Thursday, March 29, 2012

The cover of the new book, CROW

Here's the cover of the new book, Crow, due out around June 1.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Wednesday of 5 Lent

March 28, 2012
St. Mark's Lutheran Church
Fargo

Isaiah 12.1-6


+ Well, I brought in this season of Lent preaching here at St. Mark’s on Ash Wednesday—way back on February 22—and here I am on the last Lenten Wednesday preaching here once more at St. Mark’s. I’m like the bookends of the Lenten Season for us.

Ash Wednesday seems like a long time ago, to me anyway. It has been a long journey through Lent. It always is.

But now, here we are. We are finishing that journey and preparing for another. We are preparing for the journey through Holy Week. Holy Week, which begins with such glory, with palms and shouts of hosannah. Holy Week, which plummets to its deepest darkness and despair. oly Week, which ends with a glory unlike any other glory we have ever experienced.

And as we prepare for the emotional roller coaster of Holy Week, we do so tonight with a promise of strength. e do so girded to some extent for the journey. We are reminded as we he head out on that journey that, even though we think we are weak, even though we think we are wearied by the long journey through Lent, we do have a resource of strength.

In our reading tonight from Isaiah, we find the prophet saying,

“Surely God is my salvation:
I will trust and will not be afraid,
For the Lord God is my strength
And my might,
[God] has become my salvation.”

Those are powerful words. They are not words we should take lightly. They are not words we should just merely pass off as poetic waxing. They are words of survival. They are words that buoy us and sustain us.

For the people from St. Stephen’s, they often hear me quote one of my personal living heroes—a great Episcopal priest and writer by the name of Barbara Brown Taylor. I just recently heard an interesting story regarding Mother Taylor that has stuck with me. She was asked to speak at a small church, but she found herself stressing over what she was to say. When she the arrived, she still wasn’t sure was she was going to say and it was really weighing on her heavily. She was feeling a great amount of anxiety over not knowing what she was to say. But then, at that point, the priest of the congregation asked her a simple question, “What is saving your life these days?” and she knew what to talk about.

I love that question.

“What is saving your life these days?”

Take a moment to think about that. Because when you can answer, you’ll know where your strength lies.

For me, simple things save my life on a regular basis. This past week, I received a package in the mail. A large package. In it, I found, to my great joy, a book. And not just any book. It was my Oxford edition of The Works of George Herbert, edited by F.E. Hutchinson, copyright 1941. This, of course, is the definitive modern edition of Herbert’s work and for many, many years, it was my prized possession. When I say my prized possession, I mean it was a book that I literally clung to. It went with me on every trip. It was always there near by bedside. I had read it through—yes, even the Latin poetry of Hebert—several times over. It was as familiar to me as the back of my hand.

Well, I very stupidly lent it to a friend many years ago (I thought I was only lending it for a day or two, and even doing that was difficult) and my friend, while moving, lost the book. I mourned for that book when it was lost.

Well, last week, this friend of mine was unpacking a box of books and found my edition of Herbert and sent it to me. It was like manna from heaven to receive it on Monday. It came into otherwise somewhat personally tumultuous day. And as I was reading through that familiar book, with its familiar smells and its familiar fonts, I realized: oh, yes, this will keep me going for a long time.

The next day, after my somewhat difficult day on Monday, I was finding solace in my newly recovered Herbert and I came upon this line from the poem, “The Flower”:

“O my onely light,
It cannot be
That I am he
On whom thy tempests fell all night.”

That spoke to me in way it never had before and I realized, yes, this is what will keep me afloat for a while.

This is how God works sometimes. For us, we need to remind ourselves of where our strength lies. Our strength lies not in frivolous things. Our strength lies not in ephermeral things. Our strength lies with those things that save our lives on days when we think we’ve lost everything. Our strength lies in that God who truly is like a rock—a sturdy, immovable Presence. Our strength is in a God who doesn’t magically rescue us from the hardships of this life.

Our God doesn’t magically make the dark days of Holy Week disappear. Our God rather provides us with the strength to survive the darkness of Holy Week. Our God provides us with that faint glow in the midst of that darkness—that glimmer of Easter light in the darkest depth of Good Friday afternoon.

