Archive for March, 2015

Lent II: Mark 8:31-38

ash-wed“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.”

Really? Are we Christians crazy? Who in their right mind would follow a man who tells us to pick up a cross and follow him? Really? But that was not part of the deal in the beginning, you know. Or we didn’t think it was.

sea_of_galileeFirst, Jesus gets baptized, and that part goes really well. Then Jesus spends time out in the wilderness, but Mark’s gospel does not dwell much on that time. Jesus calls Peter, James, John and Andrew to follow him and they leave their fishing nets to do just that. Next comes Jesus, miraculous healer, powerful preacher. He casts out demons. He tells parables about sowing seeds in all kinds of soil. In a midnight action drama, he commands the sea and wind to be still—and they obey. On the shore, he takes a few loaves of bread and some fish and feeds over five thousand people. This is all exciting! Who would not want to go along for this kind of ride–especially if you are Peter, James, John, Andrew and others who think that at the end of this ride is glory. They believe Jesus will overthrow the Roman government and set the Jewish people free.

After all, Jesus has asked his disciples—just a few verses earlier—“Who do you say that I am?” When Simon Peter says “You are the Christ,” which means “the anointed One,” Jesus does not say “Are you crazy?” No. Jesus just tells the disciples not to tell anyone.

Now in the first century Jewish culture, “the anointed one, the messiah, is someone who [is] commonly understood to be the hero who [will] come with super-human powers to rescue the people, who remain passive pawns in a divinely ordained game of geopolitics.”[1] Yet if we had been paying closer attention, we would already have seen some signs of tension and trouble with this anointed One.

Jesus has already upstaged some scribes, Pharisees and priests by his words and actions. They are not amused. t one point, some folks send for Jesus’s family to take him home. “He’s possessed,” the people tell his mama. But what his mam and brothers get for their troubles is that when they show up at the door, Jesus pretty much disowns them. He asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of God, that’s who.”

So all is not sweetness and light in this journey with Jesus, but the disciples seem to have another ending in mind for this journey than Jesus does. Midway through Mark’s gospel, Jesus knows that he must cure his own disciples’ blindness with some blunt truth about suffering and death.

We must keep in mind the context of the people who first hear Mark’s gospel. It was likely written in the 60’s or 70’s, but before the Temple fell in Jerusalem. If the original Markan community is in or near Rome, then Nero is in power, so this is “probably a persecuted community.”[2] In fact, it could well be that some of these folks who have followed Jesus’s teachings have recanted to the emperor to save their own lives. If that is true, then those who have remained true to the faith must remind others that following Jesus involves suffering. After all, Jesus has told God’s truth to Church and Roman power, and for his efforts, they beat him and executed him. Mark’s gospel must emphasize that Jesus of Nazareth has not chosen a life of glory, of power. Nor is Jesus some kind of super-man. Instead, Jesus uses the term “Son of Man,” a term from the Old Testament book of Daniel. In contemporary terms, we could translate that as “the Human One.” So Jesus wants his disciples to understand that if we are to live most fully, we must learn to live in real and authentic ways—which means suffering.

What would our lives look like if we lived as fully authentic human beings? If we are honest, we know that it is very difficult to be authentic. Our society is one that glorifies good looks, lots of money, movie stars who walk red carpets. How does this affect our practice of our Christian faith—or does it? Jesus tells us that we can have the best of what society offers, yet lose our souls. What does this mean on a practical level?

Some people in this congregation work for, or own, successful businesses. Many of you work for the government. There may be tension in such situations where your Christian faith is concerned. Some of you have told me that you cannot talk about your Christian faith in your business world. It is okay to act ethically, to be compassionate, to have a sense of peace about you—in fact, perhaps the actual practice of your Christian faith is a witness to the cross in itself. If someone notices that you act differently from others in the office and ask you about it, well, then I suppose that opens a door, does it not? Yet is it not ironic that on a micro-level, to pick up your cross and carry it means that you cannot talk about your spiritual journey unless someone explicitly asks you about it?

A number of our families have youth whose coaches require Sunday practice or Sunday games. Here is tension. If you tell a coach that you cannot come to practice or play in a game because you have to go to church, you will either get laughed at, benched,  or thrown off the team. Is it not ironic that on a micro-level, to pick up your cross and carry it means that you must negotiate the terms of walking your spiritual journey and practicing your faith with practicing a sport?

In today’s gospel, Jesus makes it very clear that if we intend to follow him, to go behind him, to go where he goes and do what he does, then our lives will include suffering and rejection.

