Monday, September 26, 2011

What Does it Mean to have Simon as our Patron?

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the Patronal Feast of St. Simon Cyrene:  Mark 15:16-20

          It occurred to me a couple weeks ago that I have never preached a sermon that centered around our patron, St. Simon of Cyrene.  So, I said, I will give it a try.  I wonder, I asked myself, what it means to have Simon as one of our patrons.

          It is harder than it seems like it should be.

          The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke each mention Simon of Cyrene as the man compelled by the Roman soldiers to carry Jesus’ cross, presumably because he was too weak to do it himself.  Who was this Simon?

          I have to admit that we don’t really know.  We’re only given four details about him:
  •   He was from Cyrene, the capital of the Roman province of Cyrenaica, part of modern-day Libya.
  • He was “coming in from the country.”
  • He was compelled to carry Jesus’ cross. It was not voluntary.
  • Mark tells us that he had two sons, Rufus and Alexander.

           Given those things we can make a few conjectures.
  •  In terms of the place from which Simon came, we know that in Cyrene there was a very large Jewish community. It was an old city originally founded by the Greeks some six centuries before the time of Jesus.  The Jewish community had been present for at least three of those centuries.
  • Telling us that Simon had come in from the country may mean that he was, in fact, Jewish and was on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover.  To make such a journey he would have had to have been a man of some wealth.
  • He was clearly not a follower of Jesus. He may have been aware of who Jesus was, but quite possibly he did not, if in fact he was living in Cyrene and had just arrived for the feast.
  • That Mark mentions his sons probably means that they were known to the community for which Mark was writing, which may have been Christians living in Rome.  When Paul wrote to the Romans, he also mentions a “Rufus” living in Rome with his mother.

           This mentioning of Simon’s sons may also mean that Simon went on to be a follower of Jesus after his encounter with him, and brought his sons up as Christians.  It should be said that there was a Gnostic sect in the early second century called the Basilidians who taught that Simon had actually taken Jesus’ place on the cross.  That may be why he disappears from John’s Gospel.  Why mention a minor character when he has started to cause you trouble.

          So what can we get out of these details and these assumptions?  I think this, at least for starters.  At this point in Jesus’ story, he has been abandoned by his friends, at least those he called disciples.  No one is coming to his rescue.  No one has dared follow him on this road.  No one has taken up their cross, as Jesus said they would have to do.

          Simon, I assume, knows little or nothing about Jesus.  In the worst scenario, maybe he has come to gawk at this man who has been tortured and is being led to execution. In the best scenario, maybe he was literally walking into town and happened upon this spectacle.

          He does not, as the text makes clear, volunteer to help Jesus. He is grabbed by the soldiers and forced to do it.  It’s safe to say he was terrified and horrified.

          I think it is important that in his hour of need, Jesus is helped by a complete stranger who had no choice in the matter.  Simon was not a hero.  He was just a regular guy who got caught up in a mess, but in doing so, served the Ruler of the Universe.  It should make us who call ourselves followers of Jesus, to be humble about our relationship with him.

          Jesus, like the God he called “Father,” cared for the stranger and the oppressed, as Simon was, at least in this incident.  He does not need our heroics to help him with his mission of reconciling the world to God.  He just needs us to show up and work with the circumstances of our lives, even if they are circumstances either beyond our control or that are actually evil in their intent.

          So Simon of Cyrene being one of the two patrons of this parish should be a sign to the world that the stranger is welcome as a fellow servant of the living God.  God not only cares for the stranger, God has a certain priority for the stranger, and calls us to do so as well.

          Some of you will have heard the story of St. Lawrence.  Lawrence was a deacon in Rome in the 3rd century, just a hundred and fifty or so years after Simon’s son Rufus would have lived there.  Lawrence was one of the “seven deacons of Rome” who administered the church for the Pope.

          The Emperor Valerian renewed persecution of Christians around the year 258.  The Pope himself, whose name was Sixtus II, was killed, along with six of his seven deacons.  Lawrence was left alive but was called in to the civil authorities, who demanded that he hand over the riches of the church.  Lawrence asked for three days to make this happen.

          On the third day Lawrence met the authorities with a delegation of somewhat shabby looking companions.  The city prefect asked for the church’s treasure, and Lawrence asked his companions to step forward.  They were clearly people who were poor and suffering.  Lawrence said, “These are the treasures of the church and because of them the church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor.”

          Lawrence was taken to his death. We remember him every year on August 10th.

          Imagine that we have a stranger in our midst, a true stranger who is not only unknown to us, but also, in some way, strange, which usually means we would be leery of him or her, if not frightened.

          This stranger approaches you and asks to speak to the man wearing all the colorful robes. You explain who that person is, but then you ask, “Why do you wish to speak to him?”

          The stranger thinks a bit and then says, “Why, because he is obviously the most important person in the room.”  You gently say, “Oh no, he is not the most important person in the room at all.  The most important person in the room right now is you.”

          That is what I think it means to have Simon of Cyrene as our patron.  We do not exist primarily for ourselves. We exist for those who are not yet part of us.  We exist for the stranger and the strange.

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