Jeremiah 15:15-21              Psalm 26:1-8                Romans 12:9-21           Matthew 16:21-28

Do you remember The Little Rascals?  Of course it’s too long ago for you to have seen the shows when they were new, but they ran in syndication throughout my childhood.  There was always an episode or two of The Little Rascals and Gilligan’s Island every afternoon after school.  The Little Rascals was a good seventy five years ahead of its time, though, and is acclaimed by film historians as one of the first programs that portrayed black children and white children as friends and equals.  It was also a kind of precursor to reality TV – the director would tell the kids what to talk about, but there usually wasn’t a real script, as such, and the children were encouraged to improvise. 

But that’s a side note. 

What I really wanted to tell you was that there was an episode called Fishy Hooky.   In it, several of the children are sitting around with sad faces because they have to go to school, when two boys with fishing poles come along.  They invite the other kids to play hooky and go fishing with them instead.  

That’s when Stymie, the little black kid who always wore a bowler hat, said with a somber voice, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan….and don’t push.’

I think with that, Stymie speaks for all of us.  Get thee behind me, Satan, and don’t push.  Like the author Oscar Wilde, we can resist everything except temptation. 

But to give poor maligned Peter his due, he was being practical, looking at the probable outcome of Jesus’s plan and ‘counting the cost’, as he’s been admonished …. and reminding the others that rushing toward death is a terrible idea.  Peter recognized that ministry opportunities are skimpy from the grave; he was just unable to anticipate Jesus’s resurrection.  You can hardly blame him.

 So Peter got scolded yet again.  This is still on record as the quickest turnaround in church history – Peter went from being the foundation of the church last week to getting called Satan this week.   Poor man probably got a whiplash injury. 

What’s a disciple to do?  How do you determine the next right thing if you aren’t supposed to be practical and plan ahead? 

Jesus said ‘If any 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.”  For Christians, this is the heart of the matter.  Jesus Himself says Take Up Your Cross.  And it’s as unpopular an idea now as it was 2000 years ago.    Satan doesn’t have to push very much.

There are plenty of hard things to get through in life already, and if you’re like me, you aren’t hunting for any more.  I’ve had enough grief, anger, and pain, thank you very much, and I do not want more.  And to tell the truth, I don’t think Jesus wants any more dumped on me.  I don’t think that’s the point of taking up your cross.

It seems to me that the purpose is to make yourself fit for immortality.  As CS Lewis has said, we are creatures that, by Christ’s resurrection, live forever, and a habit that might be merely pleasant or unpleasant on earth over 80 years’ time could be Heaven or Hell in eternity.  We have to choose what kind of immortal souls we will be, and much of the choosing seems to be done here in this life by our actions.  Denying yourself has been seen as a kind of basic training, boot camp for Christians.  The early church did a lot of it, with fasting, hair shirts, kneeling for hours on end, and other kinds of penitence.  We remember those disciplines in our church calendar during the penitential season of Lent and, to a lesser extent, Advent. 

Penitence is uncomfortable and it isn’t fashionable in the church now, but maybe it should be.  Because that’s likely to be the easiest cross to carry.  It just gets harder as it gets less physical and more spiritual.  It’s WAY easier to give up cheeseburgers and chocolate than it is to give up anger and vengeance.  Anger and vengeance feel satisfying and virtuous and right.   We can pretend we’re God’s strong right arm – like we think He needs us to be His right arm.

Jesus doesn’t call us to defend or speak for God, but to take up a cross.  Taking up a spiritual cross is exactly what St. Paul describes in his letter to the Romans.  All those admonishments – love one another, hate what is evil, bless those who persecute you, don’t start fights and don’t try to get even – ALL that, is taking up your cross.  It’s HARD.  We don’t want to be ignored or disdained, we don’t want to be taken advantage of, we don’t want to do ALL the work, we don’t want share with hordes of hungry, ungrateful enemies.   It’s not right, or fair, or gratifying, or fun. And God is at least supposed to be right and fair! 

And that’s true enough.  But Jesus said ‘Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me.’  He didn’t tell you it would be fair.  Or easy.   

It is the work of a lifetime – maybe the work of several lifetimes – to be half as good as St. Paul describes to the Romans.  Maybe that’s why we have all eternity to polish our rough edges, but still the fact remains that we are required to START here and now.  Denying ourselves TODAY.  Blessing our enemies TODAY.  Being ardent in prayer TODAY.

This means we have some decisions to make.

Unless you have access to a hair shirt, then denying yourself and taking up your cross is liable to involve doing things you’d rather not do.   It may start with fasting, but you are eventually bound to find yourself working on forgiving.  Fasting is a discipline of the body – tedious and uncomfortable but not that hard - but forgiving is a discipline of the soul, and it can take every ounce of strength in you.  Worse yet, it can take every ounce of strength today, and tomorrow, and the day after that.    Kneeling is a discipline of the body, but persevering in prayer is a discipline of the soul.  See the difference?  

We don’t practice these because God wants to punish us but because we want to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, and transformation requires work. 

Let me help make it a little easier for you.

Our rugged American individualism gets us thinking that we have to do everything ourselves.  We are great bootstrappers and that is no bad thing.  But the paradox of Christian life is that the same Jesus who tells us to take up our cross also tells us to take on his yoke, for his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

It doesn’t seem to make sense, does it?

Here’s the thing.  You need a Savior because you cannot save yourself.  But you CAN focus more and more of your energy on following Jesus and allowing Him to work his salvation in you.  That also is taking up your cross, and it cannot be done one hour per week.  You need more time with Him that that.  He wants more time with you.

So this is one practical thing you can do.

If you are like most people you have never read the Bible cover to cover.  If you have, bless you!  This advice may not be for you.  But for the rest of us – get the Bible out.  Commit to reading it every day.  Don’t just read the selections for the Daily Office because the Church has redacted out big chunks of the Bible.  Decide to read the whole thing, and set yourself a timebound goal.  If you love reading, try to finish the whole Bible in a year.  If reading isn’t your thing, plan to read the entire New Testament in a year.  You can do it.  Listen for God whispering to you as you read, and pay attention to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.  You may well find yourself blessing your enemies, not because you are inherently holy but because you are following, actually FOLLOWING, Jesus. 

Messes that we all are, none of us can stay in the same place while we’re following.

Even Jesus said ‘Get thee behind me, Satan!’, and Stymie said ‘Don’t push!’  But Satan will always be crowding you.

Unless you deliberately walk away, carrying your cross.

AMEN+

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