Monday, September 27, 2010

Proper 21C. 26 September 2010.

I have decided to preach on the lesson from 1 Timothy 6 and I'd like to focus in on verses 6 through 11.

There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.

There are times when reading the Gospels, or the letters of Paul, or really, any part of the Bible that you come across very simple words that make sense, that are easy to understand, that seem freeing and even comforting in their directness, but which ultimately—if we were to adopt them—would dramatically change our lives.

"Take up your cross and follow me." Well, okay…simple words, but we know that "the cross" is not just standing up in church on Sunday, or even putting up with some complication in life. If our cross is to be like Christ's cross, then it will be both a symbol and a reality that being a Christian comes before everything else. Simple words…not so simple in their ultimate meaning.

In one place Jesus simply says, "Follow me." Two words. Direct. Uncomplicated in their grammar. Unmistakable in their meaning. I have said them to people needing directions. I am sure you have, too, but when Jesus says it to Philip in John's Gospel, is it a command? Or an invitation? And because we know the story, we know that these simple words are part of the inauguration of the Kingdom of God on earth.

When you and I heard the words "follow me" –maybe when we were children, maybe later—and something inside of us was not able to get away from them, how were we to know that it would change us so completely?

I read the words from First Timothy and nodded my head, "There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it… But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction."

They are very simple words, and I nodded my head in recognition of their truth. When you are content... When you realize that you had nothing to start with and will have nothing at the end, it puts a great deal of perspective on that part of life which is striving, grasping, trying to get ahead, trying to make it work.

"If we have food and clothing, we should be content," writes the author of Timothy, "but those who want to get more and more fall into all sorts of senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction." I nodded my head. Of course. It is as obvious as the nose on my face. When you let loose your greedy desires for more, always more, it is a recipe for all kinds of temptations to misbehavior. Because what is ever enough? Someone will always have more than you do. You will never own it all. There is no number so high that one cannot be added to it. Of course.

How many murder mysteries has Agatha Christie written about the greediness of a family member that leads them to kill the rich relative? How many newspapers have been printed with stories about the corruption of people in authority. Power and position were not enough. The campaign chest could always be larger. The office and staff could always be bigger. Timothy is right, greed can lead to "all sorts of senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction."

But as I pulled back from the text, I looked down again at those words, "If we have food and clothing, we will be content with these." And my head was no longer nodding in agreement. Food and clothing. That's it?

The psychology textbooks tell us that there are three basic needs. Timothy missed one. Shelter. But, you know, in the first and second centuries shelter could be as basic as a cave or a tent or a very modest house. Let's not quibble over this. Let's go ahead and add shelter to the list.

But even with that, If we have food, clothing, and shelter, we will be content with these. Really? I'm sorry, but I am not so sure I can agree. When you move into a new living space—a student into a dorm room, a family into a new home—the clothes are hung, food is bought and stored in the appropriate places, but it's not enough. It's just not.

The people who read this letter, I am sure, did not think so either. The most extreme ascetics may give up everything, even including food, clothing, and shelter, but you cannot expect humanity as a whole to adopt that manner of living. Even people with very little have items they treasure.

I will never forget, when I worked in a homeless shelter, taking people in and having to go through their bags. I remember there was a man who had a Crown Royal bag and inside he had various souvenirs from his life, including an artist's depiction of Jesus. There was nothing of any intrinsic value in that bag, but to him it was a bag of memories. "Man does not live by bread alone." Contentment with the barest needs seems absurd.

And what is this word "contentment," anyway? If someone said they were content, what would you assume? That they're happy? No. Content means you've given up. Content has a measure of surrender in it. We would rather hear the word "fulfilled," right?

"It's hard work, but it's very fulfilling." Yeah..! Now that's what we like to hear. But.. "It's hard work, but I'm content…" Doesn't that just bring things down? Fulfillment is going somewhere, it's got the possibility of more in it. Content just sits in a rocking chair, petting a cat.

