Monday, September 26, 2016

Nineteenth after Pentecost

Proper 21C-1  Luke 16: 16-31

Good morning.   Those of you who pay close attention to the lectionary will notice that I’ve expanded today’s appointed reading from Luke--chapter 16, verses 19-31--to include verses 16, 17, and 18 at the beginning, which form the transition or bridge connecting the reading we had last Sunday  to this morning’s reading, the Parable of Lazarus and Dives.  (Dives, from the Latin word for “Rich Man,” which in custom over time has been attributed to this particular rich man as his proper name.)  There may be a couple of reasons why the lectionary omitted these verses, but the more I read them the more I think they are really helpful and maybe even necessary to get the full impact of what Jesus is saying.

To set the stage, how we got here:  Jesus and his disciples have come near to Jerusalem, on the way to Holy Week.  Jesus is teaching and preaching and performing amazing acts of healing.  The crowds are excited and growing larger.   With pilgrims from all over the world beginning to arrive for the Passover, the religious authorities—the Scribes and Pharisees--are getting nervous that this Jesus-thing may bring unwelcome attention from the Romans.  So one of the Chief Rabbis invites Jesus home for a Sabbath dinner with some ecclesiastical colleagues.  His motive seems to be intimidation--to show that this untrained preacher from the Galilee can’t hold his own with a room full of seminary-trained theologians.  But before they even sit down Jesus is called outside to greet a crowd that had spontaneously gathered to see him.  He performs an act of power, healing a man with a serious illness.  The crowd cheers in exuberant wonder and joy, and the religious authorities are left fumbling.  Somewhat awkwardly they accuse Jesus of a technical violation of Jewish law related to work on the Sabbath.  But Jesus isn’t intimidated.  He notes that blessing and healing are not in fact forbidden on the Sabbath in scripture, and then he criticizes them for being so small and mean-spirited.  If it’s their role to be leaders and teachers of faith, they’re the ones who seem off track.  He tells three stories about the Kingdom of God, about what I called the “heavenly economy,” —the Parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son—to show  a Biblical view of God’s character: his extravagant love, his abundant generosity, his unfailing mercy and forgiveness.  Then we heard in the Parable of the Unjust Steward, how we can learn to be really successful in the economy of this world, or really successful in the economy of heaven, but that we can’t serve two Masters.  We need to choose--one or the other.  Luke points out in an aside that the Scribes and Pharisees were well-known by all to be great lovers of money.  So a confrontational moment.  Jesus saying that they seem to have made their choice about which master they are going to serve, no matter what their religious titles or offices may suggest.   Hard not to think in our own context about some popular preachers and their multi-million dollar homes and private jets.  When you see that happening, it’s hard not to ask questions, and Jesus is pretty straightforwardly inviting the crowds to look at their leaders and to ask exactly those questions.  And as we set out into this morning’s reading I want to underscore that point, which is that while there is a great deal for all Christians to reflect on and apply in this series of parables and sermons, Jesus is very much addressing issues about leadership, about the stewardship of authority.  The application we take from these readings about expectations and responsibilities-- and as we move into the second part of Luke 16 is related especially first to the Scribes and Pharisees in that setting moving toward Holy Week and then by extension to the leadership of the church, to pastors and preachers and teachers, bishops.  As Luke quoted Jesus back in Chapter 12, “from those to whom much has been given, much will be expected.” 
So on to these three prefatory verses, 16, 17, and 18.  (In this morning’s leaflet, page 9.)   “The Law and the Prophets were, until John,” Jesus begins.   He doesn’t mention his cousin John the Baptist often, but it’s a huge deal when he does.   Actually for anybody in prominent position to say the name in public like that is going to be a political bombshell.  And then thenext sentence that is actually about as awkward for the translators in Greek as it is for us in an English translation: “Since then the good news of the Kingdom of God is preached, and every one enters it violently.”   That’s a pretty literal version.  The sense of what Jesus is saying here may have sounded something like this: “you Scribes and Pharisees have had the Bible for a long time.  Moses and the Prophets.  You’re the experts!  You’ve studied it all your lives, certainly for a long time before John the Baptist came on the scene.  It’s not like God’s word is new information!  And it has been your job, long before John out there in the wilderness started to preach, to present God’s Word to God’s people and to lead them in living accordingly.  That’s always been your job!  But in fact that didn’t happen, did it?  We didn’t hear that call, until the Baptist came along.  In a society that has wandered far from its spiritual roots, you have been exceptionally silent.  “You have to go along to get along”--that seems to be your motto.  Fussing along with obscure tidbits of ceremonial regulation.  Estimating the number of angels on the head of a pin.  John on the other hand wasn’t a seminary graduate, not a Scribe or Pharisee, no fancy ecclesiastical title or position--but he knew what God says in scripture, and I guess you could say he did the job you were supposed to be doing.   And here we get to verse 18, the next sentence.  Jesus doesn’t have to spell it out.   They know what’s coming.  When Herod Antipas scandalously divorced his wife and sent her packing and then at the same time even more scandalously took the wife of his own brother to his bed--his own brother’s wife!-- and then ostentatiously married her in a mockery of a religious ceremony, you were silent.  You just didn’t dare rock that boat of yours. Fear.  Love of status, security.  The opportunity to mingle with the elites of the nobility.  John knew what the Bible said, and so did you.  He knew sin when he saw it, and so did you.  But he wasn’t afraid to call it what it was.  To stand up and be counted.  No matter what the consequences.  And we just didn’t hear from you.   He, of course ended up with his head on a platter, while you all apparently did pretty well in your silence--with promotions and raises and corner offices. 

