. I always felt like I needed to be strong for others who can’t be strong for themselves. But I don’t feel so strong anymore.” [‘I WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THOSE PEOPLE’, by Tim Alberta, The Atlantic, 9.10.21] Glenn expresses that need for something to give your life to. A cross.

So I have this picture that I keep on my desk in my office. It’s Jesus, sitting, looking despondent, surrounded by hundreds of crosses. It makes me think of Jesus, making his offer to the crowds. Bringing life. Full and free. Offering joy and comfort in community. Just take up your cross. And he has all these crosses. And no one wants to take one. No one wants to let Love have claim over their life. No one wants to surrender servitude to the self to service to the greater good. No one wants to take their part in making manifest the dreams of God. And Jesus is sad. Tired. Did he give up his life for nothing?

Life full and free awaits us. When we surrender to the saving power of love. May we take up our cross. Amen.

The quotes relating to 9/11 in this sermon that do not have a specific attribution came from ‘American reflects, and mourns, on 20th anniversary of Sept. 11 attacks,’ Live Updates by Washington Post staff.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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