As ark-worthy rains poured down on the Texas gulf coast, news broadcasts were filled with films and stories of people doing whatever was necessary to help rescue others from the flood waters. Informal boat crews were formed to cruise neighborhood streets, looking for anyone who was trapped. Furniture stores opened their doors to give those displaced by the flood a safe place to gather and sleep. Grocery stores opened their doors to first responders, to ensure that they had food and water during their long hours of work.
Against the background of such generosity, criticism ran fast and harsh for Lakewood Church and its pastor Joel Osteen, when it was reported that the building, relatively undamaged by the storm, was turning away those who came looking for shelter. Expectations were high for those who claim to be God’s people.
The Revised Common Lectionary texts for Sunday hold a similarly high standard; there’s going to be no grading on the curve. The First Reading (Jeremiah 15:15-21) paints a vivid picture of burnout. Jeremiah is physically and emotionally exhausted; he pours out his frustration to God. God’s response might not be what Jeremiah expected: instead of telling him that he’s done so much, that he needs to rest and care for himself, God calls Jeremiah to continue to do his prophetic work, secure in the promise that God will accompany and protect him. The Semi-Continuous First Reading (Exodus 3:1-15) gives Moses a strong reminder that he is in the presence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; he stands on holy ground. And again, God doesn’t tell Moses to rest or attend to his own self-care; instead, God announces the work to which he is calling Moses. That call is also accompanied by a promise that God will have Moses’s back when times get hard.
This week’s Second Reading (Romans 12:9-21) reads like a job description that would be impossible to fill. Reading the text opens the gates to a relentless stream of expectations, each one further out of our reach than the last.
And the day’s Gospel (Matthew 16:21-28) raises the bar even higher: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Sacrifice of one’s comfort, and perhaps even of one’s life, is simply expected for those who count themselves as God’s people.
One of my colleagues and mentors sends out a weekly email with exegesis of the week’s Gospel text. In this week’s analysis, Rev. John Hagberg raises a provocative question. Take up your cross. We tend to hear this as a problem rather than a promise, a duty at best rather than a delight. Our culture has shaped us to think that if we take up the cross, it means that we have to give up something. People in other cultures, less materialistic, less comfortable, tend to hear these words as an invitation to join a parade. In the latter cultures, the cross is seen as that which describes the shape one’s life rather than a burden to bear.
What does “taking up your cross” look like for you this week? Does it mean taking up your small boat and joining the flotilla to look for those who are trapped? Does it mean taking up your protest sign and joining the parade of those who speak against white supremacy, Nazism, and racism? Does it mean taking up your rainbow banner to stand with those who are persecuted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity? How will the cross describe the shape of your life, and your sermon, this week?
Please share your ideas, resources, and wonderings in the comments below. Prayers for God’s accompaniment as you prepare for this weekend.
Photo by Jill Harms, Jill Harms Photography, ©2017. Used with permission.
Barbara Bruneau is a retired Lutheran pastor, living in southeastern Minnesota and currently serving in interim ministry. She is a knitter, a weaver, and a very occasional blogger at An Explosion of Texture and Color.
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