Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
When you think of a nun, what comes to mind? For me it's a strange mixture of The Blues Brothers and EWTN and the sisters I know at the Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman. In other words, it's a little bit penguin, a little bit rosary, and a lot of nice--but all Catholic. Many people do not know that there are nuns and monks in the Episcopal Church and throughout the Anglican Communion. While not nearly as numerous or prominent in secular culture (or sacred culture, for that matter), Episcopal nuns, like their Roman Catholic counterparts, live in community and take vows particular to their order. In a very deep way, they give up their lives in the service of our Lord.
A week ago today, we celebrated the Martyrs of New Guinea. They were the eight Anglican clergy, teachers, and missionaries who, faithful to their bishop's instruction, remained at their post despite the Japanese invasion of the island in 1942. Along with over 300 other church workers killed in New Guinea, they died for their faith--martyred because they refused to run away in the face of danger.
Today we celebrate the Martyrs of Memphis, who, like their counterparts from the South Pacific, refused to run away in the face of danger. This time, however, the invading army was microscopic. In 1878, a yellow fever epidemic broke out in the Mississippi Valley. Spread by mosquitoes--a fact not known back then--once the virus arrived in a warm, wet place like Memphis, it spread like wildfire. By the end of the outbreak, an estimated 20,000 people died along the Mississippi River, including 5,000 in Memphis. Anyone of any means left the city for higher ground, where it was known to be safe. So many people left that the City of Memphis was officially disorganized, and it would not reconstitute itself for another fourteen years.
Although everyone with financial resources left the city, the poor stayed behind to die. Even though they knew the danger, they could not relocate themselves. And so they waited. And they were infected. And they became sick--violently ill with flu-like symptoms, blood-filled vomit, kidney and liver failure, which resulted in jaundice (hence the name "yellow fever"). With all of the city's professional class having evacuated, who would take care of these dying people? Who would stay behind and ease their suffering, hold their hands, and dispose of their remains? The nuns did.
Constance was the first Anglican nun to die of yellow fever in the 1878 outbreak. She and others with her accepted a dismal fate so that they might care for those everyone else had left behind. Although not cut down by machine guns or burned on a pyre, these women, who had already pledged their lives to the Lord, gave even their life for the Lord's work. Today, we remember their sacrifice and ask how God is calling us to do the same.
Jesus said, "Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life." When is a hyperbole not a hyperbole? Might Jesus really mean what he says? I'd like to invite you to reconsider what it means to hate one's life--to lose it for the sake of the gospel. Step back away from the abstraction and the metaphor and the exaggeration and consider the literal reality of giving up your life for Jesus' sake.
No, you likely won't be asked to take a bullet for Jesus. And, no, you probably won't find yourself in the path of the machete-wielding soldiers of ISIS. I doubt you'll have to run into a fiery building to save a toddler. But, still, I believe that Jesus is asking you and me to give up our lives for the sake of the gospel. I don't know when or how that opportunity will present itself, but it's something to consider well before the moment arrives.
Today, conscious of the witness of the Martyrs of Memphis and mindful of Jesus' words, I feel called to consider my own life as less valuable than that of others. As a follower of Jesus, my life must be last. I must be less important than the yellow fever victim. My life must be less valuable than that of the victims of gun violence. My claim on my own life must be smaller than that of a starving mother or a AIDS-ravaged father or a drowned Syrian refugee. How is that possible? By immersing myself in the gospel truth that my life has value not because of how I live it but because of God's love that extends beyond it.
It starts with commitment. No one becomes a nun because she expects to die in a pandemic. No one becomes a police officer because he expects to die in the line of duty. No one becomes a Christian because she thinks she will be martyred one day. But we do become Christians because we are willing to follow Jesus--even unto death. Remember that your life counts not in this world but only in the next. Remember that what you have and what you do and how you live will not matter in the grave. Only God's love--a love stronger than death--really matters. Commit yourself to that love. Allow your life to lose its comparative value. Allow yourself to count for less than everyone else. Make that a daily practice. And, so, be prepared to die--really, actually, physically die--for the sake of the gospel.