Sunday, September 13, 2015

Are We Running With You, Jesus?

Proper 19B, Sunday September 13, 2015 | Susan Russell | All Saints, Pasadena

In 1965 a movie producer turned Episcopal priest named Malcolm Boyd wrote a book called “Are You Running With Me, Jesus?” It was … to the surprise of many … a runaway bestseller – and it is no exaggeration to say that it fed the hunger of a generation of people who were giving up on the church or anyone connected with it having anything relevant to say.

Fifty years later we don’t need another PEW Research study to tell us about the boatloads of people who have long since given up on the idea that the church -- or anyone connected with it -- has anything relevant to say. And yet the work and witness of Malcolm Boyd -- priest, poet and activist – continues to inspire. And so I want to spend some time this morning exploring just what his 1965 prayers have to say to us in 2015 about what it means to be the church; what it means to live a life of faith; what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

Let’s start at the beginning – with “It’s Morning” … Malcolm’s title prayer from “Are You Running With Me, Jesus.”
It’s morning, Jesus. It’s morning, and here’s that light and sound all over again I’ve got to move fast … get into the bathroom, wash up, grab a bite to eat, and run some more. I just don’t feel like it. What I really want to do is get back into bed, pull up the covers and sleep.

Where am I running? You know these things I can’t understand. It’s not that I need to have you tell me. What counts most is just that somebody knows, and it’s you. That helps a lot. So I’ll follow, along, OK? But lead, please. Now I’ve got to run. Are you running with me, Jesus?
Are you running with me? Will you lead? Am I following you? In these simple, accessible verses, Malcolm captured some of the great challenges of Christian faith not just for his generation or for ours – but the questions that have been asked down through the ages … indeed, from the very beginning.

Which brings us to today’s gospel.

It is a critical moment in the story. After many miles and much healing, preaching and teaching, in this -- the 8th chapter of the Gospel According to Mark -- Jesus finally “pops the question” to Peter. “Who do you say that I am?” he asks. And I imagine the Angels and Archangels (and all the company of heaven) pausing for just a moment in that hymn they forever sing – pausing to listen for the answer Peter would give. Does he “get it” yet?

And then the answer: “You are the Messiah.”

The Angels and Archangels breathe a sigh of relief and get back to choir practice. He gets it! Alleluia, Alleluia!

Peter and the Gospel story have turned an important corner – have taken a no-turning-back step forward. This radical rabbi from Nazareth is not just some teacher … he is THE teacher. The Messiah. The One who loved us enough to become one of us in order to show us love how to walk in love with God and with each other. Peter gets it. Peter believes.

The story turns a corner … but it doesn’t slow down. If anything, it accelerates as Jesus outlines where this journey he is on is leading – and in just moments the same Peter who just “got it” is rebuking the one he just proclaimed Messiah. And so Jesus sits them ALL down and – Mark tells us – begins to teach: working to help Peter – and us -- understand what this discipleship thing is all about. It is a process that brings to my mind Biblical scholar Verna Dozier who famously said, “Don’t tell me what you believe – tell me what difference it makes that you believe.”

Just so, Jesus is saying to Peter “Now that you’ve told me what you believe, let me tell you how to make a difference because you believe.” And so he says to those who would be his disciples that they should “take up their cross and follow me.”

Peter still doesn’t seem to really “get it”– which, as we know, is going to turn out to be a pattern with Peter. And the more I have thought about it the more I’ve become convinced that one of the reasons that kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven hasn’t come yet is that for the last 2000 years the church has had as much trouble “getting” what Jesus was saying as Peter did.

Jesus didn’t say take up MY cross and get yourself nailed to it. He did not say take up my cross and use it to beat up people who don’t agree with you – by like … oh let’s just pick a random example or two: denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples or reproductive health care to women.

Nope. He said take up YOUR cross and (this would be the punch-line) and FOLLOW me.

Follow me. Not “stay here in ‘the crucified place’– but follow me to the resurrection place.

Follow me to the place of hope and promise and new beginnings and the power of a love that triumphs even over the absolute worst that the world can do. Even over death.

Take up your cross and follow me, Jesus said to Peter – and to us. And here’s what Malcolm said … in another one of his prayers:
Teach us the path, show us the way They say that everyone has a cross to bear, Jesus. And you once said, "Take up your cross and follow me." What do these things mean? I think they mean that every person ultimately has to face up to reality -- face one's own calling, destiny, nature and responsibilities. In your own life, Jesus, you faced reality directly and unequivocally. You incarnated the truth as you believed it. You didn't pander to any easy or obvious popularity. You attacked the hypocrisies of the human power structure head on. You rejected the status quo in favor of obedience to the Realm of God.

The way of the cross was your understanding of your mission and your faithfulness to it. The way of the cross seems to be, for every individual Christian, the reality that dictates style of life, defines mission, and brings a person into communion with you. Help me to bear my cross on the way of the cross, Jesus.
For Malcolm Boyd the cross is not a destination but a call to action. It is the call to action Frederick Buechner describes in this image that has been proclaimed many times over the years from this pulpit: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.”

