16 September 2018

‘If any want to become my
followers, let them … take
up their cross and follow me’

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’ (Mark 8: 34) … the cross behind the church at the beach in Laytown, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 16 September 2018,

The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XVI).

9.30 a.m., Morning Prayer, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick.

Readings: Proverbs 1: 20-33; Psalm 19 or the Canticle The Song of Wisdom (Wisdom 7: 26 to 8: 1); James 3: 1-12; Mark 8: 27-38.

‘Wisdom cried out in the street … at the entrance of the city gates she spoke’ (Proverbs 1: 20-21) … a Holocaust memorial at the gate of the old Jewish cemetery in Berlin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

There is an interesting theme about Wisdom running through our readings this morning. The qualities of Wisdom as an image of God are described in the first reading (Proverbs 1: 20-33).

The Psalm (Psalm 19) is familiar to many of us because its closing words were often used by preachers as a prayer as they began their sermons: ‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer’ (Psalm 19: 14).

This Psalm describes how Wisdom can be searched out and found. In the Psalm, the heavens and the firmament are depicted as telling us of God’s glory and work. God’s glory is told day and night to all, without needing to use words.

The Canticle, ‘The Song of Wisdom’ (Wisdom 7: 26 to 8: 1), describes the characteristics of Wisdom or Sophia.

Wisdom, Sophia, gives life to each generation, and is seen in the souls of the godly.

In our Epistle reading (James 3: 1-12), Saint James warns us against unwise use of our tongues.

So, in our Gospel reading (Mark 8: 27-38), do the disciples show wisdom, in their actions and in what they say?:

In this reading, Christ travels with the disciples north from the Sea of Galilee to the villages around Caesarea Philippi, a town known for its shrines to the god Pan.

On their way to Caesarea Philippi, they tell him that some people think Christ is great prophet from the past, like Elijah. Others think is a modern-day prophet, like Saint John the Baptist. They are good comparisons, but they don’t paint the full picture, they don’t tell the full story.

Saint Peter tells Christ that he believes he is the Messiah (Mark 8: 29-30). But even then, Peter seems not to get it fully right either.

Christ then tells his disciples that it is not all going to be a bed of roses, indeed it is going to be more like a crown of thorns. He tells them that on the journey he is going to suffer, be derided, and face his own execution.

Saint Peter is upset. This is not what he expects. This is not what anyone of the day expects of the Messiah. He takes Jesus aside, and he rebukes him.

But he has got it wrong. Christ in turn rebukes Peter and reminds those present that if they want to be his followers they must take up their cross and follow him.

If people asked me two key questions today – ‘Who is Christ?’ and ‘What does it mean to follow Christ?’ – I wonder what answers I would give them. Would my answers be shaped by the Wisdom spoken of in our earlier readings.

You could compare Christ to great prophets of the past and the present. You could invite people in to Church with you some Sunday morning, and to seek to meet Christ in Word and Sacrament.

Or you could ask people to see Christ in the way take up our cross and following him (Mark 8: 34).

I was on a walking tour of Jewish Berlin on Friday morning and afternoon. As we passed through the streets and shops, saw the houses they had hidden in, the factories they had worked in, the synagogues where they had prayed and worshipped, I wondered whether they would have seen Christ in their Christian neighbours, their Christian in-laws, the pastors and congregations in the local churches and congregations.

We had just visited the first Jewish cemetery in Berlin, had moved along the street and we were standing outside the Sophienkirche, the Church of Saint Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom, when our Jewish guide told us the story of a German priest who is now counted among the ‘Righteous of the Nations’ – people recognised for having risked or lost their lives to save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust.

Father Bernhard Lichtenberg (1875-1943) was born into a German family in what is now Poland (Ohlau, now Oława, near Breslau, now Wrocław), the second of five children. He studied theology in Innsbruck and Breslau, was ordained in 1899, and began serving as a priest in Berlin in 1900, as the pastor of Charlottenburg.

He was decorated for his distinguished service as an army chaplain during World War I, and he also worked at the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Berlin.

In 1931, the Bishop of Berlin made him a canon of the cathedral of Saint Hedwig. When he encouraged Catholics to go to see the anti-war film All Quiet on the Western Front, he was targeted in a vicious attack by Joseph Goebbels and his Nazi propaganda paper Der Angriff.

