Last weekend, I revisited one of my favorite places: a camp in Michigan called Miniwanca. The oldest buildings date from about 1930 and in several of them there are beautiful murals which share stories connected to the camp’s vision for youth. I want to share one of those stories with you now. Below is a photo of the mural itself.
As the Great Chief of the tribe realized that his days on earth were coming to a close, he summoned the young braves of the tribe to come together before him, so that he could choose one to succeed him.
As he looked over all of the young men gathered in front of him, he studied each one individually, noting perhaps a more open expression in some faces, and a more closed expression in others. After studying each one carefully, he chose several of them as final candidates.
Summoning his tribe to council, he called out the names of the young braves whom he had selected for final judgment. As they stood before him, he arose in all his dignity and addressed them.
“One of you is to be chosen as my successor as chief of the tribe.”
The young men standing there faced with that challenge, waited for his next words. As they looked at him, he pointed way out across the prairie –it was a beautiful day—way out across the prairie—many miles to their sacred mountains in the distance.
And then he instructed them.
“You will start out from this council circle—alone. You will go out there as far as you can, remembering what I have just told you. When you have gone as far as you can and feel you must come back – when you feel that you can go no farther because of your return, you will pick up something that is there and bring it back – anything- but do not come back empty handed.”
“And after you come back my decision will be made.” And he dismissed the council circle and sat alone. He sat throughout that night and early the next morning one of the young braves came back, and the council was called together.
The boy stepped before him.
“O Great chief, I have brought back some sagebrush.”
The Chief looked at him and shook his head. This brave hadn’t even gotten to the mountain. He hadn’t even gotten across the prairie.
The council was dismissed again. The chief took his seat and waited for the next one to come—and the next, and the next. And then one came back who had gone a little way up the mountain, and he had brought some beautiful flowers he had found there.
The old Chief shook his head.
Some days later—many days later, in fact—the council was summoned again. Another brave had reached what we call the timberline, and he had brought back to the Chief some of the branches of oak leaves from the sturdiest of all the trees.
Again the Chief shook his head and dismissed his council, and it wasn’t called back for a long time. There was even talk in that long interval that perhaps something had happened to the only young brave that was still out there.
And then one day he was spied across the prairie, coming in –weary, tired and hardly able to walk. The council was called quickly, and as they assembled, he stumbled into the circle, empty-handed-he hadn’t brought a thing-and stood before his chief.
“Where I was” he said very simple, “there wasn’t anything for me to bring back. I couldn’t find anything.” And showed his hands.
“But, O Great Chief, where I was I saw a shining sea.”
And the chief stood up, remembering perhaps, for a brief moment what he had seen in his youth. “You,” he said. “You I name as the Chief of this tribe upon my death. You, from the top of the mountain, have seen the shining sea.” (“He Saw the Shining Sea,” as told by R.L. Waite, depicted in a mural by Lillian Thoele).
This story returned to my mind this week when I was reviewing another story – the story of the origins of Holy Cross Day, which we celebrate today. Holy Cross Day comes to us from the 4th c., when the mother of the emperor Constantine traveled to Jerusalem to search for the exact place where Jesus died. Once she located this “place of the cross,” she ordered that a basilica be built over it, to honor and protect it. As centuries passed and Christians continued arguing with one another and fighting over real estate in the Holy Land, different groups of Christians added their own chapels onto this building and staking out rights to worship there at different times. Today it is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (also called the Church of the Resurrection), where tens of thousands of visitors flock every year to see the place where the cross of Jesus was.
I’ve been there twice. I have to tell you: I find it a bit sad and a bit ironic. Pilgrims flock there from all over the world looking for Jesus – They want to experience Jesus. But Jesus didn’t stay on the cross. He is no more present at the site of his crucifixion than he is right here in this church or at Pine Street Inn in Boston or on the train tracks being walked by thousands of refugees today or in your back yard.
Even more importantly, to honor the cross is to follow the one who let himself be put there. Jesus was not about erecting shrines or covering up holiness to protect it. He was about going out, going farther than one thinks one can go, and giving away every shred of the holy power, peace, and healing available. To honor the cross is to “Let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself….and humbled himself, ” (Philippeans 2:5-7). This was a journey like no other — a journey of self-giving hard to fathom.
“Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus says. Follow me out beyond the easy places, where one can find some sagebrush or some wildflowers. Follow me in compassion and commitment to human dignity to the place where you have poured yourself out and are empty-handed but full of joy, empty-handed but fulfilled, empty-handed so that you can grasp hands with God. For some this journey might be a physical or geographical one. For others it might be a social journey through anti-racism work or advocacy. For others it might be an emotional journey of healing inner wounds so that one can embrace the truth of God’s love for them.
Our journey will be something like the warriors’ journey, but with one important difference. We will not be sent out alone. And we will never be alone. Jesus sends us out together (“two by two”) as the disciples modeled, so that we can draw strength from one another. We are called not to be chiefs but to be coworkers in the fields of justice and joy. And God will always be with us, both in this life and the next. “I am with you always, to the end of the age,” says the risen Christ. “And I will draw all people to myself,” says Jesus in today’s gospel.
This is so important to me. There are days when it’s really clear to me I cannot do it on my own. And there are times when I need you, my companions on the journey, to remind me that I can’t and to assure me that Christ is present.
In a minute we’ll be blessing the backpacks for all those whose journey this year takes them to schools and universities. These are places where one can sometimes feel alone. Or overwhelmed. Or judged. I’m going to give each child – and any adult who wants one – a cross to color and put in their backpacks. They can pull it out in those moments to remind themselves that they are blessed; they are on a holy journey; and they are not alone.
Today we give thanks for the cross, through which we know that we follow a God who knows suffering first-hand, a God who poured himself out for us, the one true God, who is the light.