As we head through these last days of Lent and into Holy Week, we do so girded with strength. We do so, knowing where our strength lies. We do so knowing exactly what is saving our lives these days. We do so being reminded by this God of strength and hope that darkness is not eternal. That pain and suffering are only temporary. We do so reminded that light and joy and glory and salvation are eternal. They will, one day, be granted to us and there will be no end to them.

For me, and hopefully for all of who call ourselves Christians, who call ourselves followers of Jesus, this is what sustains us. This is what holds us up. This is what saves us when the darkness encroaches.

There is a strange pleasure we can take, in these last days of Lent, as we approach the long, hard week of Holy Week, when we can, echoing Isaiah, knowing what holds us up, knowing what saves us when the darkness draws close, find praise on our lips. There is a certain pleasure we can take when, even then, we can still find joy in our hearts:

“Shout aloud and sing for joy…
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

Sunday, March 25, 2012

5 Lent

March 25, 2012


John 12.20-33

+ For nine years, I have been teaching theology (as well as Philosophy, Ethics and Writing) at the University of Mary here in Fargo. For the last half-hour of each class, I have invited my students to “Stump Fr. Jamie.” To “Stump Fr. Jamie” students can ask any question they would like regarding theology or spirituality or the Church. And in nine years, there have been very few times when Fr. Jamie has been stumped.

On those few occasions when I have been stumped, I find that some of my students are somewhat shocked. They can’t imagine that a priest, of all people, might not have the answers to certain things regarding God or the Church. We, after all, should have all the answers, right????

And oftentimes in my answers to “Stump Father Jamie” I have conceded to that wonderful thing called “mystery.” Some things are just mysteries and we should accept the mysteries of our faith. But what I have discovered every time students ask questions is that, in actuality, they really are seeking. And they are often surprised when the priest himself is a seeker as well.

The fact is, I have never made a secret of the fact that I am also a seeker, just like all of us this morning. We’re all seekers. We must be. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be here this morning. People who aren’t seekers don’t need to come to church. They don’t need to listen and ponder the Word. They don’t need to feed on and ponder the mysteries of the Eucharist that we celebrate at this altar. People who don’t need to seek, don’t come following the mysteries of their faith.

I have discovered in my own life as a seeker, that my seeking, my asking questions and my pondering of the mysteries of this life and my relationship to God, are what make my faith what it is. It makes it…faith. My seeking allows me to step into the unknown and be sometimes amazed or surprised or disappointed by what I may—or may not—find there.

In our Gospel story for today, we also find seekers. In our story, we find these Greeks seeking for Jesus.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” they say.

I don’t think I’ve ever shared this with you—or anyone for that matter—but this Gospel is one of my favorites. I should be more specific. This one line—“we wish to see Jesus”—is one of my favorite lines from scripture. It is such a beautifully simple line. But there’s so much meaning and potential and…mystery, to it that I don’t think we fully realize what it’s conveying.

And what I doubly love about it is that as beautiful and as simple as the petition is—“we seek Jesus”—we never, if you notice, find out if they actually find him. The author doesn’t tell us. We find no resolve to this story of the Greeks seeking Jesus. However, despite it being a loose end of sorts, it does pack some real meaning. What’s great about scripture is that even a loose end can have purpose.

One interpretation of this story is that that the Greeks—as Gentiles—were not allowed to “see” Jesus until he was lifted up on the Cross.

Only when he has been “lifted up from the earth,” as he tells us this morning will he “draw all people to [himself].” Jesus’ message at the time of their approaching the apostles is still only to the Jews. But when Jesus is lifted up on the Cross on Good Friday, at that moment, he is revealed to all. At that moment, the veil is lifted. The old Law of the Jews has died—the curtain in the Temple has been torn in half—and now Jesus is given for all. It’s certainly an interesting and provocative take on this story.

And it’s especially interesting for us, as well, who are seeking to “find Jesus” in our own lives. Like those Greeks, we are not always certain if we will find him—at least at this moment.

