Between noon and three

…spare us in the youngest day when all are shaken awake, facts are facts, (and I shall know exactly what happened today between noon and three); that we too may come to the picnic with nothing to hide, join the dance as it moves in perichoresis, turns about the abiding tree. — W.H. Auden, "Compline"

Month: September, 2016

Sticks, Carrots, and the Cross

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on September 4, 2016, the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity (Pentecost 16, Proper 18).

Collect: Grant us, O Lord, we pray thee, to trust in thee with all our heart; seeing that, as thou dost alway resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so thou dost not forsake those who make their boast of thy mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

All sermons, in one way or another, are pieces of persuasive speech. And as such, each of them falls broadly into one of two categories: they are either a carrot, or a stick. Preachers have to be careful! Too many carrots and we can all grow complacent. Too many sticks, and it’s just so much abuse.

Today’s passage from the Gospel falls into this latter category: it is definitely a stick! Jesus says a number of hard things. First and worst, that we cannot be his disciples unless we first hate our fathers and mothers. And second, that we must each take up our crosses and follow him. He continues by reiterating the great cost of being his disciple, as a king goes to war and counts his troops compared to the opposing force; or as the builder of a tower counts his resources before beginning construction.

Like several other passages in the gospels, this is a sticking point, both for the disciples who heard it so long ago, and for us who hear it today. I confess I have neither the skill as a preacher nor the hutzpah to convince you that this stick is really a carrot after all. So what I will do is offer a few ways to think about this before we carry on with the Creed and the Great Thanksgiving.

“If anyone dos not hate his own family and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Is this really the same Jesus who said, “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you?” Who said, “Love one another as I have loved you?” Aren’t we supposed to love our families first and best of all? Yes, yes, and yes. Then what is this about?

First of all, remember that for us today, the family is our fundamental emotional unit. It is usually our fundamental economic unit as well. But it Jesus’ day, not only was the family the fundamental economic unit, it was also the fundamental political unit. Jesus is making a point here about where we most fundamentally belong. And in Luke’s Gospel especially, that is the Kingdom of God before and above all else, before and above any other allegiance. The Kingdom of God is our true home. And while we may love our families in light of that kingdom, it is that kingdom and its Lord who has given them to us in the first place, not the other way around.

Jesus is also making a very practical point. While we may want to think of our families as the places of greatest emotional stability, personal security, and happiness, we know that this is not always the case. Or rather, that there is more to the story. Families are also the places where people most frequently experience abuse and the breakdown of relationships, which undermines trust and inhibits human flourishing.

There is an old Latin phrase, corruptio optimi pessima, which means “The corruption of the best is the worst.” Too many people know the pain of abandonment or betrayal within their families. Even in families which are otherwise the pictures of patience and support — perhaps even more in those cases — people are still capable of hurting one another in profound ways. Not always intentionally, but still it happens. We hurt more when the one who hurts us is one we love. In this context we can begin to see how it might make sense for Jesus to aim at a higher allegiance than our families; how it might make sense for him to point to a kingdom where whatever is lacking in our love for one another is finally perfected in the love of God, and every tear is wiped from every eye.

But what about the cost? More than anything else this Gospel passage is about the cost of following Jesus. A king counts his armies. Does he have enough troops to prevail against his enemy in war? Or would the cost be less to sue for peace before it comes to blows? A builder wants to build a tower. Is there enough money, enough organization, enough motivation to see it through to completion? In Chicago there is an enormous, abandoned hole in the ground, where a developer began construction on what would have been the new tallest building in The United States and one of the tallest in the world. But money ran out too soon and now it sits derelict on prime waterfront property, one of the most expensive ruins on the planet. The cost was too great.

What is the cost for you and me? What does Jesus ask of us in this Gospel? “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” The cross. “We all have our crosses to bear,” or so we tell ourselves when life starts getting rough. But what about when life is good? What is the cross then? For some people the cross is obvious. A wayward son or daughter. Some great and terrible grief. A mental or spiritual ailment. Sins: the memory of past sins, or the anticipation of future sins.   

