Thursday, September 12, 2013

Sunday Sermon: The Gospel of No Easy Answers

September 8, 2013
The Rev. Mark B. Pendleton
Christ Church, Exeter

The Gospel of No Easy Answers

On a day like today, I realize that the best part of being a relatively new rector here at Christ Church, who started two Sundays after the crowds of Easter Day had already thinned out a bit, who works and lives on New Hampshire’s Seacoast when folks clearly enjoy getting to the beach and away for the summer – that on a day like today I get to meet many people again – for the first time. 

Though always exciting, new and fresh to be with children as they begin a new year in school this time of year –- during a week where we also launched a new website to better get out the word of who we are as a community -- we have some challenging teaching to wade through this morning.

I have heard the advice from communication professionals that to be relevant and effective in today’s culture, Christians leaders would be wise to find other ways, other words, to talk about the core tenants of faith – words like redemption, salvation, atonement, incarnation, eschatology, apocalyptic – because it today’s modern and post-modern world, these words fail to convey the essence of Christianity.   When one thinks about it – those heavy words and weighty concepts -- I think there is a lot of truth in this critique. Let me offer another word: discipleship.  It goes to the core of today’s gospel reading.

To the crowds that were traveling with Jesus, he turned and said to them:  Luke 14: 26“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.  And to cap off this section:  33 none of you become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.  To sum up: hate your family, be willing to die, and give us everything you hold dear.  Welcome to Christ Church!

These challenging and even uncomfortable words are mostly familiar to the churchgoer if not easy to understand. I view them as verses that stand alongside the more uplifting words of Jesus about forgiveness, healing and love. The attitude we apply as we wrestle with them might be: ‘we have to take the good with the bad;’ or ‘they go with the territory;’ or ‘no pain no gain’ way of looking at the gospel.  Fair enough.  Clearly there’s something there for us to hear.

And then there’s Syria. We have been praying for Syria over these summer months. For an end to the violence. For the shelter of refugees. For its large ancient Christian community. 

And today we hear this:  Jesus says: 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.

To me these verses seem eerily relevant and demanding in light of unfolding world events.  What could these examples of vigilance and preparedness in building a tower and waging war contribute to the extraordinary public debate going on this country about what to do -- or not do -- in after the reports of the use of chemical weapons?

If there is a road-map for a disciple of Jesus through the current crisis in Syria, or ongoing threats around the world, it may be hard to see through the filter of the media, politics and national interest and the lens of recent history.  The more I learn and read, the more uncertain I become of what to do beyond praying that peace wins out, which is always something we should do.

There comes a point in a national debate like the one that is taking place, and I believe, in our own personal lives, that we become numb and overwhelmed and we titter of becoming disconnected instead of engaged.  Not indifferent so much, but numb. Numb to war, numb to bad news, numb to more disturbing YouTube pictures of human suffering, retaliation, and senseless violence. It happens in the hours or days after great tragedy, 9/11, Oklahoma City, the Asian Tsunami, the Haiti earthquake, Newtown, the Boston Marathon bombing: enough.  I can’t watch any more. Turn off the TV, get outside, play with the kids, walk the dog, go out to lunch with a friend, watch a mindless comedy or reality TV show.  There’s a reason Duck Dynasty is the highest rated show on cable. 

We are a congregation that remembers every week the names of soldiers who have lost their lives – the most precious gift that God gives – in a war that is coming to a slow and painful end in Afghanistan.  We are a war-weary nation living in a violent world. A memorable cover of an Episcopal magazine years ago put it another way: We are an Easter people living in a Good Friday world. How will we as Christians shape our prayers, our views, our response to this and any other hard decision that will have to be made?

What appears clear in the words of Jesus in today’s gospel reading is that being a follower of Jesus Christ then and now will require some difficult choices and will lead us through dark and lonely times.  For those defined by what they own, a call to give up all their possessions was the best way for Jesus to drive the point home.  In a culture where family was everything, Jesus calling on hating one’s own family hit a nerve.  Especially when many people treated family members as their possession.  

I believe deeply that you and I just can’t come together to hear what we want to hear. We have no other option to wrestle with difficult teachings and passages, intractable problems, over-size challenges.

I do believe that the journey we are all on has a simple message that we best hear: we cannot hold onto what is not fully ours.  And for some it takes a lifetime and even an eternity to accept let alone embrace this.  A parent cannot hide the pain, disappointment and violence of the world from their child forever. This is especially true in a community such as ours. The downsizing grandparent comes to realize that their memories of family and yesterday do last forever – allowing them to courageously let go of cherished homes and family heirlooms. The money that so many work so hard to earn, save and invest can touch and impact a wider community when it is also offered for the good of many and given away. The church at its best makes that possible. Wherever we thought we would be by a certain age in terms of career, relationship, prosperity, security is seldom the place we are today, and that takes some tough soul searching to work though. True grace is discovering that we are in the place where God is fully known to us. 

Lee C. Camp, a writer from Nashville wrote: (in his book Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World)  “Jesus of Nazareth always comes asking disciples to follow him--not merely "accept him," not merely "believe in him," not merely "worship him," but to follow him: one either follows Christ, or one does not. There is no compartmentalization of the faith, no realm, no sphere, no business, no politic in which the Christ will be excluded.”

Tough, challenging, and life giving lessons.