Sermon preached by Anne M. Watkins, Associate for Member Incorporation
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 8, 2013
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Encourager. Amen.
Welcome back to September – full-fledged September now when Labor Day holidays and most of our vacations have passed. For teachers and students, school has resumed and we are diving headlong back into teaching and being taught. And so it is with Holy Words today.
You’ve likely heard some version of this little story before. Still, I’ll share it. A chicken and a pig were wandering along together when they happened upon a Church. The sign outside announced this week’s sermon topic: “Called to help the Poor.” The hen, musing, says to her friend, the pig: “I have a great idea. Let’s provide breakfast to all the poor folks in the neighborhood. We could give them bacon and eggs.” The pig thought for a moment and replied, “There’s just one problem. For you, it’s a contribution. For me, it’s total commitment.”
Our teachers, both Moses and Jesus, have a little something to say about commitment … and risks, and costs. But there’s a third teacher –contemporary to us – who I’d like to begin with because in addition to words about commitment and risks and costs, we might use these stories as ways to consider effectiveness and faithfulness.
Some of you may be familiar with Parker Palmer: author, educator, community and spiritual leader. I came across a short snippet of his on Vimeo® (http://vimeo.com/35028736). In it he speaks of our tendency as a people and a society to over-value effectiveness. Now there’s certainly nothing wrong with being effective. We need effective people to accomplish a whole lot of important things. Most all of us want to feel effective: if we have children we want to be effective in our parenting, or in our relationships, in our work, in the areas in which we offer our time or talents or even our money. What Palmer suggests though is that there is something problematic if effectiveness becomes our primary – or only – standard of measure. If our measure is based on successful outcomes, he suggests, then we necessarily pick up smaller and smaller tasks over time because it is only the small tasks that we can be assured of accomplishing; at which we can be effective. What Palmer goes on to say is that if we, as a people want to tackle the big tasks – the ones he identifies as justice, and mercy, and love – then we need to adopt another standard. He offers the standard of faithfulness.
As I listened to this little Vimeo ® snippet, I heard strands of Moses and of Jesus coming through. Both of these ancient teachers raise questions of commitment and risk that ultimately lead back to this juxtaposition between effectiveness and faithfulness. Bear with me and we can try to connect the dots.
Moses speaks to some tired Israelites, who after 40 long years are on the cusp of entering the Promised Land. Jesus is speaking to the crowds following him around the countryside; those whom he has called to do so and those whom he has acquired. They also may be a tired bunch of folks; some of them tired of their marginalization and certainly many of them tired of Roman rule and occupation. It is reasonable, I think, to guess that among these many people – living thousands of years apart – there was some commonality in the great variations of who was prepared to follow in whatever their next steps might be and perhaps great commonality in their vision of those next steps.
Moses, following God’s direction, has been more or less effective ultimately in bringing the Israelites this far. To be sure, there have been set backs along the way; images of golden calves and a great deal of grumbling come to mind. Yet what Moses does is not to position the people to be effective; he speaks to them about being faithful and in claiming a new identity. He raises questions of commitment and risk that lick the edges of this juxtaposition between effectiveness and faithfulness.
The primal narrative of faith for ancient Israel lies in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible – the Pentateuch. Today’s passage from Deuteronomy comes from the last of these books and serves as the linchpin between the books of Law and the History books of God’s people in the promised land that follows, beginning with Joshua. In Deuteronomy, we have moved from the narratives in the preceding books that trace the beginning of all creation in Genesis and subsequent fall, slavery, escape, exile, and wilderness to where they are now on the brink of the Jordan River. What is fundamental from the Israelites’ perspective is that God’s very goal in creating earth and humankind in the first place is to settle the nation Israel – God’s chosen ones – in a land of promise.
Up until now, this narrative has been largely shaped by the Priestly tradition that says that adherence to the commands and laws of YHWH is foundational and unequivocal. And, of course, it is. These laws though – and we see hundreds of them in Leviticus, for example — primarily lean towards purity and holiness both of which are often marked by sacrifices and rituals. It is this same Priestly perspective which believes that profaneness and impurity are the causes for displacement and deportation – and those 40 years of wandering the wilderness.
Deuteronomy is made up of three speeches delivered by Moses. This morning we’ve come to the last of these. Israel’s premiere teacher focuses on Israel’s final preparation for entry into this land of metaphorical milk and honey. Old Testament scholar, Walter Bruggeman, stresses that what is important for us to understand is the critical departure of theme from the four books of the Pentateuch the precede it. What Moses teaches now is that from the roots of this Priestly tradition emerges a second law; what the root words for Deuteronomy translate into.
The activities of ritual, sacramental, priestly enactment for holiness and purity might be judged for their effectiveness. How many laws were broken; or more importantly, how many were upheld? How many calves were sacrificed? How many people were cleansed? Moses wants God’s people to understand that what is more important than effectiveness is their faithfulness. Torah’s commandments must be translated now into a practice by the community in the daily affairs of their lives in settled land. Their theological identity as YHWH’s people may have its roots in holiness and cleanliness and purity. But, that identity now shifts significantly from being God’s people of Moses and Sinai to being God’s people of Joshua and Covenant. Moses re-imagines, re-interprets, and re-appropriates what happened at Sinai – the handing down of the Law — for this new time and new place. Bruggeman asserts that as much as any part of the Bible, this is the point of definitive connection between Israel’s theological claim at identity and a public ethic of neighborliness.
In order to be faithful to this second law and newly reclaimed identity, Israel must be aware of the risks that entering the land entails and must be committed to YHWH alone. Not surprisingly, the risks lie in the subtle, simple and age-old presence of temptation. They are vulnerable after all this wandering. Claiming this lush land as their own – promised and delivered to them by Godself — is heady stuff.
