The Old South Church in Boston
A Matter of Weighing the Risks
Sermon by James W. Crawford
Palm Sunday, April 8, 2001
A chronicler of life in the White Mountains writes as follows: “Frederick Strickland was a gentleman of substance and good prospect, the son of Sir George Strickland of Bridlington, England, who was a baronet and a member of Parliament. Frederick graduated from Cambridge University in 1843, the school that taught Charles Darwin in the previous decade. . . Young Mr. Strickland was attuned to the Darwinian buzz at Cambridge, and was probably among the class of English gentlemen of that era, who found it convenient to believe that the whole history of evolution ended at English gentlemen, destined as they were to achieve dominion over palm and pine and to know a good sherry when they tasted one.”
In 1849, Frederick Strickland comes from old England to New England. He arrives in Boston, and as The Boston Transcript observed, “He brought letters to some of our most distinguished citizens and was advised to visit the White Mountains by several gentlemen of science and taste in our community.”
Visit the White Mountains? Why not? So in October, 1849, Frederick Strickland travels North and meets Ethan and Thomas Crawford in what we now know as Crawford Notch, New Hampshire. Young Mr. Strickland declares he wishes to climb Mount Washington. Thomas Crawford says, “No.” A recent October blizzard left snow too deep on the trail to the summit; the season is over. Frederick Strickland sees Thomas Crawford’s demurer as a crass attempt to shake him down for more money. Wrong. As our historian writes, “Thomas Crawford’s cautions were rooted in something that he understood even if he couldn’t explain it. Mount Washington is 130 miles north of Boston and this puts the seasons as much as two months behind the down-country metropolis due to an indwelling global imperative. The summit of Mount Washington is 6000 feet higher than Boston and each 100-foot gain in altitude is equivalent to moving 10 miles north. By this formula, the summit is 500 miles North of Boston, in the middle of Labrador. Frederick Strickland would soon understand the effect of this rule, although he probably thinks it doesn’t apply to him.”
Well, Frederick Strickland, Darwinian that he is, believes he can do anything, that human triumph over nature is steady and inevitable. Thus, he contracts with a guide, some horses, packs a couple of dried crackers, puts on his coat over his tapered trousers, high shirt and floppy tie and sets out on the nine-mile journey along the ridge of what we now call the Presidential Range to the top of Mount Washington. Halfway there, his guide calls a halt. “No more,” he insists. “The snow is too deep, the wind is too harsh, the clouds are too thick, the temperature is too cold. We’ll never make it.” Strickland refuses to quit. The guide and horses return to the Notch. Strickland continues. He makes it to the summit. He begins to go down by another trail to meet the Crawfords at a prearranged hostel. But he never arrives. The search begins. Two days later the searchers find blood in the snow, the result of some bad falls on sharp rocks; they find footprints running every which way, probably from the disorientation of hypothermia; and there, a pair of pants in a mountain pool, probably removed when Strickland fell in, the cloth freezing to his legs, compelling him to remove them, explaining the vast amounts of skin peeled from those legs when they finally discover his body.
You may find Frederick Strickland’s grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery near Green Briar Path. He was, writes our observer, “the first person to climb Mount Washington in winter conditions, and he was the first to die there.”
Oh Frederick! You fool! You rash, reckless, brazen bubblehead. You are just like those characters Jesus describes for us as he encounters those who clamor behind him on his way to Jerusalem, eager to claim a piece of his promise. To that vast crowd he throws down a gauntlet. He lays out a striking challenge. Remember? He tells them the decision to follow him may strain, if not divide, even the closest of personal relationships, families included. Do you know what you are doing? Do you understand the dimensions of the choices before you? Can you grasp the pivotal and momentous consequences resting on what you choose?” Then Jesus goes on to challenge each person to calculate the risks inherent in serious discipleship. “For which of you, desiring to build a tower does not first sit down and estimate the cost, whether you have enough complete it? Or what king going out to wage war against another king will not sit down first to consider whether he can?” Or, if you will, which of you, deciding to tackle Mount Washington in winter, will not first consider the temperature, the snow depth, your food, apparel and fitness lest for reasons of poor planning you fail to complete the trek?
Friends, in the passage we read this morning, Jesus worries about our covering up the risks of discipleship. He cautions us against wanting our religion too easy, comfy, feel good. He warns us that if we seek to follow him then we had better be prepared to take some guff, move against the mainstream, end up on what may feel like a Cross. “Are you ready?” he asks. “Are you prepared for the challenges? Have you weighed the risks?”
Well, have we? Luke does not describe in this passage a discrete incident in our Lord’s life. He aims his questions at us. Jesus looks at us on this festival morning, gathered on the cusp of holy week with all of its decision, danger and risk, and what does Jesus see? Does he see a gathering of disciples prepared to count the cost? In this cynical and suffering world, does he perceive disciples prepared to weigh the risks? Or somehow does our discipleship—yours and mine—resemble that of a failed tower builder, a king underestimating the costs of battle, a climber in the Presidentials discounting a blizzard? I wonder. Tucked away in my library you will find a biting reflection by Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the twentieth century’s monumental preachers. He describes those of us who take our religious commitments as no more than a common formality. The religious experience and commitment of too many of us runs like this, he suggests:
We take the heavy lumber of our lives and build the secular dwelling in which habitually we abide; there we live and move and have our being in family and social life, in business and politics and sports; but because religion is a part of every conventionally well-furnished life, we build as well, with what lumber may remain, an appended shrine, and there at times we slip away and pay our respects to the Almighty. Our religion is an isolated and uninfluential afterthought. Especially on Sundays, when the banks are shut, the shops are closed, the rush of life is still, and finer forces stir within, some of us go in company with others to the church for formal worship. And when it is over, we close the door on that experience and go back to ordinary life again. So, one of our popular poets muses, “They’re praising God on Sunday. They’ll be all right on Monday. It’s just a little habit they’ve acquired.” Or, as one light hearted observer cracks, “The problem with mainline Christianity is that too many church members are singing, ‘Standing on the promises’ when they are merely sitting on the premises.” And in the same vein, with a little more punch to it, I’ve heard tell of two fellows talking religion. One says to the other, “ I’d like to ask God why she allows poverty, famine and injustice when he could do something about it?” The second replies, “So what’s stopping you from asking?” The first answers, “I’m afraid God might ask me the same question.”
