To Take Up the Cross and Follow

Today I had the privilege of sharing the message at my congregation, Salem Lutheran Church in Fontanelle. My wife (the congregation’s pastor Allison Siburg, at the far left in the picture above) invited me to preach on the lectionary for this week, so what follows is the majority of my manuscript that I preached from, based on Matthew 16:21-28 and Romans 12:9-21

Grace and peace from God who loves is, is with us, and calls us to follow, Amen.

Do you ever feel like, whatever you try, you can’t get it right? Perhaps that you keep messing up, no matter how much you do, how much you think, work, you plan, how much you try to learn…That seemed to be my week this week as I tried to figure out where God might be leading. It might have had to do with the fact that for whatever reason I didn’t ever seem to get enough sleep, and days full of meetings, and not knowing where this sermon might lead…

But nevertheless, I find some comfort in the gospel today. This week’s story follows immediately from last week’s in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus is turning towards Jerusalem now, and you all know the rest of the story. But today, boy, I feel bad for Peter.

God’s church, like Salem Lutheran in Fontanelle, is built on the rock that was Peter.

Last week we heard about how God was going to build the Church on the Rock that is Peter.[1] What an awesome and humbling gift, promise and responsibility. This week, God in Christ called Peter, “Satan” and a “stumbling block.” [2] That doesn’t seem very nice, now does it? But, maybe this is a good reminder that we are all likely to mess up too, from time to time. For Peter, turning inward and focusing on himself instead of the greater picture and the importance of God in Christ’s message caused the distraction. For us, it’s often when we lose focus on God and how God calls us to love, and serve our neighbors, and instead we turned inward and focus on ourselves.

I start here, because, as much as this might be hard news, it’s good news. God still did build the church on Peter. Peter was just as human as you and me. He was just as good and bad, saint and sinner. He was a human who like us, makes mistakes and messes things up, gets off track and distracted from time to time. One who needs to confess, be forgiven, be reminded of God’s love, presence, and promises, and to reopen each of our eyes to our neighbors and the world near and far to us.

This week Jesus tells the disciples,

“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.”[3]

What does this look like though? What might it mean to take up the cross and follow?

I think Paul spells it out rather clearly in his letter to the Romans today. Some days we get this right, other days, not so much. To live a life of holding the cross and following, is abundant life that is deeply meaningful, yet it can also be a life that is hard and challenging. I mean the whole symbol of a cross, is not a very happy symbol when you remember its original meaning and use.

I think we understand what Paul is saying, as it relates to our loved ones. But I think we struggle to understand the depth to what he is saying for community and relationships with one another, near and far. Whether we agree with someone or not, we are to do good to and for them. This is God’s word for us. If someone is hungry, no matter who they are, we are to feed them. If someone is thirsty, no matter who they are, we are to give them something to drink.

It’s easy to do this for people we see and know, people we like, agree with, or understand.  It’s much harder to do this for people we don’t see, the people we try to avoid, the people we don’t often agree with, or whom we struggle to understand. But there’s no wiggle room here. This is what it means to live a life of the cross and a life of following Jesus.

There are no if’s, and’s, or but’s. And that’s why this thing we call and lift, the cross, is so hard.

The baptismal font at Salem Lutheran in Fontanelle. In baptism we make promises, and as part of the community of God’s people, we are bound to each other in good times and bad.

If you’re like me, you have been watching the news for the past week and a half, as well as probably your emails or social media, seeing the weather, stories of destruction and loss, but also hope and humanity in the midst and aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

My first reaction as I saw images of the modern day Noah like rain fall and flooding, was the memory of being in my college dorm room for orientation twelve years ago. As I moved into my room, and started getting acclimated with this new world and place called college, and before I would meet my future wife, and your future (and now) current pastor, I felt like I was in a helpless state as I saw images of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation and despair especially in Louisiana, and across the Gulf Coast.

I wondered then, what could I do to help? I suspect we have all wondered this question in the past week seeing these heart wrenching images and hearing story after story from Texas.

Hearing from friends and colleagues serving in the region, they say for now financial support is most crucial. So, if you feel inclined, Lutheran Disaster Response is our serving arm who does great work in the church in response to hurricanes and all disasters, and they are the group, that FEMA lifts up as one who stays long after most of the news crews are gone, and commits for the long term for clean-up, support, recovery, and renewal.

It’s also important to know that next summer, the ELCA Youth Gathering will be in Houston as planned, and at that point, I am sure there will be a number of direct hands-on serving events to respond to needs and help the people in the area as they continue to clean-up and rebuild.

As we the church and people of God gather, and come together, we do so as Paul says, to “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”[4] God meets us all where we are at- when we are happy, when we are sad. When we are dancing, and when we are mourning. We are called to do likewise.

Doing so, is living the life of the cross. Doing so, is living the life as a follower of Jesus, as a disciple, steward, and Child of God, who is created, called, equipped, empowered, and loved.