On 31 March 1933, Father Bernhard arranged for the Jewish banker Oskar Wassermann to meet Cardinal Bertram in a vain attempt to convince him to intervene against the planned boycott of Jewish businesses.

The Gestapo raided his house in 1933, for the first but not for the last time. He was not to be silenced. He went personally to Hermann Göring in 1935 to protest against the cruelties of the concentration camps.

Father Bernhard became provost of the cathedral in 1938, and was put in charge of the Bishop of Berlin’s Relief Office, helping Catholics of Jewish descent to flee the Third Reich.

On Kristallnacht, synagogues were attacked and Jewish buildings and houses had their windows smashed and set on fire on the night of 9 November 1938, 80 years ago. It was the first organised Nazi pogrom in Germany.

The German churches kept silent in the face of these vicious attacks, but he raised his voice publicly and fearlessly against Nazi brutality. Father Bernhard, preaching in the Church of Saint Hedwig, warned: ‘We know what happened yesterday, we do not know what lies in store for us tomorrow. But we have experienced what has happened today. The burning synagogue outside is also a house of God!’

He continued to pray publicly each day at Vespers for the persecuted Jews. Bishop Konrad von Preysing later entrusted him with the task of helping the Jewish community of Berlin.

As we heard this story, we were standing outside Saint Hedwig Hospital, where he had supported patients who passed on food to Jews, and staff who passed on the identities of dead patients to Jews trying to escape.

He protested in person to Nazi officials against the arrest and killing of the sick and the mentally ill, as well as the persecution of the Jews. At first, the Nazis dismissed this priest as a nuisance. Father Bernhard was warned that he was in danger of being arrested for his activities, but he continued fearlessly.

He condemned the concentration camps like Dachau, and even organised demonstrations against them outside some camps.

Two women students who heard him pray publicly for Jews and the victims of concentration camps denounced him to the police. The Gestapo raided his home again on 23 October 1941 and found a sermon he had prepared for the next Sunday. It was a response to a Nazi leaflet circulated by Goebbels warning Germans not to help Jews, not even with a friendly greeting. In his sermon, he had written, ‘Let us not be misled by this un-Christian way of thinking but follow the strict command of Jesus Christ: “You shall love you neighbour as you love yourself”.’

Father Bernhard was arrested that day and sent to prison. The Gestapo offered to set him free if he stopped preaching for the rest of the war. Instead, he asked to accompany the deported Jews and Jewish Christians to Poland so he could serve them in pastoral ministry.

With these unyielding principles, the Nazis ordered his internment in Dachau. While he was in transit, he collapsed and died on 5 November 1943. He was beatified in 1996, a public statement that his life was a model of Christian discipleship, of taking up the Cross and following Christ. Yad Vashem listed him among the Righteous of the Nations in 2004.

There is no shame in being Christ-like (Mark 8: 38). And so, we too must be willing to see any insult or taunt, any expression of prejudice or rejection, any racism or any discrimination based on ethnicity or language, gender or sexuality, colour or looks, class or age, is prejudice against Christ, is prejudice against the Body of Christ, is prejudice against all of us, is prejudice against you and me.

If we have no need to be ashamed of who Christ is for us, then neither must we be afraid of speaking up for those he says he has come to bring good news to.

If we take up the Cross and follow him, we may actually find that the burden is not all that heavy. Indeed, we may find we have uncovered a new wisdom and a fresh way of speaking and new expressions of wisdom.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘Wisdom is a reflection of eternal light’ (Wisdom 7: 26) … the reflections of evening lights at the harbour in Skerries, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 8: 27-38 (NRSV)

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ 28 And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ 29 He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

34 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. 35 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. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

‘Look at ships … though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them’ (James 3: 4) … a sail ship at the quays in Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Green

The Collect:

O Lord,
Hear the prayers of your people who call upon you;
and grant that they may both perceive and know
what things they ought to do,
and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil them;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.


59, New every morning (CD 4);

324, God whose almighty word (CD 19);

666, Be still my soul (CD 39).

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Sophienkirche, the Church of Saint Sophia or Holy Wisdom in Berlin … here I heard the story of Father Bernhard Lichtenberg (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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