I got to preach at Woodlake Lutheran Church in Richfield, MN this past weekend. Here’s what I said based on Matthew 16:24-17:8. Most people focus on the last half (Jesus changing/transfiguring on the mountain), but I focused on the first half knowing I had the most problems with it. It’s one of the most challenging passages, so why not! Thankfully this is done and written and preached. So here are my thoughts on “taking up your cross,” currently:
Hi, I’m Allison, I’ll be your preacher today. Pastor Fred and Pastor Diane asked if I would offer my thoughts today and I said of course. Their offer came right at the time when I realized that I wanted to go back for my Master of Divinity at Luther Seminary – which would lead to ordination to help me in my dream of being a professional leadership coach and facilitator for pastors and other leaders in churches. I’m pretty excited. It’s great to have friends like Fred and Diane who affirm me where I feel God is nudging me to lead and contribute to our church and the world.
You might recognize me from choir or from bell choir. I grew up in a church-y and musical family, so when Timothy became the interim worship and music director here at Woodlake in September, I knew I wanted to contribute my voice with these groups.
Now, you can’t really have a choir with just one person, right? Groups are just that – collections of people, united together for a common cause. Jesus keeps trying to get his disciples to see that they are part of something much bigger than themselves, and they get it for the most part, but they forget a lot. Because they’re disciples. Just like us. Humans.
This week’s gospel reading comes from the middle the book of Matthew, and Jesus starts to turn to the cross. Glimpses of the crucifixion start to become bigger and clearer, and honestly, more daunting and kind of scary. Jesus says to the disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Jesus isn’t telling a parable or pointing to another story or something to make a point. He’s saying, rather directly, that the way in which he will die, on a cross, is the way in which we must live our lives – open, sacred, scared, terrified, with vulnerability and courage. He says that his followers lose their lives, or ignore who they are, in order to find it. They have to forget who they are, so they can remember who they are.
They have to forget who they are, so they can remember who they are.
I don’t know about you but that is a terrifying concept. I have to forget who I am? I have to forget that I’m a Japanese-Norwegian-American, I have to forget that I’m a spouse, I have to forget that I’m going to seminary, I have to forget that I love frozen yogurt, shopping for cute and affordable yet functional purses, and instagramming pictures of my cat?
Those things are all true by the way. I love my husband. I love our cat, and purses, and frozen yogurt. I’m going to seminary, to trade in my Master of Arts degree for a Master of Divinity degree for more job and vocational opportunities and credibility. One of my grandma’s is Norwegian and came through North Dakota to meet my Grandpa in Seattle. My other grandma is from Japan and learned quickly how to act American as she was suddenly a single mom raising three kids in Alaska in the 50’s and 60’s. Stories of courage, resiliency, trust, and adventure. These things don’t come from me; I find draw strength from those before me. My parents met as my dad handed my mom a music stand at band camp at their alma mater in Seattle. I can’t shake these stories. They are my story just as much as they are theirs. I can’t stop being these things. I can’t stop being scared of the dark, and staying up to read the gospel coming through female comedians’ autobiographies, and loving the feeling of being anonymous at a coffee shop, and feeling unstoppable because I have a spouse catches me every time I fall.
Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
He says, “forget who you are.” If you want to follow me, forget who you are.
It’s important to note that this verse has been used to justify terrible things – chapters, blogs, books have been written on the abuse that women sustain as they stay in abusive relationships because systemically they have no other options because they heard they had to “take up my cross”; racism that is sustained because certain races or ethnicities are worth forgetting because they should “take up their cross”; sexism that is sustained because it’s just easier to ignore the pay gap between men and women and women should just “take up their cross”, not just in this country, but all over the world.
These people have been told, “forget who you are.” Too often this verse has been used to justify corrupted power, and keep those at the margins just there – at the margins.
But the good news is that right after Jesus says this, God says to Jesus, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus is changed, the Bible says he’s transfigured, which means changed radically – and it’s like the writer of Matthew here just gave up and decided to stop describing what’s going on because it’s just out of this world. Jesus turns bright and white and shiny and something is happening. The disciples fall down they’re so scared. Just as quickly as it started, it’s done. Jesus and the disciples are on this mountain top as if nothing had happened and they start to head back down to their rest of their group.
