St. Paul’s – 3rd Sunday after Pentecost – June 21, 2020
If today’s readings were a product to be purchased it might come with a warning label like on the side of a package of cigarettes : Warning: discipleship may lead to loss of status or family, rejection, division, and sometimes death. Upon a quick glance it sounds about as appealing as a commercial for prescription medication with a laundry list of side effects. Is this really what I signed up for when I was baptized or confirmed? I just wanted a little time to recharge from my busy week.
The harsh realities of Christian discipleship may seem far off to many who live in a comfortable western Christian existence. If we are honest, most of us in the mainline American Christian world have grown stagnantly comfortable. In this passage Jesus warns of the costs of being his disciple.
Being a disciple of a teacher means we follow the same ways of being that they live, we follow their example, and walk in their footsteps. To be a disciple of Jesus is to pattern our life after his life, follow his example, and walk in his footsteps. In Jesus’ earthly life, and in the early days of the Church, the context is inextricably linked to the Roman Empire—an empire whose systems of inequality Jesus resisted.
Indeed, what are we to make of this week’s lectionary as a whole, which explodes off the page with dire, provocative language that sounds anything but peaceful? The prophet Jeremiah describes God’s presence in his life as fire, a burning fire shut up in my bones. The Psalmist writes that his faith makes him an object of shame, gossip, insult, and reproach in his community. Paul reminds us that our commitment to Christ requires us not simply to be nice people, but to consider ourselves utterly dead to sin. And in our Gospel, Jesus speaks of exposed secrets, broken homes, heavy crosses, and lost lives.
In short, these texts compel us — to move beyond soft, saccharine Christianity, and wrestle with the hard, high costs of discipleship. Descriptive rather than prescriptive, they declare in honest, unflinching terms what will happen if we dare to take our faith seriously. What will happen in our families, our communities, our churches, and our world if we allow the fire of God’s word to burn through us. Bottom line? If tender Jesus, meek and mild is what we prefer, then this week’s lectionary is not for us. If an unrisky religion is what we feel entitled to practice, we’ve misunderstood Christianity. If neither you nor anyone within your sphere of influence has ever been provoked, disturbed, surprised, or challenged by your life of faith, then things are not okay in your life of faith.
Let’s take a few representative phrases from the readings and consider what they say to us about fear, peace, and faith.
The Lord is with me like a dread warrior. This is the phrase Jeremiah uses to describe the presence of God in his life. So I trend to tread carefully around images of an Onward Christian Soldier God, a scary God, aware of their many pitfalls. And yet I wonder: are we, the 21st century Church, willing to fear God in ways that are right and necessary? Do we recognize that when it comes to evil, injustice, and oppression, God is in fact a dread warrior? Are we willing, for example, to allow this God to shatter the monolith that is white privilege and white supremacy in America? Are we open to God warring against our thoughtless consumerism, our casual lusts, our quiet hatreds, our unexamined idolatries? Can we allow God to battle the large-scale indifference to death and addiction to guns that daily turn our streets, schools, playgrounds, and shopping malls into bloody war zones? Are we open to God breaking our hearts with compassion so that we can welcome into our midst the stranger, the refugee, the immigrant, the exile?
Make no mistake, God’s peace doesn’t come at the expense of holiness, righteousness, mercy, and justice. Some things must break, must shatter, must die, before the Word of God can take root and grow. Whether it’s a besetting sin in my personal life, an ouch moment, or a corporate failure in my communal or national life, the question that matters is this: do I trust God to be a dread warrior, doing battle against the evil within and around me? Do I really want God’s Word to engage my life at its hardest, stoniest core? Or do I want a soft substitute?
Zeal for your house has consumed me. Has it? This is an earnest question, one I’ve been asking myself over and over as I became a Christian who was surrounded by zealous Christians. Zeal in the Biblical context is fervor, ardor, enthusiasm, or passion. Do I feel ardent about God’s house? God’s reputation? God’s name and standing in the world I live in? Am I so consumed by the good news of Jesus’s death and resurrection that I feel pain when the good news is twisted, abused, maligned, or neglected? Do I have stakes in God’s house, God’s family, God’s people, God’s world?
I’ll admit that the answer is many times no. Let’s face it — zeal makes most of us uncomfortable. When it comes to religious devotion, we prefer a gentle reserve. A polite detachment. A measured interest. But zeal? Zeal is embarrassing. Zeal is fanatical. Zeal is what the Bible-thumping weirdos have.
And yet the Psalmist writes without apology that he is consumed with passion for the things of God. Jesus himself echoes this sentiment when he warns his disciples against the dangers of a half-baked, tepid spirituality: Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. What we should fear, these passages imply, is not an ardent and intense devotion. What we should fear is indifference. Casualness. A lukewarm faith that risks and therefore gains nothing.
Those who lose their life for my sake will find it. Here, Jesus implies that God’s timing will sometimes offend us, and that God’s measure of loss and gain in a human life will sometimes appall us. What I take Jesus to mean is that losing our lives is part of the deal if we choose to follow him. ISn’t that what Paul is saying in the Epistle for today? If we take our faith lives seriously, we’ll pay a price before we reap a reward. Which is to say, we Christians need to be clear and honest about the faith we profess. Yes, there is joy in the Christian life. Yes, there is beauty, awe, healing, and laughter. Yes, the hairs on our head are all counted, and yes, we are worth more to God than many sparrows. But the life of faith is also arduous. The life of faith is also risky. The life of faith does not guarantee us health, wealth, prosperity, or safety. The life of faith is sacrificial at its heart, and to suggest otherwise is to lie. To preach otherwise is to make a mockery of the Gospel.