But here’s the thing: you may just conveniently today skip over the parts of God’s word that make you uncomfortable, or that might make the people who sign your paycheck uncomfortable, or that might get you carted away to Herod’s dungeon.  But no matter how tightly you close your eyes or hold your hands over your ears, the fact of the matter is that God’s Word isn’t going anywhere.  Here, Verse 17.  “Easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one dot, one vowel of the law to become void.”   It may seem to you that John played the game and lost, and that you played the game and won.   But maybe, just maybe, the final score hasn’t yet been entered into the books . . . .    

Then this word that pronounces judgment on Herod and that cost John his life.  A bold reminder from Jesus now in his words of the moment when they had had a choice, and had chosen to keep their mouths shut.  If somebody is recording this on his cellphone now Jesus is going to get into some real hot water.  Verse 18.   At every marriage I’ve officiated I begin in the Address at the beginning of the service to say, “the covenant of marriage was established by God in creation . . . and holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people.”   From the Book of Common Prayer page 423.  To say those words to the king meant death for John.  And, again: not a peep from the established religious authorities. 

Which leads Jesus directly to the Parable of Lazarus and Dives.   If you want to know who played the game and won, you’ll need to wait to see what the score is when the game is really over.   So, the poor man languishing at the gate.  The rich man in his self-centered comfort and so completely out of synch with what the Bible has to say about the stewardship of wealth to reflect God’s own compassion and generosity and mercy.  A parable about the consequences of choosing the wrong master.  When they both die poor Lazarus is gathered into the bosom of Father Abraham, but Dives finds himself broiling for eternity in the fiery cauldron of hell--the chasm separating him from the heavenly Kingdom as absolute as the one that he had allowed to keep Lazarus separate from him in this world.  He makes his plea, that a messenger be sent to warn his brothers, so that they might avoid his fate.   Father Abraham’s reply circles back to echo the first sentence at verse 16.  “They have Moses and the Prophets.”  As of course do the Scribes and Pharisees.  And as we do, for that matter.  And we all have to make our own choices.  Jesus is pushing their buttons hard now, and you can almost feel the temperature rising, the intensifying hostility.  Standing there face to face, the crowds looking on: you’re the ones who are wearing the robes of religious office, after all, the appointed teachers of the Word, the stewards of the promise.  And yet when the Word is tested in the world, it never seems to be your heads that end up on a serving platter.  Never your arms stretched out on a cross.

