One Sunday afternoon awhile back, my daughter, said to me – you know Mom there should be a suggestion box in the back of the church. And I laughed and replied oh there is Dorothea – its right between my ears!
Most of the time when someone makes a suggestion regarding worship – it’s something along the lines of – you know, I really like it when – or I remember when we used to, or, I went to this other church and they, etc. etc. And for the most part all suggestions make sense. There are a myriad of ways to worship and we all have our personal preferences. But what I remind myself, and hope and try to convey, is that worship is a plural – not a personal – endeavor.
How does the Lord’s Prayer start? How about the Nicene Creed? Confession? In everything we say and do here we intentionally references community – a family brought together by God – a household of disciples.
In the back of your prayer book – in that handy Q&A of the catechism it asks – what is corporate worship – and the answer is: In corporate worship, we unite ourselves with others to acknowledge the holiness of God, to hear God's Word, to offer prayer, and to celebrate the sacraments.
And at the same time, worship is a personal experience. We decide to go to church because we are looking for something – wanting strength, or answers, comfort, hope. We want to know not just we – but me - I - have a connection and am known by God. And most often that internal confirmation comes through the people we gather together with.
Maybe its in the way we welcome – or are welcomed into this space. The way someone asks how are you. Or hear another voice join in a response. The way someone stands/kneels besides you at the altar rail and gives your hand a squeeze – because they know what you are carrying in your heart.
One of the true benefits of worshipping together over time – is that we get to practice being family – without having to actually live together! We run a household – manage money – divvy responsibilities – work through conflicts and celebrate our accomplishments. And bookending all of that we practice these little things - sharing the peace, reading scripture and opening our hands week by week to acknowledge our need and desire for God’s acceptance and love.
Family-first, however, is not on Jesus’ discipleship list this morning. In the entirety of Ch. 10, Jesus spells out the ways the first group of followers are to be united. The ways people would know – without buildings and worship times, without patens and purificators, without albs and chausibles – but by their behavior, they would be known as followers of Christ – God’s family.
Challenging – yet kind of rote at this point – proclaim the gospel, cure the sick, give as you receive, welcome the least of these, the little ones, lose your life to save it – pick up your cross and follow me.
These sound like good things so why does Jesus stress they will divide family? Will break down relationships? What does he mean for us on this side of the discipleship timeline to pick up our cross?
The cross is not an abstract symbol or metaphor for Jesus. The cross is the corporal punishment for criminals. And Jesus received that punishment because he “stirred up the people” as they said in front of Pilate. Stirring things up by denouncing practices of exploitation and injustice. Like the prophets before him – he pointed out the disconnect between what people professed to believe and how they lived.
Not individually – but as a system – the powers and principalities as Paul says - systems that benefitted from the powerlessness of the impoverished. Really important to remind ourselves – the majority of the time Jesus decried systemic injustice not individual moral behaviors.
I read a very challenging opinion piece in the NYTimes two weeks ago – it was titled “Stop pretending you’re not rich” – and it was written by Richard Reeves author of the book “Dream Hoarders” – and you can google the subtitle.
Reeves is British – and he talks about wanting to escape his working class background as he grew into his adulthood. Hoping his mother would fund elocution lessons, instead of the ballroom dancing she insisted on. But on his own in what he termed his “three disinfectant years” at Oxford he successfully “wiped out” any trace of his working class background – so that he could feel a part of the elite. Which is one of the reasons he moved to the US to raise his family. He didn’t want them to be saturated in the class culture he knew growing up.
However, as he writes – in the western world – that culture cannot be escaped. The same systems are entrenched here – as they are over there – although he thinks the Brits – with their Downtown Abbey narratives – own in more than we do. Americans focus on our dream and our individual role in achieving it. The narrative of meritocracy – whereby if your situation is bad, it is you – not a system that is to blame.
"If you are a King – then save yourself!" (Lk 23:27) – those bystanders yelled at Jesus on that cross. For them it wasn’t the system that killed him – it was his own inability to do so – it was his fault.
Reeves commentary isn’t a political diatribe against any one party – because he sees the problem as so much bigger. We all want the best for our family – our children. We all want to live in the best neighborhoods and have our kids go to the best schools. And for those of us born into social networks of empowerment (the most important indicator of success) of course, we are going to use those networks for ours and our families’ benefit.
Reeves challenge – can we own that those networks are not available to everyone? Can we not blame the victim – but look at the system – and how it could achieve those shared goals for all families? Do we as a society really want to do so? Or in Jesus’ words – where are we denying Jesus – where are we saying there is not enough room at the table?
When Jesus tells us to pick up our cross and follow – he doesn’t mean the cross that he picked up. Nor does he mean the individual suffering that is a part of the human condition – the struggles, the pain, the illnesses. Jesus literally means where are the places in your world where powerless people are being blamed for their circumstances? What are the systems – the powers and principalities that we have grown blind to because we benefit from them – as hard as that is to admit? (I didn’t even want to read that article, stared at the headline for two days)
To pick up our cross – is to go to the place where the ways of our world – defy the ways of God’s kingdom – God’s dream for the whole human family – and then find our voice – to do something, say something – or at the very least acknowledge those places exist.
In the healthiest of families, people feel both empowered to speak their truth and secure enough to listen to truths that are hard to hear. The words we say as a family in worship – words that surround these biblical stories and directives upon which we are to pattern our lives – are how we practice opening our eyes and ears.
Jesus is being frank and honest - the kingdom of heaven is not a tranquil place – because when enacted it collides with the kingdom on earth – think, civil rights movement. Relationships will change – and sometimes end – when people speak out and name injustice in their midst.
In corporate worship, we unite ourselves with others to acknowledge the holiness of God, to hear God's Word, to offer prayer, and to celebrate the sacraments. We gather to hear Jesus’ challenge and his encouragement. It is a courageous act to try and see where God is calling us to reach out our arms in love on the hard wood of the cross.
And that is why through worship and ministries we support each other as a family in doing so – we are fed with spiritual food and then sent out into the world in peace, being granted the strength and courage to love and serve God – together – with gladness and singleness of heart. Amen.