The problem, really, with "Content" is that it breaks the cardinal rule of the American way. And that is ambition. Everyone should have ambition for something. If it's not money, then it's something else. Bigger this, better that. It's what built this country. We were told we couldn't, so we had to show the world we could. And that drive is behind our sense of optimism and progress—ambition.

From very early on, we are taught that the early bird gets the worm. We are taught that ambition is the virtue that will carve out a successful and fulfilling life. Never be satisfied, there is always more—more money, a better job, a bigger house, a better life. You can look better, feel better, do more, have more.

You and I should be so driven by ambition that nothing should ever be good enough, no matter how good it is. As soon as you rest on your laurels, someone else is out there getting ahead. And when they have the money, and you don't, then where will you be? And here comes the word "content" right alongside the two lonely words, "food and clothing." You've got to be kidding. If we don't have ambition… If we're content, than we're just saying, "This is as good as it gets." And from there it's not too far to get to complacency, and I don't care.

But that's not what the author of Timothy is saying. He is saying "Be content with things, but continue to pursue those behaviors that deepen our relationships with God and others. He writes, "Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness." Pursue those disciplines that cannot be measured, but which are priceless.

(Pause.) Some years ago I met a friend coming out of a bookstore with a bag of new things to read, and he said, "I'm buying these books, but I think I'm buying the time to read them." Isn't that the way it is? We chase after items, believing them to bring us the time to enjoy them. But we don't take time to be content. We're too busy thinking it could be better.

I have spent a lot of time with this text, and being an Anglican, I'm very cautious about either/or. I almost always think the truth is somewhere between extremes. It seems to me that in the healthy Christian life, there must be both contentment and ambition. Just as there must be work and play.

But you have to be able to value the present in order to have any happiness at all in life. Each day is built by these little fleeting moments of glory and sadness. Taken too quickly, or with our eyes always on the horizon, and we live in a kind of mindless unfocused desire for anything other than "right now." But when you can stop long enough to value the glory of the moment, the person you are speaking with "right now," or the knowledge that God has given you this very moment to live, it changes everything. And then you can actually do what Timothy's letter says and "pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness."

Brother Curtis Almquist of the SSJE led a clergy retreat some years ago, and he began by saying, "We have just received word this morning of some impossibly good news. In fact it is news that will change all our lives." And then after a very heavy pause, which, of course, heightened our anticipation, he said, "It seems that God has given us another day to live. Now go live today."

Every day is a mixture of good news and bad news, progress and failure. Ambition in little helpful amounts over the course of a day and a life is a very good thing, as long as it never obscures the pursuit of that which truly matters. (Pause.)

We ask children what they want to be when they grow up. We may not realize how awkward that question can feel to a child. It confronts them with an unknowable future. It asks for a little window into their interior life where we may be able to see their ambition.

Let me ask you: what do you want to be when you grow up? I don't mean that as an insult. We are adults here. What do you want to be?

My guess is that the true answer—for all of us, regardless of what vocation we wish to have— is actually much more basic: We want to be happy. We want to be fulfilled. We want to know that life is better for others because we are there. That we will be truly missed when we die. That our acts of love and kindness will be treasured and our failures will be forgotten. None of those desires has any relationship to money. How kind and gentle godly ambition is.

I still want to be a Christian. I want to be a much better Christian. A better husband, a much better father. I want to go to sleep at night believing that people love God more because of me. I'm pretty sure you want the same thing, because you're a Christian. You want people to love God more, because you believe.

It's a small ambition, but it's the ambition that holds contentment in its hand. It's the ambition that holds contentment in its hand.

-o0o-

If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.

The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Broken heart

Ever since learning about the Sisters of the Visitation's ministry of making Altar bread, I have requested that the parish I serve buy from them. I would rather see the church's money go to a monastery/convent than a business. And I've liked their bread because it's a little larger, a little more substantial, and costs pennies more than the "for profit" church supply companies.