The consequences.  As we read last Sunday, no servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  A challenge to the Scribes and Pharisees out there on the street corner with him, for sure—and continuing actually as a challenge for the church, for those in leadership, those who teach and preach.   For all of us.  A challenge sometimes in elections years, though not just in election years.  “Don’t rock the boat, baby.”  Certainly not to do something that would threaten your IRS tax-exempt status.  Not if you want a multi-million dollar house and a private jet, anyway.  Instead, just figure out what the people who write the checks want you to say, and give them twice what they ask for.  Remembering the old story about the minister who got a little too specific in one of his sermons.  An unhappy parishioner says to him later, “Pastor, you’ve gone from preaching to meddling.”  What Jesus is doing here with these parables—and maybe why we find them both attractive on one hand but also pretty scary when it occurs to us that he might just want us to take what he’s saying seriously.  Begin to feel like when he’s “meddling” with these Scribes and Pharisees, he’s “meddling” with us too.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Eighteenth after Pentecost

Proper 20C-1  Luke 16: 1-13

I don’t usually give titles to my sermons, but if I were going to do that this morning I would call this one, “The Two Economies.”  The Two Economies.  When I taught History and Government for a couple of years before seminary I had a 12-week unit for 10th graders, an Introduction to Economics.  A subject always interesting, and especially in an election year.   When we talk about “economics” what we’re talking about begins in the most basic way with an understanding of what is valued in any particular individual or society, what is of importance, and then of how individuals and communities organize their behavior--thoughts and feelings and interactions with one another--in reference to what they value.

 Jesus is talking about economics here in the Parable of the Unjust Steward, Luke 16, verses 1-9—as he was also in the three Parables that he has just told in Luke 15, as we looked at them last Sunday—the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Lost Coin, and the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which is sometimes to keep the pattern going also called the Parable of the Lost Son.  The economies highlighted in the first three parables contrast with the world of the parable we’ve heard this morning, and we keep them all in mind as we move to the second part of this morning’s reading, in verses 10-15, as Jesus speaks to the question of whether it’s really possible to serve “two “Masters.”   

A few years ago I saw a bumper sticker that I thought captured something of the spirit of the roaring 1990’s, at least in certain high-visibility corners of our western culture.  It said, “He Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins.”  An implicit irony, intended to elicit a smile while still calling our attention to a system of value rigorously centered on consumerism.  Toys.  Fancy cars, fancy houses, wide-screen t.v.’s,  designer purses, shiny jewelry, exotic travel.   How do I know I have success in my life?  Check out what’s in my driveway . . . .

As a contrast, I remember sitting with my great friend and teacher, the late Ken Bailey, brilliant New Testament scholar, our Canon Theologian here in the diocese for many years.  He was talking about the passage in the 21st Chapter of the Revelation to John where John has his vision of the heavenly Jerusalem.  The city brilliant, shimmering, shining, its walls and gates dazzling with the glitter of the rarest gems and jewels, its streets paved with gold.   He read through the verses, paused just so we could take it all in, the daydream of a resort destination more extravagant than any ever seen in a full-page, full-color ad in the New York Times Magazine, and Dr. Bailey said, “here’s the point:  in God’s Kingdom, gold is just the same as asphalt and glittering jewels are just all dumped in together with gravel to be mortar for the bricks.   Everything that seems to us so precious—there, it’s just nothing.  Of no importance.  No value at all.”  Turns out it’s the presence of God that gives the city its glorious glow.  The rocks are just rocks.

So two contrasting economies.  Two Masters.  The economy of this world as it is, we might say,  and the economy of the Kingdom.  On the one hand.  The shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to seek after the one.  The woman who caters a dinner dance for half the county to celebrate her finding of a lost coin of only modest value.  The Father who puts aside pride and status and even the privilege of his righteous grievance, to bring about forgiveness and reconciliation in his family.

