Sermon for Sunday, January 28, 2018 || Epiphany 4B || Mark 1:21-28
One of the enduring images of my childhood is my father never taking off his cross necklace. He wore that cross under his clothes close to his heart. He wore it (and still wears it) all the time: while sleeping, while exercising, even while showering. I can see him in my mind’s eye at the beach wearing just swim trunks and a three-inch by two-inch piece of silver metal.
I wanted to be like him so badly that I asked for a cross of my own to wear. So my parents gave me one for my birthday when I was about fourteen or fifteen. I tried to wear it all the time like my dad, but the chain would chafe my neck while I slept, so I took it off at night, and sometimes I’d forget to put it back on. It was against the rules to wear jewelry on the soccer field, so off came the cross then too. I lost it in the depths of my car for a few months my senior year of high school. Then one day during my first semester of college the chain broke, and I lost the cross for good. I had wanted to wear the cross to be like my dad, but I had failed. He never took his off, never lost it.
So I did what every sensible eighteen-year-old does. I got a tattoo. A simple Celtic cross on the left side of my upper back. That way I knew I would never take off my cross; I would never lose my cross again. A few months later, I began discerning my call to ordained ministry, but even then I had not linked my desire to have a cross with the practical action of following Jesus Christ.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that my father’s cross wasn’t just a piece of jewelry to him. He wore his cross all the time because it reminded him to live out his faith all the time. Why the cross? Why did that become the symbol of Christianity? And why has that symbol been reduced to mere jewelry? People have often asked those questions by provocatively likening the wearing of a cross necklace to the wearing a miniature electric chair. Indeed, the cross is a device of death and torture. Why would we wear such a thing? Ah, because Jesus transformed it into a symbol of life and hope. The act of transformation – despair to hope, apathy to passion, death to life – this is what the cross has come to represent.
If people stop you on the street and ask why you wear a cross, tell them it reminds you that you are being transformed. Day by day. Living our faith. Following Jesus Christ transforms us from misers into givers, from shruggers into carers, from deadbeats into servants, from those who embrace the death-dealing tendencies of the world to those who embrace the life-giving ways of God.
The cross is not just a symbol of transformation; it is a blueprint for how our transformation is structured. On this day of our annual meeting, this day of celebrating and dreaming and setting vision, let me share with you this blueprint that has got me so excited. You see, the blueprint reminds us of our calls to be both disciples and apostles of Jesus Christ. Our bishops, Ian and Laura, have been using this language for a few years now, and I’m so happy to share it with you this morning.
Look at the cross: two simple lines, one vertical, one horizontal, which intersect at right angles. Now imagine the vertical line is a rope connected to a bucket descending into a well to draw water. Down it goes into the dry earth until it splashes into the impossible pool at the bottom. You draw up the bucket and drink of the fresh, living water, this water that Jesus says “gushes up to eternal life.”
This is discipleship – the action of living deep: cultivating a deep relationship with Jesus Christ through prayer and study and worship; integrating more and more deeply into your identity the truth that you are God’s beloved; and breathing in the deep peace that comes with the faith that you are always and forever being held in the palm of God’s hand.
A disciple is not the student who crams at the last minute and then forgets everything the day after the test. No, disciples are students who realize that what they are learning is going to change their lives. In this morning’s Gospel, the people are astounded at Jesus’ teaching and authority. Could it be that they felt his words nestling deeply into the very cores of their beings, a deep place they didn’t even know existed? Remember, they were awestruck even before Jesus cast out the demon.
Discipleship is living deep, living as if your relationship with God actually matters, living as if that relationship were like the impossible well dug deep in the desert sand. But if we kept that well’s bounty all to ourselves, then we would miss the other piece of the cross. Indeed, Jesus tells his friends that when they give drink to the thirsty, they are giving it to him; that whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones will not lose their reward.
So the other piece of the cross – the crosspiece, if you will – is our apostleship, our identity as those sent out to serve God in this world. Imagine the horizontal line of the cross. See Jesus stretching wide his “arms of love on the hardwood of that cross so that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace.”* If the vertical line is the well dug deep, the horizontal line is arms stretched wide.
This is apostleship – the action of living wide: developing a wide network of relationships so you are aware of other people’s struggles and successes, their dreams and their nightmares; keeping your eyes wide open, your peripheral vision active so you can see the need in your community you might otherwise be blind to; and opening your heart wide so a mission can find its way inside.
A disciple is a person who learns, who listens to a teacher, who seeks intentional avenues for personal growth. An apostle is a person sent out to serve, to bear witness, to end the day with dirt beneath fingernails; one who goes forth from comfort into hazard, from the known into the unknown, from light into darkness. A disciple breaths in the peace of God. An apostle breathes it out again into the world. And thus a cycle forms, supported by prayer and worship and reflection.
A disciple practices awareness. An apostle practices action. A disciple lives deep. An apostle lives wide. And the cross connects these two identities. The heart of the cross is transformation, and we engage in our own transformation and the transformation of the world by living deep and living wide as disciples and apostles of Jesus Christ.
Why do we wear crosses or have them tattooed on our backs? To remind us day in and day out to live deep and live wide as people who follow Jesus, the Holy One who offered living water at the deep well, the Holy One who stretched his arms of love wide on that hard plank of wood.
This is my vision for us here at St. Mark’s in 2018 and beyond: to embrace our identities as Jesus’ disciples and apostles; to live deep into God’s word and sacrament, to live wide into God’s mission in this world; to be transformed as Jesus transformed the cross; and to transform the world, as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry often says, from the nightmare it so often is to the dream God intends.
* Bishop Brent’s collect for mission, page 101 in the Book of Common Prayer.
Thanks to Bishop Laura Ahrens and my colleague Sharon Pearson for the discussions that supported the development of this sermon.