Sunday, November 6, 2011

Welcome again to the road of life and the springs of your baptism

Shrine Mont in autumn
My sermon today is based on the lectionary readings for All Saints Sunday: Revelation 7:9-17, and
Matthew 5:1-12 .

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All Saints Sunday
Nov. 6, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the annual fall retreat for clergy in the Diocese of Virginia. The retreat is held at Shrine Mont, the same place where we hold our annual parish retreat in the heat of July.

I can assure you that Shrine Mont in the autumn is a very different place than in the summer.

For those who are unfamiliar with Shrine Mont, it is a rustic 19th century camp about two-and-half hours northwest of here, nestled into the mountains a stone’s throw from West Virginia.

Clergy retreats are usually crammed with speakers, small groups, programs, bishop schmoozing, worship services, and they can feel more like the opening act of the annual Diocese Council than a retreat.

This year, Bishop Shannon decided to ease up, and we were given more free time than usual. That was a great gift.

Fire spotter tower at
Shrine Mont with
Cross on top
So I took the opportunity to walk by myself up an old fire road on a small mountain to an old tower where spotters once kept a sharp eye out for forest fires.

As those of you who are familiar with Shrine Mont know, atop the fire spotter tower is a large wooden cross, and this route is known as “The Way of the Cross.”

Along the fire road are the “stations” of the Cross, with signposts marking the events in the last hours of Jesus’ life as he carries his cross to Golgotha.

The signs say things like “Jesus carries his Cross,” “Jesus falls for the first time,” and “Veronica wipes the face of Jesus” – though that last one is not in the Bible, it is a legend that has found its way onto the “way of the Cross” worldwide.

The signs are meant to evoke reflections along the road. You are supposed to pause and meditate on the moment mentioned on the sign.

I have walked “the way of the Cross” in many places; in monasteries, retreat centers, and in a convent. Here at St. Paul’s, we post “stations of the cross” on the pillars around this nave during Holy Week.

First "station" of the Cross
at Shrine Mont
I’ve even walked the way of the cross on the streets of Jerusalem, where Jesus might actually have walked, or in reality, I walked about 20 feet above where he walked.

The ancient streets were buried long ago in earthquakes and invasions, and new streets have taken their place on top of the rubble.

But I have a confession to make: I’ve never been quite sure what I am supposed to get out of the “Way of the Cross.”

Why would I want to reenact Jesus being crucified? Why would I want to put myself on the same cross?
That is not a particularly inviting notion to me.

As I reached the top of the mountain at Shrine Mont, I climbed up the stairs to the top of the fire spotter tower – to the foot of the Cross – and I asked myself again, what am I supposed to get out of this?

I looked out from the tower, and the leaves were just beginning to turn golden and red. It was gorgeous here at the foot of the Cross looking out over the mountains.

I realized that having the cross on top of a fire spotter tower was symbolically perfect – the tower was built to help extinguish fires, and I could see the fiery colors of autumn in the trees.

The leaves will soon wither and die, and the bleakness of winter will soon be here. Spring will come, new life and Easter with it, but that is still far off – not yet – still beyond where I can see now.

It occurred to me then that the way of the Cross is not about me trying to repeat the events of Jesus’ last moments, but really the other way around.

The way of the cross is about Jesus walking on our road to the cross, especially in our moments of pain, our moments of hurt, our moments of doubt.

He walks this road with us to put an end to the way of the Cross.

Sometimes we talk of God being “up there” above us, talking to us from a magnificently powerful, yet detached perch in the clouds. That idea of God above pervades our culture, and it finds itself into our prayer book, as in those prayers that begin “Almighty God.”

But the way of the cross is about God in the person of Jesus Christ giving up the powerful perch, and being down on the road with us, walking on the same gravel path we walk, and carrying our burdens – our cross – on the road with us.

Listen with new ears to the teaching of Jesus today, in this familiar passage we ironically call “The Sermon on the Mount.”

Jesus tells his followers about nine blessings, beginning with “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

These are blessings not from up on the mount of “Almighty God,” but blessings down here on the road.

Who are the blessed? The poor in spirit. Those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.

When are they blessed? Right now.

Where are they blessed? Here, on the road, in the trenches, in the muddiness of life.

They – you and I – are blessed especially when we are on that hard difficult road because God is walking with us, down here, not up there.

The phrase, “Blessed are you,” comes from the Hebrew word ’ashar, and it literally means, “You are on the right road.”
“You are on the right road when you are poor in spirit and can’t figure out how to pray…” 
“You are on the right road when you mourn and are lonely…” 
“You are on the right road when you are a peacemaker and your world is in upheaval…”
You are on the right road especially in those places; you are blessed on this road because God is dwelling in you and walking beside you.

Today is All Saints Day, and it is appropriate to remember that many before us have walked this same road, and not just symbolically, but in reality, enduring because their faith brought them to a place where they took a stand, and some died for it.

The road of the saints is the same road of our baptism, and the saints of old knew no more about where that road would lead them than we know where ours leads.

Today two children will enter into this epic story of baptism with all the saints. We will welcome them into this household of faith as we “remember Christ crucified,” and we will promise to hold in reserve many more sacraments, prayers and church potluck suppers for them as they grow up, as they embrace their faith on the same road with us.

As I came down off the mountain at Shine Mont, I heard the voices of others hiking up to the Cross. Some were laughing, and truthfully, I found their joy and laughter wonderful.

Sometimes we need to be reminded to laugh and sing, and enjoy this great gift of life. Our task is to end crucifixions, not repeat them.

We close today by hearing about the end of the way of the cross in an amazing – and, yes, strange – vision of an early Christian saint named “John.”

We don’t know much about him, we aren’t even sure if that is his real name. He is exiled on an island, persecuted, and outwardly he may seem as someone with not much to live for.

Yet this saint has a dream, and he writes about it a book we call “Revelation,” the last book of the Bible. John, whoever he is, shares his vision about the outbreak of blessings, and it goes like this:

“They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Welcome once again to the road of life, and the springs of your baptism. AMEN

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