This is the sermon Bishop Scott Mayer preached at St. Luke’s, Stephenville, on Sunday, September 8, 2019.
St Luke’s Stephenville 2019 13 Pentecost – Proper 17C September 8
Every time we celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation we say together the Baptismal Covenant, reminding ourselves that we are called into the Body of Christ as living members the Body – all equally needed and equally valued – and, we are called into the Body for a purpose beyond ourselves: to proclaim and embody the Good News of God’s love for all people.
For, as our presiding bishop says, “if it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” Love is what changes hearts. Love is what changes lives. Love is what changes this world. And, I think we would all agree, this world needs changing.
There was an influential 20th century theologian named Karl Barth. He was a prolific writer; I understand that he wrote more than Thomas Aquinas which would make him number one in terms of volume. Personally, I am more interested in other theologians of his era, but there is no questioning his brilliance. So, this brilliant theologian was asked what all of this work meant to him. And he replied: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” I like that.
He also said something else you may have heard before. He said that when preachers prepare their sermons, they should have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. I’m not sure I like that. I agree with it, but I’m not sure I like it.
So, what would it be this week? Gun violence? Or next week? I hate to think, and I’ll spare you the potential litany of possibilities. And besides, what size catastrophe is pulpit worthy?
If we are honest, it doesn’t matter what side of the political aisle on which we sit, some of our challenges seem pretty overwhelming. And answers to these challenges will take creativity, and cooperation, and ingenuity, and scholarship, and courage, and yes, politics. We are creative beings, created in God’s image, and throughout history we have had occasion to find answers. But, it’s also going to take love – God’s love.
I’m mindful of one of my favorite theologians, a contemplative named Beatrice Bruteau. Dr. Bruteau makes the following observation: she claims that the human energy in any person is activated when that person is loved personally by another person. When you are loved by another person, the energy in you to love others is activated.
The lack of energy to love others, she says, is a result of spending our energy on protecting ourselves, defending ourselves, augmenting ourselves, and justifying ourselves out of fear and insecurity. And as we protect, defend, augment, and justify ourselves we actually reinforce the fears and insecurities of others. And then they do the same to others. Bruteau calls this a “chain reaction.”
To break the chain-reaction, she says, someone is needed who can enable others to experience themselves as worthy, valuable, secure. Someone is needed to show personal love.
And once the one “loved” accepts and is convinced of this love – once we are convinced of this love – we will experience security, and we will be liberated to love others. And another, different chain-reaction is started. The other chain-reaction is reversed. Energy once used to defend, protect, augment, and justify is now activated to love.
But someone had to start it all: Someone free; Someone who experienced himself as accepted and worthy and beloved; Someone secure and unafraid; Someone with the abundant energy to start the chain of love; Someone who can liberate the energy to love in all who are willing to be loved by Him – Jesus of Nazareth.
In today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus and his followers are on the road to Jerusalem. On the horizon lies political and religious authorities who are more interested in power than in people. We could say, “principalities and powers.”
As the story goes, Jesus tells potential followers about the cost of discipleship. Frankly, it doesn’t seem like a good evangelism strategy to me, but to this particularly enthusiastic crowd Jesus turns and stunningly tells them: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
He says, if you want to follow me on this journey to Jerusalem, then first, calculate the cost. And then Jesus gives them a couple of examples: first, the story of the tower builder. He says: “Who intending to build a tower, does not first estimate the cost to see whether he has enough to build it? Otherwise, if he fails to complete it, he will be ridiculed.” And then Jesus gives another example, saying: “What king, waging war, won’t consider whether he has enough troops to win?”
Two examples of calculating the cost; two examples Jesus gives, so that every person in the crowd can ask themselves: “Do I have what it takes? Do I have what it takes to finish the mission? Do I have what it takes to do the job, to win the battle, to emerge victorious when we arrive in Jerusalem? Do I have what it takes to win? At least, that’s how it sounds.
Undoubtedly, Jesus is telling the crowd to count the cost. That’s true. But I wonder if the challenging question is really: “Do I have what it takes to win?” I wonder if it’s another question.
For it seems to me that the examples Jesus gives of calculating the costs (the two examples, the tower builder and the king waging war) are not necessarily examples to follow. Maybe more so, they are simply observations of how we typically behave.
For example, we DO calculate ahead of time whether we can finish a job, because we don’t want to be ridiculed if we fail. Jesus makes that observation. We calculate ahead of time, because we don’t want to be embarrassed; don’t want to be seen as someone without the fortitude to finish the job; don’t want to be seen as someone without the character to follow through.
We don’t want to fail or lose. We calculate the cost, Jesus says, because we don’t want to embarrass ourselves, or be seen as losers, or failures, or have our character questioned. So, I wonder, maybe Jesus is not so much challenging the crowd – and challenging us – to ask ourselves: “Do I have what it takes to WIN?” But rather, “Do I have what it takes to LOSE?”
Maybe he’s saying to potential disciples: “Are you prepared to fail? Are you prepared to fall short, unable to finish the mission? Are you prepared to be embarrassed, and laughed at, and ridiculed? Are you prepared to lose – lose everything – even your life?”
Do you have what it takes to LOSE? – the vulnerability, the humility, the faith to lose? If you need to be a winner; if you need to be seen by others as a winner to be validated; if you need to win to feel affirmed; if losing, and associating with the cultural “losers” of the world is beneath you … then don’t follow me to Jerusalem.
Maybe that’s the challenging question for all of us. Do I have what it takes to lose? For, we will lose. In the eyes of the world, on Good Friday Jesus lost.
We know the story. Jesus of Nazareth travels to Jerusalem. He is tempted to succeed, to win, to emerge powerful, victorious, triumphant. Thank heavens, Jesus has what it takes to LOSE – the vulnerability, the humility, the faith to lose. Thank God, Jesus loves us enough to lose for us.
Losing for someone: that’s love, and such love activates love. If we think about it, that’s why we are here. The chain of love brings us to this moment. And in this moment the world has a question for the Body of Christ, of Whom we are living members called more to humility, and vulnerability, and service than to pride, and power, and triumph.
What people want to know – especially those who are powerless and hopeless, oppressed or on the margins – is this: will we love them? Will we love them enough to lose for them? Will we love them enough to lose with them?
In the Baptismal Covenant we say together, “I will with God’s help.” Jesus shows us in Jerusalem it might not always look like winning. But it will be love – the love we strive to proclaim and embody in the Name of the Holy Trinity, one God, in Whom we live, and move, and have our being. Amen.