And then, on the other hand.  Jesus goes on to tell the story we heard this morning about a manager who hasn’t been very good at his job.   The owner of the business has finally had enough and one afternoon sends him an e-mail.  Come to my office first thing tomorrow morning.  As soon as he reads this the manager knows his goose is cooked.  The axe is about to fall.  And he goes into a panic.  He’s got a mortgage, two kids in college, a leased European sedan.  He and his wife already have their non-refundable tickets for a European spring vacation, and they’re up to their eyeballs in credit card debt.   Per the bumper sticker:  they’ve been financing a lot of toys.  What to do?  And then suddenly an idea hits him.  A brilliant stroke!  He pulls the Accounts Receivable file and calls a couple of his big customers and offers them major discounts on their outstanding invoices.  They’re delighted, of course, they thank him profusely, and he is meanwhile crossing his fingers that this newfound good will may open a few doors for him if he’s out pounding the pavement and looking for a new job in the next month or so.  The twist comes at the end of the story, when the owner of the business goes online and sees what the manager has done.  We expect him to be outraged—but quite the contrary!  The next morning comes, and the manager is welcomed into the owner’s office not with a pink slip, but with a smile and a handshake--and a promotion!  “That’s exactly the kind of outside-of-the-box thinking we need around here to take our business to the next level,” the owner exclaims.   “I’ve been looking to hire somebody who could be a real game-changer around here, somebody who could think on his feet--and here you are right under my nose.  Somebody not afraid to take risks, to push the edge of the envelope.  The world is full of paper-pushers, but you’ve really shown me something different.  You’re a guy with real potential, and I for sure don’t want you going out to work for my competitors!”

In any case, what Jesus says here.  You know, there are an awful lot of people around here who have become very successful  in the “he who dies with the most toys wins” economy.   Like the characters in the story.  They’ve got the game all figured out.  Experts.  We expect to read about them both soon in the cover story of Business Week or Barron’s.  They know with crystal clarity which Master they’re serving, and they’re good at it.  And Jesus looks at the crowd, at his disciples, at the Scribes and Pharisees.  “How about us?  What would it be like—just imagine!—if folks around here were to be as skillful in transactions of grace and mercy and love as these guys are with dollars and cents!  Turns out to be an uncomfortable moment yet again for the Scribes and the Pharisees, and we’re going to see that really come to a boil with next Sunday’s reading.  They’re supposed to be the ambassadors of God’s Kingdom in the midst of God’s people, but apparently they’re much better known right now at the local jewelry store’s Rolex desk  than they are, say,  in the local soup kitchen or food pantry.   Apparently they know more about how to make small talk at cocktail parties than they do about sitting and praying with their neighbors in times of need.  So they’re getting fidgety.

Looking at this question is actually the deeper spiritual and theological invitation of the ordinary year-to-year work of the parish “annual stewardship campaign.”  Or should be, anyway, when we do it right, which I’m not sure we always do either here at St. Andrew’s or most places in the wider church.  But what we would be doing, if we were doing it in a way that is shaped by Scripture.  Thinking about our lives in terms of Stewardship for the New Economy.  The economy of heaven.  And I think our Vestry is leading into a very substantive conversation this year.   I’m certainly looking forward to hearing my good friend and colleague Adam Trambley when he joins us as keynote speaker at the kickoff dinner on October 7.  The central point not about raising money to fund a church budget—although while we live in this world budgets will always need to be funded.  But the disciplines of tithing, of the offering of first fruits our time, our talent, and our treasure, are more importantly exercises to assist us in navigating the transition from one economy to the other--to build up our spiritual character, to help us become more and more acclimated to the economy of heaven.   

