Cross and Casket

Sermon from April 14, 2019
Philippians 2: 5-11
Holy Comforter, Spring, Texas

When I was a teenager growing up, my whole family was active in our local Episcopal church.
Like many of the kids and teenagers here at Holy Comforter, I served in church as an acolyte.
As an acolyte, in worship, you carry a torch or you carry the processional cross down the aisle.

One day when I was 17 years old, our home phone rang and my mother answered it.
After a very short conversation, my mother turned to me with some tragic news.
The tragic news was about another teenaged acolyte, a boy named Rodney.

My mother turned to me and in a hushed tone said:
“You know that boy from church, that boy you acolyte with named Rodney.”
I replied:
“Yes, I don’t know Rodney that well, but I know him.”
My mom then said:
“That was Rodney’s mother on the phone.

Rodney has died.
He was alone.
And he had a gun.”

Back in 1981, that was all that was said:
“Rodney was alone.
And he had a gun.”

My mother then told me:
“Rodney’s family has a request.
They want acolytes from the church to serve as Rodney’s pallbearers.
They want you to carry his body in a casket.”

The day of Rodney’s funeral I dressed up for school that day.
I remember that right after lunch, I went up to my chemistry teacher and told her I needed to be excused early, that I was serving in the funeral of a friend.
I remember feeling a bit guilty because my teacher and my friends expressed deep sympathy and condolences.
Yet I didn’t really know Rodney all that well.
We were just acolytes together, that was all.

At the funeral, my friends and I served dual roles, as both pallbearers and acolytes.
At the end of the Episcopal funeral service, I did my part in carrying Rodney’s body out of our home church.

Then the family had one more request, a request regarding the processional cross from our church.
The same processional cross that I carried for countless Sundays.
The same cross that Rodney had carried.
The family requested that we take the processional cross and put it in the back of the casket coach, right up next to the casket.
Cross and casket, laying side by side, on the journey to the grave.

Then once we got to the cemetery, I carefully slid that cross out of the casket coach.
And I reverently carried that cross to the graveside.
Our priest then said the familiar words:
“In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life…we commend our brother Rodney, and we commit his body to the ground.”
And all the while, next to the body of my fellow acolyte,
I stood with the Cross of Jesus Christ.

For two thousand years, millions of volumes of books have been written about what the Cross of Jesus means.
Thousands of theologians have debated and lectured and fought with other Christians, all about the meaning of the Cross of Jesus.

Even in our scripture reading this morning from the Letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul attempts to unpack the meaning of the Cross by writing:
“Jesus humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”

As a committed disciple of Jesus, just like you, I have spent my lifetime trying to unpack the meaning of the Cross of Jesus.
Every Sunday, when I see the Cross coming down the aisle, carried by an acolyte, I ponder and I grieve and I rejoice –
Over the power of the Cross in my own life.

In my own life, when I see the Cross, I think of it as the flag of a different kingdom.
The flags of countries and nations are of emperors and presidents, who will never save us.
Yet the Cross of Jesus is the political banner of love, in a politic where all people are loved, not based upon borders or nationalities,
But based upon unlimited love.

When I see the Cross, I think of suffering and cancer and lynchings and bullying,
And of kids held in cages and senior adults who aren’t properly cleaned,
And of all the horrible conditions and sin in this world.
And then I am assured that on that Cross, God is there with us, for there is no place, no place, no place,
Where God will not be with us.

When I see the Cross, I think of being 17 years old and asking to get out of chemistry class early.

I believe that it is actually a healthy practice for Christians to ponder our own death.
It is a part of our duty as Christians to begin the season of Lent with the reminder:
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
It is our duty as Christians to write a will, a will with generous provisions to give back to the Church and to those who will have no estate.
It is our duty as Christians to plan our funerals, to unburden those who are still living.

Many of you know that I am close to your rector, Jimmy.
Jimmy and Maggie are like family to us.
Jimmy is much younger than I.
(I know you are surprised by that since we look so similar in age).

small

In my mind, when I think of my own funeral, Jimmy and Maggie and their daughter will be there.
And I hope that Jimmy will remember my request:

When the dust and ashes that remain of my body are processed out of the church,
I want an acolyte to carry the Cross of Jesus Christ before me.
And when the procession arrives where my ashes will reside, I want an acolyte to hold the Cross of Jesus, as close to my cremated remains as possible.

When I die, I want my body and the Cross of Jesus to be as close together as possible.
Because when my body and the Cross of Jesus become one,
Then I will be fully alive.

AMEN.

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