Mary's Church

 

Mary’s Church                                          30 August 2020

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

 

Most everyone is an immigrant or the descendant of immigrants. It’s sort of interesting how people do move around and end up where they do. Groups of newly freed slaves in Tennessee moved to Kansas after the Civil War. There they established a new life – a new life in freedom. Many of them ended up in Topeka, KS.

Oddly enough many years later I ended up in Topeka as well. I lived there for a number of years. It is where I returned the church after an absence of quite a few years. I joined the Episcopal Church there. When I first moved to the town, I knew very few people. Over the years I met many people, many of them members of the church. One of them was Mary.

Mary was black and one of only two blacks in the congregation. We both attended an early morning mid-week service pretty regularly. Over the years those of us who attended that service became very close-knit. We followed the short service with do-nuts and fellowship. One morning Mary and I got to talking. She started talking about herself and her family. She told me that she had originally been a member of a black Episcopal Church not far from Grace Cathedral. The church had been established by blacks who wanted their own church. Unspoken but probably one of the reasons that they wanted their own church is that they would not be required to sit in the balcony or in a separate section in the back. They built it, they supported it, it was their church. She said that one year the Bishop decided that the church should be “integrated” so shut down the black church. It was expected that the members would come into the congregation at the Cathedral. She said that only she and one other person were left from the congregation of that church. Neither her husband nor any of her children remained in the Episcopal church.

It appeared to be a painful subject for her so we went on to other things.

Sometimes things happen to us that hurt us so deeply that it would seem the pain will never go away. And sometimes that pain comes to us unexpectedly at the hands of someone we have trusted in the past and who we thought was our friend.

Our Gospel reading is not an easy reading. As Jesus began to talk with his disciples – and closest friends - about what he must go through – the pain, the suffering, his death -  the one disciple he had identified as the rock on which he would build his church – the one he entrusted with the keys – objected loudly. “God forbid it…this must not happen to you!”

And to that one he said – reflecting his own hurt – and anger, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block…”

And then those hard words: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

“…Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

 

Sometimes the most difficult and challenging thing a writer faces is the blank page on the desk in front of him waiting for words – and the words don’t come. Or sort of to bring things up to date, maybe it is the blank screen of the computer monitor and the keyboard – waiting for words, waiting for a message, waiting for a meaning. On the desk next to my monitor is a crucifix. I suspect a Roman Catholic owned it at one time. The cross is a bit too ornate for Protestant tastes – with embellishments that certainly would not have been on the rough, wood cross on which our Savior was actually crucified. But the man on this crucifix is real. His pain is evident on his face. He is suffering. His suffering is real.

 

And maybe in a way this speaks to the times we are in now.

Maybe now we are not so much interested in the embellishments but rather in the heart – the true meaning - of our Faith. And the heart of our Faith is the One who is on the cross. Because the heart of our faith is a relationship, our relationship with that One who once was on the cross. Because in these troubling times even His churches have become the targets of mobs and rioters. Many are empty. Some have been spray-painted and desecrated. And as some cynics have pointed out, in some places it seems bars, taverns, and restaurants have an easier time serving their patrons than do churches and synagogues serving their congregations.

But Jesus asks us to take up our own cross and follow Him.

How do we do that?

It is not easy. It is not checking off items on a checklist.

Paul’s letter to those in the church in Rome might be a good place to start.

In our reading this morning Paul begins with “Let love be genuine.” Let your love be genuine.” Let your heart be transformed. And that does not come solely by reading a book, or listening to some words. It is a transformation of your heart. Notice those in your life who have undergone that transformation in their own lives. Maybe it is a parent, or a good friend, or a dear teacher… It must be asked for, it must be prayed for, it must be wanted…

Have nothing to do with those things that are not good, that are hateful.  Hold fast to what is good. Love one another with mutual affection. Outdo one another in showing respect for others. For all others. Rejoice in hope. Be patient with all the things that do not go as you wish, that slow you down, that inconvenience you - be patient. Make prayer an important and regular part of your life.

Support and contribute to the good works of the Kingdom. Make it point to support the church, to support others that spread the Good News of the church, to support and encourage those that are hurting and suffering in these times…

It used to be more common to have family get-togethers. In addition to the obvious restrictions on people getting together, families are not as large as there used to be, members of families are spread all over the country…At family reunions in those old days  – there would always be the “obnoxious uncle.” He would be the one – particularly if we were close to an election – who would speak loudly and persistently about the candidate who should be supported as well as detailing – in great detail – the deficiencies of the opponent. And in so doing he would point out the moronic imbecility of any of those who might be supporting the opposing candidate. It was not pleasant to listen to him.

Maybe one good thing that has come out of having fewer family reunions is that we don’t have to listen to the rant of the “obnoxious uncle.”

Unfortunately, today there is no shortage of “obnoxious uncles.” Many are found in other gatherings, and many have found comfortable homes on the cable news channels. Social media seems to have been invented for their special use.

How do we deal with such people? Avoid them if at all possible.

But maybe here comes the most difficult part of this requirement – maybe one of the most difficult parts of carrying our cross – which is not just a suggestion or just guidance – it is a requirement of Jesus:” Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them.”

Live in harmony with one another. Do not claim to be wiser than you are. If it is possible so far as it depends on you live peaceably with all.

Maybe these special Christian virtues of Love, Peace, Reconciliation, are in special need in these bitter, toxic times.

 

Have a forgiving heart. If there is one thing that marks the Christian faith it is that it speaks and encourages forgiveness. In Jesus’ wonderful parable we call the Prodigal son – maybe it would be better described as the Forgiving Father – it is clear that in his description of that forgiving father he is talking about God. And how we should have a forgiving heart as did that father.

And to sum up Paul’s suggestions to us on how we might take up our cross and follow the Master, he says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

 

It has been many years since I left Kansas and returned to Arkansas.

And just as those years in Kansas were good for me and a time of turning back to God so my years back in Arkansas have been good years. It is a time of service more directly to the church beginning at St. Stephen’s and now at St. Luke’s.

From time to time I remember the good people, the good friends I met and made in Kansas.

One time I read a description that I really liked about a certain saint. This saint, this particular writer* said, ‘represents the holiness of a hidden life, doing things without a great deal of fanfare.”  I really like that: “…the holiness of a hidden life, doing things without a great deal of fanfare.” I think that it describes how Jesus wants us to take up our own cross and follow Him. And notwithstanding some of the hurt and pain that Mary encountered in her life it describes the joyful way she lived her life,

 

Amen.

 

·         Page 60, Jesus, A Pilgrimage, by Fr. James Martin, SJ

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