Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox
On an icy winter day early in the thirteenth century, in a town in central Italy, a young man named John Peterson Bernardone stood before the bishop and city fathers. His own father, a wealthy cloth merchant, had reached the end of his patience with his son’s foolish habit of giving away money to the poor, and had actually brought legal proceedings against the young man. He demanded that his son either cease and desist from this behavior, or renounce all his rights of inheritance to any of his father’s fortune.
Young John, known more familiarly as “Frenchy” to his family and friends, had been a soldier, a lover, a man-about-town, and a decent hand in his father’s business endeavors. He seemed poised to take over the family business and be quite successful in it. But then he heard God calling. He heard the voice of Jesus asking him to put down the sword, put down the flowers and candy, put down the silks and velvets, the account-books and money-bags, all these things that he had enjoyed, to come and follow the way of Christ.
And so on that snowy, windy winter day, in the town square, in the presence of everyone whom he had ever known in his life—his brothers and sisters and mother, his friends, his parish priest and the bishop—young John took off his clothes, the rich brocades and warm furs he had grown up wearing, and handed them back to his father. "Hitherto I have called you my father on earth; henceforth I desire to say only 'Our Father who art in Heaven'." Clad only in a linen tunic and a pair of sandals, that young man went out of the city gates that day, to seek union with the Jesus who had no place to lay his head. The man, whom the world would later know and celebrate as Francis of Assisi, began his public ministry by publicly turning his back on everything that had been his life until that day, to follow the call of Jesus.
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
I wish I could tell you he didn’t really say that. But I can’t.
I can tell you that it doesn’t mean what you think it means. At least, not entirely.
“Hate” in this sense does not mean any particular emotional content. Jesus is not demanding that anyone feel some strong emotion or other in regard to the attachments we all deal with. Rather, he is asking those who choose to follow his way of living, to choose. To consciously and intentionally say “Yes” to him, even if it means saying “No” to something else. To close the door on “keeping one’s options open” in the event of a better or more attractive offer. And there will be many better, more attractive offers.
As the prophet Isaiah says (ch. 53):
“Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering* and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces*
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
This is Jesus, who will shortly be put to death on a cross outside the walls of Jerusalem.
Those who hear these words in Luke’s gospel already know how the story ends. So do we.
Jesus invites those who follow him—then and now—to carry the cross with him.
To join him in a cross-carrying journey.To follow him, in the Way of Life which leads to Eternal Life,
but which looks very strange indeed.
For the Way of Eternal Life is not concerned with holding on to, or controlling things.
The Way of Eternal Life rejects the temptation to manipulate relationships and people as objects.The Way of Eternal Life to which Jesus calls his followers, indeed,
flies in the face of much of what we call common sense, and business as usual.
When I was eight years old, my hometown in Texas experienced a flood. Not a hurricane, not a long sustained rainy season, but a one-shot 24 hour stretch of full-downpour like none of us had ever seen. My parents’ house sits in a low-lying area, and the waters began to rise. The garage, on the lowest level, was completely flooded. A six-foot chest deep freezer was bouncing around like a cork in the water; my father’s boat floated up to the ceiling of the garage with the trailer still attached, and we had to get neighbors to help hold it down and get it out of there.
I stood on the front porch (fortunately at a higher elevation) and watched the excitement. As I did, I noticed small red-brown balls bobbing in the water. The fire ants (which are many and prolific in that part of the world) were being flooded out of their mounds in ours and neighboring yards, and were clinging together in an instinctive desperation to float to safety. As each ant ball came to rest on the front porch, the ball would “explode” in all directions, as the ants scrambled for higher ground up the walls of the house.
Sometimes we human beings act like ants.
In times of crisis and anxiety, we cling so tightly to the things we think ARE our life
—money, power, status, family, friends, fill in the blank—
that we threaten to strangle the life, the very breath, out of one another in the process.
We “hold on for dear life”
as if those things themselves ARE life,
until the things that should be used to give and share life
(for ourselves and for others)
Become false gods.
Become “Our Possessions”—
not merely things we possess, but things by which we are possessed.
Any of these, and many others we could list.
As individuals, as families, as towns, as nations—
we can, and do, cling and grasp
and suppose that if we get hold of “enough” of these things
that our life will be secure.
That all the worries will disappear
And no harm will come to us.
Jesus will have none of it.
He tells those who desire to follow him—
even just a little bit, just the teeny-tiniest mustard-seed bit of wanting to be with him:
That’s not how it works.
All these good things, as good as they are, will not suffice.
And all the bad and awful things, as bad and awful as they are, will not have the final word.
The word of Jesus, which calls through joy and sorrow,
abundance and scarcity,apparent success and obvious failure,
which finds its consummation in a shameful death and an impossible resurrection,
speaks a reality beyond all of these things.
Speaks, again and again,
of God who made all things,
and loves each of us beyond all reasonable sense,
and desires us with longing too deep for words.
Speaks a word of invitation that called John Peterson Bernardone—“Frenchy”—Francis of Assisi, and countless others, and us as well, to “take up the cross, and follow.”
Few of us will ever be like Francis of Assisi.
Or like Sister Constance and her companions, of the Order of St. Mary, whose faithful service in 1878 during an epidemic of yellow fever earned them the title of “The Martyrs of Memphis.”
They stayed behind in a plague-infested city when anyone who could get out, got out.
They nursed the sick, buried the dead, housed and fed the orphans, and eventually gave everything, their very lives, to serve Jesus in the disguise of these poor ones.
We will commemorate their service and sacrifice tomorrow, on September 9th.
Most of us will not be called to such dramatic, heroic service in the name of Jesus.
But we are all called.
And we are all carrying the cross.
For in our baptism, we were signed with the cross on our forehead;
we were sealed by the Holy Spirit;
we were marked as Christ’s own for ever.
And every day, day by day, moment by moment,
we are given the chance, again and again,
to let go of the things, the ways, the false gods
that draw us from the love of God.
To say, however often as we need to:
“Jesus, I trust you. Above all others.
No conditions; no fingers-crossed-behind-my-back.”
Eyes open; hands open; heart open.
 The brief hagiography in Holy Women, Holy Men gives an overview of the story. A more detailed account from original source materials may be found at http://www.anglicanhistory.org/usa/csm/memphis1.html, accessed on 9/8/13.