Jesus isn’t talking about just tweaking the present system.  You wouldn’t need a Cross for that.  Just write a book, have your TED talk go viral on social media.  He’s talking instead about something as old as the first hour of creation, yet for us now also so radically different as to seem entirely new: an economy of grace-- where the currency of compassion and forgiveness, humility and obedience, and joy and generosity will begin to replace the gold and jewels and glittering prizes of this world, a fragment of bread and a sip of wine a banquet far above any earthly feast--working a deep change in us, to prepare us in heart and mind to see and know and love and dwell forever the brightness and the beauty of the City God has prepared for us in himself, in Jesus.  Again the Collect for today:

“Grant us, O Lord, not to mind earthly things, but to love things heavenly.  And even now as we are placed among things that are passing away, to cleave to those that shall abide.”   

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Seventeenth after Pentecost

Proper 19C-1 Luke 15: 1-10

In our readings from Luke we’ve been watching the tensions build between this uncredentialed but charismatic rabbi from the Galilee and the well-credentialed but not-very-popular leaders of the mainline religious establishment.  This morning Jesus pours kerosene on the fire by ostentatiously consorting  with the edgiest  folks in the neighborhood—those who don’t observe the ceremonial law, those whose daily work marks them as ritually unclean, those regarded as sinners and indeed those who truly were sinners by any measure of moral conduct and Biblical norm.  Even to include those pariahs who have prospered by collaborating with the Romans in the structures oppressing God’s people.  Quite a crowd: tax collectors, prostitutes, publicans, who were kind of the street corner drug dealers of the day, pickpockets and shoplifters.  A cast of characters you for sure wouldn’t want to meet while walking down a dark alley.  As before, the religious leaders voice their objections, trying to do whatever they can to tamp down the fire of this rising “Jesus movement.”  And so they point their fingers and proclaim with indignation, “this man receives sinners, and eats with them.”   Hard to imagine any right-thinking, God-fearing person would want to get within a country mile of this guy and his rabble followers.

To answer, Jesus shares three parables.  The first two in this morning’s reading, the Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. These set the table for the third, the highlight--unfortunately not included in the lectionary today, but I’m going to refer to it anyway-- and we’ll need to use our best memory and imagination:  Luke 15, verses 11-32, the Parable of the Prodigal Son.   So together three little vignettes, a Lost Sheep, a Lost Coin, a Lost Son, catch our attention.  Have for two thousand years.  I think for every Christian at the very heart of what we understand the good news of the gospel to be.  To venture into theological language, these parables interpret the Cross for us.  They present the portrait of a God whose love is extravagant -- who will do anything, who will go the extra mile--and then another, and then another: who simply can’t bear to take no for an answer.  Whose heart yearns for us.  Who loves us more than life itself.  Who will do whatever it takes to restore our relationship with him.

First of all the shepherd.  Quite a peculiar story, if you think about it.   If you’re the owner of the flock, or even better, if you’re the company that wrote the loss and liability policy, you’re going to fire this guy and fast.  What was he thinking?  We had a hundred sheep, and one somehow wandered away--and so, let me get this straight, you left the 99 out in the field somewhere, where there are wolves and poachers and all kinds of potential dangers, and you went out with your whistle and for hours and hours hiked over hill and vale—wouldn’t stop looking, until finally at long last you happened to find the one that was lost?  Are you out of your mind?  And then the woman in the second parable.  Talk about obsessive!  She loses a coin, which is too bad.  Something of value.  But then she goes nuts.  She puts her whole life on hold.  Talk about a disproportionate response!  She stops preparing food for her family.  She skips the monthly altar guild meeting.  Forgets about going to work.  Her yard is overgrown with weeds.  The dishes have been sitting in the sink for who knows how long.  The kids don’t have their back-to-school shopping done.  But she can’t let it go.  Like Captain Ahab in pursuit of the Great White Whale--searching day and night until finally, finally, she finds that coin!  And then, of course, the Father.  We know him the best because we have heard this story so often and because it is so beautifully developed.  A theological and literary jewel.  ( It wasn’t included in our reading this morning because we’ve already had it appointed on the Fourth Sunday in Lent.) Betrayed in a deep way by this son who blows off his share in the generational inheritance of the family business and heartlessly asks for his share right now and in cash.  Too much trouble to wait around until the old man dies.  He takes the money and runs off to the big city to live it up in one long party of wine, women, and song.  For days and weeks, perhaps for months and years.  And certainly never a postcard home, never a phone call.  Until every penny is squandered.   And for all that time, every day, the father stood watching at the gate.  Every day, surveying the road all the way to the horizon.  Looking out to the horizon, with pain in his heart, tears in his eyes.  Hoping, praying.

