Thursday, March 20 – The Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers

Tonight’s Gospel is a study in contrasts:

One man is rich; the other, decidedly not.

The rich man is clothed in fine linen, with purple robes that signify his wealth, his power, and his privilege. The poor man’s body is covered with sores, his anguish amplified by the dogs who lick his sores, perhaps because he’s too feeble to chase them away.

The rich man feasts every day, his table loaded with sumptuous foods and fine wines, while the poor man languishes at the gate, famished, longing for even the smallest scrap of leftovers.

Curiously, in this story the poor man has a name – Lazarus. The rich man does not.

Their fortunes are dramatically reversed when they die. Lazarus’s suffering is finally relieved, as he is carried up to heaven to rest in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man ends up in Hades, a place of torment where even a drop of water to cool his tongue would be a blessed relief. But the rich man who feasted so extravagantly in life can receive nothing.

In death, the rich man and Lazarus are divided by a vast chasm that cannot be crossed, just as in life, a wall protected the rich man, and Lazarus could go no further than the gate.

Who do you identify with? For this congregation, it would not be Lazarus, would it? Are there ways in which we are like the rich man, well fed and well dressed, walled off from the neediest members of society?

As the scriptures appointed for Lent so often do, this story challenges us to look deep within and face honestly the ways that we fall short, the ways that we fail to see and respond to the needs of others. We began our worship tonight with a short passage from the First Letter of John: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

I wonder how this parable might help us open our eyes not only to the privilege that comes with wealth, but to other forms of privilege.

Many years ago, I was invited to design liturgy for a meeting of the Episcopal Church’s Council for Women’s Ministries. The group had been organized in 1983 as an umbrella organization for women’s groups throughout the Episcopal Church, enabling them to collaborate and support one another in their particular ministries. The Council was celebrating its tenth anniversary, and its leaders wanted a big celebration, one that gathered more women than just the leaders of each constituent group.

A core value of this group was a commitment to racial and ethnic diversity. That week, my experiences taught me just a little about my ways of leadership as a white woman. I needed liturgical ministers, so I created a sign-up sheet, and at one of the first sessions, I made an announcement and invited people to sign up. Soon after the session ended, one of the leaders pulled me aside. “You can’t just do a sign-up sheet,” she said very gently. “In some cultures, people don’t put themselves forward. They need to be invited. If you leave it for people to volunteer themselves, the only people you’ll have as liturgical ministers will be white.”

As is common for such events, there was a conference T-shirt. Five women’s faces are depicted, different skin tones and hair colors suggesting different races and ethnicities. The women’s hair is braided together, long, beautiful braids pointing to the group’s efforts to weave together women from many different cultural backgrounds.

Toward the end of the conference, representatives of the different women’s organizations made presentations about their work. Several women, all women of color, stood up and began to speak together, “You put us in your braid, now listen to our needs. You put us in your braid, now give us staff support from the Church Center. You put us in your braid, now put us in your budget.”

In the Episcopal Church, a predominantly white institution then as now, white privilege is everywhere, a cultural norm that can be difficult to see and even more difficult to subvert. The privilege of the majority creates a vast chasm, one that is not easily bridged despite good intentions, however many beautiful braids we might weave.

A few months after the Council for Women’s Ministries met, the House of Bishops issued a pastoral letter on the sin of racism, a letter they understood as the beginning of a series of teachings. “In this introductory message,” they wrote, “we evoke words and images sacred to our tradition. We share with you an analysis of the current dynamics of racism, confess our complicity with that evil, declare a covenant with each other to work to eliminate racism wherever we find it in church and society, and invite all Episcopalians to join us in a mission of justice, reconciliation and unity.”

Today in the Episcopal Church, we are still enmeshed in the sin of racism, this evil that enslaves us, this evil that we do and that is done on our behalf.

