September 12, 2021: Sermon Preached by The Rev. Carolyn H. Eklund
Year B; FB.Proper 19; 9.12.2021
I had started my work as rector of Grace Church in Plainfield, New Jersey just three months before the September 11 attacks. Our town was on the commuter train line into New York City. The attacks happened on a Tuesday. By Friday, everyone in each of those towns was aware that the cars left in the commuter parking lots, were the cars of those killed in the Twin Towers that day.
Grace Church was located on 7th street, a major two-way county road that ran parallel to the train line. It was a very busy street. On September 11, we opened the doors to our beautiful place of prayer and held Evening Prayer that week. Friday that year was the Feast of the Holy Cross. That evening was most poignant because Christians believe that the cross of Jesus “draws the whole world to himself for our redemption…” and that we are called to “take up our cross and follow him…” That was an important message for us all.
About 20 parishioners and I gathered for Evening Prayer on Holy Cross Day and decided to hold a candlelight vigil on our busy street as a public witness to the suffering and sorrow we all were experiencing. We made our way to the street and lit candles. We held them in silence as dusk settled in. Cars slowed to show their support. And people on the street stopped and said a prayer with us. One of the most grief-stricken members of our parish, an older man who lived alone and who had grown up in Brooklyn, showed up for the ceremony. His reputation in the parish was as an arrogant, difficult, opinionated and even crusty man set in his ways.
But he showed up every day for Evening Prayer. That Friday evening as we stood silently holding our candles, he looked up and noticed that two women had been standing across the busy street for a long time just watching. He pointed them out to me and then, to my surprise, he shouted an invitation to them to join us. He said, “We have plenty of candles for you. Come on over.” And they did.
I could tell that they had been crying for some time because their eyes were very swollen. We embraced them and immediately learned that they were United Airlines flight attendants. They explained between sobs that they had been close friends with the flight attendants on United 93 that had crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. They all flew out of Newark where United 93 originated. One of the women had been next on the call list for that flight. They were bereft. That parishioner who invited them over told me later that he had never experienced a more meaningful moment of evangelism in his life.
I look back on that moment and not only feel moved by the strangers being invited to share in the suffering with us, but I am inspired that such a tragedy prompted this arrogant, older parishioner whom some fellow members had told me had fallen away from the church, to return. That week of the September 11 horror actually brought him back to God.
Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it.” In this paradoxical passage of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is teaching his followers that being made new in the things of God, opening up to God and forfeiting their life is the way of the cross. It is redemptive. It is restorative. And it includes our suffering. The Way of the Cross is to choose the good news of Jesus. And the Way of the Cross is hard news for those who choose it.
Our faith teaches Jesus’ Passion – the whole of it, his arrest, the chief priests, scribes and elders who came for him, his torture and his death on the cross. We don’t sanitize it. We spend an entire week, Holy Week, enacting it. Jesus told his followers all along that he would suffer, be tortured, killed and raised on the third day. None of his followers understood this. Peter certainly didn’t. No one heard the “being raised” part. They only heard the suffering part, and it didn’t square with what they expected of a Messiah.
Jesus said, “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” Jesus’ language reminds me of a kind of balance sheet: profit and gain the world, or lose your life and save it. He is saying to his beloved followers, “The gaining and clutching and grabbing and consuming and “work-aholicking” and worrying and arguing and hating…” If you forfeit THIS life, you gain God.” This is the Way of the Cross.
I’ll be walking in the footsteps of our patron, the Apostle Paul on my sabbatical in some of the ancient sites of his communities in Turkey and Greece. The Apostle Paul forfeited his notorious life as a Pharisee that persecuted Christians for the sake of Jesus and the good news of God’s redeeming love. I’m reading a “biography” of Paul and a book called “Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission.”
I believe the practice of invitation and hospitality are ways we are called to participate in God’s mission right here at St. Paul’s. I believe invitation and hospitality draw people to God. Just like the invitation brought over those two grieving United Airlines flight attendants to be nurtured in prayer and the things of God, I believe our community at St. Paul’s makes invitation and hospitality our practice to draw people to God.
The brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist include the practice of hospitality in their Rule of Life. In a beautifully written invitation they write this:
“The source of hospitality is the heart of God, who yearns to unite every creature within one embrace. Only in the fullness of time will God gather all things in Christ, yet God’s boundless welcome is something we already enjoy…[as Christ’s followers].
“Our faith must recognize the one who comes to us in the person of the guest, the stranger and the pilgrim. It is the Lord, who has identified himself with each of his sisters and brothers. If we are to give them bread and not stones, and truly meet Christ in them face to face, we must realize the gifts the Holy Spirit has given us for the ministry of hospitality, and remember how deeply people are yearning for the things of God.”
Perhaps this is what God has given us, too, “the ministry of hospitality, and to remember how deeply people are yearning for the things of God.”
During our time apart these three months of renewal, we will be creating space to discover what God is up to in our lives. I will rest, pray, worship, take cooking classes, travel and enjoy the company of my siblings. You will rest, pray, worship, hear sermons and learn more deeply about hospitality from New Testament scholar Dr. Deirdre Good. We will listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit that informs our mission and be reminded of “how deeply people are yearning for the things of God.”
I will miss you and our work together that has been so rich. You have taught me to be a better priest and Christian, and have fulfilled MY “yearning for God.” I go away with a smile on my face and love for you in my heart.