September 4, 2016: "Difficult Words"
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
September 4, 2016
Jeremiah 18:1-11 & Luke 14:25-33
Leaving worship last Sunday someone said to me, “There are some things I wish Jesus hadn't said.” They were referring to the parable Jesus told last week of The Workers In The Vineyard. In that parable, a vineyard owner hires workers at different times during the day, yet pays each worker the same at the end of the work day. This, of course, angers the workers who spent the whole day in the vineyard. Jesus told this parable as a way to illustrate God’s grace. Whether we come to the vineyard early in the morning, part way through the day, or even an hour before the closing bell rings, God’s gift of grace is given to us equally and abundantly. God’s gift of grace is an invitation into relationship with God, whether we worked 10, 8, 5, or 2 hours—God is just that generous. But what about fairness? What about equal pay for equal work? What about good business practice? These are difficult words to hear from Jesus, and I understand why someone might say, “There are some things I wish Jesus hadn’t said.”
We have more difficult words from Jesus in front of us again today. From the gospel of Luke we listen in as Jesus tells a crowd of his followers that they must hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself if they want to be his followers. This echoes something Jesus said to the same crowd earlier in Luke’s gospel. In Luke 12 Jesus says, “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division…father against son, mother against daughter, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law.” Jesus then tells the crowd that they must carry the cross if they want to be his disciples. This is another echo, but this time from Matthew’s gospel. In Matthew 16 Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” After some talk about building towers and going out to war, Jesus confirms that one cannot become his disciple if they do not first give up all their possessions.
These are difficult words, to be sure. Jesus is talking about sacrifice here, ultimate sacrifice, to the point that his followers strip themselves of everything that is not their cross. Jesus is also talking about breaking ties, some of the most important ties human beings form with one another. Giving up everything is a lot to ask of his followers: their relationships, their possessions, all of it. How can we find the good news of God in such difficult words? The good news can be found if we are willing to re-think sacrifice.
Our culture has led us to believe that sacrifice is a bad thing. But it’s actually a bit more complex than that. Lutheran theologian Dave Lose says that we have been trained to admire those who make sacrifices—Olympic athletes, fire fighters, our men and women in uniform—but we have also been led to believe that there’s no reason we should have to sacrifice in an instant-access, instant-gratification kind of world. On one hand, sacrifice is good for those who are competitive, for those who are called to save lives and put out fires, and for those who protect the freedoms we enjoy. Yet on the other hand, for normal folks, sacrifice is not something we need since we have access in a second to anything that might strike our fancy.
And yet we all make sacrifices. Parents make sacrifices to give their children a good life, a better life than the one they had. Countless people make sacrifices to go back to school to accomplish something greater in their career. People make sacrifices to start over, to get married and start families, to start charities, or to start programs that support those in need. Not a few of you here today, I’m sure, have made sacrifices in order to put money away for a down payment or to pay off college or to start a college fund for children or grandchildren. We sacrifice in order to show love and affection; we sacrifice to make ourselves better; we sacrifice to make others better. And often we do so with a sense of joy and fulfillment.
There are sacrifices and then there are sacrifices. There are some that lead to greater life, and there are some that don’t. This is why some sacrifices bring us joy and some do not. This doesn’t mean that life-giving sacrifices are easy or fun or comfortable, just that they lead to a greater sense of purpose, a more robust and abundant life, a particular type of joy that sustains during the hard times. The other side is that there are sacrifices that lead to less life, no joy, or even death.
This should help us to hear Jesus’s difficult words differently. Jesus isn’t inviting meaningless sacrifice when he asks us to give it all up for him. He isn’t inviting door-mat discipleship or a type of Christianity that is whiny and full of self-pity. Rather, he is inviting us to a full-bodied Christian faith that stands over and against all those things that are presented to us as life by our culture. Too often we are told that the more we have, the more we will have; to buy and consume and discard at lighting speed, the world tells us, is to have it all just as we deserve. Jesus invites us to discover that having it all means giving it all, including our very selves, away. The kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims is about life and love. These things—life and love—they cannot be bought, they cannot be traded, and they cannot be spruced up with accessories…they grow, they infiltrate everything we are, they change us and the world only when they are given away. Genuine and abundant life and love are not possessions, they are gifts that are given and then given away.
