Sermon – July 24, 2016

 

Tenth Sunday After Pentecost (July 24, 2016)
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
John Kiess
Readings: Gen. 18:20-32; Psalm 138; Col. 2:6-15, (16-19), Luke 11:1-3

“Lord, teach us to pray.”  It is a little surprising to hear the disciples making such a request at this stage of Luke’s Gospel.  We have made it to the eleventh chapter, and the disciples have been walking with Jesus for some time now.  They have seen him heal (e.g., 5:12-26; 6:6-11;); cast out demons (8:26-56); calm storms (8:22), and teach (6:17-49).  They have gone out and done many of these things themselves (9:6; 10:1-12).  They have also seen Jesus himself pray several times (5:16; 9:28).  They are approaching a certain spiritual maturity, or at least we’d like to think so.  Yet here they are confessing that they don’t know how to pray.

Is it so different with us?  How many of us have been in situations—heads bowed, eyes closed, hands clasped, ready to utter those first words—only to find we don’t really know what to say?  It may be a close friend of ours who has been diagnosed with a life threatening disease, or a relationship that is fraying at the edges; it could be a new job opportunity or a move to a new neighborhood.  Do we pray for healing or acceptance?  Does God want us to stay or go?  Rarely is our prayer life characterized by clarity and eloquence; more often, it is a messy, stammering, disappointing stumbling in the dark.  Prayer is a struggle because we rarely know what exactly we should be asking for; we don’t know if it is time to fight or give in; what we need versus what we want; to say nothing of the difficult, often tortuous task of trying to discern the difference between our will and God’s.  We can make ourselves miserable thinking we are doing God’s will, lacerating ourselves in the name of obedience, when what we are really doing is using the name of God to enable or exacerbate our worst pathologies.  It is hard enough figuring out the direction of our own wandering wills; throw in God’s will and prayer can feel like a concentrated experiment in schizophrenia, one characterized more by anxiety, confusion, and handwringing than peace or tranquility.

So when the disciples ask Jesus how to pray, they are voicing something on behalf of all of us.  And we can take the question as a sign of spiritual maturity just to the extent that it presupposes that prayer is no longer a given, no longer something we simply take for granted, but one more area that has been rendered uncertain and unfamiliar by our transformative encounter with Jesus.  In embarking upon a path that is no longer solely determined by ourselves, we find that we are subject to new desires and possibilities, and these inevitably come into tension with old habits and assumptions.  Prayer, it seems, is one of those activities, maybe the activity, that most intimately acquaints us with our inner complexity, our psychological depth, the fact that at bottom we are not one will, but many—or to put it in Whitman’s terms, the fact that we contradict ourselves, that we contain multitudes.  Only when we feel that sense of inner complexity, of multiple instincts colliding, of hopes and fears conjoined, can we feel the need to find some way through it all, and learn to ask, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Jesus famously replies with the Lord’s Prayer (11:2-4).  The version that Luke provides is a little different from the one with which we are familiar.  Matthew’s version is longer, and includes the lines “Our father who art in heaven” (Matt. 7:9) and “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (7:10).  Think of Luke’s as the abridged version.  Some scholars think it might be an earlier, more arcane form of the prayer, one possibly used in early Christian services; others think it may have been intended as an outline of themes that we should cover in prayer, not necessarily a prayer to be recited verbatim.[1]  I’m not sure we need to know exactly which answer is right to consider how it teaches us to pray.  Either way, the Lord’s Prayer serves an elegant “how-to manual” for us no less than the first disciples.

The first line, “Father, hallowed be your name” (11:2), does away with all of the pious formalities.  Jesus would have used the Aramaic word Abba for father, connoting the intimacy of the relationship between a parent and child.  This suggests that God is not some distant Prime Mover in the sky, but a personal God who wants to be in relationship with us.  Names are powerful things.  They are not just descriptive; they are performative. They enable us to call upon and make demands of each other.  God gives His name to Moses so that Israel might be His people, and that Yahweh might be their God.  God has a name so that Abraham might intercede on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, that he might persuade God to reconsider, as we see him doing in this morning’s Old Testament lesson.  God gives His name to us so that we might enter in dialogue with Him, that we might remind God of his promises, that He might call us back to Himself, and that we might experience more of the joy and communion for which we were created.  Any name that allows this is blessed, and surely anyone who invokes it will be blessed also.

If the first line clarifies whom we address when we pray, the second line, “Your kingdom come” (11:2), clarifies the context.  Since Jesus’ first appearance in the synagogue, where he unrolls the scroll of Isaiah and declares the year of the Lord’s favor (4:18-19), Luke has been continually reminding us that the long-awaited kingdom of God has dawned.  The blind now see; the mute speak; the lame walk; the oppressed go free; men and women walk together as members of the same movement.  A new age has arrived.  The kingdom has come.  And with every advance of the disciples into new towns and cities, the kingdom spreads.  Accordingly, the disciples are enjoined to see where else it could spread, who else could experience its liberation, where else captives are waiting to be released.  So after invoking and blessing the name of God, the next word off their lips is, “Thy kingdom come.”  Let more healing come, more liberation come, more reconciliation come, more of a palpable experience of what we were born to experience come.  All of our deepest desires, the fulfillment of our greatest hopes, are encompassed in this single line.  It helps us see both where we are and where we are going, and thus invites us to consider that whatever we might be going through—whether sickness or health, brokenness or fullness—we can expect to experience more of the kingdom through it.

