“The Calling of The Cross”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
September 16, 2018
I belong to a few online groups where pastors and church leaders share ideas, stories, and sermon suggestions throughout the week in preparation for Sunday. In one of those groups someone posted a picture of a cartoon from the New Yorker Magazinewhere two businessmen are sitting at a bar. One of the businessmen is alert and sitting up, while the other has clearly had a bad day. The unhappy businessman says to his companion: “I was on the cutting edge. I pushed the envelope. I did the heavy lifting. I was the rainmaker. Then suddenly it all crashed when I ran out of metaphors.”
Metaphor is a very significant part of human speech and communication. Metaphors can be deep and catchy and extensive, or funny and pithy. They shape our thinking, convey philosophy, and help us to express things like lofty theological concepts in understandable and relatable ways. Jesus used metaphors to teach his disciples about the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is this gigantic theological and cosmic construct, one that preachers and theologians have been trying to understand since the time of Jesus. To explain this enormous idea, Jesus used metaphor. He said things like, “The kingdom of God is like a little bit of yeast that leavens a whole bowl of flour,” and “The kingdom of God is like a merchant who found a pearl of great value and sold all he had so he could buy it,” and “The kingdom of God is the like the tiny mustard seed that grows into an enormous bush when it is planted.”
For as long as the church has existed, there has been an ongoing dispute about how to handle metaphoric language in the Bible. How we read the Bible is really the main difference between Presbyterians, Baptists, Catholics, and Methodists—some read it literally, others read it metaphorically; some translate it into modern-day language, others leave it just the way it is. This is a really important thing for us to think about and settle within our own lives because, regardless of how we read it, the voice of Scripture has many important things to say that we don’t want to miss.
How do you understand today’s text from Mark’s gospel? Do you hear it metaphorically or do you take it literally? “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
In that same online group where I saw the New Yorker cartoon, a pastor from South Carolina told a story of how his grandfather knew a lot about crosses. His grandfather knew so much about crosses, he writes, because back in the 1950’s his grandfather had been a Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan. On more than one occasion, his grandfather had led other men in erecting crosses that would be burnt on public property or on personal lawns. This man’s grandfather used these crosses, he said, to spread hatred, animosity, hostility, bitterness, and ignorance. The presence of the cross as a symbol of these terrible things scarred many innocent people for life.
Of course, the questions from the online group came flooding in on the comments section. One person asked if this man had ever been able to reconcile himself with that portion of his family history. The man wrote back that he had, in fact, been able to reconcile himself with the terrible things his grandfather did because in mid-life his grandfather had gone through a conversion experience. Suddenly the cross started to mean something more to his grandfather. For so many years the cross had been an emblem by which he spewed hatred, but his heart was changed one day in church. The scripture lesson that day came from the gospel of Mark where Jesus told his followers to take up their crosses and follow him. The man’s grandfather realized in that moment that every cross he had picked up in his life he had misused. Instead of the liberation, freedom, and sheer grace of God that comes by the cross of Jesus, he had used it to push away, push out, push down, and damage. As the service concluded that day, the man’s grandfather knelt and he prayed that God would show him what do with his cross.
Ten years ago the man says he traveled back to his hometown for a high school reunion. By that point his grandfather had been dead for about 15 years. He writes that he and several of his friends were going to be in town for less than twenty-four hours before they had to fly back to their homes, so it didn’t make sense to have rental cars. Instead, the man and his friends hired a van to take them from the airport to the hotel where they were staying and where the reunion was being held. As they rode through the town, the man and his friends shared memories, and the man pointed to several building his grandfather had owned where he had run several successful businesses and a bank. The bank, the man told his friends, was known for taking chances on small businesses and farmers even if the business plan or farm was in bad shape.
Once the van had parked at the hotel, the van driver turned around and introduced himself to the group as Carlton. Carlton said to the man, “I knew your grandfather. He was a wonderful man. If it weren’t for him, many of my people would have gone hungry. And without him we would have had to sell our family farms and homes. He was always willing to give you some money if you needed it—he even loaned us money with no interest is we were really hard up. He was a good man and you should be proud to be his grandson.” This was, of course, shocking to the man because Carlton was an African American. From a Grand Wizard of the KKK to a man who was known around town as one who would give you the shirt off of his back—that is the power of the cross.