For those of you who are not priests, or who do not serve on the Altar Guild, you may not know that the "celebrant's host" --larger, made for breaking--usually has a design of Christian significance on it. Sometimes it is the symbol "chi-rho," the first two Greek letters for Christ. Sometimes it's a cross. Sometimes it's the inscription from the cross in a Greek letters as an acronym. I had become accustomed to celebrating the Holy Eucharist with these designs.

A new shipment arrived at some point, and the bread (ostensibly) looked the same--same size, same everything, except that there are some new designs, and last Sunday, there was the sign of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Now, Roman Catholics (and high-church Episcopalians) will not bat an eye at that symbol. But the reason I did, is that I've never seen it on the host used for "The Breaking of the Bread." As a firm believer in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, I was doubly taken aback at seeing this symbol on the bread as I was setting the Altar on Sunday, because I would be breaking the bread, symbolically breaking the heart of Jesus, in just a few moments.

I brushed aside my emotions at doing this, and proceeded with customary reverence and devotion to offer the Eucharistic Prayer. And then came the time to break the bread.

And I broke the heart.

And my heart broke as well.

And... well... things are not the same as they once were.

And I needed that to happen more than I can tell you.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Proper 19C. 12 September 2010.

 

 

 

          I recently read a book about the culture of another country.  I am fascinated with books of this sort.  Much of my interest stems from a fascination with behavior in general, but I'm especially interested in the unique differences between cultures because it often helps me understand what makes some people tick.

 

          There are patterns of behavior that I would never find polite or amusing that in some cultures would be considered "the only way" one should behave.  You could spend a lifetime delving into the many subcultures of any society and find a dizzying array of unique patterns of dress, speech, and behavior.  And of course, knowing these differences, and being conversant in them, is what distinguishes the people who know and the people who do not.

 

          The church does this all the time.  I remember when I was a seminarian, I served a church that had just started printing a newsletter.  It was a small victory for the newcomers in the parish over the old guard, because the objection was that "those who need to know, know."   The message, of course, was that information about the  church should only be in the hands of long-standing, long-serving members.  The newcomers need to earn their stripes to know who's who and what's what.

 

 

          I remember attending a workshop on church growth, years ago, and the presenters were talking about "the secrets of the church."  Well, the Episcopal Church is actually—organizationally speaking—one of the least secretive churches in the world.  All our financial matters are public.  We hold no secret meetings or services.  But the workshop presenter wasn't talking about real secrets.  She was making the point that some of our ordinary, "churchy" language, can seem like a secret language to people who weren't raised in church. 

 

          We use words like hymnal, ambo, chalice, paten, pulpit, parish hall.  And then there are the orders of ordained ministry—Bishop, Priest, and Deacon—and what each one does is a little different.  A Deacon or an Elder in most other churches is a long-standing member who does certain things here and there.  In the Episcopal Church or in the Roman Catholic Church, a Deacon is ordained by the bishop after background checks, theological education in a seminary, ordination exams, chaplaincies, internships, and all kinds of hassle.  A newcomer might not know a priest from a vestry member—even though one of them works very, very hard for the church, and makes all kinds of sacrifices to keep things going, and the other one is ordained...(!)

 

          So the book I was reading was about England, and the many subtle ways that the old class structure is still very much a part of their culture.  You know from the little clues of dress, words, patterns of speech, accent, what car one drives, how long you visit friends, where you live…you name it…all of these behaviors fit into a calculus of society. 

 

          I read all of this with the kind of amused detachment you give to seeing animals in the zoo.  After all—I reasoned—in America we don't have any of these nuanced ways of communicating class and position.  And then I looked down at my clerical shirt and khaki pants, my college ring, my shoes.  And then I looked in the mirror at my 1950s style hair and wire-framed glasses, and I realized that all my decisions about what I wear, how I speak, how I behave…they all come from a particular frame of mind that was consciously or unconsciously instilled as how one dresses and talks and behaves.  Or perhaps, to put a slightly darker tinge on it, how I should behave, which by my obedience to it, indicates how I think others should behave.  You see?

 

          And I began to notice all of these unconscious patterns of speech and dress that I use—that we all use—to communicate what we believe is okay.  What says, "I am me," and what, by extension communicates our vision for what "a man should do and say," or "a woman should do and say."  Do you see what I mean?

