"Carrying Our Cross"

2 Lent.B.24
Mark 8:31-38 (Annual Address)
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

This morning, following our 10:00 a.m. worship service, we will hold our Annual Meeting. The Annual Meeting is an opportunity to reflect on the past year, but also a chance look forward to where the Holy Spirit is guiding us in the months and years to come. You can read my report about 2023 in the Annual Report, available following the service. Therefore, today I would like to speak to you about the year ahead. But first, I’d like for us to take a look at the Gospel lesson appointed for this morning.

This week in the Gospel of Mark, we come face to face with arguably the most difficult and challenging of Jesus’ teachings when he says: “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.”

For us, the cross has become a symbol of hope and glory. But place yourself in the position of the disciples and imagine how they must have heard these words. Crucifixion, in the minds of Jews, was a horrible way to die. It was the unmistakable and forceful demonstration of Roman power. It was a mark of shame and suffering—a disgrace. So, not surprisingly, the disciples are perplexed, Peter (for his own part) is offended, and Jesus takes them all to task for misunderstanding him.

So, what does Jesus mean when he says “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” To be a disciple, is to carry a cross. Think of it this way, in the overall flow of the story for today, the implication here is that for Jesus, Peter’s view of messiahship (one predicated on power and achievement) amounts to a form of self-centered grasping, whereas Jesus has come for the opposite reason—to live for God and neighbor in love. The mission of our Lord, and those who follow him is to give, not grasp.

Which brings us to the year to come. As many of you know, the structural integrity of our Bell Tower has been an ongoing issue for several years. I’ve taken to looking at steeples whenever I pass one by. I’ve seen a good many symbols gracing the top of such spires—roosters and even weather vanes, turning to follow the flow of the wind. On the top of St. Paul’s, however, there stands a splendid gold cross. It is there as a symbol of our faith, a visible reminder of the presence of God, pointing upwards towards heaven. Think of it as our North Star.

Our steeple dates from 1857. It was a gift to us from former generations. It was built with faith, love and sacrificial giving. What we know, is that at this present moment it is in need of significant structural reinforcement. And here, I would like to offer my gratitude to Joe Lavalley and Olivia Hurlock, for taking the time, and encouraging St. Paul’s to bear the expense, of a structural engineering study which has told us precisely what needs to be done to ensure that the steeple of St. Paul’s will continue to stand tall for generations to come.

In a nutshell, here is our predicament. Imagine that St. Paul’s is a splendid ship sailing the high seas. With watchful eyes an iceberg has been spotted in the distance (think of the iceberg as the structural instability of the tower). Blessedly, fortunately—with the providential inspiration of God, that iceberg is spotted in enough time to steer the ship safely away from what would certainly be a catastrophic disaster. This is where we are. The task before us at this present time therefore is urgent. What faces us is not a problem that can be kicked down the road to future generations—for, by that time, the situation will be too dire to fix—both in terms of economic cost and the potential for collapse. Urgent though this is, we do not need to panic. What we need to do is with the help of God, take the helm of the ship, and steer clear. Now, at this present moment in our history.

How fortunate—how blessed we are, that what we are faced with is a solvable problem! We have the capacity to fix our dilemma. It won’t be easy. It’s a challenging task, but it is possible. In order to achieve it, it will take all of us. Think of this as our collective moment to carry the cross—to give sacrificially, to ensure that the beauty of this magnificent symbol continues for generations to come. This is why all of you will be receiving invitations to attend campaign receptions (at various times and dates—for your convenience). These presentations will tell you more about our project, how it is possible, and how you can contribute to a campaign aptly named “Inspire St. Paul’s”. It doesn’t matter how much, or how little you believe you can give. Your participation is important—each of us is being asked to give—every one of us. From a child, conducting a bake sale to a couple digging deep, and a person of means being able to carry the financial weight of those whose ability to give is smaller. Every person, every amount is important. This is why your Wardens, Vestry and myself ask that you plan to attend one of these presentations to discover the ways you can help, and the details as to how our tower can be saved. You will be receiving an invitation this week, and we look forward to your response.

Imagine, walking by St. Paul’s years from now, looking at the steeple, standing tall and pointing towards heaven. Imagine listening to the music of one of the few manual chimes left in our country and knowing that you had a stake in ensuring that this tradition continues. This is a moment of pride for St. Paul’s, it is a reflection of our faith and it is our responsibility.

I know that the bulk of my address has focused on the tower. It seems all consuming, doesn’t it. However, the reason that tower is important isn’t simply because of its beauty. That tower is important because it is attached to a church filled with ministry—graced with faithful worship, an exceptional music program, opportunities for deepening one’s faith through study, discussion and prayer, gatherings to deepen our fellowship and outreach to help our neighbors in need. This church is our home. St. Paul’s is a place where, for 266 years people have come to know and love their Savior, Jesus Christ. It is a place where, for those years a multitude of people have been baptized, confirmed, married and buried from our nave. The gifts of those of past generations have prepared us for this moment—a pivotal time which will determine our future.

As I look to the coming year, I see this as an opportunity for us to collectively and individually shoulder our cross. We are promised that in following Jesus, by carrying the cross, we aren’t simply bearing a burden—we are carrying a hope and a joy.

Let us pray: Gracious God, we the community of St. Paul’s, give you thanks for the ministry of our parish, begun in 1758 and carried to this present day. We thank you for the gifts bestowed upon your servants; whose faith, vision and stewardship of years past inspired them to create this beautiful church which we call home and the ministry which flows from its open doors. For these and all your blessings, we give you heartfelt thanks.
We pray that your Holy Spirit will guide us in our capital campaign whose goal it is to create structural integrity in the Tower of St. Paul’s. Trusting in your love and guided by your Spirit, help us to follow in the footsteps of all those whose vision has inspired the beauty of this church and the symbolism of its steeple, calling us to raise our vision from earth to heaven and from heaven to earth. Help us to move forward with open and willing hearts so that we might offer to generations yet unborn the hope of our upward calling in Christ. To the glory of your name. Amen.