Sep12SunSeptember 12, 2021 by Carey Meadows-Helmer
The Gospel opens with Jesus in conversation with the people, Who do people say that I am? He asks of his followers.
I am reminded of a poem penned by Dietrich Bonhoeffer while in a prison. He compares the exulted way in which others sometimes see and speak of him, with the more uncertain and vulnerable way he sees himself. Who am I? He asks. This or the Other? But he ends with the assertion in his identity as a child of God. Whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine. I am thine.
Jesus asks, Who am I?
In a passage that tries to help us understand what it means to follow God, we are first reminded about identity. Jesus is living into his identity as the anointed one, crucified and risen.
Our baptismal identity is that of followers of this crucified and risen one. Sealed/marked with the cross of Christ forever.
Now this is something I repeat because it is important. This iron clad identity gives us the grit, courage, roots and branches to plant ourselves firmly within the soil where we are placed, to live this life of faith, walking in the way of the Lord.
Knowing your baptismal identify in the crucified and risen one, shows us a way of life that daily dies to self and rises to new life in God. This is power stuff that has the potential to keep you focussed in a world full of distractions.
Howard Thurman writes, “There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.
October will mark 13 years of ordained ministry for me. I’ve had the privilege of baptizing about 20 children and confirming (which is a renewal of baptism) about 15 children. My simple prayer is that you will know the unwavering love of God for you, and that your identity as a child of God, will give you some gumption, grit, and steady steps to navigate this life as a person of faith. To anchor you in the Gospel narrative that loves God, neighbour and self and to live a little differently in a world that sometimes gets it backwards. And to shine bright in doing so.
Identity is an important part of this Gospel narrative. It leads us into the next part about following.
Let’s not sugar coat this text. When I read or hear the text for today, I find it to be a challenging one.
These words don’t instantly run over me like a balm for my soul. But I know the transformative power of the cross, and this beckons me to abide in these challenging words and remember that life is most certainly present in them.
Jesus calls the crowd with his disciples, and says to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Now, I’ve come to know better than to think, denying ourselves means not taking care ourselves or exploring what brings us joy. This isn’t what the Gospel is telling us. We are to nurture ourselves so that we may follow and use what has been nurtured in us. The gifts and joys, that which takes us beyond ourselves and helps us to see a bigger Gospel picture and to live into this more fully.
These Gospel words are perhaps even more challenging to hear after summer vacation, when life is more relaxed with moments to breath in nature, to move more freely and creatively each day, to sleep in because the kids did.
Summer is a time less defined by denying, perhaps because there is more time to nurture. It’s a time to nurture ourselves back to a more more healthier version of us that sometimes (even with our best intentions) gets lost in the fullness that is September to June over-scheduling.
So if I was to adapt the Gospel writers words to what sounds healthier, I’d change one little word and ponder this: Jesus calls the crowd with his disciples, and says to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them nurture themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
That which is nurtured in us, can be and IS a gift to our neighbours.
There’s a story I read recently about two brothers who are out for a run around a lake in Armenia. They are running along a lake, training because they are competitive swimmers and good ones at that. Shavarsh was an Armenian Olympic swimmer, turned underwater fin swimmer when he got dropped from the Olympic team. The brothers usual run was about 20 km, sometimes even carrying bags of sand. And that’s what they set out to do again. As the run came to an end, they saw a trolley bus crash into a dam reservoir nearby. The trolley bus sank 80 feet offshore at a depth of 33 feet. Only the electrical pole was left sticking out of the water. Shavarsh immediately sprinted, dove in and swam to the bus. Despite limited visibility, he managed to kick in the back window, injuring himself in the process. He proceeded to pull about 35 people from the trolley saving twenty people trapped in the bus, one at a time.
The cold, polluted water and his injuries from breaking the window led to 45 days in the hospital after the incident, during which time he developed pneumonia, sepsis, and lung damage which made his athletic pursuits more challenging.
He didn’t speak of this event much afterward and the story of his selfless actions weren’t know. Many years later an article about the event identified him by name. He didn’t even tell his wife when he married years after the event. She learned of his heroics through the article.
The Gospel has Jesus saying to the disciples,
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
Shavararsh said later, he didn’t think twice about running down to the sunken trolley. He was one of the best swimmers and he happened to be there at the right time. He wouldn’t of been one of the best swimmers if that hadn’t been nurtured in him. Shavarsh was compelled to jump in the water to help his neighbours in need.
Now while, Jesus doesn’t call us to risk our lives by diving into an underwater rescue like Shavarsh. Something in his actions models an extraordinary love for neighbour and stranger. He didn’t stand by helplessly contemplating the dangers . He was compelled to take this quick, decisive and courageous action. There was no one better to do it and he happened to be there.
While he lost some of his strength and prowess as an athlete, I wonder what he found?
Following - the way of the cross- as we hear today - looks out for our neighbour. Sometimes even putting the well being and interests of our neighbour ahead of our own. Yet, it’s also important to nurture that which is within us.
As we move forward in this September month of 2021,
Covid has left many of us weary. And yet there is light. We are not standing still even if we are taking baby steps.
I pray that as we follow in the way of the cross which Jesus talks about, daily dying and rising to new life, we will also remember the importance of nurturing ourselves. That which is nurtured has the potential to serve the kingdom in the fullest of ways. God is in our midst as we continue to discern our lives in the midst of a world in need.