It’s been wonderful exploration for me these past four years –
learning more about the ancient traditions of the saints, and hearing stories of faithful people I’d never heard of before.
This past week we heard the story of Sister Constance and her companions.
Late in the summer of 1878 yellow fever struck Memphis, Tennessee, killing thousands. The Episcopal cathedral, St. Mary's, and its adjacent Church Home were in the center of the most infected area and became shelters for victims. The cathedral staff and the Sisters of St. Mary, who operated the Church Home, faced enormous burdens in caring for the sick and dying. Sisters on retreat in Peekskill, New York, when the epidemic broke out, instead of keeping a safe distance, rushed back to Memphis.
Sister Constance was the first of the nuns to be stricken. As she died on September 9, her last words were "Alleluia, Hosanna," simple words of praise remembered and inscribed on the cathedral's high altar. Sister Constance's companions in service to the sick and dying, Sisters Thecla and Ruth, soon followed her to the grave, as did Sister Frances, headmistress of the Church Home. She had nursed some thirty children at one time and had watched twenty-two die. The Rev. Louis Schuyler, a chaplain to the Sisters of St. Mary, also died of the fever, as did Canon Charles Parsons. Parsons was blessed with a vision of heaven as he lay dying and his last words were, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."
What kept Sister Constance and her companions in Memphis,
willing to face sickness and death,
when so many around them had fled – leaving only the poor and sick behind?
The simple answer is to say that they were following Jesus,
carrying their own crosses in his wake.
The collect for Constance and her companions says,
We give you thanks and praise, O God of compassion, for the heroic witness of Constance and her companions, who, in a time of plague and pestilence, were steadfast in their care for the sick and dying, and loved not their own lives, even unto death: Inspire in us a like love and commitment to those in need, following the example of our Savior Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever.
Do we truly want to pray for love and commitment like that of Sister Constance and her companions?
Are we sure we want to follow where Jesus is leading?
When Peter first heard where Jesus was going,
he wasn’t at all sure it was the journey he’d signed up for.
When he proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah,
Peter had a whole suitcase of expectations associated with that word.
The Messiah would sweep away the enemies –the Roman oppressors – and free God’s people.
The Messiah would right all the wrongs that have been done during occupation.
The Messiah would be the righteous king – descendant of the revered King David – who would bring in a new era of peace and justice.
But immediately – as if Jesus can read Peter’s excitement and expectation – Jesus begins to tell him it won’t be that way.
Yes, I am the Messiah, he says.
And my role will be to suffer and die.
I will be rejected by the religious leaders, condemned by Rome, and killed.
But that will not be the end.
After three days I will rise from death.
Peter is having none of it.
Surely, you can’t mean it, Jesus!
Surely if you are the Messiah – the chosen one of God – God will keep you safe and raise you up to glory! And Jesus tells him – get behind me, Satan.
You are trying to stand in the way.
You are not listening.
You think you understand how God works in the world, but you don’t.
Then Jesus turns to the crowds gathered around, and says,
If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Jesus knows he will suffer and die,
and he invites his followers to take up a cross and join him on the journey.
But not because it is good to suffer.
Not because suffering makes us more holy.
Not because it is somehow un-Christian to enjoy life too much,
and super-Christian to suffer.
Taking up a cross does not mean that God sends us trials to test us
and let us experience suffering so that we might be more like Jesus.
Taking up a cross doesn’t mean being mistreated or abused,
and enduring it so that we might be more like Jesus.
Taking up a cross means
giving away one’s life for the sake of God’s kingdom,
giving what one has for the needs of others,
giving love and kindness freely and unreservedly.
And that is just what following Jesus is all about.
That, to be more like Jesus, we love one another, as he loves us.
In his blog this week, seminary professor David Lose asks readers:
What gives you the greatest joy in life?
What creates for you the deepest sense of purpose?
. . . in the Meantime, www.davidlose.net
Think about those questions for just a moment.
. . .
My guess is that what you are thinking of is not a think you can buy or earn.
My guess is that you are thinking of a relationship with someone you love.
Perhaps you are thinking of giving yourself in your vocation –
teaching, creating art, serving others in a ministry or volunteer role.
These are the things that give meaning and joy to life –
the moments when we give ourselves to others.
Sometimes we, like Peter, think we want a Superman God who serves all our needs.
A big, strong God who saves us from all ills, gives us prosperity,
supports our nation and our sports teams.
A God who sets us apart as God’s chosen and works miracles for us.
Instead, we get Jesus – a Messiah who walks among the poor and sick,
and spends time with outcasts and sinners.
A Messiah who tries to show us that the kingdom of God is not about dominion and power and might makes right,
but about service and love and justice for all.
A Messiah who is willing to die for the sake of his radical, unswerving love
for all the wrong people.
We get Jesus - who washes our feet, and asks us to do the same for one another.
In his blog, Lose wrote:
I think Jesus is suggesting that the ‘life’ that has been packaged and sold to us isn’t real life and we need to die to those illusions to be born into the abundant life God wants for us. Here’s the thing: we tend to think that life is something you go out and get, or earn, or buy, or win. But it turns out that life is like love, it can’t be won or earned or bought, only given away. And the more you give it away, the more you have.
Life – like love, forgiveness, mercy, grace – can not be earned or bought.
It can only be received as gift, and given away again.
So it turns out that self-denial and bearing a cross is not about being less happy,
but about discovering what real joy and abundant life are all about.
Jesus shows us, in his life and death and the invitation to follow him,
what it means to live abundantly,
by giving ourselves for others.
Most of us are never asked to make the commitment and sacrifice Constance and her companions made, literally giving their lives to care for others.
But we can learn from them, nonetheless.
They died praising God, because the last days of their lives were full of meaning,
lived in love and compassion.
They gave of themselves, and met Jesus face to face in the poor, the sick, the orphaned children – the very people among whom Jesus himself chose to live.
So we do pray, boldly and with hope, that God may inspire in us a like love and commitment to those in need, following the example of our Savior Jesus Christ.