I must admit to you that I have struggled with this concept as I have considered this gospel in the past week. Not being able to talk about our Christian faith at work or coordinating sports schedules with Sunday morning worship is hardly in a category of suffering. What do I, twenty first century Christian, really understand about suffering?

coptic christiansOn February 15, ISIS terrorists led twenty-one Coptic Christians onto a beach in Libya. They forced the men to kneel. The camera panned slowly down the line. Only one had any look of fear on his face. The others looked resigned, or stoic. One was moving his lips—probably in prayer. As the camera moved slowly, one of the terrorists ranted about America and President Obama. Then they ordered the twenty-one Christians to lie face down in the sand. One by one, they cut their throats, then cut their heads off. The last scene on this video—which was entitled “To the Nation with the Cross”—was of the surf. All of the water was blood red. Twenty-one Christians died because they professed Jesus Christ as Lord. That is suffering. The people who loved these men now suffer from grief. Where are you and I compared to these men?

Yet there is suffering in this world. To live is to suffer. Perhaps when Jesus calls us to go with the Human One, the Son of Man, he is telling us that to be fully human, we must suffer along with others. We must have compassion. Compassion. “Com,” which means “to love together with” has roots in Latin. Passion, or Passus is related to the English word “patient” or “one who suffers.”[3] Therefore, to be compassionate is to love together with one who suffers. Compassion is ranked as a virtue in many philosophies, and in almost all world religions, it is the highest virtue.

With whom are we called to suffer as we walk this Christian journey? Is there someone who is dying? Compassion. Does someone grieve the loss of a love? We are there, with compassion. We can be compassionate with the homeless men, women and children who fill our winter shelters. Those of us who are white can suffer with our African American brothers and sisters who live daily with racial profiling. We open our hearts in love to others who suffer. In that openness, we may be transformed.

To be fully human is to see beyond ourselves and our own sufferings to others. It is also to allow suffering to transform us in some way. I would like to close this sermon with one person’s decision to pick up a cross and follow Jesus and what that meant for his life. In 1960, the Christian Century magazine asked Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to reflect about the influence of his sufferings on his thought. This was Dr. King’s response:

Dr. King “Due to my involvement in the struggle for the freedom of my people, I have known very few quiet days in the last few years. I have been arrested five times and put in Alabama jails. My home has been bombed twice. A day seldom passes that my family and I are not the recipients of threats of death. I have been the victim of a near fatal stabbing. So in a real sense I have been battered by the storms of persecution. I must admit that at times I have felt that I could no longer bear such a heavy burden, and have been tempted to retreat to a more quiet and serene life. But every time such a temptation appeared, something came to strengthen and sustain my determination. I have learned now that the Master’s burden is light precisely when we take his yoke upon us.

“My personal trials have also taught me the value of unmerited suffering. As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. Recognizing the necessity for suffering I have tried to make of it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains. I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.

World-Trade-Center-Cross-620x410“There are some who still find the cross a stumbling block, and others consider it foolishness, but I am more convinced than ever before that it is the power of God unto social and individual salvation. So like the Apostle Paul I can now humbly yet proudly say, ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ The suffering and agonizing moments through which I have passed over the last few years have also drawn me closer to God. More than ever before I am convinced of the reality of a personal God.”[4]

“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.”

Be fully human. Walk with others who suffer, and know their hearts. In your own suffering, choose not to be bitter, but to be transformed, even when you do not know what that will look like. Know that in your suffering, your Lord goes before you, and he goes with you. Amen.


© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] “Not a Super-Hero, but an Authentic Human, from http://scarletletterbible.com/authentic-human/. Accessed at www.textweek.com on Feb. 26, 2015.

[2] David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, Feasting on the Word: Year R, Volume 2, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 71.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compassion

[4] http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/suffering_and_faith/

All pictures accessed through Google Images

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ecw1Address to EDOW ECW on Saturday, March 1, 2015

Theme: “Stir Up the Spirit”         2 Timothy 1:6-7, 9a

  “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of live and of self-discipline.”(2 Timothy 1:5-7)

The apostle Paul knows that he does not have much time. Imprisoned in Rome, having suffered many times for the sake of the gospel, Paul knows that his death is imminent. When you know that you will die soon, every word counts. Every word is precious. So Paul reminds Timothy, his beloved child in the faith, of what is important. The Christian faith is important. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are important. The tradition of passing on both the faith and the Spirit’s gifts is important. Paul reminds Timothy of how Timothy first received his faith: Through his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice.

The apostle Paul is no dummy, is he? If you want to get someone’s attention, just mention her mama and her grandmamma. This matrilineal line has nurtured and sustained Timothy as a child. Now, Paul tells Timothy to step up and step out. Do your mama proud. Do your grandma proud. Do Jesus proud.