What just happened? God says to Jesus and to the whole world – this one, this one here, he’s my beloved! I love this guy! That’s why, in church, like this morning, we read off our bulletins the confession, the psalm, why you hear someone preach, why we pray together and why we remember baptism and communion together; as a group. Saying this stuff to each other matters – God saying this to Jesus matters. Us telling to each other “you are beloved” – that matters.
But didn’t Jesus just say, “forget who you are?” Yes. And I am beloved? Yes. How?
That’s the mystery of God. The beautiful, frustrating, strange mystery of God. We are each beloved and unique and worthy of being loved by God and our people, and yet we are all part of something bigger than just me, or just you. We must forget ourselves so we can remember who we are; and remember that taking up our crosses does not mean hurting ourselves or others – but serving others out of a place of knowing you are loved.
We are all unique people with unique strengths and stories; and at the same time we are all part of something so much bigger that ourselves – a journey of following Jesus that is and will be challenging but beautiful, imperfect but perfect.
It’s like when you jump in to the pool or a lake. Maybe you, like me, needed some encouragement by your parents or a trusted adult the first time you went in the water when you were a kid. It can be scary to jump in because your sense of you and your body, feeling your legs grounded into the floor, you have to give that up as you literally jump up and fall into the water. Suddenly you don’t feel that weight, or that gravity – all you feel is your body drifting through the water – moving slowly – but all the while knowing that the water is not there to eat you up like a black hole (it’s okay to use life jackets in this metaphor), but is there as you bob through and swim through. The water is all around you and beneath you.
You are a part of something so much bigger than yourself. This means that the group would not be the same without you. This group, this community is different when you’re not here. We can’t forget that this message is thousands of years old – Jesus tells us For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it – you have to forget who you are, so you can remember who you are.”
There are moments when we get in the way of ourselves. There are moments when we get in the way of our neighbor. It’s in these moments that Jesus is asking us to remember, my presence is at it’s fullest when we are together, with a united cause, dwelling in God’s love for the sake of the world. God’s presence is within you, and it’s also within your neighbor. It’s within the person behind you, in front of you, and sitting next to you. Jesus gathered disciples for the long journey through the cross and in the world – not a disciple – because the community of faith, in it’s beauty, in it’s ethnic diversity, in it’s socio/economic diversity, embodies the presence of God most fully. God’s mission has a church – one full of unique individuals who are called together to reflect Christ’s light in the world. The group – you, me everyone here – we must not forget that speaking and acting like we are beloved and deserve love – that changes lives. Stepping into new life with Christ means daring to believe that you are loved, that you are worthy of your own love and the love of your neighbor.
Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, our presiding bishop of the ELCA, preached at an event this past year and asked, “What would happen if the church started acting like the resurrection actually happened?” They would know who they are and who they are not. They would forget who they are so they could remember who they are. They would acknowledge their uniqueness and embrace their unity as a bigger community, part of a bigger mission, and a bigger love that can only come from one place: God.
That’s my dream for this church. That we understand that taking up the cross means seeing the resurrection and losing ourselves to find our life in God’s beautiful and sometimes mysterious love. That we are so lost in our sense of unity in God that we don’t undermine each other, and we don’t lash out because of our insecurities and fear that no one will love us.
Jesus is asking us today – will you forget who you are, so you can remember who you are? Will you jump in the water, and take a chance that my love will catch you, and my love will surround you in the form of your ushers, greeters, directors, confirmation guides, parents, teachers, baristas, grocery store clerks, mail carriers, landlords, grandparents, or coaches?
Remember that Jesus says you are mine. You get to be someone’s.
And in this, you still get to be you. I still get to be me. But as we look toward Lent and see the fullness of God to come, we remember that Jesus remembers us as we get lost in each other, as we serve and love each other in this radical experiment called the body of Christ. In this community we get to lift up each other’s strengths, gifts, and stories – in that challenging and beautiful work of being a child of God. And maybe we could even eat a little frozen yogurt along the way. Amen.