But, I am going to switch things up a bit. Yes, we might be seekers here this morning. But as Christians, our job is not only to be seekers. Our job, as followers of Jesus, as seekers after Jesus, is to be on the receiving end of that petition of those Greeks. Our job, as Christians, is to hear that petition—“show us Jesus”—and to respond to it. So, how do we respond? How do we show Jesus to those who seeking him? Or, maybe, even to those who might not be seeking him?

We show people Jesus by doing what we do as followers and seekers after Jesus. We show people Jesus by being Jesus to those around us. Now, that sounds impossible for most of us. The fact is, it isn’t. This is exactly what Jesus wants us to be.

Jesus wants us to be him in this world. He wants to be our hands, helping others. He wants to speak through our voices in consoling others, in speaking out against the tyrants and despots and unfairness of this world. He wants to be our feet in walking after those who have turned away and are isolating themselves. When we seek to bring the Kingdom into our midst, we are being Jesus in this world. We might not always succeed in doing this. We might fail miserably in what we do. In fact, people might not find Jesus in us, at all. Sometimes, whether we intend it to or not, we in fact become the “Anti-Jesus” to others.

But that’s just the way it is sometimes. In seeking Jesus and in responding to others who are also seeking him, we realize the control is not in our hands. It doesn’t depend on any of us. Which, trust me, is comforting. I don’t want all that responsibility. Nor, I’m sure, do any of you. Who would?

In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus saying: “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls on the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” In those moments in which we seem to have failed to be Jesus to those around us, when those who come to us seeking Jesus find, rather, nothing, or, worse, the “Anti-Jesus, we find that even then, fruit can still come forth. God still works even through the negative things life throws at us. God still works event through our failures and our shortcomings.

There is a wonderful Latin saying: “Invoked or not invoked, God is still present” We can say the same of Jesus. Sought or not sought, Jesus can still be found. Jesus can still be found, even despite us. Jesus can still be found, even when we might not even be seeking him.

Jesus can be found, oftentimes, when we are least expecting to find him. He is, after all, all around us. He is here this morning in our midst. He is here in our hearing of the Word. He is here in the Bread and Wine of our Eucharist. He is here in us, gathered together in his Name. He is out there, beyond the walls of this church, waiting for us to find him. He is never far away.

So, let us, together, seek Jesus. Let us search for him, here, in the Word where we hear him speaking to us, in this Eucharist, in which he comes to us and feeds us with his Body and Blood. Let us search for him in going out from here and encountering those people who need Jesus. And let us also help others who are seeking him, find him in us.

“We wish to see Jesus,” the Greeks say to the disciples. And people still are saying that to us as well.

“We wish to see Jesus.”

Let us—fellow seekers of Jesus—help them to find him.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

4 Lent

Laetare Sunday
March 18, 2012

St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Fargo


Numbers 21.4-9; John 3.14-21

+ I was tempted this Sunday morning to wear pink to church. Of course, I would have clashed with the altar hangings. And don’t even get me started imaging what Pastor Strobel would say when he heard that Father Jamie showed up wearing pink vestments.

But today is “Rose Sunday” or, more traditionally, Laetare Sunday. Laetare is Latin for “joyful” and it is called this because on this Sunday, the tradition introit in the old Latin Mass was “Laetare Jerusalem”—“rejoice Jerusalem.” It’s also called “Mothering Sunday” or “Refreshment Sunday.” It was traditional on this Sunday to wear pink vestments. We also have a similar Sunday in Advent called Gaudete Sunday, in which pink vestments also can be worn. Over at St. Stephen’s, we will be having traditional Laetare Sunday simnel cake at coffee hour in honor of this special Sunday.

And it is a special Sunday. It is sort of break in our Lenten grayness, so to speak. And it is a reminder to us. We are now passing into the latter days of Lent. Palm Sunday and Holy Week are only two weeks ago and Easter is three weeks away. And with Easter in sight, we can, on this Sunday lift up a slightly subdued prayer of rejoicing.