And the parables end in joy. Big joy.  The shepherd returns singing, carrying the precious lamb tenderly in his arms--the flock is made whole again.  Such a beautiful picture.  The window in our narthex dedicated to Harry Briggs Heald, one of my illustrious predecessors.  The Good Shepherd, who is not willing that even one should be lost.  And the woman finds her coin.  Finally.  And so overjoyed, she doesn’t rush off to put it in the bank or spend it on some essential purchase.  She throws a party!  The celebration of her life, probably spending twice as much on refreshments than the coin was worth in the first place!  This is what it’s like, the joy of the angels in heaven, says Jesus.  Their celebration, for even one sinner who turns away from his sinful life.  And then the Father, as he wraps the boy in an embrace even before his carefully-rehearsed words of repentance can be spoken.  Bring a robe, a ring, new shoes, a fatted calf!   I’m never letting go of you again, he says.  I’m never letting you go.

That’s how Jesus answers his accusers.  In the midst of a dry-as-dust professional religiosity based on the external formalities of elaborate Temple ceremonies and a harsh and obsessive judgmentalism focused on customs, rules, laws governing in minute detail even arcane aspects of food preparation and diet and clothing and just about every aspect of ordinary household and community life and work and relationship.  To say nothing of the issues of deeper concern of faith and moral conduct.  In the midst of a culture of arid judgement and even a kind of mean-spirited unforgiveness.    Then we hear Jesus:

“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. . . .”  “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  Joy.  The longing of God’s great heart, that we who are lost, would find our way back into his arms.  “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”  Joy, joy, joy.

This is a personal God we’re talking about.  Whom Jesus is talking about.  A personal God.  Not a philosophical abstraction.  Not some hazy remote universal spiritual force.  Every page of scripture speaks of his deep desire, his passionate and focused longing.  He knows us and wants us.  We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.  He seeks for us when we are lost.  (He’s out there looking right now.  And that is a promise.  He won’t give up.)  He calls us to return, and knows us by name.  To turn around.  To put on a new mind and a new heart.  To walk with him in a new way.   The beating heart of the universe, his heart, fills with joy when we do turn back to him.  Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.  That’s what he lives for.  He proves himself to be not far off, but near, yearning to forgive, and bless.  Willing to go to the Cross, if that’s what it takes to break the chains of sin and death.  Whatever it is going to take.  Disproportionate, extravagant love.  More than we deserve.

These stories of Luke 15 touch my heart I know every time I have read them and heard them.  I hope for you too.  A good place to begin a new season here at St. Andrew’s on Rally Day Renaissance Round Up Sunday.  There really isn’t any expression of Christian doctrine more to the point than  we’ve heard in these parables this morning.  If we have wandered, and we have wandered, if we have gotten lost, and we have gotten lost, just to know:  he’s out looking for us right now.  Right now.  We have representations of his Cross all over the place here at church and perhaps in our homes and even to wear around our necks sometimes, and this is what we  would remember whenever we see that Cross.  Why it is so important to us, so precious.  He stands at the gate, watching for us, waiting for us to return.  Never sleeping, never turning aside, never forgetting us.   Eager to forgive us when we return.  Eager to bless.  Eager lift us up when we have fallen, to restore, to give a fresh start.  Eager for us, and full of love.