If the second line tells us where we are and where we are going, the third line, “Give us each day our daily bread” (11:3) invites us to look back and see where we have come from.  It reveals that the one thing that most of us are prone to take for granted, the thing that we feel most responsible for providing ourselves—our daily sustenance—is in fact a gift from God.  If we confess that we are dependent upon God for this, then we confess that we are dependent upon God for it all: our life, our existence, the very air we breathe.  In a word, we affirm that we are creatures, that our existence has an origin outside ourselves, that the deepest layers within us come from without us.  Augustine liked to say that God was “more intimately present to me than my innermost self,” suggesting that if you peel back all the layers of the self, you’ll find that God runs deeper still.[2]  If you’ve ever felt yourself to be an enigma, it is because your origin and being is shot through with mystery; you do not contain yourself; you are more than yourself.  And you become more deeply aware of that mystery in prayer.

If the third line reminds us of the origins that make our present possible, the fourth line, “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us” (11:4) allows us to wrestle with all of the layers that have accumulated to shape the self we now inhabit.  We confess that we have sinned, that all of the choices that we have made have congealed and hardened into a will and disposition that moves in the opposite direction of the kingdom.  Prayer is where we interrupt our routines long enough to become aware of what would otherwise pass us by without notice; in prayer, sin stops becoming routine and becomes confession.  Claiming the promise of the coming kingdom, we call upon the hallowed name of God to be forgiven, so that our future not be determined by our past, that we might claim the freedom that has been promised to us.  What is shocking about Jesus’ prayer is that he makes such release contingent upon our willingness to extend it to others.  And this is no mere spiritual forgiveness.  Both Luke and Matthew use the explicit economic language of debt; we are to forgive not just slights and hard feelings, but perform the social and economic release that is constitutive of kingdom life.  Here the performative power of prayer, the fact that it enacts what it says, is displayed yet again: if we are to say the Lord’s Prayer, we have to inhabit the reality it describes, and so we have to inhabit a world where debtors are released of their debts.  In prayer we step into that world, and we are called to act with the knowledge that our world has become that world.

The fifth and final line, “And do not bring us to the time of trial” (11:4), serves as a concluding plea for us not to settle for anything less than what we have just spoken aloud.  The trial here could mean many things.  It could mean persecution for one’s faith, a reality facing all of the early Christians who would have prayed these words.  It could mean the judgment that awaits us at the end of time.  But surely such words are also meant to stave off that specific trial that results from the despair that tempts us to doubt the abundant promises of the four preceding lines.  Here “do not bring us to the time of trial” means “Do not lead us into that state where we allow our world to swallow up the kingdom and its promises, our darkness to dim its light, our past to suffocate its present and future.”  This trial is an ever-present threat, awaiting us the second we stop praying.  And so it is fitting that we conclude the prayer with words that protect what we have spoken.  This is not a guarantee against trials, but the hope that our struggles not be defined by the time of trial, but the time of the kingdom.

This is Jesus’ how-to manual for prayer, and he concludes by offering a few concluding stories and metaphors to provide further understanding (11:5-13).  When we pray, we should be like the persistent host who knocks on the door of his sleepy neighbor.  The host only knocks because he knows that it is his neighbor’s obligation to answer the call and have bread ready, no matter what time of day or night.  His faith in his neighbor is what sustains him during those nervous few seconds when no one comes to the door, and so it should be for us when we pray to God who provides us not only with our daily bread, but the bread of life and the grace of the Spirit (11:13).  In the silence, keep knocking.  God is coming to the door.

Fittingly, knocking is one of the three metaphors Jesus uses to describe prayer.  His point seems to be that the door is opened to those not only who knock, but who knock persistently, doggedly, stubbornly.  “Would you save Sodom for fifty righteous people?” Abraham asks (Gen. 18:24).  How about for forty-five?  How about ten?  God seems to like disciples with a little panache, who know how to bargain, who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get into it with Him.  He wants us to contend with Him, to debate with Him, to wrestle with Him.  He wants Jacobs.  He wants Psalmists who ask, “How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever” (Ps. 13:1).  He wants disciples who say, “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their cry” (Ps. 34:15).