Still, I can’t help but face the reality of the fact that we are now over half-done with the season of Lent and I personally have not preached about the one thing we preachers should be preaching about in Lent.

This past week, I went out for coffee with a young woman whose been attending St. Stephen’s, and is becoming a good friend of mine, Leah Elliott. She very jokingly made the comment over coffee: “Father Jamie, all your sermons are about love and baptism.” She, I think, meant that in a good way (I hope so anyway).

And yes, it’s pretty true. If I’m not preaching about love, I’m probably preaching about baptism. And I have preached about both already this Lenten Season.

But I have not yet preached about the so-called “elephant in the room.” The elephant, in this case, is, of course that ugly word and that ugly concept—Sin.

I know, we don’t want to hear about sin. I don’t want to hear about sin. Most of us have had to sit through countless hours listening to preachers go on and on about sin in our lives. Many of us have had it driven into us and pounded into us and we just don’t want to hear it anymore. But the fact is, we can’t get through this season of Lent without at least acknowledging it. Certainly, I as a priest, would be neglecting my duty if I didn’t at least mention it.

Besides, whenever there’s an elephant in the room, I—and I’m sure most of you—like to face it. And in facing the elephant, we sometimes realize the power we thought that elephant had has been overcome.

As much as we try to avoid sin and speak around it or ignore it, for those of us who are Christians, we just can’t. We live in a world in which there is war and crime and recession and morally bankrupt people and, in looking at all of those things, we must face the fact that sin—people falling short of their ideal—is all around us. And during this season of Lent, we find ourselves facing sin all the time. It’s there in our scripture readings. It’s there in our liturgy. It’s just…there.

I certainly have struggled with this issue in my life. I don’t like preaching about sin. I would rather not do it. But…I have to. We all have to occasionally.

The fact is, people tend to define us by the sins we commit—the define us by illness—the spiritual leprosy within us—rather than by the people we really are underneath the sin. And that person we are underneath is truly a person created in the image of God. Sin, if we look it as a kind of illness, like leprosy or any other kind of sickness, truly does do these things to us. It desensitizes us, it distorts us, it makes us less than who were are. It blots out the image of God in which we were created. And like a sickness, we need to understand the source of the illness to truly get to heart of the matter.

Alexander Schmemann, the great Eastern Orthodox theologian, (and I believe he’s echoing the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth here) wrote, “Essentially all sins come from two sources: flesh and pride. And if we are honest with ourselves, if we are blunt with ourselves, if we look hard at ourselves, we realize that, in those moments in which we have failed ourselves, when we have failed others, when we have failed God, the underlying issues can be found in either our pride or in our flesh.

This season of Lent is a time when we take into account where we have failed in ourselves, in our relationship with God and in our relationship with each other. But—and I stress this—it is never a time to despair. It is never a time to beat ourselves up over the sins we have committed. It is rather a time for us to buck up.

It is a time in which we seek to improve ourselves. It is a time in which, acknowledging those negative aspects of ourselves, we strive to rise above our failings. It is a time for us to seek healing for the leprosy of our souls. And, in seeking, we do find that healing.

We find that healing in, to use the language of Martin Luther, “the long dark shadow of the Cross.” In the Cross, we find our healing. The Cross is a very potent symbol for us in our healing. Gazing upon the cross, as those Israelites gazed upon the bronze serpent that Moses held up to them, we find ourselves healed. And as we are healed, as we find our sins dissolved by Christ on the cross, we come to an amazing realization.

We realize that we are not our sins. And our sins are not us. Our sins are no more us, than our illnesses are. For those of us who have had serious illnesses—and as many of you know, I celebrated ten years of being cancer-free last month—when we are living with our illness, we can easily start believing that our sickness and our very selves are one and the same. When I was had cancer ten years ago, there were moments of despair and frustration. There were moments, as I lived with that illness within me, when I couldn’t see where the illness ended and where I began. We had become bound to each other in a way that I despised and hated. But now, as I look back at that time, I realize I wasn’t my cancer.

