The Second Sunday in Lent (2018)

The Reverend Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Second Sunday in Lent

(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch the video version.) 

Yesterday with the help of my family I began to finally sort all the books in my home office and in my living room, and there were stacks of books all over that had been growing over the past three-and-a-half years. And finally we got some shelves up and I said this is it, we’re going to get organized. And, of course, whenever I tend to sort books, I see all the impulse buys that I’ve bought over the past three years, saying oh, I’m going to read this book and then it sits.

And then it kind of gradually falls to the bottom of the pile and I pull it up and start to read.

And as I was shelving, I found one book – I picked it up and I came across this incredible saying that the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote at one point. And he said this – he said, “Among the Christians, is there a Christian?” And, of course, that was Kierkegaard’s ironic way of posing a question to us about the nature of Christianity. Kierkegaard was writing in the context in which the culture of Christianity was incredibly strong. But he understood that the real Christian – the Christian that you have to attend to is the person who follows Jesus wholeheartedly. Who has given up everything to follow Jesus as their total self.

People like Mother Teresa, or people who have given up a life that they might have had so that they could somehow dedicate themselves, often to the people whom Jesus loves the most – the poor and the outcast, the marginalized. Kierkegaard is probably writing that because he wanted to somehow lift up the passage we have before us today and the gospel of Mark. “If anyone wants to follow me,” Jesus says, “Let them deny themselves and pick up their cross and follow me.”

And this is a critique that is something that others have said over the years. Mahatma Gandhi once said that he found Christianity to be his favorite religion. And he hoped someday to actually meet a Christian, because he was surrounded by images of Christian culture but he had never met someone who truly followed Jesus. And many of the people who follow in this vein of thinking will read today’s gospel and see this as an invitation to give up something powerful.

And we tend to assume a little bit like the way that Kierkegaard assumed that he knew what a Christian should be. We tend to assume that we know the self that we’re supposed to give up. And usually it’s something we hold very dear. It usually is our status, or our health, or our money. Or something we can count or quantify. But I also want to suggest to you today that there is a deeper truth in today’s gospel. That the self that we let go of in today’s gospel, that Jesus asks us to let go off, is something that is deeper than simply the giving up of something material. Or the surrendering of a title, or the loss of a privilege.

I want to suggest that there is a deeper truth in today’s gospel that can be seen in two movements. And to get to that first movement I want to tell two stories, because for years I have been one of those people that has understood this gospel as picking up and shouldering some kind of responsibility. And for me that gets crystallized in a moment when I was about 18 years old. And my cousin Carla was – we were both at a wedding party for her brother’s wedding. And Carla at that time was moving from being able to get around with some assistance to needing a wheelchair. And for some reason she didn’t want to be seen in her bridesmaid dress, and somehow to be seen in that but being in a wheelchair. It just bothered her.

And the family didn’t know what to do. And I having been an athlete and all of that, I said, “Well, I’ll just carry her. I’ll carry her up the aisle and I’ll carry her at the reception. I’ll bring her down to where we were at.” It was this beautiful outdoor reception. And in my dysfunctional Italian family that seemed like a good idea. And so they let me do it. The wheelchair stayed out of sight, and I carried Carla up the aisle, and I carried her down – a little bit like a groom carries a bride across the threshold.

And the Latin teacher in the little town I was from, who was the arbiter of all good things – all things fine and excellent, she judged as such. Pulled me aside and she said to me, “I could watch you carry your cousin every day. It’s quite beautiful.” And I suppose it was a beautiful thing. It was a moment in which I understood the taking up of the cross is a kind of taking on of a burden. And it was an easy thing for me to do. The loss of dignity that comes with carrying somebody, it was a small price to pay so that she would feel her own dignity and know that it remained intact during the wedding.

And I suppose there’s been a part of me that has thought about the gospel for today and the taking up the cross as precisely that way. Of taking on strong burdens, of giving up certain things, of sacrificing myself. It has been the kind of inner monologue that I have told for years. But over time, I’ve come to see a different kind of taking up as incredibly important. And a different kind of lifting up as being key. And I began to think about that when I was in seminary and I had a relationship with the seminary chaplain, Churchill Gibson.

Churchill was this enormous guy who played line for the University of Virginia. That was basically his high point in his life, being a priest that was second to playing line for the University of Virginia, back in the day when the University of Virginia was the University of Virginia. And he was the chaplain at our seminary, and in those days he was kind of the human resources of the seminary. So if anybody got into trouble, they would send Churchill out.