What is the cross you bear? For Christians in the Middle East today, the cross might actually be a cross, upon which they are murdered in the same way as our Lord. For many of the rest of us, I suspect, the cross is not always obvious. What if we are like the rich young ruler, who comes to Jesus and says he doesn’t have any particular sins, he has kept all the commandments from birth? What if our conscience is clear and we can point to no serious infraction? If you are one of these happy, probably deluded people, I suggest you broaden your vision. Whom have you not forgiven? For whom do you have no patience? Jesus went to the cross not for his own sins but for yours and mine, to work our forgiveness. The cross for you and me can be no less: even more than the cross of death to self, it is the cross of forgiveness and life. Whom do you have to forgive? To whom has it been given you to offer life? This is your cross, at least as much as any challenge or hardship or guilt you may bear, and probably more: to be an agent of forgiveness and life.

The cost of discipleship is always the cross. And the cross is always, every day, waiting for us to approach again, to make our choice to pick it up again, one more time. Every day we are called afresh to take up our cross and to follow Jesus. There is no other way. There is no shortcut, no buying or talking your way out of this. Spend some time in prayer, take an honest look at your life: your family, the projects you’re working on, the people you’re working with, all those who make demands of you. Where is your cross? It is there for you to bear, often where you least want to see it.

The Gospel lesson may be a stick, but there is also a carrot, which I’ve saved for last. If you or someone you know is in recovery, you may have heard the phrase, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” At first it sounds like cheap advice, the kind of thing you’d find on an Internet meme or a greeting card. But it is both incredibly costly, and incredibly hopeful; it is the carrot for today’s stick. “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

The cost of discipleship is always the cross, whether literally, as for Christian martyrs in Syria and Iraq, or figuratively, as for us in quieter places who nevertheless bear the responsibility to forgive, and to be agents of life in the world. The cost is the cross, and we must pay it every day as for the first time, afresh, anew. But just as recovery happens one day at a time, one moment at a time, with new life unfolding one painful step at a time, even so does our own procession with our cross. As we choose the cross of Christ yet again, in whatever temptation or difficulty we face, day by day, we find ourselves at the very brink of the kingdom of God. Pick up your cross, and see that kingdom stretching out before you in all its peaceful splendor, filled with the light of God’s glory, adorned with all the graces and populated with all the redeemed from every age. Every time we choose the cross we find ourselves on the brink of this kingdom, and our lives in the world reflect just a little bit more of its beauty.

It will cost us dearly, and before the end we will see ourselves poured out to death on our own crosses, in imitation of our Lord on his. And yet, like Moses on Mt. Nebo, today the promised land stretches out before us. We have only to choose it, again, today, to dwell there. Let us pay this cost gladly; let us take up our cross and follow Christ. So might we find this world, our families, and our lives, reflecting the glory of his kingdom: offered upon the cross, broken for our freedom, given to eternal love.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Amen.

“Manners make the man” – or do they?

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on August 28, 2016, the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (Pentecost 15/Proper 17).

Collect: Lord of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of thy Name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Sirach 10:12-18, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

“Manners make the man,” or so they used to say. But manners have gotten a bad rap lately. They’ve fallen out of fashion in favor of “the honest truth” — by which we usually mean raw opinion, unfiltered by any kind of consideration or restraint. We don’t like manners because we don’t know if we can trust them. So often they are merely a pleasant veneer over an ugly core, or an elegant mask covering malicious intent. It is a truism of contemporary society that manners don’t matter: all things considered we’d rather have the unfiltered version, the director’s cut, uncensored. Maybe that will render us unfit for polite society, but then maybe polite society should just go fly a kite.

It’s a little bit troubling, then, that in today’s Gospel Jesus seems intent on teaching a lesson in manners. No matter your own personal rank or desert, when you are invited to a dinner party, take the lowest place. Yield to those who may be beneath you. Have some manners! If your host sees fit to raise you higher, then so be it. If they don’t, then don’t sweat it.

This has to be one of the most practical lessons Jesus ever taught. “You are the salt of the earth” can be hard to figure out; how do we do that? But “take the least honorable place at a dinner party” is pretty straightforward. And every one of us, at one moment or another, on a large scale or small, will have opportunity to practice this lesson.

“But there’s just one thing, Jesus,” we can hear the Pharisees saying. “What if we actually are the most honorable personage present at a particular gathering? Shouldn’t we by right take the place that belongs to us? Anything less would lower my own dignity; and even if I could surrender my own dignity, I must certainly look after the dignity of my office (whatever that might be.). No Jesus I’m sorry, I really ought to be the one sitting at your right hand at this dinner; I really ought to be the one honored here. And if I know I’m the most honorable present, then what good does it do to put myself in the lowest spot starting off? Doesn’t that call even more attention to myself when you inevitably ask me to sit up higher? No it really is best if I take the best spot to begin with, less trouble that way all around, really it is.”

