A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 22, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Mark 8:34-36 and Matthew 6:24-33
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
I told her that I wished there was some way for me to make her pain go away, that I wished there was a magical way I could make her problems disappear. “Oh, we all have our crosses to bear,” she said. “No,” I thought. “We all have problems and pains in our lives, but they are not our crosses. At least not the way Jesus meant it when he says, ‘Take up your cross.’” I didn’t say it aloud; it wasn’t the moment for a theological discussion. But this is.
It may sound like a command – take up your cross – but it’s really an invitation. We don’t have to do it. We have the choice.
It reminds me of a conversation I read about once. A man was part of a Christian group that was adopting a life of simplicity in order to live in solidarity with the poor. A poor woman said to him that there was nothing holy about being poor if you didn’t have a choice.
There was nothing holy about the Romans torturing people in Jesus’ day and there’s nothing holy about a government – ours or any other – or any group of thugs torturing people today. Choosing to take up a cross is very different from having a cross thrust upon you.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” There’s a letting go of something here in order to pick something else up. And this denying of oneself is the letting go – and I think it means the letting go of ego.
Here again, one has to have enough of an ego that there’s one there to let go of. A person living in an abusive situation needs to have enough of an ego to stop it – to move out, to refuse to tolerate it – and live with that strength long enough to have it established before he or she can lay it down.
Denying oneself and taking up the cross is about choosing obedience to God’s way and God’s will. We’ll get back to this idea in a minute. Let’s turn now to the Matthew reading.
“No one can serve two masters,” Jesus says. I’ve never been a slave and I live in a culture were slavery is technically illegal. I acknowledge that slavery exists still, even right here in the United States. We call it human trafficking now, but it’s the same thing, just packaged differently. One way it’s packaged differently is that contemporary slavery is kept under wraps, kept hidden away. Because I’m not exposed to slavery, I have to use my imagination to really understand what Jesus is saying.
Household authority was very established in Jesus day. There was a definite pecking order and the final authority was the man of the house. If you were a slave, you might be ordered about by the woman of the house, but those orders couldn’t contradict an order given by the man of the house. You had one master. If you had two masters of equal authority, whose orders are you supposed to follow? Jesus’ point here is that if you’re going to let God be the master of your life, you can’t let something else be.
It’s interesting that of all the potential masters Jesus could have picked, he picks wealth. “You can’t serve God and wealth,” he says. I tried to think of other masters we might choose to serve. I came up pretty dry. The only two additional masters I could come up with are fame and power.
We do love our celebrities and I suspect there are people who will do whatever is necessary to be seen as a celebrity, to serve fame. The master I understand better is power. We call the work of politicians “public service,” and I’m sure there are people who go into politics for the sake of public service. There are plenty of others who go into it for the power. And it’s not the only place where people serve power.
Consider the Koch brothers. David and Charles Koch have a combined net worth of about $86 billion (with a “b”) according the Forbes’ real-time net worth website this morning. That makes them tied for position 6 of the richest people in the world. The two big differences between the Koch brothers and Bill Gates (#1 in the world with a net worth that is nearly the combined wealth of the Kochs) – at least as far as I can see – is that Gates is using his wealth to make the lives of people around the world better. For instance, Gates’ foundation is trying to eradicate polio and malaria around the globe and has agriculture projects running in developing countries.
Meanwhile, in addition to their charitable donations that probably add up to the hundreds of millions each year, the Koch brothers have announced they plan to spend $889 million in the 2016 elections. Why do they plan to spend that much money? Either they’re serving the master named “Power” or they are trying to influence the political process in the service of the master named “Wealth.”
We don’t need to have Gates’ net worth, or even the Kochs’, to serve wealth. All we need to do is to choose to let it be our master. And Jesus points to why we may choose to let wealth be our master: worry. No one wants to be kept up all night worrying about – well, whatever it is that you worry about. So we start serving a master that we think will conquer our fears.
At Women’s Fellowship this past Monday, I asked what we worry about. I wrote a few notes, but I didn’t capture all their answers. I remember them talking about their children and grandchildren – worrying about how their lives are going and how they will unfold. Other worries include: being good enough, security, not being able to keep my mouth shut, being needy, being embarrassed, growing old alone. Someone wondered if the day laborers who hang out at the Home Depot worry about getting their daily bread. Several people mentioned how worry disrupts sleep patterns.
We have all these worries. How do we respond? One participant noted that she might accumulate stuff in an effort to stave off her worry. Perhaps it is a symptom of serving wealth. Or perhaps Stuff can become another master we choose to serve. Another wondered if the stuff she saves is treasure or trash.