The other metaphors, searching and asking, further underscore this sense of a persistent and ongoing conversation.  “Ask and it will be given you.”  It is tempting to hear this and think that what Jesus is saying is that we think deeply about what we really want, put together a proposal, and then ask for it.  Good things only come to those who ask, right?  But for most of us, the challenge is not so much in the asking, but in determining what it is we should be asking for.  God says He will give us the desires of our heart, and we feel a bit like Solomon, wanting to give the right answer.  But the desires of our heart rarely speak with one voice; what we more often hear is a cacophony, an atonal symphony set adrift without a conductor.  What if we take “ask” here more in the manner of asking questions?  This seems more in keeping with the knocking metaphor, and the overall picture of prayer that is emerging.  It is as if Jesus is inviting us to see prayer less as a performance stage where we present our perfectly phrased petitions, and more like a dress rehearsal, a practice session, where we work out what we really desire in conversation with God.  Here practice is performance, and prayer becomes an ongoing dialogue where we commit to asking, pondering, and wondering—“praying unceasingly,” in Paul’s words.  It seems fitting that for beings whose essence lies outside ourselves, whose essence is mystery, that prayer would take the form of a question, and all the more fitting when prayer is understood as a conversation with a living, breathing God whose depths we cannot pretend to fathom.

It also accords with the final metaphor that Jesus provides, that of prayer as a search.  “Seek, and you will find” (11:9).  Again, the metaphor invites us to see prayer not as the culmination or outcome of a process, but prayer as the process itself, prayer as the search.  Prayer is the medium through which we search for the direction we lack, where little by little, we try to find that elusive concord of wills between ourselves, our neighbors, and God. When we commit to such a search, we discover that the search provides its own reward, and it more and more becomes the object that we seek.

How so?  Consider how the very act of prayer brings the gift of a certain heightened sense of consciousness. As we pray, as we seek, we become more aware of just how vast the depths of our soul run; we become conscious of the diversity within us.  We become more conscious of our sins, but we also become more and more aware of the parts of ourselves that have taken up membership in the coming kingdom.  What initially haunts us—the fact that we cannot will one thing—becomes a gift, the wonder that we contain multitudes, but only in conversation with the One journeying beside us, steering us to concord and the purity of heart that can will one thing.  The process of asking and searching with God, with the increasing sense of awareness that it brings, becomes desirable in itself.  It brings companionship, a sense of being heard and recognized, which is all the more intensified when we commit to pray together as a community.  And that recognition, that self-discovery and fellowship, tends to be as important, if not more important, than the answered prayers.  These tend to be things we find ourselves praying for anyway.  So consciousness leads to communion, which in turn leads to consummation.  Anxieties about what to ask for, and whether they are in accordance with God’s will, drop away when prayer becomes an ongoing dialogue of seeking, asking, and knocking.  That is all that God wants from us.  And in those moments of deepest honesty, which also happen to be those moments where we are most absorbed in prayer, we discover it is what we most want from God.  Amen.

[1] For more background on this, see Richard Vinson, Luke. Smith & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smith & Helwys, 2008), 359-79.

[2] Augustine, Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding (New York: Vintage, 1997), 3.6.11.

Community Garden Update: July 19, 2016

The Community Garden is thriving!  We had a peach harvest last week and this week we have corn, beans, sunflowers, tomatoes, etc., etc., all growing fast.  We installed trellises last weekend so that the watermelon and squash would have space to grow without  choking other plants.  Hot weather will work in our favor.  Stop by and see the progress!  07162016_group_s

Celebrating the peach harvest are our North Star volunteers, North Star staff, and one youth volunteer.

07142016_PeachHarvest

07162016_Watering

 

 

 

07162016_AJB_garden_s07162016-watering

Sermon – July 10, 2016

 

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10

July 10, 2016

Preacher: Rev. Jane Mayrer

 

“The one who shows mercy – go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37)

Tell us, O Lord, what we need to hear, and show us what we need to do, to be followers of  Jesus.  Amen.

Today’s Gospel is the story we have come to know as “The parable of the Good Samaritan.”  I’m sure everyone here knows this story.  The “Parable of the Good Samaritan” is so familiar that it has become part of our culture.  People who do not know this story was told by Jesus, people who are not Christian, even people who are not of any religious disposition – all know that this story is about a man who helped someone who was in dire need of help.  They know that the point of the story is that we all should have compassion for strangers, and that we all have an ethical duty to help our neighbors.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is so embedded in our culture that just this past Tuesday, an editorial in the Baltimore Sun drew upon the story (without attribution to Jesus) to call the United States to account for our shameful refusal to accept, much less welcome, our fair share of the some 5 million Syrian refugees who have fled war, privation, and death, in contrast to Canada.  (The statistics, in case you are interested are:  Canada resettled more than 25,000 Syrian refugees between November 2015 and February 2016; thus far this year, the U.S. has accepted fewer than 1,300, and does not expect to take in more than 9,000 during all of 2016.)

The editorial notes that Canada’s generosity is not just a result of government policy, but springs from the efforts of thousands of “Good Samaritans”:  “ordinary people – school teachers, hockey moms, artists and business owners – who feel a moral obligation to offer aid and comfort to people who have suffered unspeakable horror in their country of origin.  Poker buddies and church congregations have banded together to adopt total strangers and support them throughout their first year of resettlement.  They help the newcomers find housing, enroll in language classes, place their children in school and apply for jobs so they can become self-sufficient within a year of their arrival.  In doing so, these volunteer mentors become surrogate families for the immigrants, regarded as trusted friends, advisers and role models who can be counted on to help navigate the bureaucracy and lend a sympathetic ear when problems crop up.  Group members meet regularly with their adopted families, share meals, take trips together and celebrate each other’s birthdays and anniversaries.”The editorial asks:  if Canadians can be “Good Samaritans” to desperate people, “why can’t Americans open their hearts to them as well?”

