Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 5, 2010
May true community flow in joy: born in the heart of God, lived among us in Jesus Christ, and spread in all the earth by the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There’s a great saying in the South that goes like this: “That preacher’s just gone from preachin’ to meddlin.” I think that whoever first coined that adage may have been thinking about the kind of sermon we get from Jesus this morning. I have a feeling that Jesus would not have had an easy time being called as a rector.
Let’s be honest, when search committees interview candidates for the job they want someone who will make people want to come to church. They want a priest who will create a caring, lively, yet comfortable environment, offer good worship, and preaching that is intelligent—but not too demanding. So if people checking out potential rectors for a church showed up when Jesus was preaching, I think he’d be out of the running. “If you don’t hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, you cannot be my disciple.” Oh, yeah, that would win him a lot of points in the calling process.
Why does Jesus say all these disturbing things about hating family members? First off, these were very different and dangerous times. For Jesus and for most of the leaders of the early Church, the cost of discipleship was very high. To let God rule meant that they would no longer let Caesar rule over them.
If as a leader among Jews in Galilee and Judea or as a leader in the early Church you publicly rejected the authority of Caesar in favor of the authority of God, you would soon be carrying your cross to your own crucifixion. You would have to give up all human relationships and give up your life at that point. The cost was very high for this depth of commitment and that is why we find the brief parables about being prepared included in this Gospel. Before you would make this level of commitment, you would do well to determine whether you possessed enough strength to make it.
One of the resources I use to help me develop sermon ideas suggested that the sermon preached this Sunday will be the most important of the year. Well, that made no sense to me. It’s Labor Day weekend, after all, and so attendance is likely be lower than usual. And there’s all this “hate your father ands mother, go sell all your possessions” and “take up your cross” language to boot, which is hard to understand at the best of times. But you know what? There is validity in saying that this is one of the most important sermons preached this year … precisely because it is Labor Day weekend and what the gospel tells us about taking up our cross.
Think about it: One of biggest challenges most people face is to overcome the disconnect we can experience between what we do on Sunday and what we do the rest of the week. Do we find something in the sermon, what we do during worship, and what we hear in Scripture that actually helps us make sense of our lives in the world?
If you’re not sure about this, ask someone whether they believe that what they do—at home, at work, as volunteers—matters, really matters to God. Then ask them if they think that what they do is holy and sacred. I’d wager that most people—even those who attend church—haven’t been taught or trained to see their labor as holy, to see their everyday efforts as important to God, to imagine that they are God’s partners in doing God’s work in the world.
This week Mother Cindy and I were talking about a brief ritual of dedication of our Sunday School teachers next month. It’s a wonderful way to recognize this important ministry. We have in the past recognized other ministries and our Episcopal Book of Occasional Services contains blessings and dedication prayers for a number of parish ministries. But when has the church ever set aside a time—maybe in early April—to consecrate accountants? Or recognized the work of plumbers, electricians, physicians, nurses, bankers, or carpenters?
How many of us regularly pray for those who volunteer in social service agencies that our communities depend on? Or how to we raise up those who are unemployed so that they will see that they are valued as members of our community?
We rarely intentionally nurture the imagination of people to believe that God is at work in them and through them for the sake of the world and the building of God’s Kingdom. And if people can’t recognize how what they do matters if they can’t see out how what we do here on Sunday makes a difference to all the other stuff they do, there is something missing.
And this is where this week’s Gospel makes sense. We probably have been taught that when Jesus talks about “taking up the cross” he’s referring to some major life crisis—some significant suffering or loss. But what if it’s more ordinary than that? What if bearing the cross has nothing to do with chronic illness, painful physical conditions, or trying family relationships but is instead what we do willingly as a consequence of our commitment to Jesus Christ.
If this is true, then we are invited to take up our cross anywhere, anytime, and doing just about anything. Financial managers and volunteers, IT specialists and temp workers, bus drivers and barbers, students and secretaries, parents and payroll officers, lawyers and chefs —all of these people and more, by offering their time, talent, and labor on behalf of others with honesty and authenticity and integrity, are bearing their cross by allowing the whole of their lives to be shaped by their commitment to Christ.
The rub here is this business about honesty and authenticity and integrity. Whether we’re talking about our work place or home or school or the church—that can be a real challenge. There will be times when it will cost us to do our jobs with honesty and authenticity and integrity, maybe even having to give up our status, security, and comfort for the sake of the Gospel.
No, Jesus may not have had much of a chance being called as a rector but he’s a perfect friend, mentor, and lover because he tells us the truth about ourselves, especially when we’re most reluctant to hear it.
In fact, we not only need his preachin.’ We need his meddlin’ as well. The life to which he calls us is not for everyone, but just like the potter, God never gives up on us—knowing that through God’s grace we can be different tomorrow from what we are today just as we are different today from who we were yesterday.
What we do with our life at home and work and school or how we minister in the world or in church is holy and sacred and can have a powerful effect on God’s world. Jesus just wants us to be clear that when we willingly do it with honesty, authenticity and integrity it may cost us. Whether we hear that as good or bad news is our choice to make.