Sunday, September 12, 2021
Deny Yourself and Take Up Your Cross
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Twenty years ago yesterday the United States experienced a horrific terrorist attack. I’m sure that most of you who were alive then know exactly where you were and what you were doing when you heard of the attack. Anybody under 20 has never known a world without this type of terror threat and that is something to remember. I must admit to some struggle with this every year when the anniversary of 9/11 comes around. My life has been deeply affected by this attack and I feel an obligation especially on this 20-year anniversary to address the issue and fortunately our gospel gives me some very good material to work with. First a little of my story.
I was in my first full week of seminary at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria Virginia. The seminary is about 10 minutes from the Pentagon. We came out of Morning Prayer to hear that a plane had hit one of the towers at the World Trade Center. At that time it was speculation that it was an accident and then shortly thereafter the second plane hit. I was in my car in the student parking lot listening to the radio when I heard and felt the plane hit the Pentagon. Smoke started to rise on the horizon and we heard ambulances and fire engines on their way. Alexandria hospital just down the road from the seminary is the closet hospital so we heard the ambulances as they drove victims to the hospital. The dean sent me to a couple of the residence halls for singe students to summon them back to the chapel where we all gathered to pray the Great Litany. As we read the prayer about saving us from dying suddenly and unprepared. A squadron of F-16s flew over the chapel at a very low level. I remember thinking “My God what is happening.”
It was a time of great disorientation for myself, Wendy, and James our son who was at TC Williams High School in his first week of school. This is where I am coming from in the rest of this sermon. I think it important to know this as I proceed.
This week Bishop Curry sent out this Pastoral letter, “As followers of Jesus, and with our siblings in other faith traditions, we place great value on the act of remembrance. As we reflect on the solemn anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, we remember many loved ones lost and first responders who put their lives at risk, modeling the sacrificial love of Jesus, who said: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
While 20 years have passed, I also want us to pause and remember the days that followed these tragic events. There was a moment in the aftermath when people came together. We were praying, grieving, and also working together. Because in that moment, however fleeting it was, we knew with immediacy and vulnerability that we need God, and we need each other.
Memories of that tender cooperation—of love for each other as neighbors—serve as guiding lights for the present. Amidst the ongoing pandemic and natural disasters that have taken so many lives and pushed first responders to their limits, and amidst a worldwide reckoning with the sin of racism, we are called to become the Beloved Community whose way of life is the way of Jesus and his way of love.”
I don’t know about St. Paul’s but I do know that houses of worship everywhere were packed with people the next couple of weeks looking for support and hope. There is hope and there is guidance in today’s gospel for our currently troubled world.
“Those who wish to follow me must deny themselves and take up their cross.” This line is often agonized over and dissected. In light of this anniversary, there is a relatively simple response to what this calls us to do.
Deny yourself. All of us have what Thomas Merton refers to as a true and a false self. The true self is God centered. The false is ego centered. The self that we need to deny is the small self, the selfish self, the one that demands to be right, the one that demands revenge or retribution because that self has been hurt. The self that will not put those thoughts and feelings aside.
Many put that self aside for a while. Unfortunately, we have forgotten some of the lessons we briefly learned 20 years ago. We are back in a world of divisive dualistic thinking and I believe that this tribalism is the greatest threat to our society. This dualistic mind set is black and white, right and wrong with no middle ground. Retreating into a world where the other is not only wrong but evil threatens the very fabric of our society. This is the self that Jesus asks us to deny. The self that must be right at all costs. The self that will not allow for a difference of opinion.
Shortly after that fateful day The Rev. Dr. Francis Wade of St. Alban’s in DC wrote this prayer. This prayer is about denying the false, ego-centered self. If we can deny that false self we can begin to be followers of Jesus and consider what is in the following prayer from the Rector at ST. Alban’s in DC.
Let us pray for those who do great harm: Almighty God, whose will it is to place awesome power into the hearts, minds and hands of your children, let your care and our compassion be on those who do harm as well as those who are harmed. Lord, you reached across the limits of human understanding to embrace the outcast and the lost, reach now beyond our understanding and embrace those who have caused so much pain and death this day. We cannot but commend them to you for in our hearts are seeds of hatred and in our nostrils the stench of madness. As you touch them in your healing ways, Lord God, dry also the hate that could grow in us, smother the fear that would blind us and deliver us from the temptation to follow instincts that are far from the path you have set before us. In the Name of the One we always hope to follow, Jesus Christ, our Lord Amen.1
Why is it important to pray for our enemies when it is so easy to hate and revile them especially people who commit such atrocities? The answer is found in the question, because it is so easy to hate them. Forgiving your enemies is not about your enemies but about your own soul. Hate is a cancer that eats into your soul. Look at what hate is causing right now in the world. Jesus got angry with people but always loved them and that’s hard. Loving your enemies is about making sure your soul is healthy and in line with the teachings of Jesus. Loving your enemy as the pray says is about making sure you do not go down the same destructive path that they do. He writes, “deliver us from the temptation to follow instincts that are far from the path you have set before us.” That is the key line in this entire prayer.
Jesus sets a very high standard for how we treat our fellow human beings and this is so hard when they treat us with such hatred and violence. For if we react and truly return hate for hate, then we have given control of ourselves over to our enemy and run the risk of doing things that are incredibly damaging to our souls.
Once you understand this then you can do the second part of what Jesus says, take up your cross. Taking up our cross is not the hard part of this passage. It is the deny ourselves that we find so hard. Then and only then can we truly take up our cross. That cross is one of light, hope and most importantly of love.
This is a call to turn away from darkness and turn to the light that shines on us from Jesus. As for me I will choose the light even though that is the more challenging. So deny your false self and take up the cross of love. Follow the Lord who calls you to be your true, loving, God centered self.