Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Pictured is Teresita Fernandez's work of public art “Autumn…Nothing Personal,” located in Harvard Yard. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "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 what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” Mark 8: 34-36
I’m sure you’ve noticed the art installation right outside of our doors. It’s by the award-winning artist Teresita Fernandez. It’s entitled “Autumn…Nothing Personal.” The piece derives its name, in part, from a 1964 essay by writer James Baldwin and famed photographer Richard Avedon.
Avedon and Baldwin challenge what they regard as an anemic American identity. They critique what they view as the ruse of personality and our penchant for irreality — America’s collective identity crisis. The authors argue that we work so hard at concealing our feelings, cloaking our emotions, covering our real thoughts, and camouflaging our ignorance and anxieties that most of us are morally, spiritually, and intellectually vacuous.
We are mannequins crowned by consumer goods. We are insipid avatars — full of desire but lacking love. We are emotionally detached figurines who would instead convince ourselves of the truth of a lie than risk losing our carefully constructed reputations — reputations that most of us know are about as valid as a $9 bill.
Might this be a way for us to think about Jesus’s words to his disciples? “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” Traditionally, we read this text through the framework of ascetic self-denial. A draconian list of “don’ts” and “thou shall not.” But maybe we can read Jesus’s words in the same vein of Avedon and Baldwin. Perhaps we should reconsider what it is about our lives that we work so hard to save?
In our desperate quests to hold on to a carefully constructed image; In our insidious attempts to project to the world alternative facts of life — we must keep others at a critical distance. We don’t trust ourselves; thus we don’t trust one another. And when we can’t trust one another, we can’t speak to each other, get to know each other, form bonds of human friendship, embrace intimacy, and allow love to take off the masks that distort our identities. Most importantly, in doing so, we fail to follow Jesus. We fail to follow Jesus’s example.
In both word and deed, what do we know about the life of Jesus? He was a boundary crosser. He was a decorum disrupter. This is what allowed him to be a friend to the friendless. This allowed him to embrace misfits and outcasts. Jesus connected with those others preferred to ignore. He engaged those others failed to see.
Go home and read through the gospel of Mark. He hugged the “unclean;” served those with seemingly nothing to offer; and loved those who never learned how to love in return. Jesus didn’t have the global reputation of Augustus Caesar. He didn’t have the wealth or riches of Herod. Nor did he have the respect and honor of the High Priests and religious leaders. His Twitter followers were probably few, and Instagram page relatively empty. That was not his crowd.
But talk to a couple of folk in Mark chapter 5. They will let you know why two thousand years later, we are still lifting up the name of Jesus.
There was the man everyone thought had a demon. He lived among the tombs. His disease was not physical like the blind man or those with leprosy. But instead, he was emotionally and mentally ill. He spent all day long cutting himself, abusing his body.
What does Jesus do? Where others were cruel, Jesus was kind. Jesus spoke to the man’s head and his heart. Others call you crazy, but I call you a child of God.
Ask the woman with the issue of blood. For twelve years, she dealt with her disease. She will tell you that “many mocked me, others maligned me, and church folk even mistreated me. But one day when Jesus was passing by, I touched the hem of his garment. He stopped where he was going, looked me in the eye, and didn’t look at me like a disease, but looked at me like a daughter!”
Like the mentally-ill man, like this woman, there are times that all we need is for someone to corroborate our reality — affirm what is afflicting us. This is the power of community. This is the power of testimony. Too often we think we are the only ones to experience what we are going through. Our minds deceive us.
What would others think of me if they knew? What would they say if they knew how inadequate I often feel on campus? What would they say if they knew my battles with addiction? How would they treat me if they knew I sometimes think of suicide? Thus, we suffer in silence. We become isolated in our anguish.
But what if you knew that “they” are dealing with the same trials that you are? What if you knew that “they” felt like that, too? Under their perfect hair and sartorial sophistication, they have their own pains and hurts just like you. They carry their own guilt. They harbor their own heartbreak. They are immobilized by their own doubts and fears.
The other night at my home I discussed this with a group of students. Whenever we think that someone else is perfect, it is clear that we just need to get to know them better.
So maybe this is what Jesus is asking us to give up — give up our pretext and pretense. He is asking us to follow him by having the courage to bear witness to our own experiences. When we share our experience of hurts, we let others know that they, too, can heal.
This is why Teresita Fernandez created the art display. It’s not just an object to behold. It’s a community cornerstone that beckons. The bright fall colors of Autumn challenge us to transform. Enter the cocoon of interpersonal engagement. Come out more compassionate, more caring, and more understanding of others. Meaningful shared moments. Heartfelt dialogue. Courageous conversations. Vulnerable voices articulating fears. Hopeful hearts expressing dreams and ambitions. Take off the masks that grin and lies. For these are the means that we might mature beyond performances of perfection and childish simplicity. These are the ways that we might let go of an identity that is ailing us and cloak ourselves in the compassion of Christ.