The temptations are at least two-fold. One is that they may be tempted to be swept away with their own sense of effectiveness as they go forth to conquer the Assyrians. The other is that they will be so swept away by the riches of the land they discover that they succumb or submit to the Assyrian culture that resides there. They might effectively occupy and cultivate the land by assimilation with the Assyrians – what Moses warns them of — by adopting foreign customs and culture and gods that lie counter to their Covenant with YHWH. They may forget their commitment to be faithful to their identity as God’s light to all the other nations; a light characterized by neighborliness, by mercy and by justice. Choose life, Moses tells them. If effectiveness follows, thanks be to God; but faithfulness comes first.
The authority of Moses and this pluralism of Torah teaching he offers – this re-casting, this re-imagination, re-interpretation, re-appropriation from deep roots for new places and new times is what we see as we move forward into New Testament times. It is also what we are called to do: to re-imagine and re-appropriate from deep tradition and holy words a reclaimed identity in our time. It is upon this Mosaic authority that Jesus re-casts, re-interprets, re-appropriates and re-teaches his followers, not as one who came to abolish the Law, but as one who came to uphold it in his new place and new time. Like Moses, Jesus recasts faithfulness through a socio-economic lens of justice, mercy, neighborliness, and love.
The ever increasing crowds following Jesus are likely doing so because he has been effective; as a healer, preacher and teacher. Like Moses, Jesus is trying to prepare his audiences to confront what are quite distorted expectations for what comes next. And to ensure that long term faithfulness endures beyond short-term effectiveness.
In prior weeks, we’ve heard and reflected on stories of the banquet table, its abundance and its openness to all to partake; stories that speak of salvation. Today, Jesus talks to the crowds not of salvation but of our response to it; this great gift of life from God. Jesus talks now about discipleship – its risks, its commitments, its costs. These folks had seen and heard about miracles and healings and it isn’t, therefore, unreasonable for them to be anticipating more of the same; or to anticipate victory and power – and the riches that come with them. They do not know what Jesus knows as they follow him to Jerusalem. And so, like Moses, Jesus teaches in order to prepare them that their expectations are false and that the stakes and costs are high. The words are jarring.
‘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.
Hate, I’d reckon, is a strong and troublesome word for most of us. Even in the most problematic of families, and even if justified, “hate” may not be the first word we want to use when speaking of our parents or siblings or spouse. So, it may help to know that once again, we have a translation issue with some of the words in this passage. And a help to know that we need not – indeed should not – take words of scripture quite so literally. We have other translations to look to for some clarification and assistance. A similar passage in Matthew, for example, asserts that “whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” The Gospel of Thomas – even though it is a non-canonical testament – can be enlightening. It says, “Whoever does not reject father and mother in the way I do cannot be my student. Whoever does not welcome father and mother as I do cannot be my disciple.” And Eugene Peterson’s more contemporary paraphrase found in The Message offers this as the passage in question by Luke. “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters – yes, even one’s own self! – can’t be my disciple.”
Like Moses’ preparation that the Israelites must enter the promised land with full allegiance to YHWH, Jesus prepares his would-be followers with a similar theme. To respond to God’s gift of salvation as Jesus’ followers means that God comes first; not possessions, not other relationships, even the closest ones we have.
Effectiveness – again is not the issue; faithfulness is. What we dare not do is trade in our faithfulness for effectiveness. We might be effective at a great many things. Over recent years, for example, we have been effective at inviting, attracting, welcoming many new faces into this community. But if it doesn’t continue to come from the roots of faithfulness to God’s hospitality and the Good News, it becomes a means to an effective outcome of simple, increased numbers and not an expression of our response to abundant love and hospitality that God has first shown to us.
Politicians may be effective at getting themselves elected. But if they do so by saying what they think the public wants to hear rather than articulating a compelling, genuine, faithful position of public service and public good — and then being prepared to make good on that — then their effectiveness is empty and we are all put at some risk.
Households, businesses, churches can be fiscally effective with balanced checkbooks and, in businesses case, high profits. But if they do so from stinginess, or fear or at the expense of their core values or identity or mission, they risk losing their souls, and sooner or later effectiveness gives way to emptiness.
If a teacher or educational system (as some many of our systems seem to be now) is only effective at getting their students to pass a standardized test without being faithful to the task of educating them as whole people, then the privilege of having a student return many years later to thank them for believing in them and helping them to become critical thinkers and participants in the world will disappear and that teacher’s life’s work will hold little real reward.
If we worry about being effective first and foremost, then few of us would be willing to speak truth in those places and to those powers where truths must be spoken because we know that doing so we risk the loss of our popularity, or our reputation, or our jobs, or our relationships with family and friends. We might speak out just enough to accomplish the small tasks – to be effective by societal standards — but lose the opportunity to be faithful movers of God’s world toward greater mercy, and greater justice and greater love.
Discipleship is about faithful response over the long haul in trust that effectiveness will (or will not!) follow in God’s good time. The two examples Jesus offers — weighing first the costs of building the tower before beginning construction or in weighing the costs of waging war ahead of doing battle illustrate for us that following Jesus is a lifetime endeavor of some discernment. We need to know that we are willing to finish the job. Salvation – the unearned gift of life – frees us to respond. But we must respond knowing that as we choose life, we are committing ourselves to a lifetime of choice. A daunting and jarring task – these Holy Words? Yes, indeed. But as author Carl Bard said, “Although no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending.” Thanks be to God. Amen.