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Habakkuk 1.1-4, 2.1-4
Luke 17.3-6

        As many of you are aware, today we celebrate World Communion Sunday. My choice of Saint Francis’ beautiful hymn to open our service was very deliberate. For months now I have been very troubled by what I perceive to be persistent and widespread evidence of global warming. I have been even more troubled by developments in the political sector. How often (if ever) do we hear a politician say “Thy will be done”? Perhaps it is time that we turn off the television news for a while and try to listen to what God’s creatures are singing.

        From the window of my study, I can look out over my hayfield and garden. The hot dry weather this Summer greatly delayed and diminished the second hay crop, while the early Spring thaw and subsequent freeze severely affected my apples, pears and grapes. My tree man, on the other hand, assures me that the trees are not dead and will come back if pruned and fertilized early next Spring. The wild life traversing my hayfield appear to be healthy and abundant. The turkey flock, which appears twice daily, has now increased to more than two dozen. At least four mature deer appear most evenings and, for the first time in years, a young bear cub (looking very happy and healthy) was seen bounding across the field one August morning.

        My Gordon Setter Angus occasionally flushes Peter the rabbit, though not frequently enough to deter him from devouring my carrot tops and beet greens. Angus, who sorely misses last year’s abundance of juicy pears, now sometimes ventures into the raspberry patch. The blue bird houses contained new families (as seems to be the case every year). My tomatoes and lettuce (including some heirloom varieties) were of excellent quality. On the other hand, my alpine strawberries were pretty much a disaster. All in all, then, a mixed report but still offering hope and promise, for which we thank God.

        Some twenty-six hundred years ago, the prophet Habakkuk voiced his anguished complaint:

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save…
Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.

        While it is not clear whether the evil people referred to in this passage are the inhabitants of Judah or the Chaldeans who brought God’s judgment on Jerusalem in 587 B.C., the prophet’s message centers on the question of how the violence and evil of the world can serve God’s purposes.

        That same question seems equally germane to our situation today. Over the course of the past year, we have read of war and insurrection, mob violence and terroristic atrocities in many Western European countries as well as in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, the Sudan, Somalia and Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other places. And not just in foreign countries, for incidents of terrorism and violence have also manifested themselves here at home, in New York and Boston, in Baltimore, Charleston and Charlotte, in Missouri, Colorado and other states and even in our nation’s capital. Why, O Lord, is this happening? And what is it that should be done?

        The prophet takes his stand on Jerusalem’s ramparts and watches for the Lord’s answer to his complaint. After long anguish and short silence, The Lord finally replies:

There is still a vision for the appointed time…
If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay…
In the meantime, the righteous will live by faith.

        In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has been speaking to the apostles about their responsibilities as Christians. “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” Rebuking a colleague is not easy, and forgiving, not just on occasion but repeatedly, may seem well nigh impossible. No wonder the apostles respond, “Increase our faith!” Notice that they do not say, “Give us faith,” but rather “Increase our faith.” The apostles already have faith of a sort. Just not enough of it

        The apostles’ demand that Jesus “Increase our faith!” seems to convey their surprise, dismay and sense of inadequacy when confronted with Jesus’ warning against causing others to stumble, his reminder to rebuke those who sin, but to forgive, again and again, those who turn back and repent. Little do they seem to realize, however, that true discipleship may not come without substantial cost, and that fear and suffering may be a necessary condition for engendering faith. Thus, on three occasions [Lk 9.22, 9.43, 18.31-4], Jesus tells the apostles of his impending death and resurrection, accompanied by the warning: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” [Lk 9.23-4].

        Let us examine exactly what Jesus means by his statement. First of all, I would note that Jesus says, ‘if any want to become my followers….” In other words, discipleship is not a matter of divine necessity but rather a matter of choice. Unlike Jesus, who must undergo suffering, rejection and death, we have a choice. And the choice need not be made up front or at any particular time. Neither do we have to guarantee that we will remain faithful to our commitment. There will assuredly be consequences if we do not, but no vow is required as a condition to our starting down the road.

