II Lent – March 8, 2008 – The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
Have you ever heard someone say, “Everyone has a cross to bear”? That expression was one of my grandmother’s favorites. She would listen intently to the lament of a one of her children or grandchildren, a neighbor or friend, and, at the end, take a deep sigh and say, “Everyone has a cross to bear.”
A true orthodox Christian, she was no romantic about the suffering of Jesus. Her saying was not meant to reduce the cross to a simplistic metaphor. For her, the cross was not just a pattern for a piece of jewelry. I suppose that was due, in no small part, to her own, personal experience of suffering.
And yet, my most vivid memories of her saying these words are of her, sitting in her rocking chair, her bible on one side and a cup of tea on the other, her small dog in her lap, and her hands moving at rapid speed, holding a single small, thin knitting needle and some white thread.
She was tatting.
Tatting is, I suspect, almost a lost art form. It’s a form of embroidery which was used to trim hand towels and pillowcases, collars and baby clothes. It was also used to fashion doilies – something else that is, I’m sure, in danger of extinction.
At one time, a good homemaker would never consider putting a vase of flowers on a end table or a framed picture on the piano without first putting down a doily that either she or her mother or sainted grandmother had made.
Tatting was my first experience of mystery. I remember watching my grandmothers hands – large, knotted, wrinkled extensions of her arms, like roots from an ancient tree – swirl around that single, thin needle and white thread in an un-discernable yet distinct pattern of movement. She always seemed to move her fingers and hands the same way and yet, each doily was different and unique.
Every so often, she would stop, put down her tatting, and rub her hands. Her face would wince occasionally in pain. I now know that some of those bumps and gnarls in her hands were due to arthritis. She’d take a sip of tea or read a few passages in her Bible. And then, she’d start again. That is also the first image I had of the connection between suffering and sacrifice and creativity.
Which, believe it or not, brings me back to this morning’s gospel. This is the first gospel story we have heard since last Sunday’s story from Mark about the Baptism of Jesus. Last week, our preacher, Paul Smith, talked to us about setting sail in our boats on the waters of our baptism.
He asked, “Where are you in your boat? Are you safe in the harbor? Have you made it out to the sand bar?”
I trust you’ve taken some time this week to consider that question. Building on that, I’m going to ask you a few more:
Why is it, do you think, that you are you where you find yourself? Why are you in safe harbor? How long have you been there? Why are you at the harbor sand bar? Are you stuck? What’s keeping you from venturing further out into your baptism and the promises you made?”
I want to suggest a possible answer: I think some of us are afraid to take the risk of our faith because we are more like Peter than we care to admit. We think that having religion means that you have it all together. That religion protects you from any suffering life has to offer. That Christianity somehow guarantees perfection.
Some of you are, even now, scoffing at this notion. Of course not, you say in your head. And yet, I saw lots of heads nodding as some admitted that their little boats were stuck in a safe harbor.
I want to suggest that you are there, in that safe harbor, because for some of you, organized religion makes it very easy for you to stay there. Everything is beautiful here – the prayers are beautiful, the vestments are beautiful, and, following that line from the one in “Cabaret”: “even the orchestra / choir is beautiful.”
In this morning’s gospel, Peter rebukes Jesus for talking about suffering. And, Jesus rebukes him right back. Having been baptized, Jesus has made a commitment. And, having made a commitment to a vision, to an ideal, to a promise, he understands that he has set something in motion that he cannot completely control.
He has promised to bring something new into being, and like a pregnant woman, he can only watch as it takes shape inside him, transforming and re-shaping him as life calls upon life to bring new life into the old.
He knows the cost of his promise – the risks he’s taking as he sets his boat out into the deep baptismal waters of his faith. And, I think we do, too, which is why some of us prefer the safe harbor of the church to the uncertainty of mission and ministry.
Here’s the thing – the thing about the cross that my grandmother knew: The cross is not about death; the cross is always about transformation. When you have made a commitment to a vision, a goal, that vision, that goal becomes the thing that is worth the sacrifice, worth the suffering. Abram and Sari knew that the vision they had from God would change more than their names. Their whole lives were transformed.
Jesus knew that it was his task to change organized religion forever; create a new way for people to be in relationship with God and each other; create something that would challenge the status quo of the institutional religion and politics of power; create a new understanding of what it meant to lead by serving.
This is what Jesus is telling his disciples in this morning’s passage. Indeed, this is what Jesus is telling us in this church this morning. This is what my grandmother knew – even in her old age. I suspect this is why she tatted even though her arthritic hands hurt. She took a single thread, which was like the one single thread of her one life, and did something with it. Gave herself over to it. Moved with it, even through her pain. Wove it back and forth and forth and back, until it was uniquely one and yet an integral part of the complex tapestry of life.
She knew she could contribute something beautiful to this world, even in her old age. She saw what it would become even though no one else had any idea of what she was making.
Here’s the thing: You and I will never know religious persecution. We live in a nation with a solid Christian majority. We live in a democracy, which is antithetical to theocracy. We will not know the horror of the crucifixion in our lives – but that doesn’t render the cross irrelevant in our lives of faith.
It is a mystery to me, but I know this much to be true: it is often through suffering and sacrifice that we find the path to creativity and meaning and yes, even beauty. It is not the only path to creativity and meaning and beauty, but it is one that is sure and true; ancient and well traveled by those who want to make a difference in this one life.
But, you can’t know that path without taking the risk to put yourself on the path. You can’t know it without moving your boat out of the safety of the harbor – or whatever it is that gives you shelter: home, church, the job you love to hate. You can’t know it without some sacrifice. You can’t know it without some suffering.
Jesus is speaking to everyone this morning whose soul is restless, whose anchor of security is being pulled by the strong, swift currents of change. He has something that needs to be done in this world that only you can do.
It may be something major, or it may be something that might seem to the world to be rather small. It may be something in your youth or something in your old age. It might be like my grandmother whose mission at the end of life was to bring something beautiful, something delicate and unique into this world, filled with ugly violence.
“Take up your cross and follow me,” he says. Will you? Will you make the sacrifice to create something new and unique with this one, single tread of your life? Will you allow your one life to be transformed into a thing of beauty and, in accordance with your baptismal vows, raise yourself to the full stature of Christ who rose, transformed, from the cross?
One last question: This is the second Sunday in Lent. What are you waiting for? Amen.