Sermon for Sunday, September 8th, 2019
Well as General MacArthur said after he waded on shore in the Philippines: I have returned!
After a summer of either academic study or the various adventures of my sabbatical, I am back home and back in the pulpit. Of course, I was here last week, but we were still on our summer schedule, so it wasn’t quite back to life as usual. But we are back now in full force, all of us, returned from our various travels and diversions this summer, and hopefully ready to meet the coming program year with renewed passion and energy.
And our gift from God on this Sunday, the Sunday of our collective return, our “welcome back Sunday” is this charming gospel passage, wherein our Lord Jesus Christ says:
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. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
Of course, I am being facetious. There is nothing charming about that passage. It is one of Jesus’s challenging, hard statements that people really struggle with.
Isn’t honoring our fathers and mothers a commandment? Shouldn’t church be a place where families are strengthened and supported?
And I am not going to even get into the whole idea of giving up our possessions….yet.
These are some hard words that Jesus has to offer his would-be followers. And if you only want Jesus for comfort, and not conviction, then his words today are going to be a real challenge.
I mentioned General MacArthur because when I think of someone making a grand return the picture of him standing knee deep in the water on the beach in the Pacific comes to mind. When I think of that image of General MacArthur, which I’m sure most of you are familiar with, wading on shore in the Philippines, it seems triumphant and victorious and encouraging, but I have to remind myself of what he was returning to: he was wading into a war-zone. There were bullets in the air, there was a battle going on; things weren’t going exactly to plan, his boat got stuck, which is why he had to jump into the water. Maybe he was supremely confident that the war would be won, but he also knew that at any moment it could cost him, or any one of his soldiers, everything. Returning isn’t always easy.
So as we return to our regular life of worship here on our “welcome back Sunday,” perhaps it is fitting that Jesus has some harsh, challenging words for us. Because we too are returning to a war zone…and I am not talking about the up-coming friendship fair and the bomb of stuff that has been dropped on the parish hall. No, this is a spiritual war zone and the front line of the battle is within each and every one of us. It is true when we are out in the world, but it is especially true here.
I saw a post online last week, it was a picture of a gorgeous chasuble, much like the one I am wearing, and it said something like “beauty is an act of rebellion in an ugly world.” I loved that thought. There is so much God-given beauty in our world, there is much man-made beauty, but I don’t have to tell you all that there is so much ugliness in it too. And the ugliness is insidious. It sucks us in before we know it. If you have ever gotten into a comments argument with someone online you know how fast it can happen. Even in person, it is almost impossible to have reasonable, rational debates anymore because we all get sucked in to these ugly emotional responses so quickly.
There is a battlefield within each one of us. Ugliness creeps into our soul. It affects how we treat God’s creation, how we treat each other and even what we see when we look into the mirror.
But beauty is an act of rebellion in an ugly world. Trying to live a beautiful life, trying to offer God worship that is sincere and beautiful, trying to treat others in a way that acknowledges the God-given beauty within them…these things are acts of rebellion in a world that would love to drag us down into despair and ugliness.
As Christians, we believe in the Resurrection. We believe that the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ has already won this war. We believe that forgiveness has defeated sin; that life has defeated death; that beauty has defeated ugliness. The ultimate end to the last battle may be settled, but for each one of us, the daily battles still go on. The enemy doesn’t want us to know that Jesus has already won the war between good and evil. So the enemy distracts us, and discourages us, hoping that we will lose the nerve, the will or the energy to keep fighting; hoping that we will settle for something that is less than God. And sadly, many do.
Last week the Episcopal Church released its Sunday attendance figures from the past year, and I can tell you that they aren’t good. Now our parish is growing, and our diocese is holding steady too, we are bucking the trend, but for many places the numbers are extremely troubling. Now I can give a more extended analysis of the various reasons for decline; and I would be the first to point out the many mistakes made by church leadership, but still, we aren’t alone in this decline. In fact, almost across the board churches everywhere, of every denomination, are seeing decreased attendance. The real sad fact, is that people aren’t leaving to go to another church, they are leaving church altogether.
I do understand the temptation sometimes. Because Church isn’t easy. Following Jesus is not easy. Sometimes his words sting. He challenges our assumptions. He calls us out on our own hypocrisy, and then he tells us to do things that we simply don’t want to do. Finally, Jesus sums it all up by saying something like what he says this morning: following me must be more important to you than anything else on earth, anything else. More than your money, your life, your friends, your political affiliation, even your parents. I have to mean more.
So as tempting as it would be for me to find another career, or to do something else on Sunday morning, here I am. I keep coming back, because, ultimately, I believe this story we tell about Jesus to be true, and filing in behind him in this rebellion against ugliness is more important to me that a few more dollars in my pocket, a few more hours of sleep on Sunday and a few less headaches with plumbing issues and miss-sent emails.
And here you are, fighting many of the same battles. By now, some of your friends and family and co-workers may have decided that the cost of following Jesus is too great; that the battles aren’t worth fighting. I understand and I sympathize, but I’m not ready to give up the fight, and I’m guessing neither are you.
This story we tell about death and resurrection, sin and redemption, God’s good creation and the new heaven and earth, the new kingdom that he is creating; it is a beautiful story. I believe it is a true story. and beauty and truth are still worth fighting for. Beauty is an act of rebellion in an ugly world.