At the spring meeting of the House of Bishops that just concluded, the bishops spent three days working on questions of race, diversity, and inclusion. Episcopal News Service reported that this effort was conceived “in the aftermath of the August 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.”[i] At the March 2015 meeting of the House of Bishops, they decided it was time to write a new letter to the Episcopal Church about racism.

But a few months later, meeting at General Convention, the writing team decided they needed to do something different. They needed to address the issues of power, privilege, and race directly, deepening their commitment to the difficult work of racial justice, developing their capacities for leading their dioceses in this vital task.

The bishops’ work is a step in breaking down the wall of privilege, chipping away at a barrier that divides us within the Episcopal Church and in our world. It is Gospel work, rooted in Jesus’ command to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” rooted in a baptismal vision that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female.

At the conclusion of the House of Bishops meeting, Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism, reconciliation, and creation, acknowledged that the work continues. “For Episcopalians, the work will always be inner work and outer work,” she said. “It’s figuring out what are my biases, what are my fears, what line of difference am I most terrified of crossing and how is God growing my heart. I have to be doing that even as I look around at systems and ask the questions about structure or racism, structural discrimination.”

Last fall, a call went out to the Episcopal Church from North Dakota, where water protectors had been camped for months, protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline because it would disturb land sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and threaten their drinking water. Over 500 people responded to that call. They gathered around a sacred fire one evening to prepare for public protest the next day. Elder Regina Brave addressed the crowd, “We knew you were coming; that one day you would come here and start asking questions about your government,” she said, “We are all children of God. Black, red, yellow, white, are all represented.”[ii]

In that moment, people reached across the chasm, those with privilege and those without standing together in solidarity to hold the United States government accountable to fulfill its treaty obligations.

The work continues, at Standing Rock, in our churches, in our nation and in our world. Breaking down dividing walls, bridging the chasms that separate us, is Gospel work. It requires transformation of our hearts and concrete action in our lives.

A few minutes ago, I asked who you identify with in tonight’s parable. Perhaps we are neither Lazarus nor the rich man, but the siblings of the rich man, still on earth, still able to change our ways. We, too, have Moses and the prophets, calling us to do justice and love mercy. We also follow Jesus, the crucified and risen One, who invites us into new life, turning our hearts to our neighbors who are in need and empowering us for the Gospel work of reconciliation.

[i] Mary Frances Schjonberg, “Episcopal bishops make three-day journey into diversity and inclusion,” Episcopal News Service, March 15, 2017,  http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2017/03/15/episcopal-bishops-make-three-day-journey-into-diversity-and-inclusion/.

[ii] Lynette Wilson, “Peaceful, prayerful, nonviolent stand of solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux,” Episcopal News Service, November 4, 2016,  http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2016/11/04/peaceful-prayerful-nonviolent-stand-of-solidarity-with-the-standing-rock-sioux/.

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Tuesday, March 14 – Marguerite Judson

This sermon was preached for Tuesday, March 14 by Marguerite Judson. The texts for this sermon are: Isaiah 1:2-4, 16-20, Psalm 50:7-15, 22-24, and Matthew 23:1-12.

We’re in trouble. Again!

The Holy One is taking us to court. Our sacrifices at worship are offensive. Our attempts to figure out just what God is asking of us are not working!

And it’s just as true now as when today’s lessons were written. No matter whether we reflect on the passage from Isaiah, the portions of today’s Psalm, or Jesus’ conversation with the disciples (of which we hope we are one!) about knowledgeable and rigorous religious obedience, it’s clear that we are in trouble!

When we look at the first chapter of Isaiah, we find all the legal setting for the Holy One taking the community of faith to court. Creation itself is called to witness. Our rejection of the Holy One who loves us is laid out. Not just rejection…but despising God, being completely estranged from the One who created and loves us.

I think it is important to also look at the verses which were skipped in today’s lesson. What evidence does the Holy One bring against us in Isaiah? How is it obvious that we have rejected God?

