Thursday, February 26, 2015

To Take Up The Cross Makes A Difference - Mark 8:31-38

Mark 8:31-38New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[a] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words[b] in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

I’d be surprised if anyone here knows the name of Grace Thomas.  There is not much of a reason that you should have heard of her. A friend of mine, Tom Long, related her story to me, and until then I don't believe I had ever heard of her.

Grace was the child of a streetcar conductor from Birmingham, Alabama. She fell in love with a student at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.  She moved to Atlanta and married him, becoming a full-time wife. After a while she had to help support the family so she took a job as a secretary at the state capitol in Atlanta. She was now full-time wife and full-time secretary.

Through her job she became very interested in politics and the law, so she enrolled at night law school. Now she was a full-time wife, a full-time secretary and a full-time law student.

When she finally graduated from law school, she stunned her family by announcing that she was not going to practice law.  “I’ve decided to run for political office.”

They said, “What office? School Board or Library Board?”

She said, “I’m going to run for the governor of Georgia. The highest office in the state.”

Keep in mind that this 1954.  There were nine candidates that year: eight white men and Grace Thomas.

Now there may have been nine candidates but there was only one issue. It was 1954 and Brown versus the Board of Education had come forth from the Supreme Court requiring that public schools be integrated. And eight of those candidates for governor said that they thought Georgians ought to resist this every fiber in their being.

Only one candidate, Grace Thomas, supported desegregation.

Her campaign slogan was “Say Grace at the polls.”  But not many voters did. She ran dead last.

Her family was relieved, hoping that she had gotten this out of her system.

But she hadn’t.

In 1962 she ran for the governor of Georgia again. This time the civil rights movement was moving ahead at full steam. She went around the state with her message of progress and prosperity and racial harmony. She received death threats on her life and her family feared for her and traveled with her to protect her.

One day, she went to give a campaign speech in the little town of Louisville, Georgia.

Back in my seminary days my wife and I would occasionally travel to Louisville, Georgia, where I would sometimes preach in a little Presbyterian Church, filling in for a vacationing pastor.

It is an interesting little Southern town.

In almost every town in Georgia there is in the center of town a Civil War monument, or perhaps a Civil War cannon, or maybe a statue of a Confederate soldier.

The centerpiece in Louisville is not a Civil War monument or a county courthouse, it’s an old market house.  A century and a half ago, people sold everything at that market house – cotton, corn, pecans, and people.

In fact, more than any other commodity, slaves were what people bought and sold at that market house in Louisville, Georgia.

And in 1963, while the Centennial of the Civil War was being celebrated throughout the South, Grace Thomas stood campaigning for Governor.

She addressed a gathering of farmers and merchants and she pointed at the slave market and said, “This, thank God, has passed and the new age has come. It’s time for Georgians to join hands, all races together.”

Somebody in the crowd shouted at her, “Are you a communist?”

“No!” she said.  “I’m a Christian.  Baptized in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.”

We don’t normally think of baptism as a life changing event.  But it is.  Because when we come out of the waters of baptism, we pick up a cross, deny ourselves, and begin to follow Christ.

When you take up the cross and follow Jesus you have a moment that can change everything.

To become a Christian means that you are, from this day forward, out sync with culture.  You are now different.  The old has passed away, and you are now new in Christ.

One of my professors in Seminary told us a story about a young man who came into his office one day.  The young man had been nurtured in the faith, forced to attend Sunday School, required to sit through sermons in the worship services, and against his will had been confirmed.  Now he was a graduate of high school and was on his way to college and about to be on his own.  He went by the pastor’s office and announced to the minister, “I just want you to know that I’m on my way to college next week.  I won’t be coming back to church here or to any other church so you can take me off the membership rolls.”

The minister looked at him and said, “Sounds like you’ve given this a lot of thought.”

“You bet I have.  I’m out of this religion stuff.  I’ve through.  I’m finished.”

The minister looked at the young man and smiled.

“What are you smiling at?  Don’t you understand what I’m telling you?”

“Doesn’t matter.  You’ll be back.”

“No I won’t.  I’ve had it with church.”

“But you’ve been baptized.  The Spirit of God is in you.  He won’t let you go.”

“I don’t believe in God.”

“Doesn’t matter,” said the minister.  “God believes in you.”

“Well, I don’t believe in God.  And you’ll never see me in church ever again.”

“You’ll be back. I told you.  You’ve been baptized.”

“Well unbaptized me!”

“Can’t do it.  Baptisms can’t be undone.  You belong to God, not just to this church.  God’s not going to let you go.”

“There is no God,” the young man declared – and out the office he walked.

The professor sharing that story told us that three years later the young man came back into his office.  His attitude was different.  The smugness was gone.  “Pastor,” he said.  “I’ve been reading the Bible.  I’ve had some changes in my life.  I wondered if I can be rebaptized.”

“Can’t do it,” the pastor told him.  “In our church we only baptize once.  Besides, the one time seemed sufficient for you.  As much as you tried, God did not let go of you.”

When you come out of the waters of baptism, you pick up a cross, deny yourself, and begin to follow Christ.  That cross attaches itself to you and even though it doesn’t seem to take with some people, something powerful has happened. 

Take up your cross and deny yourself – and everything changes.

Peter Gomes is a Harvard preacher and on one occasion he got a taste of just how controversial a seemingly gentle gospel message can be.  He was giving a commencement address at an exclusive private high school for girls in the center of Manhattan.  Gomes had as his text the invitation of Jesus Christ who said, “consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin, yet their heavenly father provides for them.”    Throughout his commencement sermon, Gomes said over and over, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow.”

The sermon went great – or so the preacher thought.  After the commencement service there was a reception and a father of one of the students came up to Gomes “with fire in his eyes and ice in his voice.”  He told Gomes that what he said in his sermon about anxiety was complete nonsense.  Gomes pointed out that it was Jesus, not he, who actually said it, but the man looked at Gomes and said, “I don’t care who said it, it’s nonsense.  It was anxiety that got my daughter into this school, it was anxiety that kept her here, it was anxiety that got her into Yale, it will be anxiety that will keep her there, and it will be anxiety that will get her a good job.  You are selling nonsense.”

To be a Christian means you are different.  You are out of sync with the rest of the world. 

The world tells us to make money – a lot of it.  Spend it.  Accumulate wealth and power. 

But what good does that do if you gain the whole world, but lose your soul?

To be Christian means you cannot turn your back on someone suffering from injustice.

To be Christian means you cannot ignore the poor, the lonely, the neglected.

To be Christian means you have to stick your neck out for others, loving them and forgiving them – even when they hate you.

To be Christian makes a difference – in your life, and in the life of those around you.

Take up that cross.      Deny yourself.        Follow Christ.

The world tells us to look out for number one – yourself.

Christ calls us to put God first and to put our neighbors before ourselves.

The world tells us to make money, spend it, become as wealthy as you can.

Christ calls us to become generous and to give away what we work for. 

From the first moment you become a Christian and take up a cross, you will be forever different.

Copyright 2015. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.