Taking Up Your Cross Leads to Abundant Life

By Elizabeth S. Hall

[Mark 8:27-38]

Sermon at St. James’ Church, Keewatin, Ontario, Canada; August 8, 2010.

Hello.  My name is Elizabeth Hall and it’s an honor to be with you today!  I am in town from Idaho this weekend helping my father, the retired Rev. A. Wayne Schwab, conduct a conference on doing God’s work in today’s world.  This is an issue about which we both feel passionately and are in the process of finalizing a workbook that has change as one of its central themes.

Just a quick bit about me.  I am a married mother of two who has lived in eight different states in the United States.  I’ve also lived abroad for eight years of my adult life and speak three different languages.  “Bonjour, tout le monde!”  I suppose that makes me a bit unique as an American.  I also happen to be a decorated combat veteran as is my husband.  We met during Gulf War I and have been together ever since.  However, fear not.  Dave and I come from two different political parties so whatever views you happen to have will certainly be in concert with those of one of us!

As I read through this week’s lessons, I was thrilled because, in particular, the Gospel reading really cuts to the heart of what my father and I have been working on so diligently.  (We have written this book, by the way, entirely by email; sending sections back and forth for review and editing as he lives in New York and I, in Idaho.  Ah, the beauty of modern technology!)

The verses of the Gospel that really stand out to me are the last ones, “If anyone would  come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.  What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?  Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?  If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

Wow!  Those are powerful words!  I don’t know where you all are right now in Canada, but I can tell you that in the United States, religion has become a very contentious issue.  Every group claims some unique relationship with God:  the Catholic church is the original Christian church, we Episcopalians like to emphasize worshiping “decently and in order,” many evangelicals believe the rest of us are going to “Hell,” and the Jews are “God’s chosen people?”  Can they all be right?  We spend a lot of time discussing this and whether to take the Bible literally or not, but we never seem to get to the crux of the critical message of today’s Gospel reading.  And here’s what that is for me:  In the end, we all agree on just about 90% of the issues, don’t we?  Can’t we just go ahead and work on those?  We could do so much good if we could band together and work for positive change and then agree to disagree or work differently on the other 10%.

But we never seem to get that far because that’s when we would hit the thorniest issue of all.  How do you go about taking up your cross and what does that really mean?  I recently read The Purpose Driven Life with a church group.  Have you all read that?  If not, it’s a book written to help people get in touch with their spirituality and develop a relationship with God.  But then what do you do with that relationship beyond the recommended going to church and entering God’s fellowship?  Author Rick Warren, talks about going abroad on a mission, which is a very laudable goal.  But what do you do with the rest of your life?  What do you do next Tuesday? I can tell you that, after finishing that book, my small group was directionless.  We didn’t know what to do.  We did a little charity work and then we let it go at that.  Shortly thereafter, I took a second look at my father’s book, When the Members are the Missionaries, and said, “This is it!  This spells out what to do with your faith: how to live it out.”  I called him and told him we needed to write a workbook to help people put the book’s principles into action.  That’s how we came to write it.

You see, living out your faith is all about “taking up your cross.”  Just how do you do that?  I don’t know about you, but whenever I saw this lesson, it used to make me shudder because I always saw it in absolute terms.  That means I always thought about giving up everything to the point of death for the Lord.  I’d think, “I need to go out and save Darfur.  After all, that has got to be done and I may well serve to the death doing it.”

If you think about it, isn’t that putting the cart before the horse?  Shouldn’t I be asking God what He wants me to do?  But, that just seemed so overwhelming to me and how would I know out of the myriad of things that I could do, just which one or ones he wanted me to take on.

Through my Dad’s book, I learned there is a better way.  We need to pray about our lives the same way we live them.  We all have a home life, a work life, lives in our local community and in the wider world.  We have a leisure life (at least, theoretically!) and well as a spiritual life.  So our lives really have some pretty distinct boundaries that we can use to figure out what God’s call truly is in each part of our daily lives.   These six areas of life are really our mission fields – places in the world where we are doing what we feel God is calling us to do.

You can pray about each of these six areas separately, starting with your home life, asking God to show you what’s important or asking Him what message he has for you about it.  If you’re like me, things will crystallize pretty quickly.  For example, when you’re praying about your work life, you might immediately think about how a superior stole your concept and then presented it to top management as his or her own.  That happened to me, and I bet it’s happened to one of you.  As for me, this woman actually copied one of my charts in the middle of the night.  Really.  How was I ever going to be able to continue to work with this person?  I was furious!

But then you have to take a breath and ask God to show you how life should be in that area – here my work life.  This is the kicker.  Although, what you’ll want to do and certainly what I wanted to do, was jump up and down and scream, you know that’s not what God would have you do.  So, ask Him to show you how things should look if you do things His way.  He will let you know.