 

          With our patterns of civility we avoid a lot of conflict around these differences.  Only a very close personal friend would be critical of something we are wearing—unless, in our particular culture, it is appropriate to be critical.

 

 

 

 

 

          But the darker side of this is that we often find ourselves meeting people who are so very different—not just a little different—but verrry different, to the point where we don't really think of them as living in the same world.  They are invisible to us, to some extent.  We "see" them, in the sense that our eyes are working, but our brain registers the difference between what we like, and what we don't like , and we give ourselves the freedom to ignore. 

 

          It's a very sly form of prejudice.  And what makes it—I think—so easy to do, and so easy to dismiss, is that we might not ever form a conscious opinion of "that group of people."  We would never talk about it.  We would never mistreat the people in these categories.  But because of their overt differences, we simply don't choose to go over and talk with them.

 

          Now, though it is unpleasant to own up to this, perhaps it can shed some light on the way the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling against Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners.  The tax collectors were pawns of the Roman occupation, and routinely extracted more than was asked.  They kept the poor, poor.  Pharisees looked down on the tax collectors because they were complicit in Rome's corruption, and because they were not part of the religious establishment. 

 

          "Sinners" is a pretty broad category.  We are left to imagine people who indulged in all sorts of behaviors.  Again, Pharisees being the standard-bearers for the Jewish faith, they did not approve of the ways people were actively straying from the Torah. 

 

          So I think it's safe to assume that—for the Pharisees and scribes—the tax collectors and sinners were mostly invisible.  I doubt that they greeted each other in the street.  I doubt that they considered each other possible friends.  I cannot confirm that with any sort of historical research, except for the disdain we hear in this lesson.

 

          When Jesus willingly consorts with the tax collectors and sinners, he steps beyond the commonly held prejudices of the good, solid, religious people.  He does not see people as part of a class system; and he does not place himself inside that system.  Instead, Jesus sees people—people who are created in the image of God.  Jesus sees value in all people—and potential in all people.

 

          It is the value of the tax collectors and sinners—the potential they have to be followers—that makes him want to sit down and eat with them. 

Eating and drinking with people then—and still to this day—implies a level of unity.  You see it in the school lunch room, you see it in the office.  The cool kids have their table, the football players have their table, the people like me who sang in choirs and did theatre—we sort of huddled together in an alcove.  When you eat together you form a kind of bond, and that bond implies acceptance of behavior. 

 

          But Jesus does not condone their sins by eating and drinking with them.  He is there because he sees people who are of intrinsic value.  People who happen to be lost—like a lost coin or a lost sheep. 

          Coins and sheep do not know that they are lost.  When they are found by their owners it is the owner who rejoices.  So Jesus rejoices in "finding" these people who are so often "lost" to good, solid religious people…like us.

 

           Jesus concludes his parable of the coin and the lost sheep by saying that there is joy in heaven when a sinner repents.  We are left with the understanding that Jesus is bringing lost sheep home by eating and drinking with them.  (Pause.)

 

          I find this lesson very comforting on the one hand, and somewhat frustrating on the other.  I wonder if you feel the same way.  It is comforting to know that God cares about the lost—especially if you yourself feel lost.  It is nice to know that God would leave the flock for one lost sheep. 

 

          But the frustration is that I'm not sure I have been so "found" that I can seek the lost.  In other words, Jesus seeks the lost as someone who is so very righteous, and so quintessentially "found" that it seems like this sort of ministry is uniquely God's—like answering prayer!  I don't think God is ever going to share that responsibility—at least I hope not! 

 

          I mean, it is one thing to say, "I believe in Jesus as the Son of God; I am a Christian; I feel myself to be found and loved by God."  But it is quite another thing to say, "And now I am so found that I can find others."  I'm not so sure.   But then again, maybe the problem is that I am equating the finding of others with saving them, which is uniquely the ministry of God.   I don't know.  This is how the parable teases my mind. 