Take up your cross and follow me, Jesus says. Take up YOUR cross. Find YOUR place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger. Those are our marching orders as Christians – marching orders as ancient as our 1st century brother Peter, as recent as the 20th century challenges of our friend Malcolm Boyd and as current as the 21st century world’s deep hunger for peace, justice, equality & compassion.

For this is the “mystery of faith” we proclaim: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

In that mystery of faith the cross – an instrument of torture and death – is re-signified as an icon of liberation from the fear of death.

From the resurrection side of the story, the cross becomes a symbol of hope – of the power of life over death – of the dream that will never die.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

I don’t know if you saw the Stephen Colbert’s interview with Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday night but it was amazing – and … because I was in the middle of working on this sermon … I kept thinking as I watched them talk about faith and loss and hope “There! That’s what it looks like to run with Jesus – that’s what it looks like to take up your cross.”

Because when we take up OUR cross and follow Jesus we take up that icon of liberation -- that symbol of hope: hope in the face of the worst the world can do.

And it is that hope that we take out into the world every time we leave this place – fed by the holy food and drink of new and unending life we call strength for the journey. The presentation hymn we so often sing puts it like this:

A world in need now summons us to labor, love, and give; to make our life an offering to God that all may live; the Church of Christ is calling us to make the dream come true: a world redeemed by Christlike love; all life in Christ made new.

To make the dream come true is to partner with God in the high calling of working for a world redeemed – for ALL: not just some.

THAT’S the dream of God – the one Verna Dozier wrote about in her seminal book published in 1991 and entitled … (wait for it …) … The Dream of God: “God has paid us the high compliment of calling us to be coworkers with our Creator, a compliment so awesome that we have fled from it and taken refuge in the church.”

And -- it turns out -- Malcolm Boyd also had something to say about that in this (arguably my personal favorite) one of his prayers:
Here I am in church again, Jesus. I love it here, but, as you know, for some of the wrong reasons. I sometimes lose myself completely in the church service and forget the people outside whom you love. I sometimes withdraw far, far inside myself when I am inside church, but people looking at me can see only my pious expression and imagine I am loving you instead of myself.

Help us, Lord, who claim to be your special people. Don’t let us feel privileged and selfish because you have called us to you. Teach us our responsibilities to you, our community, and to all the people out there. Save us from the sin of loving religion instead of you.
Save us from the sin of loving religion instead of you.

Loving religion instead of Jesus has been one of the ways the church has denied Jesus over and over and over again -- as surely as Peter denied Jesus as that cock crowed the third time. William Sloane Coffin famously said: “The world is now to dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.” And the deep hunger of a world smaller and more dangerous every day is for the Good News of God’s love, justice and compassion.

Our urgent task – and our deep joy -- is to reclaim the truth of our identity as the people of God and live into our high calling as followers of Jesus – not settle for being lovers of religion -- so that the dream of God for a new creation can be realized.

Yes, have our work cut out for us – there is no doubt about that – for our work is nothing less than shaping the future in alignment with God’s dream of a world where love, peace, justice and compassion are realities for all – not just some – of God’s beloved human family.

• To shape a future free of the sin of racism; healed of the disease of homophobia and safe from the scourge of sexism.
• To speak out when the core American value of religious liberty is hijacked as a weapon of mass discrimination by those who confuse exercising their religion with imposing their religion.
• To stand up when women are denied access to health care, people of color are denied access to equal protection and immigrants are denied dignity – all while the science of climate change is denied as myth and we watch “this fragile Earth, our island home” changing before our very eyes.

Yes, it can seem overwhelming – and like Malcolm there are days when it makes all the sense in the world to just want to “pull up the covers and sleep.” But the truth is the world is full of deep hungers that we DO have the capacity to meet – and that is the work we have the privilege to be called to do -- each in our own different, unique, and fabulous ways – as we take up our own crosses to follow Jesus like Peter – to run with Jesus like Malcolm.

Next week is Homecoming. The rector will be back in the pulpit, the food trucks will be back on Euclid and we will be launching another new program year committed to making God’s love tangible 24/ 7 as we partner with God in making God’s dream come true.

But right now – in this moment – as we stand on the brink of a program year full of endings and beginnings; challenges and opportunities – we turn our attention to this table. We proclaim together a mystery of faith that offers the sure and certain promise of life abundant that transcends even the fear of death.

And then -- fed by the holy food and drink of new and unending life we call “strength for the journey” – off we will go: liberated not to fear the future but to shape it -- to make the dream come true: a world redeemed by Christlike love; all life in Christ made new as we -- like Malcolm -- run with Jesus.

Thanks be to God. Alleluia. Amen.


[prayers from @Malcolm Boyd 2006, Cowley Publications]

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