In September, 2012, a large group of clergy and lay people gathered in the Washington National Cathedral for the memorial service of one of my spiritual mothers: The Rev. Janice Marie Robinson. As the clergy vested, hugged each other and wept, my friend and colleague Canon Michele Hagans approached me. She looked me straight in the face and said, “Don’t you cry. Don’t you cry. If one of us cries, it’ll all be over.” So I did my best not to lose control of my emotions on that very emotional day. But I felt more encouraged when I learned that Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon, the preacher at Janice’s service, was not sure SHE could get through the sermon without weeping. Four months later, on Christmas, that good bishop joined Janice on the other side of Life. At Bishop Dixon’s memorial service, I was talking to the Rev. Dr. Joan Beilstein. Through my grief, I asked Joan, “What are we going to do, Joan? We are losing the grandmothers of our faith.” She looked at me and smiled. “Sheila,” she replied, “We ARE the grandmothers now. We have become the grandmothers.”

Frankly, her response did not comfort me, although I understood it. The Janice Robinsons and Jane Dixons and Dorothy Heights have gone before us. They have taught us, laughed with us, challenged us, set an example for us. Now it is our turn to rekindle, to kindle afresh, to stir up, the gifts of God which are in us and others. How do we do that? Paul reminded Timothy that “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” I would like to reflect for a few minutes on each one of those:  power, love, self-discipline. Since it is the season of Lent, I will do that in reverse order.

We think more naturally of self-discipline during these forty days and night of Lent. Perhaps you decided that you would be more self-disciplined for Lent—you have given up sweets, or drinking alcohol. Maybe you have taken on an extra discipline of Bible study or prayer. My own long-held morning discipline is to read the daily scriptures in Forward Day by Day and that meditation. Recently, I added another, after I watched a video narrated by one of the Episcopal monks with the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was about how to stop. How to stop. Now for those of you who do not know me, you need to know that I don’t do stop. Well, maybe that’s not quite true. Someone who loves me a lot tells me—with exasperation in her voice, “You only have two speeds: full tilt and stop. You need to slow down!” So maybe I do stop—but only when full tilt no longer works. I daresay that my DNA is such that I will not ever learn to slow down very well. But then I decided to watch this video done by Br. Geoffrey Tristam, He challenged those who watched the video to “sit in total stillness for five minutes today.”

Do you know how long five minutes is? If you are not accustomed to sitting in total stillness, five minutes is a very long time. Yet I was intrigued by what Br. Geoffrey said, his challenge to sit for five minutes, do nothing, and see what that feels like. I have now kept that five minutes of silence for about five days. I try not to think about anything. I try to let go of thoughts when they come. So far, I doubt I would get a passing grade in the class of Sit in Total Silence for Five Minutes, but I am working on my self-discipline. I have no doubt that every woman sitting here today could think of some discipline that you have tried—perhaps even succeeded in doing. Perhaps you are doing that during this Lenten season.

In our Baptismal Covenant, we are asked “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” We respond, “I will, with God’s help.” So whether we consider ourselves “successful” in the various ways we practice self-discipline—whether we do that just during Lent, or all year long—I think the point is that we “continue” in that practice. I doubt that God ever expects us to get perfect at doing a discipline. However, I do think God expects us to engage in spiritual practices of regular worship, of breaking of bread together, of saying our prayers for ourselves and each other. In other words, if I never practice spending five minutes a day being totally still, silent, and focused on God, I can never expect to sit like that for ten or twenty or forty minutes. Yet if I never practice this kind of stillness, I just might miss hearing the voice of God deep in my soul. Without self-discipline, I will miss being reminded of my faith. I may miss the deep stirring up of a gift I have to offer the Lord. I may miss an opportunity to help others re-kindle their gifts.

Heart in Sand 2 “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” A spirit of love. The foundation of our Christian faith is love. First, it is God’s love—the love that created the world before time existed. The divine Ruach, the rushing, creative, chaotic feminine wisdom of God that gave birth to order out of darkness and disorder. You and I live in a world that often trivializes or sexualizes the word love. Hallmark stockholders have made a lot of money out of the word “love.” We say we love people or things in our lives, but what does that really mean?

If you have been married to anyone for any significant length of time, you understand that sometimes, love is sheer tenacity, a grit-your-teeth will to make this marriage work. Sometimes, love is tough love. Tough love is the kind that stands in front of someone and says this: “Your drinking is destroying you and our life together, and I am not going to stand by and watch that happen anymore.” Tough love.