For those of us who have had serious illness, it is a good thing for us to ponder and look back at our illness. It is important for our healing process to ask ourselves: how did it happen? Why did it happen? How can I prevent from it happening again? The same is true of sin.

In this seasons of Lent, it is important for us to ponder the sickness of our sins, to examine what we have done and what we have failed to do and to consider how we can prevent it from happening again. But, like our illnesses, once we have been healed, once our sins have been forgiven and they no longer have a hold over us, we do realize that, as scarred as we have been, as deeply destroyed as we thought we were by what we have done and not done, we have found that, in our renewal, we haven’t been given new faces.

We haven’t been changed into some kind super beings. We haven’t been instantly transformed magically into angels or saints.

Rather, our regular familiar faces, scarred and destroyed as they were, have been restored and renewed. Our faces, that essence of who we are and what we are to others and to ourselves, have been made into what they were intended to be—beautiful. Our faces, in which we can reflect the image of Christ to others, can show that image without flaw or shame or embarrassment.

In the shadow of the cross, we are able to see ourselves as people freed and liberated in Christ. We are able to rejoice in the fact that we are not our failures. We are not what we have failed to do. But in the shadow of the cross we see that we are loved and we are healed and we are cherished. And once we recognize that, then we too can turn our faces toward each other, glowing with that image of Christ imprinted upon us, and we too can love and heal and cherish.

See, sin does not have to make us despair. When we despair over sin, sin wins out. Rather, we can work on ourselves, we can improve ourselves, we can rise above our failings and we can then reflect Christ to others and even to ourselves.

So, on this Laetare Sunday—this Sunday in which we rejoice that we are now within the sight of that glorious Easter light—let us gaze at the cross, held up to us as a sign of our healing God. And let our faces and our souls be truly healed. And, in doing so, let us reflect that healing to others so they too can be healed.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

3 Lent

March 11, 2012


Exodus 20.1-17; John 2.13-22

+ Some of you know about this, some of you don’t, but this past week I took a bit of a tumble. I slipped on some ice the other day and hit my head on the pavement and garnered myself a nice concussion. In the process, I actually lost my memory for a bit. I don’t actually remember the actual fall itself. Which is probably a good thing since I was told it was quite the sight. My feet actually flew right up in the air, if you can believe it. I sure hope no one has any video or photos of that tumble. Lord!

These last few days have actually been quite painful, but I can tell you they were also quite enlightening, so some extent. I of course had to rest and to be observed for 48 hours. Which was quite the challenge for me as you can guess. I don’t like being laid up. But, it did give me the opportunity to just rest and not think about things.

I really managed to clear my mind and truly rest—partly because I really didn’t have a choice in the matter. But at some point I realized it was a good Lenten discipline. I was able to sort of de-clutter my mind to some extent. And I emerged from my embarrassing tumble feeling strangely quite well-rested and strangely…calm.

In a real sense, this what this whole season of Lent is all about. Lent is a time for us to sort of quiet ourselves to get rid of whatever clutter we might have knocking around inside us or in our lives. Clutter is that stuff in our lives—and “stuff” is the prefect word for it—that just piles up. We start ignoring our clutter.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this show on TV called Hoarders. If you haven’t…you’ve been missing out. Hoarders is all about those people who become psychologically attached to the clutter in their lives and they just let it pile up until it’s overwhelming. After a while, they just don’t even see it as clutter any more.

We sort of do that too with our own spiritual clutter. We don’t give it a second thought, even when we’re tripping over it and stumbling on it. In fact, often we don’t fully realize how much clutter we have until after we’ve disposed of it. When we see that clean, orderly room, we realize only then how clutter sort of made us lose our appreciation for the beauty of the room itself.

In Lent, what we dispose of us is the clutter of our spiritual lives. And we all have spiritual clutter. We have those things that “get in the way.” We have our bad habits. We have those things that we do without even thinking we’re doing them. And oftentimes, they’re not good for it—or at least they don’t enhance our spiritual lives.

Often the clutter in our spiritual lives gets in the way of our prayer life, our spiritual discipline, our all-important relationship with God. The clutter in our spiritual life truly becomes something we find ourselves “tripping” over. The clutter in our spiritual life causes us to stumble occasionally. And when it does, we find our spiritual life less than what it should be.