 

          I do know that we continue to assume that we can evaluate people on the basis of their dress and speech, and that we often miss the true value of others because we get hung up on what they look like. 

 

          There is a woman who really learned this lesson.  Mary Magdalene.  She went out walking a couple days after Jesus had been crucified.  John's gospel does not describe her mental state, but we know that she was distraught.  She had probably watched Jesus be whipped and tortured, and finally hung by his hands and feet.  She had probably watched him as the spear pierced his side and the water and blood flowed out—and saw Joseph of Arimathea anoint the body with myrrh and aloes.  One hundred pounds of it. 

 

          Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been moved.  At first some angels, all in white, asked her, "Why are you weeping?"  And then, turning around, someone else asked her, "Why are you weeping?"  The man was not all in white.  He must have looked like any ordinary fellow.  We know now that it was Jesus, risen from the grave.  Risen from the nails and the thorns and the whipping.  The most extraordinary man in the entire universe was standing right there in front of her.  And do you know what she said?

 

          She said, "You won't believe this, but at first, I thought he was the gardener."

 

-o0o-

             If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.

 

The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

 

Saturday, September 11, 2010

I don't know if disturbed is the right word

for it, because there has never been a time in history when the resurrection of Jesus has not met with disbelief.  Even the disciples doubted.  But lately, I have been...again, what is the word?  Disturbed?  Surprised?  Struck?  I'm just not sure I have a good word that describes my reaction to the many situations very recently where I have heard of clergy and laity (not in my parish--at least, not out loud!) expressing disbelief that Jesus was raised from the dead.  Again, it's not surprising to hear of this disbelief.  What has been (insert appropriate word...perhaps "interesting") is the number of times this has surfaced lately.  I have encountered it in conversations with and about clergy.  I have seen it mentioned on TV.  It's like a bad penny, or like the leitmotif that plays when the villain appears.
 
I want to respond.  Not in a rude, offensive, or sanctimonious rant, because such actions are not worthy of the Gospel.  But I would like to say, very simply, that I believe that Jesus was raised from the dead.  I really do.  I believe that God will raise us all.  I believe that God loves us very very much...too much to let someone as beautiful as you and me die forever.
 
 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Note to RCL Preachers regarding Luke 16:1-13

I do not plan to write a manuscript sermon for September 19th, Proper 21, because, in my context, we will be having a parish picnic, and the service will not lend itself to the formality of a pulpit.  I do plan on using the Gospel lesson, which is the notoriously difficult "dishonest manager." 
 
I have lived with this text for about a week and a half.  We drove to church and home together.  I took it with me on a hospital visit.  It sat beside me while I read other stories to my children.  It is a hard text to decipher, and probably impossible to fully exegete for the many reasons given in commentaries. 
 
The most obvious problem is that Jesus seems to be commending dishonesty.  Christians have come to a place of trust with Jesus, where without even thinking about it, we believe Jesus will never steer us in a direction that even seems dishonest or in any way evil.  This is the aspect of the parable that truly "teases the mind" as C.H. Dodd has said, and provides an unfortunate distraction from the main point. 
 
Here is an explanation that gives me some peace.   If you have ever owed money to someone, you know that whenever you see them, you think of that debt.  The debtors probably thought of their debts whenever they saw the manager.  The manager is told that he has been fired, so, in order to get the debtors to re-associate him as a friend, the manager forgives part of the debt. 
 
Now, the temptation is to take the "rabbit trail" of justifying this action.  Most parishioners (and preachers) will get hung up on the legalities, and want to explain this action in a way that makes the parable sound like it wasn't really dishonest.  I think this is a distraction to the point of the parable.  This is not about how the debt is settled.  This is about getting the debts out of the way, and in a manner that leaves the debtors feeling good about the transaction.  If you really wanted to square things up, you could suppose that the manager kicked in the remainder of the debt out of his own pocket.
 