Good question to ask of a nation that so proudly claims to be Christian.  Good question to ask of any of us.  What prevents us “good people” from doing good?  When we know what is right, when we know what God wants us to do – what gets in the way?  That, in essence, is the quandary in which the lawyer who addresses Jesus finds himself.  “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  As Jesus quickly establishes, the lawyer knew the answer to his question before he asked it.

What’s written in the law?” Jesus asks.  “What do you read there?”  The lawyer immediately replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

But knowing what he ought to do was of no help to this lawyer.  What he needed to know was, “How do I do this?”  The lawyer’s solution was to focus on the definition of  “neighbor.”  It’s hard to love people, but it may be a little easier to love the people you know, the people who are like you, the people with whom you can identify.  But Jesus does not allow the lawyer an easy, or easier, way.  Your neighbor is anyone who needs your help, especially the person right in front of you, the person you are tripping over in an effort not to see.

So, once again we have to ask:  What prevents us good people from doing good?  One thing, I think, is fear.  The editorial I mentioned suggests that we Americans are unwilling to open our hearts to the misery of refugees because of fear, especially in this year’s presidential campaign season in which immigration and the threat of terrorism have become “the two great political bugaboos.”  One candidate in particular, who shall go un-named, “has whipped up a toxic cloud of xenophobia calculated to convince Americans that immigrants are to blame for all the country’s problems. ” This “relentless campaign of fear and intimidation has blinded millions of Americans” to our legacy as a nation of immigrants.”  Our fear of “The Other” – of those who are not like us – is the modern day equivalent of the lawyer’s attempt to define “neighbor.”  We don’t want to be confronted with the possibility that someone who scares us is our neighbor.

But Jesus, I think, identifies a more insidious barrier that prevents us from showing compassion to those who need our help.  And this is the hint.  The lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor,” because he wanted to “justify” himself.  The lawyer’s motive, then, was not to engage in a deeper desire to follow God’s commandments, but rather to have Jesus affirm that he was already following God’s commandments.  In other words, to have Jesus affirm that that he, the lawyer, was already righteous.  And that is why it is important to pay close attention to the particular characters in Jesus’ story.

The two people who passed by the unidentified injured victim left for dead on the road were not just any ordinary two people, but a priest and a Levite – religious leaders who were supposed to teach the ways of God by word and example.  These two did not simply fail to see the injured man.  Rather, they observed him and deliberately crossed the road so as to have no contact with the man.  Today, this appears to us as callous, shocking behavior from a religious leader.  But in Jesus’ time, strict rules established boundaries about where and how priests and Levites could relate with other people, whom they could touch, and under what circumstances.  Maintaining these boundaries were vital to religious practice but to the social order as well.  Priests and Levites were forbidden by religious purity laws to interact with Gentiles and forbidden to touch a corpse.  So, rather than risk defilement by touching someone who might be a Gentile, or touching a body that might be a corpse, both of these righteous men did the righteous thing.  Where there is doubt, don’t touch.  Two good men doing the good thing for the right reasons.  Or so they thought.

I wonder how often our righteous judgments about people who need our help, who ask for our help, prevent us from helping them.  To return to the issue of refugees, certainly it is right to be concerned that someone disguised as a refugee may in fact be a terrorist seeking entry to our country.  But both Canada and the United States have screening mechanisms in place to detect people who pose potential security threats.  The threat of a hidden terrorist has not prevented Canada from taking in refugees.

Or, closer to home, here in Baltimore, I wonder how often the righteous judgments of “good people” serve to “harden their hearts” towards street people and their desperate pleas for help, so that good people end up ignoring, and finally not even seeing, the misery and suffering in front of them.  And here, I have to confess my own guilt.  Here are some of my own righteous – or self-righteous – judgments.

“If I give that man money, he will just use it to buy drugs.  I do better for him if I don’t enable him.  Maybe I can remember to keep bottled water in my car to give him.”

“I’ve seen that same woman with the same sign about having recently lost work and needing to feed her children for months at different intersections.  I don’t believe for a minute what she says.  Since she is lying, she obviously does not need the help she claims, so I don’t have to give her anything.”

“I see lots of homeless people, so I know what they look like. That man is too well dressed. too clean, to be homeless, as his sign says.  I don’t know why he is out here pan-handling instead of working, but he obviously does not really need money from me, money I could give to someone else.”

Well, you see the theme that runs through my judgments.  None of the people who need my help, who ask for my help, for whatever reasons,  deserves my help.