And so, Rally, Round Up, and Renaissance: walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Sixteenth after Pentecost

Proper 18C-1  Luke 14: 25-33

He had them eating out of the palm of his hand!    I mean, it was this great moment. For the crowds in the street, the multitudes, the common man, the religious and social elites were like, locked up in their ivory towers debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  We saw that play out in our reading the last couple of Sundays in the first part of this chapter of Luke.  The high-and-mighty Pharisees of cosmopolitan Judea are isolated in their ivory tower debating obscure technicalities of the law about what constitutes “work” on the Sabbath.  And then Jesus pushes his chair back from their table and goes out onto the front porch of the house where the neighborhood has gathered, and instead of delivering some obscure theological address, he steps into the crowd and in a mighty act of power blesses and heals a man who is suffering from a major  illness.  The gasp of amazement is followed by applause and louder and louder cheers.  

And then when the Pharisee and his colleagues come out of the house to see what’s going on, and when they begin to criticize Jesus for behavior unbecoming an observant rabbi, Jesus responds with two pointed parables about what is going to be revealed, when the spotlight of God’s Kingdom shines on the proud, the self-centered and self-satisfied, the self-appointed elites--who think it’s their calling in life to walk a superior path.  Perhaps Jesus is remembering words from the song his mother had sung many years before, “he has put down the mighty from their seat, and hast exalted the humble and meek.” 

This is what the political consultants are talking about when they talk about throwing “red meat” into the crowd.  Appealing to those deep animal cravings.  The multitudes are roaring their approval.  This unpolished rabbi from the backcountry of the Galilee, he’s our guy now!  We’ll follow him anywhere!  To the barricades, Jesus!  Let’s go! 

But then—we’ll it’s just really fascinating.  He’s got them right where the leader of any messianic movement with a chance of success is going to want them.  But all at once, as he begins to speak, and as the crowd falls silent to hear him, he turns in a very different direction.  We’re still a little ways away in Luke’s gospel from Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week, but in this moment of hot energy and bright enthusiasm there is all of a sudden a chill wind, a dark shadow.  A glimpse of Good Friday.

Not so fast, friends.  Not so fast.  You’re going to need to think a little before you enlist in my army.  The battle that is about to begin is something the world has never seen.  The Enemy:  darker and more dangerous than any king or emperor.   In this war there will be no compromise, no negotiated settlement, no terms of surrender.  The effort will be total, with nothing left in reserve, and in victory there will be no going back to the way things were before.  So, not so fast.  “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”   You say you want a revolution.  But think first what that means, what this revolution is about.  Not about tweaking the current system to make those who are uncomfortable now a little more comfortable.  But about calling in the power of God as he will make all things new.  It’s not about taking a vacation.  It’s about turning in your old passport, to receive a new citizenship and a new homeland, a new identity.  And this revolution, it’s not free.  Not by a long shot.  “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me”--where I’m going, all the way now to Good Friday--“who ever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”

So consider.  Builders review their capital budgets and supplies of material before they send their crews out to begin construction of a tower.  Kings calculate the strength and resources of their armies and take stock of their enemies before they declare a war.   This business we’re about, it’s no walk in the park. Not for the hobbyist.  Not something to dabble in for a while until some more interesting project comes into view.  “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”   (He had them in the palm of his hand.  And big things were possible, big things . . . . ) 

I read articles from time to time by writers in what is sometimes called the “church growth” movement—about how in an era of declining church membership and interest in traditional organized religion there is this effort to increase congregational membership.  How to reach the unchurched.  Lately a lot of focus on how to “connect with Millennials.”   And in all that material I would say I can’t recall much of focus on what Jesus has to say in this section of Luke 14.  “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”  And please do join us for a festive, family-friendly, fair trade coffee hour after the service!

