Pentecost 17, Proper 19 Church of the Good Shepherd, Silver City, NM, Hymns in the Limbs, Rev. Paul Moore
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A dozen years ago our middle son, Andrew, got married. Karisse and I decided to pay for one last family vacation back to Ecuador to show our new daughter-in-law the land in which her new husband had spent his formative years. We went to the beach, we visited the tribe I grew up in, we got Montezuma’s revenge, we shopped in the cities and markets, and we had a fantabulous time.
One of the highlights of the trip for me, though, was a three-day backpacking trip the boys and I took in the mountains. The women-folk rode with us to the drop-off point, a trailhead that took us through a pass at 13,500 feet. Leni and Landon are both athletic young men who hike and camp frequently. Andrew is much more of a bookish man, given to heights of knowledge rather than heights of hills. Andrew got altitude sickness really bad, he seriously doubted he could make it and he wanted to turn back, but we encouraged him, reminding him that the car had already left. We promised to help him through, and he soldiered on.
We dropped down into the Parcacocha basin, skirted the lake and worked our way back up to a series of small lakes I knew as a teen. Andrew had to stop and rest frequently. We lightened his load, and forced fluids, and he soldiered on.
When we got to our camp spot we found out that Leni’s stove, that would burn any fuel you could put in it, would NOT burn diesel fuel at 13,000 feet at anything better than about 25% capacity. We ate cold food (that Andrew had prepared and brought along!) We fished and struggled to cook the delicious trout to safe levels. Andrew stayed in camp while the rest of us took a day-hike the second day. He felt miserable, but he soldiered on.
The third day we hiked down, around a mountain, along the side of a small reservoir built in the 60’s to provide hydroelectric power, and onto the gravel road out of the mountains. By now Andrew was feeling better. He had made it this far. We still had about 5 miles to hike, and we were tired, muddy and hungry, but Andrew soldiered on. Finally, we turned the corner, looking like long-lost mountain men, took thorough showers, and joined our women-folk in the thermal hot springs at Papallacta.
Andrew was a study in reflection. On the one hand, he had struggled mightily, and on the other hand, he had soldiered on and finished the course. He felt humbled and satisfied, and inside rather delighted with himself that he had made it through with his much more athletic brothers. Our ordeal in the mountains (for that is certainly what it was for Andrew) is something we look back on and smile. We spin yarns around it, we laugh and joke. But we all remember it, for these kinds of experiences are metaphors for a very profound truth.
The paths of the spirit are not unlike Andrew’s journey. They inevitably take us into the wilderness and back again. We see that clearly in today’s Scripture lessons. The Old Testament lesson relates how the prophet has suffered mightily at the hands of his enemies, but he is confident that in the end God will vindicate him. The Psalm for today describes the experience of someone coming close to death and being brought back from the edge of the precipice. The Epistle lesson from James warns of the trials of the tongue, that is so often the source of our suffering, as well as our glory.
The Gospel lesson plays it all out in dramatic fashion: Jesus asks the disciples who people think he is. Some say John the Baptist come back from the dead, some say Elijah or one of the prophets, but Peter comes out with that iconic statement, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus, while he should be smiling big and giving Peter a hug, instead launches on a big downer. Jesus has his own ordeal to go through, and Peter’s opinion of that is not very welcome to Jesus; but the meat of the issue emerges when he says, “Take up your cross daily, deny yourself, and follow me.” The way of Jesus is through the Cross to resurrection; the way of the Christian is also through the Cross to resurrection.
What does it mean to take up your cross and follow Jesus, then? It means that grace is free, but it is not cheap.
Grace is free in that there is nothing we do or can do to deserve it. God stands on the street corners of the world offering freely given love and acceptance in the loving acts of people around the world every day, all day. There is no list of qualifications, no preconditions and no requirements. In a very real sense, there is no past, for whatever your past, no matter what it is, does not disqualify you from receiving the freely given gift. It’s like the life my mother gave me at birth.
On the other hand, it is not cheap. As soon you receive it things change, and there is no going back. You are now in intentional relationship with the very ground of your being. The purposes for which you were created become the bedrock of your moral, social and economic self. When Jesus said, “I am the Truth,” he meant it. Now you’ve got an anchor point, a touchstone, a place from which to take a look at yourself and say, “Yes, this is OK,” or “oops, this isn’t so OK.”
That questioning grows on us, layer by layer, (like an onion!) deeper and deeper until it gets to that point where the bedrock of your being challenges the rule of your ego. Then you run into Jesus’ words, “Take up your cross, deny yourself and follow me. When Jesus said, “I am the Way,” he meant it.
The key is in those meddlesome words in today’s Gospel are, “deny yourself.” They are meddlesome because for some of us, denying ourselves is not something we’re used to doing. We have gifts to give, we are leaders, we have done important things in the world that have made the world a better place, thank you. We have also done things that make sure the world knows that it is was we who did it. We are important, and we hardly want to give that up. More subtly, our world revolves around us. We find we are locked in our own little corner, and we see the world from that corner. If we are completely honest with ourselves, we will admit that leaving that corner and looking back at it scares us so much it feels like we’re going to die. It’s a lie, of course, we will not die, but our egos are incapable of seeing this, and that’s where we’re living, which makes the word “deny yourself” is so meddlesome!
For others they are meddlesome because it seems that that is all we ever do. We are always making way for others’ needs, often at the expense of our own. We are always serving and rarely served. We are not in the limelight, and sometimes being on the sidelines gets tiresome or downright irksome. We have been taught that one does not seek the limelight. We have been told that we are to serve without being served (with the implication that we don’t deserve to be served, or that to be served would be to feed our pride.) We feel trapped between social and spiritual expectation and a healthy sense of self-worth. Is Jesus asking us to just keep on being the smiling doormat everyone steps on?
No, and I say it emphatically, NO! It’s not about being a doormat, for humans are not meant to be doormats for other people’s unrestrained egos. Humans are made to shine forth the image of Christ, the one who gave his life freely for us out of love that we all might live—including him.
The Cross is the way of the Christian, and we are not free to trace the path of our own cross, because Jesus did it for us. Self-giving love, the kind that comes from spirit and not from ego, the kind that can stand outside of our own little corner and look at the world through the eyes of God’s love, gives what one can give out of love (and of course, not give what one cannot give, for that would not be love!)
The Cross is the way of the Christian, but we are free to trace just how we will live it out. Each of us has gifts to give; each of us has riches to share. Each of us picks up our OWN cross, defined by the circumstances, history and trajectory of our OWN living, and out of our own loving free will, we choose how to engage in Christ-like love.
This is what the Church calls stewardship: Using what we have to respond to the needs of the Church and the world, out of love for God and God’s creation. We say it every Sunday before our services in our mission statement:
We seek to be a spiritual home for all (God’s life)
Where we love God and God’s creation (God’s truth)
And share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. (God’s way.)
If free grace is like the life my mother gave me at birth, the price of grace is the work of building relationships in the family.
Here are a couple of questions to ponder:
Where in your life have you become aware of freely given grace?
How might God be calling you to take up YOUR cross and follow him?
Take a moment to ponder, and then we will give us all about 2 minutes to share some of your reflections with your neighbor if you would like to be so bold. Maybe you would like to write something down about these questions, there is a space in the bulletin for you to do so. If you would share those stories with me I would be most grateful!