June 25, 2017
+ I don’t know if you’ve noticed it. But I sure have. There has been a kind of weird “shift” happening. It’s almost like a comic shift, For several months, especially since late last year and earlier this year, there was a weird, sort of collective sense of fear and dread. It was palpable. You could almost cut it with a knife. And it was disconcerting. It was like a dark pall had fallen over…everything.
Now, I’m not just talking about the political situation, form whatever perspective you might have on that. It was bigger than that. But it was there. And it was very, very real. And, as a priest, I was hearing it from many people who were coming to me with this same sense of fear and dread.
It reminds me very much of some of the petitions we find in a service in our Prayer Book I don’t think we’ve ever discussed on Sunday before. In our Prayer Book, beginning on page 148, we have something called “The Great Litany.” The Great Litany, and especially the Supplication, which can be found on page 152 is a special prayer service which is often used “in times of war, or of national anxiety, or of disaster.” It’s not a liturgy we, thankfully, use very often (though the Great Litany itself, without the supplication, can be used during Lent). The last time I saw the Great Litany used as a service itself was on the evening September 11, 2001. And I have certainly prayed the Great Litany here in church on an occasion or two in the past. I have prayed here especially at times like we have just experienced—a time of strange, spiritual fear that seems to grip us and hold us tight.
Fear like that can be very frightening. It can be crippling. And, as you’ve heard me say many times, fear in this sense is not from God. Fear is a reality and there’s no way around at it times, but it is not something we should allow to dominate our lives.
In a sense, that fear is possibly what Jesus is hinting at in our Gospel reading. Well, there’s actually a lot going on in our Gospel reading for today. There are layers and layers in our Gospel reading. And some really fairly unpleasant things. But essentially it is about our fear of doing the work of God—doing the ministry of Christ—and…about taking up our cross.
Certainly it seems all this is bound together. Essentially, probably our greatest cross to bear is our fear. A fear like I referred to at the beginning of my sermon. A strange, overpowering fear that is hard to pinpoint. A fear of the unknown. A fear of the future. A fear of all those things we can’t control in our lives.
Let’s take a moment this morning to actually think about the symbol of our fears—this thing to which Jesus refers today—the Cross. And I say that because the Cross is a symbol of fear. It certainly was to people of Jesus’ day. It was an instrument of torture and pain and death. There was nothing hopeful or life-affirming in it to them.
And yet, look at how deceptively simple it is. It’s simply two pieces, bound together.
For someone who knows nothing about Christianity, for someone who knows nothing about the story, it’s a symbol they might not think much about. And yet, for us, on this side of Jesus’ crucifixion, the Cross is more than just another symbol in our lives.
It is a perfect example of how something that is a true symbol of death, destruction and fear can be transformed. The story of the Cross is amazing in the sense that is as symbol of absolute terror and darkness transformed into a symbol of unending life, of victory of fear and death and despair.
Jesus knew full well what the cross was all about, even before he was even nailed to it. In our Gospel reading, he says,
“anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
He knew it was a terrible dark thing. He knew what is represented. And by saying those words, the people of his day did not want to hear those words either.
Taking up a cross? Are you serious? Why would anyone do that? Taking up the Cross is frightening after all. To take up a cross means to take up a burden—that thing we maybe fear the most in our lives. To take it up—to face our greatest fear—is torturous. It hurts.
When we think of that last journey Jesus took to the place of his crucifixion, carrying that heavy tree on which he is going to be murdered, it must’ve been more horrible than we can even begin to imagine.
But the fact is, what Jesus is saying to us is: carry your cross now. Carry it with dignity and inner strength. But carry it without fear.
And this is the most important aspect of today’s Gospel reading. Jesus commands us not once, but twice,
“Do not be afraid.”
“Do not be afraid.”
He isn’t saying that in some nonchalant way. He isn’t just saying it flippantly. He is being blunt.
Do not be afraid.
Do not be afraid of what the world can throw at you. Do not be afraid of what can be done to the body and the flesh. Taking our cross and bearing it bravely is a sure and certain way of not fearing. It is a defiant act. If we take the crosses we’ve been given to bear and embrace them, rather than running away from them, we find that fear has no control over us.
The Cross destroys fear. The Cross shatters fear into a million pieces. And when we do fear, because we will experience fear in our lives, we know we have a place to go to for shelter in moments of real fear.
When fear encroaches on our lives—when fear comes riding roughshod through our lives—all we have to do is face it head-on. And there, we will find our fears destroyed. Because of the Cross, we are taken care of. There is no reason to fear. I know that sounds complacent. But there is no reason to fear.
Yes, there will be moments of collective, spiritual fear. Yes, there will be a palpable fear we can almost touch. Yes, we will be confronted at times with real and horrible fear. But, there is no reason to despair over it because we are not in control. God is in control.
“Even the hairs of your head are counted” by the God who loves us and cares for us.
This God knows us intimately. So intimately than this God even knows how many hairs are on our head. Why should we be afraid then? Because each of us is valuable. We are valuable to God, who loves us.
When we stop fearing whatever crosses we must bear in our lives, the cross will stop being something terrible. Like that cross on which Jesus died, it will be a ugly thing of death and pain and fear turned into a symbol of strength and joy and unending eternal life. Through it, we know, we must pass to find true and unending life. Through the Cross, we must pass to find ourselves, once and for all time, face-to-face with our God.
So, I invite you: take notice of the crosses around you. As you drive along, notice the crosses on the churches you pass. Notice the crosses that surround you. When you see the Cross, remember what it means to you. Look to it for what it is: a triumph over every single fear in our lives. When we see the crosses in our lives, we can look at it and realize it is destroying fear in our own lives. Let us bear those crosses of our lives patiently and, most importantly, without fear.
We are loved by our God. Each of us is precious to our God. Knowing that, rejoicing in that, how can we ever fear again?