Take Up Your Cross

by the Rev. Paul Nancarrow

This sermon is based on Mark 8:31-38. Click here to listen to an audio version of this sermon.

Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

When I was a young child, in the early 1960s, my grandfather and grandmother came up from Detroit to visit us in Menominee, Michigan, a small town in the upper peninsula where my father was the rector of Grace Church. One day my grandfather and I went out for a walk on the beach. Menominee was right on the shore of Lake Michigan, and one block away from our house, at the end of our street, was a nice sandy beach, where we children would often play, and adults would go for long thoughtful walks. My grandfather was treating me like an adult when he invited me to come walk with him, and I thought that was pretty special.

As we walked along, my grandfather stopped every so often to inspect the driftwood. A lot of driftwood accumulated on that beach, as I recall. In some pieces you could still see the branch or root or trunk it had once been; but some driftwood pieces were so worn away by water and the wave action rasping them against the gritty sand that you really couldn’t tell what they used to be. My grandfather was inspecting the driftwood, until he came up with two pieces that were fairly flattened, fairly smoothed, and just about the same size. He took those with him as we walked along.

When we got home, grandpa sat down at the kitchen table with his driftwood and an Xacto knife and began to carve away notches on both pieces of wood. He wasn’t whittling; he wasn’t shaping them into a particular form; he was just cutting notches, kind of broad and shallow. I was fascinated. I remember leaning on the edge of the table, watching him work. And when he had his notches just the way he wanted, he got some glue, and fit the notches together, and made his driftwood into a cross. And then he handed it across the table and said to me, “This is for you. So you can remember our walk.”

And I have kept this cross ever since. It has hung in my bedroom, in my apartment, in my rectory – and now it hangs in my office over in the Parish House. Every time I look at it I remember that walk. More importantly, every time I look at it I remember my grandfather.

Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

One thing I think is very special about this cross is the way it takes bits and pieces of wasted wood – literally flotsam and jetsam – things that in any other context would be mere wreckage – and  brings them together to make something of beauty and meaning. And I think that was something special about my grandfather, as well. Much of his life and ministry was about bringing together odd bits and pieces, things you might think were merely wrecked or wasted, and making beauty and meaning and life.

My grandfather was rector of Trinity Church in inner-city Detroit, at a time when being an inner-city church could be risky and dangerous. The church itself was a 19th-century Gothic gem; but in the 20th century that neighborhood was crumbling, and the church and rectory were often a kind of oasis of compassion in a rough and hard-edged place. When the race-riots hit Detroit in 1967, I remember seeing my grandfather and grandmother on the TV news, handing out blankets and food in the basement of Trinity Church to families whose homes had been burned out in the rioting.

My grandfather had been a county surveyor before receiving a mid-life call to ordained ministry. And even after his ordination, he retained a lot of interest in the elements of technology and science from his surveying career. He pursued the relationship between science and religion long before it became a popular topic. And he always encouraged me to follow my interest in that as well – and that’s become a major part of my theology and spiritual practice.

All though his life and ministry, my grandfather had a way of taking up unexpected bits and pieces, things that might seem merely wrecked or broken or wasted, and bringing them together into beauty and meaning and life. He lived his life a lot like he made this cross.

Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

So often when we read this verse from today’s Gospel, what we hear in it is a warning from Jesus that discipleship is hard, that following Jesus has a price, that being a Christian means accepting suffering and rejection and loss and martyrdom. Jesus tells us about the cross to warn us that following him is no walk in the park.

And of course there is truth in that. Jesus was betrayed and rejected and humiliated and killed. Following Jesus does mean going into risky and dangerous and broken and disturbing places. In Syria right now, the Islamic State has abducted some 250 Christians, for no other reason than that they follow Jesus, to be used as tokens in their barbaric campaign of terror.

And quite apart from religious violence, compassion in Christ motivates disciples to go into places where there is hurt and pain and suffering – and compassion always suffers for the suffering – so that following Jesus there means suffering some, too.

And to feel truer compassion for another, you also have to confront your own fears and greeds and angers and wounds – all those things that get in the way of truly feeling for another. The journey inward can sometimes be just as scary and dangerous and disturbing as the mission trip to an outwardly risky place.

Jesus is right to warn us that following him is no walk in the park. He is right to warn us about taking up the cross.

But I think that what Jesus says here is more than just a warning. After all, he doesn’t say “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed” and then just stop there. He finishes the sentence “and after three days rise again” – and that makes all the difference. That makes the cross not simply the sign of suffering and wreckage and death; that makes the cross the sign of God’s love that can take anything, anything, no matter how broken and battered and worn down and washed up, God can take up the bits and pieces and put them together into something new and meaningful and beautiful and true. Like the cross my grandfather made for me, the cross of Jesus is the cross that turns brokenness into life.

And Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

Lent is a time when we are particularly mindful of walking the way of the cross. Lent is a time when we open ourselves to the works of compassion, and the self-examination and repentance, that bring us face-to-face with suffering and hurt and brokenness. Lent is a time when we hear Jesus’ call to take up the cross.

But this Lent I want you to think in particular of how the love of Jesus can come into those places of suffering and brokenness, how the love of God can take up the bits and pieces and waste and wreckage, and put them together into meaning and beauty and life. What bits and pieces of your heart does God want to put back together? What wreckage and loss in your relationships is God yearning to raise up? What suffering and hurt in our community is God empowering us to confront and make anew into justice and well-being? What transforming cross is Christ calling you to bear? And how will you take it up in your Lenten walk?

Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” May the cross bring our brokenness together and give us life. Amen.