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29 Jun 2008

“‘Whoever does not take-up the cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.’”  (Matt. 10:38)

In the name …

This past week my family and I traveled down to Maryland to see family, and then to Washington to see the nation’s capital.  My two young nephews from Aberdeen, MD, for some strange reason, are not enamoured of New England sports teams.  To rub it in a little bit I asked them several times who had just won the NBA championship.  The only reply I could get out of them was that LA lost.  They would not actually say that the Boston Celtics won.  They almost got there.  By conceding that the Lakers had lost, they implied that their opponents had won, but they couldn’t come right out and say it.  I really don’t know if in their young minds this was something intentional or subconscious.  We seem to have a way of avoiding the unpleasant.  We seem to have a tendency to not confront it directly.  We would rather try and sneak around it.

After leaving my nephews in Aberdeen, we traveled to Washington.  I’ve been there several times, but I’m never left unimpressed by our capital’s monuments.  It’s hard to miss how many of them are dedicated to those who have sacrificed for our country, who have chosen to personally and directly confront the unpleasant.  Washington, for example, put everything on the line to lead our nation to independence against horrible odds; the monument to Roosevelt shows him leading us through the plight of the Great Depression and the Great War; there are the monuments to all those who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam; and scattered everywhere are so many little monuments honouring heroes or patriots who sacrificed their own self-interest for the greater good of the nation.  Such self-sacrifice stands-out because it is not the norm.  We build monuments to honour the ones who selflessly confront the unpleasant, and who are committed enough to change the world for the better, because we see in them a challenge-accepted that most people would rather not even have to face up to. 

And then there’s the Lincoln Memorial, probably my favourite of all the Washington monuments.  Lincoln was assassinated on Good Friday 1865, and a lot of preachers that Easter Sunday compared the fallen President with the crucified Saviour.  Jesus up-held the dignity of all people and reached out to the oppressed, and Lincoln was the Great Emancipator who turned slaves into citizens.  Jesus preached the gospel, and Lincoln proclaimed the healing message at the end of the Civil War:  “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”  Both Jesus and Lincoln sacrificed themselves for the sake of others.  Lincoln has also been honour by our church.  His image stands tall in one of the stained-glass windows of our cathedral in Scranton as the lone, non-religious figure so honoured.  He is there because he helps to personify today’s Gospel proclamation of the one who picks-up his cross and follows Jesus.  He had premonitions of his own death and he equated it and the suffering of the nation with God’s punishment for the crime of slavery.  He took upon himself personally America’s burden of righting the wrong of slavery, and in the process extending the proud words of America’s founding documents to all men. 

This is exactly what the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would refer to as “costly grace,” and by this he specifically meant those hard choices we would prefer to avoid but that we are forced to confront as Christians.  It is, in Jesus’ words, the need to pick-up our own crosses and follow Him no matter how difficult.  For Bonhoeffer these were not only words.  He was safely in America when he decided to return to Nazi Germany because as he explained:  “I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”  For speaking out and acting against the Nazis Bonhoeffer was arrested and just days before his concentration camp was liberated by the Allies he was ordered executed by a special order from Himmler, the head of the Gestapo.  This kind of grace is expensive.  This kind of faith means we have to confront the unpleasant and do something about it.  This is the Christianity that Jesus is talking about this morning.  It’s not only about saving ourselves; it’s about making a difference for others.

This is a tough proclamation to make during the season of summer vacations.  It’s hard enough to convince people to come to Mass when days are long and hot never mind urge them to pick-up their crosses and follow Jesus.  But maybe that’s part of the inspiration of this Gospel selection.  There are no vacations from the faith.  There are no times when we can shrug-off our moral and spiritual duties, or even put them on hold for a couple of months.  We are always called to follow Christ.  And that doesn’t mean only coming to church for one hour a week.  What we do here, we do to refresh ourselves spiritually.  In a world that can wear down our faith, we come here to be intimate with God again, to rely on His strength rather than our own.  From here we can then go out and follow Jesus, from here we can become strong enough to confront the unpleasant and add our own efforts to making a difference for the better.  Of all the literally thousands of people I came into contact with in Washington, the one complete stranger who stopped on the sidewalk as we were looking at our tourist’s map and volunteered his help, is the one person who stands out as special.  One man’s kindness made a lasting impression.  In the same way, one person’s act of faith, one person picking-up his or her cross is meaningful, is never wasted effort, is never too small to make a difference.

May Jesus’ presence here today, and our presence here with Him, give all of us the strength and the conviction to be people of faith the rest of this week in places and situations where it is not as easy to take-up the initiative and act as Christ would have us act.  It is the few who are willing to face hardship and confront wrong whom we remember and honour.  That Jesus may help us to carry our crosses and follow Him that we may be one of those people, for this we pray in His name.  Amen.  (+)


Fr. Randy Calvo


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