Sunday, September 05, 2010

Sermon for September 5, Proper 18, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being"

(Painting by Sir Stanley Spencer) Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

Why was Jesus so extreme, that you have to give up all your possessions? Does it even work? Wouldn’t you just be dependent on someone else who has possessions? Like a Buddhist monk? ike St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa? Or let’s say you have small children—there’s a lot of plastic toys you could give up, but all your possessions would be irresponsible. Now I don’t like to resort to not taking Jesus literally. His words are clear. But how do we obey him and still have a realistic life?

Jesus is on his campaign toward Jerusalem. The crowds keep increasing. They think that Jesus is leading a regime change, and they want to be on his side when it happens. They’re excited, his kingdom is at hand. So Jesus gives them fair warning. "I want you under no illusions. What I will deliver is not what you’re expecting. It may cost you everything. Whatever you value, let go of it now, or do not follow me."

That was the message for them. What’s the message for us? Does God mean to scare us off? You want to get close to God, that’s why you’re here, you are drawn to Jesus, you want him to make a difference in your life, but when you get close to him, he turns around and talks like this, to renounce all your substance and your relationships and all that you hold precious.

We should not soften this hard saying of Jesus. "To follow me you must give up all your possessions." Let’s keep it as something hard and challenging, something to reckon with. If you have a place on your refrigerator for nice sayings, add a place for hard sayings, and put this one there. Jesus presents us with a problem we cannot solve, or make to go away. He gives you a problem to live with all your life. You have to keep coming back to this and measuring yourself against it, examine yourself, judge yourself. Always question the reasons by which you convince yourself that you need this thing, or that connection, or this arrangement.

God places no value on your affluence. God has no interest in protecting your possessions for you, or of getting you more of them. That’s not what God does for you. God’s opinion about your possessions is right here in Luke 14. We have to keep coming back to that. We keep returning to the sober realization that the Christian life is as often a life of loss as it is of gain. It will cost you. Especially when you’re aiming for justice and righteousness in a world that is bent towards injustice and ungodliness, then you will often feel like you are losing, not winning. In this world, to accomplish any real kind of moral change requires that you must sacrifice, maybe even your life.

That’s the meaning of carrying your cross. When Jesus said these words to the crowd, the cross was not yet the religious symbol of Christianity. When Jesus said these words to the crowd the cross was a symbol of Roman domination. Rome had occupied their country, they were a subject people, they had no civil rights, even in their own land they were not citizens. The punishment of crucifixion was one of the things that kept them in line. It was a slow and painful death in the full view of the public, to keep the people down. When they saw you carrying your cross, you were a dead man walking. Unfairly or not, you were a goner.

"Jesus, is that what you’re saying, that we should live as losers to the power of the world, surrendering to injustice? Can’t we be winners, can’t we be heroes? Are you saying not to arm ourselves against oppression, not to stand with courage and fight it, risking death with pride? You mean to surrender to it, like losers with our crosses on our shoulders?"

No. It’s precisely because Jesus did not surrender that they killed him. It’s because he kept saying exactly what he wanted and did exactly as he willed. In that sense they had no power over him. He was free to the end, but he knew it would cost him. How much do you want to be free?

If you are carrying your cross, you cannot carry a sword. When will the world ever learn this? That the only way to accomplish any justice and progress in the world is not by carrying weapons but by carrying the cross. Every movement, and every nation, must return to this.

Notice that Jesus says, "Your own cross." Not the Roman cross. Three times he says it, "one’s own cross." The Romans may seem to be the problem, and while it is true that they are unfair, the real problem is always yourself. It also means that it’s not your possessions themselves that are your problem, but you who possesses them. It’s your possessing that you have to renounce and let go of—the world you build around yourself, how you define yourself, what you’re invested in. Your problem is not what you have but your having. Your enemy is you.

I once had a parishioner whose husband treated her badly. She put up with it, and always said, "He is my cross to bear." No he’s not. That’s not right. She was bearing her husband’s cross instead of her own. As long as she was bearing his, he didn’t have to, and she was kept from bearing her own. The possession she had to give up was her marriage to that man. But had she done that, all her family would have reviled her. Her husband’s family, yes, but her own family too. They would have accused her of disloyalty and selfishness.

That’s what Jesus means when he says you have to hate your father and mother, he doesn’t mean the internal emotion, he means the external reputation, that your family accuses you of not considering them, or of not loving them enough. They act all offended at you, and sometimes that’s the cost of discipleship. They may cut you off from their good graces and their sympathy; and that’s when you realize that you have begun to carry your cross. "If you follow me to Jerusalem, these are the issues and trials and temptations you will face. Are you ready for it?"

Discipleship is a stretch. Christians have to stretch towards obedience and devotion. Yet your discipleship is the most important thing in your life, even worth dying for. Not as a hero—heroes don’t get crucified, they win. No, in the far less glamorous service of ordinary life, of family life, the way you deal with your parents or your spouse or your kids or your own siblings, that’s where discipleship is costly. And in ordinary economic life, the things you buy and sell, the things you own, what you take care of. Everything counts. We’re always counting the cost of discipleship.

The crowd got bigger anyway, even as he entered Jerusalem. But when the pressure got too high they deserted him. He cost too much. Finally even the twelve disciples deserted him. They didn’t want to get near any crosses. So on the basis of what he says here, did that mean that they could no longer be his disciples? Does this mean that none of us can be his disciples?

You know, ironically, Jesus didn’t carry his own cross even though he died on it. An African named Simon of Cyrene carried it for him. There’s a mystical exchange in the gospel. Jesus did the dying so that you don’t have to. Jesus does the dying but not the carrying, You do the carrying but not the dying. His death has virtue for you, to free you from the domination of death. If you carry your cross, you will die not on it, but in peace. You are not carrying it towards the crucifixion but away from it.

There is a mystery of exchange and substitution here, of ransom and replacement. Your cross is for yourself, your reminder of the challenges of Jesus in terms of the life ahead, very down-to-earth. You measure yourself only by his words, and that gives you freedom. You discover that the cross is light. It looks terribly heavy until you shoulder it, and then it’s light. When you have given up everything, in the way that Jesus says, you discover that the unbearable lightness of your being is not unbearable but joyful. You carry your cross away from the crucifixion, you carry it lightly, as a testimony of your gratitude and thanksgiving.

Copyright © 2010, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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