As God’s words are so vividly paraphrased in The Message,

“Quit your worship charades. I can’t stand your trivial religious games: Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings— meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more!

Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them! You’ve worn me out! I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning. When you put on your next prayer-performance, I’ll be looking the other way. No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I’ll not be listening. And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing

people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.

I watch the news and I see it happening, “…you’ve been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.”

I reflect on the ways I judge other people, condemning them for their use of political power, and discover that I am tearing people to pieces in my heart.

This weekend I did the Creating a Culture of Peace training which made it painfully clear how important it is to have compassion or empathy for opponents. I experienced how compassion is necessary to build justice, it is essential when I strive to “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

Thanks, but it’s much easier to focus on what YOU, and other people, are doing wrong!

But still the Holy One offers mercy, invites us to reason it out, to examine what we are doing in the light of what God calls us to do. If we change our ways, God will wash away our sins. If we keep going the way we’ve been going, the natural consequence is to be destroyed by violence. The violence which flows from injustice.

The lessons don’t get any easier to take when we turn to the Gospel of Matthew.

It is important to remember that Jesus tells the disciples to do what the scribes and Pharisees teach.

You might, like me, get caught up on the criticism “do what they say, not what they do” but that’s not the point. None of us is perfect; not scribes, Pharisees, bishops, arch deacons, professors, seminarians, people of faith, searchers, political activists, or family members.

But we might get side tracked by how good we look while we’re doing good!

I am reminded of a vivid lesson at a week-long training I attended 20 years ago as I started doing fundraising. Someone who was raising money for a university spent months and months with one donor, discussing, planning, and finalizing a very large gift. Once the donor signed on the dotted line, then this fundraiser worked with a fundraising team to do a special dinner at which everyone could celebrate

what a big difference this gift would make. Speeches were made, pictures where taken…all of the donor and the dean. The fundraiser was NOT in the picture.

And one of the people on the fundraising team realized: I hate this…I can’t do a job like that, to always be on the sidelines, and NOT be in the picture. So he resigned.

How am I, how are we, like that team member? Must we be recognized by other people for the good things we do? How loudly must I proclaim being on the right side of an issue?

Our goals may be good, our actions could be right, but our focus may be wrong.

During this lent, may our prayer be:

Lord, help us to hate sin. Pour out your healing love, that we may turn to you. Help us to quietly and fiercely, learn how to seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. For we long to walk closely with you and with your beloved people; all people to whom you give the gift of life; all of creation which sings your glory; and with the angels and saints – past and future – among whom we now stand. In your holy name we pray. Amen.

Prayers of the People, Tuesday, March 14

Each week student lay assistants compose original Prayers of the People for our Eucharist services. The following was written for Tuesday Eucharist, March 14 by first-year student, Phil Hooper. 

In humility and in love, let us offer our intercessions to the Exalted One in Whom all things are reconciled and renewed, responding to “God, in Your Mercy” with “Hear our Prayer”.

Bless your Body, the church, O God.  Animate us with your Spirit, that the breath of life and truth may emanate from our lips.  Sustain us with the Blood of your Son, that it may course through our limbs and bleed joyfully in Your service.  Illuminate us with Your loving power, that our eyes may be lamps dispelling all darkness.  

God, in Your Mercy, Hear our Prayer

Guide this nation, and all nations, ever closer to the justice and peace of Your heavenly kingdom.  Inspire our leaders, that they may walk hand in hand with Wisdom and in so doing, tread the pathways of the righteous.

God, in Your Mercy, Hear our Prayer

Look lovingly upon Your creation, O God.  Where there is degradation, show us the way toward restoration.  Where there is division, grant us the courage to seek understanding.  Where there is apathy, wound us with the tender painfulness of feeling, that we may live again in Your presence.

God, in Your Mercy, Hear our Prayer

Be with this community, O God, as it grows, flourishes, and becomes rooted, ever deeper, in the mission to which you have called us.  Show us how to care for one another, how to inspire one another, and how to walk alongside one another in humility.

