A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

One of the great themes of the season of Lent is discipleship. Discipleship is one of those “churchy” words that sometimes no one bothers to explain, and you’d rather not ask about because you think you’re already supposed to know what it means. At its simplest, discipleship just means learning from someone who knows how to do something that you don’t know how to do but you’d like to. It’s like being an apprentice to a plumber or taking piano lessons from someone who knows how to play and how to teach, or even being a young resident under the wing of an accomplished cardiac surgeon. Being a disciple just means putting yourself under the direction of someone who knows what they’re doing and who is willing to teach you how to do it too.

Being a disciple also means trusting your teacher. I took piano lessons as a kid for eight or nine years. Part of being a disciple to my teacher Mrs. Holland meant trusting her when she said that playing those scales, over and over again, hour after boring hour, month after month, year after year, would be the way that one day I could play a Beethoven sonata that would bring beauty and truth into the world. Those were her words – “beauty and truth.” I trusted her, so I kept playing scales over and over even when I wasn’t quite sure it would work or if I’d ever get there. But Mrs. Holland said I would, and I trusted her. Eventually, after years, I found that I could make music too.

Being a disciple of Jesus in some ways is no different. He knows what it is to live with one heart with God. He sees the world with the same heart that God does. He knows the power of the eternal love that shakes the universe. He knows what it looks like to live as God’s child in this world and is willing to teach us. One of the scales we’re supposed to practice is summed up in his words “whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” These are words that will come up again and again in his instruction to his disciples – like scales he wants us to play over and over till we come to his beauty and truth.

As a young man, I loved those words about losing your life to gain it. They sounded to me like a trumpet call to live a heroic life on a solitary quest like Icarus to steal fire from the gods. Of course, you know that didn’t end well for Icarus. He flew too near the sun and crashed. It’s like Fred Craddock, the great teacher of preachers, says: we think the call to lose your life for Jesus is something you do in one dramatic, fell swoop. Like slamming $1,000 on the table and giving it all for Jesus. What Jesus is calling us too, more likely, is to take that thousand dollars down to the bank and turn it all into quarters that we pay out a 25-cents act of mercy here, a 50-cents act of love there, another time, 25 cents worth of faith, practicing the scales of Jesus holy life.

In the mid-1990s I served at St. Andrew’s on Oregon Hill. That’s a neighborhood on the other side of the expressway from VCU. We had two services on Sunday mornings, one at 8 a.m. and one at 10 a.m. On a good Sunday, there were 15 or so people for the early service seated in a nave that seats as many as New St. Mary’s. One of the people who was there every Sunday at the early service was Mrs. Florence McMullen – a character from my life who’s come up more than once. Mrs. McMullen (who at the time was about 82 years old) was an Oregon Hill girl who grew up on the Hill around the First World War and into the 1920s when it was a neat, tidy neighborhood for those working at the Tredegar Iron Works. Something tells me that she ended up marrying a banker and moving out into the much nicer neighborhoods to the west. Still, she was baptized in St. Andrew’s, went to the school, was confirmed, married and buried from there. She was there every Sunday, her whole life, basically – from the day she was carried in as a baby till the day she was carried out after she’d died.

Mrs. McMullen always came to church put together – do you know what I mean? The outfits she wore were smashing, perfectly cut, her hair exquisitely coiffed, make-up on point, fully accessorized, all of it. She wouldn’t dream of going out, certainly of coming to church, if she wasn’t perfectly put together. I’d been told that she was one of the best givers to the church and a woman of significant capacity, as they say. What was unsaid was “Keep her happy!” She always greeted me formally after church, saying simply, “Good morning, Mr. May.”

In some ways, she was a real mystery to me, and to others too. She was there at church at the early service every Sunday. But that was it really. She came and left. One of her matronly peers who’d grown up in that church too thought that after she’d married and moved off the Hill, she’d gotten too big for her britches and looked down on her humble beginnings. I called her once to see if she’d like for me to come by for a visit and she said, simply, “No.”

One Sunday morning at the early service, I was in the pulpit preaching to the flock of 10 or 12 in that vast space. I saw a man come in from the back, staggering around a little. I saw him and the usher in conversation and heard the man say a little too loudly, “I’m here for church, that OK with you?” He found a seat and sat down. A little while later, he stood up and started shouting at me, with really colorful language. All the words. I saw Mrs. McMullen in her pew. It looked like she was grimacing at his awful language and how unseemly it all was. I’d better do something, I thought. So, I climbed down from the pulpit and walked down the aisle to the man. I said, “Sir, you are welcomed to be here, but you have got to hush, OK?” He said he would, apologized, and sat down. I went back to the pulpit and was trying to pick up where I’d left off. Before I knew it, the man was back on his feet cussing a blue streak at me. Mrs. McMullen sat there grimacing, shaking her head. I had to put a stop to this. So, I climbed back down, went to the man and said, “You gotta get out of here, that’s enough” or something like that and he got up and walked out of the church cussing as he went.

After church, I went up to Mrs. McMullen, not waiting for her to greet me as she was leaving as usual. I said, “Mrs. McMullen, I am so sorry for that man and his awful language. It probably felt scary and I’m so sorry for that. We’ll be sure to get the ushers to be a little better in handling these things. Really, I’m so sorry. You looked upset.”

Mrs. McMullen looked at me and said, “I wasn’t upset. I was praying for that poor man. David, this is God’s church. That man has every right to be here too, don’t you think?”

That was 25 cents from her of grace, paid out by a disciple for love, with the hope that I could lose a part of myself, my life that it was long past time to lose.

She shook my hand and said, “I’ll see you next Sunday.”

What I heard and what I still hear from that is Jesus saying, clearly, “Follow me.” For his disciples that is the scale we practice more than any other. Follow me, especially when we’ve been following something that it’s long past time to lose. Trust that. Trust him. We disciples of Jesus practice those scales through which – please God, some day – he will show forth his own beauty and truth. Amen.

The Rev. David H. May