Does the cross of Jesus have a meaning and purpose in your life? I imagine that it does, and it should. Of course, the cross is no longer employed by the government as it was in Jesus’ day to put insurrectionists to their death. But the cross is still powerful, just in a different way. This man and his grandfather testify to that. In modern times, the cross is a place where we can meet our ultimate transformation. The cross for us today is a place where we can hang our arrogance, our rage, our bitterness and prejudices, and our need to always be right, and let them die there. We all have those things that need to die—I know I do. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in making the church the expansive community I think Jesus wants it to be that I push out those who don’t see it the same way. The most wonderful news about the cross, the cross of Jesus Christ, is that death is not where the sentence ends. When we hang on the cross those things that fill our lives with darkness and sin and they die there, there will always be something eternally good and filled with grace to take its place. When we die on the cross as Jesus did, we rise in new life as he did, too.
London was a prosperous place in 1787. The Industrial Revolution was swinging into full gear, and as the country and economy began to grow at a break-neck pace, the titans of industry were pressed like never before to find a cheap, or even free, labor force. At the same time, Britain enjoyed a place in the world as a great naval force. A significant portion of the British naval presence in the world was due to all of the shipping that was done to serve plantations in the West Indies. And their cargo? Human beings. Human beings who had been captured in Africa and auctioned into slavery. With the growing demand for workers on the British Isles, shipping slaves doubled and tripled year after year for many years.
In these tumultuous times when exploitation and unrest were rampant, very few people had time or interest to devote to the tragedy of African slavery. That is until a young politician by the name of William Wilberforce introduced a bill into Parliament in 1788 to abolish the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. It was soundly defeated on its first hearing. So Wilberforce and his supporters began a campaign that locked arms with other abolitionists throughout Europe. They distributed pamphlets, they spoke in bars and at public forums, they circulated petitions, they wrote songs, and they organized boycotts of products that were produced with slave labor. Wilberforce was mocked in the press, humiliated in the halls of government, and one prominent plantation owner even challenged him to a duel. Wilberforce faced opposition from fellow congregants and the clergy when he tried to attend church on Sundays. Year after year, William Wilberforce brought bills to parliament to abolish the salve trade, and year after year they were defeated.
That is, until 1807. An abolition bill was again introduced to Parliament in the House of Lord and the House of Commons. Just before the vote was called, one member of Parliament stood and offered a stirring tribute to Wilberforce’s twenty-year battle to end a terrible evil. Then the vote was taken: 16 nay and 283 yea. At last the bill had been passed, and eyewitness accounts say that Wilberforce simply sat quietly, head bowed, with tears flowing down his wrinkled face at his victory.
One man. One man who walked on the earth as we do and breathed the air as we do. One man who thought and spoke and talked like us accomplished this extraordinary thing. Near the end of his life, William Wilberforce said he did all of these things because he had been in the company of Jesus. While he metaphorically shouldered his cross, unlike the man’s grandfather who had at times literally carried a cross, William Wilberforce hung the shame and evil and terrible denial of life that was slavery on the cross until it died there. The thing that happened next is the most glorious of all: freedom literally came to life and his work would go on to inspire abolition movements all over the world.
I’ve got one more story for you today. Auguste Rodin was a French sculptor who lived in the bridge between the 19thand 20thcenturies. One day, Rodin paid a visit to a monastery in the south of France where many of the religious items from the monastery were being sold to fund the brother’s work. One item, an enormous crucifix, immediately caught Rodin’s attention. Rodin admired this cross so much that he purchased it and hired a cart and team of horses to take it to his home. When they arrived, they found that the cross was too tall and too wide to fit through the front door of Rodin’s home. They didn’t have luck with the back door, either. So what did he do? He knocked down the front wall of his home, carved out and raised a portion of the roof, and built a special chapel on the back of his home where that crucifix stood for the rest of his life.
Imagine, my brothers and sisters in Christ, if we did the same thing, except we did it with our hearts. Imagine widening and lengthening and raising the roof of our hearts so that there is enough room for the cross of Jesus. Imagine what it would be like if we stood in the glory of the cross each day. What if it stood so near to us each day that we were ready at any moment to take it up and be filled with its power? What if we were to hang every evil, every ill, every injustice on it? What is we were to hang every hardship and pain on it, and let the cross do the work it has been doing for millennia? We would be changed, for good and forever, that’s for certain. And the world around us would be changed, too. It doesn’t have to be big stuff like that man’s grandfather or William Wilberforce, but it might be. By God’s peer, the transformation will be miraculous every time. Justice and peace will reign forever; God’s kingdom, where there is a place for all people, will be firmly established; corruption and greed will be put to death; war and fighting will cease; the hungry will be fed and the widows and orphans will be cared for; there will be no end to the reign of God’s love and amazing grace.
This is the calling of the cross, and we must answer. We must answer and take up our crosses as we follow our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. May God grant each of us courage and strength to answer this call today and always. Amen.