August 30, 2020

Take up the cross – 12th Sunday after Trinity – Revd Sally Bedborough

There was once a king who was known for his wisdom. One evening, as the king was enjoying his meal, he discovered a silver hair in his food. He was enraged and summoned the cook. In due course the cook appeared and, in trepidation, sidled up to the king. The king looked up from the silver hair balanced on his knife’s edge and gazed at the cook. There, in front of him was a young man with thick, dark, lustrous hair. The king looked down at that silver hair on his knife and realised that it was in fact his own silver hair; somewhere along the line, he had grown old without realising it.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with being young at heart, but now and again it’s good for us to stop and take stock of our age, and of our mortality. This year has brought us face to face with something none of us have encountered before. A dangerous and, in some cases, a deadly virus. How much then do we need, at this time, to consider our mortality. So here’s a health warning. I am going to be speaking in general terms about endings; and I am going to be speaking in more specific terms about our lives’ endings; our deaths. I hope we can be open about these kinds of subjects here in church, where we are assured of the love of God and surrounded by each other. If not here, then where else?

Jesus bids his followers to deny themselves, to take up their cross and to follow him. Let us then consider the cross and reflect on what it means to take up our crosses.

The cross is an ending. It closes down all that has gone before. But it is also an opening to a mysterious unknown; and it’s right that we take that seriously and explore our fears and anxieties around it.

Over recent months we have lived through endings of all kinds: our lives’ routines have been disrupted; our church worship and our social gatherings have been curtailed. We’ve experienced many endings but along the way, we have made discoveries. We have woken up to what is really important in life: often it’s the so-called ‘simple’ pleasures of nature and connection with our friends and families.

And so, armed with our experiences in recent months of the endings brought about by Covid restrictions and the new discoveries that have opened up as a result, let us turn with courage to the endings that are our deaths….

In a recent article Rowan Williams refers to a suggestion from another writer, Ernest Becker, that we have two pressures in life that impact on our approach to death. One is individualistic – each of us has a personal story to tell and the capacity to make a difference. The other is corporate; we form part of a body that is the church, we form part of a communion of saints, and so on. These two pressures are positive when held together; but destructive, negative if we focus on one to the exclusion of the other. Each can be ways of denying death. If my sole focus is my life and I have no awareness or care for others, then I am not carrying my cross because my cross is part of a corporate cross that belongs to others as well as myself. Equally, if I cease to love myself and take care of myself in order to focus on others, then I deny the difference that my unique life can make. Again, I am not carrying my cross, I am denying it – it is a missing piece in the cross that is the whole cross of humanity.

These two pressures become all the more important as we live in our newly masked society. We are not used to wearing masks, they are hot and uncomfortable. It is hard to communicate with them on: it’s hard to hear and understand one another and they close us off to each other in surprising ways: we are not able to ‘read’ each others’ expressions if at all. Masks create blinkers over our eyes as well as covering our noses and mouths and this is unsettling - Why? Because the cross urges us to connect; it is the place where the sorrow and pain of endings intersects with the joy and hope of new beginnings.

The letter to the Romans urges us to connect with one another; to feel the emotions of others and to join each other in joy or in sorrow. We are not to be aloof and disconnected, even though for a while we must for safety’s sake wear our masks.

The followers of Jesus are bidden to take up their cross and to follow him. This will involve endings of all kinds but beyond those endings lies a new life with new discoveries. We know this because of the resurrection. We can’t say what that resurrection will be like exactly, we must live it and die it and enter it – that is the only way. Meanwhile, we take up our cross, our individual crosses and our corporate crosses.

To return to the story of the king. That silver hair caused him to ponder his legacy. In similar fashion, let us consider our legacies; what will we leave to others when our lives end? Thinking of those from our congregation who have died recently, recall their legacies in terms of service to this church and to the wider church and community, reflect on how we are left with a sense of joy and fun, sensitivity and care for others. Also consider how we have benefited financially as a church because some of those people blessed this parish financially.

So a direct challenge to you here, a practical one: I urge you, if you haven’t done so already to make a will. Apparently, more than half of our UK population haven’t done so. And if you have made a will, or have yet to do so, have you, or will you, included those things that are important to you now – perhaps even this beautiful church? And have you made others aware of your wishes?

We don’t like to look at our lives coming to an end, but it is the one sure thing of our lives. That ending is mysterious and deserves our serious consideration. Not in maudlin navel gazing, but in sober judgement and careful thought. How can our lives make a difference? What can we sow now in terms of being richly connected with one another so that we get those two pressures balanced?

Let us aim for a rightful care and concern for one another as well as ourselves. Let us also consider all those more recent endings that we have experienced and be encouraged by the new discoveries we have made because of them. And in that spirit may we travel together, aware of our mortality, and enabled to approach the ends of our lives not fearfully, but considerately, aware of our connection to God through the cross of Jesus and thereby to the new discoveries that lie ahead. Amen.