Proper 19 / Year B
I don’t know how many of you journal, but it can be a wonderful spiritual exercise. The process has a surprising way of allowing clarity to emerge. Such a moment happened for me on Thursday as I engaged in the weekly discipline of writing my portion of Friday’s e-news. Sometimes I enter into this chore well-aware of where Sunday’s sermon is heading. Other times I am lost at sea. In moments such as these, just opening myself to whatever is buried, but stirring, provides for me some direction. Last Thursday these words transmitted themselves from somewhere inside me, through a keyboard, and onto a computer screen:
More and more, as our world increasingly grows more complicated and our attempts to master it feel increasingly futile, it is worth coming back to the question of who we say Jesus is and what we believe Jesus calls us to do.
For me, at least, this brought into focus so much of what has been weighing on me and weighing me down over the last few weeks…
· A pandemic raging out of control.
· A 20-year-long war coming to an inglorious end.
· A nation divided.
· An economy which feels like it is teetering on a precipice of disaster.
· Half of our country is on fire and half is under water.
· Our church, like almost every congregation everywhere, struggles to find a way to move forward in these unprecedented times.
· Our members continue to grapple with setbacks, crisis, and heartbreak while we are so limited in our ability to express compassion.
· We struggle to find ways to respond to the needs of our neighbors, such as the folks who used to live in the Suffolk Tower.
And me personally… well, none of you came here this morning to listen to me drone on about the burdens I carry. Let’s just say pretty much every day this week I had to muster every ounce of energy and every pound of motivation just to get out of bed each morning and face the day. I am keenly aware I am not in a place all that different from many of you.
This morning we hear Jesus pose what is the single most important question in human history: Who do you say that I am? Peter famously answers, “You are the Messiah.” He is right, of course, but misunderstands exactly what this means. Consider the context. Jesus’ older cousin (John the Baptist) has been brutally executed. Jesus knows he is next and says so plainly. Peter, thinking a messiah can just snap his fingers and make all the world’s problems evaporate, openly rebukes what Jesus says: “This will never happen to you.”
Apparently Jesus as Messiah is not in a position to make life problem free – not for himself and not for us. What he is able to do is show us how to walk in midst of a troubling world. The pathway looks like this: “Deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow Jesus. If you want to save your life you will lose it, and if you lose your life in pursuit of the Gospel you will find it. What will it profit you to gain the world if you lose what is most important in life in the process?”
This, I think, is the heart of Jesus’ teaching. It is a two-part process: let go and lean in. Let go of living for yourself alone and lean in to those around you by drawing in on God’s power of love to work in and through you.
We are blessed to have an example of what this looks like here with us this morning as we welcome Michael Cantrell as our Interim Music Director. Michael works full-time as a physical therapist and to the best of my knowledge was not seeking to get back into church music at this point in his life. But one of his patients is a local clergy person and Michael happened to tell him about his music ministry in a Chicago area church prior to relocating to Hampton Roads. When my colleague learned we needed a person to fill in while we conduct a search, he shared Michael’s contact information with me. When I reached out I suspect the last thing this young man expected when he answered his phone was my request to help us here at St. Paul’s. It would have been so easy for him to decline, to say he was not interested, or to say he is not yet settled enough to add something like this onto his plate. But he let go and he leaned in and we are grateful.
This weekend, as we pause to remember the events of twenty years ago, we remember the heroes who responded, some of whom made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of others. They let go of their own personal safety and leaned in to save as many as possible. Those who participated in the massive search and recovery effort risked much in order to save a few and to bring as much dignity as possible to the remains of the dead. They too let go and leaned in. And in our world today, we think about our first responders and frontline workers (such as health professionals, teachers, and people employed in the service economy) who accept the risk of contracting the Covid virus simply by doing their jobs. They are letting go and leaning in every day!
In the years that have passed since 9/11 we have erected memorials and rebuilt with steel and stone and glass, yet it feels like we more are spiritually impoverished now than we were on that dreadful day. We have not learned how to love our enemies and to pray for those who seek to do us harm (as Jesus teaches). By demonizing the other, we have invited a poison into our own society. Our country is fractured and furious and unable to look at the face of another with the humanity necessary to see not just a child of God, but even a fellow citizen. We are feverishly holding on to everything we can and leaning away from anyone and anything that does not reinforce who we are and what we believe. What has it profited us to gain the world but to lose the core sense of who we are as a people?
During my family research I came across a memorable story from the life of William Cochran, Jr., a Pennsylvania and decent person who was one of my Great-great-great grandfathers. It seems two of his neighbors got into a quarrel. One neighbor had an counted on using an access road that ran through the property of another neighbor. Well, the man owning the vital property, fenced in the land, thereby making it impossible for the other to get off his own land. You can imagine how tense things must have been. Well, Grandpa Will/Willie/Bill/Billy/William or whatever he was called, did the only thing an 85-year-old man living in 1886 could do. He picked up an ax and worked tirelessly to hew a new path through his own property to provide for the hemmed in neighbor a new access path to the outside world. Let go and lean in, allowing God’s power of love to work in and through you!
When I think about the mythology of what it means to be an American (let alone a Christian), William Cochran’s witness is one of so many examples that come to mind. With such inspiring models to emulate, why do I want to pull the covers over my head each morning in an attempt to create a safer, saner space? Well, over the last twenty years, the American spirit, which once found strength in diversity, mustered compassion for the needy, and honored virtue and self-sacrifice as a way to create a better world for all, has become meaner, pettier, more selfish, and more agnostic. As our world increasingly grows more complicated, our attempts to master it feel increasingly futile.
I recognize I am just one person with one voice being heard by only a couple dozen people, so most likely not much will come from what I say today. However, Jesus was one person with one voice and in today’s reading it was heard by just a dozen people. But he lived out what he taught and they learned to live it out too. And here we are 2,000 years later, listening to what Jesus said and wondering how we might live out its wisdom in our day and age. Of what are you being challenged to let go and where are you being called to lean in by allowing God’s power of love to work in and through you?