“Worry is the interest we pay on borrowed trouble,” Bessie Troyer once said. Not that any of you know who Bessie Troyer was. She was a little old lady (and I use that label with affection) at the first church I served. Coming of age during the depression, she had no interest in paying interest on anything. She was a cash and carry kind of lady. And she figured that the things she worried about were almost always borrowed – typically borrowed from the future. Whether it was the grandkids possibly getting in a car accident or her possibly needing to give up driving, those things were off in the future (if they were going to happen at all). So why borrow those troubles from the future only to pay interest on them now?
“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear,” Jesus says. Right after telling us we can’t serve God and wealth, he says not to worry about material things.
I’ve got a question about this glass. I could ask you if it’s half full or half empty. And maybe that would give you some insight into how much you worry. What I want to ask you is, how much do you think it weighs?
I put it on a letter scale this morning and it came in right around 12 ounces. But when it comes to holding it, the weight really becomes cumulative. The longer I hold it the heavier it seems to become. If I hold it out here at arm’s length for a minute, I’m fine. If I hold it out here at arm’s length for an hour, my arm’s going to be screaming. And if I held it out here all day, I’d probably end up causing paralysis and doing some damage to my body. The mass of the glass doesn’t change, but it sure becomes heavier.
Our worries are like that. The longer we hold on to them, the heavier they become and the more damage they do. They can even paralyze us. Don’t worry about these things, Jesus says. Put the glass down.
One of the really cool insights from that Bible study, for me at least, was the difference between stewing and striving. I worry about climate change. I don’t think that’s news to anybody. Now, I can stew about climate change. I can wring my hands about how access to water and food will be disrupted with climates changing. I can be anxious about the coming famines. I can stress about the coming mass migrations of peoples, and even wars because climate change.
Or I can do something. I can strive. I can act to combat climate change in my personal habits. I can send letters to the politicians. I can attend demonstrations. I can work on getting institutions I’m connected to to divest from fossil fuels. I can even put my body on the line and face arrest in acts of civil disobedience. There are things I can do.
I can stew about climate change, or I can strive to address the problem.
Don’t worry, Jesus says, but strive first for the kin-dom of God and God’s righteousness.
At some point in his life, Gandhi identified what he called “the seven deadly social sins.” You know about the classical seven deadly sins: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. Those are sins we individually commit. And they get in the way of striving for the kin-dom of God. There are corporate sins that get in the way, too. Here’s Gandhi’s list:
- Politics without principle
- Wealth without work
- Commerce without morality
- Pleasure without conscience
- Education without character
- Science without humanity
- Worship without sacrifice
I am struck by how many of these connect to what I’m talking about. Politics without principle is another way of talking about serving power. Wealth without work and commerce without morality are other ways of talk about serving wealth. Pleasure – maybe that’s another master we can choose to serve, and if we seek pleasure without conscience, surely we are serving it and not God. Worship without sacrifice …
Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I started today’s sermon by talking about externally imposed suffering not being the same as taking up the cross. That doesn’t mean that when we take up the cross we won’t suffer. We will. When we lay aside our egos and take up the cross, we are taking up sacrifice. Striving for the kin-dom of God requires sacrifice, and we may suffer for the sacrifice. What that sacrifice will look like will vary from person to person, but we will need to sacrifice.
And this is where today’s sermon theme comes in. Denying ourselves and picking up our cross gives us freedom and peace. On the surface that makes no sense. Taking up the cross, choosing to serve God sounds like it would require giving up freedom and letting go of the goal of peace in our lives. But denying ourselves and picking up our cross does paradoxically give us freedom and peace – freedom from the worries of the world, freedom from the pursuit of wealth, freedom from the lure of temptation, freedom for the pursuit of the kin-dom of God.
This is the last sermon in this Lenten series and we’ve been giving you assignments each week. Here’s this week’s assignment.
- Identify one (at least one) worry and put it down.
- Identify one way (maybe in relation to that worry) that you can strive for the kin-dom of God, and start striving.
Yes, this striving will likely entail sacrifice. I am convinced that in that sacrifice we will find freedom and peace.
 Nicholas Confessore, “Koch Brothers’ Budget for $889 Million for 2016 is on Par With Both Political Parties’ Spending,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/27/us/politics/kochs-plan-to-spend-900-million-on-2016-campaign.html?_r=0 (posted 26 January 2015; accessed 22 March 2015).
 I have seen this list in several places. This version is from an advertisement for a poster in Sojourners magazine. You can find the list on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Social_Sins. It is interesting to note that here, they are in a different order and rather than “education without character,” they list “knowledge without character.”