Once you have that vision for how life should be in that area, pray for guidance on how to get there.  Then identify a concrete step toward that goal and do it.  Even if it’s hard.  I was lucky because in my situation my boss must have been a true Christian, although I don’t remember him ever talking about it.  At that moment in life, I wasn’t consciously looking for what God would have me do, but he might as well have been.  He told me to calm down, then told his boss what happened.  That gentleman got me an audience with the same top manager and I presented my idea in full.  This lady had not gotten access to the files she needed to present the idea effectively.  In the end, nothing was ever said to the top manager about what had occurred, but I was able to give him the information as it was intended to be presented, information he needed, along with a lot more of the supporting material I had prepared.  I don’t know if this lady learned a lesson, but I certainly did.  I watched my boss calmly and quietly defuse a difficult situation without the yelling or confrontation that would have created a whole new set of problems.

So, in a nutshell, you ask God what is important in each area of your life and then how He wants life to be in that area.  Then you develop a goal so you have a concrete step to make that vision a reality.  Suddenly, you’ve gone from saving Darfur to improving your work life in a real way.  Gone are the absolutes, replaced by real goals for missions you can actually achieve using the unique abilities and relationships that only you possess.

In my own life, I am shocked at just how well this works.  Let me tell you about my local community mission.  I had consented, some months back, to having a get-together for ladies from my neighborhood in my home.  I finally felt I just should get it done and I went ahead and scheduled it.  Boy, did God have a surprise for me!  The evening went so well, that my husband told me with eyes as big as saucers, “Wow! You did a good thing here!  I just heard a lady say she was glad just to be there, just to be meeting people.”  That’s when it hit me.  I had a new local community mission.

I went through the thinking I described above and set out an initial goal of just having a few more get-together in the coming months.  Since then, I’ve not only accomplished that goal but I have had to come up with new ones.  The group is really taking off.  One woman told me she had told her husband she no longer wants to move.  Another neighbor said that this was the first time since she left native Bosnia eight years ago that she has neighbors she can call ‘friends’.  A young mother of five who is also a cancer patient now has more help than she needs when she gets her monthly chemotherapy.  And my daughter now has two classmates whose mothers are friends of mine.  A group of people who just happened to buy houses in the same area are now a community.  This is God at work.  All I did by going through the process I’ve described is become His set of hands.  I just try to follow His lead and do His work as I feel called to do it

All this has made me see the Gospel quite differently.  Now when I hear the words, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  I think about the interpretation of this verse from Harper’s Bible Commentary which I’ll paraphrase.  To take up your cross is to deny your self-interest even to the point of losing your life for Jesus and the Gospel.  Experts in spirituality call it “dying to self.”  All I can tell you is that I was truly dying before I started doing it.  This is real life!  This is joy!   Because as I do God’s work, I get to see people’s reaction to what He’s doing through me.  Taking up your cross can be onerous, but it will also bring you unparalleled joy.  Joy because things are getting fixed.  Relationships are being built or repaired.  My little world in Boise, Idaho is better because of the work God has done through me since I’ve arrived.  And that’s pretty cool.

But let’s take a minute to talk also about the power to get things done.  We can easily forget the power that comes with taking up your cross!  The same power that raised a man from the dead is still available today.  God lives and will share His power with you.  That’s also really exciting.  You can do things with Him you can’t do on your own.  For me, that’s all about love.  I can’t believe just how much love He gives me to share with the world.  I did not grow up as the most loving person you’d ever meet – not by far.  But now, I smile more and have a cheerful word to say most of the time.  The transformation just shocks me.  I’m also way less introverted than I used to be.  I’m always meeting people.  How did this happen?

And I’m not special.  There’s nothing unique about me.  And that’s how I know that you don’t have to be thin, pretty, or rich to work for God.  You can start today whether you make doughnuts at Tim Horton’s or own the place.  Wherever you are in your life right now, whatever’s going on in each of your mission fields, God has a mission for you in each one of them.  Tailor-made and unique.  He’ll use all your talents, abilities, and relationships to improve the corner of the world you live in.  And trust me, the world will not be all that God wants it to be if you don’t do your part.

Just think about it, if you don’t parent your children, who else can do that job?  Someone can try, a boss or a coach, but none of them can truly replace you.  And that’s true of all of the other missions God will have for you throughout your life.  Only you have the special set of relationships you have.  Only you have your set of unique gifts and talents.  You see, we are all important, every one of us.  So, what Jesus said to his disciples, he also says to each one of us today, “Take up your cross, and follow me.”  But he also says, “I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly.”  So while our missions are costly, God gives us the power to do them and so opens us to know the joy of watching them bear fruit. Whoever and wherever we are, God uses us for good as we go out on mission for Him.

[Elizabeth S.  Hall; Parish Assistant, Common Ground Covenant Church, Boise, ID, Author.]