God, in Your Mercy, Hear our Prayer

Bestow your consolation on those who need it most, O God: those who tremble alone in the darkness, those who fear the light of a new day, those who, in their pain, are blind to the quiet yet insistent beauty of the ordinary.  We pray especially for those who are sick, suffering, or otherwise in need, especially: ________ and those we now name.

God, in Your Mercy, Hear our Prayer

Run gladly, O God, with joyful abandon, to embrace all those who have departed this life.  Welcome them as sojourners, arriving home at long last, and grant them a seat alongside all Your saints at the eternal heavenly banquet.  We commend to you especially ______ and those we now name.

God, in Your Mercy, Hear our Prayer

 

Thursday, March 9 – Dr. Rod Dugliss

This sermon was preached on Thursday, March 9 by Dr. Rod Dugliss. The texts for this sermon are: Esther 14:1-6, 12-14, Psalm 138, and Matthew 7:7-12.

One of the things I notice as a result of the current upheaval in our national life is how different, old and familiar words and passages of scripture now sound. Not a word has changed. The context in which they reverberate has changed. They now teach, puzzle, inspire us to see, understand, and act in new ways.

Pericopes and passages that were once smooth stones in our hand have become rough, or perhaps are now one of those smooth stones chosen by David to take down the bully, Goliath.

Evolving in context is a key part of what happens to Esther in tonight’s reading. The Book of Esther is well known as the one book in the Bible which does not mention God. It is a narrative of human cleverness and courage. As such it has inspired and comforted secular and observant Jews for centuries. It provided a festival in which children can wear costumes and a distinctive cookie named after the villain.

But under the harsh oppression of the Seleucids and then the Romans in years just preceding the birth of Jesus, the resurgence of anti-semitic threat and violence rendered Esther’s story inadequate. The text was appended throughout to call the reader back, through her story, to a relationship with and reliance upon the Covenant God. So tonight we hear an Esther who has withdrawn to figure out how she can possibly save her people from pogrom, praying urgently–”help me who am alone and have no helper but you O Lord.” A verse from tonight’s psalm tells us  the response she received; “When I called you answered me, you increased my strength within me.” So strengthened, Esther can act.

Jesus teaches his followers and us, to ask, search, knock. . . and be assured of God’s response. This can easily become or be seen as a formula, as an injunction to be perpetual petitioning, striving for more of . . . something. In the context of the great American Experiment this teaching has, for many, generated a transactional God who is supposed to fix and provide. Even more potently, it becomes a prosperity Gospel that links judgement and grace to accumulation. Those blest in their asking, searching, and knocking are obvious as the visibly, materially rewarded. Those not blest in their asking, searching, and knocking have erred in making bad choices—like opting for a cell phone instead of health insurance.

In these times we are called back to the heart of Jesus invitation. Ask: ask of God how shall we be in and with each other? Will you increase our strength within us so that we have courage, can be faithful, can be the change we desire? Search: search not for advantage but for the way, the way that is the incarnate Word, the way that is inexorable movement into the dream of God. The words of Eucharistic Prayer C thank God for gifting us with “memory, reason, and skill.” These words always grab my attention. They are the tools for searching. They invite us to bring our best to finding and living the way. In the midst of the cacophony of click-bait and the energy of fear we search, looking for the sure way of right relationship with God and each other. So simple. So hard.

Knock: knocking is something physical, sensate. It is a moment of possibility. “Knock” evokes a very personal image for me. One of the things we have appropriated from Buddhism is the practice of sounding a bowl-shaped bell. In good Western fashion we tend to use it in  our worship to mark time. I have been privileged for a number of years to do some retreat leading with a good friend and colleague who is a self-styled Quaker Buddhist. She brings to her dharma teaching and practice a large, resonant bell with a rich and arresting sound. A participant in one our retreats noticed that she first touched the bell and then paused before, in her terminology, inviting the bell. She explained that each sounding of the bell begins by “waking” it, bringing it present with a gentle tap. Then, with a gatha, or what we would hear as an invocation, the bell is invited. The final words of the gatha are, “may the sound of the bell call us to our true home.”

