A Reflection for Proper 18, Year C
Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, “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. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
Many of us plan and mark the time in our lives with a calendar. At any given time in the Episcopal Church, there are actually three calendars operating at once. There is the standard calendar of events where we keep a rhythm of what happens when: Holy Eucharist on Sundays, our Red Door lunch and prayer service here on Fridays, various parish events in between. Then, there is something we call the “liturgical calendar” in which we walk through the cycle of preparing for and celebrating Jesus’ birth, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension and living out the life of the Church with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the season following. But, all the while this standard time and liturgical time is happening, there is also a calendar in motion that helps us remember the lives and ministries of the ordinary yet extraordinary people whose lives as saints, martyrs, and disciples offer us wisdom, insight, and examples of discipleship. This calendar of saints (or what we officially call a “sanctoral” calendar) reminds us of the Great Cloud of Witnesses who have lived with the depths of their souls into their lives of faith. They are those whose stories we look to for the lessons about how to live deeply, authentically, and boldly as disciples and followers of Christ. They are the role-models who do exactly what Jesus describes in this Gospel: they emerge from the interested but distant crowd to walk the walk with Jesus Christ as his disciples.
Today, I want to tell you the story of a disciple who we recently celebrated on that calendar of saints. This story begins in 1939, when Jonathan Daniels was born in New Hampshire. Jonathan was a regular guy, the oldest of two children whose father was a Physician. After high school, he moved south and attended Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington, Virginia. He was kind of a misfit there at first, but eventually earned the deep respect of his colleagues. He wrestled with the pull in his soul toward ministry, something that had been with him since high school. After he graduated from VMI, he continued to postpone that sense of call and began formal studies in English literature. In the spring of 1962, following the death of his father and while attending Easter services at the Church of the Advent in Boston, he described himself as experiencing a renewal of God’s grace and felt a deepening call to study for priesthood. He began attending the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the fall of 1963, expecting to graduate in the spring of 1966. In March 1965, as Jonathan was entering the final year of his studies, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reached out to seminary students and others to join him in Selma, Alabama, for a march to the state capital in Montgomery demonstrating support for his civil rights program. Jonathan received that invitation, and felt compelled to join this struggle for justice. His family begged him not to go. He went anyhow.
He and others left on Thursday for Selma, intending to stay only that weekend; but he and a friend missed the bus back. During those extra hours, they thought about what it must feel like for the people who lived in Selma to watch people come and go; they decided to stay on for whatever was in store, asking for that whole term off away from their seminary studies to devote to civil rights work. Now, none of the stories I read talked about how Jonathan’s professors viewed that decision, but speaking as a faculty member I think its fair to guess that it’s very likely there were some dissenters among his mentors, in spite of his good intentions. He stayed anyhow. His time in the South was spent integrating churches, often walking with people…and especially youth…Sunday after Sunday to insure that whether they were Black or white, they had a safe journey and were given a place in God’s church. Even in Church, people scowled and resisted integration. He walked, sat, prayed and worshipped with his friends and neighbors anyhow.
Jonathan’s diaries and writings show that these actions of justice, mercy, Christian love and radical hospitality deepened his call to discipleship, “…I lost my fear when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord’s death and Resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God…With black men and white men, with all of life, in Him Whose Name is above all the names that the races and nations shout, whose Name is Itself the Song Which fulfills and “ends” all songs, we are indelibly, unspeakably ONE.”
That entry was written just a few days before Jonathan, escorting several high school youth between school and church, was approached by a man with shotgun who threatened one of the girls he was escorting. Jonathan pushed her out of the way, stepping into the line of fire. He died from that shotgun blast in Alabama on August 20, 1965.
The Episcopal Church regards Jonathan Myrick Daniels as one of our “Great Cloud of Witnesses”…the saints, martyrs, servants of God who give us real stories and living witnesses of the kind of discipleship that Jesus speaks of. The reason why I’m sharing his story today is not to tell a tale of how his life ended. My appreciation for Jonathan…the way in which I am inspired by him…has to do with the way he lived out the journey of his life as he followed the calling deeply into his vocation. When I read his diaries, I hear someone who is being continually changed by prayer. He kept living more deeply into his convictions; he kept listening to the yearning for justice; he said yes to experiences that led him to prayerful, committed action within a community experiencing oppression. Jonathan’s life was changed not because of one decision on one day, but because of his repeated decisions to remain in prayer; to stay in community; to allow mercy and justice to overcome fear; to advocate with people with whom he shared dignity and respect because he saw Christ in them. His life is a witness in its living, and his death was not an end but a testament to mercy and justice that continues to inspire us today. In giving up his own time, his own comfort, his own community, his own self-preservation and self-importance…in giving up all that he had, mercy and justice and life prevailed. In this story…even in his death…life was opened up for that young woman, Ruby Sales, whose life was spared. Ruby herself has herself become a world-changing civil rights advocate, tireless in her struggle to continue the work of mercy and justice. When we are disciples, the picture is always larger than we are.
When I think about Jonathan Daniels, I am able to hear Jesus’ words about discipleship in today’s Gospel. This Gospel doesn’t paint a rose-colored picture of being a disciple; it speaks of what we give up and how deeply our “yes” must resound. It also reminds us that being a disciple is a journey which will unfold, and may have a far greater impact than we realize. We don’t know when the kind word we offer or the prayer we extend touches a life, and changes it. We don’t know how others will respond to us. Like Jonathan, we don’t know how the story ends and how our story may be told and retold in years to come. But, we do know that our lives can all have a place in the living out of the Christian story. In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks us to step with him into the unknown, placing our hand with his on the same cross that he himself carries. Just as Jonathan began to lose his fear, we begin to lose ours. It isn’t because everything is going to be ok all of the time. It is because everything we do, every step we walk, every situation we encounter is in community with those who have gone before us, and with Jesus Christ himself who has taken on the road of the cross so that we never, ever need to walk that path alone.
In today’s text, Jesus speaks openly of possessions because he realizes that something will always posses us: the pressures of family, the fear of the unknown, our quest for self-preservation, the drive for prosperity or to do what the world tells us that we ought to do. Jesus gives us a challenge today: to wholeheartedly follow our call to be the disciples who walk the road of this Christian life together with him. He reminds us that when we begin to let go of what we cling to, we learn to experience the love of Christ more and more. It can seem like discipleship costs us everything. But as ordinary, extraordinary disciples like Jonathan show us…the world is changed when we let go of what we have so that Christ can work through us, transforming us and through us, transforming this world that is so deeply in need of mercy, justice, hope, and love.
In giving ourselves, wholly…in Christ, we are made whole.
—Homily prepared for Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church: Friday September 2, 2016 (Red Door Healing Service)