But Jesus does not say a word about justice or “deserving” in his story.  The Samaritan man is not “good” because the man he helped had been treated unfairly, or because what happened to him was not his own fault, or because he deserved to be helped for some other reason.  No.  The Samaritan is “good” because he showed mercy.  He helped the man simply because the man needed help.  How he came to be beaten and robbed did not matter.

So, how can we nurture compassion, rather than judgment?  How can we grow in showing mercy?  Today’s meditation in Forward Day by Day offers a way.  I share it with you.  The author writes:

I made a decision long ago that I would rather give money to the wrong person than refuse to help the right one.  This means I have probably given money to a lot of hucksters.  I’m okay with that.

I can’t pass a man begging without thinking of my son.  That man was once someone’s little baby.  Somewhere between that innocent baby and the raggedy man on the street, something bad happened.  No one begs because it’s enjoyable.

I can’t pass a woman begging without thinking of my mother.  What if our lives had gone just a little differently?  What if she had been just a little less hale and hearty?  The difference between a home and being homeless is sometimes just one late payment.

Show mercy.  Imagine it’s you.  Imagine the stranger is your child, your mother, your friend.  Treat strangers as well as you would want them to treat your loved ones.

Go and do likewise.

Amen.

Sermon – July 3, 2016

3 July 2016
Homily: Luke 10:1-11, 16-20; Galatians 6: 1-16; Isaiah 66:10-14
John M Hayes+

Forty years in a therapist’s chair one hears some tales.

Charles was an African-American businessman I saw many years ago. He told me many stories of being stopped by police because he had the nerve to drive a nice car while black. He told me about going into a Dunkin Donuts in Catonsville. He was third in line, and thought it would take no time at all. The attendant was an older white woman. She waited on the two customers and then turned to the new arrivals to wait on them, pretending that she didn’t notice Charles. It was like he was invisible. This went on for a bit and then the store emptied out, and she couldn’t avoid him any longer. Grudgingly she asked for his order. Charles said I need fifteen dozen donuts. You know the shelves behind the counter with forty different kinds of donuts? He had her bobbing up and down for some time while he told her “yes, two apple, and two of the lemon, and two of the coconut” and on and on it went until she has filled thirty bags of donuts and lined them up on the counter. “Need anything else?” Charles smiled broadly and said “oh yes, now you can take those donuts and shove them where the sun doesn’t shine”

There is a wicked pleasure in this story, in hearing of this nasty woman getting her comeuppance and in the aggrieved black guy reversing the situation, besting her at the humiliation game. You have to admire the guy’s cleverness.

Let’s think about this very human exchange on a deeper level. Our friend Charles is made invisible, as if he is not a valid human being, deserving of ordinary inclusion and respect. She treats him like a non-person. Catonsville in the early 70’s was not a place that welcomed black people. She lets him know that he is not wanted. Her cruel passive-aggression is meant to put him in his place, his inferior place.

Then the store empties out and it’s his turn to respond and he sets out to even the score in a clever way and even it he does. No? So what’s the problem? Our friend drives off in his Cadillac enjoying himself immensely. And who wouldn’t?

But what comes next? And what comes of it?

We might notice that we haven’t given the nasty older white woman a name. She exists for us as a two-dimensional stereotype. But we can surmise from her position in life that life has not been especially kind to her. We can imagine her feeling of shame and humiliation, that fuels anger and hatred and makes her more embittered. We can imagine we will look to even the score at the next opportunity, confirmed in her nastiness.

Our friend Charles meets up with friends later and tells the story enjoying himself immensely.

And so it goes. And so it goes… That all-too-human dance tune: Who is up? Who is down? Who is in? Who is out? Who is inferior? Who is superior? Who wins? Who loses? It’s a tune we all know and dance to most of our waking hours. Let’s name that tune “Hierarchy and Difference”. It’s a tune we never get out of our heads. We judge others constantly and we compare ourselves to others constantly. That nasty but usually subtle violence is as much internal and external. But we know it does not take much for that violence to explode in much more ugly and vicious forms. This is the fallen human condition. We cannot get that tune out of our heads and we cannot stop the dance.

Today we hear what are among the most startling words in scripture:

“May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor un-circumcision is anything: but new creation is everything. ”

The King James Bible says it more poetically:

“God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ by whom the world is crucified to me and I unto the world. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor un-circumcision, but a new creature. ”

As we know, for Paul’s hearers cross and crucifixion are not tame metaphors but stark terrifying daily reminders of the dangerous oppressors that held them in submission. Cross and crucifixion were not the stuff of glory and boasting. Crucifixion was the ultimate shame and humiliation. Its message was clear and public: you are nothing, you are a non-person, and we will crush you utterly anytime we please. Accept your low status or die. The Romans perfected “Hierarchy and Difference”, that tune we all know and they played for keeps.

Boasting and glory were the prerogative of the superiors only. At the top of the Roman food chain was Caesar glorified as “Son of God, King of Kings, The One Who Saves, The One Who Brings Peace”. Sound familiar?