Knock. Let the sound of whatever we can attend to in the moment open for us the door, the way to our true home in God: our home in the moment—in every moment. Our ultimate home, at one with the One. When we know our true home, we are free to risk following the way wherever it takes us.

Again, in the context of radical individualism, in a church culture that keeps asking, “where are you on your personal spiritual journey,” the call to ask, search, knock can be heard as inviting a richer, deeper personal piety. Jesus sets this as work to be done in relationship with the final words we heard this night.  “In everything . . .everything . . do to (act for and with) others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

Some of these words are known as the Golden Rule. It has become a solid universal standard for a reciprocity that can minimize, if not eliminate, exploitation and mistreatment. For us, it is the insistence that we ask, search and even knock together. Asking, searching, knocking are the work of community often in very dark and risky circumstances.

This is how I finally “got” why the base community movement is so powerful, and why it has been suppressed by ecclesial hierarchs and secular tyrants. When people engage the law, the prophets, and the Good News as who they are, and where they are in any broken system, they ask, search, and knock together—and the powerful perspire. Asking, searching, knocking builds solidarity, not isolated individualism. This is why Pope Francis says of the movement, “the word solidarity frightens people in the developed world.”

In these dangerous, abusive, mendacious, grasping times; in this context, this is how we are invited to hear our Gospel for this night and for our common work in the worse that is sure to come.

AMEN

Tuesday, March 7 – Keith Howard

This sermon was preached for the First Tuesday in Lent by Keith Howard. The readings for the sermon are: Isaiah 55:6-11, Psalm 34:15-22, and Matthew 6:7-15.

In today’s lesson from Second Isaiah, we are taught that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.  We are also taught that we may never understand the mechanism by which God operates.  “Nor are your ways, my ways.”  God’s actions and thoughts differ from our own.  I suppose we should give God the benefit of the doubt and accept what God says.

If we are at seminary with the hope that we might lead people toward God, this lesson should give us all pause.  It suggests that what we think we know and what we think will be helpful in guiding others to God may be wrong.  How then, can we have confidence, stepping forward to the front of the line to lead and guide God’s church?

Today’s New Testament lesson gives us the essential equipment we need.  The lesson today is the Lord’s Prayer.  This prayer is located in Chapter 6 of book of Matthew (there is a shorter version in Luke).  It follows the Sermon on the Mount in Chapter 5.  In that passage, Jesus teaches his followers that much of what the world values is a mistake.  It is all upside down.  Jesus teaches that the meek shall inherit the earth; that peacemakers are blessed and that those who have pure hearts are blessed and they may see God. The Sermon on the Mount gives us insight into how the ways and thoughts of humans may differ from those of God.

After that sermon, he teaches us, his disciples, how to pray.

In today’s lesson, Jesus suggests that we focus on the Kingdom by praying secretly, in the way He instructs us.  The Greek word in the text translated as “secretly” could also mean “inwardly”.  These prayers, then, are for the inward journey.  He teaches his disciples a way to pray that helps us purify and turn our hearts to God.

Think about the structure of the prayer.  It has three parts.  First, we are to sacredly recall our source and creator, and ask for the divine presence to be in our lives here on earth.  Then we ask God to join into earthly time.  We seek Daily bread – spiritual and physical nourishment, today.   We ask for forgiveness for yesterday’s wrongs and release from future temptations.  We ask for this because we see the ultimate reality:  the Kingdom of God, power and glory forever.

By praying the Lord’s Prayer, we take the inward journey, we acknowledge our creator, we ask for support and forgiveness and we affirm the power of God.  Through this prayer, we strengthen our relationship with God.  We speak to God and God speaks to us.  The contemplative process opens our hearts and allows us to discern God’s direction for our actions.

