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The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 3, 2023

The Rev. Samuel Torvend

Sermon for September 3, 2023 | Pentecost 14
Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 26:1-8; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

I was ordained a transitional deacon on May 24, 1985, and the next day I flew to Rome in order to pursue doctoral research. During that humid summer, I lived in the residence attached to the church of St. Clement, a church and residence cared for by Irish priests. During my second week at San Clemente, the young Irish priest who served as the parish priest asked me to proclaim the gospel – the gospel we just heard today. After all, it was a neighborhood parish. And so I diligently practiced proclaiming the gospel reading in Italian. On that Sunday morning, I climbed up the steps of the 6th century marble pulpit and began to read the gospel aloud. And then, suddenly, everyone in the assembly looked up quickly, began to smile, and then chuckle. With a feeling of dread, I completed the gospel, wondering what had caused their mirth. The Irish priest began his sermon in Italian by thanking me, the American deacon, and then said: “I’m sure our American friend meant to say that Jesus called the disciples to take up the cross and follow him. He did not say that his disciples should take up the cross and stuff him as if he were starving.” As you can imagine, I had mispronounced the Italian word for “follow” and provided everyone with a good laugh.

In that 12th century church, you’ll find one of the largest mosaics in Rome on the apse, the back wall behind the altar. At the center of the mosaic is the image that appears on the cover of today’s worship program: Jesus Christ affixed to the great tree of life, his mother on one side and the beloved disciple on the other. Look carefully and you can see that living branches grow and swirl from the tree, branches filled with various flowers and birds. One is no longer looking at a barren cross on a desolate hill but rather at a garden in which all things flourish.

Of course, this is to suggest that the cross itself contains more than one meaning, more than one interpretation. In today’s gospel, Jesus announces that his manner of life – his words and his actions – will lead to suffering from those who oppose his words and actions. Among his most ardent followers, Peter – who’s just received an honorable name from Jesus – now says, in essence, “Let there be no suffering. We want an easy life.” And there you have it: the beginning of the deformation of the Christian way of life as something easy to take on because it presumably asks for no change in one’s affections or convictions; no change in one’s values or behaviors; and certainly no sacrifice. To this deformation, Jesus responds, “Take up the cross and follow me.”

But then we ask, what does it mean to take up the cross?  Certainly it does not mean to invent new sufferings, thinking that such suffering is pleasing in the eyes of God or others. Nor is it the call to abide the suffering induced by the world and put up with its injustices. Rather, the cross is the vibrant proclamation, the visible icon that there is suffering in the world, unjust suffering, and the Christian’s calling to engage and alleviate such suffering.

Paul offers a vision of what it means to embrace this way of life shaped by the cross: let your love be genuine; outdo one another in showing honor to each other; contribute to the needs of others; extend hospitality to strangers; associate with the lowly; never avenge yourselves. That is, where these affections and actions are alive, there we will find life flourishing. But such flourishing will ask something of you and me and that is the need to give up any notion that the Christian way of life is easy and is easily accommodated to the frequently self-serving and narcissistic values of the culture we inhabit.

I wonder, then, if we can expand our understanding of the cross to include not only humans but also the world, the earth, itself. Perhaps, the image in the apse of St. Clement can help us, for there we see the great tree of life inspired by what we hear in the last book of the Bible: “[An] angel showed me the river of the water of life flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the city. On the side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit … and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” On this tree of life, we see Jesus crucified, that is, we see a love for others that is genuine, a love that leads to service among the lowly, a sacrifice for the good of others, including the many species and creatures who inhabit God’s earth but are in danger of extinction.

Is it possible, then, to imagine that taking up the cross can mean this for us: that we now see God’s earth on fire, with drought and with flooding, and are called to extend our hospitality to the earth itself; to contribute to the needs of endangered species; to resist those forces that continue to pollute and heat up the earth for the sake of profit; to associate with and protect the supposedly lowly: the animals, fish, and birds of our region; the rivers and trees that are a source of life for you and for me and for many other creatures.

I am mindful that whenever I dip my fingers in the baptismal font and make the sign of the cross over my forehead and my heart, I am tracing the tree of death and the tree of life into my life. Indeed, whenever we make the sign of the cross – at the beginning of the liturgy, at the proclamation of the gospel, before or after receiving holy communion – we are marking on ourselves two things: the truth that there is suffering in this world and the greater truth that we participate in a spiritual movement committed to the alleviation of such suffering through hospitality, resistance, care of others, and protection of the lowly. Dear friends, the grace of God is not simply an idea we read or contemplate: it is a powerful energy that is always, always seeking those who will let this divine energy transform this world into a living, breathing, and fruitful garden. The only question is this: will it find an open welcome in your life and mine? Amen.


Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Then Jesus told his 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. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

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