The Pastor and the Deacon sitting in the balcony at Salem

I have been with you, as the pastor’s husband, and “Deacon” for about 10 months, though we first met just about a year ago. I’ve been grateful for you, ever since. I have seen the way you do hospitality here, and I am always in awe of the way you step up to clean, to serve, to feed, and to share. For the wedding this past Friday, I witnessed the results of the hard work of many behind the scenes to make this beautiful building sparkle even more so. The steps out front, the newly restored front door stained glass windows… well done.

I have witnessed the way you as the People of God rally around your sisters and brothers in Christ in the hard times and times of mourning, but also in the times of hope and celebration. I am grateful for your continued hospitality, and generosity for us as your pastor’s family, and for the beautiful parsonage.

The way you celebrate with fellowship on baptism Sundays brings me joy. I know Allison likes to talk about baptism, but you know what, so do I, so I am going to. When we’re washed in those waters, each of us is marked with the cross of Christ forever. Each of us in the water and the word is claimed as a Child of God, and one called to take up the cross and follow.

Multiple generations helping prepare communion before worship. Part of what the community at Salem Lutheran in Fontanelle looks like. Also, part of what living the life of baptismal promises looks like.

Each of us, and those gathered with us in baptism, make promises to each other and to God. These include “to live among God’s faithful people,” and “to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper,” which we do here as we gather together in worship, share the sacraments, spend time in fellowship and then are sent out.

They include the promises “to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,” and “to serve all people, following the example of Jesus,” things I have seen we do through sharing faith stories over ice cream at Zesto’s this summer, as well as through serving here locally in Fontanelle and being part of ministries that span the globe.

And they include the promise “to strive for justice and peace in all the earth,” which is not just an aspirational goal, but the work of being a follower of Christ, the work of carrying the cross, and the work I have seen here in ways that we talk about things that are hard to talk about, and we open ourselves up to learn, to be together, and to support our neighbors and strangers near and far.[5]

These five promises are marks of a life of discipleship and stewardship. These are marks of the life of one who carries the cross. They are responses to God in Christ’s call to follow and to take up the cross, and all that God has done and promises to do for us.

They are also responses which lead us into our daily lives, which we remember and celebrate this Labor Day weekend. All of our various vocations and occupations, the ways we labor and work, are ways that we meet the needs of the world and neighbor. They are ways that God can and does work uniquely through us. They are ways that we show up in the world, and God can show up through us. For all of the ways you serve, in all of your various daily lives, I give thanks for you, for whether you know it or not, you all serve holy callings in the ways you live and serve as farmers, teachers, students, nurses, massage therapists, mechanics, sales people, radio voices, and in so many other ways.

The way you show up in the world, is a way that you bear the cross. In Fontanelle I have seen it this summer, by seeing a number of you at a community pig roast last month, which allowed Allison and me to meet more people in the Fontanelle area we had not met before.

Checking out the tractors as they came through town earlier this summer, while sharing fellowship over Root Beer floats.

I have seen it in the hospitality for our neighbors from near and far in the tractor ride that came through here, and the sharing of root beer floats. I have seen it in the way you show up and share your stories and presence in the local fair parades, having had the joy of being with you in Arlington, and hearing the good stories of how the parade went in Scribner. I have seen it in the way that whenever we have an issue at the parsonage, someone or many someone’s show up to help.

I’m not saying we’re perfect. We’re not, just like Peter. We mess up. Sometimes we don’t show up as soon as we ought, or support each other as we could and should. Sometimes we don’t do enough. Sometimes we miss the point. I know I do, but because Peter also had this problem, I have a little hope.

God didn’t abandon Peter, but built the church on him, just as so, we are a part of God’s church, and a part of God’s work. As we follow the cross, we do God’s work. We admit mistakes and call things what they are.[6]  But we also show up and respond to our neighbors in need, like those in the wake of Hurricane Harvey- as we weep with them, and rejoice with those who give thanks for being able to see a new day and to rebuild.

This is the work and life of the cross. This is the life that we are all a part of in community. A life as Paul says is one where we “Rejoice in hope,” “Persevere in Prayer,” “Contribute to the needs of the saints,” “Extend hospitality to strangers,” “Rejoice with those who rejoice,” “weep with those who weep,” “live in harmony,” to “not be haughty, but associate with the lowly,” “and we “do not claim to be wiser than we are.”[7]

May it continue to be so, as we grow, live, serve, and follow the one who gave himself for us, together. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] Matthew 16:13-20, NRSV.
[2] Matthew 16:23, NRSV.
[3] Matthew 16:24-25, NRSV.
[4] Romans 12:12-15, NRSV.
[5] The promises as found in the baptismal liturgy of Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), pages 227-237.
[6] Martin Luther’s “Theology of the Cross,” and inspired by Karoline Lewis, in “The Cross at a Crossroads,” 27 August 2017,
[7] Romans 12:9-21, NRSV.

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