Having prayed as we are commanded, we are strengthened and ready to take the next step, which is to act, in accordance with God’s commandments:  to love God and to love your neighbor, as yourself.

So as a leader, can you weigh the sacrifice and benefit of stepping to the front of the line?

Consider this: In the summer of 1964, a young man was ordained as a deacon by the Baptist church. Before the end of winter, he would be dead.  Beaten, shot, and beaten again all in the same night, by police after he had participated in an action related to the Alabama Civil Rights voter registration drive.  His name was Jimmie Lee Jackson.  Deacon Jackson had been working in Selma on the voting rights campaign, but on the night he was beaten, he was protesting in Perry County, about 30 miles to the north of Selma.

Since starting seminary at CDSP, I have spoken with people who grew up in Selma.  They told me that after Deacon Jackson was beaten, he was denied medical help in Perry County, because no hospitals in that county would treat African-Americans. Instead, he had to be driven the 30 miles back to Selma, where the Catholic Church had built a medical center to serve all races. Deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson succumbed to his injuries on February 26, 1965.

In response to his death, Civil Rights leaders in Selma organized a march from Selma to Montgomery, the Alabama state capital – about 55 miles away.  The march would symbolically lay Deacon Jackson’s body on the capitol steps and at the feet of Governor George Wallace.

Fifty-two years ago today, Sunday March the 7th, about 600 unarmed residents of the area started walking across the Edmund Pettis Bridge.  They were met by armed authorities and were beaten back, in a violent clash of city police, county sheriffs and deputized local citizens against the protestors.  Today is the anniversary of what we know as “Bloody Sunday”.

After two and one-half weeks of court battles, 25,000 marchers arrived in Montgomery.  On March 24th, on the capitol steps that Dr. King is remembered for speaking about Justice – and when it would be realized:

How long? He called. (How long?) Not long: the crowd responded (Not long).

Deacon Jackson and Dr. King, were Christian men of faith – a deacon and a pastor who took action in the world, standing up to civil authority that was violating the human rights of their fellows.  That action led to a chain of events that changed the course of modern American history – but also led to their deaths.

How could Deacon Jackson and Dr. King have confidence that it would be worth it?

How can we be confident that our actions in the world will result in a better world for all people?  “Our ways are not God’s ways.  Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts.”

The reading from Psalms 34, gives us hope.  That reading comes from a lesson taught by a sage to the children…… “Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” Psalm 34:11.

The teacher explains that righteousness is rewarded by God and that evil collapses of its own weight.

Listen to the end of the lesson again.

“Evil will slay the wicked;
the foes of the righteous will be condemned.
22 The Lord will rescue his servants;
no one who takes refuge in him will be condemned.” (Psalms 34: 21-22)

“Evil will slay the wicked.” This passage grounds our Christian actions in hope, in the knowledge that in the end, God’s will prevails.

It is this hope for the efficacy of our actions to bring about the Kingdom that empowered Dr. King, as he said: “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. (Yes, sir)

How long? Not long, (Not long) because:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; (Yes, sir).”

It is in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Christ that we know – that we are assured — that the order of the world is not as it seems and righteousness will overcome evil.  Blessed are the peacemakers.  The meek will inherit the earth. Blessed are the pure on heart.  As evil is all which is opposed to God, it collapses because it is not grounded in the foundation of God.

Deacon Jackson could not have known what was to follow as a result of his actions.  The 600 protestors on Bloody Sunday could not have known where the journey would lead.  Dr. King, standing on the steps of the Alabama capital could not have realized the reach of their protests.  And we will not know in the moment how our leadership will shape Christ’s followers and the world.  Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts and our ways are not God’s ways. But we can join with all who have preceded us and sacrificed their own agendas to God, by taking a confident first step on the bridge of faith which leads God’s people toward the kingdom.