        The decision to become a follower of Jesus is not to be taken lightly, however, for it will require a radical re-orientation of our lives. The first requirement is that we learn to “deny” ourselves. What does this mean? As one commentator has written:

Self-denial is not part of our culture’s image of the good life. But neither is…[it]…to be understood as asceticism or as self-hate. Just as Jesus’ call to discipleship is not a joining in the cultural infatuation with self-esteem, neither is it the opposite. Nor is the self-denial to which Jesus calls the opposite of self-fulfillment. Just giving up things will not make one Christian; it will only make one empty…. Orientation toward God, revealed in Christ as the Lord of one’s life, rather than idolatrous self-orientation, is the decisive, crucial difference. [NIB, VIII,352]

        And, again:

There are only two impulses in life. One is the impulse to acquire, take, hoard, own, and protect. The other is the impulse to give and to serve. One assumes that each of us can be the Lord of our own lives and that our security and fulfillment depend on our ability to provide for ourselves. The other confesses the sovereignty of God and devotes life to the fulfillment of God’s redemptive will in delivering and empowering others, establishing justice and peace, tearing down barriers, reconciling persons, and creating communities. Those who devote themselves to these tasks confess that the true fulfillment of life is to be found in the service of Christ and that our only security is in him. [NIB, IX, 203-204]

        Denial of oneself is essentially a matter of orientation, goals and priorities. But what, then, of the second requirement of discipleship, that any who want to become his followers must take up their cross and follow him? The first observation I would make is that we are not being asked to take up the cross of Jesus. Swiss theologian Karl Barth makes this point in the following passage:

The cross of Jesus is His own cross, carried and suffered for many, but by Him alone and not by many, let alone by all and sundry. He suffers this rejection not merely as a rejection by men but, fulfilled by men, as a rejection by God –the rejection which all others deserved and ought to have suffered, but which He bore in order that it should no more fall on them. Their  cross does not mean that they have still to suffer God’s rejection. This has been suffered already by Him (as their rejection). It can no longer be borne by them. [Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.2]

        The second point I would make is that taking up one’s cross does not necessarily or even very probably involve the likelihood of martyrdom. It is true that Jesus uses this expression in the context of his prediction of his own death. And it is also true that martyrdom was not a remote possibility in the first century A.D., as apparently evidenced by the deaths of at least three of Jesus’ disciples (James, John and peter) and by that of St. Paul. Although there have been prominent Christian martyrs in our own day (witness Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King), nevertheless, “the reality for most Christians in this country is seldom a life-and-death matter” [NIB, VIII, 629]. While the giving of one’s life may in exceptional circumstances result in literal martyrdom, it is far more likely to mean “ the daily giving of oneself away in commitment to Christ [NIB, VIII, 352]. As the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor remarks, “I do not believe we all have to go and  get ourselves killed in order to follow Jesus. Some people have. We call them saints. But God seems to allow the rest of us a broader understanding of the cross than that….{Luke’s statement, in particular] sounds more like a way of life than a death wish” [God In Pain, 59-60].

        So, what exactly does it mean to take up one’s cross? For one thing, it is clear that “bearing a cross has nothing to do with chronic illness, painful physical conditions., or trying family relationships. It is instead what we do voluntarily as a consequence of our commitment to Jesus Christ. Cross bearing requires deliberate sacrifice and exposure to risk and ridicule in order to follow Jesus. This commitment is not just way of life, however. It is a commitment to a person. A disciple follows another person and learns a new way of life” [NIB, IX, 293].

        Brown Taylor likens one’s cross to “Whatever it is that scares you to death, so that you start offering to do anything, anything at all, if it will just go away.” As examples, she cites: the fear of admitting an addiction that is eating away at your life’; “the fear of tackling a memory that still has the power to suck the breath right out of you”;  “the fear of standing up for something you believe in, or telling the truth about who you are to people who are going to damn you for it”; or “the fear of discovering you have an illness that no medicine can cure, or that your child does, or your friend” [God in Pain, 60]. It does not seem to me, however, that taking up one’s cross must invariably involve the overcoming of fear. Certainly, there are some who have acted out of a passionate concern for peace and justice.

        Although I have known personally a number of individuals who seemed to me to exemplify the concept of Christian discipleship, two in particular stand out. One was my former pastor, the Rev. William Sloane coffin, Jr., who risked his career and even his life as a leader of the civil rights movement and of the resistance to the military draft during the Vietnam War. The second is a sister of my wife who served as a nurse in a Lutheran leprosy hospital in Pakistan for more than forty years. A few years ago, her church in Rawalpindi was blown up by suicide bombers during the course of a worship service. Although many were killed and injured, she survived largely unhurt. When I urged her to consider retirement or re-assignment to another country, she responded: “But how could I leave my patients?”

        How are we to know what sort of cross is meant for each of us? We will find out as soon as we begin to follow our Lord and to share his life. O Lord, Increase Our Faith! Amen.