The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
February 25, 2018
All Saints’ Church
There is a spot in northwestern Lithuania not far from where my aunts and grandparents were born called the Hill of Crosses. No one really knows how it all started, but at some point about two hundred years ago, people began making pilgrimage to this hill in the middle of nowhere and leaving crosses. When I say people leave crosses, I mean literally hundreds of thousands of crosses. It’s like walking through a strange forest, each handmade cross placed with devotion and a prayer by whomever left it there.
Somewhere in this great jumble of crosses is one my father I left when we visited in 1996. Taking that cross and placing it among the thousands of others was one of the most spiritually charged moments of my life. It was something tangible that connected to me with the tremendous suffering and sacrifice of my family, just one version of a suffering endured by millions in our country and throughout the world in the second half of the last century. My dad let me pick the spot where we would lay the cross. We said a prayer—for relatives no longer with us, for my grandmother as her health was failing, for the blessings our lives, for peace in a place that had seen so much violence. I wanted to linger, there in that forest of crosses.
As I have experienced more of life and my faith has matured, I have come to understand why the Hill of Crosses is so compelling. When an oppressed people were in need of hope, when there was no earthly power to look to, when life had become vacant of human dignity, the people of God took up their crosses. They carried their burdens and their sorrows along with their faith to a holy place, and they laid them at God’s feet. To take up your cross is an act of defiance in the face of hopelessness. To take up your cross is to say: I matter, and my struggles are not in vain. Those who take up their cross share in the glory of Christ.
When Jesus says, “take up your cross,” he is inviting you into his glory. In this season of Lent, we are confronted with some difficult teachings, and this is one of them. The words Jesus offers are not very comforting. He says we should deny ourselves if we want to follow him. And yet, when I hear these words, I hear them not as a threat, but as a statement of fact and an invitation. Life gives us all crosses to bear—sickness, grief, frustration, anger…the list goes on and on. There is no such thing as a human life without these burdens. But just as these difficult things are imposed upon us, we are also given a choice. Do we take up these and follow Jesus? Or do we leave them there, indulging ourselves in the fantasy that to suffer is somehow inhuman?
To take up your cross is to claim responsibility for yourself, to give yourself the respect that Jesus himself pays you with these verses from Scripture. It means acknowledging the difficulties laid upon you—your sadness, your brokenness, your vulnerability. It is these things that confirm our humanity and open up the space in which love binds together and builds up.
On the other hand, to deny your cross is to abandon a part of your own dignity with it. When we deny our crosses, we place faith in ourselves alone. We close off the channels of love and salvation that stream from our God. It is only by confronting the burdens life has given us to bear and boldly lifting them up that those same burdens are sanctified and turned into redemption for us and for those around us. The cross is not only the sum of our burdens. It is also the instrument of our salvation.
Like the rest of you, I have watched with awe and inspiration as the youth of this country have taught us all the lesson of the cross this past week. The Florida students who have organized following the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has been a powerful refusal to allow the senseless deaths of their classmates to pass without dignity or redemption. These are youth who face all the challenges of their phase of life—worries about their futures, family issues they are powerless to control, and social pressures that surround them while society around them is careening into an uncertain future. And yet…when the most unspeakable of tragedies touched them, they have had the courage to take up their crosses—and the crosses of their slain classmates. They are making sense out of the senselessness of suffering and loss and refusing to give in. In devoting their time and effort to demanding an end to policies that permit gun violence, they are denying themselves, just as Jesus said. Seventeen of their classmates have lost their lives. These youth believe, with Jesus, that lives can be gained out of this loss.
There is a reason taking up your cross is so difficult. It is not simply a matter of shouldering your own burden. There are forces arrayed against those who dare take up the cross. During Soviet times, the Hill of Crosses in Lithuania became a site of defiance. Whenever there were too many crosses, the authorities would send in their bulldozers and obliterate any sign of the faith on display. They were threatened by what the crosses represented—faith in a higher power than their own oppressive force, belief in people’s own dignity in the face of unyielding injustice. Yet every time this happened, people would sneak back to the hill, usually under the cover of night, and the next morning, a small yet visible cluster of crosses could be found on the same spot.
I thought about the threat of the cross this week as I watched our youth confront the powers that have allowed violence to continue in our country. They were met with the political equivalent of bulldozers. When they demonstrated in Tallahassee, the Florida legislature refused even to debate a measure on banning the kind of assault rifle used in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting. When they demanded that politicians take action, they were told it wasn’t even worth bothering creating laws that could make a difference. They have accused of lying, acting, and even of harassing the same powerful adults who refuse to do anything. One of the high schoolers who was classmates with the victims said he deleted his Facebook account because the death threats posted on his page got too scary.
And yet, they refuse to put down their crosses. Can we do the same in our own lives? Do you believe that every human life is precious in the sight of God? Do you long for a world in which every human life is viewed as a miracle and a blessing? Do you believe that the sufferings of this life are but nothing compared to the love of God and the healing balm of God’s grace?
Then come, take up your cross. Jesus is calling us all. Let us deny ourselves and take up our own cross. Your cross is your burden. But it is also your dignity. Your faith. And your salvation. Amen