I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. Again, it’s important to remember that when Jesus speaks of division rather than peace in this Gospel, he’s being descriptive, not prescriptive. It’s not Jesus’s desire or purpose to set fathers against sons or mothers against daughters. It’s certainly not his will that we stir up conflict for conflict’s sake, or use his words to justify violence or war. But his words are a necessary reminder that the peace Jesus offers us is not the fake peace of denial, dishonesty, and harmful accommodation. His is a holistic, truth-telling, disinfecting peace. The kind of deep, life-changing peace that doesn’t hesitate to break in order to mend, and cut in order to heal.
Jesus will name realities we don’t want named. He will upset hierarchies we’d rather keep intact. He will expose the lies we tell ourselves out of cowardice, laziness, or obstinacy. And he will disrupt all dynamics in our relationships with ourselves and with each other that keep us from wholeness and holiness. This is not because Jesus wants us to suffer. It’s because he knows that real peace is worth fighting for.
Consider the fact that Jesus forced choices from just about everyone he met during his years of incarnate ministry. No one met him without feeling compelled to change. He consistently brought people to the point of crisis, tension, movement, or transformation. He consistently led people to decisions their families and communities didn’t understand. IN some ways, Jesus himself was considered crazy by his mother and siblings. Still, the status quo held no sway over him; his project was shalom or bust. And so we have to ask ourselves: when was the last time my faith divided me? When was the last time I allowed Jesus to bring me to a point of saving crisis? When was the last time my faith life encouraged holy division, holy change, in someone else’s heart? In other words: what am I most invested in? My comfort or my salvation?
The vision of the Kin-dom of God that Jesus initiated on earth was one that challenged human systems of class, wealth, status, and oppression. Indeed, his resistance to the empire led to his crucifixion at the hands of the state. Thus, if we are to be disciples of Jesus, we can expect to follow this path of resistance to oppression. Once again, a warning is helpful here: this work is dangerous!
Let’s just look at the Coronavirus for a current example…. While this virus itself does not discriminate, the effects of the virus have revealed how our social structure leads to disproportionate harm of those who are most vulnerable, those who are poor, and people of color. Those who are frontline workers, often working for less than a living wage, are putting themselves at high risk for contracting the virus on a daily basis. These employees must make the choice between a job or risking their health. Poverty and classism are highly visible as we see who is most at risk, and who can remain tucked away in relative safety.
Furthermore, studies show that COVID-19 is infecting and killing black people in the US at disproportionately high rates. Public Health researchers say these high numbers reveal the systemic inequalities that exist in our society around resources and access to healthcare.
This crisis, like many others, is showing in the full light of day the ugly structures our society is founded upon. We must ask ourselves in this moment what it means to be disciples of Jesus who sought to bring about a kin-dom of Gods love and peace. For many who have relative privilege or security, this will cost something. Moving towards equity and justice requires that we examine the ways that we benefit from systems of oppression. It requires that we change our participation in those systems and actively seek to change them rather than perpetuate them. For a small action, I might ask, How do my choices in shopping affect those who work in essential jobs? Do I seek to patronize companies and stores that pay a living wage and aim to protect their workers? Thinking a bit more broadly, do I join in organizing to change the systems that leave some vulnerable, or without healthcare? I do not have all the answers to what life might be like on the other side of this virus, but I know that it cannot be as it always has been. Whatever normalcy we had, it was not the Kin-dom of God on earth as in Heaven that Jesus calls us to co-create with God.
Perhaps we should include a warning in our baptismal liturgies: This life may lead to loss of earthly comforts. But as Jesus says, those who lose their life will truly find it.
Let us pray:
God of the prophets,
your word burned within them until they couldn’t keep it back.
But their speaking brought them resentment and pain.
They were hated by enemies and sometimes even by friends and family. Your word is still offensive to the world, O God.
Yet you call us to proclaim it.
Give us strength through your Spirit to speak the words
that must be spoken, to suffer the resentment that will result,
and to remain faithful to Christ.
Fill us with life in him, even as we lose our lives in his service.
Invitation to the Offering
Our Wild God has helped and comforted us.
And it is so good! We will not be distressed.
We will work in this goodness to mend every
broken branch on our family tree.
We will use our gifts, tithes and offerings to
rebuild the body of Christ.
Let us give to the family that nurtures us in new growth.
Grow these gifts in your love, Wild God.
Bless our offerings, our hearts and our
hopes in your love
To make us worthy of your work in this world.
Fill these gifts and each of us with your goodness. Amen.
Beloved in Christ, into your hands God gives strength and worth.
Take another strip of cloth to weave into and to mend the broken relationships in the body of Christ.
Trust that this wild world is full of God’s steadfast love.
For you, dear servant, were made for this love.
Know we go this day with the blessing of God Almighty….
As you leave this place, remember that you may be the only grace someone will meet this week.
We go, to share God’s graciousness with all.
Remember you may be the only love someone will encounter this week.
We go, to be the love of Jesus for all.
Remember you may be the only peace someone will find this week.
We go, to share the Spirit of hope and reconciliation with all.
We go forth in the name of Christ…