The imperial cult pervaded public life in Galatia. And in the ancient world there was no private life. Crucifixions and the local version of the Coliseum were enactments of that cult, extensions of the sacrifices in celebration of the emperor’s rule. To exempt oneself from participation and attendance was very risky indeed. Jews identified by circumcision got a grudging exemption. So for a Gentile Galatian to choose Christ and all that implies without the benefit of circumcision was risky business indeed.

When we choose Christ we embrace the cross. We choose to opt out of the old “Hierarchy and Difference” dance contest and step into God’s world where none of our markers of identity and difference matter a lick. What matters is that we submit to the God’s call in Christ to the demands of self-emptying love.

There was a time not so distant when the nominal practice of Christianity was just a part of the social fabric, a social advantage really, a way to be “in” and “up”, instead of “out” and “down”. There is liberation in the reality that the last vestiges of Christendom have faded and belonging to church has ceased to be a social advantage. Frankly, now being a Christian is a curiosity tolerated as long as it does not extend beyond the private realm.

Our God revealed in Christ is not a God of “Hierarchy and Difference”. God in Christ has liberated us from that dance and calls us into new life, “new creation” where the only law is the rule of self-emptying love. Our God is a God of power in weakness. Isaiah poetically alludes to that “new creation”, that new relational world of the kingdom:

“… you shall nurse and be carried on her arm and dandled on her knees, as a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you… You shall see and your heart shall rejoice…”

To respond to Christ is to become like Christ. Kenosis and theosis are of a piece. Kenosis is self-emptying cruciform love. To begin to fulfill our true human destiny is to become more and more like God, a transformation and transfiguration the desert fathers called theosis.

In Luke’s gospel we get a glimpse of what that looks like on the ground. Jesus sends his disciples out to be his presence in the world. They go out vulnerable and weak, stripped of all accruements of hierarchy and difference, and as poor as Christ himself, armed only with the power of love, announcing the nearness of God’s kingdom, the invitation to new creation.

“The seventy returned with joy, saying ‘Lord in your name even the demons submit to us!’ and Jesus says ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening…See I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will hurt you.”

Our embrace of the cross is the salvation of the world. Empowered by God’s Holy Spirit we are Christ’s transforming presence in the broken, fallen world. God has freed us from the old dance, the enslavement of “hierarchy and difference”.

What if our friend Charles said to that woman something like: “Don’t you see what you’re trapped in? We’re really all God’s children here. Trying to make me feel small makes you small in your own eyes. You know you were meant for so much more. Don’t you see how we are all trapped in this nonsense that keeps us enslaved? Can’t we find a better way?”

Who knows?

Sermon – June 26, 2016

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
John Kiess

Readings: 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Ps. 16; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

This morning’s reading from Luke marks an important transition in his telling of the Gospel story.  For the previous nine chapters, Luke has been meticulously setting the stage.  He provides an account not only of Jesus’ birth, but that of his great forerunner, John the Baptist (Chs. 1-2), which sets up the memorable scene of Jesus’ baptism in Chapter 3.  He then presents Jesus’ remarkable first sermon in the synagogue of his hometown, where he unrolls the scroll of Isaiah and declares the fulfilling of the prophetic hopes of old and the dawning of God’s kingdom (Ch. 4).  Luke then recounts Jesus’ early healings (Chs. 4-8), the call of his first disciples (Ch. 5), and his great Sermon on the Plain (Ch. 6).  But all of this has happened in or around Galilee.  In Ch. 9, Luke closes the curtain and re-sets the stage, announcing that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51).  For the next ten chapters (9:51-19:45), or nearly half of the gospel, all of the major events – each calling of a new disciple, each new healing, each encounter and controversy – will be depicted as a scene on a road, a stop on one long, 80-mile journey from fields of Galilee to the great holy city of Jerusalem, a journey that will ultimately culminate in the dramatic events of Easter and Jesus’ betrayal, imprisonment, death, and resurrection.

Why make so much of the journey to Jerusalem?  For Mark, the trip to Jerusalem barely registers, taking up all of one chapter (Ch. 11).[1]  But Luke seems strangely intent always to bring the narrative back to the destination.  In Ch. 13, he does not simply say that Jesus passes through towns and villages, but that he does so in order to make “his way to Jerusalem” (13:22).  A few verses later he says he must be on his way, for “it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem” (13:33).  In Ch. 17, Luke says Jesus passes through Samaria and Galilee “on the way to Jerusalem” (17:11), and lest any of his disciples lose sight of the road, Jesus pulls them aside in Ch. 18 to say, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished” (18:31).

If we were filing the gospels in the local bookshop, Luke’s Gospel would belong in the travel section.  For him, we can’t understand what Jesus was up to if we don’t understand his ministry in the context of a journey, a pilgrimage.  Jesus’ invitation is not “listen to me,” but “follow me.”  When he calls his first disciples, they must bring their boats to shore and walk after him.  When he gives them their first instructions, he gives them an itinerary: “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.  Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there” (9:4), and whenever you are not welcome, shake the dust from your feet and keep moving (9:5).  The call to discipleship is a call to a journey, a movement out of one’s home, family, and familiar surroundings into an entirely new path through territories and people previously unknown.

