St John’s. . . Past Sermons
                Episcopal Church
 

March 4th the Second Sunday in Lent                       Listen to audio (Sermon Lent II.mp3)


“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.”

In the early church, it was difficult to be a Christian. It was dangerous to be a Christian. I think that, for the most part, that’s hard for us to imagine exactly how dangerous it was. But Peter knew. He knew even before there was a “Christian church” that it was dangerous to be a follower of Jesus. And he knew it would be disastrous for Jesus to predict his death and resurrection, much less to live it. It wouldn’t be dangerous just for Jesus, but it would be dangerous for his followers. His followers were seeking a life worth living and Jesus was at the same time talking about death. It is no wonder that Peter got scared. And as we look at his life, that makes sense. It is not so long after this that Peter denies even knowing Jesus just at the moment when it seemed to matter the most because he feared for his own life. But after the resurrection, Peter has a chance to redeem himself – and that is just what he does. He becomes the most ardent follower of Jesus and proclaimer of the Good News. He becomes a head of the new emerging church or congregation. And at the end of his life, he does exactly what Jesus says he must. Peter loses his life. The story about Peter is that he would not deny being a Christian. So the authorities had him arrested and were going to crucify him. But Peter did not believe he was good enough to have the same death as his Lord so instead he asked to be crucified upside down. By the end, Peter did not fear losing his life. He instead was ready to do so for the sake of Jesus and the gospel.

It’s hard for us to imagine that level of devotion. We do not face the same issues as the members of the early church – at least not in this country. And yet, Jesus is still speaking to us through these words. How do we live our life for Him?

I had started this sermon by thinking about how easy it is to be a Christian in this country at this time. But as I was typing those words, I started to wonder if they were true. So, I began to think about my own experience as a Christian. It is fairly easy for me to tell people I belong to a church. Those who are churchgoers understand. And those who are not can rationalize it in their heads. After all, I have a family and would want to raise my children with certain values – and so forth. There is an acceptance of my belonging to a church, but once it gets deeper, it becomes harder.

The question inevitably comes up when I am meeting new people – whether it is at a party or at an event for my kids. “So, what do you do for a living?” There is always a pause. I have to brace myself for the inevitable reaction. You see, if I said I was a lawyer or a doctor or a police officer people would ask questions and be curious, but it would be polite and easy. When I have to tell people I am a priest they need to readjust themselves. First, they usually worry about how I have been judging them. Did they have a drink in front of me and was that ok? Did they accidentally swear? Did they complain a little too long about something their kids did?

And then once they get beyond that, they begin to try and figure me out. I must be one of those super-religious people who does whatever it is that they think that super-religious people do. And that somehow I must be perfect and my family must be, too! We never do things that are wrong. 

So that all happens in a three-second pause when the person realizes that he or she has paused a little too long and starts to act nervous. Conversations often get stilted. In its own way, it is a little death of my real self – the person whom they were getting to know before they knew who I really was. And there is a change in their minds into a different person – whatever it is that they project “religious people” to be.

And of course, there are times when I am wearing the collar and people just know without having to have the conversation. I could be in line at Taco Bell or out with my kids after a long day at work. The collar becomes an outside marker of my faith. I become a marked woman!

But it is not just priests who have to navigate how to be a Christian out in the world. I have done a lot of work with teenagers in the past and I find that talking about faith with their friends can be really difficult for them. There is a sense in the teenage realm – at least in some places – that teens who like church and Jesus are weird. And indeed there are reasons why they feel that way. The teens who are the most “out” their with their faith tend to be more evangelical or more conservative or simply more in your face. They may not stand for values that look anything like the church that the teens I know belong to. And in the end, telling friends about their faith and their church can be a bit of a coming out experience. I know one teenager who would wait for a while to make sure the person really knew her first and then would be sure to say, “But it’s a really cool church where we marry gay people and stuff!” In other words, “I’m not like those other people who you don’t like and my church is OK!”

That initial conversation – or coming out, however it happens, can be uncomfortable. It can mean losing a part of our lives. People from the outside may treat us differently because all they know of church is everything the media has to say about Christianity. It is often easier to let things be unsaid – to not identify with the church because we risk losing a piece of ourselves. But in that loss, there is also significant gain. Once people see past the overt Christian marker, whether spoken or seen, they become accepting and then even curious. 

Recently Andrew Smith, our former bishop who is currently serving in New York City, gave a sermon at their diocesan convention. In that sermon, he talked about how when he was working in Connecticut he always had to go from building to building. He was rarely out and about, spending most of his time in a car. But in New York, he walks everywhere. He is so much more exposed in the purple shirt and collar. Everywhere he goes he has to meet people and though at times difficult, he realizes what a blessing it has been – how that kind of ministry can start to change people’s lives. He then challenged clergy to go out in their collars more often – to make a statement about their faith. To make a visible presence for the church.  And it is an interesting challenge.

However, for most people in the pews who are doing God’s work, it is harder to come by such a clear marker to the world. Sometimes our jewelry is a sign or a bumper sticker. But generally, our faith is full of invisible markers. Our baptism leaves an invisible mark on us, but it does not direct people to finding out who we are. Every once in a while we have moments that tell others who we are. About a week and a half ago, we sat in this church and marked ourselves with ashes. I was rereading Lauren Winner’s book “Girl Meets God” recently. Lauren Winner is an interesting woman. She was raised in a religiously mixed family – Jewish and Baptist – and in her youth converted to Orthodox Judaism. But in college she begins to have other experiences and, of all things, becomes an Episcopalian. She writes about her experiences on Ash Wednesday. “The imposition of ashes is nothing if not bold. I forget it is there, sashay out of the church without thinking about it until…I get on the subway….Some people stare at me, one smiles sadly, and I shift, wondering what they wonder….I feel unhidden, uncloseted; I feel embarrassed.” At this point Winner is a student at NYU, where it is not fashionable to be a Christian. The mark on her forehead sparks a number of conversations. She writes, “ A student I didn’t know had approached me that morning and asked me where she could go to church; another student, more hostile, wanted to know what business I had teaching undergraduates to think critically when I, an ash-sporting Christian, obviously didn’t think critically myself. A third student…burst into tears and told me her parents were divorcing. Does this happen to nuns walking down the streets in their habits? I wondered….I had been prepared for Ash Wednesday to be intense. I was not prepared for a day of unavoidable evangelism.” 

This past Ash Wednesday the Episcopal Church took to the streets and offered people ashes while on the street. I had heard friends of mine were doing this, but only just right before they were heading out. I wondered how people would respond to that kind of service. I worried for my friend who were out there that they might find themselves rejected and dejected by the crowds, but the result was unexpectedly positive. The Rev. Elsa Worth, rector of Grace Church in Trumbull, reflected, "I didn't expect the crowds or the unbridled enthusiasm and joy around the event by participants….People were positively filled with gratitude. I had kind of expected people to be grateful to have this offered because they didn't have time to get to church. What I didn't expect was how often I heard something like, 'Thank you so much for coming out to us."


This morning our passage is challenging us – Jesus is challenging us – to take up our cross – to mark ourselves and to follow him as best we can. So it leaves our challenge this morning a very difficult one for many of us. How do we mark ourselves? How do we come out to others about our faith? How do we lose our “normal” standing in the outside world – our “normal” lives and become a Christian people living in our faith and inviting others to join us?






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Sermons by

The Reverend Maureen Peitler-Lederman