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Pentecost 13 September 3 2017 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Sermon for Sunday, September 3, 2017 | Pentecost 13
Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 26:1-8; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
It was lunchtime and I was sitting behind a vice president and her secretary at Saint Louis University. They were having a good time, laughing away as they talked and talked loudly about the foibles of their former husbands. After the VP mentioned the cold nastiness she frequently encountered with her ex-husband, her secretary said, “Oh yes, that was the cross you had to bear, but I say, thank you, Jesus – the good Lord finally delivered you from that creep.” Years ago at a family reunion, one of my uncles confided in me that his heart disease, the disease that would eventually end his life, was the cross God had given him to bear. “You know, junior,” he said to me as he sipped his coffee, “I know I’m being tested. I just hope I have the strength to endure it.”
Both comments raise significant questions about the relationship between God and human beings. Can we say that a weak heart or a lousy spouse is a “cross” one must endure in life? That is, can you and I claim that any struggle or obstacle in life is a “cross” we have to bear? Or this: is God the one who places so-called “crosses” on people as a way to test their loyalty, their faith in God as if God were a football coach testing the endurance of his players? Of course, we can find texts scattered throughout the Bible that would support such a view. But then, we interpret the Scriptures through the person and mission of Jesus Christ and his offer of life, health, and salvation to all rather than – rather than – picking and choosing bits and pieces of Scripture that support conclusions we’ve already reached.
Thus, it might be helpful to recall that in Jesus’ homeland, the Galilee, immediately before his birth or during his childhood, a new Roman governor called for a census of the population in order to impose harsh taxes on the poor farming and fishing people of the Galilee – taxes that would only benefit the Romans and never be returned to the people in any form of assistance.  According to the ancient historian Josephus, the prospect of a census, bitterly opposed by the people, led to revolt, to armed resistance under the leadership of one Judas of Galilee and the resistance movement he founded, the Zealots from whom Jesus selected a disciple. Rome, however, never took kindly to anyone defying its colonial ambitions. Thus, the Romans put down the rebellion and crucified hundreds if not thousands of Galileans on the region’s hills, above Nazareth, as a form of terrifying propaganda – “Resist Rome and this will be your fate: painful death on a cross.”
Jesus says to his followers, “If you would be my disciple, you must take up your cross and follow me.” Was he referring to any struggle or challenge you and I might face in life: disease, financial hardship, a lousy spouse, whining customers, or a terrible boss? I don’t think so for his listeners would grasp that any questioning of injustice, of the lack of care for the most vulnerable, of harsh impositions on the many that benefit the few would lead to the Roman cross. Jesus makes such a strong statement because Peter would like to experience life with Jesus as something consoling, as a friendly oasis in the midst of the world’s problems, as the platform for being nice to others, doing good deeds when one has time.
But it is apparent that Peter was dead wrong and the Peter who may dwell in each of us is dead wrong if we imagine that being a disciple of Jesus in this world is only about the consolation of religion, a friendly community, beautiful music, or cradle to grave ministry. Hear me clearly when I say this: being a disciple of Jesus in this form of Christian life is never about one thing but rather about holding two things together at the same time: holding together the compassion of God that we celebrate in this liturgy with the invitation for maturing disciples to extend that compassion to the stranger or the one who disagrees with us; holding together the forgiveness God offers freely with the call to forgive others and seek reconciliation in a world that knows little of mercy; holding together our loyalty to, our faith in Jesus Christ with the refusal to allow any other person, ideology, movement, party or desire to compromise that loyalty.
This holding together of two things at the same time is not something I’ve made up for a Sunday morning but rather is grounded in the third Eucharistic Prayer of The Book of Common Prayer. There on page 371, the presider at the Eucharist says this: “Open our 
eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us. Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.”
Dear friends, it is not for nothing that our practice is to dip one’s fingers in the baptismal font and trace the cross over our hearts. It is not for nothing that we make the sign of the cross over our forehead, lips, and heart at the reading of the gospel. It is not for nothing that we make the sign of the cross before or after we receive the Body and Blood of the One who both resisted Rome’s heavy burdens and joyfully shared food and drink and life with the poor, the powerless, and the marginalized; who condemned the miserliness that so easily infects the human condition and called for a generous and equitable sharing of God’s abundant gifts among all people. I say let this sign – let the sign of the cross traced on our very flesh and tasted in our mouths – be for us, let it be for us our continuing commitment to engage the mess of this world with both gladness and singleness of heart. Amen.