In making this connection, Luke is not breaking any new ground.  He is recalling something ancient.  When God calls Abram, he calls him out of Ur of the Chaldeans into a new land (Gen. 11:31).  To follow this God requires becoming an itinerant, a pilgrim, someone who follows God into the land He has promised.  In the process, Abram becomes Abraham; he receives a new name, a new identity, and a new destiny.  Likewise, when the God of Moses delivers Israel out of slavery in Egypt, his salvation takes the form of a journey, an exodus from bondage to freedom.  It is much the same for those Israelites who wait by the waters of Babylon for a return to Jerusalem and the chance to rebuild their city after its destruction.  Faith in the Hebrew Scriptures has always been a journey towards Jerusalem, and in telling Jesus’ story as such a journey, Luke is reminding us that the path of discipleship is a path on the same route, leading us to the same God.  It is the same exodus into that same freedom.

That it is Jerusalem that Luke continually holds before us is also a reminder of the specific character of this journey.  This is a journey that will end in humiliation, torture, and crucifixion.  The destination is a destiny, and that destiny gives the journey its shape.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (9:23-24).  To journey with Jesus is to journey towards the cross; it is to take up the cross as a way of life now.  Are you rejected along the way?  Don’t ask to send fire on the city (9:54-55); shake the dust off your feet.  Are you without possessions?  Rely on the hospitality of others.  Do enemies use you, and do thieves steal from you?  Love them, and give them your extra cloak.

Most of all, to frame discipleship as a journey is to frame discipleship as a journey with someone.  Jesus says not “follow this path,” but “follow me.”  The road to Jerusalem is a road we traverse with Jesus.  It is a journey into relationship, a relationship with a particular person, a living God whose desires to walk beside us.  Not knowing how to navigate this path, we rely upon Jesus as our guide, the shepherd who shows us the way, and He only shows us this path while walking with us, breaking bread with us, conversing with us, debating with us, healing alongside us, sending us with his power and his authority to heal, and then inviting us to come back and journey with him further.

Movement, cross, and relationship: these are the dimensions of discipleship that Luke wants to convey in framing the Gospel narrative as a journey to Jerusalem.  And they are all central to understanding Jesus’ perplexing encounter with the would-be disciples in this morning’s Gospel lesson.  Notice immediately that it is “along the road” (9:57) that we meet these individuals, and each encounter only further underscores Luke’s understanding of discipleship as a journey.  The first says to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go” (9:57).  He sounds like the perfect disciple.  He is willing.  He is ready to go.  He needs no convincing.  He does not even need to be called.  He volunteers himself.  But his very eagerness betrays him.  Exactly what does he think he is signing up for?  Jesus informs him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (9:58).  The would-be disciple says he will follow Jesus wherever he goes, and Jesus effectively says, “Really?  Where do you think that is?”  This is a journey to Jerusalem.  It’s a journey that will encounter opposition, jealousy, misunderstanding, and betrayal the entire way.  It will leave little time for comfort, zero room for safety.  It will end with an execution.  What the would-be disciple volunteers for is his own conception of discipleship, discipleship without the specific destination of Jerusalem, discipleship without the cross, and ultimately, discipleship without Jesus.  If the would-be disciple knew what discipleship really entailed, he wouldn’t be volunteering.  He would be hiding.  And the only thing that can pull us out of hiding is Jesus’ call to follow him.

The second would-be disciple is within an earshot of this call.  Jesus says to him, “Follow me” (9:59).  Like the first individual, he is agreeable.  He is willing.  But he has an obligation that he cannot get out of: “Lord, first let me go and bury my father” (9:59).  As excuses go, this is a pretty good one.  Indeed, in first-century Palestine, there was no higher obligation.  As John Nolland notes, “In Jewish tradition, the burial of a dead relative was a prime religious duty, and in the case of the death of parents, responsibility rested particularly on the son of the family.”[2]  The Old Testament is clear on the importance of burying the dead.  Nolland points to Tobit and the story of “a son who contemplates the possibility of his own imminent death [and] is troubled… that his parents ‘have no other son to bury them.’”[3]  Burial of the dead was the one obligation that overrode all other obligations, the obligation that a priest could claim in not performing his other duties.  Did not God also command, “Honor your father and mother”?  It is an extraordinary shock, then, to hear Jesus respond: “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (9:60).

