When she posts to a blog, Kara Slade most often posts to Profligate Grace, so I am glad to have the opportunity to post this sermon of hers on my own blog tonight!
SPOILER ALERT: This is the sermon that Kara will be preaching at St. Stephen’s Episcopal in Oxford, NC tomorrow morning (31 August 2014) – so don’t read it before then if you have the chance to go hear her deliver it live! :-)
NB – Kara nicely footnoted all her references, but they didn’t transfer over very easily when I pasted her text in here, so I’ve done my usual version of footnoting on this blog, using links to refer you to the works she is citing.
Take Off Your Shoes, Take Up the Cross
A sermon given by the Rev. Dr. Kara N. Slade at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Oxford, NC, on the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17), August 31, 2014.
Exodus 3:1-15, Matthew 16:21-28
The God of Abraham praise, at Whose supreme command
From earth I rise—and seek the joys at His right hand;
I all on earth forsake, its wisdom, fame, and power;
And Him my only Portion make, my Shield and Tower.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“We all have our crosses to bear.” I remember hearing that little saying all the time growing up, usually from my mom. Now, since my mom is from North Carolina, I suspect there are other folks here today who might have heard it too. Usually the context was some kind of misfortune or unfairness – it might have been about something serious like a chronic illness, or a difficult marriage, or trouble on the job. Or, it might have been something much more existentially relevant to ten year old me, like the homework I didn’t want to do or the fact that I found most things at school fatally boring. Either way, the implied message was the same: suffering is part of life, and we’re supposed to bear that suffering stoically and without complaining. Grit your teeth and carry your cross, and eventually God will reward you for it. After all, that’s what Jesus is telling his followers to do in the passage I just read. Isn’t it?
Well, please don’t tell my mom, but this morning I’d like to disagree with that interpretation of today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel. But to do so I need to begin with our Old Testament lesson. I’d like to suggest that we can’t begin to think about what it means to take up the cross and follow Jesus until we understand what it means to take off our shoes and stand with Moses.
In the 3rd chapter of Exodus, Moses is minding his own business when he gets the surprise of his life. There on the mountain he sees the bush, he sees the fire that burns but doesn’t consume, and he hears a voice: ”Moses! Moses! Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” This passage sounds almost intolerably weird to our ears, but it’s supposed to. It isn’t a unique feature of modernity that we expect fire to act in a certain way, that we expect bushes not to talk to us. The strangeness of this technicolor divine interruption is like a flashing orange road sign: “Danger! God at Work!” But in the middle of all that action, the seemingly mundane mention of footwear isn’t a throwaway line; it’s actually a pivotal detail. Thea Portier-Young, who teaches Old Testament at Duke, had this to say about what Moses’ sandals represent in the story:
Sandals protected the sole of the foot but could also symbolize purity, property, social contracts, and social status. . . Later in the book of Exodus, the Hebrews are instructed to prepare for their journey out of Egypt by eating the Passover meal with their staffs in hand and sandals upon their feet . . . preparations [that] signified readiness for the journey ahead. The books of Deuteronomy and Ruth explain rites in which removing one’s sandals – or having them removed by another – nullified previously binding legal and social ties, creating the conditions for new claims, new relationships, and new responsibility. When Moses removes his sandals he will find himself at journey’s end, at the true goal of every journey. He will release himself from every claim so that he can accept the claim God makes upon him. He will strip away strivings for status, success, and stability. He will find his true ground and he will know where he stands.
And where he stands is before the One who refuses to reveal His name, the One who refuses the logic of names altogether and says, “I AM who I am.” Now, this verse is much beloved by the most boring people in philosophy, the ones who produce 500-page treatises on the nature of Absolute Being. But please note, this God is no abstract entity, floating above us all in a nebulous blob of transcendence. No, this is the God who acts in history, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who called Moses – and the God who would act uniquely and decisively in Jesus Christ. As Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson put it, “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having first raised Israel from Egypt.” And from today’s readings we could add, God is whoever sent Peter to Rome, having first sent Moses to Pharaoh. Even though they weren’t exactly prime leadership material: Moses, the spokesman who hated public speaking, and Peter, that decidedly unsteady rock of the Church.
And that brings us to the Gospel, where Peter is convinced he knows how God’s plan is supposed to work better than Jesus does. Like many Jews of his day, Peter expected a messiah who would grab the wheel of history and turn it by force – not one who would be crushed under the machinery of Rome. And so when Jesus starts talking about suffering, and being killed, and being raised on the third day, Peter says, no, thank you, this isn’t the trip I signed up for. Peter doesn’t want to hear what Jesus says next, “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?” And truth be told, I don’t want to hear it either. I’m far too attached to the idea of my own self-reliance, my own hard work, and my own success. Left to my own devices, I’m all too ready to sign up for a little world-gaining and life-saving, to take the wheel of my own history and turn it by force. But to me, like Peter, Jesus says, “Take up your cross.” To me, like Moses, God says, “Take off your shoes. This is holy ground.”
One of the most famous lines in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship is, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Of course, in his own life that call to die was all too literal, but I think he also has something to say to the rest of us about what it means to be called, and what it means to follow. He reminds us, quite firmly, that the cross is never just a metaphor for “one’s daily misfortune, as the predicament and anxiety of our natural life.” In fact, he calls that error one sign of a corrupted Church. So, let me be clear: Regardless of whether that predicament is as trivial as missing the bus, or as shattering as an abusive relationship, that is not the cross. No, in Bonhoeffer’s words, the cross is “the call which summons us away from our attachments to this world. It is the death of the old self in the encounter with Jesus Christ [who] in his word has to be our death and our life.” This is a very tedious, very German way of saying the cross isn’t about putting up with whatever life hands you. It’s about putting away whatever gets between you and Jesus.
If you’re wondering what this looks like in reality, here’s the best example I know of. Several years ago, I came across the testimony of a young man who had converted, been baptized, and was just beginning his Christian life in prison. He thought, and he prayed, and finally he realized the first thing he needed to do was give up his shank – the improvised knife that marked him as a tough guy who was always ready to defend himself. He did it as a sign that he trusted in God rather than in his own strength, as a witness that the logic of fear and violence and retribution had no power over him. It was the kind of dying to self that truly led to new freedom and abundant life. And that’s what makes the cross different – it’s the one burden that actually un-burdens us.
One last word from Bonhoeffer: “Jesus calls all who are laden with . . . sufferings and burdens to throw off their yokes and to take his yoke upon themselves. His yoke is easy, and his burden is light. His yoke and his burden is the cross. Here we are no longer laden with self-made laws and burdens, but with the yoke of him who knows us and who himself goes with us. It is he himself the disciples find when they take up their cross.”
Maybe taking up the cross really isn’t the hard part, after all.
Maybe the hard part, the part that feels like Good Friday, is putting away everything else to begin with.
So take off your shoes. This is holy ground. AMEN.