14th Sunday after Pentecost Sermon

September 3, 2023
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

There is no way to make this gospel story comfortable.

In fact, if you are comfortable with it, then something’s wildly out of whack! Either the language and the stories of our faith have become so familiar to you that you can no longer actually hear what Jesus is saying or you’ve already domesticated Jesus’ message to such a tame creature that you’ve gutted it of any power!

“If any want to become my followers,” Jesus says, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

We all want to save our life. It’s built into us. It’s how we survive. When we’re threatened, our reptilian brain kicks into gear and it’s either fight or flight. But one way or another, by god, we’re gonna live! It’s like trying to hold your head under water to drown yourself. You can’t do it. At some point a force within you will take over and send you gasping for breath to the water’s surface. We want to live. The end.

When I think about my own life, and the way I live and make decisions, I’m aware that when I’m comfortable and secure I can make altruistic choices to benefit someone else. I can make choices with my time, my money, my attentiveness and spirit. They can be truly sacrificial choices, but they’re always within limits. I keep my boundaries. I don’t jeopardize my basic security. I don’t say this as an excuse, or as permission, but simply as an honest statement of how things are.

But when things get dicey – when things get confused, or rushed, or threatening – then my capacity to be other-centered gets totally compromised. I’m shoving my head right up to the surface of the water and gasping for breath, concerned only for one thing: and that’s my own survival.

Again, I’m not proud of this; I’m not justifying myself. It’s simply how it is. As a disciple of Jesus, I’ve got a long way to go in learning to deny myself, to take up my cross, and follow him. And, knowing you as I do as your priest, I can say quite plainly that the same is true for you. We are novices in the way of Christ, but absolute aficionados in the way of Peter – rebuking Jesus’ nonsense about suffering and death.

So what do we do if we’re serious about this whole faith thing? Join some suicide cult?

No. Obviously, that’s not the answer either. The point isn’t that we all end up dead on the ground in some compound in Guyana. The point is (so far as I can tell) to shift the way we are living so that the needs of one another become our own concern and priority.

Now, on the one hand, this is a matter of choice – our ongoing decisions about what the right thing to do is, and our willingness to do it. But on the other hand, it is a matter of the heart – about what we desire to do. Now that one’s harder to control. It’s a slower process. I can dutifully give money to FISH because I think it’s the right (or ethical) thing to do. And that’s fine. It’s a step towards becoming Christlike. Next week we’ll be asking you quite explicitly to be generous to Food Backpacks for Kids. But in taking such steps, again and again, the hope is that we will begin to desire such a lifestyle. What do we want to do with our resources? We want to bless one another. We want to start living an increasingly modest life so we have more to give, which has more to do with our spirits than it does with our pocketbooks. For it reflects who we have become in our person..

Because here’s the thing we all have to recognize (if we can bear the honesty): This life is only going in one direction. Every day brings us one day closer to the grave. And as much as we may live in denial of it, we know it’s true. And the question becomes: When we reach that jumping off point, what will have mattered in this life? And it all boils down to just one thing: How much did we love?

That’s it. As one who’s stood by many deathbeds, let me testify: That is all that matters in the end. How much did we love?

And in some ways, you can say, that’s the whole point in following the way of Jesus. We are following him as the one who guides us in this broadening resolve of love: love of God, love of neighbor.

How much did we love?

And honestly, I’m pretty sure that everyone will have loved, to some degree. And any bit of love, even the smallest amount from the most depraved and hideous person, will count as love – will count as a moment when that person was fleetingly able to become participant in God’s kingdom. And for those who have been so broken by this life, whose participation in love may be slight – who knows? – perhaps at the end of days their mustard seeds of love will prove, in God’s reckoning, to be the mighty trees of God’s kingdom, that for them to love from such brokenness will be the “greater things than these” that Jesus once spoke of.

How much did we love?

This is the question. And if we are committed to following in the path of Jesus, our commitment should focus on a clear intent and expectation to see our love broaden.

The most natural way I know to see this growth is in the way our love strengthens in relationships of decreasing intimacy. Here’s what I mean by that:

It is natural to love those with whom you are most intimate: your parents, your siblings, your spouse, your children, your grandchildren – all these people are obvious recipients of love. And all that love counts as true and beautiful and fitting in the Kingdom of God. We were given those family relationships as a gift from God, for life.

A friend told me about her elderly parents who – secure in their finances – have begun transferring their money. For them, the most obvious recipients were their grandchildren. They’re delighting in their ability to provide their grandchildren with experiences they could never afford to give their own children when they were raising them.

This is love. It counts! But in terms of this broadening intent to love, it’s still just a first tier. As Jesus said elsewhere, “Do not even the gentiles do the same?”

So we start to look more broadly. Who else are we loving? Our friends, our church, folks like that. Those are relationships that aren’t as intimate, but we still value them and we desire their good. We want to participate in fostering wellness in them. And so we volunteer for worthwhile projects; we call on fellow parishioners living by themselves; we deliver a meal to someone just home from the hospital. It’s love. It’s love. And this, too, is a part of the Kingdom.

And then it broadens out further still – to love of stranger, particularly in crisis. It’s pretty intuitive for us, living in communities – that when crises come – we’re suddenly and temporarily able to cross safely into one another’s lives – to give and receive support, where normally there would be unpassable barriers between us.

In Dorothy Day’s autobiography, she remembers being a child in Oakland, California during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. She had the powerful memory of all the neighbors suddenly looking out for each other – sharing their goods, eating meals together, cleaning up the wreckage of one another’s homes. From her child-like vantage point, it was so stimulating and such an obviously superior way to live. And she was so bewildered when that open window of loving attentiveness began to shut, and everyone returned to their private lives once again.

I’m sure most of us have had similar experiences. And we wonder, “This is so cool. Why can’t we carry on like this?” Why? Because it gets tedious. What started out as spontaneous and novel and necessary, starts to require organization and committees and grumpy instructions posted on refrigerator doors. When people start to take advantage of the system – who are lazy and greedy – the others start to feel hard done by and their thinking shifts: “Oh, why bother?”

Why bother, indeed?

Because this is where the Kingdom can truly come to life in exceptional ways, beyond our normative, human impulse. When, like Christ, our attentiveness and compassion begin to grow – beyond the intimacy of family and friends or the novelty of crisis – and into a sustained value and commitment to the well-being of those we don’t know or don’t like or don’t respect; when we start to deny our own comforts and privileges to make sure they’re being taken care of, too, this is when love begins to take on the weight and the heft of the cross.

Not many get to that place.

So far as I have seen, love of family and friends and the occasional stranger in need is as far as most people grow in this life. Perhaps that will spell my own boundary as well. Jesus’ words here should cause us to tremble, because he’s calling us to something more:

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”

I cannot make this comfortable for you. I cannot make it comfortable for me. But I have seen enough of this life, to know that it is true – that I must lay my life down if I truly want to live.

I moved by the artwork in the niche today. That cross is very big and very heavy. But intertwined in the weight of that dead lumber, is also this living tree – this tree which is you and I. And which also is Christ. For Christ – who has made it a vocation of his to carry crosses – has also made it his vocation to be one with us. So, guaranteed, when we chose to lift crosses of our own, Christ will be bearing it with us. He has a high commitment to these things. And to us.

Jesus’ invitation to us now is to choose a life that matters. And for that, there is just one question before us: How much will we love?