March 19, 2023
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
How many of you remember Jack Benny? For our confirmands he was an entertainer who was very popular about 75 years ago. He started in radio before television was invented. Can you believe that? Pre-television! We’re talking back when dinosaurs walked the earth.
Well, Jack Benny had this comedy routine he did a lot. In fact, I want to see how many here can finish it with me. It goes like this. A thief comes up behind him on the streets one night and says, “Your money or you life.” He doesn’t respond. The thief says, “Hey, I’m talking to you. Your money or your life!” Again, no response. “Can’t you hear me? I said, your money or your life!!” And he finally says, “Wait a minute….I’m thinking! I’m thinking!”
What made that funny is how supposedly ridiculous it is. Your money or your life? How silly! No one in their right mind has to think about that one. Money, possessions, things, what is that compared to our lives?
But there must have been a time when people actually had to stop and think about that comparison, because Jesus wasn’t joking when he asked, “For what will it profit (people) to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” Which is more important?
A pastor preached a sermon on this question to his church in New York City. He said this question of Jesus reveals the crucial problem of modern civilization he connected this question to a line by Henry David Thoreau who said we have “improved means to an unimproved end.” In the sermon the pastor said:
“Unless we can reestablish the spiritual ends of living in personal character and social justice, our civilization will ruin itself with the misuse of its own instruments…
What is a generation profited if it gains the whole world of means by which to live and loses its soul, the spiritual ends for which to live?” (Fosdick, Riverside Sermons, p240)
In other words, we live in the most advanced society ever. We have incredible technology and inventions, by which to live, but does that mean are lives are getting better, more meaningful and happier?
When do you think such a sermon was preached? Last month? Last year? Try Last century! That was Harry Emerson Fosdick preaching before the internet came along. Before social media. Before television, and microwave ovens, and smartphones. Wow! What would he think today?
Better yet, the question is, what do you think? Are the means by which we live improving the reasons for which we live?
A recent New York Times story reported that average American teenagers spend half of their waking hours on smartphones. What amazing technology, right? What a great day to be alive! But the article also reported that teen mental health is declining at alarming rates. Whereas girls report persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, boys report feeling irritable or aggressive. The result is radical increases in loneliness, depression, bullying, and violence. The article said, “there is good reason to believe that technology is the primary cause.” Dr. Victor Fornari, vice chair of child and adolescent psychiatry for New York state’s largest health system said there is “no question” of an association between use of social media and dramatic increase in suicidal behavior and depressive mood.
The means by which we live is the most improved in history. But has our end for living kept pace?
Perhaps the question of Jesus is even more relevant today than it was 2,000 years ago, “What will it profit people to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
This is a question of discipleship. Now that’s a very churchy word, and some people aren’t sure what it means, but it because of its connection to the label Christian, many folks are uncomfortable with the label. In a survey taken by the Barna Institute, they asked young adults about their opinions of Christians. 91% said being Christian means being anti-gay. 87% said it means being judgmental; 85% said hypocritical, and 70% said Christians are insensitive. (When Christians Get It Wrong, p6)
But let’s understand that the word disciple is a lot like the word apprentice. When you are an apprentice, it means you learn from someone. Sometimes people in a specialized careers, go to be an apprentice under an expert so they can learn all they can from that person.
When we become disciples of Jesus, we become apprentices of Jesus. We learn how to make his way of life our way of life. That doesn’t mean becoming narrow-minded, judgmental, or condemning, because Jesus is just the opposite. Jesus is full of grace, compassion and mercy.
But don’t think that means Jesus’ way is easy! Apprenticeship under Jesus is anything but! He said, “If you would be my disciple—my apprentice—then take up your cross and follow me.” Let’s think for a moment how the people listening to Jesus would have understood that.
The word cross comes from the Greek word stauros which means stake or pole. People were sometimes crucified on a single pole with hands above their heads, so the poles would stay in the ground and be reused. Sometimes in the Roman Empire heavily traveled roads would be lined with these poles where bodies would remain for days to warn people what happens if you cross Roman authority.
This was called crucifixion. And in many places crossbeams came to be used, so that victims who were sentenced to be crucified would carry their beam to the post, or stauros. Then they were be tied and nailed to the beam and raised on the post, so that the cross looked more like a T. This, of course, is how Jesus was crucified.
So if you had been in the crowd and heard Jesus say that IF you want to be his apprentice you must take up a cross, what would you have thought? And what do you think Jesus means for us today to take from this metaphor?