Clearly Jesus’ objection cannot be to burial itself.  In the Gospel of Matthew, he will commend Mary for preparing his body for burial and say that she has done a beautiful thing (Matt. 26:10-12).  Luke will later praise the “good and righteous” Joseph of Arimathea for finding a tomb for Jesus’ body (23:50-56).  Jesus is instead objecting to the little word that the would-be disciple uses to preface his remarks, that dangerous five-letter word “first”.  “First, let me go and bury my father.”  Behind that “first” are many things.  There is the religious duty to bury, but more deeply, there is the human understanding of the religious duty to bury, and deeper than that, the human understanding of what discipleship really requires.  Scratch beneath that and you find the autonomy that says at the end of the day, I know what religion requires.  Jesus may be calling me to join him now, but I know better.  And really, this brings us right back to the other would-be disciple and a conception of discipleship constructed in our own image.  Like the first individual, the second man is willing to follow, but follow his conception of religion: faith as a duty, a system.  But Jesus is not holding out duty or system; he is holding out a relationship.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it best:

Discipleship means adherence to Christ, and, because Christ is the object of that adherence, it must take the form of discipleship.  An abstract Christology, a doctrinal system, a general religious knowledge on the subject of grace or on the forgiveness of sins, render discipleship superfluous, and in fact they positively exclude any idea of discipleship whatever, and are essentially inimical to the whole conception of following Christ.  With an abstract idea it is possible to enter into a relation of formal knowledge, to become enthusiastic about it, and perhaps even to put it into practice; but it can never be followed in personal obedience.  Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.[4]

This brings us to the third would-be disciple, who emerges as a kind of composite of the first two.  Like the first, he volunteers before he is called, and like the second, he places a condition on his response.  He announces to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home” (9:61).  To which Jesus responds, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (9:62).  Once more we have a volunteer whose over-eagerness thinly veils a desire to have discipleship on his terms.  Saying goodbye to one’s family may not rise to quite the level of obligation as burying the dead, but it’s a close second.  It seems a reasonable thing to do.  In fact, in our Old Testament lesson, it’s the exact thing that Elisha does when he receives the call to be Elijah’s successor.  Both Jesus and Luke are clearly evoking this scene, and the allusion is deepened when Jesus uses the explicit imagery of plowing and harvesting.  Elisha was plowing with his oxen when Elijah came, much like the disciples who fish before Jesus calls them.  And like them, Elisha eventually abandons his profession, going as far as to boil his valuable oxen to symbolically convey his commitment to his new vocation (1 Kings 19:21).  The would-be disciple can thus claim powerful precedent: “Look, Elijah let Elisha say goodbye to his family, can’t I?”  But Jesus’ response is, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”  He combines the two vocations of Elisha, harvester and prophet, into one: disciple, and he repeatedly frames the mission of the disciple as a harvest, bringing in the fruits of the new age of the Kingdom of God.  To look back, even to one’s family, is not just to look away from this task; it is to try to see the new through the lens of the old, time present through time past.  Put another way, it is to see the world as if the kingdom has not dawned.  It is to fit discipleship back into the way things were, rather than the way they are now, and surely this is to plow a crooked furrow.

Jesus is no more calling disciples to abandon family life than he is asking them to stop burying the dead.  But he is asking us to pause over our insistence on using that word “first.”  In this case, he is asking the would-be disciple to see family life through the prism of the kingdom, rather than the other way around.  Jesus says: see your family with kingdom eyes, and see how it opens the boundaries of your family outwards.  See how it makes your sense of belonging more open, more generous.  See how it causes you to reach outward, and begin to see your destiny as caught up in the destiny of others – others quite unlike yourself or your family.  The call to discipleship is a call to join this movement outward, to have our identities transformed as we are stretching toward Jerusalem, toward the cross, toward the Kingdom.

Bonhoeffer also liked to say, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”[5]  Words of bondage to anyone else, they are to the would-be disciple words of freedom.  This is what Paul calls discipleship in this morning’s Epistle reading.  To reap the harvest, to gather in the fruits of the kingdom, is to experience “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23).  Paul says, “There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (5:24).  To join the Jesus movement is not to abandon the body, but to see it transformed, opened up, and ultimately made more capable, more, rather than less, available.  This is the paradox of discipleship: he who seeks to save his life, to define discipleship on his terms, will lose it, but he who loses it will find it.  And the name of discipleship for Paul is freedom.

Movement, cross, and relationship.  It is hard to dwell on such things and not notice how they run counter to so many of the dramatic world events through which we have lived this past week.  In many ways, what we are hearing about in the news is a movement towards greater self-enclosure, one emphasizing nationalist belonging over interdependence, anxiety in the face of strangers instead of receptivity.  To join the Jesus movement is to join a movement that challenges us to break out of such enclosure, one that stretches us to open our identities to individuals outside our primary community of belonging.  It is a movement that invites us continually to encounter new people, especially those we fear or consider a threat to our identity.  Such stretching is for Luke, as for Paul, true independence, true freedom.  We become free to the degree that we are willing to suspend our own conceptions of discipleship and join Jesus on his journey towards Jerusalem, towards the cross, a journey that takes us deeper into the heart of the world, and deeper into the heart of God.

Luke does not tell us how the three would-be disciples ultimately respond to Jesus’ call to discipleship.  That is because Luke is not primarily interested in their response.  He is interested in ours.  Amen.

[1] For a comparison of the two gospels on this point, see Richard Vinson, Luke. Smith & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smith & Helwys, 2008), 304-5.
[2] John Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34. World Biblical Commentary 35B (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1993), 542.
[3] Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34, 542.
[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1937), 59.
[5] Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 89.