This sermon was preached in association with a campus ministry Sunday at Grace Lutheran Church in Rock Hill, South Carolina. I serve as chaplain to the Episcopal-Lutheran student group that meets weekly during the school year and is associated with Winthrop University. MC+
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Jesus said, “If they want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
As a young person, I was certain that going to church would always be an important part of my life. I was raised in a family that was active in the Episcopal life and faith. I participated in Sunday school, youth group, Vacation Bible School… I did all the things that teach a young person that church is a happy, fun, caring place to be, where we like to sing songs, and have snacks, we serve God by being nice to each other, and our parents, and by loving our neighbor.
As a young person, these were all things I could relate to, and I developed that sense of safety, of having a place, and even of the ability to serve the community, both as an acolyte and as a mission trip participant. As a youth in confirmation class, and participating as a leader at diocesan events and gatherings, I even began to see the possibility that I might continue down this leadership track and that maybe someday I would be a priest in the church.
The church for me was a place where I was known and loved, and knew and loved others… a place where I could sense the warmth and the closeness of God with every person who greeted me with a smile, and let me know that they were glad I was there. It wasn’t until I was a freshman in college, in fact when I felt my first major sense of separateness from the idea of church as I had always known it.
I’m from the Midwest, and when I went off to college I found myself in a very small town, at a very small school two states away from my home in Minnesota. And I was pleased that there was an Episcopal Church there, because I knew that was “my” church, and that, if nothing else I would find a Book of Common Prayer in the pews, and in some way have access to church as I knew it. So on my first Sunday I entered a tiny little room with a few pews and a few people who looked up, saw that I was not someone they knew, and looked back in the direction their eyes had come from. I was young, nervous, and far from home, and I felt incredibly alone.
During the announcements I was asked to stand up and introduce myself. When I returned the following week I was welcomed like the first time, with a few quick glances, and an invitation to introduce myself…again. The energy and enthusiasm that I had about being a member of a church community, and further developing the call that was tugging at me to consider ordination began to sink, and along with it, my desire to know and be known in this community that didn’t seem to remember me from one week to the next.
My challenge was to find a church home where I felt connected, loved, cared about, remembered… Over the next four years as a college student that need was never fulfilled at the Episcopal Churches in the two places where I completed my associate and bachelor’s degrees. Rather it was in a consistent campus ministry that I came to know and love. One that I visited each time I was home for a school break.
The University Episcopal Center was a building on the Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota that I could walk into and be greeted by, and worship with people my age, with a common commitment to maintaining and further developing their faith life as students, and as followers of Christ in the world. A community of students and a consistent chaplain who challenged, and supported the students who walked through those doors – those seen on a weekly basis, and those, like me, who were present as the season permitted, that was where I found a spiritual home that kept me anchored in my faith life and practice as a student riding the waves of early young adulthood.
The challenges that I faced as a young person, one who was strong in my faith commitment, one who continued to seek out a place in the church to call my own led me to the realization that, had I not been the one so committed to finding a faith community, the faith communities I tried to enter would not have come looking for me, they would have lost me completely. It was then that my commitment to campus ministry, my “cross to bear” was forged, and it is that commitment that has led me to be amongst you here today.
I am privileged with the work of being the chaplain to the group of students, Lutheran and Episcopal, who meet for regular meals, fellowship, service projects, discussion/study group and worship at the White House next door. I am honored with the trust of this community, and of the students to be a cross-bearer in their midst, and to draw students closer to the heart of God through their relationships with one another, and their actions in response to the gift of God’s love enacted through their hands at work in the world.
Many of you know that the history of this congregation is tied directly to the mission of being a Christian community that supports and cares for students of Winthrop University. Having grown far beyond that to a community that houses generations of grandparents, parents, youth, children, grand-children, you are also aware that you often have other things in mind when you walk through the doors of this space.
You come to worship, to sing, to be in community with one another, and to grow in your own commitment to follow the call of Christ, to be servants of the scriptural mandates that you love God, and love your neighbor, to pass on the faith from one generation to the next. But you must not forget that who you are, the identity of this church is rooted in the work of looking outward, of looking to those who are not yet incorporated into the community, of seeing, and responding to the students who live across the street, and down the road, and around the corner, and recognizing that they too have a place here. They too, are invited to be full members of the body of Christ.
Today I shared with you a story of isolation. A feeling that I’m sure I’m not the only one to have experienced in a church at one time or another. In the Gospel today, I wonder if this story of Jesus’ experience with the disciples points to that feeling. Here he is, a leader among them, and speaking the truth of the difficult path that has been set before him. He knows that the road will be long, and hard, and he knows what lies at the end – that he will suffer, and die. And his disciple Peter tries to stop him – tries to take him aside and claim, “This is not the Lord that I know, that I have faith in. This is not what the path is supposed to look like; this is not the path that must be taken. I do not recognize this story and I do not recognize you.”
I wonder if Jesus felt alone, misunderstood, lost in that moment before he pushed Peter’s response away, and drew in all who would listen. This was supposed to be the place where he was known, recognized, remembered, and yet they were getting it wrong.
And we know how the story ends. We know that Jesus was telling the truth, and that in the end, Peter still didn’t want to face the truth, didn’t want to let go of the image he had of a conquering king who could not be defeated by death…and we know that at the end of our Lenten season we celebrate the light at the end of the tunnel, the truth that the gift of Christ for the world does triumph over death, and does call us to a renewed commitment as followers of Christ to live in that way, seeking the light, and seeking others to share that light with.
This community is called to share that light with the students of Winthrop University. Remember who you are. Open your eyes to those sitting beside you, those seeking to come in. Open your hearts to the adventure of learning new things about who God is, and can be in your midst, by experiencing a community with the young adults who walk through those doors. Be bearers of that light, as you bear the cross that has been give to you, as you follow Jesus. Amen.
Delivered by the Rev. Mary Catherine Enockson
Sunday, March 8
At Grace Lutheran Church, Rock Hill, SC