September 03, 2017
In our church cycle of time, today we are at the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, “Ordinary” time or “Counted” time we sometimes call it, with 12 more weeks before we reach Advent, and our church calendar begins again. I’ve been curious about that. At first, I questioned why we intentionally celebrated the essential ups and downs by name—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Good Friday, Easter—why we celebrated receiving the Holy Spirit, by name, calling it Pentecost, and then, walked through the rest of the calendar—half a year—simply counting the weeks and calling it ordinary. Are our lives not continually transformed by the Holy Spirit, breathed into us at Pentecost, and yet, we count the weeks and call it ordinary?
But our Gospel reading this morning reminds us of the whole story. In the midst of our counted time, God draws our attention into an essential reminder, a teachable moment that has the power to keep us on our way. In just eight verses, we hear Jesus teaching his disciples about life’s journey. Jesus is teaching them about the road to Jerusalem, about the road through Jerusalem, about the road that leads to New Life.
“Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering. . ., be killed, and on the third day be raised.” In today’s first verse, we are reminded of the whole journey, reminded of Jesus’ life of teaching and healing, reminded of the passion, reminded of the resurrection. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are one single story, not three separate pieces. We cannot begin to understand the cross without understanding the life; we cannot begin to understand the life without the perspective of the resurrection.
We can hear an echo of similarities to the Israelites’ journey in this gospel. In Deuteronomy, God says to the Israelites: “You have stayed long enough at this mountain: move on from here. Continue your journey.” (Dt. 1:6). And so, we recall the whole Exodus story, not least of which is the knowledge that God heard their groaning, was aware of their suffering, was with them night and day, all the way to the Promised Land. Being a pilgrim, it seems, is written in our DNA, and the rhythm of the journey takes us up and down, up and down, and up again.
Peter objects to the journey that Jesus describes. Focusing on the suffering, he says to Jesus, “God forbid it, Lord.” And Jesus, in no uncertain terms, makes it clear to Peter that he has no idea how God works. Peter, who Jesus had just told will be the rock on which Jesus will build his church, still has a lot to learn.
And then, Jesus says to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Take up their cross, and follow me.
My first reaction to “take up our cross” is, like Peter’s, “God forbid it, Lord.” It often brings tears to my heart because I remember what some of those crosses look like, felt like, to me and to others. But, thanks be to God, I also remember lessons learned and little resurrections that came after them.
When my mother died, I was so distraught that I literally could not speak. Words completely failed me, until someone from church called. “Your grief,” he said, “belongs part and parcel to the Love you have for your Mother.” I’ve never forgotten that truth, and eventually, further along in my journey, it helped me connect my story to God’s story. God’s grief, I’m thinking now, belongs part and parcel to the Love God has for us.
About that cross, Archbishop Rowan Williams says, it shows us “. . . a divine love that cannot be defeated by violence. . . the cross,” he says, “is a sign of the transcendent freedom of the love of God. . . This is what the love of God is like: it is free and therefore it is both all-powerful and completely vulnerable.”
When we take up our cross and follow Jesus, might bringing all of our own vulnerabilities with us be what Jesus is asking us to do? Might Jesus be asking us to connect our own life story to God’s story so Jesus can take the lead and show us how to embrace it all—my story, your story, the stories that are coming out of Texas this week, the stories that continue to come out of Syria and Sudan, the stories from our neighbors everywhere. There is power in those stories when we put all of them together with God’s story. But it isn’t easy, because we first have to acknowledge our own vulnerability; we have to first get a taste of forgiveness, mercy, compassion for ourselves.
I have a soft spot for the poet, Robert Frost, because when I was an insecure young girl attending a Girl Scout convention here in Little Rock, I heard his poem, The Road Not Taken. As with all poetry, it is open to myriad interpretations, of course, and each time it re-entered my memory at significant points of my own life’s journey, I would understand a little more about paths we cross that can make “all the difference.”
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Here is another of his poems we can all connect with; he titled it Lodged:
The rain to the wind said,
“You push and I’ll pelt.”
They so smote the garden bed
That the flowers actually knelt,
And lay lodged—though not dead.
I know how the flowers felt.
We don’t have to think very long about this poem because we all have had experiences like this, we all know how the flowers felt. And we Christians know that God knows how the flowers feel, how we feel. That is why someone who was on the same road with me twelve years ago can make all the difference, even now. That is why the deeply felt experiences that we share can make a difference for one another. That’s why we don’t have to stay “lodged” because others who are now able to stand are willing to kneel with us while we gain our strength again.
Joyce Rupp, in her book, Praying Our Goodbyes, says this about our journey: “Whatever our present situation in life, we are Exodus people. Whether we are in Egypt, in the middle of the wilderness, or close to the Promised Land, whether we are engulfed in the grief process or are overjoyed with new life, whether we are in a painful or exciting process of self-discovery, whether we are coping with severe loss or are at a cozy place, we carry pilgrim hearts with us. This truth marks our lives with hello and goodbye.” (page 75)
We are Exodus people; we are Easter people: When we intentionally acknowledge this in our everyday lives, with Jesus front and center on our path, it is our “yes” to freedom, it is our “yes” to God-given grace and love. It is our “yes” to Life. It makes every day sacred; it makes every decision sacred.
Our liturgical journey through the church calendar is not simply a reminder of something that happened long ago. It is a reminder of events that take place in our own day-to-day lives and how they connect with the great story of God’s presence, weaving our own stories into God’s story, which makes our very lives a sacrament. There are no ordinary times; there are only extra-ordinary times. Our “weeks after Pentecost” is an extra-ordinary time to make those connections—with God, with one another. It is what Henri Nouwen might call The Dance of Life—Weaving Sorrows and Blessings into One Joyful Step. Perhaps Jesus is asking us, “May I lead you in this dance?”