Let their lives inspire us in faith and hope as we move ahead to lead others.

Amen

Thursday, March 2 – The Rev. Dr. Susanna Singer

This sermon was preached on the Thursday after Ash Wednesday, March 2, 2017 by the Rev. Dr. Susanna Singer. The texts for this sermon are: Deuteronomy 30: 15-20, Psalm 1, and Luke 9: 18-25.

“Choose life!” urges Moses in our first reading, and which one of us wouldn’t?  (I want to add, to our visitors, “Choose CDSP too!” but that’s probably not a legitimate use of the privilege of the pulpit!)  But isn’t life what we all want:  prosperity and blessings and length of days;  a noble purpose, a happy ever after ending, and a glorious legacy?

Moses, and our Psalmist too, make it clear that real life can be ours, if only we will serve and obey the living God.  I get suspicious about that, though, suspicious of myself, suspicious that what I think is life, and what I think is serving the living God, doesn’t actually have a lot to do with God’s vision.

There’s been a big and intractable example of this in my life for the past few years.  I live in San Francisco, and one of the things I face every day is the presence of chronically homeless people who live on the streets around my home.  And the religious exchange model that I construct from Deuteronomy and Psalm 1, the model that says that if I am only good enough, I will have the good things that I want, that model just doesn’t work in this situation.

Good enough?  Does that mean that all those suffering people I encounter every day are simply bad human beings, (not) getting what they (don’t) deserve?  I don’t think so.  Good enough?  Does that mean if I give enough, if I’m humane and pleasant enough, helpful enough, sympathetic enough … what will happen?

What I am secretly hoping of course, in my sinful, narrow little heart, is that this big problem will go away because it makes me too uncomfortable.  I’m hoping that “my” streets will magically be quiet and clean;  that I will not have to face the heartbreak of seeing people sick, cold, and hungry in “my” space;  and that I will not have to admit that I cannot solve this problem despite – or perhaps because of – all my privilege.  My secret hopes have nothing whatever to do with God’s vision of life, certainly not for the un-housed people on the streets, and not for me either.

And then Jesus comes along in tonight’s Gospel, and completes the job of busting my “be good and get goodies” religious racket.

Jesus is not who the disciples think he is;  the life he offers is not remotely what they expect;  and what he promises if they serve and obey the living God is absolutely not what they want.    The disciples are clear that most people see Jesus as a re-make of an old story: he’s John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the ancient prophets.  But above all he’s a known quantity, part of the established divine narrative, the story that promises the good life in exchange for faithfulness.

Peter, however, is bold enough to blurt out a new understanding:  maybe, just maybe, Jesus is the Messiah of God, the one sent to redeem Israel.  Now God knows, occupied Israel could do with some redeeming from the Empire of Rome.  But by proposing this new idea, Peter inadvertently opens a completely new can of worms.  He makes it possible for Jesus to reverse everyone’s preconceptions about who “the Messiah of God” will be, and what the new order of things that his life and death will inaugurate is all about.

It is not about any kind of military redemption, any kind of triumphant vindication for a subjugated and oppressed people.  It is all about suffering, rejection, and death.  Above all, for Jesus, it’s about taking up his cross – and for his followers, it’s about taking up their own cross.  The identity of the disciples of Jesus is apparently going to be a cross-shaped identity.

Now, that whole concept is a really hot potato.  It has been used by Christians to oppress many people – people of color, poor people, women, minorities – who have been told over and over again to take up their cross, usually by those who have a vested interest in maintaining their own power and privilege.  And it has been trivialized, over-used in relation to ordinary human suffering.  “Oh, it’s just my cross to bear.”  Of course all human suffering is real, and of course it should be taken seriously – God surely takes our suffering very seriously indeed.

But the cross is not ordinary, and it’s not about ordinary suffering.  It is, however, central – central to who Jesus is, central to what he calls us to do and to be as his disciples, and central to the upside-down kind of life he is offering us.

