A Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross. You may have heard that before. It’s an old hymn written by Fanny Crosby who wrote thousands of hymns in her lifetime.

Jesus, keep me near the cross,

There a precious fountain;

Free to all, a healing stream,

Flows from Calvary’s mountain.

Near the cross, a trembling soul,

Love and mercy found me.

Near the cross!  I’ll watch and wait,

Hoping, trusting ever;

I’ll confess that I invoke this hymn, or its first line, “Jesus, keep me near the cross,” when I’m about to lose it. Most likely with one of my children or at the TV when the news it on. It is often preceded or followed up with Hail Mary, full of grace. I frequently call upon both Mary and Jesus in a not-so-subtle or possibly reverent way to remind myself of who I am and what I know to be true. It’s like shorthand to remember what I believe and thus far it’s kept me from being arrested for doing something dumb.

I doubt this is a use Fanny Crosby envisioned and my guess is she would not approve of it. And I really do apologize to her for that.

Today’s Gospel reading is probably a familiar to many of you.

If any of you want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Eugene Patterson, author of The Message, a contemporary paraphrasing of the Bible, offers this interpretation of the passage.

Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat. I am. Don’t run from suffering, embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self- sacrifice is the way, my way to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?

Let me lead. That sounds doable, right? We can let Jesus lead us? But what does it mean to embrace suffering?

Take up your cross and follow me. I’m afraid that this passage has sometimes given way to something that sounds like this… your cross to bear.

Oh you know so and so, their mother has Alzheimer’s and has to live with them.  What a cross to bear. 

The sentiment is that a cross to bear, embracing suffering, is a burden that is heavy, fraught, and in the end just a sad part of your story. Suffering. Unredeemed.

There is much written about suffering. There are theologians who can speak about it so beautifully. Scores of Christians have taken up this truth of human existence and held it up to the light. Sadly, there are others who comingle suffering with abuse and call it holy. That I cannot abide.

I can speak to suffering as I have known it. What I have learned is that for me my deepest suffering has given way to what starts off as pinpricks of vision into the mercy of God.  Tiny openings where it is not a “silver lining” I have found, but I do see God at work in my life.

I do not believe that God visits suffering upon me to test me. The pain that is part and parcel of being a human is not God’s master plan to torture me into believing. But I do believe that suffering has given me an opportunity to come to the cross, and with trembling soul, find God’s love and mercy. And over time those pinpricks begin to widen, and I can see more clearly what God can do within my own heart. I see the abundance of grace extended to me. What once was a burden or a hurt so heavy I might have even in my despair called it a cross to bear is not gone but changed somehow.

Jesus earlier in the Gospel of Matthew says…

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

Jesus’s yoke is love. Self-sacrificing love that he laid on his shoulders for us. And because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, our yoke is indeed lighter. It is not without pain, but it is lighter. Suffering is most definitely a part of the story, but it is not the end. Love is. Paul, today, talks about the ways Jesus’ love is borne out into this world through those who would take up their cross, their yokes and follow him.

Genuine love. Love that leads us to extend ourselves to others: welcoming strangers, blessing our enemies, weeping with those in pain, celebrating with those who witness joy, choosing wisdom and humbleness over being a haughty braggart. Love that can hold fast to what is good in the face of pain.

I recently heard a story on the news. It is gospel, it is good news. And to me it is a story of someone who took up their cross, of someone for whom embracing suffering and mercy and love is simply part of how he moves through the world.

Robert Carter is a 33-year-old man who lives in Cincinnati. His childhood was marked by poverty, an absent father, and a mother who struggled with alcohol addiction. He ended up in the foster care system at 13, taken away from his eight siblings and not destined for adoption. At 16 he ended up living independently and making his way through high school while working three jobs. After graduation he was eventually able to bring two of his siblings into his home and care for them. He went on to become a hairdresser and open up his own business.

But Robert Carter always wanted a family and so in 2018 he became a foster father to three boys. Three children to care for before he was 30. As the boys were settling into their lives with him, he began to hear them speak about their two sisters. So, Robert Carter went and found the sisters and petitioned the court to take them in, too. All together. A family.

The magistrate who was charged with reviewing this adoption for approval was amazed by Carter.

“I’m thinking, ‘You [Carter] made it out of the foster system, you’re starting your own life, you’re young. This is your chance to do you.’ People are selfish and I’m expecting him to ‘do you,’ so why are you taking on the obligation of five kids? I’m like, ‘Convince me,'” the judge said.

And he did prove it to her. “They are the real deal,” the magistrate said of the family of six. And this, alone, would be a story of suffering and mercy and love.But there is more.

Four years ago, Robert Carter’s mother got sober and reentered his life.  And he reconciled with his father. Today the five Carter children have a dad and aunts and uncles who love them along with two grandparents who do, too.

In the interview, the reporter asked Carter how, how did he manage to get through school and into adulthood on his own. He said he saw what happened to his parents and he did not want that life for himself. And when asked how it is that he finds it within himself to be a parent to five children, Robert Carter said, “I feel like I just used my trauma and my hurting to be my fuel to keep going and to want better, and want to help people and do better in life.”

I do not know if Robert Carter is a Christian, but I can tell you that what I see in him is an example of someone keeping near the cross. He took the suffering of growing up without a parent and through genuine love and perseverance he became the parent that he had needed. And then in love and mercy he has opened his home to his own parents. Genuine love. A love that does not seek to serve self but others. He has certainly “done better.”

I’ll watch and wait,

Hoping, trusting ever;

Amelia McDaniel