September 9, 2007 15 Pentecost (RCL Proper 18C)
Jer 18: 1-11; Philemon 1-21; Lk 14: 25-33
It is an accepted liturgical principle that the superstructures of the calendar of the Church Year are always open for modification to meet local circumstance, and thus though you will find no collect or eucharistic preface commemorating the day, it is my observation that in the United States certainly and to a great extent world wide this day is observed across denomination and faith tradition. The Sunday after Labor Day, “Rally Day,” or, as we have it here at St. Andrew’s, “Round Up Sunday.”
We mark a turning almost approaching the drama of the fall equinox--or to say at least, for most of us, our summer vacations, whatever they may have been, are pretty much behind us, and though it may still feel pretty warm and summery outside, our attention has returned to work and school and life and home and in our communities with a sense of new beginning.
Here at St. Andrew’s of course this new season is marked by the return I think for the third full year now of our Godly Play experiences for our younger children, which is an exciting and growing group, and with a new team of leaders for our youth group, and with all kinds of events in the planning stages for parish adult programs. We’re so delighted to have our choir once again enriching our worship. So much at the heart of what we are and who we are in this congregation. Many have contributed individually or in groups in the “summer quartets,” of course, but somehow having you all together is very meaningful. We celebrate, as we have just begun to do, the wonderful ministry of care that our own Peter Luley shares with us, and brings forth anew each year—and today of course it’s been fun to acknowledge that in a special way. And, again, it is a great pleasure to mark this first Sunday of the fall season with Mr. Nolan—just to say again: Organist of Her Majesty’s Chapels Royal of St. James Palace. A cool business card that is—and an honor to have you with us.
All of this in the context of the busyness of the morning, of course, as our Jinny Fiske and our hospitality team have enlisted and conscripted so many to move tables and chairs to the Churchyard in preparation for a festive family picnic to follow this service. Thank you to all who contributed items for the table—and I would whether or not you were able to bring something today, please stay and enjoy the feasting and fun, as there is always an abundance and enough for everyone.
It should be a day for a short sermon, but, alas: I do want to work on this for a bit, as this passage alone from St. Luke is so very rich and so much really deserves to be at the center of what is for all of us, as Christian people, the necessary life-long process of reflection and discernment about our life, our vocation, our identity, who we are, “what it’s all about.” So, with apologies, not too short, though I hope not too long either.
The scene begins with Jesus surrounded by crowds, and I think of these there are perhaps several larger categories. The purely curious, who have heard some fantastic stories about this preacher and supposed miracle worker, and who come for the show; the hungry and hopeless, the sick and broken, who come with some kind of hope that if they stand in his shadow as he passes by or even perhaps can bring him to say a word, they will be healed; and then the angry, those who are opposed to the governing establishment, the religious authorities or the Roman occupiers, and who hope that this charismatic leader might rally the masses for some kind of political or even spiritual revolution. Mixed in here and there as well, enemies and friends. Those looking to discredit him, or even to collect evidence for some future trial. To catch him off guard, if they can. And of course his long-time companions, the twelve and probably more, a wider circle, men and women, who are slowly but surely moving in a deeper way with him.
In any case, “large crowds,” as Luke says. And there is certainly something almost seductive about that. When clergy from different places meet at conferences there is inevitably this conversation: “Oh, Rector of St. Andrew’s in Pittsburgh, hmm. That’s great. And . . . how big a place is that?” There is this hierarchy. Are you an important person. Give us your ASA (average Sunday attendance), and we’ll know where to seat you here in the meeting room. Diocesan leaders smile when parishes grow, frown when they decline. They say things like, “if we just had the right person in there as leader, that place would really take off.” And God bless you all, on this Round Up Sunday, I know that deep down I don’t really think that most of that is a bad thing. At least to say, I think all the time what a wonderful place this St. Andrew’s is, what great people you are, and how wouldn’t it be fun and exciting if next Sunday everybody who is here today came back with a friend or neighbor or another family member, and our good old Pews and Sittings team was running out of service leaflets and setting up folding chairs. Sure, that would be great—and certainly it would be a sign of the Spirit stirring. And I suppose to the extent that it doesn’t happen, that should be a point of focus for all of us to think about: why it doesn’t happen—whether it should happen, and if it should, how. So this isn’t a sermon about how large crowds are bad, and I’m not sure that that’s what Jesus was talking about either. We all come for our own reasons, with our own agendas, some obvious agendas and some hidden from others and even from ourselves, our hopes and fears.
But what Jesus is doing in this moment as Luke describes it for us is I think to try to put the question of life and community into some kind of context. The images he uses are those of what we would call, in the phrase of Deitrich Bonhoeffer, “costly discipleship.” Carrying the cross, counting the cost, moving out of the comfort zones of our lives, giving up the illusion that we can have things our own way all the time, always needing to win. Small groups or large crowds, each of us one by one in the temple of our hearts, we come so often to see what he can do for us, how he can further our agenda, fulfill our needs, but as we meet him, simply as a reminder, we would find in an instant or over days and weeks or step by step over the many years of our lives, it is we who are changed by him, his power working in us, not so that he will somehow do our bidding, but rather that we are reshaped into his likeness, the story of his life becoming the story of our lives as well, his joys and his sorrows, his cross and his resurrection.
So we have fun today—and a nice crowd. Maybe not quite what Jesus had on that afternoon in the Galilee—but then he didn’t have to compete with NFL pregame. It’s exciting to be here, and an adventure just to begin to think about what he might be doing in us, how he might be reshaping us, one by one and all of us together. To think about what our call is, who we are and who we are becoming. A way to be his presence, his life, in this world today. Where we are. Again, very exciting, on Round Up Sunday: in him and through him, more and better things going on around us than we could ever ask for or imagine.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.