During Lent, it is an important time to take a look around us. It is important to actually see the spiritual clutter in our lives and to clear it away in whatever ways we can.

In our Gospel reading for today, we find Jesus going into the temple and clearing out the clutter there. He sweeps the Temple clean, because he knows that the clutter of the merchants who have settled there are not enhancing the beauty of the Temple. They are not helping people in their relationship with God. Rather, these merchants are there for no spiritual reasons at all, ultimately. They are there for their own gain and for nothing else.

In a sense, we need to let Jesus come in to our own lives and to clean out the merchants in our lives as well. We need to have the Temple of our bodies cleaned occasionally. We need to sweep it clean and, in doing so, we will find our spirituality a little more finely tuned. We will find our prayer life a more fulfilling. We will find our time at Eucharist more meaningful. We will find our engaging of Scripture to be more edifying. We will find our service to others to be a bit more selfless and purposeful than it was before. We will things with a clearer spiritual eye—which we need.

It is a matter of simplifying our spiritual lives. It is matter of recognizing that in our relationship with God and one another, we don’t need the clutter—we don’t need those things that get in the way. There are enough obstacles out there. There will always be enough “stuff” falling into our pathways, enough ”things” for us to stumble over. Without the clutter in our lives, it IS easier to keep our spiritual lives clean. Without the clutter in our life, we find things are just…simpler.

So…how do we do this? Well, the answer is really no further than our scripture from the Hebrew Scriptures for today. God lays it on the line for Moses on Mount Sinai. And each commandment that God gives Moses is really a matter of housekeeping. It is a matter of cleaning up the messes in the Israelites’ lives.

Rather than the clutter of the gods you have been worshipped—those gods that are really at all helpful, but only get in the way of the one true God—simply worship only the One God.

You shall respect this God by respecting God’s Name.

You shall, in a sense, honor, love and worship this One God.

Likewise, God cleans up the messes of their relationships with one another.

Love God. Love your neighbor.

Don’t hate your hate your neighbor.

Don’t bear grudges against your neighbor, or lust after your neighbor, or be jealous of your neighbor or steal from your neighbor, because these things only clutter up your life needlessly. Rather, love them and in loving them, you will see all that clutter disappear to some extent.

And if you do these things, you will be living the life that was intended for you.

In a sense, we are not living the living the life intended for us when we allow our lives to mucked up. What we need to do occasionally is sweep out the junk, the trivial things, the dust and the dirt that have accumulated in our lives and live in that simplicity that God intends for us.

In our Gospel reading for today, we also find that the Temple Jesus is cleaning out and cleansing serves its purpose for now, but even it will be replaced with something more perfect and something, ultimately, more simple. It will be replaced by something that will not need to cleansed. It will be replaced with something that will not be cluttered. It will be replaced with the Temple of the Body of Christ. And it will be here that we will find our true worship.

It is here that will find a true and living Temple of our true and living God. And, in a sense, our own bodies become temples of this living God because of what Jesus did. Our bodies also become the dwelling places of that one, living God.

Which brings us back to Lent. In this season of Lent, we become mindful of this simple fact. Our bodies are the temples of that One, living God. God dwells within much as God dwells in the Temple. Because God dwells in us, we have this holiness inherent within us. Because of this Presence within us, we find ourselves wanting to cleanse the temple. We find our selves examining our selves, looking closely at the things over which we trip and stumble. We find ourselves realizing that the clutter of our lives really does distract us from remembering that God dwells with us and within us. And when we realize that, we really do want to work on ourselves a bit. We work at trying to simplify our lives—our actual, day-to-day lives, as well as our spiritual lives. We spend time in prayer, in allowing that living God to dwell fully within us and to enlighten us. We fast—emptying our bodies and purifying our selves. We recognize the wrongs we have done to ourselves, to others. We realize that we have allowed this clutter to build up. We realize we have not loved God or our neighbors. Or even ourselves. Or we have loved ourselves too much, and not God and our neighbors enough.

