Graceland Is in Memphis
16 Pentecost B
September 13, 2015
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Did you know that the Episcopal Church has several orders of nuns? Usually we think of nuns as being Roman Catholic, but our church has them, too. There have been Anglican nuns since the mid-1800’s. Let me tell you a story about a few of them.
This story happens in Memphis, Tennessee in the year 1878. That year there was a ton of rain in the summertime, and the temperatures were really hot for a very long time. The conditions were perfect for mosquitoes to multiply and to become a huge problem.
And so the mosquitoes did what mosquitoes do…and theybit lots of people. Now, usually this wouldn’t be much more than annoying—but that year the mosquitoes were many, and they carried the virus for yellow fever.
Yellow fever is one of those diseases we don’t hear about that much here anymore. But in places in the world where it’s common, it causes a whole lot of suffering. It brings symptoms like a respiratory flu, and usually people get over it in several days’ time. But sometimes people don’t get over it. Instead the disease attacks the liver, and people actually turn yellow because of it. They vomit blood. And many of them die. It’s can be a terrible, horrible disease for those who are unfortunate enough to contract it.
Well, in the summer of 1878 nobody really knew what caused yellow fever. But they knew enough to try to leave the city and get away from the Mississippi River bank. They knew that the disease hit people when they spent a lot of time / close to the river. That makes sense—we know that mosquitoes are found where it’s swampy and when temperatures are high.
So 30,000 people got out of town as quickly as they could. But 20,000 remained—whether it was because of poverty or some other reason isn’t clear. It reminds me of what happened in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina came through. The poor were not able to get out. They were the ones who suffered most.
There was a group of nuns there in Memphis, associated with a cathedral school. They were from the order called the Sisters of Saint Mary. They and several clergymen and doctors stayed behind to nurse people through the illness. They “gave relief to the sick, comfort to the dying, and homes to the many orphaned children.” Over 5000 people died in the yellow fever epidemic. [Holy Women, Holy Men, p. 570.]
Six of the sisters and priests died from yellow fever as they were caring for the other victims. They gave their lives for people they didn’t even know, and they did it willingly. We call them martyrs today—those who witnessed to the power of the gospel and died for the sake of serving Christ. They illustrate the teaching of Jesus, who said, “Greater love has no one, than he lay down his life for his friends.”
We celebrated the feast day of these women and men this past Wednesday at our evening Eucharist. And we used the same psalm that we have this morning—the first 8 stanzas of Psalm 116. I’m always fascinated that this psalm often occurs on martyrs’ feast days, because literally it’s in praise of God for saving the psalmist from death. And our martyrs were certainly not saved from death, were they? I love the paradox.
And the paradox is resolved because by faith we know that, following in the footsteps of Jesus, they actually WERE saved. They were saved as they entered into the next life when their earthly lives, filled with suffering, came to an end.
What does the psalm say? “The cords of death entangled me; the grip of the grave took hold of me; I came to grief and sorrow.” And it ends with “I will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living.”
It’s a reminder that our lives in Christ are indeed filled with sorrow and suffering, as Jesus’ life was filled with sorrow and suffering. We hear Jesus’ first prediction in Mark’s gospel today that he was going to “undergo great suffering and be rejected…and be killed…” And, of course, “after three days rise again.” [Mark 8:31]
Then Jesus ups the ante even more for us as he tells us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” [Mark 8:35]
The Martyrs of Memphis give us a homegrown example of people who knew that their lives weren’t their own—but that they were lived in Christ and that they belonged to God. And they acted accordingly.
Now, I am not very sure that we here today will be asked to give up our lives in selfless service to dying people—but I am sure that each of us here who has been baptized into Christ’s death is asked each and every day to give of ourselves freely to live and choose and work and die as God would have us do.
Today we baptize Francisca Osei Tutu. You may have seen her here over the last few weeks with Muriel Frelund. Francisca (you may call her by her nickname “Tutu”) is passionate about being baptized into the Christian family. She wasn’t baptized in her home country of Ghana, but she did attend an Anglican school there. And she’s thrilled that Muriel’s church is her church, too.
Francisca will make promises to live as God would have her live. And we, too, will renew those promises today for ourselves. Things like promising to continue to participate in the life of prayer and the life of the church. Promising to continue to resist the bad and seek the good. Promising to strive for justice and peace with all the people we encounter, and promising to respect the dignity of every human being.
All these promises that Francisca and we will make—they are all out of synch with how the world operates. To live as a Christian is to march to a different drummer. It’s to put the ego in second place and let your true self seek and serve God. It’s difficult. And it’s what we have all promised to do.
And it amounts to nothing less than losing our lives for God’s sake.
So I’d like to end today with a little reflection by Frederick Buechner, who is a renowned author and professor, to tie this all together. This is what he says about following Jesus.
“The world says, Mind your own business, and Jesus says, There is no such thing as your own business. The world says, Follow the wisest course and be a success, and Jesus says, Follow me and be crucified. The world says, Drive carefully—the life you save may be your own—and Jesus says, Whoever would save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. The world says, Law and order, and Jesus says, Love. The world says, Get / and Jesus says, Give. In terms of the world’s sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion.” [Synthesis for September 13, 2015, p. 2]
So think about the cost of being a Christian. It demands your life and your self and sometimes even your sanity, in the eyes of the world.
Are you crazy enough to follow Jesus?