When Jesus tells us to take up our cross, he is telling us to identify with the class of people (including Jesus himself) who are most likely to be crucified – those who oppose unjust regimes, and who are poor and powerless besides.    Crucifixion was reserved especially for them, and it was designed to stamp out their humanity.

Other versions of this Gospel story portray the disciples’ dismay and rejection of this very idea, and especially of Jesus’ invitation to them to walk the same road.  And when it came to the point, they couldn’t, they didn’t walk that road with him.  Jesus took up his cross alone.

I am not wild about the idea that there’s a cross out there with my name on it, either.  So I need to wrestle with the implications of Jesus’ command to take up my cross – its implications for a disciple like myself, a person of privilege, whose life is constituted in such a way as to avoid suffering and loss at all costs.

The cross is solely and completely an instrument of death.  And Jesus is dead wrong about the “taking it up” thing.  Nobody, in his day, ever took up their cross willingly.  It was laid upon you, loaded onto your naked, bleeding back, by the executioners of the Empire.  Nobody “took it up,” except Jesus.

What Jesus did with the cross was to use it to shatter the moral foundations of the Empire, in which might makes right, in which money and power talk, in which the little people are under the boots of the conquerors, in which resisters get what is coming to them.[1]  Jesus turned that whole rotten system upside-down.

Not by being “the Messiah of God” that his disciples were hoping for.  Not by beating the Empire at its own game, but by taking vulnerable non-resistance to the level of an art form, in order to re-make the world – in all its violence – into the image of God.

“You want to come out with swords and cudgels to arrest me?

Let me heal your servant’s cut-off ear.

You want to intimidate me into telling you me who I am, and whose authority I work under?

Thank you, but no, I will not give you your answers – I operate under a different authority, so far above yours as to make you laughable.

You want to break me with your brutality, to make me curse God and die whimpering?

I will forgive you;  I will pray for you;  I will turn towards others in love even when I have been skewered naked onto the Empire’s torture and execution machine.”

It is because Jesus does this to death that resurrection happens.  His systematic taking apart of the Empire’s way of death makes space for God’s way of life to break through and change everything.

Jesus won that battle for us all, once and for all;  it doesn’t have to be won again.  But it has to be lived again, by us, in the only way we can – by taking up our own cross daily.  That means identifying with, standing in solidarity with, suffering with, all those whom today’s Empires brand as “God-forsaken:”  the outcasts, the despised, the resisters of the way-things-are, all the people who are treated as less than human.  It means standing up with and for people who get their crosses laid upon them, who don’t have the luxury of choosing whether to take them up or not, as I do.

For a respectable, privileged Christian like myself, taking up my cross means letting Jesus break apart, piece by piece, my own participation in the power of the Empire, just as he shattered the Empire itself from his cross.

In practical, everyday terms, it means letting go of my self-righteous indignation about “the homeless problem.”  It means coming out from behind my defenses and letting myself really see and be touched by the humanity of the people asleep on the San Francisco street outside my front door.  It means opening my mouth and speaking to them, asking their names, getting to know them as Linda and Nick and Lee and Judy – as children of God like me.  It means making their interests my own, and being willing to pay in full for doing that.  Only if I all do these things can the cross continue to do its subversive work of shaking the moral foundations of the Empire in my own life, which is in part built on imperial privilege.

The hymn we will sing at the end of tonight’s service ends like this:  “For only those who bear the cross may hope to wear the glorious crown.”  But the thing is, cross and crown are not an exchange.  We’re so far beyond the world of exchange here.  When you follow Jesus, the cross is the only crown that there is.

Working out how to help my sinful, narrow little heart say yes to that truth just a little bit more fully is going to be my daily work this Lent.  Only in this way I can serve and obey the living God and choose real life.

[1] I am indebted to my colleague, Paul Fromberg, for this understanding of the cross.

Image from TracyHall Art.