Once we have eliminated the spiritual clutter of our lives, we do truly find our God dwelling with us. We find ourselves worshipping in that Body of Christ that cannot be cluttered. We find a certain simplicity and beauty in our lives that comes only through spiritual discipline.

So, as we continue our journey through Lent, let us allow Jesus to take up the cords and go through the temple of our own selves. Let us allow Jesus to clear away the clutter of our lives. Let us allow Jesus to cleanse the temple of our own self and make it like the Temple of his own Body. And when that happens, we will find ourselves proclaiming, with Psalm 69, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

For it will.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

2 Lent

March 4, 2012

Mark 8.31-38

+ I have been very good, so far, this Lent in my daily disciplines. One of them—despite my giving up things like beer—has been daily spiritual reading. And one of the books that I have been slowly and deliberately reading is the latest book by one of my favorite authors, Leonard Sweet.

Now, I have to admit, I was a bit apprehensive about reading this latest book simply because I didn’t know what to think of the title. The book is called, I am a Follower. And it is about just that…following.

Now, I’ve always prided myself on not being a follower. I’ve never been much of a joiner-in. I don’t like following anyone. Yes, I know. I’m kind of a rebel. And, I really kind of like leading. I even teach a class regularly at the University of Mary on Leadership.

So, this book really challenged me. But that’s a good thing. I need to be challenged. And, in this Lenten season, I need to be shaken out of my complacency a bit. For all my apprehension, I have really come to love this book.

Of course, Leonard Sweet is just one of those authors who makes such subjects appealing. And what he so gently reminds me—and hopefully all of us—is that to be a Christian means suspending much of what we once held dear. It is about sacrifice. It about looking at new ways of relating to one another in this world. And, as he also so gently reminds us, be a Christian—to be a disciple—is to be a follower. A follower of Jesus. And that being a follower is truly counter to everything we think about as Americans.

There are hundred and hundred of classes and book about leadership out there. But, Sweet reminds us, there are no books about being followers. And oftentimes to be an effective leader, we must learn first to be a good and effective follower.

I know. It sounds strange. And it still feels weird for me to say it. But I have to admit—this book has shaken me to my core and made me look anew of so much.

In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus explaining to us in very blunt words what it means to be a disciple. For him, being a disciple, means being a follower. A follower of him. Hopefully, those of us who have gained any sort of maturity as Christians have come to the realization that being a Christian—being a follower of Jesus—means that we are being led into some unhappy circumstances.

Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean being happy and cheerful all the time. It doesn’t mean having our way all the time. Trust me. I know too many of these kind of Christians. These are the people who think being a Christian means having bright sunny days every day. It means that following Jesus means not having to think anymore. Just believing that all will well and there aren’t any problems. They think every day is some Technicolor musical from the 1950s, where everything just works out for the best in the end. And when it doesn’t work out that way, they despair and lose faith. They rail at God and shake their fists at they and cry to God, “Why?”

Now that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be joyful in our following of Jesus. Yes, we should be filled with a deep and sincere joy. But, as the old song goes, no one promised us a rose garden. Nowhere in scripture have we been promised that life is going rosy and sweet all the time.

Being a follower is not always so much fun. Being a Christian means not always strolling around in comfort and joy in a rose garden. As we are reminded in this season of Lent and especially in that week preceding Easter, being a Christian means following Jesus wherever he goes. And where he goes is not to the rose garden. It is to the garden of Gethsemane—to that place where he too would feeling anguish, where too would sweat blood, where he too would cry out to God.

Being a disciple means following Jesus. Now when we initially think of this, we no doubt have marvelous images of following Jesus as enraptured students following a great teacher. Certainly, I think, most of us would like to follow Jesus much the same way Buddhists get to follow the Buddha, or even Muslims get to follow Mohammed. Following in this sense is having a student-teacher relationship to some extent. We would like to take the best of his teachings, hold them close to our hearts and try to live them out in our lives the best way we can. Which is very, very good. We should do that as followers of Jesus.

