In today's Gospel, Jesus very clearly issues a challenge and call to discipleship in verses 34 to 36. When Jesus called His disciples, He said, "Come, follow me" and they obeyed. We find no indication the disciples questioned how much time would be involved, how much would they be paid, what would the expectations of them be, nor questions of how they would live and where. As we stand here at the very end of a century and a millennium, those are questions we have been conditioned to ask. If I am interviewing for a job, I ask about salary, vacation, expectations, etc. We do not know if Jesus asked others and was turned down. All we know is that He issued an invitation to those whose names are recorded and by His compelling presence, there was no hesitancy to obey. They left their nets; left behind jobs, families, homes, etc., and travelled the land with Jesus.
Today's world doesn't take kindly to denying oneself anything. Daily temptations to indulge oneself bombard each individual, whether in magazines, newspapers, radio or television. There is some seductive element involved in convincing oneself of the need for a particular item. As a result, how often are items purchased and after a few times of use, put aside and forgotten? How often is the latest gadget purchased and in a few months, something "new and improved" comes along and the temptation is to buy that item?
The dictionary defines deny "to abstain from indulging oneself." In essence that is what we know of Lent. For those who have always been in the Church, Lent was presented as a time of denying oneself -- abstaining from eating candy, ice cream, cake, pie, or whatever one chose to "give up." How often did that time of denial result in insatiable yearns for the very item being denied? Was not the temptation at times almost unbearable at time even leading to "sneaking a little bit" in hopes one could then again deny the item for one's enjoyment? More and more in modern times, we are encouraged to "take on" a service or ministry during Lent. My problem with that is this, does that mean we can then "give it up" after Lent is over? What happens to those who have been served or assisted?
David Jardine was born into poverty in Canada in 1843. As a teenager in Rochester, New York, he got into trouble and for a short time, served a prison sentence. As his journey continued, it led him into ordination as an Episcopal priest. He founded a thriving parish; St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri; an order of teaching nuns; a parochial school and was in the process of establishing an Episcopal college when he died under very mysterious circumstances. Throughout his journey, he gave all he earned to the health and care of others. His spirituality was centered in making the Eucharist central to the worship life of his flock, though it led to rejection by most parishioners, friends and colleagues. As a reminder to himself of his sinful nature, he wore about his waist a penitential chain. Though he consistently served others, most of his peers thought he should never have been ordained, based on their opinion that he was not a "gentleman" from genteel birth. David Jardine rose above the rejection; the misunderstanding of his spirituality; and his focused acknowledgement of being a disciple who followed Jesus. This man came into the world in poverty and died with no worldly goods, but with a profoundly deep faith, commitment to his Lord, and leaving a legacy of care for others. He was buried in a "priests lot" at Forest Hills Cemetery, much like a paupers grave. However, the parish, hospital, order of nuns and parochial school flourish to this day. David Jardine lived the Gospel imperative, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross."
The call to discipleship is a gift to each and every Christian person. What does being a disciple mean in today's world? Again, the dictionary defines disciple in this way....." One of the companions of Christ." The roots of the word in Latin are discipulus, meaning pupil and discere, meaning to learn. The persons invited by Jesus, were those he taught daily, both by word and action. He gave them tasks to do in His name; He invited them to be His most intimate friends; He warned them so they might be prepared for his death; though suffering from (presumed on my part) frustration and dismay when the disciples just "didn't get it," Jesus never gave up on them. In spite of all their weaknesses, because of their strength after Jesus' death and resurrection, you and I sit here today, hearing again the Story of Salvation; saying the prayers for one and all; eating the meal Jesus instituted; participating in His birth, life, death and resurrection. The disciples spread the Good News. We as the continuing disciples are likewise called to spread the Good News.
The Psalmist sings, "You will show me the path of life." As we look back over our lives, when do we see that our Lord showed us the path of life? The psalmist seems utterly confident that the path is not her/his for the identifying, but rather it is faithfully acknowledging the presence of the Lord guiding and being present. Though the story of David Jardine is brief in its telling, surely a man who went from poverty to prison, to ordination, then service to others, had in his presence the Lord Jesus Christ as guide. Are not those journeys surrounded and permeated by prayer, whether consciously or subconsciously? Surely such incredible experiences and results are not happenstance! Bishop Richard Grein of the Diocese of New York has been known to say, "I don't believe in coincidences. When I stop praying, the coincidences stop!" As a people believing in the power of private, corporate and intercessory prayer, nothing becomes impossible. It is indeed possible to deny oneself and to take up the Cross with all its burden and cost.
In a world, increasingly non-Christian and a post Christendom era, being Christian is dangerous. Speaking out for those who have no voice focuses anger upon the one speaking. Serving the rejected, downtrodden, abused, vilified can sap one of energy. Daily fear of being beaten or murdered in random acts of violence, oftentimes is paralyzing. Being bombarded by an eroding of innocence is utterly depressing. Feelings and experiences of not being safe causes suspicion and mistrust. To use Faith Popcorn's coined phrase, we do indeed "cocoon" ourselves in our homes. It is our way of barring the door against the world and all its ills.
Yet, the Psalmist sings,....." in your presence there is fullness of joy...." From whence comes a perspective of joy in the face of such overwhelming fear and degradation?
Trust! Scripture calls us to trust the very words of Jesus and know the Good News is being preached and lived. Down through two millenniums the Gospel has sustained millions and hundreds of millions. Though the world is broken, as are the people populating the world, there is goodness and mercy abundant, if only we focus upon it. It is utter trust and belief that when faced with a crisis and one prays for calmness, that will indeed happen. Not because the person wills it, but because the prayer is heard and the response is made as a gift from God. It is the utter conviction that God never asks more than God alone knows a person is capable of dealing with.
Sacrifice. There are always those in life who seem to have the "good things" with no effort on their part. How often do we hear about the "good luck" a person has had? And then there are those who seem never to have any "good luck." In the reading from Genesis, Abraham exhibits three important aspects of relationship with God; trust, sacrifice and obedience. He was willing to sacrifice his son, though as many parents can well imagine Abraham's incredible sense of sadness. God, loving Abraham unconditionally, accepts the trust and willingness to sacrifice Abraham's beloved Son, stopping the action, therefore, saving Isaac.
Obedience. Abraham obeys God without question. He passes the test by illustrating the awe in which Abraham holds God and the willingness to do what is asked. Throughout Salvation History God calls people to obedience, yet so often the obedience is withheld. Here Abraham is obedient without question.
Belief. Through actions of self denial and the carrying of the Cross's burden, one is led to every deepening belief. The things of earth fall away as being unimportant, while one's focus is drawn to the surety of God's presence through Jesus Christ. It is the sustaining experience of prayer, the power of the Eucharist, the acceptance in community, the willingness to follow Him, that brings us out of the darkness of the night into the pure light of each day. It is the evolving possibilities from that which we think is impossible. David Jardine's peer thought he ought not be ordained because he was not of "genteel birth," but a ragamuffin from poverty, with nothing to his name. As Jesus instructs in Scripture the experience He is to have; that of suffering, rejection and death, let us not forget that we are called to be His disciples. Being in the world, but not of the world, we too are to take up the Cross and follow Him to everlasting life. Amen.