I believe the largest Protestant congregation in the United States is the Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas—which has an average Sunday morning attendance of 15,000 in a converted basketball arena, and with those services and the sermons by their pastor, Joel Osteen, syndicated on cable television across North America.   Osteen is deeply rooted in an American tradition of preachers most recently associated with the  20th century preacher Norman Vincent Peale, whose great theme was “the power of positive thinking.”  Osteen says again and again, and in very thoughtful and emotionally powerful ways, that it is God’s firm intention that you will “live your best life now.”  Live your best life now.  That your family will be strengthened, that your vocation will be filled with success,  that your days will prosper. 

Thinking about that great Easter scene in John’s gospel, chapter 21.  The risen Lord surprises his disciples by meeting them by the lake after they have been fishing all night.  They are in awe, and joyful.  And then Jesus calls Peter to stand before him and asks him three times, “do you love me?”  Each time Peter says, “yes, you know I do,” and Jesus says, “then feed my sheep.”  A vocational moment, about the life ahead, ministry and purpose.  And then Jesus says to him, “Truly, truly I say to you, when you were young you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.”  A foreshadowing of Peter’s cross.  

Thinking about how in the traditional Confirmation services there was a direction, a rubric, that the bishop after the sentence of Confirmation was to strike the new confirmand on the cheek.  Gently, of course.  But with enough force to be felt.  To be a reminder of what suffering every Christian will endure and must endure as he or she follows Jesus.  As the mid-twentieth century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, simply: “the cost of discipleship.”

I will say that someone sent me a blogpost the other day written by a younger writer in the “how to attract Millennials” genre that I thought was interesting because it basically said, “if you want me to consider becoming part of your church, don’t just try to tell me what you think I want to hear.  Don’t go out of your way to try to make it easy for me.  Instead, challenge me.  Don’t be afraid to confront me with ideas and practices that may seem strange and difficult at first—that might cost me something.  Instead, show me by what you say and what you do and how you live that you are yourselves really taking this repentance and renewal and death and resurrection stuff seriously—and in a way that has an impact on your whole life, and not just what you talk about on Sunday mornings.  Believe me, I’ll pay attention then.  But otherwise, please don’t waste my time.

I’ve mentioned before that the English historian Frances Young has written about the growth of Christianity in late antiquity, though the later years of the Roman Empire.  It was a Church that came to the attention of the world not because of public evangelistic preaching—since that was pretty much illegal everywhere—but because of the distinctive way Christians lived and conducted themselves in their homes and relationships, their marriages and families, their work, their social and economic behavior.    In a society that was rooted in materialism, hedonism, and violence, Christians sought to live lives of quiet simplicity and humility, moderation and restraint, obedience and sacrifice, discipline, and love.  Just to step back from the rush of the cultural river all around them.   It wasn’t a popular way.  People would roll their eyes at the club.  “Who invited these Puritans to the party?”  

And of course sometimes the whole business would lead them to arrest and imprisonment and the roar of lions in the coliseum.  But for a few--perhaps those whose lives had been pushed to the margin, perhaps some who had stood back for a moment to look at the froth of the world around them and wonder about deeper things—for a few, something moved in their hearts, a Holy Spirit curiosity, we might say.  Who watched how the Christians lived and then how they could die, not with terror and bitterness, but singing hymns and praying for those who were sending them to their deaths.  From the world’s point of view it looked like so much nonsense.  But, could you tell me more about what it is that inspires you to live like this?  Why you who have so little seem to have so much, while I, who have so much, seem to have so little?

And that went on and on.  The work of the Church.  Living faithfully and dying faithfully.  Year after year, generation after generation.  As Luke writes in the second chapter of Acts, “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

And so next Sunday is our Rally Day and Round Up and the annual fall Renaissance of worship and programs and activities of our congregation, this place and community of our Christian life.  I’m sure it will all be great, a great new year in many ways.  But a helpful reminder this morning, before we might rush out with the crowd that Jesus is addressing this morning.  So for the life and work that we will share in a new season and a new year, we would keep before us the Morning Prayer Collect appointed for Fridays: “Almighty God, whose most dear Son when not up to joy, but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

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