God loves us, yet I wonder how deeply we believe that in real time and in real life. If we call ourselves Christians, then at some point in time, we may very well have to come to terms with believing the love even if we don’t feel the love. In other words, God’s love was shown in its ultimate fullness through the suffering of Jesus of Nazareth as he hung on a cross. So why do we think love does not include suffering? It does. Life is not easy. Life is full of suffering. And sometimes love is full of suffering.

It is, of course, easier to identify with our own personal suffering—or that of loved ones who are ill, in pain, living with dementia, struggling with cancer. Yet I believe that as baptized Christians, the Lord calls the strong mothers and grandmothers of the faith to pay attention to larger suffering.

homeless-shelterWe live in the Washington, DC area, where churches and other organizations work hard to provide shelter for our homeless brothers and sisters. Yet the reality is that there are few shelters that are really safe for women and children. Hundreds of children go to school every morning who are hungry. They have slept in places that children should not have to sleep—a noisy shelter where they could be sexually abused, where they can easily see sights that children should not see. They go to school ashamed, because they have no home. No address. No way to fit into the culture they envision to be “the norm.”

Another example of love and suffering: If you are an African-American mother or grandmother with sons or grandsons or nephews, then you know, too well, of the tension and underlying fear in this country because of racism. Incarceration rates for African American males is staggering in comparison to white males. According to the NAACP, “African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.”[1] “One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.”[2]

I Can't BreatheI cannot say that I know this kind of suffering. I am a white woman, raised in the South, with the opportunity to be well educated. My own son is thirty six.   I do not worry, every morning, about whether he will be a victim of racial profiling. I do not worry that he will plead “I can’t breathe.” I do not worry that he will move too quickly and be shot by a police officer. I do not personally know this kind of suffering. Yet if one of us suffers, the rest of us suffer as well. Whatever is done to my brother or sister is done to me. Whatever is done to my brother or sister is done to Jesus.

So, we strong women of all colors, all nations, all races, must come together as sisters in the faith—not just to speak words of justice, but to do works of justice. Maybe that means that we support the Bishop John Walker School for Boys. Maybe that means that white women stop denying that racism is alive and well in the 21st century. Maybe that means that we intentionally work with women of color to raise the issues in ways that educate and illuminate the systems that hold power and privilege out of reach of too many of God’s children.

What if Dr. King’s work has been left undone so that we might finish it—you and me? Will we take up the issues of God’s justice for all of God’s children? Do we dare that greatly as people of God? As women of God? “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” God has not given you and me a spirit that belongs to cowards. No. God has given us a spirit of power. Power that belongs to us because the power of God’s Holy Spirit dwells deep within us. Yet have we claimed the God-given power that we possess? Have we used it fully?

The Christian faith has come to us through generations of men and women. It is a faith of love, of suffering, of discipline, of practices, of power. Yet too often, we keep that power hidden. Too often, we forget that God has “saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to God’s own purpose and grace.”[3]

What is God’s purpose? I believe it is to share the good news of God’s love through Jesus Christ. You and I are called to use our self-discipline, our love, our power, to stir our spiritual gifts up in order to make disciples for Jesus Christ. To make disciples for Jesus is not limited to the people who wear collars and stand up front every Sunday. Every person who is baptized is challenged to tell and to show the good news of God’s love. To invite others in to experience that deep, powerful love that transforms our hearts and our lives. To connect in relationship with those in other parishes, in other geographic areas in our Diocese of Washington. To take the power God has given us and to multiply it, just as Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes for a big, hungry crowd of people.

This world is hungry for love—not a Hallmark kind of love, but for a deep, abiding, powerful love. The kind of love that gives shelter and food to children and mamas who need shelter and food. The kind of love that provides books to read and teachers to teach children who will never attend a private school. The kind of love that digs deep every morning into God’s holy scripture. The kind of love that sits still long enough to hear God tell me what I can do today to make God’s world more just. The kind of love that knows who has given us power, faith and authority to stand up, to speak out, and to make a difference—in each parish that is represented here today, in this Diocese of Washington, and in the National Episcopal Church.

So as Paul told Timothy, “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”

This day, promise God that this next week, you will do something to nurture, to support, to pass on the faith of Christ Jesus as it has been passed on to you. You have the self-discipline. You have the love. You have the power. Now have the courage to stir up those gifts that God gave you, take those gifts out into the Church and the world.Make your mama proud. Make your grandmamma proud. Make Jesus proud. Amen.

Episcopal Church Shield copy© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] From http://www.naacp.org/pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet

[2] Ibid.

[3] 2 Timothy 1:9a.

Picture of heart in sand taken by McJilton on Iona, Scotland. Other pictures accessed through Google images.

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