Our friend Tom lives away from here but comes into town with some frequency and we always enjoy the time we get to spend with him. One of the things I love are the stories he tells. He comes from West Texas, where life is not ever real easy. The last time we saw him, Tom told us a story about his grandmother. Flossie and her siblings became adults as the Great Depression was strangling the life out of this country and what they had to face was the reality that they had next to nothing, except a farm, a farm that kept the whole family through that time—15 people in all, some cattle, the other things that you find on a farm that help people keep going.
Flossie’s job was in the cooking. Before the sun came up, she was in the kitchen, getting breakfast ready—biscuits and gravy, eggs, sausage, grits. The rest of the family went out to work the farm and Flossie went back to work in the kitchen, cleaning all those dishes, putting everything up and then getting started with lunch that included pie and cake every day. Every single day. It sounds delicious, but in a day when you did it all by hand, imagine the start of the morning knowing how much you had to get done by noon.
After everyone had eaten lunch, it all started again, the cleaning the putting up, the getting ready for one more meal. And after dinner, there wasn’t catching up on “Dancing with the Stars”—it was time to clean up and put up and get ready for another day of more of the same. It was incredibly poignant hearing our friend say, “just about every single day of her adult life, my grandmother worked from the moment she got up to the moment she went to bed. Each and every day.”
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Jesus was not a space alien come from a distant galaxy. He was not a super-friend from Krypton. He was not even the Messiah that the people Israel had longed for, a heroic warrior king, capable of restoring the former glory of the kingdom—a glory probably more shaped by nostalgia than by reality. Jesus was not any of those things and when Peter tried to rebuke him for talking about how things would end, he must have thought, man how can someone get it so right and be so wrong. Peter had just confessed that Jesus was the Messiah—but now he was showing that he was clueless about what that meant. This wasn’t about magic, or might, or even the miracles in and of themselves. This was about a selflessness that was stronger than every single one of our darkest impulses. Jesus had come into the world to do what ever was necessary, not to show us that he loved us, but to love us. To love us with everything he had and everything he was.
I would say to you today that Tom’s grandmother Flossie knew something of this kind of love. I can imagine that there were times when she stood there, beating the egg whites for one more merengue, to make one more pie to serve for one more lunch and wondered if this was really all there was to her life. She didn’t have monthly appointments at the spa to get a mani-pedi and maybe even the occasional massage. The family didn’t have a nice getaway by the lake. What stretched ahead of her was a parade of days that blended into one, like Groundhog Day and you know that as she got older, her hands began to ache, and standing on her feet got harder and surely there were days when she wished she were Dorothy and she wasn’t in Kansas any more.
If you want to become my followers, take up your cross and follow me. Not easy words to hear. Not easy words to hear when we are the children and grandchildren of the greatest generation, who knew a whole lot about sacrifice and tried to shield you and me from it, pouring their lives out to give us comfort, privilege and the world in an oyster shell.
Jesus was not about super-heroics and utopias not grounded in reality. He refused to look away from things as they really were, not as he might wish or want them to be. At this juncture in his ministry, he saw the depth of change that was needed for His people to live into the promises of God. The miracles had impressed, but mainly they had made more folks want more from him. The parables he had told had been an invitation, a wonderful, deeply mysterious invitation into a world that was here but that required more of us to actually see it, and smell it and live in it. Even his disciples, the men and women he loved so much, would end up listening to those stories wondering, “hey, what’s in it for me—am I going to be the first in this kingdom of God?” He upset the establishment, made people nervous, and was uncompromising and relentless in his insistence that love is always both grace and judgment and you don’t get one without the other. Perhaps the hardest thing of all is that Jesus did not engage in some magical thinking to say, “well, here: I can do this on my own and make it all better”. From the very beginning, he said, “come. Follow me.” He insisted that no matter what was going on in the world, those who wanted to follow him must face squarely into what is hard and scary and changeable and incredibly complicated, where good and bad and our basest impulses and our highest angels are all there, giving shape to the today we find ourselves in. He needed us learn to love like he does.
Our own time demands no less. I bet there are a bunch of people here who are living with some level of anxiety about job security or about the security of your old age. Maybe the worst has already happened to you, or to someone you know. We don’t want to think that any of us might be faced with a life like Flossie’s: to work from sun up to sun down, not to get ahead but to just stay afloat? That is not a thought we want to get our heads around. Yet we ignore that possibility at our own peril and sell ourselves way too short if we allow ourselves to think that we are not capable of that kind of self sacrifice.
It struck me that that life for us here at St Ambrose is a lot closer to life on that farm in Texas than we allow ourselves to accept most Sundays we are here. We don’t have enough to pay our bills. It’s getting a little better, but to put things in perspective, you and I pay about 1/10th of what it costs to keep this campus going. The struggle stretches back for a long time. It is tempting to say, “I’m tired now, and I’ve paid my dues”. It is hard, when I come to you, like I have in the past few weeks and say, “listen, we have this opportunity to work with the national church and get their support to do the kind of redevelopment work that will allow us to become a thriving faith community and offer the love that we have received out to the world. But here’s the deal: I need 4 hours of your time each week for 2 years to make this work.
That’s a lot of commitment and I am deeply grateful to Bill E. because he has been willing to say yes. We need 2-3 more folks to make that kind of commitment. Because it is going to take that kind of sustained effort, that dedication, that sheer love for this small and wobbly part of the body of Christ, to get new muscle and grow again. We aren’t going to get to cut corners or wish that by some magic the pews will be filled back up. Like Flossie, we still have another pie to bake because tomorrow is almost here again.
By now you may be getting pretty annoyed with me because this isn’t a particularly uplifting kind of message. None of us. None of us wants to hear Jesus say “pick up your cross”—and we get stuck right there, I suspect. It’s like we are Flossie, except we think that we have to do our work without those other 14 people who helped her and helped each other keep going. That feels so real that we don’t even hear the second part of the phrase: —follow me—. That part gets lost in the sheer magnitude of what is expected of us.
But it is there. Follow me. Jesus says, “let me go ahead of you. Let me open the way. Let my body shelter yours when the howling winds would knock you down. Let me look ahead because I can see so much further than you can, and even though it is dark right now, I can already see dawn breaking. Pick up your cross and follow me—I will do whatever I need to keep you safe. We’ll stop along the way and I will feed you. We will gather around the fireplace or the dining room table or in the parish hall and tell stories and laugh and be together. I will be with you to the end and if I am with you who can be against you? Pick up your cross and follow me.”
We have just barely enough people to take on the project that the national church has invited us to be part of. It is going to be hard, and a lot of it will be slogging along, washing pie pans just to make the next batch of pies. But think about who it is who leading us. It is he, the Risen Christ. The Messiah. Emmanuel—God with us, who is saying, “Come on. This is no easy task we have ahead. But look around you. I have not asked you to do this alone—you have brothers and sisters just as surely as Flossie did. Come with me. I am with you, I am with you to the end.”
So come on. Let’s follow him. Let’s do this thing.