The manager is commended by the master because the manager is shrewd.  The manager realizes that his relationship  with others has been complicated by money, and since he can control that for a little while longer, he reduces the debt, wins friends, gets money out from between him and them, and therefore redeems himself in his community.  He will no longer be associated with the master's business.  The manager is free.  The manager will no longer be equated with the master, which will be especially helpful if the master has been a scoundrel.
 
Jesus says, "You cannot serve both God and mammon."  I think that is short-hand for, "You can't serve God effectively if people look at you and see dollar signs."  You can't be effective in serving others if people come to you and are really thinking--in the back of their minds--"I owe him $50.00." 
 
But an even larger message is contained in this parable, which is equally kerygmatic.  Money is simply not as important as relationships.  Dollar bills do not attend baptisms, weddings, or funerals.  All cultures need money.  Trade is a necessary part of society.  The perennial question is: is money our servant, or our master? I think Jesus is saying that money must always be a servant and God (and the service of others) must always be the master.
 
Happy Preaching!  (And by the way, Sharon...I did give you the five bucks for that coffee mug, right? )
 

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Proper 18C. 5 September 2010.

 

 

          I might be getting myself into trouble this morning.  You know me well enough to know that I do my best to preach the Good News; but today's Gospel lesson does not read like good news. 

 

          Luke writes that "large crowds were traveling with Jesus."  Large crowds.  Do you ever think about that?  It's one of the reasons Jesus was so feared by the religious establishment.  People didn't just listen to Jesus, they literally…literally followed him.  They listened to every sermon.

 

          Sometimes I wonder, you know, Matthew's and Luke's gospels give us a flavor of Jesus' sermons.  In Matthew, it's the Sermon on the Mount, in Luke it's the Sermon on the Plain, but essentially what we have are the recollections of the early church.  We have the essence.  I wonder what the sermons were really like.  And I also wonder if the sermon he preached was essentially the same.  Perhaps Matthew and Luke have given us the outline, and Jesus gave the same sermon everywhere.  We don't know.  I don't know.

 

          But can you imagine all these people?  Large crowds.  And of course, people are drawn to the crowd.  If all these people like it, then there must be something to it.  We'll give it a try.

 

          What was it like for Jesus to be followed like that?  Everyone hoping to hear something new, something wonderful.  Every time he turns around, people.  People, people, people.  In Matthew's gospel (9:36) he writes of Jesus having compassion on the people because they were "harassed and helpless," like sheep needing a shepherd.  Have you ever seen people in that kind of state?

 

          I see it all the time.  Not you, of course.  But just out and about, I see it in people's eyes.  Sheep needing a shepherd.  People who look like the pilot light is on, but there's no way to turn the knobs.  Is it depression?  Maybe, a little bit, but there could be another reason.

 

          It could be that they have removed all of the structures—in the name of freedom and liberty—and replaced them with a kind of hazy, I-don't-really-know-what-I-believe kind of life.  A life without discipline—without rules that you set for yourself about what you will and will not accept from your own self.  Discipline.

 

          A child cannot impose discipline on himself.  A parent must do it for them, until such a time when the child has learned "this is okay, this is not okay."  And it is the natural progression from those early years, that a child matures and begins to set rules for himself.  It is a hallmark of maturity that we continue to set rules and impose gentle, but real punishments on ourselves. 

 

 

 

 

          You and I know this.  But there are many, many people—beloved by God, beloved by us—who believe that adulthood means total freedom from self-imposed rules.  And what happens is that that lack of self-discipline hinders them from their relationships with everyone else.  And the life they think they deserve, they do not really deserve.  There is no happiness. 

 

          Jesus offered structure.  He did not impose it; but he offered it.  He said, "We do not come to be served, we come to serve.  If you wish to be first, you must be willing to be last.  When someone who has no control over himself slaps you on the cheek, show that man that you have control, and offer him the other cheek.  Show him what it looks like when you behave based on your own internal sense of what is okay and what is not."

 

          And so these large crowds were drawn to someone who had that sense of structure and who taught it.  Of course they followed because he healed, and touched, and had compassion, but still, all of those aspects of Jesus' ministry stemmed from his own personal commitment to embrace his role as the Son of God.  Everything that Jesus was and did flowed from his willingness to order his life around what God wanted him to do.

