(B) Sermon for 5th September 2010. The Revd. J Michael Povey at All Angels by the Sea, Longboat Key, FL
The Jesus who is presented to us in the gospels is ambivalent about the large crowds who often followed him.
On the one hand he has compassion on them for they were, as it says “sheep without a shepherd. And when the twelve disciples wanted to turn the crowds away at the end of a long and busy day, Jesus orders the disciples to feed the crowds. And Jesus tickled the ears of poor and oppressed peasants, by pointing out the hypocrisies of their religious leaders, and by poking fun at the foolishness of the rich and famous.
On the other hand, Jesus is a man with a mission. He is headed towards Jerusalem where he will provoke a crisis with the religious and political oligarchs, a crisis which will lead to his capital punishment. He seems to be supremely uninterested in leading a mass movement, and in today’s gospel he dares the crowd to follow him, in the sense of “just you dare”. The stories of the person who started to build a tower but ran out of money, and the king who decided to sue for peace long before his army could be defeated have a clear intent and point: “be prudent and count the cost”.
But what does Jesus mean in this business about “hating” father, mother, wife and children etc? The force of the English word “hate” baffles us, especially when it comes from the lips of Jesus. "Hate" is a Semitic expression meaning "to turn away from, to detach oneself from," rather than our animosity-laden understanding. (Brian Stoffregen, Faith Lutheran Church, Yuma, AZ) Jesus is saying “in face of the impending crisis, if you want to follow me, you will have to separate yourselves from your nearest and dearest”.
He goes on to tell the crowds that those who would follow him must sell all their possessions. That of course makes every bit of sense if his followers are about to have their lives upended following his crucifixion. What use then will their possessions be?
These indeed are tough words. I welcome them. I welcome them because in Church I will hear words that go against my grain. Words which will challenge some of my unexamined values: words which will not confirm my prejudices but challenge them.
I was born in 1944 and grew up in a family of ten children in Bristol, England. One of my siblings died soon after birth, but nine of us yet live. Mum and Dad were Methodists, and I was baptised in the Methodist Church. Dad held a steady but low paying job, but we were poor. I truly remember the shame of poverty.
When I was knee-high to a grasshopper my parents got involved in a fundamentalist Church. That was not all bad. At a time in the fifties when our mortgage was about to be foreclosed, these fundamentalists created a long term, low interest loan to Dad and Mum, which paid up the mortgage deficit. Had they not done so we would have been homeless, and some if not all of we children would have been placed into foster homes or orphanages.
When I was 16 years old I became “Mr. Fundamentalist”. I was a “boy preacher”, full of the certainties of youth. (Yes, I have been preaching for more than 50 years!)
Ten years later I left fundamentalist Christianity and joined the Church of England – the historical “mother” of the Episcopal Church.
I had to do this for an array of reasons.
First: I had intuited that in the Church of England/Episcopal Church my God-given sexuality would not be condemned and damned.
Second: I had come to understand that fundamentalism was concerned more with answers than it was with questions. I had more questions than fundamentalism could bear to hear, but I sensed that in the Church of England those questions would be respected and honoured.
Third: In my fundamentalist Church the choice of the Scripture to be read each Sunday was entirely at the discretion of the preacher. This meant that we read and heard many old biblical saw-horses, i.e. mostly those passages about “being saved”.
But in the Church of England, with its set readings for each Sunday we had to read biblical passages which we might otherwise have ignored.
Those included tough passages such as we read today. They are passages which challenge my assumptions about family life, and about possessions. There are other passages which call me to deep forgiveness and mercy, or to love and respect for all of God’s people, and passages which remind me of my responsibility to the poor.
I dislike them. I’d prefer not to hear them. Concepts such as forgiveness, mercy, justice, and respect for all human beings are not rooted in my DNA. But by being in a Church such as the Episcopal Church with its set Sunday readings I am forced to encounter values which are contrary to my own.
The Christian faith as loved and lived in our Episcopal Church challenges us Sunday by Sunday to re-connect with such vital concepts and values. Our self-centred hubris is challenged week by week in order to summon out our better selves.