The Pharisees in today’s Gospel seem to have taken a page out of our own 21st century book. They have no time for niceties, no time for manners. They insist on the honest truth, and getting on with the facts of social stratification as they know and live them. But Jesus insists, to them and to us, that there is another way, a better way.  

Manners: in this episode, Jesus sums up the whole project of manners in a word: yield the right of way to someone else, even and especially when you know it belongs to you, whether or not you’re feeling particularly generous. Jesus teaches us this morning that manners mean yielding the right of way to someone else, even and especially when you know it belongs to you, whether or not you’re feeling particularly generous.

Why? Why bother? Why does Jesus ask this of us? Doesn’t it mean, on occasion, that we will have to be less than truthful about how we’re actually feeling towards our neighbors or our fellow dinner guests? Yes, that’s exactly what it means. How does that square with the Gospel? Aren’t we always supposed to be truthful? At the very least, manners allow that our moral accountability rests in a higher law, a higher condition, a higher promise, than the sum total of our feelings at any given moment. Manners, together with its cousin Courtesy, assert that there is a higher world above this one, which it is our privilege to imitate on earth, and our chief hope finally one day to enter and dwell there.

A higher world: the kingdom of heaven — in which no one takes what is not first given freely, no one claims what is not first offered without cost, and the discipline of virtue does not limit our horizons but expands them continuously until we are brought face to face with the Sun of Righteousness himself, Jesus Christ, who surrendered all the trappings and deserving of divinity itself in order to seek and serve you and me. Manners belong to this higher world, and no matter how they might be abused or manipulated, their sheer existence bears witness to that heavenly kingdom.

What if we don’t feel like exercising virtue, or yielding right of way to those who might be clearly in the wrong? By behaving as if we did, we remind ourselves of this higher world, whose prince laid aside far more right, far more honor than we will ever earn no matter how high a place we reach. Furthermore, by behaving with manners, even in direct contradiction to our prevailing attitude or desire, we make small steps towards that world in which we will actually love and desire the Good above our own flawed self-interest.

I’ll never forget a sermon I heard in seminary, in which one of our crustiest and most lovable professors finally snapped a bit at our class. The year was dragging on and we were starting to feel tired, and maybe even a little bit sorry for ourselves about all the work we still had to do. He said, “I don’t care if you’re tired, I don’t care if you feel like it. I’ve heard one too many times that you all think you need “selfcare” more than you need to show up in church and pray. You don’t feel like it? So what? Fake it! Get on your damn knees, and fake it.”

It was a scolding, and a scolding we deserved, no doubt. But he made a very good, very Christian point: fake it! Your feelings are not the final arbiter of truth. In fact, they are the least reliable arbiter of truth out there. Faking it, in spite of our feelings, according the higher standard of the kingdom of God, is a lot more truthful than whatever unpleasant venom you might want to spit just now. Faking our way into the kingdom of heaven, is much more reliable than waiting for our feelings to change or for some kind of sudden, transformative religious experience.

When it comes to manners and our moral and ethical behavior, the same holds true. If you wait for your feelings to change before acting according to Christian conviction, you’ll be waiting a long time. Rather, start now, by giving way to those you think are lower than you, giving way to those you think are in the wrong. Take the lowest place yourself. The Son of God did no less, and quite a bit more, taking the form not even of a guest, though he was the host, but a servant. He did not take the form of vassal, though he was the King of all, but rather that of a criminal condemned to die. He did not claim his own righteousness or innocence before Pilate, Herod, the crowds, or anyone else, but suffered misunderstanding and death.  

His was an ignominious life, full of dishonor and injustice, which he could easily have avoided had he only spoken and acted according to his true status as the king of kings and lord of lords. And yet he didn’t. So great was Jesus’ courtesy, so genuine were his humble manners, that he suffered death rather than correct his accusers or prove his innocence. And what was the result? That the power of death is destroyed for ever; you and I are freed from the the bondage of sin; and we are made citizens of His kingdom forever.

No, manners really do make the man, even if they will never vindicate him before the world this side of death. Whether or not we feel particularly inclined, let us likewise exercise gentleness with one another, not claiming our due but giving it away at every occasion. Let us fake it if we have to, having confidence that our actions will speak louder than our feelings. So may we find that our feelings start following our wills rather than the other way around. So may we finally be fit for the place Jesus reserves for us at the table in his heavenly home.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Amen.