A Thriving Spiritual Community

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

A Thriving Spiritual Community

photo of AVC sanctuary
Sermon: “All In”

“All In”

September 12, 2021


There is nothing quite like thinking you may be dying or knowing that you are going to die imminently to bring what’s most important in life into clear focus. 

People trapped in the Twin Towers and on Flight 93 on 9/11 weren’t checking their 401ks in their last moments, they were calling the people who mattered most to let them know how much they loved them. 

And although we know the truth of this, we forget.  Again and again and again, we forget.

Coming at the center of Mark’s gospel, today’s reading presents Jesus and his disciples at a crossroads.  Literally and spiritually.  They are walking on their way towards Jerusalem and Jesus knows he is going to die. They pause at the edge of the town of Caesarea Philippi, the hub of Roman imperial life, a place that exemplifies all that this world tempts us with – power, privilege, comfort, and might. Jesus uses this geographical crossroads to examine his students. Do they, and by extension us,  actually understand who he is and what his mission entails?  He gives them and us the chance to make a conscious choice – to follow the way of the world or his way: the way of the cross?

Although Peter gets the answer right – that Jesus is the Christ – he does not at all understand what that actually means. Peter, like many others of his time, expects and wants for good reasons a Messiah who will defeat Rome and rescue his people from their oppressors and immense challenges; and like many of our time, wants someone who will ultimately fix what is wrong with the world for us. 

The thing is, Jesus is not some super-hero sent to defeat the bad guys, someone sent by God to guarantee our prosperity and success.  In fact, Jesus turns our expectations upside down. “He identifies with the lowliest of losers. He will allow himself to be judged and condemned as a blasphemer by Jewish religious leaders. He will allow himself to be mocked, tortured, and executed as a criminal by the Romans.” (Elisabeth Johnson) For a man of his time, no fate could be worse. 

And yet…from the beginning of Mark’s Gospel we are told that this story is Good News! 

As my editor in chief, my husband, noted when he first read this sermon “(What Jesus is  promising to do seems like the last thing you would do if you wanted people to believe you were (the Son of) God!”

Not only that – it’s not just that Jesus will suffer and be killed he say , “”If any want to follow behind me, you must deny yourselves and take up your cross and follow me.” What   does he   mean?

Just as Jesus rebukes Peter – telling him to get behind him – Jesus insists that we must let go of our agendas;  we must stop trying to put God in the box of who we think God is supposed to be.  Only when we follow behind  – when we let him take the lead – can we learn from experience who he is and who we are called to be. Understanding Jesus isn’t just something we can do just by hearing or reading about him, we have to follow his path. His path of love.

To take up our crosses is to go out of our way to the places Jesus would go; to be with and listen to and care for those whom Jesus would be with and listen to and care for if he were still physically here. Standing with Jesus at the crossroads, we are being reminded that all that the world has to offer will ultimately never fully satisfy; but that being among those who belong to Jesus and travel with Jesus will bring fulfillment that nothing else can. 

When she was fourteen years old, my friend, the effervescent Mev Puleo, was sitting on a tour bus traveling through the streets of Rio De Janeiro. As images of opulence on one side of the street and the pleading eyes of poor children on the other side of the street jolted her consciousness, Mev wondered, “What does it mean to be a Christian – a follower in the way of Jesus – in a world of contradictions and conflicts?” This was her crossroads.

That question animated her young life and inspired her upon graduation from St. Louis University to become a photojournalist seeking out the poorest of the poor and those religious leaders who served them, especially in Brazil and Haiti. Through her many trips, she discovered that their struggle to survive and to try to live God’s reign together, brought them a deep sense of oneness with each other, with God, and with the land.  Mev took note that as people gathered around the communion table, they were also inspired to work together to make their lives better, so that as she wrote they could “share even a piece of bread or a plot of land and work towards a just wage or building a local day care center.”

When at age 30 she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, Mev was in the process of creating a video for her recently published book about Liberation Theology in Brazil, “The Struggle is One.” Even as her energy waned, her words increasingly eluded her, and her vision was stolen from her, Mev persisted in following the call of  Jesus.  She threw every last bit of her energy into giving voice to the voiceless, even as her own voice faltered. Through these difficult days, her husband, family, and faith community rallied to care for her and savor every minute with her. 

Mev was “all in.” She loved God so much. She desired to follow Jesus wherever he led. 

Mev felt God’s love for her through times of daily prayer and journaling. She would pull out her rosary every night and use the beads to count her gratitudes until she fell asleep.  She experienced God’s grace in gazing into her beloved husband’s eyes, in sharing a potluck dinner on our Cambridge rooftop with friends, in taking an early morning swim at Walden Pond, in using all of her formidable intelligence, skillfulness, creativity and resources to serve Christ through her vocation as photojournalist. A woman of considerable means, she could have made other choices.  In college, she once wrote, “I would rather die young having lived a life crammed with meaning, than to die old, even in security, but without meaning.” 

Mev could have spent her life any way she wanted.  When she died days before her 33rd birthday, she had shown all of us who were blessed to know her that it is possible to take up our crosses and follow Christ. To be “all in” for God.

Like Peter and the  disciples, we stand in this moment at a crossroads with Jesus.  We can choose what is most important to us – the ways of the world or the ways of God. We can decide who and what defines who we are. We can decide to whom and to what we belong. 

We can try, like Peter, to have a God who does what we think God should do for us or our world.  But, like Peter, we will never succeed. We will always be disappointed. We need to remember that the heart of the spiritual life isn’t about God doing what we want; it’s about us doing what God wants.

Instead, we can let go of how we think things are supposed to be and trust God enough to follow Jesus into the heartache of the world. We can have the courage to go out of our way to be with and listen to those who are struggling and in pain. Taking up our cross is a fundamental challenge to put Jesus’ priorities and purposes ahead of our own comfort or security. We can show up for the diseased, the disabled, the despondent and the dying – for Jesus in all his distressing disguises.

As Fire Dept. Chaplain for the city of New York, Fr. Mychal Judge, chose to walk into into some of the most frightening experiences any of us can imagine, including rushing to the Twin Towers on 9/11.  His good friend, Fr. Michael Duffy recalls that one time Mychal said to him, “You know what I need, Michael, what I really need?”  Fr. Duffy said that Mychal was notoriously difficult to choose gifts for, so he eagerly awaited this revelation. And he said, again, “You know what I need, Michael, what I really need?” And Fr. Duffy was beyond eager to hear.  And then he said, “Absolutely nothing. I don’t need a thing in the world. I am the happiest man on the face of the earth. Why am I so blessed? I don’t deserve it.” Mychal Judge understood what it meant to follow Jesus. And it cost him his life. He was the first person to be recognized as having died on 9/11.

Choosing to follow Jesus offers us something that money, power and prestige can never provide: a life of grace in the midst of God’s upside-down, inside-out design for this world. A demanding way? YES!!!  But, making a 100% commitment to use all of who you are – your skills, gifts, talents, and resources in the service of God – will draw you into the wellspring of Divine life, a life of love that unites you to the vast and unending heart of God, God’s people and God’s good earth; a life overflowing with love that is even stronger than death.

What do you choose? What do we choose? What do I choose?