Dear Working Preacher,
Would you believe me if I told you that the sermon you preach this Sunday will be the most important of the year? Probably not. It's Labor Day weekend, after all, and so attendance will likely be lower than usual. And there's all this "take up your cross" language to boot, which is hard to understand at the best of times. But you know what? It is the most important sermon you'll preach this year...precisely because it's Labor Day weekend and the gospel tells us that we must take up our cross. Let me explain.
Perhaps the largest challenge most congregations I know face -- indeed, what the twenty-first century church faces, to be quite honest -- is to overcome the disconnect most Christians experience between what we do on Sunday and what we do the rest of the week. That is, very few of our people find something in what we say in the sermon, what we do during worship, and what we hear in Scripture that actually helps them make sense of their lives in the world. If you're not sure of this (and if you've got the stomach to find out), ask them how often they think about what happened Sunday when they're trying to work through a problem at home or a challenge at work. Or, ask them whether they believe that what they do -- at home, at work, as volunteers, as citizens -- matters to God. Then ask them if they think that what they do is holy and sacred. See what I mean?
They are faithful people, don't get me wrong. But most of the folks who listen to our sermons week in and week out haven't been taught or trained to see their labor as holy, to see their everyday efforts as important to God, to imagine that they are God's partners in doing God's work in the world. And, quite frankly, we church leaders must take a fair amount of responsibility for this. If I were to ask you how many of you set aside part of a service at some point during the year to install Sunday School teachers, I'm guessing most of you would answer in the affirmative. But how many of us set aside a Sunday -- maybe in early April -- to consecrate our accountants?1 How many of us recognize the work of our plumbers, electricians, or carpenters? How many of us regularly pray for those who volunteer, not just in church, but in a variety of our social service agencies that our communities depend on?
Do you see what I mean? We rarely intentionally nurture the imagination of our people to believe that God is at work in them and through them for the sake of the world God loves so much. And if this is the case -- if our people can't figure out how what they do matters, at least in terms of the faith; or worse, if they can't figure out how their faith makes a difference to all the other stuff they do -- then we have to wonder how much longer they'll keep showing up on Sunday morning.
And this is where this week's Gospel reading comes in. We've been trained somewhere to think that when Jesus talks about "taking up the cross" he's referring to some major spiritual travail. Or at least significant suffering or sacrifice, preferably on behalf of the faith. But what if it's simpler than that? What if it's more ordinary? Here's what Alan Culpepper says: "The language of cross bearing has been corrupted by overuse. Bearing a cross has nothing to do with chronic illness, painful physical conditions, or trying family relationships. It is instead what we do voluntarily as a consequence of our commitment to Jesus Christ."2
If this is true, then we are invited to take up our cross -- that is, have our life shaped by our commitment to the crucified messiah -- anywhere, anytime, and doing just about anything. Voters and volunteers, websites managers and temp workers, bus drivers and barbers, students and secretaries, parents and payroll officers -- all of these people, when they offer their time, talent, and labor to God, are bearing their cross by allowing the whole of their lives to be shaped by their commitment to Christ.
Do you have any idea how powerful it will be if you tell them this? I know this may seem obvious, because we get to think about this kind of stuff all the time. But for the average Christian to hear a representative of God -- and that's what we are! -- say that what he or she does at home and work, while volunteering or being a good friend -- matters to God and makes a difference in the world.... My goodness, but if you keep this up, not only this Sunday but throughout the year, next Labor Day weekend might be the most crowded Sunday service of all. More importantly, more and more of our people may find it easier to connect faith and daily life and discover a whole new reason to keep coming to church.
Thanks for your good work, Working Preacher, because what you, also, do matters!
Yours in Christ,
1 I heard this question asked in a presentation by Janet and Phillip Jamieson, of Dubuque University, at a recent stewardship conference hosted by Luther Seminary. You can listen to their presentation -- and any of the others -- by clicking here.
2 Alan Culpepper, "Luke", in The New Interpreter's Bible, Volume 9 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 236.