"If I say, 'I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,' then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot." Jeremiah 20:9
My 2022 Pentecost sermon was—by far—my worst Pentecost sermon ever, and probably in the top 25 of my worst sermons of all time (keep in mind that I’ve preached well over 2,000 sermons during my career, so that’s saying something). It was a bit esoteric, but the real issue was in the delivery. Preaching is a strange endeavor on great days because distractions abound, especially for a preacher who has a diagnosis of Adult Attention Deficit Disorder. And, in case you’re wondering, I can see you in the pews (‘nough said). My distraction was heightened by the morning’s frantic search for the cross I’ve worn for nearly 30 years and the realization that it most likely is in the landfill along with my cordless mouse. An accident that scattered items from the nightstand followed by the emptying of the wastebasket….
The cross was a retired design by James Avery given to me by a dear friend from seminary. People often mistook the image engraved in relief as a crucifix; instead, it was Jesus the Good Shepherd. It is irreplaceable—although sometimes James Avery retired jewelry becomes available online, the price for my particular cross "used” is around $800! Even if I could afford to spend that much, I wouldn’t because I strive to be a responsible steward of my material resources. Besides the cost, it wouldn’t be the cross that was given by someone I loved, nor would it be the same cross that has seen me through the best and worst days of the past three decades.
Some of you have offered to give me a cross—please don’t. Perhaps mine will turn up. Perhaps. But even if it doesn’t, this is not a hint for a gift to the pastor (and not completely an apology for a piddling sermon). The incident brought to mind another lost cross, one belonging to another dear friend.
I’d led a mission team to Jamaica my last week serving a congregation I truly loved. Everything that could go wrong had gone wrong: the place we were staying was less than congenial, the worksite we were headed to didn’t know we were coming (even though we had building plans for a dormitory), someone lost her return plane ticket; everything that could go wrong…. We contacted the local UM Superintendent who had us do some work at his parsonage which was okay, but compared to the homes of his constituents, he lived in a palace! We were horrified to learn that the bag of fruit we bought to go with our lunch cost more than the average Jamaican earns in a week!
The place where we stayed was run by White Americans who warned us during our orientation about “all those Black Jamaicans,” and the only job offered to us where we thought we’d be working (for six days!) was to place shards of glass in wet cement on top of the wall being built around the school to keep out local children who were looking for food! Impoverished, emaciated children desperate for something to eat. It was a nightmare.
The day we spent working at the DS’s home, two of us went out to look for paint and ended up in a section of Montego Bay known as Shantytown or the Ghetto among some of the locals. A series of wrong turns and we were unable to move because, as we were attempting to back out from the dead end we’d reached, a goat decided to seek a bit of shade under our rented van.
The man with the hand cart appeared out of nowhere. All he saw was two laughing White Americans. We were laughing at the goat under our van, but we were surrounded by homes built from rusted corrugated tin and scraps of wood and cardboard. He must have thought we were laughing at the state of his neighborhood because he reached into the driver’s window as my friend was rolling it up as quickly as she could while I jumped in back to lock the doors. He tried to grab her by the throat, but instead caught her by the cross around her neck.
She could have hit the gas and pinned him to the shanty on one side of the car or swerved to miss him by driving against the concrete wall on the opposite side (at the cost of the $1,000 deductible on my personal credit card). By this time, I found myself saying out loud, “This isn’t good!” as Laura (whose neck was now at the top of the window) croaked back, “I know!” When the chain snapped and he picked up a cinder block to break the window, I said, “Forget the deductible,” and we headed for the wall. Luckily the goat had made a run for it as well.
I will never forget the sound of metal scraping concrete; we thought the whole side of van would be gone. But when we stopped there wasn’t as much as a scratch. Seriously, not a scratch. That was the day we met Mrs. Hyacinth Brown who worked in the laundry of the host organization. She said, “if you want to do the Lord’s work in Jamaica, I will introduce you to my husband who is a pastor." Rev. Brown led us to two orphanages where we spent the rest of our time on the island. Mrs. Brown also explained that many Americans travel to Jamaica because, for very little money, they can rent a house and hire a housekeeper (in 1995) for as little as two dollars a week. She added that many of these housekeepers are sexually assaulted by the Americans who hire them.
At the first orphanage, the children asked us to sing them “a song of the Lord.” After our anemic version of “Jesus Loves Me,” they answered with nearly an hour of powerful songs of faith! After that evening, we visited the “Blossom Garden,” where we fed and rocked infants and toddlers. Eight adults and two teens from Frederick, Maryland who expected to lay the foundation for a dormitory instead had a bridge built for them—for us—by the people we thought we were there to help. Mission goes both ways.
Our team reunited at my new home a few months after our trip. That evening we presented Laura with a new cross. The one taken from her was irreplaceable—she had received it years before at her Confirmation. She and I often mused about where it had ended up: perhaps the man who had taken it from her had sold it to buy food for his family. Perhaps he had presented it to his wife or mother or child as a gift. Perhaps it hangs around his own neck to this day (perhaps he found a connection in faith to us—it could happen!). It may still be journeying from person to person...place to place.
Laura and I rarely see each other now, but I know she has returned to Jamaica—to the Blossom Garden which she continued to support financially. I’m sure she wears the cross from time to time if not every day. And I’m sure it has seen her through the nearly three decades that have passed since our trip: through her cancer treatment and the death of her mother and every other difficult moment she has faced.
The crosses we bear provide us the opportunity to share the faith that informs and sustains us. My Good Shepherd cross was beautiful; I can’t tell you how often complete strangers would ask about where I got it (or sometimes offer to buy it from me!). As sad as I am to think that it might be gone (might), I will find another to wear to remind myself to share the faith it represents—the story I am called to bear as I shepherd others in Jesus' name.