Sermon for Holy Communion, Memphis, TN
I was in Costa Rica last week for a meeting of Anglicans from all the American provinces of the Communion: Canada, TEC, Mexico, IARCA, Brazil, and Uruguay and Peru of the Southern Cone. Only the West Indies wasnt there. We were there to talk about mission, and how we can be more effective partners.
We were standing around in the middle of San Jose in the early afternoon of Ash Wednesday, waiting to walk to the downtown church, when I heard a noise behind me. It sounded like a hard piece of plastic skittering across the cobblestones. I turned, and at first I wasnt sure what I was seeing. It turned out to be a snub nosed pistol, and the older gentleman who had dropped it was trying to gather it up as quickly as he could. He looked extremely sheepish as he picked it up, turned toward a police officer standing there, and tried to hide what he was doing as he tucked it back into his waistband, and pulled his jacket back over it. And then he walked off toward his next appointment, glancing back at the cop, who was studiously ignoring him.
This fellow was obviously embarrassed maybe even ashamed that his secret weapon had been revealed. Its an interesting counterpoint to what Jesus says, that those who are ashamed of him and his words will be ignored when he comes around again. The contrast is that Jesus words are no weapon at all, but instruments of peace.
Those words of Jesus are a challenge, particularly about losing our souls in order to save them. And soul is a better translation than life, because the word behind it, psuche, is really talking about what gives energy and passion and direction to our lives. If we want to find abundant life, its going to mean letting go of all the lesser things that we think are most central like that fellow packing heat, thinking it would keep him safe. Hed have been better off to leave it there in the city square. I was surprised to see in the local paper a couple of days ago that people in Tennessee and in Arkansas are wrestling with similar issues about concealed weapons.
But Jesus words are a whole lot broader, and they have more to do with what the psalmist points to: a God who hears the cries of the poor, and expects a nation of justice where the poor can eat and be satisfied. Setting our minds on divine things is how we follow Jesus into life.
What are the human things on which we set our minds, rather than divine things? Abraham and Sarah were concerned obsessed, even about finding eternity in their descendants, yet they couldnt seem to produce any. I had a wonderful conversation with a fellow Episcopalian recently, who happens to be an Ob/Gyn at a teaching hospital. He said at one point in the conversation that a good part of our lasting legacy is in our DNA, and that it doesnt matter that he has daughters, that they could pass on his genes just as well as sons, and that in some sense offers him a bit of immortality. He was most definitely not being blasphemous or heretical he was pointing to a significant bit of reality. But the conversation points in the same direction: what are the human things in which we put our trust, and which the divine?
He also shared something about a student hes working with right now, a young Muslim woman from Lebanon, whos studying to be a physicians assistant. He related some fascinating conversations with her about gender roles, and her perfect comfort in segregated worship. She doesnt mind being in the back or in a separate place during worship, because, as she says, you wouldnt want a man to be distracted by seeing the outline of a womans body under her covering, would you? The question remains: what are the human things, and which are divine?
Where do we find our security? What do we insist on that prevents us from seeing other godly possibilities? Peter was sure that Jesus wasnt supposed to be in danger that just wouldnt do. But Jesus reminds him that God works in ways that we havent yet experienced, and that may make no sense. Resurrection? Life out of death? Well, it wasnt in Peters experience or understanding of possibility, so he gets after Jesus and rebukes him.
That kind of impossibility underlies the witness of the martyrs of Memphis, those faithful women and men who stayed behind to tend the sick through a yellow fever epidemic in 1878. The cross of caring they took up led to their deaths.
90 years later, the dean of your cathedral took up another cross and quite literally carried it down Poplar Street, leading a group of religious leaders to visit the mayor and call for an end to the garbage strike, the day after MLK was assassinated. It eventually led to more abundant life in this place and across this nation. Dean Dimmick labored against common expectations that race relations would always be the way people remembered growing up black in one place and white in another, and what little interaction there was with strict rules around it. Well, slowly this nation remembered or discovered that God has other things in mind for us all, that we are all Gods children, and that segregation does not lead to the reign of God.
What security or certainty keeps you from picking up a cross?
Lent is supposed to include self-denial, which is one reason this gospel turns up so regularly: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Self-denial takes many forms. The ones were most familiar with have to do with giving up chocolate for Lent, or dessert, or as one of my monk friends did, coffee. That kind of self-denial is often understood like athletic training its a way of getting our appetites under control. If something has become a crutch, maybe we should set it down so we can take up a cross instead.
But there are other forms of self-denial that are probably even more important for those in a different stage on their spiritual journey. For some, particularly those on the margins of society, self-denial itself may be what needs to be put away. Women in societies where they are taught that they have no worth, or exist only as objects of others need for service, need to put down that crutch and take up the cross that looks like becoming a friend of Jesus, capable of mature relationship. Its the fundamental move for those who are trying to leave abusive marriages. You have to love yourself in order to love others as God loves.
Even though its not always explicit, self-denial is meant to be focused on the positive rather than the negative, like eating more simply, so that others can simply eat.
But the self-denial that probably has the most significance for most of us here has to do with our favorite ways of seeing the world. Fasting from our current or ancient prejudice is one of the hardest of all Lenten disciplines. Can we see into the person behind that unusual accent, or this skin color, and see the image of God? Can we find the creative moving of the spirit behind the political party label? Can we set down the self-preoccupation that says I have the only version of truth? Once our hands have been relieved of that burden, we just might be able to pick up our cross and follow Jesus, like following Dean Dimmick down to City Hall. We pick up that cross to discover for ourselves a place where heaven and earth intersect, and to lead others there as well. We journey with the cross in order to find the more abundant life for which God created us all for the reign of God.
Help us trade our crutches for crosses, O Lord, guns for vulnerability, worldviews for openness to the moving of your spirit. May your kingdom come, O Lord, and speedily.