Over the course of my working life in the church I have had the privilege of knowing some wonderful people. One of them was my friend, the late Bishop George Barrett. George was a great leader on justice issues in the church, and he once told me the story of being interviewed on television. This was in TV’s early days, when guests were asked to wear lavaliere microphones, the kind you hang around your neck. During a commercial break the sound technician came to adjust his microphone: it was banging up against the large, pectoral cross the bishop wore on his chest. The technician said, “The problem is the cross. It’s causing interference.” George Barrett looked up at him and replied, “It always does.”
The cross always causes interference. In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus tells his companions that the journey they are on will end in his death on the cross at the hands of the Roman Empire. Peter cannot abide this. “God forbid it, Lord. This must never happen to you.” [Matthew 16: 22] Those who follow Jesus have not reckoned on the reality of the cross as part of the transaction. Jesus knows that his critique of the empire and the religious system that colludes with it will result in his being brought to a political prisoner’s death on the cross. Those who accompany Jesus think that following him will be all about sitting at his feet and copying down his pithy sayings. But Jesus knows that following him means being called into a life at odds with the forces of empire, a conflict that will result for many of his followers in persecution, martyrdom, and death. “The problem is the cross. It’s causing interference.” “It always does.”
After he rebukes Peter, Jesus says these memorable words:
"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. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? [Matthew 16: 24b-26]
To be a Christian, to live under the sign of the cross, is to be a perpetual voice for interference. It means that we will always bring the Gospel’s values to bear upon social, ethical, and cultural problems. Because the imperial presumptions with which we are called to interfere are always centered on power, the Gospel critique of those presumptions will always promote the voices and concerns of the powerless. In Jesus’s day and ours, the consequences of that cultural critique will not always be pretty. The cross always causes interference, because in signing on to be followers of Jesus we are signing on to be fellow travelers with him on the way of the cross. And while walking that way with Jesus promises ultimate joy and peace, in the near term it often delivers suffering and loss.
Jesus’s insistence on the way of the cross as the way of life is, for us first-world privileged Christians, profoundly counter-cultural. The message our culture sends us is a message of grasping after something: you preserve your life by beating out the other guy. For Jesus and his followers, you preserve your life by what the theologian Sallie McFague calls “cruciform living.”
The philosopher Aristotle posed life’s basic question: “How, then, shall we live?” Many today ask Aristotle’s question. They ask it about our wider society. They ask it about their own individual lives. One of my favorite theological reflections on how to live is Sallie McFague’s book, Life Abundant. Here in part is what she says:
We cannot, in good conscience “love the world”–its snowcapped mountains and panda bears–while at the same time destroying it and allowing our less well-off sisters and brothers to sink into deeper poverty. Hence, I believe Christian discipleship for twenty-first-century North American Christians means “cruciform living,” an alternative notion of the abundant life, which will involve a philosophy of “enoughness,” limitations on energy use, and sacrifice for the sake of others. For us privileged Christians a “cross-shaped life” will not be primarily what Christ does for us, but what we can do for others.” [McFague, Life Abundant, p. 14]
A philosophy of “enoughness”, though, is a hard bargain for the likes of you and me. Speaking only for myself, with relation to things I am like a morbidly obese person who no longer know when he is full. I do not have trustworthy judgment when it comes to knowing how much is enough. And I’m a person who reads the Bible and goes to church every day! So if we Christians don’t ever quite know what “enough” is, imagine how hard it is for the others in our culture who have been led to believe that one is satisfied only when one is stuffed.
When Jesus tells us, this morning, to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him our first response is always to think about sacrifice and martyrdom. But, starting from our place of relative affluence, perhaps the first image of self-denial might lie in what Sallie McFague calls “enoughness.” Can I live trying to regain a trustworthy sense of what is enough–enough food, enough money, enough energy use, enough houses and cars and the like? For us first world Christians, taking up the cross begins in a diagnosis of “enough”. Jesus lived an abundant life in the midst of deprivation, and he called others to share that life. “Cruciform living” means walking in such a generosity of spirit and practice that allows the underlying abundance of God’s creation to shine through us. Denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus begins when we realize we already have enough.
But following Jesus doesn’t end there. Speaking as a native Californian, I know how easy it is to fall into the self-satisfied smugness of the so-called sustainable lifestyle. “Hey, I’m driving a hybrid, eating locally-sourced food, and I’m composting. I’m saving the planet!” When you live in beautiful, expensive surroundings it is easy to feel virtuous by paying a little bit more for environmentally-friendly luxuries that poor people can’t afford in the first place.
Two years ago, Kathy and I moved to Washington from the Detroit area, and if you follow the news you know how many economic and social challenges that city faces today. Another of my favorite contemporary writers, Rebecca Solnit, has visited Detroit and written thoughtfully about what the change there might mean for all of us in post-industrial America. [Rebecca Solnit, “Detroit Arcadia: Exploring the post-American landscape.” Harper’s July, 2007] In her writing, Solnit describes both the industrial deterioration of Detroit and the surprising rebirth of local agriculture in the vacant blocks of open land left by the razed and burnt-out buildings. Here is one of the more provocative things she observes as she watches the painful but inspiring new life which can follow economic devastation:
The free-range chickens and Priuses are great, but they alone aren’t adequate tools for creating a truly different society and ecology. The future, at least the sustainable one, the one in which we will survive, isn’t going to be invented by people who are happily surrendering selective bits and pieces of environmentally unsound privilege. It’s going to be made by those who had all that taken away from them or never had it in the first place. [Harper’s, July 2007, p. 73]
In other words, if we’re really talking about “cruciform living,” then as a friend of mine observes, “something has to die” before this rebirth can begin. That something is obviously the exploitive consumerist fantasy in which all of us seem to live and move and have our being.
is coming to life precisely because
it exhibits what Rebecca Solnit calls “the first signs of an unsettling of the
very premises of colonial expansion.” [p.73] As she says, we cannot live out
the logic of the cross only by “happily surrendering selective bits and pieces
of environmentally unsound privilege.”
So our walking the way of the cross must point us beyond
self-congratulatory abstinence. We walk the way of the cross not only as
individuals. We do so as a community. Only as Christians witness, separately
and together, to a truly sacrificial, communitarian and abundant way of living
can we be truly said to be living a cruciform life. Detroit
Bishop Barrett was right. The cross will always cause interference. It will get in the way of our culture’s shallow vision of the abundant life. It will continue to frustrate our fantasies of our own virtue. We will join God in making God’s future as we walk the way of the cross with “those who had [privilege] taken away from them or never had it in the first place.” We will save our lives by losing them in community with those who know what real deprivation looks and feels like.
May the One who walked to the cross with his companions then walk with us now in our strivings toward “cruciform living.” May that One sustain us to accept that we really do have enough. May that One bring us all together across the social, racial, and economic boundaries that divide us in common purpose to the end that all God’s creatures may know the true abundance of life lived together in the way of the cross. Amen.