There are a couple thoughts to suggest about What It Could Mean to Carry a Cross:
1—We are willing to be misunderstood. If people listening to Jesus were told to take up a cross and they weren’t criminals deserving death, then Jesus is suggesting that following him might mean doing things that make you wrongly accused; misunderstood, unpopular. After all, that is exactly what happened to Jesus. So here’s a question to consider. What are things Jesus did, that if we do them could lead to our being misunderstood or wrongly accused by others?
2—A cross is something we take up. It is voluntarily chosen. It’s not the difficulties that we have no choice in—being sick, caring for a family member, dealing with a relational problem. We often talk about these as “crosses we have to bear.” But a true cross is something we chose as a result of obeying God. What in your opinion might be crosses we take up? What difficulties or hardships have you faced as a result of being faithful to what you believe Jesus would want you to do?
3--But most significantly, behind the idea of taking up a cross is this question: Am I willing to give my life away for others? Obviously, that’s what happens on a cross. No one put on a cross is taken down alive. A cross is a place you go to die.
But what does this mean? That Jesus calls us to literally die as a result of serving him? Maybe it could. There are certainly a long line of Christian martyrs in history who gave up their lives out of what they felt was obedience to following Jesus. All of the disciples eventually did.
But is this all Jesus means? In a practical way it doesn’t make complete sense. If every Christian disciple died as a result of their choice to follow Jesus, who would be left to carry on the mission of Christ? By the way the Gospel of Luke quotes Jesus here, it makes us wonder if something more could be meant. Luke quotes Jesus using one additional word: “If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”(Luke 9:23) Obviously you can’t die everyday. So what does it mean to give our lives every day?
My preaching professor in seminary, Fred Craddock, used to say, “We think giving our all to the Lord is like taking a thousand dollar bill and laying it on the table—‘Here’s my life Lord. I’m giving my all.”
But the reality for most of us is that He sends us to the bank and has us cash in the $1,000 for quarters. We go through life putting out 25 cents here and 50cents there—listen to the neighbor’s kid talk about his troubles, serve in the soup kitchen, teach a children’s class. Usually giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious. Its done in all those little acts of love.”
Now I don’t think Dr. Craddock was watering down the demand of Jesus. I don’t believe he was trying to make the call to carry a cross something easy. In fact, I don’t think there’s anything easy in a 25 cent living at all. What it does is answer the question of Jesus, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose your soul?”
And the answer is, it doesn’t. There is no profit in living just for ourselves. We need more. We need life to have purpose and meaning. Disciples of Jesus know the value of carrying a cross—letting our lives be given away for others. Living this way means living with a readiness for our lives to be interrupted by needs we can do something about. Our response doesn’t have to be huge to be important. It might be little acts of kindness and mercy. It might be joining a protest over an issue of justice. It might be serving in a mission. But this is how we find our souls. This is how life becomes meaningful.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said, ““Life’s most persistent and urgent question is what are you doing for others?”
And we have to ask this daily. Being a disciple is not a one-time decision where we say, “Oh I committed my life to Christ years ago. I’ve done that. Now what else is there?” No, discipleship is a daily affair. It is a constant willingness to allow our lives to be interrupted, to have something demanded of us for the sake of others.
You say ‘yes’ to Christ on a Sunday morning. It seems like the thing to do, and then Monday you get on with your life, but then something comes along that reminds you of your yes. It hits you deep down, and you know it might be taking a left turn from your life’s agenda, but you said ‘yes.” And something tells you that pursuing your yes, is going to be more rewarding.
Let me close with this story. Andrew Young was a civil rights leader who walked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He had said yes to Christ in his life and because he did, he sacrificed and risked his life for the cause of racial justice. Later he became mayor of Atlanta and then a UN Ambassador. And perhaps without being fully aware, being comfortable became very important. His daughter, Paula, went to Duke University and graduated. He was real proud when she became active in a church. The more involved she got the prouder Andrew was. Until one day she announced that she was going to join the ministry of Habit for Humanity and build homes for the poor in Uganda. This wasn’t too many years after the fall of Idi Amin, and Uganda was still very violent.
Andrew Young confessed, “I tried to talk her out of it. I wanted her to go to church, find a nice Christian man to marry, develop a relationship with God and settle down. I didn’t intend for her to go so far with it. I mean—Uganda! But she said she felt called, what could I say?” (Adapted from Martin Copenhaver, “It Can Be Dangerous,” Pulpit Digest, Jan./Feb. 1995,p.9) from sermon “Trusting God When You Don’t Feel Like It” Aug. 24, 2003