This sermon was preached at New Zion Baptist Church, Williamsburg, Virginia, as part of the Upper James City County Lenten Ecumenical worship series. The series was entitled, “People of the Cross,” a journey with the characters of the Stations of the Cross.
As we approach the one-year anniversary of this pandemic, we have begun to fall into some dangerous patterns. The more time we safely spend in isolation from others, the more the notion sneaks into our psyche that we do not need others – that we are solitary actors in the world. The more safety measures become recommendations as opposed to mandates, we begin to think we have power over our destiny – freedom to wear a mask or not, freedom to spend time with people when we want, freedom to take a vaccine or not. The more time we spend not gathering in our worship spaces, away from our communities of faith, the more distant we can begin to feel from God, slowly no longer watching those digital offerings or joining those Zooms because we are just tired of everything.
Sometimes I wonder if Simon of Cyrene was a man who thought of himself in similar ways. Now, we have to remember where we are in Jesus’ story. Jesus has already been betrayed by Judas, arrested in Gethsemane, been shuffled around by religious and secular authorities, undergone trial with Pilate, been sentenced to death, and is heading toward Calvary with a cross. This is the point in Jesus’ story where we meet Simon of Cyrene. We know very little about Simon. He is only mentioned in the three synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and even in those gospels, his story is told in just a verse. Matthew says, “As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry [Jesus’] cross.” Mark says, “They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry [Jesus’] cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus.” And finally, Luke, who we heard tonight, says, “As they led [Jesus] away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus.”
That is all we have. One verse from each synoptic gospel. We learn a few things though. Simon was not from Jerusalem – he was coming in from the country. Simone of Cyrene was a father of at least two sons. And we know he did not volunteer for the job of helping Jesus. He did not have compassion, see a man struggling, and offer to help. He did not see the incorruption of the state and fight back or bravely step in to mitigate the injustice. All we know is he was compelled or seized and put to work. And Luke adds that he carried the cross behind Jesus. The rest of the story we just do not know.
But here is what we do know. We know the times where we have collided with Jesus, sometimes against our will or even our knowing. The phone call from the needy friend when you just need some alone time. The homeless person, who seems slightly unstable, who you know is going to ask you for something, even if they just start with conversation. That person being bullied on the playground or in the board room, that if you stand up for them, the bullies may turn their evil on you. The pastor who asks you to take leadership on a new ministry when you are already feeling overwhelmed.
Author and Dominican brother, Timothy Radcliffe, reminds us that we Americans have a strange relationship with “the ideal of a self-sufficient person who does not need anyone else. We should stand on our own feet. It is humiliating to need others, especially strangers.”[i] That very kind of thinking is what has led us to where we are in this pandemic – where my behavior, my choices, my agency to mask, socially distance, and vaccinate are my own, made in a bubble of self-sufficiency. But in the heart of Simon of Cyrene’s experience with Jesus, we see how our own American ideals crumble. We are not wholly autonomous peoples of self-sufficiency and self-actualization. We are people who need each other. Jesus shows us in this strange, forced encounter with Simon that vulnerability is not a burden to be scorned, but the place where holiness is encountered – where we see God.
Of course, Jesus taught us this lesson before. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus told his followers that when they see a stranger, the least of these, and see they are hungry and give them food, they are thirsty and give them something to drink, when they welcomed a stranger, they clothed the naked, and took care of the sick, and visited the prisoner, they did these things to Jesus. We know our wearing of masks is not for our own protection, but for the protection of others. We know in our keeping distant from our loved ones, including from our beloved churches, we are protecting others. When we get vaccines, we do not take them for ourselves, but for the power of herd immunization to stop the ravaging of our whole country.
Julian of Norwich, the Middle Ages mystic, once wrote, “If I look at myself alone, I am nothing. But when I think of myself and all my fellow-Christians joined together in love, I have hope. For in this joining lies the life of all who shall be saved.”[ii] Simon of Cyrene may not have wanted to be a part of Jesus’ story. We may not want to be a part of the work of saving one another, this community, the commonwealth, or even this country. And yet, here we are, a pandemic having stripped us of all notions of our self-sufficiency and self-actualization, being forced to look at each other in vulnerability and mutual dependence.
We may not choose this reality, this time, this country in all its sinfulness, but this is where God has placed us. But just like Simon of Cyrene, even in those times when we are forced into encounters with the holy One, our lives can be changed. Several scholars have argued that Simon of Cyrene, in this forced encounter, in being forced to carry a stranger’s cross, becomes a disciple of that same stranger. Pastor Patrick J. Willson argues, “Simon follows Jesus carrying the cross, thus becoming an icon of Christian discipleship. Luke’s vision is not that of an imitatio Christi; only Jesus is crucified. Simon follows the way Jesus has walked bearing the weight of the cross. Jesus going before him makes discipleship possible.”[iii]
That is our invitation through Simon of Cyrene. Simon’s story – his one moment with Jesus, his one verse in the entire canon of scripture – offers a powerful invitation to, even in this moment, take our cross of discipleship and follow Jesus. We do not have to go with an eager spirit. We may not even go willingly. But the promise of going is radical transformation: transformation from a people whose primary concern is for self to a people who know we will encounter Jesus when we finally realize that only when we look at ourselves as joined with fellow-Christians in love can we look to the world in hope. Jesus humbled himself, making himself vulnerable enough to walk to Calvary and die on a cross for us. Our invitation is to walk humbly behind and allow the weight of the cross to transform us into people of love and hope. Amen.
[i] Timothy Radcliffe, Stations of the Cross (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2014), 30.
[ii] Julian of Norwich, Stations of the Cross: A Devotion Using The Revelations of Divine Love of Julian of Norwich (Norwich: The Friends of Julian of Norwich, 1998), 13.
[iii] Patrick J. Willson, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Pt. 1, Additional Essays (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 4.