The Rev. E. Suzanne Wille’s First Sermon at All Saints’ Chicago

Preached by the Rev. E. Suzanne Wille

Well, hello, All Saints! I can’t tell you how happy I am to FINALLY be here! As my home church, the church that sponsored me for ordination, the church that has been my gold standard of what a joyful, welcoming church looks like, you’ve often been on my mind. But for the past few months I’ve been thinking about and praying for you daily, ever since my first conversation with the Search Committee.

And since June 5th, the day your warden Scottie called to tell me I’d been elected the XIII rector of All Saints, I’ve been imagining this morning, in this place, with all of you, and this moment when I would preach a rousing, visionary sermon about our future and all we would do together. And then, I read the readings for the day. And, well, yikes. Just as I had hoped by the time we joined together that most of the country would be vaccinated and we could be mask free, care free, greeting one another with hugs, well, I had ALSO hoped for some wonderfully cheery Gospel: perhaps a parable of mustard seeds or grains of yeast and how swiftly and wildly the Kingdom of God grows; heck, I’d have taken a healing story, even an exorcism. But, instead, we get confusion, mistaken identities, name calling and arguments, dire predictions, and the high cost of discipleship.

Now, make no mistake, this is an amazing passage— the Gospel in miniature— and I would LOVE to preach on it in— I don’t know?— six months, when we know one another better. But today, TODAY is for laughter and joy; perhaps you feel the same?

I suppose, then, that we are in good company, the company of Peter and the disciples. After the past few months with Jesus, they have every reason to expect ongoing success, as Jesus has healed and taught, fed 5000 and more, gathering crowds and fame. Sure, the local religious leaders don’t seem very happy with him, but who cares!?! Right now, Jesus is in the spotlight, and they are his entourage. Then, right as they think their fame, their influence, is about to explode, Jesus asks the question that kicks off today’s drama: “Who do people say that I am?” he asks the disciples; The the more pointed question: “You do YOU say that I am?” Without hesitation, Peter answers for them all: “You are the Messiah.” The MESSIAH! And what that meant to Peter, to anyone who had been living through hard times then— personal failures and tragedies, political oppression under Rome— what that meant was a Savior who would overturn the unjust system, kick out the bad guys, and begin a glorious reign where they—this ragtag group and tiny Israel— would finally be respected, in power, and in control.

Then Jesus drops the hammer: he tells them what must happen to him, the Messiah, the one who was supposed to bring them good fortune, good vibes, the best seats in the house, the best table at the restaurant, all while raining punishment upon their enemies.  Jesus tells them their fantasy is the fantasy of the world, valuing military might economic power, worldly success.

What HE’s got on offer is this:

Powerlessness.

Vulnerability.

Weakness.

Suffering.

Death.

Oh, wait a minute,

also new life.

But Peter is so flabbergasted that he doesn’t hear, can’t understand, that last part. So he rebukes the one he just called Messiah. “Shut up, Jesus; don’t be ridiculous!” Peter warns. This isn’t the kind of Messiah they want. But what did Peter expect? Throughout all salvation history those whom God chooses, those obedient to God,  always pay a price, face suffering, loss, and pain. Despite all the promises of the so-called prosperity Gospel or those who claim that all would be well if only a Christian ruled this or any nation,that’s just not the way God works. And Jesus knows that, knows Peter is tempting him to think there’s another way, their own way, a powerful way, to live out God’s plan.

And, so, Jesus turning his back on Peter, now rebukes him: “Get behind me, Satan,” he says and then he teaches the cost of discipleship. Not only must He suffer, be rejected and killed, and be raised again, so must those who follow him— those disciples there, we disciples here. Deny yourselves, he says. Take up your cross. If you try to save your life, you’ll lose it. Lose it for the sake of the gospel, and you’ll save it. What good is it to gain all you want only to lose who you truly are and are made to be? Can we blame the disciples, can we blame ourselves, if that sound pretty, well, lousy?

No thanks, I think I’ll pass. I’m starting to like the sound of that Prosperity Gospel thing— just follow the rules and reap the rewards.  I’m liking the idea of the Messiah putting US in power and control right about now.

But here’s the thing. It’s not like we’ve got much of an option. After all, Jesus isn’t describing some kind of heroics; he’s just describing life. After all, who among us doesn’t get crosses and death in this life? Haven’t the past few years shown us that? Haven’t we seen the ways cruelty can sweep through a nation, political leaders causing wanton misery and pain? A pandemic has ravage our lives here and around the world, and the hope that it will all go away, that we’ll return to normal, that hope is fading.

We don’t have to look for a cross to take up. We have crosses enough: planes used as weapons on a beautiful, cloudless September day leading to endless wars; hydra-headed systemic racism; a fraying civil society. And that’s the macro stuff. In each of our own lives, there’s a cross to carry.

Perhaps yours is caring for a struggling family member or financial fears or your body betraying you or a relationship gone wrong or an addiction that’s getting worse or  . . . or . . . or . . .  you can fill in the blank. Jesus isn’t commending those crosses to us; he’s naming them, and he’s telling us something radical about those realities, something opposite of how we usually respond to crosses and death in our lives.

What Jesus is saying is this: stop pretending you can control it. Stop. Just stop. Stop trying to live the fantasy society is selling you. Stop believing you can be all you can be by the strength of your own willpower. Stop denying the pain. Self help is no help at all. Follow me, I’ll show you how.

This is NOT what I want; perhaps you don’t, either. I come from a family and culture that worship the stiff upper lip and embody “Keep Calm and Carry On.” You probably do, too, because that’s American— grab those boots straps and pull! But to embrace the cross, embrace death, rather than trying to limp along, insisting on life support, crying out “It’s just a flesh wound!” like the Black Knight in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail, well to embrace our wounds and our vulnerabilities, our crosses, is to finally just . . . give up.

And when we give up, we hand over all our control of trying to save our own lives. as the world wants us to live them— buying more things, getting more degrees, anxiously over parenting, curating our lives so we look practically perfect on Instagram and Facebook— when we give up, we’re following the wisdom of AA— and the Gospel!— which teaches that when life has become unmanageable and chaotic, the answer isn’t to grasp more control, gripping ever more tightly; rather, the answer is to open our hands, admit our powerlessness, surrender to God.

So, Friends, I’d love to tell you that I have an amazing ten-step plan for our first six months together and that I know exactly where we’re headed. I DO have absolute confidence and hope in and for our future together here at All Saints, but, let’s face it, we’re pretty out of control these days, the crosses are heavy, and some of us are carrying more than one. Death is always looming.

But here’s the GOOD NEWS: We follow the One who specializes in resurrection. The One who didn’t come to make our lives easy or perfect, but who joined us in the mess of them; Jesus is exactly in our pain, our suffering, our losses, and our screw ups. He didn’t come to give us a new, improved version of the life we already have, but an abundant life of joy that is after the cross, after the death, after we have let go, free falling into grace.

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I haven’t been here with you during this trying time, as you faced crosses and loss. But I am ready, now, to shoulder them with you. I’m ready to confess that life is kind of a mess and that I don’t have all the answers, but I do know how to get into the ditch with you, I know how to laugh and dance, love and find joy even when life is absurd and painful. I know you do, too. And I can promise you, I PROMISE you, that no matter what losses, what deaths we face, there IS new life, resurrection— for you, for me, and for us together at All Saints.