To be clear, giving ourselves away, our love and our life, is not an easy sacrifice to make. There are some who will question why we are willing to spend less on ourselves in order to give more to others. There are some who will question why we would invest so much time and energy in helping someone when they appear to be hopeless and helpless. There are some who will question why we would consciously chose to follow someone like Jesus who is constantly giving stuff away, eating dinner with unsavory people, and forgiving sins. When the choices we make, the relationships we pursue, and our way of life reflects the Christ of our faith, this may puzzle, even dissatisfy or upset, those we care about most. But the choice before us, as the potter said to Jeremiah, is whether we will chose to be planted and built up or broken down and destroyed.
The challenge in all of this, of course, is to find ways of sacrifice, of giving life and love, that result in the most life for all.
Sometimes the path is clear, as clear as say, diapers. Yes, diapers. I was recently invited to be on a team of community leaders whose goal is to open a diaper bank in Enid at the start of 2017. Diapers are a basic need, one that provides a happy and healthy growing experience for a child. Unfortunately, diapers are unbelievably expensive and many families within our community are unable to afford this basic need along with everything else. For many years now this congregation has been in the ministry of diapers, and we have only seen an increase in need over the past year. The goal is to open a place where families can come for diapers, but also for basic services—vision and hearing tests, growth measurements, health and wellness care, and nursing classes for new moms, too. We’re a third of the way there, and there is a lot of ground ahead to cover. But this initiative, this ministry, this outreach—whatever you want to call it—will bring life to those who need the services and those who provide them. The joy in this is ripe for the picking, and the harvest will be plentiful, which make the sacrifices of time, energy, and resources totally worth it.
Other times, though, the path is not so clear. When a church starts a new program or ministry, the sacrifice in putting it together turns to defeat when no one shows up. When the cooks and servers at our Saturday Manna program are looking at an empty casserole dish and a long line of hungry people, feelings of joy are replaced by feelings of hopelessness. When we survey the landscape of our current political, economic, and social condition, the sacrifices so many have made for the cause of democracy, of peace, and life and liberty for all appear meaningless and even dumb. You know what it feels like to offer the sacrifice of forgiveness to someone who has wronged you, only to be hurt by the same person in the same way just a short time later. You know what it is like to offer the sacrifice of love to someone, only to learn later that they have neither the capacity to accept or return that love. You also know it is like to be filled with the love and grace of God, only to be ridiculed or mocked for what you believe and how you live your faith. It is in these times that sacrifice appears to be a weakness that leads to death instead of the bold act of faith that Jesus says will lead to life.
It is in these moments, when the path is not clear, that we come closest to Jesus and he to us. The sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross was a sacrifice of love, of forgiveness, and of faith that was met with ridicule, hatred, and unbelief. To assure us of God’s love and forgiveness, either when we are confused or overwhelmed or unclear or have just chosen badly, Jesus went to the cross to put life in front of us. This was God’s ultimate sign of unconditional love and it freed us to choose life. This is the Gospel’s way of doing things, creating the very thing we need most out of the exact opposite. From the death of Christ came life; from sacrifice comes abundance; from giving up and away we actually receive more than we had before. Sometimes the sacrifices we make will bring joy immediately and in a way that will change us forever; other times our sacrifices will seem meaningless, pointless, hopeless, even weak. The miracle of God’s economy is that no matter where we scatter the seeds of the Kingdom, God has a particularly way of making something grow. And that growth happens out there and it happens right in here.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, in a few moments we will gather around Christ’s table and take part in a pageant that has been playing out in the Church for centuries. There is no better place than here to begin rethinking how we make sacrifices, for ourselves, for each other, and for the world, because it is here that we see the sacrifice of Christ most clearly. At this table we watch as Christ lifts a loaf of bread, fills a cup of wine, and lovingly gives himself to each and every person who seeks him. At this table we see, over and over again, that there is always enough to go around. At this table we know that the love of God is ours, and nothing can separate us from God’s love. This is the sacrifice of Christ’s table, and we are called to pattern our lives on what we watch and see and know here today. We are called to lovingly give ourselves, to each other and to the world; we are called to bear witness to the truth that there is always enough for everyone; we are called to live the love of God and stand boldly against anything that might diminish it or take it away.
Later on in Matthew 16, Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” These are the difficult words of Jesus. But they are the essential words of Jesus, for in them we are caught up in the work of God that is at every moment bringing about the Kingdom on earth and transforming all things according to God’s good will and plan. So take up your cross and follow Jesus Christ, today and forever. Amen.