Sunday, September 5, 2010

15 Pentecost

September 5, 2010


+ This week in the Episcopal Church’s Calendar of saints, we commemorate a group of truly remarkable people. On Thursday, we will commemorate Blessed Constance and the so-called “Martyrs of Memphis.” The Martyrs of Memphis are a fascinating group of saints in the church.

Dr. Scott Morris summarizes the Martyrs of Memphis in this way:

In 1878, a yellow fever epidemic struck Memphis and killed 5,150 people in a brief period of time. The city’s rich fled to St. Louis, leaving the poor and middle class to fend for themselves.

A notable exception was a group of Episcopal nuns known as the Sisterhood of St. Mary. They were led by a brave woman named Constance.

Five women with little medical training cared for thousands of people because they believed that it was God's will for them to stay and comfort the sick and dying. In the end they, too, succumbed to yellow fever. Today, they are known as the Martyrs of Memphis.

It’s a fascinating story. And some of us might say, foolish, especially when we consider that at ant any time, those sisters could have left the city. But they made the choice to stay and to serve, knowing full-well that staying would’ve meant almost certain death. This is what sacrifice is all about.

In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus at his most blunt. This is not the nice, sweet Jesus we have come to idealize. This Jesus uses some harsh language to make clear that following him is not some pleasant, sweet, Sunday drive. Following Jesus means sacrifice and the continued call to sacrifice.

Most fo us don’t want to believe that following Jesus involves such sacrifice. Many people think that following Jesus means going to church on Sunday and acting nice and maybe occasionally helping the homeless or the needy, which are all good things.

But following Jesus sometimes means following Jesus to the edge. Following Jesus sometimes—in fact, more often than not—involves hefting that cross on our backs and trekking off after him, despite the fact that we are tired and drained.

This past week, I thought I had just about reached my own personal limit. I felt as though I was getting it from all directions. There was one moment when I truly thought I wa sin the midst of some emotional gauntlet. The nitpicking criticism, the inability to help a person who needed my help, the overload of work and a series of family health issues just sort of piled on me. Then, to top it off, I inadervantly made someone break down and cry, of all things. I came home that night and simply curled up on the couch and wanted to disappear for a while.

Since I was working on this sermon at the time, I thought about the fact that, sometimes, this is what it means to follow Jesus. It means sometimes that, while bearing the cross, we must also endure the gauntlet. It means that although we are close to burning out, we must still go on. We must shoulder our burdens, brace ourselves for the gauntlet and move on.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t moment when I, at least privately, to Jesus, said: “I don’t now if I can keep on following you.”

But somehow, even in those low, dark moments, we find the strength to go on. We find the encouragement to put one more step in front of the other and we just do it.

One other insight in all of this: following Jesus does not mean we are slaves to Jesus. We have free will through all of this.

As I look back on this past week and throughout my years of service to Jesus, I realize there have been plenty of opportunities to simply turn away and say that I will not and cannot follow Jesus. There have been opportunities to simply walk away and go along another path.

There is no sacrifice in following Jesus if there’s no free will. For the martyrs of Memphis, they had the opportunity to leave. The sisters could simply have left and went back to their convent in New York state and lived a full life of further service. But they chose to stay, knowing full well what staying meant. They knew that staying probably meant their own death. But they also knew they were needed and this was where Jesus was leading.

For us, hopefully, Jesus isn’t leading us to quite that difficult of a sacrifice. But still we are being led and often that place to which we are being led is a difficult and painful place. It is, more often than not, a cross.

Jesus is asking us a very important request today. Give up your possessions, he says. Don’t let anything come between you and me, he is saying, as difficult as it is to do. Because those possessions that get in the way are often things we cling and cherish more than anything else. Following Jesus means putting Jesus first and foremost. It means making him the center of our lives and nothing else. And that it very difficult.

But following Jesus, we know that ultimately all path lead to victory. All the sacrifices we make for Jesus will be repaid to us in ways we can’t even fully fathom or imagine.

So, let us take up the cross we have been given—whatever it might be in our own lives—and let us follow Jesus wherever he might lead. Let us take the cross and bear it with dignity. And let us shed ourselves of anything that might come between us and that Person who leads us along what seems at times like uncertain paths. Because we know he will not lead us on uncertain paths, nor will he lead us to a place of desolation. Rather he will lead, as we know in our heart of hearts, home to our true home.

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