 

          So as these crowds got bigger and bigger, Jesus finally turned and said to them, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple."

 

          Did he really say we should "hate" our families?  Well, not really.  This is an expression, just like when we say we're "tickled to death," or "he died laughing."  It's an exaggeration intended to make the point.  Jesus does not want us to hate our families, but to put our allegiance to God even before family.  And he is saying, if you want to follow me, if you want to be my disciple, that means putting this before them.  Why?  Because that's what he has done.  If you want to follow him, follow him.

 

          And he continues…

 

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

 

          I noticed something when I was thinking about this text as a unit. Jesus speaks of the cost of being a disciple, being a follower, being a part of the Kingdom of God, is very very high—you must put everything else second to it—so then the cost is higher than our ownership of everything else!  Isn't that something?!

          And the irony is that paying the cost does not really equal purchasing and owning anything.  You cannot own the kingdom of God.  So Jesus asks the crowd: Can you give up everything to be a follower, and go to the Cross, and still never gain the ultimate ownership of anything?

 

          Why would anyone do this?  Why would Jesus do it?  What would make him want to give his life for the life of the world?  Well, now, the answer to that question is simple.  He wanted to do it because he wanted to be obedient to his Father—to Our Father.  To God.

 

           So again, following means following.  You and I read this text and to us it can come across very negatively.  Far from the easy, breezy teachings like "consider the lilies of the field, they neither toil nor spin, but I tell you, Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as they are."  Or any of the cozy stuff of John's gospel, "My sheep hear my voice, I know them, they follow me."  No. 

 

          But it seems that when we look past the negative "sound" of this lesson we get to look straight into the very core of who Jesus is.  If you want to follow him, be like him, be a disciple…well, this is what he as done, so will you do it, too?  Will you put obedience to God in front of your family and every possession?   You don't have to stop loving them…but if you want to be like Jesus, you have to be willing to make them secondary.  You don't have to give away everything you own, but if you want to be like Jesus…well, he did leave everything behind, so if you really want to follow him…

 

          See this is a text that really gets you in the mind of Christ.  That he was willing to make literally everything secondary to his relationship to God.  He was willing to discipline himself, and live according to his rules.  He imposed those rules on himself and taught others: this is how you do it.  This is freedom.  This is really living. 

 

          I was reading an article about this text, and one of the commentators suggested that Jesus was thinning out the crowds.  You know, it's a line in the sand.  You are either with us or against us.  I mean, after all, these words were not addressed to the disciples.  Luke writes that Jesus is speaking to the large crowds that followed him.  I suppose that might be the case.  Jesus sees how big the crowds are getting, and he knows that some of them are along because…well, you know…  Guy likes girl, girl follows Jesus, guy follows Jesus, too.  Or maybe a husband hears Jesus and wants to follow, so here comes his wife…  I mean, people are people. 

 

          And into that mix of husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, a rag-tag band of related people, Jesus says, "Some of you may be following because traveling around like this is kind of fun.  You like me; you like what I'm saying...but here's the deal.  The road does not end in money and power, it ends on the Cross.  It ends with everything else being secondary.  Are you coming with me?"

 

          G.K. Chesterton said, "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried."

 

          So where does that leave us?

 

          See this is the point in the sermon when I'm supposed to take this very challenging text and make it say something cozy and reassuring so we can drink our coffee and smile and go home.  But I can't do that.  Not really.  Which is why I said that I might get myself into trouble today.

 

          There is nothing I can do to disperse the power of what Jesus has said, because to do so would be to say that you can do what Jesus did without any of the discipline.  If I try to say that then the Cross means nothing, the teachings mean nothing, obedience to God means nothing. 

 

          The only thing I can do is to tell you what the text says.  If you want to follow him, and be like him, and do what he does… Well…it's going to cost you.  It's going to cost you.  But it will be worth it.

 

 

-o0o-

 

           

 

If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.

 

The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.