And over the years, you would have faculty who would run into some trouble with alcohol. And Churchill was part of that team that would escort that faculty member to a treatment facility that they favored. They would get on the plane together and Churchill would make sure that he got there in one piece and got started. And over the years, Churchill himself began to suffer from a drinking problem. And then it was, as he put it, his turn, not so much to take somebody to treatment, but to go to treatment himself.

And so he went and he completed the 30 days and he came back to work and everybody was afraid to go into his office, because he was a little bit like broken china. And so I went in and asked him about it. And he said, “You know, I’ve learned that everybody takes a turn in life. I took a turn caring for others, and now is my turn to be cared for.” And then he said something else. He said, “I learned something incredibly powerful about myself when I was in treatment. We were sitting in a group session, and the facilitator pointed to this large young man that was also there with me. And he said, “Churchill, if you want to defeat your disease, you’re going to have to learn to pick up that young man and put him over your shoulders.”

And Churchill immediately transferred that into a feat of strength, and so he got up and he asked the young man to stand up and he put him on his shoulders. And he tried at 63 years old to lift this kid up on his shoulders. And he said, “You know, and I was so frustrated, because I couldn’t quite get my legs underneath me to lift him up.” And so he finally gave up after trying to do it. And he said, “You know, and the fellow was wiggling,” because somehow that wasn’t a comfortable place for him to be, being hoisted up by a 63-year-old man. And he put him down, and sweating he sat down in his chair.

And the facilitator said, “No, this is what I mean.” And he had the young man lie in the midst of the group and then he had each person in the group put one or two hands underneath the young man. And they lifted him up, easily, high above their heads. And the facilitator said to Churchill, “That is how you’re going to beat your disease when you let others lift with you.”

And to hear that truth required Churchill to think of himself differently. To lose a bit of himself that had taken a bit of pride, for it understood that following Jesus meant shouldering everything on his own shoulders. That in fact the self that he was being invited to lose, was the self that hoped to control things, or to be a kind of spiritual athlete. That the way of the cross for him in that moment was to learn and lean into the fact that he couldn’t do it alone. That he had to surrender, that he had to depend on others. And that that relationship would be enough to transform him and change him for the better.

You see, I think there is a deeper truth in today’s gospel. A different kind of picking up and a different kind of letting down. The self that we have to let go of so often is the self that tries to do the things of religion on its own. And that self lives in isolation even while it is surrounded by all the different stories, and all the traditions, and all the rituals of religion. But we become Christians. The moment we lose that self, and lean into the relationships that God is preparing for us in Christ Jesus.

And to lean into that self means to lose control. It means to surrender. It means to allow others to help you. It’s a self that learns that everybody takes a turn. So when Jesus says today to us that we should deny ourselves and pick up our cross and follow Him, that’s an invitation to enter into relationship. And those words are not meant to only speak to one moment in our life, or one thing that we’ve done, or one thing that we’ve yielded. Those words are meant to speak to a lifelong process of transformation.

In his 95 theses, Martin Luther said that when our Lord said repent in the gospels, He was not speaking about a season. He was not speaking about a ritual. He was not speaking about a moment. But He was saying that the entire Christian life had to be one of repentance. The same thing might be said in today’s gospel when our Lord invites us to be transformed, to let go, to lift up, to be changed through taking up our cross and following Him. Our Lord is inviting us on a lifelong experience of transformation.

And that transformation has been real to me over the past few weeks. I know that last week, Pastor Manisha said nice things about me which made me uncomfortable. In which she said that the way that I’d gotten through some recent difficulties in my family was by saying and doing the next right thing. And that is wisdom I’ve learned. It’s best not to overthink these things. You just have to do the next right thing in some days in life. But the other thing that I’ve tried to say, and that I want to emphasize, is I’ve also said that everybody takes a turn.

Because just as much as God has been able to redeem those tiny moments in which I have taken on the burdens for others, so I believe at the core of my being that God will work through me just as powerfully in the moment I surrender and invite others to lift with me. Because I know that it is in that relationship with God, and with each of us together in God – I know in that that the transformation Christ is calling us to will become real.

And so when I say everybody takes a turn, that’s what I’m speaking to today. Who’s turn is it today? What is God asking you to let go of today? What do you need to surrender today? What relationship do you need to attend to today? How might you find God again, the God who has been searching for you from eternity? How will you find Him from eternity? How will you find him today?

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