Cassie and I have joked over the years that we might have two of the most guilt-inducing careers in the world. When people find out that Cass is a dental hygienist, they immediately begin with their excuses for not going to the dentist as often as they should, or they laugh uncomfortably while they explain they should probably floss more often, or they quickly turn the subject around and ask how she could possibly look inside people’s disgusting mouths all day, every day. When they find out that I’m an Episcopal priest, they immediately begin with their excuses for not going to church as often as they should, or they laugh uncomfortably while they explain how they find God in the woods and are spiritual but not religious, or they quickly turn the subject around and ask how I could possibly listen to people’s problems all day, every day or how I could possibly think of something to preach about. On occasion, we’ve dreamed of other answers we might give to avoid the awkwardness of it all. In Alabama, we lived very close to a large outlet mall, and we determined that the career least likely to produce any follow up questions was assistant manager at the Corningware store.
It isn’t that I am ashamed of what I do. I love being a priest. I love walking with people through moments of joy. I even find that walking with folks through sorrow to be peaceful. I might be ashamed of the guilt my vocation produces in so many people. I am certainly ashamed of what others have done to make being a Christian be associated with hate or being a priest be associated with abuse, but I’m certainly not ashamed to be a follower of Jesus who is called to ordained ministry. Still, this morning’s Gospel lesson brings me to pause. “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” “Those who are ashamed of me and my words… of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed.” These words make the collar feel tighter than the COVID-19 quarantine pounds ever could.
How often does my desire to be liked belie my faith in Jesus Christ? How often do I act as if I’m ashamed of the teachings of Jesus in the way I treat my neighbor? How often do I lament the cross of Christ, preferring instead to put myself first? When Jesus first spoke these words to Peter and the other disciples, it was in relation to what was to come. There had been plenty of revolutionary faith leaders, so-called Messiahs, who had come and gone before him. Their trajectory looked a whole like Jesus’s. They appeared in the wilderness with a new kind of teaching. They amassed a crowd of followers. Their popularity threatened the powers-that-be, and in some cases, their violent actions incited riots, and so they were killed, often left to die hanging on a cross for their transgressions. Peter and the rest couldn’t stand the thought of Jesus ending up in the same predicament. He had to be different. They had staked their own lives on that.
Jesus is crystal clear, however, that he too will die at the hands of the powers-that-be. It is, quite simply, what the system of power and privilege does to those who challenge it. Jesus goes beyond that, however, to let them know that unlike all those so-called Messiahs who had come before him, his story wouldn’t end there, and that after three days, he will rise again. The cross that he will bear is the cross of the powerful, but it is in Christ’s willingness to become weak, that he will bring about the redemption of the world. That, Jesus tells his disciples, is nothing to be ashamed of.
Two thousand years later, the scandal of a crucified Messiah is long gone. We don’t have the memory of a dozen other messianic figures hung on crosses, never to be heard from again. Yet, as 21st century American Christians, our shame still rests in the apparent weakness of it all. For nearly all of Christian history, the Rabbi who died on a cross because he took on the cause of the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed has been used by those in power to subjugate the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed. The shame of the Church has been the shame of Peter, that God might deign to become weak in order to save the weak. The Church has long preferred a strong Messiah who will align us with power, affirm our wealth, and cast down those who would challenge the status quo.
Jesus is crystal clear, however, that if the Church is ashamed of his teaching, then he will be ashamed us. The cross of Christ that we are asked to carry is to put God first and to love our neighbors as ourselves. It is to care for the marginalized, to respect the dignity of every human being, and to seek fullness of life for all of God’s creation. Whether you are a dental hygienist, the assistant manager at a Corningware outlet, or an Episcopal Priest, the call to discipleship is all the same, deny yourself, take up the cross of love, and follow in the Way of Jesus. It may never lead to power and privilege, in fact, it probably shouldn’t, but it will lead to the Kingdom of God, a better existence here on earth, and, ultimately, thanks to the Cross of Christ, the joy of eternal life. Amen.