Isn’t that what Jesus points to in these sharp, challenging parables? Isn’t he warning us against trivial pursuits, superficial piety, shallow religion, frivolous Christianity, unfinished towers, battlefield misjudgments, mountain trip miscalculations? After all, we know he asks no more of us than he undertakes himself. We sing and celebrate, we honor Jesus on this Palm Sunday morning as if he were a royal personage coming from the House of Windsor, or perhaps more so, from Camelot. But we know the remainder of this week in the life of Jesus contains encounters and confrontations infuriating leadership in church and state, compelling them to collaborate in wiping out a common enemy. The conspiracy of church and state against Jesus intensifies through a trumped up arrest, a rigged trial, a death sentence the procurator himself, Pontius Pilate, does not even believe in, yet surrenders to mob rule defusing a near public riot. Later that very day, public officials carry out that sentence in the most beastly manner they can devise. The crucifixion on Friday occurs long before anyone thinks of abolishing the death penalty, millennia before anyone tries to constrain “cruel and unusual punishment.” (Although as we look at the Good Friday event today, we see a powerful argument to battle against both.) The week we enter now, you see, Holy Week and its slashing and bloody events, illustrate how weighing the risks of following the Gospel bears consequences no less decisive than life or death.
As we look to Jesus and consider his challenge to us on this Palm Sunday we can see in our world this very moment a desperate need for serious, carefully weighed, high-risk discipleship. Even as we contemplate the risks and dangers our Lord lays out for us, so we see the terrible risks and dangers of a world living without the Gospel; a world struggling to survive, as that magnificent mid-century figure, Pope John XXIII said, “Without love as motive and justice as instrument.” We see the outlines of a federal budget consciously, calculatingly, dare we say maliciously, putting public health even more prominently at stake. We witness a proliferation of ethnic cleansing—what a grotesque human perversion—ethnic cleansing even yet in the Balkans, in Indonesia, in West Africa. And of course, this morning, two nuclear superpowers carrying on their strategic stupidities, each defining spheres of geographical influence, claiming innocence in a world where most frequently lack-of-war rests on fear, threat, and nuclear stalemate. My soul! Jesus is right. In that parable of the king’s miscalculated campaign he insists that the cost of failing theGospel, the surrendering to the enemies terms, leads to untold human catastrophe and suffering. Our Lord makes clear that though the risks of following him may be high, the risks of not following him are far greater. “When you weigh the risks of discipleship,” he says, “when you debate the dimensions of investing in the way of love for the long haul, don’t fail to measure accurately the disaster in a world without God’s love, peace, joy, and justice. It can be very, very expensive.”
In a little book of mediations on “The Way of the Cross” I discovered a reflection by that latter day Albanian saint, Mother Teresa. From her hospital, her hospice, her ministry amid the poverty and pain, the sickness and inequity surrounding her in Calcutta, she reflects on “Who Jesus is to Me.” With just a small grammar adjustment now and again, here is what she writes:
Jesus is the Word to be spoken.
Jesus is the Truth to be told.
Jesus is the Light to be lit.
Jesus is the Life to be lived.
Jesus is the Love to be loved.
Jesus is the Joy to be shared.
Jesus is the Peace to be granted.
Jesus is the Bread of Life to be eaten.
Jesus is the Hungry to be fed.
Jesus is the Thirsty to be satiated.
Jesus is the Naked to be clothed.
Jesus is the Homeless to be taken in.
Jesus is the Sick to be healed.
Jesus is the Lonely to be loved.
Jesus is the Leper to wash.
Jesus is the Beggar to be given a smile.
Jesus is the Drunkard to be listened to.
Jesus is the Mentally Ill to be protected.
Jesus is the Unwanted to be welcomed.
Jesus is the Little One to be embraced.
Jesus is the Blind to lead.
Jesus is the Deaf to be spoken to.
Jesus is the Crippled to walk with.
Jesus is the Drug addict to be befriended.
Jesus is the Prostitute to remove from danger and
to receive our friendship.
Jesus is the Prisoner to be visited.
Jesus is the Old to be served.
Discipleship. Your calling, mine, the calling of the Old South Church in Boston. Challenging, hardly a common formality. As you and I weigh the risks of our church membership, let us, for Christ’s sake, not get caught in erecting a half built tower, join a battle or set out, like our friend Frederick Strickland, unprepared on a strenuous wilderness adventure we cannot see through to the end. As we enter this Holy Week, God grant we remember that the Cross illustrates the risks and costs of faithful discipleship. Ah yes, but pray we remember as well, we receive with our commitment an absolutely astounding promise. I cannot explain it to you, yet we will sing it in a moment.
“Take up your cross, let not its weight fill your weak spirit with alarm;
Christ’s strength will bear your spirit up and brace your heart, support your arm.”
Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
The Old South Church in Boston
645 Boylston Street
Boston, MA 02116
*Scripture reading printed on page seven.