But being a follower of Jesus means doing just that, but also doing more. Our relationship with Jesus is more than just a student-teacher relationship. Our relationship with Jesus is more like lovers. We love Jesus. Jesus loves us. And it is that love that drives us to follow Jesus wherever he goes.

It is that love that makes us feel the anguish he feels. It is that love that makes us suffer with him. It is that love that makes us bleed with him. It means following Jesus not just through the moments of teaching ministry, not just through the miracles he performed. It means following him through the dark days of his last week, through the blood and excruciating moments of his dying. It means that, like him, our love for him causes us take up our crosses and follow him wherever he might go.

Jesus knew, as we find in our Gospel reading for today, that he there were certain things he had to do. He had to “undergo great suffering,” He had to be killed. He understood that fully. He in turn tells us that we too must realize that we will have to bear our share of suffering in this life. We too will have to take up our own crosses.

Now, to be fair, this statement about taking up our crosses needs to be examined a bit. The cross being referenced here might not be what we instantly think it is.

Reginald Fuller, the great Anglican theologian, believed that the Greek word used for cross here—stauros—actually might not necessarily have meant the cross on which one was executed. Rather, he believed that it might actually mean the tau (the T) and chi (the X) that was used as a sign of ownership to brand cattle.

This adds a very interesting dimension to this scripture. The brand of the cross that we must bear becomes God’s seal upon us. And when we look beyond the events of Good Friday, we realize that the cross on which Jesus died truly does become the brand we must bear upon ourselves as followers of Jesus.

Even the thought of a brand is not a pleasant thought. Brands are painful, after all. And brands cannot be undone. They mark us forever. And that is what the cross does to us.

Most of us probably don’t give a second thought to the crosses we see in our lives. We see this mighty symbol of Christian faith everywhere we turn sometimes. Crosses mark the steeples of our churches. We place them on our altars. We cover them in gold and silver and bronze. We carry them about in procession. We bow to them when they pass by us. We wear them around our necks, or put them as magnets on our cars. We sanitize them and make them into something pleasing.

But we don’t really THINK about the cross and what it is. We don’t see it as the symbol of pain and torture that it is. We certainly don’t see it as a brand upon us. We don’t see it as that place on which Jesus—as well as countless other people throughout history—were brutally murdered.

The modern equivalent of the cross for us would be a hangman’s noose, or a lethal injection gurney. The cross is a symbol of degradation and physical, emotional and spiritual pain. This is what we are marked with as followers of Jesus. This is what defines us and makes us who we are.

And as such, the cross should be always before us—whether we want it to be or not. Because if it is, it is the reminder to us that following Jesus doesn’t just mean following him through the rose gardens of our lives. It means, following him all the way to that cross. It means taking up our own crosses and staggering with him along that path. It means sweating with him in the garden of Gethsemane. It means crying out with him in anguish. It means feeling with him the humiliation and loneliness of being betrayed—yes, even by one’s own followers.

But, it also means following him to the very end. Just as the cross is a symbol of death and torture and pain—it is, for us Christians, also the symbol of the temporal nature of those things. The cross is the doorway through those awful things, to the glory that awaits us beyond the cross. The cross is the way we must travel, it what we must carry, it is what we must be marked with, if we wish to share in the glory that awaits us beyond the cross.

I said earlier that no one promised us a rose garden in scripture. I should revise that. While we might not have been promised a rose garden, we have been offered glory. Glory comes to us, when we follow Jesus. It comes to us when we let our love for Jesus lead us through the dark and frightening places this world can throw at us. If we let that love guide us, if we let ourselves be led by Jesus, we will find true and unending glory awaiting us.

So, as we encounter the crosses of our lives—and we will—as we allow ourselves to branded with the cross, as we allow our love for Jesus to lead us into places we might not want to go, let us do so with the realization that glory has been offered to us. When we look at the crosses we see around—on the churches, around our necks, on our altars, let us see those crosses tinged in the light of glory. And when we do, will know that there will be no shame for us. We will not be ashamed when Jesus finally does comes in glory to us, with the holy angels, and will offer us—once and for all—that place of refreshment and unending joy.